Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

The trouble with numbers is that most people don’t really think about them.

For example,  Twelve Year Old Reveals All The American Presidents Are Direct Descendants of King John.

This is not as amazing as it sounds. By direct, they don’t mean from the male line, as in the first born son; it just means that King John is somewhere in the family tree. As one traces any family tree backwards, there are so many people in it, that there’s a good chance that any two people will have a common ancestor. It just seems more remarkable when the common ancestor is someone famous like the King of England.In fact, so long as you have at least one English ancestor, there’s a good chance that you’d find King John somewhere in your family tree given how long ago he lived. To do some simple maths, by the time one goes back just twenty generations, you have over a million people in your family tree. Given that all the presidents would have had a least one person with an English ancestor, by the time you go back to the 11th Century, there wouldn’t be enough people in England to have all the members of a family tree without some of them appearing multiple times.

Measure the height of all the basketball players in the NBL. Find out the average. How many players will be below the average height for a NBL? Probably around half. Does that mean that they’re short? Hardly.

Averages, by themselves, don’t tell us much. For some things, the median will be a much better measure. But, when we talk about education, the issue is not a student’s ranking, but what they’re actually capable of doing. When we look at the ranking, people have very little idea what the numbers mean in terms of what the students can actually do. It’s like the basketball players height – it’s no real concern if a player moves from the 12th tallest to the 16th because someone else grew, but it is a concern if the poor guy has started shrinking!

And, unfortunately, people often have a problem with cause and effect.

Let’s take, as an example the number of people going to hospital. I don’t have any figures on this, but I’m pretty sure that if we did a study the mortality rate of people going to hospital in an ambulance would be significantly higher than those who drove themselves. Most of you will immediately see that as self-evident. None of you will argue, when Barry has collapsed at work, “No, don’t get an ambulance – his chances of survival are much better if we leave him there until he’s well enough to drive himself!”

Yet that is precisely what happens in many other areas. People will look at statistics and confuse cause and effect. It’s not always as clear as in the ambulance example, of course, but sometimes one needs to take a step back and think. As I’ve written before, there is a strong correlation between a student’s postcode and their academic achievement. It doesn’t mean that changing the postcode in the poor performing suburb so that it matches the one in the better performing suburb will help. Neither does it mean that simply transporting some of the students from the poorer suburb to the other one will ensure success, although, at least, that might have some effect.

And so we get the latest PISA results for Australia, and we’ve slipped! And suddenly we hear: “Look, all this throwing money at Education hasn’t led to any significant improvement. Throwing money at the problem isn’t the solution! It’s all about teacher quality!”

Well, of course not. “Throwing money at something” would rarely solve anything. Money needs to be put into the right areas and targetted carefully. And one of the areas would be improving teacher quality? The question is how do you it?

Some will argue that a “back to basics” approach is needed, and that if just go back to teaching the way it’s always been done, then it’ll all be ok. A third of our students are practically illiterate we’re told. I wonder at their definition of illiteracy. Do they mean unable to communicate at all, or are they including some kids who are using txt msg lingo 2 write? If we go back to rote learning “My Country” will spelling suddenly improve. This debate has been going on for years, with very little detail from many of the “back to basics” proponents, apart from the fact that students were always taught better in some halcyon days when no-one finished at the bottom of the class and everyone did their homework, brushed their teeth, loved God and their country and cheerfully obeyed the law.

But to me the fundamental thing about the PISA results is that nobody is actually really looking at the numbers that closely. Has anyone in the media been asking how significant a drop from 533 to 504 in the ten years actually is? It’s a decline in the score of about 5%. Is that significant? What are the possible reasons for it? Has it been arrested – for example was the decline bigger in the first five years or the second? Or could the shocking results have anything to do with the fact that “more than 20 per cent of Australian students felt they did not belong, were not happy or were unsatisfied at school”? No, let’s not spend any time on that one.

Out of 65 OECD countries it was also reported:

“The raw mean scores showed Australia was equal 16th in science and equal 13th in reading.”

So in other words, we’re a lot closer to the top than the bottom, but let’s not let that get in the way of headlines about how disastrous everything is.

I’m not for a moment denying that education could be improved or that there aren’t many things that we could do better, but simplistic slogans and solutions won’t do anything. We need intelligent people to look at the problem, to talk to all the stakeholders and to come up with a solution.

Sort of like they did with the Gonski Report!

By allowing state curricula to be hijacked by so-called experts pushing experimental learning techniques such as ‘whole language learning’, governments have left many young people with little grounding in spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Christopher Pyne. Press Release. April 4th 2011.

Christopher Pyne knows a lot about the education system. He attended a private school for his entire school career and then obtained a Bachelor of Laws at Adelaide University. This expertise qualifies him to take a more “hands on” role as Minister for Education. He advocates a back to basics approach to Education.

As someone who has taught in secondary schools for a number of years, the phrase “back to basics” disturbs me for a number of reasons. The first is that there seems to be some sort of assumption that the “basics” have been abandoned. The second is the fact that what we mean by basics is never actually defined in any meaningful way, and usually it’s subtext is  that you don’t actually need much in the way of funding, because all you need is a blackboard, some chalk and as many kids as can be squeezed into a room to make a success of it.  And finally, the fact that almost as certainly as night follows day, two years after advocating the “back to basics” approach, the same politicians will be  either lamenting the fact that students don’t do enough sport in school or else they aren’t being taught a number of things, such as values, how our Parliamentary system works, how to apply for a bank loan, or all the Kings and Queens of England.

“You’re just not covering what’s important,” says the man at the barbeque, “I was talking to my nephew the other day and he didn’t know about Simpson and his donkey.”

“Which bit?” I ask, “The bit about him plonking people on the back of his donkey for a couple of weeks before dying in a war to protect British interests? Or the bit about him being an illegal immigrant and a staunch trade unionist?”
End of conversation.

Phonics – it’s a discussion that rares its ugly head every few years, and I’ve discussed this with a number of primary teachers and I’m yet to find one that isn’t using it, along with a range of other strategies when teaching students to read. They all agree that teaching grammar, punctuation and spelling is important. There’s some disagreement on how much formal grammar needs to be taught. All agreed that teaching the concepts of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, as well as sentence structure was necessary, but some didn’t think that the inability to identify an “adjective clause of time” would necessarily prevent a Grade 5 student from being able to write clearly and concisely.

Of course, as a secondary school teacher, my objection to the notion that students just need to be taught phonics and all will be well, stems from the rather obvious objection that ‘phonics’ doesn’t start with an “f”. And I’m not just making a silly point. Most of the poor spelling I come across stems not from the fact that kids don’t spell words the way they sound, but because they do. And they spell the words the way they sound to that kid. “His rely pist and his gonna cum ova get u back.”

My second point = that the “basics” is never actually meaningfully defined – may seem strange to some of you. It’s the 3 R’s, right? (Notice that only one of them actually starts with the letter ‘R’). But for most students these are learned to an adequate level in primary school. Yes, people will cite studies and surveys with shock horror statistics, like nearly half the population are below average, or that the students in China are outperforming ours in PISA tests. But every survey will show you that most students read, write and handle numbers at or above the expected level.

The idea that all students should be spending their school day being drilled in the three “R”s for thirteen years is, of course, absurd and nobody is seriously advocating it. But what then is meant by a “back to basics” approach? More help for students who are below the expected level? Research into students falling behind to discover what they have in common? Or just larger class sizes and more “chalk and talk” instruction? Never mind that explicit lecturing is one of the least effective ways of teaching. (See Pyramid)


As for technology, I’m sure that we’ll have the idea that students don’t need access to computers and that they’re just a way that teachers avoid actually “teaching”  is one that I’m sure that we’ll have pushed from various quarters. No-one, of course, will suggest that politicians or journalists don’t need computers. Back in the nineteenth century, nobody had a computer and everyone learnt to read and write just fine. Not true, but statements nearly as ridiculous will go unchallenged. How technology is being used in schools and how poorly its potential is being realised is a whole discussion in itself. But schools are starting to grasp the possibilities. There needs to be a massive increase, not just in the technology, but in helping teachers use it more effectively.

Finally, I look forward to Christopher Pyne’s pronouncement some time next year that schools are failing to cover a very important area. He’s already announced that the History curriculum is far too “left-wing”,  and that he’ll fix that. But I expect something more. Perhaps, it’ll be a horrified realisation that some students leave school never having studied Shakespeare. Perhaps, it’ll be the shocking knowledge that not all students know where Albania is.  Whatever, I expect that schools will be expected to forget what they see as the priorities, and put more time into something else.

When discussing the economy, many people treat as though it’s a subsistence farm, where the farmer plants crops and hopes for the right conditions. If there’s not enough rain – or too much – the farmer has a bad year. But in actuality the economy isn’t totally dependent on the forces of nature. Things such as unemployment or inflation are rarely caused by things outside the control of decision makers; these things are just considered a better option than the alternatives. The Labor Government, for example, spent up heavily and went into to debt to counteract the effects of GFC. Australia didn’t go into recession, but we now have a debt. (Whether a debt of $14,000 for every working Australia was worth it is something that people will have different views about, but had the Liberals been in power, I suspect we’d have slipped into recession because “there’s just nothing we can do about it”

So, a book like “What’s the Economy For, Anyway?: Why It’s Time to Stop Chasing Growth and Start Pursuing Happiness” by John De Graat and David Batker is somewhat refreshing. As well as looking at the history of terms like Gross Domestic Product,  it examines such things as Bhutan’s concept of trying to create a  Gross National Happiness indicator. The writers argue that GDP is a poor indicator of the “true” health of economy – the old “guns or butter” question. If the GDP rises because of a national disaster or an increase in the number of car accidents, this doesn’t show an improvement in living standards. However, the authors argue economists and governments rely too heavily on GDP as a measure of success.

It also asks the rather obvious question – if greater material wealth and longer worker hours don’t make us any happier, are they worth it? Do we need to make unlimited growth our goal? And it makes the rather strange argument that maybe “tax” isn’t actually the work of the devil.

If you want a few ideas to throw at your “Tea Party” type relatives over a family lunch, or something to quote when arguing with trolls on Facebook, then this book should give you  plenty of interesting moments.

Easy to read and enjoyable.

There are two basic pushes in Australian schools today. The first is a movement to embrace new technologies which often talks about 21st Century Education. The second is a regime in which testing a central role, as part of a ‘back to basics’ approach. This is, of course, an oversimplification. Every school will be affected and influenced to varying degrees by these, and teachers working in schools will usually find themselves having to embrace both ideas. Depending on the school and the teacher, the idea of new technologies may be seen as the great hope for the future. For other schools the idea of more testing may be something to be welcomed. This is not an either/or situation for anyone actually involved with education.

For some, technology is just a gimmick. I’ve heard more than one teacher refer to an iPad as a new toy. I’ve heard a Maths teacher assert that he won’t allow technology in his classroom, completely overlooking the fact that all his students are expected to bring calculators. Calculators initially met with some resistance. How would kids develop skills with a slide rule, if they were allowed to use these devices?

And yes, I’ve looked at a number of apps where there is no good reason to use them. I’ve seen kids distracted by technology, but I’ve also seen students distracted by what’s out the window; I’m yet to hear anyone suggest that windows of the glass variety need to be kept out of the classroom. For me, the whole point about technology is not whether we use if or not, but how we use it, and to what extent we need to structure its use. While some schools are abandoning 1:1 programs in favour of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), other schools are concerned when they lose control of the programs and the way in which the laptop is configured. Whichever path you’re on, and however you feel about it, technology is a part of the 21st Century. People who were unconcerned with students reading and writing for hours on end, are putting forward theories that staring at screen for too long is bad for you. And yes, students shouldn’t be staring at computer screens ALL THE TIME, any more than they should have their heads shoved in a textbook ALL THE TIME. Which brings us to some of the other aspects of 21st Century education, perhaps best expressed with the idea of “fluencies”.   See 21 Century Fluency Project.

Basic to a lot of 21st Century learning concepts is the idea that the ownership of knowledge has been undergoing radical changes since the invention of the printing press. Prior to that, only a few people had access to information, but with the mass production of books it become easier to spread knowledge. The Internet means that most of us have access to almost anything we wish to know. We have moved from an era when we have moved from consulting the encyclopedia to wikipedia. The skill we need now is how to be discerning and to assess the information being presented to us. (“Information Fluency is the ability to unconsciously and intuitively interpret information in all forms and formats in order to extract the essential knowledge, authenticate it, and perceive its meaning and significance.” From the 21 Century Fluency Project)

There is nothing in any of this which prevents testing, either on a local or a national scale. There is no problem with the NAPLAN, providing it is used in an intelligent and sensitive way, but, unfortunately, the driving force behind much of the testing can best be summed up with the word: Nostalgia. Let’s go back to the good old days when the 3Rs were taught properly and the function of schools was clear. And, in those halcyon days, we didn’t have these problems. “Unless we go back to teaching kids phonics, they’ll never be able to spell properly,” commentators lament, completely overlooking the fact that students are still taught the phonics – or fonnix – approach to sounding out words they don’t understand, along with a range of other strategies.

For many, the great thing about a test is that is gives an objective standard of where the student is academically. Unfortunately, this is not altogether true. In some cases, it will measure the students understanding of the what is being asked. In others, it will measure their capacity to do tests. But, as most people realize, a test is only a snapshot on a given day, and once it starts to be used to reward teachers and schools for their achievements, it becomes a “game” – we don’t care what the test is telling us, all we want to do is manipulate the game so that we end up winners.

Transparency is a noble idea, and I certainly don’t think that schools have anything to hide, but when we begin to talk about publishing the results for all to see, I have misgivings. Would we happen if this were applied to other areas of life. For example, should doctors have to publish what percentage of their patients are being treated as HIV positive?

We already know which schools “succeed”: The ones with parents in the top socio-economic groups who take an interest in education. That’s why we consider it unfair to compare these schools to schools where students aren’t so lucky. We end up comparing ‘like’ to ‘like’ and creating lists that are about as meaningful as who were the best tennis players of the last fifty years.

Ready or not, schools will be forced to juggle the conflicting demands. In the past, schools have been a political football, either responsible for or expected to fix the majority of society’s problems. It’s time to fight back against the quick fixes, the easy solutions and to work toward a properly funded effective education system which encourages students to become life-long learners!

Victorian Professional Development