Ian Hamilton Finlay at Kettle’s Yard

This weekend I renewed my membership of the Botanic Garden, just in time for today’s merciless snowstorm. I may give it a couple of days. From February, however, it will possible to get a preview of spring, as the Orchid Festival gets under way in the glasshouses. The glasshouses are pretty warm year round, even in a snowstorm. This year’s festival has displays of orchids dotted throughout the tropical house, with a focus on plant-insect pollination relationships.

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It’s a bit early to get out in the garden much, but in addition to the orchids in the glasshouses, other surrogates are available, notably an exhibition of the poetry and art of Scottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006) at Kettle’s Yard. Finlay, who enjoyed a long friendship and correspondence with the originator of Kettle’s Yard, Jim Ede (hence the exhibition), suffered badly from agoraphobia, the solution to which was the making of a garden in the Pentland Hills in Scotland, a garden which was also a sort of poetic text, containing numerous lapidary inscriptions, allegorical features, classical allusion, and so on, as explained by Finlay’s son in this short film for the Tate Galleries.

The exhibition at Kettle’s Yard runs until 1st March. Read a review of the exhibition here.

The State of Critical Thinking at OISE

We had our second training day yesterday. Madge McClary talked about critical thinking with particular reference to the IELTS exam. Here she is, in full critical-thinking mode:

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If I’m honest I’m not too sure what distinguishes critical thinking from, well, thinking. I understand that it’s a thing. What sort of a thing is less clear to me. The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking (!) supplies a juicy list of cognitive terms by way of definition, stating that critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skilfully conceptualising, analysing, synthesising, applying and/or evaluating information generated by or gathered from observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication as a guide to belief or action, which I suppose fairly explicitly discludes fantasising, daydreaming, guessing, bullshitting, improvising, winging it, and cramming as valid forms of intellectual discipline.

Unfortunately for Madge, there’s little better calculated to subdue my active and skilful process of conceptualising etc. than a ham and cheese roll and a slack handful of mini-eggs. Called upon to evaluate certain exercises designed to sharpen the critical edge of our students’ minds, Erica (my pair-work partner) and I mostly complained about the state of our eyes and I told an irrelevant anecdote about how a computer scientist friend of mine couldn’t do spatial rotations in his head. It’s what’s called a back-of-the-bus mentality, I’m sorry to report. But there you have it. I’m no doubt too far gone to reverse the decline of my skillful faculties, and was duly stymied by the reminder that in order to impart these valuable cognitive assets to our students we must first be in possession of them ourselves. Seems like mine will have to get by without.

Role Play

One of our teachers, Alice Copello, gave an illuminating presentation yesterday on a novel way of incorporating role play into lessons, especially Business English lessons – have the students write them themselves. Here she is, in full swing:

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The procedure is simple enough – each student in a group designs a role-play of a meeting (usually) which reflects their own business requirements; then the group plays them out one by one, each taking a designated role.

It’s a fascinating idea, with advantages of relevance and personal investment for the students, and a good illustration of how co-operative group learning is more than the sum of its parts (not a quarter as useful, for example, as an hour of tutorial lesson).

And Alice’s presentation, as it happens, was a model of its kind: succinct, clear, relaxed and informative.

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It sometimes strikes me as surprising that role play draws out the best in most students – surprising, because it is manifestly a form of play, the sort of thing ambitious business people leave behind aged 11, you would imagine. But not so. Very few students won’t throw themselves in, with just a little encouragement. In part, I think, this is because there is often a competitive edge to a role play on a Business English course. You have to negotiate a better price, win more of your agenda. We talk about ‘win-win’, and, oddly, while that may be a real goal in the real world, in the world of role play it is often rapidly put to one side.

Another reason of course is that it is, to repeat, a form of play. Ultimately, everything that happens in a language classroom, virtually every exchange, is a form of play. People are here to play. In the best cases, the experience of being away from home and the office is not just generally liberating, or relaxing, or whatever it is; it is an indulgence of the play instinct. When you play, you are relaxed, imaginative, engaged.

And every teacher knows how important that is.

Small Museums and Mammoth Hair

I was talking to one of our students yesterday about museums to visit in her home town. Anna is from Lviv in Ukraine, and she mentioned a small corner house on the market square, the Museum of Pharmacy, which it seems was itself a pharmacy from the early eighteenth century and is now preserved in something like its original condition.

"Аптека музей" by ​Russian Wikipedia user Водник. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:%D0%90%D0%BF%D1%82%D0%B5%D0%BA%D0%B0_%D0%BC%D1%83%D0%B7%D0%B5%D0%B9.jpg#mediaviewer/File:%D0%90%D0%BF%D1%82%D0%B5%D0%BA%D0%B0_%D0%BC%D1%83%D0%B7%D0%B5%D0%B9.jpg

“Аптека музей” by ​Russian Wikipedia user Водник. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It is a small museum, evidently, but not the less interesting for that; in fact I later discussed the National Gallery and the British Museum with another student, Janette, who had been visiting London for the first time, and we agreed that one of the advantages of free museum entry is that you don’t have to tackle a whole vast collection in one go.

Which is not to say that small musuems do not have large collections. In fact I like the idea that some museum collections are so vast and improbable that the curators are constantly surprised by objects they ‘find’, as happened recently in the Norris Museum in St. Ives, near Cambridge, where an envelope has come to light containing a lock of mammoth hair, purloined, as the enveolope confesses, from a museum in St. Petersburg. The hair has been confirmed as mammoth, and will now form the centrepiece of a small exhibition at the museum.

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I confess I’ve never been to St. Ives, even though it is only 12 miles from Cambridge, so cannot recommend a visit, as such; however, apart from the Norris Museum and its mammoth hair, three aspects of the town recommend themselves. In the first place, you can get there on the guided busway – perhaps not as exciting an experience as it sounds, but still, something new. Secondly, there is the medieval bridge with the chancel chapel mid-way along it – one of only four in the country (the others being in Rotherham, Wakefield, and Bradford-on-Avon). And finally, there is the church, which still another of our students did in fact visit, and professed very satisfactory. So, small town, small museum, medium-sized day out. I should write their advertising copy.

Read about the mammoth hair here

Bird Life, Human Life

The important news over the weekend was that the RSPB conducted its annual survey of garden birds, wherein householders are encouraged to sit and look out at their back gardens for an hour and record all of the birds that alight in that time.

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Originally I downloaded the app for my children, thinking we might manage an equitably division of the hour. But in the event I was left to get on with on my own. I managed to chose an inauspicious hour – the last hour of daylight on Sunday, with the sun setting behind my garden so that all the birds I saw were in silhouette; not that there was much going on.

My list ran as follows: 16 sparrows, 3 blackbirds, 5 starlings, 4 wood pigeon (two of which didn’t move almost the entire hour; I think they were roosting or dead, but there wasn’t a field on the form for that), 3 collared doves, 1 song thrush, 1 magpie, 1 jay.  I think the sparrows were the same little gaggle of three or four just doing their rounds. I suppose the RSPB has algorithms to account for that. I also spotted two cats (belonging to the neighbour); perhaps they have algorithms for that too. And at one point I saw about twenty starlings flying around over my garden, and found myself hoping they didn’t land in my chestnut tree. I don’t suppose they have an algorithm for laziness.

Other than that it was a stress-free hour. To be honest, an hour spent sitting in a chair looking out at the garden is not the worst way I can think of to spend my time. I got a little bit of idle thinking done, listened to some music, and learnt how to tell a dunnock from a sparrow (all in the beak, evidently).

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In other news, Cambridge United held Manchester United to a draw on Friday, outplaying them for long periods in the first half. They will now go back to Old Trafford, the soi-disant Theatre of Dreams, for a replay. The new even made the New York Times (here).

Football and Flint

So tonight the big news is the arrival of Manchester United. You couldn’t move at my sons’ school for Cambridge United scarves yesterday (and the odd half-and-half). Here, Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal assesses his team’s chances. He sounds a bit fearful if you ask me.

These are the games that people remember. I was visited a few years ago by a financial representative of some bank or other who was advising on pensions or mortgages or something probably quite important; but we mostly just talked about football, and about the time Chelsea sent a team up to play Cambridge United pre-season (in 1970, I think) as part of the deal that took Iain Hutchinson to Chelsea, from Cambridge. No doubt he will be at the game tonight. 

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For those who don’t get football, it is worth recalling that for countless years there was no such thing. Who knows how primitive hominids amused themselves? Perhaps amusement, per se, is a response to our lack of precariousness – we have no daily danger to confront, no regular critical shortfall of food, no rival tribes to beat off, no predatory big cats. You have to assume that for most of hominid history all energy was directed towards some end or other.

This is not to say that there would not have been subtle satisfactions, beyond the satisfaction of another meal provided, another winter seen out. Take, for example, flint knapping, which has always struck me as the root of all sculptural process – the satisfaction of knocking lumps off and shaping and sharpening stone must be profound when your survival depends on it. Here a colourful Will Lord demonstrates how to make an arrowhead from flint.

For the curious and the football averse, there is a wide collection of flint objects and other prehistoric implements at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, including flints from the Olduvai Gorge discovered by Louis Leakie, some of the oldest human tools in existence.

Work Experience at Midsummer House

The school has arranged for one of our current students, Ko-Hsin Chen (Ula), to get some work experience at Cambridge’s only two-star Michelin restaurant, the inestimable Midsummer House. Ula is studying the culinary arts in Taiwan, and will now get the chance to put her skills to the test in a rather daunting way, with two days in the Midsummer House kitchens.

She is not the first student we have put in a professional kitchen. Regular readers will recall that last year Kelly and Stephen were invited to work for a service at Alimentum, Cambridge’s other Michelin-starred establishment which is just over the Hill’s Road Bridge from the school (read about it here). They must have done well – Stephen is now back working full-time at Alimentum. Here he is with Kelly and Franck, head chef at La Maison du Steak, which they also visited.

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The professional kitchen is at the highest level a peculiarly well-organised, well-drilled work place. It can however get a bit sweary, as the sous-chef at Alimentum confided to OISE teacher Sally Guyer last year, on the occasion of Stephen and Kelly’s visit.

Swearing is an odd linguistic function, associated with different, let us say more primitive, brain areas from regular language processing. On one occasion in Rome when I got knocked off my bicycle in the Viale Trastevere, I found myself sitting in the middle of the road swearing at a mystified Roman lady in lively English, even though I was pretty proficient in Italian. Only when I calmed down a touch did it occur to me that no one could understand what I was saying (although they could get the gist, I suppose); and I switched to Italian. And then apologised.