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Guess what? Most Londoners think London is good - especially for the young

Wed, 19/03/2014 - 13:12

A YouGov survey has found Londoners largely pleased with their quality of life but with concerns about children and old age.

Most Londoners think London is good - or mostly good for most things, anyway. That is the broad and happy finding of a new survey by YouGov into Londoners' views on their own and fellow Londoners' lives.

Let's list the glorious good news first. Asked to give their own general quality of life a score between zero and ten, more than half (57%) of the 1136 adults asked chose six, seven or eight compared with just 29% who went for five or lower.

Respondents were also asked to rate London as a good or bad place for a list of some of life's important stuff. A chorus of high approval rates ensued: London is reckoned good for finding a job, for making money, for learning a new skill, for starting a new hobby, for health care, for going to school and university, for making friends, falling in love and, yes, improving general quality of life.

The survey was tailored to explore issues relating to age, specifically the view that London is a young city. Looking at the negatives, it is therefore striking that half of respondents considered London a bad place to grow old. A different question produced a firm expression of the feeling that the lives of old people in London have worsened compared with 20 years ago.

There was also a slightly negative rating of the capital as a place for bringing up children - 43% against 37% who thought it was good (the remaining 20% didn't know). This seemed intriguing when compared with a high positive rating of London schooling (50% compared with 29%). YouGov's Joe Twyman, who devised the poll, thinks it likely to reflect the types of anxieties felt by parents about drugs, crime, gangs, traffic danger and so on in the big, bad city.

Another question invited people to imagine being a child growing up in Britain and say whether they'd prefer to do it London or elsewhere. A pretty resounding 52% said the latter compared with 38% who would prefer The Smoke. Twyman, though, wonders if this might, to a degree, reflect nostalgia among incomers for their own, leafier upbringings.

But the "young city" perception was resoundingly confirmed by views about the best age for being a Londoner. Offered an age category spectrum from childhood to over 80 a full 40% picked "in your 20s" followed at a distance by 19% who plumped for "in your 30s." The other age groups came nowhere, although a significant 21% went for "no one age in particular." At the same time, however, the poll found that skills and employment opportunities for the young are rated more important than care and support for the old.

Other concerns? The scale of the capital's population boom, the level of preparation for coming population change and, surprise, surprise, housing. Read the detailed findings of the YouGov poll here. Your wise comments on its results are warmly welcomed (whatever your age).

Dave Hill
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Moocs: students in the global south are wary of a 'sage on the stage'

Wed, 19/03/2014 - 13:03

Unless universities adapt the curriculum to suit the needs of students in emerging economies, free online courses will have no relevance

Free online courses, known by the acronym Moocs (massive open online courses), have the potential to educate anyone, anywhere and reach the world's under-served. Why then, are these courses – which are labelled "open" and offer to take an unlimited number of students – not reaching the majority of learners in the global south?

Data from the first wave of Moocs proves that openness alone will not enable new students to take part in online education. Even if a course is free, language, learning design, learner support, quality, authenticity, accreditation, institutional appropriateness and cultural relevance can all exclude students.

Practical access issues – both physical access to the internet and proficiency in digital literacy – can be barriers to learning, but so two is curriculum design. Despite talking enthusiastically about widening access, the global north – as University of São Paulo professor José Dutra de Oliveira Neto puts it – "did not ask us what we want."

Steps are being taken to ensure that technology is more widely available to students in emerging economies. Free online courses provider Coursera plans to open learning hubs around the world, physical spaces where people who want to do a course can get free internet access, and study alongside their peers.

But if online courses are to be truly open and inclusive, then the education they provide must be locally relevant. That means universities must collaborate when designing course content.

While this doesn't sound like an easy feat, some institutions have made such an arrangement work. Last year, FemTechNet ran a course called dialogues on feminism and technology which involved 17 colleges in the US and Canada. Each week, college professors based their classes on a weekly theme, sharing course materials, but customising tutorials for their students.

Rather than having one star academic at an elite institution lecture the masses, the course – termed a Docc (distributed open collaborative course) because of its collaborative nature – recognised that expertise exists across institutions. It avoided a sage-on-the-stage mentality that casts students as passive listeners.

By shrinking a course's intake, online programmes can also become more interactive. Indiana University, for example recently ran a course on educational assessment, which was opened to approximately 500 students.

The smaller intake allowed students to work together to create wikifolios – a cross between a wiki page and digital portfolio – and spend time discussing their research. News that EdX, one of the main providers of free online courses, is partnering with Google to open source the software it uses to host courses, means more universities can experiment with course design and localising content.

Institutions in Rwanda, India and El Salvador are finding that the best way to fit Moocs to their local communities and cultures is to develop new models of blended learning, where students spend time on and off campus.

"Instead of toiling at Moocs alone with the dim light of a laptop, communities around the world are combining screen time with face time," writes New America fellow Anya Karmenetz. "In these small-group, informal, blended-learning environments, students work with the support of peers and mentors and compete online on a level playing field with the new elite of the world."

Likewise, at the University of New Mexico, we have begun developing a programme working with Central University College Accra in Ghana, helping academics there to develop a blended learning course that will train local physician assistants.

Using money secured from Grand Challenges Canada, students were given tablets and lessons from the college in how to use them for distance learning. They then returned to their communities and continued to see patients while they undertook online training to improve their knowledge of maternal health. The programme, which doubles the number of physician assistants who can be trained at one time, shows the importance of using resources that suit local needs and examples that are relevant to local people.

Moocs will be of value to learners in the global south only if they fit the learner's own context and are based on the premise that it's not just elite universities that have knowledge and skills to share.

If the needs of students in developing countries aren't properly considered, then Moocs become not a help but a hindrance.

As Dutra de Oliveira Netol observes, open education resources (OER) such as Moocs can actually increase social divides: "The poor people now have not only poor face-to-face education, but also poor access to high quality online courses and information. This means less opportunity for them."

Charlotte Gunawardena
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Move over, Stem: why the world needs humanities graduates

Wed, 19/03/2014 - 12:33

Global problems can't be resolved without a humanities perspective, so academics need to get out into the world and make the case for their subject

Business leaders called last week for subsidies for UK science and maths degrees to boost graduate numbers. Supporters of the humanities may be alarmed – but they need to work harder promote the unique skills of their graduates, the British Council's director in the US argues.

It seems that universities everywhere are getting together to speak up for the humanities. Last week, in London and Oxford, an activist humanities conference brought together Oxford, Soas, Delhi, Nanjing and Virginia. Just days before, in the US, George Washington University huddled with Turkey's Bogazici and Morocco's Al Alkhawayn to launch a global humanities initiative. Next month, at Going Global – the world's largest annual international higher education gathering run by the British Council in Miami, ways to mobilise the humanities will be one of the primary topics of debate.

And the debate won't stop at the college walls. It will need to focus on how to move on from the groundhog days of such seminars and to liberate this discussion from the academy loop and into that elusive "real world" which the humanities claim to be able to influence and improve.

So what's up with our cloistered historians and philosophers, our literary critics, classicists and scholars of the fine, performing and otherwise liberal arts? Clearly there's some gathering global anxiety within the academy and it's mainly around the difficulty of getting broader social recognition for the two convictions about humanities that are motivating these discussions.

Humanities graduates have unique skills

The first conviction is that humanities graduates are eminently employable and are trained with unique skills which bring serious advantage to the world of work.

Last week saw calls in the UK to reduce the bills for students of science and maths in order to produce a larger contingent of qualified graduates, particularly to teach these critical subjects in schools.

At the same time in the US we can see the obverse of that benign intent. Politicians in Texas are proposing that liberal arts students should expect to pay full fees and more, with no suspicion of subsidy. Their argument is that such study is self-indulgence, and of no onward value to society, so there's no reason why such niceties as art appreciation, the history of Russia or the theologies of Hinduism should be publicly supported. Instead, funds should be fully dedicated to Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) and business studies.

In the UK at least, public funding for research in the arts and humanities is currently holding fairly steady. In the US, however, the pressure's on when it comes to research too. American coffers are running dry and the national endowment for the humanities, like the national endowment for the arts, is regularly subjected to grant cuts.

Humanities perspective is needed in all global challenges

The second conviction around which the debate swirls is that the world desperately needs the insights of the humanities. Socio-economic progress, developmental challenges and the intelligent addressing of complex world issues require a combination of skills drawn from the humanities, social sciences and Stem subjects to design and deliver holistic and fully informed solutions.

Increasingly, development agencies assert that technologically sound, engineering-based projects are failing because they don't take sufficient account of the cultural context. These projects, in concept, design and implementation, lack the human perspective that recognises that no global issue, developmental problem or socio-economic challenge can be fully understood, let alone resolved, without real evidence of how the local community and the rest of humanity are experiencing it.

In this emerging exchange between the humanities as a discipline and needs of societies for development, security, prosperity and employability, academics need to re-position themselves in the world and look back at their academies.

Then they will see that the world is not constituted of ring-fenced elements of Stem, social sciences and liberal arts. God did not create chemistry on the first day, social anthropology on the second, and area studies on the third. The world was and is created of light, form, time, materiality, biological life and human experience. And the challenges it presents us with will be belittled and traduced unless we respond with appropriately holistic and multifarious solutions.

The varying disciplines into which we have conveniently siloed our world must find collaboration in a new interdisciplinarity.

Paul Smith is director of the British Council in the US. He spoke at Oxford University as part of the activist humanities conference.

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Students: it's time to green up your act

Wed, 19/03/2014 - 12:33

Recent research shows students want more eco-friendly universities, but many are not doing their bit

I have always considered myself a "green" student. I walk everywhere, keep waste to a minimum and only switch the heating on when food left out to defrost refuses to thaw. Not unusual student behaviour – or so I thought.

A recent survey showed that 80% of students want their universities to try and prevent further climate change. But many of us aren't willing to go that extra mile ourselves.

A report by SITA UK, in association with the National Union of Students (NUS), found that students were less likely to recycle than the general population (54.8% and 75% respectively). And 73.7% of non-recyclers in the UK are students.

People who don't recycle demonstrated a lack of awareness about recycling and a perception that it wasn't commonplace behaviour among their peers.

Elizabeth McCulloch, a student at Royal Holloway who is currently on a year abroad, says: "It's a lot harder to recycle in the UK than here in Bayern, Germany. We hear about what we should do and yet we don't really do anything, it's not enough."

With the environmental student network People and Planet estimating that up to 80% of a university's carbon footprint is caused by the behavior of its staff and students, it's time to make an effort to show that we care.

The NUS run a number of environmental projects that could help you make a change. Snap It Off allows students to report lighting energy waste at their university by submitting photos to a gallery on their website. Student Switch Off rewards prizes for saving energy within halls of residence, and Student Eats puts allotments on campuses to provide carbon neutral grub.

There are things we can do personally to reduce waste and save energy. Extra long showers and round-the-clock heating are already a no-no for budget-conscious students. Make sure that all electrical devices are unplugged when not in use. Popping a lid on the pan when boiling water and cooking fewer, larger meals can save money and energy.

If you want to go further, why not try eating less meat or choosing sustainable food options?

"When I buy biscuits, I make sure the palm oil is sustainable because the industry destroys rainforests," says Alasdair Wood, a student at Exeter University.

"Unfortunately people think in the short-term so don't always take the threat of climate change seriously."

• Do you have any tips on how to do your bit for the environment, or anything that holds you back? Add your thoughts in the comments section below.

Lucy Porter
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Apprenticeship funding plans fail to solve problems with the system

Wed, 19/03/2014 - 11:30

The latest apprenticeship reforms will put off businesses from getting involved with the scheme, says an expert

Last year, the government announced that in the future employers will directly receive money for running apprenticeships through the tax system. Currently, money is routed through training providers and colleges, who work with employers to find suitable candidates and take on the administrative burden of claiming funding.

The reforms have been heavily attacked. In particular, some are concerned that the changes will put off small businesses from getting involved in the scheme, because of the added bureaucracy and financial burden of companies having to put forward money upfront to take on an apprentice.

In response to criticisms, the government has recently made some changes to the new funding system. However, these amendments do nothing to address the problems raised. A key concern is that the new model is too complicated, but the changes don't simplify the system. In fact, even more bureaucracy has been created for employers.

One of the changes is the introduction of apprenticeship credits, which the government seems to be favouring above their previous idea of paying employers through the tax system.

This involves giving employers an online bank account that they share with the government. For each eligible apprentice, the employer pays in their contribution and the government tops it up before the employer uses the money to run the apprenticeship.

The problem with this idea is that it's too complicated. There will be no standard amount that employers receive from the government for taking on an apprentice, as happens now. Instead, employers will have to negotiate the price of the training.

This will be further complicated by additional payments for 16 and 17-year-olds and potentially a different rate for 18-year-olds. There will also be extra payments for smaller businesses and the online account does not cover payments for English and maths provision. We do not believe this is a simplification of rates.

Larger employers with human resource departments might be willing to take this on, but as the government's own proposals recognise, small and medium sized businesses might need to access brokers to support them through the process. This completely flies in the face of the objective of making the system simpler for employers to navigate.

The other new proposal is for the government to provide additional financial support for employers offering apprenticeship places to 16 and 17-year-olds. Under the new system, employers will have to make an immediate cash contribution for all apprentices they take on. But because of the pressure to get young people into work, employers will be compensated after three months for the additional money they put forward when they take on a 16 or 17-year-old.

Although this helps ease the financial burden of companies having to put forward some of their own money, for small businesses three months is a long wait to be reimbursed. Also, employers will still receive less money than they currently do for taking young people on. Currently, the government fully funds 16 to 18-year-olds, so even with additional payments companies will see a reduction in funding.

The government has also said it will provide additional funding for smaller businesses, but the evidence suggests that small companies don't want to manage the funding and the extra payments won't cover the cost of the bureaucracy entailed.

Members of our organisation have been talking to small companies they work with and the response has overwhelmingly been that they are uninterested in taking on apprentices if the changes are introduced. According to the government's own research, a clear majority of large and small businesses wish to keep the existing funding arrangements – see annex A of this report for more information.

We know there's a need to increase the number of employers taking on apprentices, but these proposals won't achieve this. Changes do need to be made to the current system. But what employers really need is choice. Why don't we give them the option of either working with a training provider, or directly receiving money from the government?

If the government insists on these reforms, we will see fewer businesses offering apprenticeships, especially to young people. This cannot be right. We must listen to employers and actually make changes based on evidence of what will work.

Stewart Segal is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers.

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Language learning: what motivates us?

Wed, 19/03/2014 - 09:00

What happens in the brain when we try to learn a language can tell us a lot about what drives us to learn it in the first place. Lauren Razavi unpacks the science

"Where's your name from?"

I wasn't expecting to be the subject of my interview with John Schumann, but the linguistics professor had picked up on my Persian surname. Talking to me from California, where he is one of the world's leading academic voices on language learning, he effortlessly puts my own Farsi to shame.

Schumann learned Farsi in Iran, where he was director of the country's Peace Corps Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL) programme. He then went into academia, becoming a professor at the Univesity of California (UCLA), where he specialises in how we learn languages and its neurobiology.

Shumann's work and that of his colleagues in UCLA's Neurobiology of Language Research Group, is concerned with the processes that happen within the brain when we learn a language. Such work holds the answer to the holy grail of languages: what motivates learning?

In 2009, Schumann published The Interactional Instinct: The Evolution and Acquisition of Language. The work marked a crucial development in the study of language learning.

"We've developed a theory called 'the interactional instinct'," Schumann says. "We show that children are born with a natural tendency to attach, bond and affiliate with caregivers. They essentially have a drive to become like members of the same species. The child becomes motivated to learn their primary language through this innate interactional instinct."

Could this interactional instinct, then, be the key to learning additional languages? Schumann argues that the situation is different in the case of foreign languages. "The motivation for second language acquisition varies across individuals, the talent and aptitude for it varies across individuals, and the opportunity for it varies across individuals," he says. "Therefore we don't get uniform success across second language acquisition as we do – generally – in primary language acquisition."

For more than 50 years, two terms have categorised motivation in language learning: integrative and instrumental. Though distinct, these types of motivation are closely linked.

"Integrative motivation is the motivation to learn a language in order to get to know, to be with, to interact with and perhaps become like the speakers of the target language," Schumann says. "Children have integrative motivation in acquiring their first language. Instrumental motivation alongside this characterises second language acquisition."

"Instrumental motivation is language learning for more pragmatic or practical purposes," he explains. "Such as fulfilling a school requirement, getting a job, getting a promotion in that job, or being able to deal with customers."

So then, for an aspiring language learner, which kind of motivation might see them achieve the most success? "I wouldn't argue for the supremacy of one over the other in second language acquisition," Schumann says. "In most cases of language learning motivation, we have a mixture of integrative and instrumental influences."

Closer to home, significant research into language acquisition and language learning motivation is taking place at the University of York. Its Psycholinguistics Research Group is a collaborative effort engaged with a variety of elements connected to language acquisition.

Danijela Trenkic is a member of this group and a senior lecturer in the Department of Education at York. She highlights the importance of socialisation in staying motivated to learn a language. "The social relevance and social aspects of learning seem hugely important for sustaining motivation and so determining the outcome of learning," she says.

Alongside Trenkic, student Liviana Ferrari conducted a study into language learning motivation as part of her PhD. Her research investigated what kept adult English learners of Italian motivated during a beginners' course. Though the students joined the classes for a variety of reasons and were taught by different teachers using different approaches, it quickly became apparent that maintaining motivation was closely connected to the social elements involved.

"We found that those most likely to stick with it were the ones who developed a social bond within a group," Trenkic explains. "For them, learning Italian became part of their social identity: something they do one evening a week with a group of pleasant and like-minded people. For both groups [in the study], social participation was the driving force for sustaining motivation."

Native English speakers continue to be notoriously bad at mastering foreign languages. This example of integrative motivation at work could demonstrate a way that learners might see more success in their language learning efforts. But the English language is different from other languages.

Both Trenkic and Schumann believe that native English speakers are at a unique disadvantage in trying to learn other languages. The key issue in motivating English-speaking language learners is the prevalence of English as the world's lingua franca, an issue that has been explored and debated by experts for more than a decade.

"We speak natively the language that the world is trying to learn. For us, it's never clear that we need to learn a second language, and if we decide to, it's hard for us to pick which one," Schumann asserts. "It's also very difficult to maintain a conversation with a German if your German isn't good, because they'll quickly switch to English, and they're often more comfortable doing so."

"One of the main reasons there are more successful learners of English than of other languages is that there's more 'material' out there, and it's more socially relevant in the sense that people you know are likely to share your enthusiasm for the material – films and music, for example," Trenkic adds.

Does this mean that all hope is lost for native English speakers learning foreign languages? Not necessarily. Schumann argues that many European states are successful in cultivating bilingual societies because of active societal support and the national-level importance placed on it.

"In countries like Holland and Sweden, the society has realised they have to learn a more international language. They start teaching English very early but with no magic method," Schumann says. "The Dutch put on a lot of television in English with Dutch subtitles. In the entertainment media, they give a preference to English. Nationally, they give their communities a language they can use in the world."

English's role as a global lingua franca might make foreign language acquisition more of an effort, but the motivation – as Schumann puts it – "to get to know, to be with, to interact with and perhaps become like the speakers of [a] target language" remains intact. For English speakers, the focus must be on the cultural and social benefits of learning languages – on the symptoms of integrative motivation, which go beyond employment prospects and good grades.

Lauren Razavi
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From filming lessons to self-reflecting learning walks, education experts share approaches to lesson observations

Wed, 19/03/2014 - 08:30

From filming lessons to self-reflecting learning walks, education experts share approaches to lesson observations

How do you feel about lesson observations? Ofsted's recent statement that their inspectors "must not favour a particular teaching style" throws up a number of questions that, last month, we invited you and a panel of education experts to discuss. Here are some pieces of advice on preparing for a visit from Ofsted, as well as some tips on ways schools can use observations to improve teaching practice.

Debbie Light, assistant headteacher at Elthorne Park high school and blogger at Teacher Tweaks

Make sure you take a rounded look at what a teacher is doing: Schools need to think very carefully about how they judge teacher quality based on lesson observations. An observation is just one small piece of evidence. My judgment of a teacher's quality is formed on a range of evidence across the whole year. Most importantly, does the feedback in the books and responses from students match up with what I'm seeing in the classroom?

Reach out to schools in your area: In our borough we have a very good professional learning community that carries out reviews on all of the schools. Our school got more helpful and developmental feedback from that than most other forms of monitoring. I think this is because local schools really know the local context and frequently visit each other, and therefore have a much more rounded view of what's going on in a school.

Rachel Roberts, modern languages teacher from south Gloucestershire

Find ways for teachers to self-reflect: Schools should be seeking to genuinely develop their staff and allow time for things like coaching, self-reflection and lesson study – see this blog post on Ed-U-Like for more information on the latter. I think it would be interesting to try using video when evaluating lessons on a more regular basis. A coaching style approach to professional development may also be worth considering because this ensures self-reflection and encourages more regular observation of peers.

We want our students to be self-reflective and I think schools should consider this when thinking of approaches to improving teaching practice. We use a variety of different methods, such as learning walks and peer observations as part of teachers' regular professional development. We're also thinking of starting departmental open days too. It's all about getting teachers talking about teaching and learning from each other.

Feel empowered: The message in the new guidance that inspectors must not favour a particular teaching style is both long overdue and empowering for teachers. Perhaps this is finally a recognition that there is no magic formula to good teaching. Teaching and learning are subtle and complex processes, that have often been undermined by a "tick box" and formulaic approach to lesson observations in the past. I think this is the most positive step that Ofsted has taken in recent years.

Tom Winskill, ex-headteacher and Ofsted's deputy director for schools

Remember that Ofsted observations have wide-ranging aims: In lesson observations inspectors will look at children's books, talk with them about their work and how that lesson fits with the previous work they have done, as well as looking at planning – although not necessarily a specific lesson plan. They will also want to see how learning develops in the lesson as a result of the teaching.

James Hartley, head of ICT and business studies at a secondary school

Take lessons from observing others: The best thing about doing lesson observations is how much you can learn from the person you are observing. From sharing good practice to helping remind you about methods that you may have forgotten, observation works best when it's a collaborative process.

Be consistent, whether you're observed or not: Ofsted can seem overly results-based, but if you divorce outcomes from process then you are heading for trouble. Sometimes teaching is a lot like sausage making, where people just want to look at the outcome, not the process. The difficulty lies in ensuring quality and consistency throughout the year.

Mark Griffiths, ex-deputy headteacher and current advisor at Randstad Education

Take care when changing your teaching style: I've observed a number of staff in my time who were not considered "good" by Ofsted, but still achieved outstanding outcomes. What's more important? In one case a member of staff tried to incorporate more independent and collaborative learning in their class and their results nosedived.


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Cockatoo perched in Renaissance painting forces rethink of history

Wed, 19/03/2014 - 03:54

Historian says the birds can live for 60 years and could have lasted the lengthy journey to Europe along the Silk Road

Oliver Milman








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