A night with Pasi

I’ve had a date in my calendar for some time, and the entry read ‘A Night with Pasi’. The Pasi in question is Pasi Sahlberg, Professor of Education Policy at the Gonski Institute for Education at the University of New South Wales. He has an impressive back catalogue, and you can peruse his gongs here. The night in question was last night, and by the time the educational part finished, I was ready for the heavy drinking part to begin.

The education part lasted one hour, and at the end of that hour it was difficult to isolate any key takeaways. One of the reasons I like ResearchEd is the diversity of presenters, and that includes teachers. Teachers work at the coal-face, and the translation of education research into classroom practice provides some of the most useful professional learning one can undertake. Education researchers and policy-makers are important people to listen to; but without the vital link of transfer to the classroom, even valid research and sensible policy can end up existing in a vacuum.

There was a hint of Sir Ken about Pasi. We were told early on that the standard of teaching in Australia is high, and that we should not be looking to improve in this area.  Instead, straight from Ken’s playbook, it was the ‘system’ that was problematic. This enables one to blame teachers without really blaming teachers, given that we are (at least in part) the system. NAPLAN was aired briefly, just enough time for teacher hackles to be raised, and we had a few avuncular anecdotes about Pasi’s year in Australia.

The talk supposedly centred on improving equity in education, and we were treated to a long explanation of how equity and equality are not the same thing. I expect he may have misjudged the audience, because it felt for the most part that we were being Fin-splained, and at a funereal pace. The graphic of three children of different heights standing on crates and trying to pick apples from a tree was used to illustrate the point. You know the one – it’s second only to the ‘fish climbing a tree‘ one for its ubiquity.

It seems that, according to PISA, Australia is bang-average for both overall performance in English and Maths *and* equity (which in simple terms was defined as the link between ICSEA and performance). The countries ranking highly in both were Canada, Estonia, Finland, Japan and Hong Kong – so find the common features there if you can. We were told that we needed to climb a ‘Stairway to Heaven’, given that these countries appeared in the top right-hand corner of the graph, but no suggestion of how this was to happen was posited. Instead, we were asked (excruciatingly) to wave our arms in time to Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. Being the edu-grinch I am, I refused.

Not only is it tricky to see what these countries have in common, it’s also noticeable that they are moving in different directions. High performance and falling is not a system one should ape, even if it were possible to transfer the building blocks of one country’s education system to another (note: it isn’t). Another common problem with PISA data (or any data) is the cherry-picking of reasons to support these data. Finland’s educational decline was not mentioned, and neither were its high-stakes terminal examinations or the high-status (and relatively high supply) of teachers. Instead, Finland’s longer and outdoor recess time was highlighted as a key reason, even to the point of stating that the longer children spend time in Australia, the less educated they become. If that’s not a slight on teachers, I’m not sure what is.

The importance of funding was mentioned, and though it may seem axiomatic to suggest this is important, there was no indication of how increased funding would improve outcomes or equity. The importance of focusing on early years was mentioned, which is probably a good point, but again it was only in the context of funding, not (for example) evidence-based approaches to teaching reading.

As a conclusion, we were left with three points. The first was fair funding (an undoubted crowd pleaser, but unclear on the links to equity/outcomes). The second was ambiguously titled ‘educate the parents’. I’m unsure if this meant increase parents’ cultural capital to avoid children falling behind when *not* in School, or whether we needed to being parents on board with best practice in education, but it was odd to see a concluding point make an appearance only in the conclusion, rather than at any point during the talk. The final point was that ‘healthy kids learn better’, which again seemed to come from nowhere, other than as a nod to Finland’s outdoor play.

Pasi Sahlberg must be a capable educationalist, surely? You can’t get all the gongs simply by impersonating Sir Ken, can you? But I cannot believe anyone was convinced or reassured by this presentation. The whole evening was amateurish, from him being introduced on several occasions as Pasi Salzburg, as though we could expect Finland’s top Mozart impersonator, to his mis-pronounciation of the researcher after whom the lecture is named, to the confusion of Austria and Australia on one of the funding graphs. Or maybe we just need some spatzle with our morning tea?

I will keep attending education conferences, workshops and lectures. We need to remain aware of our biases and open to the opinions of other informed individuals. But this evening was gossamer-thin in useful content and gave no reassurance that the Australian educational powers that be have a vision (or blueprint) for educational improvement in this country. If they want an example of equity in education, they should look to Schools like Katharine Birbalsingh’s Michaela, but I expect the ideological opposition to knowledge-development and testing, as well as an ingrained rejection of intellectualism will prevent this. Ho hum.

Buying cars in Wales

For a country with a population of just over three million, it’s not only rugby union where Wales punches above its weight.

In the cerebral fields of literature, poetry, art and music, Wales has contributed much. The Thomas brothers (Dylan and R S), Gruff Rhys, Augustus John, John Cale, The Mabinogion and the magnificently named Adam the Welshman are solid examples.

Wales is an ancient and mysterious country and its cultural traditions have had plenty of time to develop.

Fast-forward to 2019, however, and intellectual progress seems to have stalled. The Welsh Youth Parliament clearly is less interested in literature and language than ‘how to clean, and buy cars’:

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-50126863

Aside from the fact that instruction on how to buy a car probably isn’t going to take much time (you know how you buy anything – by having the money to pay for it, then handing it over? It’s like that), this suggested collection of life-hacks has nothing to do with intellectual development, and more to do with filling a void left by parents. It cannot be the job of Schools to fill in every time parents (or society) are judged to have failed. This does not mean we shouldn’t seek to educate via more than just subjects, but there is a limit to what Schools can achieve.

One shouldn’t blame the children of the Welsh Youth Parliament either. At least they’re not suggesting compulsory study of Shakin’ Stevens. But neither are they curriculum experts, and asking 14-year olds what they think should be taught in Schools is not something that would be enacted in fields taken more seriously than education. Pupils are always likely to revert to these sort of suggestions, partly because they have no idea about the more complex aspects of curriculum design.

There are two other points worth making:

  • Why are we unconcerned with how fearful young people are about real life? The fact that they yearn for lessons in how to deal with grief, how to speak in public and how to maintain healthy relationships is a matter of genuine concern. I suspect this is a reflection of the confidence we have drained from this generation, with endless talk of safety, offence, resilience, mental health and vulnerability. The more we encourage these conversations, the more we seem to push our neuroses onto them. The curriculum suggestions of these children should act as a wake-up call for us.
  • It is clear that these children have a very limited view of what an academic education can do for you. Knowledge and understanding is liberating and helps us to navigate the world better. It allows us to become independent thinkers. What they have done is analogous to understanding the need to become an independent thinker, and then suggesting that we introduce lessons on independent thinking. Education doesn’t work like that.

It is fine for children to have opinions on their education, but it’s also worth remembering the words of the late and great Douglas Adams:

“All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.”

The Factory Fallacy

When you next attend a poor edu-conference (and let’s be honest, that probably means your next edu-conference), one way to avoid gnawing your hands off during some of the worst presentations is to play bingo. Not the ‘Maggie’s Den’ type, but seeing if you can get a line or full house of edu-BS and tired cliches. One of the commonest of these is the ‘Factory Model’ of education. This is a favourite of the C21 skills brigade, because it can be used to denigrate just about anything they don’t like – children in rows, teacher teaching from the front, a common curriculum etc. The fact that many people lambast this model whilst orating from the front to a rapt audience of teachers seated is rows is an irony unnoticed by many. Perhaps they’re too busy weeping inwardly at the grainy black and white photos of young children with chalk, slates and abacuses, staring mournfully at the camera lens and reminding us that it really was grim in the early C20.

For a comprehensive take-down of why the factory model (as presented in this manner) is wrong, you may wish to read this article. It’s certainly far better than the following hastily assembled contribution.

I wish to make two points. The first is that children seated in rows, learning powerful knowledge from an expert teacher is something to be lauded, not scoffed at. The passing on of an academic ‘tradition’ is one of the hallmarks of an educated society. It demonstrates a commitment to making minds and a care for the intellectual and cultural development of children. The fact that all children are exposed to this curriculum is an educational and social leveller, and whereas we may (and should) debate the content that makes up a curriculum, a communal approach to learning is a wonderful way to bring children together; to emphasise they are part of something bigger than the self.

The second point is to highlight where we do have a problem with a ‘factory model’ in education, and certainly in the education system where I currently reside. ‘Factories’ are concerned with ‘products’. How the product is formed is perhaps of lesser interest, so long as the process is efficient and cheap, with appropriate quality control built in. Our product is ATAR, and that remains the key focus for too many. The process has become joyless for many, with efficiency and minimisation of risk being the main considerations. Quality control comes in the form of myriad assessment tasks, except these aren’t really anything of the sort – they’re just mini-products that come together in the end for the final ATAR product. The tasks are written by teachers who then mark the tasks; there’s a whole tutoring industry that exists (at least in some cases) for the work to be outsourced to, and we are all complicit because the final product justifies the trudging journey.

Along the way, we squeeze out resilience (there’s no need), ameliorate risk (it can be mitigated) and reduce the importance of subject mastery (due to the domination of the ‘task’). The only thing that suffers is the children’s knowledge and understanding, and the associated joy that *could* develop as a result. Instead, they are the ones on the factory conveyor belt, and instead of refusing to accept this system of education, the Holy Grail of ATAR and university shines so brightly as to blind them to the absence of education in its true sense.

I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad if the phrase that sums up this rather uninspiring approach to education (‘The Factory Model’) had not instead been tagged to something which represents a possible, and brighter, alternative. There’s so much confusion about education, but this might be the most glaringly obvious.

Be more amphoteric

“It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem.”

So wrote Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He was referring to the juxtaposition between the clearly superior intelligence of man over dolphins (as assumed by man), and the opposite view (as assumed by the aquatic mammals).

Remaining in the water, the H2O molecule is a good example of something that is not always what it seems. It is amphoteric, meaning that it is able to react as both an acid and a base. Given that acids and bases are chemical opposites, this means water is a molecule that struggles to make up its mind. In the presence of an acid, it behaves as a base, and in the presence of a base, it is acidic.

I consider myself to be a centrist and there are few (if any) hills I will chose to die on. I am a social liberal but a fiscal and educational conservative. I can understand and accept most people’s views, even if I do not agree with them. The reason for disagreement is sometimes an inability/unwillingness to see things from another’s point of view, and I’m aware that I am guilty of this on occasions. We are never able to see the same thing with the same set of eyes, and from the same angle, so making the effort to see a different point of view is as essential as it is difficult.

I feel like a water molecule every time I engage on social media, particularly Twitter. When debating education, I am classified as an out of touch right-winger, given that advocating for teacher subject expertise and strong discipline inexplicably characterises one as a staunch Tory/Liberal (via the UK/Australian definition). Concerning Brexit, however, I’m apparently a woolly liberal, naive in the hope that we should believe in a European ideal. Twitter is dominated by strong acids and bases and each are assertive in their own way. 280 characters gives little room for nuance, hence conversations are punctuated by bold assertions, vigorous certainty and pugilistic defence when challenged. It seems more important to win than to be made to think, and if in doubt, just make stuff up. I realise that when debating on Twitter, you are less trying to  change the mind of the person you debate with, than persuade the silent onlookers (or floating voters) with reason and logic (as opposed to relying on bombast and sloppy spelling).

There are so many ‘untouchables’ in Australian education that even trying to open up a discussion is difficult. Poke the bear just once, it seems, and the bear attempts to rip your head off. Try for yourself – suggest that perhaps examinations are a fair way to assess student knowledge, and see what vitriol comes back your way. It seems that throwing acid isn’t wrong, at least in some people’s eyes. Or maybe suggest that students shouldn’t be given much choice in what they learn; or that ‘student voice’ tends to be more tokenistic than of genuine value; or that School funding is perhaps not the main reason for improving or declining educational outcomes…

If we can’t debate these issues, and refuse to listen to alternative views, we end up splitting into acids and bases. We agree with everything our fellow acids say, and excuse their rudeness as mere ‘passion’. We reject anything the opposing bases have to offer and consider them not only wrong but morally corrupt. I suspect that most of us are more amphoteric that we let on, and we’re forced into acidic or basic behaviour by the people with whom we choose to interact. This is ok, so long as it doesn’t force us to one or t’other end of the continuum on a permanent basis. The last thing we need is even less nuance on these platforms.