The Finnish Lesson

For the record, I managed two whole plenaries in AMEE before I was overcome with opinions and had to blog about it.

First things first, AMEE 2017, an International Association for Medical Education, has been a bit of a revelation for me. Sitting in a crowd of 3800 medical educators, when you’ve only been on the job for fourteen months, is a bit overwhelming. But this has been one of the friendliest, most accessible conferences I’ve ever attended. It’s been a delight so far.

But I want to talk about the Finnish Education system here. Our second plenary of the conference was by Pasi Sahlberg, whose talk was titled “What can medical education learn from the Finnish experience of educational change?

First off, it’s important to talk about the conference crush. It’s a thing that happens when you hear another researcher talk and their passion and excitement, and their insight into a topic, just sets your heart racing and before you know it you’re having idle fantasies of working in another research group. It happens to me about ten times a conference. I got a case of it listening to Sahlberg talk about the Finnish education experience. In about 15 years they managed to make massive improvements, and top the global league tables in many arenas of literacy. They improved so much they surprised themselves.

I think Sahlberg will be posting his slides on his website, but I quite enjoy taking my own things away a talk. The highlights to me were:

  • Teaching must be respected (in Finland you need an Masters degree to do any kind of teaching)
  • School systems should not be competitive with one another for ‘clients’
  • Value play and failure
  • The society you teach in needs to have high equity


Whether or not this is what Sahlberg intended to communicate, this is what I walked away with. There are so many questions that come tumbling out when I think about this. For us in Scotland, I really worry about the equity in our educational society. Any three students in my lecture could have paid three different fees to hear the same material. That worries me greatly. With the changing politics of the UK, we risk losing many of our hard-earned gains in society.

Sahlberg presented a slide which talked about ‘Global Educational Reform Movement’, and how it had spread (like a g.e.r.m.) from the UK in the eighties, and moved forward. I can’t be the only person in the room who was thinking about dear old Maggie Thatcher. Whether education must always be political is an interesting question (one opinion, one more). I have always been a political creature, and I believe there is politics in all we do. I found Sahlberg’s slides very convincing that we must create certain kind of systems in order to promote better educational outcomes.

Sahlberg also highlighted the value of play, briefly, and the value of what he called ‘small data’. These are subjects close to my heart. As someone with a big-data PhD, I now spend a lot of time on small data, and explore qualitative ways to evaluate what we do, because sometimes that’s the best method you can use to answer the question you’re interested in. I like these two elements because they are both things that are sometimes frowned upon in the environments I work. When I did my M.Sci, I had this feeling that I wasn’t allowed to get emotional about the animals, I wasn’t allowed to have fun in my job. Where did this come from? No one ever told me this, but it was part of my culture nonetheless. I still struggle a little with this.

This blog is called ‘Fluffy Sciences’ because I want to kick back against the ideas that ‘soft’ things, play, small data, feelings, are less valuable. What we do is massively complicated, asking questions like “how do we change a whole community in order to improve our education”, and not recognising how valuable that is results in any old person doing teaching, being given no support, and students who are treated as commodities, not people.

Here at AMEE, it’s incredibly empowering to be around so many people who recognise the importance of education research. Let’s hope that we can all take that confidence back with us to our schools as a beacon.


Academics Supporting Academics

How can we support each other in science?

If you hang out in the academic circles of Twitter or the blogosphere[1] you’ll find many frightening stories about the cutthroat and ruthless nature of the world’s self-appointed thinkers. Bullying in academia has its own Wiki page (don’t be too shocked, academia is also an industry that hosts regular edit-a-thons of Wikipedia), and is frequently the topic of thinkpieces in your favourite left-leaning media (again, don’t be too surprised, we’re also an industry that writes for a living).

Bullying in academia is a problem, and early career researchers are frequently left unsupported. But this is not the only story. I’ve heard tales from my own university that make my skin crawl, but I think it’s equally important to highlight when things work well. I have always been incredibly lucky to work in supportive teams, and I’d like to think I help to support my colleagues, so if you want to change the culture of your academic workplace, here are the things that work for me:

1. Ask for help

SRUC recently hosted Temple Grandin for a series of talks, and I was invited to talk about my research as part of an early career day. I’m not the kind of person who gets nervous about talking, but presenting your research, that you’ve just written a book on, to one of science’s biggest characters is not a normal kind of talk.

I asked for help.

My colleague, Jess Martin, pictured to my left in this Tweet, sat with me as we flicked through my slides. She gave me some brilliant advice on my slides, and then she gave me some tips for coping with nerves during presentations. I think it’s important to point out that these are skills I have, I win competitions (and book deals) on these skills, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need help sometimes. As academics we like to  believe we are experts, that we have irreplaceable skills. If we don’t believe this then everyone is our competition . . .

Here’s the thing, every woman in that photo could do my job better than me if they put their mind to it. We are a strong team, not when we scrabble for funding scraps, but when we sit down together to see where we can learn from one another.


2. Acknowledge your colleagues

She won’t thank me but I want to call Jess out specifically here. Jess is one of these people who will always have time to help you if you ask for it. Jess also uses peoples names.

In a meeting, when Jess wants to echo someone’s idea she says “Jill’s point was a good one…”. I’ve started trying to do the same. “I agree with Bob”, “I missed what Alice said, can you say it again?”

I often find myself in meetings where there is a spread of paygrades around the table. You and your fellow early career researchers will not be on the radar until you all start speaking about your achievements. Don’t push your own agenda at the expense of others. When Bob makes a good point, tell people it was Bob’s idea.


3. Think about wellbeing

I have another set of colleagues, Kirsty Hughes, Sharon Boyd and Jessie Paterson, who are very engaged with workplace wellbeing. They organise various sessions to get us thinking about things other than work. I’m going to be talking about video games for my team later this month. They’re not mandatory, but they’re there. Just before Christmas my boss was teasing me for me affection for glitter as we made some Christmas cards, and then we pondered our approach to one of my current projects.

Good bosses are very important here, and another place where I’ve always been incredibly fortunate. But even if you don’t have a supportive boss, think about how you and your colleagues interact. Working in Scotland my colleagues and I are big fans of the pub debrief, but there’s plenty to be said for walk-and-talks out in nature, for crafting sessions and opportunities to explore hobbies.

Hobbies teach skills you can bring into the workplace, my photography and videogaming are both things I can use in my role, but that’s not the real gain here. Work shouldn’t make you sick. It’s as simple as that.


4. Go home!

Don’t be part of the culture that normalises sleeping under your desk. Go home at a reasonable time. If you are sending an email to a colleague and you see their out of office is on, it’s very easy to delay an email so it gets sent when they’re back, and it takes very little extra effort on your part. Turn off email notifications on your phone, turn off your inbox’s ability to pop up every time a new email hits your inbox. If you have a short question why not visit your colleague’s office, instead of sending an email?

Don’t fall into the trap of saying “this is how it was for me, this is how it’ll be for my students”. I hope the future generation has a better life than ours.


5. Reflect on feedback

This is the one I find most challenging. I like to think of myself as amazing at all times, but I’m not. I do things wrong, I lack several skills, I have a long way to go. I found my Higher Education Academy application to be a revelation in this sense. I still struggle to take feedback on board, but I like to think I’m getting there.

Trying to hear feedback as about the work, and not about me, is not easy. On the whole academics are good at things and don’t like failing, but our work is always about failing. You’re never going to answer that question perfectly, you’re never going to be perfect. Let yourself be messy, let yourself fail, give yourself space to grow. How else will you know when you need to go to your colleagues for help, or when it’s time to stop bashing your head off the keyboard and go for a walk?

Self-reflection isn’t easy, but there needs to be a lot more of it in science.

Fluffy Friday – Growing Up

My radiator exploded tonight. Which is a convoluted lead in to the Syrian refugee crisis.

I didn’t intend on writing this post. I intended on spending tonight doing some fancy things for our upcoming MOOC. As it was a bit chilly, I put the new radiators on high and sat down to keep designing thumbnails . . . until hot water started spraying out the top of the radiator.

A few frantic googles told me what I’d already guessed, turn off the radiator and the boiler, and I phoned my amazing installation company to get their voicemail. They called me back immediately, on a Friday evening as well, and promised to be over soon.

I waited for the engineer, anxious and upset. This was so unfair, I thought, what have I done to deserve hot water spewing all over my floor? And then the engineer arrived, and very kindly completely turned my radiator off, restarted my boiler, and drained the broken radiator. This wasn’t the engineer’s radiator, or their installation, this was entirely their kindness showing up on a Friday evening to do something that any self respecting adult should have been able to figure out for herself. They calmed me down and reassured me, promised to get in touch after the weekend.

And I was left with the strange realisation that my whole life I have been coddled and protected, lived in a world where hard work is rewarded with help, and where fairness and justness matters.

The refugees fleeing Syria have tried everything they can, and there is no fair reward, no kindness shown to them. My greatest upset today, something that brought me close to tears, was having some hot water stain my carpet. The strength of my emotional reaction to a silly radiator problem is shameful, when children are drowning trying to escape a war.

I have no reference for how these people are feeling. My personal disaster scale is so completely skewed to the other side that their experience is almost infinitely impossible for me to grasp.

The Guardian has a practical advice list. I will write my MP. One of my colleagues is collecting resources to donate. But I feel very sober today as I wonder if there’s a Syrian postdoc out there, wishing that the worst problem in her life is a leaky radiator.

Fox Hunting in British Politics

Today, the UK’s House of Commons was supposed to vote on relaxing the fox hunting with hounds ban in England and Wales. But they’re not going to. If you’re not a citizen of the United Kingdom (and even if you are) you might be very confused by the situation.

The United Kingdom is composed of several countries, check out C. G. P. Grey’s video for a very good explanation of terms. A proportion of these countries want to be independent. Recently, 45% of the Scottish electorate wanted to become independent, which manifested itself in a massive swelling of the ranks of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) elected to the United Kingdom’s government of Westminster.

Before we go further, I think I have to say something about my own voting here. I don’t make a secret of my political affiliation and you could find out without much difficulty, but in my role as communicator/educator on this blog, I want to present you with the science and let you make up your own opinion. Although I’m open to hearing if you think I should make my affiliations public in relation to this post.

The right wing conservative government therefore only has one supporter in Scotland, an MP from the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party.  In Scotland there is also a Labour MP who opposes the majority conservative UK government but still supports the union. And there is also one Liberal Democrat MP who outright lied about the SNP party’s leader and who is currently being sued by his constituents.

This means that 56 of the 59 Scottish seats in Westminster are held by a party who want independence from the rest of the UK and who are there to increase devolved powers (the SNP believes that independence can only come from a mandate set by Scotland’s devolved parliament, not from Westminster – the impetus for independence must come from the Scottish voters.). But what does any of this have to do with animal welfare? For this I should direct you towards another YouTube video:

For some reason, possibly because we still live in what is technically a theocracy, class matters in the United Kingdom’s politics. The conservatives are the party for the upper class, and the upper class like to go fox hunting. So despite the fact that fox hunting with hounds (note this terminology, because you won’t hear it in much of the media) has been banned in England and Wales by the Hunting Act in 2004. In Scotland, similar legislation had been in place since 2002. The Conservatives wanted to relax this ban to allow foxes to be pursued by a pack of hounds, in essence to allow fox hunting as we think of it to happen again.

Although foxes in Scotland were never at risk (although our legislation is not without criticism), the SNP finally decided they would vote on this matter, and their vote would not be in favour of relaxing the ban. So we have a party which wants independence voting on an issue which does not affect their constituents (although their constituents have very strong feelings about the issue, because foxes are cute, presumably, or more cynically: because the average Scottish voter has no love of the aristocracy and hunting). And Nicola Sturgeon, the party’s leader, said the choice to vote on this issue was made, in part, to jerk the leash of the Conservative government and remind them how much power the SNP has.

Here’s the thing – it’s taken 600 words to summarise the political situation around this lack of a vote, but this is no victory for animal welfare. Nowhere in those 600 words do we consider the scientific evidence behind fox hunting. So here it is:

Hunting with hounds does not control fox populations (Rushton et al, 2006). In fact, fox numbers may increase (Lozano et al, 2013). Managing foxes as an agricultural pest needs to be done in a sustainable, long-term model covering large areas (McLeod et al, 2010). To top it off, farmers aren’t really convinced that foxes are an agricultural pest (Baker and Mcdonald, 2001) and only tolerate hunting-with-hounds that happens on their land. Pursuit hunting is not humane, and the method of death that hounds enact on hunting is not humane either. The ban is resisted because it is spoiling peoples’ fun (Marvin, 2007). Even though drag hunting is still supported and allowed, but somehow is less fun than smearing blood on one another.

We have no scientific evidence supporting fox hunting with hounds other than the fact that a very small, but very rich segment of the population want to do it occasionally and they’re slightly put out when they don’t get a chance. It’s not an effective pest control method and it’s not a humane death. Of all the issues to draw a line in the sand on, we’ve chosen one where a utilitarian would come to a clear conclusion after reviewing the scientific evidence. We’ve chosen an issue where it’s more important to posture about on what side of Hadrian’s Wall we come down on, than to review the scientific evidence.

Learning Objects and Politics

I’m a big fan of learning objects, as I’m sure we can probably all agree on. They’re a great way to teach, giving the user a lot of flexibility and the ones that give a result you can share online are particularly cool.

In Scotland and the rest of the UK we have a general election coming up. I’ve seen some great learning objects in the lead up:

The BBC’s Create Your Own Manifesto

What works about this one is the roleplay aspect. If you were one of these waffling politicians, how would you waffle? I love the puzzle piece aspect to it and the way you can pick and choose your key issues. Makes it a very flexible object that you can take a lot of time over, or just fly through if you want to see where various parties stand on the issues that matter to you.

Unlock Democracy’s Vote Match

This is more like a standard ‘personality test’ style quiz, and it’s the sharing aspect that really works, as well as the level of detail they’ve gone into. Splitting the quiz into the four home nations is so important in this post-devolution, post-referendum world. It immediately saves people from turning off, but still allows the full range of political views to be expressed. I particularly like the neutrality in this one (not that you’d expect anything less from Unlock Democracy). Unfortunately you are required to give an email address and they do collect data on you.

ThoughtPlay’s Who Should You Vote For?

This is like a simplified version of Unlock Democracy’s LO, and I do think it’s simplification hurts it’s appeal. It’s not as glossy or good looking as the others, and the unwieldy ‘Choose England vs Scotland’ drop down menu is an irritant. That being said, their results do reflect your personal politics (even if at the expense of any tactical voting you have in mind).

As for accuracy, I felt the pick-and-mix BBC option expressed my feelings best of all, Vote Match got something VERY wrong, or perhaps I should have added another party to the “I would never vote for this party” line up, and one thing I felt all three lacked was the element of trust. How much do you trust the politicians?


And then as a bonus extra, the BBC have a ‘Form Your Own Coalition

Depending on random (within a margin) election results, you can choose your own coalition government. Almost all options equally depressing!


All in all, though, it’s nice to see learning objects get out there. I always use the BBC as an example of good practice in producing learning objects, and if there’s any topic that needs being made accessible, it’s politics!