Wednesday, December 07, 2005

On the immutability of skool

I have maintained for a long time now that it would be nigh on impossible to invent the curious system we call formal education from scratch. In one sense this simply reflects the impossibility of reproducing human history in another place/space and obtaining the same or similar outcome. It also reflects my strong view that this is a system that has gone so far past its use by date that it has become some kind of mesmerising theatre. But it is more than that. When you stop to consider just how much stuff is attached to the various formal education systems that are now deployed the beast takes on proportions that are truly difficult to comprehend. Appreciating the sheer size of these systems and here I don't merely mean the buildings, but also the many people who work in them or rely on them in some way for work plus the administrative support for them. But there is more. There is all the other stuff attached to them as well: parents, governments, varous other social institutions and so on. This makes these things darn near immovable, unreformable, and likely to be only slightly amenable to edits. All of this makes the various claims that have been made from time to time in relation to reform, revolution and re-invention of school such nonsense. All that matters is the ritual. The performance of school. We dare not ask the dangerous question, "what if it did not exist?" Apart from creating a lot of child minding work, it might allow the young to set more of the agenda than has been the case so far and which, might be characterised as a one hundred plus year performance of the Sabre-Tooth Curriculum. J.A. Peddiwell (1939) The Sabre-Tooth Curriculum, New York, McGraw-Hill.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Noticing the sun coming up each morning

I have yet to get to writing more about computers, learning n stuff like that on this little epistle-machine and I have misplaced the prompt that triggered the frustration expressed in this post which I wrote and then cleverly deleted by using a browser that does not seem fully compliant with what Blogger wants. In any event, I will scribble a little about what I recall I was going to scribble about. There is now a huge industry of writing about, puzzling about and in general making noise about using computing and related technologies in the noble pursuit of supporting teaching, and by extension, the thing that goes on in peoples' heads that we call learning. The L word, one of my top ten "catch-all verging on meaningless" terms of all time. What is so interesting is that folk continue to write about this stuff as if it is something new, different, wonderful. News Flash. This has been going on since the late 70's and before then if you want to include some of the pre-microcomputer stuff. And, most importantly, there has been precious new to say about it. Perhaps the most annoying elements in this well intentioned but fundamentally flawed work is the never ending attempts to "integrate" these technologies into school classrooms. That these efforts have never worked in any sustainable way; that they have cost the blood, sweat and tears of so many self-sacrificing teachers; that there is precious little to show for a quarter of a century of effort, are lost on the mindless "researchers"/"policy makers" who keep insisting that it must be possible. I won't bore the tiny audience about why this might be so but there is clearly sufficient empirical data to suggest just how stupid this is. Folks. The sun keeps coming up each morning. Folks. Trying computers in classrooms hit their limit in the 80's all that has changed is the technology. The more powerful technology, aka schooling will keep winning. As an aside, this may the lasting noteworthiness of schools, that as a social institution they are one of very few that have remained largely untouched by the massive deployment of all manner of digital technologies across the planet. The other, more depressing side of this stupidity is that while we focus attention on such mindless goals as integration into classrooms that the world beyond schools has and continues to change profoundly. This has to be the focus of attention, not the stupid assumption that getting kids to learn computer skills in their Geography class will somehow prepare them well for this world. It's fiddling while Rome burns. This is something of a rant but underpins the origins of my interest in doing school differently, taking seriously the very real challenge of how to prepare kids for a world that is so dependent upon things digital. Now is not the time to be certain (or as Tom Peters puts it: "If you're not confused, you're not paying attention."), particularly when it comes to such important questions such as how do we prepare the young of the tribe to deal with the "interesting" mess they will inherit from us?

Friday, October 28, 2005

Joining dots

It is one of those consequences of the Western approach to "stuff" that after millenia of working out how much fun it is to split things up, chop em into little "disciplined" pieces and categorise, label, identify and code anything that can be that there is this now very strong sense that "dot joining" is important work. Maybe it's one of those huge cosmic correction things. Doing too much of one thing inevitably leads to a huge press to reverse it. One hopes that the fascination with global money and its deployment to make more global money in any way possible will go the way of the categorisers. But here we are not quite talking geological time scales but not far off them. Science fiction has much to answer for in providing templates and models for maddies to try and produce. How else does one explain that decisions to provide money to the needy by a particular government has to be OK'd by pension fund managers in the US (OK. I skipped a few dots) But it is this kind of dot joining wse need more of. On the other hand, the well rehearsed joined dots around schooling, i.e. in shorthand, schooling is good for the young is in drastic need of unjoining. Describing schooling as a colleague of mine once did as organised child abuse seems closer to the mark than all the nonsense that is currently claimed for this period in a young person's life. Maybe there is an entropy balance here. You can only unjoin as many dots as you join. A kind of joined dot bank where the balance is assiduously maintained. Go join some for me.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

On the virtues of loopiness

Intellectually I am drawn to the loopy, the "enfant terribles" of the academic world. I figure that folk who keep repeating, reinforcing particular epsitemologies, ontologies are, more or less, intellecutal sycophants. We enjoy an enormously privileged position in being paid to think and also to contribute to the well-being of the citizens of this country/planet. Being an intellecutal "yes person" does not cut it. It seems to me that merely echoing others, acquiescing to the status quo mindsets is, effectively, squandering public monies. If we can't convey to our students the importance of skepticism, curiosity and even bloody-minded resistance to status quo ideas then we don't deserve the monies the public provide us. I hope there is no need to rehearse what status quo thinking has delivered to the youth of this and other countries. What to me is curious is what holds, what are palpably silly ideas, together. For example, the nonsense around literacies that "rages" in the public media in Australia at present. Pathetic neo-liberal nonsense versus precious old left nonsense while the kids of this country are ignored. Well, not exactly ignored, both camps claim to represent the youth and as far as I can tell the youth are saying, to both, "huh?" (which is a polite translation of what is actually being said). There are multiple nonsenses, many of which come from a well meaning bunch of elderly folk making decisions on behalf of the young. Mostly the oldies get it wrong but hey, they were well intentioned. I have often suggested that if you started from square one, ground zero, it would be impossible to invent the stupid, unfair, absurd, inefficient, stiffling education system we currently enjoy and what is worse we export this nonsense to countries who can ill afford such wasteful "luxuries". We live in what is argued to be an "evidence-based" world. Anyone care to offer any evidence that the current system does much other than impress on the young that they are stupid, dumb, can't cut it? Where is the evidence that "the system" actually prepares the young for the contemporary world? Much huff and puff, zip evidence. There is much to be said for systems that encourage and nurture idiosyncracy, loopies, people who will think way outside the tiny little square that claims to capture all of human wisdom. It would be ok to have a uniform system if we lived in a 1950's world where much was predictable, linear, not much different from the year before. But we don't. We need a system that supports people to think, to challenge, to be rewarded for being loopies (well argued loopies). In a dangerously unpredictable world, educational certainty is a handicap we can well do without. A system whose sole purpose would be to produce eccentrics would do more to secure the future of humanity on the planet than the deadeningly dull certainty and conformity of the educational here and now.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

The public private debate and Australian schools

There has been a lot of debate and lining up of the usual sides in relation to the funding that now flows to many private schools in Australia (how many polo fields do you really need?). Despite the ideological convenience of doing over public education and favouring the well to do as well as the not so well to do (a large number of private schools are not well funded) I would suggest that the actual driver is to rid the Commonwealth of what is a very expensive funding item, i.e. schooling. If "the public" can be weaned off public schools by whatever means then government is in a position to wind back support for schooling generally (what is left of public and all private), shift the burden, user pays as we have seen in universities. Nor is this to suggest that this is about dry economics, although that continues to play a poisonous role in Australian public policy, it is likely out of a genuine long term fear of not being able to fund the retiring boomer generation and beyond. Simply, that there will be more old folk putting their hand up for government support than young folk paying enough taxes to fund them. The cost of schooling to the Commonwealth is a sizeable chunk of each annual budget. Any savings from this are clearly going to be significant. So the tactic now, feed private, starve public and do it to speed the process. It is a serious issue but putting at risk the future of this country by starving public schooling of much deserved funds makes as much sense as hoarding one's reserves of wheat instead of planting for the next season. Yes. History will judge the public policy makers hashly.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Lemmings and similar phenomena

I just realised I had an unfinished post from months back in relation to computing and related technologies in education. When I ever get around to finishing it, a very poor substitute for a book that is still to be written, it will argue that the real issue is around education, or its formal bits, that of schooling and here I like to think in terms of primary, secondary and tertiary schooling. The more one reads research, talks to teachers, students and most other folk who are somehow involved in or with schooling it is clear that, at least for secondary schooling (I think similar crits of primary and tertiary are possible but it is at its most glaring here) is a game that almost no one believes in. There are many instances where humans do foolish, sometimes heroic things for no good reason. Indeed, biologists tell us that along with a blind mole rat in Africa, we are the only species capable of giving up our life to save the life of another of our species. One can understand moments of foolishness and heroism. It is part of being human. These are events which contribute to a sense of who we are and why we are. With Secondary schooling we have a system which, in my view, is increasingly difficult to justify. It is a form of what might be called organised child abuse which repeats itself over and over again, year in, year out. The only beneficiaries of this system are a handful of private schools in each capital city. That is not to say the huge efforts and energy goes into trying to do school differently. There is an amazing array of things that teachers do to try and escape the nonsense of a sytem that was designed to send a small elite onto university in the 50's and 60's. But any or all of these, and particularly if they appear to be working well for students are dubbed fringe or satellite to the main game, the high status subjects of years 11 and 12. It is important to recognise that what began as a system to select an elite has been turned into a mass system of ranking and rating that serves no purpose other than to determine access to a small number of high demand courses in a couple of universities in each State. One might say that this is a very expensive selection machine and it is. The human cost, of telling around two thirds of each cohort passing through school that they are dumb, deficient or in some way not up to scratch is an appalling outcome. While the system does not physically kill these students it stamps them as failures of one kind or other and then expects them to get on with their lives as if this trauma is akin to falling down and grazing one's knee. I work in a university. We have what is effectively an all expenses paid ranking system. It is not a good predictor of university success and why should it be given the disconnected nature of the high elements of the curriculum? But the best part is that universities don't have to pay a cent for it. Are there better ways to select? Yes. Are there better ways to support all students in our secondary schools and provide them with the genuinely high expectations that will prepare them well to shape, lead and grow this country? Of course. Do we have the will to do anything about it? Sadly, it appears that it is more important to attend to the low level expectations. Let's make sure everyone can spell catastrophe or onomatopoeia. But let's make sure our children do not learn how to engage the world, nor develop agency in it. It is easy to attend to some of the measurable stuff. It is more important to be concerned about spelling skills of the young but less about how the system treats them and what the social consequences are. So let's turn out the best spellers in the world and keep counting the lemmings as they run off the edge.

Thursday, January 20, 2005


I stumbled across Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point a year or so back. I just got my hands on his recent book: Blink. I'd characterise his work as popular psychology which focusses on small changes having significant outcomes. Blink is about those decisions that are made in an instant, the kind we don't think about. Intriguing stuff for thinking about much of educational practice. Gladwell, M. (2005). Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown.