What Would It Be Like To Be A Duck?

daffy_005_copyYesterday I had the pleasure of doing nothing for quite a long time, sitting in the sun beside Lake Banyoles, or L’Estany de Banyoles, here in Catalonia. It was the site of the rowing regatta at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 and it really is quite a spectacular setting. An excited group of children, probably around the age of four or five, were chattering about the prospect of swimming in the lake, which they were just about to do, and throwing the odd scrap of pizza and chips to the ducks which were plentiful along the edge of the lake. ‘What would it be like to be a duck?’ asked one of the children, eliciting a few giggles. Yes, what WOULD it be like to be a duck. What a great question! Not, ‘Oh look at those ducks, aren’t they cute?’ but ‘What would it be like to be a duck?’ She may as well have asked ‘What is it that makes us human?’ because essentially that is what they set about discussing. What do they eat? How do they eat it? Can they feel cold? What do they think about? Do they get bored? I was reminded of the episode in The Catcher in the Rye when the hero, Holden Caulfield, is walking in Central Park, and he speculates about where the ducks go in winter.

Children always ask the best questions. Which is not to say that they always know what needs to be learned, or that the formal curriculum should be just one big extended session of sitting around reflecting on the nature of the universe, but rather, that as teachers we should reflect on our role and the relationship between learning and enquiry, and remember that real learning comes out of a need and a hunger to know stuff. Good teaching is often about providing young people with the best experiences or texts you can find, asking THEM to ask all the important questions, then setting out together to learn as much as you can.

Further thoughts on kids and questioning from a previous article: More Questions, Fewer Answers

If you are looking for some great questions to stimulate discussion, the following sources will provide you with an endless supply. Don’t blame me if you get lost in them for ever.

Fermi Questions – named after the Nobel Prize-winning Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, who was well known for solving problems which left others baffled.

Little Book of Thunks – a great source of questions to stimulate thinking and discussion.

Philosophy for Kids – ideas to generate discussion and critical thinking.

The Critical Thinking Community – where teachers can learn about the development of critical thinking skills.

L'Estany de Banyoles

L’Estany de Banyoles

Advertisements

Creating A Level Playing Field

level-playing-field

“It is often said that greater equality is impossible because people are not equal. But that is a confusion: equality does not mean being the same. People did not become the same when the principle of equality before the law was established. Nor – as is often claimed – does reducing material inequality mean lowering standards or levelling to a common mediocrity.”

The Spirit Level’. Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson. 2009

One of the most urgent educational issues facing Scotland and the rest of the UK at the moment is the apparent ‘attainment gap’ in literacy between those from poor backgrounds and those from better-off families. Papers have been written, funding has been re-directed, conferences held, and yet the problem seems to be worsening rather than improving (for a definitive description of the problem see this Joseph Rowntree Foundation report from May 2014). With so many committed and capable professionals involved in addressing the issue, how can that be the case?

One possibility of course is that the problem is too great for schools alone to overcome, and that unless we address the societal inequalities which lie at the heart of the problem, inequalities which mean we are still talking about kids from ‘poor backgrounds’ as if poor backgrounds were a fact of life, like Benjamin Franklin’s death and taxes, any gains in closing that gap will be marginal and, for many kids, too late. The scale of the problem facing us was graphically illustrated in Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson’s best-selling book The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, published in 2009, which claims to demonstrate through extensive study of all available data, the “pernicious effects that inequality has on societies: eroding trust, increasing anxiety and illness, and encouraging excessive consumption”.

Highlighting the effects of inequality on each of eleven different health and social problems – physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, trust and community life, violence, teenage pregnancies, and child well-being – the study looks at how outcomes in all of these areas are significantly worse in more unequal rich* countries.

One of the more interesting aspects of Pickett and Wilkinson’s study however, is that, in those countries with the greatest wealth inequality, not only do those at the bottom end of the social scale suffer poorer outcomes, almost everyone does, including those from more affluent backgrounds. Conversely, in more equal societies, everyone benefits:

“It is often assumed that the desire to raise national standards of performance in fields such as education is quite separate from the desire to reduce educational inequalities within a society. But the truth may be almost the opposite of this. It looks as if the achievement of higher national standards of educational performance may actually DEPEND on reducing the gradient in educational achievement in each country . Douglas Willms, Professor of Education at the University of New Brunswick, Canada, has provided striking illustrations of this. In Figure 8.4 (see below) we show the relationship between adult literacy scores from the International Adult Literacy Survey and their parents’ level of education in Finland, Belgium, the UK and the USA. This figure suggests that even if your parents are well-educated – and so presumably of high social status – the country you live in makes some difference to your educational success. But for those lower down the social scale with less well-educated parents, it makes a very much larger difference.

An important point to note, looking at these four countries, is the steepness of the social gradient – steepest in the USA and the UK, where inequality is high, flatter in Finland and Belgium, which are more equal. It is also clear that an important influence on the average literacy scores – on national levels of achievement – in each of these countries is the steepness of the social gradient. The USA and UK will have low average scores, pulled down across the social gradient.”

Fig 8.4

According to Pickett and Wilkinson’s findings, not only is there a greater difference in attainment between rich and poor in more unequal countries, but there is the cyclical effect of low self-esteem to take into account. Where young people are given the ‘impression’ that they are less capable, even when they aren’t, their performance in assessments will invariably reflect this. Consider this story which the authors include in the text.

“Priyanka Pandey reported the results of a remarkable experiment. They took 321 high-caste and 321 low-caste 11 to 12-year-old boys from scattered rural villages in India, and set them the task of solving mazes. First, the boys did the puzzles without being aware of each other’s caste. Under this condition the low-caste boys did just as well with the mazes as the high-caste boys, indeed slightly better. Then, the experiment was repeated, but this time each boy was asked to confirm an announcement of his name, village, father’s and grandfather’s names, and caste. After this public announcement of caste, the boys did more mazes, and this time there was a large caste gap in how well they did – the performance of the low-caste boys dropped significantly. This is striking evidence that performance and behaviour in an educational task can be profoundly affected by the way we feel we are seen and judged by others. When we expect to be viewed as inferior, our abilities are diminished.”

This is a key point, worth remembering when assigning names, letters or other labels to classes or groups of children within a school setting, and while differentiating young people according to ability, no matter your intentions.

The Spirit Level. Summary of Chapter 8 Educational Performance

  • the biggest influence on educational attainment is family background
  • parental involvement in education is crucial
  • children do better if their parents have higher incomes/ have achieved higher education, if they have a place to study at home and if education is valued
  • international education scores are closely related to income inequality
  • the lower you are on the social scale, the greater the difference the country you reside in makes to your chances of success
  • a stimulating social environment is essential for early childhood development – this is more difficult to achieve for parents suffering from poverty, stress or lack of support
  • societies can improve the quality of early childhood education by implementing family allowances, parental leave from work, tax benefits, programmes to promote better work/life balance, and high standards of early childhood education
  • there is much evidence to support the idea that educational performance is greatly influenced by the way we are perceived by others
  • inequality directly affects educational achievement because it impacts aspirations, norms and values for people who are lower down the social ladder

But where does all that leave us, as teachers of literacy in one of the most unequal of the richest societies in the world? If you accept the findings of the Pickett and Wilkinson studies – and many don’t, despite the weight of evidence to support them – of course you continue to support and develop the literacy skills of ALL those young people for whom you have some kind of responsibility. You give extra support to those who need it most, as good teachers have always done. The bigger question is, do you have another responsibility, to be an active campaigner for social justice, for the creation of a more equal society? You tell me.

(*The authors begin by observing that as countries develop, the social problems associated with their poverty are eliminated – but only up to a point. The improvement does not continue indefinitely. Beyond a certain point the increase in GDP per head does not result in a significant increase in life expectancy).

Footnote: As I write, the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron has announced measures to ‘re-define poverty’ in the UK (read the full story here).

Gone To Girona

viatgeresdetall_expoNext time I complain about the lack of space or the – inevitably futile – attempts of the crew to persuade me to buy lottery tickets on my cheap Ryanair flight to Europe, I may reflect on the fact that comfort is a relative term when it comes to travel, and I should be extremely grateful that from Scotland, for less than the price of a return train ticket to London, I can be almost anywhere in Europe within a couple of hours without leaving that (relative) comfort of my own well-padded seat.

Travel also happens to be the subject of a beautiful exhibition right now at the Museu D’Historia here in the heart of Catalonia. ‘Girona Through the Eyes of Women Writers (19th and 20th Centuries)’ is the brainchild of Cristina Ribot, whose study of the same name won her a scholarship from Girona City Council in 2013, and it provides a fascinating insight into the developing image of what is now a popular tourist destination. What makes it unique is that the picture is built up through the literary testimonies of 25 women writers of various nationalities, providing us with a snapshot of their own personal experiences and difficulties in an era when travel was a pastime almost exclusively reserved for men.

typewriterThere were few women writers in the 18th and early 19th centuries, education and writing being largely male privileges which required both support and money. The elite tended to view women’s writing as worthless, and consequently publishers were reluctant to take the risk of publishing them, thus setting up the classic vicious circle which women found hard to break. One exception to this was in the genre of travel writing, though even here books were often published anonymously or under a male pseudonym.The expansion of the railways at the end of the 19th Century had led to a sharp increase in the number of travellers around the world, but it would not be until the 1950s when the concept and the term ‘tourist’ came into the collective consciousness. Up until then it was the preserve of the rich, and the early explorers featuring in the exhibition were no exception. Many titled ladies, particularly French and English, travelled to the Iberian peninsula, usually with massive amounts of luggage and accompanied by several maids. Being aristocrats, leisure was their raison d’etre, and they would travel for months at a time, most often by donkey, mule or horseback.

However, in an era when ‘female modesty’ was also a requirement, the journeys were not without hardship, as some of the voluminous dresses and headgear in the exhibition bear witness. Often the women had to disguise themselves as men, and carried umbrellas, not only to protect themselves from the sun but from unwanted advances and potential robbers. As an extra precaution, many carried pistols in their hand luggage.

The exhibition notes inform us that the women were “easily recognised for their airs of superiority” and that “they arrived in Girona with preconceived ideas about the country….As well as the information these adventurers provide about the monumental city of Girona, their stories also speak of what surprised and shocked them while in the city. They write of vivid memories, intense sensations and powerful emotions; they record ecstatic or unpleasant moments, great friendships or ill-fated loves. The individual experiences may differ, but taken together they for a nostalgic image of the city as it was, while reminding us of the role of these pioneers, who broke the social norms of their times in pursuit of their most personal goals.”

One of these early explorers was a Scottish lady of means, about whom little is recorded, other than that she was a writer and an artist of some note. Lady Sophia Dunbar’s ‘A Family Tour Round the Coasts of Spain and Portugal’  published by William Blackwood in 1862, contains only a passing mention of the city of Girona (its remarkable early-17th Century cathedral), but is much more expansive on the tribulations of the journey from Girona to Barcelona:

“The roads now became execrable, full of holes, heavy clay and mud, through which our mules struggled and plunged. Our diligence (public stagecoach) lurched like a ship at sea and it became darker and darker. We felt very anxious as to our long lone road leading through rivers, mire and mud; at one time we came to a dead stop, caused by eight mules being all down at once. After much confusion and noise, they were got up, and constrained by thrashing and abuse to renew the struggle; for some miles we continued to go on in the same manner, making some tremendous lurches, from which we miraculously recovered our balance; at last fortune deserted us, we lurched, quivered in the air for a second or two, and went over.”

Fortunately, no serious injuries are sustained in the incident, except presumably to the poor abused mules, and Barcelona is eventually reached:

tour“The streets of Barcelona being extremely dirty, we looped up our dresses; this caused the old women to rush out of their houses or shops at us, and pull vigorously at our skirts; it was difficult to appease them, or make them understand that our dresses were purposely worn so. The woollen mantas of Catalonia are very handsome. The men wear these over their shoulder, much as Highlanders do a plaid. They are striped, the colours rich and brilliant, scarlet predominating.”

In the middle of the 19th Century bull-fighting is prevalent across Spain and Portugal and, as you might expect, our traveller has some observations to make on a subject which provokes an emotional response to this day:

“The picadors, or horsemen, the chulos or men on foot, with gay-coloured cloaks, and the matadors or killers, are dressed in gorgeous antique costume, and certainly have an imposing effect; but the poor bull, lately taken from his native pastures, in the prime of his youth and strength, being a four-year-old, is roused, and made to rush into the middle of the arena; here he halts, and stares with bewilderment and surprise at the assembled thousands, who greet his arrival with clapping of hands. From the middle of the arena, the bull was soon provoked to make desperate charges, right and left, at chulos and picadors, the former showing the greatest activity in vaulting over the palisades, or escaping into the narrow side-niches, where the bull cannot follow. The picadors receive the charge of the bull by meeting him with the point of their lance, which is a short knife on the point of a pole about eight-feet long. With this they meet or catch him on the shoulder, which always mitigates, and often completely checks, his charge. The bull sometimes avoids the lance, and it is then he gores the horse, or sends him and his rider sprawling in the dust. Cut and goaded with the lances of the picadors, and exhausted by fruitless charges at the gay cloaks of the chulos, he at last yields to the lords of the creation, and looks out for the entrance through which he had been admitted…”

A Family Tour.…’, one of the 25 works curated for the exhibition, was re-published in 2009. It can also be downloaded free from the Internet Archive by clicking on this link.

If you have the good fortune to be passing through Girona between now and the 27th of September, make sure you visit the exhibition at the Museu D’Historia De Girona, Placeta de l’Institut Vell, 1
17004 GIRONA.

Footnote: In 2010, the Catalan Parliament agreed, by an absolute majority, to ban bullfights involving the death of animals and the use of goads: banderillas, picas, and estoques. The law was passed thanks to a citizen’s legislative initiative (ILP) promoted by the civic associations that obtained hundreds of thousands of signatures in favour of animal rights. However, the approval of the law was strongly criticised in centralist media and political spheres, who considered the ban to be the result of anti-Spanish feeling.