Geeks in school: the need to nurture not bully

Turing at the time of his election to Fellowsh...
Turing at the time of his election to Fellowship of the Royal Society. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A few days ago I read a really good article by Professor S. Barry Cooper called “Alan Turing and the bullying of Britain’s Geeks”.

In the article Professor Cooper (who is  Chair of the Turing Centenary Advisory Committee (TCAC), which is coordinating the Alan Turing Year) chose to look at the difficulties that many children who are on the Autistic Spectrum (as we believe Turing was, with suspected Asperger’s Syndrome) face when they are in school.

Asperger syndrome is mostly a ‘hidden disability’. This means that you can’t tell that someone has the condition from their outward appearance. People with the condition have difficulties in three main areas. They are:

The characteristics of Asperger syndrome vary from one person to another but as well as the three main areas of difficulty, people with the condition may have:

  • love of routines
  • special interests
  • sensory difficulties.

The “special interests” section is particularly pertinent in regard to Alan Turing. He developed a passion for mathematics and the laws of nature from a very early age. In respect of this please note the following example of the area of “special interests” from the National Autistic Society website: “People with Asperger syndrome may develop an intense, sometimes obsessive, interest in a hobby or collecting. Sometimes these interests are lifelong; in other cases, one interest is replaced by an unconnected interest. For example, a person with Asperger syndrome may focus on learning all there is to know about trains or computers. Some are exceptionally knowledgeable in their chosen field of interest. With encouragement, interests and skills can be developed so that people with Asperger syndrome can study or work in their favourite subjects.”

If you add to this obsession with a subject the problem that many Asperger children have with social interaction and making friends then you can see why Professor Cooper is so right that many gifted “Geeky” children have characteristics that make them very different from the “norm”.

In respect of Turing and mathematics this can be seen from his problems with studying the subject at Sherborne  School.

In his article “A Pioneer for a New Century — Alan Turing, part 1” G. James Jones looks at Turing’s early life up to the invention of his famous “Turing Machine” in 1936. When discussing his school life he states:

Sherborne and Alan were not the best match. Sherborne, as many English schools of the time, was concerned with creating citizens and not scholars. The headmaster, at the time of Alan’s enrollment, espoused the idea that school was originally created to be a miniature society. Students would learn to navigate the complexities of their later adult lives by learning to survive the power plays of their current public school life. Authority and obedience held more sway than the “free exchange of ideas” and the “opening of the mind.” Not long after arriving, the already shy Turing became even more withdrawn.

Alan sought solace in his books and course work. In 1927, he was able to find the infinite series of the “inverse tangent function” from the trigonometric formula for tan1/2x (tan-1x = x – x3/3 + x5/5 – x7/7 …) without the aid of elementary calculus (Alan had yet to be exposed to it). It was a significant enough achievement to have his mathematics instructor include himself among the roster of people that had proclaimed the boy’s genius. Such a proclamation didn’t hold much sway with the school. While the accomplishment was extraordinary, Sherborne’s headmaster, not a particular fan of science, felt he was wasting his time and was in danger of becoming a scientific specialist and not an educated man. This disrespect of science was not uncommon at the school. Alan’s autumn form-master, a classicist who was enthralled with Latin, called scientific subjects “low cunning” and felt that the only reasons that the Germans lost World War I was because they placed to much faith in science and engineering and not enough in religious thought and observance”.

Alan’s work in mathematics (according to his school reports) was “dirty” and he was told to stick to the syllabus and not wander off into areas of conjecture. To his fellow pupils he would have appeared as withdrawn, unfriendly, avoiding eye contact and very much a “boffin” or what we would now likely call a “geek”. He was thus cast in the role of “victim” to the bullies. He later said that he learnt to “run fast” in order to get away from them.

My concern with Turing’s story, as indeed Professor Cooper’s concern is in his article, is the way that our school system finds it almost impossible to stop these , often gifted, children, from becoming victims of bullying.

I wrote an e-mail to Professor Cooper to get is permission to quote from his article and he replied: ” I think schools need much more understanding of the problems children on the autistic spectrum experience. I’d be very happy for my article to help spread the message”.

I will quote the following from the article because it gives another slant to the story of “geeks in society” and that is how schools in the 21st century need to cultivate the skills and insights that children such as Alan Turing possess and not treat them as something strange (as if they are from a different planet!).

Professor Cooper writes:

” let’s face it – when it comes down to it, one of Britain’s best exports is geekery. One of the greatest is Isaac Newton. And recently we celebrated Charles Darwin. This year it is Alan Turing.

That last link – to Aspies for Freedom – is a very thought-provoking piece. It puts the case for people like Turing – and Darwin and Newton – being valued for their differences: “I am concerned that the 2012 celebrations could possibly also depict autism/AS in a negative and pitiful manner” posted one female Australian Aspie.

Yes – ‘thinking different’ can be far from a disability. Today’s computer-dominated world demands a leavening of creative geeky innovators. On June 5 the sober-minded Economist put it this way:

Those square pegs may not have an easy time in school. They may be mocked by jocks and ignored at parties. But these days no serious organisation can prosper without them. As Kiran Malhotra, a Silicon Valley networker, puts it: “It’s actually cool to be a geek.”

In this post I have not discussed the incredible contribution that Alan Turing made to humanity in his brief life. There are many articles that you can read about this on the internet. I will end though in saying that his part in the creation of computers was immense, there are those who say that he is in large part responsible for laying the foundations of our digital society. The strange, bullied child whose Headteacher at Sherborne so mistrusted science has had the last laugh.

In a society plagued by huge problems of climate change, overpopulation and massive pollution, can schools afford to neglect any future Alan Turings? We should be giving them the chance to develop their talents because, as in the case of Turing, we are the beneficiaries in the end.

The future of learning

This video has just been uploaded by Ericsson. It states very clearly what many of us believe that education as it is presently practiced has got to change due to the fact that we have now moved into a different world through the spread of technology and the decline in manufacturing.

I am writing this post  to try and promote the video which I hope will be widely viewed. There are some important thinkers on education here, Seth Godin, Stephen Heppell, Sugata Mitra and it will reward anyone who takes the time to watch it.




The Kibera School For Girls


It seems so obvious to me that a major solution to many of our problems in the developing world lie in educating girls. At the moment too many girls marry at a ridiculously young age, are pregnant by 15, are forced into the sex-trade in order to survive and are the main sufferers of HIV/Aids. They reproduce many children and create a cycle of disease and deprivation (along with abuse) that continues from one generation to another.

Many organisations have tried to do something about it, for example The Girl Effect, The Novo Foundation and Plan U.K. One remarkable love story led to the setting up of the Kibera Girls School in Kenya.

Kibera is the largest slum in Africa, having more than a million people living in an area the size of Central Park in New York. It was the birthplace of Kennedy Odede who was unable to receive the education that he craved because he was too poor. He became a community organiser in Kibera and taught himself as much as he could without a formal education.

A young student Jessica Posner from Wesleyan University in the United States, chose to go to Kibera as part of her studies. She was attracted to a Theatre Group that had been set up by Kennedy and others to combat violence against women. The two originally met in Nairobi and, as Jessica puts it, it was love at first sight.

Jessica was able to help Kennedy in his attempts to run a community group called Shining Hope For Communities. She was also able to help him get a scholarship to her University, Wesleyan and this year, he gained his degree…. as he says “the first person from Kibera to study abroad and to achieve a University degree.” He also married Jessica this year and the two of them are going to continue their efforts to support their amazing creation…a Girls school that appears in the video above.

The idea that the only school in Kibera is a girl’s school is an example to the world of what can be done to facilitate the answers that giving a girl an education  can help to bring about. Kibera has many many problems but educating girls can help to alleviate many of them.

Since this post is about girls education I thought that I should mention the shooting recently of Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan. This 14 year old is, at the time of writing this post,  fighting for her life in a hospital here in Birmingham, U.K. after she was shot in the head because she wrote  a secret blog for the BBC about girls education.

This horrible event goes to show the lengths to which some people will go in opposition to girls having the basic human right of an education and why we must continue to work to support the organisations that are  trying to achieve this most important goal.


To get the best out of me

To get the best out of me..

Don’t criticise me

Grade me 

Limit me to your ideas of what I should see, listen to, know.

Define the parameters of what you think I am capable of

Tell me I am limited by an intelligence quotient 

Limit my world to the world that you define for me 

Judge me by my inadequate handwriting, my failure to express myself in the way that you wish me to do

Shout at me,

belittle me

Most importantly do not put me into some box that you wish me to exist in and expect me to be happy there

To get the best out of me

Allow me to find my passions

To express myself in the way that I find best

Encourage me

Give me freedom

Judge me by what I produce and what I am capable of becoming

Set me problems to solve

Worlds to explore

If you get the best out of me

I benefit

So does the world




Stand Up To Cancer

This Friday on Channel 4, here in Britain, there will be a fundraising programme in support of the  Stand Up To Cancer Campaign.

I  wanted to write a post to support this because it is one way that I can have some influence in combatting an illness that will effect 1 in 3 people in their lifetime. It was the illness that my mother died of and is the reason why I contribute a monthly sum to the main beneficiary of this Friday’s fundraising Cancer Research U.K.

I could write many many words about this most horrible of diseases. I could say that we are getting on top of it and that it may be possible that, one day in the not too distant future, it will disappear from our human world forever. I don’t think that it would have the impact on you as one video which you can watch below.

The video is about a three year old boy called Ronan Thompson who was : ” a strong, brave, funny, smart, spicy, fearless, innocent, carefree, inspiring, sparkly, silly, soulful, bold, courageous, proud, powerful, and  beautiful little boy. He was 3-years old when he passed away from Neuroblastoma, a form of Childhood Cancer.”

Taylor Swift, the famous singer, composed and performed a song about Ronan… it is all I need to convince you to support this most worthy cause on Friday. Let’s all “Stand Up To Cancer”.


Video in education: my experience in studying “Sustainability”

I have been studying a course through “Coursera” on Sustainability. As part of the course I am doing a project. The project can be an essay, a video or indeed a blog post. Welcome to my project.

I chose to look at how videos can be used as a significant part of study at almost any level, especially, in my case, in studying at  degree level.

The course material has included a number of specific videos made by the course lecturer Jonathan Tomkin. These have been very straightforward “lectures” but have the advantage for me of allowing me to replay the video or stop it in specific sections to look at what was said or referenced. As many proponents of the use of video in education would point out this has the advantage on the conventional lecture where you miss the important point at your peril.

It also raises the whole area of discussion/debate about “flipped” education. For those who are unaware of this discussion it is based on the idea of having students look at videos of lectures/lessons and then have the chance (in class or in my course’s case in the discussions or online “meetups”) to discuss the topic and delve deeper into it in order to understand it. The main proponent of this has been Salman Khan and his “Khan Academy“.

This idea of video lectures/classes  to support study has certainly been helped by the “online world” that we have all moved into. Coursera is just one example of how online study at all levels has blossomed in the last year or two. The “flipped  classroom” approach is a natural adjunct to this form of study. The other major player in this development in learning has been the all-powerful and omnipresent “YouTube“.

I more and more find that I am going to YouTube for information when I need it. In doing the Sustainability course I have been able to delve into it for “Ted Talks“, lectures and news items as well as excerpts from T.V. and film documentaries. YouTube has become a major search engine in its own right and if there is a name or organisation or topic mentioned in the course I was able to do a search on it and usually found some fascinating videos.

This of course raises the question of the validity of video as information. I believe that video can  present you with visual evidence and “a picture is worth a thousand words”. There is the advantage of having oral evidence to support the pictures. Just like the “flipped classroom” approach the video can be stopped and rewound to a significant section so that notes can be taken.

I am aware that higher education in particular teaches students to become critical of texts so as to develop their own views about a subject. This leads me to an important observation based on my own experience of video in education.I believe that  we must work in the future to develop student’s visual awareness and the their abilities to critique a video in the same way that we presently teach them to critique text.

I will give an example  based on my own study in this course. In week 3 I looked at the subject of protecting fish stocks using the idea of “Catch Shares”. The suggested video was “How To Save  a Dying Ocean” which gave a very rosy review of how the U.S. government was proposing “Catch Shares” as the answer to the depletion of fish stocks off of the coast of the U.S.A. I did a YouTube search and found another video called “The Problem With Catch Shares” that gave a different view that presented the idea as big business putting the small-time fisherman out of business.

If we are to develop video as a means of study then we need to work on students becoming aware of bias, distortion and the fact that the camera can lie and often does. We also need to develop video search skills as much as we are currently developing text search skills.

How then can I sum up my experience of using video in this course? I can say that I have learnt so much from the hours of scanning and then watching videos. I have made full use of the ability that I have to watch, re-watch, rewind and stop the video lectures. I have been able to use the amazing resource that is YouTube to further inquire into the many subjects relating to sustainability. I have listened to some great minds discussing the threats to our world of overpopulation, of depletion of the world’s resources. I have sought for some comfort in solutions and found some optimism in the brilliant statistics presented by the wonderful Hans Rosling. I have discovered some brilliant mavericks who have challenged the status quo and presented their ideas on video, two of these I would suggest you look up further would be Vandana Shiva, look as a start at her video “A Critique of the Green Revolution“. I would also recommend the excellent lecture by Albert A. Bartlett called “Arithmetic, Population and Energy” in which he explains the mathematics behind our sustainability crises.

Video should not be seen as the only form of knowledge and we need critical skills in seeking out and using video as evidence but it is a significant part of education now and needs to be incorporated much more into our education systems than it has been up to now. This is where the world of online learning has led the way and I have definitely benefitted from using video in my studies on the “Introduction to Sustainability” course.



Why I am against vocational education in schools

I have been reading a number of reports and blogs that are in support of introducing some sort of new version of the old  tripartite system of academic, technical (i.e. skilled ) and general (i.e. unskilled) sectors of education.

The main argument being put forward is that students need to be given skills that will equip them for the world of work after they leave school. They do not propose to reintroduce the old system  of Grammar Schools and Technical or “Modern” schools. They would though have the curriculum narrowed for  many students to be able to come out of school with specific sets of skills that would allow them to become plumbers, builders, hairdressers etc.,

Now I hear you asking… “what’s wrong with that? Surely school should equip students for the world of work and not give them some hopeless academic curriculum that means nothing to them and leads to boredom, rebellion and ultimate failure.

On that point I couldn’t agree more. I am concerned though with the idea that schools should just be seen as a training ground for industry and commerce. My main concerns are that students need a set of skills to cope with the ever-changing world that will be their future when they leave school and not some narrow set of specific skills related to a certain craft that may well not need them in a few years time.

I am also concerned with the  fact that the old system and in many respects the new system that is being proposed will direct students into a  way of life that may not really suit them or which may trap them for what constitutes their working life.

I feel that students need to find their “passion” and “interest”  and that this ought to be the basis of their studies. Schools would need to facilitate this by not teaching subjects but allowing the practise of skills through a project based approach. Students will not need to leave school with some narrow vocational qualifications but evidence, through portfolios, of abilities to be adaptive, collaborative and shown early signs of  future innovative and creative abilities that will make them adaptable and flexible in the fast changing environment that will be their “world of work”.

Surely, our main aim in education is to do the best for our children. We have already given them a hell of a difficult world to come out to try and find work in. We owe it to them to allow them to develop the skills to compete in the global economy that is the world we now inhabit and we cannot even imagine what their life may be like when they look back upon the crucial decisions that we made about their futures in 2012/2013.

I hope we do not condemn them to a future of long term unemployment following their brief and possibly unfulfilled career in the professions we thought were  the right ones for them!