Monthly Archives: May 2013

Book: Whole Brain Teaching for Challenging Kids

Whole Brain Teaching for Challenging Kids

Akin to a fad diet… proceed with caution!
279 pages, ★★

Whole Brain Teaching (WBT) is a happy, militaristic style of teaching that claims to grip all your students’ attention all the time. Here’s a really cute kindergarten class using WBT successfully.

This free book introduces the basics of WBT, which can be summarised in 7 “Big Rules” (all 7 of these were in the video).

  1. Class-Yes: when the teacher says, “Class”, the students respond, “Yes”;
  2. Teach-Okay: when the teacher says, “Teach”, the students respond, “Okay”, and proceed to teach each other in pairs;
  3. 5 Classroom Rules: my favourite rule is #5: “Keep your dear teacher happy”;
  4. Scoreboard: ‘Smilies’ (+1) and ‘Frownies’ (-1)  are awarded at the teacher’s discretion and recorded on the whiteboard. Net scores translate into minutes of recess, or minutes of music, at the end of each class. (I am highly reluctant to use this.)
  5. Hands & Eyes: students respond, “Hands & Eyes” and listen attentively to an important point;
  6. Switch: Used in combination with “Teach-Okay”, students will change their pair-partners upon this command;
  7. Mirror: mimic the teacher’s actions and words exactly.

Personally, I would only be comfortable using the first three of these rules in my classes.

Like me, you probably found the first video very cute. Secondary-school teachers will be thrilled to know that it’s possible to train older students in this way, too—although I don’t recommend it.

While I appreciate some of the basic ideas (such as “Class-Yes” and “Teach-Okay”), I found more and more “gimmicks” as I read on. By the middle of this book, WBT had become over-complicated and patronising. For example:

  • Students are given stars and colours, just like on eBay;
  • Students are given coloured cards with different meanings in class;
  • Scoreboards become increasingly complex to the point of absurdity.

WBT used to be called “Power Teaching” until a few years ago. The rebranding included questionable links to neuroscience. This book and its associated materials are littered with pictures of brains and tenuous talk of “mirror neurons”. This probably boosts the scheme’s popularity among laypeople, but repels the scientifically-literate with disgust.

I have three main problems with WBT. First, the references to neuroscience are almost all bunk. Second, the branding is too strong for my liking. If I were to teach like this, I’d no longer be Mr. Kennedy; I’d become a mass-produced WBT teacher. Teachers are not machines—they cannot be copied and replicated to the letter—and no teacher should try to adopt all the techniques of another person. (Any classroom successes would be accredited to the “miraculous” WBT program, while any failures would be attributed to myself.) Third, if I were to follow WBT to the letter, including all these ridiculous rules, I think my class of secondary students would grow weary and give up completely in my class. Coloured cards and eBay stars patronise adolescents, whose main objective is to appear as adult as possible. Students need to feel respected and cared for—and I think that telling secondary-level kids that “you’re a green star level 6 on the third scoreboard now—give me a ‘yaaaay!'”would turn them away.

I’m critical of WBT because I’m a secondary school teacher. It might work well in primary schools, but I’ll likely never get a chance to try it out. I will, however, steal one or two ideas from this book for secondary level if I need to—notably peer-teaching, micro-lecturing and ways of grabbing the class’ attention.

Even though I’ll probably never use WBT, this book was worth reading. It taught me three things:

  1. Classrooms are diverse.
  2. Steal good ideas from lots of people but never take too many ideas from one person (such as the inventor of WBT).
  3. Be your own brand. Don’t copy someone else’s techniques wholeheartedly—it won’t work because you have a different personality, and are teaching different students in a different social setting. What works for them might not work for you—innovate by finding your own way. Copy ideas but not whole personalities. Ultimately, be yourself.


Book: 100 Chinese Two-Part Allegorical Sayings

100 Chinese Two-Part Allegorical Sayings

Perfect material for ProVoc (free language-learning software for Mac)
196 pages, ★★★★

I’ve been studying this gorgeous little book recently.

One of the beautiful aspects of Chinese language is its allegorical sayings. Like idioms, proverbs and set phrases, allegorical sayings enrich daily Chinese conversation and make the people who use them sound more intelligent. Many of these expressions make allegorical references to religion, history, legends or folklore.

Allegorical sayings come in two parts. The first part is an allegory (such as 八仙过海, “Eight Immortals cross the ocean”) and the second part is an explanation that describes  the context you’re in (such as 各显神通, “each displays his/her own unique talents”). This particular allegory is rooted in Daoism.

Some allegorical sayings rely on homophones. For example, 打破沙锅,问到底 is a homophone of 打破沙锅,璺到底. The first part means “break the earthenware pot”. As for the second part, just by changing one character, the meaning changes from “crack it right through” to “get to the bottom of this issue”. Therefore, saying the first part, “break the earthenware pot” can be an allusion to “get to the bottom of this issue” in Chinese conversation. The Chinese adore homophones.

This book explains 100 famous allegorical sayings with explanations and illustrations.

Here are three examples from the book:

  1. 狗拿耗子 – 多管闲事
    Dog trying to catch mice—meddling in other people’s business.
  2. 秋后的蚂蚱 – 蹦跶不了几天
    Grasshopper in late autumn—nearing one’s end.
  3. 小葱拌豆腐 – 一清二白
    Plain white tofu mixed with a little spring onion—as clear as day.

ProVoc is the perfect app for learning vocabulary on a Mac.

ProVoc Screenshot
Full-screen vocabulary slideshows and full-screen vocabulary tests in ProVoc (Free)
  • Create your own vocabulary database or download another user’s vocabulary list from within the app.
  • Click ‘Play’ to view gorgeous, full-screen slideshows of your vocabulary complete with sound, images and videos.
  • Take four types of quizzes based on your vocabulary. Difficult words will automatically appear more frequently than easy ones.
  • Customize just about everything using a simple, aesthetic, high-contrast interface. Create your own quiz styles, customise the slideshow, or share your vocabulary lists for others to use.

ProVoc and this book are a perfect combination for anyone wanting to improve the quality of their spoken Chinese! ★★★★

Book: Guns, Germs and Steel

Guns, Germs and Steel

460 pages, ★★★★★

Guns, Germs and Steel does three things:

  • It counteracts the misconception that “since the fifteenth century, enlightened Europeans have colonised simplistic New World natives”. Author Jared Diamond demonstrates how stronger societies have colonised weaker societies for all of human history, not just in the last 500 years.
  • It counteracts the idea that “European society was advanced compared to the rest of the world because European people were more intelligent”. The author states that people worldwide are of roughly the same intelligence—so something else must have accounted for the developmental disparity among cultures pre-globalisation (i.e. before 1500).
  • It reasserts the idea that China is a unique place that tends to buck the trends of world history, usually to its own benefit.

Some notes I made on this book are listed below.

Why farm?

  • Nutrition decreases.
  • Risk of starvation decreases.
  • Settlements, villages and towns are built.
  • No need to carry babies when migrating, so birth rate increases.
  • Population increases.

Food production originated in four main places:

  1. Iran/Iraq
  2. Mexico/Andes
  3. China
  4. African Sahel

We domesticated plants that were:

  • Convenient
  • Available
  • Self-propagating
  • Easy to modify/breed selectively (this depends on their genetics)
  • Not sought after in huge numbers by animals (squirrels prevented us from cultivating acorns)

Humans first domesticated animals with the following characteristics:

  1. Herbivores—carnivores are too expensive to feed;
  2. Fast-growing;
  3. Safe—poses no threat to humans, even in large numbers;
  4. Timid—pose no threat to each other;
  5. Willing to breed in captivity—even today, cheetahs can’t be tamed for this reason;
  6. Have a social hierarchy that features subservience—they obey humans

Anna Karenina Principle: “all families are the same; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. Author Jared Diamond applies this logic to animal domestication (all undomesticated animals, such as cheetahs, giraffes and llamas were unsuitable in varying ways).


Why was Europe so advanced by the year 1500?

  1. Its East-West axis is easy to populate with humans, animals and crops. Most other continents have a North-South axis.
  2. Its native domesticable crops had a high protein content.
  3. Europe has no “severe ecological barriers” such as deserts, isthmi or impassable mountain ranges.
  4. Agriculture led to: food surplus, high population density, government, technology and the spread of germs. These all proved useful when conquering overseas territory.

There is still some debate as to whether idea diffusion (slow) or blueprint copying (quick) allowed for the spread of pyramidswheelsgunpowder and the atomic bomb.

There are no geniuses in history. Author Jared Diamond called statements such as “X invented Y in year Z” a “fallacy”. All great inventions (the example of the steam engine is detailed in this book) were built upon long chains of previous ideas that spanned long periods of time.

Both East and West are resistant to innovation. QWERTY keyboards were designed to slow typists down as not to jam old typewriters. Transistors were not adopted because of vested interests in vacuum tubes.

What makes societies welcome innovation?

  1. Labour shortage—search for technological solutions
  2. Patents reward innovation
  3. Technological training provides people with the means to innovate
  4. Capital investment structures invest in start-ups

What personality traits in a society make people welcome innovation?

  1. Individualism—personally, I question this one.
  2. Risk-taking behaviour
  3. Scientific outlook
  4. Tolerance of diverse views
  5. Religion must support technology—or it will not be adopted

States are inevitable in the long-run and arise from the following factors:

  1. Aristotle: “states are a natural condition of human society”. Too vague.
  2. Rosseau: “states are a social contract”. Not always true.
  3. Hydraulic theory: “complex systems (e.g. irrigation) require states to manage and maintain them”.

    Jared Diamond prefers number 3, Hydraulic theory, then suggests two more factors:
  4. Food production (1) requires division of labour, which needs to be decided; (2) creates a food surplus, which needs to be managed; and (3) gives some people sedentary jobs, which require being allocated in some way.
  5. Population expansion beyond a few hundred people makes most people strangers rather than friends. Large populations thus need some fraction of society to be responsible for maintaining social order. Author Jared Diamond suggests that any large population without a state would have quickly collapsed into anarchy (or formed a state).

Of bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states (human population groups in increasing order of size), only chiefdoms and states can justify kleptocracy.

Kleptocracy needs to (author says, “it is in the interests of a kleptocracy to…”):

  1. Disarm the populace and arm the ruling élite;
  2. Redistribute wealth in popular ways;
  3. Promote happiness;
  4. Promote an ideology or religion that justifies kleptocracy. The author notes that governance ideology can be as strong (or stronger) than technology in giving power to states. Mao’s China and the Mtetwa Chiefdom are two technologically-weak, ideologically-strong states.

What helped unify China?

  1. Large East-West rivers helped East-West expansion
  2. China is wider than it is tall (that’s the East-West thing again)
  3. No major deserts/mountain ranges/isthmi in the middle
  4. Graphic writing system allowed for the unification of different spoken dialects—the author doesn’t mention this in Guns, Germs and Steel but has mentioned it elsewhere.

Most amazingly, Taiwanese explorers colonised both Polynesia and Madagascar! Evidence includes:

  1. Ta-p’en-k’eng pottery & stone tools, originally from Taiwan, which reached Polynesian islands at different dates;
  2. Canoe design, which evolved from island to island.

Four crucial technologies for the advancement of society:

  1. Germs—endemic germs weaken any enemies upon contact;
  2. Metallurgycopper then bronze then iron;
  3. Military technology—including animals and military philosophy;
  4. Machinerywagons, ploughs;
  5. Wheelstransport, power;
  6. Seafaringships, navigation systems;
  7. Writing—allows for the last point, which is:
  8. Political organisation—allows for large projects via pooling of capital.

Back to the point about “there are no geniuses in history”, the author states that Alexander the Great, Augustus, Buddha, Christ, Lenin, Martin Luther King, Pachacuti, Mohammed, William the Conqueror, Shaka (and I’ll add Confucius, echoing Roger Ames’ example) weren’t single-handed geniuses. They just described/personified trend that was already underway. In other words, Confucius didn’t invent Confucianism!

What’s missing from this book is:

  • How crops shaped religion (rice: collective work; wheat: exaggerated gender differences; fish: superstition).

Jared Diamond’s conclusion:

  • History is a science;
  • Historians can predict large trends but not the minute details;
  • The three conclusions I wrote at the top of this post.

I recommend this book for everyone. A perfect sequel to this book is Collapse by the same author. My review of Collapse is also coming soon. ★★★★★

Book: New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin

Too much Uncle Tom.
195 pages, ★★★★

This collection of very detailed essays were written by different authors, so there’s naturally a lot of overlap in content.

Rather than review this book, I’m going to share some of the reflections I made while reading it.

  1. Some critics [of Uncle Tom’s Cabin] said the book isn’t a part of high culture because it appeals to the masses. Others said it appeals to sadness, too fundamental a human emotion, and thus yields no artistic merit. I think Uncle Tom’s Cabin isn’t sad at all because even though characters in the book suffer, the author doesn’t choose to dwell on their suffering. She merely describes it, leaving any reflection up to the reader.
  2. Radical abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison suggested angrily that there were two Jesus Christs: one passive, long-suffering Christ for blacks, and one rebellious, warrior Christ for whites. According to Christian values in 19th century America, whites and blacks were expected to respond to suffering in different ways!
  3. Stowe held back on describing sexual abuse because the novel’s intended audience included children. In reality, sexual abuse of young, female slaves was widespread (Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin would have abused his slaves sexually, for example).
  4. Women played a role in ending slavery by persuading their white husbands that slavery was wrong, and by requesting that blacks stay subservient rather than self-determined. (A violent slave population would not have elicited sympathy from the whites.) By not fanning the flames of oppression or of revolution, women allowed slavery to ‘burn out’ faster than it otherwise would have.
  5. Gothic portrayal of women in nursery rhymes as “houses” is something to think about.

Between these interesting points was a great amount of detail that would lend itself well to a book club or a literary seminar. This book contained more than enough analysis of Uncle Tom for the average, interested reader. ★★★★

Book: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mid-Nineteenth Century United States

Uncle Tom's Cabin and Mid-Nineteenth Century United States

Succinct, analytical, readable, perfect.
175 pages, ★★★★★

The original text of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was very dense, laced with nineteenth-century English and was a nuisance to read—especially the speech from Tom’s wife, Chloe. Here’s an excerpt of the original:

“An’ de Gineral, he knows what cookin’ is. Bery nice man, de Gineral! He comes of one of de bery fustest families in Old Virginny!”

While it’s intelligible, it’s tiring to read.

However, I learned much more from this book, called Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Mid-Nineteenth Century United States. It uses the concise, logical English language that as a science student (and as a blogger), I’m much more used to. It not only tells you the story, the author’s background, her reasons for writing, and the book’s influence on the American public, but also includes discussions of the devastating slave trade, the ‘ownership’ of women and the extermination of native Americans that occurred in the same historical period. This book concludes with a chapter on Uncle Tom’s Cabin‘s legacy. I learned much more from this book than from Uncle Tom’s Cabin itself.

Reading derivative works isn’t cheating at all. Nobody was expected to read the original text of On the Origin of Species while I was doing undergraduate science. We were, however, expected to know the gist of what it said by reading books that relate heavily to it (The Third Chimpanzee and Genome come to mind).

Instead of reading the dozens of classics on my reading list, I’m going to hunt for derivative works of all of them. I think I’ve finally found a way to make classic fiction both enjoyable and accessible at the same time… ★★★★★

Book: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Incredibly influential, sadly inaccessible.
411 pages, ★★

How dare I give just two stars to a classic?

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a novel about slaves in 19th century America. I’ve summarised the story into a character map below.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Character Map

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written for white people. I say this because it doesn’t dwell on the struggles, the emotional turmoil, the fear and loathing of whites that slaves faced; nor does it stir up revolution. Rather, it tells a realistic, emotionally-restrained story of two Christian slaves who stay unwaveringly loyal despite extreme social injustice.

While the book itself has no political ideology, it was one of the most politically influential books in American history; and possibly of all time. It spread rapidly—one in six adult Americans owned a copy—and was the best-selling novel in American history at the time. Uncle Tom’s Cabin stimulated the growing impetus to abolish slavery to such an extent that 50 years later, author Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bust was placed alongside that of Washington, Franklin and Lincoln in New York’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans. Even President Abraham Lincoln made references to “that lady” who “started the great Civil War”. Many writers argue that this novel played a significant role in the abolition of slavery in America.

Most interesting is that according to a poll conducted in 1946, the majority of Negroes surveyed by Negro Digest considered Uncle Tom’s Cabin “anti-Negro” since it “presented the black in a submissive, docile, cringing role, portraying him as less than a man”. While their description is definitely true, it seems ironic that the American black population would grow to resent the book that had quite possibly set them free.

In conclusion, this is a fascinating book, and is one that everyone interested in history should know about. So why only two stars? It’s told in such dated English that I struggled to enjoy it. Read literary criticisms instead. ★★