Teaching Holistically

Finland is switching its educational paradigm. They are doing this to create a better learning experience for their students.

Only far eastern countries such as Singapore and China outperform the Nordic nation in the influential Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings. Politicians and education experts from around the world – including the UK – have made pilgrimages to Helsinki in the hope of identifying and replicating the secret of its success.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that Finland is about to embark on one of the most radical education reform programmes ever undertaken by a nation state – scrapping traditional “teaching by subject” in favour of “teaching by topic”.

There are other changes too, not least to the traditional format that sees rows of pupils sitting passively in front of their teacher, listening to lessons or waiting to be questioned. Instead there will be a more collaborative approach, with pupils working in smaller groups to solve problems while improving their communication skills.

In spite of doing an excellent job of teaching their students, Finland is actively charting a different route(phenomena teaching).

I think it makes sense to teach in a more holisitc manner. There is no need to exclude math, geography or any other subject when trying to learn a subject. The more mental “hooks” you can create in a topic, the better it is rememebered. I suspect that students seeing the practical application of math, geography, and science in understanding history may gain a better appreaciton for each of these subjects rather than learning things in isolation.

Early data shows that students are benefiting too. In the two years since the new teaching methods first began being introduced, pupil “outcomes” – they prefer that word to standards – have improved.

This seems a great deal more common sense approach than then “No child left behind“. This policy seems to rely on punative measure to create a nation of test takers rather than learners.

Reverse Printing of Scan Snap files on Samsung 3051ND printer

My Samsung 3051ND printer will print the second page of a scanned PDF (from Scansnap 1300) in reverse. This problem seemed to resolve it self with Lion and Mountain Lion but it seems to be back with Mavericks.  I found the solution here – https://discussions.apple.com/thread/2622531. The printer is no longer  reversing the pages, after changing the color matching preferences in Preview.

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Cheaper Insect Macro Photography

I have been frustrated with lighting for insect macro photography. Placing a flash directly on the camera leads to blown highlights and harsh lighting. Trying to handhold an off camrea flash with one hand and a Nikon D7000 with a 90mm lens in the other hand is impossible.

Setting the camera on a tripod with an off camera flash(with diffusion/bouncing) gave great light but I did not have the portablity I wanted to chase insects.Ring lights and led light were more than I wanted to pay.

My cheap solution was to create a funnel of foil that fitted around the head of the flash. Then I placed a plastic bag over the funnel. The entire setup was attached to the flash with a Honi quick strap, but I think any velcro strap should work.

This very economical flash diffuser created a soft light, that gave me the portability that I wanted at a price I could not beat.

Lectures and Learning

I like to learn new things but, I wonder if lectures are the best way to do it. In the lecture format, the professor dispenses pearls of wisdom and we, as receptacles of this knowledge, gratefully imbibe the wisdom of our elders. I wish knowledge flowed this seamlessly.

In the inimitable phrasing of Slosson, “Lecturing is that mysterious process by means of which the contents of the note-book of the professor are transferred through the instrument of the fountain pen to the note-book of the student without passing through the mind of either.”

The Professor’s Lecture Notes Go Straight to the Students’ Lecture Notes

In real life, I just cannot absorb a lot of new concepts at once. My short-term memory is short and I can only juggle so many ideas at once. Taking notes almost feels like an act of desperation. I write frantically trying to capture every precious word while not really processing what is being said[^this is the antithesis of learning].

Trying to capture ideas as a float across the ether into your brain, but never having the opportunity to process the idea is painful and inefficient. It is like treading water next to a whirlpool. If there is one way to kill curiosity and interest – this is it.

Ideas need to be connected in your head; one building upon the other and for complex material if you miss one idea, your mind is swimming in sea of facts without any connections. When learning new material it is better to build a scaffolding of understanding, one fact at a time, rather than trying to reconstruct it later by filling in the gaps of a rather tenuous mental map.

An excerpt from the book Chalkboard illustrates the inefficiency of lectures

The true level of efficiency – whatever it is – cannot be very high since students who skip lectures suffer no ill effects when given instructor’s notes. This was the finding of one classic experiment. Groups of students viewed a 20-minute lecture – one group took notes while another group listened. A third group did not attend the lecture at all. Two days later, all students were given 25 minutes to study from a set of instructor’s notes before taking a test. Scores were the same, regardless of whether students had attended the lecture. In other words, the original lecture had been a complete waste of time.

Another study, with a similar protocol, arrived at the same conclusion with a 30-minute lecture followed one week later by a 15-minute review of instructor’s notes. Once again, the lecture was a complete waste of time. The authors concluded, “The present data raise a question about the function of the lecture itself. Since students who did not attend performed as well as those who did … the lecture per se may be a redundant vehicle for communicating substantive information.”

The live lecture format does not lend itself to repetition. Lectures are a relic from an era without books. It’s no use pretending we do not have books, computers, or the web. Why do we continue to use lectures as a major form of information dissemination? Are there ways to improve it ?

The best lecture experience that I had was when my friend would record a lecture for me once a week. I liked listening to the lecture and if there was a part that I missed, I could listen to it again as soon as I lost the thread of the discourse. My notes and understanding were better because I did not have to play “fill in the gaps”. I did not seem to miss the magical information transfer of the live lecture either.

I suppose one argument is that it is the student’s job to pay attention. That is absolutely true. Often repeated advice is to read the textbook before the lecture. That is great advice, but unfocussed reading accomplishes nothing. I think there is belief that learning occurs when information is passively presented or the act of transcribing etches the facts in memory.

Facts do not become knowledge without providing context and utility. Without knowing how and why you are learning something prevents turning facts into knowledge. There are better tools to use than the standard lecture format to create understanding.

I’m not the only one that has noticed that lectures really are poor form of information dissemination. In the 1970s David Hess Dennis and his graduate student Abraham alone developed multiple-choice test known as the force concept inventory [FCI]. This test was designed to explore students conceptual understanding of physics. Students took the test for the beginning of the semester. They were in a variety of classes with teachers using different teaching methods. At the end of the semester, they took the test again. The course only improved the test results by 14%. Most professors did not pay any attention to the findings. But, Eric Mazur did.

Eric Mazur started his career wanted to be an astronomer. But,

“focusing on the details, focusing on memorizing and regurgitation, the whole beauty of astronomy was lost.”

He eventually became a physics professor and loved lecturing. He was sure that his students would do much better and did not have the problems that David Hess Chris had described. When he gave his students the FCI tests, they did not do much better.

Eric Mazur eventually created “peer instruction”. His method is well worth reading about. Essentially, he assigned material before class. The student then had to answer some web-based questions, ensuring that he has read the material before coming class. In class Mazur gave a very brief introduction to the concepts. He then gave a multiple-choice question. The student answered the question. Then he allowed the students to discuss the question with their neighbour. They are then allowed to answer the question again. So, even though this is a slower method of processing the ideas, he has found his students understand 3 times as much. I find it better to have had a more efficient funnelling system so even though there is a slower flow of knowledge into the bottle, at least the knowledge gets into the bottle as opposed to jerking off the sides and falling on the floor.

What I like about Eric Mazur,s system is that the students are given the “lecture” material before the class. Since they to answer a multiple choice questions based on their reading , they are more focussed because they have a goal or a problem than needs answering. The questions, if crafted well could also highlight subtleties in the material that may not be readily apparent.

The students are forming their mental scaffolding before coming to class. Then their learning is reinforced or corrected through discussions with their peers and the teacher during class. I also like its use of testing to reinforce learning rather that to evaluate learning.

This method is a lot slower that the traditional lecture, but at least there is no delusion that people are understanding the concepts rather than hearing the lecture. This system also uses the teacher’s expertise to the best advantage. A teachers job is guide understanding. They are better used to help students to use their knowledge rather than regurgitating the same knowledge on the blackboard.

The way to really learn something is to apply it to solve a problem.Nothing highlights knowledge gaps than trying to use your recently acquired understanding or explain it to another person. I can read about a subject online or in a textbook. The real use of a live teacher, is not the initial presentation of the material, but rather to guide the student into a more critical[^What information is truly relevant, in what order and under what circumstances.] evaluation of the material.

Dragon Dictate 4 is fast.

Nuance has released Dragon Dictate 4. I am pleased with this update, despite my misgivings. The speech recognition is much faster than it has been in the past. I am not left wondering if what I’m going to say will be translated or not. The last two updates of Dragon Dictate were good but just not spectacular. So, when I was downloading Dragon Dictate 4 I found myself holding my breath.

I was wondering if this things could even work. Dragon Dictate has never been my favorite programs to use. I had incredible hard time initially setting it up, because my AirPort extreme caused interference with the USB headset. This was a program that I had a lot of hangups and shutdowns. With each new version, there have been some incremental improvements. But, the speed of translation has always left me wanting.

However, with this new version, the dream of a near instantaneous voice-recognition has been almost realized. Now, of course there are some problems with recognition of a non-English words. This particular version of Dragon also seems to hang up on its training window. Also although I can activate the program, I cannot seem to get it registered. But, this is the best version yet. I can use his program in real time, without having to wait for a translation. I did try the transcription feature, but that failed miserably. I suspect this has more to do with the recording rather than the technical ability of the program but I would have to explore this feature further.

Markdown for General Writing

Author, David Hewson has written a post about using Markdownfor general writing.


The title of the post is “Markdown: For general writing I really don’t get it”. But, Hewson later qualifies this.

OK. Stop the shrieking. I’m not saying that Markdown is, unlike IA Writer Pro, rubbish. It’s actually a very capable invention. Just one that’s not made to be used for creative writing.

In spite of the inflammatory title and prose, I have to agree in part with this sentiment. Markdown might not have much benefit for the purely creative writer(Fountain is another story though). Writing in plain text will not make you more creative than writing in rich text.

But, to me general writing encompasses more than creative writing. When I write I want to be able to define headings, bullet points, lists and footnotes quickly.

Hewson misses the point by disparaging the time it takes to type markup for bold and italics…


Most Markdown editors do actually format text too. So you get the italic styling and the marks as well. Plus, if you type out the marks instead of using keyboard shortcuts, you do more work for some — four keystrokes for bold and six for bold italic, against two and four keyboard combinations. And if you’re using keyboard combinations… what’s the difference anyway? You might as well be in a real text editor such as Scrivener or Word.

Why is it better to write in Markdown than using the standard formatting shortcuts we’ve all learned over the years? No really… why?

If all I wanted to do was bold and italics , Markdown would be overkill. This is where a markup language outshines WYSIWYG. I can define these things much quicker with markup rather than a laborious trip to the menu bar to find some obscure item to accomplish the task.

I suppose I would eventually learn the keyboard shortcuts for that particular editor to learn footnotes etc… but with markdown, I can use my knowledge in any text editor without having to worry about program specific keyboard shortcuts. I can also write using my iPad without having to worry about syncing issues or being tied once again to one specific editor.

Cool factor

The trouble is fashion — and nothing else — has now dictated that it’s cool to use Markdown as a general word processor too. That stripping out conventional text formatting — the kind you see in uncool but universal apps such as Microsoft Word — somehow unlocks the creative process by removing the supposed distraction of WYSIWYG.

I do not use markdown because it it “cool”. I use it for it speed, consistency and ubiquity. For me this means the ability to use multiple editors for the same text. Markup is faster that a trip to the menu bar and if there is a problem with formatting, I can see where things have gone wrong and correct them as opposed to madly deleting unseen returns and hoping for the best.

Rich Text

Books are read in rich text — and for most of us that’s surely how they’re best written.
And when you come to deliver your manuscript to an agent or a publisher they will, I promise, shriek if you go all geek on them and say you’d like to deliver it in any other format than Word. So if you write in Markdown you have to export it to rich text anyway.

Sometimes, I like to write in one font and print in another. Some fonts just look better on the screen. Markdown makes the option available. To be fair so do good text editors like Scrivener.

I have never submitted anything to a publisher, but markdown to rich text conversion very easy, using any competent markdown editor. In addition you have the option of exporting to Latex, Word, ePub, Open Office etc…

Writing in plain text will not improve your creativity. But, I think that assuming

Markdown was never meant as a replacement for an industrial strength word processor. It’s a superb minimal markup language for people dealing in computer code or writing for the web

is too narrow a focus. Markdown has great application for general writing. I suspect that most people do not need the bloat (power?) of MS word for their day to day writing.

I suspect I am on the losing end of the argument because WYSIWYG makes things look like typing on paper. There is more of a learning curve initially with Markdown, but what you have to learn is some basic syntax. The biggest stumbling block is wrapping your head around markup as opposed to WYSIWYG.

I can write things faster in markdown than in a WYSIWYG editor because I do not have to rely on style to define headings, bullet points or footnotes. The words I type are potentially readable for generations because they are in plain text( I am not dependent on MS Word maintaining backward compatibility). If I write in markdown, I am not restricted to an editor, device or operating system and I do not have compatibility issues.

Markdown has application outside of writing for the web in spite of what Hewson contends. If you are interested some great applications that are useful are:

Transcribing Audio

The problem

I have been trying to transcribe an extended interview. It had been annoying, playing ,stopping and transcribing. Then “rewinding “to the parts that I missed . The constant shifting from keyboard to mouse was slow, repetitive and annoying.

The solution

The solution was using VLC, which has keyboard control. The second step was using keyboard maestro to configure keys for playback,rewind and fast forward. This way I can control VLC without having to switch fous to it.

I can now, play the file, pause and continue my dictation or transcribing without having to touch the mouse or switch focus to VLC.

Lee Valley Tools

We visited Lee Valley Tools yesterday. It is a shop that specializes in woodworking instrument’s and gardening. It reminded me of the old Consumers Distribiting stores, with its catalog based ordering. You had to look in the catalog, write down the product numbers, and take it to the counter for the person to check to see if they had it in stock.

I liked the atmosphere of the store. The first thing we saw was a pumpkin carver and several carved pumpkins. There were no sales people asking if we had found what we were looking for.

Best of all there was nobody under 40 on staff.

Search for the Perfect (Homemade) Pizza

The quest for the perfect homemade pizza has taken
a few years. The home made crust that I had been making were sadly
too hard. For a few years we made do with pre-made crusts from
Superstore. This was okay and better than any frozen pizzas, but
still not satisfactory. Then I found this


  • 1 cup warm water
  • 1
    Tablespoon olive oil or melted butter
  • 2
    Tablespoon Sucanat (or granulated sweetener of your choice)-I use
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 Tablespoon dry active yeast
  • 1/2
    teaspoon each of basil, oregano, and garlic powder (optional, but
    make for an even more flavorful crust)
  • 2 3/4
    cups flour (see note above. If using 100% whole wheat, try adding a
    pinch of citric acid and/or ginger to help soften the


This was a great
start but my first attempt was less than spectacular. I had mixed
all the ingredients in the bread machine. Once I began hand mixing,
I realized that the amount of flour that was called for was too
much. For whatever reason if I followed the recommended amounts of
flour for any baking recipe , I would get a hard unyielding dough.
By putting in 25 % less flour I would get a softer more pliable
dough. I suspect this has something do do with the hard water or
our altitude.(In Edmonton ).

Mix the the
yeast,sugar and warm water in a bowl and let it sit for 10 minutes.
I consider the water to be warm if it is slightly uncomfortable to
my finger but I am able to tolerate it. Mix one cup of flour at a
time. After 2 cups, I then add flour slowly(a sprinkle at a time)
to achieve a soft, pliable , but not sticky dough. Knead the dough for 8 minutes. I let the dough
sit for 1–2 hours before rolling.

Toppings and Pizza Sauce

I find that
cooking the red bell pepers and mushrooms before they are baked
prevents the pizza from getting soggy.


p>The pizza
sauce is the most versatile component of the whole recipe. I use
tomato paste as a base. A small can is usually sufficient for one
pizza. I add a teaspoon of vidaloo
, some pepper and mix well. I used to like adding a
small amount of jerk
seasoning to the mix, but it makes for a spicy pizza. l will add
this again once our son is older.


Oil both sides of the pizza
with olive oil(unless you are using a pizza stone), then bake at
400 for 10 minutes. Put, tomato paste mix, with precooked toppings
, raw onions, and garlic, and grated cheese on the partially baked
pizza . Then bake at 375 for 10–12 minutes.

Michelin Defender Sidewall Cracks

On Monday I discovered that my front right tire was completely flat. I had bought 4 Michelin Defender tires only a year ago. No big deal I thought, probably a nail or something big. When I took the tire in, they found sidewall cracks all around the tire and rubber bits inside.

I was not pleased to discover this as it seems to be an issue with the tire construction rather than a random accident. The tires have handled well, even in the winter and I was pleased with the mileage during the summer. Maybe this was just a freak manufacturing defect. Unfortuneately, other people have run into similar problems.

The good thing was that the defective tire was prorated, so the new one only cost $16. But, I hate the thought of the same thing happening with all the other tires.


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