Naked Language Lessons Stimulating Learners

March 13, 2016

Talking of sensory experiences, is this embodied cognition? I don’t think my students would appreciate it if I followed the example of one online English academy here in Spain. But if it will improve results…

Finland and phenomenon teaching

January 24, 2016

Finland is the exemplar of academic excellence. Ever since the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings first came into being, the Scandinavian country has been at or near the top. Researchers have been flooding there to see if they can discover the secret of the Finnish success.

Finland’s excellent performance system is accompanied by some fascinating statistics, many of which contradict the educational philosophy that I’m used to in the U.K. and Spain. Finnish children don’t start school until they are seven. In their first six years children are not measured at all; there is only one mandatory standardized test in Finland, taken at the age of 16. Exams are rare in general, as is homework, which is not normal until they are well are well into their teens. The difference between weakest and strongest students is the smallest in the world. Unlike the U.K. children are not streamed according to ability. And despite spending 30% less per student than the United States, 93% of Finns graduate from high school, and 66% of students go to college, higher than any other European country.

Recently, though, Finland has been slipping a bit. In the 2012 study they were down to 12th place. Now they are going to overhaul the educational system. The slip in the rankings may have worried the Finns but the motivations for change are deeper. The government believes that schools should teach what young people need to take their places in the workplaces of the future. In a previous post I mentioned how they were going to eliminate traditional handwriting classes. But this is just the beginning. As of August this year they are going to on what the Independent calls one of the most radical education reform programmes ever undertaken by a nation state”.

What they are going to do is introduce a methodology known as phenomenon teaching. They will not be getting rid of the traditional subject-based classes such as mathematics, history and biology, but they will be bringing in more interdisciplinary classes that draw from multiple subject areas. These lessons will be co-taught by teachers from different subject areas. This holistic approach could include topics such as the European Union, climate change or whatever the teachers and stunts think might be useful.  An article in the Independent explained the new system:

For instance, a teenager studying a vocational course might take “cafeteria services” lessons, which would include elements of maths, languages (to help serve foreign customers), writing skills and communication skills.

More academic pupils would be taught cross-subject topics such as the European Union – which would merge elements of economics, history (of the countries involved), languages and geography.

The traditional sees rows of pupils sitting passively in front of their teacher, listening to lessons or waiting to be questioned will be replaced by a more collaborative approach. Pupils will work in smaller groups solving problems while improving their communication skills.

I am a fan of this type of education. I like the idea of students researching topics. The days of students memorising facts should be behind us. I do have doubts though.  Firstly, Finland has a population of five and half million, three million less than London. Secondly, it will not be easy to implement in an education system based on different traditions. The best way is gradually. Spain has introduced a number of educational reforms since I came here in 1987. I am sceptical about the benefits. This is partly because I can’t even agree with myself about what the ideal educational system would be. If we look at the PISA rankings, we will see different recipes. Japan and Korea are also high on the list. I am sure their methodology is nothing like Finland’s.  Nevertheless, I have been impressed with Finland’s unique education system and will be following their experiment with great interest.

The PISA rankings explained

January 24, 2016

Here is how PISA works:

My new blog

September 29, 2013

I have a new blog called MARTIN’S VIDEO CLUB. It is a collection of videos for higher-level English students, featuring both grammar and topic based material. If you want to check it out, go here.

Anything you Khan do: how a former hedge fund trader is trying to transform education

April 21, 2013

In 2004 Salman Khan, then a senior hedge fund analyst, began remotely tutoring his cousin Nadia in mathematics. Word got round and other relatives and friends sought his help too. Realizing that it would be more efficient to distribute the tutorials on YouTube, he created an account there in November 2006. The videos proved to be extremely popular and the organization was incorporated as a non-profit in 2008. A year later Khan quit the day job to focus exclusively on developing Khan Academy full-time. Its goal is to provide “a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.” Students can make use of their 4,000 video tutorials, as well as interactive challenges, and assessments.  It can be used by both individual students or in the classroom and the system provides you with personalized data about how you are doing and which areas you are struggling in.

Khan Academy is just one example of the educational resources available online. I have been interested in online learning for a number of years now. Here are a few examples of what you can find out there:

Open Yale This is one of my favourites. You have video, audio and even the mid-term and final exams. The lectures come with the transcript, No course credit, degree, or certificate is available, but it’s a great way to capture a bit of the flavour of this prestigious Ivy League institution. Here is a selection of some of the courses:


Financial Markets

Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics

Fundamentals of Physics

Game Theory

Introduction to Ancient Greek History

Introduction to Political Philosophy

Introduction to Psychology

Listening to Music

The American Novel Since 1945

The Great Courses This company was founded by Thomas M. Rollins, began life as The Teaching Company in 1990. Videos got Rollins, who graduated from Harvard Law School, out of a tight jam when he was a student. He had skipped a number of classes and was facing a difficult exam on the federal rules of evidence. In desperation he sat through ten hours of videotaped lectures by Professor Irving Younger. The lectures were, in his words, “outrageously insightful, funny, and thorough“. He describes it as one of his best experiences as a student. What’s more he got an A. He had initially intended to create a government program to produce tapes for the public, but was unable to do so because of legal restrictions. After leaving his job as Chief Counsel of the United States Senate Committee on Labour and Human Resources, he went looking for top professors to create courses for sale to the public. The Great Courses offers hundreds of courses in such areas as economics, literature, fine arts, music, history, philosophy, religion, mathematics and the social sciences. There are more than 500 available via CD, DVD and Internet download.

Their current top ten shows the enormous range of what they offer:

  1. The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World
  2. The Science of Natural Healing
  3. Physiology and Fitness
  4. Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation
  5. Trails of Evidence: How Forensic Science Works
  6. Mysteries of Modern Physics: Time
  7. Introduction to Nanotechnology: The New Science of Small
  8. Physics and Our Universe: How It All Works
  9. Great Tours: Greece and Turkey, from Athens to Istanbul
  10. Writing Creative Nonfiction

Coursera This educational technology company was founded by computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller from Stanford University in October 2011. Coursera works with universities to make some of their courses available online, and offers courses in engineering, humanities, medicine, biology, social sciences, mathematics, business, computer science, and other areas. Each course includes short video lectures on different topics and assignments to be submitted, usually on a weekly basis. Coursera is able to cut costs by having students grade their peers’ homework and employing statistical methods to validate the assessment.

Coursera is following an approach popular among Silicon Valley start-ups – grow fast and worry about money later. Venture capitalists and even two universities have invested more than $22-million but even Coursera seems unsure how it will monetise its courses. Daphne Koller explained the rationale:

Our VC’s keep telling us that if you build a Web site that is changing the lives of millions of people, then the money will follow“. Possible solutions include:

  1. having companies sponsor courses
  2. offering certification
  3. the sale of information to potential employers


 These online courses offer the possibility for great teachers to leverage their talent. This is just like what happened to singers when new technologies meant that records could be sold or concerts broadcast. Lecturers who could only be seen by those actually in their class can now be enjoyed by people all over the world.

The great advantage is the flexibility; you are not bound by timetables or location. You can listen to a lecture on MP3 or watch it on a smartphone. This is perfect for me. I’m a bit of a commitment-phobe when it comes to online learning. I like to flit from one topic to another. I don’t really want to do an exam – for me it’s just a bit of fun. But there are other models. What Coursera offers is much more like a traditional college class. Students have to do around ten hours of study per week. They can watch the videos any time you want during the week, but they have to finish your assignments by the end of the week. The advantage of this is that everyone is working on the same thing at the same time; if they then want to go onto a discussion forum, they can get immediate help from one of your peers.

Many of the courses, such as Open Yale involve just a lecturer standing up in front of a group of people. That is what inspired Thomas Rollins. I love this format. Listening to an engaging professor talking about a subject that he is passionate about is a guilty pleasure for me. However, some people argue that this is a bad use of this medium. Salman Khan has been critical of the lecture format. He sees it as relic from the past. 200 years ago there was no alternative – but now we have so many technological possibilities. I can see what Khan is getting at. Filming someone teaching is not visually compelling. The great insight of what Khan does is that you listen to the voice, you don’t watch the professor. The material you see on the screen is what engages you visually, not the teacher’s face, mouth, gestures etc. Khan has another criticism of a lot of the material online. He thinks that people can pay attention for ten or twenty minutes. Then they start to zone out. That’s why they have micro lectures, which last less than 20 minutes

For us the availability of this material has meant that we haven’t had to pay for a private tutor for our son. How many tutors would be happy to go over the same point twenty times? That is the beauty of video – it enables you to go at your own pace, pausing whenever necessary and reviewing the material as many times as you want.

What about the classroom? Khan Academy materials can be used for class teaching. Flip teaching is one of the key concepts. This involves students watching the videos on their own, and then coming together to discuss them. A teacher can spend more time interacting with and tutoring students instead of lecturing. In the classroom pupils can then try to apply this knowledge by solving problems and doing project-based learning with lots of peer-to-peer learning.

I hope you find this as inspiring as I do. We are living in exciting times for education. I like the fact that there are different models. Let a thousand flowers bloom. I don’t believe that the traditional university will disappear anytime soon. Some of these ideas will prove to be dead ends. But others will help to transform the way we learn. We don’t really know what the best mix is. We are at a very early stage in the application of these technologies, and I can already see massive benefits.  So, I salute you Mr. Khan.

How we saw education of the future

April 21, 2013

I thought it would be a good idea to look at how the future of education was seen in the past. My starting had to be the Paleofuture blog, which features articles, photos  and videos from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries predicting how the world would be in the future. Here is what they said about classrooms and schools:

The Public School of Tomorrow (1912)

Our future transportation for the school of tomorrow will be the automobile, interurban railway, mono railway, gyroscope car, overhead cable car, pneumaticair pressure tubes, flying machines and other means of travel, which future geniuses may develop. Distance will be annihilated and many miles will be as one mile today. Population will be denser in our rural districts and there will be a family on every forty acres or less.

Movies Will Replace Textbooks (1922)

Schools have had a longstanding immunity against the introduction of new technologies. In 1922 Thomas Edison predicted that movies would replace textbooks. In 1945 one forecaster imagined radios as common as blackboards in classrooms. In the 1960s, B.F. Skinner predicted that teaching machines and programmed instruction would double the amount of information students could learn in a given time. Filmstrips and other audiovisual aids were fads thirty years ago, and the television, now seen as a supplier of brain candy, once had a sterling reputation as an education machine.

The Push-Button School of Tomorrow (1958)

Tomorrow’s schools will be more crowded; teachers will be correspondingly fewer. Plans for a push-button school have already been proposed by Dr. Simon Ramo, science faculty member at California Institute of Technology. Teaching would be by means of sound movies and mechanical tabulating machines. Pupils would record attendance and answer questions by pushing buttons. Special machines would be “geared” for each individual student so he could advance as rapidly as his abilities warranted. Progress records, also kept by machine, would be periodically reviewed by skilled teachers, and personal help would be available when necessary.

The student desk of the future includes a small camera, presumably so that the teacher being projected on a large screen in the front of the class can keep tabs on the little rascals. One thing that fascinates me about computer consoles of the retrofuture is that the QWERTY keyboard is not yet an assumed input device. Each computing device seems tailored to meet the needs of the intended user, as with this learning machine of the futuristic year 1999 and this auto-tutor from the 1964 New York World’s Fair.

1968′s Computerized School of the Future

Picture yourself in front of a television screen that has an electronic typewriter built in below it. You put on a set of headphones, and school begins.

“Good morning, John,” a voice says. “Today you’re going to study the verbs ‘sit’ and ‘set.’ Fill in the blank in each sentence with the proper word — ‘sit,’ sat’ or ‘set.’ Are you ready to go?”

 “YES,” you peck out on the typewriter, and class gets under way.

The machine clicks away in front of you. “WHO HAS ____ THE BABY IN THE MUD?” it writes.

You type “SAT.” The machine comes right back: “SET.” You know you’re wrong, and the score confirms it: “SCORE: 00.”

A generation or so from now a truly modern school will have a room, or maybe several rooms, filled with equipment of the type shown on the cover of this issue. Even kindergarten children may be able to work some of the machines—machines such as automatically loading film and slide projectors, stereo tape recorders and record players, and electric typewriters or TV devices tied into a computer.

Customizable instruction seems to be the largest benefit touted by the article when it comes to every child having their own computer terminal:

The major advantage of the computer is that it helps solve the teacher’s biggest problem—individual instruction for every student. In a large class the teacher has to aim at the average level of knowledge and skill, but a computer can work with each child on the concepts and problems with which he needs the most help. A teacher can do this, too, but she often lacks the time required.

Computers combined with other teaching aids will provide schools with new flexibility in teaching. Students will be able to work at their own speeds in several subjects over a period of time. A boy might work all day on a science project, for instance, and complete his unit in that subject before some other children in his class had even begun. But they would be working on other subjects at their own speeds.

Computers are expensive for teaching, and they will not become a major force in education for some time. But apparently they are here to stay. One educational publication predicted that “another generation may well bring many parents who cannot recall classwork without them.” And a computer specialist went even farther. He said, “… I predict that computers will soon play as significant and universal a role in schools as books do today.”

 CNN education in 2025

Looking through my own stuff I also found this piece from a CNN documentary from the year 2000. the piece featured predictions for 2025 from Howard Gardner, a professor at Harvard graduate school of education.

There are also no freshman, sophomore, junior or senior classes. Students advance to three levels of learning: not by taking tests or getting grades, but by completing projects.

They can work at their own pace. They can pursue their own interests. They can have contact with people who could be mentors. And I think equally important, they can give. They can help other people.

If we’re lucky is that some will go for 14 and some will go for 10, because you take your formal education as long as it takes to demonstrate that you have the intellectual power that the state, that your community, that your family expects.

People will be able to work more at their home will be able to have contact with other kids elsewhere who have the same kinds of talents and skills they do. They won’t be sort of stuck with the same 30 kids in a classroom for eight or 12 years.

Unless schools prepare us for an information-rich society, then our youngsters simply won’t be prepared for dealing with a world that’s here any day now.

 I thought I’d finish with a couple of contrasting videos:

Let those encyclopedias burn!

March 17, 2013

Indeed, the purpose of an encyclopaedia is to collect knowledge disseminated around the globe; to set forth its general system to the men with whom we live, and transmit it to those who will come after us, so that the work of preceding centuries will not become useless to the centuries to come; and so that our offspring, becoming better instructed, will at the same time become more virtuous and happy, and that we should not die without having rendered a service to the human race in the future years to come. Denis Diderot

A certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge:

On those remote pages [of ‘‘a certain Chinese encyclopaedia’’] it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f ) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance. The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, Jorge Luis Borges

I’m not going to buy my kids an encyclopaedia. Let them walk to school like I did. Yogi Berra


The philosopher Julian Baggini recently set light to his 32-volume Encyclopaedia Britanica. I imagine that many of you will be horrified by such barbarism. It has echoes of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian Fahrenheit 451. The German poet Heinrich Heine famously said: ‘Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.’ This remark was very prescient as it comes from a play written more than a hundred years before the rise of Nazism. Burning books is seen as a sacrilegious act; this quote from The Penultimate Peril, the sixth book in the Lemony Snicket series illustrates this taboo:

The burning of a book is a sad, sad sight, for even though a book is nothing but ink and paper, it feels as if the ideas contained in the book are disappearing as the pages turn to ashes and the cover and binding–which is the term for the stitching and glue that holds the pages together–blacken and curl as the flames do their wicked work. When someone is burning a book, they are showing utter contempt for all of the thinking that produced its ideas, all of the labour that went into its words and sentences, and all of the trouble that befell the author . . .”

What motivated Baggini to engage in premeditated bibliocide? He makes an eloquent case for why the “mouldy, unread and long out of date” encyclopaedias had to go:

In my defence, this was more of a cremation than a burning at the stake. The books were already dead, terminally rotted after years of neglect. If I had committed a crime, it was to let them get into this sorry state, not finally to put them out of their misery.

Encyclopaedias have existed for some two millennia; the oldest still in existence, Naturalis Historia, was written in AD 77 by Pliny the Elder. The modern encyclopaedia evolved out of dictionaries around the 17th century. Some were one-volume works, but soon multi-volume encyclopedias would emerge. Indeed, the largest print encyclopedia in the world is the Spanish language Enciclopedia Universal Ilustrada Europeo-Americana. It is made up of 116 books, 175,000 pages and 200 million words.

An important landmark in the history of the encyclopaedia was the French Encyclopédie, which has been dubbed “the European Enlightenment in book form.” The project attracted some of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment – Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Denis Diderot. Their goal was to bring together all that was known of the world in one comprehensive encyclopaedia.

It has to be said that the beginnings in 1743 were not too auspicious. The original idea was to translation Chambers’ Cyclopaedia from English into French. The Parisian book publisher André Le Breton was the man behind the project. John Mills, an Englishman living in France, was hired. However, due to Mills’s deficient knowledge of French, – he could barely read or write it – the translation was a disaster.  The publisher had Mills beaten up – he was punched in the stomach and hit over the head with a cane. Mills sued for assault, but the French court ruled that Le Breton’s actions had been justified and acquitted him.

The project was then taken on by Jean le Rond d’Alembert, one of Europe’s leading mathematicians. His partner in crime would be the Enlightenment polymath Diderot, who was born 300 years ago. It became a bestseller with 28 volumes which were published in a period of more than 20 years. A complete set of the first edition cost some 1,000 livres, and there were over 4,000 subscribers. The publishers made a fortune even though the work was quickly pirated and reprinted in cheaper editions. Plus ça change.

Louis XV banned Diderot’s encyclopedia in 1759 for “damage that results from it in regard to morality and religion“. It was banned a couple of times. There were decidedly anti-religious overtones to the work. Religion was categorised as a product of human reason and not an independent source of knowledge. A famous example was the cross-references provided for cannibalism, which directed readers to the entries for Eucharist, communion and altar.

There is no doubt that the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which was first published between 1768 and 1771 in Edinburgh, was conceived in part as a response to the Encyclopédie. The Britannica was primarily a Scottish enterprise. It is one of the most enduring legacies of the Scottish Enlightenment, the period between when Adam Smith, David Hume and others helped Scotland become an intellectual powerhouse. It began as a three-volume set; the final print version came with 32 volumes. Last year, after 244 years, the printed version of the Encyclopedia Britannica was finally killed off. If you want to consult it now, you have to go online. One man who will surely miss it is the journalist A.J. Jacobs, who spent nearly eighteen months reading the entire set, some 44 million words, for his entertaining memoir, The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World.

In the United States, the 1950s and 1960s several large popular encyclopaedias began to be sold on instalment plans. It is unfortunate that books that should be a celebration of human knowledge became associated with unscrupulous door-to-door salesmen. These shysters would use all the tricks of the trade as they preyed on hapless customers. They would often begin with the $10,000 limited edition. After that the $1,500 for the standard edition seemed like a bargain. Parents wanted their children to have the Britannia Advantage. I suppose you can interpret this in two ways. You could see it as a powerful example of how parents were prepared to make important sacrifices for their children’s future. On the other hand it shows how marketers were able to create a state of anxiety in their customers, playing on parents’ fears. It is an example of consumer culture driving unrealistic goals. As Baggini points out:

A child’s success does depend on school grades, but these depend more on the social background and the culture of the home than any purchased learning aids. A set of encyclopaedias that remains an item of furniture is not enough to give a child an edge; nor is it necessary if the household is one in which learning, inquiry and debate are all part of daily life.

Baggini believes that these would probably have been better off investing their money on real books that children might actually have read. Encyclopaedias may have been the most admired volumes on the bookshelves, but they were also the least read. I hardly remember ever consulting them. This is like when people have Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time on their bookshelves.

As the 20th century came to a close, encyclopedias were being published on CD-ROMs for use on home computers. I absolutely loved Encarta, which Microsoft launched in 1993. The encyclopaedia, which had no printed equivalent, had around 50,000 articles, with additional images, videos and sounds. Little did I know that the relentless march of creative destruction would do away with this wonderful tool – in 2009 Microsoft pulled the plug on Encarta. What killed it off were of course the online encyclopaedias, the most famous of which is Wikipedia. Microsoft just couldn’t compete with a product that apart from being free was much more dynamic, with it being possible to update articles in real time.

I celebrate the demise of the encyclopedia. We shouldn’t be taken in by its mystique – the smell of the leather binding and the intellectual authority that these weighty tomes embody. They may have been beautiful objects, but I prefer the freedom that an internet connection gives us. In Spain they like to invoke Saint Google.  Information has been democratised and I welcome it.

There is a deeper idea here. We need to forget the idea that knowledge, which is in a constant state of flux, can be set down in black and white. Encyclopaedias belong to a time when knowledge was owned by a handful of established authorities, who would decide not only what was true but what deserved to be included. How will we cope with a loss of faith in absolute knowledge?  I have no problem embracing uncertainty. The world is changing, and books, magazines and education will have to adapt to this. Baggini argues that we haven’t yet fully worked out what the demise of print encyclopaedias, and all they symbolise, means for truth and knowledge. We need to find a philosophically coherent position between absolute certainty and absolute relativism. Online encycopaedias better reflect the reality of human knowledge. The print encylopaedia is dead. Long live Saint Google!