Posts Tagged ‘Education’

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!

A teacher up the front talking to the class, informing them, students sitting neatly in rows, listening attentively and at the end of the class, they will have all learned something. This, for many people, is how school should be. John Howard, a recent Australian Prime Minister asserted “I am also an unabashed supporter of competitive examinations, teacher-directed lessons and the importance of academic disciplines”, as though his personal inclination should mean something even though he’d had no actual experience in education beyond his time in school in the fifties and sixties. Neither did he find it necessary to explain what that meant or quote any research to show its effectiveness.  We just all KNOW that’s what education looked like in those halcyon days when schools were truly good. 

Or take this from the Opposition Education Spokesman, Christopher Pyne: “Child-centred learning should be abandoned for a return to more explicit instruction driven by teachers..  More practical teaching methods based on more didactic teaching methods, more traditional methods rather than the child-centred learning that has dominated the system for the past 20, 30 or 40 years’.

”In other words, mounting evidence suggests that primary school children or students with particular types of disadvantage would be better off being taught this way. Unfortunately this research has been ignored by most teacher training and in many instances attempts to return to explicit instruction pedagogy have been blocked by state education departments.” He, of course, fails to cite this “mounting evidence”. 

Perhaps, the comments by columnist, Katharine Murphy sum up the views of a lot of people: “Hearing Pyne talk more extensively about his portfolio (hooray) made me nostalgic for some of my best teachers who made me sit on my backside, stop talking and write notes until my hand ached.”

Of course, nostalgia is all very well for a weekend catching up with old friends. To base an education policy on the idea that writing till one’s aches is hardly relevant in the technology rich 21st Century. Will we see the Government abandoning any computer program, because kids hands aren’t aching enough?

One only has to look at a few basic truths to understand how simplistic many of these ideas are. The “good ole days” of education meant that a large number of people left school at fifteen, a defined percentage failed Matriculation or Higher School Certificate as it later became known, and students who didn’t perform were regarded as not worthy of educating. “But back then we all learnt to read and spell correctly,” asserts someone I know, completely ignoring their own inability to spell many basic words.

More importantly, the idea that people “learn” best through listening is demonstrably false. Try to remember the last time you were listening to someone speak to a large group for more than five minutes. Whether interesting or boring, I suspect that you won’t be able to remember more than a fraction of what was said, even if you took notes. As the person spoke, even if it were directly relevant to you, there’s a good chance that you started thinking about how what was being said applied to your workplace or your home or whatever. And, as a result, you missed the next bit.

Research suggests that only about five percent of information is retained from a lecture. Reading it for yourself is only slightly higher. These days the vast majority of Australian schools have taken away the fixed desks which all faced the front, and replaced them with more flexible tables and chairs, but anyone who teaches will be have encountered with at least one teacher who persists in demanding that the tables and chairs be set up in a manner resembling the old face-the-front desk.

I’m not suggesting that education doesn’t benefit from outside feedback, or that all change is necessarily good. The difficulty is how to reconcile the demand for constant improvement with the idea that the past has all the answers. Politicians are quick to introduce reforms with either no consultation, or consulation with only those that suit their own agenda. 

The simple fact is that our education system has “worked” for many people, particularly the ones writing and commentating on it. To many of them, the idea that we are constantly finding ways to help students learn more effectively is trendy nonsense. (“A good dose of Latin roots – that’d help their spelling!”) 

So what will we see should the Coalition win this Saturday? The sort of reforms Gonski said are necessary, or arguments for austerity and “living within our means”. Will we be told that class sizes are unimportant and technology not something that kids really need? Or will there be an acknowledgement that to improve education – even if you think the answer is “better teachers” – you have to fund it adequately. That was one of Gonski’s points – we need a massive investment in education. Even the Gillard/Rudd proposals were short of what Gonski said was necessary.

I read somewhere recently that the fore-runner of the Spitfire was nearly shelved in 1929 because of a Government austerity drive. It was suggested that creating a faster plane was a luxury they could do without.  A little of ten years later – when the Spitfire was saving Britain from the Luftwaffe – no-one considered it a “luxury”! (It was saved, incedently, by a private benefactor – I hold no similar hope that Gina Rinehart or Rupert Murdoch will save education)

We need to ensure that we are not costing ourselves a future “Spitfire” by saving a few dollars now.