Archive for August 2009

A public spectacle

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.33, 28 August 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

There used to be a joke that went like this – “I went to watch a fight but unfortunately a game of rugby broke out!”

I don’t wish to add to the load of comment on that shoddy incident in a certain schoolboy rugby match on a recent Saturday. It was one of many shoddy incidents in sport and that includes school sport. Schools would have been best to sort this one out as indeed happens many times each rugby season in many schools.

“Boy, you can’t do that – I care about winning but I care more about how you win. I don’t like to lose but I care about how you lose.” This would be the line adopted by sensible Everyman-Principals,

But this captured the imagination of the public with a ferocity that was spectacular.

I believe that this was because the nation was thirsting for drama and guidance at a time when the national psyche was being both tested and confused by the smacking referendum. The moral certainty that it was wrong to hit children was being turned around when despite the scriptures those of the religious right would claim to understand and to love. People who would ordinarily be sensible would adopt the position of stating the “I wouldn’t hit a child bit I defend your right to do so to the death” (usually of the child.

In days of old, thinking folk would drift toward the village square to see a band of players present a morality play on the back of a wagon. A morality play was in medieval times called an interlude and what better description is there of going along to sport?

Typically these plays had a moral theme and they were an allegory which illustrated some aspect of life and its tribulations. The protagonist would be a good person who was facing the challenge of life’s confusions. The characters would include those who represented and personified various moral attributes. They would try to persuade him to follow a godly life rather than choose the path of evil.

So on a Saturday afternoon a Protagonist-Crowd assembled to join the the players, to set about their allegorical spectacle.  The two Personification-Teams paraded the temptations of reputation and riches up against the realities of struggle. The crowd troubled by deep questions about violence towards children saw the forces of privilege and power prevail but then the truth of life was still to be graphically played out.

When rules are no longer strong enough, when the gods are the side of the powerful the only recourse is violence. Spirit and values give way to force, order and respect are to be fought over, brutally and braggedly. In life as in sport,  the reality and truth of the scoreboard is not to be denied and as the last final blow of the Grim Referee approaches, desperation set in.

What followed this worrying first part of the play was an even more worrying commentary delivered ex cathedra by the priests of the Church of Sport. Feigned disgust by Sports Talkback Hosts cunningly masked the message of the scriptures that had taught for so long. Win at all cost – if only those namby pamby school teachers had not instilled the will to play fair and to play hard, New Zealand would still be a force in world rugby. Worse, the ultimate sin was to indulge in sport for pleasure!

The tales of St Loe, St Shelford, St Mead and a plethora of lesser saints were the parables of the Coaches had held the community together and belief in our might was unchallengeable.

As the play continued, in rode the Discipline Demons on the white horses of the powerful to pass down the law. Two people fight – the vanquished must be punished for they have no battles left to fight – the victors must be allowed to fight in other and not-far-away battles.

Protagonist-Crowd was perplexed. While there once seemed better ways of resolving tensions and even sensible ways of punishing those who had strayed, the world now seemed to be dispossessed of logic.  These young warriors needed guidance and the loving hand of guidance. The Protagonist-Crowd faced other issues and they were confused.

Sitting in their thousands of huts, huddled in front of fires they grappled with the issues of violence, of power, of the need to bring young people on rather than slap them down – to extend the hand of a loving deity when most they were troubled.

Was the spectacle of the fight at the end of the game an illustration of this love? Did the kindness of good rugby playing require this show of force? Should such loving behavior between the members of the fraternity of the young illustrate the extent to which Protagonist-Crowd was being asked to consider the use of violence against children.

Wait, they thought, we are told that it isn’t violence when it is part of good parenting even thought the law forbids it. But at what point does “loving” cease to be loving and “smack” starts to be “hit”? Probably at about the same point at which “playing to win with glory” becomes “playing to win at all costs”.

Does good rugby playing require an element of violence? Some who phone sports talk-back lament the loss of “mongrel”. Well mongrel is simply confused breeding and that gets s back to the heart of the issue.

Protagonist-Crowd having witnessed the Morality Play decided in its wisdom that the road to godliness was not cleanliness but good dirty stuff. In both the rugby game and the referendum the issue was never the young ones, it was always the grown-ups.

Technically speaking

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.31, 21 August 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

The 100th monkey notion has long appealed to me. It is based on a story about monkeys who would eat sweet potatoes after digging them out of the ground. They would eat them dirt and all. One day, a monkey washed the potato in a stream prior to eating it and over a period of time others monkeys picked up this habit. Then a remarkable thing happened – monkeys on another island started to do the same thing, then on another island, and another until washing sweet potatoes before eating them was established as the natural way of working.

This was an early version of what Malcolm Gladwell called “the tipping point” I have been up in the Pacific with a trade delegation and I observed the approach of another tipping point in education.

Countries are starting to realise that the removal of the hard skills of industrial arts from the curriculum has not turned out to be such a good thing. While it seems logical to give all students a smattering of understandings about technology it has had the unintended consequence of triggering the demise of industrial arts, the workshop subjects, as a pathway for some students. Typically this lead to an early exit from school into employment and a continuation of training through apprenticeships and night school and such other opportunities as were available.

In Tonga, consideration is being given to a project that will see the tertiary technical institute introduce industrial arts subjects into the secondary schools. In American Samoa the community college is developing a similar programme. In Samoa there is also discussion of this. While in New Zealand the trades academies will see a significant thrust in the reintroduction of technical subjects.

None of this is exactly a return to what once was the technical stream or track in a secondary school. Common to all the approaches being considered is the involvement of tertiary education providers working alongside and inside the secondary school systems. And common to all the approaches is the desire to start young people on the vocational tracks developed in such subjects at an earlier age.

A recent book Education for All: The Future of Education and Training for 14-19 year olds (2009, Pring et al, Routledge) raises the issue of the language of education. It questions the language of business and performance management that has crept into the discourse (levers, drivers, delivery, audits, targets and so on), the changing of metaphors from those of engagement to those of delivery and the persistence of “false dualisms”.

Dewey in 1916 had raised the dangers of the false dualism of “academic” (the transmission of knowledge) and “vocational” (narrowly conceived as training to hit a target). Education has over the past half century blurred the distinction between these two terms. Academic study in the university setting is clearly marketed as vocational and indeed world-wide, universities have expanded their repertoire by adding narrowly focused qualifications. While on the other hand technical training has become increasingly sophisticated requiring considerable academic engagement.

It could be that “academic” now applies to both education and training while “vocational” is a description better applied to the motivation of students – let’s get rid of the mutually exclusive descriptions of different kinds of programmes.

Education systems are therefore starting to consider the role of secondary schools in pre-vocational education. This is made more complex by the collapse of the youth labour market which happened in good times and becomes a major issue in poor times. The focus keeps coming back to the 14 to 19 year age group.

Policy and programme development has increasingly settled on the 14 to 19 year age group as the area that should receive attention. It is the absolutely most vital age when decisions are made that determine much that will happen in the rest of their lives. Good decisions will bring steady rewards while poor decisions will bring misery and despair. And yet it is at the start of this age span where pathways have been destroyed and withdrawn. Countries around the world are now seeking new ways of bringing some of these back.

A New Zealand historian said that nostalgia is history without the pain so it is not a case of simply turning back the clock. There is no going back because what used to prevail in terms of employment and training opportunities is just not there. But the principles can still be expressed in new and different ways.

Allowing some students to engage in pathways that take them into the industrial arts from about the age of 14 might well give to them the same opportunities to be motivated and focussed as those enjoyed by students from professional homes where parents have had tertiary experience. We could dramatically enlarge the number of first generation students in our system if this turned out to be the case. The impact would be huge.

The 14 to 19 year age group is also a critical time when a young person can so easily change from being a potential contributor to their families and communities into one who takes and destroys. The pathway back from some of the places that our 16 to 19 year olds get to is difficult and hard. One of the commentators in the USA says that the only thing we know about second chance education is that the first chance would have been better.

This is not to demean second chance education, it plays a valuable role in our community and while it is a difficult pathway the successes can be spectacular. Night classes, small PTE programmes, foundation and bridging programmes, community education courses all provide potential second chance starting points. But this track should be there for those who need it and not as an alternative for young people. And the return to mainstream education should be hard-wired into these offerings.

Paying attention to the quality of the first chance at education is paramount. So too is getting young people through the 14 – 19 year age.

Rank and file

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.31, 14 August 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

The recent chatter about Service Academies and Boot Camps set me off thinking about the impact of military experiences on my own education.

It all goes back to 1959 when I started secondary school at a school that, like most boys and co-ed schools had School Cadets. This was only for the boys but it got under way right from the start of the year. And it was serious stuff. There were plenty of teachers who had seen service in the Second World War and military matters were no laughing matter. This was given an edge by the number of male teachers who had on returning from the war entered university and went on to secondary teaching. The markers of rank were real one, earned not given.

Week 2, Form 3 – Barracks Week. Prior to this in Week 1 all the boys had been lined up on the field, tallest to shortest. Platoons were then numbered off so as to be beautifully arranged in terms of height – the end-of week parade has above all else to look good. I was third from last in this line up and assigned to a platoon of runts who were judged to be too small to carry rifles. These were pretty large 303 calibre affairs. The week was to be one of marching, drill, guns, drill, marching, guns and so on. Take out the guns and it was pretty devoid of interest really. When the uniforms were issued and mine was three sizes too large – “it’s the smallest we have, lad” – the humiliation was complete.

However I discovered that there was a call for more people in the brass band, desperately learning one march to play at the end of the week. I joined the band (as baritone player) and thoroughly enjoyed School Cadets. The band was a loose group of loose characters who were given a loose run up to the parade inspected by Major This or Lt.Col. That.

I have no idea what the girls did – knitted socks for sailors perhaps. But in Week 3 we settled to classroom work. But in a sense whole schools were Service Academies then.

After leaving school I won the lottery – well, my birth date was drawn in the lottery for National Service – and at the age of 19 it was off to Waiouru for two successive summer holidays to meet the 3 months basic training requirement to be followed by three years territorial service. The highlight of this was probably the fact that the entire intakes in the split summer training was made up of university students. While it didn’t disrupt our education it certainly got in the way of our capacity to earn during the summer – quite important in those days.

New Zealand was fighting in Vietnam in the 1960’s and this gave an edge to everything we did and were told in a series of “Reason Why Lectures” which were quite well read by the unfortunate officers chosen to read out the script. But we took it seriously – the tussock looked just like the jungles of South East Asia. Some of the regular soldiers had seen service in Viet Nam and their stories were gory and some may even have been true.

But at Waiouru opportunity presented itself again – I joined the bugle band and my greatest contribution to national security was to march the men to Church Parade on a Sunday.

In the second spell of basic training I undertook an officers’ course. I failed – “No leadership potential! About turn! Quick March!”. Arriving back at Frankton Junction and telling my Mother this news her reply was surprising but I later came to understand it. “It might be for the best, you have come to take it seriously!” I don’t think that her heart was in all this military stuff.

Following that the army lost track of me for a couple of years despite my efforts to find out what was happening. Eventually, in my first year of teaching I was posted to an infantry company and off I went to Waiouru for a month’s annual camp. This was not ideal in my first year of teaching and the promise of two further years of this sort of disruption was not a pleasing thought.

Ah, the sound of music called again and I joined the Band of the Queen Alexander’s Own Regiment (3RNZIR) in Auckland where I completed my military service as the flute and piccolo player. I found the piccolo particularly difficult until I realised that in the fast and furious pieces where the piccolo part has flights up scales to the highest musical peaks and lots of trills etc only the dogs could hear you. Parades through the streets of Auckland were characterised by dogs placing their paws over their ears and howling with pain.

Should New Zealand have been invaded the plan was that I would rush to Muriwai Beach and let strip with the full force of my piccolo.

But the musical experiences in the army were quite special. Bands are great places to learn team work, to all contribute to an effective outcome, to value the contribution each made to the whole. Music, even in a military setting, places you in contact with some of the finer things among our cultural heritage. Playing Handels Water Music is a great experience even when outdoors outside the Officers Mess Tent high in the Kaimanawa Ranges at a battalion camp. The ceremony of beating the retreat has meaning, the rousing march that signals the start of the day’s work for the troops is quite capable of being moving.

And there is a commitment to order and teamwork in the military situation. I heard someone the other day describe the value of much of the basis work in the military as being the instilling of an instinctive response to situations – that is not such a bad thing if it can be applied to right and wrong, good and non-good.

Service academies might have much to offer. So too might brass bands.

It’s time for a commission

Stuart Middleton
New Zealand Education Review
Vol. 14 No.30, 7 August 2009, p.16
APN Educational Media (NZ) Ltd.
Wellington

The recent report from the Law Commission on booze, boozing habits and the impacts of booze was a sobering read commended to all who work with young people. But it was less the report itself than the manner of its preparation that has a lesson in it for education.

The Law Commission plays an interesting role in the legal fabric in New Zealand. Five Commissioners appointed by the Minister of Justice are supported by a relatively small team of researchers and some administrative support. The Commission works with independence both on issues it identifies with the law and the legal system and on specific areas on which the government seeks guidance and advice. Given this working environment, their reports have weight, are substantial contributions to discussion and are seen to be unbiased and informed views.

This is exactly what we need in education, an Education Commission modelled on the Law Commission. It would provide the government with learned, informed and substantial reports on issues in education which require attention but seem unable to free themselves from the tangled mass of vested interest and position to be defended. In education when it seems as if the mass of such issues has become critical we call for a Royal Commission.

The Currie Commission (1962) was the last full blown affair of this kind and it did address a number of issues: the recruitment and training of teachers; improvements in teachers’ conditions of service; the involvement of members of the community in the control and management of schools by restructuring administration at the district level; Maori education; a regular system of national assessment in the basic subjects along with a system of checks at certain points in children’s progress throughout the system and a range of issues related to the place and role of independent schools.

The problem with this approach is that they become a shopping spree for everyone to get their bit in and attempts to implement such a report inevitably results in distortions and different emphases from those intended. And public discussion that follows such reports usually take the form of once more through the chorus of the songs sung at submission time.

An Education Commission would be able to bring measured, researched consideration forward into the professional and public domain and perhaps enable us to work through some of the issues that percolate to the surface from time to time. Who might the commissioners be? If they are to have a role such as the Law Commissioners then the Education Commissioners would be experienced, highly qualified, comfortable in both the professional and public arenas of education and able to lead discussion nationally through major conference presentations, papers and publications.

Cost? Well less than a Royal Commission and perhaps even less than a team of consultants. The positions, if they are to be modelled on the Law Commission, would not be full time other than for the ongoing administrative team and the small research team. The Commissioners continue their daily work in whatever capacities they have – or so it seems.

What might the Education Commission consider?

The kinds of topic that the Education Commission might consider are ones where conventional advocacy groups are constrained by the requirements of the groups they represent, where solutions to issues might require changes to the law, to regulations, to accepted and conventional ways of working. They could constitute a series (as in the Law Commission’s series on the Courts) or one-off studies such as the alcohol report.

Now for some topics that the Education Commission might address or usefully might have addressed in the past.

Equitable universal access to early childhood

This is a vexed issue and the current collocation of policies and provision does not seem to be keeping pace with the changes in the demographics or in the social behaviour patterns of the community. Issues of bilingualism, of coping with sudden changes in demand, the location of early childhood centres in primary schools and home-based care are all dimensions that might be included.

Community contributions to schools

It would be good to have an authoritative look at the issue of community contributions to a school that sees hugely disparate levels of contribution being made in different communities. Does the state have a role, in the interests of an equitable system in regulating this? Should schools in communities with less capacity to contribute be funded to higher levels (oh dear, here come a few emails!). Who is responsible for the black education economy?

Governance of tertiary institutions

I wonder if the recent report on the governance of the ITP sector would have provoked a different reaction had it been produced by a body that could combine research and commentary rather than simply appearing out of the blue so to speak.?

Sectors and their role in students’ learning

Sometime the Education Commission could comment on larger issues and point to a future that might or might not be different. Sectors, for instance reflect in their current configuration the development of the education system rather than any body of knowledge about teaching and learning. What might the Education Commission think?

Curriculum sprawl

As the education systems have grown larger over the past century so too has trhe extent of the curriculum. To the three “R’s” has been added the two “E’s” (ecological sustainability, economic literacy) and a whole lot more. Little was taken out of the curriculum. Where did folk dancing go? An Education Commission might take a look at this – the curriculum not folk dancing!

The beauty of an Education Commission is that it could, like the Law Commission, act with independence relying on the experience and wisdom of its Commissioners tempered with the collective experience and wisdom and evidence of research.

Now, who is going to be a Commissioner? Well one would have to represent each of the sectors, state, integrated and independent – that’s 12. There would have to be one from each of the tertiary provider groups – that’s another 5. Then there are….. Commission, it could be more like a Conference unless we can bring ourselves to trust experience and wisdom.