Archive for the 'education' Category

Rediscovering the purpose of School: Reply to Barry York’s education revolution article

Monday, December 16, 2013

A response to Barry York’s article, Can we have a real Education Revolution?

Barry commences by pointing out that class size has reduced from 50 to 25 over a generation.

It is often claimed, by the political right, that reduction in class size hasn’t improved educational outcomes. The statistics support this position of the right. John Hattie has become an often quoted authority about effect sizes:

“… a synthesis of meta-analyses and other studies of class size demonstrate a typical effect-size of about 0.1–0.2, which relative to other educational interventions could be considered ‘‘small’’ or even ‘‘tiny’’, especially in relation to many other possible interventions—and certainly not worth the billions of dollars spent reducing the number of children per classroom. The more important question, therefore, should not be ‘‘What are the reasons for this enhanced effect-size?’’, but ‘‘Why are the effect-sizes from reducing class size so small?’’”
– Hattie, J. (2005).The paradox of reducing class size and improving learning outcomes. International Journal of Educational Research, 43, 387–425

I believe that the Gonski report is yet another iteration of this process. It throws money at schools but lacks an evidence-based plan to actually improve educational outcomes.

Barry fondly mentions “a wonderful History teacher by the name of Itiel Bereson”. I agree that great teachers make a difference and that this is far more important than class size.

I also agree that the teachers union plays a very limited and sometimes negative role in real educational reform because they are more interested in teacher conditions than teacher quality. I’m angry at the Union for not supporting performance pay for teachers in remote indigenous communities, conditional on them achieving measurable improvements. If the teachers union had responsibility for determining the nature of teacher training in Universities then they would feel more pressure to actually come up with an educational approach that works, rather than focusing too narrowly on teacher rights.

But when Barry argues that classroom teachers “know best” there is some lack of the clear thinking he extols beginning to creep in. If there are only a few great teachers like Mr. Bereson, one wonders why they as a group “know best”? Barry is expressing the belief here that those who do the real work, those at the chalk face, as a result of their nitty gritty day to day experience, “know best”. Yet, if they really know best why do they support a union that focuses on worker conditions, promotes the same green issues that Barry objects to and doesn’t push hard enough for quality teaching?

Who really does know best? One group that I have been taking a lot of notice of recently are those who promote evidence-based criteria and have the skin in the game of actually working with and improving the learning of disadvantaged students. In Australia, this would include Kevin Wheldall, Robin Beaman-Wheldall and Kerry Hempenstall as well as the initiative promoted by Noel Pearson in Cape York, using the American derived teaching materials of Zig Engelmann.

Barry goes on to counterpose Learning to Teaching as though there is no real connection between them. Moreover, he claims that the social purpose of schools is to imprison the mind and that hasn’t changed for two centuries. This is simplistic argument. As always, the devil is in the detail.

This leads into Barry arguing for the end of learning as we know it and it’s replacement with learning over the world wide web. We are led to believe that we can do this now because in C21st we have a “very high literacy”. If only this were true. Unfortunately, the literacy rate in Australia leaves much to be desired. Although it has improved massively since the late C19th, the really important measure is whether people have sufficient literacy to be highly functioning members in today’s society.

My research indicates that roughly 44% or 13.6 million Australians aged 15 to 74 years have literacy skills that will make it difficult for them to independently extract useful information from the world wide web (source: Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Australia 2011-12

Moreover, Australian schools are not doing a very good job in teaching basic literacy. The PIRLS 2011 study into reading comprehension put Australia second bottom of all English speaking countries surveyed. 24% of Australian students had a Low or Below Low score in reading comprehension. See Kevin Wheldall’s article, PIRLS before Swine for more detail.

The basic problem is that teachers have not been trained properly to teach literacy. This was the conclusion of the Brendan Nelson National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy in 2005 but none of the recommendations from that inquiry have been implemented. The real villains here are the teacher trainers in universities and the teacher unions who block reform. (the education establishment). Many of them are still wedded to discredited whole language approaches.

It has been argued that there are other, more modern forms of literacy than old-fashioned “reading comprehension”. These arguments sometimes take the form that it is more important to “read the world” than read the word. But a little thought is enough to convince most people that old fashioned “reading comprehension” is a prerequisite to “really learning” on the Internet.

So, the statistics reveal that at least 44% of adult Australians and 24% of young Australians, still at school, are going to miss out if Barry’s model of school reform is implemented. Of course, the internet has incredible learning potential for highly literate and self motivated learners. But Barry has made too many sweeping generalisations in his historical and social analysis of the actual nature of schools. If you are not clear about the actual problem then how can you be clear about a viable solution?

Is it possible to conceive of a useful purpose for schools? Yes, it is. Anthropological findings show that there is no easy or natural path to certain types of knowledge, including reading and writing. This type of knowledge has been called non universals (by Alan Kay) or “biologically secondary cognitive abilities” (by David Geary).

Universal knowledge, displayed by every human tribe, includes such things as:

tools and art
religion and magic
case based learning
play and games
differences over similarities
quick reactions to patterns
loud noises and snakes
supernormal responses
vendetta and more (about 300 of these have been identified across cultures)

The above categorises the level of what most people do on the world wide web (social media), despite it’s potential for higher learning.

On the other hand, the non universals include such things as:

reading and writing
deductive abstract mathematics
model based science
equal rights
perspective drawing
theory of harmony
similarities over differences
slow deep thinking
legal systems

These are much harder to learn than the universals because we are not directly wired to learn them. These things are actually inventions which are difficult to invent. And the rise of Schools going all the way back to the Sumerian and Egyptian times came about to start helping children learn some of these things that aren’t easy to learn. For more details about the universals and non universals see The non universals

Some things are hard to learn. Although that hard to learn information is on the internet it is usually not sought out spontaneously by your average facebook junkie. I call the popularity of social media the you_twit_face phenomena (after youtube, twitter and facebook). Pop culture is the main form of discourse on the internet.

Learning to read is rocket science. But once you know how to read you totally forget the process you went through to learn to read. The literate then become blind to the plight of the illiterate. The idea that reading is natural, you just soak it up naturally from the surrounding environment, is BS.

The legitimate purpose of school should be to teach the non universals, the things which are not learnt naturally. That is one reason why schools were invented in the first place. They are not simply vehicles to imprison our minds.

Barry quotes Mao: “If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality”. I can agree with the Mao quote but like any one liner it only represents a part of a more complete picture. Mao argued for an ongoing spiral of knowledge between practice and theory. If you are going to take part in the practice of changing reality then you had better also be prepared to study / research hard and acquire a lot of knowledge, including book knowledge. We all know activists who end up doing and thinking foolish things.

In fact, there are many former radicals from the late 60s who went onto become education establishment leaders and union activists promoting non authoritarian, constructivist teaching methodologies such as whole language that have led to a quarter of our students not becoming literate. They have changed reality in a bad way due to insufficient research informed by an intuitive dislike for a form of “authority”, mistaking authoritative with authoritarian.

The factory model critique is problematic when applied to education because there is some good education that fits a factory model type of metaphor. Factories in capitalism are bad because they steal from the labour of workers. Another sense in which it is used is the replacement of artisan labour with mechanical labour, but that critique is more problematic according to Marx. There is nothing wrong with a machine replacing what was previously done by an artisan.

Many intelligent people report bad experiences at schools. For example, they were told to do things, such as write answers in sentences, over and over again, something that they already knew how to do and so the experience was boring, boring, boring …

But, could you have a good factory model in an educational setting? In my opinion, yes. One answer here would be to improve the factory, each student having their own individualised, computerised assembly line programmed to help achieve both essential literacies but also electives beyond the basics.

Another popular, related argument is that individuals have multiple intelligences or different learning styles, which have to be catered for. But those positions have pretty much been abandoned by thinking educators. Lookup Dan Willingham on the net, he is very good at debunking both of those fads (multiple intelligences, learning styles)

Direct Instruction is pretty much a factory model, a far better factory model than what happens in most existing schools, and so the intuitive dislike of it by “progressives” is strong – but wrong. In teaching basic literacy and maths the research shows that one method fits all is a very good way to go. Kevin Wheldall calls this Non categorical teaching.

In conclusion, what is my idea of a good argument for school reform? It’s a matter of getting the balance right between components that need to be highly structured and other components enabling freedom of expression. Thanks to people like the Wheldalls (MULTILIT) we now know how to achieve very close to 100% literacy education through a structured approach, an individualised factory model if you will. Direct Instruction models could also be beneficial for highly literate people wishing to extend their knowledge over particular domains, eg. the contribution of Einstein to our knowledge of physics. Beyond that I agree that Barry’s ideas have merit. The internet has much potential for extending our knowledge further for those who are literate and motivated to do that. But as Mao also said, you have to lift the bucket from the ground, not start in mid-air.

Can We Have a REAL Education Revolution?


Can we move beyond Gonski and the paradigm imposed by the state and the teacher union bosses?

by B.York

I attended an over-crowded high school in Melbourne in the 1960s. There were 50 kids to a class. Today, the average is 24. Later, in the late 1970s, I was a teacher for a few years in the technical/secondary system and a relief teacher for periods in the 1980s. I have had a personal interest in education and schooling ever since.

My first reaction to current huffing and puffing about Gonski is that, when I look back on my experiences as a student, I am obliged to say that the quality of the teachers is more important than how many halls a school has. This is not to underplay the importance of good basic conditions. These have improved greatly since the 1960s, but there are still aspects in need of improvement. For instance, one thing I have never understood is why the state schools (I don’t know enough about the private sector) do not provide air-conditioning in each class-room during hot summer months. Is this a ‘green-save-the-planet’ thing? Within the system as it is, hot and humid classrooms obstruct students’ capacities to learn anything. I’m amazed that there has been no improvement on this front over the past 50 years.
graffiti school

I never would have expected to become an historian when I was a kid. It was touch-and-go as to whether I would get into university. No-one else in my family had reached that level of formal education (which was common for wage-worker families back then). But, despite being one of 50 kids in the class, I was inspired by a wonderful History teacher by the name of Itiel Bereson. We could have had ten kids in the class, or 70. He was inspirational. He mattered. He changed lives.

Second reaction. My experience as a classroom teacher in some pretty rough schools reinforced my feeling that the quality of teachers counts for a great deal and is underrated by those with an ‘industrial’ approach to teaching. To raise questions about quality was seen as akin to treachery, to serving ‘the bosses’ by pitting teacher against teacher. The emphasis was overwhelmingly on the day-to-day issues: holiday entitlements, wages, classroom hours, etc. I worked with a few teachers who were burned out and demoralised, and I worked with a few who were almost as good as Mr Bereson. The latter left their mark in the form of facilitating an interest in learning among some students. I don’t blame teachers: it’s easy to end up feeling like you’re just a glorified baby-sitter. And, as is the norm under capitalism, the workers (the teachers) were frequently consulted but never empowered. Yet it was, and is, the teachers who know best – the classroom teachers – not the senior executives in each school and even less the bureaucrats outside the schools.

Third: it’s about learning, not teaching. We forget what we’re taught but carry for life what we learn. Schools remain essentially the same structured institutions they were back in the days of the factory system in the C19th. They teach obedience to authority, no matter how they try to dress this up. The fact that I still refer to my inspirational teacher as “Mister Bereson” indicates how deeply this can go. Today, yes, teachers allow students to call them by their first names, sometimes, but this is superficial and doesn’t detract from the reality of a hierarchical structure, with the ‘font of all wisdom’ at the head of the classroom. Now, as in the C19th and C20th, schools imprison the mind. In the C21st we need a complete rethinking. Conservatism, the inclination to oppose significant change, and reactionary union bosses who think essentially in an ‘industrial’ way, are obstacles to necessary change.

Fourth: The old family structure of the early C20th no longer applies to most actual families. Working routines of parents, and indeed patterns of parenting, have changed. Hundred year old ‘school hours’ based on a late-morning-to-mid-afternoon single shift, are ridiculous in the C21st. They need to become flexible to meet the differing needs of parents. Shifts would be a good start.

Fifth: When our hierarchical school system, based on teaching, became free and compulsory in the late C19th, the mass of people were just starting to read and write. In the C21st, we have very high literacy and we have a thing called the World Wide Web. I observe young people increasingly teaching themselves – really learning – outside of school hours, thanks to the Internet. I know young people who have started the process of learning languages and musical instruments in this way, and teaching themselves techniques in sport and art and maths and Info Technologies as well. There’s no end to what one can learn via the Internet. Why then are young people of school age still compelled to be taught, for so many set hours each day, in buildings that are essentially no different in their arrangements and hierarchies than those of the factory era? Despite the placement of computers in schools, our old-fashioned and antiquated school system is holding back real learning.

Sixth: The essence of learning is ‘out there’ in the real world. I learned ten times as much about politics and how power works as a young revolutionist who took to the streets to overthrow capitalism than I ever learned at school or in ‘Politics 1’ at university. As Mao said: “If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality”.

Seventh: A good education is one that encourages – I mean, really encourages – dissent and critical thinking. The best subject I ever studied was a high school subject called ‘Clear Thinking’. It set me on the road of rebellion, of questioning all received wisdom, as did my History teacher’s lessons about how the ancien regimes of Europe regarded themselves as a permanent part of a natural order. (And how so many people accepted that state of affairs, for so long, until they woke up and overthrew them). Today, schools basically indoctrinate kids into the dominant ideology, the gloom and doom ethos of a zombie social system. Not surprisingly, the National History Curriculum advocates the reactionary idea that human progress has reached its ‘natural limits’. I doubt whether there was a school in Australia that didn’t show its students Al Gore’s ‘global warming’ sci-fi documentary; and I doubt whether there were many that encouraged students to consider the science-based critiques of Gore’s alarmism.

ending the groundhog day of educational reform

Some notes on a talk given by Noel Pearson on the launch of his book, Radical Hope, in September, 2011 :

Bringing Explicit Instruction to remote aboriginal schools in Cape York, Queensland

Primary school education was the hardest domain for us to penetrate. NAPLAN results over the past 3 years provided useful evidence to break out of failing education programmes. We could say to professional educators: “We can no longer leave the future of our children in your hands”. We could end the groundhog day of educational reform

The grandmothers in Cape York are more literate than their grandchildren. The Missions had succeeded in teaching children to read and write in their own indigenous language. Over the past 40 years indigenous children have become illiterate in both their native and English language

We arrived at the conclusion that in the Reading Wars, the Explicit Instruction / Phonics side of the war was correct.

MULTILIT (Making Up Lost Time in Literacy) and all Explicit Instruction programmes have their genesis in Direct Instruction, an American programme developed by Professor Siegfried Engelmann at the Universities of Illinois and Oregon. In early 2009 we visited the USA and subsequently formed a partnership with the American National Institute of Direct Instruction.

We established this programme in two Cape York primary schools: Aurukun and Coen. The programme consists of Class and Club. Class is the western curriculum. Club is indigenous culture.

The compulsory school day runs from 8:30 to 2:30. This is followed by a voluntary programme which runs from 2:30 to 4:30.

The new programme commenced on January 28, 2010. The first few months were marked by chaos, controversy, revolt and alarm. But eventually things settled down. There were 65 kids in the Time Out room one week. Then there were 3 kids the following week. This transition marked school acceptance of the new programme.

There is regular coaching of teachers in the required methods every 3 months. Each week there are mastery tests of the previous 5 or 10 lessons. Students do not move to the next level unless they achieve a 90% achievement score.

Every Tuesday morning there is a conference with coordinators in the USA with the Principals of Auruken and Coen. The operating assumption is that if the student has not learned then the teacher has not taught. There is no alibi for the teacher. The Principals main task is to lead instruction.

When kids experience success, then behaviour changes and interest engages.

Aurukun was possibly the worst school in Queensland. In 2009 police were called to the school 160 times, for a school of 230 students. The attendance rate was 30%. We are now 18 months into this educational reform.


Welfare System
The welfare system must be reformed from unconditional welfare to conditional welfare. Parents must meet four conditions to continue receiving welfare:
1. send children to school
2. children free from abuse or neglect
3. meet housing tenancy obligations
4. don’t break the Law

The welfare system has been funding dysfunctional lifestyles. The Commonwealth government has been paying for people’s drug habits. There has been unconditional financing of dysfunction. Welfare is not a wage, it is social assistance which comes with conditions.

Trust Accounts
Trust accounts were created to cover educational expenses (uniform, tuckshop, equipment, computers). The money comes from the parents. They are completely voluntary.

At Coen there was a 100% signup to the trust accounts. The trust accounts now contain $1500 per child and over 1 million dollars in total. The swift uptake of trust accounts persuaded us that parents care deeply about their children’s education.

We use DIBELS (Dynamic Indicators of Basic Early Literacy), which is more informative than NAPLAN, to assess the progress of students. This tells us that:
– the top 30% is progressing at double mainstream speed
– 50% are progressing at above mainstream speed
– poor attenders continue to have poor results

Lack of Support from Education Department Bureaucracy

A Cairns Principal who was prepared to run a Direct Instruction stream was banned from visiting Aurukun by the Department!!

What sort of teachers are required for Direct Instruction?

The DI programme has been described as “teacher proof”. For Pearson the biggest surprise was that they are making progress with the stock, standard issue Queensland trained teacher. As long as the teacher is amenable to the program there are good results. However, teachers college has not taught these teachers how to teach reading!

audio: Noel Pearson: Radical Hope (the above notes are made from this extract)
video: Radical Hope Book: A Talk by Noel Pearson (the whole talk including an informative Q&A session)

OLPC to Drop Tablets from Sky

This looks like an interesting experiment. OLPC founder and chairman Nicholas Negroponte has revealed plans to airdrop shipments of the XO tablet into remote villages and return 12 months later to see how things panned out. The idea behind this approach is a ‘hands-off’ method of education; give the children the tablets and then leave them to figure out the devices and teach themselves to read.

It is inspired by the experience in India where kids taught themselves how to use public “hole in the wall” computers.

See PCmag.

Pearson’s radical hope

noel pearson

Noel Pearson:

I need to revisit the first point I made in my 2009 essay Radical Hope. Quoting Jonathan Lear, I said what made the hope of a people who lost their old world radical was that “it is directed towards a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it”.

Closing the gap in education, and Aboriginal Australians’ internalisation of the Enlightenment, are necessary for my people to take their rightful place in the national and global communities. But those things don’t transcend our present understanding …

We do need economically and socially sustainable lives; but it is our cultural link with the past – a link that would break without language – that makes our lives spiritually sustainable as members of a conquered people. What we need more than anything else is to see that our tongues are not dying languages spoken only in a few homes but languages with a future: growing, officially recognised languages of Australia
Speaking one’s mother tongue is vital

I’d be interested in the thoughts of others about this passionate article by Noel Pearson.

I read his Radical Hope essay when it was published in 2009 and was persuaded that behaviourist based delivery (the ever controversial Pearson has opted for Zig Engelmann’s “Direct Instruction”) was essential to jump start his Cape York education reform. However, note that the Cape York educational system was designed to be well and truly bicultural as well as behaviourist.

It is Pearson’s grasp of dialectics that enables him to plan and implement a scheme which draws from opposite sides of educational philosophy. It is also clear from the article that his grasp of dialectics has enabled Pearson to significantly influence the thinking of Tony Abbott, in a similar way to his previous influence on John Howard.

Aboriginal Communities and the One Laptop Per Child deployment

Rawa Community School, WA, 7 Apr 2009

One Laptop Per Child Australia has done a good job of deploying laptops to roughly 400,000 children in remote aboriginal communities:

View One Laptop Per Child Australia in a larger map

Ear-marked or has expressed interest for deployment
Scheduled for deployment
Partial deployment
Full deployment – one laptop per child

This is best viewed at Google Maps but even in this version if you click on map icons you can obtain more detail of the deployments.

Kindle 3 is a good little research tool

I am finding that the Kindle 3 is a great little learning or research tool. I’ve had mine for a couple of months now.

It keeps your place, so you can have numerous books on the go at the same time. And as you are reading you can highlight areas of text and add notes. These are then assigned to a file called “My Clippings.txt”. Every clipping or note has a header giving the title of the book, the location in the book and the time and date. Continue reading ‘Kindle 3 is a good little research tool’

IPA Pussy Footing on School Vouchers

The Instuture of Public Affairs has just brought out a paper heroically entitled “A Real Education Revolution: Options for voucher funding reform“. However, I am not sure that they are serious.

They appear to be put off by the cost of a universal scheme that would cost more than present funding if it were to be sufficient to ensure more or less free education and provide those currently funding their kids with the same entitlement.

There is no discussion of the whole issue of how you would create alternatives to choose from. This would involve more private schools and/or greater autonomy for government schools.

Instead they are focusing on groups with special needs – aborigines, the disabled and the poor. Indigenous students would be able to get out of isolated and toxic communities. The voucher would cover board as well as any school fees. With the disabled it would allow private schools to compete better with the public ones.

I am not sure how a voucher for poor students would work. You would need to determine eligibility to start with. As far as I can see the benefits from the scheme would have to come from a marginal shift in students forcing schools to smarten up their act. I don’t know how realistic that is.

There is some discussion of the paper at a number of libertarian blogs. These include , Catallaxy, Andrew Norton and the paper’s author, Julie Novak.

Using vouchers to achieve a family driven education system

We need an education system with an inbuilt tendency for better teaching to emerge and  thrive while inferior teaching fades away. We also need a system which is far more effective at catering to the specific needs and “learning styles” of individual children.

This is best achieved by a deregulated system where families are the customers and schools are free to compete for students by making their own decisions about the services they provide.

Continue reading ‘Using vouchers to achieve a family driven education system’

“Academic Freedom” is a cop out by the fearful liberal-left

Academic Paul Norton has written an article at left social-democrat blog Larvatus Prodeo. It’s about the Senate’s Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee’s Inquiry into Academic Freedom, and specifically about a submission by the “Make Education Fair” campaign (pdf, over 4 1/2 Mb), which appears to be run by right-wing Young Liberals and the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation. Norton’s article is in response to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald of Friday October 10th, 2008, headlined “Academics Rally Against Young Liberal Witchhunt”.

Most of what Norton says about the Make Education Fair submission seems fairly true. While some of the examples may be true (there’s rarely enough proof to clearly say that bias is as bad as they say), it’s a reactionary document, which seems to push the idea that any sort of university course that questions the status quo is illegitimate in itself. It’s also poorly argued and appears to take quotes out of context to push its point.

But pointing that out is like shooting academics in a barrel where free wine and cheese are on offer. Norton’s argument against the Make Education Fair campaign is that it is a threat to academic freedom. This appears typical, as it is repeated in this article by Katharine Gelber, an academic at the University of New South Wales, and this page at, set up by the NTEU (the academics’ union).

Continue reading ‘“Academic Freedom” is a cop out by the fearful liberal-left’