Dealing with Trivia

Portugal, 1812 - The 1st Duke of Wellington writes to the National Office in London.


Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by H.M. ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.

We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit, and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for, with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instructions from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either one with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the accountants and copy-boys in London

or, perchance,

2. To see to it that the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain.

Your most obedient servant,


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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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“Fundamentally, when you think about innovation, it's actually pretty easy and it's always about being unreasonable.

And the adage is 'All progress is due to the unreasonable person.’ It's just that simple.

If you want innovation, hang out with weird, as Gary Hamel said.

The more people who are telling you - whether they are friends, families, colleagues, professionally or socially - that your ideas are wrong, incorrect or unreasonable, the more likely it is you are on the right track.”

Overheard from Tom Meredith at a Social Innovation event from Dell.

I like Tom Meredith. He talks a lot of sense...

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Fail Better: Tough Luck - Tough Love - Cruel to be Kind

Fail Better

Written as part of the purpos/ed series and published in the TES in April 2011:

I think the purpose of education is to teach children how to fail.

To drive them to failure and then see what happens.

"If you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sure sign that you’re not trying anything very innovative." - Woody Allen

We know that we're entering a new economic reality that is more challenging and less certain.

We know that Moore's Law and "digital Taylorism" present a credible threat to the employment prospects of our students.

And we know that students need to be more imaginative and more creative if they are to overcome these hurdles.

"It takes sixty-five thousand errors before you are qualified to make a rocket." - Werhner von Braun

We know that people who have it all just aren't happy.

We know that those with nothing to lose have everything to gain.

And we know that when you're behind in the race, and the odds are stacked against you, you dig deeper and you reach higher.

"Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm." - Winston Churchill

We know that the tired, the poor, the huddled masses fight to breathe free.

We know that those with their backs to the wall, fight harder.

And yet. And yet.

We're too nice to children. We used not to be. Not to Tom Brown. Not to Oliver Twist.

Education has become progressively gentler - in a manner that has not always been helpful.

Children have moved from fear, to security, to dependency; one step too far...

Too dependent on adults; on teachers; on parents; on technology; on frameworks; on specifications...

So I think we need to find new ways for children to fail.

We need to step back; let go a little; be less helpful.

Of course, our students won't always like this approach. But I suspect that they'll learn a lot more.

And, with a bit of luck, they'll learn how to succeed.

"Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." - Samuel Becket


PS: See also: Fail faster - by Aza Raskin

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Why Schools don't need ICT

I have written an article in this month's ATL magazine that seems to be causing something of a stir.

You can read the full article here.

The closing paragraphs read as follows:

Our schools are now a desert swept with the winds of yesterday's technology; meanwhile our students can be found drinking from an oasis of smartphones, smart apps and smart interfaces. They have answers to questions we haven't even dared to ask. They outsmart us at every turn.

Teenagers upgrade their mobile phone every 12 months. Even the socially disadvantaged are one step ahead of their school's ICT. That's not a problem. That's a huge opportunity schools should grasp. It's an opportunity to save money and upgrade our thinking about ICT.

Even last year's smartphone will operate as a calculator. And a book reader. It will translate the Bible from the original Hebrew and can differentiate Sin(x). It can pinpoint both the Battle of Hastings and the Belt of Orion. It will act as a word processor, a piano and a spirit level. Not bad for a bit of kit that your school didn't purchase and doesn't maintain.

Schools don't need ICT. It's coming through our doors every day. We just need to adopt and adapt a little bit.

Unfortunately, you can't leave comments on the ATL pages.

But feel free to comment here. Or on Twitter - I'm @IanYorston.

You can follow much of the debate that was prompted by my article from this thoughtful response by The Angry Technician.

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Teams, Technocrats and Technophobes

We all want to use technology to its best advantage. We live in the 21st Century. We're technocrats. We practically invented the modern world. But there are people out there who are slowing us down. They're called technophobes. We need to do something.

1. Make them Care

Most technophobes have trouble relating to the inflated rhetoric of technocrats.

Technophobes are not won over by talk of multimedia or social networks. Technophobes want to identify genuine, measurable, advantages.

Technophobes don't want to be won over. They won't donate their time to learning our tools. We have to find them time - make it worth their while.

2. A Foreign Language

Most technocrats speak a language guaranteed to alienate the technophobes.

Technocrats use terms like "bandwidth" and "embedded tools".

Technocrats act as if everything from the past is bad; classrooms, books - that sort of stuff.

Technocrats seem to think that everything new and technology-rich is automatically good.

Technophobes view such language with great suspicion; they pride themselves on demanding serious, rigorous learning from students, steering clear of the latest educational innovations.

Technocrats rarely sympathize with technophobes or understand their issues. Technocrats have a different viewpoint. We are also far more tolerant of technical glitches and frustrations. We rarely understand technophobes or how they learn. We find it very difficult to help technophobes.

3. Make it a Team Game

Technophobes don't have time to "mess around." They do not enjoy surprises. They don't appreciate confusion. They don't like taking risks. They value their class time.

Technophobes need tools that plays to their strengths and support their teaching.

They want technology that works. First time. Every time. Technology that doesn't challenge their authority.

At heart they don't trust the technology. They see networks crashing and software stalling. If they are to throw themselves at the mercy of technology, they want someone at their side when everything goes wrong.

Actually, they don't want someone at their side. They want someone out in front. They don't want to walk into battle alone. They want to be part of a team.

And, as we all know, it's amazing what teams can do.


This post draws heavily on an article by Jamie McKenzie from 1999 at

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Thoughts on Exam Questions

Exam HallI was on the team that analysed UK GCSE Science questions from Summer 2008. It was a depressing experience - and our findings made for sorry stories in the media. In practice, the outcome should have surprised no-one; the Royal Society of Chemistry have been making warning noises for some time.

One of my colleagues on that team was Ken Zetie who is Head of Physics at St Paul's Boys School in London. He set one of the GCSE papers to his son, aged 8, with the inevitable discovery that, yes, even a child could do these exams.

He also reflected on the experience here.

One particular discovery we made was that a number of questions were accessible to candidates who had not even studied the subject. Other questions required little understanding - simply the ability to plug numbers into a formula.

Now consider that in some subjects, languages for example, candidates are allowed reference materials such as dictionaries.

Add a little bit of technology to that mix and I present you with a hierarchy of exam questions:

1. Can the question be done without the candidate having been to lessons at all ?

2. Can the question be done by simply rearranging information available from the exam paper itself (eg: plugging numbers into a given formula) ?

3. Can the question be done (in the time available) if the candidate has access to Wikipedia ?

4. Can the question be done (in the time available) if the candidate has access to WolframAlpha ? (If you haven't yet tried WolframAlpha then you really, really need to click on that link. Or this one).

5. Could you only do the question if you had a genuine understanding of the subject being examined ?

Wikipedia LogoWell, presumably ALL exam questions should be written to meet level 5 ?

Unfortunately, even a year on from our depressing experience, it seems the UK exam boards have yet to rise to the challenge. The latest "re-writes" are still regarded as too easy.

So there is still plenty to be done. And schools like my own will continue to use the International GCSEs in preference to the UK exams - an option that is finally being opened up to the UK state sector

But, looking to the future, what does this mean for the future of education in the face of Moore's Law and ever-improving "Knowledge Engines".

Time to think again.

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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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Rethinking the Classroom - Educating Hunters and Farmers

Words and ideas lifted from Seth Godin and Thom Hartmann.

Godin is the author of Tribes, which I can highly recommend.


10,000 years ago, civilization forked.

Farming was invented and the way people spent their time was changed forever.

Farming is a very different activity from hunting. Farmers spend time working and planning and worrying. They worry about the weather. They make smart choices about seeds and breeding.

Hunters, on the other hand, spend an awful lot of time just watching and waiting. And waiting and watching. With occasional moments of distraction. And brief periods of frenzied panic.

Some people are better at one activity than another. And then tend to approach life rather differently as a result. Farmers like meetings and plans. Hunters want to try stuff and see what happens.

Farmers want to avoid epic failure. Hunters want a high-stakes mission. Farmers like Facebook. Hunters like Google.

Traditional schooling doesn't really suit Hunters. A child who has innate hunting skills is easily distracted, because noticing small movements in the landscape is exactly what you'd need to do if you were hunting.

Scan and scan and scan and scan and POUNCE.

In school, you'll find that same distracted child can drop everything and focus like a laser - when it matters.

The "farmer", on the other hand, is particularly good at tilling the fields of endless homework problems, each one a bit like the other. Just don't ask him to change gears instantly.

Of course, forcing "hunters" to sit quietly in a school designed to teach farming doesn't make a lot of sense.

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Nudge. Nudge. Wink. Wink. Make the World a Better Place.

Two thoughts:

1. nudge: A book that offers advice on how to improve decisions about health, wealth and happiness.

2. A site dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.

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Updating Old-Fashioned Technology

Just occasionally I find myself needing to revert to old technology. Like writing letters. Or sending faxes.

Which is difficult if you are averse to paper.

Step forward two cool services that make my life a little easier.

1. L-Mail. This lets me write letters by e-mail (or via a web interface) which are then printed, stuck in an envelope and posted by hand. Neat. I can even choose from which country they are posted. Which is fun. I can pretend to be in India and send birthday cards to my children.

2. PopFax. This lets me send (and receive) faxes from my computer. Either scanned files (photos, handwritten notes, etc) or standard desktop files (.pdf, .doc, etc).

Both services are web-based, cheap and efficient.

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How much ? NHS spends money like water on ICT

According to the Guardian "BT Group will next month become the third major contractor in as many years to take a multimillion pound writedown on its work with the government's crisis-stricken GDP12.7bn overhaul of the NHS computer system."

This is the most astonishing amount of money.

The NHS is pretty much the biggest employer in Europe. There are something like 1,330,000 employed by the wider NHS - of whom some 133,000 are Doctors.

Yet despite that vast workforce we could (takes deep breath) give every-single-one of those employees TWO top-of-the range laptops (one for work and one for home) AND an iPhone each - and still have some change left over from GDP2.7bn.

Leaving some GDP10bn to spend on connecting them all up...

Let's look at that one more time. Two laptops and iPhone for every single NHS employee, and still have GDP10 Billion left over.

For pity's sake, who runs these contracts?

Because we sure know who's paying for it all.

Update - June 2011 - "NHS Chief Information Officer - Christine Connelly - in dramatic resignation. Terminal crisis for £11.4bn National Programme for IT?" ComputerWorldUK
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Ouch: Virtual Learning Environments are Expensive and Ineffective

Wow. According to the BBC, Ofsted have produced a hard-hitting assessment on the costs (high) and benefits (err, very few apparently) of the VLEs that we are all supposed to be purchasing.

Some of the quotes:

  • The use of online materials to help students with their lessons has been "slow to take off".

  • In many schools and colleges VLEs are still on a "cottage industry" scale.

  • The benefits to learners are so far "not yet obvious".

  • "Despite expectations", dating back some 3 or 4 years, the arrival of these online support services for learners are "still in the early stages of development".

Here at Radley, we bypassed a formal VLE and went for a simple school-wide wiki - using CourseForum software. Much simpler. Surprisingly powerful. And it works.

BBC Education

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From my iPhone

I now have a shiny new 3G iPhone - on the O2 PAYG contract. It really is a very impressive handheld computer. And it runs fully fledged apps for many purposes. Including an excellent blogging tool. But the real strength of the iPhone is the excellent browser, coupled with its excellent connectivity (both WiFi and 3G).

From my iPhone

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A peek at the future: Google Flu Trends

 This sort of thing is seriously smart. And a real indication of where Google can go by using the "Wisdom of the Crowds" as evidenced by activity passing through its own search engines.
Google Flu Trends.

Google have found that certain search terms are good indicators of flu activity. Google Flu Trends can use aggregated Google search data to estimate flu activity in US states up to two weeks faster than traditional systems.
This work is overseen by - the multi-billion dollar charitable arm that Google have established. They aim to use the power of information and technology to address the global challenges of our age: climate change, poverty and emerging disease. In collaboration with experienced partners working in each of these fields, Google plan to invest resources and tap the strengths of their employees and global operations to advance five major initiatives: .

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Barack Obama

It's 02:45 in the UK - and I'm about to head for bed, confident that Barack Obama will be a junior Senator for only a few hours more.

The world could yet become a much better place.

Wikipedia: "Barack Obama is the junior United States Senator from Illinois and presidential nominee of the Democratic Party in the 2008 United States presidential election."

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You get an ology, you're a scientist

Lots of students are doing public exams at the moment.

One of them (thanks James) sent me this:

From Randall Munroe's hugely entertaining xkcd - a site which not only offers "romance, sarcasm, maths and language", but also makes very clever use of img tags if you mouseover his cartoons.

All of which led me back to this tv ad from the late 1980s

The ad, created by agency J Walter Thompson, is priceless and was the watercooler moment of its time - making "you got an ology" a veritable catch phrase.

The ad also has a wonderful outro:

"It's the teachers who are wrong. You know, they can't mark. A lot of them can't see..."

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