Search results for ‘coaching’

Thoughts on coaching

Consumer Guide to Coaching

I was coached–by my grandfather, a retired teacher, in Mathematics. It was only that and former SBHS Principal Bob Outterside’s teaching that enabled me to get through a subject in which I was far from gifted or talented!

It was a good deal, mind you; rather than me paying the coach, he paid me pocket money to do various chores for him. And it was one-to-one; he was also a very good teacher.

There is nothing surprising about parents seeking to have their children coached. Many of the SBHS parents come from cultural backgrounds where such help is the norm, even if (as we see in the hagwon story below) it may be argued that this is over-the-top. China’s determination to reduce the burden on students and to seek a broader view of education (see below) is interesting too.

Xiao Wu (Year 12 2001), a very successful HSC student, now counsels parents and students to realise that the pressure to get into a selective school ought not to be so strong; it is not like China where getting into the right school is the only way to ensure a first-rate career or choice of university. (It should be added that coaching is not so common in China as it is in Korea or Japan.) Xiao also sees the importance of participating fully in any cocurricular activities the school offers, citing the burn-out factor as being a significant reason for being somewhat less academically single-minded. In his case he had little choice, but does have regrets that he could not participate as much as he would have liked.

One can understand parents seeking coaching when the system confronts them with high stakes tests such as the Selective Schools Entrance Test–especially when parents feel they cannot help their children themselves in this new environment. Their feeling–not entirely wrong–is that their sons and daughters are starting behind the line compared to native speakers. To try to correct that by whatever means is not in itself reprehensible. However, the ethics and activities of some coaching colleges are quite clearly reprehensible.

The argument that coached students are hot-house specimens does, however, deserve rebuttal. If it were so, they would wilt once the initial purpose of coaching had been achieved. Actually being in a competitive selective school environment would show their weakness. It is fair to say that in the majority of cases this is simply not apparent. The students in general thrive, and were probably deserving of entry anyway. Nor are all coached students nonparticipants in cocurricular activities; if that were so the situation at Sydney Boys High in music, debating and sports would be far worse than some fear it is. Indeed, to judge from the 2006 edition of The Record (which did come out on time this year!) all the above are very healthy indeed, even if participation rather than absolute success characterises a few sports.

What follows does not so much refer to Selective Schools Test coaching. I am often asked about subject-area coaching further down the track. Here are a few pointers.

Only engage in tuition if it supports school learning. There is no value in “extra” work that is irrelevant or confusing. Any coach who is incurious about what the student is currently studying is not worth his or her fees. The tutor should not load the student with even more homework. Above all, the tutor should not give the impression that his or her homework has priority over school work. This is self-defeating for the student, who has probably sought tuition because he is falling behind.

Avoid any tuition where the classes exceed five students. What is the point of sitting in a poorly graded class of twenty or so in conditions far worse than any school? All you are doing is lining the pockets of the College proprietor. One-to-one is ideal but not economical from the College’s viewpoint. So unless you are simply wanting your child to meet some new people and extend their social contacts, avoid any College with large classes, no matter what they promise or who they are.

Consider that tuition may just be an expensive luxury. Is there a good reason for the tuition? Could the school have addressed the issue anyway? Always consult your child’s teacher first to see what the problem is and what may be done about it at school level.

More is not always better. If tuition prevents your child from doing set work or having an adequate time-management plan of his own, then it is hindering the child, not helping him. If tuition prevents your child from developing socially, causes rebelliousness and resentment. leads to a negative attitude towards learning, and reduces his chances of benefiting from all the school has to offer, then you have not only wasted your money, but you have possibly damaged your child.

Smart coaching for the right reasons can be OK; most coaching is neither smart nor for the right reasons. Please think about this very carefully.

Neil Whitfield
June 3 2002. (Revised)

Some interesting items

1. Australian college accused of stealing test paper

(The Straits Times [Malaysia] May 12 2002)

SYDNEY – Illegally obtained examination papers may have given students at Sydney’s largest coaching college an unfair advantage in getting into the selective schools of New South Wales (NSW). Entry into these schools, which provide a rich learning environment for high-achieving and academically talented students, is through examinations which test students in English, mathematics and general ability. A position in the 28 selective schools in NSW is highly prized –15,000 students will sit the examination this year but only 3,300 will gain entry.

[A certain] College, at Homebush, has been accused by a former teacher of obtaining or stealing the highly confidential test papers, The Sydney Morning Herald reported yesterday. The revelation was made in the NSW Parliament on Friday by opposition education spokesman Patricia Forsythe, who referred to a parcel of documents from the teacher to Education Minister John Watkins.

Mr Watkins sent it to the Independent Commission Against Corruption.

The documents included what is said to be a trial test in mathematics prepared by the college in 1998. It was almost identical to a sample test placed on the Department of Education’s website two months ago, the Herald said.

2. Education-Obsessed South Korea

by Radio Netherlands Seoul correspondent Hyun-Sung Khang, 8 June 2001

Asian countries have long been noted for the importance, which they attach to education. But in South Korea, the competition for a good education has become even more intense in recent years. One reason why South Koreans take education so seriously is because it dictates future opportunities and even the marriageability of a person. And the pursuit of a good education has meant big business for the private sector.

It’s four o’clock in the afternoon and 17-year-old Chong Min San has just finished a full day at school. He gets on a bus but he’s not heading home.For him and his friends their day is far from over. “I have to get up at 7 in the morning, I have to be at school by 8 and lessons finish at four. Then you go to a hagwon and when you arrive home, it’s around 1 o’clock in the morning.”

A hagwon is a private educational institute, which many Koreans attend to supplement their studies. Chong Min San says the nightly cramming classes are pretty exhausting.

“If you have assignments from school or hagwon you have to work through the night. If you go to hagwon everyday, that happens about three times a week. It’s quite tiring; you have to sit for hours. That’s why most people have bad backs and mentally it’s even more tiring, it’s stressful, but you have to do that.”

Ambitious Parents

Lenny Erikson, an American who teaches at the BCM language institute in Seoul, says hagwons are targeted by ambitious parents.

“The sole purpose is to put you ahead of those people who don’t go to those schools. Especially with kids, parents want their kids to excel, they want their kids to be number one in the school, so they put them through as many language schools or hagwons to get them up there.”

So fierce has the competition become that parents are now sending children as young as two to attend 20-minute lessons where they are taught basic maths and English-language skills. In 1990, it was estimated that over 8 billion dollars was spent on private education in South Korea. Now that figure has more than tripled, often at great personal expense. Some Korean parents spend one-third or half of their income on their children’s education.

Education All-Important

The amount of money, but also the amount of time that is spent on education in South Korea reflects the importance attached to education in this country. This is because a place at one of the top universities is probably the single most important factor determining a South Korean’s opportunities in life, right down to their marriage prospects. But 24-year-old student Son Yong Boo says the huge success of private education is also a reflection of the lower quality of education found in the public schools.

“It’s a really big problem. Many of the teachers are not good enough to teach and classes are overcrowded. And for example, physics. What do you think is the most important thing to teach about physics? It’s experiments, right? But only accept formulas from books; they do not think about it just memorise it. So, how can it be interesting to students?”


The government is responding. From this year, it says less importance will be attached to the university national entrance exam. Colleges will be able to assess students according to their total academic performance and Korea’s heavily regulated universities will get more discretionary power in admission procedures. But critics say these reforms don’t go far enough. They want a total overhaul of the education system, and until that happens, they say, South Korea’s school children will be spending most of their waking hours in the country’s hagwons.

3. Advice to UK Parents: Good Schools Guide UK

First of all, you are thinking along the right lines. However bright [Jessica, a hypothetical Year 6 student] she is, she will need, at the least, some practice in managing the examinations. It is, in fact, often the brightest children who are most disadvantaged if they have had no practice prior to the exams. These children often write long, wonderful stories if left to themselves but are totally thrown when given half an hour to produce a finished piece. These children often see complexities in comprehension questions way beyond what is required and need to learn the technique of containing their ideas – again, bearing in mind the time limits. However good at Maths these children may be, it may well be the case that the pace in their classroom has simply not allowed them to cover some of the skills and techniques that the senior school will expect them to understand. It may also be that you simply don’t have a clue as to how Jessica would measure up against fellow candidates for an academically selective school. So – what is the answer? You need to have an independent assessment.

Ideally this will be done by an experienced teacher at Year 6 level in an academically selective junior school – someone who knows exactly what the senior school is looking for. It may well be that this is someone who also coaches local children for the exams at the school of your choice. Frequently, this is a retired specialist at this level who should be prepared to see Jessica once, try out her English and her maths and give you an honest appraisal of her general aptitude, some idea of her chances of success and what it will take to prepare her thoroughly. You must not expect such a teacher to make promises! Even the brightest and best pupils can have off-days – though we hope not! An honest assessment is a useful tool and can save much heartache and disappointment later on.

Coaching for the examinations

An experienced teacher will have heaps of past papers, have all the techniques at her command and will make Jessica feel confident very quickly. However, it may be that you will need to find separate teachers for English and Maths. This has the disadvantage of being more expensive and inconvenient – two weekly lessons after school as well as Jessica’s music lessons, Brownies, ballet class and so on puts strains on you all. But, if you cannot find a teacher who will do both English and Maths, it will probably be necessary and will be worth it!

But – how do you find the teachers? The best way is word of mouth. A good teacher seldom advertises or has to register with an agency. In any case, agencies are very expensive. Ask around among parents – especially those whose child is a year ahead of Jessica and who have been through the same process. Don’t be shy of asking around or assume that everyone else’s child gets into the the school you like without extra help. It is far more likely that local eyebrows would be raised at any child who attempted the exams without coaching and you will find parents only too eager to discuss the relative merits – and costs! – of this or that teacher. You may hear of teachers who prepare children in groups. This is usually cheaper but is less satisfactory. The benefits of one-to-one teaching, especially if Jessica has major gaps or difficulties, – spelling, story-construction , fractions etc. – cannot be over-emphasised. She will progress much faster with individual attention and a good teacher will also be able to do wonders for her confidence – not so easy if she is in a tutor’s group with Shireen and Anna who are both, of course, ‘brilliant’.

It may be that Jessica’s school can recommend teachers or it may be worth asking the school you hope she will go to, though it is not unheard of for this to be remembered and held against a candidate if she is borderline! However, there is a tendency for these schools to tell you that no coaching is necessary. This ignores the disadvantage that state school children are under.

When should you start? Ideally you should telephone the teacher a year or so before the examination and book a place. The best teachers usually have a waiting list. The teacher may well suggest an assessment. This should enable her to tell whether Jessica needs only, say, a term’s lessons – starting the September before the examination – in order to plug minor gaps and give her timed practice – or, if there are more significant gaps or deficiencies, whether it would be advisable to start straight away.

4. Beijing Schools’ Education Reform to Cultivate Creativity

Quality education, a new method of learning designed to make students excel in studies and other areas of the lives, is being implemented in Beijing’s primary and middle schools. “Quality education means I can do it,” Wang Xing, a student in Guangming Primary School said confidently.

The school adopted the “I can do it” slogan in 1996 calling on students, parents and teachers to strengthen students’ confidence by allowing them to participate in everything that interests them.

Many students in Guangming are part-time journalists at China Children’s News. Wang, with a camera in her hands, said: “I like photography very much, and I want to be a journalist in the future.” These young journalists arrange their classroom lessons along with their part-time job of contributing campus stories to the newspaper, because the school has been easing up with homework, said the schoolmaster Liu Yongsheng.

Other schools such as Beijing No 2 and No 11 middle schools are also implementing quality education programmes. “To reduce students’ heavy homework and relieve their psychological burdens, primary schools in Beijing will abandon the ‘100 mark evaluating system’ for students starting this autumn,” said the capital’s education committee director Xu Xi’an.

Meanwhile, primary and middle schools will eliminate 70 textbooks which are either outdated or too difficult for students, said Xu.

A heavy homework load, frequent examinations and the 100 mark system have caused great anxieties among students, sources from the Ministry of Education said. Consequently, many students had little time to play or relax. The ministry has introduced the concept of lightening students’ loads to encourage creativity. Beijing has spearheaded the effort.

Starting this year, junior middle schools will end the city’s unified entrance exams to senior middle schools. Instead, the schools will hold exams that will test students’ abilities to solve social and daily life problems, rather than simply memorizing textbooks, said Xu.

See also

What do parents and students expect from a tutor? (PDF)

New guidelines proposed for tutoring industry 2005 from Standards Australia.

PDF File: Tutoring by Keith Topping, from UNESCO International Academy of Education. Distinguishes good tutoring from bad tutoring. Well worth reading. Keith Topping is Professor of Educational & Social Research at the University of Dundee. “He is known for developing and researching the effectiveness of methods for non-professionals (such as peers, parents, or adult volunteers) to tutor others – in core skills (e.g. reading, spelling, writing, thinking skills, science, mathematics, information technology) and across subject boundaries, in all sectors and contexts of education and lifelong learning.”

Mark Bray, “Adverse Effects of Private Supplementary Tutoring”, UNESCO pdf file (83 pages).

Big market for tutoring by G. Jeffrey MacDonald, The Christian Science Monitor (Boston) May 13, 2003. Also in America… not just a Sydney phenomenon after all.

Tutoring / Tuition for Children – just cause or impediment? from Families Online (UK). Here is an extract:

Make sure that the tutor is familiar with the syllabus which your child is studying and, in the case of Maths, for example, that the tutor is not confusing your child by teaching a method which conflicts with the method used at school. While alternative methods may well be appropriate as a means to developing understanding, the tutor should always end up with the school method.

Tuition should not be a chore, it should be a positive, enjoyable experience, because your child will be developing confidence and seeing that he/she can do it…

Tuition should complement school work and you should liaise with your child’s teacher to ensure that the tuition is effective. A sympathetic and experienced tutor will help your child to realise that he/she has ability and that the subject being studied can be fun and is no longer a no-go area…

To find samples of NSW selective schools tests, CLICK HERE.

There is an American site called which offers extremely valuable fact sheets on various aspects of testing.


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I wrote this one in November 2005, but it somehow fits as both a sequel and a contrast to the previous post. 😉

English Teacher moments

The link above takes you back to August, when I mentioned Scott Poynting, an ex-student from Wollongong who is now at the University of Western Sydney. Imagine how pleased I was to receive this email the other day.

I had heard from a 1972 classmate about your blog site, but only came across it googling to see whether anyone was mentioning our books (the sort of thing one does when there’s marking to be done). Thank you for the nice things you said about them.

Teaching is far too thankless a pursuit (in comparison to its value). With your extensive networks now, however, you must hear from more ex-students than most. This one wants to thank you for reading aloud to us from ‘The Sound and the Fury’ in 1972, and the love of literature to which that contributed. I went on (after a false start – a floating life, if you like) to study English at UNSW, and studied this novel in first year. I later read all the Faulkner I could get my hands on. Later still, I studied American Literature at Macquarie. Another false start, but a floating I don’t regret.

Thank you, also, for reading to us in 1972 from ‘The Outcasts of Foolgarah’. I later went on to read all the Frank Hardy novels I could get my hands on (and most were better than ‘Outcasts’, though the politics attracted me). By that time I was teaching mathematics – another false start. I read a bit of ‘Outcasts’ to my students last year, in a subject on ‘Social Inequalities’, during a week in which we contrast Woollahra and Bankstown.

Yes, you taught me English. Thank you.

Then after coaching today Ben returned a few books and gave me enough free yum chas to sustain an army; I will be sharing with M, but there is enough in the pot to cover one of the Sunday lunches with Sirdan and Lord Malcolm as well! I also had an email from another coachee, Erwin, who is reading “Paradise Lost”. Indeed, indeed.

Another ex-student from some time ago, I note from his site that he has been working his butt off, has just started, finding teaching having its highs and lows as it does. I really can relate to what he says about it.

I recommended D H Lawrence “Afternoon in School — The Last Lesson” as therapy. I know I often read it with recognition, and I suspect “Marcel Proust” and “Aluminium” may know it too. In fact I seem to recall in certain moods actually teaching the poem deliberately last period Friday to certain English classes:

When will the bell ring, and end this weariness?
How long have they tugged the leash, and strained apart
My pack of unruly hounds: I cannot start
Them again on a quarry of knowledge they hate to hunt,
I can haul them and urge them no more.
No more can I endure to bear the brunt
Of the books that lie out on the desks: a full three score
Of several insults of blotted pages and scrawl
Of slovenly work that they have offered me.
I am sick, and tired more than any thrall
Upon the woodstacks working weariedly.

And shall I take
The last dear fuel and heap it on my soul
Till I rouse my will like a fire to consume
Their dross of indifference, and burn the scroll
Of their insults in punishment? – I will not!
I will not waste myself to embers for them,
Not all for them shall the fires of my life be hot,
For myself a heap of ashes of weariness, till sleep
Shall have raked the embers clear: I will keep
Some of my strength for myself, for if I should sell
It all for them, I should hate them –
– I will sit and wait for the bell.

In these last days before retirement I make a point, seeing the timetable is mine to devise, of just not doing anything last period, if I can avoid it — and I usually can.

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Posted by on September 28, 2007 in reminiscences, replays, teaching


Tutoring, reality, and results

I have written on coaching before. As you will see if you check the “About” page, I do tuition in Chinatown here in Sydney — one-to-one only — and have for some time. Tuition is meant, in my opinion, to supplement what the school might be doing; it certainly does not substitute for the school, nor does it circumvent the student’s own work. There is no magic about it. The tutor tries to tune into where the student currently sits, tests formally or informally for the student’s weaknesses, and attempts to lift the student’s performance accordingly through carefully chosen practices and explanations. “Anything happening at school you are not sure about?” is always a good opening question. I have sometimes been in the happy position of being able to coordinate my tuition with what the student is doing at school because I have been able to talk to the student’s teacher.

What tutoring must never do is replace the student’s own authentic efforts. Doing a student’s homework for them or drafting their essays is not tuition: it is cheating.

The outcomes of tutoring therefore vary. Without wishing to appear rude, no tutor can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but a tutor can enable a student to progress more than he or she may have done without tuition.

Last year I had five HSC candidates, and currently know the results of three of them. The fourth, I imagine, got a respectable result in Standard English: I must try to find out. The fifth dropped out of tuition after August; the problem there was doing the wrong course — forced to do Standard when ESL was the most viable option. One candidate I do know about would have been disappointed as the band result was not the hoped for outcome, although only one or two marks short. In that case tuition began a bit too late. It is always best to begin at least in Year 11. Nonetheless, that student did make substantial improvements, but was not what I would call a natural humanities student. The student’s approach tended to rely too much on memorisation, and consequently lacked the flexibility needed to rework what was known to suit new circumstances. The other two, by contrast, did really well. In one case the aim was to achieve Band 6 (the top range) and that was achieved (92%). Of course the student had the potential already, but tuition helped to ensure that Band 6 as the student was able to develop examination and study skills more effectively through the practices and through our reflections together on how the system works. The other was an interesting case, as the student’s language skills were behind the one who ended up disappointed. This student achieved Band 5 (and a UAI of around 93), but would almost certainly have attained Band 4 or even less without tuition. However, the student was a more natural humanities student, able to make the necessary adjustments and critical decisions. As a tutor I can enhance that, but I can never teach it.

So I am afraid that paying the money does not in itself guarantee a result, but then that extends to all private education, doesn’t it? Students are not blank slates on which anything may be written.

I should add that all my students are of East Asian background, mostly Chinese, and English is their second language.

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Posted by on February 12, 2007 in diversity, esl for teachers, for teachers, HSC, pedagogy


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Literacy — Why I reject Kevin Donnelly’s educational analysis

I used to have a page on Geocities called Inside Dr Nelson’s Brain, which in turn began as a series of rants on my old Diary-X blog as a review and critique of Kevin Donnelly’s Why our schools are failing (Sydney, Duffy and Snellgrove 2004). At the time I described Donnelly’s book as “probably the worst, the most stupid, book on education that I have read.” I have not changed my mind. That page was rather well visited, but really needed to be redone to moderate its original rant status.

UPDATE: See My, my, my… (18 August 2007). November 2007: corrected archival links to point them to WordPress instead of Blogspot.


I did Dip Ed at Sydney University way back in 1965. So I have been around education for a very long time. Kevin Donnelly’s Why our schools are failing (sic) is probably the worst, the most stupid, book on education that I have read in all that time. To call it reactionary would be to flatter it. Even Malcolm Turnbull is so embarrassed that he is constrained to say in his foreword: “Dr Donnelly’s views are his own and not those of the Menzies Research Centre.” Malcolm Turnbull may be many things, but stupid is not one of them.

What you have in this book is a cherry-picking exercise that would disgrace an undergraduate. Armed with a stock of cliches and prejudices, and with quite a few windmills to tilt at, Donnelly lays about the past forty years with an acute lack of discrimination, quite often plainly not understanding what he is criticising.

Want to know the right way to learn History? Simple, learn off a few dates… I do not jest. Everything since about 1960 seems to have been a left-wing plot or galloping political correctness. Objectivity is not Donnelly’s long suit, nor is analysis, or fair treatment of the evidence.

Typically Donnelly is his quoting Richard Tarnas on postmodernism (evil.) Now I happen to rather like Tarnas’s The Passion of the Western Mind: very readable and often challenging. Donnelly cherry-picks the part that suits him, but since he regards environmental education (along with just about everything else that has happened since 1960) as deplorable political correctness, he neglects to cherry-pick such things as this:

Scott London: You point out that a widespread sense of urgency is tangible on many levels today, as if one historical era is coming to an end and another is about to begin.

Richard Tarnas: Yes, there is a real awareness that things have to change. People are becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that the ecological situation is critical and that we cannot continue to live according to the same assumptions with which we have lived blithely for the past several hundred years. There are also social, economic, and political dimensions to the crisis. There is the unprecedented plurality of perspectives and worldviews and religious and philosophical and political perspectives that are in the air. And, when it comes down to it, there is a spiritual crisis that pervades our world.

I think it affects everybody, but the more informed and thoughtful a person is, the more aware they are of the reality of the spiritual crisis. We live in a world in which mainstream, conventional modern science has essentially voided the cosmos of all intrinsic meaning and purpose. There is no spiritual dimension to it from its point of view. The intellectual power of mainstream modern science has effectively defined what kind of cosmos we live in. And yet human beings aspire for spiritual significance in the life that they lead and in the world that they live in. It is only, I think, though going through a profound inner transformation, and also an intellectual transformation, that one can see beyond that crisis and come into a world of a different kind.

The fact that Tarnas is “Director of the graduate program in Philosophy, Cosmology and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies” seems to pass Donnelly by, who is, whatever he means by this, a stickler for the old “disciplines”. But Tarnas lives in the 21st century, after all.

A Nation At Risk: Falling Standards?

Donnelly wrote:

  • Bruce Wilson, the CEO of Australia’s national curriculum body (Curriculum Corporation), freely admits that Australia’s approach to designing curriculum is inherently flawed and represents an ‘unsatisfactory political and intellectual compromise’,
  • a commonwealth government commissioned survey concluded that almost half of the academics interviewed agreed that the standards of first year students had declined over time,
  • the 1996 national literacy tests showed that approximately 27% of year 3 students and 30% of year 5 primary school students were illiterate,
  • as outlined by the Australian educationalist, Ken Gannicott, the 1975 Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth carried out by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) found that 28% of students failed the literacy test; by 1995 the figure had risen to 30%,
  • politicians, such as NSW Premier Bob Carr, applauding the favourable results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (2000) test, even though students were not corrected for spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes (if students had been corrected, many would have failed), and
  • the rise in remedial courses to teach basic literacy and numeracy skills at our tertiary institutions.

My responses

  • You may see what Bruce Wilson is on about in this conference handout from 2003. It is a fair part of the ongoing debate, and is addressed in the NSW Department’s Quality teaching in NSW public schools, which provides an excellent and do-able framework for improving teaching practice. And yes, curriculum is always a compromise between competing interest groups.
  • The survey Donnelly refers to was by Professors Don Anderson and Richard Johnson, who are Visiting Fellows at The Centre for Education Development and Academic Methods at ANU, and Dr Larry Saha, from Sociology at ANU. Note how the word “changed” becomes “declined” in Donnelly Land:

Professor Anderson said that “because the context of academic life has changed so much over the last 20 years — for example in the funding per EFTSU, the advent of new electronic technologies, and application of industrial work place agreements — the work environment will have changed considerably. On top of that universities are more entrepreneurial and academics are expected to be active in seeking grants and in encouraging enrolments.

“Students have also changed and this has affected academics’ work. There is now mass participation, whereas in the past getting in to university was much more selective, intellectually and socially. Today the student body is diverse, there are more overseas students, HECS has come and full-fee students are on the rise. There are reports that students are more demanding and that standards have changed.

Interviews with academics, retirees and managers in universities around the country are providing rich accounts of academic work and the way universities are responding. These interviews have define questions for the web-based survey that will provide a quantitative dimension to the account of change. Among other things academics in all areas are reporting a surge in emails from students and administration.

Here is a summary of the report [searching from that link may now be needed]:

This report covers two topics: the ways in which academic life has changed in the last twenty years or so, and the impact on universities of an ageing academic workforce. The first two chapters provide some background to these studies. Part 2 deals with changes in academic life. Part 3 deals with issues of ageing.

Academic life has been affected by large growth in the number of students without a matching increase in the number of academics, so that the student: staff ratio has risen to unprecedented levels. It has been affected by pressures on universities to raise funds by taking in fee-paying students at undergraduate and graduate levels and by undertaking educational and research work under contracts with industries. It has been affected by the great growth in communications and information technology; by a strong change in management styles from the collegial to the managerial style of businesses; by greatly increased use of casual staff, and the extra pressures this places on the full-time continuing staff; and by a decline in the relative status, salaries, prestige and general attractiveness of employment as an academic.

While some developments have been welcomed — for instance, greater attention to the quality of teaching, the greater access of students to university education, or the ease of modern electronic communications — the overall picture is of frustration and disillusionment, to the point where many respondents to a questionnaire said they would not recommend an academic career to anyone.

The ageing of the academic workforce is a phenomenon of some concern in Britain and in the USA. It is recognised here, but seems to be of less concern to universities. It is more complicated than simply the fact that the average age of academic staff is rising; it affects different departments or sections of a university in different ways. ‘Bunching’, where several members of a department retire at much the same time, can either give an opportunity for renewal or can lead to loss of significant areas of study. In the second case, decisions taken in department after department around the nation can lead to a national loss before anyone is aware of it happening.

Some universities have procedures for gathering data internally and for dealing with ageing according to the university’s own priorities. There seems to be no body to oversee the national interest in the decline or disappearance of areas of study of national importance.

  • If you study the field, you can only laugh at almost everything Donnelly says about literacy. See, just for starters, Review of Literature (on literacy and numeracy) from Nothing Left to Chance: Report on Literacy and Numeracy Outcomes Evaluation in High Achieving Disadvantaged Schools (South Australia 2004). Modestly, I also recommend my own paper on literacy written while studying at UTS in 1998. See that page, on this site, for some more up-to-date links on literacy. At that time I wrote:

My mind and my teaching practice are archaeological sites. Some exploration of those sites seems a good way to focus the development of my present approach to literacy education, primarily but not exclusively in English in secondary schools. So far as this article has a thesis it is this: that, despite the sometimes combative rhetoric of those advocating one model or pedagogy or another (as when Martin [1993:159] pillories whole language approaches as ‘benevolent neglect’), an informed, dynamic eclecticism is a viable stance.

Thirty years have deposited approaches beginning with the very traditional mainstream English teaching of 1966, not much changed from the 1950s.


Throughout these thirty years literacy has apparently been in a state of crisis. In the late 1950s and early 60s certain Science professors at the University of Sydney lamented the ‘illiteracy’ of their students. In the 1970s, even before any rational person could have detected any impact on school leavers of the various ‘progressive’ developments of the early 70s, many commentators (such as Professor Crisp of the Australian National University) discerned a rapid decline in literacy and numeracy between 1970 and 1975 (Watson 1994:1).

Even today successful adman and potboiler writer Bryce Courtney (speaking in a good cause against tax on books) can claim:

This country is facing a serious literacy problem. We could very easily by about 2020 have a country where 55pc of the population is illiterate. (Sun-Herald 23 August 1998.)

Just what Courtney means by literacy and how he arrived at this alarming prognostication is anybody’s guess. Such critics usually have in mind one or more of the following: that phonics and other skill-centred pedagogies constitute ‘real teaching’ as opposed to trendiness or left-wing subversion; that traditional grammar is the same; that spelling is in a parlous state; that our white Anglo-Saxon Protestant heritage is being systematically white-anted; that teachers are responsible for crime, drugs and youth unemployment; that infinitives are being split–and so on.

Nearer the mark is Mem Fox who observed on Margaret Throsby’s ABC-FM program on August 24 1998 that we think literacy standards are falling because more people’s literacy is exposed; in other words social demands have changed.

Donnelly is honest enough to footnote the 1996 definition of literacy: “the minimum standard of literacy and numeracy without which a student will have difficulty making sufficient progress at school.” That is actually rather a high standard when compared with the usual definition of functional literacy which involves such criteria as “able to read the safety instructions on a household product” or “can sign name.” What the various surveys and studies Donnelly cites show is that 25-30% of our students are not terribly bright, and don’t perform terribly well — this has always been the case, sadly, and probably always will be. It does not help that social expectations on literacy have in fact risen; forty years ago there were far more things to do if you were not a Rhodes scholar, after all. Technology was simpler; life was simpler.

A rise of 28% to 30% (whatever that means, given different measures are being compared) is hardly of great statistical significance, especially over twenty years — twenty years of great social change, differing expectations, and a very different demographic.

The 1996 ABS Survey figures for Australia are supplied here by Radio Print Handicapped. See also World Facts and Figures.

An interesting English study comparing people born in 1958 with people born in 1970 is Professor John Bynner, University of London, “Literacy, Numeracy and Employability.” It demonstrates a subtlety and degree of objectivity that Donnelly seems incapable of reaching.

A literate and numerate population is the goal of any industrialised society. Literacy and numeracy skills carry the means by which children are equipped for the education processes on which their location in the adult world will depend. As a country’s cultural identity is also underpinned by the knowledge and skills transmitted from one generation to the next, basic skills also give access to a country’s cultural heritage and values. Until relatively recently, however, basic skills were desirable attributes, but their absence did not necessarily deny the individual without them the ability to function in the adult world. Large areas of employment depending on unskilled work demanded little in terms of literacy and numeracy. Qualifications also did not count for much in such areas of the labour market and what employees needed to know to do the job was learnt on the job itself.

Through the 1970s and especially the 1980s, the labour market changed. The information technology revolution wiped out, or transformed, whole areas of industry. The fields of traditional male employment, especially unskilled manual work in factories, either disappeared or demanded new levels of education from employees. Young women fared better in this situation because their traditional route to adulthood had typically involved staying on beyond compulsory schooling to learn the secretarial and clerical skills required for white-collar office work. For boys the choice was more stark: stay on in education and get qualifications, or make your way in a depleted labour market, usually gaining entry to it via poor quality training schemes instead…

In this new scenario, basic skills took on a new significance. Without these building blocks of educational competence, young people’s capability for acquiring qualifications was very limited and the opportunities for employment were similarly restricted as well. Moreover the problem was not so much one of lacking these skills altogether. Few young school leavers in advanced industrialised countries were completely illiterate or innumerate; their problem was one of poor capability in using reading, writing and numberwork in everyday situations in the work place and outside. Such young people with poor functional literacy and numeracy tended to be relegated to the margins of the labour market, making do with the limited amount of unskilled, often part-time casual work that still existed there. Young men’s response was often to move into a halfway house of training, interspersed with casual work and unemployment; young women frequently opted out altogether, preferring the alternative route to adulthood of early motherhood instead (Banks et al, 1992; Bynner, Morphy and Parsons, 1997; Bynner, 2001)…

6% of the 1958 cohort was defined as having very low (below foundation) literacy scores, 13% had low (foundation) scores and 81% had average scores. For numeracy the comparable percentages were: 23%, very low; 25% low; 52% average. Notably there were also gender differences in the scores, with women faring particularly badly on the numeracy tests: 27% of women were in the very low category compared with 19% of men. Thus, as exemplified in the individual tasks, 46% of women could not calculate the area of a room in square feet compared with 26% of men; 73% of women could not work out the cost of a 12.5% service charge on a restaurant bill compared with 65% of men. Comparable score distributions, groupings and gender differences were found for the 1970 cohort data (Ekinsmyth and Bynner, 1994).

Peter Wilby puts some common sense into the discussion in this 2001 article in the Times Education Supplement “Literacy figures simply a right-wing fantasy”:

Almost all educational statistics should be treated with suspicion. Their significance depends on what is being measured; and this is never quite what it seems.

The widespread belief that a significant proportion of recently-educated British adults is illiterate (I have seen anything from 15 to 33 per cent quoted) is simply wrong. Illiteracy as most people understand it – you cannot read a word or sign your own name – is almost extinct.

What is meant is that people cannot read tax forms or understand train timetables. But on such criteria, most of us would count as illiterate or innumerate. Who, in Britain, would sensibly answer that a train scheduled to leave at 5pm and to arrive at its destination at 6pm will take one hour? Anybody who answers “Eighty minutes (maybe)” is much smarter than somebody who gives what OECD examiners would doubtless consider the”correct” answer.

Illiteracy is no worse here than in any other Western country. Nor is it significantly worse than it was 50 years ago. The panic is got up by people – adult literacy campaigners, teachers’ unions, secretaries of state for education – who want to get money out of the Treasury. It doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to spend more on education, and it doesn’t mean that I believe what I write in the papers.

See also Literacy Trust (UK).

In referring to a number of UK sources, I do not invalidate my argument, as the same tired old controversy has raged and continues to rage in the USA, the UK and Australia, with the same old cliches about evil left-wingers, teachers’ unions, and plummeting standards trotted out by boring reactionaries just like Donnelly, with exactly the same white hot ideological fervour and lack of respect for the facts.

Dr Donnelly has a nasty habit of citing work out of context, quite often against the spirit of the work cited. This habit he shares with propagandists generally. A case in point is the use he makes of the Vinson Report into NSW Education where he quotes what suits him, even though the Report as a whole hardly supports his own agenda.

At this point I am more interested in his context-free use of the well-known Boston College International Study Center’s surveys of performance in Mathematics and Science.

Average performance on international tests.

Donnelly writes:

  • Australian students failing to perform amongst the best performing countries in their maths and science tests, TIMMS and TIMMS-R,
  • the fact that successful countries, in TIMMS and TIMMS-R, achieve consistently high standards for all students, unlike Australia where there is a significant gap between the more able and the less able.

My response

The top performing schools are, as Donnelly says, Singapore, Korea, Japan, Hong Kong,Netherlands and the Czech Republic. The New York Times found even more reason to do a Chicken Little than Donnelly does, as:

Four years after American fourth-grade students scored high on an international test of science and math, their performance declined markedly when they reached the eighth grade, a second survey shows…

The survey was based on the results of tests that 180,000 eighth- graders in 38 nations took last year. It showed American students, over all, performing worse in math and science than students in Singapore, Taiwan, Russia, Canada, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands and Australia. They did better than students in some less industrialized nations, including Iran, Jordan, Chile, Indonesia, Macedonia and South Africa…

Funny that. Donnelly fails to mention we actually rank rather well.

It is also fair to say that some education systems have different priorities. In Australia, we have certain values that just might alter the balance of curriculum in favour of such things as critical thinking and creativity. Korea, for example, has been a country obsessed with rote learning and private coaching (kwawoe) — even the Cato Institute (which I am sure Dr Donnelly wets himself over) reports on the strange phenomenon, if with a degree of approval:

The spending frenzy on kwawoe started in the 1970s–during Korea’s economic boom–and immediately led to conflicts between the kwawoe-haves and the kwawoe-have-nots. In 1996, Korean parents spent $25 billion on private education–50 percent more than the government’s education budget. A Korean family today typically spends 15 to 30 percent of its budget on private education.

You can read more on my thoughts on coaching on this site.

Let us consider Singapore. Janet, one of my former Saturday coachees, remembered her early schooling in Singapore as being particularly dreadful. She feels the Australian system is much more balanced and, I would say, much more appropriate to a pluralistic open democratic country like Australia. Singapore resident Au Waipang would agree. On his excellent site, Yawning Bread, Waipang wrote in August 2001

“A thinking nation”. One of the many slogans we have to put up with as we go about our lives in orderly, efficient, well-planned, brook-no-opposition Singapore. If what I saw of a schoolboy’s history exercise is any indication, we’re a long, long way from that.

Last Thursday, I was in a fast food restaurant, nursing an orange juice waiting for a friend to show up. A bunch of schoolboys, about 14 years old, came to occupy the table next to mine. One went to the counter to get drinks for the group. The other three laid out their schoolbooks to do homework (If you don’t live in Singapore, you’ve really got to come see this local phenomenon). A minute or two later, the boy at the counter yelled for help ?something about not having enough money. The boy nearest me then put his exercise book on the bench inches from my hip, and went off to assist his friend.

I glanced at the open book and saw that it had about four printed questions on the page, with space underneath each question for the student to write in his answer. It took me merely 2 or 3 seconds to read the first two questions. It took me another whole minute before I could believe my eyes.

Melaka was known as the centre of Islam. Describe the 4 ways that Islam was spread to other parts of Southeast Asia.

In ancient times, people travelled for different reasons. What are the 3 reasons people travelled?

In those two questions, I could see much that was wrong with our education system! What are they teaching our young?

The questions have been phrased in such a way as to require a regurgitation of the history text. “Describe the 4 ways Islam was spread to other parts.” Why only four ways? Surely, there were innumerable ways by which Islam was propagated to the region; some more important than others. Schoolboys could have been asked to name as many ways as they could discover. They could have been asked to rate how effective some routes of transmission were over others. If the question had been phrased this way, the boys would have been encouraged to think hard and to try to understand the social and technological setting of the historical period in question. They would also be expected to justify their replies accordingly.

But to require that the schoolboys list and describe exactly four ways of transmission is to tell them that the best route to success in school is through memorising some lines of text from the history book and to spade them back as answers.

If a boy could come up with a fifth route of transmission and included it in his reply, would he risk a failing mark? Would he be penalised for thinking an original thought?

As if to prove that such a badly phrased question about the spread of Islam was not a one-off accident, the same fault ran through the second question. It asked what were the three reasons people travelled in ancient times. You mean, people travelled for only three reasons? Does any half-intelligent person believe that?

As I write this, I can think of 20. And I’m sure my list is not nearly exhaustive…

… Now, obviously, I would fail school history. I would be utterly unable to answer the question that called for exactly 3 reasons why people travelled in ancient times. Moreover, the question was not looking for any three reasons. It was looking for “the 3 reasons”. Undoubtedly, the smart strategy for the boy would be to regurgitate whatever the schoolbook said…

We’re not talking about 6-year-old kids here. We’re talking about fourteen-year-olds: teenagers who are perfectly capable of reasoning and discovering, who can very creatively make up excuses for not having done homework, skipping classes, or why they need more pocket money. If they can do that, they can surely take more challenging history questions.

Instead, they are taught to parrot. To look up the prescribed answers. To accept uncritically whatever some authority says, in this case, the textbook. In another case, it could be the preacher, the fashion pundit or the government.

* * * * *

It gets worse yet. When learning is presented as a process of looking up given answers, it leads to the idea that in life, answers are always to be had. And that, to each question, there are always right answers and wrong answers.

Anybody who knows anything about the nature of knowledge will tell you it is nothing like that. Knowledge is a marriage of information and assessment. Look deeply enough and everything is grainy and grey. You have to sift, and you have to weigh. And as more information comes up, you have to reconsider.

Knowledge is potentially infinite, and so learning cannot be but unending. We shouldn’t expect pat answers. We shouldn’t think that once those pat answers have been found, learning is done. It isn’t good preparation for life if that simplistic notion is what we instill.

I definitely could not have put that better myself! Thanks, Au Waipang!

I shared these entries in their original form with the Principal of the “Salt Mine”. On reading what Donnelly had to say about Australia’s performance in TIMMS and TIMMS-R, he said, rightly, “That’s simply not true!” Indeed.

Homework for my readers

Read Jesuit educationalist Christopher Gleeson (former Headmaster of St Ignatius Riverview and Xavier Colleges) on “values in education” as preparation for the next section on the “flight to private education.”

The Flight to Private Education

It has taken me a while to sort out what to say here, as there are interconnected issues involved that could turn this humble entry into a thesis! I will try to keep my focus clear. Whether I will succeed, who knows? In the two years since I first wrote this the trend in favour of private schooling has continued, in my view a combination of good intentions, delusion, fear, and government policy (with a lot of media help) feeding the delusion and fear and exacerbating the conditions in public schooling which give some credence to that delusion and fear.

Flight from government schools.

Donnelly writes:

  • in 1980, 22% of students attended non-government schools, by 2002 the figure had grown to 30%. In states such as Victoria, the percentage of students attending non-government schools increases to 40% at Years 11 and 12,
  • over the last decade, while the number of government schools across Australia has fallen by 6.45%, non-government schools have grown by 6.1%,
  • surveys suggest that parents are choosing the non-government option not because such schools are better resourced but because such schools have higher academic standards, a more disciplined learning environment and school values more in tune with those in the home, and
  • a survey of parents carried out by the (then) National Council of Independent Schools’ Associations concluded that: ‘there was an undercurrent of belief that government schools were under considerable pressure and were finding it increasingly difficult to offer a high quality educational environment.’

My response

Just to update the statistics:


In August 2003 (2005 figures in brackets), there were 9,607 (9,623) schools in Australia, of which 6,930 [72.1%] (6,929 [72.0%]) were government schools and 2,677 [27.9%] (2,694 [28.0%]) were non-government schools.

The number of combined primary/secondary schools has grown from 853 in 1993 to 1,106 in 2003 (an increase of 29.7%), with combined schools now representing 11.5% of all schools. In 2005: 71.5% of all non-special schools were primary only, 15.9% were secondary only and 12.6% were combined primary/secondary schools. In 1995 these proportions were 73.7%, 16.6% and 9.7% respectively. Over the decade this equates to a decrease of 305 in the number of primary or secondary schools, and an increase of 266 in the number of combined primary/secondary schools.


In 2003 there were 3,318,620 (3,348,139 in 2005) full-time school students, 67.9% of whom attended government schools. (2005: The proportion of these students attending government schools was 67.1%, down from 71.0% in 1995.) Over the period 1993 to 2003, the number of full-time students attending government schools grew by 1.2%, while the number attending non-government schools increased by 22.3%. (From 1995 to 2005, the number of full-time students attending government schools grew by 1.7% [from 2,207,853 to 2,246,087], while the number attending non-government schools increased by 22.2% [from 901,484 to 1,102,052].

I just can’t help thinking that Donnelly’s last point actually contradicts the point before it: “not because such schools are better resourced” alongside “an undercurrent or belief that government schools were under considerable pressure and finding it increasingly difficult to offer a high quality educational environment”? Whether or not the perception registered in the last point is entirely true in fact, if it were so that “high quality educational environment” is an issue, surely that must come back to inadequate resources?

There is another factor too: the growth in the number of non-government schools, especially religious ones, under the new conditions provided by the Howard government.

Of course there is a subtext here, and it was captured by the Prime Minister when he made his now infamous remarks about “value-free” state schools. I sounded off about this on my old diary — fortunately archived to Angelfire before Diary-X went into space — on 20 January 2004 and 21 January 2004. It is on that subject, too, that I recommended you read Jesuit educationist Christopher Gleeson.

Recent statements by government leaders accusing their own schools of ‘values neutral’ education demonstrate clearly how out of touch they are with teaching and learning in the nation’s classrooms. ‘Values neutral’ education, if it ever had any support in schools, was a partner of the very deficient and long superseded ‘values clarification’ programs of the 1970s. Most teachers and educators now understand that it is an impossibility…

If they are passionate about their subject discipline, and good teachers are passionate people, they will hold dear what is precious in its content and method. Committed to the value of their own teaching subjects, they will be too discerning about the truth, too constrained by time and the demands of examinable curriculum to promote modish ideologies of the kind raked up in politics recently. A brief reflection on the teachers who shaped our lives will frame people who communicated a love for their subject, who made it clear where their values lay without imposing them, who emphasised that an opinion is only as good as the evidence supporting it, who demonstrated that not every opinion or option is equally valuable, who showed us the difference between the questions ‘is something right?’ and ‘do I feel comfortable with this course of action?’…

Donnelly’s second point, “school values more in tune with those in the home” as a reason for choosing private education, relates also to one of Donnelly’s hobby-horses, one he shares with the Prime Minister and with the PM’s favourite intellectuals, such as David Flint and Keith Windschuttle, that “the culture wars and the political correctness movement” have captured the state school systems, driving parents away. Donnelly devotes over 50 of his 187 pages (excluding appendices) to this. That is what Howard was really attacking when he made his statement about “values.”

Donnelly said as much in The Australian (May 03, 2004):

JUDGING by the hostile and often hysterical reaction to the Prime Minister’s comments earlier this year about why parents choose non-government schools over government schools, one could be forgiven for thinking that it must have been a very scathing attack. In fact, John Howard’s remarks are perfectly justifiable.

On being asked to comment on the reasons for the growth in non-government school enrolments, he suggested that many parents “feel that government schools have become too politically correct and too values-neutral”.

He’s right. Evidence to support his critique is not difficult to find. The sad reality is that Australian schools, especially those controlled by government, have suffered a range of educational fads that have led to a politically correct and dumbed-down education system.

I will have to postpone telling you exactly why this is deeply offensive bullshit… which it is! And I can say that without being either hysterical or even terribly hostile; I think it is a reasonably objective position to take, actually. Hey, and spot the mantras!

OK, I will grant that parental values, especially religious or cultural ones, are one reason for the existence of private schools. Some groups believe that the home is not strong enough to nurture the values the family might be committed to, and hence seek schools that will endorse and reinforce those values. Others, perhaps, feel their kids need some sort of grounding, feel they can’t give it themselves, and hope the Catholics (usually) might make up the gap. I don’t have too much quarrel with that. After all, I have worked in Anglican and Jewish schools as well as State ones.

But I feel there are a few factors Donnelly chooses to ignore.

  • The general drift of Howard government propaganda, the outbreak of books like Donnelly’s and the endless hours of slagging schools (state) and teachers on talk-back radio have had the end result of undermining faith in government schools. I suspect the government actually wants this to happen, and is quite mealy-mouthed when it denies it. I really think the ultimate objective is a winding-back of government involvement in providing education in favour of a “free market” approach.
  • Donnelly also writes, be it noted, for School Choices, an American group with the following agenda:

The historical and modern evidence indicates that free educational markets, in which parents have been able to choose any school for their children and schools have been forced to compete with one another to attract students, have consistently done a better job of serving families and nations than state-run systems such as we have today. The superiority of market school systems has gone beyond immediate benefits to students, extending to communal effects such as increased social harmony and protection of minority rights. As a result,

School Choices recommends:

1) Gradually phasing out government involvement in education, and moving towards a competitive educational marketplace.

2) The creation of a subsidy system to enable low-income families to participate effectively in that marketplace. Tax Credits and private scholarship programs would be among the most promising elements of such a system.

See also my entry for 5 October 2005: “Our Citizens, Governments, and Corporations”, and check all the links there. Then check the links at the foot of my 29 September entry “Welcome to Dr Nelson’s Brain”. See too “Education Unbound – Home”, my 8 July 2005 entry.

  • Our own state governments in NSW (both Labor and Liberal, as this dates from the mid 1980s) have exacerbated the problem by their love affair with selective schooling. (This is the point the Salt Mine principal actually agreed with!) From the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s, truly comprehensive schools actually attracted strong support and respect from the communities they were in, and often achieved excellent results, relative to the clientele of course.Comprehensive or local high schools still do excellent things, relative to the clientele they have. I think that is just one lesson you could have taken from that ABC series Our Boys. What happens, though, is that too many parents will choose to send their child to a private school, rather than the local high school, if the child misses out on a place in the selective school. So the local high school gets hit twice: the “best” students are creamed off into the selective system, and very often the “best of the rest” fly away to the Catholics, or wherever, heightening the perception that the local school is for “dregs”. This of course becomes a vicious cycle.
  • The Federal Government (mainly) has facilitated the growth of new private schools, some good, some eccentric, many tiny and uneconomic, and some possibly undesirable. They did this by altering the funding system. John Howard is capable of “weapons-of-mass-destruction” and “children overboard” duplicity on this score, when he says such things as this in Good Onya: the continuing success of our Australian liberalism:

    The Government’s approach to schools, education, has two basic goals. One is to set national benchmarks relating to things such as literacy and numeracy. The other very important goal is to facilitate choice by supporting the right of parents to decide where their children are going to be educated.

    While Government schools educate 68 per cent of our children, Government schools receive 76 per cent of total government funding. Those who suggest that government schools have been disadvantaged don’t understand the facts or don’t wish to.

    In fact Howard has combined state and federal funding to achieve that figure. Read this excellent article in The Bulletin, if it is still available.

  • See also Six Myths About Private Schools in Australia.
  • As to the “political correctness” and “culture wars” stuff, I regularly raise this on my various sites. See for example “INOCULATE YOUR CHILDREN AGAINST POLITICAL CORRECTNESS! (sic)”, my entry for 3 October 2005, and “Po-mo and English teaching revisited”, my entry for 26 September 2005.] You might also do a search of New Lines from a Floating Life on WordPress, and look at PC Revisited there as well.

    I believe that the reaction against “political correctness” in the past decade or so has borne bad fruit:

    1. It has licensed prejudice and ignorance in the name of freedom of speech.

    2. It has muted compassion and tolerance.

    3. It encourages mental laziness and discourages critique of our own assumptions.

    4. It fosters arrogance and uniformity rather than understanding of and acceptance of diversity.

    5. Paradoxically, it creates disharmony in the name of harmony.

    6. It is unjust and from a Christian perspective it is sub-Christian, breaking the golden rule.

    Quieter reflections

    When I wrote this back in 2004 I decided that what follows would be the last entry specifically about Dr Donnelly, but it wouldn’t be the last on the very worrying ideology that he (and people like historian Keith Windschuttle) represent, an ideology that is quite patently endorsed and rewarded by the current Australian government. This has proven only too true.

    Ex-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was on George Negus Tonight [transcript now online] at that time. In the promos they had a snippet where Fraser says the current leadership is deeply into attempting to stifle discussion, and I could not agree more. This is not a new concern. Indeed, in 1983 I wrote an article called “Construction/Misconstruction”, also extraordinarily difficult to write, which was published as the lead article in The Teaching of English, Journal of the New South Wales English Teachers’ Association. It is probably the most substantial thing I have ever written, and was the first extensive discussion of such issues as literary theory and semiotics in NSW English teaching circles. (Other articles in that issue dealt with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, T S Eliot, Ted Hughes, and the dubious linguistics that underpinned popular English coursebooks at the time.) I set out to defend the old ways and to reject the new, but found myself going in another direction altogether. Much of what I said then remains valid.

    As to my own political position, I find myself warming very much to John Button, former Minister in the Whitlam government — the one that the now quite admirable Malcolm Fraser killed off, as you might recall.

    JOHN BUTTON: … This country is very sort of… placid, intellectually, in a way. Dopey, almost. People don’t say, “Look, that’s wrong.” You don’t hear people screaming when they see something which is manifestly wrong in this country. You don’t hear people saying, “That’s wrong!” What they rather say is, “Well, we don’t want to think about that.”

    GEORGE NEGUS: We’ve got no sense of right and wrong, let alone sense of Left and Right?

    JOHN BUTTON: Oh, Left and Right is gone, I think, George.

    GEORGE NEGUS: That’s interesting, isn’t it? You seriously believe that. So what’s replaced Left and Right?

    JOHN BUTTON: I suppose… compassion and cynicism.

    GEORGE NEGUS: Which side are you on?

    JOHN BUTTON: I hope I’m on the side of compassion, but I do have a fair degree of cynicism as well.

    Yes indeed: as of December 2006 I still stand by that.



You can view the Powerpoint slideshow used at the presentation to the final conference at UTS in August 2003. You may also read a 2005 article on the project by Jennifer Hammond and Pauline Gibbons: Putting Scaffolding to Work.

The term “scaffolding” is a metaphor taken from the building industry. There it is a temporary structure that is taken away when the building can stand alone. Good teachers often do it “automatically”. On the other hand, some “scaffolding” (if done in a mechanical fashion) may be unnecessary, even counter-productive.

Starting in 2001 and continuing in 2002 with 7E and 7F, a research project on scaffolding was conducted at Sydney Boys High School (and other secondary and primary schools), a collaboration between the Department of Education and Training (Multicultural Branch) and the University of Technology Sydney. Research team leader was Dr Jennifer Hammond of UTS.

7F 2002 was the original target class. The researchers looked at English, Geography and ESL. In 2002 the classes were in English and French.

In 2003 the data was studied and conclusions drawn, culminating in a presentation at UTS in August 2003.

Among the findings of interest were:

— The metaphor of “scaffolding” is misleading in being too rigid. Pauline Gibbons (UTS) suggests we might rather think of the bamboo scaffolding seen in South-East Asia, which can bend with the wind.

— There are at least two levels of scaffolding. First DESIGNED-IN — strategies built into the unit and lesson planning which take into account where students currently are and seek to enable them to move in the direction required. Second CONTINGENT — the teacher responds to the flow of the lesson and offers scaffolding as need arises.

— The object of successful scaffolding is to make itself unnecessary. Learning takes place best in an environment of high challenge with high support, but as tasks are mastered the teacher hands over to the student and the scaffolding is removed. For more, see a seminal article by Luciano Mariani.

— The common distinction between teacher-centred and learner-centred is unhelpful; what in fact happens is a constant interplay between the two. Classes where students are seen as worthy conversational partners do tend to be marked by successful scaffolding, however, as in such classes teachers are more attuned to the degree to which students are taking on new knowledge.

It is within the students, of course, that the learning occurs, but it is within the teacher, who sits at the juncture of the forces above, below and sideways that the learning situations are framed. (Bazerman, C. (1994), ‘Where is the classroom?’, from A. Freedman & P. Medway (eds), Learning and teaching genre, Portsmouth NH, cited in Johns, A. M. (1997), Text, Role and Context: Developing Academic Literacies, Cambridge, C.U.P.)

— Students prosper best in an environment of MESSAGE ABUNDANCE. That is, as many channels of communication as possible are used to support a variety of learning styles.

— Teachers of students from language backgrounds other than English cannot take too much background English language/cultural knowledge for granted.

— Key terms should always be written up on the board, shown on overhead or in some kind of presentation program, and carefully defined and demonstrated in context.

— Much use should be made of diagrams, flow charts, mindmaps and other means of visualising concepts.

— Group and pair work should be used frequently as this gives more opportunities for contingent scaffolding, for students to articulate ideas for themselves, and for handover to take place. In Ms Walles’s class especially, drama methods such as hotseating proved powerful strategies for developing understanding and creativity.

— At a Bondi District ESL Information Network Meeting in late 2003 the topic was ESL in Science. Close study of answers from the HSC Standards Package for Physics reveals clearly that certain text types and a certain level of language are critical for best results in that subject, more now than in the past. The text types needed for success in each subject should be explicitly modelled, analysed and practised. For example, see Teaching Science to ESL students. There is excellent material on the ESL Page of the Victorian Department of Education Curriculum @ Work Pages: also links to Art, English, Health and PE, LOTE, Mathematics, Technology, Social Sciences, with mainstream ESL ideas for all of them.

# Good teachers often do all of the above intuitively or through experience. Ms Guthrie (the Modern Languages teacher involved in the project in 2002; Ms Guthrie passed away in 2007, I am sorry to report) commented on how affirming it was to see just why certain procedures worked. Ms Ross, a new teacher at the time, found the thinking involved of great benefit; being able to see on the subsequent videos just how scaffolding was working out in her lessons was a very positive piece of professional development. To be more conscious of scaffolding can also assist any teacher in more effective unit and lesson preparation.

More ideas on scaffolding

Some definitions and guidelines, adapted from Anita J Woolfolk, Educational Psychology (Edition 7, Allyn and Bacon, Boston 1998).

Scaffolding: Support for learning and problem solving. The support could be clues, reminders, encouragement, breaking the problem into steps, providing an example, or anything else that allows the student to grow in independence as a learner.
Assisted learning: Providing strategic help in the initial stages of learning, gradually diminishing as students gain independence.
Zone of proximal development: Phase at which a student can master a task if given appropriate help and support. (It can be argued that it is this zone that all learning occurs.–NW) See also Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development.

Some strategies to scaffold complex learning:

* Procedural facilitators: e.g. encouraging students to use “signal words” such as who, what, when, where, why and how after reading a passage.
* Modelling: the teacher might model the generation of questions about the reading.
* Thinking out loud: this models the teacher’s expert thought processes.
* Anticipating difficult areas: during the modelling phase, the teacher anticipates student errors or difficulties.
* Providing prompt or cue cards: these may be used by the students in an early phase of learning and withdrawn as the students master the material.
* Regulating the difficulty: tasks involving implicit skills are introduced by beginning with simpler problems, providing the students with extra practice after each step, and gradually increasing the complexity of the task.
* Providing half-done examples: giving students half-done examples and having them work out the conclusions can be an effective way to teach students how to ultimately solve problems on their own.
* Reciprocal teaching: having the teacher and students rotate the role of teacher. The teacher provides support to students as they learn to lead discussions and ask their own questions.
* Providing checklists: students can be taught self-checking procedures (see an example by another ESL teacher below) to help them regulate the quality of their responses.


Tailor scaffolding to the needs of students.

* When students are beginning new tasks and topics, provide models, prompts, sentence starters, coaching and feedback. As the students grow in competence, give less support and more opportunities for independent work
* Give students choices about the level of difficulty or degree of independence in projects; encourage them to challenge themselves but to seek help when they are really stuck.

Make sure students have access to powerful tools that support thinking.

* Teach students to use learning and organisational strategies, research tools, language tools (dictionaries or computer searches), spreadsheets, and word processing programs.
* Model the use of tools; show students how to use an appointment book or electronic notebook to make plans and manage time, for example.

Capitalise on dialogue and group learning

* Experiment with peer tutoring; teach students how to ask good questions and give helpful explanations.
* Experiment with cooperative learning strategies, small group work, and so on.

Some teachers will be familiar with scaffolding as a phase in the “learning-teaching cycle” promoted, quite rightly, in much of the material on literacy.

There is a danger, however.

* First, ask yourself if the scaffolding is really necessary. If the text type (for example) is already familiar, scaffolding may not be necessary.
* Second, ask yourself if the scaffolding is in the most appropriate form or terminology. I have read examples that even I have trouble understanding, and which are in fact more difficult than the base task. It may be the fault of curriculum documents and instructional materials which, in their desire to open up new approaches and concepts, stray way beyond the zone of proximal development of staff, let alone students!
* Third, ask yourself if the scaffolding/modelling is unnecessarily restrictive. Experience has shown that a too rigid adherence to text-type models can inhibit students, and may indeed not reflect the real range of possibilities in addressing a particular context, purpose or audience. See the DET document Focus on Literacy: Writing [2000] for more discussion:

The main message of Focus on literacy: Writing is that our focus should be on the social purpose of anything we ask students to write. Often our purpose is to engage, move, persuade or delight a reader. The social purpose should dictate, not only how something is written, but also how it is assessed.

Our main focus should be on social purpose, not text type. Text types are only typical ways of fulfilling certain writing purposes. Often, a writer’s purpose demands that an atypical approach has more impact, such as beginning a narrative with the ending, or not describing a character until later.

We now have evidence that too much emphasis on the text types of the primary syllabus, namely narrative, recount, explanation, discussion and exposition, can lead to poor writing, because when we write something our purpose is not to reproduce a text type but to engage a reader’s attention.

— Paul Hardage, Chief Education Officer, English, in Curriculum Support for Teaching in English 7-12, 2001 Vol 6 No 1.

Go Forth and Correct Thyself

Written by another experienced ESL teacher who prefers to remain anonymous.

Remember the luxury of writing when there was time: being able to reflect and meditate on ideas and words; editing to erase the things you really didn’t want to say; appreciating your growth in written communication?

When I was teaching adult learners, students wondered how they would ever do those things in English and often asked me, “How will I improve? How will I know how to write correctly when the teacher isn’t with me?”

So I introduced a systematic approach to writing analysis that would encourage and develop the students’ ability to self-correct. We discussed the important elements of writing, and categories for analysis were selected. For example: meaning, text structure, many facets of grammar, spelling, punctuation, handwriting…whatever the students were able to understand at their stage of writing. An abbreviation was assigned to each writing component. When the students handed in a piece of writing, I identified any errors with the appropriate abbreviation. The students recorded their types of errors, then attempted self-correction. The purpose of keeping a diary of their errors was so they could focus on particular weaknesses in subsequent writing tasks. As their experience of writing grew, they became more skilled at identifying their problems and amending them.

I also encouraged students to read their texts aloud to themselves. Often they could more easily hear anomalies than recognise them in writing.

My comments

* This is a highly scaffolded approach to the difficult question of error. Wherein is the scaffolding? How does this method locate the student’s zone of proximal development? How does it balance challenge and support?
* A modification of the method I have used is to focus on one class of error–subject-verb agreement for example–and highlight (rather than mark out) instances of the error. The student then attempts self-correction.

See also: Literacy and ESL on the AIS Literacy Site; Scaffolding Literacy; Roslyn Arnold, Empathic intelligence in pedagogy.

# Here’s a good education blog, and a clever pun: The Blog of Proximal Development. The writer, a Canadian, has a fine understanding of pedagogy (there is NOTHING wrong with that word) and literacy teaching. I recommend it very warmly.

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Posted by on December 7, 2006 in esl for teachers, for teachers, pedagogy


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