Tuesday, 18 September 2012

The Experiment

Today I tried a new thing with my students. I told them they could work on whatever they wanted, as long as it had something to do with English. Of course we brainstormed at the start of class so they could get some ideas and they had to show me what they had been working on at the end of class, but the rest was up to them.

The idea came from a video we watched in training by the writer of a book called “Drive”. He was talking about software companies that allotted a certain amount time for employees to work on their own projects. Something that was taken up famously for Google – It seemed worth a shot.

Well, I wish I could say it was a total success, but that would be a lie. Bearing it mind that it was a first time for students, I'd say that about 40% really went at it, another 40% did work but didn't really challenge another 20% did “something” but nothing that was really worth the time.
It's a problem that I've found with a number of “free range” activities in the past: The top students get the most from it, students in the middle do fine as well, but the students and the bottom seem to do a lot less than when we do more traditional teaching activities - those with the the teacher standing over them and guiding them through each step.

Now I'm a long way from turning my back on a student led approach – I still think it's the best way for the majority of students and I don't believe in holding back the middle and the top at the expense of the bottom. But I would like to find out some tips and tricks for brining the others into the fold, but how do you “teach” people to learn for themselves?

Monday, 17 September 2012


I never really started doing well at school until I hit high school. That's round about the same time that I got my first PC. While I'm grateful for the education I had, I think I can say that I learn as much from playing games and watching Star Trek as I did from school.

Games have quite a bad reputation, especially among people that never play them. They see flashing lights and characters running around and assume that it all mindless killing and to be fair for some games it is. But when I was growing up – and now as well – it wasn't that kind of game that I enjoyed.

I grew up with games like Master of Magic and Master of Orion (from the same people that made the first Civ, but it's in a fanstasy and sci-fi setting). These games were far from the shoot em up killing sprees. They were about managing empires and often in quite detailed ways. If you wanted to play them well you had to be smart. You had to work out the maths for empire management and balance the economy with research. You had to know the races in detail and learn big words like lithovore and transcendental. You had to have some basic knowledge of science – especially physics and they inspired you to learn more and to read more. It was the same for RPG's as well. Games like Ultima and Bloodwych. Thinking ahead for your character, reading the detailed stories, problem solving, asking questions about morality and philosophy and engaging your imagination. People who have never played these games before should try them. I'm sure they would be stunned by the complexity.

So am I advocating dropping school curriculum and replacing it with intelligent gaming? Well, not yet – that would put me out of a job for a start. But I think we have to recognise that games can be a very positive thing especially for some students. It's a good learning style for some people, so why don't we use it more? Instead of telling children to stop enjoying themselves and to stop playing “waste of time” games. Let's instead direct them towards games that are going to challenge them – note though that I'm not talking about some of these forced education games that appear in schools and learning websites, but rather proper popular games that children are going to enjoy and which they can practice in a fun and indirect way, all the things that we are trying to teach them in school.

Note: if you're looking for an educational game I'd say the best one that is out at the moment still has to be Civilization 5.   

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Mind and Heart

Someone sent me an email with a question today, thought it might be good to share the answer and see what others think:

Q: What is opinion what are the things of the mind vs the things of the heart....what is agreement, disagreement or truth if there is such a thing...

Had a think about this question today. My short answer is of course: "I don't know". I've asked my head to think about this, but that's much like asking a worker if they think their job is redundant. Still here's some thoughts anyway:

This seems to be one place where Buddhism and Hinduism seems to disagree. When I was in India I did a course on meditation - Hindu style - that seemed to be saying that we are the heart and that the mind is an illusion taking credit for decisions it had no part in and there seems to be some truth in this. I know there are time the I have reacted with out concious thought and then my thoughts have retrospectivly taken credit for it, when in truth I had just acted. Moreover there is something to that whole "bright light" being the true-self. That reaching out from that heart that seems to be channelled from somewhere deeper.

On the Buddhist side, however, it seems they are saying that we are all of them and none of them at the same time. Everything is so interconnected that it to separate one from the other would be impossible: heart influences mind and mind influences heart, to describe them as separate would be like trying to talk about the sea without context of land and air. 

While I think they are talking about the same thing in the end, my tendency is towards the later teaching. On one hand is seems more logical - which as a scientist type person I quite like, but it also seems to fit with my own experience: they seem interdependent. Furthermore I would say that they don't exist in isolation either. My mind is influenced greatly by the physical: what I eat, my sleep, exercise all have a massive effect on my mind and emotions for sure. 

On a side note, It does seem odd that a lot of people who are into things like Yoga, eastern medicine and all the rest often deny the physical as part of the self? Why is this?

Getting back to the point I would say that we have a Trinity of Body, Mind and Heart that, with a few more bits here and there possibly (the other Skhandas), makes what we consider ourselves, but stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, even that is just a small part of an even larger interconnected system that includes everything. Hence the lack of self.

However, going back to my original answer, I would again say "I don't know", I'm not even sure it's important to know. As I mentioned I'm the sciency type and I want to know the answers. But I've started to come round to the idea that with these kind of questions, answers from other peoples direct words wont help - you have to just sit and experience what is true and not worry so much about putting it into words. I think there is truth out there but we all look at through our own lenses, so what we see is not always the same thing, but truth remains unchanged.   


Friday, 14 September 2012


I'll admit it, I want to be read. Yeah writing is fun sometimes and it would be nice if I could get some cash from it a some point – not very likely – but really I just want people to read my books.

I think that's why I've been so happy about the Amazon three days promotion. It's really nice to see what appears to be a large number of people downloading “Bardo” and I do hope most of them will read it at some point as well. It might even lead people on to my other books.

The strange thing is, when you tell people you just want people to read your books, they often say, “well make it free all the time then”. But that's the funny thing people, and I include myself in this, wont touch free books. I released the “Truth about Faeries” free on Smashwords and despite good reviews and it's presence at the top of the free charts, no one seems to download it. I guess it's a suspicion thing. If it's free then I'm not going to touch it because there must be something wrong with it. Sadly this is often the case. The reason the Amazon thing works so well is that it's only free for now. It's a deal, a sale and who wants to miss out on bargain?

I think that's what's been putting me off writing recently: the hunt to find readership. I mean I'm not the next Oscar Wilde, but I do think that my books are pretty good. Sure they could be tighter in places and the early releases could have done with a better tidy up here and there. But I do feel I have something to say and fairly good way of saying it. But if I'm having to use all my effort to get people to read the books in the first place.... well.

An example would be a friend of mine who I went to visit once. Now this person had helped me a lot with the book both in terms of the ideas as well as being connected in other ways that I'm not going to mention for the sake of anonymity, yet despite having been involved and having bought the book, they hadn't bothered to read it. “Not had time,” was the reason, but I couldn’t help but notice that they were carrying around a well thumbed Star Trek novel. Now of course people have the right to do what they like with their free time, but for me it was a early taste of the stark reality of writing. If someone, a friend, who was so invested in the book wasn't going to read it, why would a stranger?

So should I keep at it? Will I keep writing? I don't know. I think it will depend in large on the success of “Bardo” and the results of releasing a book for free for a short time. Will it rise with the digits in the price column? Or will it sink back into the obscurity from whence it came. I'll let you know when I find out.  

Friday, 7 September 2012

21st Century Education

While rather ironically taught in twentieth Century education style, the course I had today at school on twenty-first Century English did make me think. The whole idea was that thanks to technology, students have now moved beyond the good old fashioned teaching style and that new things have to been taken into consideration to really deal with these changes and develop students for the real world. That means taking into account things like the Internet and social networking.

It's great that academia is starting acknowledging that things are changing and I think any step towards modernisation of education is a step in the right direction. However, it does seem that the kind of education that they are talking about is something that would have been suitable for when I was at high school and their in lies the rub: academia does not live in the present, but only in the past. It's a twentieth century model of research trying to find ways to deal with twenty first century children, rather than becoming twenty first century itself and it doesn't work any more.

Think about it. Most people with doctorates are no spring chickens to begin with. I mean they might have profile on facebook or twitter, but do they really use it? Is it actually a part of their lives? Maybe, maybe not, but it doesn't matter, they can still study it, right? After all you don't have to have been a drug addict to understand drug addiction. Then again, I bet it helps.

But that's not really the main problem. The thing is, that the world is changing faster than ever before. When someone prepares a study on education and technology, it's going to be out of date by the time it gets to publication, never mind by the time that it filters down through the system and into the actual classroom. So what we are getting now are educational methods based on students who in many cases have already graduated and even if it is current, we are teaching them to deal with the technology as it is today. Not the technology as it will be by the time they have finished their education.  To put it into context, when I started school, around 1987, I don't think I had ever seen a mobile phone or used the internet. Almost thirty years later the thought of not having a net connection scares me.

So what to do about it? Well of course we could try to modernise academia, although that in itself seems like quite a mine field and far outside my world as a lowly teacher. As for predicting future technologies, while fun, it does seems like a rather hit or miss idea - Myspace was a sure thing for a while. For me though it seems that the best thing I can do is help students learn to adapt, because that, more than any skill is what's going to be needed if students hope to do well in any future no matter what technology they encounter. Maybe it would be better then if we worked on universal education - skill that are useful no matter the technology, or lack of - rather than trying to keep up with the current trends.