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Poll position is no position

The decision by Le Parisien newspaper to stop commissioning political opinion polls – why pay for them when these days they so often turn out to be wrong? – may have more profound implications than we yet realise. 

5 February 2017

We’ve grown so accustomed to polls that we forget they don’t serve any democratic purpose. Opinion polls are not neutral snapshots of unchanging voter inclinations. They can influence voters, for instance, by making them want to be part of the winning bandwagon or informing them they are not alone in wanting an outrageous candidate to win.

We now have a new phenomenon making monkeys of the statisticians. Those who are canvassed for their preferences are used to voting on reality TV shows and leaving their “likes” on social media. So they tell a pollster what
he wants to hear – none of this matters, right? – then vote on a whim when they get into the polling booth.

This exposes a weakness in the system. Pollsters are not interested in what people think. They only ask respondents to make a yes/no choice between limited options.
It’s time we stopped treating politics as a game of statistics. Pollsters (and the politicians who hang on their conclusions) should dedicate their efforts to finding out what people really want, not pretending to be soothsayers.

An end to teachers marking time?

The search is on for ways to improve the poor performance of French students in maths and science. Many teachers believe that French kids are too focused on getting correct results and have become reluctant to take risks or to learn the value of experimentation. If they don’t know the answer they’d rather not write anything and risk looking foolish.

The culture of learning, however, is quietly changing. Not as a result of “reforms” imposed by ministers of education but at ground level, developed by the teachers themselves.
Some schools have switched to a system of evaluation that does away with marks to encourage students rather than threaten them with failure. Instead, children are assessed (and encouraged to assess themselves) using a system of green and red dots to indicate progress. A subject like maths is divided into sub-skills that might include the ability to test different solutions and to communicate in words the trial and error used. “Working out” is not just a means to an end but something valuable in itself.

Not everyone is glad to see the back of marks out of 20: competitive parents of high-achieving students prefer the old system. For middling and poor students, however, the green/red assessment system indicates the areas in which rewards have been earned and where more effort is needed. It is hoped initiatives such as this will give students a more rounded education and have the side-effect of pushing France back up the international league table.

Climate change is not a global issue

If we are going to make progress against climate change we need to admit the current approach isn’t working. 

High-level international agreements may never do more than set impossible targets that countries then fail to meet. And telling people to deny themselves things they like doesn’t work. No one is motivated by being told they have to have less of something. A far better approach is exactly the opposite: act locally and emphasise positives. The transition movement demonstrates by example that living more lightly does not mean deprivation. Instead it creates an atmosphere of co-operation, sharing, consideration, self-reliance and a valuing of the resources to hand. A caring society that we would all like to be part of and for which we would gladly give up the right to own too much.

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