Middle East: Iran v’s Israel

Hmmmm, something to think about if and when the snow arrives. The bombing sounds I heard yesterday were in fact bombs! According to the Jordan Times it was Israel clearing mines, just shows how close we are. Also, in yesterdays paper “US Defenc(s)e Secretary Leon Panetta stated that Israel will bomb Iran in April or May or June”. Interestingly, Iran announced a pact with Al Qaeda and there was the Bangkok blast, blamed by Israel on Hizbollah, and previously there were attaches on its Embassies in India and Georgia, which I would think most were not aware of. And, in fact, on Tuesday an Israeli diplomat (female) was attached in India, the list is mounting.

There have been a sequence over years of Iranian nuclear scientists being assassinated, one assumes by you know who.

Both Iran and the US (don’t forget it is broke) are both posturing in the Strait of Hormuz – seen of battles for 1000s of years.

One wonders if the Iranian linking so publicly with Al Qaeda has anything to do with thinking of this type: Iran is vulnerable, Russia and China are unlikely to jump to its aid and the Arab world won’t they just could not get organised given the turmoil of the past year, so a pact with Al Qaeda would signal to Israel that attacks on distant and remote targets is how a counter strike will happen. This will put pressure on these remote countries to attempt to dissuade a strike on Iran by Israel.

Clearly the US administration is warning the world that Israel is serious, Israel has nuclear weapons and has never used them, I for one am nervous with the prospect that Iran may have the capacity to develop its own. Unlike the Cold War stalemate, a new type of cloud maybe about to descend.

We are in a troublesome location!


Twinkle Toes

After a bit of a big night at the January Internations function held at the Grappa Restaurant in Amman a number of teachers and students from the Amman Baccalaureate School headed of to a refugee camp populated by people from Gaza who had been dispossessed of their land. This is not a small group of refugees and number about 35,000 and they live on the outer area of Jerash, which is about 50klms North West of Amman.

Twinkle Toes is an initiative to distribute shoes and clothing – the ABS students support the programme as part of their IB CAS committements.  We set off at 8.45am in two buses, one full of shoes, the other with us!

On arrival the buses entered a narrow lane and pull up outside some typical Jordan houses: square, flat roofed and made of cement and brick. The weather is kind, not cold and the rain has stopped. Children began to appear, smiling and with warm greetings. The bus was quickly unloaded and the shoes set out on the open roof of one of the houses.

The process is simple. Diagrams of shoe sizes one set for the boys and the other for girls are laid out on the cement surface which is still wet from the early morning rain. The plastic bags containing the shoes are placed around the perimeter – we are ready.

At first it is relatively orderly with children and their mothers or fathers queueing up the stairs to the roof. But within no time the crowd expands and there are some difficult moments on the stairway with young children crying and Mum’s getting agitated.  However, with a bit of intervention and crowd control we get most of the children fitted with a pair of shoes, socks and some clothing.

The ABS teachers and students keep cool under the increasing pressure and at about mid-day it is decided to finish up and leave the dispensing of the remainder of the  shoes and clothing to the leaders of the group – possibly this is a better way to arrange things, but desperate people are desperate.

It is difficult to comprehend the plight of this community, they have no rights and rely entirely on this type of provisioning. Apparently, Jordan does not want to grant citizen ship in the belief that come the negotiated peace with Israel over the occupied land, the Gaza refugees would be able to return to their country – this is a pipe dream and simply a very sad situation, a kind of case-22 in the craziest of senses.

Hope you enjoy the slide show!


Ma’In Refugee camp

Today I travelled with my wife Cathie and good friend Niki from the Amman Baccalaureate School, along with a number of other staff and students, to the refugee camp at Ma’In just outside Madaba. The experience was at the same time heart warming to witness the way both Cathie, Niki and all the ABS kids knuckled down and helped distribute shoes and socks to the children from the camp – it was no easy task, but also it provided a salient reminder of the problems of this region and the lack of justice in the world.

This group had been here since 1967, they are Bedouin-Palestinian’s from Bethsheba who had been dispossed during the war. They are stateless with no rights as we would understand them. The slide show below shows some of the sights. What can’t be shown is the work of the freelance journalist that accompanied the group and videoed and interviewed people at the camp – clearly a very committed person. The single picture below shows the smile on a young boys face after he had been interviewed, he was asked ‘what things would make you life better?’, he replied ‘a good school, a good clinic and lower food prices’.
A picture of hope, I hope!
The other picture of note is in the slide show and depicts the proud nature of the people, it is of a mum and dad, they were intereviewed and also showed us through their tended house – it was warm, clean and basically just like a normal home. But when you reflect on their plight you wonder if you would behave with the same dignity!

Young man of hope


A personal day in Amman

 Taking personal time, away from family, friends and cares is recommended – some might say that moving away from home endures that every day is personal time. Well it is not quite like that. Living away from home and on your own is something that takes adjusting too, in fact you are left to your own devices most of the time. If things are not going well in your job, for instance, you have plenty of time to mull things over in your head, which in my case is not the wisest course.

Amman is very quiet on a Friday, yesterday I forgot and turned up to the Mecca Mall at 9.30am only to find nothing open, this necessitated a trip back to my local, the Amman Mall and a visit to Donut King! As pointed out by my close friend Niki, ‘not the best breakfast, Andrew!’.

Today, that is Saturday, I was determined to do better. After pottering around at home (something I am excellent at) and having had a good nights sleep for a change and a good breakfast of 3 mugs of coffee (!!) a peanut butter roll and cheese toast (is that a healthy breakfast, seems OK to me compared to the donuts from the Donut Kind), I was ready for the day.

Had a good chat to Cathie back in Australia for 20minutes or so, something we are good at, and goodness only knows what we all did before Skype. A little lie down again, which was a mistake because I was now so relaxed I nearly convinced myself that I was due a good day in bed, again, if allowed to, something I am good at. I think nothing of propping myself in bed, playing my guitar, listening to the radio, reading the papers, scattering some books around and consuming whatever is to hand – all day, as I say, if allowed.

The thought occurred to me that some shopping and lunch at Mecca Mall was worth a try again. Shopping is actually something I like doing, love spending hours deciding over presents but often am hopeless at shopping for myself – stuff never fits, pants are always too long or tight, shirts look awful and as for shoes forget it. Instead of cheering yourself up, depression sets in and you become convinced that a Hessian bag is the go.

As anyone who knows me can testify, I hate suits, just can’t see the point of donning the black suit to look like everyone else, and as for shoes, give me a pair of sandles or thongs (for your feet) any day – I never actually wore shoes to school until I went into year 7. Fortunately there is a shop called Camel Active (www.camelactive.de) on the lower floor of the Mall, and it is just fantastic, with a range of clothes that fit somewhere between smart casual and what you can go to work in, at least what I think I can wear to work – chics get away with murder in this regard, basically anything goes, even in conservative Amman, but if you are a guy – stick on the black suit, white shirt and tedious tie is about as creative as you are allowed to be.

Thanks to the lads at the store, they are very helpful, can tell by a glance what size you are and basically make you feel relaxed so you can enjoy shopping – take note all the other shops assistants in the world, listen to your customer, if he says ‘piss-off’, piss-off, as you will not get a sale lurking around hiding in a clothes rack and randomly appearing with helpful suggestions like ‘this Mosses coloured robe would look good on you’!

So, I emerged with two pairs of pants, two great shirts (at least I and the lads think so) and a nice Italian Scarf! I also left instructions to find a nice blue jacket and to try and solve my shoe problem ie at least size 12, they only run to 10 – ‘don’t people in Amman have big feet’, I said. And of course the answer occurred to me, ‘Yes, but they have already shopped here’ (ha). Oh well the sandles will have to do for now, and maybe I could polish my one other pair of shoes, maybe Andrew, maybe!

The other couple of items, seeing as the shoes and jacket had to wait, were comfortable fitting trackie pants and a top – by comfortable I mean at least 2 sizes too big, in my case that means ……. I’m not going to say. Alas these are a bit down market for Camel Active!

I managed to find a large fitting pair of articles and am well satisfied, presently I am ensconced in front of the TV, dressed in said large fitting sloth garb and ‘Park has just SCORRRRRRED for MAN-U against Bolton – GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOAL’.

Before venturing home I wanted coffee, but am sick and tried of answering no to the question ‘do you want Americana?’, ‘what, no I do not want a vat of luke warm black crap’, well I found another gem – Cafe Vergnano (www.cafeeverganao.com) on the lower floor near one of the exits, good knows which one as I get lost every time I go to the Mall – sort of a pattern emerging, like with the hire car. Again, great service, and I had the healthy option – a Marccchino Speciale with ‘Yes please I’ll have cream, thank you so, so much for being concerned for my health’, according to the menu it is: espresso, latte, cioccolate in palvere and creama di cioccolate, which all sounds nice (translated as chocolate, milk and coffee) and healthy – look all you doubters you need the ‘stuff’ in milk and chocolate, I think, maybe not in these quantities, but it was of course delicious!

The taxi was another – I score goooal – one of the grey ones in Amman, driven by a nice and helpful guy called Ahmad, (still need to practice the back of throat pronunciation) who I am now going to use as my driver. Anyway, I decided I needed to visit a music shop as I wanted some new plectrums and a tunning instrument – ‘no problems mate’, and off we went to the Faza Music store in the AlGardens Street. I purchased what I wanted, tried to play an Oud, got some free instruction and am now booked in for lessons, such helpful people. Again, a lesson in how to treat customers- pretty simple really: listen and then meet their needs with a smile and further helpful advice.

For those that don’t know I spend a lot of time in sales and did a heap of sales training, it ain’t rocket science – here without being asked are some simple rules. Smile, be thoughtfully genuine, don’t try and bullshit the bullshitter, and give the customer what they ask for, provide advice, be really interested and for goodness sake don’t say ‘have nice f….ing day!’.

Well there you go, I had one of those rare nice personal days, I am even looking forward to meeting my truculent year 9 class, mind you my current relaxed frame of mind may evaporate quickly – more quickly than my Mt Nebo Cab Sav even – when that happens, but we live in hope – teaching is essentially selling with the exception that you don’t often get the chance to tell the customer to …… off, nor are the customers obliged nor necessarily inclined to see things your way – freewill lives, at least in my classrooms!

But one thing is for sure, in this day and age of technology, isolation and the itty-bitty Internet, the key to education is still love, kindness and concern for the individual to be able to do their best – it just is a very giving job and sometimes it takes a lot of giving before something is taken, but when it is taken it makes ya day.

 Love to all.

(PS: Park scores the winning Gooooooooooooooal!!) 2 : 1 against Wolves.


Blogs and Wikis and things

Somebody asked me the difference between a blog and wiki.

The idea of the wiki is credited to Ward Cunningham, who in 1994 released the WikiWikiWeb (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_wikis) and blogs evolved from online diaries. Not much of a digital history. But what is the difference?

A wiki is a piece of paper that is written in pencil, you pass it round and people write on it, they can rub out what you or others have written, or edit it or just add a comment, they can if they wish write their name so everyone can see what they did. I guess someone could rub out the entire contents of the piece of paper – play a trick, not really in the spirit of collaboration, and I wonder if they’d leave their name!

A blog is another piece of paper, you write your message in INK, it is permanent, not to be tampered with, and then you pass the paper around, people can then write messages one after the other on what they think about your message – some complementary others no so! But they can’t change your message. Bloggers have something to say, or at least a desire to say it!

Both are public by nature or at least not fully private.

A single word processed file stored in solitary confinement on your USB stick, which you edit occasionally (your long awaited novel) is a very private wiki, and if you write a diary and never show anyone, it is a very private blog but with no comments.

I am always fascinated by claims that certain things are going to revolutionise the way we learn!

To use a wiki you need a desire to collaborate and help each other and actually contribute in a public space – that can’t be bad.

A blog again promotes a desire to explore and communicate ideas, your ideas – you tell the world, is this a bad thing? Getting other peoples opinions and seeing what people think are a great way to engage your brain.

Both are public so you are asking for comment, one in a collaborative sense to make something better and the other to engage in conversation.

Education is about deeply personal conversations: the first is with yourself, then there are conversations with your teacher and others with your peers. A key part of a conversation is that it is reflective and you have to listen, acknowledge the other. Blogs and Wikis are part of this conversation, they are personal – no bad thing I reckon.

Must you engage in outward conversations in class, why does someone have to answer a question – plenty of kids sit in class hating it when teachers ask them a question, not because they don’t know the answer, but because for some reason they don’t wish to answer in a public place. So, be careful, if someone does not want to engage the old fashioned way possibly they won’t want to in the digital era either. It is possible of course that the opposite could happen. I reckon tread softly and encourage exploration of your voice, we want to hear you and really it does not matter how we hear you!

Laptops in school

We tend to see things in terms of what we have experienced – I agree with Carr, it is something I have been aware of for some time. If this is true then it begs the obvious question – how can we see what we have not experienced without being shown it, or is it possible to either actively look for it, or stumble upon it and then how do we recognise it.

Consider the problem of people planning to use something, lets say X. They have no experience of X and how it fits what they have experienced. Even if they try X they fit it into their experiences and shape it to fit. How do they see new uses of X – possibly we might just dismiss difference or in fact, not even see the differences, let alone grasp their significance. Proponents of X’s tend to be sales oriented and/or self interested. I am not saying this is a bad thing, but where does the critical appraisal come from?

For example, take computer technology like a laptop + Internet in the hands of kids in the classroom. Clearly, this is an X.

Teachers have no prior experience, X was not around in their classrooms and not in most teacher training, even in the last 10 years, the people running the teacher training had no experience of X, and even if they positted on it they had no or little direct experience of X.

Gibson coined the term Cyberspace and more importantly said something along the lines that the street finds a use for things – I would add especially in the void of guidance. In the classroom over the last nearly 20 years we have let net enabled laptops into the classroom, in the absence of guidance the kids will find a use for it, but so what.

The brain can adapt but this does not mean that it is adapting in a thinking or evaluative way, bit of pardox really. The brain can adapt, but so what, it has no way of knowing if the adaption is worthwhile – this is the point that is Carr is making about moving from distraction to deep reading back to a distracting environment, the brain has handled each stage but again so what.

We need teachers to guide – but how do we deal with the X?

That is a serious question – how do we teach teachers about how to use and assess the worth of net enabled laptops in the classroom?

Silence in a classroom

Seems odd to me that quietness in a classroom is now something that just does not happen: ever. I don’t mean quietness brought about by draconian means, I mean quietness impossed by the student themselves becasue they see it as and important aspect to learning.  To me a modern classroom must be a nightmare for those students who want some quiet time!

I remember being kicked out of class in 6th grade and being told to go to the library – I loved it, there was no body there (probably a librarian hiding from me) but a pile of books, I did my project (yep we had them in those days as well) on bees – I can still see the bees eye and the diagram I drew. The next lession I asked if I could go to the library again – alas I made stay in a class of 35 kids.

Distracted brain and deep thinking

Carr N, 2010 The Shallows: what the Internet is doing to my brain, W.W. Norton & Compnay, NY

Nicholas Carr’s recent book ‘The Shallows’ makes interesting reading – he asks is the Internet stopping him from thinking. In it he presents the case that our brains are able to respond to changing circumstances and are not fixed or grow more fixed as we age, more the rate of change is related to changes in out environment which is likely to impact the way the brain responds. In other words, if you tend to do the same thing each day your brain will remain fixed in the way it operates, but if it gets presented with a new environment it will change especially more towards processing distractions rather than direct focus on one activity e.g. book reading, which is truly a learned skill that has re-shaped the brain away from its favoured role of processing many inputs – like a neural-network warning system, obviously a useful thing to posses when you want to go to the toilet surrounded by hostiles, much better than being able to deeply understand the book you maybe reading whilst on the toilet.

 As educators we are all interested in and use the Internet, and many wonder if our book reading may be on the slide, and therefore is it possible to fully understand something using distracting media such as the web rather than a single focus on deep reading of books. Carr makes the point that in ancient times the facility of our brain to respond and process external stimuli i.e. multi-tasking small amounts of information in a small time frame was a powerful survival skill (see my toilet example above), but not necessarily one that allowed us to pull things to together via deep reflection to allow concept building and the like.

 He then talks about the impact of inserting spaces between words in sentences and the possible impact this had on how our brain functioned. At the start there were no spaces, the written word simply mirrored the spoken word as a flow of sound, silent reading was not done, all reading was aloud. This meant that the brain had to do a parsing translation first to recognise the start and end of a word, sound it out and then pass on without having a chance to grasp full meaning of the past sequence- at least it was a time consuming task that was, it is thought, a distraction from thinking & understanding. In some ways, I see him arguing that our reading was more like us acting as a tape player – the thinking would have been done by the listener not the reader. You did not have time as you were engaged in a two step process of mentally inserting spaces. Computer language compilers do there reverse when they compile, in lexical analysis all unwanted symbols are removed and the program is packed into a long set of symbols. This string is then checked to see that it obeys the syntax rules of the language and if so the program is executed. But at no stage does the computer understand what the symbols mean, AI has and is making huge steps but to say a computer might understand ‘the sky is blue’ as we might is still a little way of.

Consider reading a sentence like theskyisblue – when you read this you have to parse the line to pluck out the words, and then read them one at a time and consciously keep the past words in short term memory if we are to try and get meaning. When we read ‘the sky is blue’ I don’t think we do quite the same thing, the space is looked for and we tend to group the words and are not conscious of reading each individual word, we are looking for meaning, whereas in the other example we are looking for words and then attempting to derive meaning. It is an interesting idea. Possibly our brains have altered to do this, so Carr argues. Also, web addresses have a similar problem don’t they – can’t yet have spaces, this used to apply to Windows and there was a whole era of the use of _ or pseudo spaces, Unix still uses these to allow easy reading of names of things.

The invention of the space between words changed this process, and according to Carr would have lead to a change in the way the brain functions away from symbol processing to in depth understanding. The act of reading was hugely impacted by the space between words, it made silent reading possible and to be able to spend many hours focused on gaining full understanding without distraction – Carr’s argument is that the actual wiring or behaviour of the brain changed and we potentially became much worse at paying attention to distractions. The effectiveness of our survival mechanism was lessened at the expense of our ability to think deeply – again an interesting proposition.

With the advent of the web and other digital devices we are, he argues, returning to an early era where we are bombarded by distractions – much like we were in the forests of pre-man, and that we don’t have time to understand in a deep way the significance of what we encounter. The reason for this Carr argues is that we are constantly stopping to process things like what hypertext link to follow, a new text message, a new popup screen etc. the opportunity to read and fully comprehend is constantly interrupted, often in an imperceptible way.

Again an interesting idea I feel.

Possibly we need to look at the process of obtaining the information and then absorbing and understanding it as a distinctly two step thing. When I use the web I am very conscious of not attempting to understand what I find but to store it so that I can retrieve it latter in an attempt to understand it. I recognised early on that the web is a gathering medium rather than one that directly informs you without further analytic effort on your part. Lets consider some examples of questions we can ask using a web browser.

What is the temperature today – this we will get directly answered.

My partner is having a birthday what should I buy – of course some wag may have developed a website “www.whattobuyforbirthdays.com” (see the word space problem) and this might flash up and then present a lot of options with pop up screens etc. You need to navigate through to find suitable things, but you make the decision – unless of course you enter a range of characteristics and the database pops up the end choice so that you don’t have to make it. The latter is the old idea of an expert system mirroring a humans thought-skill process – this is handing over control to HAL.

 The significance of global warming and the reliability of the simulations used by scientists – Yes, I’d like to know about that. The key question to me is if the web just allows you to access the information and then it is your responsibility to understand it, or does the web help in the understanding process, in other words the retrieval is more than just a technical issue, the act of retrieval carries with it some level of judgment as to what might be or might not be important, but how does the computer know what is or is not important? Page hits and the like make the assumption that your question can be classified based on what has been asked in the past. However, this does not take into account a persons motivations for asking the question in the first place, so I would think the responsibility still lies with us.

 If we teach web surfing as research with a distinct consolidation phase before analysis and interpretation and then essay or argument development it would seem to me a simple strategy that would enable us to develop both aspects of the brain – I am not sure that it is a dichotomy, it would seem to me to present the challenge of teaching traditional research processes which at some point requires a single in deepth effort to bring things together.

 There is also a romantic, rightly so, view of libraries. In the past 20 years I may have borrowed 100 books, but when I was in the library I am constantly processing distractions or evaluating and making intervening decisions about which book, which index to use, saying hi to friend, asking for help, using the photocopier – it never once occurred to me that my library use was other than a distinctly two step process. The first step is about gathering and dealing with distractions, the second is about synthesis – librarians know this. Seems to me the web promotes my model rather well, unless you are simply wanting the web to tell you the direct answer that you can cut and paste!

If the argument holds that technology can change the way the brain fires up, then we need to be asking ourselves some questions:

1. Is it possible to develop facility with the distracting environment of the web and also develop the ability to deeply understand things?

2. If we are able to use and enjoy the multi-distracting potential for interpreting what actions to take on the web does such interaction interfere with our capacity to deeply understand?

3. Is it possible to use the web and learn at the same time, if so, does this apply to deep learning type situations or is there need to structure our research into an obviously two staged process – one the hunter gather stage using and handing all the distraction to compile resources we think will be handy and then a quiet ‘reading’ phase away from the distractions in order to sequenctially  read to gain understanding, to enable use to compare and contrast etc. Answer seems simple enough to me.

Carr seems to be mostly worried, correctly in my view, that students will become expert users and gain a certain competency at living with the distracted environment. Things will be understood in bits and be accessed when needed – begs the question of when you will know it is the right time to ask though. However, this may come at the expense of gaining deep understanding or in developing skills in dealing with changes to the environment you live in.

For example, take the issue of global warming. If we live in the distracted world of the Internet how will this help us gain an understanding without at some point going deeper, or do we just accept the authority of our leaders, who I reckon often have less scientific training than a 12th grader! It seems to me that handing over our lives to live in the Internet world brings with it a responsibility to recognise that we still need to develop indeepth understanding and that is probably best done in quite and over a long period of time.

Group work in schools and at Uni has exploded over the past ten years, and there are good reasons for group work, as is the case for increased project work. But it is difficult to undertake both without at some stage students having quiet time to reflect and build indeepth personal understanding. Discussion is great, often only the loudest is heard, but it is not a substitute for sitting down and thinking and writing down logically what you wish to say, this requires analysis, drawing together threats from different sources and ethical committement – it is your work, you thought about it. I would love to hear kids say that ‘this is my work and I have thought about……a lot, and I still don’t know if I fully understand it’……Join the club mate.