Bill Scott's blog

Thoughts on learning, sustainability and the link between them

A broad but unbalanced curriculum

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I wrote the other day about the new Head of Ofsted's first unsuccessful foray into curriculum, and in particular about the lack of mention of 'balance' in what she said.  She preferred to focus on 'broad' rather than 'balanced' despite what section 78 of the 2002 Education Act says.

The perils of breadth without balance are obvious.  Here's a broad curriculum:

  1. Society's debt to Surrealist art and fashion
  2. The writings of Shakespeare, Jonson, Rattigan and Pinter
  3. The genesis and genius of Bebop
  4. Moral dilemmas within genetic engineering
  5. Synchronised swimming (depths 1 to 4)
  6. Mandarin Chinese conversation
  7. Fortran programming, probability and the Taylor series
  8. The history and philosophy of science in the Enlightenment
  9. Cooking traditional English pastries, puddings, pasties and pies
  10. Flint snapping theory and practice
  11. The sexual preferences of the kings and queens of England (1066 to 1603)
  12. Contrasting Shia and Sunni approaches to the good life in the 20th Century CE

The above might be a broad curriculum — from flint knapping to Ben Jonson and Cornish pasties to Fortran — but is it balanced?   A much more significant question, of course, is how could we tell?  Balance is usually enshrined in educational aims and Robin Alexander has argued that it is deeply undemocratic only to think of aims once content (like the above) has been decided (usually by expert others).  It is like thinking about nutrition only after a year's meals have been decided upon.


Rain falls on the just and the unjust alike

📥  Comment, News and Updates

A while back, The Economist's Erasmus column carried a feature article on a clutch of Islamic scholars joining the chorus of religious voices calling for the planet to be cooled.  It quotes some apposite verses, and ends with this:

Of course, one of the troubles with religious and inter-religious talk about the environment is that it can easily sound pollyanna-isa.  There is a huge incentive to play down differences and stress commonalities across religions, and between the world of religion and secular environmentalism.  Secular environmentalists often find religious eco-talk too anthropocentric; some secular environmental sceptics probably find it insufficiently anthropocentric, in the sense that it sentimentalises nature.  In any case, is it honest or convincing for people, religious or otherwise, with very different ideas about metaphysical matters to stress how much they agree on the fate of the earth?

In defence of ecumenical greenery, the very nature of environmental challenges gives a certain integrity to eco-religious discussions.  Rising sea levels, melting glaciers and expanding deserts will affect everybody, regardless of what they believe.  The intensity of that effect may vary according to how much money people have to protect themselves from environmental change, but it will not, as far as we know, affect Hindus, Christians, Muslims or atheists in different degrees.  As a verse in the New Testament puts it, rain falls on the just and the unjust alike. To that extent, it surely behoves all schools of religious and non-religious thought to think hard about the fate of the earth and to talk to one another.

One trouble with scripture tends to be the existence of verses saying diametrically opposite things: witness Anglicanism's continuing problems with sexuality and the priesthood.  On low-lying ground, clerical thinkers may well still be arguing about such matters when the waters lap over their feet.


The new Ofsted Chief's unimpressive start

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The new head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, having announced a new investigation into the curriculum, gave her first interview last week on BBC radio 4's TWAO.  I didn't find it impressive as her answers were mostly much less precise than the questions posed.  You can listen on iPlayer and form your own judgement.

Her main point, I think, was that there was evidence of a narrowing of the school curriculum to the detriment of young people's general education.  She certainly mentioned 'broad' a lot in the interview; but she also went on about 'deep' and 'rich' as well.  The significant thing about these words is that broad is a key word in curriculum policy in England, but deep and rich are not; wonderful words they may be, but in relation to curriculum terms they have no meaning.  The Ofsted webpage announcing all this quotes this from her speech:

"We know that there are some schools that are narrowing the curriculum, using qualifications inappropriately, and moving out pupils who would drag down results.  That is nothing short of a scandal.  Childhood isn’t deferrable; young people get one opportunity to learn in school; and we owe it to them make sure they all get an education that is broad, rich and deep."

There was no mention of balance in Spielman's interview.  Section 78 of England's 2002 Education Act begins like this:

78 – General requirements in relation to curriculum

(1) The curriculum for a maintained school or maintained nursery school satisfies the requirements of this section if it is a balanced and broadly based curriculum which ...

(a) promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, and

(b) prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.

It has to be worrying that Spielman stressed 'rich' and 'deep' and 'broad' but omitted 'balanced' as, if you have breadth without balance, anything goes.


Eunice Foote

📥  Comment, News and Updates

So, the new head of the US EPA doesn't think that CO2 has much of a role in global warming.  What a pity Eunice Foote isn't still around to enlighten him.

It was the American scientist Eunice Foote who first discovered the greenhouse effect in 1856.  She showed that gases in the atmosphere were affected by the Sun’s radiation in different ways, and of all the gases she tested, it was CO2 that trapped the most heat. In 1859, UK physicist John Tyndall independently demonstrated the same effects, and he usually gets the credit for making the link.   This was because he published his results, including data on how the absorption of radiant heat differed from gas to gas.  Foote was ahead of her time.  Although her work was not published, and she wasn’t even allowed to present her findings to fellow scientists as no woman could do that in the USA at the time, it’s reported that she also speculated about whether changes in the amount of carbon dioxide in the air might lead to a warming of the Earth.



Always choose the right Hamiltonian

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I went to the I-SEE event the other night and managed to hang in through a whole evening of Density Functional Theory.  Here's a beginners' guide.  I thought I might struggle when the speaker, Aron Walsh, began by saying that he'd be talking at the boundaries of chemistry and physics.  I knew that I was going to struggle when he got onto Hamiltonian mechanics after about 5 minutes.  That said, I did learn something and the whole thing was very engaging.  The best advice Walsh had to offer was to say, "Make sure you choose the right Hamiltonian" which is something that I intend to take to heart.

Walsh had a nice line in self-deprecating humour.  His response to a well-judged introduction by the Chair, where his impressive CV was to the fore, was to note that some people think that he is more impressive on paper than in person.  It's not true though.


The great diesel disaster

📥  Comment, News and Updates

This is not my headline.  It comes from a Spectator column by James Delingpole.  You can read it here.  It begins in typical Delingpolian style:

Who do you think was responsible for Europe’s biggest environmental disaster of the past three decades; one that caused more widespread damage and killed more people than even the nuclear accident at Chernobyl?  Was it

a) greedy and selfish capitalists, probably linked to Big Oil, riding roughshod over the stringent health and safety regulations our wise, caring politicians have designed to protect us and our natural environment?  Or ...

b) an alliance of fluffy green activists, campaigning journalists and virtue-signalling politicians, united on a noble mission to save the planet from the greatest environmental threat it has ever known?

If you guessed b) then you may appreciate why we climate sceptics are experiencing such schadenfreude right now. For years we’ve been vilified by the powerful green lobby as nature–loathing, anti-science ‘deniers’ in the pay of sinister interests. Now it turns out that the real bad guys (as some of us have been saying all along) are those worthy greenies.

The article is about air pollution and the way that that the cost of driving a diesel car in the EU has been kept low because such cars release less CO2/km than petrol cars do.  Although UK fuel taxation does not discriminate between low-sulphur petrol and diesel fuels (the rate is 58p/litre for both and the VAT rate is the same), the car tax rates are different because they are based on CO2 emissions.  Hence there was a shift towards diesel despite its being a dirtier fuel.  Delingpole's point is that we were aware of this, but went ahead nevertheless.

I'm not sure, however, that all the blame can be directed at the EU's many Presidents as national law and taxes sits between Brussels and the motorist.  In the Netherlands, for example, the cost of taxing a small car (900-1100 kg) is 520 € for petrol and €1040 for diesel.  A slightly heavier car (1400-1500 kg) would be €800 for petrol and €1600 for diesel.  These are eye-watering sums compared to what UK motorists typically pay.  Here, for example, for my 1450 kg diesel it is about £20 (~€23 on a good day) because of the efficiency (in CO2 terms) of the engine.  (NB, from 2017, the UK tax rate has risen to £140 as the UK government catches up).  UK tax rates are here and are still based on CO2 emissions, not weight as in the Netherlands.

This is still a huge difference – and the cost of the fuel in the Netherlands is higher as well.



Measuring Business Impacts on People’s Well-being

📥  Comment, New Publications

OECD had a workshop in Paris the other week on Measuring Business Impacts on People’s Well-being.  Here's the webpage.

The workshop

"discussed the foundations to measuring business impacts on well-being through the creation of new measurement standards in close collaboration with the business sector, and as part of existing reporting practices that already transcend economic performance."

You can read the speaker blogs here, read the session notes here, and find links to the presentations here.  My sources say that the one from Hunter Lovins is the one to watch.  It's here.  All rather North American.


Blencathra on the BBC

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I watched a BBC film about Blencathra (a year in the life of) the other week.  In my younger life, I spent considerable time on that mountain and the film did justice to its fine sculpture: think blooming heather, time-lapse scudding clouds, fading sunsets, ... .  The music was intrusive (and not at all Cumbrian).  And there were only a few authentic local voices to listen to.  There was the obligatory tale of the phantom horsemen of Souter Fell despite its being quite separate from Blencathra.

When it finally finished (to much relief) I reflected on an omission: there was no mention of the Blencathra foxhounds.  Given the cultural significance of fox-hunting in the Lake District, and the fact that the Blencathra hunt survives today (despite everything right-thinking types threw at it), this seemed odd.  Until, that is, you remembered who the programme was made for.  Just too hot to handle for the BBC, I guess, as mentioning this core part of the mountain's life might be taken as conveying approval which would never do.


Meeting teachers at the TeachMeet

📥  Comment, News and Updates

I was rather uncharitable (quite uncharacteristically, so, I thought) about the Bristol TeachMeet last Thursday evening.  I'm happy to report that some 9 teachers did turn up.  I'm less happy to note that hardly any of them had heard of the sustainable development goals.  Their interests seemed (mostly) environmental, but then such things are hardly disconnected with the SDGs.  There was much angst around about how few green flags there are adorning Bristol schools.  I sensed a bit of embarrassment as this was not a welcome legacy of Bristol's period as the Green Capital.  It could be, of course, that Bristol's schools are just showing discernment.

I sat next to Fred, the engaging orang-utan, who'd brought along his ventriloquist, Stephanie Roinier.  Fred, aided by Stephanie (and Tom who used to work for the Natural History Unit and who had a huge bundle of super-nice pics to share with us) stole the show.  You'll find Fred on YouTube talking about the evils of palm oil, and he's on Facebook as well.

Then there was c/o Aardman.  I've yet to explore this, but it's all about Shaun building an eco-friendly place to live and it comes via sustainable which explores the Green Capital legacy – what there is of it.

There were calls for more TeachMeets.  Next time, I hope that teachers are given more of an opportunity to share what they do.  After all, it is what TeachMeets are supposed to be about.



From Atoms to Devices: materials design for new energy technologies

📥  Comment, News and Updates

The I-SEE seminar on Tuesday 7 March is:

From atoms to devices: materials design for new energy technologies

and is given by Aron Walsh, Professor of Materials Design in the Department of Materials at Imperial.  Here's the Abstract

The discovery of functional materials, tailored for applications in energy conversion and storage, is now possible by combining theoretical chemistry with high-performance computation.  The toolkit for materials modelling is becoming increasingly predictive and powerful, with a recent emphasis being placed on data mining and informatics.   I will critically discuss the past and future contributions of materials theory and simulation to the development of new energy technologies, including light-to-electricity conversion in photovoltaic cells and heat-to-electricity conversion in thermoelectric cells.  Particular attention will be paid to hybrid halide perovskites which in addition to becoming champion thin-film solar energy materials, demonstrate how new materials have the potential to displace existing technologies in a short timeframe.  I will discuss the challenges for materials design including the development of robust application-specific performance descriptors that can be accurately measured and calculated, and combine to give a quantitative figure of merit.

It would seem that Professor Walsh thinks that technology might have a role to play in our renewable energy futures.  The session is free for neo-Luddites.  Further details are here.