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Sunday, 28 April 2013

Richard Feynman on the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something

A friend recently introduced me to this wonderful presentation by the great scientist Richard Feynman.  A winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, a member of the Manhattan Project, and outstanding communicator (and bongo player), Feynman is one of those people universally acknowledged to be a "genius".

The focus of this talk, which was part of an interview with the BBC, was science education. This became a recurring theme in Feynman's later life, as he felt that most schooling was at best dreadfully dull, and at worst pointless.  In this case, his concerned can be summarised quite neatly:

"I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something."

It is possible to watch this short clip again and again, and take different lessons from it each time.

Feynman stresses the relative unimportance of names and words in learning, and that is an important lesson for those working in systems that tend to prioritise the superficial aspects of knowledge.

But his story also tells of a teacher (his father) who was willing to admit his own ignorance. And in doing so, inspired his son to go out and learn for himself. Learning was not a matter of remembering, but an adventure!

I think, implicit within this short extract of a conversation between the father and son was an introduction to the nature of science.

“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain … In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.” 

Thanks to Ray Askew coach of the great Invicta Gym for introducing this clip to me.
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Saturday, 20 April 2013

On the Duty of Being a Pain in the Arse

When I recently invited people to share their views on the so-called Olympic legacy, a colleague tweeted that she hoped people would remain optimistic in their responses.  Another respondent worried that sports professionals had a tendency to be too negative about issues like legacy, and maybe it was time we all positive-up!

These comments struck me at the time as extremely revealing, entirely reflecting a certain way of thinking that finds a welcome home in central sports agencies and some national governing bodies in the UK, and sometimes elsewhere.

Perhaps it is a natural response to a policy environment that is so unstable.  Some times we are flush with cash, other times not.  Sometimes that cash is directed into the shiny, beautiful world of elite sport, justified with, let's face it, a series of ludicrous claims about benefits tricking down to the dirty, much less glamorous worlds of community sport and school sport.  At other times, sport is hailed as the new public health prescription.  And then, in the blink of a general election, it changes again.

So 'keep smiling and carry on' has become something of a motto in British sport, much as a sense of humour became a defence against the horrors of bygone Britain.  Who can argue with that?  A certain wilful hopefulness has characterised the sports profession for as long as I have known it.

The only problem arises when this chirpy optimism is incompatible with intelligence.  Positive thinking is a worthy strategy, but it should not be at the expense of reason and evidence.  Just as there is a vital difference between an open mind and a whole in the head, there is a difference between constructive optimism and truth-blindness.  And here lies a bit of a problem for sport in UK, and elsewhere.  Criticism of policy has traditionally been as welcome as a fart in a duvet.

Critics are trouble-makers.  Stirrers.  Awkward questions are spoilers.  One senior sport leader used to publicly condemn the 'yes but' folk who could not just accept new schemes and initiatives without piping up and pointing out their potential problems.  The way these poor fools were described and the laughter of derision they inspired made it perfectly clear that, in this context at least, a critical friend was a contradiction in terms.

No UK government in recent times has sought out expert opinion in sport in any serious or meaningful way.  And this applies whether that expertise lies in Universities, sports agencies or professional associations.  From time to time, and out of a sense of grudging obligation, new policy documents are waved at the professional community, and they are warmly invited to send their comments by last Tuesday.  Generally speaking, the people who run sport for a living are seen as obstacles to be overcome, rather than resources to be tapped.

There are many reasons for this situation.  For example, a great deal of money is invested in even the most small-scale schemes, and perhaps those charged with promoting them feel under pressure to defend them too.  A more plausible explanation is that sport suffers and benefits from being politically sexy.  All sorts of people, including the general public, have views about it.  So any sports policy carries with it expectations both of politics and public opinion.  So, some policies need protecting from criticism because they are bullshit (in the sense I have defined elsewhere in this blog: "The bullshitter does not care if he or she is lying or telling the truth; only whether the statement advances a particular objective.  The bullshitter makes claims to persuade, or sell, or convince.  Whether they are true or not is irrelevant.").

Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s account of the most gifted bullshitter of recent history is helpful because it makes the art more real for us:

“Blair isn’t a liar, not in the sense that most of us are.    That is, most of us have on occasion told untruths, usually to get out of trouble of some kind or another .. but we crucially knew what we were doing .. By contrast, Blair is something different, and far more dangerous: he s not a liar but a man with no grasp at all of the distinction between objective truth and falsehood.”

A more recent example of policy bullshit is Education Secretary Michael Gove's repeated calls to increase the amount of competitive sport in schools.  One clue that this is the case is the fact that it was Mr Gove, himself, who was responsible for undermining one of the most effective competitive school sport structures in the world, when he attacked the PESSCL/PESSYP scheme, and especially the School Sport Coordinators role.  Apart from this, I am willing to bet my liver that Mr Gove has never given school sport a second thought since he was a pupil himself (I assume he failed to make any of the teams, and was forced to watch the matches with the wheezy children with notes from Matron).  But he must say something stirring about competition in schools because he is a Tory minister, and that is the sort of thing they have to say.

Of course, open discussion is not a panacea.  It may be that certain issues are too complex to be laid open to genuine discussion, although I have never come across an instance where this applies in sport or education.  Is the bases of ideas and schemes are made clear to everyone, and open dialogue on any problems or concerns takes place, those with greatest influence can be challenged to justify their views all to change them.  And, of course, it may well be that these ideas turn out to be entirely reasonable. The whole point of open discussion and dialogue is to allow all sides to detect errors and correct them, for the greater good. And also that, where changes need to be made, they must emerge from the discussion, and not be made in advance by those with power or control.

This is so radically different from the model assumed by most public agencies in the UK and elsewhere that it might seem naive. When I have asked why there is so little open consultation before new schemes are finalised, I have been told that it would not be practical, and that special interest groups merely slow-up the process of implementation.  In many cases, the special interest groups contain far more expertise then is held by the government and quasi-government agencies, so this position is clearly ludicrous.  Experts only cause "trouble" if they let errors or inconsistencies or nonsense slip by into practice.

If this is accepted, then we need to think again about the importance of discussion and criticism in public discussions of sport.  Those in control need to reflect a little on their own limitations. The rest of us need to step up and take our responsibilities seriously as active participants in the exchange and improvement of ideas.

And those people who we have been told are the most loyal and most supportive, who stand behind policy no matter what, should be exposed for what they are: freeloaders. There is a large numbers of people and groups in the current climate who have identified that compliance is a safe and secure strategy. There are outraged at criticism of any sort, and imply that those disreputable folk who criticise the creators of policy are not team-players. In fact, the opposite is true. These bland, cowardly individuals add nothing to the quality of public discussions. They contribute nothing to learning, and merely act as anchors, resisting change and progress.

Humans, all humans, make mistakes.  We are fallible.  Criticism is the best way we know to put those errors in check.  So criticism is vital.  It should not be merely tolerated; it should be invited, encouraged, and celebrated.  And those who seek to protect their ideas from criticism should be exposed and condemned.

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Saturday, 13 April 2013

Olympic Fortunes - what has been the legacy of London 2012?

A few weeks ago, I asked fellow travellers in Twittersphere about their views of Olympic Legacy.  This was not just a random act of nosiness, as Sebastian Coe had just been given responsibility for the International Inspirations, which seems to be seen by those in power as an important part of the Legacy programme.

For no very good reason, I decided to turn my little survey into a 'Family Fortunes' style affair, and stopped the poll at 100 responses.  As (depending on your age and nationality) Vernon Kay, Les Dennis, Bob Monkhouse or some large-toothed American TV presenter might say:


It is important to recognise that this is not in any way a scientific study. The aim of the survey was simply to take a snapshot of people's views, and those people formed what researchers called a self-selected sample. In other words, it would be a mistake to assume that the hundred people surveyed here work in any way representative of the population as a whole.

On the other hand, this strong dose of humility ought to be partially balanced against the likelihood that (since the survey was promoted mainly through my Twitter-feed) most respondents worked in or near sport, in one way or another.  So, perhaps they could claim some special insight into the matter.

I lack the computer skills (and inclination) to offer an interactive reveal of the findings.  And maybe that is not necessary and the results are fascinating enough.

The results are what politicians might euphemistically call "disappointing". 65% of respondents claiming that Olympic Legacy commitments have been based is a rather damning report card, although a figure of less than 10% claiming that commitments had been met is possibly even worse!

Respondents were also invited to make a comment about the Olympic Legacy, and a selection of these responses has offered below.  I have decided not to organise them, but rather let them speak for themselves as individual contributions to the debate.

Is it too soon to be able to measure this yet?

Clearly some legacy commitments are quicker to achieve than others, and rightly so, it shouldn't just be a flash in the pan process. Others will take time such add the cycling cross rail development in London. Others will take time to realise success or failure such as the impact on school sport and participation rates. Dispute the gloom mongers we can't judge too soon, whilst she same time those with responsibly at all levels must remain focused on the legacy cause and steadfast in their approach to achieve legacy commitments.

It will take 10 years to make the population level changes, as young people 'inspired' mature and adults inspired stay involved.

Lack of commitment in the run-up to the Games and a lack of imagination.

I feel strongly that the olympic "legacy" has been very much missed. The thrust of Sport england's initatives are currently 14-25 (at best a difficult age group to engage) - we need to make a concerted effort to (re)introduce "sport" in all its forms to primary school children.

The jumping on the back of other programmes is not a London Legacy. These seems to be little, if anything, that has actually been inspired by L2012 rather than programmes that were in operation already that L2012 has given a polish to.

Much of the legacy aspiration is in talking up something that had never been planned properly in order to ensure that it was achieved. It is now simply and mereley government and organisational rhetoric with no substance at all.

The interest was created in the initial aftermarth of the games, where many people had the drive and motivation to be more active, the amount that have carried that on and the reasons behind that are at presently up for discussion. So a kind of half way house. Personally I believe that as well as what hasdn't been done, what has and what has been effective should be extended / researched.

Issue is twofold - people see the legacy as creating new gold medal winners whilst others see it as a way to address the health of the nation. If the health of the nation was improved dramatically but we got no gold medals in Rio would people be happy with the legacy?

Nothing has really changed outside the east end of London, kids still do to little exercise and are mainly driven to school by their parents The only thing that has really changed is that i have a set of good memories!

Strategy has focussed on activity provision at local level - more of the same. However, what I believe we need in UK is a cultural shift i.e believing, thinking and then doing Health Sport and Education considered in a holistic fashion with investment looked at broad terms not segmented in historical silos and competition on who gets what and why We need all of the spectrum of physical activity, sport and physical education provision If we were starting again we would take an alternative and somewhat radical view of how our current provision is deployed.

All talk and no action.

Cuts completely undermine this. Look around at local level posts of people who have had an impact on youth participation and how quickly they are disappearing.

Not enough investment and activity following the Games to make a meaningful impact from grass roots to elite sport.

I think many factors contribute towards a succussful legacy, from participation rates, regeneration of London, improved and accessible facilities to the nations attitudes towards sport and eachother. This is why it seems almost impossible for us to know if there is a legacy, and how positive the legacy is. The question of timing also needs to asked, at what point do we draw the line and collect data to determine if we have a legacy or not? And if we do that, what do we do as a result of the information. We could celebrate what has been achieved and continue to develop it, or just admit defeat and maybe hope that the best is yet to come. I think a lot of positives have come from the Olympics and Paralympics which is why I believe we are nearly there with the legacy. The main priorities of legacy need to be integrated into the roots of sport to ensure that we have infact inspired a generation, and the next one and the next one … A lot more needs to be done to integrate into a society a culture of physical activity and healthy living to ensure the Olympic legacy is positive, and long lasting.

Sport in school was cut when the Tories came in and no way of making it better has been worked out.

Now that the games are over there is no sign of any legacy. I see no additional attempts to persuade or indeed help fund young people to have ago at new sports.

If anyone mentions actual 'legacy' within months of the games, that's like saying there is a Wimbledon legacy as tennis courts fill up for a fortnight.

So much promise to start with, new facilities, new passion and new opportunities but it seems it was just a phase and now we are left to be independent again and the Olympics is 'put to the back of the draw' as to speak. Would the 'legacy' not indicate continuation and additional effort such as primary school specialists and coaching? Maybe not, maybe the inaccessible arenas will motivate the nation.

Games that inspired a nation but the 'dream legacy ' is an unfulfilled one .We need some government backing, some decisions and some drive. It’s all there. 2012 proved that. But unless something is done - it will all be - a dream.

Most people talk about the Olympics that amazing summer last year... But that's it! No legacy. I thought school would be bombarded with Legacy projects in the new term ... But nothing. The momentum, I fear, has been lost.

It appears that it is all talk and no action. In fact if what we read is true it is going backwards with the selling off of playground space, no expectation of sport and physical education and cuts in funding.

I believe that despite all the percieved good the Olympics have done for participation in Sport, they are still an out-dated institution where able-bodied and disabled competitors are segregated. They also focus on the competitor over any of the other important roles that make the games, events and sports happen, ignoring the whole community of practice as it were. 

It would be great to receive further commentary on this important issue via Twitter (@DrDickB).