Richard Attenborough on Education

I was touched by Sir. Richard Attenborough’s story about why education should not be taken for granted.

Last year, he was granted an honorary degree by the University of Leicester, my alma mater. I never knew he didn’t actually go to college, though I knew he –and his brother David – were Leicester boys. We take education too much for granted, don’t we?

Listen to the first 6 minutes of this and you’ll know what I mean.

Richard Attenborough has a great sense of humor combined with humility. I know this for a fact because I was lucky to interview him while at the BBC, back in 1989 at Capital Radio studios in London. I wrote a post on that, back in 2014.

But this speech gives me more perspective. The man was really educated in the school of life – in the arts, in travel, in acting, in being in front of, and behind a camera. Yet he knows why we should never take knowledge for granted.

“To teach is to learn twice.” Or thrice.

So learned something about dark matter and Type 2 civilizations last month. From students. At 6:30 in the morning. This period is what’s known as a ‘zero-hour’ class in high schools like mine.

I had been invited to observe making presentations in a STEM class. The air was thick with magnetic fields and an ‘Oort cloud.’ It was followed by animated discussions that went on as casually as if they were discussing the pros and cons of Chick Fil-A. I tried remaining the fly on the wall, but the enthusiasm was too contagious to keep me on that wall. I found myself raising my hand to ask questions — reversing roles. I was that kid in the corner waiting to be called on!

You’re probably wondering about this Oort Cloud I mentioned in passing. A fascinating concept by Dutch astronomer Jan Hendrik Oort. According to one source, it is “a theoretical spherical cloud of predominantly icy planetesimals that is believed to surround the sun.” I had never heard of this, so I raised my hand and asked the the student to explain planetesimals.

This, by the way, was a 10th grader who’s excitement could be mistaken for someone who had just won a NASA trip to the International Space Station. Unfortunately, it’s audio. You’d have to visualize the enthusiasm bouncing across the classroom. She barely glanced at her slides as she went on, which is what good presenters do. (Many students — and, sadly professionals — use a slide deck and do just the opposite.) She seemed to have installed the bullet points in her head; they were flung across the room with the velocity of teenager adjectives.

So here’s the larger point I’d like to make. I’ve been involved in STEM for many years, and it’s taken me on detours into Space science and, of course, robotics. But I now see STEM less as a destination, and more as an on-ramp. Even if these students may not be donning lab coats or invited to be part of some audacious project at SpaceX, just wrestling with complex topics like Type 2 civilizations and black holes give them the mindset to take on new challenges that will present themselves. I teach at a classical school where these same science students head to their next period in which they wrestle with the Iliad, followed by another class where they write papers on Hell, purgatory and Hamlet, or write a research proposal on the black plague. I know this because students come to my lab to work on these assignments. It’s a great way to learn from students.

Joseph Joubert, to whom the quote “He who teaches learns twice” is attributed, also said “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.” I’ve debated the validity of STEM versus classical education and have come to this conclusion: It’s not an either-or argument. Our students must scrutinize the so-called ‘givens,’ and learn to defend topics they are passionate about, despite push-back. In academia we use a fancy term for this — a growth mindset. To me, it’s all about learning from unusual sources.

Twice, if I have to.

This was posted to

Facebook, an algorithm out of control. So why do you still use the platform?

Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, called it an inside joke shared by the ‘civic integrity’ group. I found the joke appalling on how it captures the scale of violence Facebook does in societies across the world.

“If you want to know what the next batch of at-risk countries was going to be, all you had to do was to look two years in the past at what the Facebook connectivity countries were.”

Basically Facebook would continue to expand its footprint, and by providing ‘more information’ it would knowingly turn on civic instability – just to make the platform more profitable.

That’s just the thumbnail. Now it’s worth listening in on the senate hearings today.

I deleted Facebook in March 2019. It never changed a thing.

Could AI have us for lunch?

I spoke to someone who uses two phones, but he uninstalled Twitter on both. He considers himself a ‘voracious’ consumer of podcasts but is careful about staying too long on the grid. Oh, and he recently co-founded an AI company — a software-as-services outfit.

Isura Silva is certainly no technophobe, nor is he a cheerleader of everything that Silicon Valley burps up. His insights into why technology could do our bidding, and not control our lives is refreshing. But I wanted to not just pick his brain on how he got to this place — into AI — but to understand his entrepreneurial mindset; why he is so optimistic when everything seems to be crumbling around him.

Isura considers social media as being potential forces of good. He and I disagree on this topic quite a bit. But he knows the downsides, first hand. So he aggressively filters the noise. He says he could slide back into technology controlling his time if he doesn’t take an aggressive stance. But there’s another area that Isura and I don’t see eye to eye – that AI could actually be beneficial to humanity, he believes. Which is why he co-founded an AI company in Sri Lanka. Sure, AI might free us of mundane tasks, I argued, but what about the dark side, of algorithms and machines replacing what makes us human?

“AI will eat the world,” Isura declared, understanding the irony.

Well, that’s exactly why I often talk to people like him. That’s why he’s featured on my latest podcast, and a longer version of our discussion here, on Medium.

Ignoring education is business as usual. Building ‘ghost schools’? That’s foreign policy.

                                                     Photo by Yves Alarie on Unsplash

It’s so normal to put education on the back burner, it’s hardly news. You hear this from most teachers in many parts of the world. Governments always have bigger fish to fry – fighting nation states through proxy wars, purchasing fighter jets, for instance.

Many years ago –nearly 14 years in fact– I wrote about a new blog begun by the US State Department in its attempt to be more transparent.  Field officers wrote about their work in countries like the Sudan and Afghanistan. Dipnote, as it was called was a breath of fresh air. But that hope was quickly dashed. Subsequent administrations lost the plot. What’s all this got to do with education?

Consider the story of ‘ghost schools’ by Buzzfeed News reporter Azmat Khan. Building schools in a country torn apart gave the US nice little project to look like it was doing some nation building in Afghanistan. Until it was discovered that this was money spent in vain. Ghost schools is a powerful metaphor of smoke and mirrors. And while the US was doing this, teachers in the US were working in poorly funded schools, many in trailers known as ‘portables.’ Students, likewise were struggling to juggle two jobs and school during the pandemic. It’s as if we raided our own country to use the funds to destroy another, and then rebuild what we broke. Here’s a disturbing comparison: Upgrading US public school facilities needs almost $200 billion according to the US department of education. An F-35 fighter plane costs $36,000 per hour. Per hour! All this while there’s a lot of hand-wringing when it comes to paying a teacher more than, say, $45,000 a year.

Put those two numbers on a slide and show it at your next community meeting.

So what’s my point? Since they can’t get foreign policy right, it’s time channeling some of those funds to domestic policy.

What my students asked a Googler.

Yesterday I brought back our Technology Speaker series for the new semester.

What better way than to start off with a Googler, Patrick Krecker. It was timely as I had just completed teaching units on the roots in the Net. How none of what we access on the Web (or Google) would be possible if not for a man named Tim Berners-Lee.

Patrick Krecker, Google

Web history aside, Mr. Krecker responded students questions. Pointed questions that let him take on some hot-button issues that come up for discussion in my class. Such as What does Google do with our data? Why is there so much hacking these days? What’s ransomware?

Patrick talked about security holes, and the ongoing pursuit hackers and the role of ‘white hats.’ I was glad he personalized what coding in his job involves (He says has written about 200,000 lines of code) given that coding is making its way into many schools now, to get students better prepared for what lies ahead.

As for me, I learned new terms and concepts, too. Things like ‘double spend,’ ‘deprecated software‘ and something known as ‘cross-site scripting‘ which refers to the injection of malicious scripts or code into ‘trusted’ websites.

Patrick has a gift for explaining complex ideas with metaphors. If you like to listen in to his conversation with my students, here’s a link to the video, which is also on my class website.

Listen to the ‘Radio 201’ podcast of this event:


Patrick and I used to work at Decision Theater, at ASU about 11 years ago. It’s wonderful to see how far he’s moved along into a field he was always passionate about. Thank you Patrick for this wonderful experience in my class this week.

Sri Lankan English

Remember when:

Putters were boozers, and

Tankers were bowsers,

Trunks were called dickeys,

Longs were just trousers?

Hazings were raggings,

Dresses were frocks,

Tea was kahata,

Before pebbles were rocks?


When hoohas were katchals,

hors d’oeuvre were bites,

Apartments were flats,

And drunks became tight?

BILs were our machangs,

Before slacks became pants,

Lies were all pachas, and 

Aunts were not ants?


When Yo! Was just Ado!

Our network was a gang,

And ammatasiri

Sounded better than dang!

When a bugger ‘going steady,’

Had to first ‘put a break’?

And long before koththu,

We had fish-bisteak?


When fake news was pacha,

A girlfriend was baduwa,

Before cheee became yucky,

When English was kaduwa?


Remember those times?

As Prof Thiru once spake –

Without spit and polish,

We’re so Lankan – and ‘shape!


Note: An extended version of this is available here:

All this jargon gets me woke

There was a time when words like ‘grok‘ made me cringe. This was at the height of the social media frenzy, when everyone and their brother was jostling to get onto Facebook, asking “What’s Facebook anyway?” Grok? If you have no idea what this means, never mind. It still makes me cringe.

So a few weeks back I recorded a podcast about tech jargon, a topic close to my heart. Two reasons.

1, Technology is turning us into bots, and before we begin speaking like Siri, it’s time to raise the red flag. We teachers demand clarity; we whip out the red marker no sooner we spot clichés. Or redundancies. Or words that we don’t grok.

2. I wanted to keep up the podcast momentum during summer, as I was testing a new app and using my recorder with a new mic. I plan to use it in class when we get back to school – tomorrow.

HERE’S THE THING. All of us – yes we the grown-ups – let slivers of jargon fall into everyday word salads we call lectures. When I catch myself in jargonizing mode, I pause, apologize to my students and move on. 

Which is what this episode is all about. Hope you like it. It’s just 12 minutes. Tell me what you think, please.

One Podcast experiment worth listening to

Podcasts often tell stories. Even when it’s a podcast about an event such as Brexit, or analyzes a controversial idea. I remember, back in 2010, the podcasts I listened to were elaborate stories, whether it was about the media, or even an emerging area of sustainability. One podcast that has stuck with me over the years was This American Life, hosted and produced by Ira Glass. It was always divided into Act One, Act Two etc., and the story within the story created a colorful quilt.

No wonder Ira Glass won the first Pulitzer for a podcasts about immigration called “The Out Crowd.” It was all about documenting “the emotional truth” by weaving it into “stories around characters and scenes and story arcs…” It is exactly how the best podcasts are made. To a large extent, podcasts are a work in progress. An experiment with audio using a medium (sound recording) that has existed for more than a hundred years. This American Life declares: “We view the show as an experiment. We try things.”

The best example of an experiment was how one of its shows was turned into a live musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda! Even as the pandemic shut many doors, podcasting strolled in through the side entrance, let out the stale air of traditional media, and is causing a renaissance in storytelling. Watch this. No Listen to this!

Trust me – it will revise anything you’ve thought about the ‘spoken word.’