Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Randomised Trials in education?

The big question here is 'why not'?  Ben Goldacre is completely correct in saying that if we want to be treated as professionals, then it may be an idea for teachers to actually partake of some rigorous trials into what interventions really work.  As I tweeted earlier, in my experience of teaching most 'evidence' of working interventions are anecdotal, biased and often totally unrepeatable.  Yes, every child is different and yes, we don't want to have prescriptive methods foisted upon us, but I don't believe either of these arguments should prevent randomised trials from being, well, trialled.

The main reason RTs are so highly regarded in the world of cold empiricism is because they remove bias and  variables and allow us to identify exactly what works and what doesn't.  For drugs testing this is an obvious boon, as it allows researchers to identify the effectiveness of chemical interventions without any other issues muddying the water.  But in medicine, RT go beyond this - it isn't all drug trials.  RTs into the behaviour, style, language and techniques used by doctors and nurses have been carried out, with their effectiveness measured and analysed.  Tests such as doctors converging their language to that of their patients have been measured and the results published (see here).  If these patently non-pharma tests can be run, published and respected, then why can't similar trials be done in schools, on either a local or national level?

Obviously there are concerns that somehow children are a mysterious and vague concept, that no amount of scientific analysis can comprehend.  I view this as utter nonsense, as I see no reason, other than the deliberate mystification of the profession, for it to be the case.  Children are all different, yes; but as Goldacre said in his report: they're not that different.  Anyone who's ever written a class set of reports will know this.  If all children and their behaviour were utterly unique, teaching would be totally impossible, as no-one would have any benchmarks to set things by.  Of course there is variation - as there is in patients - but not enough to stop us from giving RT a go.

As I said, prescription from on high is feared, too.  But this misses the whole point.  Goldacre's entire idea is based on giving us as a profession an arsenal of solid, trustworthy evidence to throw back in the face of bureaucrats trying to tell us our job.  It would give us the intellectual clout required to seriously question the wisdom of policy without sounding like spoilt brats, over-mystifying the whole job by making it sound like only the chosen few can cope with teaching.  Rot.  RTs would enable us to trial techniques and ideas, to see if they actually, objectively work better than not doing them at all.  This harms no one.  For example, trialling mini-plenaries to see if they have an effect on learning would involve analysing book work, classroom participation, questionnaires, and yes, even data.  It would take time, and real focus, but over a set period would provide us with a picture of whether they are useful or not, in general.  This, multiplied all over the place, would give us an invaluable understanding of pedagogy that we currently lack.

The main things to bear in mind is that medicine and education don't have to be that similar.  All they need is to both be about results (whether data, engagement, behaviour, whatever) and RTs will give us some feedback on the efficacy of the techniques and interventions we use.

I would say that RTs done locally, with teachers leading them and analysing them, would be a good place to start.  They certainly shouldn't be top-down (they're not in medicine, after all - one of Goldacre's other big point that has been totally ignored by some) and should empower teachers to do some proper academic research into their own techniques, or new ones they fancy trying.  This would soon build a corpus of evidence for different intervention and teaching styles/techniques that would enable teachers to actually argue their points against the government with actual evidence to back them up! How invaluable that would be!  And what a change it would make, creating a more reasonable, logical profession and hopefully helping to dispel some of the ridiculous dogma that surrounds the profession (a pet hate of mine is teachers who act like there's something inherently 'different' or 'special' about teaching, as if it absolves teachers of any criticism at all.)

Look, I'm not saying that it's the be all and end all, and I obviously can't be sure that it will work, but I just hate the knee-jerk anti-idea culture of teaching sometimes.  Think about these considerations - maybe Goldacre is onto something.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Of Mice and Men - Character Ideas

I love Steinbeck's novella about two guys so much, that I fancy writing about it on a grim grimy morning. So here we go.  If this is useful for revision, then that's obviously very good news indeed.  If it's useful for teaching, then all the better.

Character - beyond the basics

George is a very complex character who suffers from a permanent clash of motives.  He is a young man, working itinerant ranch labour, and yet he is also essentially a parent of a very difficult child.  This is a totally impossible situation which tears the man apart, as he simultaneously loves and hates Lennie.  His flashes of temper, as seen in part one, are a symptom of this internal strife.  His self-isolation is another manifestation of this.  He plays solitaire at all times, never seeming to play a competitive game with others (the game of euchre in part three never really gets off the ground, due to the tension building as they wait for the gunshot) and speaks in terse, thin sentences to the majority of characters (especially Curley's Wife, Carlson and Whit).  Despite this, the novella gives us a fascinating window into a transitional phase in George's life: he meets new friends in Slim and Candy, and his long-held pipe-dream seems, startlingly and disorientatingly, to be on the cusp of becoming reality.  As such we see glimpses of warmth, sorrow and shame in George: particularly when talking to Slim in the opening pages of part three.  His decision to kill Lennie is not inevitable, though.  There are other options open to him, and I believe there must be some sense of relief in pulling the trigger.  Relief that is submerged under a tide of misery, but it would be a simplistic reading to assume there was no sense of final rest from the stressful life he's been forced to live for so long.

Lennie is scary.  There can be no doubt in anyone's mind that when Lennie gets annoyed, he is a tremendously intimidating character.  The 'fish'-like flopping of his victims, and the repetitive 'bear' imagery present us with a monstrous being - a Jekyll and Hyde - that is usually docile and calm but occasionally lethal and wantonly aggressive.  Simple readings of Lennie as a victim are inaccurate.  It is fair enough to a point, but his disability (whatever it is) makes him something of an anti-hero who does choose to do horrific acts of violence.  Evidence for this is in the petulance with which he 'hurls' around the dead puppy: the intense flash of hatred that the dead animal sparks is an insight into a deeply troubled character who is far more than just 'stupid'.

Candy is a troublesome gossip, and not as great a guy as some may suggest.  His glee at sharing his disgusting information about Curley's glove shows a man who thrives on rumour and scandal, and his reaction to his ticking off by George in part two - 'He had drawn a derogatory statement from George.  He felt safe now' - shows a man comfortable in the role of disciple rather than leader: he is very easily led and has little power of his own.  This is most clearly displayed when the men bully him into killing his dog, though Candy's insistence on keeping it alive could be viewed as selfishness.  Candy's relationship with Curley's Wife is fascinating.  He clearly hates her, behaving brutally when she joins the three 'weak ones' in Crooks' room.  He changes when addressing the only woman in the tale, becoming more assertive and aggressive.  Clearly, this emphasises the level at which women operate in this story - below even the weakest of the 'weak' trio.

Curley is a simple plot device, really - a simple antagonist with a coincidental hatred for the very physicality of Lennie.  George is right about him, in that there is nothing Lennie can do but wait for the boot to eventually drop onto him.  Steinbeck offers a little more insight, but it is all third hand: the vaseline glove, the boxing...even his position as boss's son is never fully explored.  He is, therefore, unknowable, which is exactly how Steinbeck wanted it - a mysterious, blank presence whose raw energy and hatred acts as a catalyst for the plot.

Curley's Wife is the only woman in the book, apart from the hallucination of Aunt Clara and the mentioned floozies and jailbaits of the town.  She is an exotic addition to the novel, multi-coloured and feathered like a rare bird ('ostrich feathers' on her 'red mules'), and so she is always centre of attention.  Her posture and habit of standing in doorways adds to the idea that she is inescapable: it is impossible to avoid her as she moves randomly through the ranch, like a ghost in Pac-Man.  The danger signified in her red colouring and her 'brittle, nasal' voice means that she is a source of incredible tension - totally unpredictable and capable of causing infernos of anger wherever she goes.  Every major bout of aggression has Curley's Wife at its core somewhere.  Despite this, she is not an antagonist.  Instead she is misunderstood, but prone to bursts of childlike and petulant behaviour, just like Lennie.  And just like Lennie, she cannot simply be a victim, though as a woman she is certainly prejudiced against.  Her naivety in believing the man from 'the pitchers' create some sense of culpability, but as a whole she is simply a bumbling character, desperate for love and warmth in a world where these things barely exist.  Her treatment of Crooks is fascinating, as it shows a more assertive side to her character.  Again, though she is low down the pecking order, she is still higher than Crooks, and enjoys her moment of power in part four.

Crooks is the only black character in the novel.  This highlights the unusual nature of racial relations in California at this time.  It would be dangerous to assume that California was akin to the Deep South of Alabama and Kentucky (the racism in Of Mice and Men is of a different nature to that in To Kill a Mockingbird).  As Crooks himself says, he grew up on his 'old man's chicken ranch', in a position of reasonable security.  Racism in the North and West was generally de facto, rather than enshrined in law.  The infamous Jim Crow laws were only a factor in the Southern States, where racism was an institution.  In fact in the 1930s California was most famous for its prejudice against the Filipino population that led to scenes of terrible violence in Watsonville in 1930.  This is not to say black people were not prejudiced against: they certainly were, and California had a system of segregation in place.  The Ku Klux Klan had a great many members in various areas of California at this time, too, with Orange County alone having 1200 members in the 1920s.  This lends weight to Curley's Wife's threat of lynching - it would probably have led to that.  Crooks is a quiet, embittered man who reads to pass the time when not working.  He literally shares his home with the animals, to the point that his medicine, and the medicine for the horses, are stored in the same container.  His collection of books is fascinating.  It contains an out of date copy of the California Civil Code, presumably to create the impression that he is familiar with his rights.  He has some ambiguous 'dirty books', suggestive of pornography.  Considering he can't go into town with the boys, this is not unreasonable to presume.  His tattered dictionary is the most interesting possession, as it is 'tattered', suggesting great use.  His interaction with Lennie and Candy is an emotional high point in the book, as we see the three misfits bonding over a common dream after initially hostile posturing.  Steinbeck seems on the verge of creating an Eden for these loners and 'weak ones' when Crooks asks to join them on their ranch, and society seems on the verge of inversion, with those on the periphery becoming those who have succeeded in the pursuit of happiness.  Of course, Curley's Wife's intrusion destroys all of this, as this Eve is placed below even them, worthy only of scorn and distrust.
More later on...

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Saturday, 2 March 2013


I saw a ghost last weekend.  Or at least, that's what a noisy, irrepressibly excitable part of my brain is shouting.  It being my birthday, I was watching Skyfall on Blu-Ray (a tremendous experience).  Glancing toward the open door leading to the hallway I saw a whiteness pass from the open, darkened bathroom door beyond, into the hall and away from my field of vision.

I do not believe in ghosts at all.  As a youngster I think I hoped that they existed, but due to my scientific bent I have short shrift for anything supernatural.  This does not mean I don't find it all fascinating: I have a very deep-seated interest in all things ghostly and mysterious, as I feel it tells us a great deal about the human condition.  But I never thought I would see a ghost.  And the majority of my brain still insists that I haven't.  It was a trick of the light, or even an hallucination, asserts the side of my mind most closely aligned with Occam's Razor.  Imagine the implication of actually seeing a spectre in my bathroom: it would firstly mean that my flat is haunted and, quite frankly, sod that.  Far too stressful.  It would also suggest that there is perhaps life after death (if floating meaninglessly in someone else's bathroom is 'life' in any true sense), and this goes against all of my intuition and education.  Far easier to say that it was simply a sham - a trick, amplified by my silly brain.

But here's the thing: how easy it was for my brain to be fooled!  I would say I am a fairly sensible chap, with a keen sense of scepticism.  I always seek out the most realistic and reasoned arguments for or against anything.  And yet, last weekend, just a fleeting peep of something strange has led me to wonder what my waking eyes have seen.  I think this, in itself, suggests an answer to the big question: what are all these paranormal witnesses seeing.  All those thousands of men and women who have seen ghosts, UFOs, the Loch Ness monster, Pikachu and all, all of them have been fooled by their brains.  What they saw was something immeasurably dull - a stick, or a cloud of steam, or a little yellow rat - and their brains, their over-evolved, high-perfomance brains, have filled in the rest of the story.  The stick becomes an anachronistic plesiosaur, the cloud of steam a baleful spirit and the yellow rat is suddenly a fictional pocket monster from Japan.

Our wonderful brains are flawed.  All you need to do to witness this is see a face in the wood-chip wallpaper round your gran's house, or a smiling clown in the pattern of clouds above you.  Your brain wants to see things that aren't there, as it is programmed to seek out movement, forms and most importantly faces.  All it took was a mote in my eye, or a gust of wind, to fool my brain into seeing ghosts.  And, the trouble is, once its in the mind, it's hard to shake the terror...

And this is the other thing at work, of course.  Deep inside our psyche is a strange urge to be terrified.  We all merrily seek out things that scare us (I watched Lightfields the other night, sequel to the excellent Marchlands, and spent the whole time peering through my fingers, waiting for a terrifying shock that sadly never came), to the point where we create or invent whole scenarios just to freak ourselves out.  On a global scale this leads to theme parks and a thriving horror film industry.  On an individual basis, this means telling exaggerated creepy stories and adding malign intention to everyday occurrences, like a fugue in a bathroom.

The myriad ghost stories and legends that litter the UK in particular are testament to these dual drives of wanting to be scared and the brain being able and willing to scare us.  The endless reports of ghostly figures, hideous demons and frightening alien encounters are, perhaps, all a product of our own fevered imaginations.

Either that, or they're real.

Part II - my favourite 'real' ghost stories:

1. The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, with her eyeless sockets and habit of floating down stairs.  This photo was taken by a photographer for Country Life magazine who was taking a nice shot of the staircase when he noticed this shape descending the stairs:
2. The Monk of Newby Church, which is just a photo really, with no associated tale.  But it's really tall and incredibly freaky.  Estimates suggest it to be around 8' tall, and no evidence of fakery or deception was ever discovered.
3. The hauntings of Pluckley, Kent.  This is the most haunted village in England, with at least 12 roaming spooks.  My favourite is the screaming workman in the old quarry.  He was crushed by a load of stone, and his scream is still heard on moonless nights...
4. The ghost bus of Ladbroke Grove: this was a terror in the 1920s, as it blared down the streets, lights blazing, with not a soul on board.  Not even a driver.  It apparently caused several car accidents.
5. The hairy hands of Dartmoor.  These critters materialise in or on your vehicle as you drive down the B3212.  They often appear over your own hands on the steering wheel, forcing you off the road.  Or, they thump and pat on the walls of your caravan, looking for a way in...