Tag Archive | politics

More about teaching

So this morning we had the Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research, Chris Bowen MP, and the Minister for School Education, Peter Garrett MP announcing what they called “The National Plan for School Improvement” as part of their broader “Better Schools” initiative. The idea is that they believe the way to improve Australian educational standards is to address shortcomings in the teacher training process. They acknowledged that there is a high turnover of young teachers in their first few years of teaching and that they want to attract the best people to the job. Mr. Garrett specifically stated that they wanted teachers who are “likely to stay”. Which raises the first question: What are the factors preventing people from staying in teaching?

In order to improve the standard of teachers coming out of our universities, the ministers are proposing that candidates are tested in two important ways. Initially, they will be run through a raft of “emotional tests” (similar to the kind of things applicants to degrees in medicine are subjected) prior to commencing their studies, so that candidates are demonstrably the kind of people the public might want to have teaching our children. Towards the end of their studies – which will also involve some kind of improvements to and standardisation of practicum experience, of which the details are yet to be revealed – teacher candidates will also have to complete a national literacy and numeracy test. Candidates who fall outside of the top 30% of results will not be able to proceed with their qualifications until such a time as they can achieve the required result. Which raises the second question: Surely people who qualify to enter tertiary degrees in Education have already demonstrated sufficiently high abilities in literacy and numeracy?

The so-called Gonski Report into school funding, which was a report into Australian school funding by an independent expert panel headed by David Gonski, highlighted a large number of flaws in the education funding model used in Australia and made dozens of recommendations to address these flaws. There has been a popular movement to support the recommendations of the report, with the catch-cry “I give a Gonski” enabling people to feel as though they are striking a blow against the rapidly diminishing prospects of Australian students. The recommendations can be largely summarised into one statement: Education funding in Australia should be equitable for all students and be based upon logical, common-sense principles. There is a strong focus on the notion of equity, specifically with regards to “disadvantaged” students. The report’s 19th finding states, “The key dimensions of disadvantage that are having a significant impact on educational performance in Australia are socioeconomic status, Indigeneity, English language proficiency, disability and school remoteness.” Finding 20 goes further, “There are complex interactions between factors of disadvantage, and students who experience multiple factors are at a higher risk of poor performance.” Time to editorialise: If the Gonski recommendations into school funding are based upon logical, common-sense principles and are designed to deal with inequity and disadvantage in our society then they are doomed to failure because in order for them to be implemented they must first pass through Parliament. There are too many conflicting ideologies and interests at play in the world of politics for common sense to prevail, let alone logic. Which raises the third question: Is being seen to try and address issues in education by targeting teachers simply a convenient means by which to side-step the more significant, societal issues that are evidently having a far heavier impact?

I’ve raised the questions, now I will offer my answers (whilst furiously editorialising).

What are the factors preventing people from staying in teaching? Well, it would appear as though there are many factors. There has been quite a bit of research done into the topic, because it is actually a worldwide phenomenon. One report claims that anywhere up to a third of teachers will leave during the first three years of a teaching career. That figure can climb up to 50% within the first 3-5 years for teachers at schools  in low socio-eonomic areas. The report found two major factors to why teachers leave the profession early – lack of support on the job and workplace conditions. I would add to that in the state of Victoria at least the lack of job security and the constant fiddling about with curriculum imposed by the government. Work conditions don’t necessarily relate to salary, by the way. It’s actually pretty low in the list of priorities for teachers, despite the recent industrial action. Teachers are expected to take on workloads that are huge, not only in terms of hours per week (including unpaid hours) but also in terms of the scope of practice. Teachers are frequently expected to not only teach but generate curriculum content, conduct and supervise extra-curricular activities, attend several meetings per week, patrol school grounds during breaks, deal with parents’ concerns, provide pastoral care and counseling advice both formally and informally to large numbers of students, deal with the emotional needs of students and other staff, occasionally intervene in violent altercations, suffer physical, verbal and emotional abuse and that’s all on top of what you’re trained to do at university. Couple that with having all these expectations placed upon you without any additional remuneration and often without any guarantee of a job next semester or next year, and you wonder why teachers find their jobs difficult?

Surely people who qualify to enter tertiary degrees in Education have already demonstrated sufficiently high abilities in literacy and numeracy? Well, see that’s just the thing. I don’t see how the government hopes to address issues in the quality of teachers coming out of education degrees without first having addressed the issues inherent in those tertiary institutions that offer education qualifications. Surely the people educating the educators must also be of the very highest standard? I wonder how many people working in university education departments are ex-school teachers who just had to leave and returned to the nice, safe world of academia? I really do wonder that. I suspect it’s quite a lot. This comes back to my previous musing on the topic of teaching – being highly educated or highly intelligent doesn’t mean you’re a good teacher.

Is being seen to try and address issues in education by targeting teachers simply a convenient means by which to side-step the more significant, societal issues that are evidently having a far heavier impact? Oh, of course it is. The 17th finding from the Gonski Report says,

“New funding arrangements for schooling should aim to ensure that:
• differences in educational outcomes are not the result of differences in wealth, income, power or
possessions
• all students have access to a high standard of education regardless of their background or
circumstances.”

Neither of those statements have anything to do with teacher performance. Indeed, teacher performance is a secondary issue in the Education debate, but it’s being brought to the fore because a) it enables politicians to pull tricks like suggesting that  performance-based pay bonuses are the means by which to motivate teachers to their best efforts; and b) it’s easier to appear to be solving teachers’ problems than actually fixing real societal problems. The government needs to do more to address the division in society between its “haves” and “have nots”. It needs to address the attitudes of its citizens towards education and teachers generally. It needs to address the deficiencies in service provision to disabled, indigenous and disadvantaged people. These are the serious issues. Issues in Education exist, but fixing them now can only hope to serve a cosmetic purpose (especially in an election year).

Time to end this rant. Conclusion: Education is, once again, which is to say for the third consecutive election, being kicked around like the proverbial football in a vain attempt to lure voters. If you’re unsure of how you feel about the issue, may I suggest talking to some teachers? If you have kids at school, talk to their teachers. Get involved in your kids’ education. Be interested in what they’re doing. Role-model for them a healthy attitude to learning. Raise concerns with your kids’ school. Don’t wait until reports come home to give a shit about what’s going on. That way you’ll be doing what you can to help your kid succeed. Believe me, that will be more effective than any about of governmental meddling.

Teaching and what is becoming

Both of my parents were teachers. I swore blind that I would never become a teacher, and yet here I am.

I swore blind that I wouldn’t become a teacher because I didn’t like school when I was a kid. The main reason why I didn’t enjoy it was because I was quite bored. Under-stimulated by the matters to which I was required to turn my attention. I say to students now that there is no such thing as a boring topic, only boring people. It’s a poverty of the imagination that leads one to conclude that something is “boring”. I say that, but I don’t really expect that many, if any, of my students will take me seriously. Because I know that when you’re at school, under normal school conditions, loads of things are boring. Even exciting things.

One of the hardest things a teacher is asked to do is make being at school an interesting occupation. It’s easier for me now that I’m a music teacher, because my students want to come to my lessons. I had the gratifying experience of a Year 8 girl tell me that my lessons were one of only two that she actually really enjoys at school. The other one was Woodwork. When I was a History teacher, and my students were required to attend compulsorily, it was a much more difficult task to engage students in the topic at hand. As an adult, it isn’t hard to see the value in learning about and discussing the important events from history. As a child, however, it isn’t about the value of the study of History, it’s about the topic at hand. It simply isn’t possible to have such amazingly good fortune that your entire class of diverse young individuals just happen to think that the lives of Australian pioneers is really interesting. That would be like expecting everyone you know to read the same newspaper you do, or watch exactly the same television programs. The best you can hope for is maybe 50% interest, with a possible 15% level of feigned interest included. The other 50% are probably not enjoying themselves very much and would rather be doing something else. Anywhere up to 5% of them may actively seek to sabotage lessons for their own amusement. The rest are asleep inside.

The mark of a good teacher, we’re told, is one that can make any topic interesting to the majority of students in their class. Very often, in order to achieve this, many hours of additional work are required, and very few of them will be acknowledged by anyone else. The first rule in making any topic interesting is to know the subject matter very well. Students are adept at sniffing out the teacher’s weaknesses, and they will know if you’re relying too heavily on a textbook or Googling on the fly. Obviously it’s not reasonable to expect teachers to know everything about everything (although many people do have this expectation) and a good teacher, when faced with an unfamiliar topic, will make the experience of learning about it something they include their students in. I’ve had to do it before, and the only thing that kept me from losing my sanity was an openness to possibility. My students and I shared the burden of learning something new. I would like to say it was an unmitigated success, but it wasn’t. It was a success, but mitigated by the inevitable few students who didn’t come along for the ride, for whatever reason.

The New South Wales government announced this week that they were raising expectations for teachers in that state. They want to raise the standard of tecahing – and hence learning, they believe – by making it easier to sack teachers that “under-perform” and by requiring teachers to pass literacy and numeracy tests before earning registration to teach. They really want the most intelligent people to become teachers. Seems fair enough, I suppose, except that one of the things we learn in teacher-school is that intelligence is a multifarious thing. Being a proper wizard at Maths won’t make you a great teacher. Being any kind of expert doesn’t necessarily equate with success in teaching. People who aren’t teachers don’t understand that. Those of us whose experience of education is only as a student seldom have any real insight into what it is that teachers actually do. This is one of the reasons why teachers get cranky when politicians in election years start up with lots of hoo-hah about education reforms.

I won’t bother getting into the political aspects of the Education debate because I find politics is never a satisfying topic to investigate in detail. I will make one observation, which is that all of the argument about teachers’ pay and entitlements being centred around “performance” is ridiculous. There are no universal standards against which to make comparisons between teachers, and far too many uncontrolled variables to make sense of any statistical information the government/s like to bandy about when teachers arc up about money and conditions. It is interesting to see a government suggest minimum standards of erudition for teachers, though. Especially when they can get by on popularity alone.

Smoking and what should not have been (again)

Last year I wrote a response to the media debacle surrounding the prank phone call made by a couple of Australian radio presenters to the hospital in which the Duchess of Cambridge was staying.

Reading the news yesterday, I learned of another debacle worthy of mention. Another radio presenter in Australia, Chrissie Swan, was put in a difficult situation when a photographer took some shots of her smoking a cigarette whilst alone in her car. The reason it was difficult is because she is currently pregnant. She apparently attempted to bid on the photographs to prevent their being published but lost to a women’s magazine. So to pre-empt the inevitable, she went on radio and television and tearfully admitted to having struggled with her nicotine addiction with this, her third pregnancy, and was having a sneaky cigarette once a day, unbeknownst to her family, colleagues and friends. Her positive slant on the story is that at least now the shame of the whole experience has put her off smoking altogether. But she also said people are “rightly disgusted” by her actions.

There are so many things wrong with this story it’s hard to know where to begin. So I will begin with profanity:

Why the fuck don’t people mind their own fucking business?

I mean really, just because someone is recognisable by their public persona it shouldn’t follow that their private life is a topic open to scrutiny by one and all, especially against their will. Chrissie’s losing bid was allegedly $53,000. She was prepared to pay  that much to protect her privacy. But what’s really disturbing is when the women’s magazine outbid her at the last minute by $2000 she felt her only recourse was to go out and publicly debase herself before anyone else got the chance. How is that acceptable?

Why is a pregnant woman having a smoke such a big deal anyway?

It’s not as though it hasn’t been going on for as long as tobacco has been in use, is it? Obviously if a man smokes alone in his car whilst his spouse is pregnant it’s not exactly newsworthy. So what made this story newsworthy was the fact that a woman was doing something that is seen as being WRONG. Medical science tells us that smoking when pregnant can cause a range of things to happen to the unborn child that may result in health problems later in life. Most pregnant women will be aware of the facts about smoking during pregnancy. A lot of them will attempt to quit, and many of them may succeed. But quitting is hard. Nicotine is a bastard of a drug, horribly addictive. Not to mention easy to obtain and perfectly legal. If a pregnant woman struggles to quit, then that makes her no different to anyone else who attempts to give up smoking. Being either pregnant or a woman should have no bearing on that discussion.

Most importantly, being pregnant does not make a woman’s body public property or the object of public inquiry.

Well, I suppose in reality people seem to think it does. What’s important is that more of us refuse to agree with them.

Pranks and what shouldn’t have been

I’ve been reading about the 2DayFM DJs and their prank call to the hospital in which the Duchess of Cambridge was staying for treatment. Much as you’d expect, there are some parts of the media calling for the severe discipline of these two young people and another part rather pompously justifying their actions and telling the rest of us to just calm down because they’re not really to blame.

Blame is the thing, though, isn’t it? I imagine the family and friends of the nurse who seems to have taken her own life as a result of this debacle would feel like blaming someone for what happened, if only to help make sense of what would otherwise seem a senseless loss.

Blame seems to be apportioned in increasingly stupid ways in this case. You could blame the two DJs for making the call, but then they are just a couple of people trying to be amusing for our benefit, or at least the benefit of their employers’ advertising revenue. They claim they weren’t trying to be invasive of privacy, in fact they claim they were surprised their inept antics weren’t spotted immediately and the call terminated. They also claim that the decision to air the call was made by people higher up the chain of production, which is undoubtedly true, and so it’s really not their fault that any harm resulted from the call.

So yes, it was the 2DayFM management that are really responsible for the call being aired, but of course they claim that they haven’t broken any laws so really they’re not in the wrong. They tried, they claim, five times to contact the Hospital and couldn’t get through to anyone. The Hospital claim they received no calls. To my mind, at least, the decision by management to opt to seek forgiveness rather than permission and air the call anyway was cavalier, to say the least. Irresponsible, definitely. But their actions can be justified by the fact that they are simply trying to make their product stand out in a competitive marketplace. So it’s not exactly their fault, either.

The nurse who took the call and forwarded it through to the nurse treating the Duchess could be blamed for making an error of judgement. People will tend not to, quite rightly, because we’re all entitled to make mistakes and after all, this is the BRITISH ROYAL FAMILY we’re talking about here. The pressure of dealing with the Monarchy in person, combined with the pressure nurses are under just in their everyday course of duty must have been huge. Hence, if this error of judgement really led to that nurse taking her own life as is being suggested then it’s hardly surprising. I’m not much of a monarchist but I am a professional person and I would feel pretty awful if I allowed a breach in privacy like that to happen. So she’s not really to blame, either.

Then who is to blame? Everyone seems to be looking around for someone to pillory over this incident, but unsurprisingly they are looking in the wrong place. Instead of looking all around, they should be looking within. We’re all to blame for what’s happened. Every time we partake of the culture of celebrity we’re enabling these kinds of events to occur. Every time we gossip about people we don’t know personally for no reason other than that the details of their lives seem more interesting than our own, we enable these kinds of events to occur. Many Australian journalists are making merry with the irony of the UK media being up in arms over this in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry. It’s as if they’ve never seen hypocrisy before. So much of the media is occupied with gossip, celebrity or otherwise, that it’s all some people ever talk about. Numerous people make a living out of making the regular lives of people sound salacious and entertaining. Of course even more people feed off this information, become absorbed by it. The really awful part of it all, apart from the “dumbing down” of society that seems to be accompanying this trend towards gossip (which, I acknowledge has been happening for at least a few centuries – and ironically really took off  during the “Enlightenment”), is the fact that an industry has been created merely to perpetuate the process. Huge sums of money are being wasted on this kind of information. Who benefits from it? Am I a better person for knowing who, or indeed what, “Snooki” is? Of course not. The only people who benefit are those who profit from it. Everyone else is just a greasy little cog in a dirty big machine.

It’s absurd. That’s the best description for it. Not only does the inane nature of popular media result in moronic pranks like the one that sparked this all off, subsequent moronic behaviour acts as tinder to set the incident ablaze. When lives are threatened, damaged and lost because we live in a world where there’s apparently nothing better for people to think about than taking the piss out of other people they’ve never met and shouldn’t have any business interfering with, it is absurd. That the people who actually profit from this absurdity actually refuse to see that there’s anything wrong with that, and indeed retort that they should be able to do whatever they like to whomever they like and can pay for the privilege, that’s absurd.

Where is the meaning in any of this? Why should we tolerate it? Comments are welcome.

Free Will, or not

The question of free will is one that has troubled me for as long as I can remember. Part of my reasoning behind choosing to study Philosophy was to pursue an answer to this question. If I may refer you to the Wikipedia page about free will you will note that the question has been the topic of debate for as long as history and at least hundreds of serious attempts have been made to address what might be called the problem of free will during that time. The problem, in simple terms is that if everything around us appears to conform to basic rules of cause and effect, causality, then why shouldn’t we? Why do we perceive a difference between the laws that govern Nature and the “laws” that govern our own behaviour? Surely, if we are effectively biological, physiological machines, then our cogs and wheels are subject to the same causal relationships as those in a car or a printing press?

So the “problem”, if you read through the very large entry on the topic, seems to boil down to how much we are prepared to accept that our lives are determined by causality. If our lives are completely determined by causality then free will is simply an illusion, and all of us are just acting upon the universe as some small element within it, the course of our lives already set according to the myriad causal circumstances that brought us into being.

If our lives aren’t entirely determined by causality then how is it possible to figure out by how much? Do I have enough free will to go down to the shops for a pie, or only enough to decide that I like pies?

It’s questions like this that philosophy was invented to address, and indeed it’s questions like this that only seem to find a simple (acceptable) answer through a belief in spirituality. I don’t know how the atheists get on, but I suspect it’s much like everyone else: in a state of uncertainty. With spirituality it’s possible to address uncertainty with faith. In an atheist world view I suppose it’s possible to address uncertainty with either a fierce adherence to the argument that best suits your needs (hard determinism is a compellingly simple option, yet it does make things a little sticky, ethically speaking) or I guess there are other ways to distract oneself… Look! A shiny thing!

Having just witnessed the great, globulous mass, festooned with tinsel and bunting that is the United States elections, I ask myself how the question of free will is any different when applied to political will? Is there really such a thing as a “free” election, or do voters go to the polls as pre-determined elements in a larger, pre-determined sequence of causality? Can people really be persuaded by the arguments of one politician over another? Taken on a broader view like this, it seems easier to think that political “movements” have purpose and will of their own, but when you reduce the concept down to its composite parts you have to accept that such things are but a macrocosm to our individual microcosm. It does make for rather a hollow victory, does it not?

So, what to do? I think, on measure, most people take the most pragmatic path, which is to simply not give the idea any thought and get on with things as though it weren’t there. I won’t say I’m not still troubled by the question but within my personal world view I see a necessity for control of one’s will, even if it’s not strictly, one-hundred percent “free”. That fits in with my spiritual beliefs, which demand responsibility for one’s actions. In fact, the actions of my will are fundamental to my world view, and I think the way to get around the whole causality thing is to consider the nature of time. What if it’s just because we’re really only equipped to comprehend time in this linear way? What if there were other ways to conceive of reality that didn’t require this sequence of cause and effect? Surely if some deity created the universe then they also created time, and so therefore they must exist outside of time? That might work, at least for the deists. If time is really actually linked to the way in which space and gravity interact, then what of these other dimensions some scientists are suggesting might exist? In other dimensions there may be no reference points from which to observe time! Maybe in those dimensions time doesn’t exist as we understand it at all! Zounds!

I suspect that it’s not just my limited understanding of science that’s the problem. I think it’s the fact that reality is subjective, and if, at the end of the day I have come to accept a kind of reality that differs from another, then it’s no big deal. If other people share that same view, then all the better. Really, I’m happy to accept that I can assert my will to create change, because I have found that in my reality (and apparently in some others’) that has been shown to happen. I suppose it’s a kind of casual causality. It might even look good in corduroy slacks.

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