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Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

I had a meeting last week with some people involved in adult education. As a writer who counts teaching creative writing as one of her jobs, it’s an area that I hover at the fringes of. On the one hand, yes, I teach adults (some of the time) – they are evening classes; they are for self-improvement; they are usually people who come not just in search of facts and figures but how to apply what they already know to what they’re trying to do next and how to learn in this new field. On the other hand, they are not practical in the sense of providing one with a certificate that can be used to go on and do something else with; they are not things you pass or fail.

I’m on the fringes of ‘ordinary’ education too. I’m not an English teacher. I sometimes go into English classes or school libraries, but I’m not there to teach the syllabus and get students passing their exams. I teach on specialist programmes, things that complement the ‘normal’ education people get in school. So it maybe wasn’t too surprising that I found myself surprised by the way ‘adult education’ was conceptualised as something opposed to ‘ordinary education’, as though children will simply absorb whatever you say without questioning its purpose while adults need to see the relevance of something to their own experience. When we talked about the kinds of activities that might be suitable to adult ed, I found myself drawing on activities I use at a summer course I teach to/facilitate for teenagers. It seems so bizarre to me that lines are drawn between the adult ed student and the regular student, the grown-up and the adolescent. When you teach the stuff that’s not on the syllabus, in environments where learners are more often than not there because they want to be, you see the similarities much more than the differences.

The same week, I read yet another book about gifted children, When Gifted Kids Don’t Have All The Answers. One of the specialist programmes I teach on is aimed at gifted kids and teens, and it’s an area that fascinates me, so I try to keep up with the books and guides and research as much as I can. There’s one part that stays with me – a comment about how we so often tell kids it’s okay ‘as long as they did their best’ or we tell them ‘just do your best’. At everything. And it asks us, how many adults do we know that do their best at everything they do?

We live in an era of retraining and career-shifting, a time when adults are often continuing education formally or informally, trying to improve themselves or change themselves. We see what works for adult learners and we develop new ways of teaching and facilitating accordingly. I just wonder how much of that we can apply to younger learners, rather than assuming they are somehow ‘built’ to learn or that there are skills necessary for learning that we want young people to have but don’t have ourselves and somehow manage to get by. There are things that younger learners don’t know, haven’t experienced, have trouble with, sure – but they’re not entirely different creatures.

For any of the rest of you, readers or contributors, what do you think of the differences between learning as an adult and learning at a ‘standard’ age? Do we expect something different from our experiences learning as an adult – or do we respond to the different way we’re taught?

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Salvete! Abigail Rieley on the joys of learning Latin.

The Eagle, based on The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff, hits Irish cinemas this weekend – I’m counting the days. Every time I see those toilet brush helmets my heart gives a little flutter. It’s not the sight of Russell Crowe wielding a gladius or the cast of the TV series of Spartacus wielding a lot more that has me this way, this is an obsession with much older roots. When it comes to all things Roman, I’m a total groupie. It might have something to do with growing up in London and being told that if you dug down far enough you could find the layer of ash from when Boudicca burned Londinium to the ground. It might have been the crumbling romanticism of the grassy piles of stones called Caesar’s Camp near where I grew up in Wimbledon. But if I’m honest, I was too much of a bookish kid to root my obsessions so much in the fresh air. This one has a lot more to do with a wonderfully dotty Latin teacher and the Cambridge Latin series of text books.

My school before I left England was the kind of place they used to make Ealing Comedies about back in the day. We celebrated the school’s birthday every year with lime green, sickly sweet cake, there was a school song as well as a school hymn and a glass case at the end of the first floor gallery had its tiny compartments filled with the tourist tat of an Edwardian past pupil who’d taken the Grand Tour of the Holy Land – piece of the True Cross – check, stone from the island where Jason and his Argonauts stopped off – check. Around this same wood panelled gallery hung heavy black boards with the names of those who had left with flying honours to a glittering Oxbridge education. It was a minor public day school, stuck in amber and tradition, smelling of chalk dust and furniture polish.

Miss Bickersteth was one of those traditions. If she had been a character in one of those Ealing films, Joyce Grenfell would have been a shoo-in for the part. By the time my class came to her we were primed with stories from older siblings, mothers, aunts. Her legendary status crossed generations. She was a slight, wiry woman with greying hair sculpted in Art Deco pin curls. Every class she would stride in, in her tweed pencil skirt and sensible brogues and stand behind the teacher’s desk, almost crackling with enthusiastic energy. She had a passion for a dead language that was ridiculously infectious and she was one of those rare teachers that everyone loved. No matter what we threw at her (even if our ideas of playing up in class were embarrassingly lame) she would take in her stride. When we decided to play dumb she followed suit and then threatened us with a test, when she arrived in class to find all the desks and chairs upside down she ignored them and made us sit on the floor. The woman was unruffleable – except on one occasion I can remember.

Now, I know that Latin isn’t generally seen as one of the sexiest subjects on the school curriculum, but you never heard one of Miss Bickersteth’s classes on life in ancient Rome. We learnt that doctors would use spiders webs to coagulate the blood in an open wound and, on one memorable occasion, how prostitutes used to ply their wares under the bridges of the Tiber. I think we were mistaken for the Upper Fifth, because half way through the description her hand flew to her mouth and she actually blushed. It took us several minutes to convince her that we had heard worse, before her embarrassment would subside. We had heard worse though. On Miss Bickersteth’s recommendation the whole class had been avidly tuning in to the BBC adaptation of I, Claudius, currently getting a second airing at 9 o’ clock on a school night. For kids raised on a diet of Enid Blyton and Adrian Mole the sex, madness and political intrigue of Robert Graves’ classic novels were intoxicating indeed. It was in I, Claudius I saw my first sword’s-eye view of a beheading (which still makes me rather queasy to watch) and we were all shaken by John Hurt’s crazed performance as a Caligula who ate the baby he had ripped from his sister’s womb in the hope it should sprout from his head as Aphrodite. Then there was Livia – the Joan Crawford of toga-ed divas – poisoning her way through her nearest and dearest.

Miss Bickersteth’s Latin classes had a Brother’s Grimm knack of showing us that life could be a dark, bloody affair. There was nothing dry or dusty about them, even if the verb conjugations formed an academic litany reaching back to Tom Brown’s Schooldays and beyond. But gifted and all as Miss Bickersteth was as a teacher, we wouldn’t have had that description of medicinal cobwebs without the Cambridge series of Latin text books. There aren’t many school books, with the possible exception of Soundings here in Ireland, that have wormed their way so into the psyche of those who studied them that they have their echoes in some of the most popular of popular culture. Like Soundings the Cambridge books worked because they had great content. Instead of pages of exercises and verb conjugations (worthy of repetition – they figure a LOT in Latin classes), these text books told a story. Book 1 was set in Pompeii. You knew from the beginning the ending was going to be harsh, with explosions. We were shown videos of the sad, frozen, ash-covered bodies, seen the all too visible silent screams frozen in their last moment of fear. We knew that the family going through day-to-day life with the express purpose of introducing us to the next stage of vocabulary were destined for a fiery end. Prosperous banker Caecilius, his lady-who-lunches wife Metella and their grown up and rather hunky, in a way that can only be captured by black and white stylised illustrations, son Quintus. By the time we got to the final chapter and laboriously translated the initial rumblings of Vesuvius, even Miss Bickersteth was rather sombre.

We had read about Caecilius getting anxious about a swan being slowly roasted to entertain a business associate or irritating his wife with the purchase of a particularly comely female slave. Now his final hours had come we all read the last instalments together. It came as rather a shock when, researching this post I visited the Cambridge website . The books are as I remember, although the green covers I remember have been long since revamped. Quintus now doesn’t look half as hunky as I seem to remember but I discovered, when I read that final chapter again, that I can still read the Latin after all this time. The chapter must have left one hell of an impression! Reading it again after all those years I’m amazed at how strong it still is. Read it yourself if you’re interested – it’s here. But I warn you – it’s poignant stuff – Caecilius gets hit by falling masonry and the family dog, Cerberus, also succumbs.

Actually I’m obviously not the only one scarred for life by that final chapter of first year Latin. Reminiscing recently with a fellow alumni of those slim green books Caecilius and his family are cemented in the adolescent brain. They even pop up in the Dr Who episode The Fires of Pompeii. A scriptwriter perhaps keen to exorcise a haunting image has given Caecilius a new start with the ever faithful Metella and Quintus, who will now not have to face the British weather in Book 2 with the irascible but memorably named local big wig Cogidubnus.

These days my Latin might be rusty but I’ll still be booking my tickets to soak up the Romano-British action. Ancient Rome was the first thing I was ever a geek about and for that I’m forever thankful to Miss Bickersteth and Caecilius et al.

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Patrick Holford’s appearance on the Late Late on Friday was televised to the nation as a gospel proclamation: come see my magic works and repent, oh ye of little scientific understanding. I presumed that this would be the part of the show where RTE trot out someone to allow the audience to snigger at their conspiracy theories or visions. Not so with Mr Holford, who was introduced as a world leading nutritionist.
Lets start with the title and work our way downward, Patrick Holford, or, to give him his proper title, ‘pill salesman’, has no qualifications. He has built a business on selling supplements to anyone that will buy them. He is not a medical practitioner, scientist, researcher or expert for a number of reasons.

1: Qualifications from a recognized third level institution :0
Most people agree that qualifications from recognized institutions are a prerequisite to taking medical advice from somebody. The letters after your G.P.’s name denote years of study and examination, something Mr Holford has conveniently sidestepped.

2: His peer reviewed publications : 0
Part of being a scientist is putting your findings out there within the scientific community for peer review. This involves having every minute aspect of your findings interrogated, criticised and if necessary; rejected. It’s a soul destroying process, and why would anyone willingly submit to it? The reason scientists do this is to protect the public, to produce work based on the best evidence available and to advance understanding.

3: Nutritionist is not a protected title; in other words, anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. I can call myself one and recommend daily snickers and bottles of Lucozade to beat the winter blues. My next bestseller will be ‘The Barbarians Nutrition Bible’, brought to you by Creme Eggs.

4: His ‘honorary diploma’ was awarded to him by The Board of the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, which is an educational trust that HE founded in 1984. The same as if I opened ‘The Barbarian Center for Barbarian studies’  and awarded myself a PhD from it. That’s Doctor Barbarian to you.

Moving swiftly on, his first contention that women have less serotonin than men and thus are far more susceptible to depression. That’s quite a statement there Patrick, so let’s see what you left out?
What he fails to mention is that serotonin –which he refers to as the ‘happy’ chemical’  – is also serotonin the ‘aggression’ chemical. So yes, we have less of that particular chemical than our larger male counterparts, evolution has yet to catch up on the need for greater amounts of serotonin in males. But to claim that this is why women present with greater rates of depression ignores the under-diagnosis of male sufferers, it ignores the greater pressures and burdens on women in society and it ignores the social aspects of women’s as opposed to men’s lives. Outside of the fact that the serotonin hypothesis of depression is but a part of the neurochemical reasons for depression and correlation should not be read as causation. There are other chemicals at play in the depression etiology, but Patrick did not feel like talking about those.

Why would he say this? As stated earlier, Patrick Holford is a pill salesman, carefully targeting the audience at home, in particular the ladies. They might be sitting there on a Friday night patiently awaiting the next ‘cure’, ready to go out shopping for it on Saturday. By appealing to women with half truths he reached his market, EPIC WIN for Patrick, 100 points off the bat, uncontested by the host. At this stage I was having a full John McEnroe freak out, hollering ‘you cannot be serious maaaaaannnnn’ at the TV. Holford was allowed ride roughshod all over Ryan, his facts, cherry picked from obscure sources, citing trials but failing to mention participants, full findings or financial backing involved. For, as Mr. Holford loves to points out, there are forces at play in big pharma, forces that want to manipulate the facts to suit themselves, but that’s not the way science works. The slow but steady erosion of confidence in science continues unabated, with the portrayal of massive organisations working to keep you hooked, unhappy and dependent. As opposed to ‘Alternative Pharma’ with such constraints. No one mentions how the humble supplement is now a multimillion pound industry in its own right.

The problem with manufacturing medicine is all the damn procedures! Peer reviewed publications in general science are open to criticism and stringent testing and retesting before they can be marketed to the general public. If you want to manufacture a supplement it’s much simpler:  all you need is one small link between two things, causal or correlation-we don’t care. Bang them in a bottle, stick the ould ‘may help’ claim before any claims, and bob’s your uncle.

Minute effects based on the interaction of cells in petrie dishes are lauded as proof of the efficacy of drugs. None more disturbing than Mr. Holford’s marketing of Vitamin C as a cure for AIDS in Africa. Ah yes, Tubs, you forgot to ask him about that, forgot to mention that inconvenient fact.

For facts have very little to do with Mr. Holford’s business. For a man who claims to be interested in improving the lives of people, of making people happy, could you really ignore that this man was recommending that people avoid using tried and tested drugs for the treatment of AIDS?.

I leafed through one of the few remaining copies of Holford’s book in the local bookshop Saturday evening, with chapters about how medicine is out to get you and how his pills will cure you. While a small minority of people will achieve placebo effects from Holford’s claims, the majority will not. Yet more will be negatively biased towards medicinal treatments for depression. Don’t get me wrong, I’m just as favorable as the next person to proper help and supports as well as environmental and social interventions to aid depression recovery. I am not, however, about to throw the baby out with the bath water; your G.P. is not there to dispense items which they know don’t work.

I only wish that our esteemed Late Late show host could find time in his busy schedule to read the background check on his guests and ask hard questions. One can only hope that a scientist turns up with Tubs next week to redress the balance. Learning a little about science can save you a fortune, it can save you from false promises and it always strives to save lives. I heartily recommend Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science; it’s a tenner you won’t waste, as it will pay for itself 100 times over when you find yourself reaching for the next ‘magic diet pill’ or ‘collagen rich cream’.

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I’m sitting in a large auditorium with my husband. We, along with the hundreds of other parents present, are thinking of applying for a place for our son in the school which houses this impressive theatre. We listen to various speakers describe the amazing facilities on offer; the state-of-the-art science and computer labs, the 25 metre pool, extensive sports grounds, the opportunities to take part in plays, musicals, debating, choir or orchestra. Not to mention the foreign trips, the charitable and cultural programmes, the rigorous academic standards. A sixth year pupil can’t speak highly enough of the school and the incredible experience he has had there.

At the end of the evening, we feel like losing contestants on ‘Bullseye’, the cult darts-themed quiz show hosted by Jim Bowen. Just before the show’s closing credits there was a slightly cruel twist; crestfallen punters were forced to watch as the curtains opened to reveal the ‘Star Prize’. At this moment Jim would deliver his catchphrase ‘Look what you could have won’ in his trademark jovial, yet regretful, tone.

We’ve had a glimpse behind the curtain, but we know there’s little chance we’ll win the star prize. Look what we could have won – if only dad had attended the school.

School access can be limited for those without connections

This particular school is fee-paying and massively oversubscribed. Its admission policy states that places are offered first to those in ‘priority groups’ which include brothers of past or current pupils, sons, grandsons or nephews of past pupils, sons of staff members and close relatives of members of the religious order which runs the school.

This year, over two thirds of the places in the school were offered to those in priority groups before anyone else was considered. Our son, with no brothers and a non-Irish dad, only ever stood an outside chance of being offered a place. Sure enough, we recently received a ‘thanks for your interest’ letter.

We also applied to two non fee-paying local schools but we have had no success there either. Their admission policies also favour sons and/or brothers of past pupils. Our boy is near the bottom of the waiting list in one of these schools. Things were looking more hopeful in the other, where he is higher on the list. But alas, they received more than the usual number of applications from siblings this year, and have told us they will only be offering ‘one or two’ places to those on the waiting list.

Last week the Equality Tribunal ruled that a Clonmel school’s admission policy, which gives priority to sons or brothers of past pupils, is discriminatory. Details are here: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/frontpage/2010/1210/1224285195609.html

This ruling may force schools to review their admission policies, though I have a feeling it will be strongly resisted. In the meantime, we have made late applications to three more schools and are keeping everything crossed.

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