“What we are looking for is what is looking” -St Francis
The modern world poses many challenges for children today.
How does one navigate all the conflicting and contradictory messages we receive from the media, the community and the social environment?
How does one empower children with the tools they need to be able to arbitrate between the different voices and influences to which they are subjected and to distil for themselves their own unique set of values and beliefs?
Discernment and self- confidence are the key here and the cultivation of an enquiring mind, which should be the goal of education.
In this newsletter we have various articles on this topic: An article by Charles de Villiers on “The Peril and Promise of Nuclear Power” a former reactor physicist at Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, following last month’s discussion of the film “Oppenheimer.” There is also an article by myself “Reflections of a mathematics and science teacher: 40 years on” concerning how mathematics can be taught in such a way as to empower children rather than diminish their confidence in their ability; and an article by Norman Bernard on ways in which English Language and English Literature can be taught to develop an enquiring mind.
Children are so often at sea when trying to make sense of the times they live in.
Zulfiqar Awan, has done an in-depth study of the modern state, drawing on Classical Greek and Roman sources such as Tacitus, the Roman historian, as well as modern philosophers such as Adam Ferguson and Friedrich Nietzsche. Using a “Tacitean lens”, Zulfiqar will view the idea of decay in the socio- political zone by examining the work of Ferguson, and the specific form of psyche such decay forges by looking at the philosophy of Nietzsche. This allows us to SEE how the ancient Platonic idea of a sick-society / sick-citizen is playing out today as it did several Millenia ago. Here is the link to Part 1 of his series: “Society on the Couch: Symptoms of a Sick Society.”
It is my intention to provide food for thought for those willing to take the opportunity to consider these aspects of education for our children and their relevance for the future.
You have taught my boys that there is no limit to their intellectual curiosity. You have taught them the value of thinking for themselves. – Parent, Justine Gevisser
Sharon Levy has been a part of our lives since my oldest son Leo was 6 years old. Leo was a curious and bright child who taught himself to read and showed a natural aptitude and curiosity for maths and the sciences. A dear friend suggested he go to Sharon for extension work and thus begun our adventure with Learning Unlimited. Sharon’s sessions were in no way linear. Leo learned about astronomy, physics, and maths in a fun and engaging way and this sparked a deep curiosity and a love of learning. My younger son Joshua followed and greatly benefited from these exploratory sessions.
As Leo approached high school, he began to take his commitment to his musical studies seriously and the busy schedules of regular schooling no longer worked which meant he needed to find a suitable alternative. Sharon and her team were brilliant, attentive and detailed and Leo managed to complete 5 GCSE’s in 5 short months.
Leo and Jumah ‘s Learning Unlimited IGCSE graduation.
We landed up in the USA, not the UK, but decided, after trying out one US alternative, to return to Learning Unlimited. Leo completed A-Levels in Maths/Physics and Biology over Zoom and during Covid, Sharon’s team remained committed and available during this deeply distressing time and it was clear this way of learning suited him.
Leo prepares for his A Level Biology practical exam
He was supported by his tutors and got the job done with minimal distraction from his music. Leo is in his final year of Piano Performance at the Juilliard School in New York City.
Leo’s recent performance of Rachmaninoff”s 4th Piano Concerto at the Cape Town City Hall.
We moved back to the UK from the USA in the summer of 2021. Joshua began his A-Levels studies in Biology, Chemistry and Maths in the fall and discovered there were massive gaps in his knowledge as he had come from the US system and not covered much of the GCSE content in America. We again enlisted Sharon’s team to bolster his schooling and this has also been very successful, most especially in exam technique and preparation over this period. Joshua is now in his first year of Biological Sciences at Edinburgh University, Scotland.
Josh with his proud parents
As a family we are deeply grateful for all the energy and commitment from Sharon and her team over a very long time to give our children the best possible chance of success.
The Peril and Promise of Nuclear Power – By Charles de Villiers
The recent blockbuster film Oppenheimer has reminded us all – if a reminder was needed – of the terrifying power of nuclear weapons. From the start, the scientists on the Manhattan Project were aware that the energy they were learning to release from the atomic nucleus could be put to both warlike and peaceful uses. A minor scene in the movie refers to the experiment that produced the first human-made self-sustaining nuclear reaction. In the winter of 1942, a team led by Enrico Fermi built what he called “a crude pile of black bricks and wooden timbers” below the spectator stands of a baseball field at the University of Chicago.
It had been known for some time that a heavy nucleus like uranium can undergo fission, splitting into two lighter nuclei while releasing neutrons and energy. Since the emitted neutrons can themselves induce fission in other nuclei, this makes possible a chain reaction, where each new fission event can cause one or more new fissions. Fermi’s task was to show that this process could be both sustained and controlled. By his success, he not only advanced the Los Alamos bomb project, but also laid the foundations for the peaceful use of nuclear power in the post-war era.
Given that the principle being demonstrated was similar to that of the proposed nuclear bomb, nuclear safety was not forgotten – a man was delegated to stand by with a sharpened axe, to cut the rope that supported the emergency control rod.
Fermi and his colleagues at Stagg Field believed they had built the world’s first nuclear reactor, but as so often, Nature had got there first – in this case by about 1.7 billion years! Thirty years after the demonstration in Chicago, it was discovered that an ancient natural reactor had existed at Oklo in Gabon, generating significant heat continuously over a period of some hundreds of thousands of years.
Nuclear power has always been controversial. In many peoples’ minds it is still associated with nuclear weapons. This association is misleading, as a nuclear power station cannot possibly explode like a bomb. Nuclear fission does however present some environmental and safety risks.
The potential for catastrophic accidents, like the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011, highlights the risks associated with nuclear power. Such accidents, though extremely rare, can lead to large releases of radioactive materials, environmental contamination, and long-term health problems. Both accidents have been attributed to avoidable errors in plant design and management.
It’s worth mentioning here that the risks of routine releases from nuclear power plants have been greatly exaggerated. Humans worldwide receive an average of 2.4 millisieverts (mSv) per annum from cosmic radiation, rocks, water, air, and vegetation. In some geological areas this dose is much higher. In fact, humans have their own natural radioactivity, and the most significant radiation we receive comes from aeroplane trips and medical X-rays. Permitted levels of radiation around nuclear power stations are minuscule by comparison.
One of the most significant drawbacks of nuclear power is its production of radioactive waste, some of which remains hazardous for thousands of years. Proper disposal and long-term management of nuclear waste pose environmental and safety concerns. This issue also complicates the decommissioning of power plants, as many components of the plant remain radioactive long after it has ceased to produce power.
Nuclear proliferation and security
The spread of nuclear technology for civilian use can increase the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, as the same technology used for power generation can potentially be diverted for military purposes. Nuclear power plants and their associated facilities can also be potential targets for terrorist attacks, leading to catastrophic radioactive releases.
The risks and challenges of nuclear fission power should not blind us to its benefits. Our society depends on abundant energy, and no energy source is entirely free from risk or environmental damage. We accept many other sources of risk because of the benefits they bring. One example is transport, which most people regard as an absolute necessity as well as a basic human right. According to the World Health Organisation, approximately 1.3 million people die each year in road accidents, while many more are harmed or killed by the levels of pollution produced by motor transport and its ancillary industries. Electric vehicles promise to alleviate the latter problem, but where are we to get the electricity?
Let us consider some of the benefits of nuclear power.
Low greenhouse gas emissions
Nuclear power plants produce very low levels of greenhouse gas emissions during operation, which helps combat climate change. Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear power doesn’t release carbon dioxide or other air pollutants directly into the atmosphere. Several leading environmental activists are now advocating the inclusion of nuclear power in the green energy mix.
High energy density
Nuclear fuel contains a tremendous amount of energy in a small volume, allowing nuclear power plants to generate a large amount of electricity from a relatively small amount of fuel. This can provide a stable and consistent energy supply.
Base load power
Nuclear power can provide a stable and reliable source of base load power, meaning it can operate consistently and doesn’t rely on weather conditions or fuel availability in the way that renewable sources like solar and wind power do.
Nuclear power can reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels, which can be subject to geopolitical tensions and price volatility. For example, Germany’s 2011 decision to phase out nuclear power has twelve years later left it exposed to political and economic pressure from Russia.
Long-term fuel supply
Uranium, the primary fuel for nuclear reactors, is relatively abundant, and advanced reactor designs can extract more energy from the same amount of fuel, potentially extending the supply.
There is ongoing research into advanced reactor designs, such as breeder reactors, thorium reactors, and modular reactors. These all hold promise for improving safety, reducing waste, and utilizing alternative fuel sources. In the longer term, the development of nuclear fusion offers the promise of virtually limitless fuel and no long-lived nuclear waste.
Nuclear power offers the potential for low greenhouse gas emissions and a reliable energy source, but it also comes with serious challenges like radioactive waste management, safety concerns, and the potential for nuclear weapons proliferation. The decision to pursue nuclear power requires a careful evaluation of these pros and cons, along with technological advancements and evolving safety standards.
Reflections of a mathematics and science teacher: 40 years on – By Sharon Levy
“children are endowed with a great deal more than many of us know, that every child may be born with a genius but may simply be degeniused at an early age because parents and environment lack the ability to recognize these faculties.” Buckminster Fuller
Recently, I have been confronted with yet another instance of a student of an online school whose mathematics course is a dog’s breakfast, providing no mentoring or scaffolding, leaving the student high and dry with partial knowledge and gaps in conceptual understanding. I watch as the student resorts to memorizing and parroting rather than understanding. Undoing the damage is frustrating for me and the student, who is desperately trying to keep his self- respect intact. This is the plight of so many unsuspecting and well-meaning parents who are paying school fees for pre-packaged online tuition.
You see, education is not merely about the content of knowledge but the cultivation of intelligence. If Jill Bolt is correct in her assertion that thinking follows feeling and that we are feeling beings before we are thinking beings (see June newsletter), then the emotional and affective engagement of the student in the learning process is a pre-requisite for affective and effective learning.
Mathematics when taught badly is brutal on the emotional wellbeing of a learner. I watch as the young man before me squirms in his seat when he cannot find the correct answer. Instead of his finding learning an adventure, I feel that I am a torturer, not a co-traveller in a great adventure.
So, while the brutalizing process continued, I begin from the beginning to build foundational concepts: What is a fraction? What is a decimal? What is a circle? And so on.
Gradually the student’s need for formulae and procedures began to lesson and understanding began to dawn.
And then at a critical point in time, when the student had become sufficiently familiar with the concepts, I began to show the student the difference between maths properly taught and the way it was previously presented, which is muddled and confusing.
At that moment, a light began to dawn and a spirit of enquiry was born.
Once taught in this way, the student becomes the arbitrator of the manner in which the lesson is presented.
No longer crippled by feelings of inadequacy and fear of failure, the student can understand the source of his confusion and the reason why he was unable to grasp the mathematics.
He has acquired a life skill and recognition of his own ability to engage not only with the material but also with the manner in which it is presented. If the relevant material is not clear, he asks further questions as to why it is not clear: is it a failure on his part or on the part of the teacher?
The formerly unquestioned authority of the educator has now been called into question. The student must now assume responsibility for his own learning.
He has learnt how to ask questions about himself and to enquire into the whole learning process.
Who am I in this learning process?
What set of beliefs do I hold that enables or inhibits my learning?
Why am I afraid of failure?
This enquiry can ignite an individual’s awareness of things as they are. In time this becomes an ability that like a light is shone on all activities, be they internal or external.
This individual no longer needs to depend on others or external authority for validation of self but can stand alone.
This surely is a key goal of education.
WHAT SKILLS DO STUDENTS REALLY NEED? – By Norman Bernard
My recent experiences with an NSC English student have forced me to reflect more consciously than normal on what skills we should consider to be the most important to impart to our students. I shall try to indicate why this is so by speaking a little about some recent lessons, especially one devoted to Shelley’s famous sonnet Ozymandias, a prescribed poem for this student. In Shelley’s poem a traveller from an “antique (ancient) land” communicates to the poem’s “I” or subject what he saw in a bare and uninhabited desert, namely the remains of a colossal statue of the great Egyptian pharaoh Rameses II referred to in this poem as Ozymandias, the Greek equivalent of his name. The huge face is half-buried in the desert sands, but the traveller notes how skilfully the sculptor has captured something of the great king’s character by referring to the face’s “frown” and a “sneer of cold command.” The haughtiness and cruelty of the sculptor’s sitter—as well as his pride and boastfulness—is brought home by the inscription on the surviving pedestal which, in part, reads “…Look on my works ye Mighty and despair!”
The poem is rich and about many things, but Shelley’s hatred of autocracy—he was a political radical expelled from Oxford in the early 19th century because of his political radicalism and his openly declared atheism—is clear. The broken remains of the statue situated in a barren and lifeless desert and the dissolution of the king’s empire also tell a tale about the impermanence of our achievements, an impermanence which makes Ozvymandias’ boast unintentionally ironic. However, this is also contrasted with the power of art to preserve and, in a sense, to immortalise since it is only by art and writing that anything of the great pharaoh’s career and character are preserved for us.
As the poem is far more complex than the South African poems which constitute the majority of this student’s prescribed texts, I tried to help by writing a set of sample answers to set questions on the poem in the student’s point and found that at times I simply did not know what to do. One such occasion was when I was confronted with the following question: “What would your response be to seeing “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” in the desert? How should one respond to a question which does not seem to have any link to the poem’s themes or language? Should one say, “I would be amazed,” or “I would walk straight past them because I couldn’t care less” or “I would probably find them ugly.” To me any response seems equally motivated or unmotivated. I confessed all this to my student and asked him what he thought.
His response was most revealing. He too had no idea what was expected of him here. He also added that similar situations had arisen in his online course before and his teacher, who was licensed to deliver the relevant curriculum, told him that she would wait for a memorandum in which the recommended answer was given. This is bad enough because the confusion of all concerned indicates the arbitrariness of the question/task. What is much worse yet is that she added that if one were to deviate significantly from the formulation given in that memorandum one would lose marks in a test or an exam. I have heard similar stories from other students of mine who, in the course of revising past papers ad infinitum, were told which specific formulations to use for specific questions if they wanted good grades.
At this point I would like to make a distinction between strict marking and negative marking. I am all for the former as I do not see why a student should not be made to deserve outstanding results. However, what we are seeing with that memorandum is a process in which the examiner stipulates a specific answer as ideal and marks you up to the extent to which you approximate it and penalises you to the extent that you deviate from it. What this overlooks is the possibility that the different answer a talented student provides might be at least as good as or even better than what the examiner had in mind. The mentality behind such procedures is dogmatic and punitive with the emphasis falling on what the student does not do rather than what he or she does.
So, when confronted with tasks that seem senseless and modes of assessment that seem offensive what is one to do? As noted, I felt obliged to tell my student that I thought the question senseless and that I did not understand the intentions of those who had put together these questions. By way of motivating this, I contrasted this question with one that I thought sensible. We have seen that there are clues as to how the sculptor experienced the personality of his subject. In one question the student was directed to find evidence of this in lines 4-8 and quote the words/phrases on which his answer was based. The level of understanding required was fairly basic, but the question undeniably related to the themes of the poem and required some consideration of its language. The pupil took the point and I think we spontaneously agreed with one another.
I also took this opportunity to refer to one or two other questions—on different poems—that I also thought pointless in the same way or, alternatively, so basic that I hardly thought them worth asking. I think the vital point is this: at this point we were no longer analysing the poem as such but reflecting on whether the way in which tasks had been structured was sensible, whether or not the curriculum was being delivered effectively or not. In short, we were engaged in second-order thought not on any specific thing to be learned but on how we learn: we were concerned with which methods are conducive to the kind of learning which produces understanding rather than parroting and which are not. I am convinced that it is skills of this kind that are the most important a student can acquire because they are not subject-specific and can be applied to anything that one might encounter in life.
They make one reflective, more aware than would otherwise be and, I believe, more able to devise individual learning strategies that are in harmony with one’s skills and temperament. I should like to mention more briefly some recent lessons with the same student on descriptive writing because they make the same points. By using extracts from Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Golding’s Lord of the Flies I tried to make the point that the best descriptions are thematic. They are designed to create an atmosphere of a specific kind, or give indications of a characters socio-economic circumstances or illuminate his character in terms of his possessions and surroundings. In short, they have a point.
Many students wrongly feel that descriptive writing can be amorphous. They instinctively know that narratives must be organised because of the centrality of plots: plots have beginnings, middles and ends. But they mostly do not realise—and are often not taught—that descriptive writing is not a holiday from the demands of coherence. My student’s response was that he found the detailed analyses we had done helpful. I asked him why and in what way. He had replied that he had been under the impression that descriptive writing was mainly a matter of using lots of adjectives. Again, such an impression can only be a product of mechanical methods. I pointed out that things which enable us to specify detail like adjectives are indeed essential in descriptive writing but that we could not confine ourselves to recipes.
We then had a talk about the grammar of adjectives, the different sentence positions in which they can occur and how these create possibilities for stylistic variation. I noted also that there is no such thing as one correct stylistic procedure or one correct mode of organisation. To show him what I meant I gave indications, with respect to specific texts again, how writing which simply described a natural scene could be organised. One could have different paragraphs concentrating on different sensory impressions (sight, sound etc.) or one could organise paragraphs by contrasting panoramic views with close-ups and so on. Again, the focus had shifted from mindless and straightjacketing little “rules” to working out why one would use one tactic rather than another and to what effect.
I am convinced that it is only by reflective scrutiny of this kind that one can acquire the skills which enable one to learn how to learn. In the case of the Shelley sonnet especially I simply did not know how to go about teaching if I did not make the student question what had been asked of him. I am also convinced about the truth of the points I have been making about self-reflexive second-order thought. However, I still think that both practical and ethical questions remain that I do not know how to solve or whether it even makes sense to speak of a solution.
The skills I think essential will help a student in the long run do more than he/she otherwise could. However, short time considerations are important too. It is a simple fact of life that good marks matter in the real world. So, what if becoming more critical and self-aware results in a student being more than less likely to produce answers which are not in the “memorandum?” How are long-term benefits to be measured against the risk of immediate penalties? I simply do not know.