Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Stop turning schools into training centres

The teacher below makes a very good case for a broad High School education.  I certainly benefited greatly from one in the traditional school system of long ago.  I came out with a knowledge of two foreign languages, Chaucer, Tennyson, Schubert and Bach, to mention just a few of the things I am so glad about.

As I was writing this I felt transformed by the wonderful music I was listening to at the same time: JS Bach's St Matthew Passion - sung by the Thomanerchor Leipzig (Video with subtitles).  A great pinnacle of Christian music sung by a wonderful choir of German young people. The Thomanerchor, the choir of the Thomaskirche, was founded in 1212 and is one of the oldest and most famous boys' choirs in Germany.

But I learned useful bits about Physics, Chemistry and mathematics too.  And I still became a useful employee.  I ended up teaching statistics and computer programming at university level!  But it is the poetry and classical music that is continually running through my head that gives me unfailing pleasure

But the author below fails to address the problem of how to get good teachers of the humanities. My view is that enthusiasm for your subject is the sine qua non of a good teacher, regardless of the subject.  There are even mathematics teachers who make their pupils enthusiastic about mathematics. My son was so enthused.

But are there enough teachers of humanities subjects who can  enthuse their students?  Obviously not, I think.  So once again we have a case for large class sizes so that the talents of the limited number of enthusiastic teachers can be maximally spread around.  With the aid of class assistants, large classes should rarely be a problem.  So, in my view, the fad for small class sizes is the biggest enemy of a humanities education for all -- JR

Going by the language that politicians and their advisers use these days to discuss education policy, you would think teachers are answerable to the business community.

Consider the terminology in the Australian Labor Party’s ‘New Directions’ paper, released in the lead-up to the federal ALP victory in 2007, and you get a fairly clear idea of where the government intended to take education. The paper identified ‘productivity growth’ and ‘human-capital investment’ as ‘the critical link’ to ‘long-term prosperity’, concluding that ‘if Australia is to turn its productivity performance around as well as enhance workforce participation, the Australian economy needs an education revolution in the quantity of our investment in human capital and quality of the outcomes that the education system delivers’.

As Stephen J Ball points out in his book, The Education Debate, the ‘New Directions’ paper collapsed the social and economic purposes of Australian education ‘into a single overriding emphasis on policymaking for economic competitiveness’. This suggests that the so-called ‘education revolution’ had more to do with strengthening Australia’s economic future than radical pedagogical reform and development.

If the current government is dedicated to strengthening education, it needs to establish a clear understanding of teachers’ roles in schools. Do schools need teachers who stimulate curiosity and inspire life-long learning? Or is it ‘trainers’ they need – people who skill-up children for the labour market? If the language Australian principals and school leaders use these days is anything to go by, it’s probably the latter.

Pick up an education policy or ‘school business plan’ and you’re bound to encounter terms that belong in a corporate manual. Attend a staff-development session in an Australian state school and you’re likely to hear reference to the school’s ‘strategic-planning initiative’, and the need to ‘build on maximum capacity’ and ‘value add’. There will also be talk of ‘targets’ and ‘benchmarks’, as well as the need for increased ‘market share’.

All of this suggests that schools are becoming more like businesses that trade in skilled human capital, than places of learning. Put simply, schools are becoming little more than training centres that procure compliant and attentive candidates for the workplace, and lessons are becoming little more than training sessions for the job market.

The American philosopher Sidney Hook wrote that ‘everyone who remembers his own education remembers teachers, not their methods and techniques. The teacher is the heart of the educational system.’ Most of us remember a teacher who had a significant influence on us. Mine was my English teacher. He would enter the classroom with nothing more than the prescribed novel, a stick of chalk, a mellifluous voice and a good story. And with these basic tools he would draw every member of the class into a world of wonder.

It was not easy. But his methods were simple: no jargon, no hackneyed phrases and certainly no corporate language. Just good stories, with which he was able to stimulate thinking and discussion about life’s big questions. I know it’s an old-fashioned notion, but he made learning enjoyable.

As an English and philosophy teacher, my students often ask me how reading a novel written more than 100 years ago, or studying an ancient civilisation, will help them get a job. I say: ‘It’s not meant to. Not everything we do in life, and indeed school, is geared to material gain.’ Forming relationships, engaging in interesting conversation, sharing stories, reading books, inventing, creating and labouring over things you love – all are valuable in themselves. Pleasure is a sufficient reward, and it certainly can’t be measured by a standardised test or exam.

But, sadly, there is very little time for this kind of learning in a curriculum geared to government targets and benchmarks. And there’s hardly any time for students to tinker, make mistakes, pull apart, dissect, rebuild and make serendipitous discoveries.

Informative as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results are, they can’t tell us everything about the quality of schools. These are crude instruments that don’t take into account the complexities of education. Yet they are gaining increasing prominence in Australian schools. Excessive reliance on National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results, test scores and league tables has diminished the teacher’s role, narrowed the curriculum and substituted real teaching for training kids up for tests.

Any ‘training facilitator’ can impart lower-order rote skills, which require little more than memorising information and conducting simple operations. But, unlike a trainer or an online module where students (or should I say clients?) are required to read, memorise and click to submit, a teacher releases the creative energy that all children possess and fans the flames of curiosity. Teachers help kids make sense of a world that is becoming increasingly complex and confusing. And they help students make sense of the torrent of information the internet spews out, by providing them with something a search engine never can: understanding.

Good teachers enter the profession because they are good communicators, not ventriloquists for technocrats and business leaders. If you want teachers to kill enthusiasm for learning, then tell them to conduct their lessons like a corporate trainer, preferably with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation. Kids lose interest and disengage the moment a teacher stops teaching and begins to train, as many teachers are instructed to do, particularly when it comes to lifting NAPLAN scores.

Here is a revolutionary idea: why not place an embargo on corporate speak in schools? If education analysts are to have a meaningful discussion on advancing education, then why not use meaningful language instead of vapid corporate terminology that would make anyone, let alone a teacher, glaze over?

Schools do not need ‘improvement strategies’ prepared by a consultancy agency; they need teachers, those who have been entrusted by society to teach children to live well. After all, it is the students who will judge teachers, not politicians, economists, business managers or captains of industry.


Reversing the destruction of agricultural land

Viv Forbes below does not mention a relevant matter. He directs our attention to a talk by Savory which is an absolute eye-opener and we must be profoundly grateful for Savory's work.  But Savory  does justify his proposals as assisting with global warming.  That is just good politicking however.  By doing that Savory gets more people onside.  But his work is good for much more than global warming. It is truly a great leap forward in the management of agricultural land. I have always seen soil erosion as the environmental challenge that most needs attention but because the Greenies are really motivated by hatred of people rather than real care for the environment, I have yet to see concern about soil erosion from them

People send me things; lots of things - compliments, abuse, information and advice.

One correspondent is “Coochie” a wannabee grass-farmer who lives in town but reads all the latest stuff on managing grazing animals. He reads things like “Mother Earth” and “Stockman Grass Farmer”.

Coochie recently rebuked me.

“Please tell Farmer Fred that grazing animals are far better than ‘carbon neutral’. In fact they are the only hope for reversing desertification of the world’s grasslands and open forests. If managed properly, grazing herds will remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reduce soil erosion, improve soil fertility and increase vegetative cover. They should earn ‘carbon credits’.”

I was all ears.

“You and Fred should study the work of Allan Savory. Allan is an observant honest ecologist who has spent his life worrying about desertification, which can be both a cause and a result of climate change. Initially, he hated grazing animals – he thought they were causing desertification and destroying his beloved wildlife.

“But a life-time of study of the whole system showed him it was neither the cloven hooves nor the animal numbers that caused desertification. The problem was how they grazed – how long, how intense. When hard-hoof animals are concentrated on small areas of land for short periods of time, they break up the hard crust and cover it with litter, dung and seeds. Then, when the herd moves on to seek new clean pastures, the abandoned areas recover quickly with improved soil and replanted pasture. This process restores the health of grasses and soil, returning much life-supporting carbon to the soil in the process.

“What turns grasslands into deserts is constant grazing by a few animals. Herds must be concentrated and moving.”

I insisted that Fred come over and listen to Alan Savory, telling us "How to green the world's deserts and reverse climate change"

After he listened to it, Fred was stunned. He was always sceptical of our “funny ideas” on rotational grazing but suddenly he understood.

“Well, my boy” he said. “So much for all that rot from your Professor mate attacking us graziers and lauding soft-footed animals. It makes sense – soft-footed rabbits spread everywhere and destroyed everything with their constant nibbling; but one or two massive moving herds of bison, bunched and harassed by wolves and Indians and assisted by occasional fires, created the marvellous grasslands of the Prairies.

“Our cattle and sheep can be much more than grass harvesters and providers of periodic protein for people and predators. They can cultivate soil, prepare seed beds, spread seeds and mulch, and fertilise our grasslands and pastures in just one pass; but only if we concentrate them properly, and then give the pasture a decent rest-and-recovery period.”

“This Un-Savory chap will probably be expelled from the Deep Green Brotherhood for such blasphemy.”

Coochie was ecstatic: “With plenty of plant-sustaining emissions from coal in the skies, and soil-sustaining emissions from cattle in the soils, then coal and cattle can paint the grasslands green again.”


Green groups urge new PM to take the pressure off them

Environment groups are urging Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to abandon any plans to change the tax status of green charities.

A demonstration is expected outside the Victorian Parliament on Monday to coincide with hearings in Melbourne of a federal inquiry into the administration and transparency of environment groups.

Green groups see the the inquiry, set up by the Abbott government in March, as a "vendetta" and fear changes that will remove the tax deductibility for donations to organisations pushing for environmental protection.

Tony Abbott was particularly scathing of legal wrangling by environment groups to delay a proposal for a massive expansion of coal exports through the Great Barrier Reef.

Mark Wakeham​ from Environment Victoria said about 1000 demonstrators were expected to protest over the inquiry. "It does appear to be an attack on environment groups," Mr Wakeham said. He accused the Abbott government of attempting to silence critics.

Environmental groups had been singled out ahead of other charities, he said.

"We'll be highlighting we've got a legitimate role to play in a democracy. That might be inconvenient for governments at times, but only for governments that don't have credible environmental policies."

But the inquiry has also heard submissions from the Minerals Council of Australia, stating some environmental groups have exploited their tax deductible status to pursue "ideological campaigns" and encourage illegal behaviour, such as blockades.

The Queensland Resources Council said many environmental groups were not operating within the rules of a charity or pursuing "practical" environmental work.

The Victorian government urged the inquiry to "take into account the various ways in which environmental organisations fulfil their goal of improving the natural environment".

Mr Wakeham said the change of prime minister was a chance to press a "reset button"

Liberal senator Arthur Sinodinos​, a key driver in Malcolm Turnbull's toppling of Mr Abbott last week, appeared on Sunday to flag a more conciliatory approach in the politics of the environment.

"I think you'll see that there'll be a bit of an end to the idea that the environment and development have to be at loggerheads, that somehow it's a zero sum game. It's not," Senator Sinodinos told ABC TV.

"Good environmental policies can also be good economic policies and good economic policies give you a capacity to deal with environmental issues."

The inquiry into the Register of Environmental Organisations has received almost 700 submissions.


Faction Man: Essay on Bill Shorten reveals insights into Labor leader

BILL Shorten today will have to deal with a profile which depicts the Labor Leader as a man of many battles and betrayals with the scars and nicknames to show for it.

The political biography by author David Marr in Quarterly Essay comes as voters are reassessing Mr Shorten against a new opponent, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

It cover’s claims about the Opposition Leader’s vanity with the late John Hutton quoted as saying: “He’s a capable guy. In fact, he’s mentioned that to me himself several times.”

And Mr Shorten emerges as a man who rules the backroom battlegrounds where former alliances can quickly become casualties to new ones.

Marr himself offers this appraisal of his subject’s deal making: “Shorten didn’t invent the system. He mastered it.

“In the early years of the new century he came to learn everything he needed to know about courtship and betrayal, deals and numbers, to make him a power in the factions.”

Over the years Mr Shorten has been called, with varying degrees of affection, “I Finally Won Something” Shorten; Bill “Career-Move” Shorten; “Golden Boy”; “Bye Bye Bill”; “Showbag Billy” and “Little Billy Shorten”.

These are some of the names collected by author Marr in his essay, which has a title adding yet another nickname: “Faction Man”.

Mr Shorten has been a significant figure in national and Victorian politics for a generation but has been largely unseen.

Marr gives this evaluation: “This is a man from nowhere. He built his career out of sight inside the union movement.

“Had he cut his teeth in parliament we would know him better by now. He became a public figure at Beaconsfield less than ten years ago and only edged into cabinet in the last years of Julia Gillard’s government. He has failed to emerge strongly as a leader since.”

There is attention to Mr Shorten’s achievements, such as his highly visible roles after the 1998 Esso gas plant explosion which killed one man and injured seven others; and his assistance to the rescue operation for two trapped miners in the 2006 Beaconsfield mine collapse.

Further, as a back bencher he put together the national disability insurance scheme and reforms for the superannuation industry — all without the sway which comes with being a minister.

There is doubt, from this profiler, that Mr Shorten is a man of significant abilities.

He also is a deal maker who many times has made new deals which betray the partners in old ones.

Marr records: “All his life Shorten has left behind people who feel betrayed by him.

“He denies casting people off when they are no longer of any use. He insists he keeps in touch, even now, with old campaigners from university and the union.

“But there have been so many new best friends over the years.”


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