Julie Bishop and Stephen Smith debate education

28 Feb

I saw the “head to head” on The 7.30 Report and can’t blame the public for being confused. I’ll need to review the transcript when it appears later to see if anything substantial was actually said, because my feeling at the moment is very little was.

Much of the debate concerned matters of university financing. I am not competent to talk about that. I defer to Jim Belshaw on that one. It did strike me though that the picture Stephen Smith painted of the expansion of quality university education in China and India presents a far greater challenge than either politician conceded.

It would appear that whoever wins we get a national curriculum. Curiously, the USA does not have one and is unlikely ever to have one. Australia is already and always has been far more centralised in education at school level than either the USA or the UK. (If the USA did have a national curriculum the Creationist/Intelligent Design issue could be even more fascinating.) In recent years the USA has evolved a series of National Standards, and there is much controversy over how effective that has been. In Language Arts (or English) the National Council of Teachers of English (a professional body, not a union) has been a staunch defender of essential values in that area.

The twelve content standards for the English language arts follow. Let us reflect briefly on the group as a whole before moving into more specific elaborations of each in turn.

The act of setting out a list like this one implies that knowledge and understanding can be sliced into tidy and distinct categories, but obviously literacy learning (like any other area of human learning) is far more complicated than that. We acknowledge the complex relationships that exist among the standards. Further, we do not mean to imply that the standards can or should be translated into isolated components of instruction. On the contrary: virtually any instructional activity is likely to address multiple standards simultaneously. Nor is the order of arrangement and numbering of the standards meant to suggest any progression or hierarchy. Numbering them simply makes it easer to refer to them concisely in discussion.

In his 2003 paper What will it take to get a national curriculum off the ground this time? Kevin Donnelly manages to confuse the issue totally.

If we need to identify “best practice” in terms of what is happening internationally. Academics and teachers in the USA argue, to be successful, that curriculum should:

— Be related to specific year levels instead of covering a range of years,
— Acknowledge the central importance of the academic disciplines,
— Be “benchmarked” against world’s best equivalent documents,
— Incorporate “high-stakes” testing and remove students’ rights to be automatically promoted form year to year, and
— Be specific, easily understood and measurable.

In the USA, the above approach is called a “standards” approach. In opposition to a “standards” approach, Australian curriculum development is based on what are termed “outcomes”.

Such “outcomes” are generally, vague, imprecise and based on the idea that teachers should “facilitate” instead of actually teaching and that learning must be immediately relevant, accessible and entertaining.

In history, for example, instead of stating that all students should learn about the Eureka Stockade or about the reasons for federation, teachers are told that “students should learn about important historical events”.

In English, for example, while an “outcomes approach” might state that students should be able to use the “conventions and structures of language”, a standards approach would actually state that students should be able to “identify phrases and clauses in a sentence”.

Ability to identify phrases and clauses in a sentence may, if such an achievement helps at all, be an indicator that the conventions and structures of language are in fact known. A much better indicator of course would be the ability to use an adequate range of such structures. Knowing the names of all the bones in your foot may not actually make you a better walker. Of course some knowledge of such matters could be desirable when you are called on the analyse such things as style.

The idea of “measurability” has all manner of problems attached to it. Attempts to “measure” the affective domain, for example, very important in the study of English, have never really been satisfactory.

Too many issues to pursue here.

The UK has a national curriculum, or rather a number of them, as Scotland has its own. However, the UK model will no doubt be influential here — already has been in the way NSW curricula work. See Welcome to the National Curriculum for England .

I have no inbuilt resistance to a good and sensible National Curriculum, but it must be very flexible. The problem I have had with the Howard government’s idea of a national curriculum is that it has been also (if not primarily) an ideological Trojan Horse. I fear the Howardites when they come bearing gifts. See Federal Education Minister says state schooling too left-wing for an October 2006 example of the Trojan Horse principle quite nakedly emanating from Julie Bishop.

One last point: the recent revelation that many Chemistry (to take just one science) teachers are not Chemistry specialists or even in some cases even Chemistry graduates is not new. Fifty years ago it was true of my Science teachers, and almost certainly was of yours. It is virtually impossible that a Science teacher would have equal competence across Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Earth Sciences, or that there would ever be enough such specialists to go around. On the other hand, we certainly need to look at encouraging more people to go into such areas (instead of Commerce or Law perhaps?) so that we do get more graduates to teach our students.

Not many Nobel Prizes come the way of teachers, of course, so the most brilliant Science graduates are hardly likely to go into teaching school; indeed not many of them will stay long in Australia, if recent experience is any guide.

Next day

You may read this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald report (Schools to face national standard) and Kevin Rudd’s Press Release. A critical difference between the Rudd (Smith) and Howard (Bishop) approaches emerges here:

The National Curriculum Board will bring together Australia’s best and brightest educationalists to ensure the best aspects of State and Territory curricula are available to all our children. Federal Labor’s National Curriculum Board will be led by an eminent Australian education expert, appointed by the Commonwealth. The Chair will be a person of impeccable credentials as an educationalist and committed to curriculum rigour…

There are considerable strengths in each of the State and Territory systems. Federal Labor is determined to ensure the national curriculum builds on these strengths. It is about quality up, not down. The National Curriculum Board will include representation from the Catholic and Independent Schools sectors…

It is admittedly vague in this form, but does promise to be less confrontational than the Howard approach. On the other hand, it is a very conservative approach too, in my view unnecessarily so in educational terms, even if the politics of that conservatism is quite obvious. Rudd is determined not to frighten the punters.

This sort of thing, though, is sillier than it sounds:

Primary English students should be able to:

— Understand basic grammar including the use of a full stop in a sentence; and
— Meet consistent spelling competency levels.

Older English students will have a consistent recommended reading list of Australian literature and the classics; and

Senior History students should:

— Know both factual history, but also have an ability to apply critical analysis to solve problems; and
— Have a systematic understanding of Australian history.

The use of the full stop is usage, not grammar. Oh well. Understanding the use of the full stop is not the same as using a full stop: ask any English teacher! I doubt there is any student in this state, except for those with IQs way below average or with sundry severe learning difficulties, who does not “understand” the use of the full stop, which is very easy to explain. Remembering to use one is another matter for some.

Don’t get me wrong. I am all in favour of teaching such things, as my English and ESL blog makes perfectly plain. There’s even a whole section there on spelling, not to mention links to punctuation guides!

But then the NSW K-6 English Syllabus is equally committed to teaching such things. The assumption they are not mandatory already is a nonsense.

The US experience

Visit No Educator Left Behind in Education World for “answers from the U.S. Department of Education to questions about the federal No Child Left Behind Act and how it will affect educators.” Some make for sorry reading. See also Wikipedia’s No Child Left Behind Act.

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Posted by on February 28, 2007 in Aussie interest, Education, Jim Belshaw, Kevin Rudd, Politics


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