Posts Tagged ‘learning’

Making the sums add up

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012 | Friends

One of the most active members of Toastmasters is my friend John Fletcher who was working towards the end of his Competent Communicator manual when I joined and has since completed it and moved onto the advanced speeches.

His 10th and final speech of the Competent Communicator was about how he was not a big fan of his job and so had finally broken free and set up on his own. It was a speech I strongly identified with, having recently done a similar thing.

John now runs Leeds Maths Tuition, offering one to one tuition for anyone looking to improve their grades.

Fast math

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012 | Success & Productivity

What is nine times seven? Did you know it was sixty three before reading this far? You probably did, but don’t pat yourself on the back too hard yet, as it could well have been that your brain was already reading ahead and the buffered information hadn’t reached your consciousness yet (if that is a thing, I think it is but I’m not a psychologist). Although, being a reader of my blog, you probably could do the math that fast anyway.

But not everybody can. Not because maths might not be their strong point but because they don’t use the same technique we do.

I mean, working out nine times seven isn’t nine times seven really is it? It’s ten times seven, minus seven. Because that is way faster. Because you can almost instantly tell that ten times seven is seventy, then all you do is subtract seven and you have your answer.

This was always obvious to me. But then, maths was always a far stronger side for me than English was. Hence why I can easily do such maths, but why there will almost certainly be parts of this blog post which make no grammatical sense at all. But it was brought to my attention when someone told me they had been learning about little techniques like that, that for some people it isn’t obviously, but you can teach them it and their maths skills get a lot faster.

In fact, it’s almost always faster to do it that way. Take six times seven for example. If I didn’t know that off by heart I would do seven times ten, seventy, divided by two, because again that is easy maths, thirty five, plus seven, gives you forty two. That would be way faster than counting up seven, fourteen, twenty one, etc, etc, even though it’s actually three different multiplications.

It’s like the i++ of the human brain.

Are exams getting easier?

Friday, August 19th, 2011 | Religion & Politics, Thoughts

It’s everyone’s favourite time of year again – the debate as to whether exams are getting easier.

Yet again of course, exam results have gone up and everyone is asking “have exams gotten easier?” The answer, of course, is yes. Clearly if such a large sample size as the whole of the United Kingdom, probably going on a million children, have consistently achieved higher grades than last year, the exams are getting easier.

The educational community will quickly argue that it is in fact teaching methods getting better, but this to me, seems irrelevant. Even if it is teaching methods getting better, which I’m not disputing – I’m sure they are, if the exams stay the same and don’t get more challenging in proportion to teaching methods getting better, then from the perspective of the child, the exam has got easier – with the same amount of effort and intelligent on their part, they are able to achieve a higher grade.

You can then argue that, given they have done better in the exam, they deserve that higher grade, but I disagree. Firstly, just because teaching methods have improved to allow them to do better, doesn’t mean that they have actually learnt more – maybe teaching methods have just improved in terms of teaching kids to pass exams and not actually learn more, which seems a very plausible scenario.

Secondly, even if they are more knowledgeable about a specific subject, doesn’t mean they necessarily deserve a higher grade. That sounds counter-intuitive at first, but in reality the main purpose of exams is to test how intelligent someone is and just because schools have found a way to better put knowledge into their head in order to pass an exam doesn’t really help that purpose. On that basis, the only reason that exam results should go up is if children are genuinely getting more intelligent – this could be the case but I haven’t seen any evidence to show it’s happening, at least at the same rate as exam results are improving.

Therefore, I would argue that the constant year on year improvement in exam performance, is a problem.

The solution, I would put forward is percentile banding of exam results. Rather than setting specific levels which a candidate has to reach, you put all the results together and give a certain percentile each grade – for example the top ten percent get A*, the next ten percent get an A, the next ten percent get a B and so on.

I’m not arguing this is a perfect system, and you probably need to have something in place where there isn’t a “fail” percentile, if possible, but below I will outline why I think it would arguably be a fairer system than the current one.

Primarily, it ends the debate on whether exams are getting easier. Every year exam results would stay the same, because the same percentage of people will get each grade, and it doesn’t matter if exams get easier or harder because the system sorts itself out. It is impossible to make exams the exact same difficulty every year because you have to change them and under the current system, children are unfairly punished if they happen to get a slightly harder exam and unfairly rewarded if they happen to get a slightly easier exam. This eliminates that.

Secondly, it stops the grade creep which leads to everyone getting grades closer and closer to the top and therefore makes it harder for universities and employers to distinguish between the top candidates.

There are criticisms of such a system, and I will deal with these now.

Firstly, it means that a child could lose a grade just because they end up in a year where everyone does well. This doesn’t really stand up because, because of the sample size involved, if everyone else does well it is more likely to be because the exam is slightly easier this year and therefore they haven’t lost a grade, they simply weren’t good enough to achieve it.

Indeed, sample size is important. When dealing with an entire year group, which as I previously stated I would imagine is heading towards a million children, the probability that an entire generation happened to suddenly be more intelligent than the year before, is far less likely than this year’s exams simply being a little easier.

You could also argue that everyone deserves the change to get an A* if they achieve the required level. There are two parts to this answer, first of all, they have target just like the current system – except, instead of a specific number of marks, their target is to reach the top ten percentile, but either way they have a set, fixed target to reach. Secondly, you could argue that if everyone in the country all worked really, really hard, they should all deserve to get A*.

This is true, but this has never, ever happened. Indeed, what is the probability that this would ever happen? The answer of course is negligable, when you are dealing with such a big sample size, it evens out and you don’t get disadvantaged by statistical anomlies as you do under the current system.


You could replace the current system with a banded percentile system and ensure that the grades accurately reflect a candidates performance, irrelevant of how accurate the difficulty level of the exam was and without worry that they were disadvantaged due to circumstance because of the sample sizes involved. This will then allow employers and universities to accurately select the best candidates, which is the whole point of standardised testing after all. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s arguably fairer than the current one.

Unfortunately, there would be very little incentive to change because the current system plays into the favour of schools and governments, because it makes them look like they have done better every year. This is probably true, but at the disadvantage that it makes the achievement far less meaningful.

Can you rewrite your own brain?

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011 | Science, Thoughts

I’m currently in the process of re-reading Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near and having read the section about how the brain rewrites itself as you learn got me thinking. This is nothing new of course, it’s basic brain biology, but chancing on the subject again made me wonder.

If you can reinforce a pattern in your brain simply be repeating the activity over and over again, and this doesn’t even including physical actions but can also be done by thinking a certain idea, can you by mere repetition, implant a false idea in your head?

If you can, the consequences are obvious.

But this seems to be a hypothesis that is quite testable. What would happen for example, if we all collectively decided to believe a lie. If say, all the members of the A-Soc circle, picked a false statement to collectively believe, spent all their time thinking it was true and telling each other it was true for social reinforcement.

Of course, it could well fall flat on it’s face. Because you would know it wasn’t true, you could well spend all your time thinking “I’m pretending to believe this, even though I know it isn’t true” and therefore strongly reinforce the pattern that you know it secretly isn’t true.

Still, it might be an interesting project for someone to undertake.

Next month: Sunrise Conference 2010

Saturday, August 14th, 2010 | Foundation

The first weekend of September will play host to our new national event, Sunrise Conference. Hosted by LUU Debating Society in association with ourselves, Sunrise will bring together leaders of free thinking groups from across the UK to share ideas, knowledge and experience.

The conference will feature multiple streams aimed at local groups, student groups and also provide training for those wishing to volunteer as humanist chaplains. A full timetable along with a list of speakers already signed up to speak at the conference can be found on the website.