Learning quantum physics

I have to be honest physics was never my favourite subject at school. I remember thinking that it was just a load of formulas that meant nothing to me. My total failure at O Level was because I went into the examination with not a clue as to how to work out the speed of a toy car given a certain level of friction.

I was given a book of logarithms which was very useful in that it gave me something other than the exam paper to look at.

I have come across esoteric subjects such as “relativity theory” and “quantum mechanics” and can say that I really didn’t have a clue as to what they were about.

I have recently been doing a lot of research into how we learn best. I came across something that the great physicist Richard Feynman who was a great teacher/lecturer, as well as a theoretical scientist, said was key to learning any subject and this was to explain a subject to another person in terms that are simple so that even a child could understand it.

I therefore decided that I would test this theory by looking at a number of TEDx  YouTube videos which had scientists explaining Quantum Theory. This would certainly prove Feynman’s idea on the basis that if I understood any of it, then the speakers had obeyed his dictum to make it simple and straightforward.

The best video I saw was the following:

I learnt from this talk that quantum mechanics is strange, that it is about the very basics of all things, atoms and sub-atomic particles. I found that at their smallest these sub-atomic particles can do strange things like travel through barriers and join up with other connected particles wherever they are in the universe.

The key to the crossing of barriers is that it explains how two atoms of similar type which should repel each other can actually clash and interact, which is the basis of nuclear fusion and ultimately of the heat and energy from the massive reactions of our Sun which are the basis of our life here on Earth.

I was also fascinated to find out the massive contribution to physics and astronomy of this lady:

celia p-g

I have to say that she was someone who I knew absolutely nothing about until I heard this talk but who I am pleased has now come into my brain’s memory bank.

For a talk lasting just 15 minutes, I learnt a lot about the wonders of quantum mechanics and found that Feynman was so right that any subject can be explained to anyone as long as we strip it down to basic ideas that even a child (or a 64 year old scientific illiterate) can understand!



Cognitive distortions

I am progressing in my Coursera MOOC “Mindshift”. I did wonder how it would differ from the highly successful “Learning How To Learn”.

The answer is that this course is very much about human potential as against specific techniques to make you a better learner.

Barbara Oakley travelled around the world doing interviews with people who had made great transformations in their life. This was not only for the course but was also for the book that she has written with the same name as the course which came out today (April 18th).

mindshift book


One area that I covered today in the week 2 materials was “Cognitive Distortions”. These are the ways that we manage to defeat ourselves, to listen to others who give us no hope of ever changing.

Here was my contribution to the MOOC forum on the subject:

I found the section on cognitive distortions so revealing about my own past. I remember that when I made a hash of my (British) Advanced Level exams, I said, on receiving the letter informing me of my bad grades, “I’ve failed”. I started to blame myself for lack of understanding and started to believe that I maybe wasn’t as bright as I thought I was.

I was awash with negative emotions. I wish then (this happened over forty years ago now) that I had the advantages of seeing Barb’s video. I can now see everything in perspective but it is so difficult when you are in the middle of a darkness of your own creation.

As an ex-teacher I feel that we need to be telling our students many of the things that Barb covered in her video. There are even the extreme examples of students who commit suicide due to bad grades. This is surely something that should bring schools and colleges round to the idea that we need to talk about how to learn well and how to cope with setbacks in a constructive way.

The point I make about the tyranny of grades is one that comes from my own experience and one that I saw so often throughout my teaching career. In the course we learn to welcome failure as a learning experience, to understand that we become the stories that we tell ourselves, that others will take opportunities to put you down and tell you what you can’t do but you have a plastic brain that has great and as yet largely uncharted potential.

I have said so often that we humans are  our own worst enemy. We divide, we belittle and we compartmentalise when we should be aiming to develop  every person to the best that they can become.

It is so good to see that people like Barbara Oakley and Terry Sejnowski have similar beliefs and it is to be hoped that their new course will have as much influence on its students as their wonderful first course had.

I recommend you watch the short lecture that Barbara gives in the course at the link below:



The power of books to transform a life

For quite a few years I have been following some of the excellent stories that are a part of the oral history project called “Storycorps” in the United States. This brilliant project has involved literally thousands of Americans telling their stories about love, hate, death, war, indeed the full human experience.

Today I watched the above video about a young native American migrant worker, Storm Reyes. It shows how the chance of following her curiosity and getting into a travelling Library (called a “Bokbus” in the U.S.A.) would introduce her to the world that exists in books and how that managed to transform her life.

Here is her story: (I have made bold what I consider to be key points in her story)

In the late 1950s, when she was just 8 years old, Storm Reyes began picking fruit as a full-time farm labourer for less than $1 per hour. Storm and her family moved often, living in Native American migrant worker camps without electricity or running water.

With all that moving around, she wasn’t allowed to have books growing up.

“Books are heavy, and when you’re moving a lot you have to keep things just as minimal as possible,” she said.

She remembers a tough childhood in the migrant camps.

“The conditions were pretty terrible. I once told someone that I learned to fight with a knife long before I learned how to ride a bicycle and when you are grinding day after day after day, there is no room in you for hope. There just isn’t. You don’t even know it exists. There’s nothing to aspire to except filling your hungry belly. That’s how I was raised.”

But when she was 12, a bookmobile came to the fields where she and her family worked.

“So when I saw this big vehicle on the side of the road, and it was filled with books, I immediately stepped back,” she said. “Fortunately the staff member saw me, kind of waved me in, and said, ‘These are books, and you can take one home. You have to bring it back in two weeks, but you can take them home and read them.’ ”

The bookmobile librarian asked Storm what she was interested in and sent her home with a couple of books. One was on Volcanoes because one of the tribal elders had told her a scary story about the local volcano blowing up. He said “learn about volcanoes. You don’t fear things that you know about!”.

She said, “I took them home and I devoured them. I didn’t just read them, I devoured them and I came back in two weeks and had more questions. And he gave me more books, and that started it.”

The experience, she said, was life-changing.

That taught me that hope was not just a word. And it gave me the courage to leave the camps. That’s where the books made the difference.

Storm left the camps when she was a teenager and attended night school. She ended up working in the Pierce County Library System as a librarian for more than 30 years.

“By the time I was 15, I knew there was a world outside of the camps,” she said. “I believed I could find a place in it. And I did.”

I found this story inspiring and moving. I have for many years been interested in human potential. I have always had a belief that we are not bound by our genes or by our environment and that there is something or someone that can transform the way we think about ourselves and our own potential.

Storycorps has covered so many stories like Storm’s where people living and working in difficult circumstances have been able to overcome them and achieve great things. If you have the chance I would recommend looking up their excellent site and reading/listening/watching some of the wonderfully inspiring stories that ordinary people tell.


The Mindshift MOOC

I have just finished week 1 of the Coursera Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) “Mindshift”. This is a follow-up course done by the same lecturers (Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski ) of the world’s most popular MOOC “Learning How To Learn”.

I have taken “LHTL” twice and it is quite simply the best MOOC that I have ever taken. I think that it had the advantage of the presenter/lecturers Barbara and Terry who come across as friendly, informative and humorous and it has an excellent set of videos that were designed to be informative as well as entertaining. There are the usual Coursera tests and the assignments are peer reviewed. There is also an excellent online discussion forum where other students often make useful suggestions for videos and links to books and articles.

Week 1 of Mindshift has proven to be an improvement on the high standards of LHTL. Barbara has created some excellent videos that have moved on from her initial attempts in the first MOOC. I particularly like the way she visually represents metaphors and concepts. She takes the lion’s share of presenting the videos although the one video input from Terry about environments for learning is excellent.

Barbara has written a book called “Mindshift” to accompany the MOOC. This follows her earlier book  “A Mind For Numbers” which accompanied LHTL. In the present MOOC she has managed to put into some of the videos interviews that she did with students of LHTL from all over the world where they talk about how they have changed their approaches to learning after taking the course.

Overall the original MOOC and the present one are well worth taking if you want to transform your approach to learning. It is also one of the best introductions to cognitive neuroscience that I have come across. I would recommend the courses and the books. Happy learning!

Coral Bleaching: what it should mean to us

I read an online BBC report this morning about Coral Bleaching. I have to admit that until recently I had never really known anything about the subject. The video above though will quickly explain all you need to know.

The point about Coral Bleaching is that it is caused by a rise in the ocean temperature. Corals are invertebrate animals that form vast colonies and have a skeletal outer covering. They may look like plants but they are animals and there are huge numbers of different corals. They become a home for many of the algae that live in the ocean and this algae is what gives the corals and the subsequent huge reefs that they form their distinctive colours.

To get some idea of the beauty and immensity of the great Australian Coral Reef look at the video below which was made to explain about the subject to children. I defy any adult not to be awed by the sheer beauty of the great reef.

Coral Bleaching will mean that vast areas of the Reef will lose its colour and any future rise in the ocean’s temperature can lead to the corals dying.

My point in writing this post is that the rise in the sea’s temperature is yet more proof that we are in a period of global warming. As I read the report from the BBC I wondered how President Trump and his senior climate-change deniers would explain this one away!

The saddest thing about it all is that we may already have passed the point where future generations will only have our videos or pictures to know just how incredible the Reef was.

I titled this post, “Coral Bleaching: What It Should Mean To Us” and I will conclude by saying that the bleaching and possible death of one of the great natural wonders of our beautiful planet is just a part of a much wider concern that global warming represents to everyone on Earth.

Despite the climate warming deniers there is already massive damage to life in our oceans. There are huge implications in a rise of the sea level worldwide for so many of us who live (as humans love to do) near the seashore.

Denying what is already happening will not make it go away. The children who the video above was made for would understand that, it seems that President Trump and many of his followers cannot.

The World’s Most Powerful Animal

I love the way that hyperlinks work. I usually start my day by checking my e-mails and often these have links within them which take me on a journey of discovery.

Today I received an e-mail from The Social Psychology Network that informed me of the following:

NEW PARTNER SITE! http://www.ActionTeaching.org/

Social Psychology Network has just launched a new partner site, ActionTeaching.org, designed to promote “action teaching”—the teaching counterpart to Kurt Lewin’s action research. The new site is packed with free resources, including 40 award-winning classroom activities, field experiences, and student assignments that instructors are welcome to use or adapt. Please stop by for a visit!

So I stopped by for a visit using the link. Once in a new site, you have further links to explore.

I tried the following:


The following looked interesting mainly because of the picture:


I found out that the Humane Education Institute has a number of online resources for teaching important aspects of our humanity to schoolchildren from primary through to the secondary sectors.

One that caught my eye (it is all about selectivity!) was the following:

The World’s Most Powerful Animal

One example of an activity we offer for grade school children is The World’s Most Powerful Animal, in which the teacher enters the classroom with two boxes and a letter, and asks the children to help solve a make-believe mystery:

“As I was on my way here, I passed through a forest. I was deep in thought, not really looking where I was going. Then suddenly, I bumped into a large tree. When I looked at the tree, I saw this Letter From the Universe tucked into a branch. I took it down, and to my surprise, saw that it was addressed to all of us! Under the letter were these two little boxes. I found this all a little puzzling, so I thought I’d bring the letter and boxes here so that we can solve the mystery together.”

The letter explains that one of the boxes contains the most dangerous animal in the world, and the other contains the most powerful animal (each box is carefully labelled and crafted with breathing holes). After reading the letter out loud, the teacher peers into the box labelled “most dangerous animal” and expresses shock before passing the box around to the students. As the children, one by one, open the lid and peer into the box, a mirror on the bottom reflects their own face. After discussing in an age-appropriate way how certain human activities endanger the environment, other animals, and each other, the teacher looks into the second box and breaks into a smile when peering inside. Again the teacher passes the box, and again the children see their own reflection. This time, the teacher explores the concept of using our power to solve problems and make the world a better place, eliciting ideas, examples, and inspiration from the children. (my emphasis).

The last sentence, with words made bold by me. explained why I was so interested in this lesson plan. It got children thinking and allowed them to examine their own lives. It involved them with the rest of humanity and it did not have specific answers that could later be tested.

This, to me, is the best sort of education. I hope that any of my colleagues reading this post will feel the same as I do, and explore this valuable site as well as many of the other links to sites on the Humane Education Resource that I found through a simple early morning exploration of the web!


The need for a progressive alliance

This post may come out as something of a political autobiography. In some ways my life around and sometimes, briefly, in, politics represents the journey taken by so many people of my age (I am now 64) in post-war Britain.

I was born and lived in a working class part of London (Stoke Newington, Hackney). My family (on my father’s side) was very political and had made the journey from Communism to a solid support for the Labour Party.

I joined the Labour Party in my part of Hackney when I was just 16 years of age and remember sitting outside St. Paul’s Church in Stoke Newington High Street giving out Labour leaflets accompanied by a school friend who was giving out leaflets for the Conservatives!

In those days (as now) Stoke Newington and Hackney North constituency was a safe Labour seat.  I was 17 years of age when the Conservatives managed to oust Harold  Wilson’s Labour Party from office where it had been since 1964. It did not seem to be much of a turning point for British politics but the next few years saw huge industrial unrest, constant pressure on sterling and a major change for our country as we entered the European Economic Community.

The experience of those years for the battered Tories would lead to them turning their back on the post-war consensus which I had grown up in. There had been a comfortable agreement on public spending and on the need to have social housing,  the National Health System was fully supported by both the main governing parties.

After the two 1974 elections, the country faced a Labour Government with a majority of just 3 seats and a Conservative Party that wanted radical change and managed to get it by the election in 1975 of Margaret Thatcher as Leader of the party.

This marked the end of the cosy post-war consensus that I had grown up with. The election of Mrs Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1979 would see a raft of anti-trade union laws and a brutal conflict with the miners in the 1984-5 strike, the selling off of huge numbers of council homes and an economic policy that was deliberately about redistribution of income from the poor to the rich.

This government went through initial turbulent times but was saved by the rattling of a sword and a military adventure in deepest South America. It managed to regain popularity and the legend of Mrs Thatcher as “The Iron Lady” was born. It led to a period of  Conservative election victories that lasted up until 1997.

The result of these events for the Labour Party was that it went through a long period of soul-searching in opposition and eventually decided that if it couldn’t beat the Tories it would have to emulate them and did so under the leadership of Tony Blair, the bright, media-loving new generation of politician that was unafraid to ditch many of the ideas of the “old” Labour Party (such as nationalisation of major industries and social housing commitment).

During all of these changes, (1974 to 1997) I continued to support the Labour Party. I despaired at the in-fighting and the frustrations of trying to get a message across that the new property owners did not want to listen to. Thatcher had introduced a social as well as an economic revolution and I saw constituencies that had once been rock-solid Labour (like Basildon) go over to the Conservatives.

I was now a teacher in Essex (having qualified in 1979) and I saw the beginnings of many changes in education with the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1988 and the growing influence of testing under the increasingly powerful Ofsted. I had hopes that the new Blair Government would reverse many of the changes that I had hated so much

Despite my hopes, the new Blair Government reversed precious little.  “New Labour” was not about change, it was about management of the revolution,  not reversal. Blair wanted to be a more efficient Thatcher and the Murdoch press loved him.

It was during the Blair years that I became disenchanted with Labour and stopped voting for them. I went through a period of looking for an alternative that I briefly found in the Liberal-Democrats and even distributed Lib-Dem leaflets in Southend-on-Sea, where I lived at the time.

The 2010 Lib-Dem/Tory Coalition put an end to all that. I was never a member of the Liberal Democrats but was tempted to join briefly so as I could resign in protest! The Labour Party was divided between the Blairites who wanted a Blair Mark 2 to get them back to managing the economy and the people who called for a return to the old ways that successive electorates had spurned.

I went through a period of non-party support and, indeed, although I so much appreciate the right to vote and how people in the past had suffered so as I had the chance to have a vote, I abstained from voting for a number of years.

In the last three years,  I have supported the Green Party, as they seemed to represent the core values that I have always tried to keep, belief in internationalism as against a narrow nationalism, state support for the needy, money for a decent education and support to the hilt for our amazing National Health System.

Yesterday I read a really interesting article from the New Statesman entitled

Senior Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians call for a progressive alliance

I couldn’t agree with this more. Indeed I had already become a member of “More United”  an online organisation that has attempted to support whichever candidate of any of the “Progressive” parties could win in any particular constituency. For example, we voted to support the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney in the 2016 Richmond Park by-election. We supported the Labour candidate Gareth Snell in the 2016 Stoke-On-Trent Central by-election.

It seems to me that there is no way, in the current political situation of a right-wing, neoliberal, Brexit chasing Conservative Party that a Labour Party that has been decimated in its old stronghold of Scotland, can ever gain power on its own. It can though agree to ally itself with other parties who collectively can defeat the Conservatives who manage to rule the country (and gerrymander the constituencies of a future parliament) on just over one-third of the popular vote.

The problem, of course, is that change is hard and people hold on to their cherished beliefs. Co-operation is not easy but, as the More United examples mentioned above show, it can be done.

As someone who was born into the Labour Party, drifted away under Blair, briefly flirted with the Lib-Dems and now has a home in the Greens, I feel I can speak in saying that there is a radical alternative and it is more important to unite and rule than bicker amongst ourselves in opposition to the Tories destroying all the things that we hold dear.

I fear that we will continue to bicker for a long time yet but hope that eventually, we will see the need for a truly progressive alliance.