Sunday, 29 March 2015

Finland’s school reforms won’t scrap subjects altogether

Finland’s plans to replace the teaching of classic school subjects such as history or English with broader, cross-cutting “topics” as part of a major education reform have been getting global attention, thanks to an article in The Independent, one of the UK’s trusted newspapers. Stay calm: despite the reforms, Finnish schools will continue to teach mathematics, history, arts, music and other subjects in the future.

But with the new basic school reform all children will also learn via periods looking at broader topics, such as the European Union, community and climate change, or 100 years of Finland’s independence, which would bring in multi-disciplinary modules on languages, geography, sciences and economics.

It is important to underline two fundamental peculiarities of the Finnish education system in order to see the real picture. First, education governance is highly decentralised, giving Finland’s 320 municipalities significant amount of freedom to arrange schooling according to the local circumstances. Central government issues legislation, tops up local funding of schools, and provides a guiding framework for what schools should teach and how.

Second, Finland’s National Curriculum Framework is a loose common standard that steers curriculum planning at the level of the municipalities and their schools. It leaves educators freedom to find the best ways to offer good teaching and learning to all children. Therefore, practices vary from school to school and are often customised to local needs and situations.

Phenomenon-based learning

The next big reform taking place in Finland is the introduction of a new National Curriculum Framework (NCF), due to come into effect in August 2016.

It is a binding document that sets the overall goals of schooling, describes the principles of teaching and learning, and provides the guidelines for special education, well-being, support services and student assessment in schools. The concept of “phenomenon-based” teaching – a move away from “subjects” and towards inter-disciplinary topics – will have a central place in the new NCF.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

London Dims The Lights For WWF Earth Hour

What’s Piccadilly Circus without the iconic illuminated adverts? Or The Ritz without its name in glitzy lights? This weekend is your chance to find out as London landmarks switch off their lights for WWF’s Earth Hour.

Among those signed up to dim the lights for an hour on Saturday night are the BT Tower, Harrods, the Royal Naval College, Tower Bridge, Southwark Cathedral, Mansion House, Barbican, the Gherkin, St Paul’s, the Royal Opera House.

Why, we hear you ask? WWF Earth Hour is an annual event which takes place across the globe. The public are asked to switch off the lights for an hour to show their dedication to caring for the planet.

Afraid of the dark? Not to worry — as you can see from our photo gallery from last year, it’s only non-essential lights that get switched off — and in a city as busy as London, that means that plenty of streetlights remain on. But it’ll be quite a sight to look to the London skyline and not see the likes of the Gherkin, the Heron Tower and the BT Tower stealing the limelight.

3-D Recycling: Grind, melt print!

A new desktop recycler turns trash into 3-D printer ‘ink'.

Three-dimensional, or 3-D, printers make it possible to “print” almost any object with a computer. The machines produce items by laying down tiny drops, or pixels, of material one layer at a time. That material can be made from plastic, metal or even human cells. But just as the ink for standard computer printers can be expensive, 3-D printer “ink” can be quite pricey too. Meanwhile, society faces a growing mound of plastic trash. Now three Canadian engineering students have found a way to deal with both problems: Recycle plastic waste into spools of 3-D printer ink. 

The first part of their new machine is a plastic recycler. It grinds and crushes waste plastic into uniform bits about the size of peas or large grains of rice. The waste can be used drink bottles, coffee cup lids or other plastics. But this trash must be clean.

Users must grind only one type of plastic in any given batch. Otherwise, the ink-making part of the process may not work well, notes Dennon Oosterman. He worked on the new machine with fellow students Alex Kay and David Joyce. All three attend the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.

The machine stores the plastic bits in a drawer until there are enough for a spool of “ink.” Then those bits go into the next part of the machine. It’s called an extruder.

To extrude something means to push it out. To do that, this part of the system first melts the plastic bits. A little of that melted plastic attaches to a spool. The spool then turns, pulling a long, thin thread of the plastic out of the machine. “You can think about stretching gum apart,” explains Oosterman. But instead of becoming a mess of stringy goo, the plastic cools and winds neatly onto the spool.

The machine pulls out and winds as much as three meters (10 feet) of plastic thread per minute. At that rate, it takes roughly two hours to make a one-kilogram (2.2 pound) spool of plastic thread. That’s about 40 percent faster than other small-scale plastic-ink makers, Oosterman says.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Can teachers ever have a work-life balance?

Teaching is stressful, but it's not unprofessional to have a life.

Teachers are, at times, a much-maligned and misunderstood community. Your friends will rib you about knocking off at 3 o'clock. "Oh, and you get all those holidays don't you?" they will quip. "How hard can it really be?"

To cut to the chase, teaching is a stressful profession. Many of those friends of yours who jest about your extended holidays will not understand the complexities and strains of being in the profession.

I will only pick upon one of the litany of examples that no doubt are popping into your minds to exemplify the point. If a businessman or woman is presenting to a client in any given week, how long do they spend preparing, even rehearsing their number? Hours of time is the answer, potentially even days. Yet as teachers we present like this every single day of term, with limited preparation time, with many of these presentations within one day, often consecutively. Add in the difficulty of managing an audience who are often sprightly, and sometimes uninterested, and you have a burdensome task in not just delivering your material but also stimulating your audience. Easy work it is not.

So I start this blog in defence of teachers, and particularly new or young teachers. I aim to hopefully reassure those entering the profession or indeed more experienced practitioners about why looking after teachers is as important as looking after children.

While some might argue that it is worth staying up all night preparing lessons, I would argue against this. Teachers' health matters, as does longevity in the profession. This is something I try and stress to young teachers. Yes – it's great to be enthusiastic. And yes – you can stay up until 2am designing that fireworks lesson or marking the books til they're dripping with red. But is that sustainable for more than a year? Is it of benefit to the youth of today having a horrific turnover of new teachers who burn out quickly in a Coach Carter-esque sermon of saving the kids? And will your lesson actually be as effective if you're so knackered you can't function properly?

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

‘Smart’ clothes generate electricity

New fabric harvests energy from its wearer.

You’ll get a charge out of the clothes of the future. Scientists in South Korea have developed a flexible, foldable and wearable fabric that generates electricity as it bends and flexes. A person wearing a shirt tailored from the material only has to move around to power a small screen or other electronic devices.

The advance represents an important step toward making wearable power sources a reality, says Yunlong Zi. He’s a physicist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta, who did not work on the new fabric. In his own lab, he studies ways to harvest energy. “Cell phones need batteries, but batteries have limited life,” he notes. With clothing that can generate electricity, he notes, that’s no longer an issue: “You can make power by yourself.”

Sang-Woo Kim led the development of this new material. He works at Sungkyunkwan University in Suwon, South Korea. A shirt made from the new fabric can be worn — even patched — like any other item of clothing. “It feels like an ordinary jacket,” he told Science News for Students.

Fully equipped, it's just a tad on the heavy side, he acknowledges. That added weight comes from the electronic gizmos the researchers wired into the shirt. For tests, these included small screens, lights and even a keyless remote. Press the shirt’s cuff, for instance, and the remote unlocks a car's doors.

How it works

The power-generating material is known as a wearable triboelectric (TRI-bo-ee-LEK-trik) nanogenerator, or WTNG. Here’s what that means: Triboelectricity refers to electricity generated by friction. Friction is the resistance encountered when one material moves over or through another material. People feel friction (in the form of heat) when they rub their hands together. In fact, the prefix tribo comes from the Greek word for rubbing. Meanwhile, nano is a prefix meaning a billionth. The material includes tiny zinc-oxide rods only billionths of a meter long. Those spiky nanoparticles help convert motion into electricity.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Science Isn’t Boring. Boring Lessons Are.

Last fall, the New York Academy of Scientists, together with the United Nations and a veritable who’s who of socially responsible corporations, collectively wrung their hands about the global shortage of science professionals. The STEM crisis may or may not be a myth, but one thing’s for certain: The way science is often taught these days does the field no favors.

“Kids think science is boring,” says Gerald Richards, CEO of 826 National, the beloved writing and tutoring organization for under-resourced youths founded by Dave Eggers. A couple of years ago at a meeting called by the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), Richards found himself the lone arts representative surrounded by vexed STEM teachers desperate to engage their students. He raised his hand and pointed out what he thought was obvious—the dreary lectures in many STEM classrooms; their intimidating atmosphere—and offered the one thing he knew to be true from his years at 826: “To learn, kids need to get their hands dirty.”

Richards went on to share that some of the organization’s science-inspired writing exercises had proven exhilarating for students—even those who struggled to read and write ended up producing ambitious poems and stories about scientific theories. Still, he wished he could figure out how to take the project a step further, organically entwining hands-on, real-world science lessons with creative storytelling. Tessie Topol, Time Warner Cable’s (TWC) VP of Corporate Social Responsibility, was at the meeting, too, and knew Richards was on to something special.

Together, with the backing of TWC’s Connect a Million Minds program and CGI, the two set out to develop what has since turned into an immersive program and a book of lesson plans for fifth-to-eighth graders called STEM to Story. Aligned with Common Core English Language Arts and Next Generation Science standards, the program immediately saw impressive results, increasing students’ desire to study science—and their confidence that they’d do well in the subject—by 12 and 10 percent respectively.

“Perception is more than half the battle,” says Topol. “When kids assume they won’t be good at science, they never will be.” In step with the current educational trend toward playful learning—which has been proven to foster developmental reading ability and to “stick” much longer than more traditional “drill-and-skill” teaching, particularly for disadvantaged children—STEM to Story doesn’t inform students that they’re about to learn a Very Important Lesson about science or creative writing. Instead, it just gives them something fun to do—say, tossing handfuls of salt and sugar on ice to see what makes it melt faster—then asking them to imagine (hopefully on paper) what the world would be like without salt.

Says Gerald: “We’re not answering questions for the kids. The 826 method is very Socratic. You ask what a world without salt would be like, you get the students to give you answers. Volunteers are there to help and draw it out, but more important is that a caring adult is listening and paying attention to what you’re doing. Paying attention to you. Helping you work through your own imaginative ideas to get to the right answer. Science is all about inquiry, but it’s also about being creative.”

Sunday, 22 March 2015

Stress for success

Psychologists help anxious teens put their worries to good use

A pounding heart. Tense muscles. Sweat-beaded forehead. The sight of a coiled snake or a deep chasm might trigger such stress responses. These physical reactions signal that the body is prepared to deal with a life-threatening situation.

Many people, however, respond this way to things that cannot actually hurt them. Sitting down to take a test, for example, or walking into a party won’t kill you. Still, these kinds of situations can trigger a stress response that’s every bit as real as those provoked by, say, staring down a lion. What’s more, some people can experience such reactions simply by thinking about non-threatening events.

The uneasiness we feel when we think about, anticipate or plan for non-threatening events is called anxiety. Everyone experiences some anxiety. It’s perfectly normal to feel butterflies in your belly before standing up in front of the class. For some people, however, anxiety can become so overwhelming, they start to skip school or stop going out with friends. They even can become physically ill.

The good news: Anxiety experts have a number of techniques to help people control such overwhelming feelings. Even better, new research suggests that viewing stress as beneficial not only can reduce anxious feelings, but also help us to improve our performance on challenging tasks.

Why we worry

Anxiety is related to fear. Fear is the emotion we feel when we are faced with something dangerous, whether real or not. Information from any of the five senses — or even just our imagination — can trigger fear, explains Debra Hope. She is a psychologist who specializes in anxiety at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln.

Fear is what kept our ancestors alive when a rustle in the bushes turned out to be a lion. Talk about a useful emotion! Without fear, we wouldn’t even be here today. That is because as soon as the brain detects danger, it starts a cascade of chemical reactions, Hope explains. Nerve cells, also known as neurons, start signaling to each other. The brain releases hormones — chemicals that regulate bodily activities. These particular hormones ready the body to either fight or flee. That’s the evolutionary purpose of the stress response.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

What should be taught by teachers, and what by parents?

Who taught you to tell the time, to tie your shoelaces or to write your name? I have memories of my parents and teachers taking a hand in helping me to learn these skills as a small child. But what about more challenging tasks - who taught you to analyse a poem or to solve equations?

Mr Williamson, my favourite teacher, taught the principles of algebra to our class and patiently went over the information until it started to make some sense to me. I also remember my parents encouraging me to practise what I was learning in class and to try different approaches when the first solution didn’t work. So, who was doing the teaching in this instance - Mr Williamson or my parents?

I would say both. Mr Williamson had the knowledge and expertise that allowed him to present complex information in ways that matched my capacity for learning. My parents, on the other hand, knew that I would benefit from learning to persist in the face of difficult problems.

What lessons are the primary responsibility of the home?

Parents are typically a child’s first teachers. Initially, their focus is on helping very young children to communicate and, with age, to become increasingly independent, encouraging physical accomplishments such as walking and catching a ball, holding a cup and using cutlery.

Parents are also instrumental in teaching a range of social skills, including taking turns, greeting others and remembering to say “please” and “thank you”.

Information related to personal hygiene and sex education is also based in the home. Parents are regarded as important role models in terms of the ensuing behaviour of their children.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

How to give bright but disadvantaged kids a leg up

Able young people from disadvantaged backgrounds lose out at every stage in our education system. By the age of five, the poorest children are already 19 months behind their richest peers in how ready they are for school. A new report published by the Sutton Trust has revealed that this gap is cumulative: those who are shown to be bright in national tests aged 11 are barely half as likely as their more advantaged classmates to get the A Levels they need to go to a good university.

For this new report, called Subject to Background, my colleagues Kathy Sylva, Katalin Toth and I, drew on data from more than 3,000 young people – the majority in state schools – who have been tracked through school since the age of three for the longitudinal Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education project.

Out of this group only 33% of bright but disadvantaged students took one or more A Level exam in what the Russell Group of universities defines as “facilitating subjects” such as maths, English, the sciences, humanities or modern languages. This was compared with 58% of their more advantaged counterparts.

“Bright” students were defined as those children who had obtained Level 5 – the standard expected for 14-year-olds – or above on any of the three “core” subjects, English, maths or science, in national assessments at the end of primary school in Year 6, aged 11. The disadvantaged measure was based on whether a student was eligible for free school meals and their families’ social and economic status – which was linked to parents’ occupations and salary.

Better chances of success

But we did identify a number of factors that significantly increased the chances bright but disadvantaged pupils have of gaining good AS and A Level results. Students’ attainment at A Level is generally higher if they went to pre-school – especially if it was a high-quality pre-school. They also achieved better grades aged 18 if they had a good home learning environment in the early years followed up by academic enrichment activities at home, such as going on trips to museums and galleries, and reading for pleasure.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Teachers overworked and undervalued but still dedicated to education, survey suggests

While 82% of teachers say their workload is unmanageable, 97% believe school should be as much about encouraging a love of learning as exam results.

Teachers are overworked, undervalued and say there has been too much political interference with education, according to a survey by the Guardian Teacher Network.

More than half of teachers who took part in the research don’t feel trusted at work, while just four in 10 are happy with their jobs.

More than 5,000 teachers responded to the survey, including nearly 1,500 from academies and free schools, which was designed to ascertain how happy teachers are in their jobs, and the causes of their discontent or satisfaction.

A staggering 82% of teachers said their workload has become unmanageable and almost all said that their workload had increased over the last five years. Many pointed the finger at Ofsted and the government for piling too much pressure on schools.

One teacher wrote: “I am happy to work hard, but the current level of scrutiny in my school makes it impossible to make professional judgements about the best way to do things, which is extremely stressful. I have been happiest at times when I have had some control over my workload.”

Others complained of “shocking political interference with education” and said Ofsted was too punitive. “Schools are being held to ransom by Ofsted’s current grading,” one teacher said.

Almost one in five teachers said they thought they had made the wrong career choice. One teacher simply said: “The longer I teach the closer I am to retirement.”

The statistics also suggest that more experienced teachers are no less likely to feel on top of their workload. The same proportion of older and younger teachers said that the amount of work they had to get through was unmanageable.

Friday, 13 March 2015

School libraries shelve tradition to create new learning spaces

You might think technology would spell the end of books and libraries. But many schools have embraced the digital revolution and built innovative spaces that foster a love of literature.

What happens to school libraries when students find it more natural to turn to a computer screen than a book?

That is the question facing schools around the world as they struggle to keep up with the digital revolution while fostering a love of literature.

Many have found creative answers, developing spaces that allow children to make discoveries, put technology to imaginative use, learn, perform, and relax – as well as to read. In the process, libraries have often come to be the school’s focal point.

This was the idea behind the new library at Dixons Allerton Academy in Bradford built centrally over the entrance and linking the primary and secondary schools on the campus. Carolyn Shaw, learning commons leader at the school, says: “We have a big drive on books and reading for pleasure but we see ourselves very much as being the hub of learning in the school.”

The library is not just a new physical space, replacing a traditional book-lined room that had buckets on the floor because of leaky ceilings; it also plays an important part generally in delivering the curriculum. It does this through e-learning and information literacy specialist staff who loan out equipment and support teachers and students in using it wherever it is needed.

Only three pieces of equipment in the library are fixed, and these are for searching the catalogue. All other computers are laptops, with seating and tables equally moveable to allow the space to be used for exhibitions of pupils’ work or curriculum-linked displays, debates, presentations and even a jazz band.

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Music Makes You a Better Reader, Says Neuroscience

It’s known as the “musician’s advantage.”

For decades, educators, scientists, and researchers have observed that students who pick up musical instruments tend to excel in academics—taking the lead in measures of vocabulary, reading, and non-verbal reasoning and attention skills, just to name a few. But why musical training conferred such an advantage remained a bit of a mystery.

Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University and research collaborator on the Harmony Project has spent her life surrounded by music. And, today, she is studying how musical training can harness the brain’s natural plasticity, or adaptiveness, to help students become better overall students and readers, even when they grow up in impoverished environments.

The “musician’s advantage,” traditionally, has been difficult to study. Often, musical training is obtained privately in one-on-one instruction—something available only to kids of higher socio-economic status. This meant that researchers couldn’t say for certain whether music was responsible for the better academic outcomes observed or whether some unrelated factor, linked to living in a home in a higher income bracket, was behind any observed difference. After all, more affluent parents are often better educated themselves—and have more time and resources to help children with their reading and school work. Perhaps music wasn’t the true differentiator.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

The Eiffel Tower Goes Green

The Eiffel Tower, built in 1889, was created with the sole intention of acting as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair, meant to last only a few years. Paris’s most iconic landmark has seen various additions and decorations for holidays and events in its 126 year life span, but it’s latest renovation is a new symbolic and practical addition. Last week, Urban Green Energy, a renewable energy firm, installed two wind turbines near the second level of the tower within the metal scaffolding. The turbines will produce 10,000 kilowatts per hours, enough to offset all the electricity used on the first floor, which includes restaurants, a souvenir shop, and historical exhibits, in a given year.

According to CNET, the vertical axis turbines are installed 400 feet from the ground, a height meant to optimize the amount of wind (from any direction) captured. The turbines will not be a sight for sore eyes or ears either; they have been specifically painted to blend in with the tower and the sound produced by the turbines registers at about 40 decibels, or the sound of a whisper.

The tower’s architecture was better suited for wind energy rather than solar power. “Being up on the tower, it was very evident wind was the right choice,” Jan Gromadzki, an engineer for UGE, told Fast Company. “We're so far up above the rest of Paris that we actually get very strong winds, very powerful winds that can be used and harnessed to produce energy. Solar would have required quite a bit of space, which they really don't have on the tower. It would also look like glass, and they didn't want to cover any of the structure.”

Monday, 9 March 2015

Feel the beat: how rhythm shapes the way we use and understand language

Stress-timing and meters aren’t merely the stuff of poetry – their everyday use in conversation and song reveals a fundamental pattern in language skills.

Do you feel the rhythm? Or a French rythme, Spanish ritmo, Swedish rytm, Russian ритм (ritm) or Japanese rizumu? Is there a difference? Perhaps one way to find out is to have a French conversation, German konversation, Spanish conversación, or Italian conversatione? Doing so will of course reveal many differences, but languages of the world also share much, just as these words demonstrate.

For millennia we have been singing, dancing, clapping, drumming and talking to a beat. Just like the evolution of our DNA, languages have cross-pollinated, overlapped and changed, but at a far more rapid rate than our bodies. But are linguistic rhythmic patterns really universal?

An extensive 2010 Oxford University study comparing a series of rhythm algorithm measurements for English, French, Greek, Russian and Mandarin found – “surprisingly”, as the study itself expressed – that none of these languages could be separated, and that languages do not have dramatically different rhythms. It found variants came far more from individual speakers than the rules of the language itself. So perhaps universal patterns of rhythm aren’t so surprising after all. Could the instinct for rhythm in language be innate and echo Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar, that we are all essentially hard-wired to form sentences? The answer lies in the weight of syllables.

A world of stress, a matter of meter 

Languages use rhythms composed of syllables that are variously stressed and unstressed, all in a variety of patterns that, though discernible and often complex under analysis, we mostly use unconsciously.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

BiebBus, The Expanding Mobile Library

BiebBus is a truck-container that travels from school to school, offering 7,000 books and a reading room.

Mobile libraries date back to 1905, when in Washington County, Maryland the first bookmobile offered its service to those American readers who would otherwise have no access to books, mostly the young and the elderly. The Netherlands also knows this tradition and has a wide network of regionally organized mobile libraries. On a personal note: I grew up in the rural northern part of the country and I remember feeling excitement for Tuesday afternoons when the 'bibliobus' would be in the village. It was the pre-internet era and the bus was a place of discovery.

The Zaan region is part of the Amsterdam metropolitan area and consists of a series of smaller villages. On their own they can't finance a full-time library but the 'bibliobus' is a viable alternative. Contrary to the more rural areas in the Netherlands, this region is densely populated and has narrow streets. As such the conventional mobile library with a trailer providing for 50 m2 of library surface was not an option; the vehicle would simply take too much parking space. Architect Jord den Hollander designed a smart solution. Possibly inspired by his youth memory of Gerry Anderson's TV series Thunderbirds he developed the 'Uitschuif Biebbus' or the expanding mobile library. 

Solving the Literacy Gender Gap in Morocco

Morocco has long been touted as a beacon for progress in the Middle East and North Africa, especially since 1999, when King Mohammed VI ascended to the throne. Over the last 15 years, the developing country has seen the advancement of women’s domestic rights via the Moroccan Family Code, the ratification of the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and a variety of innovative educational reforms. In fact, the first 10 years of Mohammed’s reign were dubbed the “Education Decade,” resulting in impressive increases in literacy. UNESCO estimates that just 41.6 percent of the Moroccan population was literate in 1990; by 2010, that figure had spiked to 56 percent.

But despite this long-term commitment to education and human rights, there remains a startling division in literacy rates between Morocco’s urban and rural populations—with an even more significant gap between men and women. In many ways, the urban/rural achievement gap may not be so surprising: Rural villages can be many miles away from schools; temperatures are sweltering in summer and can be freezing in winter; main roads are often crowded and in poor shape; and alternative transportation is out of reach for many poverty-stricken families.

But the unique obstacles faced by many rural women and girls—who enroll in lower secondary education at a rate of 26 percent compared to 79 percent for rural boys—are considerable. For traditional Moroccan families, it’s simply not acceptable for young girls to walk to and from school alone, or to live away from home to attend school if a daily commute proves taxing. While illegal, underage marriage remains a reality for many Moroccan girls, and often eliminates any potential for a secondary education. Some estimates claim that even five years post-“Education Decade,” illiteracy rates for rural women and girls in Morocco remain as high as 90 percent (though official sources put the figure at 54.4 percent).

Still, a pragmatic optimism lingers in Morocco, as a variety of policies and programs actively target illiteracy to this day. The nation’s longest-established literacy program—mahou al omiya (Erasing Illiteracy)—directly tackles the rural gender gap each night in the classroom. This free program, held in the evenings at nearly every public school in the country, is geared toward adults who never had the opportunity to attend or complete school. Open to attendance by both men and women, it’s women who are most in need of literacy support—so it’s women who most often attend.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Alarming gender gap in school science sets women up to fail

Only 14% of young women who enter university for the first time chose science-related fields of study such as engineering, manufacturing and construction. This is one of the headline findings of a new report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that examines gender equality in education across 64 countries and jurisdictions. In comparison, 39% of young men who entered university chose to pursue one of those fields of study.

Gender has always been important in education. What the report – based on the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests – reveals is the extent of the gender gap in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Let down in science

The university statistics won’t come as a complete surprise to many – though the magnitude of the gender difference is worryingly large. But the school-age data, drawn from 15-year-olds who take the PISA tests every three years, contains an even more alarming message: the UK’s gender gap visible in school results for science subjects is among the largest.

British 15-year-old girls are reported as doing 13% worse than 15-year-old boys. In Finland, girls do 16% better than boys. Of the 64 countries that took the tests, the UK takes 61st place.

Reviving the Library in Greece: The Future Is Now for the Future Library Network and the INELI-Balkans Project

One of the milestones of childhood is when a child learns to read. It starts out simply; the mere act of spelling out his/her own name and then reading it off a piece of paper is met with much fanfare by the child's parents and teachers. Single words soon turn into whole books. Suddenly, the world as described on the written page, is opened up to them and, well... nothing is the same again.

Nobody can argue the significance of reading in the life of any human. As a wise person once said, "The more you read the more things you'll know. The more that you learn the more places you'll go." By the way, I just quoted Dr. Seuss, the writer and illustrator who, through his 46 published children's books, has played a critical role in teaching millions of children worldwide how to read--including yours truly who is still expecting to run into a black and white cat wearing an extra tall, top hat. Maybe someday.

People will read; they want to. But to do so, not only do they need the skills but they need to have material to read. This is where public libraries come in.

In the U.S., going to the library is a commonplace practice. Every town has at least one easily accessible library on offer. But what about other countries around the world which don't, or can't, offer this service? And today's libraries have to keep up with the times, too. That means not only must they provide "old fashioned," printed hardcopies of tomes but they must also be fully equipped, technological hubs of knowledge and entertainment.

To that extent the past 15 years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation put strong actions behind their belief that libraries are critically important for all people, with their Access to Learning Award and their Global Libraries program.

In 2010, the Veria Central Public Library in the province of Macedonia in northern Greece was one of the last libraries to be awarded this coveted prize. According to the Foundation, the Veria library made, "creative use of information and technology services," and offered, "a range of programs that meet the economic, educational and cultural needs of more than 180,000 people." Since the award, the Veria library has expanded its reach and in 2011 established the Future Library, a nonprofit directly derived from the ATLA award.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Dollard teen discovers pothole solution

There is a delicious irony in knowing that a 14-year-old from Dollard-des-Ormeaux may have found an amazingly simple remedy to Canada’s perennial pothole problem.

While governments spend millions annually in largely futile attempts to repair our rotting roadways, David Ballas, a Grade 9 student at West Island College, believes he may have come up with a cost-effective solution by mixing chicken feathers with asphalt to form a nearly impermeable surface.

Don’t laugh: The French term for potholes is nids-de-poule, or chicken nests.

Ballas’s discovery took the form of a science project, which recently garnered first prize at his school’s science fair. That honour will allow him to represent WIC next month at the Montreal Regional Science Fair at Concordia University.

Ballas came up with the idea after his mother, Joy Struzer, blew a car tire after hitting a pothole in Dollard. It wasn’t the first time, either.

So Ballas consulted a few chemists, who encouraged him to look for “hydrophobic” materials, a scientific term for water repellent.

Ballas found his answer during an Internet search for waste materials with hydrophobic surfaces.

“The first thing that I found was chicken feathers. Actually, there are 5 million tonnes of them that are wasted every year, just in Quebec. It was a perfect idea.”

Thursday, 5 March 2015

The Sharing Experiment

We wanted to know if sharing is natural. On October 7, 2011 Action Against Hunger conducted an experiment in Madrid, Spain to study human behavior when faced with the injustice of hunger. Of the 20 children under study, all 20 shared their food.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Lost City Discovered in the Honduran Rainforest

In search for legendary “City of the Monkey God,” explorers find the untouched ruins of a vanished culture.

An expedition to Honduras has emerged from the jungle with dramatic news of the discovery of a mysterious culture’s lost city, never before explored. The team was led to the remote, uninhabited region by long-standing rumors that it was the site of a storied “White City,” also referred to in legend as the “City of the Monkey God.”

Archaeologists surveyed and mapped extensive plazas, earthworks, mounds, and an earthen pyramid belonging to a culture that thrived a thousand years ago, and then vanished. The team, which returned from the site last Wednesday, also discovered a remarkable cache of stone sculptures that had lain untouched since the city was abandoned.

In contrast to the nearby Maya, this vanished culture has been scarcely studied and it remains virtually unknown. Archaeologists don’t even have a name for it.

Christopher Fisher, a Mesoamerican archaeologist on the team from Colorado State University, said the pristine, unlooted condition of the site was “incredibly rare.” He speculated that the cache, found at the base of the pyramid, may have been an offering.

“The undisturbed context is unique,” Fisher said. “This is a powerful ritual display, to take wealth objects like this out of circulation.”

The tops of 52 artifacts were peeking from the earth. Many more evidently lie below ground, with possible burials. They include stone ceremonial seats (called metates) and finely carved vessels decorated with snakes, zoomorphic figures, and vultures.

The most striking object emerging from the ground is the head of what Fisher speculated might be “a were-jaguar,” possibly depicting a shaman in a transformed, spirit state. Alternatively, the artifact might be related to ritualized ball games that were a feature of pre-Columbian life in Mesoamerica.

Classroom design can boost primary pupils' progress by 16%


We all know how important it is that our primary school teachers are highly qualified, but what is less known is what impact the room where children are taught has on their achievement or performance. Results of a three-year research project have shown that the design of a classroom at primary school level can boost learning progress by up to 16% in a single year.

Our team of researchers visited 27 schools in Blackpool, Hampshire and Ealing, carrying out detailed surveys of more than 150 classrooms in varying geographical and socio-economic contexts. Our resulting report analysed the performance of 3,766 pupils between the ages of five and 11 in relation to the design of their classroom, providing clear evidence for the first time that it had a dramatic affect on their attainment levels.

While we were aware that specific elements such as “air quality” have been analysed before, it was the first time researchers had ever gone into real schools and discovered the impact on children’s learning of every aspect of a classroom.

Measuring pupils' progress

For each pupil in the study, we looked at the teacher-assessed grades in reading, writing and mathematics at the start and the end of the year, so that their progress in each subject could be calculated. These subjects are typically taught in the same classroom, which represents a permanent learning space for the children at primary school level, unlike in a secondary school where students often move from room to room for their different subjects.

It was from this data that we could estimate that moving the “average” pupil from the least effective classroom to the most effective classroom accounted for an increase in pupil performance of 1.3 sub-levels of the national curriculum in a single year. The national curriculum is divided into eight levels, each with three sub-levels, used to measure children’s progress. Progress of 1.3 sub-levels based on the classroom environment is a big impact when the Department of Education expects primary school children to progress by two sub-levels in a year.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

If you speak Mandarin, your brain is different

We speak so effortlessly that most of us never think about it. But psychologists and neuroscientists are captivated by the human capacity to communicate with language. By the time a child can tie his or her shoes, enough words and rules have been mastered to allow the expression of an unlimited number of utterances. The uniqueness of this behaviour to the human species indicates its centrality to human psychology.

That this behaviour comes naturally and seemingly effortlessly in the first few years of life merely fascinates us further. Untangling the brain’s mechanisms for language has been a pillar of neuroscience since its inception. New research published in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences about the different connections going on in the brains of Mandarin and English speakers, demonstrates just how flexible our ability to learn language really is.

Real-time brain networking

Before functional brain imaging was possible, two areas on the left side of the brain, called Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, had already revealed their importance for language. Victims of stroke or traumatic brain injury to either of these crucial areas on the left side of the brain exhibited profound disabilities for producing and understanding language. Modern theories on connectionism – the idea that knowledge is distributed across different parts of the brain and not tucked into dedicated modules like Broca’s area – have compelled researchers to take a closer look.

For example, language requires real-time mappings between words and their meanings. This requires that the sounds heard in speech – decoded in the auditory cortex – must be integrated with knowledge about what they mean – in the frontal cortex. Modern theories in neuroscience are enamoured with this type of “network” approach. Instead of pinning miracles of cognition to singular brain areas, complex processes are now viewed as distributed across different cortical areas, relying on several parts of the brain interacting dynamically.

Top tips: how can PE and school sport help students stay healthy?

From pedometers to healthy Come Dine With Me clubs, physical education experts share their ideas for improving pupil wellbeing from our recent live chat.

Get pupils to wake and shake in lessons 

Brain function decreases after 17 minutes of sitting still. I know of lots of innovative primary schools that make sure children aren’t sitting for more than 15 minutes at a time. I have seen some wonderful literacy lessons delivered through physical activity, such as children acting out the story. With approaches like this, alongside a high quality PE and sport programme, schools can help young people achieve their 60 active minutes a day.

Alison Oliver, chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust.

Take a cross-curricula approach

PE shouldn’t be just within the fabric of the sports hall. For example, in maths and food technology you can compare data on athletic times and calorie count over a six-week period to predict outcomes. Or, to motivate disaffected groups in languages, it’s not uncommon to run a sports days in a different language. History and sport also play a great part in Britain and abroad. Henry VIII was a massive advocate of sport and there are many opportunities for projects between the history and PE department.

Steve Sallis, head of education and player welfare at Millwall Football Club.

Track how students are doing with a scorecard

Every Thursday our entire year 7 cohort arrive at school in their PE kit and take part in a physical activity instead of having their normal form time. They have a “personal best” scorecard, which lists performance measures linked to fitness levels, and work with a health mentor who designs activities around improving their performance over time. We deliver it on a day when the kids already have PE (to help with logistics) and have an all-inclusive “fun club” after school, which has fantastic levels of attendance.

Kevin Byrne, sport and health development leader at Bebington high sports college.

Rethink the layout of the playground 

Zoning the playground to ensure ball games don’t dominate and there’s space for a range of activities can inspire and empower a wider variety of pupils to “play” at playtime. Equally, training lunchtime supervisors to organise and lead activity has proven effective. Some of the most innovative and exciting work I have seen is where children are trained to lead and organise peer-led activities. Youth sport leadership not only increases participation, but is a powerful way of developing skills that are important to learning and life, such as communication, organisation and self-reflection.