Don’t Bore Us. Get to the Chorus.

Written as part of the purpos/ed take 2 campaign of 2012.

Much of what goes on in classrooms is unbelievably dull.

Which is strange, because no one ever really planned it that way.

And it's also strange in the sense that it doesn't work. I mean, there's no point in being boring - because pretty much no-one listens. But that doesn’t stop our system grinding on, interminably. Filling children’s head with stuff that really doesn't matter, either to them or to us. And if you doubt the validity of that last thought then just cast your mind back to all the subjects that you gave up as a child, the subjects that you really didn't enjoy and were simply thrilled to leave behind. Now walk a mile in those shoes.

Much as we will hate to admit it, the evidence that children find school boring is pretty overwhelming

What is most odd about this whole classroom experience, is that we know what does work: catch their attention, keep their focus and - hey presto - learning happens. It's always worked that way.

In the early days it was lions that caught your attention. Well, either that or a lion caught you - but that tended to remove you from the gene pool, so your attention never had the chance to wander again. Whereas in 4B on a wet Wednesday afternoon your attention can wander where it damn well pleases at almost no risk to anyone but your teacher - and only then if OfStEd happen to be watching

Of course, faced with boredom, our pupils will work extraordinarily hard to keep themselves amused. There's a reason for that. Human beings don't cope with boredom terribly well. It actually shortens our lifespan.

Unfortunately, those in authority tend to label "keeping oneself amused" as "disruptive behaviour" - which is generally regarded as a "bad thing" which should be "dealt with".

But we shouldn't be dealing with the problem. We should be bypassing the problem. We should be constantly reminding ourselves that a child's entire sensory system is geared towards attention and movement and distractions and squirrels. Indeed, almost anything that might "catch the eye". Such distractions allow neurones to fire and neural pathway ways to grow.

It turns out that avoiding lions is the very essence of learning. We need to embrace that challenge. Gaming. Sport. Projects. Life. We need to embrace technology to join real learning to real problems. We need to embrace real-time learning and real-time data. We need to address the real class issue in our schools, which is the classroom.

In short, we need to stop boring and start building - building minds that are both interested and interesting.

About what, really doesn't matter.


"We were never feeling bored

'Cause we were never being boring

We had too much time to find for ourselves"

"Being Boring"


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Ashclouds, Airplanes, Engines and Risk

74sq.jpegOnce upon a time, in a previous career, I was an Engineering Officer in the Royal Air Force.

Fun times. At a young age I was asked to sign for 15 x F4-J Phantom Aircraft which were, technically, the property of Her Majesty - but I was led to understand that she was busy looking after three Corgis and so it fell to me to take responsibility for these aircraft. They were worth roughly GBP50 million each in today's money. And, yes, I had to sign for them. Nearly a Billion Dollars worth of hardware. Because, well, someone has to sign for these things - the rules are very clear.

My job was to keep these aircraft flying. I had 150 of the RAF's finest technicians to help me, all of whom knew a great deal more about the hardware than I did. But they were all specialists: engine specialists; armament specialists; radar specialists. And I, blessed as I was with an Oxford degree, was - of course - a specialist in absolutely nothing. Which meant that what I actually did was to ask questions. Lots of questions. Lots of very stupid questions. The sort of questions that only a graduate, with no useful knowledge whatsoever, could possibly ask...

So it was that I learned about the subtle art of "gentle persuasion".

I was looking at the exhaust of a General Electric J-79 engine. The F4-J Phantom is driven through the air by two of these beasts. They are huge. They consume a ridiculous amount of aviation fuel. And they can accelerate an aircraft from 0 - 600 mph in about the time it will take you to finish reading this sentence. These engines are the va-va-voom of the fast jet world...

Unfortunately, this particular engine wasn't about to voom anywhere. Not even if... well, you get the general idea.

ze362.jpegThe pilot who had returned this particular engine had decided to fly the aircraft upside down whilst slamming the throttle from "idle" to "reheat" - and back again - whilst simultaneously taking the Phantom through the sound-barrier. I kid you not, dear reader. The engine, in turn, had decided to expire.

"How", I asked, "are we going to fix it ?"

"Oh, don't worry Sir. A little gentle persuasion will soon have this fixed." replied Sgt Paul Leslie - a man who knew everything there was to know about engines - and a bit more besides.

"Ah yes" asks I, "but what are we actually going to do ?"

"Well, just a bit of gentle persuasion Sir. Have it fixed in no time. Back flying by this afternoon."

"Ah yes" says I, "but what EXACTLY are we going to DO ?"

"Well Sir" said Sgt Leslie "we're going to hit it with a bloody hammer." Although he didn't actually use the word "bloody". Because this is the military and you have to swear a lot more aggressively than that.

The aircraft got fixed. I got educated. And the world moved on.

The point of the story is that engines break. Aircraft break: bits fall off; birds fly into the windscreen; tyres burst. These things happen - and they get fixed. With a bit of luck we all live to fight another day.

But it isn't luck, is it ? It's risk management. It's professionals making rational decisions based on good evidence and a clear understanding of risk.

Which brings me to the ash cloud. We all know what an ash cloud can do to an aircraft - because we've all read about British Airways Speedbird 9 which flew through volcanic ash, lost all four engines and flew on silently for fourteen long minutes before Captain Eric Moody and his crew finally managed to relight one engine.

IcelandVolcano.jpgBut I still like asking questions and so I have a few questions about the current volcanic ash saga. Specifically:

1. What is the chance of any one aircraft encountering ash whilst flying between England and Continental Europe ? - I'm guessing "relatively low".

2. What is the likely damage that would be sustained by a modern aircraft if it did encounter such conditions ? - I'm guessing "tolerable"; these are modern aircraft with fault tolerant engines.

3. If the worst did come to the worst, and all the engines stopped working, then how difficult is it to land a modern commercial aircraft - deadstick - no thrust - given that the starting point is 20,000 feet above mainland Europe ? - Bear in mind that every Shuttle landing is a deadstick landing - and the Shuttle flies like a brick. Bear in mind that we can land aircraft in the Hudson River. Bear in mind that technology is getting better. Bear in mind that there are airfields all over the place.

Well, I just don't know. I'd like to see it done in the simulator a few times. I'd want to talk to a few Captains.

But I'm guessing, and this is just a guess, "easier than it was in 1960".

And that, it seems to me, is an important yardstick. If the level of risk - properly and professionally assessed - is no greater than the risks that passengers routinely assumed in the 1960s - then it's a risk we might all reasonably assume in 2010.

This isn't politics. This isn't PR. But it may be a rational assessment.

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Why iTunes matters, and how it happened.

Once upon a time there was a really neat program for the Apple Mac. It played your music. It shuffled songs and albums. And it was called SoundJam.

Apple bought it - re-badged it - and iTunes was born. The rest, as they say, is History.

Or, more to the point, the rest is the Future of Computing for the next 10 years or so.

Because Apple have leveraged iTunes into the interface of choice for every form of content that you might want. Music, Film, TV, PodCasts, Lectures. You name it (er, "Books?" I hear you cry), and Apple have figured how to put it on your iPod. And as the iPod (and now the iPhone) has become the smart device of choice, so iTunes has become the interface that everyone uses.

For content.

And as everyone knows (and Sony learned) content is king.

But actually, that's changing. Because now the iPhone is actually a computer - it runs Apple's OS X operating system and is well on the way to functioning as a fully fledged laptop/tablet. And that means that, well, iTunes is growing into something more.

It's now the conduit for all the functionality you wanted.

Apple have had the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) triumvirate covered for a while. But now they have a hotline to every Form and Function you might possibly want.


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Education, Education, Education

The older I get, the more I'm convinced that Tony Blair got just one thing right and then utterly failed to stay focused - to whit Education, Education, Education.

It applies to Foreign Policy just as much as to Drugs, Unemployment, Social Disorder and Third World aid. The Fukuyama thesis wasn't just about Western Democracies - it was about delivering sufficient Education to get people as far as those Democratic assumptions.

Part of the framework of Europe's enduring peace has been the rise and rise of effective education.


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Not just football. Now we're dropping out of Science as well...

goalpost.jpgThis is an extraordinary story about the decline of British Education. But let me start on the subject of football. Because there are some interesting parallels.

Last week the various UK soccer sides all fell out of Euro 2008. Only 14 teams were able to qualify - and not one of our national sides made the cut. England promptly fired their national coach. Newspapers agonized over the decline and fall. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. This was, by all accounts, a national disaster.

This week the OECD published its Pisa survey. This is a comparative study of academic performance around the world. It publishes every three years and considers reading, maths and science skills. It too points to a national disaster.

The UK did VERY badly. Among 15-year-olds in 57 countries the UK ranked "between 12th and 18th place".

The organisers give a country's position as being ranked between certain positions because it says with a sample of students it is not always possible to state a comparative ranking with 100% accuracy. Instead, OECD calculates, with 95% confidence, a range of ranks that the country falls within.

So we can be 95% certain that UK school science is bad enough to see the national coach sacked.

Only that isn't quite how the BBC reported the story. Read on and be amazed:

UK among school science leaders

The UK is among the better performers in an international league table on school science

This is unbelievable reporting - not just rose-tinted spectacles but a full-blown case of myopia. Nor is this the first time that the BBC have reported an educational disaster as some curious form of triumph.

It obviously occurred to the BBC that people might - just might - check some of the facts. So the report continues with this extraordinary excuse:

In 2000, the UK was 4th, but the organisers say comparing results is not strictly valid because the tests have changed.

Note: not strictly valid. Hmm. I can't help thinking that a fall from 4th to 14th is sufficiently dramatic to be worthy of comparison despite some minor caveat.

The BBC then throws in this curious observation:

The UK as a whole was not included in the last Pisa study.

Well, yes, that's true - but a quick search of the BBC's own pages would reveal that in the last survey of 2003 the UK failed to provide enough data for the analysis of Maths and Science to be statistically valid (there's some deep irony in there somewhere).

So the last time the UK was properly assessed was back in 2000. And everything has been in decline ever since. The BBC reported that millennium survey in euphoric terms - and even managed to employ a footballing metaphor. Sadly the report is now most notable for the unfulfilled optimism of its closing paragraph.

Of course, it isn't only Science and Soccer that are in decline. Only last week it was announced that England had dropped from third place to 19th in the world in an assessment of reading.


The Pisa survey is based on tests carried out in 2006 in 57 countries which together account for 90% of the world's economy. It tested students on how much they knew about science and their ability to use scientific knowledge to address questions in daily life.

Finland come out on top, followed by Hong Kong (China), Canada, Chinese Taipei, Estonia and Japan. Countries that have moved 'sharply upward' include Canada, Germany, Austria and Denmark.

Note that Estonia were part of the Soviet Union until 1991. Next thing you know, we'll be losing football games to Croatia...


The BBC have now changed their article to better reflect the reality of the original Pisa Report. It now reads:

UK schools slip down in science

The UK is above average in a major international league table on school science - but it has slipped compared to its previous top-four ranking.

The whole article remains depressingly apologetic in tone - but it is at least a fairer reflection of the facts.
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Hard Science

Mother Nature is extraordinary.

She used 3 Billion years of evolution to endow Homo Sapiens with the smartest mind in the known universe, and then added a streak of idleness which means that we would prefer not to think unless it is absolutely necessary.

Thus it is that people run their lives on "hunches", "suspicions" and "gut feelings". Herein lies the success of slimming pills and conspiracy theorists. Even when the Truth is Out There the vast majority of people would rather sit in by the fire and read a good novel. They might even write a brief review of the book - an opinion - a critique, if you will. Something for the Arts programme.

Now there are those who will tell you that the Arts are simply Sciences waiting to happen. That all subjects move from the Arts to the Science if only you are prepared to hang around long enough. Indeed a significant number of subjects have travelled this road already: Biology has moved from Nature drawing to metabolic pathways; Geography has moved from coloured maps to Geomorphology; even something as unlikely as Cooking has transformed itself first into Food Science and, more recently, into Molecular Gastronomy - which isn't quite full-blown Chemistry, but does at least allow you to use a bunsen burner when making Creme Brulee.

In practice, almost any area of academic endeavour can subject itself to the Scientific Method if its protagonists are prepared to work hard enough; an art is just a science with too many unknowns. Thus it is that one of the most successful History books of recent times - Guns, Germs and Steel - was written by Jared Diamond, whose Cambridge-based PhD is rooted in membrane biophysics.

But most people don't enjoying juggling such a plethora of variables. Because Science is hard. Particularly if you are stupid. Anyone can hold a view on Shakespeare, however ill-judged or ill-informed. But it's rather harder to calculate the residual stress in polymer-bonded carbon fibre, because it isn't obvious how to construct the question - let alone answer it.

And we know that Science is hard because some kind academics at Durham University have proved as much. They've shown that the average candidate will clock lower grades at Physics or Chemistry than at any other A Level subject of their choosing.

Note carefully, I said "the average candidate"; because it turns out that the "smart candidate" will almost certainly do better at these subjects, for the very reason that they do understand the questions and they can do the maths and, well, it isn't very hard really and, honestly, you can scream through prep in 20 mins flat and then play football. Smart people do Science precisely because it isn't that hard to them. Indeed, smart scientists are often extraordinarily lazy: Einstein is a good example; Tim Berners-Lee (who invented the World Wide Web) is another; I could go on (but I'm not sure I can be bothered).

OK. So let me summarise our findings so far: most people find science hard.

There, that wasn't too painful.

So, for the many, many people out there who think that weight and mass are pretty much the same thing and that Ohm's law is really, really hard - well, Global Warming is going to be a tough one.

Because Global Warming has LOTS of variables. Just tonnes of them. Honestly.

And so given the choice of either: reading a hefty academic tome, signed off by some 2000 leading scientists, and endorsed by the UN - or: watching a Channel 4 expose and then chatting to a mate at the pub; you can be pretty damn certain that the average citizen will plump for option 2, and then head home in a gas-guzzling SUV whilst muttering about the curious nature of hosepipe bans.

Which would be fine by me were it not for the curious nature of democracy. "Curious" because no-one seriously thinks that we should take popular opinion into account when it comes to doing sums; no-one punches numbers into their calculator and then argues about the result. But those same people who shrink at the thought of data analysis will happily offer their view on Global Warming - and expect me to care about their opinion.

Amazing. Quite amazing.

And don't even get me started on organic foods.

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Lies, Damn Lies and My Vital Statistics

The BBC report that a giant database of people's personal details could be created at Whitehall under government plans aimed at improving public services.

I'm finding it hard to summon up any enthusiasm for such a project; read on...

Last year the Department of Constitutional Affairs (DCA) claimed relaxing rules on data-sharing would help tackle ID fraud and would also identify those "in need".

But Shadow Constitutional Affairs Secretary Oliver Heald said: "Step by step, the government is logging details of every man, woman and child in 'Big Brother' computers."

Shadow Home Secretary David Davis said: "The chances of it actually solving crimes is pretty small.

"The chances of it costing over £20bn is very high. It will be a white elephant."

Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, who is charged with ensuring the state does not collect too much information about citizens, has also been critical of data-sharing and already expressed concern at the Citizens' Information Project.

That is a plan by the Office for National Statistics to create a population database for use by public services.

"There are reasons why we need to promote better information," Mr Thomas said, "but whether the right answer is to create a database should be questioned."

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Learn Mandarin

Historically the British have always mastered communication with johnny foreigner by simply using English - but speaking a little slower and a little louder.

I'm not sure that will work with the new Chinese who now outnumber us by approximately 25 to one.

In just five years, the number of non-Chinese people learning Mandarin Chinese has soared to 30 million. What is fuelling this expansion, and will it change the status of English as a global language?

Shanghai-born lawyer Kailan Shu Lucas of Chinese Learning Centre organises lessons in Mandarin, the main Chinese language, for pupils in London - and she is very busy.

She now co-ordinates lessons for 12 London schools. She believes that in most cases, having their children study the language is a career calculation made by the parents.

"Parents nowadays think that in 10-20 years' time, when their children are in adulthood, China will be even bigger - and so learning Chinese will be a very helpful tool," she told BBC World Service's Analysis programme. "This will be a very useful, important language to learn."

[Most of those] parents are from the finance industry where China is "a big thing." "That influences the parents' thoughts," Kailan added. "They want their children to learn Chinese and be more versatile in terms of job prospects in the future."

The hope, presumably, is that if you can't beat them - you can at least join them.

You can make a start to learning Chinese here, with the BBC.

Link: BBC World.

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Sentient Developments: Must know terms for today's intelligentsia

I fell upon this quote from Carl Sagan whilst browsing Sentient Developments:

"The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies. Dreams are maps."

Which particularly struck me as I had only just finished listening to the latest podcast from the UK thinktank Demos.

Over at Demos (who are also in MySpace now), Hannah Green and Celia Hannon have been working on a project funded by the National College for School Leadership called Their Space: Education for a Digital Generation.

Paul Miller has been involved:

I helped out a bit with the research for the project and it’s been fascinating to work on. Hannah and Celia have done a brilliant job at bringing it all together and writing what I think is one of the best Demos reports for quite a while.

The piece basically takes apart the myth of ‘digital danger’ for teens. It suggests that schools in particular should have a lot more faith in kids ability to navigate the online world and should rearrange the way that IT is taught to put the kids in charge. The findings (which are all about kids in the UK) mesh neatly with things we’d learned about the US from danah boyd’s work.

The report caught my eye because the findings almost exactly mirror the talk I've been giving to Independent school audiences up and down the country for the last two years.

As ever, so much of the issue is encapsulated by Douglas Adams:

Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.

Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.

Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Meanwhile - over at Sentient Developments

At the dawn of European humanism, Florentines believed that reading Dante while ignoring science was ridiculous. Similarly, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo both recognized the great importance of understanding science, technology and engineering.

Despite these trail-blazers, not much has changed since then; a startling number of so-called 'intellectuals' remain grossly ignorant of pending technologies and the revealing sciences

They go on to offer a list of "must-know-terms" that includes the following:

  • accelerating change
  • augmented reality
  • human enhancement
  • molecular assembler
  • neural interface device
  • open source
  • participatory panopticon
  • political globalization
  • quantum computation
  • radical Luddism
  • remedial ecology
  • Simulation Argument
  • Singularity
  • ubiquitous surveillance
  • virtual reality

Great stuff. Go and read the full list. I'll test you later...

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