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.

9 Responses to “Rediscovering the purpose of School: Reply to Barry York’s education revolution article”

  1. 1 Byork

    Thanks for the critique, Bill. You are well-researched and it’s a pity there are no links to the sources you cite (though thank you for having sent them to me by email).

    The first point I’d make by way of response is that ‘imprisonment of the mind’ happens at school because young people are not encouraged to think critically but rather to see a grim future for which humanity is to blame. A very significant reform would be to reintroduce Clear Thinking and Critical Thinking into school curricula, with specific case studies based on Green alarmist propaganda as well as other examples. It’s unlikely the system will do this, as it is essentially about training in obedience (with attempts at teaching literacy and numeracy along the way, in ways that don’t challenge the inculcation in obedience).

    It’s not right to suggest that I want to see an end to learning as we know it. I want to see an end to teaching as we know it… basically, but not entirely (as my article indicates in my fourth point about shifts and hours). Even teachers learn to teach by teaching. I remember the grand theories during teacher-training at university, taught by academics who had not done any long-term school teaching for many years – all that book knowledge! – and it took about a month in a classroom to understand that it was mostly bunk.

    So, I am in favour of people continuing to learn by social practice, as we always do. This is not to deny the importance of literacy and numeracy which I have never suggested come naturally and, indeed, need to be taught. They are an essential spring-board and a basis for further pursuit of knowledge – and this is what I think happens once a certain level of literacy has been attained. It does not come naturally but one reaches a level at which one can go further, much further, without the need for a school system.

    You and I would agree that a significant minority of students have been let down when it comes to literacy. In the late 1970s (as a full-time teacher) and during the 1980s (as a Relief teacher), I was shocked at the low level of basic practical literacy among my students (who were nearly all migrant working class kids). They came to the high school with this problem. In other words, they had been let down by the Primary school system. Something wasn’t right with those initial six years of being taught. It is not surprising that ‘home education’ is catching on, growing, even though some parents break the law in doing it.

    So, as stated in point four of my article, I see a role for formal education but with greatly reduced hours and shifts that will cater for the reality of life for working parents in the C21st. The few hours of formal schooling each day would focus on the basics of literacy and maths (but not all the non-universals you have listed). I am open-minded as to for how long this would be required but probably up until working age. A new Web-based system might then take over, totally flexible, but with reward incentives. On the other hand, this is what I observe happening today anyway (without any official incentives from above).

    I agree that many young people seem to waste time with facebook etc. But – again speaking from experience of young people with whom I am very close – I don’t think this is related to literacy but rather to immaturity and peer pressure. I know for sure that some highly literate young people spend too much time on facebook trivia.

    It’s worrying that 44% of Australians have literacy skills that make it difficult for them to independently extract useful information from the world wide web. But what range of difficulty is experienced? Overcoming difficulty is part of learning. What is the gradation within that 44%? How many, if any, cannot extract information at all? The Report does not seem to be saying that they cannot extract information at all. I ask this question, not to downplay the possible seriousness of the statistic, but because you have assumed later that it means such people would be excluded from Internet learning all together. (You make the same leap with the 24% of young people who score “Low” and “Below Low” in reading comprehension).

    I am very close to one young fellow who was not at all good at school, when it came to literacy, but who zoomed ahead because he became hooked on video-games at home and started reading these massive, small-print, manuals that he downloaded from the ‘Net. Thousands of words, and much of it technical. He is now studying IT at university. His parents tried to stop him playing those games and to get back to the school reading list but to little avail.

    Bill, we come close to agreement when you say “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”. I would disagree, though, that we need schools for the electives. These are what young people will pursue anyway, because they elect to do what interests them and even ‘pop culture’ isn’t always crap. So, I’m back to the idea of greatly reduced hours and shifts: minimal teaching outside the basics.

    I’m not convinced about the factory model and would need to be persuaded by evidence that schools and factories do not alienate those taking the orders. Schools are boring to most students and it’s the social life and friendships that make them worthwhile. As with factory labor, the best hours of each day, five days a week, are spent within the walls and confines of being told what to do.

    Just look at Schoolies Week. All that frustration, pent up over many years, then released on graduation… ‘Free at last!’ Fortunately, young people don’t like to be told what to do all the time, what is proper and not proper, and they don’t always accept being told the above (though this doesn’t mean they react appropriately or positively against it).

    Learning leaps ahead after young people leave school and start work, pursue their own interests (music, whatever), travel overseas, mix with a broader range of people, etc.

    Two final points before I go to my dental appointment.

    You asked why do teachers support a union that focuses on green issues etc, if they “know best” (as I claimed). I think they support the union because they see the union as a form of insurance and a way of collectively defending working conditions. They don’t support it because of green policies or lack of interest in the quality of teaching.

    Yes, we both know of activists who became foolish but in my experience this happens when they place book knowledge about real world social experience, They become out-of-touch, and fall back on dogma (which they get from books). This is not to deny the importance of theory and analysis that is published in books – but do we need schools to obtain book knowledge?

    Have to go now…

  2. 2 Steve Owens

    “…reduction in class size hasn’t improved educational outcomes. The statistics support this position…”

    My rule of thumb is always follow the money. I read that in urban public schools the average class size is between 25-30 while at the private school the size is 15-20.

    Now size might not matter but until we get something definitive I say equality should be the name of the game and we should support those awful unionists in their campaign to reduce class sizes in public schools
    PS I have no trouble with the argument that teacher quality is more important than class size so I also have no trouble in supporting unionists claims for better wages. The rich are well aware that you get what you pay for.

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  7. 7 steve owens

    Finlanders let us all rejoice for our schools cream the rest at international tests our students are the best

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