The 10 Dumbest Things I’ve Seen An Undergraduate Chemist Do

In no particular order, here are the 10 dumbest things I’ve seen an undergraduate chemist do in the last decade or so.

1. Derive a bond-length longer than the Humber bridge

This is a fairly common error that results from not keeping track of your orders of magnitude properly. If you’ve got a lot of 10-19 or 108 type things flying around, it’s easy to get lost. But, you should at least be able to sanity check your answer and figure out that a chemical bond is about an ångström  long, with comparatively little variation – it’s not going to be 8,000 metres.

There’s plenty of theoretical dumbness where this one came from, but they’re boring to non-specialists and would take a while to explain. The rest of this list is pretty much the horror-show that is the teaching laboratories.

2. Stab themselves with a pipette full of chloroform

It turns out that while we’re pretty careful about needle-stick injuries (one a week for postgraduates, none at all for undergraduates, remarkably) it turns out that a simple Pasteur pipette can be equally capable of breaking the skin and injecting a toxic compound into you. This is probably at the more sensible end of the “how the shimmering fuck did you do that?!?” scale.

3. Throw acid in someone’s face

Let’s just summarise this one thusly:

Student A: “Watch out! This is acid!!”

**throws a beaker of clear liquid in their friend’s face**

Student A: “Haha! Lol. It was just water… Joke’s on you! Wait… wait… why are you screaming?”

Image result for chemistry teaching lab

Not pictured – the shouting… the glass breaking… the demonstrators head-desking after being asked “can’t you just tell us the answer?” for the fifteen time that day

4. Syphon an ice bath… filled with unknown crap

What’s the fastest way of emptying excess water from an ice bath? Easy – simply stick in some rubber tubing, suck it up, and and let the syphon action do the rest. Sounds great… unless you failed to spot someone spill some toxic crud in there earlier, and then sucked it into your f**king mouth. The end result of this one involved screaming across the lab to spit it out into the sink, right as the senior demonstrator turned up.

5. Spray hot oil into someone’s face

While we mostly work with metal heating blocks now (possibly for this very reason) it’s still common to use oil baths to warm things up. Even for a distillation. The trouble with a distillation is that you need to get everything else on the heated side of the condenser to get hot, and this takes a while. So you can speed it up by heating the still head yourself, and this often involves a heat gun (aka, a hair dryer).

This is fine, providing you don’t point it down into the oil bath, where a sudden blast of hot air hits the hot oil and sprays it everywhere.

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They’re queuing up outside. The cleanliness has mere seconds to live…

6. Getting capsaisin in their eye


The first rule of Extracting Capsaisin Club is: you do not touch your eyes while extracting capsaisin!

The second rule of Extracting Capsaisin Club is: YOU DO NOT TOUCH YOUR EYES WHILE EXTRACTING CAPSAISIN!

It’s a very effective method of getting closely acquainted with an emergency eye-wash station, though.

7. Pass out in the lab

Normally, this would be considered a sympathetic accident. Call first-aider, and get them checked out.

However, when the lab starts at 10 am, and it’s because they skipped breakfast, possibly sleeping in despite not going out the night before (they said) it’s their own damn fault and they’re a god-damned danger to others.

Image result for chemistry teaching lab

*Shoves fuming and smoking bottle of soon-to-explode stuff into the demonstrator’s face* – “What do I do with this?!?!” – “What’s in it?” – “It’s the top layer from Part B.”

8. Turn up to the lab drunk

One student turned up to the labs still visibly drunk from a previous evening – explaining the lack of an apparent hangover that hadn’t yet kicked in. They then proceeded to wander around the lab doing Jack Sparrow impressions until their lab partner kicked them out and sent them home before the idiot broke something or tried to pick a fight with the senior demonstrator.

9. Fail to understand the purpose of a spreadsheet

You’ve got data. Lots of it, in fact. It all needs the same calculation performed on each point. So, obviously, you type it into Excel, do your formula on the next cell, and drag/copy down. Presto.

Of course, this wasn’t good enough for the geniuses who decided to write each one out on paper, type them into a calculator step by step, then manually type the answer into the spreadsheet. All 150 data points worth over the course of about an hour. The reason, apparently, was that they didn’t trust the computer to get it right.

10. Spill ethylenediamine down their arm and not notice… for half an hour

Ethane-1,2-diamine, ethylenediame, diaminoethane, en, whatever you like to call it, it’s a common ligand that appears everywhere in the theory component of an undergraduate chemistry course. Small wonder, then, that they forget that it’s a strong base, a derivative of ammonia, and will rip your skin off in short order if you don’t do something about it. But at least now I know what a proper ammonia burn looks like. And smells like, to be overly-honest.

Black Mirror from Least to Most Depressing – Let the Bleak-a-thon Commence!

The following is every episode of Black Mirror ranked from least to most depressing, horrifying and bleak. It’s not a ranking of quality or rating – despite the countless lists out there, I think that’s a fools errand to try.

Needless to say, this is full-on spoiler-ridden throughout and assumes you’ve watched all of it.


  1. San Junipero


An uplifting and heartwarming tale of a colour-blind, able-blind, even gender-blind love that crosses the boundaries of reality and even time itself? Come on, Brooker, it’s like you’re not even trying to make us feel bad!

  1. Nosedive


The idea of the entire population wrapped up in superficial niceties and their own rating and public perception – and unable to tell the truth or be honest because of it – is pretty frightening. Yet by the end , with the help of a straight-talking trucker and a bottle of booze, Lacie finally breaks free of that system (unlike Bing, see below) and finds some joy in shouting ‘fuck you’ at a stranger. Not a particular down-note to end on, as it tells us there is such a thing as an escape from the bullshit.

  1. Playtest


While played out as a survival horror with a Twilight-Zone-like twist, I don’t think this is particularly bleak, as such. While the twist plays with irony – death by cell phone – Playtest lacks the truly depressing undercurrent; the horror plays out as horror, but doesn’t at any point bleed into the real world or tell us anything frightening about ourselves as we are right now.

  1. Be Right Back


While the thought of Haley Atwell keeping a robot-clone of her dead fiancé in the loft, isolated from the world, for years on end is outright creepy, Be Right Back doesn’t really hit you over the head with the existential dread of the situation as hard as it could. It has its thought-provoking moments – how well do our online selves really reflect who we are? – none of it is likely to make you stare blankly at a wall for an hour.

  1. The Entire History of You


The bleak-fest truly begins now. With all of your life recorded forever, the ramifications are both huge and frightening.The Entire History of You confines this, thankfully, to just the exploration of how it would impact a blatantly dysfunctional and untrusting relationship. There’s more that could be explored in this world and the consequences of Grains, but it’s left in the background and merely hinted at rather than brought to the front.

  1. The Waldo Moment


While this tends to get a reputation as having a downer ending, I find the idea of an apocalyptic dystopia happening thanks to a blue cartoon character a little… just a little, mind… too far-fetched. So while it tries, I think it loses bleak points for just being a bit “wham” about it, rather than showing a slow descent into a believable nightmare. The real depressing aspects of this happen long before that end scene. How an artist’s creation can be ripped form them and abused for political ends, how your life can be torn apart even by something you didn’t ask for – and can’t stop.

Of course, some of the specifics couldn’t happen ever. If a popular figure who had been sucked out of right-field into the political sphere demanded that their audience physically assault a protester, they’d never do that. Right?

  1. The National Anthem


By a long shot so far, this is the most realistic Black Mirror episode. It doesn’t require a technology that we don’t, so far, possess. Nor does it require a mind-set that we don’t already have. So it really gains some bleakness points for being set merely five minutes into a painfully plausible future.

In addition to that, the bleak facts of the plot still stand; despite all the efforts, the PM still had to fuck a pig, the population were all complicit in it, public opinion forced it and… despite the brave face put on by the PM and his wife, the final scene says that the incident ruined them forever. And in a final twist of irony in the penultimate scene, it turns out he didn’t really have to do it, either. All the damage was for nothing.

  1. Fifteen Million Merits


This is a straight up satire – if heavy-handed at times – of today. The weird futuristic setting is just window dressing. People ride bikes and chase superficial ‘stuff’ that isn’t real.

Yet despite Bing’s passionate speech, his realisation of how the system eats people up, how he figures out that it’s all for nothing and just for digital ‘stuff’… he’s still, in the end, consumed by that very system. The Hot Shot judges twist him and roll with his punches expertly, and fold him back into the crowd. He becomes part of it, swapping his old cell and its screens for a new cell with bigger screens. Fifteen Million Merits tells us that there is no escape from The System.

  1. Men Against Fire


Like with Bing’s fate in Fifteen Million Merits, Stripe is eventually consumed by the System once his eyes have been opened to it. Yet, while Bing’s downfall is a reticent bargain, Stripe very much consents to having reality masked for him. Both initially through his potentially wilful ignorance, and once more under threat. He’s willingly eaten by the system and his reality replaced with a lie – and forced to by the more horrifying reasons that broke him. His reality is forever distorted and replaced, and the system marches on as before with no escape from it.

Men Against Fire also serves as a warning far beyond just its satire of conflict and killology. It asks us what do we think of our fellow humans when we stop seeing them as human? History proves you don’t need an implant to do that, just a newspaper and the right media spin.

  1. Hated In the Nation


There are bigger body counts found in some Twilight Zone and Outer Limits twists, but this has the added curveball that the victims effectively and selectively sealed their own fate – by willingly partaking in a ‘game of consequences’ and failing to heed the message. They fail to realise that in inciting death and violence toward people, they were very much as culpable and guilty of hate as the people they wanted to condemn. They suffered for it. It’s a pretty grisly conclusion.

There’s the added bleak bonus that it seems like the next figure of hate will become the lead detective that, according to the story, did whatever she could to save people – so wrapped up in the need to hate someone, anyone, and to have a lightning rod for their anger, people failed to heed any message or moral from the events. They want to demand the truth of what happened, but even if they got it, would they be satisfied? Or would they move onto the next character they want to focus on?

  1. Shut Up and Dance


If Black Mirror has one recurring theme beside techno-paranoia, it’s vigilante justice. Shut Up and Dance is really the apex of people taking the law into their own hands that’s seen throughout a number of episodes. In the darkest way possible through outright blackmail, unnamed and unknown hackers can make people rob banks, steal, and fight to the death.

And make no mistake, there are people out there who will watch this and cheer on the villains of the piece, happy that the ends justify any amoral means or any innocents that get caught up along the way. Anything is possible so long as it satisfies peoples’ lust for a central hate-figure. That’s the depressing part.

  1. White Christmas


While there’s three interwoven stories in this to look at, they all have the unifying factor of “people are shitheads”. Do people really care for their fellow people, or are they happy enough to brush their morality aside on the faintest justification? White Christmas says, in very clear terms, the latter.

There are a lot of cues in this that suggest that people are very much aware that Cookies are sentient, effectively-real copies of people. They know, but they don’t care. They have no qualms in torturing them, abusing them, and mentally destroying them. They treat them as jokes to be used, no matter how malicious the tortures they’ll inflict.

After all, it’s just code, isn’t it? It’s just computer code executing self-aware patterns, rather than neurotransmitters executing self-aware patterns… can’t you see the difference?

  1. White Bear


This is hugely bleak for two reasons.

Firstly, you know that if a “Justice Park” where the sole inhabitant was tortured daily for the benefit of paying customers, it would be an overnight success. The baying mob and armchair vigilantes would leap at it. As always, people are shitheads and anything’s okay so long as it satisfies the need for a central figure of hate that can be suitably dehumanised. This isn’t even a case of ends justifying means – there is no end here, the justice park has no end game in sight, the means are the means, and the mob’s bloodlust is the only justification. You just know there is something seriously dysfunctional going on in the world of White Bear, one where the masses can be easily placated with a figure to literally hate at will, to throw eggs at and to chant at, and then to torture and beat day after day after day with no real chance of the basic tenets of criminal justice of retribution, reformation or prevention. It is revenge and distraction only.

Secondly, and for me more importantly, there’s the fact that the entire concept of the Justice Park is ultimately pointless and flies in the face of all our civilised notions of justice. The revenge is superficial at best. With her memory wiped every night, Victoria Skillane is – for all practical and philosophical purposes – not the same person as the one who filmed a horrific crime on video, as evidenced by her protective instinct displayed throughout the episode in the run-up to the twist. The public, ultimately, are getting their thrills from torturing an empty shell, the mere collection of atoms that just so happened to be around a crime as it was committed. No different to cutting off the hand that pulled a trigger, and putting that in prison to endure the punishment.

In a very real sense, Victoria Skillane the murderer died long before the episode begins – Victoria Skillane the unaware innocent is punished instead. People probably know this, and are more than capable of coming to this realisation, but they don’t care. Yet despite the nonsensical nature of the whole thing, people go along with it. And we all know that people in reality would happily go along with the scheme, too,  to satisfy superficial lust at the expense of justice, law and even basic logic.

White Bear’s treatment of how we would react to public punishment and its side-stepping of conventional justice makes it bleak, horrifying, and liable to cause some sleepless nights hoping it never comes true.

Every Conversation With A Brexiteer Ever

Well, perhaps not ever… but this seems to be the summary of many:

Leaver: It was a vote, you have to accept it!

Remainer: But the referendum was only ever advertised as advisory, it was never legally binding for the government to enact. So it really should be given parliamentary approval in a free vote. Particularly, the terms agreed upon after 2 years of Article 50 negotiations should be ratified through our representative democracy.

Leaver: It was a vote, you have to accept it!

Remainer: But perhaps it’s dangerous to just enact something without proper expert consideration, especially now that multiple Vote Leave promises have been rescinded and it’s become clear that the population may have been (read: definitely were) mislead. The political and economic landscape has changed significantly since June, so you can’t say a decision taken by non-experts in one situation should be, by default and without consideration, applicable to a much different different situation at a later date.

Leaver: It was a vote, you have to accept it!brexit_recession

Remainer: But it was a very small win for Leave. The margin was a few percent, almost on par with a margin of error. Given the number of people expressing regret over their vote – a proportion that polls suggest would be high enough to swing the referendum in a different direction if it were done today – is it wise to plough on without further due consideration? Can we not take into account further opinion polls taken after a reflection on the impacts to the value of our currency, the economic impact, or the fact that many Vote Leave promises turned out to be complete fabrications?

Leaver: It was a vote, you have to accept it!

Remainer: Okay, but we have a constitution based around representative democracy. We elect people to make decisions on our behalf based on the fact they can take the time and do enough research to make an informed decision, whereas the general public can’t afford the time. In line with both the country’s precedent-based constitution, parliament should have a final say in both leaving the EU and accepting post-EU terms. They should take popular opinion under advisement ( as this was advertised as, and as they’ve always done) without accepting the narrow referendum result as a mandate for sweeping, unilateral change.

Leaver: It was a vote, you have to accept it!

Remainer: Thing is, many aspects of democracy require supermajorities to enact rather than 50% +1. Things like amending the US constitution, for example. That’s precisely to stop bad decisions being made on the back of popularism and to ensure broad, representative consensus rather than making sweeping changes when there’s a clear split and the margin is tight. It’s also why arguments about the counterfactual case of ‘Remain’ winning by a small margin don’t hold up – because you don’t need to get a supermajority or a large margin in favour of the status quo to keep with the status quo, because there would still be no strong mandate for change. This is also the essence of basic conservatism, incidentally, as well as part of mainstream political thought about democracy since the term was invented.

Leaver: It was a vote, you have to accept it!

Remainer: Part of the democratic process is that you can’t just accept things blindly, even when popular – as you have to have safeguards against a tyranny of the majority, where the rights of minorities can be removed or oppressed just because a majority says so. If some groups will be more negatively affected by a decision than others, then not everyone is equal when it comes to a simple ballot. Something that sounds good to a large number of people but will probably not affect them might be absolutely devastating to a small number of people who will never have their voice heard in a popular vote. This should be taken into account when taking the voting results into consideration as this forms the basis of a representative, egalitarian and equal society – again, the basis of democracy and mainstream political theories of justice.

Leaver: It was a vote, you have to accept it!

Remainer: Democracy doesn’t begin and end at voting. It starts at representation, and ends with beneficial decisions made through consensus – with voting as a means, not an end. It’s an involved process that continues beyond just voting when and where they tell you. There are countless opportunities to petition, or get involved in decision making. It doesn’t stop, it continues. That’s the actual point of democracy if we want it to mean something positive and beneficial rather than just hanging on the idea that it’s a popularity contest and the majority rules. Leaving it at “vote, and the majority rules!” is a really stunted view of democracy, one which really limits its ability to do the most good for the most number of people – particularly so when the question asked of the populace at large is a simple binary but the real-world options and their ramifications are numerous, complex, and nuanced.

Leaver: It was a vote, you have to accept it!

Remainer: Fine, fine… but… how? How are we going to implement this? The vote was a binary choice of in/out. There was no concrete plan suggested at all – especially by the people pushing the ‘Leave’ option. We’ve literally been left alone to figure this out. Sure, we can do it… but there are no details. What are the details? What do you actually want?

Leaver: It was a vote, you have to accept it!

Remainer: Fuck it, I can’t be bothered with this shit anymore.


Addendum: The high court rules that parliament should vote on leaving the EU. Good. This isn’t about preventing Article 50 being invoked, it’s about making sure it’s done with our actual sovereignty intact, through the due process of our representative parliamentary democracy. It’s about making sure that the more complex and nuanced options available in reality, and not on an idealised voting slip, are explored democratically. If you’ve bleated on for a year or so about us leaving the European Union in order to restore our “sovereignty”, and then supported the government unilaterally and autocratically passing a law without parliamentary approval, then you are – plain and simply – a hypocrite. If you still can’t wrap your head around this, read here, and keep reading until you understand.

Addendum 2: If any of the above sounds like “bullshit” or “whining” to you, or you still think “but democracy is about voting”, I suggestion you begin with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on democracy. Rather interestingly, it doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about voting, because – louder for the people at the back – democracy doesn’t begin and end at a vote.

Consent Might Be Complicated If…

I’m re-blogging this owing to the whole “grab her by the pussy” thing. Not because of Donald Trump’s words, exactly, but because of the defenses made on his behalf.

I’ve seen things about supposedly hypocritical pop-starlets who grab their crotches being “offended” by it – because touching yourself and someone else touching you are obviously the same thing.

I’ve seen “but I thought liberals were about sexual liberation”, because, of course, liberation meant liberating ourselves from silly little things like consent.

And, of course, countless things about it being how “real men” talk. Now, that has numerous layers of bullshit, but suffice to say that if “real men” are supposed to casually ignore consent, we’ve got a serious problem.

Do I think all of those comments are spawned entirely by ignorance of consent and culture? Broadly, yes. I think there are shades between ignorance and malice, and rarely do you find one without a bit of the other propping it up. Ultimately, what the people defending “grab her by the pussy” demonstrate is that they literally do not understand the concept of consent, and that it’s foreign and alien to them. We can debate why, but it’s pretty clear they don’t understand it – to them, it literally does not compute.

Spherical Bullshit

I really like this post on consent, and it seems to have had a massive surge in popularity, and for good reason. As one of the later paragraphs concludes:

Do you think this is a stupid analogy? Yes, you all know this already  – of course you wouldn’t force feed someone tea because they said yes to a cup last week. Of COURSE you wouldn’t pour tea down the throat of an unconcious person because they said yes to tea 5 minutes ago when they were conscious. But if you can understand how completely ludicrous it is to force people to have tea when they don’t want tea, and you are able to understand when people don’t want tea, then how is so hard is it to understand when it comes to sex?

It’s a testament to the power of analogy (and logic, in fact) that something can seem…

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Confused? Good.

Are you unsure about an event that’s going on in the world?

Not sure what side to take?

Not sure what you think about it, or which is right and which is wrong?

Have you seen someone make a decision, and have no idea whether to support them or not?


Really, good for you. This is definitely a good thing, and stop pretending otherwise.

Because it means you’re thinking about it. It means you’re opening to any possibility or any conclusion. It means you have a good motive to really dive into it in some detail and make a decision that’s informed.

People who make a sweeping didactic statement about something almost immediately – with certainty, with judgement, and with no tentative hesitation – are almost certainly operating on what their prior biases tell them. They were always destined to think that, and nothing else. The alternative was never an option for them.

That has its place, sure. Mostly when things aren’t terrifyingly important or inherently confusing and difficult.

But if you’re unsure, great. If you have to stop and scratch your chin a for a bit, fantastic. If you need to think a bit longer and a bit harder before your decision, do that.



Teaching on TV Sucks – An Trope Over-analysis

I’ve been teaching in some capacity for about 7 years now, about 3 of them properly and getting paid for it, and I’ve even recently got qualifications that say that I can do it. While I haven’t got it all figured out by a long shot, I’m pretty sure I know when to spot it going awry.

So, while I haven’t seen this specific thing documented thoroughly on TV Tropes yet, I want to bang on about the following trope, you’re sure to see it pop-up on TV frequently:


**Rows of students sit attentively as the TEACHER walks up and down between the individual desks talking.**


…And then we add one to the power and divide through by the new power to get the integral of the function, which gives us –

**The bell rings. Suddenly, all the students grab their bags and begin to move. The camera begins to focus on MAIN CHARACTER. The TEACHER begins to shout to be heard.**


…And don’t forget that the mid-term is on Friday so bring a spare pencil and also your essay on Franco’s Spain is due on my desk tomorrow and also remember student elections are this Thursday!


Hey, are you going to SPUNKY HARRISON’S big party on Sunday?


Man, I still don’t have a date for prom!

Trashy dialogue aside, there are a few things going on here and I’ll address them in turn shortly.

If you see classroom teaching on TV, this is what it will look like. I know why this is a thing. If you set your characters in a school, you can’t have them perpetually on a lunch break. Even the most lax of sitcoms know that you have to show your characters doing something occasionally, and this is a great case of “show, don’t tell”. And because you don’t want your scene to be 45 minutes of a grown adult talking to youngsters, you have to set it at the end of a lesson so it only lasts a minute at most – it’s a nice set-up to get MAIN CHARACTER and SECONDARY CHARACTER in the same room with a reason to speak and move the plot onward.

This is fine… but every time you see the trope in action it always exemplifies piss-poor terrible teaching. As I will now over-labour to death below.

Bad classroom management

The bell is always there, and it always triggers an immediate exodus. You can make the disciplinarian argument that the teacher’s word is law, and that the bell is only a “suggestion” – a thing to keep the whole school in sync even if clocks are out by several minutes. As a result, students should stay seated until the teacher dismisses them, rather than rumble off immediately in spite of the classroom’s authority. This tends to be what happens in schools as far as I’ve seen, so it’s at the very least an unrealistic trope.

Personally, I think a purely authoritarian/disciplinarian argument for this is a bit weak. Still, poor-to-non-existent classroom management is the underlying fault in this trope, and it informs the other reasons it’s unrealistic / bad teaching below.

Waiting for the cue

If you ever watch this sort of scene closely, you’ll note the speed that the kids stand up and pack away the instant the bell rings. As if they’re waiting for it, mentally preparing like a star sprinter waiting for a starting gun to go off. But of course they are, because they’re actually actors waiting for the director to tell them to move (presumably the bell is added in post).

But assume that they are real students for a moment. If their reaction times are so unified and sudden, it means they were preparing and waiting – possibly even clock-watching until the bell rings. That means they’re not focused on what the teacher is saying or their own learning. The classroom is background noise to their mental preparation to move. The whole mental effort of the background actors goes toward not missing their cue, a similar amount of effort needs to be spent by real students if they were to react so quickly to such a signal.

Bad time for key reminders

Almost invariably this trope shows the teacher giving out important information over the din. Exams, essay deadlines, where they’ll pick up next… yet you may as well start shouting scores from your favourite Rotten Tomatoes reviews for all that information will stick. The tiny humans in the classroom have moved on, their brains shifted into “moving the plot on” mode and won’t switch back to “information receiving” mode quick enough to take it in. Regardless of what you might think of your own ability, humans don’t multi-task, they task-switch. Students won’t take in this concluding information and shuffle about their desks, pack their books and prepare for the next bit of dialogue at the same time.

From a trope perspective, it’s background noise. It’s filler until MAIN CHARACTER outlines their problem. But if this were to happen in reality… it would be equally banal and pointless background noise.

Do these people not have watches?

An invariable part of this trope is that the bell always rings in the middle of a point. Why? It’s as if the lesson started only a minute before the camera began to roll and suddenly the bell rings to signal the end. Which is probably true on TV, but again unrealistic for real-world teaching, where lesson lengths are known in advance rather than set to a random duration.

I don’t ask that directors and screenwriters develop a full lesson plan in advance and film it, but come on! Did the serious-but-fun teacher dude who’s about to break it to SUPPORTING CHARACTER that she’s about to flunk math not realise that time was ticking on? Did they seriously think that twenty seconds from the end of the time slot would be a fantastic time to start teaching a new thing?

You might think the example script above with integration is a bit extreme, but I’m pretty sure I lifted it directly from Season 3 of Gilmore Girls.

Not the time for new information

Thanks to a lot of psychology and educational studies (and some fun ones involving military snipers) we know the exact attention span of a human being. It varies a little, but generally speaking after approximately 1 hour without a break we’re absolutely frazzled. So at the 45-60 minute mark of a traditional lesson, students are effectively brain-dead. This isn’t the time to start making your key thesis or introduce a new topic because you’ll run out of time, but because the students literally won’t take it in.

On a shorter time scale, our attention spans are about 10-15 minutes. That’s about the limit of our dead-set focus. As a result, good lesson plans tend to chunk things down into blocks. A typical (good) 50 minute lecture should break down into at least two 20 minute structured blocks with about 5 minutes between. So as attention begins to dwindle over the course of those structured blocks, your mode switches from presenting new information to reviewing old information. It’s all about keeping the cognitive load manageable.

So, in the example above, the teacher has blown the last five minutes of their time on teaching a basic outline of integration rules. This is a complete waste of time because they’ll need to spend at least 10 minute re-capping and addressing misconceptions that arose from doing it while students had lower attention due to being at the end of a lesson and were distracted by clock-watching for the bell.

The end is for continuity announcements

I’ve discussed a bit about lesson plans and chunking, but the end of a lesson plan should always be used for a re-cap and review, and for building a lead-in for what happens next. That’s a good five minutes of your time you need, not 10 seconds after the bell has rung and everyone is moving. The trope usually fits in a “Okay, tomorrow we’ll discuss Chapter 4!” after the bell rings, which sounds like it should do the trick, but you need a bit more than that.

There are a lot of reasons why you use the end of the lesson to discuss what comes next and in-depth. Firstly, there’s the principles around scaffolding. Here, you need to structure prior and existing knowledge so that students become more receptive to new material. This is a two-way street – before you present new material, you relate it to the older material, and after you present new material you relate it to the next bit. This activates students’ awareness that they will need to keep their mind open to bolt on some new information at a later date. It also provides instrumental value to the new material by showing them where it progresses.

So, that last line should be more like “Okay, tomorrow we’ll discuss any questions you have about Chapter 3, and then move onto Chapter 4 where we get to apply the Thing in a new situation, so if you have time to revise the Thing, make sure you’re comfortable applying it to the situations of Chapter 3”. Or anything with a little substance, really.


So, from this, you should have learned that television tropes depicting teachers at the end of the lesson are often unrealistic, and frequently depict very bad teaching. The main take-home points are that the end of the lesson is a bad time to deal out novel information, and when students are distracted by packing up after the bell rings is a very bad time to deal out important information. Do remember to review the concept of cognitive load above, because we might discuss cognitive load theory in more detail in the future. Now, there’s about 2-3 minutes left until the bell, so take the time to pack up carefully and discuss the topic amongst yourselves and then you can leave when I tell you to.

People Are Good, But Stupid – A Maxim For Life

A while back, I ended up playing a game of Psychosis – a board game with questions loosely based around psychology studies, some of which are even still in-date. A more interactive element comes from group activities where Player A gets to answer a question in secret, while the others guess their answer. Usually, these take the format of “So tell me, __________, what is your favourite colour?” – but mostly a bit more interesting than that tepid example.

So I was asked, as you do in the game, “So tell me, ____________, do you think people are A) Mostly good, B) Mostly bad”. I think it may have been more of a scale, but I forget the precise details.

Do I think people are, generally speaking, good or bad?

That sparked off a bit of a debate, as these people know me quite well.

On the one hand, I display a huge amount of cynicism toward people. I generally believe the worst in them. I know the harm they cause, and my cynical reaction is to literally expect it at every turn. If someone is evil, I don’t seem to treat it as a mind-blowing exception to the pattern. On the other hand, came one argument, someone wouldn’t think such a thing if they didn’t fundamentally believe humans were, deep-down, good… but perhaps misguided. A social cynic would have to care about people, and care about their goodness, to rant and rave when they see it going awry.

And I suppose they got it right. I believe people are fundamentally good. I just also believe they’re too stupid to really know what that means.

Everyone wants to be “good”. The connotations of that term alone drive people toward it. It’s positive, it’s beneficial, it’s virtuous and admirable pretty much by definition. But even ignoring the definition, people try to act good – no-one truly wants to cause excessive harm and suffering, we all want to benefit the rest of the world. Even if all they have to go on is “to be good is to be like God”, they’ll instinctively drive toward the harm-reducing, well-being-maximising acts, and the Argumentum ad Dictionarium only comes out in the wash of post hoc rationalisation. We’re driven to be good, rather than bad, and broadly agree on what it means to act those ways even if we disagree when it comes to the tedious, academic unpacking of those terms.

The exceptions are usually driven either by a pragmatic need to break the vague Rules of Goodness (committing a theft because you need money) or a misunderstanding of what constitutes benefit to people (committing a theft because you believe it to be victimless or out of quasi-nihilistic self-interest). Even in the edge-cases of outright psychopathy, we attribute actions to a misfiring and a misinterpretation of morality rather than a drive to be evil.

Calling those exceptions “stupidity” may be an over-simplification – and I have something saved in my drafts folder about a better and more powerful definition of “stupid” to work with. Yet, “stupid” conveys the idea: we want to be good, we all agree that good means maximising well-being and reducing suffering… But we suck at the analytical component of figuring out what that all means in reality.

Mother Theresa thought she was doing good, and reducing suffering, and bringing dignity to people through bringing them, and herself, closer to God – yet those with a keen eye for detail may have seen suffering increase as she deprived the poor and sick of medical treatment while keeping them in squalor, and then spent her donation money on establishing convents. We can’t deny her intentions to do good, and her justifications that her acts were, ultimately, good. And I don’t think it’s a mere disagreement on the definition of good – she wanted to reduce harm and increase well-being, to bring dignity to people. She simply approached it in a… well, somewhat questionable way from the perspective of an outsider with identical motivations and values. Stupidity? Perhaps. Certainly a failure to objectively assess the situation and figure out exactly how to bring about more tangible well-being and happiness.

Look at, say, most racists, sexists or homophobes amongst others with an -ist or -phobe levelled at them. They probably don’t think that what they’re doing is bad. Even the hardened ones. They believe their opinions to be innocent and valid. They try to be good… at least, they don’t try to be evil. But do they understand the harm they cause? Is that because they’re stupid? Perhaps. “Stupid”, again, is not quite the right term – it’s the lack of a decent assessment of their actions.

This is perhaps where the social justice world fails to get through to them – by believing that a bigot is out to cause harm rather than simply misunderstanding whether they cause harm in the first place, they alienate rather than educate. If we approached them as having good intentions, we might be able to convince someone that their (erroneous) approach to implementing those intentions is where the harm comes from. People who say #AllLivesMatter just don’t understand the need to say #BlackLivesMatter, they don’t intend to say #BlackLivesDoNotMatter. Ignorance – not wilful ignorance, just plain, innocent, blameless ignorance – rather than malice is at work here.

“Where’s the harm?” is, ultimately, what hides underneath all the usual defences of hatred and intolerance. At the thin end, someone might defend a racist joke because “it’s just a joke!”; they’re asking where is the harm in something they perceive as truly harmless because they literally don’t see any harm derived from it. And it goes all the way to the extremes of “yes, I might be herding these people into a gas chamber, but, it’s just following orders so I’m not really complicit, and, besides, it’s purifying our race so is obviously beneficial – if we don’t gas this menace we’ll just suffer in the long term”. Okay, maybe that last one requires a little more work to get around… but it’s work we’ll happily do in the name of being good.

We’ll always find a motive to justify ourselves. We’ll always find a reasoning to back up our acts. We wouldn’t do it if we weren’t, fundamentally, driven to be good – because otherwise we’d be happy to admit that, yes, our actions are harmful to others and we don’t care. We’d admit to wanting to cause harm, minimise well-being, and be evil. Yet this is largely not what we see.

We wouldn’t be happy with flawed reasoning if we had the self-awareness to fully analyse it and come to a better conclusion, and then re-address our actions appropriately.

Or, in a soundbite; we want to be good, but we’re too dumb to figure out how to do it properly.