Tag Archives: non-fiction

Book: Questioning Collapse

Macanany Yoffee Questioning Collapse

Grandiose, obsessive, delusional criticisms of Jared Diamond.
390 pages, ★★

Questioning Collapse is a direct rebuttal to Jared Diamond’s epic anthropological book titled Collapse (I reviewed that book here). In the preface, Questioning Collapse aims to improve on Collapse by being optimistic and easy-to-read, while at the same time retaining academic credibility. It also claims to correct some of Jared Diamond’s professional “mistakes”.

Unfortunately, Questioning Collapse didn’t need to be written. Collapse was a rare display of academic content written in very readable prose, and absolutely no improvement was needed. Jared Diamond also made it explicitly clear when he was making speculations, and there was therefore no need to “correct his mistakes”! These authors tried too hard to overstep the legendary Jared Diamond and failed.

Questioning Collapse is an edited book (i.e. each auth). Like most edited books, the chapters don’t quite fit together. There’s no consistency from beginning to end and the different authors sometimes repeat each other unnecessarily. Questioning Collapse isn’t even a pleasure to read. Despite its wanting to be ‘optimistic’, it spends more time deriding Jared Diamond than building on Collapse.

I’d like to see this book re-written in a positive tone and re-titled, “Collapse: a follow-up study” or “Collapse: recent developments”.

What bothers me most is that the authors of Questioning Collapse put lengthy, illustrated biographies in highlighted boxes at the end of each chapter. Why? It seems that this book isn’t about improving on Collapse at all—it was just a platform for a dozen or so scientists less successful than Jared Diamond to try and boost their careers. ★★

Book: Collapse

Collapse

Highly educational but disappointingly pessimistic.
608 pages, ★★★

Author Jared Diamond is a genius. His books are so crammed with information that one reviewer humorously remarked:

“Jared Diamond” is suspected of actually being the pseudonym for a committee of experts.

I like to read his books slowly to catch his every last detail and jot it down. That, plus the university assignments I’ve been writing recently, explain why I’ve been slow to review books in the last month. I only did six in May!

I have more time to review books now, and I’ve even started reviewing fantasy novels on another blog. They’ll all be reposted here, too. The first and second fantasy reviews I wrote are already online on this blog.

Collapse complements Guns, Germs and Steel very well. Guns, Germs and Steel documents the rise of civilisations and explains their strengths. Why did Europe suddenly grow strong? Why did China stop developing? Why did Africa not colonise overseas territories, whereas many European countries did?

For the most part, Collapse discusses the rise, maintenance and fall of the following societies:

  • Montana
  • Easter Island
  • (3 islands)
  • Anasazi
  • Maya
  • Vikings
  • Greenland
  • Norse
  • (3 more islands and Japan)
  • Haiti/Dominican Republic comparison
  • Rwanda (just the ‘fall’ in this case)

Each story is fascinating and full of repeatable facts. Each chapter begins with Jared Diamond arriving on scene by aeroplane, describing his birds-eye view of the landscape and his first impressions of the country. Little emphasis is placed on the collapse of these societies—these chapters are more like comprehensive, condensed histories than a series of tragic endings. I enjoyed reading these chapters.

Chapters 12 and 13 are the most interesting. They attempt to explain the ongoing successes of China and Australia. I’m familiar with both countries and didn’t learn much here, but an outsider would find these chapters valuable resources. Both chapters are extremely fact-dense and concise.

Jared Diamond then describes four factors that spell a civilisation’s demise:

  1. Environmental degradation;
  2. Not being aware of environmental degradation;
  3. Doing nothing about environmental degradation;
  4. Short-term outlook (he calls it, ISEP, which stands for, “it’s someone else’s problem”).

The book becomes increasingly negative from this point on.

The ending to Collapse paints a very grim view of basically all human activity. Take this phrase, for example, from chapter 15, titled, “Roadmap to Failure”: “…we face a future with which we are unhappy, beset by more chronic terrorism, wars, disease outbreaks…”

…He’s wrong! Unhappiness, terrorism, war and disease outbreaks have all declined massively in the last 100 years. Collapse is for the most part a highly scientific book, but he overlooked the statistics at the end and concluded with negative, speculative spin. Chapter 15 sounds like it was written by the anti-consumerist warlord Naomi Klein. (Another book on my reading list, Questioning Collapse, attempts to address this issue.)

Just like the societies it describes, this book rose, maintained itself well, but collapsed tragically at the end. It’s needlessly negative. Read it, but don’t take its conclusions to heart. I recommend this book for anyone who enjoys reading purely to learn

Book: Mao’s Last Dancer

Happy Easter, everyone! 😀

At last, I have time to read and review a ‘fun’ book this week. Here goes…

Mao's Last Dancer
Mao’s Last Dancer

China’s reforms from the perspective of one Shandong family.
528 pages, ★★★★★

I chose this book because I love reading about China’s tumultuous transition from a chaotic, agrarian backwater to the economic powerhouse that it is today. Rather than reading history books, which give you a top-down perspective, novels give you the perspective of one of millions of Chinese families—like Zhang Yimou‘s To Live (film), and Jung Chang‘s Wild Swans (review coming next).

Protagonist and author Li Cunxin was raised in the 1960s in Li Commune in the outskirts of Qingdao. Despite poverty, despite not liking dancing, and despite growing up in a country with a nationalised hatred for all things extravagant and Western—especially ballet, Li Cunxin was selected for world-class ballet training at Madame Mao’s dance school in Beijing. This led to an international ballet career—and the fame, fortune and international travel that follows. All of this was unthinkable for most Chinese at the time.

China was full of contradictions under Mao’s rule (1949—1976). During the Cultural Revolution, officials issued “self-criticism” assignments to ballet students who indulged in such unnecessary extravagances as eating sweets. But why isn’t ballet itself considered extravagant and unnecessary? The “Criticise Confucius” political campaign included arguments such as, “Confucius was a feudalist whose theories described an ideal society for feudal leaders at the expense of the populace”. But during the Cultural Revolution, wasn’t the Communist Party doing exactly the same thing to its own people? Irony was everywhere, and it propelled Li Cunxin to fame.

His first trip to Houston revealed the true extent of the lies he’d been told back in China. Americans were not poor and unhappy; nor did they all carry guns; nor did they “kill coloured people”, as his family and fellow villagers back in China had warned. In America, he discovered the combination of happiness and wealth 1960s China was craving so much—and he instantly fell in love with it. He even got married, albeit hastily, to the first Western girl that he kissed.

Li Cunxin’s journey represents the journey that China took as a nation. From the 1970s onwards, China became increasingly infatuated with the west, started enjoying some political freedom (communes were dissolved), promoted cultural exchange (intermarriage is on the increase), got richer, emigrated (many Chinese with the means to emigrate have already done so) and started sending money back home (Chinese companies are investing in large western companies—sometimes purchasing them outright). It’s not just millions of Chinese who are following in Li Cunxin’s footsteps, but China as a nation-state, too.

Li Cunxin’s autobiography isn’t just about one man’s lucky journey. It instead describes the tumultuous transition to modernity that millions of people—and China itself—took in the last 60 years. Highly recommended for anyone who loves Chinese historyrags-to-riches stories, economic developmentSlumdog Millionaire, or Billy Elliot. 🙂 ★★★★★

Book: EDF4004 Curriculum and Assessment

EDF4004: Curriculum and Assessment
Custom book compiled from various chapters of other books

Wordy and top-heavy. Time’s better spent reading PEEL, Oosterhof & Marsh.
290 pages, ★★★

Q: Why the strange title?

“EDF4004 Curriculum and Assessment” is a custom book that contains all the major readings for the Monash University EDF4004 Curriculum and Assessment course as of 2011 (the reading list has since changed, but the general ideas here are still relevant). The publishers have overhauled the formatting to make it consistent, added new page numbers and even a new index for this “custom book”. It’s probably only found in Monash University.

Q: What does “top-heavy” mean?

Good question. In places, this book leaves the classroom and focusses—again—too much on theory. I want practical classroom advice, not classroom theory. I’m a training to be a teacher, but this book seems more tailored either to a philosopher or a Minister of Education. I say “top-heavy” because this book is aimed at those at the top of their profession, not at graduate teachers. I didn’t need to read most of this book.

In this book, you’ll find the following information:

Curriculum Design: This book tells you how to design a curriculum from the top down. Unfortunately, the description is wordy and hard to follow, and our tutorials were much more useful in explaining the curriculum design process than this book. I used this book to make this diagram, but the notes I took in our tutorials were much clearer and more useful.

Maker’s (16-part curriculum design) Model—totally confusing, overly-theoretical re-hash of PEEL practices. Read PEEL instead.

Gardner’s (8) Multiple Intelligences—be sure to cater to all of these skills when designing assessments and assignments:

  • Intrapersonal
  • Interpersonal
  • Linguistic
  • Logical-Mathematical
  • Naturalist
  • Spatial
  • Bodily-Kinaesthetic
  • Music

(7) Aspects of Quality Learning—check that your assignments and assessments contain all these classroom aspects:

  • Processing
  • Planning
  • Linking
  • Reflecting
  • Decision making
  • Risk taking
  • Working collaboratively

Bloom’s (6-tier) Taxonomy—make sure your assignments and assessments satisfy the following modes of thinking:

  • Remember
  • Understand
  • Apply
  • Analyse
  • Evaluate
  • Create

While browsing the web, I found a previous Monash University student’s blog (coincidentally, also from 2011), who put some useful study notes online. Check out her site here. Her diagram (titled Appendix 1) combines Bloom’s Taxonomy and Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences nicely.

(5) Orientations of a curriculum—Cultural, Personal (see William Kilpatrick), Vocational, Social (see Harold Rugg) and Economic (see David Snedden).

The literature cited in EDF4004 are in overwhelming agreement that there’s been a recent call for “new basics” that take into account the “multi-literacies” that “transcend social boundaries”. Basically, play to every student’s individual strengths, no matter what those strengths are.

(8) Student Masks (by Keefe & Carrington, 2006) — students disguise problems with strange behaviour. Here’s a translation (left = what you see; right = what’s really going on).

Academic masks

  • Mask of super-competence → student may have reading difficulties
  • Mask of the clown → has ADHD
  • Mask of boredom → struggling with focus and studies
  • Mask of activity (busy doing futile tasks) → struggling to complete the work (stuck)

Self-esteem masks

  • Mask of helplessness → being ostracised
  • Mask of invisibility → low self-esteem
  • Mask of the victim (and bully, too) → talk to student then refer to psychologist
  • Mask of contempt (“school sucks”) → feels rejected by studies, socially or at home

Remember that these ‘masks’ were devised by Keefe & Carrington, 2006.

Page 122 summarises Integrating Differentiated Instruction & Understanding by Design in two concise bullet points! (There’s no need to read that two-star book now):

  • Curriculum Content—same for everyone
  • Curriculum Process—varied for each student (use a mixture of PEEL techniques)

Page 130 tells us that Aboriginals are doing terribly in Australian secondary schools.

Page 164-5 tell us how peer-assessment and self-assessment are great learning tools but teachers are seldom well-trained enough to implement them properly. In peer-assessment and self-assessment, remember to:

  • Promote the value of self-reflection
  • Set targets (or get the students to set themselves targets)
  • Develop explicit criteria (so students can’t cheat when marking)
  • Provide practice (students’ self-assessment ability gets better with time)

Page 179 tells us that parents want honest, individualistic, constructive school reports, and longer, better-organised meetings with teachers at parents evenings.

Mirroring Oosterhof somewhat, page 192 reminds us that there are four types of portfolio assessments:

  • Showcase portfolio (my best work)
  • Evaluation portfolio (all my work, graded)
  • Document portfolio (teacher’s secret record)
  • Process portfolio (student’s own progress reports)

There were only two more surprises in the rest of the book:

(1) Celebrating student achievement can be carried out in the form of brochures, newsletters, in-school displays… and out-of-school displays at (for example) supermarkets and universities. Students displaying their best work in a supermarket (supervised, of course) is a great idea.

(2) ICT can assist student learning. iPads are so ubiquitous now that students would probably rebel if you banned them from schools. Compared to the dazzling, high-resolution graphics on an iPad, a conversation with even the most informative teacher can seem like a bore in comparison. How are we supposed to compete with iPads for a student’s attention? (iPads are marvellous things, but teaching students how to use them specifically for study seems like an arduous task.)

The most useful part of this book was at the end: “how to make a grading rubric”. Thankfully, we’d already done this in yesterday’s tutorial. First column: criteria. Next columns contain high, medium and low ability descriptors for each criterion. Final column is “not shown”. Give each square points (typically high = 3; med = 2; low = 1; none = 0) and total each student’s score. This is great information, but I’d heard it already.

I see a pattern here. Is there anything about teaching that I haven’t already read? Or are all other teaching books just re-hashes of PEELOosterhof and Marsh?

Do I really need to read anything else? ★★★