What septic tanks and education have in common

I’ve spent three-quarters of my life being educated and the last two years educating others.

Since I began school at the age of four, I’ve associated education with evaluation.

First it was stickers and stars and rubber stamps. These evolved into report cards with little boxes beside the words: poor, fair, good, very good and excellent. Next came the letters of the alphabet: A, B and C. Then fractions and percentages arrived and after that, points. At university, marks were converted into classes and you could be first, second or third.

Compulsory education – like the septic tank- originated in the nineteenth century. While both aged tolerably well, of late they have begun to fail us.

image source: insectapedia.com

After all, as Ken Robinson, an educational theorist points out, the current system of education was conceived in the intellectual era of the enlightenment and the economic context of the industrial revolution.

Like the septic tank, it has failed to keep up with the times, often producing impenetrable sludge before practical distillation.

(If you need proof, try understanding what on earth academics writing in humanities journals are trying to say).

It’s not that our education is of poor quality. It’s not that we have bad teachers, or unmotivated students. They never help but they’re neither unique to this period nor the cause of the problem.

The real issue is that we haven’t decided whether education is a journey focussed on itself or on its destination.

Let me explain.

Up to recently, education was a means to an end. You walked out of school and into the workplace. If you went to university and got a first class degree, you got a first class job.

Now things have changed. We have too many people educated in areas with too few jobs.

The difficulty is that we still believe that the higher your educational level, the loftier your career expectations should be.

Of course it’s a prospect that many are failing to realise.

Now, if you get a first class degree, you take your place among all the others and compete for any old job.

It’s a case of social progress outrunning institutional reform.

You could see the situation as a social leveler. Now unemployment is for everybody, not just the least privileged.

Some students spend twenty years collecting stamps and stars and letters and numbers.

And then they find that the numbers don’t add up to a job.

Their experience calls into question the very purpose of evaluation.

The transition from pupil to teacher has taught me that evaluating students is rather arbitrary. It doesn’t measure very much at all.

But we’re hooked on comparison. We get frustrated if our own evaluation can’t be backed up by a standard measurement. If we think we’re better than the person next to us, we want it neatly before us in percentage form.

I guarantee that in a secret ballot, students wouldn’t vote out tests and exams.

Science backs it up. Research has shown that the pleasure circuits are activated in advance of finding out a result.

We thrive in conditions of uncertainty.

Waiting for a test result is like waiting to see if you have won in Poker. Ultimately neither tells you how well you have played or how much you have learnt, but rather how well you have performed relative to others.

It’s time we took a step back though.

The right to education is one of the great privileges of our age. While its original and most important purpose-to lay the foundations for economic subsistence- has been eroded by the unprecedented pace of progressive reform relative to growth in employment opportunities-we must take time to remember what has been so long neglected: the timeless, immeasurable pleasure of learning for its own sake.

Could it be that indulging ourselves in constant measurement against others is doing us more harm than good?

Andrew Bird, an American folk singer condenses the possibility beautifully in the song “Measuring Cups” which opens:

Get out your measuring cups and we’ll play a new game. Come to the front of the class and we’ll measure your brain. We’ll give you a complex and we’ll give it a name.

This generation, more intensely than any other before it, has experienced education as a closed system of incessant measurement.

For many that measurement has not amounted to more than restlessness and disillusion.

Learning for its own sake has been forgotten amidst the obsession with making ‘it’ which means ‘making money’.

If teaching has taught me one thing, it’s that the responsibility to evaluate is nothing compared with the possibility to inspire. My job is to encourage before it is to instruct.

Pupils are not watering cans: we can’t fill them up without their consent. They must want to learn, not in order to get a good job or to become rich or to sound clever, but because, as Merlin in T. H. White’s The Once and Future King reminds us, “it is the only thing that never fails”.

I have the following words pinned to my bedroom wall:

“You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then, to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the Mind can never exhaust never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the thing for you”.

Equipped with this original joy of learning, and a quieter, more humble confidence, our young people may be more inspired to carve an independent niche on the side-lines rather than enter the desperate rat-race of out-performance.

Let’s make our recovery less sludgy than a septic tank. In remembering why education matters for its own sake, we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Confessions of an Arabic student: Ordering Falafels And Sounding Like A Pirate

Monday was a very important day for me. It wasn’t Christmas, or my birthday, or the day I competed in the Slovakian jousting championships. In fact, it was an occasion of much greater significance.

Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, and she-who-serial-googles-‘snails’-to-land-here, last Monday evening, I learnt the last four letters of the Arabic alphabet: ط, ظ,
ع and غ.

Those final four characters had been hanging over my classmates and me for a full three weeks. Our Mudarrissa (مدرسة) kept promising we’d get to them the following lesson, but we got tied up learning how to attach possessive pronouns to objects like chairs, bags, chickens and doors and how to ask for falafels.

The four offending letters had been left until the end because native English speakers tend to mispronounce them because we lack an equivalent sound. The most felonious one is: غ.

“Who wants to pronounce this one?” asked the Mudarissa, pointing at the lone-standing, three-shaped character with a hat she’d printed on the board.

(Teacher tip: Never, ever ask open questions)

An eerie silence descended.

“How about …. you. Kate?”

“Agggghhhrr”, she said.

“Aaarr” I replied, as if I was at the dentist. She shook her head.

“Agggghhhrrr” she repeated.

“Rrrrrrrrrgh” I tried once again, only to cause her to shake her head more violently.




This went on for some time. I estimate that I voiced the letter incorrectly seventeen times before she gave up on me. I was prepared to continue indefinitely but the other students were beginning to shift in their chairs and smother giggles.

It might not seem like a big deal to seasoned polyglots, but I am pretty glad I’ve got this far. You might remember that Arabic has twenty-eight letters, which change shape according to their position in a word.

What’s now happened – since Monday- is that I can look at a word and actually read it –albeit incredibly slowly. Of course as most standard Arabic script doesn’t mark vowels, what I’m reading could have a myriad of actual pronunciations. The point though is that I’m now in a position to consider those possibilities.

Today I started using facebook in Arabic. My profile picture was immediately transported to the other side of the screen and the ads offering me Masters Degree Courses in John Hopkins University switched to the left. In an effort to learn new vocabulary, I diligently copied and pasted some of the Arabic characters into Google translate. The Arabs, I’ve learnt have a way with words. They may not have the time to mark their vowels, but they do translate ‘unlike’ as “cancellation of admiration”.


Life for LSB has become yet more tedious since my initiation into the Arabic language. We can’t pass a kebab shop without me reading “H-A-L-A-L” (حلالا) extremely slowly while missing the English translation that accompanies it. The other evening, on Camden Street while we were on the way to meet a friend for a hot port and a natter, I reeled off everything I could say in Arabic complete with elaborate supporting gestures.

“That is a beautiful and new car!”, I said pointing to a rusty 1993 fiat punto. “I am Kate Katharina.” “Pleased to meet you.” “Give me a falafel please”.

Katekatharina’s Blog is one year old today!

Today Katekatharina’s Blog is one year old. To celebrate I am working late and going to my Arabic class. In my head though, I’m in a hammock clutching a yellow balloon with “Happy First Birthday” written on it in Comic Sans.

Blogging is terribly fun and at first it was terribly hard to keep up. I set up at least three different blogs on various sites before sticking with this one. WordPress’ format is foolproof. Believe me, I have tested it. It’s easy to use and it makes the things you write look quite pretty. The photographs you upload know intuitively where they should land and in what size they should appear. Critics say all our sites look the same: I say: “but look at the selection of themes we can choose from!”

This time a year ago, I was in the same bed I’m typing from now but in a different place. Then an indefinite void lay ahead of me whereas now I have an -albeit dangerously short-term- plan worked out.

Birthday Rainbow from Dublin Contemporary

The best bit about blogging is when someone reads what you’ve written. That’s why people write on the internet. It’s not like a diary, where you reveal your innermost thoughts but it’s confessional all the same and looking back over a year’s worth of entries, I guess I can see some characteristic themes emerging.

I seem to write a lot about things I see. For me, images form an easier structure than the course of events. I think that’s why I favour feature writing over news reporting. I seem to like write a lot about language and quite a bit about LSB too. These are two of my favourite things I guess. My tone has become less formal in the last year too. My aspirations of maintaining a crisp and detached tone were tempered by the realisation that even very serious journalists enjoy copious use of the personal pronoun.

The most popular blog posts are not the ones that I have sweated over. They are the ones which were fastest to write and which were “tagged” with terms that searchengines were a fan of that day. I get a lot of referrals to a post I wrote about the closure of Waterstone’s Bookshop last February, a piece about brain plasticity, LSB’s Valentine Day surprise and my Confessions of a teacher. It is a great pleasure to skim the search terms upon which people are referred to my site. As I told you last week, a disproportionate amount of my hits come from people googling images of snails and phrases like “inappropriate teacher-pupil relationship”

I have a wonderful friend who lives in Bayreuth in Germany. Really, she’s my mum’s friend but I have applied for joint custody because I like her very much. She sent me an e-mail last week to let me know that she occasionally reads my blog. And on the same day, a boy I’ve never met dropped me a line from where he was too. We’d connected over our blogs a year ago only to discover we graduated from the same college in the same year and both wanted to get into writing. Things that like can transform your day.

Ironically, my first blog post was titled “A last resort” and was in fact taken from a column I had in Trinity College’s The University Times (then The Record). You can check it out here.

Happy Birthday to my wonderful readers, especially to you that has googled ‘snail’ again. Thank you so much for all your comments! Have a slice of cake sometime today for me. And please, let me know what you’d like to see on Katekatharina’s blog before she turns two. Got a challenge for me? Something you think I should investigate? Try out? Get over? Let me know.

KateKatharina’s Online Arabic Tutorial

I wish I could lie to you but I can’t. The Arabic alphabet has 28 letters, a large proportion of which change shape according to their position in the word. A select few are awkward and refuse to join with letters to their left. Many have the same shape when in the beginning or middle of a word but have a different number of dots above or below them. There’s a special symbol to let you know the absence of a vowel sound. In case you were, you know, in doubt.

I’m just back from my second class and am rather disappointed that there has been no opportunity to practise speaking, given that learning the alphabet seems to take an eternity. For this reason, I’m going to teach what I’ve learnt in the way I would have liked to learn it. I’m really not one to say a bad word about teachers (believe me, I’ve a vested interest) but as one of my classmates mumbled after class “she’s awful serious.. she’d want to ligthen up” and of the homework “It’d put you to sleep alright”.

To get us started, watch this. I dare you not to feel a smile creeping uponon your lips.

The only two things you need to remember from this video:
1.That little boy’s adorable voice (Bieber who?)
2.that Arabic has three vowels, which correspond loosely to ‘A’. ‘E’ and ‘U’. They’re a bit like fadas in Irish. For ‘A’ you put a dash above the letter; for ‘E’ below and for ‘U’ its a little sign that looks like a number 9 above the letter. That’s why in the song they sing ‘A, U, E, Be Bu Beey’ etc.

Okay, enough about the alphabet. (For my sake, not yours).

For those of you who don’t know me (I’m looking at the seven people who googled “smail” and were referred to my blog today. Though on second thought, perhaps it was was just one massively enthsiastic malacologist.)

“ismee Kate Katharina”

Say it.

Go on.

Now tell me who you are.

ismee= I

Your name=Your name

Easy Peasy Lemon Squeezy.

Now, Kayf- haluk? How’s life?

I’d hate to pre-empt you but are you feeling fine, thank God? And are you male? Then say this:

Tayeb al-hamdu lelah

Are you feeling fine thank God but worried, because you are female? Then say this:

Tayeba al-hamdu lelah.

Same? Nope. All adjectives (as here ‘fine’) have genders. How do we make an adjective feminine?

Add A.

Hmmm. There’s a problem, isn’t there?

Some of you are not fine. Some of you are tired. Fine. It’s a late blog post. You have an excuse.

Say this if you’re a man:
Ta-ban, which the stress on the ‘ban’.

If you’re female, say….???

Come on, you know this one.

Yes, you got it Ta-ban-a.

I (ismee) really am Ta-ban-na now..

So I guess I should take my leave from you and say


Go on, reply to me. It’d be rude not to.


PS- Remember ‘share the luv’ on bebo? Well my lovely blogger friend Clariice over at Reise meines Lebens has shared the luv by nominating me for a Liebster blogging award.
I’m not sure if this is an actual award or simply a way to get bloggers to share each other’s work but I’m going to take the opportunity to link you to some blogs that I really enjoy.

1. Comeheretome: UCD history students writing interesting short pieces about cultutal landmarks. They often include scans of really interesting historical documents they have access to. Warning: also write about football.
2. Inside the brain: Love this blog. Irish neuroscientist summarises latest research in his fields in layman’s terms
3.Broadside New York-based writer and author of Malled: my unintentional career in retail writes short, poignant pieces in beautifully crafted prose
4. Kat Richter: Serial-dater from Philadelphia. What more can I say? Addictive and witty.
5. Last but definitely not least: Clariice herself. She writes wonderful poetry in language that I love. It’s totally unique in that it’s sparse but also satisfyingly clunky. Her words are real, soulful and off-beat.

Confessions of a teacher: Part 4 An Arab Gulf

In the course of my short teaching career, I have already learnt that you can make them do anything and that there’s nothing worse than a runny nose. My fourth confession is marginally more profound: you learn more than you teach.

Since I started working last February, it’s been the Arab students who have most fascinated and inspired me and of course it is they who have cemented my desire to learn Arabic and to visit the middle east.

Among Saudi and Omani students I have met with the most genuinely gallant and warm-hearted of gentlemen. “Teacher, let me carry your bags” “Teacher, I will help you clean board”, “Teacher, in Saudi Arabia; BIG respect for teacher”, “After you, teacher”.

Among Saudi women, I have noticed more than anything the expressiveness of their eyes. In many cases, along with the feet and hands, the eyes have been the only feature visible to me. They are often heavily made up. Their nails too are carefully painted and manicured. It’s surprising how little one needs to be identified: the shape of your eyes and the size of your head; the colour and pattern of a headscarf.

. Some months ago in class, I posed an open question: “Do you like Dublin?”

Generally, a mixed response: Ridiculous weather. Friendly people. Bad food. Not enough to do. Two Saudi women shook their heads. “Not good city” said the first. “Oh”, I said, interested. “Why not?” “Not big enough” the other answered: “No shops..”
“No SHOPS?!”, I asked incredulously. “But We’re right in the city!”.
“Not many shops”, they repeated.
“What about Dundrum?” I insisted. “That’s one of the biggest shopping centres in Europe”.
“Yeah; Europe“, they muttered and rolled their eyes.

And then there’s the unparalleled adulation for King Abdullah. Some time ago a student asked me what I thought of the uprisings in the middle east. I was uncomfortable in my answer and skirted about the subject by stressing the general importance of putting an end to corrupt regimes, but that I knew too little about the region. I did ask however whether King Abdullah was popular. “Oh yes”, he replied, his lips curling into a smile and his eyes wistful “I love him like my father”.

King Abdullah

And they really do. He is constantly nominated for the “greatest person in the world” contest, which I occasionally moderate for the purposes of fluency development. They tell me that he introduced a social welfare system a few months ago as part of his great reforms, which some say were a way of saying thanks for the no-show of protests following some facebook stirrings urging people to go to the streets.

Money has none of the moral associations that I am used to. One day I am practising opposite adjectives with an elementary class. The opposite of rich?” I prompt. They all know this one.
“In Saudi Arabia, no poor people”, a girl tells me.
“NONE?” I repeat
I put in on the board. “Poor people=0%??????”
“Yes!” another chips in. “Saudi Arabia lots of Oil”.
“I know”, I say “but I’m sure there are one or two poor people…”
Another time, we are practising modal verbs of obligation to respond to the problem pages of a magazine. A girl called Jenny is an unemployed shopaholic. Her habit is sustained by a foolish and ubergenerous grandmother, who keeps sending her money. “She should get a job” a French student says. “Yeah, and her grandmother should stop to give her money”, a Brazilian adds. “No problem in Saudi Arabia”, the girl from Riyhad chips in. “Family send money every day. No problem”.

Most of all, they enjoy shocking me with descriptions of the terrible consequences of committing minor offences in their country. “First time drunk on street” one tells me “name in book; second time, lashings” (he mimes a violent whipping action in case I have misunderstood) “Third time life prison”.

There is a sudden outburst of laughter from the whole class because they have  noticed the horrified expression I have been wearing unaware. He grins, adding in a conciliatory tone “Alcohol, in secret, no problem”, as if that had been my biggest concern.

LSB never fails to make an appearance either. One day, I got chatting to a class about my leprechaun-kraut heritage. The Saudi ladies seemed disproportionately impressed by my having a German mother, which makes a nice change from the inane references to Fascism to which I am accustomed.
“Boyfriend Irish or German?” they ask.
“Irish” I say.
“WHY Irish?” they gasp
“What do you mean?”, I enquire.
“Why you choose Irish man, not German. Germany better”.
I pause. “Because… because I like him”, I almost whine.
“Yes, I like LSB. And LSB is Irish.”
They shake their heads and raise their eyes.

A few days later LSB makes a re-appearance.
“Teacher how long you know boyfriend””
I sigh “Oh about 5 years” I answer.
“When you marry, teacher?”

It’s my turn to shock. “Oh I don’t know” I say with a sigh of casual self-indulgence.
“Maybe never”.

Katekatharina and LSB: No plans to marry soon

1001 Arabic Nights

Oh – wistful sigh – the stories I could tell you about the sex, drug and electro-music – obssessed Italian teenagers. For sure the tale of Akram’s business card, which I employ now as a bookmark could also have been enshrined into a blog post. The sad truth is that I have been too busy to continue my confessions and that my daily routine of walking for two-and-a-half hours and teaching for eight is taking its toll in physical and mental fatigue.
Constant contact with foreigners nevertheless continues to please. I am dealing very well with the unceasing extroversion required of my profession and I am convinced that my love of improvisation is at the root of it. I have grown passionately fond of Akram and his friends and have forgiven but not forgotten his trangression. I have heard King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia described as “vedy beautiful person” and have been suitably bemused at his feature in Akram’s “Greatest Person in the World” project presentation. In short, I have been freshly motivated in my desire to learn Arabic, first announced back when I was marvelling at brain plasticity.

I just love how everything in the language is stylishly incomprehensible and back-to-front. I have self-diagnosed dyspraxia (the most severe kind) and if there is a ‘wrong’ way to do something simple, I have found it. For example, one summer while eating dinner high up in the Swiss Alps, an American across from me regarded the manner in which I was holding my fork and asked me whether this peculiar grip was “Irish tradition”. I told her it was but have had a silent complex ever since. Perhaps for this reason, the idea of reading unintelligble symbols backwards has long held an intuitive appeal.

So I have bought myself a backwards Arabic workbook so that I can learn the alphabet. It’s mega-cool. It only cost me €5.65 in Hodges Figgis and it requires of me to trace letters repeatedly just like I did in those special copybooks when I was four. Last night, while babysitting in a quiet house with nothing but the heavy breath of a sleeping labrador beside me, I began to form the letters: Alif, Baa, Taa, Thaa …

It’s sure to be a journey of 1001 Arabic nights and more, but it’s only one item on my ever-growing mental to-do-list, which includes – if only putatively – emigration and re-sewing the golden buttons onto my coat from AWear. More of both in the future, but meanwhile, why not follow me on my journey and learn some Arabic with me along the way? السلام

Confessions of a Teacher: Part 2

I have already documented in gross detail the plight of the teacher suffering from the common cold. In my continuing confessions, I turn to another phenomenon recently realised: You can make them do anything!
It’s remarkable. Last week I was highlighting to a class of elementary students the difference between the sound of ‘th’ as in ‘that’ and ‘th’ as in ‘think’. I proceeded to write many words connected to the theme on the board. I then led a group chorus of these words, which I conducted whimsically by gliding the tip of my whiteboard marker in foul swoops across the board, alighting dramatically on my word of choice. There was something so ridiculous about the whole endevour and my temptation to make them utter whole sentences that I lol-ed facing the board and behind their chants.

Another time, I was saying adieu to my class of French engineers. I had decided that their last class would be ‘fun’ so I had bought a box of delightful Irish truffles in that insufferably successful tourist shop O’Carrolls. Throughout my three week stint with the French engineers, I had been encouraging them to contribute to my home-made “Vocabulary Box”. I had made same on the advice of a highly-experienced teacher. I had “adapted my material” and “connected with the student body” by pasting a large picture of Brian O’Driscoll on the cover of the box.

Culturally relevant vocabulary box

This was to act as a gentle reminder to Céderic, Frederic, Laurent and Stéphane (not their real names), that though France may have beaten Ireland at the rugby the previous weekend, the vocabulary box was a zone not to be conquered by Les Blues.

They had accepted this with the bemused equanimity to which I had become pleasantly accustomed. However, as the time came for me to wrap up my classes, I realised that the vocabulary cards resident inside the box had not come to any kind of finalé. Therefore, I packed in my bag a three-cd set of Irish music and announced that we were having a vocabulary quiz with on-the-spot prizes. I explained that I would pick at random a word from the vocabulary box, which they would then – working in teams of three- have to put into as many sentences as possible. The time limit would be set by the pumping beat of Lord of The Dance, which would stop suddenly in the manner of Musical Chairs. As I watched them scribbling frantically sentences containing the word ‘shamrock’ over a mix of Irish melodies, I had to once again turn away to hide my mirth. The first spot prize – a lolipop with a picture of a shamrock on it – was flung to Bernard, for his sentence “The shamrock bring me good chance”. A chancer I certainly am.

Prize lolipop

Confessions of a Teacher: Part 1

As a teacher, there is no opportune time to blow your nose. I know this because I thought I had cracked it last Friday. My middle-aged French engineers were engaged: the weekly test, you see. You could have heard a pin drop so a sniffle was out of the question. Nothing but the soft scratch of their pencils: a concerto with passages of relative conviction and uncertainty. The tickle of moisture that was descending my nasal passages caused me to twitch. With reverence for the exam conditions in place, I fumbled gingerly in my bag for a tempo tissue. I dabbed gently.

Somewhere dancing in the air about me, I sensed the chemical energy of eyes boring into me from the side. I was caught. Francois, first finished and ready to doodle flashed me a sympathetic grin. Or at least, that’s what I thought it was at the time. With the benefit of mature reflection, I realise he was bemused. He had been watching my entire escapade and he had thwarted the very possibility of success by mere observation. I would have been furious had he not been my second favourite student. I was now in the precarious position of having to dispose of my snotty tissue in a classroom without a paper basket and in the knowledge that Francois was enjoying full comprehension of the wordless language of awkward etiquette. Up my sleeve? Total no-goer. Too risky. Could fall out at any time; particularly when writing on the board. Nothing for it, but to drop it back in the bag, slowly does it, just stretching my left arm, downward. Drop. Done. Gone. Can’t help myself. Take a quick look over at Francois who averts his gaze, quickly. Test over, little bit of bustle as scripts are handed up and responses compared. I sniff long and hard into the background murmurs and exhale, deeply. Bliss.