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Turnbull, Maths, Literacy, Back To Basics And Innovation(?)

Apparently, the Turnbull government is going to give a billion dollars to “help” education.

A billion dollars? Why that’s nearly as much as they’ve committed to a new icebreaker (which got a $1.9 billion “investment”).

In return, schools have to extensively test kids from the womb and report to parents. Also, there’s a plan to make it compulsory to study either maths or a science at Year 12. Personally, I’d rather make it compulsory for all students to study an Arts subject.

Not all students are suited to doing the Arts, I expect some of you are saying. But that’s just the point. By Year 12, most students have a pretty good idea of their abilities and interests. Forcing them to do a maths or science for another year won’t magically turn them into the sort of person who suddenly wants to do engineering.

If not Arts, then a compulsory Politics or Basic Accounting might be more useful at Year 12.

Whenever I hear politicians emphasise the need to get back to basics, I’m always intrigued by how they think schools work and what it would actually mean in practice. Of course, every now and then a spelling error from someone under the age of twenty will be used as evidence that all kids are “functionally illiterate” and we need to get back to concentrating on literacy and numeracy.

These calls are often led by Murdoch’s organisation. You know, the one that brings you “The Bolt Report”.


Now, I don’t know if you were “concious” of it when you looked at the text scrolling in that photo of the PM-in-waiting grinning harder than Malcolm “The Cheshire Cat” Turnbull, but there’s a spelling mistake. “Conscious” has an “s”… Ok, we can all make mistakes, but one would hope that if is a media organisation so concerned about the basic isn’t going to employ a proof-reader, they’d at least run their copy through some sort of spell check.

I’m not against efforts at improving the literacy and numeracy of students, but we need to actually focus on what works, not some slogan that suggests that everything was ok in those halcyon days when most students left school at fifteen. They were all perfectly able to do everything in those days. Why everyone got ten out ten for spelling and nobody ever got less than 110% on an arithmetic exam… A gentleman of a particular age tried to tell me that when he was at school, there were no classes for students who were underperforming as nobody was underperforming and, while he wasn’t a particularly good at spelling, that was irrelevant.

We get a strange idea of things because of fiction. It always intrigues me in films set pre-1850 when the hoi polloi write notes and letters to each other as most of them were illiterate. But then I always wonder why those cars in 1940’s movies start first go, when even into the sixties it often used to take a bit of fiddling with the choke to get it going in the morning. (“What’s a choke?” I hear some ask.)

Whatever the merits of some of the proposals that Turnbull is making a condition of the extra funding, I can’t help but wonder what politicians think students do at school. If they are suggesting that students should cease to do any collaborative work, place less emphasis on sport and creative, problem solving activities, then they’re out of step with just about everything I’ve read about what most reports tell us employers are seeking from employees. (Yes, I know that some Liberal supporter will be quoted in the paper as saying that the current generation are unemployable because they can’t place Botswana on a map, recite the kings and queens of England and spell “conscious”, but any actual report emphasises the need for skills beyond the “basics”.) Perhaps they think that schools shouldn’t waste any time on history and geography. Or perhaps it’s some of those controversial subjects on health education where sexual matters are sometimes a subject of concern because schools seem to want to suggest that some people will have different views and values. Yes, it’s a given that any sex ed has to go, but it wouldn’t free up much time in the curriculum.

So is Turnbull expecting that we abandon much of the curriculum in return for drilling kids in grammar, spelling and numeracy all day long? Or does he actually want to produce students capable of thinking and creating, trying new things and well…

There’s a word for it. You know, when people work and experiment to come up with new and improved ways of doing things. Um…

Oh that’s it: Innovation!

Now where have I heard that before?


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  1. Jaquix

    The Libs are just “control freaks”.

  2. Keitha Granville

    Thank you once again Rossleigh for brightening my day.

    My brilliant younger son who writes stories that sing just made it through yr 10 maths thanks to a wonderful teacher – but needed a “tick” for Everday Maths to get his yr 12 final education certificate. What you may ask is Everyday Maths ? Budgeting ? Working out if your Youth Allowance has enough to pay your rent with some left for food ? He managed all that very nicely. But sadly no, there was a test with a bunch of totally not everyday maths to pass.

    We have become so results and tests focussed that we are losing the brilliance in many of our children. Minds with bright and, dare I use the word, innovative ideas are being squashed before they have time to flower. If you don’t fit into the mould you are squashed until you do. How about concentrating on what students CAN do rather than what they CAN’T. They will get the hang of the basics if they are enjoying their learning experience and being recognised for their talents. And teachers can spend more time on those who are struggling if the ones who are flying can just be allowed to get on with it.

    Or is that not the innovation they’re talking about ?

  3. kerri

    Improvements in education always present a conundrum for the right wing as they know most teachers are at worst screaming lefties or at best fair! If they try to focus on curriculum they face the very real possibility that kids will be taught the truth so instead they shoot the messenger.
    The agonisingly oft stated measure of “improving quality of teachers” is never defined and never even explained as if we all know how bad teachers are coz we all had bad teachers right?
    But it was so much better in the good old days of readin’, writin’ and rithmetic so let’s just go back there.
    The right wing are also the first to claim if you want good quality you must pay for it.
    So why does no journalist ever ask if “better quality teachers” could come from teachers being better paid???
    Disclaimer I used to be a teacher.
    I quit because it didn’t pay enough and I was never going to be able to buy my own home.

  4. Kevin Brewer

    We have to be careful when you say pre-1850s when most of the hoi polloi was illiterate. Germany had a school system that was very effective. Literacy was very common in Scotland, where a parish school system had been functioning for 200 years. Even in England the school system worked to an extent that my great grandfather’s first wife, and his sister-in-law could sign the marriage registers in 1856. Otherwise I agree with most of what Rossleigh says. Lib policy is trying to give people an education on a third world budget. I am surprised Morrison didn’t suggest doubling class sizes to cut down on teachers.

  5. Carol Taylor

    Kerri, disclaimer also..likewise I used to be a teacher. Kevin and parts of Australia had a head start, for example an indentured servant/migrant to SA had to both be able to read and write… which compares with the rest of Australia.

    One thing which I intensely dislike is the wealthy, predominantly private Boys School educated Libs telling public school teachers: must do better and try harder. I wonder if kindy teachers still have to bring their own Kleenex because the school can’t afford them?

  6. Jack Russell

    Just another plank in the devious plan to eliminate public schools which all y’all know works so very well in the good ole’ US of A…

  7. Jexpat

    My own preference would be for a compulsory statistics and critical thinking (logic and argumentation) course, but somehow I can’t imagine the LNP supporting such a subversive requirement.

  8. Rossleigh

    Yes, Jexpat. Another thing that’s part of the deal is performance pay for teachers. This is in spite of their being no evidence that it actually improves outcomes. But I guess that they don’t need to look at evidence or modelling when they have “common sense” on their side. That’s why a compulsory critical thinking and statistics course would see the Liberals confined to the past that they’re so fond of!

  9. Peter F

    Pre 1850?. . . My Great Grandfather arrived in Australia in 1853 with the equivalent of a year 10 education. I do hope he could read and write. I had to leave a country town in Qld in 1959 because there was no education above year 8 in the town he settled in.

  10. King1394

    Many brilliant and inspirational teachers are strait-jacketed by a tedious but packed curriculum which leaves little time for developing the curiosity that drives learning. And testing does not aid learning unless the results are used to inform the teacher and student immediately of any shortfalls in understanding.

  11. Jaquix

    I wonder if perhaps the testing of teachers will be on “Liberal values” to weed out the lefties ? I wouldnt put it past them.

  12. Kronomex

    Oohh, a $1billion. I’m so excited at the that (wait a second: idiot submarines costing tax payers $50billion (and you can bet that the delays and costs will blow out by multiple more billions before we start seeing the boats)) and education gets 1/20th of 1% of the current cost over three years. I’m not so excited anymore.

  13. susan

    I think the maths requirement is being led by the universities teaching medicine, hard sciences and engineering. I can’t imagine what the people in charge were thinking when they changed the HSC subject weightings to advantage easier maths subjects over difficult maths. I’d prefer my doctor to have achieved high marks in maths and science rather than religious studies.

  14. Rossleigh

    Yes, Susan, but why require ALL students to do Maths at Year 12. Only a small fraction will go on to be doctors, engineers or scientists. I can’t imagine that anyone considering such a thing wouldn’t choose to do Maths.
    And requiring all students to do a Maths or Science won’t actually do much to change the subject weightings.

  15. Rossleigh

    Actually, I’d prefer my doctor had a good understanding of diagnosis and critical thinking than Maths. The ability to calculate the area under a curved line, or solve trig won’t help him to find out why I have a pain in my neck!

  16. Tempe

    Hi – I vote on the left but in relation to education I consider myself a small c Conservative. I see the Left bumbling along without any real policies that may make a difference. The right, on the other hand, have correctly identified that so much that exists in our schools are based on fads or not evidence based.

    Not surprisingly, I don’t send my children to school to be babysat or for pastoral care, I send them to be educated – which to me means being taught knowledge – the best that has been thought and said in the world. The post modern Left are inherently suspicious of knowledge and that is why our schools are dumbed-down and generic skills are elevated to top rung.

    You rally against teaching kids the basics (which I think is absurd since it is obvious that this is what is missing for many children) and yet you offer no solutions to our educational woes. My ideas would be to rid the world of construcitivist, child-centred nonsense that has deprived our kids of a proper education for far to long. Bring back a knowledge-rich curriculum and teach using more successful pedagogy such as direct/explicit instruction. Lastly, abandon on going assessment and bring back external testing/exams. Although I find I can’t quite stomach it, I can tell you that I have been very tempted to vote right due to the lefts ineptitude on these matters.

  17. Tempe

    Also, I’m not sure that the right have ever argued that they don’t believe that students should becoming critical/creative thinkers. The difference is in the route you use to get there. If you invest more money in schools (Re: Gonski) there will be little impact unless you address the problems with teacher training ie the way they are just regurgitating a particular political/ideological attachment that most academics in teaching training prescribed to and that is not grounded in evidence Re: so called progressive ideas.

    Nothing leads to disengagement or kills creativity faster than a boring curriculum focused on skilling for the 21st C – lets just think about the jobs at the end (very utilitarian argument) not about the rich academic content they are missing out on -rather than knowledge acquisition or the lack of basic foundation skills which every student must possess before attempting more complex tasks. Sorry, but there is no way you can bypass the knowledge part and jump straight to the problem-solving. Problem-solving is dependent on back ground knowledge ie basic skills/knowledge. See the latest research in educational cognitive science such as Dan Willingham.

    Frankly, I don’t care what the business world has to say about education and I don’t believe they should dictate the terms. A rigorous, rich, education comes from acquiring as much knowledge as possible and once committed to long term memory is then used in creative ways. Not so sold on the critical part….

  18. jimhaz

    [I am surprised Morrison didn’t suggest doubling class sizes to cut down on teachers]

    Well they like Direct Instruction. I would imagine that DI would allow bigger class sizes and perhaps that is why they seem keen on it in the first place. Of course under the LNP that sort of thing would only apply to public schools – the toff schools would do whatever they wish.

  19. Tempe

    Jimhaz – Perhaps the reason they like DI is because it has a very sound evidence base and works very well. If it allows teachers to teach larger classes, well then that solves the issue with smaller classes, which is surely a good thing. Clearly, from your argument, DI works well even under more trying conditions. If you continue to support child-centred ideas then you are NOT helping our kids become educated.

  20. jimhaz

    @ Tempe
    I don’t have any kids, and I’m quite unaware of how teaching is done at the average school these days.

    I have in the past been concerned about the over-feminisation of teaching, and suspect the lovey dovey approach is way overdone.

    I’ve have no problems if Maths or Science were made compulsory, and wouldn’t care much if both were.
    Art and languages seem overrated to me – so I’d never consider them as compulsory.

    A subject I would make compulsory is Home Economics – I want our fattening society to learn more about cooking healthily at at school, as many won’t get it at home.

    I’d also create a 2nd compulsory subject Philosophy, Logic and Memory systems.

  21. Tempe

    Hi jimhaz – I have 2 kids “in the system’ and it really is appalling. I believe all subjects have their place in the curriculum. I liked home ec as it taught me to cook but it’s not a subject that would be chosen by those in later grades to pursue an academic focus. Absolutely agree that Philosophy would be fantastic, but the knowledge, history ideas not just how to apply it to be a critical thinker. cheers

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