The ATAR Punchbag – update

The academic hand-wringing about the ATAR continues apace. Last year, it was the Mitchell Institute at Victoria University that produced its distinctly underwhelming anti-ATAR paper; now, a group sporting the bizarre name of the Australian Learning Lecture has thrown its hat in the ring.

The report is made up largely of the usual, predictable guff: “narrow measure of success”, “broad range of capabilities such as communication, collaboration and creativity”, “student-led models of real world learning”, etc., plus the usual nostrums about industry leaders (praise be unto them) now requiring “pathways that align” with their needs. Any teacher who has seen a few such documents over the years could have written most of it in their sleep.

The recommendations, as far as one can make sense of these vague suggestions, are similar to those of the Mitchell Institute report. I might add that it is somewhat ironic for the Harvard admission process to be mentioned with approval, given the recent scandals which have demonstrated how the wealthy are able to game entry to elite US colleges.

A précis of the attitudes that gave rise to the report appeared in this morning’s SMH, and it is worth looking at the statements there in some detail. Here we go:

The ATAR is widely considered a pure measurement of a student’s academic capacity.

There are a number of unsupported generalisations in this piece. I don’t know a single person who would define the ATAR as such. It is simply a general measure to determine suitability for tertiary study: it has no other purpose. It is not “a single number that defines you” (no-one ever suggests that it is, other than those who denigrate it), and it is not a “pure” measure of academic capacity or ability. It is simply a tool to be used by tertiary institutions, nothing more.

The ATAR sits at odds with how we might imagine education as a democratic, free-thinking and critical pursuit dedicated to the development of the individual.

Why?

No-one ever seems inclined to explain properly why the ATAR militates against the expression of well-founded individual opinions based on critical reflection. Largely because, well, it doesn’t.

In its current form, the ATAR privileges students who present to school with the appropriate academic knowledge and intellectual skills…

Loaded words like “privilege” cannot disguise the fact that without some form of discrimination in terms of academic knowledge, it would be a tad difficult for universities to manage their admissions at all. But we continue:

…unfairly marginalising disadvantaged students and those who encounter family, personal or mental health challenges throughout their VCE or HSC.

If you were not left open-mouthed by the part in bold here, it could only be because you have not encountered the misadventure/special provisions industry at close quarters, as I and most other erstwhile Year Advisers have. The idea that the HSC cruelly ignores those who have genuine (or, more often, exaggerated) causes for special consideration is, in a word, ridiculous.

“70 per cent of learners will neither enter university nor use the ATAR”. And yet, our preoccupation with comparing our students against their peers begins in grade 3.

This magnificent non-sequitur conveniently ignores the obvious fact that the ATAR has nothing to do with NAPLAN. The former is a summative rank for universities, the latter a formative assessment tool with significant implications for all students, not just those intending to study at university.

Beginning in primary school, our system relies on de-personalising students, removing as much of their individuality as possible so that they can work towards meeting general benchmarks and standards.

Emotive nonsense.

Teachers report pressure to prepare their students to perform in NAPLAN, in a high-stakes environment where a school’s results are seen to reflect their ability to prepare students to compete nationally. Research has reported that this leads to a narrowing of the curriculum, with schools focusing on what is necessary to prepare students for the tests.

It would be interesting to see which “research” is being referenced here, as this ubiquitous depiction of schools frantically drilling their students for NAPLAN to the exclusion of all else seems to be contradicted by the experience of every primary school parent I’ve spoken to in the last five years.

This results in inauthentic learning experiences…

What does that mean?

…and greater barriers for minority students.

Why?

The Beyond ATAR report suggests a framework-based approach to recognise various forms of student achievement, which could be introduced at younger year levels. However, this would threaten to further entrench social and economic disadvantage, with funding inequity leading to vastly different opportunities available across the public and independent sectors.

Credit to the author for including this little caveat, which of course constitutes the whole problem with this and similar ideas. Who is likely to get more of a chance to stuff their “Learner Profile” full of impressive-sounding co-curricular material? You guessed it – the children of the rich and well-connected. And no amount of tinkering with funding is likely to alter that significantly, by the way.

We also need to be prepared to consider students’ capacity to demonstrate qualities not just for their economic value, or for workforce preparation, but for their value to the individual or to the community. This requires consideration of what it means to be a successful individual, not just a successful learner. This would mean looking to existing policy documents such as the Melbourne Declaration, a broad-ranging plan outlining the crucial skills and attributes of Australian learners, and the Australian Curriculum’s General Capabilities, which touches on skills such as critical and creative thinking, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding. For these to hold equal weighting to academic achievement, teachers and schools would need to be appropriately resourced with time, professional learning and support to address these meaningfully.

So finally, we get to the nub of it. The whole thing is, of course, yet another Trojan horse for the 21st-century-skills crowd. To vary the metaphor, it is another shot in the war for education policy that is being fought between politicians, who are answerable to the public, and the smug ideologues of the Ed academic establishment, who are, as always, answerable to no-one.

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Ghosts in the Machine

The great god “engagement” is held in such reverence in education circles that many of the assumptions lurking behind the word are rarely examined properly. This was brought home to me once again on reading a recent article from the AARE website dealing with the very real problem of students who have become listless and uninterested in the middle years of high school. The author terms such students “ghosts in the classroom”, which is not a bad description.

(By the way, I am starting to make a collection of the generic “bored child” photos which adorn these articles. This is a particularly choice example: the drop of the shoulder, the hand on the cheek, the eyes gazing out the window – it’s a work of art. But I digress.)

The first thing to note is that, in this matter, there is a significant difference between elective subjects and core subjects. My own experience as a language teacher (although I have taught core subjects in the past) has been that, ultimately, disengagement at the end of Year 8 or Year 10 is something about which an elective teacher can only do so much; if a student has decided to drop a subject, jazzing up the class with a slew of “engaging” activities is bound to be counter-productive, given the need for the continuing students to consolidate their foundational knowledge in the subject. There is nothing more likely to spur future disengagement in an elective subject than a lack of fundamental knowledge.

But core subjects are, of course, a different matter. The “ghosts” will need to keep up to speed with their cohort, and teachers should do their best to ensure that they can. Ms. Ross’s suggestions, based largely on interviews with students, are fairly standard-issue, but I would like to focus on the concept of “teacher talk”:

Key to this category is that teachers avoid large segments of ‘teacher talk’ as this is contributing to language overload and manifests as students zoning out and shutting down.

I have a good deal of sympathy with this remark, but my conclusions would be different from those of Ms. Ross. There is no doubt that students can “zone out” during long lectures, and an irony that always struck me during my Dip.Ed. was the fact that the lecturers who were the most adamant in stressing this were expert-level droners themselves.

But there is teacher talk on the one hand, and teaching on the other.

The latter involves two things which differentiate it from simple “teacher talk”: frequent, cold-call checks for understanding (either via Socratic questioning or mini-whiteboards and such) and a judicious use of language to ensure that the “language overload” mentioned in the AARE article does not occur. Cognitive load theory, of course, has a good deal of explanatory power in this respect.

A critical aspect of this is the avoidance of abstract nouns whenever possible, a much under-appreciated aspect of good teaching. This tends to come from practice rather than precept (Quintilian was right about that, as about most things), which is one of the many reasons why I believe that postgraduate education courses should feature a good deal more in the way of prac teaching, and a good deal less in the way of woolly theory work.

With cold-call questioning and explanatory clarity, students may still lose interest but they will never be able to drift completely. This is, in my view, the best way to ensure the perfectly worthwhile aim of participation.

But an emphasis on “interactive and hands-on experiences” is, to my mind, an over-reaction to the problem of the ghosts. This takes us back to the question of “engagement” generally, and the widespread assumption that engagement somehow has to be physical and verbal as well as mental. The two problems with such an approach are a likely neglect of subject content (how often have I known colleagues who “engaged” their students constantly but taught them nothing, much to the frustration of their teacher for the following year), and – given that we are chiefly talking about core subjects – the many difficulties associated with adopting such a policy cohort-wide, not least in terms of equity.

To stretch the metaphor a little: there’s no need to move out of the house if ghosts appear, or even to change the furnishings. Just let them know that you see them, and that you’re trying what you can to coax (but not bribe) them back to the land of the living.

How Deep, How Wide

It has been too long since this blog featured a quote from its patron saint, and recently I came across the following admonition of his about reading, with a telling simile attached. My rough translation follows:

lectio libera est nec ut actionis impetu transcurrit, sed repetere saepius licet, sive dubites sive memoriae penitus adfigere velis. repetamus autem et tractemus et, ut cibos mansos ac prope liquefactos demittimus quo facilius digerantur, ita lectio non cruda sed multa iteratione mollita et velut confecta memoriae imitationique tradatur. (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria X.1.19)

“Reading is at one’s own pace, and doesn’t rush past with the force of speech, but you can even re-read a few times, whether you’re unsure of the meaning or if you want to commit it thoroughly to memory. And so, we ought to re-read and consider what we’ve read; and, just as we only swallow food once we’ve chewed it and almost made it liquid, so that it can be digested more easily, in the same way what we’ve read should be committed to memory and imitation not in an undigested state, but softened and made ready (as it were) by continual reconsideration.”

This passage has lost none of its relevance with the passing of 2,000 years.

A small contemporary observation: despite the fact that hardly anyone has a good word to say about “rote learning” with regard to education nowadays, people do tend to be impressed when a public figure can recite a poem or speech which they learned in childhood. And oddly enough, a gentleman who is often paraded by the Ken Robinsons of this world as one whose creativity was cruelly ignored in childhood also appreciated a teacher who favoured “close reading” and, apparently, judicious memorisation.

“Wide reading” is warmly encouraged in schools these days, and few could object to this. But it is important that children are made aware that reading can be either superficial or detailed, and that the latter approach can often be fruitful when dealing with texts that have stood the test of time. Not just for the intergenerational benefits, not just for the “cultural capital”, but for the chance to become conversant with the most famous and striking examples of those literary tropes and figures which form the nuts and bolts of the study of literature.

I have dealt before with the question of “engagement” in relation to close reading, but another important benefit of close and careful reading, and even memorisation, of a text is that the techniques and tropes are likely to spring more readily to mind and pen (or keyboard) in the future – this is why Quintilian talks about “imitation” as well as memory. Close reading is the best possible preparation for good writing.

So let’s have wide reading by all means – but deep reading as well.

The Best and Worst of Edutwitter

One of my all-time favourite short stories is E.M. Forster’s brilliant science-fiction satire The Machine Stops. Not only funny, original and moving, it is also perhaps the most prescient work in the history of science-fiction: the instant-messaging technology, which allows the inhabitants of Forster’s dystopia to share vapid, third-hand “ideas” in order to enrich their humdrum lives, reflects the very essence of modern social media and Twitter in particular.

I’ve recently passed the two-year mark on Twitter and thought it might be worth presenting some suggestions to fellow teachers, and new teachers in particular, on how to get the most out of it. It can certainly be a worthwhile tool for professional development, but it can also work in quite the opposite way.

To start with: if you’re on Twitter largely to be told by Jane Caro or Angelo Gavrielatos how wonderful you are, how underpaid you are, and how you should enjoy complete autonomy in your work as a teacher, you might want to consider changing your priorities. Of course it’s important to keep your spirits up now and then, but within the forest of likes and emojis, gentle encouragement can quickly become an ongoing exercise in puffery and narcissism.

If you’re on Twitter largely to imbibe and share “inspirational” quotes of doubtful authenticity, presented in a soft font against a background of a beautiful sunset or laughing children, you might want to consider changing your priorities. There are many edutweeters, some with six-figure followings, who do an excellent line in this sort of hallmark-card banality. They will be of no help to you professionally and will only serve to give you a hopelessly warped impression of what teaching is really like (and, indeed, should be like). And don’t forget, in real life these are almost always the people who cunningly delegate all the real work of teaching to others.

If you’re on Twitter to join professional discussion groups, be wary and cast a critical eye over existing groups before diving in. Some of them, in fact some of the most long-standing ones, deal largely in stunningly inane chatter, replete with abstract nouns, which is so removed from actual classroom experience that it’s worth taking a close look to see whether those taking part in (or leading) the discussions are actually working teachers. You may find that you have stumbled into a forum made up mainly of self-promoting administrators, on-the-make consultants, and assorted hangers-on. Their “ideas” are generally very much of the type that Forster was satirizing. To paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, these aren’t the colleagues you’re looking for.

Seek out colleagues in your subject area instead. Seek out those who are prepared to prick some of the colourful education bubbles. When it comes to research, keep an eye out for those who are willing to link to actual research, rather than simply saying “studies have shown”. Look for bloggers whose experiences ring true and whose attitude to current Ed buzzwords is sceptical.

Above all, be prepared to join in. Lurking is fine for a while, but you are likely to learn a lot more if you take part in the discussions and debates, even if you find that you have your facts wrong here and there (as long as you’re prepared to admit it). There are some edutweeters who are impervious to argument, and they are best avoided. They are also, sadly, often those with the loudest voices. But they don’t represent all of edutwitter, and they certainly don’t represent the best of it.

It’s been a worthwhile two years.

Master of Nothing

In the course of a conversation with some colleagues on Friday evening, I learned that yet another Australian university (which shall not be named) has taken the decision to require all postgraduate education students to complete a two-year full-time Master of Teaching, rather than the customary one-year Dip.Ed.

This cynical, revenue-raising move is habitually justified by spurious arguments about the increasing complexity of teaching as a profession, the need to ensure that teachers come into the classroom fully prepared, etc. A brief chat with anyone who has been through one of the soi-disant MTeach (or M.Ed.) courses is enough to disabuse anyone of the idea that these two-year slogs are at all useful in preparing teachers properly for their jobs.

Classroom management? Several graduates have told me that the only advice they received in this area in their entire course was along the lines of “if you teach engaging lessons, you’ll have no problems with classroom management”.

Literacy? If proper phonics instruction is mentioned at all, it is by way of contempt and ridicule, with (apparently) the oldest, most out-of-date instructional materials still being carefully chosen as “examples”, so as to give effective reading instruction a bad name.

What students appear to receive instead is a barrage of pet theories masquerading as “science”, anally detailed initiations into ineffective pedagogy, and a hopelessly slanted history of educational philosophy in which anyone whose views represent a challenge to the progressivist consensus is either derided or ignored.

But there is another good reason why the move to a two-year full-time  (or three- or four-year part-time) postgrad teaching qualification is so damaging.

There has been plenty of hand-wringing lately over the lack of bright young people coming into the profession, with the usual reasons being put forward: low pay (it’s not that low, to be honest), increasing demands on teachers’ time, more paperwork, and so on. A few honest commentators have even dared to mention the elephant in the room, namely the discipline issues. But there are still plenty of graduates who decide, after their first degree, that they might like a crack at teaching the subject content that they have spent the past few years mastering.

With the obligation to undertake two more years of full-time study, how many of these fresh graduates are put off at the starting gate? Both financially and in terms of commitment of time, it is a big step up from the one-year Dip.Ed.

And then there is the matter of those who take up teaching later in life, and who often turn out to be outstanding practitioners. How many such people, who may well have families and countless other commitments to juggle, would find the two (or three, or four) years too much of a mountain to climb?

The move to the masters’ degrees for prospective teachers has nothing to do with engendering real expertise, and everything to do with the bottom line. Here’s hoping that this dismal trend can be halted or even reversed in years to come.

The Progressivist Phrasebook – update

Like anyone with an interest in linguistics, I am sensitive to the nuances of language change; since I presented the original progressivist phrasebook to the education community in 2018, the proselytes of the church of St. Ken (and/or St. Paulo) have expanded their range of stock utterances considerably. Here are a few more to add to the original list, along with their English translations:

inclusion – path of least resistance for senior executive when faced with behaviour problems

kids can google it – we know we should teach it but we can’t be bothered

Global corporations are now looking for kids/graduates with… – Global corporations think it’s good for their image if they say they’re looking for kids/graduates with…

high-performing education systems – countries I’ve been on an edu-junket to (or would like to)

inspiring – flashy, confusing and pedagogically useless

awesome – American for “inspiring”

neoliberal – an education opinion I don’t like

racist – an education opinion I don’t like

alt-right – an education opinion I don’t like

white-supremacist – an education opinion I don’t like

teachers must be political/activists – teachers must agree with me

critical reflection – realising that you should agree with me

indoctrination – kids actually learning things

education for democracy – kids being indoctrinated

students must learn to think for themselves – students must learn to hold all my opinions

PBL – problem-based learning, project-based learning, process-based learning, phenomenon-based learning, play-based learning, and probably pachyderm-based learning by this time next year

(education) futurist – (education) ignoramus

competencies – ***

maker spaces – expensive muck-up zones

*** – widely believed to be meaningless

Victor Wooten and Expertise Reversal

When not teaching and blogging, I do a sideline as a third-rate jazz musician (rising to second-rate on a really good night); a bass player, to be precise. It was in that capacity that I took the time to look at a video shared by a popular and entertaining muso-tweeter of the great bassist Victor Wooten giving a seminar in Germany.

Although the bass maestro is witty, articulate and persuasive throughout, some of his advice is, in my view, less than helpful for musicians of more moderate calibre.

Mr. Wooten begins by demonstrating a rhythmically apt solo made up of “wrong notes” followed by a deliberately clunky solo of “right notes”. After some encouragement, the audience judges the first solo to have been the better of the two (although both are, of course, rotten by his standards). This is the cue for an admonition to practise “groove, feel and attitude”, so that when these more nebulous qualities are mastered, students can play “any note [they] want”.

There is an irony though: when Mr. Wooten eventually demonstrates a bass line to accompany the loop that runs through his lecture, it is made up entirely of “right notes” – as is the first fill that he adds.

In other words, he is conversant enough with the requirements of the music that his knowledge of “right notes” comes automatically to the fore. And that is exactly the point that some musicians in the audience would probably not yet have reached; although he does say, later in the talk, that “we’re all good enough to [play the right notes]”, I’m not sure that this is a justified assumption for most musicians.

When Mr. Wooten states that bass players are in the rhythm section rather than “the right-notes section”, this is as good an example of a false dichotomy as you are likely to encounter. Any jazz bassist playing Stella by Starlight with impeccable time but with no conception of the harmony wouldn’t get hired a second time. Knowing the “right notes” goes way beyond simple familiarity with a minor scale.

So what does this have to do with education?

What Mr. Wooten is suggesting, essentially, is to put the expertise reversal effect into practice: once aspiring musicians have gained a thorough mastery of the fundamentals of harmony, scales, arpeggios and all the rest, then they can learn best by the sort of individual exploration, usually in concert with other musicians, that can enhance their mastery of less definable attributes such as groove and feel. And, crucially, this is how they can develop the capacity to go “beyond” the rules in order to add colour, spice and surprise to the music.

But, as always, you have to know the rules before you can break them. Mr. Wooten is, in my view, absolutely right to suggest that it is generally the “wrong notes” that produce the real emotional peaks and surprises of jazz (and yes, I know all the jokes about jazz and wrong notes), but the wrong notes wouldn’t mean much if they didn’t stand out among the “right” ones.

And there is an important parallel with all the recent calls to value “creativity, critical thinking, 21st-century whatever” over the fundamental skills of a specific discipline (or, more often, to damn the fundamental skills with faint praise while extolling the more ethereal qualities). The stage of expertise reversal, in which such qualities may come to the fore, depends on the expertise. And in any discipline worthy of the name, whether it be mathematics, music, engineering or dance, expertise is much harder-won than is generally acknowledged.