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It’s over.

As is tradition I left it all to the last minute, so I’ll have to leave this unfinished and hope this covers enough to be useful to anyone who might read it.

I think the fact that everything we’ve done has been self-guided (albeit with a bit of a nudge with the TED talks etc. in the first week) and yet seems to have worked, shows how much potential there is in this sort of format. Anyone who wanted to could go into huge depth on a myriad of subjects from a myriad of different perspectives just by looking through these blogs. Most lecturers will post their powerpoint slides on Blackboard (podcasts if you’re lucky) and tell you to read some book they wrote.

Not having to write in APA style was a huge bonus – it allowed us to talk to our audience like normal people, and it saved me writing out APA-format references to Cracked articles every week. (All of which were strictly necessary.)

I found that being able to write about any topic we like meant that many of us made connections and observations that we otherwise wouldn’t have made. It freed us in a way that no other module would (and arguably could) have managed.  This module’s a completely different animal from any others I’ve done. I’ve enjoyed every module I’ve taken this year, but unlike the others I don’t feel some sense of relief at finishing this one – I almost wish I could have started it in Semester 1 and carried it on. I still have a load of half-finished blogs and tonnes of ideas that I never got a chance to use. 😥

Writing a blog every week started out as quite a big challenge, although not for a lack of ideas – I remember I worked solely on my first blog for four days, right up until Friday at 23:59 – and the comments were always a pain (no offence intended to anyone, it’s just that I prefer doing one comprehensive reply rather than 4-6 [realistically, 4] shorter ones). That’s probably mostly down to my blog posts being so long. Ultimately, I never finished before (literally) the last minute, but the discipline of meeting two, sometimes three, deadlines a week for this module alone helps make other tasks seem smaller.

At the beginning of this module, after two and a half years here, I hadn’t given a single speech. I very nearly dropped out of this module when I found out there would be four compulsory speeches. I’ve now given four ten-minute speeches within the space of eight weeks–competently, too–which is something I never thought I could do when I started. It’s been invaluable practice. I would have attended every speech, if only I could.

To summarise – one criticism: too many comments (and not enough on my blog).


It’s been a pleasure taking this module. Thanks to Jesse, Dan, and everyone else.


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Public speaking (short)

Optional videos of interest:

Word count: 247. Don’t judge a tome by its cover.

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Ignorance is king

This week I’m going to post on a remarkably similar topic to last week: anti-intellectualism.

During my speech last week, some people mentioned that they had personal experiences with science teachers who believe in creationism – like I said then, people are entitled to believe whatever they like so long as they’re not harming anyone else – but the trouble is that teachers can and do let their beliefs interfere with their job of educating children (the very fact that some of you knew that your teachers were creationists demonstrates this), which results in children being lied to.

I posted a link to FSTDT last week, but this site deserves more attention: it’s a compilation of quotes from all different kinds of fundamentalists. Some are hilarious (and there are plenty of examples of pseudoscience, by the way), some are extremely worrying – but they all embody one shared view: I don’t care what those other books say; my mind’s made up (common sense tells me that gravity doesn’t exist). A central part of pseudoscience is a distrust of scientific consensus – while a healthy dose of scepticism is laudable, anti-intellectualism probably isn’t.

Why’s it a problem?

Not by any means a new phenomenon, anti-intellectualism is usually based around defensible and praiseworthy causes (e.g. greater humaneness in education, “good character” to great scholarship”). You need only look at the Khmer Rouge to see why this kind of sentiment is so damaging, however: they systematically wiped out Cambodia’s intellectuals, crippling the country. Mao’s Four Pests campaign (and the Great Leap Forward in general), which led to widespread famine. Republican primaries in which unabated lies are repeated and are left completely unchallenged. News sources that make people mistake obvious satire as genuine belief, more ignorant, and less informed than if you don’t read the news at all (yes, it’s Fox News), and treat T.G.I. Friday’s promotional research with the same credence as actual research.

I'm sure Norwich is flattered it could be mistaken for London.

More specifically to education, it has been said to threaten “the respect [of clinical psychology] as a profession”.

Anti-intellectualism is often just antipathy towards intellectuals, rather than towards  knowledge. There’s evidence that this is because of a perceived elitism. (More on that in a bit.)

When we’re dealing with antipathy towards knowledge, however, it’s usually because of a perception that intellect and common sense are mutually exclusive – you can’t live in the real world and be a bookworm. In fact, there’s no need for any kind of dichotomy in the way we think about the two (p. 151) – they may be different ways of thinking, but even within an educational setting they are equally valuable (e.g. common sense in humanities), although sometimes we try to get students to understand things ‘within the systematic discipline’ (i.e. using an approach that’s best for that situation – but surely that’s some kind of meta-common-sense?).

(Willful or contrived ignorance, on the other hand, isn’t an issue of education.)


It leads to a situation where people are proud that they lack basic life skills like numeracy. So why would someone be proud of the fact that they’re not very good at maths (as if it’s proof that they’re not some basement-dwelling neckbeard), and yet saying “I can barely read” with a smug expression doesn’t garner the same response?

What’s the solution? 

There is obviously an element of elitism in even the idea of anti-intellectualism; putting anybody on a pedestal because they’re intellectual, or dismissing others because they’re not, is a terrible idea. There’s also plenty of evidence for the idea that we’re too easily impressed by things we don’t understand, e.g. neuroscience. It has even been said that university faculty members whose “traditionalism and smugness approach the incredible…create a false but pervasive dichotomy between thinking and feeling, resulting in mistrust and rejection of the latter as a source of insight and knowledge”. So one of the most important elements of dismissing the myth that ignorance is something to take pride in, is combating this idea that you have to either be a cold, clinical automaton working in some ivory tower (e.g. “Big Pharma”), or stick with a “common sense” approach.

As I said in mentioning that there’s no real dichotomy between the academic world and the real world, a problem lies in people’s attitudes towards intellectualism. They see this false dichotomy, and if it were a choice between being memorising facts, consigning myself to a solitary life in a dark corner of a library constantly reading, or being able to function in the ‘real world’, I’d probably choose the real world too. You can enjoy reading and keep your basic social skills, too. If only people thought of it that way.


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What is pseudoscience?

Eve & Dunn (1990, p. 10) defined pseudoscience as ideas “for which their proponents claim scientific validity, but which in actuality lack empirical support, or were arrived at either through faulty reasoning or poor scientific methodology.

Thagard (1980 – see Martin, 1994) defined a theory/discipline purporting to be scientific as pseudoscientific iff:

P1. It has been less progressive than alternative theories over a period of time, and faces many unsolved problems;

P2. Despite P1, the community of practitioners makes little attempt to develop the theory towards solutions of the problem, shows no concern for attempts to evaluate the theory relative to others, and is selective in considering confirmation and disconfirmation.

It’s possible that some pseudoscientific beliefs result from ‘folk psychology’ and other similar concepts; Rodriguez (2006)describes how terms from neuroscience have diffused into everyday language and brain-based explanations, albeit more reductive, are now becoming acceptable in everyday explanation. Some beliefs, e.g. that ‘photographic memory’ means being able to see any memory in photograph-like resolution, might conceivably have originated from misinformation or something. Many, however, have their fan clubs, public funding, and build museums to spread their views – often using pseudoscience to justify their assertions.

So why is this a problem?

Rosenthal (1993) says that unscientific/pseudoscientific beliefs seriously hinder attempts to improve scientific literacy. These ideas are resistant to change; Eve & Dunn (1990) showed that a substantial percentage of secondary biology teachers hold many pseudoscientific beliefs.

You don’t have to look far to see the incredible damage that holding false beliefs (especially if they’re held as being scientific fact) can do. They can give false hope, scam people out of money, and waste significant public resources.

One well-known example of pseudoscience is The Bell Curve (Hernstein & Murray, 1994), which is infamous for two arguments: firstly, that the average genetic IQ of the United States is declining due to the tendency of the more intelligent to have fewer children than the less intelligent, for the generation length to be shorter for the less intelligent, and through the large-scale immigration to the United States of those with less intelligence (and arguing against policies of affirmative action…) – in other words, the plot of Idiocracy; secondly, that IQ is predicted by race (here’s some examples: African Americans on average have an IQ of 85; Whites 103; Asians 106). There were hundreds of critical reviews of the book; aside from the various problems with IQ measurement in the first place, the book was never submitted to any kind of peer review; much of the work referred to in the book was funded by the Pioneer Fund, which is notorious for promoting scientific racismHerbert (1994) puts it best, in a NYT review of the book: “a scabrous piece of racial pornography masquerading as serious scholarship.” (Nastier words were used that I’ve chosen to omit.) Herbert also points to Murray’s cross-burning past – at the very least, it’s evidence of extreme, active prejudice.

Noam Chomsky (1972) said that even if there were a correlation between race and intelligence, it would have no “social consequences except in a racist society in which each individual is assigned to a racial category and dealt with not as an individual in his own right, but as a representative of this category…In a non-racist society, the category of race would be of no greater significance [than height].”

Is there anything we can do?

Rosenthal found that a learning cycle approach seems to stimulate students who hold pseudoscientific beliefs to examine them more critically, if not abandon them (the learning cycle approach has been shown to be effective in bringing about conceptual change) – that’s a great start, but clearly we need to do more.

Part of the problem appears to be that the people who buy into these beliefs are just misinformed – for example, the ‘photographic memory’ example is easily corrected. For such cases, factcheckers built into browsers point these things out as the user reads them – so once a decent database is built up, it would be easy to judge the reliability of a source. The other group of people who hold pseudoscientific beliefs, however, will hold on to their beliefs no matter what – as Thagard’s definition says, they’re “selective in considering confirmation and disconfirmation” – in other words, they believe whatever fits in with their previous belief set (cf. Rosenthal again). Some people very sincerely hold these kinds of beliefs, and evidence will never dissuade them – they may believe that any evidence countering their beliefs are part of a wider conspiracy, for example. These people are obviously harder to reach – they can even hold contradictory beliefs about conspiracies.

There’s also a huge issue in how scientific discoveries are reported – newspapers have their own agendas to support, which in itself results in biased reporting. They also have a low quality threshold, calling surveys by restaurant chains “studies”. Reliability and validity is assumed for all studies. As a result, you get people believing reductive and possibly false versions of scientific theories/discoveries.

So the best thing we can do, in my opinion, is address these kinds of beliefs (starting with the most popular ones), keep them out of the NHS etc. (which means governments critically examining them in the first place), encourage responsible journalism that doesn’t make wild, baseless claims, and teach critical thinking skills in schools from an early age. What does everyone else think?

P.S. I couldn’t leave this out, nor could I fit it in – but it’s very relevant and worth watching if you have a spare 8 minutes.


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Here’s what I’d do:

In response to growing criticism about the length of my blogs, I’ve tried to keep this one concise – it’s still above 500 words, so I’ve failed, but you should have seen it before. Enjoy it.

  • Increase opportunities for students who are (statistically) likely to under-perform – we can see from the success of KIPP and other schools that given the right circumstances, all students can reach their full potential.
  • Extend learning hours, but regularly intersperse periods of classroom teaching with other activities; ensure that every school, especially ones with high intake of students from deprived backgrounds, have a decent and comprehensive set of after-school-hours activities. Schools in predefined area boundaries should collaborate and offer activities that include pupils from all schools in that area. (Would particularly help in rural areas, where this could result in significantly increased choice.)
  • We should do much more to encourage educational mobility. There’s plenty of evidence that low SES means children are more likely to leave school without qualifications (Ermish & Francesconi, 2001). This needs to be addressed, but more fundamentally we need to re-assess what we consider to be a successful education: is three A*s at A-level really what every student should strive towards, or maybe alternative measurements – e.g. PISA – are more appropriate? What’s wrong with qualitatively assessing students? – we could give a descriptive analysis of what a student is like; surely (purely from an employability perspective) that’s more valuable to employers than how many UCAS points you’ve accumulated?
  • Computer games provide motivation. These can be integrated into lessons.
  • Make sure that children don’t grow up with the snobbish and harmful perception that vocational courses are somehow lesser than traditional degree subjects – they provide a valuable education by focusing on (a) valuable, transferable skills, and (b) specialist knowledge increasingly employability in that sector (;

At the same time, not everything we teach needs to be geared towards future employability, or even developing a skill – knowledge should be recognised as an end in itself. If somebody wants to spend three years writing a thesis on how Duns Scotus used citations, good on them. Considering what people have discovered by experimenting or exploring for its own sake (;, it seems absurd to insist that all learning has to serve a direct purpose.

  • Scientific journals’ business model is unsustainable – charging £30+ to view a paper online for 24 hours makes no sense. The effects of free distribution of collective knowledge will benefit everyone but the publishers. From a pedagogical point of view alone, free and open access to scientific studies will allow teachers to implement the most efficacious evidence-based techniques.
  • Ignore what Mark C Taylor thinks we should do to revolutionise tertiary education: his ideas have been widely criticised as “unbelievably misguided”, “reckless” and “wrong-headed”; for example, his proposal to abolish permanent university departments and replace them with short-lived problem-focused programs would be a huge structural change, bringing few conceivable benefits. Those benefits could alternatively be achieved by encouraging inter-disciplinary collaborations on projects in such “zones of inquiry”, and this is where its application in classrooms applies: by encouraging students to synoptically develop an understanding of an area from multiple subjects’ perspectives, knowledge can be applied in a new way that encourages a greater depth of understanding and a holistic view of said area.


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A working class hero is something to be

Growing up on a council estate doesn’t make you better or worse than anyone else, but apparently it means you’re at a huge disadvantage in terms of education.

BBC News (2007) reported that more than half of the British population describe themselves as ‘working class’ – and yet the definition that the media usually uses to describe “working class” pupils, due to statistics using this figure being much more easily obtainable and allowing journalists to avoid the decision of how to define “working class” (e.g. NRS?), is the extremely short-sighted and unrepresentative number of pupils receiving free school meals (FSM), which is closer to 13% of the population. Headlines such as the following dominate education stories in tabloids and broadsheets alike:


Johnson, Brett & Deary (2009) argue that the relationship between class and attainment is largely cyclical, with education being the key to social mobility: “Parental social class contributed to educational attainment, which in turn contributed to participant social class attainment, suggesting that educational attainment contributed to social class stability…Education was important to social mobility and, where measured, mental ability contributed to educational attainment. Education thus appeared to play a pivotal role in the association between ability and social class attainment.

Educational inequalities associated with social class do not appear to be equally important for all students regardless of ethnic background (Gillborn, 2008, 53), so it makes sense to consider the effects of both and their interaction. Gillborn, Rollock, Vincent and Bell (2012) carried out the “biggest qualitative study of education and the Black middle class yet conducted in the UK”. They found that white students are actually the least likely to receive FSM, but the achievement of those that do is lowest. In other words, there is a large FSM gap for white students (32.5%) because of the combination of high non-FSM attainment and low FSM attainment. Gillborn et al. also argue that “a focus on White FSM students has the effect of removing wider race inequalities from view…Race and class dis/advantages are reported in the media [in a way that] serves to advance White interests…Deep and persistent patterns of overall race inequality have been erased from the policy agenda; the fact that most minoritised groups are out-performed by their White peers is entirely absent from debate.”

Sveinsson (2009, 5) appears to agree with the conclusions of Gillborn et al.: “The interests of the white working class are habitually pitched against those of minority ethnic groups and immigrants…there is a fairly consistent message that the white working class are the losers in the struggle for scarce resources, while minority ethnic groups are the winners – at the direct expense of the whiteworking class.” Sounds familiar…

Shepherd (2010): “One of the reasons why class determines how white pupils perform at school is that white workingclass parents may have lower expectations of their children than workingclass parents from other ethnic groups.”

I’ve already talked about the effect of teacher/parents expectations on student performance (Week 1) – clearly it’s an important factor. Siraj-Blatchford (2010)found that disadvantaged families often have high expectations for their children and provide a lot of educational support through ‘concerted cultivation’. (Concerted cultivation, n. The premise that children’s talents and skills will be fully realised if they are actively fostered by parents.)

Lareau (2003) found that lower socio-economic status (SES) correlates with fewer after-school activities per week. Similarly, Lareau & Weininger (2007)found that 93% of children with mothers who have a degree, took part in an out-of-school-hours learning activity, compared with 54% if the mother has no qualifications. There’s all sorts of reasons why this might be the case, the most obvious being availability and financial reasons – but there’s evidence such as the KIPP programme I talked about in Week 1 (and mentioned earlier), which replicates these kinds of behaviours regardless of SES or parents’ academic background (and regards such practices as key to their schools’ success), which would suggest that this and other similar efforts make a huge difference to children’s academic achievement.

The esteemed Prof. Steve Strand (Professor of Education among other things,University of Warwick) contends that the effects of poverty are “much less pronounced for most minority ethnic groups…Those from low socio-economic backgrounds seem to be much more resilient to the impact of disadvantage than their white British peers.”

For all their bleating about their efforts to admit more workingclass and ethnic minority students, the statistics show quite conclusively that they must try harder. This brilliant but poorly-designed visualisation (and this alternative visualisation – same data, but poorly-designed in a different way) illustrates the vast differences in workingclass student intake, by comparing statistics on numbers/percentages of workingclass first-degree entrants, as well as overall numbers, for every university (so far as I can be bothered to tell) in the UK. Take, for instance, Bangor University: 2,355 full-time first degree entrants at the time (2011), 33% of which are from “manual occupation backgrounds” (admittedly a narrow definition). A respectable score. Oxford and Cambridge: 2,875 and 2,930 respectively; 11.5% and 12.6% of which are from said background. The two lowest-scoring on the graph.

We all know that A-levels aren’t the most efficient way of discerning students’ ability – if AAB candidates are rejected as not displaying evidence of ability to learn, clearly the candidate isn’t to blame. Other forms of assessment such asPISA (p. 119) or even IB might be more appropriate, but ultimately other factors such as SES/social class and race are going to disadvantage some students from the very beginning. All the ‘affirmative action’ in the world will do no good unless we stop being so hyper-aware of social class and race, as well as eliminating institutional prejudice. Maybe realising that being a poor black kid isnot the same as being a middle-aged white guy, just with smaller and crappier stuff (#3). Why is this even an issue…? Discuss.

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Why Mark C. Taylor’s probably wrong

To put this week’s offering in context, this blog post was originally going to be a comment on Jesse’s HE blog, but it snowballed into a critique of Taylor’s NYT article among other things.

I think there is definitely some merit in the idea that universities should treat content as a vehicle with which to deliver skills rather than as an end in itself.

There’s been plenty of derision aimed towards the changes that universities have made since 1992, for example universities offering degrees in surfing – the existence of such courses has been used as evidence that the quality of tertiary education is declining (“If it is to be a degree, surely it has to be something that adds to the country’s heritage and our nation, like classics.” –P. Morris). What is overlooked in such cases, however, is that these kinds of courses are vocational, offer valuable and transferable skills along with highly specialised content, and generally serve a different purpose than reading Classics at Oxbridge (i.e. learning a trade). They’re also largely carried by former polytechnics – places of further education that were disparaged because they focused on applied education for work. There’s evidence that the role of these former polytechnics in delivering vocational education is one that should still be focused on, despite their development of offering more transferable skills since 1992 (cf. McKellar). Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that former polytechnics are better-equipped to prepare students for employment and give them a diverse and significant set of skills.

Universities largely appear to understand the importance of teaching skills rather than solely imparting knowledge, as is evidenced by various universities’ focus on, and initiatives to improve, employability. Despite this, many large businesses simply use 2:1 degrees as a cut-off mark for considering applications, simply because of the sheer number of applicants (83 for every position). But that’s a topic for another blog.

I still think, however, that there is also some value in the sentiment expressed by Mr Morris: the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, even if it’s the sole pursuit of a small collection of university lecturers’ knowledge, can be argued to be important even in this ‘age of information abundance’ – even without any obvious or particular attachment to the development of skills. But does Taylor’s example of a student’s doctoral dissertation on how Duns Scotus used citations serve any purpose? (Apparently – I know nothing about his motives for researching this – but people are clearly fascinated by the subject.) Who’s to say that it serves a purpose? – Taylor? Does it need to serve a purpose? (No.)

Duns Scotus.

Just because we have an abundance of information doesn’t mean that we have all the information we could ever want. Plenty of that information is useless, misleading, or not very well-considered  – even offensive. Access to all of it, whether good or bad, is important – but I have little sympathy for Taylor’s argument that highly-specialised subjects have no inherent worth. His argument is akin to that of people who complain that scientists are “wasting taxpayers’ money” and “have nothing better to do” when they don’t understand why something is being studied.

Taylor’s radical proposals, particularly that permanent departments should be abolished and replaced with problem-focused programs, might conceivably (and in a limited way) benefit academics focused on such “zones of inquiry”, and collaboration among institutions should undoubtedly be encouraged and developed (abolition of outdated models of publication, for example, to be replaced with open access to information, would – in my opinion – also benefit everyone but publishers, and create an academic environment less encouraging of malpractice), but for undergraduates, university is as much about developing approaches and perspectives in great depth as it is understanding the breadth of approaches/perspectives. Inter-disciplinary work is great but so is understanding a discipline in great detail. Not only that, it’s also untested. What if his proposal to abolish departments, even if implemented in only one university, didn’t benefit anyone?

David Bell, who reviewed the book Taylor published soon after the aforementioned article, criticised its “fragile” logic and “thin” evidence, describing the book as “unbelievably misguided”. In his words:

“While communication can take place in any direction along myriad pathways, the acquisition of real knowledge cannot. It demands sequence, it demands order, it demands logic. The new technologies have supplemented conventional forms of learning and argumentation in fascinating ways, but they cannot replace them.

“Academic disciplines…are complex, difficult bodies of knowledge whose theoretical underpinnings have to be mastered to some degree before one can even know which aspects of them can be usefully applied to such tasks.”

Bell’s argument is not flawless: technologies may be “evolving at breakneck speed”, but that’s precisely why we should incorporate them. Ken Robinson informed us all that we’re training a significant number of students for jobs that don’t yet exist. Everything is evolving at breakneck speed as a consequence of technology’s rapid evolution, so it makes sense to incorporate all technologies to train students in getting used to this dynamism they’ll face. He also appears to fail to consider the ways that technology can aid teaching and learning, as opposed to merely transmitting information.

To conclude, I think that Bell is right to call Taylor’s proposals “reckless” and “wrong-headed” – other than the idea to increase collaboration among institutions, his proposals seem deeply flawed – the ways we transmit information may have changed, and with that its availability and therefore opportunities to gain information, but human nature hasn’t. We still often need more than just the information itself to understand something well; traditional forms of education, despite all their flaws, still serve a valuable purpose. For example, traditional education provides face-to-face interaction, which allows for conversation and dialogue to occur – sure, we can comment on each other’s blogs, but it’s hardly instantaneous. Regardless, paradigm shifts need to, and will, occur – to quote Abrami et al. (2011), “How far would our understanding of automotive technology have progressed, for instance, if cars…were still designed as alternatives to horses?” (Abrami et al. also offer a number of principles to guide self-regulated learning, multimedia learning, motivational design, and collaborative/cooperative learning.)

Sorry about the length; well done if you’ve made it this far.


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