8 Apr ’10 – Question and Answer – OLO


Australia, a clever country? Are our educational standards failing Australia?

Q. Is Australia really failing to encourage reasonable standards of schooling ?

A. Yes. It is; and things will get worse. That’s for sure.

Q. How come ?

A. It keeps copying the fix-it, quick-time, packaged culture of its dominant ‘friends’, the U.S. and U.K.  It used to copy the better aspects of schooling from parts of these decentralised systems when they were run by schoolies. Then business interests took them over.

Since the time of Governor Phillip, Australians have thought that they are unable to develop an indigenous Aussie system of real learning and achievement….hence the copy-catting. The root problem is that, in all three places, there is a prevailing business belief that someone with a Ph.D. in anything knows everything; and can run anything. This belief was the forte of business modellers who took over political thinking circa 1990. They believed that the better one was at passing university examinations, the better one was at leading large corporations and government enterprises. ‘Plumbers started to run garages’ in Local Education Authorities [LEAs] in England and School Boards in U.S.A. from the early 1990s, so we followed suit.  New York provides the classic model of what not to follow, but we did just the same. Finland and high-achieving countries believed in themselves and deliberately ignored the copy-cat routines. The answer is that simple.

Q. Well, what should Australia do then to get kids to learn more and better.

A. It’s a pity that we cannot turn the clock back to 1990. That was the defining year when management theorists and business modellers tossed the baby out, when all they had to do was change the nappy. For instance, those who supervised the standards of all school subjects were made redundant in that year. We called them Inspectors. Instead of placing such people with wide hard-yard experience and proven academic ability in positions of influence, we introduced the Patel system of appointment to positions of higher authority. A practical background did not count. If one impressed job interviewers using some thespian skills and had an academic background of some sort, the job was theirs. Plumbers, well qualified ones of course, took over the garage and this has lasted for twenty years. Is it any wonder that the answer to the original question is ‘Yes’?

But in answer to your particular question, we could develop an administrative model that starts from the classroom level. That’s where our children and their teachers get together. That’s where the action is. What happens there determines what sort of country Australia becomes. Think about it. It hasn’t been tried anywhere south of Finland yet; but Australia certainly has the knowledge and expertise in its working ranks to design and operate a model that focuses on achievement in ALL the things that our down-under society believes to be important.

Q. That’s airy-fairy wishful thinking, isn’t it ?

A. On the contrary. In each room there is a group of pupils [‘’students” being a silly name to use in a school context] who interact with an adult to develop a learning expertise that will last them forever. That’s what ‘pupilling’ means. Teachers are trained to do ‘it’ better than others. They pupil learnacy.  It’s not an age-related thing, being a pupil with a teacher; but young pupils are forced to attend a school for ten years or more so it applies to them in particular. Each day for them is intense, as it should be; and needs to be well planned and well resourced.

Before you ask,…yes….fundamental learnings are crucial. They are the building blocks of personal learning/evaluation, which can include appropriate tests, shared with a friendly and helpful adult.  Evaluation is an essential part of learning and shared evaluation is a concept yet to be explored on the local front. Evaluation for learning purposes is very personal.

Each child has an idiosyncratic learning style, and the teacher has to handle each style. Each teacher uses an enormous range of teaching strategies some of which come into play during the course of the day, ranging from the didactic [bossy chalk-talk] to the maieutic [child-initiated]. A myriad of group-learning techniques also form part of this long chain, which well-trained teachers know how and when to use.

Teacher-pupil interaction [aka teaching], I predict, will occupy a major portion of future teacher-preparation courses, as it should now. Let me refer you to Aussie M.J. Dunkin whose study of classroom practices is esteemed world-wide. In “Researching Teaching” he draws attention to the distribution of school time and its relationship to pupil control…their agitation on wet and windy days; their concentration mode at the end of the week, or year; why schools teach maths in the morning, and leave art and physical education to the late afternoon….the millions of little things that matter in the intense social-teaching-learning relationship:. Dunkin says, “Few attempts have been made to document these ‘truths’. These are all examples of the context of the classroom upon the processes [e.g. smiling, listening, problem-solving, distracting, answering, asking, demonstrating, commending, cajoling, questioning, supporting, expounding, correcting, distributing, frowning] that occur within it. These are context-process relationships that could be examined. Such relationships reveal influences upon classroom events that environmental factors, physical and temporal, have.” If we believe in revolutionising schooling, we could start conversations about a school structure that starts from these sorts of observations, and not from the presumptions of those who have only experienced crash-bang-wallop techniques in their own youth. Note that the controllers of our present model from up-over, still believe in Edwardian techniques that David Copperfield and Tom Sawyer endured: chalk-talk techniques, then test, test, test and punish malingerers.  Australia recently introduced the latest version of this kind of belief; and called it NAPLAN.

Q. Are you saying that you would not have external testing of any kind ?

A. None! Certainly no blanket [state nor nation-wide] testing as is conducted now  Such use of standardised tests is both useless and damaging, as is being demonstrated in the US and UK.

At the same time, ACER has a fine reputation for test construction and its tests could be purchased by schools [ACER is a business, doing very well at present] to get a sense of culturally-comparable and locally-desirable standards in those part of the curriculum that are testable. They could be woven into a school’s evaluation program and used to good effect….but they would be only a minor part of a shared evaluation design. It’s so important for the child be in control of the sharing of its progress with its parents and teachers. The tests as tests only have mild value.

The NAPLAN tests, presently in vogue, are dangerous because they, unfairly, ignore the social and temporal conditions within each school. They can be accurately described as unnecessary, immoral, costly, unreliable and destructive of curriculum spirit and school time. It is astounding that anyone, even with a limited experience in schooling, would support their use. The Federal Education Minister [Ms.Gillard] claims that parents love the idea because so many of us rushed to check the curious and unreliable My School website. It didn’t do anything for me at all and her lackadaisical ‘evidence’ discouraged me.  If I wanted to check out my child’s progress, I’d ask her teacher and hang around the school a bit more than I do now.  I’m sure my child would respond positively, to my interest.

Ms Gillard is quite paranoiac about blanket testing to the degree that she and her cohort ignore the urgent, necessary and easily-undertaken changes that need to be made to schooling for all the Australian school children whose present confused arrangements don’t seem to worry anyone in authority. They are too obsessed with testing and ignore the obvious :-

* All Australian school children should start schooling at the same age. How about they all be allowed to start school in the year that they turn seven years of age?

* The number of year levels that constitute primary schooling should be set in cement. Seven years is the undoubted best. Stop mucking around with terms like kindergarten [N.S.W, A.C.T], preparatory [Vic.,Tas., Q’ld], transition [N.T.], pre-primary[W.A], reception [S.A] for the first year at school. Call it Year 1 and get on with it for these first seven years of compulsory schooling.

Q. If the tests are so damaging, how come the Principals of schools haven’t told us so?

A. Australian principals of all kinds are wonderful people, so easy to get along with, and so easy to control. They are not great students of important current issues. They are busy at school. They are obliging and courteous towards their superiors and if a super-ordinate suggests that they should not comment publically about contemporary issues, they take that as an instruction. I’d be surprised if more than 20% have read The Cambridge Review or Death and Life of the Great US School System. One would hope that every secondary school principal has read the Australian publication, C.Bonnor’s The Stupid Country. I have asked a few influential principals why they haven’t explained the ‘whys and wherefores’ of testing per se clearly to  parents and offer a personal opinion.  On each occasion I have been told that they are not allowed. Please don’t laugh. It’s serious.

Q. Are you blaming Principals?

A. Yes, to a large degree. They are too timid. They should have told Ms.Gillard, who has been unreasonably dictatorial in all this, that they will not supervise such testing on ethical and professional grounds. They are surely in breach of standards of ethical administrative behaviour because their silence contributes to such heresy [the belief that fear is the prime  motivator of learning].

Please Let me temper this view by saying that Australia, as a government inspired social unit, is very good at controlling dissent of all kinds. Remember the Iraq invasion and our tacit approval of it? Afghanistan ? Gunns?  A conspiracy theorist could write a worthwhile Jack Ryan novel about such control. The press is most supportive of such control. Educationally, the Cambridge Review and Death and Life… were, for instance, more than worthy of large-type front page coverage in all Australian print media. They represented invaluable advice for a country that does not know what it is doing. Lara got the space.

Q. What do you see is the future ?

A. I weep. In the last election, I voted Labor because of the fear that the Coalition would introduce the Nelson/coaliton proposals for blanket testing.  Big mistake.  Labor turned copy-cat.

I suspect that many thousands of teachers made the same mistake. We do not have anywhere to go now.  Greens ?  If this party produced a worthwhile policy that says that it will forward all tests to schools for local use only, start children at the same age and have the same number of years for primary and secondary schooling it could be on a winner. It prefers to stick, it seems, to its Mother Hubbard non-visionary platform.

No, Australia cannot claim any cleverness; and its standards in testable subjects should rise a little for a year or so, then flatten, then sink. Other subjects? Who cares ?