Government, energy & environment

The process of prediction

Why do we often make such a mess of predicting the future? Surely, as Thomas Jefferson said, ‘ History, by apprising (people) of the past, will enable them to judge of the future: it will avail them of the experience of other times and nations’. In short, by looking at the past we can take a pretty good guess at the future. Moreover, thinking about the future is a necessity because everything we do, every decision we make in our daily lives is in some way based upon conscious or unconscious assumptions about the future. A recent issue of the Harvard Internal Review (Back to the future: predicting the present) investigated why some predictions come true while others seem ridiculous with the benefit of hindsight. Contributors to the issue include Harvard Professor Marshall Goldman, who correctly predicted the collapse of the Soviet Union. Other contributors include Professor Kent Calder (John Hopkins University), who predicted how Japan’s institutions would hold back economic development and Kyung-Won Kim, a former South Korean Ambassador, who incorrectly predicted the collapse of North Korea. Perhaps the most interesting article is by Professor Donald W. White (New York University) about whether the US is a rising or a declining empire.
Ref: Harvard International Review (US) Fall 2005, ‘The power of foresight’
Search words: prediction, foresight, scenarios

Boy brains versus girl brains

Two of the biggest issues in education at the moment seem to be how to teach boys and how to get more men into the teaching profession. Maybe the two are linked. Thirty years ago the problem was how to teach girls and 58% of undergraduate students in the US were male. Now it’s 44% and boys are failing across almost every benchmark. But again, maybe the benchmarks (the continual testing for narrowly-defined outcomes) are part of the problem too. Another issue that affects boys is that physical education and sports are becoming less common due to everything from high land values (smaller outside areas) to lawsuits (parents that withdraw their children from ‘tough’ sports). Again, thirty years ago scientists argued that the differences between boys and girls were largely a result of nurture (socialisation). These days most scientists think that behaviour is a result of chemistry (ie, it’s hard wired). So if boys are biologically and psychologically different from girls, so why teach them together? This is an old idea that is back in vogue – along with male mentoring. Indeed, one of the best indicators of whether a boy will fail or succeed in school is whether there is a father – or father figure – in the boy’s life to learn from. In the US 40% of boys grow up without their biological father thanks to high divorce rates and high levels of single motherhood. On a related note, when Dutch scientists injected males with female hormones their spatial skills declined but their verbal skills rose.
Ref: Time (US) 31 January 2006, ‘The trouble with boys’, P. Tyre
See also Raising Cain by Michael Thompson.
Search words: boys, schools, education

A shift in power

If a recent article in The New York Times is indicative of what’s happening in higher education circles, there is a power shift occurring thanks once again to the Internet.Once upon a time, professors were infallible crucibles of knowledge. Students, if they were worthy at all, were willing vessels into which information flowed. These days students seem to be getting the upper hand. Websites like allow students to evaluate teachers while student blogs often openly discuss private matters about their teachers. Although email has made professors more approachable, it may have also removed the sense of deference or respect.
Ref: New York Times (US) 21 February 2006, ‘To: Subject: why its all about me’, J.D. Glater
Links: cut and paste education
Search words: education, professors, university, students