A scientist and a linguist board a helicopter, and the scientist says to the linguist, ‘What is the cornerstone of civilisation, science or language?’ It might sound like the opening line of a joke, but it’s actually from the opening sequence of the film Arrival (2016). In the film, aliens have landed on our doorstep, and our scientist and linguist have been chosen as suitable emissaries to establish contact. The scientist, perhaps wishing to size up his new colleague, then poses the question. Whose field has been more important to the advancement of the human race? Science or language?
In reality, they are both wrong (or both half-right). It is true that language was necessary for us to organise as a species, forming complex networks of cooperation over vast distances and time. Without specialising our efforts and collaborating, we could not have built our great structures, supported large communities, or migrated over all continents. Yet, without science, without improving our understanding of the natural world, we would still be at its mercy.
Science is the tool we use to change circumstance. When populations are dying from an infectious disease, we create a vaccine. When we’re unable to grow enough food to support ourselves, we develop a better strain of crop. When we struggle to transport materials over great distances, we create machines that will do it for us. Science is our secret weapon, transforming problems into possibilities. However, science alone means little. If innovation dies with its creator, who does it help? Science must be communicated to others before it can make a difference in any meaningful way.
It would be incomplete to bestow language or science with the title of ‘the cornerstone of civilisation.’ It was science communication that really drove our development. And I don’t just mean this in the external sense. After all, is the transfer of genetic information from one generation to the next not science communication? What are we but a biological game of Chinese Whispers, the message mutating through each host but somehow continuing to make sense over millions of years?
The human race not only benefits greatly from science communication; we are the product of it. It is embedded into our biological and cultural history. Proof that it is not just knowledge but the sharing of knowledge that is the real root of power.
Unequal access to technology and the Internet is traditionally termed the ‘digital divide’. Both are expensive, which leaves some people behind. Today the situation has changed, with 98% of minors having home Internet access in Malta. Government targets digitally-deprived students by investing hefty sums to have tech at school. However, there is a new digital divide within formal education, and this time it is not about who uses technology but how they use it.
What is the attitude toward the technology that is being used in class? What is the goal that students are using that technology to accomplish? You can have countless schools on the receiving end of whole shipments of tablets and laptops, but the sad reality is that without an effective strategy, they are unlikely to reap the full benefits of that investment.
If technology is placed within a system that ignores students’ needs and is unresponsive, if not completely resistant, to new teaching and learning methods, the result is completely counterproductive. A teacher’s frustration with students being distracted by their devices is an everyday occurrence, and it needs to be addressed. The question is: Is this a technology-related problem or a more profound issue related to how humans discover and understand knowledge? Are these pedagogical conflicts arising from the presence of technology in class or from an epistemological clash between teachers’ and students’ beliefs about learning and knowledge sharing?
If we define pedagogy as ‘guidance for learning’, we need to provide guidance for a variety of learning methods. By focusing only on the ‘chalk-and-talk’ method of teaching delivery, we may actually limit access to different ways of acquiring knowledge. Besides using technology to enhance teaching, digital tools and resources need to be used to empower students: first to take over the management of their own learning, and second, to pursue different technology-enhanced learning avenues for acquiring, creating, and sharing knowledge. This gives the student better skills in digital and information (critical) literacy, in collaboration, and in networking, hence preparing them for the world of work.
To make this happen, challenges await both teachers and students. Teachers need to welcome new forms of learning, offering guidance and support rather than simply ‘giving students all the information they need to know.’ Students, on the other hand, have to overcome the mental conditioning that links learning directly to teaching so they can stand on their own two feet.
Students and teachers need to work together to adopt a more independent and customised approach to learning, enhanced and transformed through technology.
Hemm min jgħid li konna viċin gwerra ċivili, hemm min ma jaqbilx. Li hu żgur hu li fil-letteratura, is-snin tmenin ħallew impatt b’diversi modi; mhux biss fin-narrattiva li nkitbet dakinhar, imma wkoll l-epoka bħala sfond ta’ plott jew ispirazzjoni għall-awturi kollha li sabu refuġju fiha biex jesprimu l-arti tagħhom. Kliem ta’ Emanuel Psaila.
L-aspett soċjali għandu importanza kbira u l-medda taż-żmien hija vitali biex nifhmu dak li ġara fit-tmeninijiet, nifhmu għaliex seħħ, x’ġiegħel lill-poplu Malti jirreaġixxi b’dak il-mod, u x’sehem kellha l-letteratura f’dan kollu. Fuq kollox: kien ir-riżultat pervers tal-elezzjoni ġenerali tal-1982 li qanqal dan kollu? Jew l-għeruq kienu ilhom ġejjin mis-sittinijiet u saħansitra mit-tletinijiet?
Kienet ħaġa naturali li fit-teżi tiegħi Is-snin tmenin u l-prożaturi Maltin (iggwidat minn Dr Adrian Grima) inwaħħad flimkien żewġ affarijiet li nħobb: il-politika u l-letteratura. Apparti minn dan, fis-snin tmenin kont żagħżugħ militanti fi ħdan grupp politiku. Biss it-teżi għenitni nifhem perspettivi oħra, nara affarijiet li sa ftit snin qabel ma kontx nifhimhom, kif ukoll li nfittex it-tekniki u l-għodod tal-letteratura li titkellem fuq dan iż-żmien.
Il-letteratura li dejjem ippruvat tqanqal ħsibijiet ta’ kuxjenza ċivili u soċjali kienet tappartjeni lill-esponenti xellugin u fit-tletinijiet bdejna naraw kitbiet minn dawk li ftit snin qabel kienu xxierku fil-Partit Laburista Malti (hemm bosta biex issemmihom kollha). Dawn kienu jafu x’ġara u x’qed jiġri f’pajjiżi oħra, bħal Franza, l-Ingilterra, il-Ġermanja, u l-Istati Uniti, u għalhekk użaw il-letteratura biex imexxu ’l quddiem l-ideoloġija tagħhom. Użaw stili u ġeneri differenti, imma l-għan ewlieni kien li jnisslu kuxjenza soċjali, biex jgħinu lill-batut, jedukaw, u jgħallmu.
Lejn l-aħħar tas-sebgħinijiet u l-bidu tat-tmeninijiet din l-istrateġija fil-letteratura ntużat minn kamp ieħor differenti u rajna esponenti tal-lemin jiktbu letteratura diretta b’għan li tikxef il-qagħda politika reali tal-epoka. Trevor Żahra kien minn ta’ quddiem nett. Il-kotba tiegħu Trid Kukkarda Ħamra f’Ġieħ il-Biża’ u It-Tmien Kontinent huma novelli li jattakkaw b’ironija diretta u b’sarkażmu qawwi lill-gvern tal-ġurnata. Żahra wkoll daħħal element qawwi ta’ politika fi ktieb għat-tfal Qrempuċu f’Belt il-Ġobon fejn mhux faċli ssib il-parodija midfuna taħt parodija oħra. Biss meta l-qarrejja jindunaw biha, l-ironija tant tkun qawwija li ssir drammatika.
Ktieb li kien fuq fomm kulħadd fit-tmeninijiet huwa r-rumanz Fil-Parlament ma Jikbrux Fjuri (1986) ta’ Oliver Friggieri. Huwa rumanz filosofiku ħafna u ftit kien hemm min fehmu, biss nofs Malta xtrat ir-rumanz u n-nofs l-ieħor warrbitu. Dan ir-rumanz intuża bħala propaganda mill-Partit Nazzjonalista għall-elezzjoni tal-1987. It-tnedija tiegħu f’lukanda prominenti kienet qisha manifestazzjoni u saħansitra nqaleb bħala dramm u ntwera għal ġimgħa wara ġimgħa. Madanakollu l-istrateġija rnexxiet u l-letteratura kienet strumentali biex issir bidla.
Apparti l-letteratura tas-snin tmenin, dan iż-żmien sar sfida biex tinkiteb narrattiva dwaru. Wieħed minn tal-bidu li uża dan l-isfond kien Immanuel Mifsud. L-Istejjer Strambi ta’ Sara Sue Sammut huwa kollu mpoġġi f’dan il-kuntest. L-ironija, is-sarkażmu, u ċ-ċiniżmu jinħassu sew u għalkemm inisslu tbissima fuq fomm il-qarrejja, iħallu stampa reali.
Clare Azzopardi ilha tesperimenta fuq is-snin tmenin u ktieb wara ktieb qed iżżid id-doża tagħha. Id-dramm tagħha L-Interdett Taħt is-Sodda jitkellem dwar il-kwistjoni politika reliġjuża tas-snin sittin u minn hemm naraw kemm Azzopardi qed tnawwar fil-fond fuq żminijiet li kienu nieqsa mil-letteratura tal-epoka. Fin-novella Linja Ħadra, li hija parti minn ġabra li ġġib l-istess isem, hemm l-ewwel mistoqsijiet u l-isfond huwa l-istrajk tal-għalliema f’nofs is-snin tmenin. Id-doża politika, għalkemm sottili, żdiedet f’ġabra oħra ta’ novelli – Kulħadd Ħalla Isem Warajh – fejn isem Dom Mintoff, personaġġ li jiddomina t-tmeninijiet, jinsab minqux f’kull novella taħt l-akronomu PDM. Jidher li Azzopardi qed tipprova tgħix il-memorja tas-snin tmenin permezz tal-letteratura. L-aħħar rumanz tagħha, Castillo, jitkellem b’mod ċar fuq it-tmeninijiet, dwar il-bombi li kienu jsiru, dwar ir-rwol tal-pulizija u dwar r-relazzjonijiet li kellu l-Gvern Malti ta’ dak iż-żmien, speċjalment ma’ Gaddafi.
Pierre J. Mejlak isemmi t-tmeninijiet mil-lenti ta’ tifel żgħir li trabba fil-Każin Nazzjonalista tal-Qala, Għawdex. F’Qed Nistenniek Nieżla Max-Xita hemm xi novelli b’laqta awtobijografika li fihom nistgħu nħossu t-tensjoni tal-elezzjoni ġenerali tal-1987 kif ukoll iċ-ċelebrazzjonijiet mar-rebħa tal-Partit Nazzjonalista.
Ġużè Stagno fix-xogħlijiet tiegħu jdaħħal battuti ta’ persuna li għexet Marsaxlokk u jitfa’ botti bħall- kwistjoni tat-televixin tal-kulur li kien novità għal dak iż-żmien.
Is-Sriep Reġgħu Saru Velenużi ta’ Alex Vella Gera għandu l-plott ibbażat proprjament fuq kumplott ta’ qtil tal-Prim Ministru Dom Mintoff u miktub b’mod miftuħ, tant li n-narratur u l-protagonist huwa Nazzjonalist kbir.
Hemm ukoll kittieba oħra li jużaw dawn is-snin bħala sfond biex jibnu l-plott u rumanz li l-ftuħ tiegħu huwa bbażat fuq din l-epoka huwa Xandru Miżżewweġ u Gay ta’ Javier Vella Sammut.
Kull deċenju fih tiegħu, u kollha xi ftit jew wisq għenu fl-iżvilupp tal-letteratura. Inħoss li fit-tletinijiiet ippruvajna nersqu lejn dak li kien qed jiġri barra minn Malta, imma l-gwerra tellfet l-iżvilupp ta’ kollox u kellna nistennew sal-ħamsinijiet biex bdejna naraw xi ħaġa żgħira. Fis-sittinijiet il-Moviment Qawmien Letterarju, għalkemm kien progressiv u kien hemm bżonnu, żamm lura milli jitkellem dwar l-attwalità speċjalment dwar il-kwistjoni politika reliġjuża. Biss is-snin sebgħin u tmenin reġgħu xprunaw lill-kittieba biex jiktbu fuq il-fattwalità u ma jibqgħux iktar passivi.
Is-snin tmenin, bit-tajjeb u l-ħażin tagħhom, u bit-turbulenza tagħhom, għenu ħafna fl-iżvilupp tal-letteratura Maltija u għalkemm għaddew tliet deċenji, kienu u ser jibqgħu jiġu mfittxija minn kittieba biex fuqhom isawru x-xogħlijiet tagħhom.
The power to control objects with your mind was once a dream held by science fiction fans worldwide. But is this impossible feat now becoming possible? Dr Tracey Camilleritells Becky Catrin Joneshow a team at the University of Malta (UM) is using technology to harness this ability to help people with mobility problems.Continue reading
Everybody wants peace of mind. From the moment we lock the front door before going to work, to the second the car’s ignition turns off when we get back. Insurance makes that possible.
Insurance is one of the largest sectors of the Maltese financial services industry and a major pillar of its economy. Despite this importance, there is a research gap. Most historical records I referenced when looking into the history of insurance in Malta hinge on maritime history and historical accounts of bustling ports and the activity surrounding them.
My research aim was to initiate the first project actively chronicling the key contributors and events in Malta’s insurance industry. I started with methods used by the earliest inhabitants of the island, tracing its roots in maritime trade, followed by the emergence of more complex and sophisticated insurance services and products.
Reference to insurance in Malta can be traced back as early as 750 BCE, the time of the Phoenicians. The earliest known insurance contract I found was dated to 1524, around 12 years before the oldest contracts known prior to this study. Intra and extra-territorial socio-political, economic, and regulatory events have strongly contributed to the development of insurance and have forged it into the industry it is today.
Through a series of semi-structured interviews, backed up by findings from empirical literature and archival research, I made some key discoveries. For example, after the Knights of St. John settled in Malta, Maltese farmers fearing a Turkish invasion sought security (insurance) from their landlords through contracts. I also found that in the 1980s, a very specific insurance existed for racing horses. These valuable insights are being published by Emerald publishing (London).
Understanding the past’s lessons is the best way to prepare for the future.
This research was carried out as part of an M.A. in Insurance and Risk Management, Department of Insurance, Faculty of Economics, Management and Accountancy, University of Malta.
Virtual Reality (VR) has created a whole new realm of experiences. By placing people into varied situations and environments, VR enables them not only to explore, but to challenge themselves and gain skills in ways never thought possible. With applications in medical and psychological treatment, VR is now being used to train surgeons, treat PTSD, and to help people understand what it’s like to be on the autism spectrum. The key to this application is VR’s ability to immerse its users.
Many agree that immersion needs two key ingredients: a sense of presence and interaction with the environment. Interaction comes in three main forms. Selection is about differentiating between items in the environment. Navigation allows travelling from one point to another and observing the environment. Finally, manipulation lets users grab, move and rotate selectable items. In addition to this, VR applications need a setting. Supervised by Dr Vanessa Camilleri and Prof. Alexiei Dingli, I chose to use escape rooms (adventure games where multiple puzzles are solved to leave a room) to experiment with these interaction techniques.
I used escape rooms because they’re highly interactive and naturally immersive systems. And since interaction isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario, I also applied procedural content generation (PCG) techniques to create the escape rooms themselves.
People selected items using a reticle, a small circle in the middle of the screen which expands or contracts to indicate which objects they could interact with. They navigated the space by looking around through the VR headset and moving their joystick. They manipulated puzzles from a separate screen which I layered on top of the escape room. This allowed them to inspect objects to their heart’s content, while also reducing the amount of clutter in the room.
Since there was no previous work in PCG escape rooms, I had to pave my own way. I used a genetic algorithm, a machine learning algorithm that mimics evolution in biology to select the best solution to a problem, to determine which puzzles and items would be placed in the escape room. I also programmed the game to create the rest of the room, placing floors, ceilings, and everything else that the algorithm didn’t consider. This made the space look like it had been made by an actual person, despite being created through AI.
From the results gathered, most people found that the system allowed them to explore the VR environment in a very natural way. Players said that the room’s generated interaction was consistent, reliable, and fun.
Understanding immersion is critical for VR’s future applications. If we can help people hone these techniques by creating a few games along the way—so be it!
This research was carried out as part of a Bachelor of Artificial Intelligence at the Faculty of ICT, University of Malta
Over the last decade, workaholics have been glorified as the epitome of success. Problem behaviour is increasingly framed as ‘interesting’ and ‘quirky’ by certain media. But as mental health and well-being capture public attention,Cassi Camillerispeaks toProf. Carmel Cefaiabout his efforts to promote social and emotional learning for children and young people—skills for a lifetime.
Life is life, they say. Trial and error. You live and learn.
But how many times have you been frustrated with yourself because you ‘never learn’ from your mistakes?
How many times have you found yourself in a rough spot because deadlines are a dime a dozen and your to-do list is insurmountable? Your phone is ringing off the hook. All the people you have been ignoring are sending angry emails. You have not slept properly in days. All the while, you continue to dig your heels in, creating more issues with the people around you because you are so overwhelmed you cannot communicate like a decent human being. You are 40. Still think learning from experience is the only way you can go about this?
Human beings love patterns, routines. We love repeating what works. We also tend to repeat what doesn’t though, because change is hard. But solutions exist. At the University of Malta (UM), Prof. Carmel Cefai (Faculty for Social Wellbeing), is hard at work pushing for social and emotional education (SEE) to be promoted and strengthened at all levels in Malta and Gozo.
His appreciation for the importance of relationships and addressing students’ emotional needs in learning started over 40 years ago when Cefai was working as a primary school teacher. ‘Getting to know the students individually, what they like, what makes them tick, providing individual attention according to their needs, was an important part of the teaching process. When I was teaching at Qormi, on Monday mornings my students and I would talk about horse racing—which horse won which race that weekend? I learnt many of the horses’ names even if I wasn’t that interested in horse racing. But then during the week we ended up using horses as examples during class. It was a good and easy way to engage students.’
Cefai agrees that while overprotecting young people is counterproductive, students should have the skills to make informed choices, avoid taking too many unsubstantiated risks, and make some but not too many mistakes. ‘We do not need to experience highly stressful, painful, or traumatic experiences to learn or grow. The process of growth does not require that we become dependent on alcohol or drugs, engage in criminal behaviour, contemplate suicide or struggle with depression.’ Playing devil’s advocate, I say that such experiences provide their own brand of wisdom, but Cefai quickly retorts that whatever the takeaway may be, even if it is a positive: ‘the price paid is much too high.’
Where do we begin?
The majority of western culture, including Maltese, has a very particular problem when it comes to education—the whole process is vehemently geared towards academic achievement. There is a pervasive obsession with tests and grades. So the first thing we need to do, states Cefai, is move away from that. ‘Education is not just preparation for work. It’s also about the integration of cognitive, social, and emotional processes that make us human. If we provide an education based only on academic achievement, we will be shortchanging our children and depriving them from a good, quality preparation for adulthood,’ he says—the whole aim of education.
Rather than what kind of jobs people do, or what successful businesses need, as educators we need to ask: what kind of life would this child or young person be happy living?
SEE is the process by which an individual develops social and emotional competence through curricular, relational, and contextual approaches, skills that can be used for personal, social, and academic development. The concept already has a proven track record, Cefai notes. Where successfully implemented, SEE ‘has already brought about a paradigm shift in education, […] transforming it into a more meaningful, relevant, and humane process.’
Malta has come a long way already over the last few decades. Cefai remembers when, as a primary school teacher, he had tried to support a young school child with mental health difficulties who was not only ridiculed and bullied by the other children, but also shunned by adults because of his ‘odd’ behaviour. ‘The boy clearly needed help from specialised professionals,’ notes Cefai. ‘But he also needed to attend school and learn with people his age. The alternative was to stay at home, which he inevitably did because he was often absent.’ Thankfully, things worked out in the end. ‘With the help of the head of school and some professionals, we managed to make some inroads and his behaviour started to improve. But I remember back then struggling with lack of professionals, fragmented services, and rampant stigmatisation.’
The situation has continued to improve since then. Cefai promptly lists the good practices which are already in place. ‘We have Personal, Social, and Careers Education which has been in schools for years now. There have been various national initiatives promoting students’ well-being, all working to prevent school bullying and violence, early school leaving and absenteeism, as well as to promote inclusion in all shapes and forms. Many colleges and schools have also been engaged in various initiatives to promote social and emotional learning, such as Circle Time, Restorative Justice and Resilience building.’
Children’s development can be badly affected if their social and emotional well-being is not adequately addressed, says Cefai. This gap in emotional learning allows for educational systems to be driven primarily by market economy needs. Rather than what kind of jobs people do, or what successful businesses need, as educators we need to ask: what kind of life would this child or young person be happy living? The market-driven approach is focused on performance, individualism and competition, with little time and space for collaboration, sharing, compassion, and solidarity. Sadly, this situation is seen all too often.
So, how do we fix this? How do we make SEE a priority? Cefai immediately runs off a list of to-do’s. ‘We need to give social and emotional education more space and time in our schools. We need to invest more in teachers, giving them better training, and supporting them in taking care of their own health and well-being,’ Cefai emphasises. ‘Only when teachers take care of themselves and their well-being can they really create healthy, caring classroom environments where people build healthy relationships. It’s only then that they can respond effectively to students’ needs and become good role models.’ We also need to put more effort into the early years, when the building blocks of mental health and well-being are laid. We need to encourage schools to take a more holistic approach, to give students a stronger voice, to encourage parents to take a more active, participative role in their children’s education.
Of course this is not all achieved at the snap of our fingers. Resistance is to be expected, nods Cefai. ‘In order for SEE to work, there needs to be good quality planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. We know of state-of-the-art programmes which failed to make an impact as they were not implemented well, such as the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) in the UK which was eventually withdrawn because of lack of effect.’ Looking into reports about SEAL, ‘a superficial approach to implementation (‘box ticking’)’ was one of the main reasons the program failed.
Cefai also says that we need to be careful at all stages to avoid hijacking agendas. ‘Social and emotional learning should always be centred on children and young people’s needs. Their own and others’ well-being. We need to ensure that SEE retains focus on the people it is meant to help, recognising individual differences, while avoiding labelling and pathologising children and young people. SEE is about mental health promotion and well-being and prevention, rather than on deficiencies, deficits, and illness.Another issue is not to let SEE be taken over by the neo-liberal ’business model’ to fuel the market and global economy, where social and emotional skills are simply used to leverage productivity.’ Despite all this, the case for SEE remains tremendously strong.
There are no losers here
A success story in SEE implementation is a success story for everyone. Reams of evidence through studies can be found touting SEE’s praises. The approach enhances prosocial behaviour and mental health and well-being. It enhances academic achievement and prevents problem behaviours such as delinquency, anxiety, and depression. Such social issues cost taxpayers money to handle, mitigate, and fix. So much so, that the costs involved in setting up SEE are guaranteed to be not only returned, but exceeded. Some studies report that for every €1 invested, €11 will be returned to the economy in various shapes and forms.
‘I have been involved in various SEE and resilience projects in schools both in Malta and abroad,’ says Cefai. ‘I have always been very encouraged by the interest, enthusiasm, and collaboration of students, school staff, and parents. Staff and parents have been resistant at times, thinking it will take precious time from academic learning, until they realise that our approach actually enhances it. They may think that SEE is about mental illness, until they they realise that is about health and well-being and learning all rolled into one. Children really like to learn in this way, finding it enjoyable, meaningful, and useful, while teachers reap the satisfaction of seeing their students excel, improving their own lives through their contribution.’
So much of our lives are determined by our beliefs and perceptions. Learning how to process events and information in an effective way can make all the difference in how sequences of events unravel. That violent knee-jerk reaction, that long-standing bitter belief about ‘how the world works’; in difficult times, these thoughts can lead anyone down a long, dark path that’s very difficult to come back from. Social and emotional education that teaches young ones to listen to themselves and respect their feelings, as well as those of others, could begin to change that.
In a world where we are bombarded by stimuli every waking moment, it is not hard to imagine that we need to take the time to look inward and listen—our children depend on it.
Prof. Cefai has recently published three major publications in this area: An EU commissioned report on the integration of social and emotional education in the curriculum, an edited book on the promotion of mental health in schools and another edited book on the child and adolescent well-being and prevention of school violence.
Cefai, Carmel, and Paul Cooper. Mental Health Promotion in Schools: Cross-Cultural Narratives and Perspectives. Sense Publishers, 2017.
Cefai, C. et al (2018) Strengthening Social and Emotional Education across the Curriculum in the EU.Review of the international evidence. Luxembourg: Office of the European Commission.