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Monday, 13 November 2017

THE DECLINE OF THE GRADABLE ADVERB



There was an interesting article in the UK's Daily Telegraph recently about how we are losing the ability to add nuance to our use of English. You can read about it here. The research has now been written up as a book:  American and British English: Divided by A Common Language, published by Cambridge University Press.

So what are gradable adverbs? They are qualifying words we use in order to lessen the impact of something. We might say something is "fairly" important, so as to minimise any sense of panic. We could say we "quite" like something, when in fact, we probably don't. I sometimes suggest to colleagues when they don't want to leave my office that I am "rather" busy (meaning, I wish they would depart so that can get on with my work!).

According to the research, this is a very British use of the English language, and because of the seemingly unstoppable rise of the American version worldwide, it is in steep decline everywhere. This includes the UK, where the invasion of US English proceeds apace. Americans, it seems, are more direct in their communication and have little time for subtlety or evasion. In the modern, busy world, this is seen as positive and should be encouraged. Or should it? I have never been much of a believer in black and white solutions for anything. If gradable adverbs are part of what delay us making up our minds, their absence would have forced Hamlet to kill Claudius within a few minutes of the play beginning. Instead, we get several glorious hours of indecision, vacillation and an unwillingness to act.

The other rather worrying assumption that the book makes is that using qualifying adverbs in this way is seen as being pompous and effete. One of the glories of the English language, or so it has always seemed to me, is that it allows an almost infinite variety of expression. Reducing the use of helpful structures such as gradable adverbs, in a minor way, impoverishes the language. I could also wave my UK flag for a moment and say that whenever I have visited the US, I am struck by how many people refuse to use adverbs at all. I have lost count of the times I have heard expressions such as "I done good," or "She sings beautiful." Maybe killing off the poor old gradable version is just another step along the road to adverb extinction.

In this college, I am PRETTY sure that we are RATHER good at presenting new ideas and structures FAIRLY well to our students. I also hope they leave us with QUITE a good command of both written and spoken English. Perhaps I had better leave it there!

This is likely to be my last blog post of 2017. The final two weeks of the semester are very heavy in terms of time and commitments. Let me take this opportunity, therefore, to wish you all a pleasant time with your sons and daughters over the holiday period, and to hope 2018 brings everything you wish for.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

THE CASE FOR INCLUSIVE EDUCATION



There is a new American TV show I have been watching recently called "The Good Doctor." Its premise is that a brilliant young surgeon also happens to be autistic. The episodes chart his erratic progress towards being fully accepted as a medical professional in a major US hospital. As drama it is highly watchable, but how realistic is it? I have my doubts, and it has led me to consider the nature of inclusion as this week's blog post.

When I was a boy, such a concept was unthinkable. Children who were in any way disadvantaged were sent to what were euphemistically known as "Special Schools." Pupils who attended such places might be physically handicapped through blindness, or mentally challenged because of brain damage. Later, when I started teaching in the 1970s, these schools had become specialised, as had their teachers. You could, for example, be trained to become a teacher of the deaf. More recently, the concept of "inclusion" has become virtually the industry standard. In simple terms, it means that all children can and should be included in mainstream education, with provision made for them to attend specialist classes with suitably qualified teachers on a case by case basis. The idea is noble in intent, but how practical is it in reality?

Some years ago, when I was Principal of an international school in Europe, I was approached by the parents of a girl who had Asperger's syndrome.  They had recently arrived from the UK and were keen to find a place for her in an English medium school. I was initially very reluctant to take her. This was simply because we lacked any kind of specialist help. I told them I would take her on a trial basis, but had to ask them to withdraw her after only a few weeks. The other kids in her class were terrified of her: she would routinely self-harm or threaten to hurt her peers and she was a big, and potentially threatening girl.

Conversely, a few years later, when running a teacher training programme in Qatar, I visited a mainstream secondary school, where we hoped to place some of our trainees, and saw a special needs unit in action. Here, children with a wide variety of problems were well integrated into many of the lessons, while requiring to be withdrawn for others. There were great educational advantages for everyone here: the kids with special needs were made to feel "normal" and welcome, while the mainstream pupils learned valuable lessons in tolerance, acceptance, and what a meaningless word "normality" often is.

It would seem, therefore, that having a specialist unit in your school, staffed appropriately, is the right way forward. Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I spoke to a special needs teacher at a conference recently, who was vehemently opposed to inclusion and a strong supporter of special schools. I respect her professional knowledge, but reject her overall philosophy.

We have come a long way from the days when special needs children were hidden away  as an embarrassment to the rest of the family. Last night, Helen and I watched an uplifting and inspiring TV interview with the actor Warwick Davies who is not much more than a metre in height. He has achieved fame, fortune and acceptance. Of course, the fact that he is both highly talented and charismatic has been of considerable help. Nonetheless, to appreciate that he routinely appears on TV shows  as a "normal" guest, is proof of the way society has changed, and, I sincerely hope, for the better.

We are not equipped to cope with special needs students at KYUEM, but year on year I am heartened to witness community service and education projects that many of our young people undertake to work with such kids.  Becoming aware of differences but being free of prejudice against them is a huge step forward for tomorrow's citizens and makes me optimistic about the future of this country.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

WHAT PRICE FREE SPEECH?



I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Voltaire, 1758

We were honoured to have a guest from the University of Oxford with us at college this week. Charlotte Hamilton is the Student Recruitment Officer (UK & Far East) and she met with our junior students in the Great Hall. She gave a very interesting and enlightening presentation on applying to Oxford - something that more and more of our students are doing.

Before the talk, we met in my office and I was able to ask her some questions of my own. There has been something of a furore in Oxford recently concerning a statue of Cecil Rhodes.  Rhodes was a typical 19th century explorer, colonialist and, some might say, exploiter of people and resources. Many enlightened people today are resentful of the continued presence of his statue, although he endowed the university with generations of Rhodes' Scholars, one of whom was President Bill Clinton. There have been many calls for the statue to be taken down because of its association with racialism, colonialism and the acceptance of slavery. It makes me wonder how old (or how long dead) you have to be for this to happen. I know of all kinds of statues in London, for example, of people who lived less than exemplary lives: Roman emperors, Richard the Lion-heart, Oliver Cromwell, to name just a few. It seems to me that the issue surrounding the Rhodes statue is part of a growing attack on freedom of speech, or perhaps that should read freedom of belief, that is becoming depressingly common in certain universities. As Charlotte was keen to point out, the statue has not been removed in Oxford, while the debate itself is being vigorously pursued. That, to me, seems an entirely healthy way to behave.

However, last week I was reading of another university which was considering imposing some kind of "health warning" for Literature students who would be shortly studying Shakespeare's "Titus Andronicus." To me this was patently absurd. Titus is an early play and frankly, not one of the bard's better efforts. It is also very violent and has some distressing scenes. Many years ago, I saw a graphic production of it at Stratford-Upon-Avon which showed some pretty violent and bloody actions. It was considered so outrageous at the time, that I suspect many people went to see it for the gore fest, rather than any literary merit. However, having just watched the first episode of "Gunpowder," a BBC re-enactment of the 1605 Gunpowder plot, that production of Titus seems pretty tame. In fact, many episodes of the popular TV show "Game of Thrones" are similarly far more graphic, but  without the redeeming feature of Shakespearean language. I couldn't help wondering if the people who were worried about students being traumatised by a play script were taking things a bit far.

The whole business of freedom of expression and the acknowledgment of views which are contrary to one's own seems to be hotly contested in UK universities just now. I personally hold hard to the sentiments of Voltaire, quoted above. How far this should extend, is perhaps debatable. Whether we should give a platform to extreme right wingers such as white supremacists or neo-Nazis is more moot. I, personally, would suggest not, but the line of acceptability is becoming increasingly blurred. I hope and believe that KYUEM graduates headed for university next year will be among the forefront of those who practise reasoned and rational debate.





Thursday, 12 October 2017

TECHNOLOGY & CHEATING




I have just been reading a scary article about the growth of cheating technology that is rife in many universities around the world. A few years ago, it was mobile phones that were the chief culprit, but all that has changed, it seems. There are some companies that blatantly advertise miniature ear pieces that are completely undetectable and are actually advertised online. The following is a direct "copy and paste" from such a site:


The essential invisible earpiece for cheating on tests.
Cheat on tests with no worry of being caught.
No cables: the sound reaches your ear wirelessly.
All accessories included--you will only need your cell phone.
Also, totally compatible with any MP3 player.
Instructions: open it, turn it on and pass the test.

I an not going to advertise this appalling practice by giving details of the website. Furthermore, the problem seems to be, for the moment anyway, confined to universities. Nonetheless, it is only a matter of time before AS and A2 exams are infiltrated. It used to be said that with the growth of miniaturisation, digital media and advanced technology, examinations were the only safe method of ensuring students' work was entirely their own. Even the exam hall now seems to be under threat.

However, for those of us who still believe in morality and ethics (the vast majority, I sincerely hope) there is some other and better news this week. Readers of my blog may recall that I recently posted an article about people in the UK and US who would write university student essays and assignments for a fee. The British government this week announced plans to outlaw this practice and will be assigning funds to invest in sophisticated means of identifying the culprits and putting them out of business.

Education, like any other profession, attracts its fair share of undesirables who prey upon those who are feeling insecure or unable to cope with the demands placed upon them. Cheating in any form, will never be an acceptable practice in any area of the education process. Once identified, it must be resisted at all costs and eradicated completely.

Monday, 2 October 2017

FIRST THOUGHTS ON CLEARING, 2017



UK university applicants who fail to achieve either their first or insurance choices, are routinely referred to UCAS Clearing. While official, organisational feedback is not due until the end of the year, the Guardian newspaper has recently published an article in which a variety of universities contributed their thoughts on this year's clearing process.

It's a good idea for KY juniors in particular to familiarise themselves with the UCAS website sooner rather than later. I know that a lot of parents like to access it, too, so that they are systemically aware of what their sons and daughters will be going through. Overall, the whole UCAS machine works incredibly well. Furthermore we have a very knowledgeable staff at KY who are happy to assist students in every aspect of the application procedure.

For me, the most interesting point the newspaper article highlights is the role played by social media this year. During the course of several decades, I have heard a litany of complaints from students and parents about how difficult it is to contact UCAS when less-than-acceptable-results have emerged and the business of clearing begins. Anything that makes this situation less stressful is to be welcomed.

Another interesting issue in the article is that for many UK students, clearing is not regarded as a "last resort" but their preferred option for university placement. I'm guessing that the reason for this is that they have not had great offers because of poor AS grades, personal statements or something. They are hoping for much better grades than were predicted, which in turn will create opportunities to gain places at prestigious universities. If this is indeed the case, I suggest it is at best, a high-risk strategy. There is simply no better way of attempting to get into a good institution than doing well at AS or equivalent and submitting an exemplary application (i.e. one with good predicted grades, excellent references and an engaging personal statement).

Nonetheless it is good to know that via such vehicles as Facebook and WhatsApp, some of the impersonal and stress-related aspects of UCAS Clearing are reduced for those who are in genuine need of the service.

Monday, 25 September 2017

KYUEM INTERNAL EXAMINATIONS



For the next two weeks, we will be holding internal examinations at the college - seniors this week, juniors next. These exams are important to measure progress, to find areas of weakness that need to be improved upon and so on. No one likes exams - least of all, teachers. However, we all reluctantly accept that for measuring competency in an increasingly competitive world, they are probably the only safe assessment instrument we have at our disposal. The important exams at KY, are, of course, the external ones from Cambridge at AS and A-level. Having internal exams as well, merely reinforces that requirement and provides necessary practice in the time management skills needed to ensure successful completion.

Certain patterns also emerge. It is by no means uncommon for senior students who have done well at AS level to show something of a decline in these internal tests. Part of the reason is because they are not taken seriously enough (although with KY students, I personally doubt that). More likely is the fact that there is quite a leap in standard between AS and A2 and these exams are the first indication of how big that leap really is. 

For juniors, we don't have anything to compare them with - these exams are their first test of academic merit at KY, so they are an important milestone. Both juniors and seniors will receive end-of-semester reports in November at Parents' Day, and the results of these current exams will be prominently displayed on them.

18-month students have already done an internal test back in July: our equivalent of an AS assessment, with which we are able to make predicted grades for university application. They now join the seniors in taking the first exam of their A2 year.

I always encourage students to take exams - any exams - seriously, but not to stress themselves out beforehand. They are a rite of passage in academic life that will continue long after leaving KY. As far as the next two weeks are concerned, I hope everyone does his or her best and gains the kind of results that will inspire them to carry on and reach their respective goals at the end of the year.

Friday, 15 September 2017

A-LEVELS Vs. FOUNDATION PROGRAMMES



On Monday of this week, I participated in a conference on A-levels conducted by Cambridge International Examinations, with whom we work for all our external examinations. It was well attended and I was able to discuss issues of mutual interest with fellow Heads from institutions such as Taylor's and Sunway. We also benefited from the experience of Dr. Ben Schmidt, the regional Head of Cambridge exams in the SE Asia region, who spoke about the competition A-levels face from alternatives. One of our KYUEM governors, Dato' Richard Small, was the keynote speaker and gave us all a great deal to think about in a stimulating and engaging speech. KYUEM featured in a video presentation about Cambridge exams in Malaysia. This was filmed earlier in the year. You can view the clip here.

Of course, our most obvious competitor in terms of assessment is the International Baccalaureate (IB) which many schools use instead of the various A-level syllabuses. British universities say they make no distinction between the two systems: an IB candidate stands the same chance of acceptance as an A-level student. Having taught or worked in schools that offer both systems, I am more than happy to concede the point. We may be talking about apples and oranges here, but they are equally nutritious and pleasant to consume. It's a matter of individual choice - nothing more. The fact that KYUEM chooses the A-level option is based on our history and experience, the knowledge and expertise of our staff and the fact that we believe it's a natural progression for students who have taken SPM or IGCSE thus far.

The situation changes, however, when we look at the growing importance of university foundation courses. In case you are unfamiliar with these, they all broadly offer the same thing: students study for one year, after which, if they are successful, they proceed to an undergraduate degree course, usually of three years' duration. In Malaysia, the foundation programmes that most concern us are those offered by local campuses of overseas universities or medical schools affiliated to foreign institutions. Consider these two scenarios:

1) A young person completes IGCSE or SPM. S/he chooses to come to KYUEM for 24 months, takes AS exams after one year and A-levels after two. If successful, s/he is accepted on a Bachelor's degree programme in the UK, the US, Australia or at a satellite campus here in Malaysia.

2) The same student attends a satellite campus in Malaysia immediately upon completion of SPM or IGCSE. S/he takes part in a 1-year foundation programme and proceeds immediately to a recognised degree course. One whole year of study has, in principle, been saved.

The reality is somewhat different. Firstly, the satellite campuses would prefer to take students with good A-levels because they have already demonstrated their intellectual ability and now have an internationally-recognised qualification to support that claim. Students on a foundation programme have typically failed to get into a demanding college such as KYUEM. So, here we have a situation where a potentially weaker student is entering a shorter programme of study. This makes very little sense. Moreover, at colleges such as ours, a graduation requirement is to get an internationally-accepted certificate of English language competency (in our case, a high band score in IELTS). All too frequently, foundation programmes accept students with low band scores in the hope that their linguistic ability will improve alongside the training they will receive in that first year of study.

This is asking a lot of students, I think. Not surprisingly, the record around the world for drop out rates from foundation programmes is high. Equally worrying, the number of students who finish the course, but are not considered ready to embark on the full degree programme is much higher than their peers in an A-level college. Even if you don't proceed to university, possession of AS and A2 certificates is an achievement the world recognises. Completion of a foundation programme is not an internationally bench-marked qualification.

I suppose my bigger point here is that if you are intending to take a serious degree programme from a major, world-class university, you stand a far better chance of achieving your aim with a bunch of good A-level grades. Foundation courses may look attractive in terms of the time saved, but in reality, in education as in life, there is no such thing as a quick fix.

One final point on this subject: university campuses in Malaysia are run as businesses and they need to maximise their student throughput (the old cliche of "bums on seats"). This may well be why students who fail to get into KY can be accepted for foundation programmes. The bottom line has to be this: if you are good enough to come to us, the intellectual rigour of an A-level programme considerably outweighs the apparent time saved on a foundation course. I would suggest that such programmes are considered only as an option if you fail to be accepted by a college such as ours. Don't be misled by the shortness of the alternative programme.

Two bits of excellent news with which to end this week's blog. According to Cambridge University's own website, KYUEM received the highest number of acceptances this year in the whole of Malaysia. Secondly, I can now report that 98.5% of our students have obtained good university places for September 2017. It has been, yet again, a record year.