Pop songs are weird science — The Australian

09 Dec

There is a right-wing media trope we might call “dumbed down weird syllabus stuff” that appears with monotonous regularity. Today in The Australian we have but the latest example from Justine Ferrari, Education writer.

NOBEL Prize-winning scientist Peter Doherty has attacked the way science is taught in Australian schools, with some students studying the lyrics of classic pop songs as part of the subject.

In Queensland, the Cat Stevens song “Where Do The Children Play?” and Midnight Oil’s hit “River Runs Red” about environmental degradation are studied in Years 8 and 9 science classes as part of an examination of science and society.

Teaching resources prepared by the Queensland Studies Authority, responsible for the curriculum, include an analysis of song lyrics from the 1970s, 80s and 90s to explore “historical and cultural factors (that) influence the nature and direction of science which, in turn, affects the development of society”…

I greatly admire Peter Doherty who has signed up to many good causes, including opposition to nuclear weapons. However, in this case he may or may not be right; it could be he has fallen into the trap of many an academic in not appreciating the difference between science at the university or professional end of the spectrum and the needs of very average (or less) students at the age of thirteen or fourteen, where the choice may be between boring them to death so they will never exhibit any scientific curiosity ever again or starting them on a lifetime of interest in what science has to tell us.

I can’t really argue in detail about what those Queensland teachers are up to, but I venture to suggest they may know what they are doing and have good reasons for doing it. It might be wise to read Years 1 to 10 Science Syllabus (Queensland) carefully before taking this story as gospel. Take up a predetermined position, make an assertion (sensational if at all possible) then ask an expert is an old media trick. Almost any education story published in The Australian is likely to be lamenting the “dumbing down” of education; Kevin Donnelly is their guru, after all. We do seem to enjoy being told we are being ripped off or cheated of our birth-rights, even if that proves not to be the case. Righteous rage is a comforting emotion, it would appear: I seethe, therefore I am.

However, today’s story has prompted an entry on my new English and ESL site: How should I write up a Science experiment? which gives you some idea, and may reassure Professor Doherty, about what is essential in junior Science in NSW at least.

That new site is now one week old. It has had 176 views (not counting my own) in that first week. Not too bad.


Given the poverty of much education reporting in The Australian, the Murdoch press generally, and above all on commercial current affairs programs and talk-back radio, let me clarify, especially in view of a comment or two here, and on other sites:

1. Outcomes-based education has nothing at all to do with seeing the teacher as a “facilitator”; in fact the reverse is true, as OBE insists that teachers actually teach and holds them accountable for what students can actually do at the end of the process. The woolly idea of “facilitating” is 1970s feel-good stuff; OBE is hard-headed post-Thatcherite “quality assurance”.

2. OBE has nothing to do with the teacher as “entertainer”.

3. OBE is not a left-wing plot; initially it was more probably a right-wing plot. See the reference to Jim Belshaw in my comment on this post.

4. OBE does not predicate any particular style of teaching, traditional or otherwise.

5. OBE does not cause the curriculum to become less traditional. You can have an OBE course in Latin which will differ from Latin as taught in 1955 only in the way the program specifies what students must be able to do in Latin after a unit of work and then tests that they are in fact able to use those bits of Latin — in other words, will have achieved/not achieved outcomes. Any variation in the way Latin might now be taught in 2006 comes from changes in language teaching from a whole range of influences, many of them actually well considered.

6. OBE has nothing to do with the rejection of the pass/fail mentality. It is at least 30 years, long before OBE, since anyone passed or failed the NSW Higher School Certificate. What the candidate gets is a result and a rank which may be good enough to open certain doors or not.

7. In good well-written outcomes reporting parents get a plain English description of what their children have been assessed as actually achieving. This may or may not be accompanied by a letter and/or a number, the semantic content of which is, and always has been, a great mystery. At least a clear statement of outcomes has some meaning, even if it may make comparing your child with Susie next door a little more difficult.

8. The fact there is so much confusion about OBE (whether it is desirable or not is a separate matter) is the result of illiteracy on the subject perpetrated by the media and certain commentators who really should know better.

The main down-side of OBE, from a teacher’s point of view, is that it makes the teacher only too conscious of his or her success or failure as a teacher, with the proviso, of course, that is it absurd to expect all students from IQ too low to assess on the one hand (and I have taught such) to bloody genius on the other (and I have taught them too, if “teach” is the right word then) to achieve identical outcomes. Needless to say, no curriculum makes such an absurd assumption, but the general public often seem to.

A second down-side, which will not attract much sympathy, is that it makes programming and lesson planning more rigorous and onerous. No longer can we just write down the name of the text studied and vague wish lists.

A third possible down-side, and one which worried good English teachers a great deal, is that “outcomes” which can’t easily be defined or measured, such as “enjoyment of poetry”, might be squeezed out of the course in favour of what can be defined. I feared this, but it does not seem to have happened.

A fourth problem with OBE is that the number of real outcomes any given unit of work may have could well be legion; what appears on the program is a selection arrived at during the planning stage of that unit. On the other hand, when one considers the sum of units taught in a year, having to determine outcomes for each unit does at least offer some guarantee that the year’s work has targeted a range of things it is hoped students will master. In the past where the emphasis was on the content of the course rather than on what students might be able to do it was more likely that the program might become unbalanced.

Read Professor Roy Killen, “OUTCOMES-BASED EDUCATION: PRINCIPLES AND POSSIBILITIES” and then believe very little of what passes for “knowledge” on the subject through the media.

See also for richer models of teaching Quality Education in NSW which includes but takes us beyond OBE and further from the more dreamily romantic or hippie-like aspects of “progressive education”, and my post on scaffolding.

Yes, I get frustrated… 😉

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Posted by on December 9, 2006 in Aussie interest, Education, Jim Belshaw, my sites



7 responses to “Pop songs are weird science — The Australian

  1. Lexcen

    December 9, 2006 at 12:11 pm

    C’mon ninglun, education isn’t about “entertaining” the students. I too read this news article and was appalled by the fact that education is no longer “education” but simply masturbating. Science is about dealing with facts, science is about understanding nature, science is about the nature of inquiry and experimentation. If you want to teach sociology then don’t call it science.

  2. ninglun

    December 9, 2006 at 1:46 pm

    How you concluded this from that article I have no idea; I may or may not have liked those Queensland lessons, but I really can’t tell as the article gives no context for them. I have no idea what level of ability we are talking about here, for example. There is simply not enough information given to evaluate those lessons fairly. Did you read my other post on the English and ESL blog?

    The “entertainment” vs “real teaching” split is a false dichotomy. What about the late Professor Julius Sumner Miller? A good teacher, especially of adolescents, has many of the skills of an entertainer — audience awareness not least. Is dulness necessarily virtuous? Is Gradgrind of Dickens’s Hard Times the very model of a great teacher?

    As for the “sociology” versus “science” charge, it seems to me, not knowing where these lessons led, that they may well have led on to real “science”. You don’t favour the idea that science is totally divorced from real life, do you?

    I have to say, though, that the choice of songs seems to reflect the age of the teacher. To most of his/her students, these songs may as well be Beethoven.

  3. Lexcen

    December 9, 2006 at 6:52 pm

    ninglun, Julius Sumner Miller – a legend. He was indeed entertaining but he was a scientist down to his bone marrow. I hope you’re not suggesting that he would have been party to the OBE fad if he was still alive.
    I can reflect back on my school years and say that I had the privilege and honor of being taught by some teachers that inspired me and gave me a thirst and love of knowledge. There were others (and sad to say this includes most of them) who were boring and lacked the skills to make learning an enjoyable experience. This only shows that these teachers shouldn’t be teaching. If the education system has failed it is because of the poor quality of these teachers. Putting the emphasis on “entertainment” vs “boring” only highlights the deficiencies in the teacher. Going for the soft option of “entertaining” is to abrogate responsibility as a teacher. Has education become so obsolete nowadays that it is subservient to other priorities?
    BTW, I have read Kevin Donnelly and other critics of OBE and am inclined to agree with them. I don’t expect you to agree with me but I feel that discourse is healthy.

  4. ninglun

    December 9, 2006 at 7:14 pm

    Outcomes-based education: much misunderstood. It’s a long story, and the concept did not come from the left, as a matter of fact. Jim Belshaw rightly explains where it came from in a series of posts on public administration: here for example. It does not necessarily affect curriculum content at all, as it is really about programming and assessment. That is just one confusion. At the level of programming it simply makes teachers more precise in determining what students will be able to do at the end of a sequence of lessons, replacing pious aims and guesswork. The downside is that not every outcome, especially in my subject, can be “measured” — love of poetry, for example; one still, of course, hopes that will be an outcome. Today’s Australian story, whatever one might think of it, has absolutely nothing to do with OBE. In English OBE (or criterion referenced marking) has replaced “impression marking” and does have the advantage of being less subjective, so long as the “benchmarks” and “criteria” are well designed. At first I hated it, but after using it for a while I am kinder about it.

    Donnelly is simply wrong about it; I guess you know how after 40 years of teaching I regard his book on Australian education as possibly the silliest I have ever read, don’t you? He distorts evidence and filters everything through an ideological commitment to privatising education. There’s a link on the right to my rant on that. I think he is simply one of the worst things to happen to Australian education in decades, no matter whether one thinks of Liberal or Labor administrations. I simply cannot understand why people take him seriously.

    The HSC English at the top is as good as it ever was, perhaps even better. The lower end did not even exist when I began teaching; none of those people were at school then. So in my view much of the worrying about a decline is misconceived. Naturally, I am talking about NSW in this.

    My experience of school as a student fifty years ago is much the same as yours. Some were brilliant, many were not. I had the world’s worst Maths teacher in my first year of high school, but one of the best, and most entertaining, science teachers. It is amazing, on reflection, how good teaching really is a product of personal qualities rather than actual qualifications. The same pattern of best/worst was even more so at university, if anything.

    NOTE: I have expanded the post as another way of dealing with the issues you raise, Lexcen.

  5. Lexcen

    December 10, 2006 at 5:17 pm

    ninglun, thank you, I appreciate your elaboration. I sincerely hope that your opinions on OBE are a more accurate reflection on what is happening in the education system. I respect your opinion as an experienced teacher. On the other hand, I also have to take into account the comment posted on my article by:

    suffering teacher said…

    OBE will be the death of education in WA.
    I would sooner have a doctor that can perform heart surgery with competence and be a complete bastard than a doctor that doesn’t know why anesthetic has to be used but can empathize with my feelings.
    (I can’t say for a fact that the commentator is a teacher).

    Personally I wonder if what is outlined in the syllabus, as per your link, is in fact what is being practiced when I read the news article that began this discussion.

  6. ninglun

    December 10, 2006 at 6:21 pm

    The syllabus is almost certainly what is being practised, as any teacher not teaching it would be disciplined or sacked.

    On education the media seek sensation and division because that sells papers or boosts ratings. The hard slog many teachers do and the good news stories never rate.

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