NAPLAN – A Good Idea Ruined

•May 11, 2010 • Leave a Comment

So, the NAPLAN tests have gone ahead.

The AEU had been talking tough, but turned out not to have the bottle to follow through with its threat to boycott the tests.

The media has, as one might expect, crawled all over it, and already allegations of cheating have been raised.

But for me, the most prominent issue is not whether or not some schools are cheating, worrying as that might be. Nor is it the fact that schools are already starting to teach to the test (or at least that’s what is implied by this article from the Age). No, for me, the main issue right now is how the debate over MySchool and Gillard’s high-handed tactics have affected the public perception of the teaching profession.

As evidence for this, and what I find most disconcerting, are comments like these on the ABC News website:

“Forget about comparing and grading schools. Let’s get back to where we can actually compare and grade TEACHERS on their actual results – the amount learned (or otherwise) by their pupils.”

“Australia has the same problem in a lot of areas: we look at the problem without even thinking of searching for the CAUSE.
In this case, the TEACHERS are the cause and I agree that comparing and grading schools is not necessarily the answer, but if a web site like myschool is what gets parents beginning to THINK about how poorly their kids are being taught, then so be it.”

“Teachers fudge their figures and their students’ scores so that their schools score better overall, in order to get their funding.
It’s about time the truth comes out and the frauds who call themselves ‘teachers’ are exposed.
No wonder they didn’t want the site to go live!
This idiotic government of ours has done ONE THING RIGHT, and that is… the MYSCHOOL website.”

“It is about time our teachers were held accountable. I don’t know of a profession where you are not rated on your ability to deliver results.”

“So the winging [sic] again revolves around standards. The only standard is the national one. It is about time teachers got out of there [sic] rut and started doing some brainstorming. It’s not the NAPLAN that’s at fault is the curriculum.”

[Comments taken from http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/05/11/2896141.htm]

Not all of the comments are like this, of course. There are others commenting on this and similar articles who don’t feel the need to assail an entire profession based on their own warped understanding of what teachers do. And I certainly wouldn’t say that these views represent the majority. Just a particularly outspoken section of those who read the news on the ABC website.

Nevertheless, I find myself wondering why I would want to stay in a profession that is regarded so poorly by some, including our politicians. The students in my school have done quite well in the NAPLAN tests over the last couple of years, and also in the Basic Skills tests before that. I know that I do my job well, and my students don’t just learn how to pass tests.

But I can’t help but think that the Government has sought to take advantage of some people’s dissatisfaction with our education system in pursuing its own agenda and has been happy to see teachers become the ‘bad guys’ in the process. The NAPLAN tests’ credibility has also been sacrificed for the same reason.

Ultimately, the narrowing of the curriculum is the fundamental issue and it’s the students who will be the losers. But right now, it’s teachers who are bearing the brunt of the assault on our education system, and more than a few good teachers will walk away from teaching because of it.

I may be one of them.

Once more unto the breach…

•March 31, 2010 • Leave a Comment

[It seems I'm destined to only post into this blog once a year, going by my track record so far. Maybe 2010 will be the year I finally start blogging in earnest.]

Who in their right mind would be a high school Maths teacher? I must be nuts.

I’m tempted to stop right there – what more needs to be said? But I’ll elaborate a little, just so the screen isn’t so empty (poignant though that might be).

You see, nobody really cares about what it is that I do as a Maths teacher. They think they do, but because they have no real understanding of what Mathematics is or why you would study it, they are quite wrong.

What’s prompted me to say this? Mainly the obscene politicising of education in this country. Education has always been a political football to some extent, but the stupidity has reached new lows under the Rudd government.

You see, what the politicians want, and what they’ve persuaded parent that they should want, and to some extent what school principals want, is not for students to learn about Mathematics. They want them to learn about arithmetic and numeracy.

Now, I’m sure that for most politicians, many parents and quite a few principals, the distinction between Mathematics and numeracy is lost on them. And therein lies the problem –  decisions about education are being made by people who do not understand the distinction. I’m sure that much the same issue lies in other subject areas.

How can I state the above so confidently? Simply by considering the obvious: an Education Minister who would implement a website that compares schools based on the results of once-a-year tests, given to four of the thirteen year levels, in the areas of literacy and numeracy and virtually nothing else, and who defends such a move by claiming that parents want transparency, clearly knows nothing about education.

Is this to say that the NAPLAN tests don’t have a purpose? Of course not, but to use such data to encapsulate the “performance” of an entire school in a set of 20 numbers is absurd.

Politicians like to be seen to be doing something, and Education is an arena where it’s easy for them to rearrange the furniture and claim to have made progress. It’s long been so. But the Rudd government has taken matters to another level. They have firmly shifted the emphasis away from the notion of providing a comprehensive education to a scenario where the focus year-by-year will be on the NAPLAN results, particularly once funding becomes closely tied to those results. Principals and education departments will be under pressure to secure funding, which means teachers will be under pressure to secure results that will deliver that funding, which means the focus will be to teach to the test. And because the NAPLAN tests are about literacy and numeracy and little else, the curriculum will narrow over time, as principals and education departments in the main are not going to pour time and money into areas that won’t affect funding.

Now doesn’t that all work in the favour of my particular subject, Mathematics? No, not really. The problem is that the focus is on numeracy, not Mathematics. The pollies want the kiddies to be able to do their sums well – being able to do trigonometry, quadratic equations and matrix operations is irrelevant to them.

And it’s becoming just as irrelevant to the students themselves.  More than ever, I am being confronted with students who not only come out with the age-old “when will I ever need this?”, but who are quite sure that if they ever actually do need it, they will be able to get what they need from the Web, whether through tutorials, discussion forums, online courses or some other way.

Add to that parents who struggled with Maths at school and who are subsequently dismissive of it, is it any wonder I feel that my vocation is becoming a bit pointless?

So I repeat: nobody really cares about what it is that I do as a Maths teacher. They care about students having arithmetic skills. They care about the NAPLAN results because they think it means something. They love the government’s “back to basics” mantra, because it means “back to something I think I can understand”.

But don’t ask for more than that.

And the machine that goes ‘PNG’

•March 13, 2009 • Leave a Comment

(With apologies to Monty Python)

At various times, the Lilypond mailing list has included some discussion of EPS and PNG output from Lilypond, rather than its usual PDF.

The reason it came up at one time was because one guy (call him R) was putting together text, snippets of music scores and other illustrations in MS Word. Obviously Lilypond’s PDF output isn’t much chop for this, but LP does have options for PS, EPS, PNG and even SVG and TeX output.

At one point, I asked if the default resolution for PNG could be ramped up from 101 dpi to, say, 300. The reply I got (from one of the developers) was that PNGs are primarily for webpages.

This response stirred me – I found myself dissatisfied with it. Were PNGs developed for the web? No contest – the Portable Network Graphics format was developed specifically to replace GIFs (which they haven’t done, but I think it’s a ‘CD/vinyl’ situation rather than a QWERTY keyboard problem). But are PNGs used elsewhere? You betcha! Macromedia’s Adobe’s products use PNG as their native graphics format. Mac OS X uses PNGs as the format for screenshots. PNG is used in various mathematical and scientific modelling programs. The list goes on. (Visit the PNG homesite for more.)

All of this got me thinking about the choices people make about the software they use. For example, R wants to use MS Word and embed references to EPS files in it. His aim:

… a nice word processor document that flows, with illustrations embedded in the text, and the text flows around the illustrations, etc. (an old school typography look with no grids or tables)…

Now that’s great, but why did R decide on MS Word and EPS? He’s working in a Windows environment, so Word is possibly the only word processor he has, probably the word processor he’s most used to. Reading the messages on the Lilypond list shows why he’s gone for EPS – his initial experience of PNGs were they were ‘fuzzy’, and he’s after quality. The EPS files don’t display anything more than a rectangle in Word (because Lilypond does not generate a preview component in its EPS files, but I thought Word now created its own preview anyway?), but they print beautifully, so R‘s buzzed with EPS and all is well.

But that’s R‘s choice – should it also be mine? Should I also pigeon-hole PNGs as web graphics and eschew them when I’m working in a word processor?

Of course, we all know how easy it is to get locked into using things for one particular purpose or doing things in one particular way. Especially in a corporate setting. I wonder how many people each day sit in their offices thinking, why are they still doing it that way? Can’t they see that there are better ways to go about this?

There are stacks of illustrations of this ‘one way to go’ syndrome. You can probably rattle off a few from your own workplace. &&&
QWERTY keyboards are a wonderful illustration of human inventiveness coming back to bite us on the proverbial. The QWERTY arrangement was a deliberate move to slow typists down, to prevent typewriters from getting jammed and possibly damaged. That made sense. So why are we still using them? Once they got established, change was difficult. Businesses that had paid not just for QWERTY typewriters but also for training of staff were never going to make a switch unless there was a compelling reason to do so. That reason never happened.

The majority of people working with computers today sit down to a machine running some flavour of Microsoft Windows. A majority will probably be using Microsoft Office applications. When they go home, either the computer will go home with them (laptop) or they will have a machine at home that is set up very much like the one they use at work.

The explanation is simple enough: people tend to follow the path of least resistance. We don’t realise how often we take the path of least resistance because we don’t recognise the ‘resistance forces’ acting on us – fear, greed, and laziness. Now that’s not to say that we are fearful, greedy and lazy, just that our choices are often governed by what we are most familiar with (least fear), what is easiest for us to acquire (least cost) and easiest for us to do (least effort). So I’ll use the software I know best, and the graphics format that will give me the best results.

The downside of the path of least resistance is that it’s usually experientially ‘downhill’. Rarely will you learn something new this way. And yet, software companies to a large extent both pander to and rely upon people taking the path of least resistance. They count on people being “brand-loyal”, which really only means they haven’t a compelling reason to change to something else. And they like to add features that minimise the effort the user needs to make – auto-completion of words, auto-correction, list management, and so on – but also make it a little harder to change – would like X to be your default application, are you sure you want to save in that other format (and No is button already highlighted), etc.

I find that I behave a little differently to most of my peers – I try all sorts of software, and never really settle on one. But why? I’m certainly not immune to the path of least resistance – fear, greed and laziness work on me as well as they do on everyone else. The answer is that they take different forms for me.

I fear not knowing about things. I have a desire, almost a compulsion, to learn new things. I hate detest being bored. I have to push myself to do repetitive, uninformative things. And if I can uncover/discover/design/develop a different way to do something that requires less effort from me, I’ll do that, even if I end up spending twice as much time doing so.

So unlike R, I’d probably tackle the same problem using LyX and PNGs, because I like LyX (because it’s not Word, which I have come to loathe) and because I think PNGs are cool and shouldn’t be relegated to merely third choice for web graphics. And I can add some more “reasonable” justifications, such as LyX’s superior layout behaviour and the fact that 1200 dpi PNGs will look just as good as those EPS files, even if I’m using a non-postscript printer, and if I decide to put the same doc on the web, I will only need to reset the resolution on the PNGs, rather than converting EPS files and then making the results web-ready, etc. But the truth is, I’ll do it differently because I like doing things differently and learning new things in the process.

Does any of this make my choices better than R‘s? Of course not. He should do what works best for him. I’ll do what works for me. This is not really about software.

Where now?

•February 27, 2008 • Leave a Comment

My 41st birthday is approaching, and I’m dreading it.

Where I am right now is nothing like I imagined.

It’s not that my life is bad, it isn’t; it’s just that I had imagined something quite different.

Professionally, I expected to be further up the foodchain OR in a different industry – instead, I am more or less in the same position I was in 17 years ago.

Personally, my musical and sporting ambitions have come to nothing. Oh, I still get plenty of respect from the people around me for my abilities, but nothing more.

And it’s not as though I haven’t made an effort in any of these areas – I have, and for a while there it looked as though that effort was leading somewhere.

But then things just sorta ground to a halt. In my job, a restructure effectively put me back to where I was 6 years ago.

I’d change jobs tomorrow, except that the impact on my children would be a negative one – I would no longer be able to take them to school, they’d have to be up much earlier just to go to out-of-hours care before school –  I don’t want to do that to them. For them, things are good as they are, and I don’t want to spoil that.

Where do I go from here? I wish I knew.

A Sign of the Times

•January 7, 2007 • Leave a Comment

An item in today’s news: the Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch has declared the winner of its Wacky Warning Label contest.

Now why did it become necessary for the manufacturer of a washing machine to put a warning not to put a person in the washer? Presumably because somebody did, and the manufacturer is afraid of being sued for it.

The runner-up: a car manufacturer who advised “never use a lit match to check fuel level.” Other mentionables: the mobile phone instructions that say “don’t try to dry your phone in a microwave oven” and the Yellow Pages advice: “Please do not use this directory while operating a moving vehicle.”

This reminded me of a friend who works for Winnebago here in Australia, who told me that Winnebago have now included in their manuals an instruction about not leaving the wheel after activating the cruise control, the result of some idiot in the US doing exactly that and then suing the company.

There are two levels of idiocy going on here – the first is the people who do stupid things like leaving the wheel of a vehicle in motion on a highway, or using a lit match to check the fuel level. The second level is the legal system that rewards such stupidity. The second level only promulgates the first. And it’s everyone else who ends up bearing the costs, via company and liability insurance increases passed on to consumers.

We need legislators who will work common sense back into the legislation and judges who will not hesitate to identify opportunistic and  frivilous lawsuits for what they are and throw them out. Until the legal system is prepared to say “no, you are not entitled to benefit from the fact that you are stupid”, the problem will continue to exist

And cheers for the Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch for trying to highlight the absurdity of the whole thing.

Construction? Connection? Conviction!

•September 22, 2006 • Leave a Comment

One of the puzzles for me in thinking about how to integrate ICT into the classroom is whether I should be looking at the issue from the viewpoint of a constructionist, connectivist, or something else.

At a conference I recently attended, Stephen Downes, who’s obviously done a lot more thinking about these issues than I have, mentioned Derrida several times. This is interesting, as Derrida was not a contructionist but a deconstructionist, and it will also be interesting to watch Downes’ writing from this point in time to see what impact (if any) reading Derrida has on Downes’ views.

For my own part, I do not see myself as a constructivist or connectivist, although I am sympathetic to much of what both those positions have to say about the acquiring of knowledge.

More musings here will no doubt follow.

 
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