Dieting Makes You Fat

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:27 am

I feel as though I’ve written about this before, but a search doesn’t find it, so maybe it was in another venue, or was one of the mysterious Lost Posts. And my apologies to everyone who already knows this: just skip this one!

The idea that dieting helps you to lose weight is predicated on a very machine-like model of the human body. It’s almost like accountancy – you need 2000 calories a day to run your body, and if you eat more than that you’ll gain weight, if you eat less than that you’ll lose weight. But it’s not quite like that: as the Bible says, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”. Our bodies are complex adaptive systems that react to the environment in complex ways.

So what actually happens when you dramatically cut your energy intake by going on a diet (without changing your exercise patterns) is that your body’s systems assume that you’re eating less because there’s a famine. That means the priority is to survive on as little food as possible. Your body immediately turns down your metabolism, burning energy more slowly. It starts hoarding fat in fat cells more carefully, and becomes much more reluctant to burn it. It will even go so far as to burn lean muscle before it will burn fat – that fat is the crucial energy store for survival through the famine. So what will generally happen when you go on a strict diet is that you’ll lose some water weight pretty quickly as you stop retaining water, then your weight will plateau.

The whole point of diets, though, is that they end. When you go off the diet your body remains in ‘famine mode’ for quite a while, meaning low metabolism and the tendency to keep and store fat as a priority. You’re almost guaranteed to gain back at least the weight you lost, and unless you’re very careful to add some new weight. Then you freak, diet again and repeat the cycle.

The whole goal if you really want to lose weight is to do the opposite: convince your body that there’s enough food to go around, so it needn’t panic, but what you really need is some lean muscle. You do that by exercising. That works on the ‘debit’ side of that accounting worksheet I described above – suddenly you need 2200 or 2500 calories a day to run your body – but it’s more than that. You body says “hey, we seem to be doing lots of exercise (and there’s enough food). OK, all these full fat cells are holding us back and making it harder work than it needs to be – let’s get rid of those and build some muscle to help with the exercise.” It will crank up your metabolism and burn more energy faster, it will burn fat and save muscle – and you’ll meet your goals.

Three other pieces of the puzzle:

  1. Weight is not the point, how you look and feel is the point. In particular, lean muscle is more dense (heavier for the same volume) than fat, so if you start exercising regularly you may actually gain pounds or kilograms (depending on your proportions when you started). But you’ll look better and feel better when the weight is in muscle, not fat. You really need to get your body fat percentage checked as a measure, rather than just look at your weight.
  2. “I’m not fat, I’m just big-boned.” It sounds like an excuse, and most times it probably is. But there’s some truth to it too. Will your thumb and middle finger meet around your wrist? Mine won’t – not by at least a centimetre. There’s no fat there, that’s all skin and bone – I just have big bones and a thick neck and huge shoulders (partly because I spent 6 months on crutches twice in my life, and hit the gym 3 times a week for about 2 years). So I’m maybe carrying 20 pounds more than my ideal weight, or maybe even less than that, but the Body Mass Index (BMI) describes me as ‘obese’, just because it only takes height and weight into account, not frame and muscle. On that measure, most bodybuilders, with minsicule fat percentages, would also be shown as overweight: which is why fat percentage is a much better measure than weight or BMI. This point might sound like I’m being defensive (and maybe I am, a bit!), but my daughters have pretty much inherited my bone structure, so it’s important for them to understand this stuff.
  3. As I said above, the point of diets is that they end – and that’s what makes them so ineffective and even damaging. Exercise is the number one weapon for losing fat and gaining muscle, but if you’re going to change some of your eating patterns too, then don’t think about it as a ‘diet’, but as a ‘change of diet’. More raw and unprocessed stuff, more fruit and veg, less cheese and meat and ice cream and peanut butter. Less beer and soft drink (pop), more water and fresh fruit juice. All sensible changes to make, but if you make them for 3 weeks and then stop it’s worse than useless. Change your diet and keep it that way – and then you’re in a position to afford the occassional ‘wicked’ treat. And fad diets are even worse than normal diets, because they’re nutritionally unbalanced in addition to all the other bad stuff dieting does.

So here’s to your very good health, happiness with your body and long life! The exercise doesn’t have to be Olympian – a half hour walk three times a week will burn some calories, but more importantly it will crank up your metabolism and tell your body it should burn fat, not muscle. And you might even by able to go for that walk with your partner and chat, and spread the health to other parts of your life.


Why You’ll Never Go Broke Selling Diets… Or Religion

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:29 pm

It’s a great con that’s pretty much water-tight. Leaving aside the fact that dieting makes people gain weight1 and the fact that the women’s magazines often have ‘our great diet to help you lose pounds and inches!’ right next to ‘our great recipe for sugar, lard, peanut-butter chocolate cake!’, it’s pretty hard to go broke selling diets. Why? Because if the person loses weight, your diet gets the credit, and they sell it for you by word of mouth to all their friends. But that’s not the truly beautiful part: if they don’t lose weight, they don’t blame the diet, they blame themselves! They must have cheated once too often, not stuck to the diet rigidly enough, not done enough exercise, inhaled when passing a McDonalds… something.

Religion can be the same: something goes well, you succeed, or life is good – “Give God the glory!” Something goes wrong in your life, or you suffer in some way, and clearly you just haven’t been faithful enough, believed enough or prayed enough. If it goes well, He gets the credit, if it goes badly, you get the blame.

Sorry, I reject both of those guilt traps. I reject dieting entirely – I could probably stand to lose some weight, but I’m not stressing on it, and if I was I’d increase my exercise rather than diet. And if God is going to have a role in my life, then both the credit and the blame gets shared. If I have a great job and a great family, fair enough, praise God – but I’ve worked hard for both, and keep on making the good decisions, so I deserve some of the credit. And when things go wrong – in minor or major ways – God has the big desk where the buck stops.

  1. That’s a rant for another day – possibly tomorrow!



Filed under: — Bravus @ 3:26 am

I’ll be out of town, and probably out of touch, for the next couple of days at 2Learn.ca’s Provincial Inservice in Calgary, where I’m giving a keynote presentation on videoconference teaching and learning (info at the link).


Death Penalty and Deterrence

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:47 am

The death penalty deters potential murderers, right? That’s why it’s done? Well, that and vengeance. So what do we do with these stats that show that every year since 1991, the US states that have the death penalty have had higher murder rates than those that don’t – sometimes up to 44% higher?

(And I have to admit, I was mildly scathing in private about our pastor a couple of months ago when he preached on the death penalty – because it’s not a live issue (pun intended) in Canada. I guess I justify posting about this by referring to the international readership of this blog… and by the fact that laws seem to be getting more draconian all over – shoot-to-kill provisions are in front of the Australian parliament right now.)


Mutability of the Digital 2

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:06 am

This article1 from The Register about VMware’s VMware Player is a hint about the future of computing.

Essentially, VMware has always been about the ability to create a ‘virtual machine’ inside another operating system on a computer. In its early stages it was often used by people who wanted to run their Windows programs on a Linux system, for example. VMware allows the Linux machine to ’emulate’ a computer on which Windows can be installed (if you buy Windows), essentially allowing the best of both worlds. Or indeed, all possible worlds: no reason you can’t also have a ‘virtual machine’ on the same computer running MacOS X, or BeOS, or one of the BSDs, or…

Emulation used to be slow, because the computer was essentially not only crunching the bits for the Windows program but converting all those through the Linux layers2 and back again. It may still slow the machine down enough that your framerates on games aren’t so awesome, but advances in the code’s efficiency, as well as the huge advances in computing power available over the past few years, mean this kind of approach is now very viable.

So, given a few more years, the question ‘is it a Mac or a PC (or a Linux box)?’ will mean virtually nothing, and be met with blank incomprehension. Every computer will be all of the above: to paraphrase Feyerabend, “every computer is potentially all computers”.

  1. the ‘… as in beer’ comes from a distinction made in the Open Source/Free Software community: “The Free Software Foundation (FSF), started in 1985, intended the word ‘free’ to mean “free as in free speech” and not “free as in free beer.”” (Wikipedia) That is, free speech might be exercised in a newspaper, but you still have to buy the newspaper. ‘Free’ software is not always given away free of charge – it may be charged for, but its source code is openly available, and able to be adapted (under certain conditions).
  2. someone more techie than I might be able to correct me on this!


Parents, Schools and Rights

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:22 am

Shane, a friend on one of the forums I attend, raised this point this week:

There are two issues that Americans don’t like about public schools. Poll after poll shows Americans don’t like the extremes of sex education being taught (and they are not taught in their extremes in many school districts). Polls also show over 70% of Americans believe that biology teachers should also teach the scientific evidence against evolution. Over 50% believe specifically that Intelligent Design should be taught in the classroom.

The issues are these. The taxpayer pays for the schools and wants to have a voice in what is taught. For the most part, school boards listen to the taxpayer. However Anti-American organizations that have a secular agenda (like the ACLU) continually try to thwart the democratic process and force their will on the individual schools. It is the height of arrogance for these groups to tell the people what can and cannot be taught to their children with their money. In private education this problem doesn’t exist. Private schools teach Intelligent Design or its distant cousin, Creation, and their students do quite well.

In further discussion with Shane he clarified that his key point is whether or not parents have the right to determine what their kids learn in school, or whether governments at all levels, influenced by lawsuits and lobby groups, have the over-riding right to decide what should be taught.

Part of my response was as follows:

I’m quite sympathetic to this view: the primary responsibility for children’s development and education lies with their parents. But the issue then becomes difficult in any situation in which there is not a single faith with a monopoly. What happens if in a California school near Berkeley (just as a humorous example) all the parents want their children to be taught a Wiccan theory of the creation of the world, and choose their school board appropriately? Wouldn’t mainstream Christians scream at the top of their lungs about tax funds being used for that purpose? The reason for avoiding establishing religion in publicly funded schools is the ‘whose religion?’ problem.

The remaining issue, of course, is the claim that Intelligent Design is a scientific rather than a religious theory. Whether we like it or not, the way science advances is through the consensus of the community of scientists, and that consensus currently says ID is not science. To approach it from another direction, ID’s claims are metaphysical, and cannot be empirically tested. Some of the ‘hand-maiden’ ideas that attend evolution are likewise metaphysical, and these should be challenged where they are taught in the public schools.

I guess there are a few options – influencing what happens in the public schools, placing your kids in a private school that teaches them what you want taught, or homeschooling them. I suspect there are people who read here who do all three of those things.

So leave aside for a moment the specific issue of the status of Intelligent Design theory (discussed in Saturday’s post), and think about the more general question: who decides what is on the school curriculum? By what processes, and in whose interests? It’s always tempting to think about the curriculum as though it was handed down from Mount Sinai, scribed by the hand of God, but of course it’s actually a political document, created through political processes. Should parents have a bigger role? Should teachers?

And the converse of that – how healthy is it when homeschooling parents get to decide all of the curriculum, with no moderating political influence? I know Lorne and his wife Dawn do a great job, and imagine many homeschool parents do, but then you see this story.


Intelligent Design ≠ Benign Design

Filed under: — Bravus @ 5:32 am

I have no real brief for, or beef with, Intelligent Design (ID) theory – the idea that life in the universe is too complex to have arisen through the processes of evolution (mutation + natural selection + time) and required a designer. I don’t believe it’s science, because it’s metaphysics, but neither is atheistic materialism science, and that’s often taught as part of evolution courses. On one level the whole “should ID be taught in science class?” debate seems wrong-headed to me. The division of the whole complexity of life into a bunch of school subjects makes no sense anyway, it’s just a convenience, so the conversation we should really be having is about integrating the curriculum and abolishing these arbitrary divisions… but maybe that’s another rant for another day.

There are two arguments that are being used against Intelligent Design, though, that are logically flawed and weaken the case, and I thought I’d spend a few minutes on each of them. The first is the oft-heard statement “Well, if Intelligent Design is real science, its proponents should be publishing real scientific papers in real, peer-reviewed scientific journals”. On the surface it’s plausible enough: the checks and balances that ensure scientific progress and detect scientific fraud revolve around the peer review system1.

But, pure and objective and unsullied by politics as we might like to think the peer review system is, what it actually consists of is people like you and me2 sitting around in offices reviewing papers. And that process, as Thomas Kuhn has explained, occurs within certain sets of shared beliefs and assumptions (‘paradigms’) that tend to make it difficult for scientists to see alternative perspectives. Simpler than that, though, is that academic publishing is a business: if publishing ID articles brings your journal into disrepute and costs you sales – as it’s very likely to with a fiercely opposed evolutionary biology community – why would you do it? So the barriers to publication for ID articles are extremely high, and it’s disingenuous to use the lack of publications as evidence of a lack of merit in these theories.

The second issue that’s often used as an argument is ‘so, given an intelligent designer, how do you explain childhood leukemia, or the anopheles mosquito, or the fact that our vulnerable testes are in a very kickable spot, or… [whatever other random bad thing]’. It’s also an understandable misunderstanding, but it makes the logical error of assuming that intelligent design is the same thing as benign design. That’s at least partly because implicit in most of the Intelligent Design discussion but very carefully not made explicit is the idea that God (usually a pretty specific Western Christian God) is the Designer. Since God is seen as benevolent, it seems to follow that the design should be helpful, nice, good for us. But there’s no requirement in Intelligent Design theory that God be the designer – it could be an advanced race of aliens, or ‘person or persons unknown’. Based on all the evidence around us, intelligent design (if it exists at all and isn’t just a misreading of evolution) has been applied toward the purpose of survival. A shark, for example, is an awesomely well-designed predator. Tough on its food, and tough on us if we venture into its world, but still an awesome example of design. To take the three cases I mentioned above:

  1. Childhood leukemia is a form of cancer – of cells replicating in ways that are harmful to the human. It’s bad and it’s horrible and you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy. But it’s an example of a flaw in an astonishing design, not an example of design as such. If you look at the DNA-RNA replication sequences, there are unbelievable safeguards built in to prevent and correct errors. They don’t always work 100%, but if they weren’t there, without being too harsh about it, we’d all be lumps of undifferentiated cancerous cells every time we went out in the sun. The design is stunningly good – it’s just not perfect.
  2. The anopheles mosquito (they’re the ones that carry malaria) example is partly just an example of anthropocentrism: putting humans at the centre. Sure, it sucks that millions of us die from malaria (which, incidentally, is a parasite spread by the mosquito, not something inherent to the mosquito itself), but that’s thinking about it from our perspective. Intelligent Design, and biology more generally, has to think of it from the perspective of the anopheles mosquito and the malaria parasite, and both of those are doing pretty nicely, thanks very much. In fact, the mosquitos are even adapting to our penchant for spraying them with insecticides by becoming resistant…
  3. I could suggest that putting our testes out there in the breeze like that was God’s way of evening up the odds: make us bigger and stronger, but uniquely vulnerable… 😉 I could also suggest that it evens up the odds in another way – women look great naked, we just inspire laughter. 😉 But in fact it turns out that, in order to produce healthy viable sperm, it’s necessary for testes to be a few degrees cooler than core body temperature. They’re out there swaying in the breeze because they need some air conditioning to work properly (and tight underwear that pulls them in close to the body again has been shown to lower sperm counts and motility (swimming ability)). So although it might look like a suspect design decision, it actually makes perfect sense.

As I said at the beginning – I have no brief for ID. For me it’s an undecidable question – interesting for dorm room bull sessions but not able to be decided in any final way. But if we’re going to discuss theories, we need to at least use high quality arguments.

  1. I’m currently reading Neal Stephenson’s wonderful ‘Quicksilver’, about the Royal Society and the very beginnings of this kind of system of scientific inquiry – it’s highly recommended.
  2. exactly like me: I’m writing this post while procrastinating before peer reviewing a paper!


Greasin’ My Humps

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:32 am

The girls were watching ‘Grease’ at our house last night, and I was working on the other computer and listening. I was struck again by something that has always bugged me about the lyrics of “Summer Lovin'”:

Guys to guy: “Tell me more, tell me more, did you get very far?”
Girls to girl: “Tell me more, tell me more, like does he have a car?”

Made in the 70s but set in the 50s, it reduces relationships between the sexes to guys wanting sex and girls wanting stuff. It’d be nice to think that 30 years of feminism might have advanced our notions just a little bit, but then the Black Eyed Peas release the execrable ‘My Humps’ (sample lyrics: “My hump, my hump, my hump, my hump, my hump/My hump, my hump, my hump”).

It’s essentially a hymn by the girl singer to her own butt, and its ability to… make the guys buy her stuff:

I drive these brothers crazy,
I do it on the daily,
They treat me really nicely,
They buy me all these ice-ys.
Dolce & Gabbana,
Fendi and then Donna
Karan, they be sharin’
All their money got me wearin’
Fly gearrr but I ain’t askin,
They say they love my ass ‘n,
Seven Jeans, True Religion’s,
I say no, but they keep givin’
So I keep on takin’
And no I ain’t taken
We can keep on datin’
I keep on demonstrating.

Plenty of other pop songs have the same kind of themes – the girls as sex objects for the single-minded guys, the guys as sources of money for clothes and shoes. So apparently we haven’t grown up as a society that much – in fact you could argue we’ve gone downhill if anything.

I’m not calling for a return to the values of the actual or fictional 50s, but for a recognition that we have so much more to offer each other than humps and bling.


Category 6

Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:50 am

The fact that we’re having lots of hurricanes this year, and the fact that the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic is currently heading for Central America, got me thinking today about why the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Damage Scale – the one that describes hurricanes as Category 1 up to Category 5 – isn’t open ended. After all, the Richter Scale used for measuring earthquakes is: it has no theoretical maximum.

One reason, I guess, is that the Saffir-Simpson Scale is intended to describe how much damage a hurricane will do to property. Once you get up to Category 5, if that hits your house, your house is all gone, and it can’t be any more gone than that, if you know what I mean. So there’s a certain logic as to why the scale only has 5 steps. But given that Wilma is the strongest Atlantic hurricane ever, it’s likely that we’ll see even stronger storms. What might a Category 6 storm look like?

Well, the maximum wind speeds for the 5 current categories are:

Category 1 – 95 mph (153 kmh)
Category 2 – 110 mph (177 kph)
Category 3 – 130 mph (209 kph)
Category 4 – 155 mph (248 kph)
Category 5 – no theoretical maximum

If we look at the differences between the categories, they’re increasing as you go up the scale:

15 mph between Categories 1 and 2
20 mph between 2 and 3
25 mph between 3 and 4.

Keeping on the same scale there’d be a 30 mph difference between the maximum wind speeds for 4 and 5, which would yield a maximum wind speed of 185 mph for a Category 5 hurricane.

Wilma is currently at 195 mph (313 kph), so although such a category doesn’t exist, if it did Wilma would be a Category 6 hurricane.

We can do the same kind of analysis with barometric pressure:

Cat 1 = above 98 kPa
Cat 2 = 98.0-96.5 kPa (difference 1.5)
Cat 3 = 96.5-94.5 kPa (difference 2.0)
Cat 4 = 94.5-92.0 kPa (difference 2.5).
Cat 5 (for which there’s currently no theoretical minimum) would then = 92.0-89.0 kPa (difference 3.0)

That, too, would put Wilma – at 882 millibars or 88.2 kPa – well into the (imaginary) Category 6 zone.

(Incidentally, Category 7 would consist of 85.5 kPa and 220 mph (354 kph) winds. Doesn’t bear thinking about.)


Ideas About Teaching/Learning/Research

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:44 am

I thought maybe I’d posted this before, but if I did it got lost in the crash, so I thought I’d give it another run. It’s the ‘Philosophy of Teaching’ that was a required part of my application for tenure and promotion last year. I got it out again as part of a conversation with Max van Manen, and thought it might be interesting to… someone. It’s probably a bit more technical than most of the stuff I post here, but hopefully still clear enough to be accessible.

Teaching is an activity for grownups. In order to be able to work with children and young people in pedagogical ways, it is necessary to be sufficiently mature and secure to put the students’ needs and interests first. Personal maturity (considered as a self-regulating ideal towards which one is always growing but never reaching) removes the teacher’s ego from centre stage. Rather than being concerned with how s/he is perceived by the students, or how the teaching performance is ‘going’ from a technical perspective, the mature teacher has the interests of the students, individually and collectively, as his/her focus of attention.

From a perspective that recognises the reflexivity of living in human relationships (Steier, 1995), I regard teaching as part of the emergent activity of teaching/learning/research. In the community of the classroom, learning is co-constructed by all participants. Teachers learn from their colleagues and students, and conduct research (both formal and informal) as they aspire to improve their practice. Students teach their teachers and fellow students, and conduct experiments in learning and social interaction. Separating this rich blend of activities into teaching, learning and research may be useful to help us talk about them, but I experience being with students as teaching/learning/research.

Enactivist (Davis, 1995) epistemological perspectives suggest that our actions arise out of the totality of our being, in engagement with our environments. I experience teaching in this way – I bring all of myself to the classroom (as well as to my research and writing), and act and react out of who I am. The process is only partially rational and intentional, and draws on experience, subconscious processing and relationship reflexes. I bring to the classroom the love of my family and my conversations with Sue over many years. I bring the thousands of novels and other books I’ve read, and all the lives I’ve vicariously lived through fiction. I bring my experience of playing computer games and conversing with people all over the world in online forums. I bring my religious faith, as well as the questions and conflicts engendered by my struggles to believe and accept. I bring my political views and commitments, and my connections with pop culture through movies and music.

But teaching is also thoughtful, intentional, reflective. Reflection is a more active process of weaving my teaching experiences and commitments into the fabric of who I am. Reflection on past classroom actions and their consequences informs my understanding, and future actions grow out of that understanding. Max Van Manen says it better than I can:

…pedagogy requires a reflective orientation to life… By thoughtfully reflecting on what I should have done, I decide in effect how I want to be. In other words, I infuse my being and my readiness to act with a certain thoughtfulness. And yet, how I am now as a teacher will not be clear until I have had further opportunities to act in more appropriate ways. How I am as a teacher depends on what I do, on my possibilities for acting thoughtfully. But my possible actions do not magically arise, they depend on the thoughtfulness that I have been able to acquire in recollective reflection. (Van Manen, 1991, p. 116)

Reflection-in-action while teaching, and reflection-on-action after teaching (Gore & Zeichner, 1991; Griffiths & Tann, 1992), are carried on at three levels, derived from the work of Jurgen Habermas (1971). The technical level addresses the techniques of teaching – ‘did I do it right?’ The practical addresses relationships and communication – ‘did I connect with these students in human ways and build communicative relationships?’ The emancipatory addresses reified assumptions and habits that block the development of communicative relationships – ‘what features of my character and beliefs, and of the culture of schooling, are causing me to fail to serve these students’ needs?’ The emancipatory interest (sometimes also called the ‘critical’) also challenges me to ask the question ‘whose interests are served?’

I believe that relationships are at the centre of the activity of teaching. My aspiration is to always show the utmost respect for the beliefs, knowledge, skills and person of each of my students. Student evaluations of my teaching suggest I am succeeding in this aspiration, with scores related to mutual respect and the emotional safety of the classroom environment consistently being the highest on my evaluations. If anything, perhaps I err too far in the direction of listening to students and trying to meet their perceived needs. Most criticisms that are made of my teaching arise out of a perception that I ask students to share their own knowledge and experience with one another too often, and don’t spend enough time just telling them!

I recognise, in my graduate and undergraduate teaching, and my local and international professional development work, that there is a balance to be struck between meeting teachers’ perceived needs – the things they know they need to know – and drawing on my own knowledge and experience to teach them things that they don’t yet know they need to know. Once again, Max says it best:

To write about pedagogical thoughtfulness and tact courts the dangerous presumption that one claims to know how to behave with moral superiority. By definition pedagogy is always concerned with the ability to distinguish between what is good and what is not good for children. Many educational thinkers are uncomfortable with this assumption, they try to pursue educational problems and questions in a value neutral or relativistic manner. It is wrong, however, to confuse pedagogical discourse with moral diatribe or preaching. Preaching is an act of moral exhortation on the basis of some unquestioned dogma. But pedagogy does not aim to deliver diatribe. Pedagogy is a practical discipline. On the one hand, educators need to show that in order to stand up for the welfare of children, one must be prepared to stand out and be criticised. On the other hand, pedagogy is a self-reflective activity that always must be willing to question critically what it does and what it stands for. (Van Manen, 1991, p. 10)

This is a balance that I am continuing to focus on in my reflection, and attempting to improve. Certainly one important part of the solution is learning how to sensitively make teachers aware of their ‘unperceived’ needs.

I continue to find Lee Shulman’s (1986) construct ‘pedagogical content knowledge’ compelling: what is it that science teachers need to know that (a) other teachers don’t and (b) scientists don’t? At another level, what do I need to know in order to teach science teachers that (a) science teachers don’t and (b) my colleagues in other disciplines within this department don’t? If knowledge is defined in enactivist terms, as a disposition toward certain (emergent) ways of acting in certain contexts, then how will my actions (including mental representations) be different when teaching compared to those of others? In what ways do my teaching/learning/research, inside and outside classrooms, inform and enrich my Being, in order that I can enrich others?

Teaching is an activity for grownups, and while I think I’m sufficiently grown up to be a very good teacher, maturity is a self-regulating ideal, and there’s always more growing up to do. The central task is to keep an open mind and an open heart.


  1. I chose not to use the more familiar ‘Philosophy of Teaching’ title. My philosophy professor at the University of Melbourne, Keith Fleming, convinced me that ‘philosophy’ is a process, not a product – something one does, rather than has. My reason for using a term broader than ‘teaching’ is explained in the text.
  2. I have chosen to use quite lengthy quotes from my colleague, Max Van Manen, simply because his writing on these points so lucidly encapsulates my own beliefs and attitudes.


Davis, B. (1995). Why teach mathematics? Mathematics education and enactivist theory. For the Learning of Mathematics, 15(2): 2-9.

Gore, J.M. & Zeichner, K.M. (1991). Action research and reflective teaching in preservice teacher education: A case study from the United States. Teaching and Teacher Education, 7(2): 119-136.

Griffiths, M. & Tann, S. (1992). Using reflective practice to link personal and public theories. Journal of Education for Teaching, 18(1): 69-84.

Habermas, J. (1971). Knowledge and human interests. Translated by J.J. Shapiro. Boston: Beacon Press.

Kelly, K. (1995). Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World. Boulder, CO: Perseus.

Shulman, L.S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational Researcher, 15(2): 4-14.

Steier, F. (1995). From universing to conversing: An ecological constructivist approach to learning and multiple description. In L.P. Steffe and J. Gale (Eds.), Constructivism in education, (pp. 67-84). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Van Manen, M. (1991). The tact of teaching: The meaning of pedagogical thoughtfulness. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.



Filed under: — Bravus @ 2:09 pm

Today is October 18, 2005, and the very first post on this blog shows up on October 18, 2004, so I guess that makes today the Bravus blog’s first birthday! This is post number 321, but I lost about 100 in a server crash partway through, so I’m sure the real number of posts is over 400. So, despite occassional hiati and lacunae, the average is greater than a post a day.

With all the comment spammers around, the stats no longer give me any very reliable data, but it seems as though at least 30-50 people reliably stop by daily, or at least a couple of times a week, to read and catch up, and I do appreciate it enormously. Probably close to 30 people in total have made comments, and I appreciate that too (and a special honorable mention for Lorne/Sirdar Inc in that direction). Thanks for sticking with me, and my aim is certainly to deliver more of the same for the foreseeable future, only much, much better!


Vancouver Aquarium Cuteness

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:21 pm

Click on the picture for a cute 18 second video of sea otters at the Vancouver Aquarium. We walked down to Stanley Park and hung around with the otters, seals, dolphins, giant catfish and beluga this afternoon. I actually edited up a short video, on the plane on the way home, for the kids from all the little clips we took with the digital camera, but that’s too big to host here. This one is Quicktime and runs to about 8 meg, so not for dialup… (and if I decide to pay Mr Jobs again for Quicktime Pro I might chop this one down a little bit and maybe even add some music or something…)

Edit: OK, much better: I cut down the length a bit and recompressed it with MPEG4, so it’s down from 8 MB to about 0.5 MB! Should be a lot easier to see for everyone.

sea otter


Internationalization: We need some better words

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:40 am

At the conference, which is of an international society, a number of different people pointed out at different times that it wasn’t international enough. Although there were representatives from maybe 20 countries in total, the perspectives described in most of the sessions were either from the USA, UK, Canada or Australia, or else involved cross-country comparisons within and between those countries (or whatever the UK is).

Over all I agree – I think it’s always valuable to look more broadly and think from different perspectives. But I counseled against trying to get too international too quickly, for a number of reasons:

  1. Even what we have here is a big step forward: Australians tend to read both literatures, but the educational research literatures of the US and the UK seem to have almost zero overlap, so just the fact that we’re seeing more comparisons and discussions is a step forward.
  2. Do we really want to claim to be speaking for all the world? The French-speaking world? Asia? Africa? The specific kinds of problems and issues this conference is meant to deal with – about teaching in universities and how to conduct research to improve it – are issues that in some ways are peculiar to countries with highly developed, well funded universities.
  3. A related point is that the problems faced by African universities, for example – student and faculty populations decimated by HIV/AIDS, and post-colonial legacies of racial tension and didactic teaching – are huge, important, real problems. But they’re very different to the focus problems of the conference, and bringing in those countries in a big way too soon has the potential to completely derail the agenda, which I think is a worthwhile one. We should work in other ways to help those countries address their problems.
  4. There are plenty of relevant internationalisation issues even within the relevant countries: Australian universities have 20% international students in them, mostly from Asia. There are also issues of working with and teaching minority students and indigenous people that are very important in all of these countries and need to be addressed (and are being addressed) at these conferences.

I’m definitely not talking about being exclusive – I want to encourage, invite and support people from all over the world who are interested in these issues to attend and present at the conferences. I just think the issue needs to be dealt with carefully.

So we would need terms. Saying ‘Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in English-Speaking Developed Countries’ is pretty awkward, and the whole first/new/third world and developed/developing world labelling system is kind of awkward. Any ideas about a collective noun for the group of countries described above (with the inclusion of similar ones like New Zealand, Scandinavia and Western Europe, maybe)? And do you agree with me about the approach to internationalisation?


Famine and Feast

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:53 pm

No post yesterday because I was en route to Vancouver for the conference of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, and then in the first few conference sessions, and then at the Opeth concert last night. Three (besides this one) today because the combination of conference and concert has been rich and fired off a bunch of ideas for me. You should read from the bottom up in traditional blog style for optimal coherence… 😉

Who I Really Am

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:52 pm

A couple of lines from the Rollins Band’s song ‘Divine’ have been going through my head: ‘Show me, how you really feel/Show me, who you really are’. That one is in the context of violence and ‘mob rule’ – how you’ll act in the context of a riot or a mob might express something about who you really are that is normally masked by politeness, social mores or the fear of punishment.

It links in my mind with a line from a Nickelback song that I loathe (OK, I loathe all Nickelback songs): ‘This is how you remind me of what I really am’. I have two problems with it – first, a person is a ‘who’, not a ‘what’. Using ‘what’ turns a person into an object, and there’s way too much of that happening already without beating it into your head with a song. Saying ‘who I really am’ has a completely different resonance.

But it’s even more profound than that: I’m deeply suspicious of the concept of ‘who I really am’. It’s too essentialist, for a start, as though there’s some single, relatively simple ‘core’ to a person’s personality that sums up the totality of who that person is. I think we’re both (a) more complex than that and (b) more malleable and variable than that. Rather than thinking of ourselves as unitary, it seems to me to make more sense to think of ourselves as multiple, as context-situated, almost as systems of connection and relationship who own knowledge in community with others.

Who I am at least partly depends upon who I’m with and the context: one way of thinking about this is that I’m always me, and it’s just that different aspects or facets of the single ‘me-ness’ are elicited by different contexts, but in some ways I think it’s more powerful to recognise that who I ‘am’ is a function of my roles and relationships, and is constructed moment by moment.

(Right now I’m allegedly a conference attender, but actually a blogger, i.e. a person who is floating these thoughts out into a mesh of friendships, relationships and random connections, hoping they’ll amuse, interest and possibly even inspire.)

The Fog of Blog

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:50 pm

I noticed it before at Gigantour, and again last night at Opeth. When you know you’re going to write a review, or write something up in your blog, that knowledge can tend to mediate the experience itself. I found myself enjoying both concerts, but at the same time trying out terms, descriptions and bons mots for the reviews.

I’ve always pitied, maybe shaded with a bit of contempt, those who live their lives through the lens of a still or video camera. They capture the experience for the future, but it seemed to me that in the process of doing so they lose the experience for now. These holidays, weddings and other peak experiences have been recorded for posterity or for later memory, but at what cost to the way the experience is enjoyed as it happens?

I wonder whether the same thing happens to me when I’m experiencing life incidents with the notion of writing about them, as opposed to just living. Many novelists have talked about this level of detachment that occurs when every human experience and interaction in some sense becomes ‘material’.

This blog doesn’t ‘do it to me’ all that much, because most of the posts are inspired by experiences but arise later, so the experience is one of reflection in hindsight, rather than one where I see life ‘through’ the blog. It could be argued that this process actually enhances the experiences, since writing them out processes them more deeply and embeds them further in my memory, making them more accessible in future, as well as in some sense putting those memories ‘in order’.

I wonder, though, whether even the consciousness of ‘reviewing’ or ‘rehearsing to write’ in relation to experiences might have upsides as well as costs to experience. Elliot Eisner has written some great stuff about processes of research in education, where the researcher is seen as a connoisseur of educational situation – someone who has particular knowledge, skills and ‘habits of the heart and mind’ that allow him/her to experience life in more detail or in slightly different ways compared to a non-connoisseur. The analogy is to a connoisseur of wine or any other exquisite thing in life: how does the connoisseur experience it differently?

Eisner then talks about the educational ‘critic’: in his sense, the critic is someone who is able to communicate the experience of a connoisseur in a review. If I’m doing my job right in reviewing concerts, for example, I don’t just describe what happened or what I did and saw, but give you some sense of what it was like to be there. And while I’m very much an amateur, if I were a professional death metal critic, I should be able to experience the concert, and convey its qualities to you, in ways that aren’t possible for others.

So I don’t know what I think, on balance: Does the ‘fog of blog’ make my experiences richer or poorer?

Opeth Concert Review

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:46 pm

I was delighted last week when I figured out that Opeth was playing in Vancouver on the one weekend this year when I’d be there. They’re not playing in Edmonton this tour, so it was a fantastic fluke that the conference and the concert coincided. A couple of colleagues had thought about accepting my invitation to join us, but ended up being too busy as co-chairs of the conference, so Suzie and I walked the couple of blocks from the Vancouver Hyatt to the Commodore Ballroom. Friends had told me the Commodore is a great venue, and it really is: we arrived early and scored a table with two chairs to the side of the stage just off the floor, with enough height to see over the pit. We were close to the stage and comfortable, and the cold ones were brought to the table.

The first support band was S.T.R.E.E.T.S., a local Vancouver band. I know genres and subgenres is a maze, and I’ll probably get it wrong, but I’d describe what they do as ‘technical metalcore’. Fast and hard, with various slower and heavier passages and some very cool twin-guitar harmonies. The vocals from the two guitarists, who traded off lead and backup duties, were a fast punk shout. They rocked hard, and their drummer in particular was excellent.

Second support was Fireball Ministry. I’d planned to keep my earplugs (which I remembered this time!) in for both supports to listen to Opeth with relatively pristine ears, but these guys were so good I dug the earplugs out and put them away partway into the first song. Really nice – genuine heavy metal, rocking and beautifully played, with dynamics and drama. The singer and lead guitarist has a more baritone voice that reminded me of Ian Astbury of The Cult, but more metal, and the pretty young blonde on rhythm guitar also sang some backup vocals. They had a Scott Ian look-alike bass player who was apparently borrowed from another band because their bassist couldn’t make it, who did a great job of their songs, and their drummer was a big older bald guy who was rock solid. I was hugely impressed by these guys, and so was Suzie.

But the crowd was psyched for Opeth, and yelled, screamed, swirled and waited while the stage was set up. The band came on and definitely did not disappoint – and the pit went wild! I don’t know their whole oeuvre well enough yet to be able to give you a detailed setlist – I really only discovered these guys seriously a month or so ago, and have bought the four newest albums and listened to them a fair bit. I know they played at least one song from each of their albums, and a couple from the new one, ‘Ghost Reveries’. They played ‘The Great Conjuration’ off that album, which is monumentally heavy and just plain amazing. They played ‘In My Time of Need’ from ‘Damnation’ and ‘Deliverance’ from that album.

Obviously plenty of the songs switch back and forth from death metal vocals to ‘clean’ vocals, and also from heavy riffing and blast beats to intricate little dual guitar harmonies and counterpoints. These guys can play! Everyone in the band (they’d borrowed the drummer from Bloodbath, who did a monster job on Opeth’s complex time signatures) was incredibly competent, tasteful and just rocking out.

Mikael’s between song banter is funny and enjoyable – he seemed to get frustrated once or twice with people shouting for “Opeth, Opeth” when he just wanted to chat to us, but also bantered back and forth with those calling for particular songs or shouting personal tributes. His knowledge of music is obviously huge, and he’s playful with it: lots of references to Canadian vocalists like Geddy Lee, Sebastian Bach and Devin Townsend, and he referred to Per Wiburg, Opeth’s keyboard player, as ‘the bastard son of Keith Emerson who can really play’! He has a very gentle and rather high-class English accent in his English, and the contrast between his gentle, very approachable manner between songs and the mighty roars he produces during the songs is incredible. Add that to his beautiful, melodic ‘clean’ vocals, and it’s just astonishing that all that comes from one throat. I had huge expectations for this show, and the band exceeded them.

Opeth – beautiful, violent, intricate, extreme, melodic, terrifying, sometimes by turns, but sometimes all at once.


Climate Change Visualization Study

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:18 am

Here’s a bit from the information letter for participants for a research project I’m working on a grant application for today:

Global climate change (also known as global warming) is a current issue all around the world. It’s an important part of science education to equip our students to understand climate change in sophisticated ways. The kind of global perspective and critical thinking that students will develop in coming to understand climate change are applicable to many of the political, economic and scientific issues that they will face throughout their lives.

Unit D in Science 10, a science unit completed by all Alberta high school students, looks at Energy Flow in Global Systems – the science behind global climate change. The science involved is complex and sometimes difficult for students to visualize and understand, partly because it takes place at scales too small (the interaction of light with molecules) and too large (global weather systems) for easy visualization.

The purpose of this project is to work with teachers to find out which specific concepts students find most difficult in Science 10, Unit D, and particularly to look for common ‘misconceptions’ – ways in which students create alternative ideas about the issues that are not scientific and mean they don’t really understand the phenomena. Once a set of these concepts have been identified, we will create computer-based visualizations (probably using Flash) that are intended to help teachers and students explore these concepts in order to enhance students’ understanding. Examples of visualizations might include world maps that show temperature anomalies (temperatures that are higher or lower than average) in different areas of the world, or interactive animations of the interaction of different wavelengths of light with nitrogen and carbon dioxide molecules in the air.

Once the visualizations have been developed we will bring them to the Science 10 classrooms that are participating in the study and test them with students to find out how well (or poorly) they work in helping students understand the difficult climate change concepts, as well as whether there are specific features of the visualizations that can be improved.

A later stage of the study next year will focus on the students’ developing understandings of these concepts, but you will be invited to participate in that study at a later time and will have the opportunity then to decide whether or not to participate in that phase of the study.

It’s meant to be written clearly and easily enough to be read by Grade 10 students and their parents: I may still need to work on it a little more… but hopefully it gives you some idea what we’re working on. (Canadians – your tax dollars at work!)


The Games Industry Gets It Wrong

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:43 pm

Arnie gets one right and the games industry gets it wrong. You might hear me say the first part of that sentence in relation to 80s action movies occassionally, but it’s pretty rare in politics. But this article at The Register talks about a California law to stop minors being able to purchase or rent the most violent videogames, and the fact that the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), the games industry group, is fighting it.

I’m normally not a big fan of limiting adults’ rights to free expression on the basis of ‘but what about the children’? I think it’s often used as a lever to pass more repressive laws. But we don’t argue about ratings and restrictions on the most violent movies, and on renting them, so why are games any different. As the report says, movies are a more passive medium and games a more active one, so potentially the impact of games is likely to be higher. And games have definitely played the ‘gore card’ ever since at least Quake 2, with blood and entrails featuring prominently (never mind that last night Sue was laughing maniacally as the limbs flew in our Dungeon Siege 2 game).

I routinely turn down the gore settings (at least many games have that option) when the kids are around – and even for my own sake. But I know teenage boys – heck I was one, and in many ways still am! And their reaction will be the opposite: to crank up the gore as far as possible, and even to download new patches to crank it up even further.

I’m definitely not advocating the banning of games, but a sensible ratings scheme that’s enforceable at the extreme end rather than completely voluntary just makes sense to me. Although I do get the irony that it’s Arnie – Mr Saw Blade In The Head/Bodycount King – who is signing this into law!


Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:14 am

So I’m marking some assignments this morning from the Research Methods course I’m teaching. My students are all teachers, and I’m noticing an interesting pattern: I’m correcting more grammar in the assignments of the English teachers than in some of the other ones! (If students in the class happen to be reading this, there are a number of English teachers and I’m not saying which I’m talking about!) It’s things like changing tense or number (singular to plural or vice versa) in the middle of a sentence, or my personal pet peeve, talking about ‘the people that’ rather than ‘the people who’.

On one hand that’s a bit worrying – if those charged with teaching grammar use it incorrectly themselves in a formal university assignment. On the other hand, is it fair to hold English teachers to a higher standard of English usage than other teachers?