The Opposite Of This

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:07 pm

Attending a session at EdMedia 2011 entitled ‘Using Critical Social Theories to Examine Digital Equity for Indigenous, Colonized, or Marginalized Peoples’.

It is pretty much the exact opposite of the sentiments in this quote from Paul Feyerabend:

…my concern is neither rationality, nor science, nor freedom – abstractions such as these have done more harm than good – but the quality of the lives of individuals. This quality must be known by personal experience before any suggestions for change can be made. In other words: suggestions for change should come from friends, not from distant ‘thinkers’. It is time to stop ratiocinating about the lives of people one has never seen, it is time to give up the belief that humanity … can be saved by groups of people shooting the breeze in well-heated offices, it is time to become modest and to approach those who are supposed to profit from one’s ideas as an ignoramus in need of instruction… (Feyerabend, 1987, p. 17)

A few more images from Cascais (and Lisbon)

Filed under: — Bravus @ 7:33 am

First up, one of me from the castle we went to on Monday – thanks to Michelle for this one and a few others.

Atop Castello de Sao Jorge

Today I bought a hat because I got burned enough on Monday and I knew we’d be out and about again. It’s not exactly the style I’d choose – the crown is too high for me – but to find one for 9 euros that fit my enormous bonce was a bonus.

Pick the horse’s butt in this image:

Me in hat near horse statue

Me in a hat

Today we snuck out of the conference at lunchtime: this morning’s sessions were kind of uninspiring and we had more sightseeing to do! Took a cab downtown and ate a delicious lunch in an obscure little restaurant, using the classic ‘point-and-grunt’ approach to ordering from our excellent non-English-speaking waiter.

Then we jumped on a train. It followed the edge of the Tagus River all the way to Cascais (‘Cashcaish’), a little town right on the corner of the river and the Atlantic Ocean. We wandered around and looked at yachts in the harbor.

Looking at yachts with Malcolm

We then wandered through some narrow streets and markets.

Market street

We found a little cafe and had ‘galao’ (coffee with milk) and the little caramelised, puff pastry custard tarts that are a trademark of the Portuguese ‘pastelaria’.

Came back to the hotel by train and cab, had a quick swim in the pool, then down to dinner.

It’s a tough life, but someone has to live it.


A few images from Lisbon

Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:04 pm

arched window looking out over Lisbon

Looking out over Lisbon through an arched window at the top of the Castello de Sao Jorge (Castle of St George – presumably not the English dragon guy…)

triumphal arch in Lisbon

Epic triumphal architecture: there’s lots of it in Lisbon. Blokes on horses, blokes on columns. Women in the sculptures tend to be more decorative than featured. Lots of cool stuff on an epic scale.

part of Lisbon from the castle

Looking down from the top of the castle over Lisbon, including the Belem tower, and out over the huge Tagus River that is the reason the city is sited where it is. On a beautiful day.

fashion image on the side of the castle

Fashion photos on the side of the castle. I joked that no-one had the heart to tell him his chunky knit jumper isn’t real chain mail.

Michelle atop the castle

My colleague Michelle who has worked with me on the research project and is presenting at the conference, up on the castle.

Sao Jorge

The Sao Jorge for whom the castle is named.

Michelle and Malcolm at the castle

Michelle and her husband Malcolm (aka ‘Tour Guide Barbie’) at the castle. Good example of the cobbled streets that are everywhere in Lisbon, too.


Filed under: — Bravus @ 4:04 pm

I applied for a research grant from the Australian Research Council in February to continue my work on visualisations in chemistry and physics teaching. We asked for $230,000 over 3 years. The process of evaluating the application takes a looong time: applications are submitted in February and decisions come out in November.

The part of the process we’re up to right now is that the reports of the independent assessors on our applications are released. These assessors reports are not what actually decide whether we get the grant – that’s another panel. But the reports give some sense of how successful the application is likely to be, and they are read by the panel who makes the final decision.

We get the opportunity to write a one-page ‘rejoinder’ statement in which we address any points raised by the assessors, and that statement is also read by the panel. It’s an opportunity to clarify any outstanding issues and argue for why the study should be funded.

I read the reports from my 3 assessors yesterday afternoon, after I finished presenting at the conference, with some trepidation. I think I wrote a pretty good application – heck, a very good one! But as with anything that’s judged like this, you just never know who you’re going to get and how it will strike them.

As it happens, they were all *very* positive. They were asked to comment on the research team, the study itself and the research environment (our universities, and how they support us). All three said the study was important, clearly explained, should be funded and that our team has already shown its ability to complete the study.

That’s very encouraging, although I do have a niggle: for the last grant, the assessors’ reports were nowhere near as positive. I wrote a rejoinder, but had almost given up on getting the funding – and we did! In fact, the grant ended up being ranked A+, which puts it in the top 3rd of the 20% of proposed studies funded… So I’m not sure whether it’s the other way around: good assessor reports, miss out on the grant. I hope not: hope it just means it’s even more likely we get funded.

Only one of the three raised any issues, and those were more by nature of clarification questions than actually pointing out flaws in the study. I was thinking of the answers even as I was reading the report, and it should be no hassle to write the rejoinder. It’s actually a good thing that the assessor gave me the opportunity to clarify the issues.

I did wake up at 2 am with ideas for the rejoinder circling in my head, so I got up and wrote a few things down to get them out of my head, which let me get back to sleep. It has to be submitted by July 5, and I’d like to get some trusted colleagues to read over it before that, so I suspect I’ll be sneakily typing between conference sessions today…

Further Adventures

Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:31 am

Didn’t get time to update here yesterday: still working on sorting out the jetlag and moving my sleep and waking times to match Lisbon.

So, today was the conference, including my presentation. I think it went well, and was well received. I enjoyed presenting – had a half hour and maybe talked for 17 minutes and then facilitated a discussion for the rest of it. Slides are here if you’re at all interested. http://www.slideshare.net/bravus/edmedia-2011-lisbon

Day ended annoyingly: there was a Portuguese cultural performance of a bunch of students singing and playing guitars and a double bass, but many of the delegates like the sound of their own voices a bit too much. They wouldn’t shut up while the singers were singing, and the students were clearly annoyed. Sure, it wasn’t smart to organise a reception with drinks and nibbles where people expect to chat, and then ask them not to talk, but a tiny bit of respect goes a long way…

The conference sessions were enjoyable, though of very variable quality: some of them could have been quite comfortably presented in the 70s, and seemed unaware of what has been learned since.

The conference has a Twitter stream but didn’t seem to have a discussion forum, so I built one at lunchtime. May have stepped on a few toes, but hopefully it better reflects the espoused commitments to ‘connected learning’.

About to crash, but I should tell you about yesterday’s adventures. We took a trip into town and wandered around, including to the Castle of St Jorge on the top of the hill. Saw a 12th century (!) cathedral, too, from the inside – awe-inspiring.

Lots of stairs on a hot day, but also a lovely lunch in a nice restaurant and good company from Michelle and Malcolm. Will try to upload and include a few photos soon. Glad we had that extra day to see some sights. We’re plotting to play hooky on one afternoon of the conference and look around a bit more… otherwise why come to an exotic destination at all?



Filed under: — Bravus @ 6:37 pm

Finally ended up succumbing and joining LinkedIn. Add me here if you want to: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/david-geelan/36/465/378


Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:09 am

I wanted to say ‘Happy Birthday’ to a couple of good friends, and since I’m in Portugal I looked up how to do it in Portuguese1. One way to say it is ‘Parabens!’ – and my chemistry ears pricked up a bit. In chemistry the parabens are a family of compounds derived from parahydroxybenzoic acid. They are widely used as preservatives.

Well, I guess really it was my ‘teacher ears’ that pricked up, because a possible approach to teaching a chemistry lesson about the parabens seemed to arrive. As a lesson plan it would need to include a lot more action and involvement from the students, but I thought I’d share a little bit of the explanatory portion here, just for fun2.

In teaching, I might start with the ‘Parabens means Happy Bithday in Portuguese’ thing, just as a quirky mnemonic device, but then get into the explanation. I’d probably bring in some cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and other products and point out the ‘methylparaben’ and ‘propylparaben’ in the list of ingredients. The lesson would probably come as part of an organic chemistry topic in a high school chemistry course, at a point where students already understood chemical bonding and some of the conventions of how organic molecules are represented:

This structure is for the actual parahydroxybenzoic acid (italics indicate where the name comes from). The other chemicals in the family are made by adding methyl, ethyl, propyl and so on groups where the R is on the diagram above, and that’s a discussion for a later time.

So, what do we see in this structure, and why does it have the name it has? The first feature is the hexagonal ‘ring’ structure. This is known as the ‘benzene ring’, and the chemical compound benzene, which used to be used in things like drycleaning and decaffeinating coffee, would be just the ring without the extra things sticking out at the top and bottom. They even used to use it as aftershave – it smells… interesting, but I personally wouldn’t like to smell of it.

(Because there are so many carbons in organic chemistry, we save time and energy by not drawing them in diagrams, they are just ‘taken as read’. Everywhere the lines join there is a carbon atom.) The ring is shown here with alternating single and double bonds, three of each. The ring is made up of carbon atoms bonded to each other, with a ‘spare’ bond on each pointing outward. Remember, carbon can form a total of 4 covalent bonds, and if you look at each of the corners of the hexagon and imagine an extra line pointing outward, linked to a hydrogen atom you’ll see that there are 4 lines in total connected to it. In benzene itself, hydrogen atoms are connected to the ends of the ‘spare’ bonds.

But we know a few things about double and single bonds. We know that they come out at an angle, and we know that double bonds are shorter than single bonds. So if the benzene ring really was as it looks in this diagram, the hexagon would not be regular, it would have 3 short sides (the double bonds) and 3 longer sides (the single bonds). It would also be kind of ‘crownshaped’, going up and down, if we rotated it around and looked at it from the side.

When we actually do the measurements on the benzene ring, though (and how those measurements are done on something as tiny as a molecule is a story for another day), we find that it’s flat, not crownshaped, and all six bonds are the same length.

That means the picture we have above is not quite right: they’re not double bonds and single bonds, they’re sort of ‘one and a half’ bonds. We won’t get to talk about it here in high school, but at university you can look forward to the discussion of how the p electrons in the carbon atoms form new π molecular orbitals above and below the ring… anyway, that’s for later.

I said benzene ‘used to be used’ for quite a lot of purposes, including drycleaning, but it’s not used as much any more, because it’s quite carcinogenic (cancer causing). It turns out that those unusual bonds mean it’s very good at attacking DNA, and broken DNA is what causes cancers.

Some of the health concerns around the use of parabens arise from the idea that, because it contains a benzene ring, it might have some of the same bad properties. You’ll be doing some research for your assignment about the chemistry of those claims and the scientific evidence, and will be asked to take and support a position on whether parabens should be banned, or used for a narrower range of purposes.

OK, so we’ve got the ring, now what about the stuff hanging off it? We’ll start with the easy one first, at the bottom. This is a ‘hydroxy’ group – hence the ‘hydroxy’ in the name – and is just an oxygen atom bonded to a hydrogen atom and the ring. The hydroxy group is the characteristic group of the alcohols, and we’ve looked at its properties a bit already.

At the top of our diagram, across the ring from the hydroxy group, is a carboxylic acid group. This involves a carbon atom that is double-bonded to an oxygen atom and single-bonded to another oxygen atom that in turn is bonded to a hydrogen atom (in this diagram they’ve represented it with an R instead of an H because it’s also possible to add other groups on in place of the hydrogen). That last part looks a bit like the hydroxy group, and has some similar properties, but it’s not a hydroxy group, it’s part of the larger acid group. There’s more to say here about electronegativity and electron density, but we’ll get to that later.

The last part of the name we need to explain is the ‘para’. It’s a way of saying where the two groups are around the ring. We start from the biggest attached group, which in this case is the acid group at the top. You can see that we could then put the hydroxy group on any of the other 5 carbon atoms in the ring. We need to be able to say where it is, because different locations will give the molecule slightly different properties.

Going clockwise around the ring, if the hydroxy group was next to the acid group, on the right, that position is called ‘ortho’. It would be possible (maybe, depending on the space in the molecule) to make ‘orthohydroxybenzoic acid’. I’ll give you a minute to draw that in your book and name it. Moving to the next position, that position is called ‘meta’. And then, when the molecule is as it actually is here, which the two groups opposite each other, the position is called ‘para’.

(I’d probably tie ‘ortho’ to ‘orthodox’, ‘meta’ to meta discussions, but this is already too long!)

You might think we’d need to have 5 labels since there are 5 positions, but if you imagine the hydroxy group in that bottom left corner, you can always just flip the molecule around its vertical axis, and the group will be in the bottom right ‘meta’ position… so it turns out we only need 3 labels, since it is how close that is important, not which side.

In a real lesson there’d be lots more questions, discussion, linking to past lessons and students’ life experience, discussion of how to answer exam questions on the topic, digressions into the conventions of how diagrams are drawn and what they really mean, and so on. But hopefully, at least, this has given you some sense of the kinds of processes that go on in a teacher’s head when preparing a lesson… and why it’s so much more than just information transfer. (And, linked to that, why a teacher can do a much better job than a textbook, all other things being equal.)

Oh, and for further reading, here’s the (excellent) Wikipedia article on the parabens: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paraben

  1. I’m fascinated with foreign languages and tend to try to figure out things like the words on labels. The Romance languages share enough Latin roots with English that it’s usually possible to piece together what’s going on with a little work. I’m fascinated by why Portuguese and Spanish are so different from one another when the countries are right next door with a land border (which makes it more mystifying to me than French and English).
  2. …and because it’s 3 am here and there’s nothing else to do. My efforts at synching my sleep cycle with here, coupled with the looong flight meant that I got my 9 hours of sleep from 6 pm to 3 am.







Loose End In Lisbon

Filed under: — Bravus @ 11:26 pm

Hmm, just figured out something I probably should have figured out sooner… Although the conference is advertised as starting on the 27th, all that happens that day is registration, which can be done on other days anyway, so all the action starts on the 28th.

So, really, rocking up at lunchtime on the 26th was a bit premature: could have rocked up at this time tomorrow instead and still rested up for a night before the conference. Ah well, I guess it’ll reduce the jet lag a bit more if I have a day and a half – and a couple of nights – to get settled in.

Will try to get out and about: first little walk is to find the conference venue, which is at the University of Lisbon a couple of blocks away. Once that’s sorted out I’ll meander a bit more and try to get my bearings, find places to go and eat and so on.

What the heck is the name of those flower bushes, kind of shaped like small trees but only a metre and a half tall, leaf-shaped leaves and usually pink and white flowers… and the key identifying point, they’re poisonous. There’s a million of ’em here (along with decorative lantana and lots of other things that make it feel like home), but the name is just on the tip of my tongue and I can’t get it. (Sleep deprivation may be relevant.)

Right, I’m off, with camera.

Side note: ended up only posting on Facebook, not here, from Frankfurt because the web access was expensive and bad, not free and good like Singapore.

Hi from Changi Airport, Singapore

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:27 am

…which has excellent free wireless service.

Will try to check in from Frankfurt as well.


Christians and Evolution: A Different Take

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:17 am

I think this relates to some of what Cadmann commented a little while ago, and is a very interesting take on the issue: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jonathan-dudley/christian-faith-requires-_b_876345.html


Financial theory for fighting HIV?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:50 am

Ain’t science fascinating? http://www.salon.com/life/aids/index.html?story=/news/feature/2011/06/21/hiv_research


Up In The Air

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:05 pm

Just a little blurb about my travel plans over the next few weeks (which may also explain a certain amount of ‘radio silence’ on the blog, though who knows, I might be stimulated to post more!)

Time zones make it a bit tricky to figure out how long flights are, but I did some sums:

First trip:

Brisbane-Singapore, 8:10
Singapore transfer: 3:00
Singapore-Frankfurt: 12:40
Frankfurt transfer: 3:00
Frankfurt-Lisbon: 2:55

Total: 29:45 (plus best part of an hour either end for ground transport, so call it a bit over 31 hours room-to-room)

Second trip:

Lisbon-London: 2:50
London transfer: 3:25
London-Edmonton: 8:55

Total: 15:20 – heh, piece of cake after the last one.

Third trip:

Edmonton-Montreal: 3:52
Montreal transfer: 3:20
Montreal-Boston: 1:12

Total: 8:24

Fourth trip:

Boston-San Francisco: 6:23
San Francisco transfer: 2:07 (hey, at least I’m not going to LAX!)
San Francisco-Auckland: 12:55
Auckland transfer: 1:00
Auckland-Brisbane: 3:50

Total: 26:55

Of course, this last step is very vulnerable indeed to volcanic ash…

Grand total in planes and airports: Just over 80 hours…

So, think of me red-eyed and unshaven: it’s a healthy counterpart to any envy you might feel at the exotic destinations and adventures. 😉


Preach It, Glen Barton!

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:10 pm

Glen Barton is someone who I taught – along with his awesome wife Kristel – many many years ago as a beginning teacher. They seem to have survived the experience!

This is part of a letter Glen wrote to his local Labor member of parliament, but he shared it on Facebook and I asked for his permission to share it here because it captures a lot of what I think so nicely:

I just posted on facebook a series of “comments” on my own status update, that outlines my thoughts on the arguments against gay marriage, and why they are so very weak and mean spirited. Most of the arguments by those opposed boil down to some version of one of the following (and i’ve included my thoughts on why each holds no water).

  1. Allowing gay marriage will destroy the sanctity of marriage. This I consider the same argument as the one that states that marriage is a religious institution and should be in line with Christian beliefs. This is clearly a nonsense. Marriage is a legal institution and is very clearly secular in as many cases as it is religious. My wife and myself are legally married, and our marriage had absolutely nothing to do with the church or religion, yet Christians don’t try to oppose our marriage.
  2. The second main argument touted is that it is conservative people’s right to hold their views and to say that they aren’t allowed to oppose gay marriage is a breach of their human rights. This argument is both wrong and not what the discussion is about. No-one is challenging religious folks’ right to believe what they want. But we do oppose their right to oppress and oppose the happiness of others based on those beliefs. No one would force a straight christian man to marry another man, and no-one would force a church to conduct a gay wedding ceremony – but that doesn’t mean that gay marriage has any reason to be opposed in a secular setting. In addition, marriage is not a god given institution. marriage is a social contract that far preceded the Judeo Christian tradition, and probably preceded religion altogether.
  3. Why can’t gay people have a legal relationship and call it something other than marriage? This isn’t an argument, it’s a cop out. The issue is about the legal status of marriage, but even more than that it’s about equality. To say to people “you can be equal but just not as equal as us” is just as mean spirited as not allowing recognition at all. The point is that If a straight couple choose to remain defacto they ca. If they choose to marry they ca. Gay couples should have the freedom to make the same choices if they want to.
  4. Then there’s the “but marriage should be about procreation” “argument”. I can’t believe this is still even raised. So should we annul the marriages of straight people who cannot have or choose not to have kids? what about banning marriage for women that are above the age of being able to bear children? This statement from those that use it exposes a disingenuity that is astounding – I cannot believe that they themselves believe that there is nothing more to a loving committed relationship than “making babies”.
  5. Then of course, there’s the fall back position when all other arguments have been refuted, those opposed to gay marriage usually fall back on “well marriage is defined as between a man and a woman”. This is so ridiculous as to defy belief. That is what the whole debate is about… legally changing that definition of marriage because that definition is discriminatory and unequal. And to suggest that marriage is and always has been that definition and is unchanging is just downright ignorant of history. Marriage has had many forms over the years and across cultures. And is continually being adjusted as we learn more and become a more civilised society. And a good thing too. I’m so glad that we don’t still go by Deuteronomic definitions where a rape victim is forced to marry and sexually submit to her attacker. Thank gods we’ve moved on from biblical morality.

I must say – the last three are really not arguments at all, but justifications for a position that has no rationality.

And of course the arguments against all these are some of the reasons why same sex marriage should be brought into law in Australia. As well as the unshakable argument that we, in a modern society in the 21st Century, should value equality for all. I think it is an issue that in 20 years we will look back on in much the same light as we now view the fact that it took so long for women to be able to vote, or for indigenous Australians to be acknowledged as citizens – we will be ashamed that there was a time when people’s right to marry was unequally based on their sexuality.

It would be nice if the current government was the government that could hold its head high and claim that it was the government that redressed this wrong, rather than hang its head in shame that it was a government that lacked the moral courage to bring about this measure of justice.

I ask that these arguments be taken into account when the Labour party considers the issue at its upcoming national conference.

I’ve been having an interesting email discussion with Mark Patterson, one of the most faithful commenters here, about this issue as well. Hopefully there’s an on-going conversation to be had here too.


Jokes Just For Me (Shared)

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:18 am

A lot of the little jokes I come up with in my head are so obscure that I tend to have to just enjoy them for my own amusement, since for other people they’d require explaining, which would spoil them.

That’s no sort of elitist statement, just a comment on how full of random trash my brain is after close on half a century of voracious grazing, and the odd connections it makes.

But I thought I’d explain this one anyway: it has a cute kitty in it.

Exhibit one is this 80s song – ack, the hair, the clothes, the synths, the high-slung bass!

My brain sent up that it was Phil Collins, but apparently it’s Mike and the Mechanics. I believe Phil Collins did do a cover of it, and anyway the ‘Mike’ with the Mechanics is Mike Rutherford, a Genesis alumnus like Phil Collins, so… {/rock nerd}

And then there’s this:

Caracal kitten

It’s a caracal, a kind of wild cat from Africa. The fact that this one has a collar and a bell is because he was orphaned and is being raised on a farm beside domestic cats… too cute!

And all that to explain why I was wandering around the house this morning, singing to myself ‘All I need is a caracal’.


Gotta Honour The Faithfulness

Filed under: — Bravus @ 9:26 pm

Will Hopoate is a stunning young Rugby League player. He plays for my beloved Manly Sea Eagles in the national competition, and is amazingly skilled. He’s only 19, and has only played 15 NRL games. He was picked for State of Origin and scored a stunning try on debut. He’s a young man with the world of sport at his feet.

And, for 2012 and 2013, he won’t be playing professionally – maybe at all. He’s a Mormon, and he’s going on his two year mission trip, as many young Mormons do.

A big loss to my team, but I have to honour that willingness to make a real sacrifice for what he believes in.

The Backfire Effect

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:09 pm

Why it’s hard to change our minds: The Backfire Effect.

(as always, three fingers pointing back at myself)


An Emissions Trading Scheme is the *Cheapest* Way

Filed under: — Bravus @ 12:27 pm

…to cut emissions, and a carbon price is the second cheapest. Due to political pressures (and, to be honest, a failure of nerve on the part of Labor), Australia is now committed to 5 years on the second-best solution before moving to the best one.

Or, if people decide to elect Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, they can have the very worst of all possible worlds: http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/carbon-change-can-be-cheaper-than-we-think-20110613-1g0ba.html

These are not fiddly matters at the edges: Abbott’s approach costs up to $1000 for each tonne of emissions saved, versus a carbon price of $29 or so a tonne. The gap is immense, and even Malcolm Turnbull is saying Abbott’s ‘direct action’ policy is essentially opening the tax-payers’ chequebook for unlimited expenditure for little real gain.

I’m actually not really posting to make political hay: more to note that we know what will work, it won’t be particularly painful and the pain can be avoided, and we need to move now.


Social Promotion

Filed under: — Bravus @ 1:02 pm

I wrote very briefly – one dot point in a long list – about this issue in 2008, but thought I’d unpack it in a bit more detail now.

Full disclosure up front: I repeated Grade 1. I was upset on the day they told me – and it wasn’t managed well, because I’d been in the Grade 2 classroom already for about a week and had to walk back down the verandah to the room I’d been in the previous year. But I settled in very quickly, made good friends… and the extra maturity meant that I was happy and secure and achieved well throughout school.

This is not really about my personal story, though, it’s more of a policy issue. In those olden days, sometimes if a student wasn’t deemed ready to proceed to the next grade he or she was ‘kept back’. Perhaps there was a bit of a stigma, but particularly in the younger grades kids are incredibly plastic, and recovered in minutes or hours. Maybe parents struggled with it a bit more.

Since then, though, the notion that ‘self esteem’ is the most important thing, and the fear of scarring their fragile self-concepts, have led to a near-universal policy of ‘social promotion’ – keeping kids with their classmates, stepping through the grades in lockstep.

I want to suggest that this is a fatally flawed policy. When students are in Year 8, reading at a Year 2 level, it’s very difficult for them to learn much of *anything*, since many of the high school learning activities involve reading and writing.

Ironically, this daily failure for years *has to* be more damaging to a student’s self-concept than a single event when they’re very young. So, even measured on the basis of the very thing it is supposed to achieve, the policy fails.

It also makes teaching much more difficult, which takes teacher time and energy away from *all* students: the costs to society as a whole are incalculable.

In some ways being ‘kept back’ used to be seen punitively or negatively: ‘you haven’t worked hard enough’ or whatever. But it needn’t: it can be seen in terms of extra support. It shouldn’t be as simple as ‘repeating’ the same year over again. There should be extra support from a literacy report teacher to ensure that the child ‘passes’ – is able to do the kinds of work and the kinds of thinking that are required for the next grade.

Side note: many Australian states put a huge amount of money and energy into ‘outcomes-based assessment’ in the 90s, and if properly understood this would have meant that students didn’t proceed to the next level until they had achieved the outcomes of the previous level. Never happened that way, though.

We know that there is a huge range of maturity within a particular age: you just have to look at a Year 8 class to see the range of physical maturity, and the range of mental and emotional maturity is likely to be at least as great. And yet we march them through in lock step, as though age was a proxy for stage… and it just isn’t, or at least is a very imperfect one.

In one sense it would take more resources: serious learning support assistance for any kid who is repeating a year. In another, though, when we count the costs to schools and society of kids being in that investment would pay off.

‘nother side note: I also know there’s nothing inevitable abut grades at all, and there are alternative models with ‘vertical curriculum’ and so on. But I’m a realist, and think there are relatively undramatic changes we can make that will lead to dramatic benefits.

So, there’s my case, in simple terms: it’s time to have a serious second ook at the policy of ‘social promotion’.


One Less Excuse

Filed under: — Bravus @ 10:41 pm


What’s The Difference?

Filed under: — Bravus @ 8:06 am

Here’s the second layer of the discussion I started in yesterday’s post about teaching. Our mission in this particular project is not so much to focus on enhancing teaching for all students, although that would be a nice side effect.

Rather, we could think about it as finding ways to specifically enhance the experience of school and the level of success for disadvantaged students. But that’s not quite it either. We’re dealing with the issue of ‘difference’ in the classroom.

It’s a truism that ‘every student is different’, but the notion of difference plays out in all sorts of ways. Teachers tend to think of students as being on a continuum of academic ability from the least to the most capable, for example. Often there’s an associated recognition that students have ability in different subject areas, and may have certain learning difficulties as well.

There are a huge number of possible dimensions of difference beyond the academic, of course – differences of race, sex, gender, wealth and poverty, family and social background, learning styles and multiple intelligences1 and so on.

There’s often talk of ‘differentiated instruction’ – different teaching and different tasks for different students. It’s a nice idea and a necessary one, but there are two problems with it:

  1. It’s very difficult for any teacher to ‘do enough’: maybe there can be two different activities, maybe even three, but if it’s true that ‘every student is different’ then there’s always more to do.
  2. It’s usually imagined in terms of compensating for ‘deficits’ on the part of the students. Not always – there’s recognition of differentiation for the gifted and talented, for example – but often it’s thought of as ‘these are the problems with the students – here are my solutions’.

It goes even deeper than that, though. If the teacher always gives little Johnny the ‘easier’, lower level work throughout his school career, his opportunities in later life will be restricted. He may not be able to have as broad a choice of possible occupations as his actual abilities would have offered.

These are real tensions, and are not simple to address: failing to achieve on more difficult tasks all the way through school would have been similarly unhelpful to little Johnny2.

I’ll get into a little more of a theoretical discussion below, but let me try to clarify: one key focus of our study is to look at how teachers can draw on difference as a resource in the classroom, rather than seeing difference as a set of deficits to be overcome. That is, saying ‘every student is different’ needn’t necessarily be a source of guilt and stress on the part of teachers who feel that they can never really do enough. It can also be a very positive thing in that the classroom is full of students with different knowledge, life experience, skills, interests and even ways of viewing the world. And there are ways to draw on and attend to those differences that mean students can contribute to each other’s learning in rich ways.

There’s an underlying issue in that last sentence, which is that seeing the classroom as more of a collaborative learning space, in which students learn from each other as well as from the teacher, can also help to share the load and enhance the ability of the classroom to meet the needs of every student. The teacher is still the director, still the one ultimately responsible for what goes on in the classroom, but considering the students as an educational resource much more than is typically the case is one way of addressing difference in a positive way.

(There’s a whole other rant for another day about how assessment and standardised testing tend to flatten and kill this kind of approach, but let’s leave that aside for now.)

To return to little Johnny for a moment (and please do mentally extend this to think about the differences of little Jane, Abdul, Mandurway, Tarquin, Kimiko and the rest of their classmates), Nancy Fraser has developed a theoretical approach to justice that might help to unpack some of the issues a little more deeply.

There are issues of recognition of difference – of not submerging students’ differences in a dominant mainstream approach to schooling. Some of the best-intentioned teachers can run into trouble with this, when they define equity as ‘I treat every student exactly the same’. It’s a good aspiration, but what it typically ends up meaning in practice (though not always) is ‘I treat every student like a white, straight, middle class person’. Yet clearly there are black, gay, poor students… and black, straight, wealthy students, and brown, androgynous, middle class students… a whole rainbow of possibilities. Recognising difference doesn’t and shouldn’t mean suppressing the mainstream, it means honouring all identities, cultures, traditions and other features of difference3.

Part of the challenge that Fraser recognised is that the ‘recognition’ dimension is necessary but not sufficient, and in fact if carried to extremes can be counterproductive. Poorer students typically do less well in school and have less successful (in terms of their own happiness, longevity, comfort and so on) outcomes than other students. ‘Recognition’ that they come from poor backgrounds shouldn’t result in the kinds of programs and approaches that perpetuate that poverty. Little Johnny shouldn’t be left unchallenged to do well because of his background.

So a complementary dimension is that of distribution, which focuses on equity. My friends on the Right may howl at this one, but it’s true that there are very large inequities in society in terms of the ways certain goods are distributed, and that those inequities are not inevitable, and are often not the fault of those who become their victims. In brief, little Johnny didn’t decide which side of the tracks to be born.

Distribution needs to be held in tension with recognition: any approach to distribution that achieves its goals by submerging the identities of the students (‘treating them all the same’) has problems, but any response to recognition that perpetuates the existing disadvantages similarly has problems.

Seeking real, practical ways through these complex dilemmas – ways that actually change what Ms Knightsbridge does in her classroom on Monday mornings (and Friday afternoons) – is what we’re about. It’s not easy, but we think it’s worthwhile.

  1. Which I consider as useful ways of thinking about learning rather than fixed student characteristics
  2. I have concerns about the ‘social promotion’ policy that sees kids pushed up to the next grade at the end of the year whether or not they’ve finished with this one, as well, which I mentioned a few years ago: http://www.bravus.com/blog/?p=1092
  3. Naturally this raises some complex questions, since it’s not as simple as universal approval. What of cultures and traditions that are actively harmful to people? The questions are not at all simple, but there’s not really space here to get into more of the tough ones.