Mark Dixon https://www.drmarkdixon.com Thu, 29 Apr 2021 10:48:01 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.3.8 How to make a personal impact on a global crisis https://www.drmarkdixon.com/blog/how-to-make-a-personal-impact-on-a-global-crisis/ Wed, 31 Mar 2021 10:14:29 +0000 https://www.drmarkdixon.com/?p=539 Last November, I was able to share the groundbreaking Attenborough film “A life on our planet” via LiveStorm.  I felt it was essential viewing, encapsulating the reality of the sustainability venture that all Oxygen House companies share. Thanks to a personal introduction from filmmaker Colin Butfield, and a live Q&A at the end of the […]

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Last November, I was able to share the groundbreaking Attenborough film “A life on our planet” via LiveStorm.  I felt it was essential viewing, encapsulating the reality of the sustainability venture that all Oxygen House companies share.

Thanks to a personal introduction from filmmaker Colin Butfield, and a live Q&A at the end of the viewing, many of you brought up some great questions and I thank you for your valuable contribution. The questions can now be found on a new webpage here.

Since we showed the film, one question has arisen time and time again: just what can we personally do to help? Many people have said that their efforts feel insignificant against the scale of the global crisis.

I want to address that question here.  But first, let’s paint a picture of the future the planet is facing right now.

Whilst there are many ways in which human activity is damaging our world – all of which need addressing – the biggest and most urgent issue to tackle is that of greenhouse gases. The amount of greenhouse gases we emit as a population is represented in terms of CO2e: the carbon dioxide equivalent.

Currently, the world outputs 52 billion tonnes of CO2e a year.  If we are to survive on this planet, we need to reduce this to zero as soon as possible.

So – how does any individual (like you, reading this blog) hope to make a difference to this huge figure?

I find one answer to this challenge in the inspiring Mike Berners-Lee book “How bad are bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything”. He gives several reasons why individual effort is far from insignificant. The one I would particularly like to highlight is:

If we consciously live a low carbon life, we help create a “new normal”, showing others what’s possible, creating permission and, in time, pressure for others to do the same.

Far from being insignificant, the individual action we take now is putting the first holes in the dam. We become the trail blazers – and we are the people in the journey who have the biggest impact of all-the initiation of this new normal.

The personal journey to low carbon is not easy.  We should not beat ourselves up about failing to achieve perfection – or quit because we feel we have failed.  It’s about striving to understand our impact and be curious about the barriers to achieving a truly sustainable lifestyle. And to tell others when we find what works and what does not.

Another must read is Bill Gates’ book “How to avoid a climate disaster”.  His solution puts lifestyle choices alongside an emphasis on technical, product and policy solutions.

Whichever way you look at it, my view is that if all the people who cared took steps to fully understand their footprint and try to make change where it is not too painful, then we would create enough momentum to avert disaster.

 

So what do I mean by making change?

I think there are three core areas in which we must be more mindful of our own actions, and one specific action which will start the ball rolling.

1. Understanding our own CO2e emissions

2. Making informed decisions about carbon use in our own lifestyles

3. Disseminating everything we learn, and displaying our behaviours to others- creating the new normal. Making it okay for people to do what we are doing.

So let’s get started. Pick an action from this list, understand it, work out how to do it, how to optimise it and then monitor results.  If it succeeds, tell people about it, and encourage them to do the same.

If we do these things, change our lifestyle and share our experiences: what worked for us, what didn’t, what ideas we had to make things easier, and so on, then the snowball effect will happen, gathering pace with others who also care, and then, in time with those who will follow the new norms because that is what people tend to do.

It’s not an easy cause to take on – for example, there are huge complexities in assessing the CO2e of our actions or decisions.  Yet Berners-Lee takes a good guess at it in his book (go for the 2020 version, not the earlier edition) and my research shows his estimates are about right.  Reading just the introductions of his and Gates’ book will give you a feeling for how to assess the impact of how you live.

And finally, let me just leave you with a flavour of possible action you can take. Some of my favourites. Win-wins that feel like no-brainers once the initial difficulties have been overcome.  These help me to feel that change is achievable – and that some small actions can have big consequences.  Everyone will do this differently but each journey is valuable.  Good luck on yours.

 

A sample of the actions from this list.  

  • Buy second hand – or repair. If we want to avoid climate disaster, buying new has to be a rare luxury. Creating new “stuff” is the single biggest CO2e contributor.  I’m pleased to be able to say that The Dixon Foundation are seed funding the UKs first slow fashion surf shop, selling 100% used surf clothing, and opening early summer at Sideshore in Exmouth.  Use stores like this alongside the second hand section of eBay, Facebook Marketplace and Gumtree.  It takes more effort but as more people move to buying second hand, more people will sell, and a variety of marketplaces will make it easier as it becomes the norm.

 

  • Avoid dairy, beef and lamb. Cows (and sheep) emit a lot of methane which is many times worse than CO2.  Much land is needed to grow the animal feed, land which could otherwise be used for trees, a carbon sink. A great win-win example in reducing our dairy consumption is homemade oat milk. It is SO easy to make and has a tiny fraction of the footprint of other milks. It’s cheaper, there is no waste (bought oat milk comes in small tetra packs so has more waste). It is healthier (no saturates), can be made in 2 minutes, it’s nicer, and you can tweak it to your liking- creamy or ‘skimmed’. The only negative is that the initial switch over takes some getting used to – for me about 8 weeks before I liked it, and about 16 weeks before I much preferred it to cows milk.

 

  • Change the way you travel. The big impact swap is from car to ebike for routine journeys. It takes willpower on most days, let alone a windy, rainy one, to leave the car and take the bike, but as you’ll see in the Berners-Lee book, ebikes are a revelation in terms of CO2e.  Having made the transition myself, I never regret the extra effort of getting on my bike.  I’m fitter, more alert, avoid traffic queues and emit almost no CO2e on my journey. My challenge again this year is to do do more bike than car miles– I narrowly missed it last year.

 

  • Switch energy providers. There is a small increase in cost, but a huge impact on your personal CO2e footprint.  I think it’s definitely one that is worth the ‘green premium’. Berners-Lee suggests Ecotricity and Good Energy are good choices.

 

  • Cancel all oil and gas. Heat pumps can be 3 to 5 times more efficient at converting energy into heat for your house and water. Cancel all gas and oil, switch appliances, and move to totally electric including air source or other heat pumps. This is a bigger project, but again one which i think is worth the green premium.

 

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Will you join my 30 day challenge? https://www.drmarkdixon.com/blog/will-you-join-my-30-day-challenge/ Wed, 11 Nov 2020 12:33:59 +0000 https://www.drmarkdixon.com/?p=520 Last time I blogged, I shared the story of Sideshore – how I was inspired to create a destination for watersports thanks to Exmouth’s perfect natural conditions. It wasn’t based on a whim either – I’ve been kitesurfing in Exmouth for years and have rarely found a day when it wasn’t superb.  So, as the […]

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Last time I blogged, I shared the story of Sideshore – how I was inspired to create a destination for watersports thanks to Exmouth’s perfect natural conditions.

It wasn’t based on a whim either – I’ve been kitesurfing in Exmouth for years and have rarely found a day when it wasn’t superb.  So, as the opening of Sideshore approached, and we were all plunged into lockdown earlier this year, I set myself a challenge: to kitesurf every day for 30 days.

For health and wellbeing reasons, the fresh air and exercise was the perfect antidote to the challenges of lockdown and the uncertainty of what the pandemic would do next.  But to be honest, the wellbeing benefits would have been huge at any time – simply getting out and being active makes a huge difference to mood, mental cognition and health.

And that’s been a big part of the driving force behind Sideshore – the opportunity to provide people with better access to the shoreline and all the wellness benefits it brings.  Just being by the sea helps to elevate your mood and staring at an ever-changing horizon does wonders for soothing a busy or troubled mind.

So what did I achieve?  I kitesurfed a full 29 of the 30 days (one day just didn’t have enough wind for kitesurfing).  Not only that, I committed to ensuring the entire experience left as little carbon footprint as possible by cycling from my home near Exeter to Exmouth – and back – each day.  That’s 20 miles each way for 30 days – a total of 1,200 miles.

And at the end of all this?  I concluded that Exmouth is, indeed, the best kitesurfing destination in the world!  It also reminded me again of the passion behind the creation of Sideshore.  Kitesurfing may not be everyone’s cup of tea, and perhaps not all can easily hop on a paddleboard or kayak, but a beach walk, paddle or swim in the sea goes a long way to easing each and every one of us through life.  And I’m not the only one on their bike during lockdown.  Edge Watersports have another cycle-swim-run experience to share – check this out.

This connection to nature, and the beautiful world in which we live is also the best way to get inspiration to do the best we can for our planet.  So whilst this started as my own personal challenge, I know many of you who follow this blog are motivated by many of the same environmental drivers as I am.

And if any of you want to set yourself personal challenges involving physical activity, including the sea and avoiding carbon emissions, then I’d love to hear from you. In the next year or so, I will be publishing a list, and creating some specific Exmouth challenges ranging from easy walking to hard core water sports. To keep us all fit, and to support a range of environmental charities.  Watch this space.

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The story of Sideshore https://www.drmarkdixon.com/blog/the-story-of-sideshore/ Mon, 28 Sep 2020 16:17:01 +0000 https://www.drmarkdixon.com/?p=516 I can’t remember exactly when the idea first came to me, but I know I’ve always hated how the road ran right along Exmouth seafront.  It’s always seemed such a barrier to the beauty and potential of the beach and water beyond – and a logistical nightmare for families with young children. Then, in 2011, […]

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I can’t remember exactly when the idea first came to me, but I know I’ve always hated how the road ran right along Exmouth seafront.  It’s always seemed such a barrier to the beauty and potential of the beach and water beyond – and a logistical nightmare for families with young children.

Then, in 2011, East Devon District Council published plans to regenerate part of the seafront.  Various plans were put forward – and ultimately dismissed – but this sowed a seed of an idea in my head.

Also around this time, while wanting to learn a new watersport, I discovered Edge Watersports – a small family-run business operating from an out-of-the-way temporary building at the back of an industrial estate. Despite the unpromising look of their premises, they had lots of customers and I remember thinking how, with the right location, they could inspire thousands of people to get out and use the water. 

And so a vision was formed: to make this area of Exmouth a destination for watersports.  I wanted to make the most of the council’s suggestion of re-routing the road further inland, and could imagine a landmark, sustainable building on the seafront, making the waterfront more accessible and offering lessons and kit hire right there on the beach.

By 2014, I decided to commit myself and propose my vision.

At the time I was on the board of directors for Exeter’s Grenadier Estates which specialises in sustainable, ethical real estate, designed to make a lasting impact.  I knew Grenadier would be perfect to develop this area and create a legacy for the community of Exmouth, as well as a destination for holidaymakers and watersports enthusiasts alike.

 

Sideshore – in Exmouth, and for Exmouth

I truly believe that enabling people to spend more time on or by the sea has immense benefits. Watersports promote a healthy lifestyle and improve physical and mental wellbeing. For those who don’t want to be in the water, being by the water is the next best thing.

Sideshore isn’t just for watersports enthusiasts.  It will offer a place to simply “be” by the sea – with relaxed dining spaces, casual restaurants and takeaways plus retail units and green space for community ventures and events.

I have always had an attention to detail and a passion for wanting to improve on what I do. It means I’m always looking at things and questioning: how can we do this better?  Back in 2007, my wife and I were lucky enough to spend a weekend at Gidleigh Park where we met Michael Caines. Although he was in a completely different business, I was struck by the similarity of his ethos: ‘This is great. How can we improve it?’ Being passionate about food myself, there was a strong connection.  I have since become friends with Michael, and when he agreed to partner with us at Sideshore I knew we were about to create one of the world’s best destinations.

My other passion is to help save our planet. In line with this goal, Sideshore has been created with strong environmental credentials. We’re building a structure designed to leave a minimal impact upon the earth, and to honour the natural environment around it.  We’ve focused both on sustainability in our construction methods, and we’ll continue to focus on sustainability in our future operation of the building.

Finally, and perhaps the most important facet of the project, is that this whole endeavour is not-for-profit.  It’s not ours to keep either.  Sideshore will be run by a purpose-built Community Interest Company.  Our CIC has a full asset lock meaning no-one can profit and all proceeds are returned to the people of Exmouth.  As soon as the Grenadier’s costs are reimbursed, every penny goes into the local community.

 

Sharing a passion for being on the water

After more than twenty years in business, I enjoy the privilege of having the means to be philanthropic.  The trouble I’ve found is that charity and privacy don’t sit well together and people are often suspicious if something seems to be “too good to be true”.

Sideshore is built on my passion of being on the water and wanting to help more people enjoy it too.  This project in Exmouth – so near completion now – is my opportunity to deliver.

I think it’s this spirit of genuine philanthropy which has been the hardest for us to express and it’s been a long journey trying to persuade people that this project has no hidden agenda.

Ultimately, I’m not motivated by money on a personal level – wealth doesn’t sit easily with me.  It’s not something I grew up with, but as the first member of my family to get an ‘O’ level, let alone a degree and PhD, I’ve been incredibly fortunate that it’s been a by-product of my working life.

What does excite me about money is the ability to make a positive impact on the world.  It’s exhilarating to have the means to make sustainable investments which aim to create a better future for all.  To this end, The Dixon Foundation will enable my family to continue making impactful investment for generations to come.  I hope this will give our philanthropy a framework which will reassure and inspire potential grantees.  

Sideshore is our flagship project. I couldn’t be more excited to see it grow and thrive, filled with people enjoying the water as much as I do.

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Why my heart sinks over the trend for mixed ability maths https://www.drmarkdixon.com/blog/why-my-heart-sinks-over-the-trend-for-mixed-ability-maths/ Fri, 24 Jan 2020 09:36:11 +0000 https://www.drmarkdixon.com/?p=505 I’ve just read an outstanding book.  Mark McCourt’s Teaching for Mastery is an excellent resource for maths education specialists. What’s so compelling about it is how clearly Mark understands the art of maths education.  One part in particular struck a chord with me.  He states that in order to convert to mixed ability classes from […]

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I’ve just read an outstanding book.  Mark McCourt’s Teaching for Mastery is an excellent resource for maths education specialists.

What’s so compelling about it is how clearly Mark understands the art of maths education.  One part in particular struck a chord with me.  He states that in order to convert to mixed ability classes from a setted structure, a school needs five or six years of commitment, forethought and funding to sufficiently develop their teacher’s mathematical pedagogy.

In fact, he suggests that headteachers who convert with “just a few day’s professional development” have no right to be leading a school.

I couldn’t agree more.  This trend of moving to mixed ability classes for mathematics makes me sad – and seeing the impact it is having on the students (and teachers) brings a lump to my throat.  The fact is, there’s a massive loss in motivation for students who find themselves being taught material which is non-goldilocks in difficulty and/or pace, yet it’s virtually impossible to hit the right learning benchmark with every student in a class with a range of abilities.  As a result, teaching staff feel demoralised and the educational environment doesn’t thrive.

So in my opinion, I’d take it a step further.  I believe Mark’s 5 or 6 year timeframe is an underestimation in the current English system where school and teachers are expected to fight for themselves in writing or sourcing teaching content.  Apart from the complex specific training required for mixed ability teaching, staff need to be experts in mathematics and mathematical pedagogy.  This is something which takes most people 3-6 years of full time intensive study.  For teachers who are not already specifically maths trained – and Mark reckons less than a quarter of UK teachers have a post-school maths qualification – this could take 15-30 years of part time study.

There is one point in which I disagree with Mark, however.  That’s on the complexity he highlights in moving the other way around – from mixed ability to sets.  I believe that, in fact, teachers who are expert at teaching mixed ability could create learning at least as good, if not better, with a setted class.  And they could do this from day 1 with no training.  That’s because, in my experience, any setted class is still mixed in ability – the range could be less but it can still be wide and represent the single biggest factor hampering learning.  Therefore, a teacher with any experience in mixed ability teaching would be best placed to overcome this first order problem.

So thank you Mark, for highlighting this important point.  I just hope all the heads considering mixed ability teaching for maths read and heed his advice.  There are exceptions – I wouldn’t advise changing a school with successful mixed ability classes and I appreciate that smaller schools are often forced down this route.  But I would urge any other school who has made this change without adequate preparation to immediately change back to a setted structure, before too many pupils – and teachers – are damaged.

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Compostable disposable cups. Helping or making it worse? https://www.drmarkdixon.com/blog/compostable-disposable-cups-helping-or-making-it-worse/ Thu, 19 Dec 2019 15:40:06 +0000 https://www.drmarkdixon.com/?p=492 Naturally “compostable” materials have enjoyed a rather smug status for some time.  We all know that single use disposables are bad news for the environment, both practically and, increasingly, ethically too.  But name something “compostable” and our halo shines a little brighter, and we feel more comfortable with the idea of throwing away that coffee […]

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Naturally “compostable” materials have enjoyed a rather smug status for some time.  We all know that single use disposables are bad news for the environment, both practically and, increasingly, ethically too.  But name something “compostable” and our halo shines a little brighter, and we feel more comfortable with the idea of throwing away that coffee cup after use.

But how far are we really digging into the issue?  Do we really know if the environmental data stacks up?  I’m worried we’re getting it all wrong and that moving in the direction of using compostable single use products versus reusing what we already have is simply no better – in fact, I’m concerned it’s potentially making the problem worse.

If we want to make progress in changing attitudes at a deep subconscious level, we should be feeling uncomfortable about any single use disposable item, compostable or not.

At Oxygen House, we pride ourselves on being leaders in environmental sustainability and in educating our people.  We provide organic food, EV charging points, reduce our energy usage with solar panels and air source heat pumps and encourage all our staff to think constantly about environmental welfare.  But even here, I fear we are being drawn into the fallacy of using compostable containers over the long-held wisdom of hard wearing, reusable ceramics.

So I’ve done some research. One way to judge is to compare the energy usage (equivalent CO2) from production, transportation and disposal. I’ve focused on comparing ceramic vs disposable, compostable paper cups or bowls.

It’s not an easy comparison – if it was, I suspect our subconscious attitudes would be a lot clearer. Steffen Andersen has done some research and concludes that  a ceramic cup needs to be used 38 times to be as efficient as a paper cup. Our head of catering at Oxygen House estimates that we get an average of 500 uses before a breakage.

So, if we only focus on energy then, it’s a no-brainer.  We should be feeling very uncomfortable about using any single use item – even if they are compostable.

However, this is only part of the equation.  Waste and pollution from ceramics is negligible.  They’re made from clay extracted directly from the ground and when they break can be recycled directly into building material.

The waste and pollution associated with disposables, however, is a different story – even if we only focus on compostable products.  The problem arises when you consider that most food or drink containers need to have a thin water-resistant lining to avoid collapse in warmth and moisture.  Theoretically this is still compostable but often the nature of the materials means the breaking down process can take tens, or even hundreds of years.  What’s more, the resulting compost has dubious benefit to the soil so although eventually, compostables break down, they don’t add to the natural ecosystem, and in the process create wastelands of landfill which simply become another source of pollution.

So I’m thinking we should strive for an environment where we proudly wield our own mugs, and where using an office mug (let alone a disposable) should become rather embarrassing as it suggests you’re not rinsing and reusing after all.

Over time, mug numbers at Oxygen House dwindle through wear and tear and although we top up supplies now and again, I think perhaps even company ceramics aren’t the whole answer.  We need your help – bring your own mug to work and bear it with pride!  Consider reusing your own mug without dishwashing, and always ask whether you need a disposable container.

After all, the impact of such a change on subconscious thinking can be dramatic – and possibly more powerful than the energy and pollution directly saved.  Making a conscious decision to do things differently may drive you to think about other things differently too, challenging a whole range of personal habits in terms of acting and thinking.  It might even become a deciding factor in your choice of candidate to vote for – and that can certainly drive huge change for the future.

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An e-learning limitation – and how we cracked it. https://www.drmarkdixon.com/blog/an-e-learning-limitation-and-how-we-cracked-it/ Wed, 06 Nov 2019 10:11:35 +0000 https://www.drmarkdixon.com/?p=458 When I began Sparx, almost a decade ago, my aim was to find a scalable way to increase motivation and learning in maths and other subjects in schools. We have made a lot of progress by harnessing the power of technology to create an adaptive teaching and learning system for both school lessons and homework […]

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When I began Sparx, almost a decade ago, my aim was to find a scalable way to increase motivation and learning in maths and other subjects in schools. We have made a lot of progress by harnessing the power of technology to create an adaptive teaching and learning system for both school lessons and homework assignments which delivers a personalised learning path for each student.

But a vital part of the effective development of this technology has been to incorporate more traditional teaching methods. In this article, I want to talk about one of those – ‘writing down’ maths.

It turns out “writing down” maths is imperative to learning and retaining new techniques. Yet it’s a hard concept to incorporate into ed-tech based learning. In the end, we found an ingenious way to ensure students were taking the time to write down the stages of their answers without having to audit their books.

Let me tell you how we did it.

I began this quest convinced of the power of writing down maths. A quick Google search tells you much of what you need to be similarly convinced. “The importance of writing in the mathematics classroom cannot be overemphasized. In the process of writing, students clarify their own understanding of mathematics and hone their communication skills. They must organize their ideas and thoughts more logically and structure their conclusions in a more coherent way”, states IDRA, the Intercultural Development Research Association.  In fact, I couldn’t find a single article which disagreed.

And every maths teacher, Headteacher or educational professional I’ve ever met, agrees.

It is important to realise that students complete worked examples to practice the method, not to get the correct answer. And writing down the steps is critical to successfully practising the method. It’s particularly evident working 1-2-1 with students. For example, when a tutor asks a simple question: 2w = 10, what’s w?  Students will just “know” the answer is 5, but how do they know this? If they cannot explain, in logical steps, how the answer is 5, they won’t be able to answer a harder version of the same problem. Writing down the steps to solve the easy equation will enable them to articulate, and hence learn and retain, the method.

The Sparx prototype was a multiple-choice algebra app. On its first use, the app brought calm and focus to a chaotic class. We were delighted as we watched these children quietly working through increasingly difficult algebra questions. We thought we’d cracked it.

As they say, pride comes before a fall. Two lessons later, a paper test revealed they hadn’t actually learnt any algebra. They had merely become good at guessing appropriate answers from increasingly complex algebraic expressions.

So having surmised that, as expected, writing down the maths was imperative to learning, we began changing the assessment, asking students to write down workings – but they did not.  Over many months we tried different ways to make them show their method, to no avail.

It was a big learning moment for us too. It seemed indicative of the modern, app-based learning style. If you look at students using screens for learning, where are they focussed?  It’s on the screen, not working through problems logically with pen and paper. Clearly integrating screen-based testing with paper-based learning was crucial to success.

We researched hard in our pursuit of success.  We tried everything from simply wearing T shirts (“Have you written your working down”?) to iPads with cameras recording their book work or special pens with inbuilt radio transmitters, relaying their working. Yet nothing seemed practical, or scalable.

We were down but not defeated. I rallied the Sparx teams, reminding them of the French philosopher Auguste Comte and his lack of scientific vision. In 1835 he confidently predicted that, due to their distance away, we could never know the chemical composition of the stars. Within 30 years he was proved wrong with some very clever science that seemed impossible at the time of his prediction.

Our problem seemed impossible now, but I had faith that we’d crack our own composition of stars and get students writing down their maths thinking.

And we did. The solution is so simple but ingenious. We call it WACs (Written Answer Checks) and it works by asking the student to re-enter an answer from a previously asked question. If they get that wrong, we mark all work between now and that previous question as needing to be re-done and “this time – please concentrate on written work”.

It worked a treat. It’s scalable. Involves no cameras or special pens and it even had an unexpected consequence for some students as this was the first time they’d had to review their own work.  We soon noticed that legibility was improved, and students were taking the time to write in clear columns, with better spacing. Finally, since the habit was now to have pen and paper in hand, rather than hunch over a screen, and to write clearly with a logical layout, they were understanding the necessity of working through a method.

Additionally, we’ve heard anecdotal evidence that this improved accuracy, legibility and organisation has transferred to students’ other subjects too.

Although not hugely popular with many students, we have been using WACs ever since. We have finally proved through a randomised controlled trial that students make significantly more progress using Sparx Maths Homework. And I am convinced that WAC’s have been critical for this success.

If you enjoyed reading this blog, and you have any comments or ideas you would like to share, please get in contact with me here

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Replacement therapy https://www.drmarkdixon.com/blog/replacement-therapy/ https://www.drmarkdixon.com/blog/replacement-therapy/#respond Thu, 15 Aug 2019 08:01:10 +0000 https://www.drmarkdixon.com/hello-world-copy-copy-copy/ Have you visited a municipal recycling plant recently? To do so is to see laid bare the damning downside of our consumerist society. Meander through the site on any Sunday: amid the organically decaying deposits in the garden waste skip and the irredeemably rusted contents of the scrap-metal bin you’ll see a tonnage of gear […]

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Have you visited a municipal recycling plant recently? To do so is to see laid bare the damning downside of our consumerist society. Meander through the site on any Sunday: amid the organically decaying deposits in the garden waste skip and the irredeemably rusted contents of the scrap-metal bin you’ll see a tonnage of gear that might be perfectly safe, clean, usable and recyclable.

The innocent vacuum cleaner with the one faulty switch. The guitar with its single broken string. White goods that could be fixed in five minutes by a half-competent electrician. A television set whose only crime is to be smaller than a snooker table. Advertisers apply their dark arts to consumers conditioned always to desire more and better; the next thing you know, overstuffed Chesterfields, undersized T-shirts, last year’s antediluvian CD player and the kids’ toys whose appeal didn’t make it past Boxing Day are consigned with abandon to landfill – irrespective of their condition.

It needn’t be this way. Rather than automatically replacing something that’s ceased to function, perhaps it’s worth considering fixing it at home; or, if it really is so beyond the pale only another will do, looking into something second-hand.

I’ve always had an inbuilt resistance to waste. When the children were young, we established a ‘Dad’s Area’ in which broken toys and household items were placed, ready for a weekly repair session. Fixing most items, usually with superglue, would take barely a minute. Today, although the kids are older, I’m delighted to say that the family’s habit when something has ceased to work is still to head straight for Dad’s Area instead of the bin.

Too often I see people throw out kit that could be mended in no time. Inflatable pool animals, for instance, might need only a small patch; a snapped plastic toy 20 seconds with adhesive; holes in socks a moment with patch glue and a clamp. The list is endless. More thought might be occasionally needed – for well-worn trainers, say – but over the years I’ve even demystified most shoe repairs. Sometimes it takes a few clicks through Google to add to the tools and glues, but mostly it’s quick and easy – and so much more satisfying than casually binning and ordering anew.

A world in which we revert to buying second-hand, easily locating a repair facility instead of defaulting to the local tip followed by B&Q, feels anachronistic, a shadow out of time. But all it usually takes to give new life to something over which others would be reading the last rites are care and attention, patience and a modicum of manual or mental dexterity. If you’re finally forced onto the acquisition trail, sooner second-hand from eBay, perhaps, than unused from Amazon. Otherwise it’s about dealing with still more shiny electronic widgetry, assembled at a factory in China, dismembered at a recycling plant in Chichester, with yet more single-use plastic packaging on its way to unmanageability.

For we live in a world in which items cast so wantonly into those waste-site containers are threatening a lot more than a cluttered garage or an unfashionable sitting room. Unwanted consumer goods theoretically bound for landfill or incineration have an uncanny knack of fetching up where we least need them. As rural streams propel convoys of discarded snack wrappers to the sea, as micro-particles of plastic combine by the billion with virgin snow, as the human food-chain becomes dangerously contaminated, the old wartime maxim of ‘Make Do And Mend’ takes on more resonance than ever. Perhaps we should be keeping that year-old 65-inch TV set after all.

 

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Flying a kite for real organic standards https://www.drmarkdixon.com/blog/kite-marking/ https://www.drmarkdixon.com/blog/kite-marking/#respond Thu, 15 Aug 2019 08:00:27 +0000 https://www.drmarkdixon.com/hello-world-copy-copy/ Stroll down any supermarket aisle. On every shelf, a confusion of food labels. How many of us understand every one? Even if we did, that convenience store is the wild west, our most in-the-face example of the free market in action. With so few labels actually policed, what can be trusted to mean what it […]

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Stroll down any supermarket aisle. On every shelf, a confusion of food labels. How many of us understand every one? Even if we did, that convenience store is the wild west, our most in-the-face example of the free market in action. With so few labels actually policed, what can be trusted to mean what it claims?

The Independent surveyed four well-known arbiters of supposedly quality food: Red Tractor, British Lion Mark, RSPCA Freedom Food and Soil Association. Gold standard at 9/10 was the Soil Association, followed by RSPCA with 5/10. After that the ratings plummet, with British Lion Mark and the theoretically wholesome Red Tractor each tieing for last place with a dismal 2/10.

Now look further into that 20%. It signifies that Red Tractor obeys British legislation in food standards. All good, you’d think; aren’t ours better than most others from overseas? Maybe so. But it also means that food certified thus is compromised: by pesticides, by artificial fertilisers, by factory farming, by livestock that sees neither blue sky nor grass. I’m certain that if consumers truly understood the subtexts of food packaging, were able to put faith in the standards and were unequivocally clear about what they were purchasing, most would shun all current labels except that of the Soil Association.

I firmly believe we should use more humane and environmentally sound, less polluting methods of food production. At present, certification by the Soil Association is the only dependable standard. But it’s expensive; registering for organic status costs orders of magnitude more than Red Tractor. Yet the more people are confused by a plethera of labels, the less they understand of the Soil Association and its objectives. And the less they’ll pay – short of being dragged on a tour of a factory farm whenever they order a lunchtime BLT.

So I’m campaigning to make a numerical grading system of better food labelling a reality. Based on 1-to-5 kite-marked grades, with 5 representing the quality demanded by the Soil Association, the scheme should be targeted at all food providers, including supermarkets, food wholesalers, restaurants and takeaways. The scheme will be based on two main provisions: a compulsory, single, kite-marked food-labelling system that is easy to explain and which everybody can understand; and a way to ensure that producers and outlets adhere to the conditions of the standard they claim.

Given the formidable lobbying power of Big Food, from producers to retailers, and the intensely complex issues attending the feeding of our growing global population, I’ll readily concede that this is a huge ask. To be properly effective, any kite-marking system must be enshrined in law and have real teeth. If an organisation fails to meet its claimed standards, an example will have to be made, backed by substantial financial penalties.

For implementation, we need to bring together all of the many charities, ginger groups and influencers that care about how we produce, prepare, package and consume food and its impact on the broader environment. Then we must campaign vigorously enough to put the topic squarely before the public. And keep it there.

 

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Setting things straight on mixed ability in mathematics https://www.drmarkdixon.com/blog/setting-things-straight-on-mixed-ability-in-school/ https://www.drmarkdixon.com/blog/setting-things-straight-on-mixed-ability-in-school/#respond Thu, 15 Aug 2019 07:59:27 +0000 https://www.drmarkdixon.com/hello-world-copy/ Almost all UK secondary schools use setting in mathematics. However, this system of grouping, wherein students are classed according to their ability, is currently a topic of vigorous debate. Many people think that teaching mathematics in mixed ability sets is better. In general, I do not believe this. Let me explain.  Recently I’ve detected a […]

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Almost all UK secondary schools use setting in mathematics. However, this system of grouping, wherein students are classed according to their ability, is currently a topic of vigorous debate. Many people think that teaching mathematics in mixed ability sets is better. In general, I do not believe this. Let me explain. 

Recently I’ve detected a worrying increase in the numbers of institutions adopting mixed ability in mathematics as standard. It’s my experience that delivery of a successful mixed-ability system relies on the few teachers who have the required level of specific expertise, natural charisma and skilfulness. They are in a distinct minority. So highly specialised is mixed ability that, for most schools, its adoption in practice represents a significant step backwards. Even if mixed ability is pursued well by the school, most teachers will still struggle. However, if setting is properly structured – by naming sets appropriately instead of around a simplistic, top-bottom pecking order; by creating a balanced combination of streams and sets; by allowing a constant, fluid movement of students between sets – the perceived disadvantages of setting largely fall away.

Before appraising my own views as an educationist, however, consider some from the sharp end. In 2011, the experienced London inner-city maths teacher Kris Boulton began his career in a school which applied setting to mathematics. He found the experience wanting; from the divisive, low-expectation language of scolding teachers, to a corrosively implicit belief across school that the bottom set of students would be left floundering with no real hope of improvement.

Moving to mixed ability, at first apparently a godsend, revealed a darker side, the incandescently smart thrown together with “pupils who couldn’t add and subtract negative numbers accurately”. Believing he was repeatedly failing his students, Kris hated it.

It strikes me, as it might have done Kris, that those who shout loudest for mixed ability are unaware of how difficult most teachers find it. And when mixed ability fails, it swamps the disadvantages of setting; shortcomings that largely disperse when setting is structured well.

Between 2011 and 2013, during the development of Sparx v0.1, I sat in on hundreds of mathematics lessons at a mid-league secondary school. With this institution’s structure of two streams and four sets within each stream relatively well-designed, I was grateful for the opportunity; beyond a school’s immediate hierarchy of teaching staff and local-authority evaluators, relatively few individuals are afforded the privilege.

These were formative years in Sparx’s development. With proprietary educational products then largely unstable, we were determined to perfect a solution that would successfully aid children’s learning by way of radical research and data techniques; understanding what applies to the student and, equally importantly, to the teacher.

Nurturing the infant Sparx obliged a maternal attention to detail. Fine tuning was essential, in various learning environments. As I gravitated between different classes, my presence became progressively unnoticed, both by students and by teachers; much as the all-seeing eye of the reality TV show camera is duly forgotten and participants relax and act naturally. Now reduced to a shadow in the corner, I was able dispassionately to watch and understand much about the nature of learning, and how students respond to the shifting nuances of a real classroom.

I wanted particularly to unpack the issues most likely to be inhibiting learning. Among many, the biggest issue was the lack of student motivation and engagement; in the school’s vernacular, being ‘on task’. Often the keen few would give the teacher and/or an observer the impression that all were engaged. My observations told me otherwise. By closely studying their expressions and their body language, I could tell they had lost the thread. It was a feeling reinforced as soon as a question was put directly to a student instead of thrown open to the room.

Following a golden rule always to rigorously check the facts before drawing a conclusion, I designed a way to collect objective data. Based on a straightforward 0/1/u metric, I recorded minute-by-minute stats from dozens of lessons. I’d quickly scan the room, assessing students one by one. An individual fully engaged with the learning process scored 1. Those diverted by thoughts of extra-schoolroom activity were demoted to a 0. Any uncertain classifications we scored a u.

Marshalling similar data week after week, I nailed down an average student concentration rate of around 20-25%. But whenever the all-seeing eye became suddenly material to everyone in the room, this changed. The unannounced arrival of a head-teacher, for example, would herald a palpable transformation in the class atmosphere, young eyes and ears suddenly alert and receptive.

Now there are clearly numerous reasons for classroom detachment. But after much thought and study and many conversations with experts, I concluded that student momentum was among the most important. After starting out feeling motivated, many – and this still brings a lump to my throat – switch off if the learning material or content is not pitched perfectly at their ‘sweet spot’. Cognitive scientists call it the Goldilocks Effect: not too complex, not too easy, just mildly challenging within the constraints of the world they know.

Given the wide range of abilities within the classes examined, only the middle portion – four or five students out of 30, say – was receiving the level of content needed to maintain momentum. The better teachers, those able to blend authority, charm, personality and deep experience, usually overcame this. But keeping an entire class on-point was like swimming upstream: exhausting; impressive if it could be done; and, by most of the teachers, generally unachievable. And remember, this was in a school with eight sets.

With this observation in mind, in developing Sparx we wanted at least four levels of highly-differentiated lessons at every topic, which could be used to pitch teaching at eight setted classes. To my knowledge, no other ed-tech product has more than one level for each topic. Having seen the difficulties in an eight-setted school, I would certainly have no fewer than four.

The idea of a completely mixed-ability, one-set grouping – or, at least, one that lacks exceptional teachers who are amply versed in mixed ability – seems ludicrous. In a typical mixed-ability scenario, with low-achieving students placed in the same class as high fliers, a weaker individual will not attain the exalted position of one who finds a topic easy relative to others in the class; they’ll never be the first to put up their hand and answer a question correctly. With the below-par left listless and languishing at the bottom, the social inequalities are intensified, not the other way around.

In summary, I can see the many pros and cons of both setting and mixed ability classes. If setting is done well, the hindrances go away; most teachers will perform well at schools whose setting structure is fit for purpose. But for mixed ability, even where it is properly applied, most teachers still struggle. A few can make it work but, all told, mixed ability inevitably falls short.

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Stairway to heaven-sent fitness https://www.drmarkdixon.com/blog/stairway-to-heaven-sent-fitness/ https://www.drmarkdixon.com/blog/stairway-to-heaven-sent-fitness/#comments Sun, 11 Aug 2019 16:01:07 +0000 https://www.drmarkdixon.com/?p=1 It’s the first thing spotted by the maiden visitor to our Oxygen House HQ: a multi-story building, but no lifts. Instead, apparently just an airy, modern, elegant staircase. Of course, this isn’t the half of it. Short of installing a stairlift or an anti-gravity device (we’re innovative, but there are limits) we couldn’t possibly expect […]

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It’s the first thing spotted by the maiden visitor to our Oxygen House HQ: a multi-story building, but no lifts. Instead, apparently just an airy, modern, elegant staircase.

Of course, this isn’t the half of it. Short of installing a stairlift or an anti-gravity device (we’re innovative, but there are limits) we couldn’t possibly expect every one of our guests or colleagues to eschew the ease of an elevator in favour of a climb that might for some prove physically taxing. We’d never be so presumptuous. And we do have very nice lifts.

But not in immediate view. In fact, the building was deliberately designed to nudge visitors into taking the stairs, the elevators positioned discreetly, but not entirely invisibly, further away. With a flight of steps this enticingly ergonomic, the visitor’s immediate instinct is to obey the subliminal suggestion: to ‘climb me’.

This goes to the heart of a passion for fitness and health that informs much of how we roll at Oxygen House. For instance, all colleagues are encouraged to wherever possible opt for low-carbon means of getting to work whether that be walking, running or cycling – this promotes healthier, more environmentally-friendly commuting. More personally, I’ve many times sponsored smokers to quit, often by writing to their favourite charity to offer staged donations after they’ve given up for one, six and 12 months.

Subject to the obvious conditions, everyone’s encouraged to run marathons and complete outdoor events, the objective a leaner, fitter, healthier lifestyle for all. And whenever an invitation arrives to anything that involves improving physical activity, my instinct is to prompt people to respond with a resounding affirmative. Put simply, at Oxygen House it’s one of our mantras.

 

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