Friday, August 19, 2011

Rethinking Education Part 3: The Innocent Stop Protecting the Guilty

Any time you talk about educational reform you inevitably have to talk about schools and subsequently teachers.

Earlier in the week when I concieved of writing this post I tried to think of the names of all my various teachers over the years so I could try and figure out a ratio of good:bad teachers.

I was alarmed at how many teachers I can't even recall. I must have done 8 subjects a semester through highschool, and sure many teachers teach multiple classes, but I can maybe recall a handful of teachers, and only the good ones.

The rest, not only the teachers are largely forgotten, but the whole subjects they taught, With some effort some come back to me but really it highlights something.

Even those of us who claim to have a good memory, only remember interesting (and perhaps important) stuff, the rest is forgotten.

But we need to mention the elephant in the room: Many teachers are just plain bad. They are bad in multiple ways. They are place holders, 'fillers', unmotivated and uncaring.

They inspire aphorisms like 'those who can't do, teach.'

The earliest blog I ever read Bob C Cock's weekly rant had the memorable phrase 'some of the most boring and uninspiring people I have ever had the displeasure of meeting have been teachers.'

Once out of the education system, your mind probably exercises a similar bias to mine, it simply forgets all those painful hours spent with teachers who taught us nothing at all. Instead when asked about our high-school (those who had no traumatic experiences in the locker rooms) will probably recall instantly our beloved Physics, History or Music teacher outshining the other 60+ members of staff we scratch to even remember the face of.

And I went to a good school.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani said in his book that 'the education system exists to protect the jobs of those who work within it.' and this grim admission is applicable almost everywhere. It shows up in the way education is reformed or revolutionised.

Acceptable ways to reform schools:

Build buildings.

Buy computers.

Fund teacher training programs.

Unacceptable ways to reform schools:

Insist on staff transparency. (starting with management, down to teachers)

Raise prerequisite qualification standards of teachers.

Merit based pay.

I went to a high school where students were mandatorily required to have a laptop. My laptop died in early year 11 and I just stopped using one. From my personal testimony I can say laptops and computers contribute nothing to the quality of education and quite possibly detract from it. (we mostly used our laptops to play computer games in class, I can vividly recall how to beat every level on skyroads and almost none of what was taught me in year 9 science).

Year 12 our fancy technology was next to useless, we couldn't use them in exams and we spent most of our times practicing under exam like conditions, even SACs had to be handwritten.

Our laptops were an expensive piece of flashy sophistication, with little substance to back them and they 4 kg piece of shit antiques we used (top of the range for the day) probably caused back problems.

Putting computers in schools recieves a disproportionate amount of attention in complaints about schools being underfunded and under-resourced. I already know what every teacher is going to say -

'we live in an information age, most business and professions use computers and to be competitive in the job market students need computer literacy.' my mother a literacy coach for teachers alluded that 'the information age' is now even taken into account in text book design, explaining those annoying 'pop up' boxes that punctuated text books.

I suspect part of the bias towards putting computers is an accident of history, adults learn differently to children and subsequently there is an esoteric reverence for 'computer skills' being difficult to learn late in life that is projected onto teenagers.

I suggest that what is widely regarded as 'computer literacy' is a misnomer, it is a far more fundamental transferrable 'soft skill' which I will liberally call 'search skills'. Anytime an office worker purchases and installs a specialist piece of software and gets somebody from the IT department or a colleague whom ALSO has never used it to demonstrate how it works, that colleague is employing search skills.

That is they know how to find information and teach themselves, much of my former job involved looking up excel functions on google and through excel's inbuilt help function to find solutions to all the weird things executives will demand their spreadsheets do.

I have even had to program shit in VB, I am not a programmer nor have ever studied programming, but I know how to find shit out. You can teach students these skills with Mechano sets or lego, or ikea furniture, you don't need huge expenditure on quickly obsolete IT.

But this inevitably is where all the funding goes and any talk of reform must head. Australia builds a Broadband Network to help our rural cousins keep pace with the city folk. To me internet access arguably should become more irrelevant to education, with smart phones and wikipedia we are reaching a stage where everyone can carry around pretty much all the tacit knowledge known to man in their pocket. Having access to information in an information economy will not be the key differential. It will be, as it is and always has been a persons richness in soft skills.

Skills modelled by the secure base, the parental figure and role model that is their teacher.

I read somewhere that many doctors cannot accept as fact (in fact a truism) that half their graduating class were below average. Something that must mathematically be true. It is a relative scale, but in absolute terms we need to admit to ourselves that:

On average, teachers are average...

...At an elite school like I went to. To say Private schools chief advantage is their superior funding is a cop-out. Private schools are businesses, and follow a simple business principle - customers pay for value. Thus their chief advantage is that they can fire bad teachers and reward good ones. They demand results and people pay a premium for them.

Admittedly the results are pretty foolish, ENTER scores that are relevant for about 2 months and then do little to prevent anyone from derailing their life with a general lack of motivation. But nevertheless the private school system attracts dollars largely because the teachers do what they are paid to do, teach students how to score well on exams. Elite schools go a step further and directly intervene in subject selection making sure students learn useful and more importantly generously scaled subjects like 'Latin' and 'Hebrew' and 'Specialist Mathematics' that not only will contribute to a generous ENTER score but prove practical for the rest of their lives when time travelling or dealing with imaginary numbers.

Yes the good schools weed out the 'bad teachers' who inevitebly end up in greater concentration in public schools, their lack of interest in their students education creates a surplus of energy that can then be channeled into internal staff politics and making other teachers lives miserable. Their distaste for their profession may even be so great they set their sites on becoming a vice principal or principal so they largely don't have to deal with them anymore unless of course they are punishing them.

The unmotivated teacher is only one kind of bad teacher, there are also teachers who are just plain stupid and not really qualified to be teaching anybody. My mother was coaching teachers at a school where the principal held up as a role model to all a teacher that had graduated from the school with a study score of 17, but thanks to government intitiatives, loop holes and what not had been able to become a teacher and help shape the next generation of under achievers.

Then you have teachers who are passionately bad at their jobs. They think their authoratarian style harks back to some golden-age of teaching and they think they are doing an excellent job, loading their students up with massive assignments and homework schedules. Keeping them on edge by picking students at random to perform difficult calculations on the board in front of their peers at risk of humiliation and locking students out of class for being late. All serving to increase the brains production of cortisol inhibiting the hippocampus and thus their students ability to learn, a few students cool under pressure shining, the teacher rests on his laurels as having produced such stars, in the same way that exposing thirty lab rats to radiation until only 2 - the strongest, survive albeit much much weaker than they were before the radiation bombardment.

All these teachers are bad, and worse, entrenched in our education system. I forget where I read it, it was either Goleman's 'Social Intelligence' or 'Freakanomics' or some similar science type book, but a good teacher generally in objective terms will impart 1.5 years of course material to their students, whereas a bad teacher will impart just 6 months of course content to their students. (How this stacks up with the Chicago study that said we all retain less than 7% of our high school education, I don't know).

I went to both a public and private secondary school, the public school I went to had a good reputation despite being really large. From my brief experience there I would say the proportion of teachers that are good is roughly the same as private. Private schools seem to be populated by good and average teachers, where public schools have some good, some average and far too many bad teachers.

I feel I need to lay down a chunk of text from Goleman's 'Social Intelligence' before going on:

The power of an emotionally connected teacher does not end in first grade. Sixth-graders who had such a teacher earned better grades not only that year but the next year as well. Good teachers are like good parents. By offering a secure base, a teacher creates an environment that lets students' brains function at their best. That base becomes a safe haven, a zone of strength from which they can venture forth to explore, to master something new, to achieve.


The most critical thing you can do for your education, is get a good teacher in front of you. Good teachers exist, but trying to obtain one for your child in the public system is like playing russian roulette. It is also quite hard to get one in the private system, at least though you probably won't have the teacher who instructs their kids to read from their textbooks queitly for 50 minutes while the ensure silence through threats of detention.

On the one hand, much of our inability to reform anything can be explained away by the political trade cycle. In Australia a government has 3 years to make plans and execute them, they cannot guaruntee they will still be in charge to reap the benefits of completed construction processes. Thus it makes sense that if you need to improve education, you throw money at laptops and buildings - things that I'm sure have been proven to have little impact on students education and success in later life.

If you watch grand designs, complex builds that run over schedule and over budget still only take 2 years or so to become water-tight and habitable. That's not even using commercial building techniques like prefabrication and concrete, concrete! concrete!!, buying a bunch of computers involves negotiating a lease contract or purchase and then rolling them out in such a way as to sew seeds of envy and suspicion amongst staff and students and ensure that they are almost obsolete by the time the last has been delivered.

But yet these are the kind of 'reforms' that can be implemented in 3 years and achieve almost nothing.

Reforming the teachers themselves takes generations, and there is a social responsibility to actually take care of those useless and destructive teachers that have been implicitly endorsed by the education system that exists so they don't drink themselves to death in a caravan somewhere.

Firstly you need to build an environment that is attractive to high perfomers, and high performers are motivated by performance. Thus you need transparency, accountability and a system where good and bad performance are duly rewarded. In fact it is probably more important to any good teachers retention that you get rid of bad teacher colleagues than it is to necessarily reward their good efforts.

Then you need to raise the standards, the requirements to become firstly a principal (so good teachers have the necessary support) and then a teacher. You need to make those peg holes round so the square pegs can't get in in the first place.

Of course, these are not radical suggestions. Governments (including the current one) have tried to implement just such reforms.

What holds these reforms back?

Good teachers.

The most bitter irony of all. The innocent come out in force to protect the guilty. Things like the 'Myschools' website are seen as an attack on their integrity. Passionate teachers call up John Fane and tell stories of the differences they have been making for years whilst being underfunded and underappreciated.

Students exerting the same bias my memory does, call up and talk about their shitty school's one teacher that made a difference in their life and now will be punished by the damning report of 'MySchool' for all to see.

But what I have come to admit, is that if you fired 100% of the teachers we don't remember, and 20% (the bad ones) that we do, we wouldn't miss them when they are gone.

1 comment:

Majid Ali said...

Please for Christ sake help this poor boy from Haiti