Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Element

I've just finished reading 'The Element' by Ken Robinson, in which he argues that a successful future (either individual or collective) is dependent on us finding our passion in life. I think that most people would argue that discovering one's passion, and subsequent immersion in said passion is a good thing, and that many people have yet to discover that which is their raison d'etre.

The book is tricky to pin down, however, and for the most part uses examples of famous and talented people that did not discover their passion until they left School, or (in the worst cases) were actively discouraged from following their chosen path by those who guided them through School. I'm always sceptical of anectodal highly-specific and personalised evidence used to lend weight to a theory, especially when no counter-argument is put forward.

Robinson's general point is that we should all be given ample opportunity to find one's own 'Element', and this is more likely to occur if we were to lose the hierarchy of subjects in Schools, and to place more emphasis on the Arts, and creativity in general. We also need to ensure a high quality of teachers (or mentors (I like this word)) in our Schools, to make it more likely that pupils will be inspired to find their 'Element'.

It's hard to argue against either of these points, and when he writes about the need to blur the boundaries between subject disciplines, he's particularly persuasive; I've always been passionate about cross-curricular teaching. I find his jokey style irritating, like the person at a party who's unable to enter any serious conversation in case people find him boring, and I find his analogy of the standardised 'fast-food' curriculum that we have now versus the 'michelin-starred' curriculum that we should embrace to be flawed, but it's well worth a read for anyone interested in the difference between Schooling and education. Just try not to cringe when he describes Paul McCartney as a rock God.

One thing it did do was make me think. I often feel that I'm far too flexible about education, and that my views on how it should be best achieved (at least at School) vary with the seasons. I think that this is actually no bad thing, given our inability to predict what will happen in even the near future. Things move at such a pace (technology, population expansion, global climate change) that it would be foolish to present an education model fit for even the next 5-10 years.

But here's some ideas:

1. Do away with the current system of Sixth Form examinations (A-levels etc). Universities set their own entrance exams, which ensure that the gap between School Sixth Form and university learning is bridged. This encourages liaison betweeen Schools and universities, and ensures that Schools look forward to higher education and the job market rather than backward to past papers.

2. Exams should be relevant to the subject(s) that the pupil wishes to study, but should be less about rote learnign of facts and more about complex problem solving within that subject. Trundling through mounds of past paper questions is not education; it's teaching people how to pass an exam.

3. Do away with 'subjects' at School, and instead teach 'classes', similar to the US college system. This encourages the pupils to think about education not as clasified and categorised into specific subject areas. How many times have I head pupils say 'but isn't that Physics?' when discussing the structure of the atom. Being educated isn't about learning what's on the syllabus for 3 subjects in the Sixth Form. I teach chemistry, but why shouldn't I teach classes about scientific literature, the history and philosophy of science?

4. Prioritise the education that occurs outside School. We focus so much on the education that our pupils get within the School's 4 walls, and ignore what happens outside. It's so easy to communicate with anyone at any time, and yet we don't make best use of this in an educational sense. Education means much more than taught classes, and people can become more educated every time they read a book, or a newspaper, or watch a film, or listen to music, or debate a political point. If the pupils are inspired in the classroom, they'll be adept at educating themselves outside the classroom.

There you go - heavy stuff for a Tuesday morning, or does that make me sound too much like Ken?

Monday, 18 April 2011

My compressed 30 day music challenge - the first ten days

Impatience is just one of my many faults, and when I was kindly sent the link to this month-long challenge, the first thing I did was look ahead to the questions that I wanted to think about and to write about. They say that good things come to those who wait, but I like to grab things I like the look of rather than wait for them to come to me. I know that if I have too long to look forward to something, I'm guaranteed not to enjoy it when it finally comes around due to the length of the build-up. This is also a great thing to blog about, because I don't really mind if no-one reads it; it's fun to do, and therefore has some value to me. I think that people's musical choices can say a lot about them (it can certainly tell you whether or not they actually like music) and because my tastes are fairly varied and I get bored easily, I'm always interested in what other people like and why they like it.

I've not spent 10 days on the list below, but I have spent a little time thinking about them, so here goes:

day 01 - your favorite song:

I'll take this to mean my favourite song of the moment, which is 'the age of the understatement' by The Last Shadow Puppets. That's Alex Turner (of Arctic Monkeys fame's) other band. I don't think I've ever listened to the lyrics in any detail, but I love the title of the song, its epic feel and the fact it sounds a little bit like Bowie. My favourite songs ever, and by this I mean the only ones that I'll never skip on the ipod are 'Sugar Kane' by Sonic Youth, 'Davyan Cowboy' by Boards of Canada and 'A Day in the Life' by The Beatles: I don't believe that there's any song that you can hear somthing different in every time that you listen to it, but these ones go as close as any. I remember listening to 'Smells like Teen Spirit' by Nirvana when I was 15 and feeling like this was the kind of music that I'd been waiting to listen to, but this sounds so pathetically teenage that I won't mention it.

day 02 - your least favorite song:

Toss-up here. My first 'least favourite' would be the 'comedy' song, like the ones done for comic relief (yes I know it's a good cause but they always make me cringe, when a band and some comics get together for something that isn't funny, but it isn't really music either). 'The Stonk' by Hale and Pace was probably the nadir. This tripe ties with pretty much anything done by Robbie Williams. This man makes music for people who don't really like music. It's not that it's awful to listen to (apart from his rapping) but that it's so anodyne, and so obviously designed simply to be 'un-hate-able'. For that very reason, I hate it, even more than the Stonk. I don't like Kings of Leon or The Killers either, but that's mostly down to the people who feel that this really really standard music is something that borders on genius.

day 03 - a song that makes you happy:

'Barbra Streisand' by Duck Sauce. It's simple, funny, upbeat and reminds me of happy times with Victoria. What's not to like? Can't imagine I'll be listening to it much in a few years time, but it'll always have happy memories.

day 04 - a song that makes you sad:

Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks. It reminds me of my parents, though it's worth pointing out that this is not enough of itself to make me feel sad. They lived in London in the late 1960s and early 1970s and it always makes me think of them as a young couple. I'm not sure why that's sad, but that's what nostalgia tends to do to me, even if it belongs to someone else.

day 05 - a song that reminds you of someone:

Most songs remind me of someone. Anything by Steve Brookstein reminds me of my brother, who decided that his album represented a sound purchase. 'Crazy' by Let Loose reminds me of him (we have a routine) as does 'Still Take You Home' by the Arctic Monkeys, which was the precursor for a very entertaining night out on the West Coast of Ireland. The 'King of Carrot Flowers' by Neutral Milk Hotel is my choice though, because it's one of my favourite songs of all time, and reminds me of my favourite person too.

day 06 - a song that reminds you of somewhere:

'Has it come to this' by The Streets. The beat reminds me of the rhythm of the tube, and the song reminds me of London, even if it's not quite the London I know. Mike Skinner's first album was truly original, and I like the fact that his music provides an ironic antidote to American rap. He speaks about greasy spoons, public transport and going to blockbuster, rather than guns, bling and hos.

day 07 - a song that reminds you of a certain event:

'Chasing Rainbows' by Shed 7. Euro '96 will forever be remembered as halcyon days. I spent much of my time in the garden in Durham watching the football and not worrying about my degree. I remember every day as being very sunny, and even remember England playing some good football at times. We seemed nailed on to win the tournament, but were then robbed by the Germans on penalties in the semi-final. It's far more English to laud the plucky losers than the eventual winners, so I think that it's fitting that it happened like it did. This song is from 1996, and sums up how I felt about England then, and still do.

day 08 - a song that you know all the words to:

'Gold' by Spandau Ballet. This used to be my karakoe song, until my brother informed me just how bad I was at doing it. It probably didn't help that we were in a dive bar in Texas at the time, and I thought it would be humorous to wear a short-sleeved checked shirt with top button done up and then give a load of hicks some real 80s new romantic stuff that they just knew they wanted to hear. I've since experimented with 'You Can Go Your Own Way', 'True' and 'The Reflex', all with limited success.

day 09 - a song that you can dance to:

I'd like to think that I can dance to any song, but even if that used to be true, it's certainly not now. My dancing is now confined to weddings, and though I maintain my strict rule never to dance on carpet, I'm sure I still look as much of a prick as the people I'm dancing with. For this reason, I suppose I should choose (ironically) 'U Can't Touch This' by M C Hammer, if only because I think my patented dance moves that come after 'yo ring the bell, school's back in' are very special. The fact that 'Out of Touch' by Uniting Nations would have come a close second proves that any credibility I may have built up through any of these answers has now disappeared entirely.

day 10 - a song that makes you fall asleep:

'The Shining' by Badly Drawn Boy. It's the first song from his album 'The Hour of Bewilderbeast', and when I was staying in Boston with my friend Ryan in 2003, I slept on his couch, and fell asleep each night listening to this song. It's a real slow-burner and the lazy 'cello at the start is such a lovely song for late at night.

Monday, 11 April 2011

A nation obsessed

Great Britain really is a great place. It's difficult to think that, from a tourist perspective, it wouldn't be at the very top of places you were keen to visit. Maybe we are a little London-focussed, but we've got it all. Culture, History, architecture, food and drink, the Olympics, diversity, rural beauty and even a warm welcome. Just don't stand on the left on the tube.

We love to stereotype others. Italians are chaotic lovers (mutually exclusive terms you understand), the French are arrogant culinary maestros, the Germans are efficient automatons and the Irish are pasty canal-building tayto-eaters. We're keen to stereotype ourselves too, though the two most prevalent versions are pretty much total opposites, with the replica footbll shirt wearing yob being placed alongside the stiff-upper lipped bowler-hatted gent. Do these exist in a greater quantity that any other Britisher? Probably not, but it's clearly fun to pretend that they do.

We have great national obsessions, such as the weather and organised queuing. The weather isn't so surprising, bearing in mind how variable it can be in Britain, and when one considers how overcrowded London is, it's pretty important to have developed a heightened sense of the queuing system. It's all about politeness too, and maybe that's not such a bad thing. We are a polite bunch after all; where else would a pub confrontation be accompanied by the phrase 'f*ck off,mate'? The addition of the word 'mate' changes a very offensive line into something with at least a degree of politeness. The addition of 'pal' does very much the same job.

Many of our national obsessions can be rationalised, and even the quaint ones provide us with a sense of community. The one that it's difficult to find any positives from is our continual revisiting of the notion of 'class'. It's difficult to watch TV, listen to the radio or read the papers without some mention of it, and it doesn't seem to do much good for anyone. It's often the privately-educated upper-middle classes that come in for the majority of criticism (I've left the true upper-classes out of this, as there really aren't very many of them, and like badgers, most people never come across one in real life).

One of the two things that grated with me recently was Zadie Smith's labour party policital on radio 4 last week, where she accused the coalition of wanting to shut down libraries simply because they had been to posh school, and therefore couldn't understand why poorer people needed access to books for free. The second was Katy Guest's 'rant' in the Independent yesterday, where she claimed that only people who went to 'posh £28,000-a-year boarding Schools seemed unable to determine what class they were', as if it was vital that we should all be aware of what socio-economic class we should be sub-divided into.

The Zadie Smith piece has received enough negative press in the last week, but her argument is so basic as to demand instant dismissal. He idea that you have lost all ability to empathise because you have been exposed to the rarified atmosphere of the English public School system is just a lazy class stereotype, used in such a sense as to avoid criticism by coming across as the voice of the underpriviliged masses. Such stereotyping the other way around would be rightly criticised, but this kind of classism is generally accepted, which is disappointing.

Katy Guest's argument was even more bizarre, but I'm pleased that she's such a happy person that this was the most irksome thing she could find to rant about. Her point was that only the moneyed posh are unaware of this class system that still exists, and their place within this system. Why are Guest and Smith so keen to keep this notion of class at the top of the agenda? What purpose is served by knowing what class you belong to? Why must we label everyone as members of one particular class in society?

The American Dream may be a slightly cheesy concept, but it's tricky to argue with the sentiment that anyone, irrespective of background, can achieve greatness. The current President is conclusive proof that it's possible. Our obsession with class acts as a ball and chain for ambition and social mobility. If you believe Smith and Guest then it's possible to pigeonhole everyone from birth; our path through life is pre-determined by our social class. This argument runs as follows:

1. You are born working class, that is what you shall remain. The chances are that you will live in the North. Your interests shall remain those of the proletariat, such as greyhound racing and football. You will marry young, and have a large family. Your diet will be poor. You will watch X factor and documentaries involving Peter and Katie. You will eat takaway from KFC's 'Mum's night-off bucket' range. You will go on holiday to Spain (Benidorm). You will call your male friends 'geezers'. You will claim to be happy to be working class, but will always resent those of the classes that lie above you.

2. You are born as part of the educated middle classes, and that it what you shall remian. You will go to university, and will join a drinking society, but only in an ironic sense. You will like rugby, and when you live in Fulham you will attend England matches in the pub and will claim that some of the players were at uni with you. You will shout 'quick ball' a lot. You like football, but only on TV. You will marry later, and have just one or two children. You will watch David Attenborough programmes. You will eat takeaway from Basilico, and have truffle oil on your pizza. You will go on holiday to Spain (Barcelona). You will call your male friends 'mates or lads', and will have 'banter'. You are happy to be the class you are, and will pity those of the working class, whilst having no understanding of how they exist.

Do you think these are lazy stereotypes? Do you think that to hamstring people by continutally making them consider their class is wrong? Let's just forget class shall we?

Truffle oil for all I say.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Day to day irritation

Here's a stream of consciousness diatribe about things that irrirate me. It's first come, first served and I'll give myself 3 minutes. Here goes...

Watching football in the pub at saturday lunchtime, 'comment' in newspapers rather than actual 'news', gastropubs, the person who's 'always late', fat men who claim to be into rugby, 3D spex, The Daily Mail, 10 o clock live, screaming children in pizza express, gourmet burgers, X Factor, menus that mention 'hen's eggs', the importance attached to individuals such as Ian Tomlinson and Princess Diana, travel agents (in 2011!), Jeremy Kyle, interests determined by social class, the misguided concept of 'London prices', too much choice of chocolate bars, too much choice of breakfast cereal, people who say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, stag dos that last too long, hen dos, smoking, meat in vacuum pack, bottled water in restaurants, buying toilet roll, boring teachers, men in shirts from Next, prices at league 2 clubs, cruises, baby photos as profile photos, those 'invisible' socks that go inside pumps, people that block my sunshine, late night curry, dry cleaning, someone called 'Dave Dice' who is a 'person I might know', budget airlines, semi-skimmed from corner shops, no 'dead pool' winners so far this year, people who kiss their pets on the lips, people who use Latinised plurals whether they are needed or not, people who think they can do accents, hole in the wall, people who don't find Harry Hill funny, Hello!, Ok!, pointless exclamation marks, Ross Kemp, phones with a cord, untucked shirts, weddings on the beach, going to UWE and saying you went to Bristol, too many utterances of 'thank you' during newsagent transactions, cookery programmes about baking. Done.

And here's the SOC for things I love (I'll give myself 3 minutes for this too):

The IPL (starts today), semi-colons. That is all.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011


If you ever ask a teacher what they love about their job, and the first answer they give is 'long holidays', I'd argue that they're not really cut out for the profession. Taking those parts of the year that do not involve teaching and holding them up as the absolute highlight does not say much for one's enjoyement of, and commitment to the important role they have.

In fact, long holidays can become something of a chore, and this is something that I have often tried (and always failed) to explain to friends who are not teachers. I realise it's a tricky sell, and that trying to convince people that a 2 month summer holiday, or a month off at Easter and Christmas can be a hardship is not the easiest thing to do. But it's true. People think back to their School holidays, and recall them as a fantastically happy time, involving famous five-style activities such as long bike rides, nature rambles, cricket matches, ginger beer in the sunshine, apple-scrumping and other such pass-the-time fun that would not feel out of place on the pages of 'swallows and amazons' or 'the wind in the willows'.

Now think again, because you know that all of this is total bollocks. Most of my School summer holidays were spent watching TV and reading books (the latter is not a negative thing at all, but it was unlikely to turn me into the final member of the famous six). At a young age, my capacity for doing nothing was far higher than it is now, and by the time I'd reached university, I was an absolute master of my art. I had more time off then ever before, and considered it something of a triumph if I had managed to get anything at all done prior to watching 'Lovejoy', which was on BBC1 at 3pm. Have a shower, eat some pizza and potato waffles and stagger out for the Hogshead pub quiz was as near as I got to activity.

But that's all changed now. I find it very difficult to do nothing. In fact, I find it very difficult to do just one thing. I can't watch TV these days without spilling my thoughts on the programme on to twitter. For this reason, the School holidays represent quite a tricky time to fill, especially during the day, when Victoria is out at work. I'll finish off this entry, and then I'm off to climb the Monument (because it's there), to peruse some Victorian photos in the Museum of London and to have dinner and drinks with a Kiwi friend. All good fun, but it's actually pretty exhausting trying to fill the time. This is a real problem with teaching; it's the ultimate 'all or nothing' profession, especially at a Boarding School. During termtime it's a 7-day deal, and your time is all pretty much mapped out for you. Suddenly these great long holidays hove into view, and you whose time has been structured for you throughout term suddenly have a great swathe of time to fill.

One final point: why do you think so many teachers marry other teachers? There's only two obvious reasons. Firstly, you get to share the same time off. Secondly, another teacher is the only person that'll have you. The second reason is clearly the more likely, but I wouldn't rule out the first.

Monday, 4 April 2011

What lies beneath

I watched Louis Theroux's programme on TV last night. It once again involved the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, or 'America's most hated family' if you believed the tag-line that accompanied the show. It was essentially a repeat of his 2007 show, which also involved the WBC, and saw Louis do what he does best: giving his subjects a sizeable length of rope with which to hang themselves, all through a mixture of gentle questioning and subtle coercing. It's nothing we haven't seen before from him, and he really is the master of this particular style of Gonzo journalism. His naive and comforting manner belies a keenness to expose, and the fact that he never lets down his front means that people are only too keen to allow their prejudices to shine forth.

I'm all in favour of this kind of expose, but I also think that subjects like the WBC or American neo-Nazi groups are simply not the sort of targets on which a skillfull practitioner such as Theroux should be concentrating. Firstly, the WBC have only 71 members, so they're hardly a serious threat to America, or anywhere else for that matter. Secondly, and perhaps of more relevance, they do not represent a group that need to be 'exposed'. In fact, more 'exposure' is exactly what they are keen to gain. They are not a group that hides extreme beliefs behind a public facade, and hence one could argue that in this case that exposure = publicity.

I checked twitter straight after the programme to see what viewers had made of the it. Predictably, there was a lot of bile being chucked around, much of it directed straight at members of the Phelps family, who are at the very centre of the WBC and are also on twitter themselves. Most of the abuse was little to do with their extreme beliefs or despicable behaviour, but concentrated on violent sexual threats to the Phelps women. I'm pretty sure that this will have little effect on the Phelps family, save perhaps to strengthen their own radical beliefs. It's also clear that two wrongs don't make a right, and the fact that all members of the family are well into 4 (or 5) figures for 'followers' does add weight to the 'publicity' argument. It would be terrible to think that even one viewer was tempted to side with these lunatics after such a programme.

Last night's documentary once again focussed mainly on their picketing of US servicemens' funerals, which they claim is just retribution by an vengeful God for America's toleration of homosexuality. Now this is such a mental claim that it hardly needs a journalist of Theroux's skill to extract it from them. The WBC are happy to attempt to justify this lunacy to anyone who challenges them (as we saw last night). The fact that they disrupt and pour scorn on the funerals of servicemen is disgusting, but surely this is a matter for the police? I actually found it rather difficult to get angry at last night's programme (unlike most of twitter) which is undoubtedly not the reaction that the film's makers would have wanted. This was partly because it's exactly the reaction you feel that the members of the WBC would have wanted. In addition, their behaviour is so appauling and their logic so distorted that you feel almost totally disconnected from their arguments and the need to argue back. Trying to reason with these people would be pointless, bearing in mind that their reasoning is so deluded in the first place.

The only truly tragic part of last night's story was the interviews that Louis conducted with the children involved with the WBC. These were clearly perfectly reasonable and pleasant kids, who had simply been brainwashed by their parents. It is the job of every parent to instil the right values into their kids; values such as tolerance, generosity, politeness etc. It's also necessary for kids to be able to challenge the beliefs held by others, but to see a 6 year old being handed a 'God hates fags' placcard was distressing. A clear example of how nurture can override nature, for the worse.

Overall, I'm not sure what positive outcome the programme could have hoped to achieve. I'd much rather have seen Louis infiltrate the BNP or EDL. These are organisations with a growing and worryingly high membership. They are organisations who wish to become mainstream, and realise that this is a realistic aim, given the racial tensions that run high in many parts of the country. They also realise (particularly the BNP) that by putting on suits and ties and placing a Cambridge-educated chap at the front of the pile in Nick Griffin, they can bury their racist centre, and create a front of electability. These are the sort of organisations that need to be exposed for the danger that they respresent, not the up-front nutters of the WBC. Louis Theroux is exactly the kind of person that's needed to prove that the BNP et al are no different from the 'braces and bovverboots' thugs that characterised the racism of the 80s. There aren't any fundamentally reasonable people who believe in the values of the WBC, but there are some misguided people of limited intelligence who can't see through the veil that the BNP have drawn over themselves.

Time to expose what lies beneath...