Education Matters

These articles focus on education.

How (not) to teach biology

I blame, my parents!

I blame them for being fascinated by nature and watching on television the Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau TV film series in the reruns in the early and middle 1970s, and allowing me to watch it so that I became entranced with nature and then stated pretty early on that I was going to be (i) a vet; (ii) Jacques Cousteau’s indispensable trainee and failing that (iii) a zoologist – at 6 years old I thought that meant that I would get to look after the animals in a zoo. Options (i) and (ii) fell out for various reasons but I stuck to my guns on option number (iii) even though it meant I would be a scientist and not an animal care taker. 


I simply could not wait for my biology lessons to start at secondary school (14 years old), my first teacher was a very laid back kind of botanist who was finishing his own PhD thesis and took the year long teaching stint I guess to earn money whilst still having time to finish the thesis write up. I loved my first year in studying biology. A sort of academic school nirvana. Subsequent to that first year though I was disappointed because this teacher left our school to go onto other things. He had been as passionate about biology as I thought one ought to be and I thought it would be hard to have another replicate that – and I was right. I always quipped later on (thinking I was so funny) ‘How could the study of life be so dead in the classroom?’ This was nothing like the sense of wonder and joy that I had originally looking at those wonderful Jacques Cousteau films.

Climate Control in Education Systems

Love this talk that I looked at by (Sir) Ken Robinson. He talks about current education systems (in the US, but hey I believe a strong argument can be made for the same in Fiji and beyond in the Pacific) being dicated more by a ‘Command & Control’ mind set, ie everything is normally dicated by a head office (choose the Ministry of Education of your particular country). The point of his talk is that Ministries and school management bodies should be more about ‘Climate Control’. In this sense controlling the climate of the learning system so that things that enhance learning (eg creativity and local discretionary control) are managed by the relevant bodies aim towards that and the ‘real’ learning is what occurs between the teacher and the children/pupils/students doing the learning. 

Online Gaming and Education

Earlier this year, I was curiously hearing lots of ‘chatter’ between many of my students talking about ‘attack from the top right with more giants but don’t forget your healers’; or ‘you need to change your base design to have the castle closer to your town hall’. 

I found out that they were referring to an online game called ‘Clash of Clans’, which is a sort of advanced version of the ‘tower defence’ kind of games but in this game the player is both a defender and an attacker. Another ‘twist’ to this classic game genre is that the whole experience is online and is played normally on mobile devices such as tablets and smart phones running modern mobile operating systems. A final ‘twist’ is the fact that players can ‘join’ clans that they can establish and then go to ‘war’ with other clans. Sometimes it’s easier to see rather than explain.

Teaching a Second Language: how science can inform curriculum and pedagogy

Since we first started our school, one set of parents has been quite insistent that we should be teaching a second language. Now in principle this seems to be self evident all modern curricula have a second language programme. We did not start with a second language programme in our first year because frankly we had other fish to fry. Like establishing a time table, getting our safety processes established and ordering our relevant resource books. However, those parents were insistent and then we started to ask the question ‘why’?

Why should we be teaching a second language? What was the worth of a second language for a child in today’s modern world? Bear with me because the answers are not actually as obvious as they may first seem.

One set of answers is that a second language is good because we need to communicate with our nation’s neighbours. 

Importance of History in Education

You may never have heard of the German philosopher Geog Hegel who lived in the 18th & 19th century, but he is purported to have summarised a position which I whole heartedly believe in:

What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.

I’ve always learned the shortened version of this which is: 

“If there’s one thing we learn from history, it’s that no one learns from history!“

I want to state up front that I am NOT a historian (or a philosopher), nor have I studied history formally beyond Class 4 many moons ago, but nevertheless this phrase seems incredibly true today as it was several hundred years ago and I fear our way of prioritising and teaching history in formal education is partly to blame. I am going to argue that we actually need the teaching of history to be mandatory for all children and we need philosophy with history as a double major for tertiary studies. However, in this essay I will concentrate on the reasoning for making historical studies mandatory throughout formal education and leave the reasons for studying philosophy for another time.

The Value of Projects in Education

A number of years back, my daughter was at a school who were to bring in a new concept called something like the ‘school project’. The idea was to frame everything around ‘the project’, from English composition, through to music and dance. To think about maths and history through ‘the project’ and as far as possible every subject area. I can’t remember exactly what the first project was, but let us say it was something like ‘Rain Forests’. Again I don’t want to pretend this is exactly how it happened, but something similar occurred where children wrote stories about Rain Forests; they designed posters and tee-shirts with Rain Forest themes on them; songs were sung about the Rain Forest; some cookies and cup-cakes were adorned with Rain Forest decorations and given exotic names such as “Amazon Delight”; maths lessons were done to the sound of recorded tropical Rain Forest ambient sounds; the natural histories of many Rain Forest species of both plants and animals were learned about.

Shark Sanctuary & Progressive Education

I must confess that it's hard not to smirk to myself about just how awesome our school is. I know I'm biased of course but I hope that these thoughts would help you to conclude the same.

We have been involved from the beginning of this year with Pods 4-9 doing a project about shark conservation in Fiji. Children are creating puppets, making museum displays, researching about sharks and their conservation and so on. We've even dedicated a web site specifically for this project. Whilst it's fantastic to be doing something that is 'real life' and currently very topical, we have to remember that our school is a learning environment and it is important (in our opinion) to maintain some distance from the actual 'real' campaign in case the children make a mistake and present an argument that actually goes against the often delicate balance of environmental NGO advocacy. For this reason we've been working with the shark sanctuary campaign manager Helen Sykes, of the Coral Reef Alliance, to make sure that what we say or do, is not going to disrupt the 'real' campaign. 

Training for Democracy

I cannot imagine that many of the readers have not come across the ‘talk the talk’ phenomena that seems to be so prevalent in Fiji, it is not unique to Fiji, but there certainly does seem to be a strong case to argue that Fiji has considerable practice at it. ‘Talk the talk’ occurs in meetings and discussions that are convened to actually bring in an action plan, but instead generate a lot of hot air, much discussion and in the end nothing seems to get done. One might argue that there’s nothing wrong with a social talanoa, but of course if something does really need to be done, then ‘talk the talk’ becomes a barrier, not a positive process.

Recently a potential guardian for an incoming student to our school asked me if I knew about Summerhill school in the United Kingdom. The short answer was that I did, and in fact our school uses one particular innovation that Summerhill has created, namely the art of teaching children how to hold democratic meetings. These meetings are designed to ‘walk the talk’ that is the meetings create actions to get things done before the next meeting. 

How Does Progressive Accounting (3BL) Inform Educational Practice?

One does not normally equate economic and accounting theory and practice as being relevant to guiding the construction of a progressive relevant educational practice. A relatively new concept in economics is titled ‘Triple Bottom Line’ and suggests that any economic activity actually has three components, (i) the straight forward financial aspect; (ii) an environmental aspect; and (iii) a social aspect. Traditionally accounting has been interested with the first component but with serious concerns over environmental and social impacts that globalisation is having, the concept of Triple Bottom Line or 3BL has come into focus.

One way to understand this concept is to consider an example. A family is unfortunate to endure a home invasion from a group of youths who carry screw drivers and cane knives as threats. Tensions run high during the invasion and the man of the house is cut badly on his shoulder, fortunately he survives. If we stopped the story there, then insurance people could come and place a financial figure on the loss of goods stolen, and the medical bill incurred – end of story; that’s the ‘traditional’ economics approach. 3BL would look at the fact that the injured man felt a loss of functionality, a loss of self worth, esteem and professional competence in his teaching job. This resulted in him subsequently losing his job. His wife subsequently divorced him because of his change of character on top of the financial strain that his loss of job incurred. She moved out of the neighbourhood, but because she was the main organiser of a child-minding creche for young working mothers this community facility closed down. The children were taken out of the more expensive (and better school) and subsequently did not do so well as adults as they grew up. A twist of bitter irony occurred when one of the sons served prison time for being party to a home invasion when he was 19 years old five years after the original home invasion where he and his family were a victim. This is a made up account but research done in Fiji shows this to be a representative story. 

Hidden Curriculum: do as we say, not what we do

When talking to education specialists you sometimes get to hear them mention the phenomenon the ‘hidden curriculum’. There is some confusion in how the term is used, but I’m taking it to mean the mostly unintentional curriculum that we teach our children because of the way that we present our learning practices; the way that we give our children assessments; and then the way that we grade those assessments and even reward those grades.

I’ll try and put this into a practical demonstration and that will hopefully make the concept clear. 

Now as most parents know, children on the whole are very smart. They quickly seem to find the hidden location for the birthday present that you ordered ahead of time, and they choose to interpret the instructions to take the rubbish out for the rubbish collection as loosely or literally as they can, whichever makes the least work for them (“oh you meant take it out this Tuesday morning and not next Tuesday?”); and they seem to always find the most dangerous part of a garden, park or compound to play in. However, what this unfortunately works against them when it comes to education and the hidden curriculum. This is because children appear to pay more attention to what parents and teachers actually do, not what they say.

A School’s Worst Job – Career Counselling

I feel that one of the worst areas that schools cover is their career counselling options. This is how my room mate (name changed) at University described his career counselling session during his secondary school.

‘Mr. McIver, I see you have excellent grades in science – you should apply to medical school’,

‘Well actually I’d like to study engineering’,

‘Don’t be silly your grades are easily good enough to get into a good medical school.’

‘But I like engineering!’.

‘Son, I don’t think you’re hearing what I’m saying - it’s a certainty you’ll be accepted into a medical school!’

I believe at that point he excused himself, and went onto do electrical engineering and started his own engineering company, but there aren’t many that are as strong willed as he. As far as the careers advisor was concerned, the purpose of education is to get good enough grades to become a medic, or a lawyer, or even an accountant; I guess he thought if all else fails and at a last resort – one could become an engineer! 

Is a computer a must for your child’s modern education?

Some parents have asked me if they should acquire a computer for their child. This becomes pertinent especially at the time of birthdays or of course for the Christmas season that has just past. These well meaning parents (many of whom have had minimal contact with a personal computer, if at all) are persuaded by advertisers, friends and family, that an early start with a computer will give their child a competitive advantage in the workplace of tomorrow. 

It’s hard not to consider the role that computers play in our everyday lives. Probably far more than you or I imagine. Most people carry around mini-computers in their mobile telephone. If you use an ATM machine, it’s a computer; a fast food teller uses a touch screen computer. If your car or truck wheels need aligning, modern tyre businesses use a computer. Pretty much any modern telephone exchange is controlled by a computer, as are modern fridges and washing machines and even cars. Take a photograph with a reasonably modern camera – a computer. Notice that in each of these examples we are talking about people who do every day tasks without having to use a box or laptop that we traditionally call the ‘personal computer’. Of course there are many people who work in industries which specifically use computers – architects, web designers, accountants and scientists pop to mind.

Sports & Strategic Thinking in Education

Previously I wrote a blog suggesting that PE at school should not stand for ‘sports’ but should instead be focussed on physical activity for middle and mature aged health. However, sports should remain an important curriculum topic in education in my opinion and this article explains why. 

The sporting arena is many things to many people. One hopes it is fun; it provides opportunities to demonstrate a competitive spirit; it can help develop a sense of ‘fair play’; or a sense of responsibility to one’s team, and so on. As valid as these areas are, I feel that these are secondary to the idea of using the sports arena to teach children how to think strategically.

During a school ‘PE’ session, I observed how during a team game, the ball fell unexpectedly into the hands of one our less abled players who happened to be right at the goal mouth. A better player to her left side shouted ‘To me!’, and she obligingly passed the ball to him; he took the shot and missed, which was not a big surprise given the extreme angle that he was shooting from. I’m sure most of you have seen or been part of similar situations. However, I would like to dissect this scene a bit more. I am confident, knowing the personalities of our two students, that the thought processes went something like this:

Singing in Harmony in Education

This article is supposed to be about ‘education’ but some of it will read more like a science essay. The ‘education’ component is at the end of the article but one needs to know the science in order to understand an educational strategy that teaches children the concept of ‘synergy’ – one of which is to have children sing songs with harmonies.

On one of the earliest theories in psychology is ‘Gestalt psychology’. ‘Gestalt’ is a German word not easily translated but it approximates to the German word for ‘figure’. In psychological usage its meaning is closer to ‘whole’. Gestalt psychologists were interested in how we tend to make ‘figures’ and create ‘wholes’ through our perception and sensation.

For instance take these three objects like the ones in figure 1;

Should education be a matter for politicians?

What a stupid question – of course it should!

Education needs the central guidance of a government that decides with the help of experts, what is best for our children. This model has been shown over the decades to improve the living standards of nations who have committed themselves to educational policies that are initiated by central government policies. This is so self evident that this kind of question should never be asked.

That is certainly what I thought, until I recently read a fascinating book called ‘What’s the Point of School?’ by a British education specialist, Dr. Guy Claxton. Naturally the content has a strong British context, however, I believe the issues are universal. One of his main points is that the British education sector has substantially lost the plot because it is a system that was developed for a completely different mind set and work force. He asserts that the ‘problem’ with education as decreed by British parliament, is that they are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Imight not be forgiven for simplifying his argument, but that is not going to stop me trying.

The London 2011 Riots & Education

Is there a connection between the recent London riots and education? I would like to argue there is.

Recently we witnessed the rather shocking news and images of riots in London in early August of this year. Seemingly sparked off by the accidental death of a young man shot by police officers, the riots escalated for several nights throughout London, but then spread to other major cities such as Birmingham where tragically young men lost their lives.

What is unusual over these riots is that it seems that the main cause of the riots had nothing to do with a principle, ethnicity or social status but appears on the surface to have been motivated by simple greed. People felt that this was a legitimate excuse to simply loot shops and cart out ‘their’ flat screen televisions and brand new microwaves. Some of the looters appeared to be as young as 10 or 11 years old. This is sadly a scene that is not unfamiliar to those of us that lived through the events of May 2000 in Fiji, although thankfully Fiji did not see teenagers accused of arson and even murder as has happened in the UK.

Resilience & Character – relevance to education

A friend of mine, recently moved back to the US from Fiji, has pointed me to two articles related to education. They seem to have a common core in them which is something to do with the relevance of education for the children at the school.


The first article is an account of a New York Times correspondent (Clifford Levy) who was posted to Moscow, Russia for a period of five years. Unusually, the parents decided to place their children into a private but completely Russian school. Their children had no Russian language and yet all the topics were conducted in Russian. The article describes how the children went from essentially depressed and 'culture shocked' children, to children who showed their resilience by assimilating themselves into the Russian school and making significant Russian friendships. The children having apparently not only learned the language but even gone onto be some of the higher grade scorers with their respective classes as well as representing the school in school competitions. As my friend says that the article:

Learning to Teach Phonics

So in my last blog, I was talking earlier about how at MIS we were embarking to teach how to read in what is called a 'synthetic phonics' approach. This is the first update of our current adventure and involves a bit of a blend of both the pedagogy of teaching something to the children at MIS, and also the pedagogy of distance learning.

Our first task was to figure out what to teach our children. My initial foray led to me reading Diane McGuinness's book "Why Our Children Can't Read: and what we can do about it". I ordered from Amazon. Whilst I was there, I saw also in the 'people also bought', another book also including an author McGuiness although different first name (Carmen who it turns out is Diane's daugther in law married to her son, also a co-author - Geoffrey). Reviews by the readers made it clear that their book (Reading Reflex) is the practical teaching manual that supports the theoretical book by Diane McGuiness. It was a no brainer, a few clicks later the book was also ordered. 

Dyslexia rules KO!

Aside from the obvious 'fun' that this quote has (I have it as an email signature, along with 'Don't anthropomorphise computers - they hate that'), there is a serious side to this which I've only recently become aware of. I've tried to use a wee pun here too, i.e. that Dyslexia, the biological condition needs to be 'KOed' as in 'Knocked Out' from the boxing ring.

If you follow the received wisdom then most of us can learn how to read, but a number of us have got some sort of biological (probably neuro-anatomical) inconsistency that makes it hard for us to learn how to read, or spell, or both. Those that fall into this unfortunate condition are called 'dyslexics'. 

I say 'unfortunate' because it turns out that if you can't read or write in our modern society you're pretty much f*!^ed! There's more than enough literature to show that most dyslexics score poorly in various quality of life indices later on in life. Of course there are notable exceptions of diagnosed dyslexics who succeed spectacularly (e.g. Richard Branson) but the majority don't. 

The Fiji Education Commission 2000

Recently, some students made some interesting comments on the blog that I'm maintaining for their course. This is a course in which there are many experienced 'in-service' teachers, ie those that are already teaching and they are upgrading their qualifications. 

Some of these comments were related to the apparent inability of the Fiji Ministry of Education to listen to the actual teachers who were 'on the ground'. 

That reminded me of an incident that happened over a decade ago (eeeek! how did that decade slip by so quickly?) which as the Fiji Education Commission of 2000. The previous education commission had occurred (I believe) in 1969, ie prior to Fiji's independence. That's a long time to not have the state of the country's national educational system appraised or gone over. However, it was an attempt at the time to try and redress the apparent lack of consultation between not only the Ministry and the teaching staff, but also the general public.

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.  -Will Durant