Category Archives: Politics

A slightly different take on Ahmed Mohamed

As you have probably heard, 14 year old Ahmed Mohamed was taken away from school on Monday, in handcuffs, for bringing a homemade clock to school.

In the bright distant hindsight of a social media shitstorm, the teachers, the principal, the police, and everyone were to blame for misunderstanding (at best) or racial profiling and racism (at worst), and the claims of officials, as reported by the Washington Post, are seen as lame:

School officials, however, insist that their staff and police acted appropriately in investigating the device as a potential threat.

“The information that has been made public to this point has been very unbalanced,” Lesley Weaver, a spokeswoman for Irving Independent School District, said at a Wednesday news conference. “We always ask our students and staff to immediately report if they observe any suspicious items or if they observe any suspicious behavior.

Reviewing the sequence of events, roughly

  1. Ahmed builds a clock to show his teachers and friends the hobby he is proud of.
  2. He brings the clock to school, and shows his first teacher, in engineering class (wait, they have engineering class in ninth grade? Wish I had that!)
  3. the teacher reportedly said something like “That’s really nice, I would advise you not to show any other teachers.”
  4. Ahmed carries it around, and an alarm goes off in English class. The English teacher thinks the clock looks suspicious.
  5. Ahmed gets questioned by the school authorities, then the police, and gets taken away.

So what went wrong, and how did this young man’s awesome hobby turn out so badly for him that day?

As much as I would like to chastise the English teacher and principal, I think they probably had little choice. It would not surprise me if it were in fact law that anything suspicious must be reported, the same way we are required to report suspected abuse to children’s aid immediately. So while they may have been ignorant and fearful, it may have made no difference – if someone thought the device looked suspicious, they may have had an obligation to call the police.

Here’s the clock, by the way. Innocuous enough to anyone who has the slightest understanding of electronics. Scary as hell to anyone who doesn’t but has watched too many spy movies.

So that really leaves Ahmed himself, the Engineering teacher, and the police.

Ahmed is a 14 year old with complete first hand knowledge of the workings of his clock (and no first hand knowledge of what a bomb looks like), a project he was proud of. So while some might say he should have known it looked like a bomb, I think that in itself ascribes lost innocence to the boy. I think he can safely be exonerated, though the harsh reality has made itself known to him, and I suspect he will be overly cautious in the future. Sadly.

The Engineering teacher apparently recognized it for what it was, and also recognized that other teachers may not. Since that teacher did not report the clock as suspicious, he clearly knew it was safe, but did warn Ahmed that others might find it suspicious. But this is where, as a teacher, I find there was a missed opportunity. If he knew it might be considered suspicious, and knew that suspicious objects could get Ahmed in trouble, he could have done something about it. Something such as “Hey, you know what? this case makes it look sinister to people who don’t know about this stuff. Why don’t you let me look after it for now so it doesn’t cause any trouble, and you can pick it up after school.” Or even better: “”Hey, you know what? this case makes it look sinister to people who don’t know about this stuff. Why don’t you let me look after it for now and later we can make a cooler case for it later on.”

That leaves the police. Were any of the police members of the bomb squad? Did any of them know what a bomb actually looks like, or have any training in electronics? Probably not. So they arrive to find a device that someone was suspicious of, and they did what they do (when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail), which is apply pressure to “suspects” to try to elicit a confession. They overstepped their authority when they failed to let him call his father, unless they too are under very specific guidelines to treat any “perceived terrorist threat” with patriot act -like authority.

So it is really hard to lay heavy blame in any one place. The first teacher could have been more helpful, and the police could have been less heavy handed (much, much less). The principal could have called the father, and could have been more supportive. Racism, whether overt or subconscious, most likely played a role, and that is in part (or largely) due to the relentless news coverage of “The War on Terror” and the resulting heightened fear.

The whole sequence was a tragedy of errors, and could (should) have been mitigated or stopped at many points by someone doing more than “just following orders”, but sadly was not.

I just hope that Ahmed continues to follow his dreams, and make fabulous things. I hope more people become aware that kids can make fabulous things that aren’t scary, and that this brings a little more awareness of issues of racial profiling and police behaviour, particularly towards children in our schools.

You go Ahmed! Keep making cool stuff!




There is an entrenched, legislated fear response, fueled by constant reminders of “War on Terror” and “See something, say something”. At every level the guidelines are essentially, “if you see something suspicious, report it to your superior”. So the slightest little suspicion automatically gets passed up the line, up the line up the line again until the police are called, and since it is a “suspicion of terrorism” the police are already on a heightened alertness, and operating under an assumption that they are being called because of a legitimate threat.

Checks and balances people, we need checks and balances.



Praise and self-esteem

I have spoken before about some of the things I don’t believe. There are many trends and fads in education, and many seem self-evidently true – but as a scientist I know that what seems self-evident needs to be tested before becoming an accepted rule.

One of the biggest such fads is “self-esteem”. We are told that without self esteem, children will fail. It has been repeated so often that it has become part of the fabric of the education system in North America. It has changed policy, making it harder for students to fail (because that would hurt their self esteem, which would lead to, um, failure).

Part of the self-esteem picture is providing positive reinforcement, which usually comes in the form of praise. I mean, after all, who doesn’t get a little charge out of praise – or even flattery? It gives you that little rush of happiness, and that has to be good for self-esteem, right? And that has to be good for student success, right?

But that has always bothered me. Sure, I get that little rush when praised just like anyone else, but I always flt self-esteem came from accomplishment, not praise. Now a new study in the British Journal of Educational Psychology addresses the issue of praise, and concludes not only that some praise – that directed at the person (“You are very clever”) is detrimental, but also that process directed praise (“You worked hard”) is no better at fostering future success (or dealing with future failures) than no praise at all. In other words, one of the things that has been pushed in education for the last thirty years as being “self-evident” is virtually useless at best, and often detrimental.

What really bothers me is that, though I like to try to keep up with the research, most educators and policy makers do not. Decisions are based not on research, but popular belief and seeming-self-evident “truths”. And those of us who try to base our best practice on research are not lauded for doing so (which might feel good, but not actually help our self-esteem…) but criticized for not going along with the popular trends.


Look beyond the rhetoric

I am sure by now most educators reading this blog will have seen this cartoon:

I don’t actually know the origin of this frame, but it has been passed around a lot. The message is clear: one-size-fits-all testing is flawed, differentiation is important. While presumably intended as a critique of standardized testing, it has been spread wider, with resulting insinuations about classroom instruction as well. Today this cartoon was tagged onto the end of an email sent out to the staff, as I’m sure it has many times in many schools around the world. A colleague of mine – a veteran teacher teacher who has a knack for waving aside smoke and mirrors – sent a simple reply:

Perhaps they should not have all been registered in the course on tree climbing to begin with.

That one statement opens up a slew of issues, all of which require their own conversation around fairness, equality, homogenization vs streaming vs differentiation, the difference between primary and secondary education, who bears responsibility for ensuring students are in an appropriate program, and even the use of rhetorical devices in complex discussions of education as a whole.

I will not be elaborating further on this topic here, I have too much work to do. But feel free to talk amongst yourselves.


Even though I am not in the US, SOPA/PIPA will have an international impact. So today I post this video. If you are in the US, please contact your elected representatives and and let them know the negative impact it will have.

Why the corporate reform of education is misguided

And so the “education reform” debate continues in the US, with calls for improved performance based on standardized tests, and calls for merit pay and turning over staff of under-performing schools. All of this is based on a corporate competition model – the belief that competition leads to improved quality and efficiency.

This, of course, is misguided bull.

The competition model is profit-based, and requires a product or service. Two or more companies with similar products (or services) will vie for sales of their product over the competition. This requires two things: first, a market, and second, a non-essential commodity. The market may be individuals or corporations, but whichever they are, they are paying directly for the commodity. Fee for product or service – like buying a bicycle or dining at a restaurant.  And the commodity must be non-essential, because competition only works if there is a genuine risk of failure. If one restaurant or bicycle company goes out of business, there are plenty of other options, and even if all restaurants and bicycle companies went belly up, we would still survive.

Education violates both requirements. It has no direct market, and it IS an essential service.

In a publicly funded education system we don’t buy educated students, and we don’t choose an appetizer and an entrée, or a paint colour, or an oil change. The government pays for the education of students as an essential public good through tax revenue. This makes education more like the police or fire service, or like the water supply. In those cases an essential public good is paid for from collective tax revenue. Imagine governments cutting funding to water treatment plants with aging equipment because their water quality is slipping, or closing a plant and telling the public to get their water from somewhere else.

The reformers who are pushing for more charter and private schools are trying to push the first premise – they are trying to create a direct, fee for service market for education. Never mind that competition often leads to off-shore outsourcing, and reduced price at the expense of quality, and not always the holy grail of increased quality and efficiency. Even if that was feasible, the second point still stands: education is an essential service, and as such it cannot be placed in a position where it can be allowed to fail.

Now, you might ask, why is a Canadian (and one who teaches at a private school to boot) so concerned about public education in the US? The answer is simple and twofold. First, the US is the driving economic force on the continent, even the hemisphere. The prosperity of all of us, particularly in a nation so tightly linked as Canada, is dependent on the prosperity of the US, which is in turn tied to the education of its people. And second, the trends in US education will be watched and emulated by other nations – particularly when conservative governments are in power – so what happens there can happen here.

Education needs to move into the 21st century. Reform is necessary. But before we decide on how it is to be reformed, we need to have actual goals – and I mean other than misleading test scores. Only then can we decide how best to meet those goals, and use that knowledge to determine how to proceed.