I was very impressed with it, and resolved to write a small article about it. Last night I re-watched it on the BBC iPlayer, this time taking notes (they don’t do transcripts any more). This is the narrative.
Father of two and stand-up comedian David Baddiel sets out to answer one of the greatest questions a parent can ask: how best to educate your child. Along the way he uncovers some unconventional approaches.
A young girl is being monitored, not as she reads, but as she listens to beeps. Professor Usha Goswami, at Cambridge University, is measuring the brain’s response to a largely uniform series of beeps, but occasional ones differ in a way so slight that the conscious mind could not detect it, yet the girl’s brain is responding to these tiny differences.
The upshot of the research is that the development of reading relies on differences in the language system of the brain, the sound structure of words of that person’s language. Visual information such as letter shapes comes a long way second. This bears out some traditional practices, where nursery rhymes to music exaggerate the differences, and help children learn to read. Moreover, this is the area that has to be tackled with many dyslexic children, not the visualization.
Still at Cambridge, David Whitebread explains that in play, children make real and practical what adults have in their minds. (Maybe continuation of this into adult life is why the occupation group with highest IQ is stand-up comedians.) He is repeating a classical experiment by Jerome Bruner. This shows that children allowed to play remain flexible in thinking, those receiving instruction give up, feeling like they’ve failed. He suggests there is even a better way to learn to do long division!
At Harvard, we learn that babies are born with a "primal" mathematical ability. Now, taking as a basis the observation that babies look longer at things they don’t understand, Dr Koleen McCrink does ‘sums’ on a computer screen while the babies watch. Five objects are put into a box, then five more, then the box is opened. But the sum is not always right. The babies are puzzled by 5 + 5 making 5 and stare longer than when 5 + 5 make 10. This is primal, not thought-driven. The leader of the group, Professor Elizabeth Spelke, has found that even in newborn babies, some numerical ability can be noted after 1 day. By 6 months, they can discriminate a 2:1 ratio, and by 9 months, a ratio of 3:2.
Alas, some people are born with dyscalculia. Back in Dear Old Blighty, Prof Brian Butterworth of UCL puts simulation coils on David’s head. With these, the areas of his brain that do maths are being knocked out temporarily by a magnetic pulse. This drastically slows down his ability to tell if number flashed on screen was greater or less than 65. Butterworth has identified the area of brain responsible for maths, and says that dyscalculics have less or more grey matter than normal. As with dyslexia, intervention should not be "flogging the same dead horse", but rather working with the fundamentals, in this case, at concepts such as "fiveness or sixness" which need to be developed.
There followed a session of family prodigy pushing, but I’ll skip over that. Next we learn that David Baddiel’s father, a former research chemist at Unilever, was determined to make his son into a scientist, but David remembers at 15 telling him that he didn’t want to be a scientist, but to do English instead. But science was not a failsafe key to success: Father was made redundant at 42 and sold Dinky Toys in antique market for rest of his life.
There followed a repeat of the Stanford marshmallow experiment performed by Walter Mischel, now at Columbia University. But Becky has already covered this for us.
Next we go to Brightwood School, in Washington, DC. This has been an underperforming school, but in a new experiment conducted by Dr Roland Fryer, economist, Harvard, the students get money for top marks, good behaviour, attendance, correct uniform, up to $100 in two weeks. Fryer himself grew up in an environment similar to "these kids", and for him, going to Harvard was like moving to another planet. His approach doesn’t discriminate between "I love learning" and "I love what learning gives me" – either is OK to him. Baddiel asks – with money involved, what about bullying as a side effect? Lazy or thick boys might bully others into helping them. Fryer says "flip the power structure – I like that school!" Results not to be known until after two years. But Fryer does love the kids, and they appear so motivated, on camera at least.
(Two points here: the Pythagoreans had an "issue" even about teaching for money –see Was Hippasus Pushed? Next, Fryer’s response about flipping the power structure. That disturbs me, and suggests a Bolshie streak. Perhaps there’s still a bit of a chip on his shoulder. If he condones bullying, that’s a no-no-no!)
Baddiel then says that people think of money as contaminating, like when you add money to something important or beautiful, like sex or education, says Baddiel. (Thinks – would he really be happy with someone close to him becoming a prostitute?) What you see here is, with education anyway (but Baddiel does not say this) that this "contamination" is not the case. Is education about the life of the mind, or as Baddiel says, stopping yourself from being out on the street?
This is borne out by his own family. David went to a good grant-maintained school, but his brother drew the short straw, and went to a hard school where a pupil who stabbed a teacher only got three days’ suspension, and the gym and dining room were burned down in separate incidents. His brother ended up as NY taxi driver. Talking to his brother, we learn that at primary school he was disheartened by marking system, showing him up always in the 30s out of 36, and this meant he couldn’t get into the good school.
Next we see that children’s potential is not fixed. Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University says that parents can often ruin their children’s chances by using just these three words: "You’re so clever". This makes the children think "I have to be intelligent all the time, that’s what they value you for". They then stop taking on challenges, and hide their mistakes. So many people think they’re building confidence by saying this, but she has found it’s just the opposite.
Carol has taught two groups of children in two different ways. One lot were praised for effort, giving what she calls a "growth mindset", but the other lot, praised more traditionally, developed a fixed mindset. The latter would focus their attention on whether *they* were right or wrong (ad hominem, says I), but not to find out what the right answer really was (ad subjectum). But children with the growth mindset would harness their own intelligence, and achieve higher grades.
Next, Dr Sarah Blakemore of UCL explains why teenagers as a group are so clumsy and ornery. Their brains are undergoing "synaptic pruning", meaning they are physically (and sexually!) mature while their brains aren’t yet fully configured to control their grown up bodies or their emotions.
It finishes with a mission statement of David’s quest: Can science strike a balance between happiness and achievement in a child’s education? The answer seems to be: to present information as a land they are discovering.