from Louis in Johannesburg, South Africa: Small holder organic farming, bartering and trading within suburbia. Thanks Covid19!

August 30. I have been awestruck by the rapid digitally enabled transformation of learning. Rachel is not looking forward to returning to class based schooling which is scheduled to resume soon. She is dreading the exam season which does not suite her learning style and persona. 

Thanks, David for your helpful observations about the shortcomings of exams as they are now structured. The links you provided have also proved insightful and rich, thank you. The beneficial application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be welcomed by Rachel. Hopefully it arrives within the next four years. Klaus Shwab, founder of the WEF, reminds us that 4IR is not value free. There are constructive as well as destructive applications of the disruptive technologies contained in the so-called Fourth Industrial revolution (4IR). The application of AI in examination of knowledge would be constructive application. Smart cities which are rapidly evolving in The People’s Republic of China (PRC) seem to be reinforcing coercion and control by intruding into the private space of its citizens. In due course I expect 4IR technologies will also be used to enhance informed economic choices thus catalysing wealth-creation and democratic processes.

COVID19 has compelled me to stay out of its path – by all accounts I am in its kill zone. That has been a mixed blessing as it has enabled me to not only self-isolate but also turn inward to writing and gardening/farming. A recent visitor commented, once he had seen the various facets of self-isolation on our small holding, that we had prepared for the apocalyptic moment where SA as we know it has collapsed.

In the meantime, back on the ranch (on our self-isolated small holding) in our agriculturally oriented suburb life is changing for the better COVID19 notwithstanding. It is returning to life as I imagine it once existed. This lifestyle is becoming the new normal on our suburb of more than 400 families. Yes, it’s a gated suburb. Ow else could it be crime-free in the current version of SA?

Small businesses developed out of necessity are truly the mother of invention. COVID19 has all but wiped out small businesses. Most restaurant chains have closed many outlets and some franchises have been declared bankrupt. Giant synfuel corporations SASOL reported a R90bn loss last week.  In the meantime Sean, just up the road we live in, has become a supplier of packaged meat products and supplies our needs. He delivers to our front gate, complete with face masks and sanitised bags, thinly sliced smoked bacon, smoked pork-neck, rump and T-bone steaks and topside mince and more.

Other suppliers add Salmon and other fish delicacies to their offerings. All of it at prices well below what the retail chains ask. We have redirected all our purchases to support these businesses. Sarah, also close by, supplies us with fresh farm eggs by the dozen, untouched and virus-free delivered weekly from a farm more than 400 kilometres away. The farmer now has sufficient business from the surrounding suburbs obviating the need to subject herself to the vagaries of the large chains and their unethical manipulation of quality and price of the little supplier. I expect if these initiatives survive beyond COVID19 they will become the new normal.

A WhatsApp group has sprung up amongst the 400 families to put buyers in touch with local suppliers. Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ at work! Sarah our egg supplier also supplied us with Spekboom cuttings. The Spekboom, an indigenous succulent from the Eastern Cape, is interesting as it grows easily from slips. It is a very good carbon dioxide sink. It is edible to both browsers as staple feed and humans as a delicious salad ingredient. I have planted a row of these useful plants and intend supplying our kitchen from the growing hedge it will form in our dry garden. More about the broader Midrand context and churches in a future entry.

This morning at dawn, I received a tour of the crops that are growing in the cultivated area of our property by Malawian gardener, Victor Magonja. Onions, Radishes, Spinach, Cabbages, Hubbard Squash thriving as the season turns to spring and summer. Gem Squash planting from seeds harvested selectively from last season’s crop to follow as staggered planting limits the feast and famine cycle of glut and shortage. We tithe our crops with anyone who participates in their cultivation. Spinach is a great favourite, for making traditional African Morogo, amongst our friends and colleagues.

We also make Morogo as a dinner staple in season and freeze surplus for out of season consumption. I can see in my mind’s eye the welcoming, broad smiles from friends and colleagues which greet an armful gift of freshly picked Spinach.

http://globaltableadventure.com/recipe/stewed-spinach-greens/

Delani Mthembu, Myelani Holeni and Alex Mabunda and neighbours are the primary beneficiaries. Our pecan nut trees are also harvested delivering 30-40 kgs of nuts per fully grown tree. All crops are organically cultivated, with nutritional compost also from our garden.  

Thanks to Monsanto and others which practice shareholder capitalism (which is in decline and probably failing) seed harvesting is not possible as the GM crops have been modified so that seeds are sterile and cannot be replanted. We found this out with the corn we planted. Unethical capitalists compelled us to buy new seeds instead of harvesting and replanting. We are finding out by trail and error which seeds can be replanted and which can not. We avoid buying GM seeds where we can. Historically, Monsanto registered seed banks in the USA as their intellectual property. One of these seed banks contained 11,000 seeds! Access to these seeds now carry a royalty to Monsanto.(‘Future of Food’ documentary available on DVD made by Garcia’s widow). In Holland we were able to attend public activist citizen gatherings including the Dutch Minister of Agriculture to talk about these matters.

Winter evenings are spent in front of a roaring fire fuelled by recycled invasive Eucalyptus hardwood. Namibian charcoal, made from invasive species, fuels our outdoor cooking when Eskom fails to meet demand and we experience blackouts. Rolling blackouts are now quite common.

From David Maughan Brown in York: No better way?

August 13th

I hope regular readers, if there are such, will bear with me if I ride another hobby-horse off in pretty much the same direction as I did in my last entry, and write about exams again.  My excuse would be that having spent 12 years at high school and university being expected to write them, and my entire 43 year working life at universities either setting and marking them or dealing with the copious fall-out from them, I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about them.

So, half-listening to the Today programme yesterday, I sat up and took notice when our callow Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, who always manages to look like an adolescent rabbit in the headlights when interviewed on TV, articulated his (and by implication the government’s) key principle of educational faith when questioned by Nick Robinson:  “There is no better way of doing assessment than exams.”   In case we hadn’t been listening properly the first time, he reassured us later in the interview, not once but twice in successive sentences, that we had indeed heard him correctly: “No system we put in place is going to be as good as exams.  Every system we put in place is going to be second best to that.”  So lots of equal seconds, then, but no question whatever about what gets the gold medal.

However imperfect exams are, it has to be admitted that they will in many instances be better than assessing students via an algorithm that can somehow manage to increase the proportion of pupils achieving A* and A grades at private schools by twice as much as that at comprehensives.  Just as racist computers don’t programme themselves, so algorithms aren’t self-generating.  Our Prime Minister has declared the system to be ‘robust’, which his minders should know by now would fatally undermine any lingering confidence any half-intelligent observer might have had in it.  But anyone who has ever been involved in education knows that three-hour examinations, which is what Williamson is talking about, are a very much less than perfect way of assessing much beyond a student’s capability at writing three hour exams. And three-hour exams tend not to be one of the frequently encountered hazards of working life.  In an examination in the humanities, for example, if what you are looking for is a student with a disposition not prone to nervousness and the ability to spew large quantities of verbiage, much of it memorised, onto paper in a wholly arbitrary three hours, then examinations are your bag.  Quite what that ability is supposed to be useful for is not entirely clear.

Many parents would be very happy to let Williamson know that some children are very much better suited to the peculiarly artificial exigencies of sit-down examinations than others.   My own siblings are a case in point.   I was relatively good at exams because I enjoyed the challenge, had worked out how to work the system, particularly with regard to what was likely to come up in an exam, and in those days had a half-decent memory.   As an undergraduate I devoted about as much time to honing my bridge skills as to covering the extensive lists of set books (which I didn’t), and good results were in no way an accurate reflection of my knowledge of the curriculum as a whole.  My sister, who is no less intelligent and capable than I am and was vastly more diligent, has a brain that functions in a different way from mine, never came anywhere close to completing any exam paper, and consequently came out with consistently lower results, which didn’t stop her from becoming a successful computer programmer.  One of my brothers is dyslexic, was at school in an era when teachers had no idea how to identify or respond to dyslexia and assumed, wholly incorrectly, that he just wasn’t very bright.  He was petrified by exams and, unsurprisingly, didn’t get good results, which didn’t stop him from having a successful career as a primary school teacher.  And our Secretary of State thinks there is no better way of doing assessment than exams.

On top of their artificiality, the stress and anxiety they occasion, and the questions they raise about what they are supposed to be testing, exams also have unintended and pernicious consequences in encouraging both a narrowing of the curriculum and ‘teaching to the test’ (see nesta link below).  Continuous assessment would be a vastly ‘better way of doing assessment than exams’ if one could be sure precisely who it is one is assessing.  The only thing sit-down exams have going for them, pace their full-throated endorsement by the likes of Williamson, is that with proper security you can, at least, be quite sure who is responsible for the answers.   In that single respect they are the least-worst of all the many alternatives.  But, as I suggested in my last entry, the current A-level shambles is forcing people to confront exam and assessment-related issues in a way they haven’t had to before, and there may be hope for a revisiting of continuous assessment on the horizon.   It has been suggested that developments in Artificial Intelligence may eventually make sit-down exams obsolete (https://www.nesta.org.uk/feature/ten-predictions-2019/beginning-end-exams/). One can only hope so.  In the meantime our Prime Minister and our Secretary of State for Education, among others, might be well advised to start praying that continuous assessment via AI is never applied to their performance.