NYT Writing Prompt: Great Conversations

It sounds like laughter punctuating rhythmic, meaningful dialogue. It is unpretentious. Deep topics share the limelight with casual stories about how someone’s child woke up 4 times last night and the chaotic morning traffic in the new town someone else has moved to.

Everyone is sitting around the table, splayed out on comfy couches, or wrapped up in balls on the floor. People’s recent accomplishments are celebrated and mistakes are discussed openly. Nobody feels judged or like they have not earned enough stripes to be welcomed. People are there because they want to be there. There may be slow music in the background; the décor may or may not be to ones taste; there is always an array of food.

The above is what I imagine when I think of an evening sharing a meal and having great conversations with friends #goodtimes. I am grateful for the opportunities that I have had to be able to travel to several countries and participate in occasions like this with people from different walks of life. Moments like these enable me to step behind stereotypes and Instagram filters to connect with ‘real’ people.

When I travel, make friends and share meals with locals and other travellers it reveals much more to me about culture than any book or Google search will ever provide. It reinforces the fact that despite what the media propagates, not all Africans are poor, not all Asians like Maths and not all Southern Europeans are lazy. It reminds me why I love cosmopolitan cities like London and Paris – and why although I will probably always be more at home with the black girl with the afro hair whose parents eat the same food as mine – I can still chill pretty comfortably with the young ginger father who is new to the south of France and wondering where he can buy Vaseline for his baby’s bottom. We have much more in common than we may initially think we do.

It also highlights to me how sad it is when people fail to enlighten themselves about those who are ‘different’ from them. It amazes me that in the 21st century, people still think that being young, black and male is synonymous with being slightly shady (this was demonstrated when at a 30th birthday party, a middle aged white woman interrupted my friend who was talking about his PhD topic to ask if he knew where she could go and buy some weed. N.B: She wasn’t asking him because she thought that he was hip and into trendy ‘alternative’ recreational activities).

Great conversations occur when people are willing to listen and be present. They occur on long bus journeys, via debates on social media and at dinners like the one I described above, but they also occur in silence when you take time for self-evaluation and are open to give yourself some home truths.

Let’s take time to get to know the people around us. You don’t have to go very far, just relax, be comfortable and start by smiling and saying hello to your neighbour. #goodtimes




Will the education revolution be web-based?

I recently re-watched a Ted talk on Mastery Based Learning by Sal Khan that I have posted on this blog before. In summary, Mastery Based Learning (MBL) is about helping students learn at their own pace and ensuring that they have fully mastered a specific skill or topic before they are introduced to new content, regardless of how long it takes. This means that if a student has not learnt how to read at a certain level when they are evaluated, they will not be progressing to an advanced class.

This is not how the majority of schools work in the UK. Most schools progress students at a predetermined pace based on what is expected of their age group. If gaps are identified in a student’s knowledge of a subject after they take an exam, they may get a bad grade but they, along with the rest of the class, will still move on to a different subject that is often more complicated. If a student fails their exam in year 8 they will still be able to progress to year 9 irrespective of whether they have understood the basic concepts from their previous year.

The above system of learning is one of the reasons why we have many people who have finished secondary school, but still have serious difficulty with reading and basic algebra. It could also be why very capable students disengage with certain subjects and believe that they don’t have a ‘math’s gene’, when they simply haven’t been given enough time to master their subject and deal with areas that they find fuzzy.

In making his point, Khan asks, rhetorically, if people would not build a house on top of an unfinished foundation, why they would allow students to progress through school when they have often not fully grasped the elementary areas of their subjects.

In Khan’s opinion, the traditional system of school should be flipped. Lecture videos should be set for homework and class should be used for students to work through any extra questions that they may have with the teacher.

My initial thoughts when I watched the talk were, wow this is fantastic! What an amazing idea. But on second thoughts I have a few questions about how this would work in reality. Do all students have the necessary self-discipline to engage with MBL and watch lectures for homework – especially for topics they are not really interested in? Should we practice MBL in every subject? Will it work for art and performance studies? Are online videos effective at teaching students topics that they find complicated? What about students who don’t have access to the Internet or who live in poor home environments that are not conducive to learning?

Whilst MBL sounds good in theory, a lot more needs to be explored before we agree to revolt and topple the current system of education. On-line learning is useful, but it may not work for everyone.


On grammar schools

Few issues raise as much heated debated within education circles in the UK as does the topic of grammar school expansion. Those in favour argue that grammar schools help academically bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds obtain a better form of education than they would otherwise receive in a comprehensive. In defending their position, supporters point to grammar schools’ typically smaller classroom sizes, which provide students more opportunities to participate in deeper discussions and make it easier for teachers to focus on individual students’ needs. Advocates also highlight grammar schools’ stellar exam results and roll call of successful alumni (though many comprehensive schools can also proudly toot their own horns about the accomplishments of their former students).

Research conducted by the IFS suggests that grammar schools are beneficial for having a successful career and higher income. In addition, a report by the Sutton Trust noted that ‘pupils in grammar schools do better than pupils with the same characteristics in other non-selective schools’. These indicate that by receiving a better education, disadvantaged children could be empowered to improve their overall life outcomes.

Those who are against the proliferation of grammar schools contend that selective schools are socially divisive and reinforce middle class privilege. The view of this camp is that families from wealthier backgrounds are better able to prepare their children to take 11+ exams (by paying for extra tuition or sending their children to private primary schools, for example). They can also afford homes, which by virtue of being in the catchment area of good grammar schools are more expensive (and out of the reach of families on lower incomes).

In addition, opponents argue that comprehensive schools in areas where there are grammar schools perform worse than those without grammar schools. This could be because grammar schools are able to ‘lure’ the best teachers or because removing the ‘top students’ has a negative effect on a school’s overall performance. Critics also note that the grammar school system is potentially damaging to young people’s confidence and self-esteem as it inadvertently labels children who don’t pass the 11 + as ‘failures’ or ‘less intelligent’.

In my own opinion, and given my life experiences, I believe the nation would be far better served if the government invested in raising the quality of state comprehensives rather than focusing on a wholesale increase in the number of grammar schools. To be sure, I have many close friends from disadvantaged backgrounds who have benefited immensely from attending a grammar school or securing a private school scholarship. Therefore I cannot deny that attending one of these types of schools can positively impact an individual’s life outcomes. Nevertheless, one should not mix up the potential benefit that attending a grammar school may have on an individual, with the overall effect that an expansion of the grammar schools system may have on the educational outcome of the nation as a whole. The reality remains that the majority of disadvantaged pupils will attend a comprehensive. As such, the government should be focused on implementing policies that will benefit the wider population of young people, rather than a select cohort of pupils who have access to the knowledge and resources required to take advantage of these opportunities.