Language & literacy vs STEM

Trigger warning: This post is deliberately provocative. Feel free to challenge it! I want to encourage discussion and hope everyone steps backs from their personal experience to consider this issue in detail.

A while ago I joined in with a debate on Twitter about qualifications required to undertake teacher (yes I know we call it ‘education’ but that’s for another day) training in Scotland. It became apparent that I wasn’t able to explain my view in a few tweets so I promised to blog about it – so here it is. Currently you need Higher English but not maths, or any science at all, to get on an ITE course in Scotland. There also appears to be a divide between those who argued for language or those who advocated for STEM. Arguments include that because teachers must communicate with parents a Higher English qualification is essential. I think this is a weak argument, and slightly patronising. I suspect someone who has worked in a war-zone in the forces, or in A&E on a regular basis, will have excellent communication skills that would easily transfer to schools. In comparison passing a course judged on writing essays will prepare you to write more essays. And it may even reinforce certain language or linguistic prejudices about what is ‘right’. I could go on here about verbal communication and teaching the ‘correct (middle/upper class?) speech model’.

I would like to raise another point. Education is a social science, closer to humanities and language based subjects. We get students from the natural sciences coming across to education, and entering the essay writing disciplines, and managing very well. But others find the transition understandably challenging. However I am not sure if many people successfully move the other way, from humanities, art or language based UG courses to postgraduate level STEM subjects (although there are conversion courses for medicine, which I applaud). Building on this education, especially at primary level, is dominated by people who have a background, and usually a preference for, language or humanities over STEM subjects. You also get teachers boasting they ‘don’t do’ STEM but rarely anyone saying the same about humanities or English. I am not saying one us better than the other, and in fact both are needed. So I think our teaching and assessment on ITE courses should reflect this too. What really terrifies me is the lack of basic scientific (and research) literacy amongst those in education including those working in ITE. And I think some of the arguments on this topic of language vs STEM simply highlight this issue.

Returning to the issue of qualifications I don’t think we should insist on Higher maths or science, but we shouldn’t require Higher English either. It is there as a hoop to jump through, a way to sort or sift candidates, and from my experience it may even limit the ability of our future teachers to think critically. Often students are far more worried about getting the format of a reference list ‘right’ than understanding why we need to reference at all. This is a product or output focussed approach, and runs through education like a poisonous fungal hyphae (get me, using a science inspired simile!). The same issue is reflected in the obsession with grammar ‘rules’ or spelling, which become a proxy weapon to exert superiority, is damaging education at all levels.

Oh, and I feel I should declare my own qualifications here. I don’t have maths or English at Higher or A-level, so find asking our applicants for it ever so slightly hypocritical. Of course this blog post is just my opinion, and a real scientist would reject my arguments for a lack of a tangible evidence base. But I’m a social scientist now so I can say anything I want. I just have to make sure I write it all out nicely. The end.


Learning about and from the IB

I blogged a while ago during a scholarship session and also during a research conference presentation. My rationale was that the helped me capture my thoughts and contributed to my understanding, in real-time. And for anyone reading the posts they would, hopefully, get a more authentic view of what I was experiencing. So today, having been given the chance to take part in a session about the International Baccalaureate (IB) I thought I’d try the same again. I suppose in some ways this is a different form of note taking, although once my post is published my colleagues who were also in attendance could, if they wish, challenge my ideas, or my interpretation of what we had discussed.

I don’t have a lot of knowledge or experience of the IB but have worked with Masters students who teach in this setting. Through working with them I developed an interest in this area and at the University of Dundee we have several programmes accredited by the IB and a number of our undergraduates have undertaken placements in IB schools. I really value the fact we have students who are in this environment and I can learn from them.

During the session today we covered a range of topics and issues related to the IB and the various programmes running from early years through to the post-University Diploma level. There was a rich discussion about the principle of International Mindedness and this moved onto multilingualism (although I am still not clear what that means). This got me thinking about the difference between learning langauge to understand global issues, or studying the development of langauge, versus the nuts and bolts of learning language for day to day communication. The same could be said about native languages and I think this debate is often overlooked but if technological advancements continue (the translation engine Google Translate learns fast!) as teachers we might be left behind. This thinking led me (during a break…) down a wiki-hole as I went looking for research on this topic. I really enjoyed reading this paper, a Masters thesis submission from a student in Copenhagen (who I assume, was not writing in their native language!). I then found that while Google Translate still can’t perform at the level of a capable native speaker it might be getting closer:

analysis found that the translation engine was far from able to produce error-free text – however, judging in relation to international testing standards, the level of accuracy is approaching the minimum needed for university admission at many institutions (Groves and Mundt, 2015)

Another area I am most interested in, as you may know, is professional development. The IB appear to value this highly and offer a programme of official workshops. This in turn led to a discussion about accreditation, validation and who overseas the quality control of training or the IB examinations themselves. The discussion quickly moved on to concerns over moderation and who is checking up on the marking. We quickly lost track of whether this issue of checking up is the right thing to do or not. This appears to be accepted, by most in education, and I couldn’t help think of Ivan Illich (1971) and his idea of the ‘schooled’ society.  And a phrase that keeps sprining to mind is ‘who polices the police’.

As I reflect back on the day I thought there was a really good discussion of the merits and underpinning values of the IB programmes and this moved, at times, in to the nature of education itself. I seem to always return to this question, and the more I consider it, the less sure I am about the answer. Perhaps that is the attraction of adopting a traditional, top-down view of education and the purpose. If you follow curriculum guidance and pass your tests and do as you are told then you will be rewarded. But the IB learner profile includes competencies and characteristics including being: open-minded, risk-takers, principled, inquirers and thinkers. Given a choice I’d have a preference for this sort of learner, but then who am I to say if this is right, or not!


Groves, M. and Mundt, K., 2015. Friend or foe? Google Translate in language for academic purposes. English for Specific Purposes, 37, pp.112-121.

Illich, I., 1971. Deschooling Society. London, UK, Calder and Boyars.

People from the past

I think an understanding of the concepts in history is something that really sets humans aside from other species. I think science and technology and communication are really important too. But our ability to think and comprehend time, and our place within it, helps us make sense of life and the world around us. I’m fascinated with prehistory and the recent book from Alice Roberts, The Human Journey, covers how the planet was colonised by people and is a remarkable read. It presents as many questions as it answers and the motivations of our ancestors to move on is a thing that really fascinates me. One thing I’m sure of though is that people moved together and in groups, most likely based around family groups.

Some people have quite remarkable family backgrounds, although if we go back 1000 years nearly everyone in Europe has at least one common ancestor, so chances are we are all related to someone interesting, it is just that everyone knows who they have in their past. In my own recent family tree there isn’t much out of the ordinary, and over the previous hundred years I have very northern english family. From the last century my maternal grandfather is fairly interesting as he was a pretty good footballer and cricketer, apparently playing for the England team in the Deaf Olympics. But possibly the most interesting character, going back another generation, is one of my great grandfathers, this time on my paternal side. Thanks to the research carried out by my own father I know quite a bit about Charles Hansen who was Danish and worked, amongst other things, as a ship’s captain. What we don’t know is what motivated Charles to take to the sea and ultimately settle in Lincolnshire. Maybe it was just chance, the opportunity arose, and he had no grand plan. I think that a great thing about the period we live in now is that so much more is documented and anyone wanting to investigate their ancestors in another hundred years will be able to call on photos, video recordings, social media and even blog posts to see what people were doing and possibly even what we were thinking. And this may change considerably the way history is studied, and understood in future.

Hansen family tree. Charles, born 1866, was my grandmother Agnes’ father


Beyond my family history (which my dad has done a great job with) I’ve had a try at amateur research myself, looking into a couple of house histories, one which I lived in in Newcastle, and another belonging to some friends in Broughty Ferry near Dundee. The process of doing this was fascinating and I learned lots, including some useful transferable research skills, but also about the folk that inhabited these residences. In the case of the Broughty Ferry house a character by the name of John Chadwick, who was born in rural Derbyshire (near to where my father was born) in the mid-Victorian era. From what I could discover he lived a quite exciting life gradually moving north, via Manchester (near where I was born), before working as a confectionary salesperson for Cadburys and eventually retiring to Taunton in Devon. Having spent a great deal of time looking into the life of John Chadwick I felt I really got to know him. I would have loved to share what I’d found with his descendants but sadly I couldn’t trace anyone so if you know any Chadwicks in Dundee please get in touch!

Nowadays we think of people moving for work as a relatively new thing, but people have always travelled, be they Victorian salesman, Danish seaman, or prehistoric hunter gatherers. As I write this post there is much media debate about freedom of movement post-Brexit. And this brings me to a final thought. Maybe those involved in these decisions, about freedom of movement and international boundaries, could undertake some historical research themselves. It might give valuable perspective before they decide how much future generations are free to explore, discover new places, widen their horizons and create new lives for themselves.

Mollie Makes

I am called Mollie and I’ve taken over R kid’s blog. I’m going to tell you how to make face pancakes. We did this together at Christmas. It is from Matilda Ramsay.

First you need to whisk all of the batter together. In the batter you need to put flour, eggs and milk.

Secondly you need to pour the batter into a frying pan and wait for it to cook on the bottom. Then flip it over! Next fry some very small bits of pancake so these can be part of the eyes.

Thirdly you need to fry some bacon in a frying pan because the bacon will be hair. After that cut some strawberries in half then take some blueberries out of the fridge. The fruit is for the mouth and the pupils of the eyes of your face pancake.

Finally place all your ingredients on a plate and assemble all of the ingredients together so you can eat it!

This is a picture of a face pancake that my sister called Bella drew. Why don’t you try and make this aswell?

Music and movement 

I’ve never been a huge music fan and I think this might be down to my early life where we would have talk radio in my parents’ house where The Archers and Radio 4 news stick in my memory but not much music. I don’t know why this was the case as my Dad loves music and he has been to countless concerts and gigs, he saw The Beatles. In contrast I’ve seen little live music (only once paying for a gig ticket – Boo Radleys circa 1995) and until last week had never been to a festival. However, earlier this year a friend said he was going to a festival in Lisbon, called Nos Alive, and talked about going together. As he listed the acts it became clear I had no idea of who any of them were (with the exception of Depeche Mode and The Foo Fighters). But I thought why not give it a go, especially as Lisbon was likely to be hot and sunny. The idea of being muddy and wet for three days had always put me off UK festivals, a little nesh I know.

Segovia, Barcelona and Madrid, on route to Lisbon


The tickets were released and we booked these for the full three days and then arranged our accommodation (a party hostel no less). Derek, a good friend from work and music aficionado, talked to me about the acts and Spotify proved to be a wonderful resource to acquaint myself with the music. I particularly liked The XX, learnt more about Depeche Mode and The Foo Fighters, but most of all I loved the electro-swing act Parov Stelar. The time eventually came and I took a few days before the start to visit Barcelona and Madrid, then met up with my friend (and new honorary little brother) Chris. The whole festival experience was amazing, it was tough to see everything as lots of acts clashed but I managed to see loads of great performances. The XX did not disappoint and Parov Stelar was amazing, so I’ll be looking for more electroswing gigs in the the future, and I also loved Imagine Dragons and The Avalanches. What I took from all this is that people have a wide variety of preferences, like with anything in life, and that is great but there is no animosity with music fans, the differences are embraced. I found that I really like a good beat, lyrics you can follow and an energetic stage performance, whereas overly loud rock is less my thing. I used to joke (with a fair degree of honesty) that my kind of music was S-Club 7, I think I can safely say I’ve moved on from that now! I should also admit, that despite my age, I was a little apprehensive about traveling on my own for part of the trip. But I didn’t need to be as I met some truly wonderful people during this trip. These ranged from the laid back Aussies (Shaun, Carl, Lachlan and Jared), who gave me some well needed fashion guidance, to my very cool new European friends Daniela and Andy (from Austria) and Hunter (from Los Angeles) who as a music professional knew the music I might like, or might not. There were also several Americans, all staying in the Lost Inn hostel, who provided help with planning night time exploration of Lisbon, although I have rather hazy memories of the ‘pub crawl for all’ (thanks Sabrina!).

Portugal and the Nos Alive festival


Aside from the music I’ll have real fond memories of the other, unexpected, experiences. The highlight was exploring the Lisbon flea market where a group of us (including Sonja and Heather from the US) completed our own version of the TV show Bargain Hunt and bought each other a holiday momento. I’ll really treasure the retro swimming medal and antique mini-roller contraption (no idea what it is) that Aussie Carl picked out for me. I’ve also take away a new nickname courtesy of a Londoner named Disco who said I looked like I was paying homage to Ocean Colour Scene or Shed Seven. With my ‘party shirt’ and straw hat Disco decided that I was ‘very TFI Friday’, and so renamed me Festival Dad! I’m not a dad but didn’t mind this one bit (especially as I am old enough to be the father of most of the people I met) and feel it won’t be that long before my alter-ego resurfaces at another festival. Nos Alive 2018 is on the list already but this time I’ll be far more ready to embrace the music, and even think it is time to remove S-Club 7 from my Spotify playlist. Thanks everyone for the musical education. See you all soon I hope, love Festival Dad!

The Lost Inn crew, including Festival Dad

Another election and the return of Gove

Well for the first election in quite a while I did not wake up feeling miserable and depressed. One of the (many) reasons for the surprising Labour resurgence was tactical voting and some cooperation from broadly left parties. Like the UKIP vote the Green vote decreased, although Caroline Lucas in Brighton showed what a good politician can do, whereas UKIP have been found wanting in this respect. But the point here is that those voters dispersed to other parties and it was where these votes went that played a big part in the result. Across England there were also some interesting results and I think there were many people, with a variety of reasons, who regarded this as a chance for a protest vote, Kensington is a great point in case. In fact it seems as protest voting us now the norm although that might not be as bad a thing as it sounds. Another way of looking at this is to say people are looking at policies and making informed choices. They may also be sick of the media and politicians but still want their voices heard.

Scotland was one place where the Conservatives had some good news and the broadly left SNP were rejected in several places for the Tories. Whatever people in the SNP say this was in no small part due to annoyance with talk of IndyRef 2 and being blamed for mishandling policy at Holyrood. I am not entirely happy with how the SNP are handling education. But because this was a Westminster election I didn’t factor this in to my decision. I couldn’t vote Green where I live as they didn’t stand a candidate. I considered voting Labour, partly to boost the overall vote share for Corbyn, who I think had been great during the campaign. However I decided I had a straight choice between Lib Dem and SNP. Either party, I reasoned, would challenge the Tories so it didn’t really matter. I even considered flipping a coin to decide. I had heard some good things of Stephen Gethins the sitting MP in North East Fife so eventually voted for him. So imagine my surprise when I heard, on election results morning, that there were only 2 votes between the two lead candidates. In fact if I’d voted Lib Dem then it would have been a dead heat… and in this case the returning officer would, and I’m not making this up, flip a coin to decide the winner. This has never happened before, although ironically given my indecisiveness, it seems I came very close to making this happen!

Since Thursday the fall out from this very interesting election has resulted in everyone now knowing a lot more about the DUP, and politics in Northern Ireland, and plenty of humble pie consumption from those who underestimated Jeremy Corbyn. The right wing tabloids have, unsurprisingly, turned on Theresa May, and Donald Trump suddenly seems less keen to visit (although I think it might be quite fun now). Then today a minor cabinet reshuffle has landed Michael Gove in the role of Environment Secretary. Having endured him as education secretary I am wondering what his new ideas might involve. A fishing Academy chain maybe? Free Farms anyone? And perhaps every house in the country will be sent a copy of his own thoughts on Fracking… quite how the next few years will pan out is anyone’s guess. But it is certainly an interesting time to be alive.


I have always been a bit anti-beard. I thought men with beards were hiding behind it, or worse had something hidden in it. And I’m not the only one. Roald Dahl had similar thoughts (see The Twits) and once called out Michael Rosen for having one proclaiming “it’s disgusting!”. Growing up in the 1980s I missed the 70s trend for beards. But then came the recent hipster revival and suddenly beards were everywhere, and this trend (apparently) reached peak-beard a few years ago.

So most of my life I’ve been beardless. But this week, following a couple of days without having access to my shaver (humblebrag alert – when climbing Ben Nevis), I thought I’d give the beard a go. You might be wondering why I’m blogging about this, well the reason is that my facial fashion choice elicited some interesting responses. Some people said nothing. Others asked if I was growing a beard, and why. Someone else commented on the facial distribution of the growth (a few gaps apparently). My PhD supervisor did their job and gave honest feedback, it doesn’t suit me apparently (you can judge for yourself below).

After a few days of this I suddenly became more conscious of my appearance. If someone didn’t comment then I wondered why not, if they did comment I then tried to work out if there was a deeper meaning. Then I thought some more. Imagine if my life was governed, or influenced, by others constantly judging my appearance. But of course this is the case for many in our world. People are judged on skin colour, religion, culture, gender, (dis)ability and many, many other grounds. As a white, middle class, middle aged male I just don’t experience this. And as much as I try to live my woolly liberal views I’m probably judging others myself, so in future I really need to check myself, and look beyond someone’s metaphorical beard.