Odd Social Markers

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:08 am

We’re looking for a nice chef’s knife as a wedding present for Sue’s sister.We’re staying in the Western Suburbs of Melbourne, and when I looked it up there are 8 King of Knives shops east of the city centre and 0 west. Weird…


Further Awesomeness

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:48 am

All about the Antikythera Device: http://blog.wired.com/gadgets/2008/12/2000-year-old-a.html?npu=1&mbid=yhp

Just one more reminder that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’.

PS Make sure you watch the video.



Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:17 am

As a friend said ‘Given how many people use the “I just feel safer in one” excuse to buy an SUV, I found this story rather amusing’: http://jalopnik.com/5096933/chevy-tahoe-messes-with-texas-mini-cooper-pays-price


Recruiting, Training, Retaining and Rewarding the Best and Brightest

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:40 am

So, in no particular order, a bunch of suggestions for developing a teaching force to transform education in Queensland. As with the broader suggestions outlined yesterday, these are a suite and should be considered together. Many of those points from yesterday are also very relevant to the issue of attracting and retaining teachers, particularly the ones on class size, support for students with special needs and in relation to classroom behaviour, curricular stability and the massive reduction of paperwork.

Clearly, entry into teacher education courses is a matter of supply and demand: the much-lamented low entry scores1 are purely a result of relatively low demand for the courses, for a variety of reasons. Of course, in a simplistic world it would be possible to just change the entry scores by fiat, but all that would do is kill off the Schools and Faculties of Education and exacerbate the already critical and growing teacher shortage. The only long term solution to raising entry scores is making people want to study teaching and become teachers.

  1. No more of this non-permanent contract nonsense. We know that about half of all new teachers leave the profession in the first 5 years, but is that surprising when they are hired on one-year contracts with no job certainty? The frustration caused by this practice is enormous. There is also excellent research to show that teachers are much more effective both within themselves as teachers and in school communities when they stay for longer periods. So whatever it takes in terms of better Human Resource management to deal with maternity leaves and study leaves and other issues, it’s essential that beginning teachers are offered real, substantive jobs in schools, where they can put down some professional roots and start to build the relationships that are the key to teaching.
  2. Raise the profile and prestige of teaching as a career in the community. There are a number of facets of doing this, but having politicians avoid crapping on teachers from on high whenever it suits their short term political goals would be a nice start. If community leaders (which, heaven help us, include politicians) went out of their way to praise good teachers, to recognise the importance of education to the community and to honour the work teachers do, that would have a huge effect on students’ perceptions of the teaching profession and desire to enter it.
  3. Develop a really workable career progression path within the classroom. I don’t think salaries in absolute terms are such an important motivator – and they may be more important in changing community perceptions of the teaching profession than in actually retaining teachers – but most teaching career structures top out in terms of increments for training and experience at 10 years after graduation. That means that by age 35, with potentially 30 years left in the profession, most teachers are already at the top of the scale, with no financial incentive to undergo further education and training or to keep improving their practice. The only way to earn more is to move out of the classroom, so the ‘best and brightest’ we worked so hard to get in there move out. Keeping the best teachers in the classroom is crucial.
  4. Offer real incentives to teachers for postgraduate study. Returning to university to complete a Masters or PhD helps teachers to look at their practice in new ways, and refreshes their understanding of the issues, so incentives and support for further study can help retain and improve good teachers. Develop professional development Master of Education courses available to all teachers, for which they are given time off from teaching to study full time, and which lead to salary increases.
  5. Develop professional development (PD) programs that are planned, on-going, relevant and have an appropriate balance of theory and practice. Meet both the teachers’ perceived needs (what they know they need) and unperceived needs (what they need but don’t know about). Avoid PD that is only about the latest brainwave from the department or some paper-shuffling nonsense, and focus on the knowledge and skills – and their theoretical underpinnings – that teachers need in order to teach.
  6. Resist the dumbing down of the teaching profession. Many people, including some teachers, call for a very ‘practical’ teacher education program, by which they mean lots of content knowledge background and then simply putting teachers into existing schools to learn how to teach in an apprenticeship model. These same people tend to decry the role of theory. But that kind of teacher education leads only to the perpetuation of the existing models of teaching… and that’s what we’re trying to revolutionise. So teacher education programs need to be professional education programs that equip teachers with the theoretical knowledge to make informed judgements about their practice and the various issues they encounter. In addition, the ‘best and brightest’ students will be those who are interested in ideas and in discussing ideas.
  7. If students’ results must be used as a way of measuring teacher performance, then get sophisticated about it, not simplistic. I’ve talked briefly here before about ‘value-added’ measures of school performance, which measure the change in student results rather than the absolute value. That’s a much fairer way, and avoids punishing the students and teachers in poorer areas of the state simply for being poor. In relation to this:
  8. Find really sophisticated ways of measuring and understanding teacher performance. If teacher performance is really important, then we need to put in the money and other resources needed to measure it right. Student test results are one tiny facet, and rely on a wide variety of factors other than teacher skill. What about the teacher’s ability to develop really engaging learning experiences, to fire up the students and get them motivated and interested? What about the quality of the discussions in the classroom, or the number of labs and other important activities a teacher conducts? What about creative, thoughtful integration of ICTs in teaching, and links with other subjects? What about educating students to be good global citizens?2 To reward good performance we need to understand what good performance is and have really credible ways of measuring it.
  9. Develop credible paths for teachers to retrain for different levels of education and for different subject areas. Recognise that this is not simple. In particular, there is a shortage of secondary teachers in some fields, and an excess of primary teachers in the Brisbane area. While primary and secondary teaching are different callings with different talents, some primary teachers could be retrained for junior secondary school teaching in subject areas where they have strong backgrounds, freeing up trained secondary teachers for the shortage areas.
  10. Rather than a one year Graduate Diploma in Education for students with an existing degree, move to a two year Master of Teaching program. One year is too little time to develop as a teacher. The M.Teach. would not be the same as the research or coursework Master of Education, but would be a high level professional qualification, well informed with theory as well as with extensive practice teaching time across the two years.

No doubt there are plenty more, but this is probably enough to be going on with…

Oh, and find gags for the morons who keep telling everyone around them that teachers work 8:30-3:30, 40 weeks a year. 😉

  1. In some ways I’m less than convinced entry scores are a good measure anyway: teaching is as much about personality and attitude and approach to life as it is about ability to achieve at the highest levels academically, and there’s no test for that. Teachers need to be smart, but not necessarily geniuses. They need to be good people, and that’s a much higher standard.
  2. Some of these are probably seen as falling into the ‘woolly thinking, too PC, not the way it was when I were a lad’ basket, but if they’re properly understood it is actually these kinds of facets of good teaching that lead to high academic success.

(and dealing with the others)

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:30 am

I actually don’t think there’s a huge problem with really bad teachers in the Queensland school system. Like any profession there’ll be a few, and education is a field where it’s possible to be badly unsuited to the profession due to personality and attitude. I think the perception that the main problem with the system is bad teachers (protected by the union, of course, is the claim) is simply wrong. There are a few fantastic teachers, many, many good teachers, quite a lot of average teachers and a few bad ones.

A couple of issues do mean that good teachers sometimes deliver bad teaching.

One is burnout: some teachers started out idealistic and positive but for whatever personal and professional reasons, and through whatever deficiencies of ‘the system’ and the school where they teach, are just fried now. They’ve had enough and are hanging on because they don’t see any good alternatives, and they’re doing the minimum required work and failing to inspire their students. There need to be paths out of the profession for these people, and into other jobs where their skills can be used.

Another is the fact that, due to already existing teacher shortages, many teachers are teaching outside the subject areas they were trained to teach. In science in particular, at all levels, teachers who are really not comfortable even with the science content knowledge, let alone with the nature of science and what it takes to teach science effectively, are teaching science because there’s no-one else to do so. Teacher education does make a difference, too – I have taught quite a lot of maths, not because I trained to but because I was needed and because the assumption was that a physics teacher understands maths. I do – but I was never trained in the methods of teaching maths, and honestly I don’t think I was ever a particularly good or inspiring maths teacher, although I’m a good teacher in ‘my’ fields.

The solution to teachers teaching out of field is complex, but the steps in the ‘Recruiting…’ post above are the same kinds of things that will address this issue.

And yes, there are some bad teachers – ones who abuse students in various ways, or just don’t care about students and teaching. Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not in the union’s interest to have these people in the profession, so although the union has a legal and moral obligation to protect its members, I think everyone recognises that there are some teachers – a very small number – who simply need to be removed from the classroom as quickly as possible. Of course, it will be easier to get that done if there are good teachers to take their place…

Three Clarifications

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:29 am

In relation to yesterday’s post, three quick points:

  1. I’m definitely talking about a massive re-investment in education with massively more money spent. You can’t get to class sizes of 15 and all the support services I was talking about by carving up the same size pie differently. If Queensland is serious about education it needs to put its money where its mouth is in a very big way.
  2. The 13 points I listed are a linked suite, and don’t really make sense if you take them one by one. You can’t pick and choose just some elements and still have it meet the intended goals. In particular, adding the external exams but without the curricular stability1 and support and the ability for kids to repeat grades, and the kinds of changes for teachers to be outlined today, would actually make the situation worse rather than better. So please look at the set of proposals as a unit.
  3. Having said that, I also know that there are alternative approaches on some of the issues. I said, for example, that integration of kids with special needs in mainstream classes had been tried and failed. That’s not really true: the promise when it was proposed was always that these kids would be brought in with massive support, teacher aides, budgets for needed equipment, support for teachers with planning alternative activities and so on, but the reality was that the kids with special needs were simply dumped in mainstream classrooms and all the extra challenges dumped on already busy teachers. So rather than reverse the integration and put kids with special needs back in special classes and schools, trying out the integration properly, the way it was meant to be, with proper support, would be another very attractive approach.

  1. My Biology teacher education colleague Kim mentioned that science is moving so fast in biology that there needs to be some flexibility within my 10 year stable curriculum plan to allow the new science to be taught. I think that’s not too hard to achieve, even with a pretty clear and prescriptive syllabus. I also think that in Chemistry and Physics, although knowledge is developing fast, not a lot of that makes it into the school level curriculum. Maybe it should to a greater extent. I still think a clearer, more detailed, fixed syllabus for a longer period would yield better educational outcomes, but agree that addenda to just change specific content as science (and other fields) advance are a useful addition to the scheme.


A Few Modest Proposals1 On Education

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:28 am

So, if there exist problems in school education in Queensland2, what are some solutions? Here’s my short list, just off the top of my head, and without a lot of detail – I’m happy to explain any of the features in more detail if anyone asks.

  1. Rationalise the phases of schooling and lock them in, don’t keep fiddling around the edges. Prep/kindergarten would be an extension of early years child care, done in a different way and a different place from schooling, but with explicit learning goals. Then Grades 1-3, 4-6, 7-9 and 10-12 would be separate phases, with appropriate teacher preparation programs for each phase.
  2. An external, externally marked exam at the end of each of these phases, focused on conceptual and higher-order thinking questions and basic skills rather than factual recall.3
  3. Opt out of the national curriculum framework as an essential precondition for being able to:
  4. Plan clear, detailed syllabus documents that specify in detail content to be taught and skills to be developed at each year level. Lock in the syllabus for the 10 year period 2010-2020 and don’t mess with it at all. Everyone in the system has certainty about what students need to know and be able to do at each level, and doesn’t have to redevelop programs every time the QSA sneezes.
  5. Reintroduce the possibility of students repeating a year of school if they are not performing at the appropriate level for that year but students who are repeating receive intensive remedial help and support both in their regular class with a teacher aide and in withdrawal classes to ensure that they ‘make it’ next year.
  6. Smaller class sizes – a maximum of 15 in a class in all age groups. Much more support from specialist teachers in learning support and from teacher aides or ‘associate teachers’.
  7. Increased staffing levels at all schools, both to reduce class sizes and to increase time within the school timetable for collaborative planning between teams of teachers. Reintroduction of support staff such as school nurses, counsellors, teacher-librarians, tech support, learning support teachers… so that classroom teachers can focus on teaching and be well supported.
  8. Dramatic reduction in levels of bureaucracy, red tape and paper-shuffling required of teachers: partly through the reforms to curriculum and assessment described above, and to the way we deal with students with special needs described below, and partly through added support staff to handle some of this non-teaching work in schools. Getting bureaucrats in the department to have to justify every single demand they make of teachers in this way to some independent authority would also have value.
  9. Reintroduction of ‘special schools’ (under whatever name) for students with extensive intellectual and behavioural difficulties. Integration of such students into regular classrooms has been tried, and found to reduce outcomes and support for both those students and the other students in the class. It also creates huge extra paperwork burdens on teachers.
  10. It’s probably not possible at this point in our history to reintroduce the cane or other forms of corporal punishment in our schools – and it was got rid of initially partly because it had been abused. But discipline needs teeth – the criticism that misbehaving kids are hamstringing education and there are no real consequences for them has merit. I suggest a withdrawal disciplinary classroom in each school, constantly staffed by the scariest and most skilled of the Deputy Principals, to which any student who disrupts learning is immediately sent without question or discussion. They stay there in silence until all their work is done and they are ready to apologise and be readmitted to their class. No appeals for parents are allowed – this is an internal school disciplinary matter.
  11. Extensive support for indigenous students and the most at-risk students, with remedial teaching and teacher aides and other forms of support, but also with compulsion to attend regularly and participate fully in the activities of the school. Socioeconomic status is probably the single strongest indicator of academic performance, and all these initiatives aside, probably explains much of Queensland’s lag on the tests. If we’re serious about doing better, we have to get serious about poverty.
  12. Dramatically reduced emphasis on literacy and numeracy as decontextualised skills, and increased emphasis on developing literacy and numeracy integrated across all school subjects. Requirement for all students at all levels of schooling to read one age-appropriate (or above) book per month at home and report on it to the school. Parents accountable for ensuring that this happens.
  13. Reintroduced drill and practice on times tables and other basic mathematical skills – calculators aren’t the villains here, but there’s no substitute for having that stuff available at the top of your mind for everyday numeracy.

Some of these ideas take us back to older practices, some forward to newer ones, and many have never really been tried. But they’re drawn from experience of what works and from international experiences, including those in places like Finland that do very well.

These initiatives would involve large amounts of new funding into the system, but would not dramatically increase teachers’ salaries: they could continue to increase in line with salaries in other industries. What it would do is increase teachers’ job satisfaction and autonomy, and their ability to do the thing they got into the profession for in the first place – teach students and help them learn and develop – rather than mire them in behaviour management and endless bureaucracy that doesn’t directly serve students.

Oh yeah, all ideas expressed here are my own, and do not reflect the ideas or policies of the University of Queensland, the School of Education or my dog Buffy.

There will be another post here tomorrow focusing more directly on recruiting, retaining and rewarding the ‘best and brightest’ in the teaching profession, and on ways to deal with underperforming teachers and schools.

Reactions? Counterproposals?

  1. The original title is from Jonathan Swift’s satirical pamphlet suggesting the Irish poor eat their children as a solution to poverty. I think there are some resonances with the situation in education…
  2. As I said in yesterday’s post, I don’t think that’s necessarily so, but let’s assume it for the purpose of the discussion.
  3. In some ways this is the most controversial and counter-trend proposal of all, but it helps to ensure that all students are ‘on the same page’, addresses the perceived problems with Queensland’s performance on international tests and reduces the time burden on teachers of moderating internal assessment


Blame the teachers?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:39 pm

The response from our state Education Minister, Rod Welford, to Queensland’s relatively poor performance on the TIMSS international tests of school students’ ability to do international tests was to blame the teachers.

The article is worth a read, but the 188 comments, if you have the stomach and time, provide a fascinating over-view of the range of attitudes to and about education in this state.

I notice us ‘academics’ get a bit of a bashing – shame many of us actually agree with many of the points being made about the curriculum and particularly the massive excess of unproductive paperwork required from teachers.

It is important to notice that the ‘crisis’ itself is largely bogus. When results are corrected for socio-economic status, which is the largest predictor of academic success, Queensland students perform at a strong average standard… and they know and can do things that students who do better on the tests don’t and can’t.


My bash at a(n over)simplified Christian theology

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:38 am

The Seventh-day Adventist Christians I know spend so much time debating ‘faith and works’, and it annoys me because it seems to me that most often they are saying the same thing with a slightly different emphasis and pretending they are diametrically opposed. So as part of a discussion in a forum I tried to formulate the common ground as simply as I could. Thought I’d share that here – any comments are very welcome.

OK, here it is:

  1. We are all sinners – all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
  2. None of us has the power to save ourselves.
  3. None of our actions have any power to save us – even our good actions are marred by self-interest.
  4. We are saved wholly, solely and entirely because God ascribes Jesus’ salvation to us. This is a legal contract founded in grace and mercy.
  5. Jesus’ sacrifice is 100% effective to offer salvation to every person on earth who chooses to accept it. Nothing more is required for salvation. It is heresy to claim that more is required.
  6. We must accept Jesus’ sacrifice in order for his salvation to be ascribed to us.

OK, big pause, big breath, big think, prayer of praise – because a huge amount of the confusion on this topic arises through not taking an appropriate pause at this point. But the 6 points above are the heart of the gospel, and the parts on which all Christians agree.

  1. Once we receive salvation, we are new people with a new desire to live the abundant lives God has planned for us.
  2. Those abundant lives arise from the assurance of our salvation, which is absolute, and from obedience to the laws God has set in place for our benefit.
  3. The greatest commandment is to love God and love others – all else is derived from that.
  4. That great commandment has been ‘unpacked’ as the Ten Commandments and throughout the whole Bible in some detail.
  5. God does not require evidence for our salvation, beyond our acceptance of Jesus’ sacrifice. That sacrifice completely fulfills the demands of the law and makes us free.
  6. God desires us to keep His laws because He understands that they are the recipe for the abundant life, and because He loves us and wants us to enjoy that life.
  7. Our works also constitute evidence of our salvation for those around us – the fruits of the spirit – and are the most eloquent testimony for bringing the joy of salvation to others.

In reading this set of 13 statements, I hope you will read the whole set and try to understand the logic, rather than try to pick it apart line by line: some of the statements, taken out of context, will be too extreme and incorrect. The full set of statements is needed to provide a balanced perspective.

Small Ironies

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:07 am

Yesterday afternoon I raced a thunderstorm1 to the mall near where Suzie works. It meant I had half an hour to wait before she finished work. I had planned to buy a music or motorbike magazine to read to pass the time, but that would have cost $8-12 and I’m trying to keep some cash in reserve for the holidays. So I decided to be more responsible and go and borrow a book from the library for free instead. But to be able to borrow I first had to pay off my outstanding library fines – $21. D’oh!

  1. What does that mean? On most hot days in Brisbane there will be a brief thunderstorm at the end of the day – all that heat and humidity has to go somewhere. It’s actually how Brisbane gets the great majority of its rain in the course of the year. But the storms are usually very localised and just sweep through the city in half an hour or so. I can check the Marburg Radar Loop and it will show me the actual areas where it’s raining and how that’s moving. I could see the storm bearing down on Indooroopilly, where Sue works, from the west last night, and knew that if I didn’t beat it I’d have to wait at work for longer until it was over – and sometimes it rains for a while after the storm. So I left work and rode as quickly as the traffic would let me to the undercover carpark at the mall. It started raining very slightly just as I pulled in, but within a few minutes there was lightning crashing outside and the lights were flickering in the mall. By the time we finsihed shopping an hour or so later I was able to ride home in cool clear air and sunset light.2
  2. footnote longer than the post FTW


I’m a highly organised professional … honest!

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:17 pm

Presented at a conference this morning. Put my PowerPoint on a USB stick, and checked a million times it was in my pocket. Then, just as I was about to walk out the door, got the bright idea to download a flash application to show – gotta use colour and movement with those academics. Site was down, didn’t download a thing… and you see where this is going.

Get to the conference half an hour early to set up, check the pocket… and the USB is still plugged in at home. Home is out of the question, but the PowerPoint was made at work. The conference is at another uni across town from my uni, so… Walk out the door and up a massive hill in the 40 C heat, jump on the bike, snake across town at speed, buy a new USB, load the presentation, race back… and make it in time.

Wander into the room, start setting up… and someone lets me know I’m in N417 and should be in N419. Wander down the hall, set up, present with a minimum of stress.

An adrenalised ride across town is more fun that sitting in the preceding conference session any time, and apparently my subconscious knows it.