Testing times

Does your device of choice bend under 100lbs of pressure? Now is the time to find out, in the definitive bend-or-break test.


We don’t test our students to destruction at OISE. But we do from time to time test them beyond their limit of comfort – in the entry test, specifically, which is designed to see, well, how bendable they are.

Level testing is not like other testing: it is meant to be a chromatography of students, a ranking of a certain sort of knowledge that is likely, but not certain, to correlate with a certain level of competence – in other words, if you can successfully choose from an increasingly arcane set of alternative sentence completions, you can probably get by at speaking and understand as well. To repeat, this is only a putative correlation, something to start from, a little data.

But there are always surprises. Some people are late developers when it comes to fluency, for example; and these individuals often know the most, the soonest. Many years ago I taught a very clever Italian man to a successful Proficiency examination, but he never seemed to understand a word I said at the first go round; and, nice though he was, he was almost impossible to have a conversation with.

Others, meanwhile, do very well with very little. My students will be tired of hearing about the funniest man I ever met, who had an English vocabulary of 100 words and somehow managed to keep an entire room of native speakers in tears of laughter for twenty minutes with a story, if I remember, about how he came to lose his trousers.

Not that he didn’t have room for improvement, of course. But a level test necessarily suffers from a need to universalise knowledge: all items tested, it is supposed, are of the same value to everyone; accuracy and complexity are more important than rapidity and approximate clarity. You can make anyone bend if you apply the pressure in the right (or wrong) place, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Everyone has limits, but to understand accurately or even more or less where those limits start and end, it is necessary, in the end, actually to do something.


Language Study

I find the idea of having to complete my education in a foreign language slightly daunting. I was once given a teach-yourself Russian course in Italian, and I used it for a few months. No doubt it exercised unusual parts of my brain, but I didn’t learn much Russian.

But for many it is a matter of routine. One of my students, for example, has entered herself for a three-year course of self study leading to a qualification in investment banking. The course is internationally recognised, and consists of three modules, for want of a better word, each of which concludes with a lengthy examination (my student told me from memory that the first examination lasts six hours).

Looks great. Unfortunately, there’s no need to go to New York as part of the course. Everything is done at a distance, and through accredited test centres.

But the examination is conducted in English. I had another student last year who was working on an eMBA in Beijing, and even on that exclusively Chinese course there were segments in Oxford (at the Said Business School) and a fair bit of required reading in English.

And it’s not only English. I had an American friend in Rome many years ago who was studying German so that he could go to Berlin and study Russian. He now lives in Frankfurt and works for the German tax office. Oh, and he’s married to a Russian woman.

The list goes on. I like to think that the net effect of all these international courses in English (or in other languages) is that the world is getting a bit smarter all the time. Smarter, or perhaps just more confused. But it amounts to the same thing.


Bibles, Polyglots, and Cambridge

I posted yesterday a brief introduction to the Cambridge University Press, and noted a clutch of scholars, scientists and poets of world renown whose work has been printed by it; but I did not mention the Press’s – and more importantly, Cambridge University’s – central role in the translation and printing of perhaps the most influential book in the English language, the King James (Authorised) Version of the Bible. But I will now.


The King James’ Bible of 1611 was not the first English translation – there had been translations by followers of Wycliffe in the late 14th century, and by Tyndale and the Geneva exiles in the sixteenth, each of which served as the basis for the next. So too the King James’ version was not translated afresh, but was based on the extant official Elizabethan version, known as the Bishop’s Bible (itself based on Tyndale and the Geneva Bible); and it was translated – or put together – by committee: two in Westminster, two in Oxford, and two in Cambridge: a total of 47 scholars, all of them (bar one) churchmen.

The Cambridge committees were responsible for the Old Testament from I Chronicles to the Song of Solomon, and for the Apocrypha; their members were drawn from several colleges, notably Trinity, Jesus, Emmanuel (that noted hotbed of Puritan sentiment), John’s and Christ’s.

The Bible was first printed by the King’s printers in London in 1611, but Oxford and Cambridge soon asserted their right to print various revised versions, Cambridge’s first coming in 1629.


The translation of the Bible, that maze of ancient languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, overlain by the early Latin versions – the so-called Vulgate) is a notoriously thorny issue, one which resolved itself in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries into a variety of scholar’s bible known as the Polyglot bibles – bibles printed in multiple tongues.

I saw one such in Antwerp a few years back at the Plantin Press – it presents the whole text of both testaments in Hebrew and Greek with facing Latin translations, and underneath further translations into Aramaic, Syriac (a later London Polyglot (1657) included Persian and Ethiopic for good measure). It is in multiple, huge volumes, and they threw in a couple of dictionaries and grammars just in case.

Learning a language was not to be taken lightly in the sixteenth century.

Here is a page of the earlier, Computensian Polyglot (1552).


Cambridge University Press Museum

I’m a little bit frightened of museums which you can visit by appointment only. Or shops for that matter. I’m worried that you might be followed around, have to make conversation.

But this is a pity, because one of Cambridge’s most interesting, and smallest, museums requires an appointment. It is the museum of the Cambridge University Press.

Some of our students might recognise the Press as the originator of their course books or dictionaries. But the Press does a bit more than that. It was founded by charter of Henry VIII in 1534, and by the end of the century had built a reputation as one of the most reliable printers in Europe. It has continued to operate uninterrupted since its inception, making it the oldest extant publishing house in the world (and the second largest, after Oxford).

The Press is a department of the University of Cambridge, governed by the ‘Syndics’ (a board of 18 senior academics of the university) and as such it is a charitable institution, which funnels some of its profits back into the mother institution. Over the years it has published the works of such luminaries as John Milton, Issac Newton, Willam Harvey, Ernest Rutherford, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

It has a dedicated bookshop at No. 1 Trinity Street, opposite Great St. Mary’s (and the lawn of the Senate House, on which location its first printer’s shop stood) – No. 1 Trinity Street has a been a bookshop of some description continuously since at least 1581, and perhaps as early as 1505.

So I don’t know if I will be going along to the museum any time soon. But it is comforting to know that it is there, and probably always will be.


I posted on Monday on the important subject of doodling, a­nd about how it can boost productivity and prevent distraction – concentrating on a low-level task such as scrawling abstract marks on a sheet of paper is better than the various alternatives, such as daydreaming (cognitively expensive) and, our modern invention, staring at our devices.

...staring at our devices

…staring at our devices

You do not need to look far (on the internet, paradoxically) for articles on the deterioration of our collective and personal attention span. A particularly well-reasoned example was published recently by Clay Shirky, who teaches at NYU on, among other things, the Internet and decentralised communication networks, in which he relates that he now requires students to switch off all devices during his lessons.

He is worried, he says, that multitasking, and device-hopping in particular, create an ‘illusion of competence’. When our minds are whirring from one thing to another we feel energetically in control, as though we had accessed a super-power; but in fact we are processing much less of whatever it is we are dealing with. Studies quoted by Shirky read, for example, as follows:

Hierarchical (blocked) linear regression analyses revealed that using Facebook and texting while doing schoolwork were negatively associated with overall college GPA. Engaging in Facebook use or texting while trying to complete schoolwork may tax students’ capacity for cognitive processing and preclude deeper learning.

And so on. Heavy multi-taskers, we learn, are poor at prioritising (they are “suckers for irrelevancy” according to the authors of one study; “Everything distracts them”). They cannot filter the junk. When they are forced to close the lids of their machines and pocket their phones, their predominant reaction is relief.

What this means for the language classroom I don’t know. But I do know that doing less, focussing on one task, usually achieves more. It doesn’t help to get a grammar refresher when you are trying to hear the difference between minimal pairs of vowels. And it certainly doesn’t help to check your work email when you are trying to internalise some grammatical structure or other.

However, if, beyond our devices, there lies a Nirvana of pure concentration, achievement, success, then there remains the question why we weren’t all living there long before we got our smartphones. Perhaps the devices have adapted themselves to us and our failings, rather than the other way around. Concentration has never been easy.


Nuclear Visit

Visits to nuclear power stations are becoming a regular feature at OISE Cambridge. A week last Friday, Kentaro, who regular readers will remember designs robots for use in nuclear power stations, paid a visit with Richard to the nuclear power station at Sizewell on the Suffolk coast.

IMG_1321 IMG_1318

Kentaro told me that he was curious to see a Westinghouse nuclear power station, since they are rivals to his own company, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. In the event, he was unable to carry out his intended industrial espionage, because visitors are not permitted inside the main generator hall for safety reasons, but he was able to visit the turbine hall, the back-up generators, the steam cooling facility and, needless to say, the visitor centre, where the photographs were taken.



Nuclear power stations are typically found in odd, isolated parts of the countries they help power, and Sizewell B is no exception – the Suffolk coast is flat, eerie, and wild in its way. This is nothing, however, compared with the location Kirk Sorensen was asked to consider  for a thorium reactor while at NASA. Namely, the moon.


Former students (especially tutorial students) may have noticed that I like to doodle. I always have a pen in my hand, I’m always taking notes, so I inevitably doodle. For the most part I doodle abstract shapes – networks and nodes, I suppose, or vaguely architectural structures, sometimes, apparently, sheet music.


Doodles are a picture of my brain on idle, and not necessarily a meaningful one. As often as not I don’t know what the words that come out of my mouth mean, so the likelihood that my doodles have ‘meaning’ is pretty remote.

But they do have a function. Research seems to indicate that doodlers have better retention of aural stimuli – they concentrate better, in other words. Doodling, so it is believed, stops the mind wandering (day-dreaming is far more cognitively expensive). If doodling has a bad reputation (doodlers look bored, idle, foolish) it is poorly earned.

Sometimes I notice my students doodling too. I don’t say anything, but on the whole I encourage it. It means, apart from anything else, that they have a pen in their hands, which to me is at least an emblem of an intention to learn. You don’t see people doodling on an iPad, or a smartphone (unless you count the finger smears), no doubt because digital devices offer other sorts of distraction. But that is a post for another day.

Here then is the doyen of doodlers, Sunni Brown, talking up its myriad benefits.