Donnelly is miffed

10 Mar

You will recall that Stuart Macintyre recently reviewed Kevin Donnelly’s latest polemic in The Australian. Today Donnelly has replied: Education not to be toyed with. Macintyre’s review is penned with a thumbnail dipped in bile: Kevin Donnelly responds to a critique of his new book.

STUART Macintyre’s so-called review of my book Dumbing Down, about the parlous state of Australia’s education system, in The Australian Literary Review this month unfortunately teaches the reader more about Macintyre’s prejudices and idiosyncrasies than what the book is about…

As does Donnelly’s account of Macintyre’s The History Wars.

Those who have read Macintyre’s book The History Wars, in which he famously compares Prime Minister John Howard with Caligula and extols Keating’s big-picture politics on issues such as reconciliation, multiculturalism and the republic, will know, notwithstanding his arguments in support of “academic honesty” and against resorting to “personal abuse”, that Macintyre often fails to follow his own advice.

I have read The History Wars and don’t remember the Caligula comparison, or even more importantly the context in which it may have appeared and the tone of the passage involved. I do recall that Macintyre was remarkably generous about some of his opponents: Geoffrey Blainey in particular. I gave my verdict on The History Wars (one of my Best Reads of 2006) last year: Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars. Donnelly and I must have different editions…

Pursuing his misguided obsession with Outcomes Based [Satanic] Education, Donnelly writes:

In arguing that I fail to explain what is meant by outcomes-based education, Macintyre also shows he has either not read the book or, if he has, is guilty of misrepresentation. Not only does the book provide a definition of OBE in its glossary but it also gives a detailed analysis and description of Australia’s adoption of OBE in recent years.

Macintyre writes: “The suggestion that outcomes-based education licensed an abandonment of education standards is false: on the contrary, it was an application of evidence-based methodology to the measurement of standards.” Not only is such a sentence a prime example of the type of edu-babble that bedevils education, but the claim that Australia’s adoption of outcomes-based education is based on evidence that it has been successful, here or overseas, also is wrong.

As outlined in Dumbing Down, when outcomes-based education was introduced into Australia, it was experimental, it had been adopted by only a handful of countries and, according to NSW’s Eltis report, there appeared little evidence that it had been successfully implemented elsewhere.

Unfortunately the 2003 Eltis Report says no such thing. It does raise practical problems in terms of teacher work load and wording of outcomes and a number of other things, but is certainly supportive of assessment procedures based on outcomes. Read the report for yourself if you don’t believe me, and when you have read it take Donnelly in future with the many grains of salt he merits. See also Worried about outcomes based education? on my English and ESL site.

I thought Macintyre revelled too much in his analysis of Donnelly’s infelicities of style, thereby outing himself as a bit of a pedant perhaps; Donnelly in just the two examples I have cited has outed himself as a propagandist who parades his prejudices and partial readings (even misreadings) as facts. Not for the first time.


The latest in education in the USA.


You may note below that Kevin Donnelly himself has commented on this post already, less than an hour after the post went up. I thank him for the Caligula reference, which I now quote:

…When the term of Michael Kroger on the board of the ABC expired, the government appointed the former Liberal staff-member and researcher for the Institute of Public Affairs, Ron Brunton. Not content with the prime minister’s biographer on the Council of the National Museum, it added his former speechwriter — perhaps we should be grateful that John Howard prefers power-walking to equestrian exercise or his regard for history might have tempted him to follow the emperor Caligula and make his horse a consul.

Macintyre is referring to the undeniable penchant of the Howard government for stacking key cultural organisations with friendly bodies, and it is fair to say Howard is following precedent in that regard, unfortunately. Reading Donnelly’s article today you would wonder in what respects Howard is like the mad and homicidal Caligula, and what justification Macintyre might have for such an odious comparison. Now we know: Macintyre’s rather lame joke actually says Howard is not like Caligula, fortunately; Brunton and the other Howard appointees may well resent being compared to horses.

The passage simply does not bear the interpretation Donnelly places on it. In that it is a fine example of the Donnelly method at work.

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Posted by on March 10, 2007 in Aussie interest, Education, Jim Belshaw



12 responses to “Donnelly is miffed

  1. ninglun

    March 12, 2007 at 9:01 pm

    Second attempt! 😦

    Thanks for your continued response, Dr D. I of course am merely a semi-retired blogger, not a full-time educational researcher, but I have been teaching in many contexts for a very long time. I do recall the discussions of the 1990s on OBE, and as I said was a sceptic at that time at first. It is not surprising that Eltis reported those teacher concerns twelve years ago; I shared them and asked similar questions at in-service sessions. The following ERIC document from the same period from the USA says much the same: Outcome-Based Education. ERIC Digest, No. 85 1993-10-00. There is no doubt too that the area is a semantic minefield, as What higher education research says about outcomes-focused education and outcomes-based education (2004) says. We have also moved on since the mid 1990s in pedagogy, as you well know; OBE is just one aspect of current pedagogy. I was involved in a research project, as part of a broad UTS/NSW Department of Education team, on scaffolding, for example, from 2001 to 2003. The trend emerging there is that “facilitating” and similar feel-good stuff is of limited use: teachers teach. My belief is that defining outcomes is one aspect of teaching that helps to keep the process more honest than it perhaps was in the past. I say that experientially, as a former sceptic.

    I have not experienced OBE as somehow limiting course content. If I choose to teach the classics, and I did, I can do that just as well under OBE as I did before. However, instead of vaguely wishing certain things happened, I am now constrained to specify some at least of the things students will be able to do at the end of the process. I am of course well aware that there are immeasurables, sometimes as important, if not more important, than the “outcomes” that can be defined. The professionalism comes in defining “outcomes” that are achievable yet challenging. (I like Mariani’s approach here: see my Scaffolding post on my other blog.)

    You will have noted too that I believe, and always have, in teaching grammar, and other aspects of what some called even in the 1970s the “conscious study of language” after the early work of Halliday and others, though not necessarily in the rather hopeless way I did in the first few years of my career. You may see evidence of that interest on that other blog.

    I also reject either/or thinking about these matters. Reading, for example, is foolishly thought of as either phonics or whole language when it is both. Writing is not trad OR process writing OR genre — it is all of the above. When we get our heads around that we start getting somewhere.

    Dr D, I haven’t read your latest book and I probably won’t, as you have written so much anyway in so many places. I read the 2004 book and wasn’t impressed. So it goes. I explained why I was not impressed at considerable length.

    But then I’m just a grumpy old man, remember. Thank you nonetheless for your contributions here.

  2. Ken Watson by email

    March 13, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    You must live at your computer! I’ve had a quick look at Dumbed Down to see what Donnelly has said about me this time, but more especially to see if he has either tried to answer my defence of PISA or if he’s still trumpeting the claim that it’s invalid because it fails to take spelling into account. I sent him a copy of my 2005 ETA address in order to make sure that he was aware of my point that spelling can’t be part of an international test because some languages pose almost no spelling problems (Spanish has almost perfect letter-sound correspondence and Italian has only about 45 letter-sound links) and others, particularly English, have as many as 360+.

    Of course, he has not attempted to answer my criticism and has merely repeated his original statement.

    Ken’s address may be read in the ETA of NSW journal Metaphor Issue 1, 2006. See also from the ETA Debunking Media Myths and What Do We Know About How Reading Should Be Taught?.

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