Saturday, July 28, 2007


Three current articles below

Crap English curriculum in NSW

ANALYSING camera angles in the Australian movie Ten Canoes, which is spoken mainly in the indigenous language Ganalbingu, or deconstructing a website on multiculturalism would hardly seem to have much to do with the study of English in high school. But those two "texts" are part of the new draft HSC English reading list for 2009 to 2012, as revealed by Hannah Edwards in The Sun-Herald last weekend.

The films, websites and various multimedia offerings that clog the draft syllabus list show that, even after six years of criticism and complaints from students, parents and teachers, the curriculum designers at the NSW Board of Studies are determined to patronise the ability and desire of high school students to comprehend great ideas and expand their minds with classics. "There is a failure of nerve on the part of curriculum [designers]," says Dr Barry Spurr, a senior lecturer in English literature at Sydney University. "They don't want to present the children with the difficulty of texts, or deal with difficult language . [and] historical context. It's a failure of belief in English as a discipline."

Even while primary school children all over the state are willingly burying their heads in the new 607-page Harry Potter book, the Board of Studies, which has apparently consulted "stakeholders" for years about its latest selections, doesn't trust senior students to read big books. Instead they can analyse Wikipedia, or websites about multiculturalism and the September 11 terrorist attacks. They can deconstruct the "visual images" of the German language film Run Lola Run or the US political satire Wag the Dog. Or they can read short novels, such as the 216-page domestic violence novel Swallow the Air, or Jhumpa Lahiri's 291-page The Namesake or 202 pages of Raimond Gaita's biographical Romulus, My Father or the 78-page play A Man with Five Children by Nick Enright.

Spurr does point to some gems in the new offerings - chiefly the return of Patrick White with The Aunt's Story (304 pages), though he says White should never have been dropped. Spurr says his department gets "the best and the brightest [school-leavers] but they do not know how to construct an essay". Since most of their university study involves essay-writing, and in the business world report-writing is a crucial skill, he is perplexed that the syllabus does not adequately equip students.

In a scathing critique of the 2006 HSC English exam for his school magazine, Spark, Roland Brennan, a year 12 student last year at St Ignatius College, Riverview, writes: "Have I really taken away anything valuable from my HSC advanced English course? I have not been nourished with substance, rather stuffed to the brim with a syrupy, sloppy waste. Junk. Welcome to the HSC English syllabus." He forensically dissects the exam paper and says essay writing is "fast becoming obsolete".

"King Lear . has now been deconstructed and rebuilt within the framework of modern theories such as feminism, Marxism and existentialism. "Contrary to what the Board of Studies seems to think, a 'text' is not 'anything'. The term implies something in a written format, poetry, drama or prose. Not an image or a film clip. Similarly, Shakespeare was a playwright, Coleridge a poet and Huxley an author. They were not 'composers' . We are . readers or viewers, not 'responders'. "The misuse of terms is typical of the HSC syllabus and appears to be used to cover up ignorance." Brennan also says many students do not speak out for fear of being labelled "uncool".

Conservatives have launched ferocious attacks on the HSC English syllabus in recent years, with little apparent effect. The Prime Minister, John Howard, who is married to a former English teacher, last year decried what he called the "dumbing down" of English in which "what I might call the traditional texts are treated no differently from pop cultural commentary".

The problem for the Board of Studies is it has to cater for many HSC students who are not interested in English. The subject is compulsory in years 11 and 12, making it a wearisome task to cajole students into the most basic learning. A high school teacher who sat on a committee choosing HSC texts in the 1990s says the pressure to make English compulsory for all HSC students came from the University of NSW medical faculty, which was worried about churning out doctors without adequate English skills. Perhaps medical schools could conduct English lessons rather than force reluctant students to do a subject they detest.

The other problem is that today's students are so focused on their HSC results that teachers are under intense pressure to confine themselves to the syllabus, says Daniel Brass, a 26-year-old teacher of advanced English at a coaching college for years 11 and 12. "English is not to improve your mind," he says. "It's just to get your marks to get into uni."

In this way the English syllabus places teachers in an intellectual straitjacket. Brass doesn't mind websites and films crowding the syllabus. He doesn't even mind authors being renamed "composers" and readers "responders". But he says the board has usurped teachers' autonomy, deciding not only the texts they must teach but prescribing how they must teach them.

There is hope, Spurr says, as the students he sees in first-year university are increasingly demanding to be taught the classics, hungry for real literature and fed up with incoherent jargon. But this is no consolation for "less-gifted students who should have as much right to be exposed to the best that has been known and thought in the world", he says. Instead they are encouraged to fritter away perhaps their only opportunity to improve their minds.


Student achievement must be detectable and rewarded

Little Johnny understands the convention of printing ... little Suzie understands the operation of addition ... The rest of us, well, we don't understand what's happening in our schools any more. If anybody other than a school teacher can decipher the true meaning of the "convention of printing" - a convoluted little phrase appearing on report cards across the state - then they deserve a ribbon. (Which is only fair, because everyone in school gets a ribbon these days. More on that later.)

NSW's school teachers have won a necessary victory over the Iemma Government in their refusal to implement a state-wide ranking system on student report cards - but hold off the backslapping just yet. There was a reason Premier Morris Iemma couldn't understand his daughter's report card, which prompted his ultimatum, and why the Federal Government also felt it necessary to weigh in. It is the teachers' fault.

Report cards have become such a dog's breakfast of political correctness, convoluted jargon and deliberate clouding that no parent can understand what they say or are meant to say. The convention of printing? Supposedly, it means little Johnny knows to hold the book the right way up, that he knows to read left to right and that one line follows another. The operation of addition? Little Susie can add up. Why teachers don't say it like it is any more is anyone's guess.

Indeed, so clouded are any meanings, and so subtle have become the gradings between "achieving", "working towards" and "more effort required", that they are virtually useless.

The grading system proposed by the State Government was impractical. For example, grading every kid from A to E is unfair on the average kid at a smart school, who is unfairly pushed to the bottom of rankings. It is unfair to the average kids at a below average school, getting A's when they are by any realistic measure average. Comparing grades uniformly from school to school doesn't work. It's apples and oranges.

The biggest reason for this awful system is, apparently, self-esteem issues. How would Johnny, struggling to understand the "convention of printing", feel if he showed Mum and Dad his report card with a D for literacy? It is an understandable concern but the pendulum has now swung too far the other way. "Rotational reward" is the term, and the liberal-thinkers have got it backwards. Rotational reward is a reaction against the naturally intelligent kids - for example, the ones who win all the prizes even though, unlike little Johnny trying hard to understand the convention of printing, they don't have to work nearly as hard.

Rotate the rewards until little Johnny, putting in all that effort, finally gets a ribbon. Sounds great. It works until the average kids work it out, then question why they should try harder when their reward is going to come around sooner or later anyway. Worse, it creates a wave of school children who drift through school, never needing to sharpen their competitive instincts because they get the reward as a matter of course. The problem comes after graduation, when they find themselves in a world that doesn't give rewards on a rotational basis but for achievement. Soon enough they find they're ill-equipped to survive the competitive environment of this real world.

Kids need to compete. There is nothing wrong with teaching a child to win. Or that work brings reward. Nothing wrong with showing a child that, if they work harder, they can climb from the middle of their class and win a ribbon. The hard-earned victories are the sweetest. If every child gets a prize, soon the prize won't mean much at all. So, far from the backslapping, the NSW Teachers Federation needs to come up with a better system, one that lets kids and parents know exactly where they stand in relation to other kids in class. The criteria for achievement in our schools has to be more clear-cut - give that gift to our children and one day those children will become our gift. Believe it.


Bloated teacher-training courses highlighted

And the establishment is resisting. I went into secondary teaching without one second of teacher training and my students did very well

The head of education at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia says it is important to consider all kinds of programs to get more people into teaching.

The Nationals are preparing a report to be tabled in State Parliament which will recommend a teaching course used in the United States be considered in WA. The Nationals' spokesman for education, Grant Woodhams, wants to introduce a fast track seven-week training course offered to university graduates. He says it will give people wanting a career change, the university qualifications to teach.

While Professor Gary Robson says all options need to be considered, but he doubts two months is enough time. "On the face of it I would be very nervous about seven weeks, if that's all it was. Seven weeks would not seem to be a sufficient time for people to acquire the skills that are needed to be a good practitioner in this day and age," he said.


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