Tim Blair – Education Expert

Tim Blair isn’t a dumb guy but you’d hardly call him an education expert. Across the internet Ayn Rand loons, von Mises enthusiasts, and even the exceedingly grumpy Phyllis Schlafly have been denouncing a teaching method called ‘whole language.’ Obviously it’s possible to determine the effectiveness of different techniques of language learning without ever reading the literature or doing any empirical research. But how?

If you’re a real conservative then the correct position is obvious. Unlike most people, you have a natural talent for identifying the truth. It’s like having perfect pitch but living in a world where most other people are tone deaf. Other people get confused by what they want to be true. They suffer from ideology. But you – and your fellow practical, hard working, realistic, conservative buddies – are able to see through all the over-intellectualized lefty bullshit and see things as they really are.

Obviously whole language is some kind of postmodernist, hippy, tree hugging crap. It has to be. Back in the age of sensible thinking (an age which ended in the early 1960s) kids were taught to read by sounding out words. It was boring. It was hard work. And that’s how you know it was the right way to teach. There was none of this talk about creativity or about kids having an innate ability to use language. Nothing worthwhile was ever achieved just by being nice to people. Real work isn’t fun.

Whole language is like fighting crime by being nice to criminals or preventing terrorism by talking things over politely with terrorists. It’s just more of the same left-liberal lunacy. If you want to stop crime or terrorism you have to be tough. If those delinquents knew that every home owner had a gun under their pillow how many home invasions do you think we’d have? And how many nutty dictators do you think are going to invade their neighbors after what we did to Saddam?

There’s no more certain antidote to commonsense than too much of that lefty bullshit liberal education. Why else would all those so-called experts disagree with us?

Elsewhere: Economist John Quiggin blogs on this issue. He links to Kevin Donnelly’s piece in Wednesday’s SMH.

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Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

That was a good piece. I don’t know anything about education theories, but I’d like to try the caricature thing.

If you’re a real progressive than the correct position is obvious. Unlike most people, you have a natural superiority, which allows you to find the truth. It’s like having excellent eyesight in a land of blind Liberal-voters. Other people are confused by their latent racism, sexism, homophobia, and general false consciousness. But you – and your fellow enlightened friends – are able to see through the populist conservative hogwash to the True Underlying Causes, cutting through all the inane static floating on top of social discourse.

Obviously whole language is the only way to teach children. It’s newer, but all your enlightened teacher friends swear by it, as did their professors. Back in the bad old days they taught language by sounding out words. How dull! How dare children be forced to learn using a method used successfully for thousands of years?

I mean sounding out words is like fighting crime by arresting and trying criminals. Insane! That’ll never achieve anything, other than to prevent criminal offenses by removing offenders from the street. Or solving terrorism by going after terrorists. How truly gauche!

There’s no more certain antidote to commonsense than a decent education. Why else would those conservatives disagree with us?

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

The problem is, Jacques, that parody is funny only when directed at a real existing phenomenon. That’s why Don’s post is hilarious. The worldview you are spoofing is an invention of rightwing newspaper columnists, so your parody amounts to no more than amplified feedback.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

The problem is, James, that I’m a university student and I see it every day I’m on campus.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Same thing’s happening in the US. Bush changed the law to require literacy programmes to be “evidence-based”. Looks like a reasonably arcane dispute between educational experts has been caught up in the culture wars – note the segue from Nelson into the now traditional attack on Teachers’ Unions. Surely debates on the best pedagogical methods are not best conducted in this sort of absurdist tone which increasingly infects any sort of discussion on any area of public policy.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

I duno wot your torking abowt Jacques. I lernt ta reed funetikly. Wotz the big deel? God dam pinkos pooting shit on Tim Blair.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

As I said, I don’t know the first thing about education theory, so I won’t enter that debate. But satire is something I look on fondly, both as a consumer and producer.

Anyway, if there’s a surefire way to get kids to read, it’s Asterix comics. I didn’t really care about reading until I decided that I wanted to know what the people in the pictures were saying. That and my sister – who could read – would make me do her chores in exchange for a read-through. I grew tired of this and took it upon myself to learn to read.

Whether I learnt it whole-word or phonetically or whether my mother and father simply corrected me I don’t precisely recall.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Jacques, I learnt to read in the 70s through a combination of both approaches. We also had grammar and Latin roots drummed into us from grade 5 to grade 9. Had this not been the case, I would not probably have just used the subjunctive correctly.

Having said that, I was around at a friend of mine’s place for dinner last week and helping her 7 year old son with his homework. Try explaining to a (bright) 7 year old why there are only 2 syllables in ‘Wednesday’ and you’ll get some idea of the practical complexity of teaching reading based on English orthography. This is one of the reasons in fact why movements for spelling reform were normally associated with the democratic Liberals in the 19th century.

What disgusts me about this ‘debate’ and Nelson’s enquiry is the distortion of legitimate differences in pedagogical theory and strategy among professionals and experts into a new weapon in the Howard/Nelson culture wars and the consequent implicit appeal to the “know nothing” vote. As James Farrell said at Quiggin, imagine what these constant attacks do to the morale of teachers. It is way past time that we as citizens call a halt to this trend to debate issues of public policy in absurdist, politicised and hysterical terms. The media – and in particular the Australian are highly culpable in this. What is happening in this “debate” is that some disgruntled education academics are stepping outside the bounds of the canons of scholarly interchange and trying to distort their opponents’ views through a moral panic orchestrated in the media – which politicians are more than happy to pick up on. Brendan Nelson is an utter disgrace. I am sure his predecessor Dr Kemp would never have stooped this low. Look for a phonically sound flagpole at a primary school near you once the Coalition control the Senate.

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

well i have to confess now that i think about it more clearly that i really have nothing to contribute to this debate from my own personal experience since i learned to read before i even got to kindergarten. apparently my mother turned on sesame street on tv to occupy me and voila, one day i could read. i do remember phonics and the rules of grammar being taught in malaysian primary schools in my day

Nick
Nick
2022 years ago

Groannn…’plus ce change blaah blaah blaah…’…obviously B. Nelson is feeding into the
‘in our day…’ BS in order to add to the ‘values’-oriented…& get ’em into the expensive private schools ’cause their ‘fab’ & ‘really really strict’ campaign here…crikey, don’t the Libs ever take a break?…no wonder they’re so anal in their approach…we need the days of the ‘long weegend’ back…desparately.

IMHO…ya gotta kid with language probs then ya have a few options:

1) take some time away from ‘the box’…read to them & then get ’em to read to you (unique)…as in the old adage of: get off yer butt, turn the TV off & hand ’em a book

2) stop smokin’, gamblin’ & searchin’ for the perfect tyre/diet book & pay for a tutor

3) ban the takeaway mind melting food & throw a few nutrient filled foods their way…miracles happen when the little gray cells spark up.

4) send them on vacation to an Aunt/Uncle in the country who love to chat incessantly. They’ll adapt.

5) utilise the programs that exist in the schools for slow readers etc…why not…you pay the taxes…remember the GST?

6) Get ’em obsessed with role playing games on the computer…tell ’em their saving the world & rewards will be forthcoming (dangle latest Hip Hop cd, ‘Simpson lip syncs’ or Superhero DVD)

7) send them to the Oldies on the alternative hols who play nothing but Scrabble…provide plenty of counselling post-trip.

8) all of the above

Cost for advice…bugger all.

Al Bundy
Al Bundy
2022 years ago

My son is a victim of ‘whole’ language. This educational theory has a curious impact on the way he writes. He can either visualise a complete word, or becomes completely stuck. He simply doesn’t have the skills for breaking a tricky word into syllables or sounding it out. He can guess the first letter or two of the word, but if it’s more than one syllable long, it’s game over. Disturbing to observe.

The popularity of this nonsense is doubtless due to the ease with which it is ‘taught’. No need for tedious rote learning, parrot like repetition and brow-furrowing phonics when you can just try and guess a word from its neighbors or the accompanying picture. The good thing is it leaves kids and teachers relaxed and refreshed for important stuff like Art, Phys Ed, Aboriginal Dreaming stories and Environmental Doctrine 101.

Marvy. What if the theory is wrong? What if the human brain isn’t hardwired to read and write in the same way it manages hearing and thought? Too bad. The theory sounds good, dunnit?

Whole language is based on a wonderfully academic premise. Reading and writing come as naturally to a child as learning to speak. Immerse them in written words, and, by a miraculous osmosis, they will one day pick up a pen and start to write. Just like they’ll learn to speak if you surround them with the spoken word.

So, am I simply ranting the standard rabid right shibboleths? Nope, sorry, I see it with my own eyes every day.

As for the last paragraph in Mark B’s last comment above – that argument sounds remarkably like the same academics-know-best elitism employed by the orthodox school in the ‘history wars’. Matters of such gravity should be discussed in the ‘chatham house’ of faculty lounges, and a united front presented to the lumpen public, hey? No need for silly survey data about whether feminist dogma like whole language actually works – we already know that the problem is the Howard Junta’s plan to give Kings College a gold plated swimming pool. This is about politics, not kids reading.

I was poring over some esteemed journal of children’s pedagogy the other day and was gobsmacked. The only male contributor was an organiser with the group. The topical issues centre on left wing political issues such as discrimination and refugees. One of the authors jabbered on endlessly in defence of the thoroughly discredited ‘gender as social construct’ theory. These are the people teaching the teachers. God help the children.

Another of these journals went into the teaching of Derrida-esque models of ‘reality’ to teenage males. Crap in a hat, that’s just the sort of crud that an angst-ridden, pimple faced adolescent male needs to mix with the swirl of hormones already addling his brain.

Anyway, you got me started. Back to the thread…Sorry, but to the uneducated types like me, this phobia of empirical data is damning.

zoot
zoot
2022 years ago

I learnt to read during that golden age so accurately described by Don (my schooling finished in 1962). Let me tell ya folks, I estimate at least 20% of my fellow students left school with severe literacy difficulties. There were a number of reasons, the main one being class sizes, but it didn’t really matter because we had full employment (remember that?) and every 15 year old illiterate was able to make a living even though they’d “left me glasses at home, would you fill it in for me luv?”. They worked in dead end jobs (only the elites had careers) but a lot of them stayed with the same enterprise for 40 years and took early retirement, so they are currently living off their super … and they still can’t bloody read!
I’m not really sure what my point is, but I think it might be productive for young Dr Nelson to redefine his problem.
And a late breaking thought – if the teaching methods are so crappy where did Dr Nelson’s literacy come from?

Alan Green
2022 years ago

I think the problem with whole language is that it has been taken too far in some classrooms, with teachers not bothering to show children how to sound out unfamiliar words.

In that environment, a proportion of children don’t make the conceptual jump between letters and words – in whole language terms they don’t learn “naturally” – and you end up with ten or twenty kids in each year 6 who only recognise two or three hundred words.

Our local school teaches with a combination of phonics and whole language. Even so I can see a tendency amongst my children and their friends to give up on unfamiliar words, when they should be trying to sound them out. Scary, but usually correctable with a little patient tutoring.

Philip Gomes
2022 years ago

I’m with the right on this one. Taught by nuns the old fashioned English way in the 60’s with rulers applied to the fingers for spelling mistakes. No television in that third world country at the time, a dad who loved books and a mum who read to me, so the opportunities to read were manifest. I had a pretty full comprehensive ability by the time I was seven, I could read and understand just about anything. Moved to Canada in the early 70’s and was waaayyyy ahead of the other 14-15 year olds. Nuff said. This is one argument where I think the old way is largely the best way. It’s a battle I’m happy for the left to lose.

Nick
Nick
2022 years ago

Al, contrary to the belief that those who teach the teachers have an enormous impact on the pedagogical & mechanical language approach that teachers utilise in & outside of the classroom…most I know…am acquainted with, are adept at recognising a specific student’s problems with an aspect of language & use various means/methodology to ensure the student progresses at an appropriate pace, if possible”

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Everyone’s different as far as reading’s concerned. I learnt to read before I got to school because I loved stories and no-one could read to me 24/7–just a naturally eye and ear for words–very good speller, without understanding any of the rules of grammar, just knew how words should be. To me, a mispelt word looks like a badly-hung picture. So for me a whole-language approach would have worked. (though I grew up in the era of phonics)
My brother on the other hand, had huge trouble with reading and writing–no instinct for it at all. He only learnt to do it because he had very patient teachers who went over and over stuff, sounding out each letter, each syllable. He still hates writing (and his spelling is atrocious)but he’s a good reader and he even reads French as well as English. (Mum did the same for him in French, going over and over stuff, often losing her temper!)Somewhere in between I suspect lie most people..
Also–if you look at the most disadvantaged kids–Aboriginal kids–it’s perfectly plain they have gone backwards as far as literacy is concerned. I know older Aboriginal people as well as young ones, and the older people just run rings around the young ones as far as literacy is concerned. Whole-language has really failed them, and badly.
So I reckon–why the idelogical stoush? Really good readers have no problem with whole-language but then they’ll have no problem with any method, the poor ones need heaps of help and ‘sounding out’ patiently taught is probably better for them, while a combination probably works for most people.

Jeremy
2022 years ago

Fantastic caricature. I wonder if the right can actually recognise themselves in it, so close to the bone it is.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Sophie

My general understanding is that whole language DOESN’T have hegemony in today’s classrooms. It enjoyed a degree of dominance back in the 1980s, but these days teachers employ an eclectic approach that uses a mix of whole language and phonic approaches depending on the needs of individual children and their stages of reading development. Kids need to understand and be able to code and decode the nuts and bolts of the language (to scramble a metaphor), but they also need to understand that those nuts and bolts convey meaning and that context is important etc.

The Right is setting up a straw man here. If Aboriginal kids are doing worse than they were in previous generations (and I haven’t seen any research on it), it’s probably because of things like attendance rates. Back in the mission days there was a lot more externally imposed discipline and kids went to school because the mission authorities enforced attendance. Nowadays that role is left to the parents, and they often fail to fulfil it (for a variety of reasons including alcohol problems, cyclical dependency mentality etc). I agree with you that it’s a problem, but I don’t think it has anything to do with “whole language” or anything else that teachers do (or don’t do). If you don’t attend school you don’t learn. And if you’re being bashed or sexually abused, or your parents or extended family are brawling every night, or you’re malnourished, or you can’t hear properly because of early childhood infections flowing from poor hygeine, then you’re not going to learn effectively even if you DO attend school. There’s a phalanx of problems here, and few if any of them are the fault of teachers.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Love the link to the “so-called experts”. A professor doing a “Snow job” on a “Ponce” – you couldn’t have dreamt it up. More seriously, Professor Snow brings some sense to bear on this debate. Reading is a complex skill that involves a number of different strategies to get meaning out of text. Dealing with unfamiliar text (I don’t say unfamiliar words, because to a child the word may be familiar in speech, they just haven’t seen it written) may be assisted by both the whole word approach (guess the meaning from context) and the phonic approach (sound it out – does it sound like a word you know?). To become a skilled reader, both approaches are needed, althought some people seem to do it at a subconscious level.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

Nick;

You should try breaking your ideas into sentences and paragraphs. I realise how limiting it may be for you was a writer, but I must emphasise how liberating it would be for us as readers. Give it a whirl.

Jeremy;

It was an excellent caricature, I agree. That’s why I offered my cheap knockoff in reply.

Ken;

While aboriginal education is an incredibly thorny policy area, I’d add my own anecdotal affirmation to Sophie’s. I’d also add that in the NT you can generally pick which side of the highway an elder hails from, based on the unofficial partitioning that the Catholics and Protestants agreed on a long time ago. The Catholics, who weren’t really into the touchy-feely thing, merciless drilled their charges in English, the Protestants did not. The difference somewhat shows.

I studied at Kormilda College, which as you know educates a lot of aboriginal students. Most of them are essentially getting a remedial primary school education. It’s not that they can’t learn to speak English (many of them speak several aboriginal languages), it’s just that they’ve never needed to before. And reading doesn’t really count for much in those cultures which have a profoundly oral tradition.

blank
blank
2022 years ago

To me, a mispelt word looks like a badly-hung picture.

This is a badly-hung picture, Sophie

miS ends with an S, and Spell starts with an S, so it is “misspelt”.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

It might have been subtle irony.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Jacques

I certainly wouldn’t deny that Aboriginal high school students in the NT (and presumably elsewhere) exhibit serious literacy and other deficiencies. My daughter attended kormilda until this year. However, they flow from a range of problems that don’t, at least in recent years, include the fact of having been subjected to a whole language approach to learning to read.

That said, it may well be that the Aboriginal students you observed when studying at Kormilda WERE the victims (in part) of a whole language approach. As I said in the previous comment, whole language was very much in vogue through the 1980s, and in some places that extended into the 90s. Thus, students studying at Kormilda in the late 1990s (when you were there) may well have learned to read predominantly under a whole language regime.

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

‘mispelt’ wasn’t irony, but a typo, born of too much rush! Computers make bad spellers of us all!
It’s very true that Aboriginal disdvantage in education has many causes,(and I think the situation is different everywhere in Australia, I can only speak for what I’ve seen in Eastern Australia) but I don’t think Ken, that the lack of performance of Aboriginal students is just about attendance. One wonderful old Aboriginal lady I knew very well in our area, whose life story I helped to type up for the Aboriginal Studies Press, lived the kind of life as a child that made it difficult for her to attend school regularly. It was because her parents–her father, who was the last initiated man in the area, and who worked as a stockman, and her mother, the first Aboriginal christian missionary in the same area–were dead keen on all their children getting an education, and her mother taught her herself when the family was away from home or whatever. And there was, she told me, no nonsense about not spelling words properly or using Kriol words mixed in with English in the written version of things–she was very keen on that in her own write-up of her life. She told me that she thought too many teachers were ‘letting kids get away with things too much’, and despaired for her grandchildren.
One of the great initiatives I’ve seen for Aboriginal kids is the Anaiwan Enrichment Project I was a part of, which selected children from Years 5-9 for special extra tutoring and workshops in literacy, maths, and creative writing (I did the latter). Over the four years of devoted individual attention, it was amazing to see the transformation. Kids who’d barely known what a story was the first year were confidently making up all sorts of wonderful stories by the end of the 4th, without prompting, with great ideas, wit, and fun. The thing was though that the Project always struggled for funding–the last two years I did my workshops without pay of any kind, because there was no money left for non-Dept of Ed tutors. But I loved it, and so did the kids. I just couldn’t let them down.

sophie
sophie
2022 years ago

Ken, just realised you talked about parental involvement too re Aboriginal kids–of course that is very important, prob. the most important of all. Certainly not dissing teachers–I go into schools a lot and know how hard it is for them, having to deal with umpteen social problems as well as trying to educate kids–but I think the philosophy of literacy education needs reform. It does so every so often, after all.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Al – that’s not what I was saying. I have no stake in this debate – I’d be more than happy if educational policy were actually based on whatever works according to the empirical evidence. I suspect from what I’ve read it’s a combination of both approaches, and that each approach works better for some kids. What I object to is the politicisation of the debate.

Jacques Chester
Jacques Chester
2022 years ago

Ken;

Like most social hypotheses there are dozens of annoying conflating factors to tease out.

For instance, since Kormilda is a Protestant outfit, most of its students come from east of the highway where protestant churches focused more on anthropological surveys and less on supplanting the local culture with strong english literacy.

Then there’s the question of health. Further, a lot of the students are missing out on both phonic and whole-word methods because they simply aren’t attending the primary schools.

I could go on and on, but I suspect that the whole phonics vs whole-word debate rests on certain assumptions (regular attendence, familiarity with spoken english, a culture supportive of reading vs speaking) that just don’t hold true out past Kakadu.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Mark, regarding the politicisation of the debate that you object to – doesn’t it seem likely that this is in part payback for the political actions of public sector teachers unions? I suspect that the highly misleading recent ad campaign on Commonwealth Government funding for private schools may have something to do with this. There is no doubt that some teachers do have an ideological axe to grind, and perhaps they are the real target. I agree that this is an inappropriate response, but it is at least understandable. No doubt from the perspective of Howard and Nelson, the whole language approach to teaching reading is part of a milieu of left-influenced trendy post-modernism, to be lumped together with a host of other education fads.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Alex, well, maybe so – but it remains inappropriate, as you note. And I note that there is no connection between “whole language” and “left-influenced trendy post-modernism”.

Nelson’s enquiry will not doubt have a membership and terms of reference designed to produce the result he wants – thus negating the “evidence-based policy” argument.

The real pity is that intermediary bodies in education policy such as the Commonwealth Schools Commission were abolished by Dawkins. The point was to ensure that education issues were decided on the basis of what’s best for kids.

Al Bundy
Al Bundy
2022 years ago

Hmm, I’ve screwed up here. I should have said My son is being slowed by whole language.

I should point out that he is only seven, and his reading is well above average (I taught him to read before he went to school). Nor is his writing raising any eyebrows. Except mine, that is, because I’m the one helping him with his homework. But the bafflement that overcomes him at the idea of ‘sounding out a word’ is staggering.

I am presently trying to find some time to start working on syllables with him. That includes ‘his’ time, because if you reckon he wants to sit down after BSHC, school and ASHC, think again.

Nick, thank you for your considered reply. I find it refreshing to actually find a male in the profession. There is only one male teacher at my son’s school out of a dozen teachers, principal and deputy principle AND admin staff. (Talk about lack of male role models.)

But there are a couple of points I’d like to pick you up on. You say:

…forgetting that many a so called ‘language problematic’ student has adapted via alternative uses of cognitive ability & expressive skills”

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Al

Are you saying your child is even today being subjected to a learning reading regime that is predominantly if not completely whole language-based? My daughter started school in 1993 in Darwin and, although whole language was very evident with some teachers, she had enough who insisted on a fairly traditional approach to learning to read phonetically, and then to grammar, punctuation and spelling in upper primary with writing skills, that her literacy skills in general are excellent. As with your family, she got lots of parental support and stimulation (bed-time reading etc) as well, so that was obviously part of the picture. But my general impression was that kids without supportive parents were also as well catered for as one could expect. It sounds like your experience is quite different?

observa
observa
2022 years ago

Well Al may be pointing out an experience that boys do better under phonics and girls under WL. It might explain some of the poorer results of boys in education in latter years. Some fertile ground for the analysts here perhaps?

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Observa

But the point I’m making is that my personal experience with how children are taught to read is that, as early as 1993, they weren’t being taught by methods that were wholly or even predominantly whole language-based. And that applies both to my daughter’s experience and to the way my (then) wife, who is an early primary teacher, taught kids to read.

AFAIK kids today are taught using a flexible mix of phonic and whole language approaches. Thus the whole debate is taking place on false premises. That’s why I asked Al a very specific question. If he believes his child is not being subjected to any phonic elements at school, and he’s finding that he’s responding well to that approach at home, has Al discussed this with the class teacher? And what response did he get?

Al Bundy
Al Bundy
2022 years ago

The situation is, er, complicated, Ken. But I will try and find out. I’m advised that at his year level, they’re not yet looking at syllables. Yet they’ve got him writing sentences for homework. Hmm.

But I’m getting most of this second hand as I’m, shall we say, ‘firmly discouraged’ by my wife from approaching the teachers.

The deputy-head and I are already well acquainted regarding differences over the school’s ‘moderated mediation dispute resolution’ process for bullying (Picture two tiny 7yr olds lined up opposite four smirking 10yr old thugs while this pompous know-it-all gets everybody to talk about their feelings). Idiots.

I think I’ll write a letter to the Principal, asking for a statement on the school’s policy to ‘whole language’. The response should be amusing.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

Should anyone have a residual interest in this topic, I commend Margaret Farrell’s comment on JQ’s blog. Let’s recall that Don’s post was actually about expertise, so if it’s expertise you’re after, here’s a teacher with fifty years’ experience (twenty of those teaching learning disabled children) and author of a doctoral thesis (submitted in 1996) on the topic of phonics and whole language. And I refuse absolutely to say if we’re related, or give any clues about who might have commissioned the comment.

Nick
Nick
2022 years ago

Al, in my case there requires some clarification, I resigned from the Dep’t of Education a few years back, the bulk of my experience in Secondary School…& I don’t have any children. Therefore it would be ignorant of me to declare that I know the prevailing language methodologies employed in QLD primary schools. Apart from coordinating a busy Film & TV dep’t, I spent a few years teaching English & Soc Ed classes (in all their various forms & titles/labels). What I do feel comfortable in stating is that experience led me to the realization that most kids I came across used diverse ways of getting their point across”

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

I’d like to endorse James Farrell’s recommendation of Margaret Farrell’s comment on Quiggin’s blog posted at 10.06pm last night. Simply awesome!

And James, she must have been an awesome mum to somebody or other!

Nick, that was an awesome comment too. I worked for a quarter of a century in education, but never in a classroom. Nevertheless surrounded by teachers by the dozen in my workplace across the range P-12, married to a preschool teacher and a sister who taught kids to read for over 30 years. I’ve been a parent of kids in school for 32 of the last 34 years.

Classroom teachers who are actually tuned in to where they are and what they are doing, and have the capacity to reflect on and articulate about their situation, have my total admiration. The stresses of society all have a representation in the classroom, where the real work of creating knowledge, skills, values etc must finally be done by the 3 million or so kids, the workers if you use the the industrial analogy. Teachers as frontline supervisors are the mediators of this process and it is often referred to a battleground.

Society’s ills and hopes are dumped on the school. One high school principal told me at the time when education about HIV aids was dumped on them that he and a mate sat down and counted the extracurricular problems that society had conferred responsibility on them to fix in the new generation. They gave up when they got to 50. He worked in Gladstone where many currents of society meet.

All this is why education, if you let parents and ‘the community’ in on the governance, can become one of the most bitterly cotested areas in society, not always for the better as the American scene shows.

Niall
Niall
2022 years ago

I distinctly remember reading, `riting and `rithmatic being taugh the way of rote. Reading was learnt by the phonics method, writing by the copybook method and maths, etc through the times tables and verbal repetition. In other words, it was repetitious, boring and highly successful. I look askance at my children these days, in their very late teens, and the writing is barely readable, spelling, while acceptable, still has stumbles over the simplest words, and reading, whilst okay, has produced a very limited vocabulary. I still get asked what words like ‘overt’, ‘pre-eminent’ and ‘prevaricate’ mean. At 19 years of age, I’d expect them to be coming out with words I don’t understand, apart from the new-age vernacular, that is.

There is a serious problem with our school curriculums and it’s not going to go away through inane discourse with ideologues the likes of Blair. It’s not the teachers fault either. The fault lies with the bureaucrats, removed from the coal face who make these mindless decisions to abandon the tried and true in favour of the you beaut. Give me the tried and true, every time.

Alex
Alex
2022 years ago

Niall, when you lay the blame at the door of “bureaucrats” you should keep in mind that the bureaucrats in question are generally drawn from the ranks of educators, including ex-teachers, university education faculty staff etc. In many ways this debate reflects the broader problem of a lack of diversity of views in universities, particularly in the humanities. For a good comment on the current state of the “culture wars” in American universities, check out this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education http://chronicle.com/temp/reprint.php?id=56a4b06e77oshwaiq5psszuc2gti5neb
(Come to think of it, uni culture wars might be a good subject for a blog debate. Any Armadillos like to take it on?)

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Alex, the culture wars might be a good subject for a post – except that I don’t think the same phenomenon exists to anything like the same degree in Australia as in America. I also think it’s much more localised within the University than often painted. From my perspective as a social scientist, I’d say that a lot of sociologists and anthropologists are probably left leaning to varying degrees, while conversely political scientists are a more mixed bunch and economists probably lean to the right. But in 8 years in academia, I’ve not noticed much active partisanship – most debates within the social sciences, though they possibly have a political subtext at times, are conducted in terms of disciplinary norms and scholarly argument.

I think a lot of what has been written about the culture wars in academia really refers to the displacement of traditional approaches to the study of literature by cultural studies in Departments of English (which have now often morphed into Schools of Media & Culture or what not). On this debate, I side with the traditionalists (to a degree) despite my politics – and there are people I know working in English departments whose politics are ultra left but who are very traditional “lit crit” in their academic approach.

We also lack a highly vocal minority of conservative academics to stir the pot – as in America – and we, as a culture, I think have a different approach to academia – in America it’s seen as bound up with the survival of Western Civ and Liberal traditions but in Australia it’s devalued generally as of little worth unless it’s “practical” or “vocational”.

There certainly are faultines in the Universities and their constituencies, but they fall somewhat differently from those in the States.

Anyway, some thoughts!

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2022 years ago

“I’m advised that at his year level, they’re not yet looking at syllables. Yet they’ve got him writing sentences for homework. Hmm.”

I don’t know that this approach is necessarily flawed, Al. While the rules of grammar and spelling must eventually be mastered, there is nothing objectionable about starting from another point. Giving meaning, context and relevance may increase a person’s interest in learning and reading.

Freire had great success with adult literacy by virtually entering the world of the learners and practising in terms that are important to them. Whether the same approach can work with children, where there are other issues such as behaviour and experience in life to be learned, is another matter.

My own daughters, who were also literate prior to formal schooling, seemed to thrive on this meaning and context type of method. A female-male thing?

As a product of the fifties, I learned the old rote way. I can say that it was effective in spelling, grammar and numeracy. But I don’t think it instilled in me any great love of reading and learning. That only came when I was in my mid-twenties and greatly disturbed by what was happening in Vietnam. I became curious about what was really happening and opened up a whole new world of reading.

In contrast, my daughters have always had a great love of reading and learning. My older is now at Uni, benefiting from scholarship bursaries. My younger has been in the top percentiles in the national literacy assessment programs each time she has been assessed.

There are a lot of variables at work here, including a home environment more conducive to learning. But on what I’ve seen of them, I could not condemn the new methods or suggest that they are harmful.

Being both female doesn’t help, I suppose. There may be something to the argument, advanced on this thread, that females respond better to meaning and context and males to solid rules. But regardless of gender all are likely to respond positively to stuff they feel is relevant to them.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Some excellent points, Don. But all that having been said, I think at base I agree with Noel Pearson in yesterday’s Oz that Brendon Nelson’s proposal for a federal inquiry into the teaching of reading is a good idea provided it’s a good faith exercise employing an appropriate range of expertise, and not just an ideologically-driven exercise with a predetermined outcome. As I’ve commented earlier in this thread, my own experience and understanding are that the vogue for “whole language” is now well in the past, and teachers nowadays use a flexible blend of whole language and phonic techniques. But to what extent is that true nationally? Al Bundy’s experiences seem to suggest that whole language enjoys greater sway in some places than I had imagined. And Noel Pearson’s primary point is hard to argue with:
School attendance levels are terribly low in many communities and the social and family circumstances in which many students live are poor. But an enduring conundrum of indigenous education in remote communities is this: why are we not getting better educational success from that proportion of children who do attend regularly and whose home backgrounds are stable?

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

But to what extent is that true nationally?.

I’m beginning to think there must be big differences between states. The differences could be even greater when it comes to remedial programs for struggling readers. In any case, those of us whose children picked up reading effortlessly may be less qualified to comment on these issues, unless we are education professionals.

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Don you mentioned Freire. He had great success with peasants in Brazil. He used the technique of taking people from where they were, their experiatial lifeworld, and leading them to a greater understanding of the taken-for-granted reality in which they lived, which, of course, was dominated by the internalisation of dominant-class ideology – the notion that their place in the pecking order was ‘natural’ and therefore not subject to change. He developed the notion that education was either for freedom or for subjugation. His methodologies were, of course, desisigned for freedom through praxis – practical experience and reflection – and through this, the achievement of greater personal and social awareness.

He upset the powers that be because his methods and activities were political dynamite, so they kicked him out of the country.

His approach of building on the experiential lifeworld of the taught and engaging with the learners in their own reality was an excellent approach to adult education, and, I believe, education at any level. I did once read about how many staff he used as tutors etc and it was totally beyond what any education system ever provides anywhere. Basil Bernstein once said that education had never come close to coming to terms with the manpower requirements implied in their desirable methodologies, so we continue to muddle on.

There is another dimension to all this. Education has a critical tradition through which it critiques the society in which we live. This is true at every level. But one of the main purpose of schools is also acculturalisation, teaching kids to conform with the norms of society.

This may seem to be a stretch away from teaching to read, but it isn’t really. The end purpose is to provide the students with the capacity to understand texts and how they posiition their audience etc. In fact the Senior English syllabus currently being trialled in Qld is more like a sociology syllabus and departs a long way from the old ‘lit crit’ approach. It is nice to see educators at least trying to be a bit subversive!

Brian Bahnisch
Brian Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Sorry for more spelling errors than usual. We had a happy night! Great food and good wine.

Norman
Norman
2022 years ago

The Western malaise in education began not long after it was decided that everyone must have the right to a “full” education. They soon ran into problems when it became impossible to hide the fact that many students simply couldn’t reach the expected standards. So standards were dropped; but still many failed to reach these new watered down requirements. So the concept of fail had to be eliminated. And thus began the process of eliminating educational standards.
Every now and then, “educationists” tell us we’re told things are “improving”. Like the television programmers who tell us that this week’s episode of the evening serial is the best ever, or will be one you’ll never forget, it’s merely a gimmick to con the listeners.
There are numerous collections of evidence from earlier times which could be used to make comparisons between past and present student standards. You couldn’t make comparisons in every area, of course; but there are areas in which we could show what has happened over the years. Understandably, there’s no interest in acknowledging the existence of such material, let alone actually advocating we run comparative testing programmes. It would be very different indeed if those in authority believed it would place their administrations in a positive light. They’d be screaming from the rooftops that the public had a right to know!
Then again, Education isn’t primarily about education amy more is ir?

trackback
2022 years ago

Speaking of trust

Yeah, the Mad Monk was bullshitting as usual, as Gummo pointed out last Saturday. Elsewhere: Personal blogging is the hardest blogging to do well, and often takes a lot of guts, or at least more than this scribe can usually…

trackback
2022 years ago

Wrong method?

Damn that “whole language” reading education: Australia ranks fourth in the OECD for high-school reading proficiency, according to the latest PISA report.