Education Is Not Activism

A recently-published Australian book on education has been receiving rave reviews from the great and good on social media. I haven’t yet read the book so I can’t offer any comment on its content, but a section of the book’s conclusion caught my eye when one of the authors quoted it on his Twitter feed.

The cry that “all teachers are activists” and “education is a political act” is hardly a novel one; in fact, such a sentiment was virtually de rigueur among both academics and fellow students during my own teaching degree. Over the years I have come to disagree with it strongly, and it is worth explaining why.

Those who make such statements are occasionally inclined to take refuge behind the malleable definitions of words like “activist” and “political” when the less savoury implications of these sentiments are pointed out. But if such statements were not intended to carry such implications, they should surely have been expressed differently.

Needless to say, political indoctrination of any kind is a no-no for teachers, for obvious ethical reasons. But perhaps this in itself does not preclude the idea that education is a political act; after all, isn’t one of the purposes of education to provide children with sufficient knowledge to become confident political actors in their own right, regardless of their social background?

Indeed it is. But this is the point: in this sense, education constitutes the preparation for children to take part in political life; it is the pre-political stage. I would like to suggest an alternative definition which takes this distinction into account:

Education is a civic act, not a political act.

Let’s delve into the etymology here once again. A civis (Latin) is a citizen: the polis (Greek) is the state. Political acts are those which seek to influence the form or the conduct of the state as a whole; civic acts are those which are undertaken in the interests of citizens, either individually or collectively.

The business of education is to form the citizen: the rational, informed person who is capable of forming judgements more or less independently, and therefore capable of taking part in a modern democracy. Any attempt to short-circuit this process by presenting any political issues as indubitably settled will necessarily mean that knowledge is presented in an incomplete, jaundiced way. To put it less politely, taking the phrase “education is a political act” to its logical conclusion means taking the first steps on the road to totalitarianism of one kind or another.

By way of conclusion: recently I’ve been perusing the famous mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell’s book On Education, and despite being infused with the various intellectual foibles of the inter-war era, it is a thoughtful and interesting work. In his introduction, Russell shows that he is well aware of the distinction between civic and political aims in education (emphasis mine):

There can be no agreement between those who regard education as a means of instilling certain definite beliefs, and those who think it should produce the power of independent judgement.

Count me in the latter camp.


Education Is Not Medicine

One of the most useful books that I have read over the past twenty years is Dr. Ben Goldacre’s superb Bad Science. Written in an accessible, sardonic style, it provides a much-needed explanation of the real meaning of “evidence” in medical matters, and a thorough demolition of the fraudulent claims that fester on for years in the murky world of alternative medicine.

The centrepiece of the book is a laudably clear and comprehensive description of how randomized controlled trials (RCTs) ought to be conducted. Central to this is the importance of double-blinding, a concept to which I was never introduced in my own teacher training (and which, I now realise, rendered essentially worthless the vast majority of the “studies” that we were shown).

The question arises: why are RCTs necessary in medicine, rather than the sort of experimentation which has expanded human knowledge in areas such as physics and chemistry? A concise answer to this question was provided by Peter Ustinov’s character in the film Lorenzo’s Oil. Speaking to the titular boy’s desperately determined father, who is searching for a cure for his son’s rare disease, Ustinov’s professor character calls for patience: “This science of medicine, you know, it’s not like physics: there’s no mathematical certainty.”

In other words, individual idiosyncrasies mean that drugs will not always affect people in the same way, and therefore a broader base is needed for proper conclusions to be drawn. And because of double-blinding, the placebo effect and other potential biases are accounted for.

So much for medicine. Can the same principles be applied to education?

In my view it is exceptionally difficult to do so. The number of variables and idiosyncrasies involved in an educational intervention is vastly greater than in a medical trial. More importantly still, proper double-blinding is next to impossible.

And yet here is the rub: many people habitually invest education research, or at least education research that confirms their own beliefs, with the same scientific credibility as medical research. This suggests a basic misunderstanding of the differing reliability of studies in these distinct fields, and the greater potential for bias in education.

All this is by way of an introduction to a fascinating, in-depth blog piece by Professor Pamela Snow, dealing with the accumulated insights and frustrations occasioned by twenty years in the field of cognitive psychology. One of many important observations in her piece is that many of those involved in education have no idea of the weight of evidence required to support specific practices:

There does not appear to be the same appreciation in education circles, as there is in health, of the notion of levels of evidence. Just because you can find one study, somewhere in the last twenty years, that seems to vaguely support a position that you want to cling on to, does not mean that you are ticking the evidence-based practice box.

One wishes that all education academics and bureaucrats would pin this paragraph permanently to their office doors, but they are not likely to.

Elsewhere in the piece, Professor Snow laments that some teachers are hesitant (to use a polite word) to accept that non-teachers may be able to offer useful insights into classroom practice. To illustrate why this attitude is self-defeating, she adduces an analogy from medicine: GPs would certainly pay attention to the findings of pharmacologists when prescribing medication to their patients.

There is a subtle but important problem with this analogy. Many teachers are indeed jaded and cynical when it comes to advice from non-teachers, but this is because the majority of such advice comes from education academics, not experts in far more well-founded areas such as cognitive science. Because the huge majority of education academics are wedded to notions which are contradicted by classroom experience, practising teachers are justifiably inclined to value “craft knowledge”, as Greg Ashman describes it, over the flimsily-based (and, in many cases, ideologically-based) pet theories of education academics.

The problem arises, then, when experts in related fields offer their expertise. Unfortunately, in the minds of many teachers, people like Professor Snow are simply conflated with the advocates of constructivism, learning styles, “balanced literacy” (whole-language with lipstick and rouge applied, in other words) and all the other smug orthodoxies with which education faculties are infested. This is a great pity, since researchers in fields which rest on a firmer evidence base are much closer to the pharmacologist in the GP analogy.

So let us, as teachers, develop a better understanding of what constitutes reliable evidence and what does not. Education is not medicine, but there are disciplines which are closer to the latter than the former, and it is from them that we can often draw useful conclusions.

Size Matters

In 2003, I spent some time in the northern Chinese city of Harbin training current and prospective English teachers from provincial towns in the Heilongjiang region. At that time, I was still more or less in thrall to the communicative cult in foreign language teaching, and the language activities which I suggested to my trainees were very much of that ilk. But about ten days into my “course”, a brief conversation with one of these teachers brought me down to earth with a bang.

After I had introduced yet another gee-whiz communicative game, one of the more confident teachers piped up.

“Excuse me, this is good, but how do we do this in a class of eighty students?”

Eighty? 80? Yes. Toto, we’re not in sparsely-populated, largely middle-class, unionized Australia anymore.

After recovering from the shock, I reconsidered much of the material that I had intended to present to these diligent, horrendously overworked teachers, and tried my best to tailor it to their needs. I’m not sure whether this was a successful undertaking. But the whole experience gave me a new perspective on the issue of class sizes.

The old debate resurfaced on Twitter recently, sparked by a remark from the indefatigable Katharine Birbalsingh. Like many of those who responded to the tweet, I disagree with her on this particular matter. But there are more issues at play than just culture (as alluded to by many of the responders): there is also the question of the subject area, and, crucially, the culture of the school.

Although I have come to distance myself somewhat from the communicative cult, there is no doubt that at an advanced level, communicative activities can play an important role in modern language learning. And the larger the class, the harder it is to conduct such activities effectively. Not only because of the off-task issue, but because the instant feedback available from the teacher on tone, correct word choice and all the rest is obviously diluted.

With mathematics teaching, it is quite a different matter. In a school with excellent standards of behaviour, a class of 35 may well be able to achieve similar results to a class of 20.

Then there is the question not of national/ethnic culture, but individual school culture. Schools such as Ms. Birbalsingh’s (and a few others) have created a firm, unanimous, school-wide culture of commendable behaviour, and I for one consider this something to admire and emulate rather than disparage. But in a centralized system such as operates in Australia (not only in the public system, incidentally), in which principals have far less influence over staff transfers, inculcating such a school-wide culture of good behaviour – and ensuring its continuity – is a difficult business.

This is not to say that schools can do nothing to ensure decent standards of behaviour. But they are hamstrung in many ways by both bureaucratic requirements and pressure groups of various kinds. In such an environment, any experienced teacher will tell you that class sizes do matter, for simple classroom management reasons.

In an ideal world, class sizes should matter less than they currently do. But in the imperfect world that we Antipodeans inhabit, unions and other groups are quite right to focus on class size when issues of both student achievement and teacher wellbeing arise.

2018 Favourites

With the New Year beckoning, I’ve picked out six of my personal favourite posts from the first year of this blog…just in case you missed them, of course.

A Humanist Writes

The first post on the blog, dealing partly with the problem of how to find a more palatable term than “traditionalist” for those who favour a knowledge-rich curriculum and proper standards of behaviour.

The Other 29

Some thoughts on the relentless focus on the supposed wellbeing of students who are punished in any way, let alone suspended or excluded, at the expense of those whose learning is disrupted or whose physical safety is put at risk.

Sir, He’s Bullying Me!

The PQ post with the most hits by far. Reflections on the ambiguities often involved in cases of bullying, with some perhaps unexpected commendation for a progressivist poser and some suggestions for dealing with both parties.

Education Is Not Politics

A call for humility on the part of teachers when dealing with the great social and political dilemmas of our age – it is possible for educated people to take differing positions on contentious issues.

The Worst of Both Worlds

An attempt to refute the facile idea that progressivist attitudes towards education mark one out as a member of the caring class, and as a staunch opponent of whatever “neoliberalism” may be this week.

A Bit of Everything

A critique of the recent tendency to stuff the curriculum full of extraneous material (some might say junk) in order to pay lip service to many of the competing aims of modern education.

Enjoy…and watch this space in 2019.


Merry Christmas, Fellow Bloggers

Another Australian teaching year has ended.

For yours truly, this has meant seeing another lovely HSC group through to the finish line, leading some hesitant Year 7s through their first steps in a second language, pushing for subject numbers in Years 9 and 11 as always, getting involved in the usual co-curricular activities (including the OzCLO competition – we’re gearing up for another solid crack in 2019), making new staff members and praccies feel welcome in the staffroom…and many other things.

But it’s also been a special year for me, in that I took the fateful decision to start an education blog early in the year.

60-odd posts later, I think I’m getting into the rhythm of it, and I fully intend to continue in 2019. Other education bloggers and teacher friends on Twitter have been highly encouraging throughout, and they all deserve my warm thanks.

There are still plenty of battles to be fought by those of us who believe that the curriculum should be based around powerful and discrete subject knowledge, that standards of discipline and mutual respect are worth maintaining in schools, and that tests and examinations, while often tedious and irritating, will always be important (especially for the less privileged). This was proven to me once again today when I read a truly egregious piece of edudrivel from the OECD’s education honcho. It’s hardly worth dissecting the various flabby, fatuous statements in this laughable article: it is enough to say that if these are the people with real power and influence in education today, then the voices of ordinary teachers – often expressed in blogs or on social media – have never been more necessary.

There are many in the increasingly hidebound education establishment, of course, who do not take kindly to teachers stating certain basic truths in this manner. If they feel threatened enough, they will resort to sly, contemptible comparisons between teachers who dare to challenge progressivist nostrums and easy moral punchbags like that well-known contemporary monster, the Trumpandbrexit.

Fellow bloggers, take heart from such smug, cynical attacks. It means that issues which the progressivist establishment has long tried to sweep under the carpet are being aired, and that some figures in government and even academia are starting to listen.

Merry Christmas to all the education bloggers who have given me so much to ponder and learn from in 2018. Let’s keep “the conversation” going in 2019.

The Selective Dilemma

In the past couple of weeks, I have devoted a good deal of thought to the structure of the selective school system as it exists in NSW. This has been prompted largely by a couple of recent incidents (and no, I can’t tell you about them), but my disaffection with the de-regionalised and absurdly diffuse selective behemoth in NSW has been building over a number of years.

It was thus with some interest that I read Jordan Baker’s piece in this morning’s SMH concerning some likely changes to the selective schools test. To my mind, tinkering with the test is not a high priority, and the subsequent comments by Rob Stokes and others indicate that they have a fairly superficial understanding of the problems surrounding the selective system.

The calls to make the test “coach-proof”, “uncoachable” and so forth constitute, to coin a phrase, urination into a southerly. No fair test of academic prowess can ever be uncoachable, for reasons which should be obvious. And if “innate ability” has not been nurtured by hard work and diligent teaching (and, in some cases, coaching/tutoring) by Year 6, then assigning such a student a place at a selective school would be asking for trouble.

Then we come to the “gender gap”:

The report also identified a gender gap, with fewer places for girls, fewer applications from girls, and fewer spots offered to and accepted by girls (77 per cent of boys accept their offer, compared with 71 per cent of girls).

Boys achieve slightly higher scores than girls. While the difference is small – 2.26 points out of 300 – it could be enough to tip the scales in their favour. The department is investigating causes, but the weighting of maths over English is likely to be a big factor.

This is extremely woolly reasoning and certainly no reason to slant the tests more in favour of English. There is still, largely for cultural reasons, a tendency for some families to push a son towards a drive for a selective school place where a daughter would not be so encouraged. Those who have been working in the selective system for some time are well aware of this, and indeed the phenomenon is reflected in the proportion of applications, as mentioned above. (I will refrain from commenting here on the tedious nature/nurture debate regarding the gender differences in aptitude or enthusiasm for maths.)

A cynic would be sorely tempted to conclude that the real reason why the government is foreshadowing a stronger emphasis on English has something to do with the, erm, demographic mix at the top selective schools. Needless to say, I would not evince such cynicism.

And then we have this:

While children whose parents have a bachelor’s degree or above make up 30 per cent of year six students, they make up 59 per cent of those who apply for the selective school test and 63 per cent of those who accept an offer.

So highly educated parents tend to have bright children? Revelation of the year. The fact that this is even considered worthy of mention, let alone a serious problem, is indicative of the grip that the long-discredited Blank Slate cult still has on the minds of politicians and policymakers.

As long as selective schools exist, their intake is always going to be largely middle-class. Once again, social mobility is not the aim of the selective system. The possibility for socio-educational advancement offered by selective education is, however, a useful by-product of it, as the 37% of successful applicants whose parents are not university educated could tell you.

The selective system in NSW cannot be fixed by fiddling with the entry test. It may, in fact, be largely unreformable by now. Given the grasping, hierarchical culture that has taken root, it may be too late even for a return to regionalization and a drastic reduction in the number of selective or semi-selective schools (the policies that I have been recommending to anyone willing to listen for at least ten years). The truth is, I don’t know the answer to the current problems in secondary public education in NSW, and it worries me a good deal.

Mind Your Languages – update

One of the more high-profile submissions to the NSW Curriculum Review has been made by the influential Secondary Principals’ Council, and the SMH’s industrious Jordan Baker set out the main points of their submission in an article this weekend.

I would estimate that about 98% of teachers in government schools (myself included) would agree with their suggestion to scrap the SRE program, which is simply an irritating anachronism. Their call for mathematics to remain optional in Years 11 and 12 is also well-founded; if students have not mastered functional numeracy by the end of Year 10, there is something seriously wrong.

About their other two major suggestions I am far less enthusiastic. Commencing the HSC in Term 3 of Year 11 would not only be an enormous upheaval, it would mean squashing the preliminary course into just two terms, which is simply unworkable for most senior subjects. The solution to the admittedly “crammed” nature of the HSC is, to my mind, very simple: reduce the number of assessment tasks required.

It is their final recommendation, to move compulsory language study into primary school, that has me particularly concerned. It is, in my view, based purely on practical considerations (the lack of trained teachers able, or willing, to grind through the 100 hours with often apathetic students) rather than educational ones, since the pretexts offered for it are frankly absurd:

The compulsory study of foreign languages – students are required to do 100 hours in years seven and eight – should be moved to primary school, where it would be more useful, the submission said.

“In terms of language acquisition skills, the younger the better,” Mr Presland said.

Does Mr. Presland really think that the language taster courses that take place in primary schools are about language acquisition? Songs, colours, numbers, a few greetings, and the odd cooking activity?

This is not language acquisition, and it is not the structured study of a language, which is what the 100 hours were meant to be all about.

The argument is sometimes made that even at the end of high school, let alone after the 100 hours in Year 8, students have not even come close to functional fluency in a language (the sort of thing that employers might value), so what’s the point?

I would argue that fluency at the end of Year 12 is, by and large, not the point. As I’ve argued previously on this blog, the broader purpose of studying a language is to learn about language, and this is simply part of becoming an educated person. Understanding that other people have different ways of expressing their ideas and feelings means opening your mind to the world more than you otherwise might, and this is a laudable and achievable aim. But to achieve it, students must study a language in a structured way.

Perhaps ironically, one of the best concise defences of the humanistic study of languages that I have seen was made by Rudolf Steiner, who would today be considered one of the chief avatars of progressivism. Yet in the midst of his theosophical meanderings, some of which I read many years ago, there were a few genuinely insightful and wise statements. One of these, from his book Practical Advice to Teachers, has always stayed with me:

If you have said to the children “Latin does not say ‘I’ because it is included in the verb, but the German language does say it,” then for a moment a faculty is awakened in the children that is otherwise not there…after this sense has awakened, you can work at grammatical rules more easily with the children than if you had to draw on their ordinary state…

In other words: once exposed to the basic idea that different languages have different ways of expressing things, students are able to cross that cognitive bridge more readily in the future. They may not recognise the benefits of their language learning in Year 8 (or beyond) until they begin to learn another language much later on.

I do not discount the practical problems associated with retaining the 100 hours in Stage 4. But removing that requirement would not only be devastating for language teachers in NSW (yes, disclaimer, I am one of them), it would be, in the long run, intellectually harmful to the next generation.