Category Archives: Education

My best teacher was TV

I’ve been absent for a while. I decided that I shouldn’t be blogging just for the sake of it and in the world of information overload, it would be better to be absent rather that contrive something to write about each week.

I’ve been busy working on my business, taking it in a slightly different direction, working things out, trying things out, making changes –it’s a constant learning process. In the last few days, I’ve read some interesting articles on education, what is the point and purpose of it and do the current models work in the 21st century. I’ve read significant chunks of Seth Godin’s education manifesto, Stop Stealing Dreams, which is well worth a read if you operate in the education space, have children or are vested in making the world a better place. It got me thinking about my formal education and whether it had prepared me for life today. Seth Godin also gets you to acknowledge a teacher that mattered and whilst I do have those, there was no one name that stuck out. I looked back at how I learnt, whether the content of the curriculum was a good fit, the benefits of my education and the shortcomings a formal education, which focuses on grades, has on being entrepreneurial and creating business success.

I reached the conclusion that my best ‘teacher’ was TV — it inspired, motivated, entertained, expanded my knowledge, never made demands and let me come to it. I grew up in Hackney in the 1980s with an older sister and my mum and dad, later came my two younger brothers and my paternal grandmother. I went to the local school, preceded by my sister who was two years ahead of me, I read books from school and joined the local library and read avidly. I was a good student, I did my homework without being asked, was engaged with learning and sucked up knowledge from wherever I could. One of the major sources for me was the TV –lots of it and from an early age. When I was growing up there were 3 channels and then 4 and they weren’t on 24/7. Sunday TV was generally boring –politics and religion and dedicated kids TV was for a few hours a day with favourites like Philip Schofield and Gordon the Gopher. If there were Asian people on TV, we watched it –from Madhur Jaffrey cookery programmes, The Jewel in the Crown to the epic Mahabharata.

As I got a little older I had my routine of watching TV straight after school for a bit, then it was off to the mosque 5-7pm and then a bit more TV mixed with dinner and homework. There was only one TV in the house in the living room and so we generally watched together. With only 4 channels there wasn’t much choice but I still managed to watch many programmes regularly including: Eastenders, Brookside, Hartbeat, Rainbow, Thundercats, Smurfs, Beverly Hills 90210, Blockbusters, Desmond’s, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Crossroads, Howard’s Way, Bergerac, Happy Days, Mork and Mindy, Top of The Pops, Gladiators, Catchphrase, The Price is Right, The Clothes Show, Holiday, Strike it Lucky, Grange Hill, Neighbours, Home & Away, Twin Peaks, ER, Sex and the City, Ally McBeal, Dallas, Dynasty, Hart to Hart, Wish Me Luck, X-Files, LA Law, Tomorrow’s World, The Bill, Biker Grove, Degrassi Junior High, Playschool, Sesame Street, You and Me, Dawson’s Creek, the Crystal Maze, Blind Date, Terrahawks, the Krypton Factor, Dempsey and Makepeace… and many more that would take up a whole page. I didn’t even understand it all when I watched it, for example, I was only 10 or 11 when Twin Peaks was aired, but TV opened up a whole new world that wasn’t accessible to me. They weren’t ‘educational’ programmes per se, but for me they were educational. I was exposed to things that I never would have been exposed to –the good, the bad, the ugly. It made me question things, appreciate another point of view, have something to talk about in school the next day or look up something further, get interested in history, get clearer about my own opinions, gain a new opinion.

Last night, once again, it was whilst watching TV that I gained clarity over something that I was mulling over. It was by chance I ended up watching The Richard Dimbleby Lecture on BBC1 where Nobel Laureate, Sir Paul Nurse, was speaking about the importance of science in the world today –how it could help problems we are facing such as food shortages, climate change, healthcare and the economy (a transcript of the full lecture is available here). Although I felt some of the arguments he made a bit reductionist, it was an inspired and thought-provoking lecture and a brief pang of regret passed through me about not pursuing science beyond A Level Biology.

Learning and education don’t need to happen in a prescribed way –my education is formed of many things including the traditional model of school and university, but also shaped by those TV programmes I watched many years ago. When I was younger, I had limited resources and couldn’t be fussy about where knowledge came from and it would have been less rounded if I had relied on school and the people I knew at the time. I am certainly not saying TV is a panacea but at the same time we mustn’t form elitist views about what constitutes education. It is only with open-mindedness that we will design an education fit for the 21st century.

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The State of Education

I’ve had a keen interest in young people and their lot ever since I was young enough to fall into that category! When I was 14, I was trained by the charity Brook, to become a sexual health peer educator. It certainly was a huge learning curve and I went on to deliver workshops around all aspects of sexual health in schools, youth groups and homeless hostels. I am dismayed that the provision on sex education or SRE (sex and relationship education) is still a controversial subject almost 20 years later, but this isn’t a post about SRE.

Last night, I happened to catch a bit of BBC Question Time when the panellists were discussing education, young people and unemployment. Mary Bousted, Leader of the ALT union raised the point that the National Curriculum under Michael Gove was becoming more academic and less skills-based. There seemed to be some consensus around having a more skills-based curriculum. David Frum said that to deal with employability we needed to take advantage of being part of Europe and learn languages so we can work in other European countries more easily. While all of these are valid points and not something I disagree with, they are not a panacea. A lot of people question whether educating young people should be the sole responsibility of the state, and indeed it shouldn’t be (and isn’t), but given that education is something the state provides, I think it should take a lead role.

The fundamental problem with education today is that it is out of date and does not support the world as it is today. Therefore, despite there being continuous reforms none of them really deal with the bigger picture. The last government introduced the aim of 50% of people under 30 having ‘an experience’ of higher education and started the academies model to help devolve power to individual schools. This government has introduced free schools and are bringing about (another) change in the national curriculum. However, all of these are small tweaks and we still have lots of young people ill-equipped to deal with the world out there, regardless of the qualifications they have or have not achieved.

Currently, many people talk about having different pathways in education- one being more academic and following the current school to university progression model and the other more practical around learning a trade and using the apprenticeships style model. But sticking to this way of thinking misses the point. We have for too long placed higher regard to the academic model that any alternative seems like the poor relation and therefore people following it must somehow be inferior. Going down this path is not the answer. It also doesn’t deal with the other issues amongst which one is why people get turned off education and learning.

As babies and toddlers, we are curious and fascinated by anything new- we have this in-built thirst for knowledge. Then we get to school and even the things we found interesting somehow end up being boring. We sit in rows, have scheduled breaks all regulated by bells, whistles or beeps. I never really lost my thirst for knowledge but I quenched it in spite of the obstacles of my schooling often via the public library. Neuroscience shows us how agile the brain is and how capable it can be, but we seem to deliberately place limits on its potential. We seem to teach through an auditory channel even though we know that people learn very differently. Then we blame young people for being disengaged.

I would like to see a curriculum that allows children and young people develop life skills, such as communication, empathy, team work, having an enquiring mind, not just to learn facts to put on an exam paper every few years. Something that incorporates different learning styles and sets people up to succeed in the 21st century, so that young people feel they can make choices rather than being told what their capabilities are. The past few months I have helped many young people who are feeling extreme pressure as they apply to university (or not!), feeling like their lot in life is already pre-determined. The fact that we have a recession at the moment just heightens the problem.

It is no surprise that there is a burgeoning sector committed to helping young people achieve- from large-scale organisations like The Princes Trusts to many SMEs and one-(wo)man bands. This sector seems to be growing, addressing the gap that currently exists within schools and society as a whole when it comes to educating our young people. However, not all young people benefit as services are often localised, working with a group of students rather than the whole school or come in to deal with the aftermath when students have dropped out of the education system. I wish I could get all these people working with young people together and get them to create the new curriculum so that their expertise was available to all and not just the few. Until the government of the day are obliged by the people to take a courageous step, we will have to continue to muddle through in the haphazard fashion that we have.

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Help! I still haven’t written my personal statement yet!

I thought Personal Statement Workshop season had passed. It’s November now and most schools, parents and youth organisations that engage my services to help students write their personal statements don’t want me now. There has been lots of press coverage speculating whether the timing of your UCAS application affects the likelihood of being accepted at a university; while there was no official consensus it seems beneficial to err on the side of caution and submit an application as early as possible and this is what almost everyone seems to be doing now.

However, this weekend I was with a friend who has a 17-year-old daughter who is planning on going to university next year. I casually enquired about where she wanted to go and what subject she wanted to study fully expecting that she had already submitted her application. It turns out she hasn’t written her statement yet and I am wondering who is helping the students who are still working it all out. Concerned parents following the news in the media are getting stressed out. It’s worth noting that the UCAS deadline for most courses is 15 January so in many ways there is plenty of time, but I still recommend submitting your application sooner rather than later. Students applying now have either missed all the scheduled events that their school has put on or else are competing for their teacher’s attention along with other classmates.

The personal statement is one of the key things that forms part of your UCAS application. It’s where you have the opportunity to explain why the university should pick you in approximately 600 words (officially 4,000 characters). It is something that so many young people seem to stress over and put off until the moment of inspiration strikes. Those sessions at school when you are supposed to write your statement is spent thinking and trying to work it all out, often with little accomplished. Having worked on hundreds of statements I thought I would share some top tips to help students on their way. I also highly recommend going on the UCAS site as they have lots of information on what to include.

Ready, set, go– getting started can be the hardest part. You try to think of that killer opening sentence and sit staring at the blank screen. Instead, focus on something that will get you moving which is to brainstorm ALL the possible things you can put in your statement. This can be anything from reasons you want to study your subject, extra-curricular activities, jobs, hobbies, interests. You can work out what is relevant later.

Get passionate– the tutors reading your personal statement want to know why you want to study your chosen subject and why you would be someone they would love to have around. It is something they have devoted their life to and you should show them why you love it and what would make you a good student.

What’s the point?- 4,000 characters doesn’t give you space to waffle on. Look at what you have brainstormed, what can you link together, what points need expanding, what isn’t relevant? Roughly two-thirds should be devoted to why you want to study your chosen subject and what makes you a suitable for the course. Use the remaining space to talk about work experience (both paid and unpaid), extra-curricular activities and other interests. Read every sentence, what is it saying? Every sentence should be making a point, if it isn’t immediately obvious look at the preceding and following sentence to work out how to restructure it or remove it entirely.

Once upon a time– try to tell a story about what makes you a good candidate rather than simply putting together a string of random reasons. Link together different things you have done, e.g. did a holiday get you interested in Economics when you saw the disparity of rich and poor, which then led you to study Economics at A level and then led to work experience? Was it reading a certain book that got you interested in something you haven’t studied yet? How does it all fit together? Try and make it compelling.

Keep it simple– don’t use over-complicated words or sentence structure. Use language that is considered plain English and language you would normally use (as long as it is not slang). There is a lot of research that shows simple language is much more effective when communicating.

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite– don’t expect to knock out a polished personal statement the first time around, or even the second or the third. Most people do about seven re-writes to produce the final polished version. Remember to get someone else to proof-read and spell-check for you. Don’t just rely on the computer.

If you have any specific questions about writing your statement, then please pop them in the comments box and I will respond.

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