Wednesday, 29 November 2017

#28: Pet

'OK, so I'm gorgeous – get over it'

The recent media-fuelled row about whether Parliament voted that animals were not ‘sentient beings’ stirred up a lot of people. But of course they are sentient. Anyone who has had a pet knows this. 

But I was wondering recently about the effects of pets on our lives. Are they actually good for us? I asked a few of my friends how their lives would be different if they did not own pets, and they quickly they came up with negatives as well as positives. Here are some comments:

Sarah and David (six dogs, two cats)
Sarah: ‘They give me a nervous breakdown on a regular basis. If I don’t keep them, they’ll die. That’s why we have so many. I’d get a lot more done if I didn’t have them – be free to go on holiday.
They are understanding of me. I’m the centre of their pack – their lives revolve around me. I only get to be away for five or six hours and then have to go back to them. I have a particular relationship with Bandit, my first dog. We are close. You can’t get a fag paper between us – he talks to me.’
David: ‘It would be a lot cheaper. I wouldn’t have to replace so many computer screens because the dog kept chewing them – the first one cost €300.
The dogs are good companions and good entertainment. They give you unconditional love – no matter how much you upset them, they’ll always come back and give you a cuddle. They helped me integrate into the community here – you get talking with people when you’re out walking.

Tim (two cats)
‘It would be so much easier – perpetual whining and clawing – want, want, want, – I say ‘can’t you open a can yourself?’ We have them because they foisted themselves on us – they’re squatting. But they’re a diversion if you’re a couple.

Janet (four cats)
I would travel more if I didn’t have them – that’s the thing that disrupts our lives most.
The house would not be a home without the pets – you wouldn’t have so much reason to go back. I think your blood pressure falls when you stroke cats. It was very important when the children were growing up that they had animals; they learn responsibility. The cats give affection unconditionally – they also teach children something about death.

Claire (two dogs, three cats, two donkeys, two guinea pigs)
Life would be more lonely without them. And all our animals are useful – the donkeys are good strimmers, the dogs guard the house, the cats catch mice. The guinea pigs are for the children.

Wendy (two dogs, hens)
Life would be empty and and more boring without pets, even if it would be a bit easier. Dogs are very faithful. Some of our hens are so old they have stopped laying. But I couldn’t kill them.

Marjan (no pets)
We shouldn’t forget that pets are a threat to the environment – eating birds and geckos.
And what does the research say? It turns out that ‘animal-assisted therapy’ has long been used, for example with animal handlers taking dogs into prisons to help relieve inmates’ stress and encourage social skills, or into care homes to offer meaningful interactions for people with dementia. More broadly, maybe we all get a bit of ‘pet therapy’ when cuddling our cats or talking to our dogs at the end of a long day. 

As for evidence that pets are good for us, there is plenty, but it’s not always of the highest quality and results are not always clear-cut. Some experiments have shown that dog walkers have healthier hearts (but don’t dogless walkers too?) and that even a fish tank in the dining room can encourage elderly people with Alzheimer’s to eat more. Time magazine cherry-picked some of the clearest positive results in an article this year, but this gives the misleading impression that owning a pet is ‘officially’ and unequivocally good for you. A 2005 review of research in the British Medical Journal concluded that recent research into the effects on health was intriguing but contradictory.  

It is also difficult to separate out the effect of pet ownership from other factors. For example, a 2016 Korean experiment found that a group of 40-odd people over 65 given a cage of five crickets to look after had better psychological health at the end of eight weeks than a similar sized insectless group. This sounds clear enough, but can we be sure the results are down to the crickets? Could it be that simply having an aim or a small responsibility – doing some gardening, for example – would have the same effect?

But perhaps trying to isolate ‘the pet effect’ is missing the point. The point is that they are connected to many different aspects of our lives – part of our daily routines, of giving and receiving. They don’t work in isolation, but integrate us into society – who has not started a conversation with a fellow dog walker or patted a homeless person’s puppy instead of walking past? 

Different models for the effects of pets on health, from the British Medical Journal article quoted below

Likewise, it may also be missing the point to look for measurable health benefits of pet ownership, such as lowered blood pressure or stress levels. It could be more useful to look at how they are plugged into our lives more widely. The 2005 article mentioned above recommends a broader definition of health to mean physical and mental well-being, and social integration:

The main issue may not be whether pet ownership per se confers measurable physical benefits but the role that pets have in individual people's lives—namely, the contributions of the pet to quality of life or the costs to wellbeing through a pet's death.

We could also think of the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? set in a future world where real animals have mostly disappeared and the bar-coded replicas which have replaced them do not fulfil the need to have and hold a real furry friend. The hero Rick Deckard uses his wages from bounty hunting to buy a precious and expensive sheep to keep on his rooftop (I saw a large herd of them last weekend in the mountains, flowing from one terrace to another, like a sea). Sentient beings, for sure.
'A cat is a cat's best friend – sometimes'

Saturday, 14 October 2017

#27: exam

‘Exam’ is not exactly a dirty word among liberal educationalists, but the idea of testing people and ranking their performance is viewed with suspicion by many, despite decades of research into how to assess academic performance and today’s fairly true-to-life exam tasks in many subjects. 

For example, in Museum Studies courses I have worked on, students may have to mount an exhibition, design questionnaires, assess a workshop and carry out many other practical things likely to be just as much help in future jobs as researching, clarifying and expressing ideas by means of an essay (also a much maligned task, which I will look at in a future blog post).
So, as someone who plans to take an exam of her own free will (Spanish B2) here I would like to list a few reasons to – not exactly love them, but to appreciate what they do:

1.     They make students work. That old and good pedagogical command ‘focus on learning and not teaching’ is a constant reminder that activities, materials and curricula should have that as an end goal. I wonder sometimes how much time is spent on improving teaching as compared to encouraging and enabling learning, and if teachers spend too much time on the former (since it is under teachers’ control). The powerful stick or carrot of an exam are as valuable for the work the student does in preparation, as for the achievement afterwards.

2.     They are a target to aim at. Learning a language is in some ways an endless process, but an exam is an achievable objective.

3.     They test things which may not come up in other contexts. Imperfect subjunctive, anyone? Exams are a wider context to use skills and knowledge that you might never get the opportunity to in real life.

4.     At least in language exams, they are one of the few contexts where accuracy is important. Once you can make yourself understood, people you talk to are unlikely to correct your language mistakes. An exam makes you attend to your verb endings and prepositions.

5.     A qualification is evidence which is standardised across industries, countries or universities. For example, the A1-C2 language scale is from the Common European Framework of Reference for modern languages (CEFR).

6.     They can powerfully improve your work or higher education prospects. Some people say they shouldn’t, but they are a kind of shorthand which contributes to your overall educational or professional profile.

Rejection of exams just won’t wash for all subjects. Would you like to be seen by a doctor who had failed their medical exams, or be on the road alongside people who had failed their driving test? Obviously exams can’t cover all the skills needed in any profession, but are a standardised indication of competence. So I'm not sure why language competence should be exempt from examination.

‘Any critical approach to education… is bound to take a sceptical view of exams, whether viewed as a measure of achievement and potential, or in the context of their potentially limiting impact on teaching.’ So says Scott Thornbury, an education theorist I admire, whose language teaching blog is the best I have come across.

But do exams always have to have a limiting impact? Can they not sharpen and expand the range of areas which students study?

Thornbury, S. and Meddings, L. (2009) Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.