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A reflection on climate strikes

Global Student Climate Strikes 2019

While reading Naomi Klein’s On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal and her description of the global student climate protests I was reminded of the reaction on Twitter of some of the educators and people I follow, which was quite disapproving of the strikes, like the post below:

Naomi Klein articulates very well why students wanted to strike: climate change presents such a pressing and dangerous situation, one that is very likely to be world altering, and that presents the very real possibility that for school age children there may not be a world with jobs and the life we know it in the future. If you know your future is is f****d, what is the point in studying for it? Klein, quoting Thunberg writes:

“Why should we be studying for a future that soon may be no more when no one is doing anything whatsoever to save that future? … What is the point of learning facts….when the most important facts given by the finest science of that same school system clearly means nothing to our politicians and our society?”

Klein (2020) On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal pg11

Teachers like Birbalsingh are focussed on their fight to create solid educational outcomes that they are sometimes not aware of the larger picture. Indeed, we could expect Toby Young, a climate change skeptic to take the view that students shouldn’t be protesting, after all from his position there is no justification for the strikes because climate change isn’t real. However, students striking to try to protect their futures, is just as important and urgent as studying at school to protect those futures. It is a shame that society has let them down to the point where they need to sacrifice their education in order to protest.

Greg Ashman writes along similar lines to Birbalsingh’s views in this post, although at greater length. And while what he writes echoes some of what Klein writes about in her book – the need for climate action to be driven by mass mobilization across societal groups for example – Ashman gets it wrong when he writes:

In this light, British school kids skipping school on a Friday to make vague demands that the government declare a ‘climate emergency’ does not really cut it. It is not like miners or nurses going on strike. It’s not really a ‘strike’ at all because nobody is inconvenienced and nobody loses any money. The only potential losers from a withdrawal of student labour are the students themselves, although this will depend greatly on the quality of the education that they have left behind.

https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2019/02/17/skipping-school-to-save-the-world/ accessed 16/11/2020

Yes, the strike is not like a miners strike. Miners damaged their own income at the time of striking. They did this to try to protect their livelihoods. But I disagree with Ashman’s analysis. Students are trying to protect their future livelihoods, when none of the adults around them, who supposedly care about their futures seems to be doing anything about it. Ashman also misses the point that the climate strike is also a strike against free market capitalism (not capitalism itself – just the free market kind). If all students around the world went on strike they would be damaging that system as whole if they do not get educated because there would be a much more limited market to participate in in future. Remember that it is this free market system that is prime driver of climate change.

UK Remembrance Day Strike 2020

In the UK there is a yearly ritual of paying respects to those members of the Armed Forces that have perished in conflict most notably in WWI and WWII.

This year commentators were outraged by an extinction rebellion climate change protest at the Cenotaph. Despite the fact that one of the protestors was an ex-service man, media outlets claimed that this was an “insult” to the fallen.

Firstly, it strikes (no pun intended) me as ironic. While the day is a space for private reflection – members of the armed forces remember colleagues who have lost their lives in recent conflicts, the public uses this day, supposedly, to remember the fallen precisely because they fought for freedom and the rights it entails – like the right to protest.

Remembrance day serves as an opportunity to reflect on freedom, justice, and, so the story goes, by doing so we remember the importance of peace. My father would argue that remembrance day keeps us from fighting in Europe because we remember what a sheer waste of life it was.

Conviently it doesn’t stop us from bombing countries far away from here. We are happy to do that for oil.

Today we seem to have become obsessed with the ritual of remembrance day. But what are we actually remembering?

To me, staging a protest on the day of remembrance seems to actually be a way of actively honoring that sacrifice – you are actively exercising your right that was protected by the sacrifice of others. If you take issue with protests, are you really honoring what the dead died for?

When the protestors are claiming that “climate change means war” they are not making a metaphorical statement. They are highlighting the very real concerns that climate change will drive conflict.

You may argue that it wasn’t appropriate at the event, but what you are really saying is that what is important here is not the principle we are supposed to remember but instead the shallow, banal nationalism, that such events can be seen to support – the glorification of war and the feeding of the narrative that Britain is Great because she is more X, Y and Z than other nations.

As Naomi Klein writes:

“Honoring the dead begins with telling the truth”

Klein (2020) On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal pg255

Climate change will cause more war.

Climate change will cause more suffering.

We are already seeing it in Syria where drought caused the migration of farmers from the rural areas into the cities and sparked the unrest that led to the war and the migrations that have been so bothersome to many in the UK.

Climate change will affect geopolitics and could lead to more international tensions and conflicts.

I can think of no better way to honor the dead than trying to make society aware of its own hypocrisy. We are happy to remember the sacrifice that our heroes make but unwilling to face up to the problems our international actions cause both today and yesterday.

Categories
Education University

UK student loans: just a graduate tax?

In the UK, as in the US, higher education access is supported through government loans. In the UK, this system has been in place since 1998/99 when student fees of £1000 were introduced for undergraduate courses. By the time I went to university in 2002, this had risen to around £3000 and, at the time of writing fees for undergraduate courses in the UK stand at £9,250 per year of the course.

Much has been made over the introduction of tuition fees and the main vehicle used to pay for them – student loans. In this post I want to explore reasons behind the introduction of fees and loans in the UK and what some of the implications of these may be.

Colleagues I have discussed this with often maintain that loans are just a graduate tax, that graduates only begin to pay them off when earning above a certain level, and that if they are not paid off in 30 years they are erased. This may be true, but, I have felt uneasy, in my role as a university guidance counselor about just dismissing the implications for young people who decide, on our advice, to get themselves up to almost £30,000 in debt on fees alone, ignoring all other costs of being a student. This post is really an opportunity for me to explore this topic in a little more detail.

Why loans?

A little known theory in economics, known as Human Capital Theory (HCT), asserts that investments made in the development of skills and knowledge, through training and education, will improve the productivity of an individual and thus the economy as a whole. On the personal level, the rationale, from this view, for investing in education is for the real term pay off you will get from getting a better paid job. On a macro scale, the amount that a government invests in education then, so the thinking goes, the greater productivity of the economy and subsequent increase in GDP.

But there is a trade off for a government. Investment in Higher Education (HE) is expensive, and has a lower rate of return according to many studies. And so governments are less willing to invest tax payers money, especially for degrees that may have a low return on investment.

Enter, Milton Friedman and the free market, which suggests that the market for HE may be improved, and institutions made more competitive, if the state reduces its input, oversight and regulation. Friedman advocates for fees for HE be covered by the student in the form of loans from the government

So, naturally, based on two economic rationales, free markets and HCT, the case for HE investment through student loans is made. What is the problem?

Choice

One of my concerns around this issue which is linked to others is the impact it has on choice. When we begin to look at degrees in terms of return on investment, then some degrees seem to have a higher value – graduates from these degrees get paid more and therefore can pay off their debts more easily. There are two problems with this.

Imagine that degrees in computer science command the highest salaries for post graduates. This is because in the labour market there is a shortage of these skills. As more and more people switch to studying this degree because it pays better, the labour market becomes flooded with these skills and the price of labour goes down. Thus the return on the investment goes down as wages are driven down by competition. This isn’t the graduates fault who may now be saddled with debt that is harder to pay off.

Secondly, should the value of a degree be measured purely in these monetary terms? As I have got older I have appreciated more and more what can be learned in non science undergraduate courses (I did three science A Levels and a science first degree) like Arts which tend to command lower salaries. There are a whole variety of reasons why these degrees have more intrinsic and instrumental value than just monetary value for a graduate but they stand to die out and receive less funding if individuals stop applying for them, which they will do if they are thinking about returns on investment alone.

Related to this point and the point below about equity is the idea that those that do have to worry about debt, those students coming from less affluent backgrounds will feel more pressure to not take a degree that doesn’t have a good return of investment, so we have a class or wealth divide around who really has choice of degree path, with the more affluent students, having more rational choice. So the first charge to lay at the door of the idea of loans is that they actually reduce choice for poorer students.

Equity and Access

Costs of entry to HE can present very significant barriers to individuals. This is the problem of access. If a government wants to promote a genuine free market for the sake of the economy, then the assumptions that everyone can access that market has to be addressed. In other words the government needs to ensure that all those “deserving” of a place in the appropriate labour market are able to get access to the education and training they need to be able to compete in that labour market effectively. And here is the rub, the introduction of fees raises a barrier to individuals who despite a reduced socio-economic background may have the personal qualities to make the most of the labour market at the other side.

Fees and loans may not present much a problem to members of society who have the social and economic capital in order to cover the costs, but they will raise very real barriers to children, with just as much, if not more merit, for whom the prospect of becoming £30,000+ in debt is a very frightening prospect. So the second charge to lay at the door of fees and loans, is that they do nothing (at the very least) to provide equity in society. If we want a just, socially mobile society, where individuals are not constrained by the random act of birth, then we need to think hard about the implications of these loans.

There is another element to this. Many people understand the idea of genes and inheritance, and probably can understand the idea that certain biological traits are inherited from parents. But what often is missed is that children inherit their early environment too. Bourdieu writes about this in terms of cultural capital. Plomin also references this idea in his work. Children are born, at random, into a particular family environment, just in the same way they are born into a body made from a particular mix of genes. The family environment will transmit cultural capital in the form of knowledge, customs, understandings particular to that family. To use an extreme example, some children will grow up exposed to ballet, opera and fine art. Others will be exposed to cold, fend for yourself dinner, because mum and dad are both out having to work their third job.

Which group of children will be best placed to make the best decisions in terms of university courses? Which will be more likely to understand how to make the most out of university and capitalise on their experience?

This problem of equity and access leads to a third problem: social reproduction. Children who are born in the “right” place will be more able to go on to reproduce those conditions for their children, while the others will find it much harder to shift gears so to speak.

Debt

So let’s lay that aside. I have outlined above three misgivings about the system: Choice, Equity, Access. I don’t claim that the points briefly expressed above are enough on their own to call for a change in the system, but they should at least give serious pause for thought. They certainly did for me when I came across them.

A fourth problem with student fees and loans is debt. And there are two elements to this for me.

Firstly, there is a general issue linked to the ideas above which goes along these lines: Those students who are already disadvantaged are the ones who will be most disadvantaged, on average, by this system. As I alluded to earlier, some students will not be put off by fees. Their families might be able to pay them directly or at least pay off the loans quickly once the graduate leaves and gains employment. Or, some parents may be able to make interest free loans to their kids on the understanding that these are paid back. Fair enough.

But many kids won’t be in this fortunate position. This will be because they come from families that are not that fortunate (yes, unfortunate, not lazy). So these kids, the ones that actually need the levelling affects of education, are the ones that will end up picking up the bill of debt.

Accepting this means that you can’t argue that loan repayment is a graduate tax – not every graduate will need to pay it. It’s a poor-graduates tax. It hits those from the poorest backgrounds the hardest. The less money you have going into uni, the more money you will have to pay back, either because you have to borrow more, or because it will take you longer to pay back.

And this is doubly true if they haven’t had the advice growing up (Remember cultural capital?) about maximising their investment and decide to spend £30,000 on Beckham studies.

The second issue about debt for me is the specific issue of interest rates, that the UK government employs. I was staggered when I looked at the student loans available to me as a postgraduate student this year. The UK government was willing to lend me money at a whopping 5.2%.

5.2%!

The Bank of England has lowered interest rates to 0.1%, mortgages are at an all time low, and I can get a loan from Nationwide for £20,000 at 2.9%. Why is the UK government charging higher interests rates than a corporate entity like a bank? Has it been turned into a business?

The only reason that the student loans company has an interest rate this high is to make money. Plain and simple. These are not loans designed to enable access to university, to level the playing field to allow those most disadvantaged a leg up. Instead they are a way for poor graduates to become compound interest slaves to government and society.

I could just about accept it, if the rates were lower or in line with other interest rates for important investments paid off over a long time i.e. mortgages. But I just find a rate of 5.2% entirely cynical.

Milton Friedman as Obi Wan Kenobi meets the UK government as Darth Vader. The young Anakin (aka Margaret Thatcher’s government) has learned the dark side of Firedman’s ideas so well that they will apply it to conquer the universe.

Whats the problem with a rate this high? Well, at that rate, because of compound interest the loan will have doubled in 14 years. So, if a student graduates and is not earning enough to begin to pay off the debt, they are soon going to find the amount owing has grown to crushing amounts.

Jason Hikel in less is more, and writers like David Graeber have highlighted the problems with debt capitalism but it strikes me that these loans made to students are not too dissimilar to the loans made to global south countries that tie them into repayments over years that reduce the nation’s ability to fund its own education and other social systems. It is fundamentally exploitative. And disproportionately exploitative of the poor.

Add to this that free market economics will see that the cost of labour is pushed down, and we have an unholy alliance of high student debt with declining relative wages.

I can’t see that causing any problems for society down the line /s.

Growth

Think of all that debt accumulating, providing a steady income to the UK government from all of those graduates taking out loans and paying them off over the next thirty year. Supporters claim that the government has promised to forgive the debts if they remain unpaid after 30 years, but I think that is naive.

The government has made drastic changes to teachers pensions, military pensions, as well as to women born in the 1950s, all in the last 10 years, There is nothing in that behaviour that suggests to me that they will keep their word. I do not believe for a minute they will be willing to give up this income stream of debt repayments which is set to become a lucrative industry for the government, they will need it to support growth of the economy. Debt fuels growth.

What do you think?

Categories
Personal Teaching & Learning

Dual programming

One of the hallmarks of this COVID-19 adventure has been the unchanging change. Every week has seemed to throw up something new. In the early days this was simply switching to online learning, then it was adding in the live lessons on Zoom. All this with changing location each week in hunt to find a home from home where we could live, work and parent.

I’ve already written about my ideas for online teaching during this early time here and gave a fairly detailed account of our personal challenges here. In this post I want to update the account.

We returned to the UK on March 25th as outlined previously and spent two weeks in isolation at a flat in London, before moving ourselves up to the east midlands, into the grandparents house. This move has given our two little ones a little bit more stability as finally as they are in a familiar environment with adults able to give them their full attention.

Others have written about the experiences of returning to school in China and I don’t want to write that here not least because I haven’t seen it first hand but I do want to provide an account of what it has been like to be one of the stranded teachers, in the last few weeks.

The hardest part in the beginning was keeping up with the constant changes. Every week seemed to bring something new, that required a new adjustment

Soon after returning, we got the announcement that our campus would be opening up again starting with year 13 and year 11. For this change we moved to synchronous live sessions from asynchronous and were asked to increase the number of live sessions we were running. This was initially refereed to as “blended learning” but seeing as it isn’t blended in the true sense of the word, it is probably best referred to as a “dual programme”

Initially this was a change that now required, in our case, being up in the early hours of the morning. And with kids at home too, its hard to catch up on that lost sleep.

Later, as more year groups came back this amount of lost sleep increased requiring more discussion and change of teaching schedules.

We were then told that the school day was extended and we all needed to do an extra lesson after school. In of itself this isn’t really a problem but taken in the wider weekly change it was another thing that needed to be adjusted to. In the end I was actually quite thankful for this as I got more time with my Y12 students work through the HL biochemistry we were doing.

And then came the announcement of redundancy. Never have I been more reminded of the line in Baz Luhrmann’s “Everybody’s free to wear sunscreen”

Don’t worry about the future; or worry, but know that worrying is as
effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum
The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that
never crossed your worried mind

the kind that blindside you at 4pm on some idle Tuesday

This has left us with weeks of negotiating, angst, anxiety and worry and a whole host of problems to sort out as not only have we lost our income, but also our home, potentially our possessions and also schools for our daughters. But slowly as the weeks pass we are finding solutions.

The hardest part of the last few weeks has been being one of the few who can’t get back to campus. With continued border closures we are still unable return and continue to live this half life, being home but not home.

While colleagues lives have returned to some normality back in China, we continue to juggle parenting at home while working from home while under lockdown. This can make the daily interactions a little bit more difficult as colleagues forget that your four year old might start screaming just outside the door when you are on a call. You may still be finding that your kids can’t understand why their parents are in a room working all day when, of course you should be playing and they will keep coming to interrupt you, even during the graduation ceremony to request this.

Parents whose children are back on campus also now expect that the number of live zoom classes be increased, because isn’t this over for everybody? What do you mean you can’t provide an online class at 3am everyday?

Somedays you feel like you have just been forgotten, and this is compounded by the knowledge that you are out the door. To the folks back on campus, you’ve already left, I guess, despite the fact that we continue to the best of our ability to mark, plan, teach.

Roll on the summer.

Categories
Teaching & Learning

Routines

Originally posted on October 22, 2017 @ 9:00 am

I was planning on publishing this post in August, but term got away with me!

Next year, I want to really focus on developing solid classroom routines. I am amazed at how I have got to year 10 of my teaching career and it has only been in the last twelve months that I have begun to see the importance of these for running even older classrooms.

Perhaps it is the peculiarity of my current school, with a high turnover of students and my experiences of having dramatic changes in the makeup of each cohort year on year, alongside changes to curriculum time and with a wide range of student backgrounds, and language proficiencies.

Last year I focused on thinking routines and I think the adoption of some of these exercises has been very beneficial for my students, the trick is sticking to them! But reflecting on this process, talking to colleagues and reading Battle Hymn has really highlighted the necessity of routines for all aspects of classroom management.

My one concern is that reliance on routines will make the classroom boring but I also think that routines have the potential to create safe spaces, where all students understand easily what is required of them. Used well they can remove distractions from students and increase the efficiency of learning.

The idea is essentially utilitarian; serve the greater good. Create space for the majority to learn.

The trouble is, our school has been open for four years now and every year, management has changed how we do things, in terms of the number of lessons available per week per subject, or the length of lessons. Don’t get me wrong, change can be good and it is important to try and improve things. However, change that isn’t tested and thought through can have negative consequences, as can too much change.

Routines need to be simple and rewards and sanctions just as simple. An overcomplicated system just creates more work for everybody.

Thinking: This year I will continue to embed the visible thinking routines as defined by project zero into classroom activities. I use connect-extend-challenge all the time and may need to revisit how I implement it. In discussions with colleagues recently about best prepparing students to write personal statements, I have also been introduced to the point-evidence-explain for structuring writing. As a science teacher, who hasn’t had much training in writing, or as a science teacher who hardly ever has student’s writing essays, it is interesting observing internally how that type of routine can easily be adopted to embed thinking about an argument.

Behaviour management: This year, our school has implemented a “behaviour policy”. Although we don’t suffer from extremely poor behaviour, I have been frustrated by students regularly not turning up to class on time, not having the materials they need with them and generally not taking responsibility for their own development.

EAL: My simple model for lesson planning: 1) 10 mins of low-stakes quizzing in some form; 2) 30 mins of teaching/learning activities; 3) 10 mins of written plenary. I haven’t been brilliant at sticking to this plan throughout this half of last term but the idea of the last part was to give my EAL kids a chance to do some formal writing in English. Other rountines that I am trying to develop for my EAL kids is to write new terms on the side of the board. I collate these into quizlet and ask kids to keep their own glossary ot terms. I also am trying to narrate much more of what I do in the classroom so that my thinking is clearly visible to these students.

Categories
Teaching & Learning

What is the best place to start teaching IB DP Biology?

Originally posted on August 20, 2017 @ 9:00 am

Every year I like to think about how I approach the delivery of the DP Biology course. I think about what are the best examples to use to illustrate concepts like the pentadactyl limb, or what is the best way to structure the teaching sequence into a coherent sequence.

This summer I have been thinking about how best to approach the start of the course. I think this is important in my context because I cannot be certain of the biological background of all of my students and I don’t want to make any assumptions about what they know.

I polled teachers on facebook and twitter about this and most teachers tend to start the course with 1.1 – introduction to cells, although other areas like to 2.1 – molecules to metabolism and 5.3 – classification of biodiversity are also popular if not nearly so as 1.1.

My issues with starting at 1.1 is that I think that while there are some essential ideas that are natural to start a Biology course; the functions of life and cell theory, there are others which are not so helpful like stem cells, gene control of differentiation, and evolution of multicellularity. Some of these concepts are tricky to get your head around and do not count as foundational knowledge, in my opinion.

What I want in the start of my DP course is to introduce students to the simplest biological concepts that will go on to serve as a foundation for future learning. I believe the functions of life and the classification of life (“what is life?” and “ok, we know how to crudely define living things, but what types of living things are there?”) are understandings that students should address before going on to look at how living things work.

What I am struggling with is this: the IB’s TSM states that topics don’t need to be taught in order, or that even subtopics don’t necessarily need to be taught in order. We should, as teachers, construct a course that draws different elements into coherent units. Personally, last year, I made a move away from going through topic by topic and tried to link subtopics into themed units. I love thinking about what topics flow well together.

But what if you want to split sub topics? Is this allowable? Obviously you could do this but, with the way the IB has structured the sub-topics each with their own “essential idea”, should you? The issues with the essential idea is that it aims to force all the understandings in that subtopic under a single umbrella. Because the essential idea is examinable, surely all the understandings, applications and skills should be kept together as they serve to illuminate the essential idea.

Personally, I think I may go ahead and chop up 1.1 so that I introduce these:

  • A2: Investigation of functions of life in Paramecium and one named photosynthetic unicellular organism.
  • U2: Organisms consisting of only one cell carry out all functions of life in that cell.

With this from 5.3:

  • U4: All organisms are classified into three domains.

Which will then act as a segway into topic 1.2 the ultrastructure of cells, before going on to consider cell theory and the then the rest of topic 5.3.

Its a little bit pick and mix, but do I run the risk of not covering the essential ideas. To solve that, what I may do is leave the essential ideas  (of these sections) for revision in grade 12. In-fact now I think about it, all the essential ideas would make great revision points.

I could get the students to memorise Allott and Mindorff’s paragraph’s that describe each essential idea and force them to regurgitate them at random points through G12…..