October 21st, 2004


Review: The Big Lebowski (no spoilers)

A woman is kidnapped, a ransom demand made to her husband, a detective is brought in to get her back.  But is her husband hiding something?  Why was she really kidnapped?  Who does the ransom money really belong to?  And what _is_ steve Buscemi doing?

This is the plot to the Coen brother's masterpiece "Fargo".  But it's also the plot to one of their other movies - The Big Lebowski.

The Big Lebowski is a Chandleresque detective movie with a stoned layabout bowler wandering through it, pretending he knows what he's doing in order to somehow make some money out of the situation, or at least get his rug back.  He goes to all the right places and asks all the right questions, but clearly has no idea what's going on, who any of the players are or how to actually deal with anyone at all.

At one point he questions someone who may know what's going on, with no real success - they leave him alone for a moment, along with a pad they've been drawing on (minus the top page).  The Dude (as Lebowski is known) does what any classic detective would do - he takes the tip of a pencil and scratches it across the next sheet down, revealing the work of the possible kidnapper.  He finds an obscene drawing, leaving him even more baffled than before.

Because he's not a detective, and no matter what he does, he's not going to be able to actually think his way out of this detective story.  But he is going to blunder through it, causing chaos everywhere he goes, and greatly amusing the audience.

One for fans of detective movies and the Coen brothers' askew take on the world.


ObQuote: Smokey, this is not 'Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.

New Teaching

Good Lord - I wish they'd had this kind of research into teaching methods when I was a kid.

Article in The Independent here on teaching boys differently

Three weeks into the new academic year, we were summoned by our son's teacher. He was not doing well at his state primary school and lacked concentration. We agreed to talk to him. But what did his teacher think he could do? The answer was little really. We just had to hope our son would somehow start to take an interest.

The head teacher was not much more hopeful. We had been worried for some time that our son was not advancing as fast in the school as his sister had. Like many London parents, we had turned to tutors to help our daughter for competitive secondary school entry exams. We now turned to a tutor for our son. It was the tutor who told us that something was going wrong. Our son was achieving above the average in lessons with her and enjoying the work. But it was not the same story at school.

We found our solution for him in the private sector, with its tradition of enthusing boys for learning; in our case, a modern, co-educational school. Michael Younger, the head of the postgraduate certificate of education at Cambridge's education faculty, began a similar quest in 2000. He tracked down good practice in state schools. After winning funding for his Raising Boys' Achievement project from the Department for Education and Skills, he began a review of results across English schools with his colleague, Dr Molly Warrington. Their report goes to the Education Secretary next month.

They found that boys were doing as well as girls in only 25 secondary schools. In some of those, the good results were a bit of a mystery. The schools were often simply throwing every strategy they could think of at the problem. Their teachers were not sure which worked well, or why. Only a handful could point to sustained improvements in results during a five-year period.

The pair grouped 24 primary and 28 secondary schools into threes: one school leading the way; the others trying out the methods and collaborating on their development. These schools found a wide variety of methods that worked across the country. But they are not yet clear if there are consistent patterns. "There can be no one-size-fits-all approach," says the researchers' interim report.

Improvement in boys' performance does involve fresh teaching methods, and everyone I met agreed that boys were far less prepared to stomach boring lessons than girls. For change to be made, there needs to be a clearer identification of children's learning styles, so teaching methods fit more than one type of personality.

I have seen boys, who are bubbling with energy, become distracted because they are expected to sit still and in silence through a lesson. The same boys came alive at break when learning studious games, such as chess, because it is treated as a battle. Crucially, there needs to be a realisation of the social culture of boys, so that teachers work with it, rather than discipline it. For this to happen, says the Cambridge group, sharper leadership and school teamwork are crucial. The National Association of Head Teachers has brought out its latest Secondary Leadership paper on this issue.

Middleton Technology School in Rochdale has seen big improvements in boys' performance. Dame Pam Coward took over the headship 10 years ago, when it was at the bottom of the local league tables. Now it is at the top. As she retires, she puts most of that down to her own Boys' Achievement Project. Good lessons at the school are energetic and full of quick changes. I saw maths and history classes. The teachers use a fast dialogue with their pupils: a series of questions and answers; frequent, timed tasks; constant revision mixed in with new material. In the spring, I saw the same technique, reminiscent of an auctioneer, work in an agricultural college, where unacademic, young men were drawn in to the give-and-take, without even realising that they were starting to learn.

Janine Kellett, teaching maths at Middleton, gave students individual white boards on which they wrote their answers to hold up. She kept up a rapid-fire commentary, commending or asking for improvement. She told me that she sat her class alternately boy-girl: it made the boys compete with each other, but become more gentle in their reactions; it stopped mischievous groups building up, or cliques; it created different and supportive partnerships

David Williams, the history teacher, says boys are willing to give a quick and easy answer, but enjoy being challenged to go deeper. "Boys want to show off," he says. "They're the comedians of the class. I'm giving them the opportunity to show that being intelligent is another way of showing off."

He used a book of original sources to explain how Japan came into the Second World War with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Using a range of learning styles - reading aloud, question and answer, discussion - he left just a short time for them each to write a conclusion. I was impressed at the way this group of working-class 14 year olds chose to make sense of their topic by comparing it to the war on Iraq. Williams says it's rare to see a group of children in such an adult conversation. When I did hear them being flippant, he moved them on quickly.

Deansfield has been looking at what it calls the "preferred learning styles" of students. Maths and English teachers have been urged to teach the same lesson in different ways to respond to the ways that students learn best. I watched a maths lesson which involved different learning styles: whole class dialogue; pupils and teachers demonstrating theories using the whiteboard; and short written exercises from text books. Teacher Amanda Austin told me that they have made up maths songs. Every lesson includes a de-brief, when the children tell the teacher if the lesson has worked for them. That makes for a partnership, rather than a formal relationship.

But the most novel reform at Middleton is the key leaders' strategy, whereby 20 to 30 heads of informal groups - or gangs - of boys are identified for mentoring. The idea is to give them a positive attitude to school by searching for opportunities to develop their interests. One boy, Paul, was helped to get work experience with the army. For him it was the link between what he learnt and how he could use it after leaving school.

Paul told me that his mentor transformed his attitude. He understood what the school and his teachers could do for him and why studying was worthwhile. Grudgingly, he agreed that it had had an effect on some of the "other lads", who had changed their attitudes too.

Dame Pam is now finding many boys behave more like girls because they have started to work together in groups to study. "Last year I had a wonderful group of boys who all got As," she says. "Nobody called them soft." If her ideas are adopted nationally, it could mean a big improvement in boys' results and fewer parents being called in to receive teachers' complaints.


guyinahat has asked me for the umpteenth time to not pollute his friends lists with long screeds, excerpts, links and whatnot.  Personally, I despise LJ-Cuts (except for spoilers) and refuse to use them to shorten things.  I am not a member of the Cult of Brevity.  However, I can see his point that there are LJ posts about me, and LJ posts containing things I'm interested in.

The ones about me take up, at best, 1 in 50 of my posts.  I don't consider my day-to-day goings on terribly interesting.  But I can, I guess, separate that out into a new journal "AndrewDuckerPersonal" or somesuch, so that those people who care just about _me_ can read it, and not my odds, ends, thoughts and interesting links posts.

Should I have two separate journals?

Don't care

Cutting an LJ entry says "The following is unimportant, you do not need to read it."