Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Official healthy food guide hasn’t changed in 20 years: five things that need updating

The Eatwell plate is the UK government’s official food guide about which foods we should eat to achieve a healthy diet. It is essentially a pie-chart depicting the recommended intakes of five specified food groups: fruit and vegetables, dairy products, cereals, meat and processed foods. It was first published 20 years ago – and despite some two decades of nutritional research has not been changed since.

In some countries – notably Australia, the US and Brazil – the official food guide is revised on a regular basis. Some two decades since it was first published, Public Health England has announced that it will revise the Eatwell plate in the light of proposed new recommendations on sugar from the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition.

Then and now

The types of food we eat and the challenges for a healthy diet have changed significantly over the past 20 years. In particular we now know that added sugar is much more harmful to our health than we thought back then. We are now much less convinced that fruit juice – consumption of which is 15 times that in the 1970s – is much healthier than sugary soft drinks. And the need to cut down on red meat in our diets has become clearer, as has our need to reduce saturated fat intake rather than total fat intake.

Many people have rightly argued that the Eatwell plate is now out of date and some recent government publications, such as the new standards for school food published earlier this year, have not referred to it at all. Now is the opportunity to undertake a fully comprehensive review and here are some issues for Public Health England to consider. 

Monday, 27 October 2014

Why War: Einstein and Freud's Little-Known Correspondence on Violence, Peace, and Human Nature

“Every man has a right over his own life and war destroys lives that were full of promise.”
Despite his enormous contributions to science, Albert Einstein was no reclusive genius, his ever-eager conversations and correspondence engaging such diverse partners as the Indian philosopher Tagore and a young South African girl who wanted to be a scientist. In 1931, the Institute for Intellectual Cooperation invited the renowned physicist to a cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas about politics and peace with a thinker of his choosing. He selected Sigmund Freud, born on May 6, 1856, whom he had met briefly in 1927 and whose work, despite being skeptical of psychoanalysis, the legendary physicist had come to admire. A series of letters followed, discussing the abstract generalities of human nature and the potential concrete steps for reducing violence in the world. In a twist of irony, the correspondence was only published in 1933 — after Hitler, who would eventually banish both Einstein and Freud into exile, rose to power — in a slim limited-edition pamphlet titled Why War?. Only 2,000 copies of the English translation were printed, most of which were lost during the war. But the gist of the correspondence, which remains surprisingly little-known, is preserved in the 1960 volume Einstein on Peace (public library), featuring a foreword by none other than Bertrand Russell. 

Global warming ‘will make our winters colder’

Britain can expect twice as many severe winters as usual over the coming decades, according to a study supporting the counterintuitive idea that global warming could lead to colder weather in some parts of the world.

Climate scientists believe they have found evidence to suggest that the loss of floating Arctic sea ice in the Barents and Kara seas north of Scandinavia can affect the global circulation of air currents and lead to bitterly cold winds blowing for extended periods in winter over Central Asia and Europe, including the UK.

The research, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, supports several previous studies published over the past few years that also indicate a change in the winter climate over Eurasia as a result of the loss of Arctic sea ice. Arctic sea ice has declined significantly over the past three or four decades.

However, the Japanese scientists who carried out the latest study said that the cooling effect is unlikely to last beyond this century. Rising global temperatures will eventually cancel out any localised cooling caused by loss of Arctic sea ice, although they said it is not possible to predict when this will happen.

Masato Mori, of Tokyo University, and colleagues from Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Studies and the National Institute of Polar Research, performed 200 slightly different computer simulations of the global atmospheric circulation based on actual sea ice measurements made since 2004, when there were years of high and low sea-ice cover in the Barents and Kara seas.

They found that a decline in sea ice was linked with a “blocking” pattern in the high-altitude atmospheric air currents. This blocking became twice as likely in low sea-ice years and it favoured the transport of cold, Arctic air south and west over Europe and Asia.

Colin Summerhayes, emeritus associate of the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge, said: “This counterintuitive effect... makes some people think that global warming has stopped. It has not. Although average surface warming has been slower since 2000, the Arctic has gone on warming rapidly throughout this time.”

Sunday, 26 October 2014

How science saved the Eiffel Tower

Science eventually won over the critics who had wanted the ‘ugly’ structure dismantled.

Close your eyes and picture the city of Paris. Now imagine the city without its most famous landmark: the Eiffel Tower.

The unthinkable almost happened.

When French engineer Gustave Eiffel built this tower for the Paris World’s Fair of 1889, it created a sensation. The iron structure contrasted sharply with the historic stone buildings of Paris. What’s more, at 300 meters (984 feet), it became the tallest structure in the world. It dwarfed the previous record holder — the 169.3-meter (555-foot) Washington Monument in the U.S. capital.

Eiffel’s four-legged iron archway was supposed to last only 20 years. That’s when Eiffel’s permit to operate the building would expire and the city could choose to tear it down.

And it initially seemed the building indeed was in peril. Three hundred prominent artists and writers publicly expressed their hatred for Eiffel’s iron giant. In a petition published in the French newspaper Le Temps just as construction was beginning, the group referred to the Tower as a “giddy ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack.”

A French novelist of the time, Charles-Marie-Georges Huysmans, declared that “it is hard to imagine” that people will allow such a building to stay.

Yet from the beginning, Eiffel had a strategy to save his building. If the Tower was linked to important research, he reasoned, no one would dare take it down. So he would make it a grand laboratory for science.

Areas of research would include weather and the brand-new fields of powered flight and radio communications. “It will be an observatory and a laboratory such as science has never had at its disposal,” Eiffel bragged in 1889.

And his strategy worked. This year marks the iconic structure’s 125th birthday. Over the years, research conducted there has brought dramatic and unexpected payoffs. During World War I, for instance, the French army used the Tower as a giant ear to intercept radio messages. It even led to the arrest of one of the war’s most famous and notorious spies.

Queen of the Underworld Sheds New Light on Greek Tomb

Newly revealed mosaic may hold key to unlocking mystery: Who was buried in the massive mound?

Greek archaeologists have discovered the image of a young, red-haired goddess being swept off to the underworld inside a 2,300-year-old tomb near the ancient site of Amphipolis in northern Greece. Identified as Persephone, daughter of Zeus, the goddess portrayed on a mosaic floor provides a key new clue to what in recent months has become a much publicized mystery: Who was laid to rest in the immense, marble-walled tomb 61 miles (99 kilometers) northeast of the Greek city of Thessaloniki?

Monumental in scale and Macedonian in style, the Amphipolis tomb (also known as the Kasta tumulus) lies close to the Aegean port that Alexander the Great used for his fleet. Archaeologists have dated the tomb to the last quarter of the fourth century B.C., likely placing its construction in the fractious period following Alexander's death in 323 B.C. All this has fueled intense speculation that the tomb was built for someone close to Alexander, but clear evidence has been lacking.

Greece's Ministry of Culture and Sport announced at a news conference on Thursday that the newly discovered image of Persephone closely resembles one in a painting from the royal cemetery of Vergina, where Alexander the Great's father was buried. This discovery, noted Lena Mendoni, general secretary of the Ministry, links the Amphipolis tomb to the royal lineage of Alexander the Great. "The political symbolism is very strong," Mendoni said.

The new find is raising hope that the tomb will add another chapter to the tumultuous history of the ancient Macedonian royal house. "Without doubt," said archaeologist Katerina Peristeri, principal investigator of the Amphipolis tomb, "the deceased was extremely important."

Saturday, 25 October 2014

The school with no rules that teaches the unteachable

Documentary goes beyond the school gates at Ian Mikardo high school, where boys deemed unteachable are making a fresh start.

Ian Mikardo High School, in London’s east end, is the end of the line, a special school for boys aged 11-16, who have been deemed unteachable.

The boys, who have severe social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, are among the most troubled and troubling children in the country and have been excluded from their previous, mainstream schools. They are also about to appear on television, as the subjects of the latest documentary tracing the everyday ups and downs of school-life, following the hugely popular Educating Yorkshire, Essex and now the East End.

The boys’ stories feature poverty and bereavement; they may have witnessed domestic violence or murder. Their homes are unstable, their accomodation is crowded and temporary. This week a new boy kicked in a window at school. It turned out his family were to be evicted the next morning and he didn’t know where he was going to live.

By the end of the two part documentary, which starts next week, it is hard not to appreciate the boys’ good fortune at having found themselves in the care of such an unorthodox institution, in one of the capital’s poorest boroughs, Tower Hamlets.

Here there are no uniforms, no rules, no physical restraint, no bars, no isolation rooms, no detentions, no punishment. Everyone is on first name terms – staff and students. If you swear (the boys do, a lot), you will be challenged (“Language please!”) but there are no sanctions; if you walk out of class no one will force you back in, if you get in to a fight, a member of staff will intervene if it looks like someone is going to get hurt, but you won’t get excluded.

The Guardian visits on the day Sir Michael Wilshaw publishes his Ofsted report on the damaging impact of low-level disruption in classrooms, in which he complains about unruly pupils humming and fidgeting. Headteacher Claire Lillis is scathing. “I can’t believe this is a national report. It’s a national disgrace.”

The Afghan girls raised as boys

In Afghanistan, ranked the worst country in the world to be born a girl, some parents are bringing up their daughters as sons. Then comes puberty and the ‘bacha posh’ are expected to switch back.

Watching Mehran, age six, play football at her school in Kabul, you would think that being a girl in Afghanistan wasn’t so bad at all.

As she moves in and out of the game on the sparsely covered grass lawn, her expression of focus shifts to a satisfied grin when she finally gets to the ball. Barefoot in dusty sandals, she kicks it as hard as she can into the field. Her shirt hangs loosely over her pants, and her short, black hair spikes out in every direction. She’s messy now – dirty even – but she doesn’t much care. There is no need for Mehran to be pretty, or to appear “proper” or shy, as is required and expected of other Afghan girls, who refrain from too much physical activity in their demure dresses and all their hair carefully tucked in under head scarves.

This – to be one of the boys – is Mehran’s privilege.

Mehran is a bacha posh – the literal term translated from Dari for a girl “dressed like a boy” in Afghanistan, the country that the UN says is the worst in the world to be born a girl, and where the average life expectancy of a woman is 44 years. The bacha posh are the secret underground girls of this deeply conservative society, where men and boys hold almost all the privileges, and where the mother of a newborn girl is often greeted with disappointment for not having brought a son into the world.
“They gossip about my family,” Mehran’s mother said the first time I met her. She explained how having four daughters had made her decide to bring her youngest to the barber for a haircut a year earlier, and to tweak her name to a masculine-sounding form, in order to present her to the outside world as a son in trousers and a shirt.

When I began my research in 2009, after first meeting Mehran, the existence of these girls was denied by many foreign experts on Afghanistan. It seemed unlikely that the country’s harsh gender segregation would allow for such deviations. But it is an ancient practice that Afghans can reference as far back as the time before Islam took hold in the country.

Friday, 24 October 2014

The role of film in schools

If you think film only works for teaching the arts – think again.
Using film in the classroom isn’t a perk reserved for English and drama. Teacher Elizabeth Evans explores how science, geography and maths students can benefit.
I ventured to the back of the science lab, clipboard and observation sheet in hand. A group of hyperactive year 7 students followed me, high on sugar after lunch. It was the second to last period and I couldn’t help but worry for the newly-qualified teacher (NQT) I was about to observe.

He took the register and tried to settle the class. One threw a paper clip, another put his head on the desk while his friend yawned loudly. Nervously, the teacher spoke: “Everyone focus on the images on the board. As you watch, work out what we are going to be learning about today.” The teacher dimmed the lights and carefully chosen, short but shocking clips from An Inconvenient Truth lit up the classroom. The room fell silent and heads rose from desks. The students had to write down a learning question based on the emotive images they had seen. “All learners now on task and engaged,” I wrote.

Once traditionally associated with subjects such as English and drama, now more subjects are experimenting with film in the classroom, with striking results. In my science observation, students were learning with pace, discussing how the images made them feel. “Sir, it’s like The Day After Tomorrow, only worse,” one student declared. Using his prompt card, the NQT pushed the student to explain what he meant. A rich and varied discussion took place among these usually not-so-confident learners.

An East Midlands-based study exploring the benefits of film in education found 100% of teachers felt film could help reach difficult or challenging students – 80% said it had a significant impact. The NQT’s students were certainly a challenge; set five of six, 70% of the students were classed as pupil premium and over half had statements of educational need, yet all were now on task and making progress. “Because film is so universal,” says Helen Maguire, a teacher at a pupil referral unit (PRU) in Cheshire, “students can relate to the ideas without feeling out of their depth or threatened. Film combines the visual, auditory and kinesthetic with the emotions. It reaches students in a way nothing else can.”

It need not just be Hollywood blockbusters. In a recent geography lesson I observed, a teacher used films made by the students to teach erosion. Weeks earlier, the teacher had dipped into BBC class clips to introduce the topic. Using these clips as models, the students were asked to make their own short films in groups, investigating an area of erosion linked to their forthcoming field trip. Small handheld video cameras on loan from IT were used. No technological wizardry was required, but key stage 4 media studies students were there to help if needed.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

How running around more can help children do well at school

Children who do more physical activity are likely to improve their health and it might also help them improve their school grades. Those are the findings of recent research from Sweden which suggest that doubling the amount of time spent doing physical education at school has an impact on children’s academic achievement. Schools and parents are often urged to do more to improve children’s physical activity – and the growing body of research on the links between PE and success at school might be just the carrot they need.

Physical inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death worldwide, an issue which urgently needs to be addressed. Current recommendations state that children and young people should be doing at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day at an intensity which is enough to increase the heart rate.

Generation of inactive children

But around the world, the number of children achieving these recommendations is low. A 2012 survey conducted by the World Health Organisation found that only 23% of 11-year-olds were doing the recommended levels of physical activity, a figure that varies greatly between countries. Italy was one of the worst-performing countries, where 10% of boys and 7% of girls reported doing at least 60 minutes of physical activity, compared with Ireland, the top performer, where 43% of boys and 31% of girls reported doing at least an hour a day.

The beneficial impact that physical activity has on our health has been well reported, so it’s surprising that so few young people are meeting the recommendations. As well as the health benefits, research has found that physical activity can have a positive impact on psychological factors such as depression and self-esteem in both adults and children.

Research has also shown that physical activity is beneficial for academic success. The recent Swedish study published in the Journal of School Health, reports that increasing the amount of physical activity school pupils were doing led to improvements in academic achievement.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Music and math: The genius of Beethoven

How is it that Beethoven, who is celebrated as one of the most significant composers of all time, wrote many of his most beloved songs while going deaf? The answer lies in the math behind his music. Natalya St. Clair employs the "Moonlight Sonata" to illustrate the way Beethoven was able to convey emotion and creativity using the certainty of mathematics. 

How to teach … Halloween crafts

Ever used pumpkin carving designs to teach reflective symmetry? Use art to trick your students into an educational treat.
Halloween has become a major event in many school calendars, with fun days and fancy dress parades galore.

This week the Guardian Teacher Network is getting into the spirit of All Hallows’ eve with a goody bag of themed arts and crafts lesson ideas – perfect for tricking students into an educational treat.

Classroom decorations are the first port of call. Students can make their own skeletons by cutting out the pieces of this template by Teaching Ideas and attaching them together with brass paper fasteners. They might also enjoy making a 3D witch puppet. This idea from Sing Up involves decorating a wooden spoon with materials including wool, felt and foam. As a follow-up activity, students could work in groups to perform – and even write the script for – a short Halloween play.

Dressing up is at the heart of Halloween, but rather than relying on extravagant shop-bought ensembles, why not encourage pupils to make their own? A good starting place might be these masks for a maned wolf, dyeing poison frog or green anaconda. Before students get sticky with the masks, teach them about the animals of Brazil which the templates represent, using this lesson plan and presentation created by the conservation charity ARKive.

Carving a pumpkin is too tricky (and potentially dangerous) to attempt in class, even with this step-by-step beginner’s guide. An easier (and much safer) alternative is to carve a bell pepper. Orange and yellow ones are best as they look just like mini pumpkins. Ask pupils to bring in a pepper or two from home. Craft knives should be sharp enough for carving. If that sounds too risky still, students could stick on cut-out shapes instead. There are plenty of ideas here.

Monday, 20 October 2014

If learners live online, teachers and textbooks must follow them

Ten years after the launch of Facebook and eight years after the launch of Twitter, social media has become more pervasive and our use of it more sophisticated. It’s no longer a place where we report what we’re doing, it’s where millions of us live out a part of our lives.

So if you’re a teacher hoping to get learners to engage with online resources, if you’re in business trying to sell products or services, or you’re in government trying to get out public messages, it’s vital to understand how people now use the web.

Efforts have been made to do this before, of course. Many will be familiar with the distinction drawn between “digital natives” – typically younger internet users who need little or no support to fathom how to work effectively in a digital world – and (usually older) “digital immigrants” who are playing catch-up and may never be fully comfortable online. But as internet use becomes more commonplace and more firmly embedded in daily life, this distinction is proving too simplistic.

Defining the way we are online

With Jisc, the UK organisation that researches the role of technology in education, and colleagues in America I’ve been developing a new model which recognises the variety of ways individuals act online. How they behave depends on their purpose – what they are looking for, who they want to connect with and how they want to present themselves or their work.

Irrespective of how digitally savvy they think they are, most people will spend the majority of their time browsing online content before walking away without leaving a social trace. On other occasions, however, they go online purposely to meet people and interact. The first is visitor behaviour, the second is resident behaviour. This idea of visitors and residents defines opposite ends of what is really a smooth continuum, with private, functional use of the web at one end and highly visible activity at the other.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Strong body helps the mind

After a workout, muscles produce a do-gooder compound that protects the brain.
A good workout doesn't just make the body stronger. It also produces a chemical that may keep depression away, scientists report. Their findings come from a new study of mice and another in a small group of people. Doctors have often prescribed exercise to help treat people with depression. The new data points to why that can work.

“This paper really emphasizes 'strong body, strong mind,'” Andrew Miller told Science News. A psychiatrist at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., Miller did not work on the new study.

The researchers mapped out the protective activity of one chemical that the body makes during exercise. These data may help explain why exercise can heal a person in different ways, Miller says. The study also may point to new ways to treat brain disorders, he adds.

After a good workout, muscles produce a chemical called PGC-1 alpha 1. Scientists already knew that this stuff acts like a molecular Good Samaritan. It signals the body to make more blood vessels and more mitochondria (My-toh-KON-dree-ah). Those mitochondria are important features of cells. They convert food into the energy that powers cells.

The new study shows that this ramp up in PGC-1 alpha 1 has benefits that reach all the way to the brain. In one set of tests, the scientists exposed mice to several things that cause stress. For instance, they cut back on how much food the mice got to eat. They also exposed the animals to strobe lights and loud noises. After five weeks, the stressed mice showed signs of depression. Their symptoms: They consumed less sweet water and did not try to swim when placed in a tank of water.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

How to teach … World Food Day 2014

Famine, under-nourishment and the role smallholder farmers play in feeding our growing population – tackle all these issues using our collection of lesson resources about World Food Day.
While the world has never produced so much food, 842 million people are estimated to be suffering from chronic hunger and under-nourishment.
Food production and nourishment relates to a range of topics including human rights, climate change, politics and health and is a problem that can be explored through many areas of the curriculum, from geography and citizenship to economics and science.

So this week, to mark World Food Day on Thursday 16 October 2014, we have a generous helping of ideas and resources about food security and the challenges of feeding an ever-growing population.

The focus of World Food Day 2014 is on the significant role that smallholder farmers play in feeding the world. In the poorest parts of Africa and Asia, around 500 million small family farms are responsible for 80% of all food production. This game from Oxfam will help pupils learn more about the global food system and the impact it has on family farmers. There is an accompanying video and PowerPoint here.

This Flying the Kite for Food activity is also handy for introducing younger students to the idea of food injustice. Let pupils explore the reasons why some people in the world are hungry before making a kite to which they attach their wishes for a world without hunger. Follow-up activities could include: organising a food collection as part of a harvest assembly; interviewing school catering staff to find out how much food is not eaten at lunchtime and what happens to it; and investigating food composting.

Confessions of a depressed comic

Kevin Breel didn't look like a depressed kid: team captain, at every party, funny and confident. But he tells the story of the night he realized that -- to save his own life -- he needed to say four simple words:

I suffer from depression.


Monday, 13 October 2014

The American who wrote Britain’s latest teaching bible

Doug Lemov’s 49 classroom tips are required reading for many new teachers, but he is not universally popular.

How do you make teachers teach better? US educator Doug Lemov thinks he has some answers and has documented them in a book, Teach Like a Champion, which is informing a generation of teachers, first in America and now in the UK.

Though few may have heard of him, Lemov is a growing influence on education in the US, where he runs 16 charter schools across New York, New Jersey and Boston called Uncommon Schools. His influence is spreading to the UK, where politicians and education policymakers are lapping up his ideas.

Former education secretary Michael Gove, his successor, Nicky Morgan, and colleagues at the Department for Education will be familiar with Lemov’s methods, while any young teacher on a Teach First programme is virtually obliged to have a copy of his book. An updated version is being published this year.

The book is intended to be a manual for teachers, providing practical knowledge and proven techniques that will make them teach better, and enable their students to get better results.

It is less Dead Poets Society, a harsh sceptic might say, than How to Teach for Dummies. One Chicago teacher blogged: “Lemov’s book contributes to the deprofessionalisation of teaching. He sends the message that anyone can do it – if they read the right manual.”

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Why you hadn’t heard of Patrick Modiano until he won the Nobel, and why you must read him now

To the English-speaking world at least, the awarding of the 2014 Nobel Prize for literature to French author Patrick Modiano will probably have come as a surprise. Many won’t even have heard his name.

There is good reason for this. He is renowned in his native France for keeping a very low profile, only venturing into the public spotlight momentarily with the appearance of each new novel. What’s more, few of his novels have been translated into English.

This is probably because the incredibly distinctive ingredients of his universe do not travel particularly well. The poetic, evocative prose that works so well with his fragmented, mysterious narratives, his famous “petite musique”, cannot in translation do the original any justice whatsoever.

This distinctive “little music” is one of the many things that make Modiano’s writing unique. His extensive knowledge of French literature, culture and history is energetically displayed from his very first novel, La Place de l’Etoile (1968). His admiration for Proust and Céline and his love of French poets like Verlaine are a constant in his work. Verlaine’s rhythms can sometimes be seen to infuse his own writing.

Hybrid novels

Modiano views time, memory and the past as the subject matter of all great novels – and this and a fascination with identity underpin his fictional universe. He writes a very hybrid kind of text in which various elements pull against each other generating the ambiguity that has become his trademark. And so the highly literary combines with elements of the detective or crime novel. Historical figures and details from his own life sit alongside the purely invented and the distinction between the two is hard to discern.

Archaeologists revisit ancient Mediterranean shipwreck near Greek island

"I have personally investigated 40 or 45 shipwrecks throughout the Mediterranean and never seen one like this," said Brendan Foley.

ANTIKYTHERA, Greece, Oct. 10 (UPI) -- Researchers recently completed a third trip to a remarkable ancient shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera, a remote Greek Island.

The ship is more than 2,000 years old, and because of the wealth of treasures its sunken wreckage has revealed, archaeologists suggests the vessel was a sort of luxury ocean liner -- "the Titanic of the ancient world."

On their latest trip down to the rotting ribs of the ancient ship, divers surfaced with newfound treasures -- a table jug, a bronze spear, fragments of bronze and marble statues. Divers have been visiting the wreckage since 1900, when the ship was first discovered. More impressive treasures have been pulled from the ocean floor in years past -- intact marble statues of horses and warriors, jewelry, furniture, luxury glassware, and even a complex machine some have called the "world's first computer."

"I have personally investigated 40 or 45 shipwrecks throughout the Mediterranean and never seen one like this. It is full of luxury goods. It is an enormous ship, massively built and built of the highest quality material available in the first century BC," Brendan Foley, of the Woods Hole Oceonographic Institution in Massachusetts, told the Guardian.

Foley is one of the archaeologists working to further explore the sunken ocean liner. Both an international team of scientists and a Greek team of researchers have been revisiting the site, using special diving equipment enabling them to remain below the surface for up to three hours at a time.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Authors, teachers and parents launch revolt over 'exam factory' schools

More than 400 children’s writers, parents and teachers have signed a letter to The Independent expressing concern over the anxiety caused to children by the ever-higher stakes of so-called “exam factories”.

The signatories – who include the author and former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen, as well as child development expert Sue Palmer and parenting writer Sue Cowley – say they are “increasingly concerned at the pressure that is being placed on our children”, especially by the testing regime.

The concerns have tapped into a storm of debate about the nature of schooling, after the CBI’s director general, John Cridland, recently called for a move away from the “exam factory” model of education towards pupils getting a more “rounded and grounded education” for their own sakes and for that of the economy.

At the heart of the letter’s complaint are the effects on children and teachers alike of the slew of exams crammed into school time, causing anxiety for pupils and leaving headteachers fearing dismissal if they fail to meet minimum government targets.

READ MORE: A teacher speaks out: 'I'm effectively being forced out of a career that I wanted to love'

The letter states: “We are concerned to hear of children crying on their way to school, upset that they will not be able to keep up: of parents worried that their four-year-olds are ‘falling behind’ or of six-year-olds scared that ‘they might not get a good job’ … And we wonder what has happened to that short period in our lives known as ‘childhood’.”
Already, children take a compulsory reading test at the end of their first year in compulsory education – the phonics check for all six-year-olds. But from next September they will also have a “baseline assessment” upon arrival at school, aged four or five, in counting and letter and picture recognition amongst other skills. These tests are aimed at helping show how much primary schools have improved individual pupils’ performance by the age of 11.

The distracted teenage brain

Scientists discover that teens are easily distracted by behaviors that were once — but are no longer — rewarding.
Teens have a reputation for making some not-so-smart decisions. Researchers have blamed those poor decisions on the immaturity of a teen’s prefrontal cortex. That is the part of the brain involved in making plans and decisions. But scientists now find the answer may be simpler: the allure of rewards. Rewards, even small ones, entice teens more than they do adults.

And, perhaps surprisingly, teens tend to continue doing things they once found rewarding, even after the actual payoff is long gone. Both findings come from a new study by researchers at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Psychologist Zachary Roper and his team worked with two groups of volunteers: 13- to16-year olds and 20- to 35-year-old adults. Each volunteer had to play a game of sorts. During a training phase, a computer displayed six circles, each a different color. The players had to find the red or green circle. These targets had either a horizontal or vertical line inside. The remaining circles had lines at other angles. When the participant found the correct target, they had to press one of two keys on a keyboard. One key would report they had found the vertical line. The other reported finding a horizontal line.

When a volunteer hit the right key, the screen flashed the amount of the reward they had earned. For some volunteers, green circles provided a large (10-cent) reward and red circles provided a small (2-cent) reward. For other volunteers, the amounts were reversed, with red circles worth more. All other colors had no reward.

By the end of this training, volunteers had learned the value of each color. But they weren’t aware that they had, notes Iowa’s Jatin Vaidya. When the scientists asked the players about the value of red versus green circles, both teens and adults had no awareness that a circle’s color had any effect on how much they had earned during any given trial.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Nobel Peace Prize win for Malala and Kailash is a beacon of hope for children’s rights

In a celebration of the rights of children, the 2014 Nobel Prize for Peace has been awarded to Malala Yousafzai, shot by the Taliban for going to school in Pakistan, and Kailash Satyarthi, who has been campaigning against child labour in India for more than 20 years.

Announcing the award, committee chairman Thorbjørn Jagland described it as a recognition of “their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education”.

Coming the day before International Day of the Girl Child, the committee’s recognition of that struggle is an opportunity to reflect on a number of recent incidents – such as the mass abduction of nearly 300 adolescent school girls from their boarding school in northeastern Nigeria by Boko Haram – that have highlighted the plight of adolescent girls in many parts of the world.

Development practitioners and donors are more than ever convinced that increasing opportunities, skills and resources for women and girls will lead to measurable improvements across a wide range of development indicators and for all people, irrespective of their gender. The running assumption is that targeting adolescent girls is one of the most effective strategies available to achieve wider developmental outcomes.

In line with this thinking, myriad interventions around the world are being designed and trialled to specifically target the plight of adolescent girls.

Faster internet expected to shake up health and education by 2025

But a new report predicting the ‘killer apps’ of faster broadband also warns of potential widening of the digital divide.
A new report published by the Pew Research Center and Elon University aims to predict how the advent of gigabit-speed internet connections will affect our lives by 2025.

The Killer Apps in the Gigabit Age research involved asking 1,464 “experts and internet builders” what they think humans will be doing once they have access to broadband 50-100 times faster than the average home connection now, and collating their thoughts.

The report is based on the premise that just as dial-up internet access drove email and web surfing into the mainstream; and broadband internet spurred music downloads, video streaming and social networking; so gigabit-speed internet will spur a new set of technologies and services.

The predictions include some familiar futurology themes: holograms and virtual reality, wearables and the internet of things, 3D printing and ever-more sophisticated artificial intelligence.
However, its most interesting sections focus on the potential changes in health and education, as well as warnings about the dangers of a widening digital divide between the technology haves and have-nots.
In education, the report includes predictions of blurred boundaries between real and virtual classrooms, as children make greater use of devices to learn and share that learning with their peers.

“The school day will disaggregate into a number of learning sessions, some at home, some in the neighbourhood, some in pairs, some in larger groups, with different kinds of facilitators,” claimed JP Rangaswami, chief scientist for Salesforce.com.

Bruce Mehlman, co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance, predicted an end to “one-size-fits-all broadcasting from the front of the room” teaching, while business and economics professor Ed Lyell suggested that teachers will become less talking-head experts, and more “teacher-coach” figures for their students.

How to speak so that people want to listen

Have you ever felt like you're talking, but nobody is listening? Here's Julian Treasure to help. In this useful talk, the sound expert demonstrates the how-to's of powerful speaking — from some handy vocal exercises to tips on how to speak with empathy. A talk that might help the world sound more beautiful.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Your phone screen just won the Nobel Prize in Physics

You’ve probably got the fruits of this year’s Nobel laureates’ handiwork in your pocket. In fact, if you’re reading this on your phone or a relatively recent flat-screen monitor, you’re more than likely staring at some of them right now.

The 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura for their pioneering work on blue LEDs, or light-emitting diodes. Blue LEDs are important for two reasons: first, the blue light has specific applications of its own and second, because it’s a vital component of the white light which makes white LEDs, and therefore LED computer and phone screens, possible.

A flash of inspiration

So, what is an LED? Fundamentally, the simplest LEDs are two pieces of a semiconductor material sandwiched together. Semiconductors, as their name suggests, are materials which don’t conduct electricity all that well.

This property might seem to demarcate them as thoroughly unremarkable, but in fact this propensity for unimpressive transmission of electrical currents has a huge advantage to technologists: its flexibility. If you take a semiconductor – silicon, for example – and mix in tiny amounts of impurities during manufacture, you can radically alter its electrical properties.

The two broad types of semiconductor you can make are called n-type and p-type. To make an n-type semiconductor, the impurity you add needs to be something which has lots of electrons. This gives the semiconductor an excess of electrons, and makes it a slightly better conductor of electricity.

Inside Steve Jobs schools: swapping books for iPads

Schools in the Netherlands have shunned textbooks and only use Apple tablets for teaching and learning. A year in, journalist Sarah Marsh investigates how pupils and teachers are faring.

The glimmer of screens hypnotises a group of children who swipe their hands from side to side and then up and down, captivated by what’s in front of them. This isn’t a scene from a sci-fi film or a description of the electronics floor in Hamley’s toy shop, it is life inside Netherlands’ new iPad schools.

Just over a year ago, seven schools serving 1,000 four- to 12-year-olds opened their doors in cities such as Amsterdam and Almere. Because of their focus on learning through iPads, these institutions – pioneered by market researcher and entrepreneur Maurice de Hond – became known as “Steve Jobs schools”. There are now 22 of them across the Netherlands.

There are no notebooks, blackboards or even formal lesson plans: children drop into 30-minute workshops on various subjects. There are no seating plans and 45% of learning takes place on an iPad which every child is given when they join.

What workshop each pupil goes to is decided by teachers, parents and the pupils themselves as part of their six-week learning plan. De Hond says it is about children achieving specific learning goals with teachers acting as “talent coaches”. Children must attend school for a full day, but the devices let them learn at any time anywhere, taking screen grabs to indicate their progress to teachers.

Marina Donker, who teaches at The Ontplooiing Steve Jobs School in Amsterdam, explains that they use web-based learning programmes which adapt work to a child’s results. “There are no piles of school notebooks at the and of the day waiting for us. Children can work by themselves in a quiet room; this means that we can work with smaller groups during our workshops.”
While these schools offer a unique approach, the use of iPads in classrooms is not new. According to Apple, more than 10m iPads have been purchased by educational institutions worldwide, 7m in the US and 750,000 in the state of Texas alone.

De Hond has noticed children getting more self-assured in their learning over the year in his schools. There has been no formal research conducted so far, but De Hond believes iPads are helping children to concentrate for longer, having a particularly positive impact on those who suffer from attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Monday, 6 October 2014

Prizes for primary children who eat most fruit and veg make them healthier eaters

Poor nutrition is a primary cause behind the rising cost of health care in many developed countries. Although pupils have good knowledge of what is healthy and what is not, that does not always translate into necessarily choosing to eat fruit and vegetables. Parents and teachers know how difficult it can be to encourage children to try healthy food.

The use of incentives that reward healthy eating or other forms of good behaviour are one option being discussed as a way round this. In our recent work we explored the use of incentives in the form of stickers and small rewards – such as small toys, yoyos and stationery – in order to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among primary school children.

It worked well, but we found that adding an element of competition meant children were three times more likely to eat fruit and vegetables.

Rewards for fruit and veg

Recent research in education, smoking cessation and exercise has shown that incentives can induce individuals to engage in positive behaviour. In relation to nutrition, it remains an open question whether rewarding individuals for eating healthier will have any effect on behaviour or will play any lasting role in solving the problems caused by poor nutrition.

In order to explore this, we carried out a randomised controlled trial in 31 schools in England involving more than 600 pupils in years 2 and 5. Children’s dietary choices at lunch were monitored for a period of six weeks and an intervention was carried out in two-thirds of the schools for a period of four weeks. Sometimes we observed that children were choosing, or were given fruit and vegetables, but decided not to eat it.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Four trends in tech that every trainee teacher should know about

Classroom technology is changing tomorrow’s world of learning. Trainee teachers should know how to make the most of it.
There is more computing power in the average smartphone than the spacecraft that sent the first man to the moon, Gareth Ritter, head of creative arts at Willows high school, is fond of pointing out.

“That’s an incredible educational resource, and every student has one, but schools often try to ban them. It’s absolutely crazy,” says Ritter, who won the 2013 Pearson award for outstanding use of technology in the classroom.

Technology is now playing a greater role in young peoples’ lives than ever before and the opportunities this provides for new teachers to enliven their lessons and engage with students are incredible. Yet it also poses a challenge that trainee teachers need to be ready for. 

“You’ll be preparing young people to live, work and generally exist in a world that’s increasingly dominated by digital technologies, so it’s essential that they’re meaningfully inducted into their use,” says Angela Mcfarlane, CEO and registrar of the College of Teachers and previously head of the University of Bristol’s graduate school of education. “That’s impossible if you don’t have a good understanding of those technologies yourself.” 
Here’s our overview of the key trends in educational tech that trainee teachers should be aware of. 

Online learning

Universities all over the world now upload videos of their lectures, reading plans and assessments as massive open online courses (Moocs) to sites like Udacity, Coursera and EdX, creating an incredibly rich knowledge bank on everything from app development to ancient Greek history. “I recommend Moocs to older students,” says Emma Lamb, a teacher trainer and head of religious education and year seven at King Edward VI Camp Hill school for boys.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Curiosity improves memory by tapping into the brain’s reward system

The brain’s dopamine reward circuitry fires up when people are curious about finding answers, making learning more effective.
Curiosity may tap into the same neural pathways that make people yearn for chocolate, nicotine or a win at the races. Photograph: Frank Baron/Guardian
Brain scans of college students have shed light on why people learn more effectively when their curiosity is piqued than when they are bored stiff.
Researchers in the US found evidence that curiosity ramped up the activity of a brain chemical called dopamine, which in turn seemed to strengthen people’s memories.
Students who took part in the study were better at remembering answers to trivia questions when they were curious, but their memories also improved for unrelated information they were shown at the same time.

The findings suggest that while grades may have their place in motivating students, stimulating their natural curiosity could help them even more.
Chara Ranganath, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Davis, said curiosity seemed to be piqued when people had some knowledge of a subject but were then faced with a gap in their understanding. “We think curiosity is the drive to fill that gap. It’s like an itch you just have to scratch,” he said.

Matthias Gruber, a colleague of Ranganath’s who led the study, asked students to work through a series of trivia questions. He then had them rate how confident they were that they knew the correct answer and how curious they were to find out. He then created bespoke lists of questions for each student that left out those they already knew the answers to. The remaining questions ranged from ones the students were highly curious about to others they found totally boring.

Gruber then used an fMRI scanner to monitor each student’s brain while their list of questions appeared one after another on a screen. After each question they faced a 14-second wait during which a random face flashed up for two seconds. The answer to the trivia question then appeared on the screen before the next question flashed up.

Ways to Stop Bullying

Are you being bullied? Well, you're not the only one. In fact, studies show that one-third of all students are bullied every year!

Here you can watch a WellCast video which suggests a four step method that will show you how to boost your confidence, protect yourself from harm and find help.

Why should every child be taught oracy?

A recent report confirms that the alumni of British “public schools” still control politics and many top professions. One reason those people are so successful in public life is, of course, that their shared history gives them privileged networking connections. But they are also commonly very confident, fluent public speakers.

They were not born that way. Their skills were developed through their school experience of debating societies, discussion groups and engaging in dialogues with their teachers. Although the term might not have been used, their education included oracy – skills in using spoken language – as well as literacy and numeracy.

For the sake of social equality, all schools should teach children the spoken language skills that they need for educational progress, for work and for full participation in democracy. Our research is beginning to show that children who are taught these skills, perform better in maths, science and reasoning tests.

Politically neglected

For most of the British population, oracy has never really been a subject in the school curriculum. And with the recent downgrading of “speaking and listening” to “spoken language” in the National Primary Curriculum and the removal of the oral language assessment from the GCSE English examination, the message seems to be that spoken language skills only need to be mastered by the privileged few.

Yet skills in oracy will be more important for most people once they leave school than, for example, skills in long division, which schools minister Nick Gibb suggested in 2012 have been so woefully neglected by teachers in recent years. Although anyone can use their smart phone to calculate, technology companies such as Apple are yet to invent a speech maker and discussion generator.