#digitalnatives and #edtech and #woolongong- The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, Bennett et al Feb 2008

I blogged the other day on a recent paper on the myth of the digital native. Here is another paper, by Sue Bennett, Karl Maton and Lisa Kervin, from nearly a decade ago, on the same theme – and equally trenchant:

The idea that a new generation of students is entering the education system has excited recent attention among educators and education commentators. Termed ‘digital natives’ or the ‘Net generation’, these young people are said to have been immersed in technology all their lives, imbuing them with sophisticated technical skills and learning preferences for which traditional education is unprepared. Grand claims are being made about the nature of this generational change and about the urgent necessity for educational reform in response. A sense of impending crisis pervades this debate. However, the actual situation is far from clear. In this paper, the authors draw on the fields of education and sociology to analyse the digital natives debate. The paper presents and questions the main claims made about digital natives and analyses the nature of the debate itself. We argue that rather than being empirically and theoretically informed, the debate can be likened to an academic form of a ‘moral panic’. We propose that a more measured and disinterested approach is now required to investigate ‘digital natives’ and their implications for education.

On an entirely different note, the authors are/were affiliated with the University of Woolongong. Recent days have seen the death of Geoff Mack, who wrote the song “I’ve Been Everywhere” Originally a list of Australian placenames :

The song inspired versions internationally – the best known being Johnny Cash’s and The Simpsons’ – but the wittiest alternative version is this (NB – Dapto is a few miles from Wollongong)

Anyway, back the digital natives. Bennet et al begin with a quote from Marcel Proust:

The one thing that does not change is that at any and every time it appears that there have been
‘great changes’.
Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove

The authors summarise what a digital native is supposed to be like – and the not exactly extensive evidence base for their existence:

The claim made for the existence of a generation of ‘digital natives’ is based on two
main assumptions in the literature, which can be summarised as follows:

1. Young people of the digital native generation possess sophisticated
knowledge of and skills with information technologies.
2. As a result of their upbringing and experiences with technology, digital natives have particular learning preferences or styles that differ from earlier generations of students.

In the seminal literature on digital natives, these assertions are put forward with limited
empirical evidence (eg, Tapscott, 1998), or supported by anecdotes and appeals to
common-sense beliefs (eg, Prensky, 2001a). Furthermore, this literature has been referenced,
often uncritically, in a host of later publications (Gaston, 2006; Gros, 2003;
Long, 2005; McHale, 2005; Skiba, 2005). There is, however, an emerging body of
research that is beginning to reveal some of the complexity of young people’s computer
use and skills.

No one denies that a lot of young people use a lot of technology – but not all:

In summary, though limited in scope and focus, the research evidence to date indicates
that a proportion of young people are highly adept with technology and rely on it for a
range of information gathering and communication activities. However, there also
appears to be a significant proportion of young people who do not have the levels of access or technology skills predicted by proponents of the digital native idea. Such generalisations about a whole generation of young people thereby focus attention on
technically adept students. With this comes the danger that those less interested and less able will be neglected, and that the potential impact of socio-economic and cultural factors will be overlooked. It may be that there is as much variation within the digital native generation as between the generations.

It is often suggested that children who are merrily exploring the digital world are ground down with frustration by not having the same access to computers in school. This is part of a more general (with familiar rhetoric for the health IT world) demand for transformation (the word “disruptive” in its modern usage had not quite caught on in 2008) As is often the case, the empirical evidence (and also, I would say, a certain degree of common sense) is not with the disrupters:

The claim we will now examine is that current educational systems must change in
response to a new generation of technically adept young people. Current students have
been variously described as disappointed (Oblinger, 2003), dissatisfied (Levin & Arafeh,
2002) and disengaged (Prensky, 2005a). It is also argued that educational institutions
at all levels are rapidly becoming outdated and irrelevant, and that there is an urgent
need to change what is taught and how(Prensky, 2001a; Tapscott, 1998). For example,
Tapscott (1999) urges educators and authorities to ‘[g]ive students the tools, and they
will be the single most important source of guidance on how to make their schools relevant and effective places to learn’ (p. 11).Without such a transformation, commentators
warn, we risk failing a generation of students and our institutions face imminent

However, there is little evidence of the serious disaffection and alienation among students
claimed by commentators. Downes’ (2002) study of primary school children
(5–12 years old) found that home computer use was more varied than school use and
enabled children greater freedom and opportunity to learn by doing. The participants
did report feeling limited in the time they were allocated to use computers at school and
in the way their use was constrained by teacher-directed learning activities. Similarly,
Levin and Arafeh’s (2002) study revealed students’ frustrations at their school Internet
use being restricted, but crucially also their recognition of the school’s in loco parentis
role in protecting them from inappropriate material. Selwyn’s (2006) student participants
were also frustrated that their freedom of use was curtailed at school and ‘were
well aware of a digital disconnect but displayed a pragmatic acceptance rather than the
outright alienation from the school that some commentators would suggest’ (p. 5).

In 2008 Bennett et al summarised similar issues relating to students actual rather than perceived technical adeptness and net savviness to the 2016 authors:

Furthermore, questions must be asked about the relevance to education of the everyday
ICTs skills possessed by technically adept young people. For example, it cannot be
assumed that knowing how to look up ‘cheats’ for computer games on the Internet
bears any relation to the skills required to assess a website’s relevance for a school
project. Indeed, existing research suggests otherwise. When observing students interacting
with text obtained from an Internet search, Sutherland-Smith (2002) reported
that many were easily frustrated when not instantly gratified in their search for immediate
answers and appeared to adopt a ‘snatch and grab philosophy’ (p. 664). Similarly,
Eagleton, Guinee and Langlais (2003) observed middle-school students often making
‘hasty, random choices with little thought and evaluation’ (p. 30).
Such research observes shallow, random and often passive interactions with text,which
raise significant questions about what digital natives can actually do as they engage
with and make meaning from such technology. As noted by Lorenzo and Dziuban
(2006), concerns over students’ lack of critical thinking when using Internet-based
information sources imply that ‘students aren’t as net savvy as we might have assumed’
(p. 2). This suggests that students’ everyday technology practices may not be directly
applicable to academic tasks, and so education has a vitally important role in fostering
information literacies that will support learning.

Again, this is a paper I could quote bits from all day – so here are a couple of paragraphs from towards the end that summarises their (and my) take on the digital natives:

Neither dismissive scepticism nor uncritical advocacy enable understanding of whether
the phenomenon of digital natives is significant and in what ways education might need
to change to accommodate it. As we have discussed in this paper, research is beginning
to expose arguments about digital natives to critical enquiry, but much more needs to be
done. Close scrutiny of the assumptions underlying the digital natives notion reveals
avenues of inquiry that will inform the debate. Such understanding and evidence are
necessary precursors to change.

The claim that there is a distinctive new generation of students in possession of sophisticated
technology skills and with learning preferences for which education is not
equipped to support has excited much recent attention. Proponents arguing that education
must change dramatically to cater for the needs of these digital natives have
sparked an academic form of a ‘moral panic’ using extreme arguments that have lacked
empirical evidence.

Finally, after posting the prior summary of Kirschner and deBruckyne’s paper, I searched hashtag #digitalnatives on Twitter and – self-promotingly – replied to some of the original tweeters with a link to the paper (interestingly quite a few #digitalnatives tweets were links to discussions of the Kirschner/deBruckyne paper) Some were very receptive, but others were markedly defensive. Obviously a total stranger coming along and pedantically pointing out your hashtag is about something that doesn’t exist may not be the most polite way of interacting on twitter – but also quite a lot of us are quite attached to the myth of the digital native

Helmholtz and the ophthalmoscope, Eurotimes, 2008

Helmholtz and the ophthalmoscope, Eurotimes, 2008

Recently I rediscovered some articles for Eurotimes, the European Journal of Cataract and Refractive Surgeons that I had forgotten I had written. I have posted here before some of my book reviews for Eurotimes. I also wrote some pieces on historical ophthalmological figures – the first on Goethe and his work in optics, the second on Hermann von Helmholtz who was one of those towering, foundational figures in modern physics but who also invented the ophthalmoscope


In the last article, I considered one of the towering geniuses of world culture, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe made enormous contributions to world literature and philosophy, and significant contributions to the nascent sciences of visual perception, linguistics, plant morphology, and felt he would be remembered most of all for his work on optics. Goethe perhaps epitomises the “natural philosopher”, the original term for “scientist” – an individual of boundless curiosity and enthusiasm, a gifted amateur in the true sense. Science owes much to the activities of men and women who operated outside the dynamic of universities and in an age before the research institute or the grant.

Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1821-1894) is a less towering cultural presence than Goethe. His scientific activities have had a more lasting influence. He bridges the worlds of “natural philosophy” and organised, university based science – both in terms of his lifespan (eleven when Goethe died, he lived to directly influence Einstein and Maxwell) and in his professional life (originally training under paternal pressure as a doctor, he was appointed Professor of Physics in Berlin in 1871). Much of his work attacked the speculative tendencies of the natural philosophers, and was grounded firmly in observation and experiment.

Yet such was the breadth of his activity that he reminds one of the multi-talented natural philosopher as much as a contemporary, specialised physicist or physiologist. The Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science describes him in summary as “physiologist, physicist, philosopher and statesman of science.” This begins to capture the breadth and diversity of his interest and involvement. We will discuss his work on perception, and on ophthalmic optics, below, but it is important to recall he was simultaneously working on conservation of energy, thermodynamics, and electrodynamics, and developed the philosophy of science itself. His writings ranged from the age of the earth to the origin and fate of the solar system.


One of the more humbling characteristics of the scientists of the past was their seeming mastery of measurement. We are so used to highly accurate, precise computerised measuring apparatus that we can forget that until relatively recently, researchers often had to build and calibrate their own equipment. And going back only a little further, they had to invent it as well. Most readers of EuroTimes probably use one of Helmholtz’s inventions every day – the ophthalmoscope.

Invented in 1851, the ophthalmoscope is a perfect illustration of Helmholtz’s combination of experimental and inventive skill. The invention made him world famous overnight. Helmholtz was actually independently reinventing a device of Charles Babbage’s from 1847. As so often in science, it was the reinventor who recognised the usefulness and applicability of the invention, rather than the first inventor (Babbage, of course, also managed to invent but not complete the first computer) The handheld ophthalmoscope was developed by Greek ophthalmolosist Andreas Anagonstakis later in the 1850s, and in 1915 William Noah Allyn and Frederick Welch invented the self illuminating ophthalmoscope (and founded Welch Allyn) that is the direct precursor of the modern device.

Who was Helmholtz, this man of so many talents and interests and such lasting influence? Born in Potsdam on 31st August 1821 into a lower middle class family that emphasised the importance of education and cultural activities, his father Ferdinand was a teacher of philosophy and psychology in the local secondary school. His mother was a descendant of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, and her maiden name was Penne. Ferdinand Helmholtz was also a close friend of the philosopher Fichte. The scientific and philosophical worlds of the nineteenth century often seem amazingly small and parochial.


Helmholtz’s natural inclination as a student was to pursue studies in physics – however his father observed the financial support available for medical students and the lack thereof for physics students, and persuaded him into medical studies. He enrolled in the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Institut in Berlin, the Prussian military’s medical training college. After this, the served as a medical officer in the Prussian military for a time, simultaneously publishing articles on heat and muscle physiology. In 1847 he published his treatise On The Conservation of Force, which was the clearest and ultimately most influential account of what would become known as the principle of the conservation of energy. From his observations of muscles physiology and activity, he tried to demonstrate that there is no energy loss in muscle movement, and no “life force” is necessary to move a muscle.

In 1848 he left military service and embarked on an academic career. In 1849, he became an associate professor of physiology in Konigsberg.. Shortly after he announced the invention of the ophthalmoscope and also made another discovery that would seal his fame – measuring the rate of conduction of signals in nerves. It had been believed that sensory signals arrived at the brain instantaneously, and it was considered beyond the capabilities of experimental science to measure the rate of nerve conduction. Using a new invention, the chronograph, Helmholtz measured the difference between stimulus and reaction times at different parts of the body, and found the speed of neural conduction to be comparable to that of sound, not light.

A full account of all Helmholtz’s discoveries and scientific achievements would take volumes. He had an intense interest in visual perception, especially visual illusions. This interest was based on his philosophical position that we are separate from the world of objects, and isolated from external physical events, except for perceptual signals which, not unlike language, must be learned and read according to various assumptions. These assumptions may or may not be appropriate. This philosophy underlay many of his research activities and interests, and also his idea that perceptions are “unconscious inferences.”

Most of what goes on in the nervous system, according to Helmholtz, is not represented in consciousness. Psychological and physiological experimental findings often surprise us for this reason, because we cannot discover by introspection how we see or how we think. We derive a perception from incomplete data, hence “unconscious inference.” This idea influenced Freud’s idea of the unconscious, and Helmholtz’s student Wilhelm Wundt, who took Helmholtz’s work and ideas further. Another of his students, Heinrich Hertz, further developed Helmholtz’s work on energy and electrodynamics.

Helmholtz had a huge impact on all areas of perceptual science, and many areas of physics. His name lives in a variety of laws and concepts (Helmholtz illusion, Helmholtz free energy, Helmholtz-Kelvin contaction) and that of an association of research institutes in Germany. And of course, for the humble working ophthalmologist, every day, almost without thinking, Helmholtz’s influence as the originator of the modern ophthalmoscope is literally palpable.

Language recognition in the womb – Fetal rhythm-based language discrimination – study from NeuroReport

Language recognition in the womb – Fetal rhythm-based language discrimination – study from NeuroReport

I have blogged before about on the tendency to grandiosity of neuroscience, or rather (very often) how the science media portray neuroscience. This phobia of neurohype is not the same as a suspicion of neuroscience. The ingenuity of the methodology of studies like this is staggering. I don’t have access via my usual library sources to recent issues of NeuroReport so I’m afraid that I can’t assess the study directly (in so far as as this stage of clinical practice, and the consequent distance from what personal study of relevance I have done)


Fetal rhythm-based language discrimination: a biomagnetometry study
Minai, Utakoa; Gustafson, Kathleenb; Fiorentino, Roberta; Jongman, Allarda; Sereno, Joana

Neuroreport: 5 July 2017 – Volume 28 – Issue 10 – p 561–564

Using fetal biomagnetometry, this study measured changes in fetal heart rate to assess discrimination of two rhythmically different languages (English and Japanese). Two-minute passages in English and Japanese were read by the same female bilingual speaker. Twenty-four mother–fetus pairs (mean gestational age=35.5 weeks) participated. Fetal magnetocardiography was recorded while the participants were presented first with passage 1, a passage in English, and then, following an 18 min interval, with passage 2, either a different passage in English (English–English condition: N=12) or in Japanese (English–Japanese condition: N=12). The fetal magnetocardiogram was reconstructed following independent components analysis decomposition. The mean interbeat intervals were calculated for a 30 s baseline interval directly preceding each passage and for the first 30 s of each passage. We then subtracted the mean interbeat interval of the 30 s baseline interval from that of the first 30 s interval, yielding an interbeat interval change value for each passage. A significant interaction between condition and passage indicated that the English–Japanese condition elicited a more robust interbeat interval change for passage 2 (novelty phase) than for passage 1 (familiarity phase), reflecting a faster heart rate during passage 2, whereas the English–English condition did not. This effect indicates

that fetuses are sensitive to the change in language from English to Japanese. These findings provide the first evidence for fetal language discrimination as assessed by fetal biomagnetometry and support the hypothesis that rhythm constitutes a prenatally available building block in language acquisition.

Irritating fictional doctors: Dr Gregory in F Scott Fitzgerald’s “Gretchen’s Forty Winks” and the balanced life

A while back I posted about the less-than-busy doctors of Victorian detective fiction. Another medical archetype of fiction is the irritatingly bluff doctor. While Dr Gregory in F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Gretchen’s Forty Winks” is a minor character, he encapsulates a certain cheery complacency.


This story is not among Fitzgerald’s best. An awful lot of Fitzgerald’s writing was for money, in the midst of a chaotic life. There’s nothing wrong with this – remember Dr Johnson’s dictum that no man but a blockhead writes except for money. However, “Gretchen’s Forty Winks” is no Great Gatsby. There is also much that would now be deemed sexist, not to mention casual gaslighting and slipping of Mickey Finns within the marital relationship . I firmly believe that Of course, no doubt there is much we find unexceptional or even virtuous in our own culture which will in nearly a century seem laughably unethical.and also some by-the-way flashes of Fitzgerald’s acuity and brilliance. It also has some historical interest as an portrayal of what might have been seen as a “balanced life” in 1924.

The story was published in the Saturday Evening Post of March 15, 1924.


It is a rather heavy handed spoof of the cult of the “balanced life” (nowadays we would say work-life balance). The protagonist, Roger Halsey, is an advertising man, who has struck out for himself having left “the New York Lithographic Company.” We meet him coming home to his wife Gretchen. Fitzgerald writes thus of their marriage: “it was seldom that they hated each other with that violent hate of which only young couples are capable, for Roger was still acutely sensitive to her beauty.” Halsey has to work for forty solid days to obtain “some of the largest accounts in the country”, to the disappointment of his wife – “she was a Southern girl, and any question that had to do with getting ahead in the world always gave her a headache.”

His wife introduces Halsey to George Tompkins, an interior designer and devotee of the “the balanced life.” An irritated Halsey asks for a definition:

“Well’ – he hesitated – probably the best way to tell you would be to describe my own day. Would that seem horribly egotistic?”

“Oh  no!” Gretchen looked at him with interest. ‘I’d love to hear about it’

‘Well, in the morning I get up and go through a series of exercises. I’ve got one room fitted up as a little gymnasium, and I punching the bag and do shadow-boxing and weight-pulling for an hour. Then after a cold bath – There’s a thing now? Do you take a daily cold bath?’

‘No,’ admitted Roger. ‘I take a hot bath in the evening three or four times a week.’

A horrified silence fell. Tompkins and Gretchen exchanged a glance as if something obscene had been said.

‘What’s the matter?’ broke out Roger, glancing from one to the other in some irritation. ‘You know I don’t take a bath every day – I haven’t got the time.’

Tompkins gave  a prolonged sigh.

‘After my bath,’ he continued, drawing a merciful veil of silence over the matter, ‘I have breakfast and drive to my office in New York, where I work until four. Then I lay off, and if it’s summer I hurry out here for nine holes of golf, or if it’s winter I play squash for an hour at my club. Then a good snappy game of bridge until dinner. Dinner is liable to have something to do with business, but in a pleasant way. Perhaps I’ve just finished a house for some customer, and he wants me to be on hand for his first party to see that the lighting is soft enough and all that sort of thing. Or maybe I sit down with a good book of poetry and spend the evening alone. At any rate, I do something every night to get me out of myself.’

Roger is unimpressed. As the story progresses, he keeps to his exacting work schedule, until he nearly has secured a major account. Gretchen has chafed all along at the economising, and the night before a crucial submission forces another dinner with Tompkins. At this, Roger and Tompkins end up having a blazing row, simmering with the fury of the man who suspects he be becoming a cuckold:

“‘Are you implying my work is useless?’ demanded Tompkins incredulously.

‘No: not if it brings happiness to some poor sucker of a pants manufacturer who doesn’t known how to spend his money'”





After ejecting Tompkins from his house, Roger resorts to obtaining something unmentioned from the local drugstore, and putting “into the coffee half a teaspoonful of a white substance that was not powdered sugar” before giving it to his wife. He also hides all her shoes in a  bag.

This allows him to spend all night working on the account (not before giving his grumpy landlord the bag of shoes as a guarantee, having missed that month’s rent) with ultimate success. A contrite Gretchen awakes after a full day going missing from her life thanks to her husband’s deployment of white powder, and so distressed is she at finding her shoes missing that Roger agrees to take her to the doctor.  Enter Doctor Gregory, a man for whom the word ‘confidentiality’ has no meaning:

The doctor arrived in ten minutes.

‘I think I’m on the verge of a collapse,’ Gretchen told him in a strained voice.

Doctor Gregory sat does on the edge of the bed and took her wrist in his hand.

‘It seems to be in the air this morning.’

‘I got up,’ said Gretchen in an awed voice, ‘and I found that I’d lost a hole day. I had an engagement to go riding with George Tompkins -‘

‘What?’ exclaimed the doctor in surprise. Then he laughed.

‘George Tompkins won’t go riding with anyone for many days to come.’

‘Has he gone away?’ asked Gretchen curiously.

‘He’s going West.’

‘Why?’ demanded Roger. ‘Is he running away with somebody’s wife?’

‘No,’ said Doctor Gregory. ‘He’s had a nervous breakdown.’

‘What?’ they exclaimed in unison.

‘He just collapsed like an opera-hat in his cold shower.’

‘But he was always talking about his – his balanced life,’ gasped Gretchen. ‘He had it on his mind.’

‘I know,’ said the doctor. ‘He’s been babbling about it all morning. I think it’s driven him a little mad. He worked pretty hard at it, you know.’

‘At what?’ demanded Roger in bewilderment.

‘At keeping his life balanced.’ He turned to Gretchen. ‘Now all I’ll prescribe for this lady here is a good rest. If she’ll just stay around the house for a few days and take forty winks of sleep she’ll be as fit as ever. She’s been under some strain.’

Dr Gregory’s utter disregard for confidentiality is impressive in its brazenness (and if he could make a house call in ten minutes he is himself presumably impressively non-busy) but, for me, the height of his irritatingness is still to come:

‘Doctor,’ exclaimed Roger hoarsely, ‘don’t you think I’d better have a rest or something. I’ve been working pretty hard lately.’

‘You!’ Doctor Gregory laughed, slapped him violently on the back. ‘My boy, I never saw you looking better in your life.’


“slapped him violently on the back” – truly Dr Gregory is a prince among doctors… (the phrase also pops up in James Herriot

As for the more general spoof of “the balanced life”, it is surely wise to reflect moderation in all things is wise, especially moderation. A suspicion of overly-programmed approaches to nature and leisure underlies my mild suspicion of “forest bathing” One of the founders of The Idler once wrote about having a breakdown due to his frenetic life of writing and talking about the wonders of idleness.

But it might also be wise to recall that Fitzgerald’s book of autobiographical writings was called The Crack-Up.


Information underload – Mike Caulfied on the limits of #Watson, #AI and #BigData

From Mike Caufield, a piece that reminds me of the adage Garbage In, Garbage Out:

For many years, the underlying thesis of the tech world has been that there is too much information and therefore we need technology to surface the best information. In the mid 2000s, that technology was pitched as Web 2.0. Nowadays, the solution is supposedly AI.

I’m increasingly convinced, however, that our problem is not information overload but information underload. We suffer not because there is just too much good information out there to process, but because most information out there is low quality slapdash takes on low quality research, endlessly pinging around the spin-o-sphere.

Take, for instance, the latest news on Watson. Watson, you might remember, was IBM’s former AI-based Jeopardy winner that was going to go from “Who is David McCullough?” to curing cancer.

So how has this worked out? Four years later, Watson has yet to treat a patient. It’s hit a roadblock with some changes in backend records systems. And most importantly, it can’t figure out how to treat cancer because we don’t currently have enough good information on how to treat cancer:

“IBM spun a story about how Watson could improve cancer treatment that was superficially plausible – there are thousands of research papers published every year and no doctor can read them all,” said David Howard, a faculty member in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Emory University, via email. “However, the problem is not that there is too much information, but rather there is too little. Only a handful of published articles are high-quality, randomized trials. In many cases, oncologists have to choose between drugs that have never been directly compared in a randomized trial.”
This is not just the case with cancer, of course. You’ve heard about the reproducibility crisis, right? Most published research findings are false. And they are false for a number of reasons, but primary reasons include that there are no incentives for researchers to check the research, that data is not shared, and that publications aren’t particularly interested in publishing boring findings. The push to commercialize university research has also corrupted expertise, putting a thumb on the scale for anything universities can license or monetize.

In other words, there’s not enough information out there, and what’s out there is generally worse than it should be.

You can find this pattern in less dramatic areas as well — in fact, almost any place that you’re told big data and analytics will save us. Take Netflix as an example. Endless thinkpieces have been written about the Netflix matching algorithm, but for many years that algorithm could only match you with the equivalent of the films in the Walmart bargain bin, because Netflix had a matching algorithm but nothing worth watching. (Are you starting to see the pattern here?)

In this case at least, the story has a happy ending. Since Netflix is a business and needs to survive, they decided not to pour the majority of their money into newer algorithms to better match people with the version of Big Momma’s House they would hate the least. Instead, they poured their money into making and obtaining things people actually wanted to watch, and as a result Netflix is actually useful now. But if you stick with Netflix or Amazon Prime today it’s more likely because you are hooked on something they created than that you are sold on the strength of their recommendation engine.

Let’s belabor the point: let’s talk about Big Data in education. It’s easy to pick on MOOCs, but remember that the big value proposition of MOOCs was that with millions of students we would finally spot patterns that would allow us to supercharge learning. Recommendation engines would parse these patterns, and… well, what? Do we have a bunch of superb educational content just waiting in the wings that I don’t know about? Do we even have decent educational research that can conclusively direct people to solutions? If the world of cancer research is compromised, the world of educational research is a control group wasteland.

Piece on cardiac surgery in Times Literary Supplement

In the current TLS I have a review of two books on cardiac surgery. One is Stephen Westaby’s  memoir of his career, the other is Thomas Morris’ historical perspective.


The full text is not freely available online, so here is the bit the TLS have made available to tease you all:

It is tempting to place Stephen Westaby’s Fragile Lives, a memoir of his career as a heart surgeon, in the category the journalist Rosamund Urwin recently called “scalpel lit”; following Atul Gawande’s Complications (2002) and Henry Marsh’s Do No Harm (2014) and Admissions (2017), here is another dispatch from a world arcane even for the majority of doctors. To some degree, Westaby’s book follows the Marsh template. In cardiac surgery as in neurosurgery, life and death are finely poised, and even minor technical mishaps by the surgeon, or brief delays in getting equipment to theatre, can have catastrophic consequences.

Like Marsh, Westaby, a consultant at the John Radcliffe hospital in Oxford, is jaundiced about the bureaucracy of health care and the mandatory “training” imposed on even the most experienced practitioners – “writing my personal development plan at the age of sixty-eight”. Now that death rates are published by the NHS,…

Makes you want to read the whole thing, does it not?

As it happens, Henry Marsh’s Admissions is reviewed in the same issue by George Berridge.

The world of Policy and the Salzburg Statement

With his recent elevation to Taoiseach, something Leo Varadkar (who was supposed to work with me when I did a locum in Tallaght in May 2007… but he was occupied with some election or other) said in the late 1990s got a fair bit of coverage. This was to the effect that as a doctor you can help a few people, but as Minister for Health you can help millions. While at first glance this seems like a truism, it has for some reason got under my skin. There are various reasons for this, not all of which I will get into. Perhaps I am jealous of a road not travelled! (I am pretty confident I am not)

In a way it sums up a particular seduction – the seduction of the World of Policy. Get interested in any field – from the natural world to technology to medicine indeed – and sooner or later the siren song of policy will be heard. Wouldn’t it be great to Make A Difference not just on the piecemeal, day-to-day way, but on a grander scale? Increasingly I think not. Clearly someone needs to formulate policy and to think about things on a broad scale – but they should do so without illusions and with a certain humility. People have a habit of behaving in a way that the enlightened policy makers don’t foresee.  The circuit of conferences and “networking” can become an echo chamber of self congratulation. Doing good, perhaps, is best done on a smaller scale.

These thoughts are occasioned by reading about the Salzburg Statement. This is something I heartily approve of – a call for action to ensure all children enjoy the right to play in a nature rich space within ten minutes of their home.  The statement is made up of eight key actions:

Eight actions to transform cities for children

  1. Ensure children of all ages, backgrounds, income, and abilities have equitable access to nature and play regularly and in meaningful ways to promote good health and wellbeing.

  2. Embed nature in everyday places used by children, such as schools, backyards, parks, playgrounds and city streets, to make the city into a natural outdoor classroom.

  3. Involve children in designing and planning natural spaces for recreation, education, inspiration and health, to give them ownership and pride in their local communities, schools and parks

  4. Build curiosity, wonder, and care for nature in children (for example by greening school grounds and involving children with community gardens).

  5. Protect natural features across cityscapes and create an equitably distributed network of accessible green and nature-rich spaces that all generations can reach on foot.

  6. Connect cities with the broader ecosystems in which they are embedded, creating corridors for people, plants and animals to move safely across the city and into its surroundings.

  7. Establish more urban conservation areas to increase access to nature and connect cities to the broader protected area network.

  8. Work together through cross sectoral and multi-level partnerships to build an inclusive culture of health in cities.


There’s nothing there I would disagree with, though as with all these kind of interventions I would like more robust dissection of what, say, Item 3 would mean in practice.

I am always a little wary of dressing up worthy activity in the mantle of Health. What Resting a case for nature on the vagaries of purported health benefits can be a dangerous and debunkable game – especially with the media. This visual  handily shows how media can seize on single studies to generate headlines:statins.png

One can easily imagine a Katie Hopkins-ish journalist seizing on the inevitable ambiguities of research to “debunk” the claims for health benefits of nature.

I should state very clearly I have no reason to think that the Salzburg Statement is a wonderful initiative I look forward to hearing more of. But I am a little wary of the siren call of the World of Policy.