Tag Archive | ramble

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.

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.

Migraine

It had all the hallmarks of being a real doozy: The lights before my eyes, blurring of the vision, searing pain that arced across my cerebral cortex like lightning. I think I managed to catch it with analgesia and willpower before it really set in.

So that’s something.

My mind, however, is a complex and multifarious thing that at times delights and astounds.

Today, it was being a real prick.

When I’m trying to keep my shit together the last thing I need is an earworm. I pretty much always have some tune booting around in there and most of the time it’s something I like. Some of the time it’s completely improvised. Like earlier this morning I was grooving along to a jazzy little number that unfolded into something very pleasing. But when the headache kicked in things went a bit nasty.

Mash-ups are a strange but compelling musical phenomenon that have really taken off in recent years as editing software has become more readily available. A friend of mine will sometimes intentionally create them to irritate me. Occasionally he takes requests. Today my mind mashed up two pieces relentlessly in some kind of hateful, masochistic orgy or wrongness. Here are the two tunes:

I really liked the first couple of Coldplay albums. Their more recent offerings are not up my street. Repetitious and drab, is how I’d describe this piece. On its own it would be a diabolical earworm. Its companion in this ungodly meeting of muses was:

From about 1:54, anyway. I’ve managed to cling to my sanity, but only just. I hate Gilbert & Sullivan.

I welcome you to imagine how I managed to combine the two. Add a comment with your suggestion to how it’s done and I’ll let you know how close to my actual pain you are. This is called empathy.

What Evil is

So anyway, is there some sort of scale of badness that culminates at “Evil”? I think it’s generally accepted that evil is the worst kind of bad but I still feel that it’s not terribly well defined. In a strictly dichotomous sense, it’s the opposite of “Good”, but there are numerous superlative terms that exceed “good” in their representation of goodness. If we go back to the concept of a scale, then it might be possible to talk about Good and Evil in strictly paradigmatic terms, so that on one end is the most Evil thing/act imaginable, and at the other end the most Good thing/act imaginable.

Presumably, then, in the middle is “Neutral”, neither Good nor Evil. I’m struggling to think of something that would fall under that category. Beige, maybe. The vacuum of space. Ricky Ponting’s retirement. I really don’t know.

The thing about this scale (which, incidentally is making me think of this which is very distracting) is how it can be made divisible. How much easier is it to define “slightly good” than “slightly evil”? How much further up the scale of Good is “Fantastic” than “Wonderful”? This, at least, is relatively easy to answer. What’s happened is those two words in particular, but also “Awesome” and “Brilliant” and others, have ended up being misappropriated by lazy and unimaginative language users and mixed into a slurry of words that in some sense or other relate to the relative goodness of something. That’s not what they meant originally, it’s just how they’ve come to be used.

So let’s return to the paradigms: At one end of the scale is the most evil thing/act of which one can conceive, and at the other is the most good thing/act of which one can conceive. Now, St. Anselm, in his Proslogion presented his ontological proof of God’s existence. The gist of it, if you can’t be bothered following the link to Wikipedia, is that if God is something than which nothing greater can be conceived, then surely it’s greater if such a thing exists in reality. Ergo, God exists in reality. QED. Atheists and other philosophers (such as myself) like to poke fun at this argument in all sorts of imaginative and entertaining ways. But then atheists also like to quote Epicurus in somewhat unfair terms because it suits their needs. Both arguments fall down in similar ways but you know those kooky atheists, they just don’t care. When there’s a cheap shot to be had, they’ll have it, by gum! (Just as an aside, the sport of atheist baiting, whilst generally thought to be outlawed under anti-trolling legislation no-one really takes seriously, is actually a wholesome sport the whole family can enjoy. Why not give it a try?)

I don’t know how helpful it is to draw a comparison between Anselm and our scale of Good and Evil, except to say that by using this same logic, if the most Evil thing of which one could conceive actually happened in the world, then it would actually be the most Evil thing, and therefore the real definition of Evil itself. The same applies to the notion of Good.

“Ah ha!” I hear you exclaim, “This notion of what is Good and what is Evil is entirely subjective! There’s no way humanity could possibly agree upon what’s most Good or most Evil!”

Well, quite.

Let’s take humanity out of the equation, then. Let’s try and conceive of what is Good and what is Evil in a universe minus humanity.

Tricky… How about just trying to conceive of the universe minus humanity?

Can’t be done. Mr. Descartes told us that at the end of the day, the mere presence of a “thinking thing” to ask the question “So, this is nothingness, eh?” proves that it’s not really nothingness.

So, the “Problem of Evil“. When taken out of a human context, it ceases to be a problem. It’s quite possible to conceive of a universe existing without human beings around to observe it, but utterly impossible to conceive of a universe in which either Good or Evil exist without human beings around to make judgments about the goodness or evilness of things.

Good and Evil are not creations of God, they are concepts created by humans. Some humans at some points in history have believed actions they took to be entirely Good, whereas others thought they were Evil. Taken out of human context, they are merely actions. We don’t call tigers evil for killing and eating furry animals, even human animals, furry or otherwise. But Hannibal Lechter? Evil as an EVIL THING. Strangely, cannibalism in “primitive cultures” generally isn’t seen as evil, just “primitive”. Hitler is generally attributed responsibility for the deaths of around six million people, and is thought to be Evil personified. The Spanish ‘flu pandemic claimed nearly 50 million lives but isn’t considered evil. Why? Because we believe Hitler was motivated to do bad things, whereas the ‘flu virus is just a virus, and doesn’t have motivations.

Perspective is everything.

So, in the end, what has been the point of this little ramble? Just to address these ideas of Good and Evil and give them some perspective. Calling someone or something (e.g. a country or government) Good or Evil is meaningless, because those terms rely upon a moral point of view that is far from universal. Besides, you can’t have one without the other, and in the space between these two opposite concepts are innumerable other concepts that better and more effectively describe the world around us. We’re better off trying to explore those concepts and the vocabulary that go with them, than to try and paint the world in black and white.

Ramble on!

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