A, B, C, D… E, F, G…


Anyway, that’s another round of chemotherapy almost completed. Neither I nor my Oncologist sure whether the first round achieved much (but had left my Neutrophils worryingly low for the start of a new cycle, so I have to have a new injection this afternoon to deal with that), but we will review again in three weeks. Some unpleasant, and mysterious, body problems this week reminded me yet again that from the moment of first being diagnosed with cancer your mindset changes. You go from being comfortable in your own skin, to being uncomfortable. And you go from happily assuming that any health problems you have are readily explainable, treatable, and short-lived, to being able to assume nothing. Your body goes from being a Known Known to one full of Unknown Unknowns. Simple views about your personal health universe rapidly give way to complex ones.

You are caught, as I said to the Oncologist this week, in the world of the Three S’s. Anything you experience could be a Symptom (of the cancer itself), a Side Effect (of the cancer treatment), or Something Else (totally unrelated to either). Life, they say, wasn’t meant to be easy. Nor, in the case of cancer treatment, is there such a thing as a free lunch, everything comes at a cost.

Anyway, all this reminded me, eating my free lunch of soggy sandwiches in the Oncology chair, machine beeping and dripping (slowly, slowly) on my right, of the debate about education this week in Australia.

The country, in some survey, had apparently ranked way down the list, 25th in this, 26th in that, 27th in the other. Our children were apparently as poorly educated as those of poorly educated countries – couldn’t be misunderestimated, we were misundereducated.

Within moments of the survey appearing on the airwaves and interwebs, as if the barriers had been opened in the Melbourne Cup, those same airwaves and interweb tubes were full of answers from experts and anyone with an opinion (to the extent that they can be considered separate categories). It was the Labor government’s fault, teacher’s fault, a funding problem, lack of attention to the three R’s, not enough rote learning, the result of education not being the same as when the opinionator was educated, school autonomy, phonics, testing programs, private schooling, and so on.

Trouble was, every Opinionperson thought the right answer was THEIR answer. That if there was a problem in education then it was the result of a single cause and had a single solution. Sadly this is the kind of simplemindedness that has resulted in many educational dead ends. When we ask the rarely asked question “is our children learning?”, just like the question “why is my stomach sore?”, we need to be aware that there are no simple answers.

Let’s start at the beginning this time with the actual survey. It was conducted in 2010, a fact that escaped media attention, so that the answer “it’s all the Labor government’s fault” didn’t really ring true. There was no consideration of how the comparisons were made, nor whether they allowed for cultural and socio-economic differences (in just the way you need to with “IQ tests”) between different countries. Nor was any thought given to desirability of high rankings. If a country was doing well because (say) of rote learning of the Three R’s, and rigid discipline in class rooms, is this really the way you want Australia to go?

But even taking the rankings at face value, concentrating on one particular aspect of what goes on in the classroom is begging for a misdiagnosis. As well as the Three R’s we also need to know whether a particular child, or group of children, falling behind in something is the result of a symptom, a side effect, or something else entirely.

Much has changed in Australia since I was a child (to start at a very remote time indeed), all affecting education in some way.

To name just a few relevant factors: The structure of suburbs and travel, play, and social opportunities for children are different; children are exposed to television and radio for hours each day as a primary source of entertainment, knowledge, and values; the values expressed in reality tv and quiz shows, for example, are much changed from my values; children are using computers in various forms for communication, games, learning; diets are much inferior to what they were; right-wing populist politicians and religious leaders have launched an attack on science and education in recent years; and on teachers themselves; and on curricula, with demands for including nonsense like creationism; money has been moved from public schools into private and fundamentalist religious schools; underfunding of preschool and kindergarten and loss of trained staff reduces the early educational possibilities; both parents working reduces the opportunities for learning at home; few homes these days seem to have books or encourage reading; peer pressure tends to put more value on the lowest common denominator of intellectual achievement; teacher are faced with larger class sizes, while at the same time having more bureaucracy to deal with, and demands that they teach more and more topics (driving cars for example, or coping with social media) that someone thinks is important; older teachers are retiring while younger ones have come through much the same social and cultural and educational milieu as their students; “National testing” has put emphasis on “learning for the test”, because schools that don’t do well in it will lose funding and students; some educator will come up with some mad-brained scheme like “phonics” and have some politician impose it on schools …

Enough, you get the idea, and I’m sure you could all add many more. And remember, before you can compare results for different countries, and come up with solutions, you would somehow, have to allow for all those variables being different between the countries.

Look, there is no doubt that Australian education would be a lot better if it followed the model of Finland, always top of these kinds of surveys, rather than America. Put more money into public education (and preschools), value teachers and education, try to get more education support in the home, and so on. But really, to make any improvements in educational performance we also have to seek changes to the way families and society are performing, to look at our media, and our social, cultural, political values, not just the Three R’s.

Easy, eh? Now, if you could just tell me why I have this ache in my shoulder, Doc…

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8 comments on “A, B, C, D… E, F, G…

  1. Buff McMenis says:

    Much as I loathe this cliché I must trot it out .. “You have nailed it”. :-) And may I alter one word in your comment? May I change “is our children learning” to “are our children learning”? You may smack me for being a Grammar Nazi as soon as you wish. I shall accept it with grace. ;-)

    Finland is a good role model.


  2. Geoff Andrews says:

    David, you say:
    some educator will come up with some mad-brained scheme like “phonics”

    You & I were taught to read using phonics.
    In my retirement, I assist the teachers at the local State School for 4 hours a week in Grades 6 and 7 (ages 11. 12 & 13).
    Reading skills are quite acceptable; creative writing is good (lots of imagination) but actual writing skills are unbelievably poor – most cannot do cursive script while their printed writing is almost unreadable with very poor spelling skills and lower case and upper case letters randomly mixed and varying in size. One could argue that this is irrelevant with most writing now done on a key pad.
    The biggest shortcoming is arithmetic. More than 50% have to hesitate when adding or multiplying two single digit numbers; a significant number will get the wrong answer no matter how much time they have. I would estimate that only 5% can divide 19 by 7 (say) to 3 decimal places. They are just not taught to do long hand division.
    We have a new Principal this year (they were “Headmasters” in my day). He has introduced limited rote learning and regular tests with advantage.
    As for the heinous crime of “learning for the test”, didn’t you have access to past examination papers for Scholarship, Junior, Senior, Leaving, Matriculation and in all university subjects? It was an essential part of the educative process, wasn’t it?


    • David Horton says:

      Thanks for the detailed reply Geoff. As a “whole word” man (and a good speller) I do have doubts about the phonics enthusiasts. And learning for the test? Yes, I remember seeing old Junior and Leaving papers, probably trying ourselves out on the questions. But we weren’t “taught the test”, and we didn’t send time in class on ot, we just worked through the curriculum. My handwriting was never good (“Buy the boy a good fountain pen” said one Report, making my mother, who had bought me one 6 months earlier, very cross”). And arithmetic seems to me a disappearing skill, killed by first calculators, then computers, now tablets and phones. Perhaps it’s not worth keeping as a skill?


      • Geoff Andrews says:

        The phonics system that I learned (in1945) also included “look and say” words such as “through”. Using phonics allowed one to have a fair crack at pronouncing a new word.
        Of course we covered the curriculum primarily – the “learning for the test” where we looked at past papers only occurred in the final weeks before the exam.
        Today,the primary curriculum at least, seems far more disjointed than in my days. Now, it seems more geared to entertain than to systematically educate.
        There seems no way to discipline disruptive behaviour, which, if reported to the parents, frequently generates a “so what?” or “it’s your job to teach him discipline” response.


  3. Trev says:

    Thank you for your insights David – would that more people would acknowledge the complexities at play in attempting to educate 27 or 28 youngsters in a classroom.

    I think it may have been Boris Pasternak who described both teaching and psychoanalysis as “impossible professions”.

    An interesting exercise might be to consider each of the factors you’ve listed and to make some sort of asssessment re the influence even the most competent of teachers could have in altering its impact.


  4. roshart1 says:

    Using phonics to teach kids to read should be one of the many tools in a teacher’s kit bag. Speaking as an ex-teacher, and with 3 out of my 4 sons having difficulties learning to read, I have come to realise that the only way some children can get a kick start into cracking the code of reading, is to understand that letters, by-and-large, represent a sound.

    All my dyslexic sons started school when phonics was utterly shunned and politically incorrect. I, too, was taught to be a teacher using the “whole-word” method of teaching reading. Although my 3 dyslexic adult sons eventually gained university degrees, it was an agonising row to hoe getting there. None of those three were able to read a book by their early teens, being taught in the the look-say/whole word method of learning to read. Once I sneakily began to teach them phonetically myself, they started to get it. My first, non-dyslexic son, was reading before he started school entirely by the whole-word method. Horses for courses, and all that.


    • David Horton says:

      Welcome Ros. I don’t disagree with you about “whatever works” for individual kids. Just reacting to the Phonics Evangelists who, conversely, think that all kids should be taught THEIR way.


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