What is a night at the museum really like?

Last weekend we spent a couple of days at a very special mooring. Ellesmere Port is a run down small industrial town, on the south bank of the river Mersey and next to the Manchester Ship Canal. It does not have much to commend it, but it does have one gem. It is home to the National Waterways Museum. The old port is at the end of the Shropshire Union canal, where is meets the ship canal to the sea. It was once a thriving area, employing hundreds of people loading and unloading goods. After years of neglect, in the 1970’s a group of volunteers got together to clean it up and turn it into a boat museum. They did an amazing job and today it houses several acres of old buildings, exhibitions, boats and history. And best of all, we got to moor overnight in the middle of it.

We stayed for a couple of nights, and during the day got to visit all the exhibits and look around the town. But even better, in the evenings, the staff locked up the museum gates and we were left all alone. We had a special key so we could get in and out, but I loved wandering around the museum with the dogs, taking a close up look at the old terraced houses, the heavy port equipment, the boats themselves. It was kind of spooky although I did not see any ghosts. I could, however, imagine the dock workers busy in the docks, and the boat owners, living in their tiny cabins, behind a large barge full of coal or grain.

We are nearing the end of our six month narrowboat trip for this year, and this was a great experience to add to the memories. A night at the museum may not have been quite like in the movies but it was something very special nevertheless.

Do we need libraries?

One of the things I have noticed travelling around the UK canals this year, is the increasing number of places to swap books. Often when we stop for water, there is an area in some building where people have placed the books they have read, so that other boaters can take them. We have so little space in a boat, that once a book is read, we want to get rid of it, and for most of us, we would rather share than throw away. The books can be very varied – popular thrillers, classics, fascinating biographies, even text books. It has made me wonder if this is the modern version of libraries.

I used to love going to libraries when I was growing up. Shelf after shelf of things to read, things to learn. All knowledge was here. But these days we have the Internet, and casual research is done with a quick google. Libraries also provided a community resource for meetings, or just getting out of the cold and wet, but is that a reason to keep them?

Over the years, cost cutting has led many local authorities to close libraries. One of my brothers is a librarian and I know he has been through tough and uncertain times. I have always argued to maintain libraries for people that cannot afford books. But if this trend towards sharing books continues, perhaps we don’t need the cost of formal libraries. Boaters have maybe set the trend because we have no space, but I am beginning to see old telephone boxes on high streets becoming book shares for everyone.

What to you think? Do we still need libraries?

It’s faster by road, faster by rail, so why travel on a narrowboat?

I am going to try very hard this week not to complain about the heat. That is hard because it has dominated our thinking, as the tin can we travel in has warmed up like an oven. BUT. It has still been a lovely week, as we have come up the tidal Thames and joined the Grand Union canal, a long canal that will take us from London to Birmingham or Leicester. It feels great after weeks of rivers to be back on a proper canal, where we can moor up almost anywhere, and we don’t need to worry about currents and tides.

The Grand Union going under the M25 motorway

This week has mostly been finding our way through London, a wonderful busy city. Surprisingly, most of the time the canal lives in a world of its own, with trees and green spaces, hiding from the town. Then sometimes, such as in Hayes, we find ourselves right in the middle of multicultural vibrancy. It was Eid and there were many very happy muslims, eating during daylight at last. I got the best samosa from a Hyderabadi takeaway. And fruit & veg shops spilling out across the streets. Unfortunately there were also too many drunk Brits enjoying the sunshine on the towpath and making me nervous.

Now we have escaped London and are mostly in countryside, with a number of commuter towns. But the Grand Union runs right next to very busy motorways and train lines, so we can never quite forget “normal” life. We came up a few locks this week with a solo boater who had taken three weeks travelling on the canal through London from Tottenham to Watford. As we passed under the M25 motorway I noted that the journey by car would be about an hour.

So if it takes so long, what is the benefit of travelling by narrowboat? It is because the journey is the destination. This week we have seen parakeets flying above us. We have passed through shanty towns of houseboats. We have helped a geography lesson on how locks work to a class of teenage girls. We have passed under the main Heathrow flight path, with planes landing a few hundred feet above us. I discovered a fascinating pockmarked stone on the towpath, which turned out to be a flint formed by burrowing plankton, millions of years ago. It’s a great life.

It has been bl**dy hot though!

The problem I have with teachers

I have been reading a fascinating book this week by Ben Goldacre called “I Think You’ll Find It’s a Bit More Complicated Than That”. It is a collection of his articles written in the early 2010s, arguing why we need more factual and evidence based decision making and media. One of these articles was a 2011 paper for the UK government about how education could and should be more evidence based. It really gave me pause for thought and made me consider the problem I have with teachers.

When you meet someone at a party and they tell you what they do, there are often stereotypical reactions. When I used to tell people I was a banker, I would gird my loins for being told that all the ills of the economy were due to my greed. When I told then I worked in IT, I would often see their eyes glaze over. Now, when I tell them I am retired, they look at me as if I am mad, and try to find the reason I “can’t” get a job. In return, when someone tells me they are a teacher, I can almost feel the atmosphere chill, as they prepare to defend themselves against jibes about their lengthy holidays or inability to do a real job. Personally I have huge admiration for teachers. Indeed, for many years I wanted to be one myself. Helping children grow to well rounded, well educated adults must be one of the best things a person can do. But…

The defensiveness I mentioned goes a lot further than responding to dinner party comments. I am not sure why, but I find teachers, possibly more than any other profession, are unwilling to accept criticism, or suggestion of how things could be done better. I am even nervous to write about it because I know teacher friends will already have their hackles rising. Ben Goldacre is a doctor and draws analogies from his own profession, where up to the 1970s, consultants would reject evidence as attacking their professionalism, judgement and brilliance.

Surely teachers, as with any other profession, should not choose teaching methods because “that is the way it has always worked”, or “that is how I like to do it and I am the expert” or “that is the latest fad I have heard about”. There should be proper systematic randomised controlled research which would tell us factually what works and what does not. I have spoken to teachers who reject this idea as something being done to them. But there is no reason for that. In medicine the research is owned by the profession, supported by statisticians. It could be the same for education.

The good news is that in the US, and more recently the UK, education policy does seem to be going in the right direction here. A 2017 £75m investment in the Teaching and Innovation Fund to support evidence based education may help. But teacher defensiveness along the lines of “But every child is different, every class is different” is common. As an example read the article “Education research is great but never forget teaching is a complex art form” by Thomas Rogers. These are just the kinds of arguments that used to be heard in medicine, or indeed in my old profession of IT, and have largely been debunked.

I admire teachers. I admire their professionalism, their work ethic, their talent. I sympathise with the way they are lectured by politicians, journalists and me. Now is the time for them to take ownership for evidence based education, even if it means slaying a few sacred cows.

What do you think?