The Bitterest Pills: The Troubling Story of Antipsychotic Drugs

The Bitterest Pills: The Troubling Story of Antipsychotic Drugs cover

I have recently read this excellent book  about research into the drug treatment of mental health conditions.

My review which offers an overview and my opinion is at the end of this post, but you may find it even more useful to listen to the author speak about the issues in this video made by the Open Paradigm Project.

The book made me think hard, and raised some very serious questions for me about our confidence in the ‘gold standard’ – double blind medical trial research data – which is held up as such a paragon of reliability. It is particularly annoying to think that education research is criticised as not being rigorous enough in comparison, when such a large scale failure of scientific thinking is reported.

The story, which tells of hubris and ambition amongst scientists, corruption from big business and the damage done, especially in relation to children, is enough to make me angry, but it also inspires me to look for parallel concerns in education.

One such concern is about the confusion between the organ which we call the brain and the phenomenon we call the mind. The story of drugs used to treat complex disorders of the mind is one of treating the brain with blanket interference at the level of the neuron and synapse, and then trying to explain the effects at the level of the mind.

It’s a bit like suggesting rain as a solution for society’s ills. Clearly rain has an effect on society’s functioning, but it has an indiscriminate dampening effect which doesn’t explain, predict or cause something like war, for example, although it may make for a temporary cessation if heavy enough. Indeed, it could be that such a break from the routine of war may help peace efforts to succeed. But nobody is confused that the rain is curing society’s problems in the way that ‘antipsychotic’ drugs are foolishly thought to target mental conditions.

These two things, brain and mind, are for me on completely separate ‘trophic levels‘, using the language of the ecosystems of food chains, just as rain and society are. One affects the other but not in simple ways that can explain the function of the mind through specific events in the brain nor vice versa, for that matter.

So, this analysis leads me to be cautious of any scientific report that attempts to relate brain biology directly to teaching and learning, although I have every confidence that hydration is important for our brains to work well and thus we should provide safe drinking fountains in schools, just as I find at Trinity College Dublin on every floor. Did I mention I now work there? :)

My review of The Bitterest Pills: The Troubling Story of Antipsychotic Drugs

A must-read for anyone concerned with the well-being of society

In this book, Dr Moncrieff explains carefully, soberly and with considerable academic integrity, how the world of psychiatry has become distorted by its own desire for recognition as a medical profession, its dubious assumptions about the nature of mental conditions and by the efforts made by drugs companies to increase their business.

Dr Moncrieff explains how the desire for psychiatry to be as scientific/medical as other areas of health has led to rushed conclusions about the link between brain chemistry/biology and complex mental conditions of the mind such as schizophrenia, manic depression and anxiety.

The assumption made is that a chemical imbalance in the brain requires toxic ‘antipsychotic’ drugs to counter it, and like insulin for diabetes, over a lifetime since it is a permanent deficiency in the brain. This assumption is shown to have little or no evidence to support it, yet is the mainstay of modern psychiatric practice. Dr Moncrieff proposes an alternative view, that the drugs are simply suppressing brain activity, and thus appear to ‘cure’ mental conditions. The trouble is, whichever view is taken, the drugs have toxic effects which are in many ways no different those from the illegal drugs taken for pleasure that we criminalise in society. These effects are downplayed as ‘side effects’ despite there being substantial evidence of long term damage to body and brain health.

Dr Moncrieff shows how drugs companies, keen to maintain and improve their business, have funded research which shows marginal and questionable improvement through their drugs and have suppressed negative reports. Despite contradictory results, this ‘research’ is followed by advertising and efforts to shift the wider society understanding of mental health, so that patients demand ever more drugs to ‘cure’ their sometimes modest problems, now made to sound like serious illnesses.

The distortions to academic practice, pyschiatric prescription and most damning of all, the attempts to treat young children with toxic drugs are revealed by Dr Moncrieff with careful attention to the published record in a convincing manner, providing a solid basis for further debate.

But, most damning of all, is the experience that Dr Moncrieff reports of a refusal in the psychiatric world to engage with these issues or to properly discuss the ethical dilemmas that arise. I found myself intrigued, challenged but ultimately enraged by the failure of the academic/medical professionals to ‘do no harm’.

I recommend this book without reservation to anyone prepared to think hard about these issues, and who perhaps has been unaware of concerns about mental health treatment and the huge cost to the well-being of society. It is then for us to take up the challenges Dr Moncrieff has described and ask how are we and society to respond?

Learning Theory

Learning Theory concept map

I have been working for the HoTEL EU Support Action recently at Brunel University and I was asked to produced a report on learning theories – a struggle, since there seem to be so many ‘isms’ and often I come across what seems to be the same theory, but from a different disciplinary or professional context.

So, this A3 poster of Learning Theory was central to the outcome and I would welcome feedback, especially since I will use it as part of my theoretical and conceptual framework for my PhD by Retrospective Practice. There is also the live this CmapTools version with clickable links to Wikipedia and InfEd.

Here is an extract from the report:

“Learning theory has been a contested scientific field for most of its history, with conflicting contributions from many scientific disciplines, practice and policy positions. With the continuing and disruptive influence of technology on information, knowledge and practice in all sectors of society it is no wonder that innovators, drawn to the interactive potential that computers bring to learning, are challenged by the theoretical basis for their innovations.

Formal education is also a high stakes, culturally & institutionally conservative activity, which serves more than one societal purpose, including:

  • learner development and fulfilment;
  • child care;
  • preparation for citizenship, parenthood and retirement;
  • preparation for work;
  • selection for jobs.

Even in the higher, informal and professional sectors of education, complexity of education is matched by complexity of learning outcomes which may include:

  • skills development;
  • knowledge acquisition;
  • improvement in strategic, analytic and creative capacities;
  • attainment of competence;
  • establishment of attitudes and values.

Each of these societal purposes and these learning outcomes demand different approaches and understandings for the theorist and may develop at varying rates or found to be diverse in relation to context, location and culture.”

Thanks to all the Twitterati that responded so positively when I shared an earlier draft at the HEA TeachMeet: @mike_blamires  @stephenharlow  @lenatp  @LizaField  @fleapalmer  @laurapasquini @JuneinHE @ProfDcotton @RebeccaRadics @catherinecronin @oliverquinlan @STEMPedR @IaninSheffield @louisedrumm @valerielopes @marloft @ethinking @HEAEducation @suzibewell @DebbieHolley1 @cgirvan @suebecks

Reflection on Reflection™

No this is not a treatise on reflective practice, it is reflective practice.

Today I took friend @benjeddi ‘s advice and decided to RiskIT (for only seven minutes rather than two weeks). A key RiskIT element is to be ‘Not afraid of failure, but learn from it’ – an attitude I have nearly always benefited from, despite some pain.

I was presenting at TeachMeet Essex, in front of an unusually strong gathering including many head teachers. The meeting exceeded my expectations of this novel form of CPD with excellent food (thanks KEGS’ chef and kitchen), excellent organisation (thanks @aknill and @ICTMagic) and clear evidence of the power of a good head’s sanction, thanks @headguruteacher!

My risks were:

  • to demonstrate from an iPhone via Reflection on my laptop;
  • to present my ideas using VideoScribe;
  • to test a proposal for developing modern apps based on lost ideas.

It all went wrong, as it often does when you use technology in a presentation for the first time, but since I am going to do it all again at #tmbolton on Friday, I fruitfully learnt from the experience.  For all those let down by a slightly duff speech, here is the video from Videoscribe I would have like to shown:

Incidentally, I created the video by using Reflection to record the video as it was played by VideoScribe on the phone. A subsequent re-compress using Quicktime Player 7 to half size and H264 yielded a video only 3.3Mb in size.

Heaven

On Friday, I left my meeting in London and set off from Liverpool Street Station to Essex (the only way is Essex, I live in Brentwood).

“It was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye; perhaps all of these and other things happened together for all my senses were bewildered all at once and could give me no explanation.”

from the The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan)

I didn’t get out at my usual stop, but instead the train continued towards Southend and I disembarked (thanks Sasha) at Southend Airport.

Had I fallen asleep on the journey? Was I in a dream?

I got on a plane to Dublin and found myself inveigled into a secret-service plot to surprise my friend Boyd for his birthday. A black limousine met me at the airport with good friend, colleague and Boyd’s partner Eileen and Tom ‘No. 1 son’, who whisked me to a pub to mark time with Eileen’s old friends (and a Guinness). Then we collected Zac ‘Besty’ (George Best? Animal? or simply the best?) and finally we hid in Findlater in Howth to await the birthday boy. Hosted by Sabine, we enjoyed a fantastic sea-food skillet and laughed and lived our love of family. Aoife offers me a bed for the night and she and I have a cracking conversation long past my bed time.

A very good dream indeed.

Saturday, like in all my best dreams, was spent at a stimulating Association of Teachers’ / Education Centres’ numeracy conference, re-connecting with Eileen Two and meeting the vibrant Dolores Corcoran (where were you Elizabeth?). I guess I should have been suspicious of the conference title – ‘Does it All Add Up?’

Later the birthday party continued with Boyd and Eileen’s neighbours and friends – more cracking conversation and such warm, good people.

Boyd's birthday

Boyd blows out the candles watched by Eileen, Tom and Chantal

Food from Joan (now known as Jo-an-issima) was spot-on, with the shiniest cutlery and glasses. Sing-songs and good company. Shared a brilliant falling star with Aoife and I had to be taken home by the delightful Nessa. It’s not usual to sleep in dreams and I didn’t sleep much before Sunday morning. On waking to a dawn over Dublin Bay, I am off in another limo, to the airport, to fly to London Gatwick.

Dublin Bay

Dublin Bay and Howth at dawn

I then enter another level of dream – ‘in transit’ – like the novel by Brigid Brophy, that I marvelled at as teenager. Vana arrives and we work on categorising future trends in TEL before a flight to Turin, Italy.

We meet Katherine, who drives us to Pollenzo in Bra, to L’Agenzia di Pollenzo ‘si fa in quattro’ the international headquarters of ‘slow food’. The ‘quattro’ are our hotel Albergo dell’Agenzia also housing Guido Ristorante Pollenzo, the Banco Vino (wine bank) and best of all, the University degli  Studi Scienze Gastronomische (University of Gastronomic Sciences) – “the first academic institution to offer an interdisciplinary approach to food studies”. The whole campus is built on part of the UNESCO World Heritage site of King Carlo Alberto’s 1835  Savoy Estate, which in turn is built on the Roman town of Pollentia.

Universita degli Studi Gastronomische

Universita degli Studi Gastronomische

I sit down to dinner with Vana and Katherine:

antipasto – Sformato di verdure con crema di Roccaverano

primo – Tajarin al sugo di salsicca di Bra

secondo – Brasato al Barolo con patate al forno

dolce – Panna Cotta

with a powerful Barbaresco from close by, and we speak all night of creativity.

wine and panna cotta

Barbaresco wine from the local region and Panna Cotta

In this heavenly dream, I wonder how did I deserve or manage such a dreamy, surreally wicked dream weekend, at such times in higher education…

“…with the drink trade on its last legs and the land running fallow for the want of artificial manures” ?

from the The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (Brian O’Nolan)

I began to realise, unlike the narrator in Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, who doesn’t know he is in hell, that I must be in heaven and that I passed in my sleep on the train from Liverpool Street.

 

Brentwood Community Print

I have been volunteering with Brentwood Community Print, working to advise Paul, their web developer, as he created a first web-site for them. First and foremost the company is a print shop serving the Brentwood area – they are quick, friendly and competitive – I ordered and got 250 business cards inside an hour. I recommend them without reservation.

Secondly, they offer a place for people recovering from mental illness, providing a challenging, supportive and happy context to build confidence and meaningful work to develop skills. I have really enjoyed my time helping Paul and getting to this point has been Paul’s success. It was particularly rewarding today watching him complete ‘job 1′ – a published web-site. Everyone pitched in with proof-reading, critical feedback and ideas for improvement, some of which will provide tasks for ‘job 2′, the next stage in what is an unending series of revisions to keep the web-site dynamic and increase its quality.

Well done Paul and all the team!

 

How does technology enhance learning?

Ever since 1979, I have been curious about the instinctive reaction (and evidence in front of my eyes) that computers might support learning. That first computer program, intended for me to discover how to program, was Snooker. It simulated (on a Research Machines 380Z) the snooker table with a single ball. By specifying a force and a direction (as a bearing) you could hit the ball and see if it went in the pocket. When I showed my mathematics pupils, they were full of it – running to the cupboard to find protractors so they could more accurately estimate the angle.

In 2002 (call me slow) I had the opportunity to make my own analysis of how technology could enhance learning in the context of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority project, Investigation Into Pupils’ Creativity Across The Curriculum, for which I was a consultant.

In 2012 (call me an octogenarian snail) I have tidied up that work into a a rather text-full poster which summarises what I had learnt, mapped on to the model of learning which I use in my practice – expression and evaluation – that poster is coming next!

UPDATE 14th August 2012: I have recreated Snooker using QuiteBasic!

Could Brentwood schools be more like Cambridge University?

Downing College, Cambridge

I have just read Derek Wenmoth’s blog ‘The Wrong Drivers‘ in which he comments on Michael Fullan’s concerns that we are pursuing ineffective school improvement strategies.

Much as though I find it easy to support Michael Fullan’s ideas for the right drivers, Derek Wenmoth’s commentary and Darren Sudlow’s comment, I am not so clear how to overcome the contradictions between a society’s call for accountability and the huge value of open and transparent data as a means of directing improvement in education.

In the UK we are being driven to the mistaken belief that a market should exist for education at every level.  If so, in order for this market to operate properly, the consumer needs to know who is selling the best value product. Unfortunately we don’t fully understand how educational quality is defined, in a way that can allow effective comparison, nor are we clear what price it is to the community (unless we buy private education). The consumer is persuaded to make judgements based on a muddled and (old) fashion-conscious set of beliefs, with narrow and misleading data sets.

This position has encouraged the development of ‘free schools’ (charter schools) based on parental demand rather than community need, but paid for by the community. Recently, one such secondary school is being proposed on the site of the closing Sawyers Hall College, a comprehensive secondary school which is closing this August and of which I am a governor here in Brentwood.

Over the last decade I have witnessed at first-hand the long and detailed deliberation about what our community in Brentwood needs and the extensive efforts to find sponsors for the kind of learning provision identified. One outcome was the realisation that there were too many schools for a declining demographic and so after consultation an agreed, supportive and professional school closure has been carried out over three years with an emotionally moving focus on safeguarding children’s well-being. The new free school proposal takes no notice of this in any way.

In fact the new free school is not needed by the community as a whole, has the wrong mix of values and educational provision and will cause another school closure if successful –  or its own if not – causing further expense and disruption to the community. My concern about this has lead to the formation with four others of the Educating Brentwood group, who are trying to hold educational developments in Brentwood to account (and highlight good practice). For further reading, my response to its unprofessional and poorly reported consultation is appended to this post. I believe the parents who are behind this new school are persuaded that schools in Brentwood are inadequate, and that the only way to improve their children’s life chances is to demand a new school. The basis for this is false evidence of  failure in current schools in Brentwood (the closing school recently received outstanding judgements from OFSTED), naivety and a deep selfishness – ironic when the school is proposed as a church school.

Darren’s call in his comment on Derek’s blog to “make the learning visible to the community” will only help if the institution is seen and trusted as an important partner in whole community development, as Keri Facer suggests, rather than a service to that community.

I suggest that institutional leaders must move from building their organisation as a coherent community in its ivory tower, to becoming more incoherent but embedded locally and in solid partnership with all other institutions in the neighborhood, committed to raising mutual quality hand-in-hand. Parents may then believe that their child’s future is solidly safe in the school most convenient to reach, because all schools in the neighborhood are working together to facilitate the transformation of that most precious of society’s assets – the child.

This call for incoherence and embeddedness challenges the orthodoxy of competitive institutions, walled-in shiny buildings, safeguarding policies, militaristic uniform, faux community engagement (seen as a kind of missionary work), technological firewalls and many other outward signs of institutional power, but not at the expense, one hopes, of the value of the family that school offers and the focus on knowledge sharing & acquisition as an end in itself.

What if there was only one educational institution in Brentwood for all learners and trainees of any age and say like Cambridge University, you attended and ‘lived’ in a college that was modest in size, local to you, but part of that larger institution with its comprehensive opportunities?

Perhaps we can learn from the best university in the world – I think the benefits are obvious.

 

APPENDIX

My Response to Becket Keys, Brentwood Consultation
20th April, 2012Dear Sir/Madam

I am respondng as an individual, I am a governor at Sawyers Hall College and the parent of three children.
I am also a Reader in the Institute for Educational Cybernetics (sustainable education systems) at the University of Bolton and a Director of a nonprofit education consultancy based in Brentwood.
My postcode is CM15 9BZ.

QUESTION 1: Should Becket Keys enter in a Funding Agreement with the Secretary of State?
NO

QUESTION 2: Please give reasons
The Secretary of State should not enter into a Funding Agreement with The Russell Education Trust because the impact on other local schools has not been fully evaluated nor publicly shared with the parents whose demand is the basis of the proposal.

As a governor of the closing school in Brentwood, I fully appreciate the detailed care and attention that must be paid to the children and their parents due to the disruption of closing – a process that has carried on over three years. It is vital not to recreate the situation in Brentwood that causes there to be another closure in a few years – it would be ignoring the lessons of recent history and the real need for vocational education that has been established by extensive analysis and consultation over the last ten years.

The Secretary of State should recognise that the proposers of the free school have deliberately misled the public and parents about this, by publishing incorrect information about admissions, overstating the likely continuing admissions at Sawyers Hall College if it were to remain open. In addition they have incorrectly speculated in their publicity to parents on the numbers of children likely to take up places in selective, independent or other maintained schools, contrary to the evidence.

Furthermore they have propagated the popular myth that an academic approach to teaching and learning is in the interests of every child, when it is clear from the research evidence that there is a diversity of learning styles that require a diversity of teaching approaches. The schools in Brentwood already offer clear pathways to academic children, all of them above average in their results. But there is room for improvement, and this is particularly in the area of learning-by-doing. This does not necessarily sacrifice the opportunity to follow academic pathways as the learner matures and gains confidence. There is also a need to improve the mix of vocational education offered in Brentwood as recognised by more than one extensive, professionally run consultation over the last decade. Our country must improve its position as a manufacturing force in the world, but we seem prepared to ignore those children who would be delighted to put their practical intellectual capability into use in learning, and thus develop the high level skills through this route that the country needs.

The company who are promoting this free school, not the instigators and parents who I believe have acted in good faith, have followed a marketing path to make money, with a reckless disregard for Brentwood and indeed the country’s needs. Their credentials to successfully run the school are unclear and are not revealed when asked. The Secretary of State would be ill-advised to risk our taxpayer’s money on such a funding agreement and should recommend to the company involved that they form an independent school and seek private investment, where their record and experience will be examined very carefully by investors before taking such a step.

As a resident of Brentwood, a parent, a taxpayer and a voter – hence an investor of sorts – on the basis of my own due diligence enquiries and their failure to establish any confidence in the proposing company, I can see no merit in the proposal.

Ultimately, I believe they have established an inflated parental demand on false information – a practice that no reputable business in Brentwood High Street would get away with for long.

QUESTION 3: Should Becket Keys adopt the proposed 2013 Admissions Policy without any further changes?
NO
QUESTION 4: Please give reasons
The admissions policy is over-complicated, will confuse and ultimately obscure the basis for admissions. The schools chosen are not all the closest to the site and it is a significant omission to ignore the demands of parents at St Mary’s Shenfield.

QUESTION 5: I would like to suggest the following change(s) to the proposed 2013 Admissions Policy.
The Admissions policy and its catchment area must be rejected and rethought.

Richard Millwood

Collabor8 4 Change – Conceptual framework for Computing

Following up my presentations in 2007 at Naace in Feltham  ‘The Importance of Computing as a Specialist Subject in Schools‘ and in 2010 at Computing@School in Birmingham ‘Computing at School‘, I am hosting a table at Collabor8 4 Change at BETT 2012 this year .

Titled ‘Conceptual framework for computing‘ it is planned to be a discussion of how we can be clearer about the nature of the computing subject at primary and secondary level and in particular how we can know better the continuity and progression for learners.

My challenge, in the context of computing and ICT  is:

  1. I believe we need to find out what knowledge children can attain at which age
  2. I suggest we could do mass practitioner research to answer that question
  3. What’s wrong with this proposition?

Here are the few slides to kick off the discussion – I shall add an update to this post when we have had it!

UPDATE 13/1/2012 after attending:

The two sessions went well, with interesting feedback. For most participants, there were more important issues at the level of teacher competence, school organisation and the government’s upheaval of ICT and Computing, which deserved more debate time. On the other hand few felt that I was wrong!

I enjoyed Kathryn Day’s session, ‘ ICT vs Computer Programming curriculum ‘ which usefully contrasted the many documents that inform (or confuse) the practitioner when planning.

I also attended Chris Ratcliffe’s session ‘ How much should pupils be, or feel, in charge of their work? ‘ which clarified some of the barriers to further responsibility being transferred to pupils, whilst agreeing it as a good thing.

Finally I joined Steve Philip for his session ‘Curating the past is more important than creating the future’ in which he proposed the term ‘curativity’ – the act of curating the avalanche of creative work made possible in schools with digital tools through selection, deletion, categorisation and preservation/presentation for an audience. Highly relevant to the National Archive of Educational Computing!

Well done to all the presenters & participants and to  the organisers: Penny Patterson, Dave Smith and Terry Freedman and to compère Russel Prue – the round tables format has a lot to recommend it, with more time for exchange in contrast to the more theatrical Teachmeet.

Screens, health and causality

Hal playing a game in the back of the car

‘Warning over children’s multi-screen viewing’, a BBC web site article by Katherine Sellgren from August 2011, updated today and hence came up for my attention, reports on research at Loughborough and Bristol universities. They found children (63 in Bristol) were often “multi-screen viewing” – watching TV while simultaneously using smartphones, laptops or hand-held gaming devices. Furthermore, they are reported as saying such habits are linked to obesity, poorer mental well-being and health problems in later life.

If you read their peer-reviewed published research report, the claims are somewhat softened – the health problems are concerned with adults mostly and with too much overall screen watching. And in the discussion, the reasons expressed by the 11-12 year olds give comfort – they are common-sense explanations which confirm the thirst for knowledge, activity and social communication:

“Participants reported that there were three main reasons for engaging in multi-screen viewing.”

“Firstly, it tempered impatience that was associated with a programme loading or waiting for a response to a text message or instant message. For these children the second or third screen filled the time and prevented boredom.”

“Secondly, multi-screen viewing was a reactive response that enabled the child to use their time more efficiently as they could filter out unwanted content such as advertisements and focus their attention on just the content that interested them.”

“Thirdly, multi-screen viewing was a proactive decision with the children opting to do two or more things at once as it was perceived to be more interesting or more enjoyable.”

Still, no clear certainty that the health problems are actually caused by multi-screen viewing (sad, fat people may prefer to watch television than join in team sports).

My colleague and friend Stephen Heppell discussed this issue nearly twenty years ago (!) in ‘Children of the Information Age and the Death of Text‘ – an article that first appeared in the Society of Authors’ journal “The Author” as part of a computer focused edition “The Electronic Author”, in Summer 1993.

In the article Stephen writes:

“…the TV too is typically reduced to a small information window in a larger social context – children watch it whilst browsing a magazine, listening to music, playing with their “Game Boy” or whatever.”

and that:

“We should not view this as a deficiency model of children. It is not that their concentration threshold has declined; rather, they are not happy anymore to adopt the role of passive information consumers. This is progress.”

I find it simply amazing how frequently researchers judge children’s habits as deficient before proving the causal question – is it the multi-tasking use of multiple sources of information which leads to the health and well-being issues suggested?

Might there be a connection with the food industry, dysmorphia or the ‘stranger-danger’ fear of playing outside?

How has the research shown any connection with later life?

Most importantly, why are we discussing passive ‘screen viewing‘ as being the predominant interaction in the contexts described when modern mobile technology is all about active choices, games, social communication and creativity?

Computing at School


I presented at the third annual Computing at School conference, reporting Nili Naveh’s research in a seminar I proposed to discuss the research into childrens’ conceptions in computing. The central issue is the contrast in the attention paid to children’s conceptual development in maths and science compared to computing. In maths and science, research has established a Piagetian analysis based on data of what percentage of children can achieve which conceptual understanding at a range of ages, and this is the basis for the National Curriculum levels. Clearly this should not be used as a straitjacket – there is a diversity in attainment and children are often underestimated. Teachers have excellent tacit knowledge of this, but I argued it may be helpful to articulate this more clearly and to construct a data-gathering exercise from schools across the country. We had a good discussion, thanks to some really good presentations earlier in the day which gave good fuel for our debate. Here are my slides:  Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs.

Old lobster almost boiled

Learning on the Beach 2011

The second annual Learning on the Beach unconference #lob11 has just scattered – I am blown away, boiled, invigorated and inundated – and that was just the weather. We were a self-select group of ‘old lobsters’ like me @richardmillwood and some fresh faces like @squiggle7 – the value of this mix in challenging the norms of indoor education was enormous.

Activities included:

  • a scene setter on flat-lining and free-learning from John Davitt
  • collaborative presentations by teams of participants on themes (and genre) as diverse as Irish History (sing-song), The Salt Marsh (tragedy) and Tides (rap)
  • a tour of the beach with Seán and Matthew to understand the nurturing approach to the ‘machair’ or sand dunes found on the west coast of Ireland and particularly in Mulranny, where we were staying
  • the Explainer Olympics – a chance to hone with a sharp stick in the sand our skills in capturing a concept
  • a Ceilidh to let it rip -thanks to Jim and Ann, @angedav @JamiePortman @mlovatt1 @magsamond @johndavitt
  • Postcards from the Edge, scribed on the beach – to let us shout about our findings
  • thoughts to challenge suppliers – what do we need to support learning outdoors in the design of equipment and infrastructure? Peter at @westnet_ie made it possible for us to connect from the beaches around Mulranny so that we could benefit from our vast array of gadgetry to support our inquiry including TouchaTag an RFID technology, but there were many issues addressed regarding weatherproofing, robustness, daylight viewing and power supply that would enhance outdoor activity anywhere
  • hot tub, sauna, steam room, cold plunge and swimming pool – four facilities that were welcome ;)
  • the sharing of Guinness, Google, kindness, camera-derie, Twitter, time, humour and happiness ( to say nothing of black and white pudding, fresh air and fine rain)

There are not enough wild sea-horses to hold me back from attending #lob12  – I already miss the lobsters: @squiggle7 @magsamond @JamiePortman @mlovatt1 @andyjb @dughall @VickiMcC @johnmayo @johndavitt @angedav @katherinedavitt @timrylands @sarahneild @susanbanister

Analysis of a single interaction

I revived this Analysis of a single interaction recently thanks to a PhD student who is working on user-centred design. It was first developed in 1988 based on Donald Norman’s work, applied to the kind of computer software we were designing then. The ‘concept keyboard’ mentioned was a programmable touch pad from that era which enjoyed considerable popularity as it allowed an interface based on the developer’s own visual layout, suitable for younger and special needs pupils – a precursor of the iPad!

Is society presenting a ‘still face’?


This article about ‘brain science’ and policy relating to early childhood development by Chris Corrigan is uplifting and affirmative, but the ‘still face’ video showing a child interacting with mother and then being shunned is heartbreaking, saved by a happy ending. The notion that interpersonal relations start early is tacitly obvious to many, but this video articulates it so clearly.

The extension, to ask whether society presents a ‘still face’ to young people may be a leap to far, but it could be argued that ignoring the interests of the young leads to upset, perhaps amply demonstrated by the recent action by students in response to a reduction in government funding of further and higher education in the UK.

Thanks to Jonnie Moore for highlighting this.

Quality & delight for business & learning

W Edwards Deming

Knowing my interest in delight in learning, colleague Derek Wenmoth pointed me to a post on Steve Denning’s blog, from which Derek quoted this:

“…management in the 20th Century was about achieving a finite goal: delivering goods and services, to make money. Management in the 21st Century by contrast is about the infinite goal of delighting customers; the firm makes money, yes, but as a consequence of the delight that it creates for customers, not as the goal.”

This reminded me of the way delight was discussed by W Edwards Deming:

“It will not suffice to have customers who are merely satisfied.” I would add, “They must be delighted.”

Deming was credited by the Japanese as being a major force in their rise to world economic power in the second half of the 20th Century, so Steve’s view that this is a 21st Century idea is a little late, although perhaps a reasonable observation about many western businesses.

Nevertheless it is good that Steve is promoting this and it is a short step from Deming’s assertion to say, as I would:

“It will not suffice to have learners who are merely attaining targets.” I would add, “They must be delighted.”

In Deming’s case, the policy of delighting customers leads to them spreading the word and returning to purchase more from your business, which sustains it. In my case, it is ensuring learners remain lifelong learners, whatever their attainment at any stage.

Mostly, it is those who attain highest who are delighted in learning, which is not to imply cause and effect, simply to observe these can go hand in hand. But this minority success does not sustain and develop the global community nearly so well as having everyone continuing to learn throughout their lives, because they delight in learning, no matter what their early attainment level may be.

And that is without even starting on the moral case for delight….

Dimensions in creative work

In talking about the issues of user-generated content with friends Stephen and Joy recently, Stephen reminded me of this presentation slide I used to show in 2004 in the context of a growing movement to engage children in the filming and composition of digital video.
The push by specialists such as the British Film Institute was to teach film technique, to be methodical, to learn ‘film language’ and essentially to be equipped to make compelling feature films. My feeling was that encouraging creativity and the arts demanded a rather more diverse approach.
With regard to audience, it seemed to me that an artist may well be concerned to articulate their ideas to an audience, on the other hand they may not care what the audience thinks, but simply please themselves in a deliberate (or naïve) break from tradition and justify it as art for art’s sake and true to their calling. I am not an art historian, but this is somewhat the realm of the modernist.
From Wikipaedia:
“The most controversial aspect of the modern movement was, and remains, its rejection of tradition. Modernism’s stress on freedom of expression, experimentation, radicalism, and primitivism  disregards conventional expectations. In many art forms this often meant startling and alienating audiences with bizarre and unpredictable effects, as in the strange and disturbing combinations of motifs in surrealism  or the use of extreme dissonance and atonality  in modernist music. In literature this often involved the rejection of intelligible plots or characterization in novels, or the creation of poetry that defied clear interpretation.”
Narrative on the other hand relates to the structural-temporal purpose of an art form – whether to tell a story which maps roughly on to our life experience of sequenced events or to simply effect a reaction, inspire an idea or evoke a feeling. Clearly a film intended for the latter purposes need not conform to traditional ‘film language’, although it might benefit it.
Control is about viewing an art form in a sequence determined by the author or on the other hand through choices made by the audience. The former could be a film in the cinema, the latter an interactive game or a web-site. Digital video which forms part of a ‘navigated’ experience may owe nothing to traditional film techniques, and make new and less well-known demands of the author.
The bottom line is that it pays to be open minded about the purpose of creative work and at least discuss these choices when introducing new technologies to young people. If they choose to be on the left hand end of each of these dimensions, then it will pay them to develop some film language skills – perhaps at the excellent Filmsense website created by Media Education Wales.

Alive Babbs


Alice Mitchell 1942 – 2010

  • Creative linguist, learning media developer and pedagogue,
  • Head of Language Centre at Anglia Polytechnic University
  • Unique Ultranaut
  • Dedicated wife to Colin Babbs
  • Informal, enthusiastic tutor to my son
  • Personal friend
  • Favourite remembered saying: “half the time in English we mispronounce French and the other half, German”

Alice’s work in the middle nineties to develop language learning multimedia material and virtual spaces for language learning was a decade ahead of its time – Alice was an unusual mix of imaginative ideas and perfection in detail who understood ‘delight’ and made every attempt to foreground affect in her designs. Sorely missed doesn’t really say it.

Elle ne s’en ira pas, elle ne redescendra pas d’un ciel, elle n’accomplira pas la rédemption des colères de femmes et des gaîtés des hommes et de tout ce péché: car c’est fait, lui étant, et étant aimée.

(from Rimbaud)

Research community

A model of community reseearch

Had a very useful meeting in University of Bolton with colleagues intent on developing a community of research – the diagram illustrates our joint efforts to come to terms with this idea, but it does not clarify the concern I have, which is to be confident who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’ – I believe to have a conversation that supports learning, you have to feel ‘safe’ with your audience to take risks with ideas. This is exacerbated when you are online, since the audience may be unclear or grow later to include people your are not so sure about!

National Archive of Educational Computing moves

Boxes and crates of the National Archive of Educational Computing

On Monday 15th Feb, the National Archive of Educational Computing moved to its new home, bringing it to a spare school science lab from a storage facility. Now the work can begin to make sense of it all and enhance the web site.

Thanks are due to Keith Lashmar of Chelmsford Van Hire and his tireless workers, together with Maureen Gurr and Patrick Millwood for helping to make it a smooth and well-organised move.

Ultralab's last room is demolished

By coincidence I was in Chelmsford the next day, and saw the last room of Ultralab about to be demolished – we were on the top floor of this building. A sad day.