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Friday, 10 March 2017

Adam Kerr, chart maker, fisherman, sailor, watercolourist

Adam Kerr (1933-2016) died 8 August 2016 in his home in Lamorna, Cornwall after a heart attack. He described himself as a ’chart maker, fisherman and sailor’. He was a former director of the International Hydrographic Bureau. who wrote:

“We remember Adam as a most brilliant civil servant, one who could see very far - without being drawn into small matters, and a master at using his superior charisma and diplomatic skills to resolve conflicts that looked like unstoppable forest fires. We also like to celebrate Adam as a great example of how to enjoy life: the party at his home and his curriculum as a boater have always been a great inspiration for us.”

He leaves his wife Judith and his sons Andrew and Timothy.

My wife and I last met Adam and Judith in June 2016 at his home and in the Lamorna Wink, the refurbished pub in the valley. We have meet up every June since the year 2000, which is itself an interesting story. We had been interested in the writings for children of peter Dawlish. Though written for boys, my wife Jean remembered reading them as a young girl with great affection. We collected the Dauntless series, not knowing who the author was, until in 2000 reading a short book on Lamorna purchased from the watermill shop, written by Keith Gardiner whose artist father Stanley was once painted by Richard Copeland Weatherby. Keith by good fortune was with us last June. In his little book was the story of how Peter Dawlish was a pseudonym for James Lennox Kerr, who happened to be Adam's father. A notice said that the Kerrs, artists, still lived in the valley so we knocked on the door. The rest is history. We had literally walked past his house unknowing for over twenty years The internet makes book finding much simpler today so before long I had accumulated most titles, and had many a chat with Adam about his father. We even managed to find and bring home an unpublished manuscript, languishing in a Wirrel Record Office on the history of Cunard in Birkenhead. He was pleased with this, because most other people wanted to talk about his grandfather, the artist Lamorna Birch. He decided to follow in his father's footsteps and write his own autobiography. I read early proofs and was delighted to be given the published book, equally as good as his father's adult writings.

We were fortunate that our annual visit coincided with his 80th birthday party, held in the Millennium Garden that he worked so hard to establish. The whole community turned out to partake of fish hotpot and wine. We were staying just up the hill, in the cottage, he told us once somewhat mischievously, in which he had been conceived We spotted him too sailing his beloved lugger Barnabas in the Thames at the Queen's regatta. Adam was also an enthusiastic watercolour painter of marine life and used to send watercolour Christmas cards which of course we keep.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Vivian Bartlett, Nurturing a Healthy Spirit in the Young

I was very pleased to be invited to write a foreword to Vivian Bartlett’s book. I was then the Director of the Research Centre for Motivating Learning at the University of Worcester. Though not a Baha'i , I have been a friend of Baha'is for many years and keen reader of Baha'i  writings. One of my keen interests was to find positive ways for teachers and other adults to interact with pupils in ways which encouraged motivation rather than compliance with behavioral diktats. Motivated teachers and motivated pupils tend to go together, but authoritarian teachers are more likely to produce either timid or rebellious charges. The objective of schooling has been long discussed, and when I was beginning teaching in the 1970s, it was described as autonomy, that is pupils making up their own minds about things. We encouraged open minds and discussion. It may be true that the loudest voices were from closed minds, but we teachers were skilled at helping even these to be thoughtful. Autonomy (following rules you think out for yourself) contrasts with heteronomy, obeying rules given by others. Our education system follows the latter, with schooling informing and filling up empty vessels.

For two years we worked closely with disturbed and disengaged young people on ‘Tranquility Zone’ and ‘Discovery Zone’ activities. The first group of 11-13 year olds was chosen by secondary schools as needing particular support. I interviewed several after the project as part of my work as project evaluator. At that point the young men and women were of an age to go to College and University. They described their early lack of aspirations and expectations, which starkly contrasted with what they had managed to achieve. As one young woman said, ‘If I hadn’t come across the Tranquility Zone, I would have committed suicide long ago. I would not be here now’. She progressed to College, another to university where he did very well.
It is important to say that this work was an act of service of the Baha'i Community seeking to be of help to troubled and vulnerable youngsters. Readers with little knowledge of Baha'is are invited to find out more through books like The Baha'i Faith: A Beginner's Guide by Moojan Momen. The teachers and other champions in school who enthusiastically facilitated the Programme were not Baha'is, but professionals in tune with the (Baha'i inspired) approach to the spiritual empowerment of young people, and concerned about the well-being, potential and future aspirations of their students, especially those who for various personal and family reasons were most needy. As evaluator, I also am not a Baha'i, though fully sympathetic to its history and social values. The Project did not promote the Baha'i Faith focused on classroom pedagogy.

The project has simplified over the years and two key themes have stood the test of time – that the individual is full of potential, a ‘mine rich in gems of inestimable value’; and that the best way these gems (inner positive qualities and capacities) can be developed is in service to others.  These are two sides of the same coin: we need to recognize that we have something to offer, and then understand that we can make a huge difference to the community. We might express this as being contributors rather than consumers.
The journey towards this is however not simple. The young people enter the process with various life experiences, including in some cases dysfunctional and destructive relationships which can damage self esteem and cause emotional pain. Such personal burdens can be left behind once they are recognized and dealt with, and you will see in this book how The Discovery Zone (a period of activities and discussion) begins this process of personal reflection.  We may be drawn to bad habits and negative behaviour, experiencing their pull which needs to be resisted. Other activities  identify and celebrate the gems and positive attributes we see in each other,  increasing self worth and developing positive and empowering relationships.
The Tranquility Zone is however something else. An ambient space is created with drapes, candles, soft furnishings, flowers and gentle music. Participants sit on cushions and enter into a contemplative state. The voice of the facilitator takes the group on an imaginary journey to an island where each are met by a personal guide, a wise-person constructed from their own imagination.  A number of storylines speak of the mine of gems, fruit on a tree and similar metaphors of fruitful lives.      Outsiders would see the group in a very relaxed state, to be discussed later.  Troubled youth seemed to benefit most and the general feedback was positive.   
Going alongside these activities were a group of people, in the project and in schools, who cared and made it clear to these youngsters that they are valued and valuable; that friendship among the team of people survives the project as lives changed direction and new aspirations became possible. Vivian’s book charts the programme over the years and explains its spiritual basis, demonstrating that lives ‘lit up’ have a chance to overcome obstacles. This is not an easy time for children and young people to grow up, maybe with little hope of a career and the too tempting availability of drink and drugs leading too often to criminality. Schools would rather have winners than losers, so a too sizable proportion of school students are left to founder.
 I once worked with city comprehensive schools in Birmingham to raise the achievement of all pupils – a project called Birmingham Compact. Its results over the whole cohort were dramatic, raising achievement levels from 30% to 70%.  But the arrival of school league tables, and Ofsted, meant that it was more profitable to coach a small group of borderline pupils to obtain a grade C rather than a D. The league tables were the tail that wagged the dog. The work with all pupils was degraded  to service the league tables. What happens to the lowest achieving 20% of a school is a matter of huge concern. Instead of writing them off, or even expelling them so they don’t spoil a school’s league table returns, these troubled lives can be turned around. Of course we might add, should be turned around.
I am reminded of some comments by my great mentor in education, John Dewey. Writing long ago, he set out his ‘Pedagogic Creed’ (1897, in McDermott, 1981: 442-454). In it, pupils participate in the social consciousness of the human race, so learning has to be embedded in society and promote the welfare of the group. The individual is a social being with responsibilities. An effective school will encapsulate positive social relationships and the well-being of the group. Far from education being a preparation for future life, it has to be relevant to the present lives of the pupils, addressing their issues and experiences, confident young people will adapt to whatever the future throws at them. The curriculum needs to focus on social activities, to build a foundation for the ethical study of school subjects. “Examinations are of use only so far as they test the child’s fitness for social life and reveal the place in which he can be of the most service and where he can receive the most help” (p.447).
Dewey’s educational philosophy dominated school thinking in the 1970s and 1980s, but has been supplemented by a subject-based national curriculum which teaches content and builds no ethical foundations. Nor does much school study encourage pupils to reflect upon life. Dewey ends: the teacher is engaged, not simply in the training of individuals, but in the formation of the proper social life... every teacher should realise the dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart ...for securing the right social growth ... in this way the teacher always is the prophet of the true God and the usherer in of the true kingdom of God.  (p.454).
In other words, using the language of his time, teaching is a spiritual calling, the prime purpose of which is to promote personal well-being and intellectual curiosity about life itself.
There are many more recent books on well-being, emotional intelligence, happiness, spirituality, resilience and similar themes to do with the education of the whole child. Society today has many problems and pressures which impact on young people. Knowing old-fashioned knowledge will not help them to become effective members of their social group. When faced with the question, what do we want our education system to do for our children, having good qualifications is not at the top of my list. Rather it is to encourage young people to be well-rounded, personally confident, helpful and responsible members of the group, unprejudiced, intellectually curious, critical of authoritarianism, and champions of the less fortunate. 

Such young people are likely also to achieve well in reasonably constructed qualifications.  This needs to apply to the whole school population in the spirit of ‘no youngster left behind’ – with no pupil being written off as being beyond teaching and learning. This is still a challenging agenda; and unfortunately it is the opposite of the aspirations of successive governments, resulting inan increase in punishment systems and exclusions.  Vivian’s book offers a straightforward way of bringing more light into the lives of not only challenged and challenging pupils, but all pupils. Every young person needs help and support as they build up resilience in the face of the many burdens with which modern life encumbers them.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Meditation and Tranquility in School

Meditation in school
Viruses are unpleasant things but viral posts on the internet sometimes have an interest. That goes for this post from an American school which used simple meditation techniques to give pupils calmness and emotional control. They report fewer discipline problems, detentions and exclusions. This is reported at

We did something very similar in England a decade ago. We called it Tranquility to avoid the religious connotations of meditation. Like all projects, it took some thinking through in the early states. Its purpose partly was to encourage calm minds which could come to terms positively with emotions like anger, temper, jealousy and envy. It did this through story, listened to in an ambient tranquil setting, with flowers, gentle lights and quiet music. The story encouraged thinking, reflection. Discussion afterwards surrounded topics of hurtful behaviour, selfishness, helping others, cooperation and such like. Vivian Bartlett, one of the designers, wrote it up here where you can read a sample - Nurturing a Healthy Spirit in the Young. I interviewed all of the early cohort, all troubled youngsters turned off from learning who said it had drawn them back from suicide, put them on the route to training and careers, and even moved them into a university course, All had once been written off as no hopers. One ten year old had been very disruptive, liable to savage outbursts, but the story she got something from offered her a mentor in the head, a wise aunty as it were. When trouble brewed, she took herself off to a quiet corner to talk things through and calm down. She received a best behaviour prize the following year. The mindset encouraged was to be contributors not consumers - to contribute to the community around rather than just hoarding stuff. The project took youngsters into care homes and set up a drop in cafe for those who wanted to chat. Funded with almost nothing, it succeeded with these disturbed youngsters where highly funded institutions had failed.

For a list of my writings, see further

A relaunch

My first blog here for four years though I haven't stopped writing. Now it i time for a new title and a catch-up. Barack Obama is gone and we are now in a world of fake news, mostly on twitter, and 'alternative facts'. It is time to commend and support responsible journalists who are able to show an 'alternative fact' to be a lie. I refer to both sides of the Atlantic.

I remind new readers of my areas of interest.

  • education and motivation to learn
  • children's literature
  • gardening
  • religious studies.
Links to my various writings can be found on .
I have a new Amazon page, for which open the Amazon home page and enter Stephen Bigger. There are details there of a new book coming out over the summer, title Living Contradiction (Crown House Publishers) written with my PhD graduate Sean Warren. There will be a detailed blogpost later, but enough to say here that it is the story of his journey from being an authoritarian teacher to becoming an empowering and motivating teacher.

Also on my Amazon page are details of my collaboration with Vivian Bartlett titled Nurturing a Healthy Human Spirit in the Young (George Ronald Publishers) describing a project called Tranquility, a meditative approach to working with pupils aged 8-14. Again I will blog on this later.

On children's literature, my paper of Rupert Bear in World War 2 is being serialised in Nutwood News by the Followers of Rupert society. It tracks through newspaper serialisation in the Daily Express between September 1939 and summer 1945 with an epilogue on the Cuban missile crisis. It was fun to write and episode 3 (out of 4) is about to come out. Google Stephen Bigger Rupert to find it.

Seven articles for the Malcolm Saville Society discuss the seven books, based loosely on James Bond, of thrillers for teenagers. I will gather these together in time into a self-complete volume. I am currently writing the Introduction to the Girls Gone By edition of the second of these, The Purple Valley (1964) out later this year.

My approach to literature is sociohistorical, setting the stories in their historical context. The blog covers miscellaneous things relevant to these years, and goes beyond these years.

On gardening, see my photo blogs on our own garden throughout the year, and the Kelmscott Manor Garden (March to November).

My most recent religious studies reflections are on the blog 4004BCE? ( The title is a humorous comment on Archbishop Ussher's insistence that earth was created in September of this year.  More elderly are introductions to Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Ontology: the visibility of the researcher

PhD students in Education are commonly faced with the word Ontology, so here are a few of my thoughts that I hope are helpful.
What is Ontology?
The term comes from the Greek 'study of being' - the study of what is, of reality.
There is an issue here, how do we know 'what is' as opposed to 'what we think is'. An ontology cannot be written in absolute terms: we have to be satisfied with exploring what we consider to be reality. We may have a realistic certainty about some things - about our bodies and environment, for example, believing these to be real rather than fantasy. Nevertheless, some individuals live in fantasy with little perception of reality.
There is an alternative term, phenomenology, meaning 'study of appearances'. This ties in well with 'what we consider to be real' and it is no surprise that phenomenology has become an alternative or replacement term. Phenomenology tends to refer to biographical rather than autobiographical information.

How are Ontologies Used?
Mainly to locate the researcher vis a vis the research. In any research there are issues of bias and reliability so it is useful to see how the researcher came to be in the position of researcher. This will give a clue about the nature and objectives of the research, and even its significance and importance. Research into education by a practitioner will be different in many ways from research done by an outsider. That is not to say it will be better or worse, just different. Ethnography has traditionally been done by outsider observers, which need not imply that it is better than an insider observer.
Thus, the ontology provides a description of the personal involvement of the researcher with the research, which is part of the general context of the research.

The ontology has a particular role to play in an action research where the focus is centrally placed on the researcher as actor in the action - i.e. researching one's own actions in context. Action research is far more than 'this is my problem, this is my plan, this is how it went'. There has to be an inherent criticality to all issues involved. In particular, the place of the researcher in the action needs to be decontructed. A teacher beginning an action research may have a completely false view of their own performance and influence in the social nexus that we call the school or classroom. Teachers generally will not see themselves as the source of the problem but focus on the pupils being the problem: this may be an entirely false position. The ontology therefore needs some sort of critical underpinning to ask questions about the assumptions being taken for granted. We use the word 'critical' as shorthand for a wide range of fundamental questions.

Autobiography in research.
Research is wrongly stereotyped as 'objective'. In all research, the researcher has to make choices and decisions based subjectively on attitudes, values and assumptions. However, research labelled as positivist (e.g. experimental science) sidelines this area of researcher choice. Thomas Kuhn's hard-hitting study (1961 and with later expanded editions) showed that research assumptions are consolidated into a paradigm, or generally accepted framework, which prevented new contradictory research from being funded, and its results being accepted. The first step of autobiography therefore is to challenge assumptions, however unassailable they seem at the time.

Various fields use autobiography as a central methodology, in particular those on the critical research paradigm. These traditionally focus on race, class, gender or disability, but could address any aspect of social oppression. Paulo Freire was a key figure in the movement. Of these, feminist research has taken autobiography the furthest, examining the psyche of women in society. Here nothing is sacred - even academic studies of female bodyshock after mastectomies. The key question is are there areas relevant to human life worthy of research which can only be researched using an autobiological methodology. This is not dissimilar to the question faced by Glaser and Strauss which led to qualitative methodology and grounded theory: how can people's experience of the closeness of death be researched?

Dangers and threats in the use of autobiography.
The greatest danger is of self-deception leading to bias. To strengthen reliability triangulation should be sought - other people's views and memories of the same events. This is not totally dissimilar to threats to reliability on positivist paradigms, but demonstrating reliability in autobiographical research is perhaps more challenging. Some methods bracket away truth claims to solve this: autobiography makes a truth claim but need not be accepted as truth. The research therefore focuses on perceptions rather than their absolute truth.

All research contains a danger of over-claiming significance in making generalisations. Autobiography has to be particularly cautious in this.

Ontology is a statement of where, why and how a researcher stands vis a vis his/her research, stating what they regard as reality. The statement should explain why. Thus, ontology declares the researcher's engagement with the research topic, explaining why the topic is important. It should also contain details of distancing techniques to ensure that the autobiographical interpretations are not fantasy.

Monday, 11 February 2013


A lot of politicians are being accused of plagiarism at the moment -

10 of my students have been awarded PhDs and I have as many ongoing students - none have plagiarised. How do I know?

Because I have alerted them to the dangers and monitored them step by step and chapter by chapter. Their work is about their professional practice and is therefore unique. Similar material not downloadable. No one else has done their particular research focus before . 

If students have plagiarised, their supervisors should have spotted it. Universities in their turn need to give supervisors sufficient paid time to supervise properly. One of my Masters students once plagiarised in his dissertation draft. One third of the dissertation was copied and pasted from an uncited article on the internet. It was easily found, via google, not even the specialist software. He had to resubmit honestly. I suspect he had a history of academic cheating never picked up before.

Less deliberate acts of plagiarism are much more common, and it is these that may be getting the politicians into trouble, as they do not appear to be aware that they have plagiarised. It happens because of poor research practice. They read a book, jot down points they are interested in but don't remember to put quotation marks around verbatim notes. Later, they read their notes and use the passage, not remembering that it is a verbatim quote and treating it as their own words. So a little bit of plagiarism creeps in.

I recommend therefore research hygiene: always put quotation marks where they are needed even in rough notes - it is not arduous. And put the page number in the margin to save you trying to find the page reference later.

Some plagiarism is academic incompetence and some is deliberate deception. Deception (cheating) should put politicians out of a job, but incompetence is a different matter. Few politicians are competent anyway.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Philosophical Roots of (American) Anthropology

This book, by William Y(ewdale) Adams (1998) has been on my shelves making me feel guilty. No longer. Why do anthropologists do what they do, indulging in the natural history of the human species. They don't look at themselves but leave that to sociologists. They concentrate on 'other', people different from white middle-class Americans - people in tribes, the Papua or Amazonian rain forests and so on. Is this studying humans in their raw state? (and are these people really 'primitive'?). Is the fact that they are uneducated (into western values) part of the attraction? I am not going to summarise the book, a survey of many philosophical schools. The conclusion indicates that the author doesn't know the answer either, either for the anthropology profession as a whole, or for individual anthropologists. We can't keep the 'primitive' in aspic, in a cultural museum, so many now educated descendants of classic studies may well not appreciate what has been concluded in their family name.  The anthropologist goes in, observes, listens, and then describes. They have then had pet theories - evolutionism (we still talk of stone-age aboriginees and bushmen), functionalism, structuralism - most of which have now withered. The answer may be the same as why do we bother, with great discomfort for the professionals,  to follow moose and snow tigers and watch them killing and having sex.  Seeing rare things, admiring, the thrill of the chase, the collecting instinct perhaps. 'I have seen a trance dance, got the photos and the tea-shirt'.

An educational parallel are those who go into schools as observers, watch, listen, comment. They may use a theory or two to help find a way through the dense forest of words, gestures and transactions. They may believe people they should be more sceptical of, and seek out people whose voices might otherwise be silent. They purpose, perhaps to cast light on something that needs attention and suggest improvements. That is a political philosophy, a demand for quality, for justice, for equity, and for respect. Tom Harrisson the anthropologist did this in the 1930s in Savage Civilisation - the savages of course meaning us, the imperial powers. Others, like  Napoleon Chagnon, on the Yanomami, did great damage (for status and profit) by describing the tribe as chronically violent and providing excuses for genocide by loggers. An anthropologist today has to be socially critical: in schools, this excites an interest in power and powerlessness, democracy and voice, freedom and repression, sarcasm and support, bullies and victims (adult as well as young), deception and honesty, lies and truth. An educational anthropologist with such an interest would probably not be invited into school twice.