Here’s a little holiday anecdote for all teachers. Actually, there’s no reason why students won’t also find it helpful - even more so if they’re thinking of going into teaching.
A while back I saw Jamie Oliver making this very nice looking - sorry - ‘pukka’ - Tarte Tatin on the telly. Consumed by greed, I foolishly swallowed Jamie’s advice that this would indeed be easy to make, and hurriedly assembled the ingredients.
Alas, it turned out to be a disaster.
The problem, I’m sorry to say, was not with my cooking. Certainly not! Of course, they do say you have to take responsibiity for your own learning, but that’s what I was doing - trying something new.
No, this was clearly a teacher error.
The error? Well, Jamie is, I have to admit, quite good at cooking. So when he was boiling up the sugar and water to make the caramel, he of course, did not measure anything out, nor did he check the temperature. Because he’s done this so often, he just did it visually. And said it was easy.
I subsequently discovered, that heating up sugar, is in fact pretty complicated. Only a few degrees of temperature separate at least 3 - and according to Wikipedia, nine stages. If you mess these up, you don’t get caramel, you get toffee. If you get a few more degrees you get reinforced concrete toffee. That doesn’t make for a very tasty Tarte Tatin.
The moral of this tale?
There are several.
First, just because you’re good at something, doesn’t mean you will be good at teaching it.
Second, you must never make assumptions about what is easy, or how much knowledge a ‘learner’ or your audience has. If they don’t know that a few more degrees and a few more seconds will turn their nice mouldable caramel into rock hard toffee, it might be a good idea to warn them
On with the teaching.
Back after a few days absence - finishing off a book on the mass media. Gosh, deadlines can take it out of you. Anyhow, I’m back now and there’s a lot to catch up with, what with some good resources popping up left, right and centre as I was in the throngs of finishing off the book. So, posts on a Sunday and on a bank holiday - talk about value for money!
First off, population. A report on the BBC last Thursday said that according to ONS, the UK population now stands at over 61million. But what most interested me was this bit:
“The total number of people passed 61m for the first time, with changes in birth and death rates now a bigger cause of growth than immigration. “
A great bit of data for teachers who need ammunition to dispell common myths about contemporary Britain.
I was reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody yesterday and came across an interesting reference to Danah Boyd, a researcher at Microsoft and also at Harvard University’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society. Boyd has been researching on youth identities and the internet - digital identity even. She has been exploring the idea that there are class differences in which networks people use - are you a Facebook person or a MySpace person, and what’s the difference? Check out the extract below.read more...»
Just a quick post today on The Wire. I watched it for the first time last night - it was OK I guess, but I’m a child of the 70s and 80s and for me Kojak and Hill Street Blues are much, much better. But in the course of doing some research for something else I came across some links for David Simon, the man who wrote The Wire. Lots of writers research their topic first, but I was interested to see that Simon used ethnographic methods to dig down into the Baltimore soil. It makes interesting reading and it reminded me how much I like the American ethnographic tradition. It really does get you under the skin of a culture.
Check out David Simon’s comments here:
More sports to start this week - the World Athletics Championships giving rise to more debate. There was a nice piece on the Today programme this morning. Today featured a debate between Jon Entine and Matthew Syed, sports correspondent of The Times. Entine was arguing that the predominance of black athletes at the World Champs was down to genetics. Actually, his claim did get a bit more complex, in that he argued different races were good at different things. However, Entine did make the generalisation that ‘West Africans’ dominated running events, because of their superior genetics for that event.
Matthew Syed did quite an effective job on disposing of Entine’s claims, at one point listing about 10 West African countries which have patently not been at all successful at the World Champs. As Syed argued, Jamaica - one country which was predominant - has a history and tradition in athletics. Resources are devoted to athletics in Jamaica; that is why, Jamaican bobsleigh team apart, they tend to do well in running. In other words, a social reason.
But there are wider methodological points.
Beware false dichotomies. Far be my intention to peddle sociological imperialism. Good athletes are obviously the result of genetic and social factors. But let’s avoid invalid and reductive explanations.
Race - a dubious, indeed, downright fictitious concept anyway. So Entine is arguing about something which doesn’t exist. Race is a social construction.
Beware naive empiricism.read more...»
The case of Caster Semenya, who won the women’s 800m at the World Atletics Championships this week in Berlin, is causing a bit of a stir in the media. Gender is one of those areas where commonsense wisdom can be hard to dislodge.
But the fact is that gender and sex are a bit more complicated than we usually acknowledge.
First we need to grasp the word ‘dimorphic’. This means that in a given species, there are two forms e.g. male and female, as with humans.
Now, check out the words of sociologist RW Connell:
” In several respects human bodies are not fully dimorphic. First, there is a complex group of intersex categories, such as females lacking a second X chromosome, males with an extra X chromosome, and others. The biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling (Sexing the Body, New York, Basic Books, 2000:p51) estimates that intersex groups, taken together, may account for 1.7 per cent of all births: a small but not trivial number. Secondly, physical differences between male and female change over the lifespan, but even in early adulthood the physical characteristics of males as a group and females as a group, overlap extensively.” Connell , Gender, Polity Press, 2002, p29-30.
Sociologists generally use this sort of evidence to make a number of points about gender, but particularly that gender is a social construction. There are indeed natural sex differences, but as Connell points out, these are in fact more complex than our (socially constructed) classification systems often allow for.
So it will be interesting to see what the IAAF tests come up with - and indeed, it will be interesting to know what tests they will use.
I’ve just been listening to the Director of Education at the CBI commenting on the A level results. What we need, she said - over and over again - is people who are good at maths.
On this day of national scrutiny of the results I would just add my own two pence worth - and I won’t repeat it over and over again. Feel free to take it or leave it.
What business also needs is graduates who are: 1) able to look at all things in perspective - including the exam system, 2)
able to appreciate that what is important cannot always be quantified, 3) understand the pitfalls of naive empiricism, and lastly, can read and write to a high level. Literacy and the ability to communicate clearly in writing and speech are just as important as numeracy. Please give us more executives who do not use words like ‘re-engineer’ instead of change.
An interesting piece in today’s Thinking Allowed on R4 about a study on Oxford University admissions. It seems the key findings from the study by Tony Heath (of Oxford University) and two other researchers is that if you want to get into Oxford, its best to be male, private school educated and white. Cultural capital does make a difference, but those other factors dominate. The researchers found that state school applicants though actually had a slightly better chance in arts subjects (though I would want to argue that many state school Oxford students come from the professional classes) and in the sciences, students from the ethnic miniorities were five times less likely to be successful than white students. The researchers suggest that some of these inequalities may be due to interviewers being predominantly white and male themselves. Oxford University’s head of admisssions has apparently issued a statement arguing that the data in the study is out of date and inaccurate, but the researcher interviewed on Thinking Allowed refuted these claims.
It’s all available again on iPlayer or downloadable podcast- follow the link above.
News today that students may face up to around £23k of debt after graduating is a claim teachers should work into teaching about meritocracy in education. It means you can give a bit of further education advice at the same time as well. In fact with personal interest and given the number of interesting posts to the BBC site, this one piece of material will probably keep a good sociology teacher in material for weeks! The problem is rather how to fit it all into the small chunk of time available.
This is going to be an interesting week or two weeks on the education front, with A level and GCSE results due, this week and next respectively. The most interesting rustling in the undergrowth so far - for my money at least - comes with this announcement from the Conservatives that if elected they will change the basis on which league tables are constructed. It’s being reported that the Conservatives want to ‘beef up’ the tables by ensuring that what they see as ‘dumbed down’ or easier subjects don’t count for so much and a weighting system is devised so that the traditional subjects are more highly rewarded.
All very interesting. It’s worth applying Bourdieu’s concept of ‘cultural capital’ (admittedly rather crudely) to this tactic. Bourdieu has argued that the higher social classes will always find ways of ensuring that their own cultural practices are more highly valued than others. And they will use their social capital to help acheive this end. Sound familiar?
Maybe we don’t need Emily Maitliss to tell us this, but it is worth saying and it’s true of sociology as well as English Lit. Good teaching should be about teaching students - whatever the subject - to be sceptical. You can’t do that by formula, by rote, or by government prescription. And how good to hear Maitliss say that her A level English teacher was better than any university teacher. Being an academic, being a teacher - they are completely different tasks. And while I’m at it, why am I writing about English? Because it seems such a sad situation we have in schools today, where so-called ‘competition’ leads some teachers - I witnessed a fair bit of it anyway - to become narrow minded partisans. Study, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that any one subject has all the answers, or even all the questions.
Just time for a very brief tip today. Apologies to anyone for whom this is old hat. Do you teach the mass media topic? Isn’t it about time we did something to drag our teaching of the topic kicking and screaming into the C21? In which case it seems to me that we should be going beyond parrotting out the models of media effects and bringing in a bit of topical material. Why not for example, use news clips from current political debate and highlight the tactics which political speakers use? For example - dog-whistle politics, negative campaigning, filibustering, lesser of two evils, fear mongering and so on. I know these aren’t on the syllabus -whoops -sorry- specification, but it seems to me that they can actually add more to students understanding of the issues and indeed of real social life, rather than the formalised knowledge of some perhaps rather ossified model. Looking at these tactics and then going on to models might - I’m just suggesting - bring the models alive, and could lead to more subtle evaluation of the models.
Just a thought. And after all, if media isn’t also about codes and language, what is it about? And I can see no good reason why we shouldn’t be teaching a bit about that. After all, we do Bernstein’s elaborated and restricted codes don’t we?
Final thoughts on America, postponed from a few posts back. Visiting San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, what struck me most forcibly was the number of people living on the street and begging. Now of course, sociologists have to be wary of generalizing from specific examples, so I’ll tread carefully here. Indeed, someone my wife spoke to did say that SF was a bit of a hotspot for these particular social problems. My experience though was that it reminded me of images I’ve seen of third world countries. What explanations can sociologists offer for these patterns of inequality? Nothing too surprising really - and you don’t have to be a Marxist of any sort - to see the levels of inequality as something which rapid economic expansion in capitalist societies frequently leads to. And especially so in areas where political views and history mitigate against even mildly efficient welfare services. The US is a land of contradictions, and as I said before, yes, you really can have anything you want. As long as you can pay for it.
But it was a great experience to visit the US. If you get the chance, go.
Check out this great film shown last night on BBC Two - The Trouble with Girls. The film gives a really good insight into how gender and class combine to shape the lifechances of these three girls from Rochdale. It would have been so easy to have simply portrayed the girls negatively, but what comes across instead is a moving and sympathetic picture which shows how reflexive the girls are, yet at the same time, how little power, and how few resources they have to avoid the pitfalls that lie in wait for them.
It’s on iPlayer for a week, so catch it while you can.
Good thing I left posting until later today, because I’ve just caught the end of this really interesting Radio 4 programme about anti-social behaviour and crime on London’s buses. You can check the link - it does give a bit of blurb about the programme, but for some reason the programme won’t be available after this broadcast. But anyway, that doesn’t matter. The brief chunk I heard contained some very interesting descriptions of the sorts of behaviour which -predominantly young - people engage in on the bus. My first thought was - what excellent material - followed by the feeling that it would all make for a fascinating sociological study in the style of those great American 60s interactionist studies.
Of course, public disorder and crime are nothing new - but the middle classes and those of us fortunate enough not to live in certain parts of London, tend to forget how fragile social order is. The young people interviewed explained in detail the forms of social control and indeed, bullying, characterised by highly sexist views, rule the roost on the buses. If this matches your own experience, or you know about it, trying thinking about this in terms of positive and negative sanctions, as well as subcultural norms and values, and peer group pressure. You might also bring in bystander effect from social psychology - several of the interviewees explained how it is rare for anyone to step in and complain about behaviour which most of us - in any other context - would see as completely unacceptable.
A brief anecdote as promised earlier.
You certainly see some strange things in America. I’m afraid to say that I didn’t see a skateboarding dog (its on Google or YouTube if you’re interested), but I did see several other interesting types of dog. In San Francisco I witnessed a man deep in conversation with his dog, discussing where to go next. Actually that’s all wrong because my poor choice of words or basic illiteracy makes it sound like the dog was in fact an active participant in the discussion, i.e. talking. It was not. I’m not even sure if it was listening. Then again, this might make the man one of the more sane people about, as a lot of people seemed to be walking along talking to no one in particular.
Next, somewhere or other on my travels, I went into public toilet. At the wash basin, a man was busily washing his hands. Balanced on his shoulders was some sort of Yorkshire terrier, which looked a bit apprehensive, as you would no doubt, if you were that small and perched six feet up in the air. Why the man didn’t just let the dog stand on the floor I’ve no idea.
Finally, walking along Pier 34 in San Francisco, I realised that I’d had enough of merely looking at dogs and decided it was time to eat one. I highly recommend readers to try a Polish Dog next time they are in the US - it’s far better than the regular Hot Dog.
Other bloggers on this site will quite possibly mention it as well, but I’d also like to give a plug to Radio 4’s More or Less. Presented by that rare thing in nature - an economist with a sense of humour - More or Less is essential listening for sociologists as well as economists and statisticians. Sociology has lots of tricks up its sleeves, but paying attention to what can be done with numbers is an essential element in any sociologists armoury.
More or Less returns to the airwaves this Friday at 13.30
A couple of posts on my trip to the US will have to wait for another posting -first this. A very interesting Thinking Allowed today with Richard Reeves from Demos, talking about the restricted of mobility despite the expansion of higher education. Reeves points out that education is a positional good - people use it to gain relative advantage in the labour market, but when the total number of graduates increases that means that the value of a degree declines. Some very interesting statistics quoted at the top of the item (sorry, can’t remember them) are a sobering reminder that those who have the advantage of private education dominate the top professions.
One aspect I felt Reeves (and Laurie Taylor) omitted was to mention that while in general the value of a degree may decline, it is worth noting that arguably the result is the further stratification of higher education. It’s largely impressionistic and a claim on my part, but I would argue that this is what we’re currently witnessing in higher education. Despite Reeves pessimism, it is important and worth having a degree in today’s job market, but what was left unsaid was that it is probably becoming even more important which institution a person has attended and which subject they studied - and which profession they aim for. The old hierarchies - Oxbridge and the Russell group, are re-trenching. And whatever some of the press say about public sector salaries (they refer only to public sector fat cats and maybe MPs) I’d suggest that on average most individuals would do better if they opted for the private sector.
I’m now back in the UK. It was a bit difficult to post in the last few days in the USA. A few more reflections will be posted over the next few days. Meanwhile back here there seem to be plenty of things deserving of sociological comment - such as the recent court case on assisted suicide. Watch this space.