E=MC hammer

I follow a fair few teachers on twitter and so I get to read a lot about education. One of the  faces most commonly peering out of tweets and retweets at me, is that of Albert Einstein; usually with some pithy quote attached to his name. More often than not these quotes are attributed to Einstein, but he didn’t say them. As with the following examples.
he didn’t say this
he didn’t say this either

nor this


he kinda said this, but not in these words


I recently got involved in a spat with a guy who posted one of these quotes. The klaxon of “someone on the Internet is wrong” began buzzing in my head. No. resist. I said to myself, but the urge was too great. Our conversation went like this: 

he does agree!

Leaving aside the argument as to whether facts matter or not (hint -they do) just why is Einstein such a popular figure for educators to (mis)quote? What is it about the German Jewish physicists that appeals to some modern educators? Einstein isn’t popular among all teachers. Instead you tend to see his stuff quoted by teachers who have a strong disposition towards things like creativity, student emotional development and imagination. The kind of teacher who derides tests and wants students to ‘think outside the box’. Now there’s nothing necessarily wrong with these ideas .I’m just merely pointing out the  odd correlation I’ve noticed between Einstein and beliefs of this sort. I say ‘odd’ because a gifted mathematical genius, smart in the most traditional sense who excelled at school doesn’t strike me as the poster boy for the values being espoused by these teachers. What’s that you say? But Einstein didn’t do well at school!  Ah, before we continue, there are a few myths that need debunking. Here’s a quick recap.


Myth: Einstein did badly in school
No, he did really well in school. He aced almost everything except French. He tried to enter university when he was 16 but his French held him back (damn you, French!!)

Myth: Einstein failed maths
Nope, he could do differential and integral calculus by the age of 15 whereas I don’t even know what those words mean.

Myth: Einstein had learning difficulties and was an average student
This one is tricky because Einstein didn’t speak a lot until he was about 5. He did speak though. His biographer Pais (1982) claims that Einstein started speaking in whole sentences between the age of 2-3 and at age nine he was accepted into a prestigious school. It would seem quite odd for an ‘average’ student with learning difficulties to be accepted into such a school. The only ‘learning difficulty’ he seemed to have was in that he hated the way his teachers taught, -i.e. memorising large amounts of data. This to my mind, makes Einstein quite a ‘normal’ child.

Myth: Einstein was dyslexic/autistic  

There is little credible evidence to support this claim. Mostly these claims were made retroactively. Also Autism and dyslexic are both somewhat problematic terms. Autism is a spectrum disorder and dyslexia is not one condition with a clear definition. Thus to say Einstein was autistic or dyslexic is probably not true and even if it were true probably doesn’t tell us very much.

So it seems there are in existence, two distinct Einsteins. There is ‘physicist Einstein’ who was a smart kid, good at school (with the exception of French) and brilliant at maths. This Einstein went on to publish hundreds of ground breaking articles concerning physics and won the Nobel Prize. Then there’s ‘educator Einstein’. A young boy with learning difficulties who was written of by foolish teachers unable to see his potential. He failed at maths and yet went on to become a world-renown genius. He spent much of his later life poised before a blackboard making pithy statements about education to his enrapt students. 

While it is true that Einstein trained to be a school teacher and lectured at various Universities, it’s also true that for two years he failed to find a teaching job and his only teaching was at university level. It’s also likely that none of the teachers quoting his thoughts on teaching have any idea how he fared as a lecturer. Was he any good? Did his students like him? Did he teach well? Among Einstein’s hundreds of papers not one dealt with teaching or education. Despite this he’s claimed by teachers as one of their own, there are even (flawed) academic papers speculating about Einstein’s views on teaching


reverse halo -or ‘Devil effect’. Retweet anyone?

So why exactly is Einstein popular among  some  teachers? It would seem that Einstein is a kind of short-hand for ‘genius’. Stick his picture next to a quote and the quote gains 9000 Internet points more of credibility than just a normal quote. This is an example of the cognitive bias known as the Halo effect. This is where one attractive characteristic can lead people to assume more favourable things about a person in general. The halo effect is well known and well studied. It’s what leads to attractive teachers getting better student ratings than less attractive teachers, and to attractive criminals getting shorter sentences than plainer ones. Einstein wasn’t hot, he was smart, but the effect still holds. E = S = T or Einstein = smart = true. Smart guy A says B so B must be true because smart guy A is smart. Of course, this is a non-sequitur. If Einstein was talking about Physics you would do well to listen, but would you want his advice on marriage and dating?


What’s strange about all of this is that fans of ‘educator Einstein’, those who quote him  regarding ‘imagination’ and stress his poor school record are often the same people who would normally bristle at ‘outsiders telling teachers how to teach’ especially ‘ivory tower academics’ and ‘men in white coats’. How many times have we seen researchers or scientists dismissed because they’re not at the ‘chalk face’ and don’t understand the realities of the classroom, even when that researcher is/was an educator themselves?

Also odd is that teachers often use Einstein to back up things like creativity, imagination and alternative conceptions of intelligence, focusing on the idea that ‘standard’ definitions of intelligence  are not the be-all and end-all of education. Yet Einstein was as ‘traditionally smart’ as they come. He was not smart in a ‘fish climbing trees’ sense, or a ‘bodily-kinaesthetic’ sense but smart in a ‘discover how space and time works through complex maths’ smart. So why do teachers promoting the notion that ‘everyone is clever in different ways’ use the guy who is smart in the most vanilla way to push that point home?

Sure Einstein hated the way he was taught, he hated memorising facts and thought that imagination was important, -but so what? If an idea is good, it doesn’t matter who says it, be it Einstein or Hitler. That is why when vested interested attack, for example, Charles Darwin they are missing the point. Darwin doesn’t matter. The theory of evolution matters. Good ideas are good whether Einstein said them or not, -and bad ideas are bad ideas regardless of who said them. We need to focus on the text, not the image.


So we have teachers misquoting a famous physicist, and academic, who may or may not have been a good teacher, but was certainly very good at maths and science to support the view that education isn’t just about being good at things like maths and science.
Am I missing something here?



language or dialect?

‘Did you know China is very big and has many dialects‘, My Chinese teacher told me pointing to a map of China. ‘It’s hard to understand people here and here, and as for over here…’ she said, pointing at Tibet, ‘their Chinese is impossible to understand.’

Hmmm, I thought, that might be because it’s a completely different language. Now while it’s true that Tibetan and the other Chinese languages all belong to the same language family, it’s also true that English and Iranian belong to their same family and we wouldn’t consider the one to be a regional variation of the other, so what’s going on with Chinese?
One of the sources of the confusion is the written system which is shared, in the same way that the roman alphabet is shared among many European languages. As the characters represent words and not letters there is very little connection with the symbol and the sound, thus the phrase ‘I love you’ in four Chinese dialects look like this:


Ah! Pretty similar you might say.  And you’d be right but here’s how you say them:

Wo ai ni
ngóh oi néih
Gua ai li
nguh eh non

Well, you may say, no doubt they are mutually intelligible, after all, they look kind of similar, right?  well what about these four, they look roughly as similar as the above example:

‘Dialect’ ?
Ti amo
Te lubesc
Te amo
Je t’aime

Would you be happy to call these dialects? Well, you might but you’d be on your own. So why are the Chinese languages called ‘dialects?’

Before delving into dialects that are really languages it’s interesting to look at some languages which are really dialects. You may know that Urdu is the national language of Pakistan and Hindi is the majority language of India. However these two languages are virtually identical. Until 1947 India and Pakistan were one country and hence one language. In the same way American English and British English speakers have few communication problems, Urdu and Hindi speakers, except for some vocab, have no problems understanding each other. Another example of dialects becoming languages are Norwegian and Danish which are basically the same language with different flags and football teams. So political reasons, rather than a clear difference can be enough to grant a dialect language status.
Chinese languages are interesting because they follow the opposite kind of logic. China as a political entity is, shall we say, more interested in highlighting similarities than differences. The Chinese government is working hard to shape a national sense of unity, and so it follows that if the Chinese are all one people, under heaven, then it makes sense for them to speak one language. The Chinese word Fangyan  方言, meaning ‘regional language’ is close to the English word dialect, but not exactly the same. In the same way no longer being able to reproduce together is usually the boundary of a new species, mutual unintelligibility is arguably the boundary of a different language. But as we have seen with other languages, the differences might not be so clear cut.