Monday, June 22, 2015

I chuckled at my son's sexist joke. Does this mean I should be forced to quit like that poor scientist?

By TOM UTLEY in England

At the risk of destroying any hope our third son may have of a career in the politically correct world of academia, I’ll begin by repeating a joke he cracked nine years ago, when he was 14.

It was a Bank Holiday Monday, and he had just switched on the TV hoping for his daily fix of news and views about the [soccer] Premiership.

But to his horror, he saw that instead of the expected manly chat about his beloved Liverpool’s chances against West Ham, or Middlesbrough’s against Man U, BBC1 was showing the Women’s FA Cup Final at Millwall. And not just the highlights — the whole ruddy thing, from beginning to end.

He glanced at his watch, glowered at the women footballers on the screen and exclaimed in disgust: ‘But it’s one o’clock! Shouldn’t they be getting lunch ready?’

Yes, I know. I should have treated him on the spot to a long and stern lecture about the wickedness of sexual stereotyping (sorry, ‘gender’ stereotyping). Or perhaps I should have packed him off to a re-education camp, to be taught to appreciate the, like, y’know, intensely valid role of women’s football in the sisterhood’s struggle for freedom from centuries of quasi-fascist male oppression.

As it was, I’m afraid I just laughed — and rather more heartily than the boy’s joke deserved, in the opinion of his dear mother, who was getting our lunch ready.

Having made that appalling confession, I guess that I, too, must kiss goodbye to my hopes of an honorary professorship at the Faculty of Life Sciences, University College London.

All right, my chances were never all that strong in the first place, since I last set foot in a laboratory when I was 16 and haven’t dissected a frog or peered down a microscope from that day to this.

But as Professor Tim Hunt has discovered, to his awful humiliation, people even better qualified than I to teach the mysteries of cell cycle regulation to budding scientists can destroy their careers through a single light-hearted remark, judged to be unamusing by academia’s po-faced panjandrums of political correctness.

As the entire world now knows, Sir Tim is the brilliant biologist, honoured with a Nobel Prize for his contribution to the search for a cure for cancer, who was forced to resign by the UCL authorities.

This was after his attempt to amuse an audience of women journalists and scientists in South Korea fell a little flat, provoking a Twitter storm of outrage from the sort of people who devote their lives to hunting for excuses to take offence.

Now, in the nine days since the university inflicted this monstrous injustice on him, a great many eminent scientists of both sexes have sprung to Sir Tim’s defence — as have a fair few toilers in my own trade.

But it’s striking that, with only a handful of exceptions, his defenders have felt obliged to preface their remarks by describing his comments in Seoul as ‘stupid’, ‘crass’, ‘antediluvian’ or, at best, ‘very ill-advised’.

Well, perhaps this is a generation thing (at 61, I am only 11 years Sir Tim’s junior). But believe me, I’ve tried — and I just can’t see that any of those descriptions can fairly be applied to the words he actually spoke.

True, with the wisdom of hindsight, he would not have uttered them. But this is only because of the deeply unfair and offensive reaction they provoked. In my view, the words themselves — unlike my son’s little witticism — were completely inoffensive.

But I’ll let readers be the judge of that. This is what Sir Tim is reported to have said: ‘Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them; they fall in love with you; and when you criticise them, they cry.’

Should he have said ‘women’ instead of ‘girls’? Maybe. You can’t be too careful these days. But was this really a sackable offence? As for the rest, we may certainly disagree with him when he argues that single-sex laboratories would best serve scientific progress, with their lower risk of the distractions of romance.

Indeed, I’m persuaded by one of Sir Tim’s former pupils — Ottoline Leyser, professor of plant development at Cambridge University’s Sainsbury Laboratory — when she argues in the Times Higher Education supplement: ‘Progress in science depends on creativity, imagination, inspiration, serendipity, obsession, distraction and all the things that make us human. The best science happens in precisely the environments where people fall in and out of love.’

As for his charge against women that ‘when you criticise them, they cry’, we may take it that he’s speaking from personal experience — as he certainly is when he speaks of love in the lab, since it was in the laboratory that he met his wife, the UCL scientist Professor Mary Collins.

Meanwhile, as no less an authority than the Mayor of London points out, it is an established scientific fact that women cry more easily and more often than men.

According to Boris, ‘the world’s leading expert on crying’ is Professor Ad Vingerhoets of Tilburg University, who has found that women cry on average 30 to 64 times a year and men only six to 17 times.

(Chillingly, by the way, a Labour MP called Chi Onwurah has told The Guardian she believes Mr Johnson may have breached the Sex Discrimination Act by suggesting that male and female employees are somehow different. God, what a horrible, mad country this is becoming!)

What we can all agree, surely, is Sir Tim was most emphatically not saying that women make inferior scientists.

On the contrary, everyone who has actually had dealings with the man — including Professor Leyser, Professor Lord Winston and the feminist physics professor Athene Donald of Cambridge — has testified to his tireless promotion of the cause of women in his field.

Yet on the strength of a Twitter storm, the UCL authorities were apparently prepared to forget all the good work he’d done for women — never mind his contribution to the fight against cancer. Without any sort of hearing, they demanded his head within 24 hours of his ill-fated speech.

Says his wife: ‘I was told by a senior that Tim had to resign immediately or be sacked. Tim duly emailed his resignation when he got home.’

But it gets worse. The creeps at UCL — and nine days on, they still haven’t had the decency to identify themselves — failed even to observe the most basic civility of expressing regret at Sir Tim’s departure. Instead, they put out a disgustingly priggish little statement, saying: ‘This outcome is compatible with our commitment to gender equality.’

The Royal Society, from whose biological sciences committee the Nobel prizewinner also resigned, wasn’t much better. Though its statement acknowledged Sir Tim’s ‘exceptional contributions’ to science, it went on: ‘It is the great respect that he has earned for his work that has made his recent comments so disappointing, comments he now recognises were unacceptable.’

How could these once-revered institutions treat such a man in this unspeakably shoddy way? Aren’t universities and learned societies meant to be bastions of free speech and independent-mindedness? Or have they all become craven slaves to the oppressive doctrines of political correctness?

I started with one son, and I’ll end with another. When our fourth and youngest arrived home from Sheffield on Wednesday after sitting his finals, I happened to be reading The Duke’s Children, the sixth of the Palliser novels. I asked him if he’d read any Anthony Trollope — and to my surprise and delight he said that he had.

But he hadn’t read any of the great man’s novels, for which he is chiefly famous. No, all he’d read was a bit of Trollope’s travel-writing about Jamaica.  Why pick that, I wondered? It was for a university course, he said — in ‘Victorian perceptions of race and racial stereotypes’.

So there’s the answer to my question about what Britain’s universities have come to. Trollope is no longer promoted and enjoyed for his wonderful tales about scheming churchmen, politicians, noblemen, terrifying aunts and poor-but- honest, love-struck middle-class girls.

As a man of his time, who believed Englishmen were better than foreigners, he’s studied only to be tutted at for the occasional offence he committed against modern ideas of political correctness.

Has anyone in academia the guts to stand up against this tyranny?


Changing how teachers are taught: A bid to transform education
Another starry eyed refusal to face the real problem of dim students and dim teachers but it might do some marginal good

When Jeffrey Chiusano starts his job as a high school physics teacher in the fall, he’ll be doing so with a full year of teaching already under his belt.

His teacher license and degree were largely earned in a high school classroom, in a yearlong residency in which he could dissect with his professors and his mentor the experiences he had in creating lesson plans and working with students. The mentorship will continue for his first few years on the job.

“It’s easy to read it in a book, but it’s a lot different when you get up in front of 20 students to put in place what you learned,” Mr. Chiusano says.

His experience is emblematic of a new approach to teacher preparation that top education reformers say is the direction in which the field should be headed. That emphasis on lengthy classroom experience and mentorship, rather than seat time and textbooks, is needed, they say, given how inadequate the vast majority of education schools are when it comes to preparing teachers for their careers.

The training that teachers receive for their jobs is no obscure matter. Evidence increasingly points to teacher quality as the most important factor in determining how much students learn.

But too often, critics say, America's education schools are not serving their enrollees well – with low standards for admittance and graduation, no consensus about what training teachers need, little meaningful clinical experience, and courses that are behind the times and unrelated to real-world experience.

“Teacher education in the US is broken and outdated,” says Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, which has been a leading force behind improving teacher preparation. “The US is moving from a national analog industrial economy to a global digital knowledge economy, and every one of those [education] schools was created for the former.... We can try to repair them or try to replace them. I’m convinced you have to do both.”

A new graduate school and research lab, announced Tuesday by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a major effort toward changing the system.
Take Action:Reach out to organizations and individuals dealing with literacy, school funding, bullying, technology, social media, and other classroom issues.

The Woodrow Wilson Academy of Teaching and Learning (WW Academy), which will be located in the Boston area, is designed to be a showcase of the best sort of teacher preparation possible. It will have an emphasis on competency rather than time and will include a laboratory in which researchers do intensive studies on what works when it comes to educating teachers.

The hope is that the successful elements of the WW Academy will be replicated elsewhere and that the laboratory's findings have far-reaching effects.

“We’re not interested in creating a hothouse, some small education school,” Dr. Levine says. “What we’re really interested in is transforming teacher education around the country.”

He envisions a graduate program that is the education equivalent of West Point – the absolute best when it comes to teacher education. And in lab, MIT researchers can design thoughtful, intentional experiments to add concrete data to what can seem a very muddy field.

While there isn’t a great deal of data about what works in teacher preparation, there is a growing consensus both on the need for that data and the need for more rigor and standardization in teacher accreditation, so such accreditation is more akin to that used for medicine, law, or nursing.

“We know that of all the in-school measures, teacher quality has by far the biggest impact” on education quality, says David Steiner, dean of Hunter College’s school of education and a former New York State education commissioner.

Dr. Steiner, like Levine, says the current state of many education schools doesn’t come anywhere close to what’s needed in preparing teachers, and that too often, the least effective teachers end up in the most high-needs schools.

To change, Steiner says, the system ultimately needs to have fewer education schools with higher standards and strong clinical experience that prepare teachers for the jobs that actually exist – as opposed to the current system, which is licensing far more teachers (at least in some parts of the United States) than the country needs. This wouldn’t take care of all the challenges to developing a stronger teacher pool – like the low pay, poor working conditions, and lack of prestige that the profession currently struggles with – but Steiner thinks it would go a long way toward helping.

“The challenge here is to ratchet the entire system up,” says Steiner. “If you are more selective, if you can have a serious clinical preparation and then deliver those selective candidates who have been well prepared into a school system, I suspect we’d take the working-conditions issue more seriously, both in terms of salary and conditions. We’d move the entire system up several notches.”

The federal government has trained its sights on teacher preparation as well, most recently proposing new regulations that would grade education schools and alternative certification routes through measures like graduates’ job placement, retention, and the academic performance of the graduates' students.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan called improved teacher preparation “a moral issue” when he announced the proposed rules last November, and he has called for “revolutionary change.” His proposal was highly controversial, however – particularly the fact that it would factor in students’ academic performance – and put many schools on the defensive.

But if teacher training is truly to get where it's needed, say education experts, more data, rigorous research, and transparency are needed – and data on education school graduates could potentially take up a wide range of factors, including surveys from teachers and students.

“No regulation is perfect ... but the thrust of what the Feds are trying to do is fair and right and potentially helpful,” says Benjamin Riley, founder of Deans for Impact, a coalition of leaders of top education schools who are committed to transforming the field. “We’d like to engage in a dialogue to shape it in ways that are meaningful.”

Mr. Riley, like Levine, says that a lot of what is needed to transform teacher preparation is rigorous research on what works and where investments should be made. Emphasis right now is on the sort of residency and mentorship programs that Chiusano got in his fellowship. But such programs can be expensive, and cost is a big barrier when it comes to shifting an entire system of teacher preparation.

If good research existed about the return on that investment and the success of the model, says Riley, it would be much easier to make the case for that investment.

“We’ve got some hunches [about what works], but we haven’t really tested them to the degree of rigor we’d like. There are 1,450 or so odd colleges of education, and there’s unbelievable variance in what they prioritize.”

It’s common for critics of teacher training to bemoan the quality of people drawn to the profession: Unlike countries like Finland, Singapore, or South Korea, where nearly all teachers come from the top of their classes, the US has few such teachers. A 2007 McKinsey study found that while those three countries recruit 100 percent of their teachers from the top third of their academic cohort, in the US, 23 percent of new teachers come from that top third. In high-poverty schools, the number is 14 percent.

When he hires new teachers, their achievement and solid content knowledge from their own academic experience is important, says Doug McCurry, co-CEO and superintendent of Achievement First, a charter school network in Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island. But he also looks for passion and commitment to educating disadvantaged students – and an unwavering belief that they can succeed – as well as a mind-set that welcomes feedback, criticism, and growth.

“We need to be looking at the top quartile people and then filtering out for these other things,” says Mr. McCurry, who notes that getting the right teachers is one of the most important decisions that he or any school leader has to make. “That’s what this country needs.”

If the working conditions were changed, and teachers were encouraged to grow and have an impact, McCurry believes more top people would be drawn to the profession.

Several years ago, Achievement First was one of three charter networks whose leaders banded together to create a stand-alone education grad school, Relay. Like the Woodrow Wilson fellowships and the teacher training program at Hunter, Relay emphasizes residency, mentorship, and real-world experiences for aspiring teachers. And it has high standards for admission.

“If our education schools across the country were all like Relay, I think that would be game-changing for the US,” says McCurry.


Why isn't science fun any more? UK schools have ditched experiments because they're scared of risk

Science experiments were once a sure way to grab pupils’ attention and bring a bit of excitement to class.

But schools are no longer allowing pupils to carry them out because of health and safety fears, according to an education expert.

Teachers are banishing ‘risk and adventure’ from the classroom – forcing youngsters to sit and watch instead, claims Nicholas Gair, a trustee of educational charity the Outward Bound Trust.

He said as a result, children were being overprotected and will grow up without any interest or excitement in science subjects.

Mr Gair said: ‘There is a change in how we treat young people.

'We’ve over-protected young people and so we’ve been so worried about them in terms of safety that in some cases they no longer participate in science experiments.

‘They are told to sit and watch science experiments rather than actually have the interest and the excitement of doing a sensible experiment.

The Institute of Chemical Engineers has voiced concern about primary schools, in particular, refusing to allow experiments because teachers are reluctant to ‘embrace anything that might be perceived as having a risk associated with it’.

Schools had avoided demonstrations of simple electrical circuits using low-voltage power and even prevented pupils ‘pond-dipping’ for insects.

Speaking at the Festival of Education at Wellington College, Mr Gair added: ‘We somehow have taken the excitement, the risk and the adventure out of what we allow young people to do.’

Mr Gair said young people need to learn from exposure to risk.  He added: ‘If they have never fallen over they don’t know what it’s like to fall over and therefore they believe they are invincible.’


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