Sunday, February 24, 2013

Australian educator gives final broadside - lessons for New Zealand

Extinguished Guest Writer

Phil Cullen

Ex Director Primary Schools Queensland


The Janus Look

Phil's website 


I’m totally disillusioned and disappointed by the lack of interest in the effects of NAPLAN on the lives of young Australian children shown by those who should care more than they do about child development and the nasty treatment of children at school. As a consequence. I worry a great deal about the future of our great country. I’ve been around for a while, done a lot of things connected to primary schooling, so I’d like to share an overview of what I reckon has happened during my life with kids; and then predict what is likely to happen.
I took over my first classroom in May 1946. I was so proud. I had always wanted to be a primary school teacher and I had arrived! I still love primary schooling 67 years later. Love it. Love it. Love it.
I started teaching in the way that I was taught, the way that everybody seemed to teach...from the front of the classroom near a blackboard with a desk and large space all of my own, spending a lot of time yapping my head off across a demilitarised zone to the youngsters who sat still in a confined space all day facing me. It was standard practice.The techniques were based on fear. Teachers had taught this way for hundreds of years, since the Dame Schools, Charity Schools and Common Schools first tried teaching in groups. Such explicit, didactic, sermonising forms of instruction featured, as a rule, some pretty nasty bang, crash, wallop techniques. They only worked for a few easily frightened kids.  – of the birch, of endless repetitive listings, of detention and public disgrace – applied to learning. We all believed in the prevailing dogma that children would not pass any examinations unless they were roused enough to fear the consequences of failure.
When Grammar Schools wanted to judge the scholastic ability of those who might be allowed to enter their hallowed halls, written tests for applicants became favoured, so much so that governments took over their preparation, publication and distribution. In my home state, it was called the Scholarship Examination. From it, the examination bug went feral. Those that could ‘pass’ them were offered privileges; those who couldn’t were dumped. The successful continued being schooled in a new arrangement of classroom setting, based on subjects that could be tested. The rest were not wanted at school and had to educate themselves out in the big bad world at about fourteen years of age. Not the best of schooling models, but the only one we knew. All children were schooled following the premise that universities wanted only the best scholars and schools should prepare everyone for a likely academic future. Schools were not run for ‘also rans’.
This sort of toxic psychology lasted for some years and, to my eternal shame, I was a part of it. I wasted midnight oil, school time and professional gumption -- retarding children’s development by being crazily focused on testing. Then, I realised that there is nothing honourable, nor ethical, nor professional about stern blanket testing, especially the prevailing 2013 dirt-raking political kind that is endemic to standardised external blanket testing. Never has been. Never will be. It took two little Year 2 pupils to make me notice how much stress, unhealthy competition, creative dullness and missed learning opportunities I was causing. I just hadn’t given a thought to professional ethics nor to the emerging knowledge about the school conditions necessary to help people to learn with self-motivated enthusiasm....without fear. Others were learning that the 3Ls [Love, Laughter and Learning] were essentials for high performance in the 3Rs....while I was mistakenly chasing high performance through tests. Slow learner that I was, I then did a complete 180 degrees. I now hate blanket testing with origins beyond the schools with an intense hate, that I never thought I could possess.
If I had taught them learnacy, then top levels of personal numeracy and literacy achievements would have come as a natural consequence, Hells, Bells and Buggy-wheels, we have NAPLAN running our programs. The longer that Australia’s NAPLAN has the kind of control that it has, the more that reasons arise for all teachers to hate and despise Standardised Blanket Testing supplied by non-local-school personnel. It stinks to high heaven and no form of it should ever exist.
Real learning
This model of test-based schooling, well entrenched in world schooling during my early career and not much different from present-day SBTs like NAPLAN and having the same negative effect on children, lasted in all western countries until the 1960s. In my home state, the rigorous Scholarship examination held at the end of primary school was abandoned in 1962 and the most advanced, most exciting, most learning focused period in the history of education memed itself around the world during this period. It arrived in Australia with the greatest examples of thought-provoking literature in history translated into a remarkable array of learning based models of schooling. Principals started to grasp autonomy and run their schools based on professionally based readings and personal research. What decent principal has to wait for autonomy to be granted from up-high, anyhow? What level-headed authority figure can claim to ‘grant autonomy‘ to somebody else. [Fair go, Peter and your like-minded State Ministers Stop playing God.] I’d love to list those schools that engaged in innovations that each principal believed would work and did....different from each other - sure. I can’t list them all. I’d leave out too many. If you give me a call, I’ll tell you about some of those schools that proudly based their teaching on multi-aged groupings or Emotions-ABC or play-way or thinking [de Bono style] or resource-rich subject centred or mastery learning or Literature-based.... or one [but it applied to many] which displayed “Living, Learning Laboratory” outside the school. The sign should now display “Testing Factory”.
The 1960s to 1980s was the most progressive period in history. It produced the creative geniuses that have since provided us with more comfortable living and working standards far beyond the expectations of the citizens of the period. Schools and their clients were free to learn, free to innovate. The world started to become a very small oyster. Achievement became self motivating; and schools were starting to use shared and self-evaluation techniques that involved the pupil, the parent and the teacher in the pursuit of excellence. A visit to a fair-dinkum child-oriented classroom was so exciting one could almost touch the LEARNING atmosphere. You could certainly feel it.
The present encouragement of didactic modes of instruction did not have the high priority that is now promoted in the test-based atmosphere of the classroom. Indeed the teachers, moved off the stage and shared more face-to-face maieutic and group modes than had ever been tried. It was working well. During this truly Golden Age of Education [1960s-80s], children were enjoying the role of ‘pupil’ with a caring teacher: “I learn. You teach. We’ve got this contract. Treat me as a pupil, not as a student!!” Today, in 2013, they should be internalising. “Hey Teach, You’re breaking the contract. Get rid of this NAPLAN crap and get back to pupilling.” NAPLAN now rules schooling. It shouldn’t; should it?
Even the School Inspectors, once feared apostles of the testing regime and making judgements about school quality from their own backboard tests and oral questioning, changed during the 60s and 70s. Appointed from the outstanding principals of the day, they free-ranged around their schools to assist in any way they could. The knowledge that they had accumulated over extensive experiences was shared. They knew what a good school was and what a bad school was without using paper-and-pencil tests. They knew which was which within minutes of arrival.They gathered pollen from the best practices that they had experienced and better ideas blossomed. Some were working partners of the State’s curriculum development. They worked with close contact to the specialist curriculum officers and the State’s multi-representative PCC – Primary Curriculum Committee. Quality control and guidance was at its peak. Curriculum changes and their effects on classroom activities were moderated at the classroom level and discussed with all and sundry as to effectiveness. Changes were alive, accepted or rejected; a far cry from the time when curriculum changes were received in the post.
[We had learned over the years that top-down curriculum innovations originating from desk-wallahs in centralised other places, just don’t work. New Maths, Cuisenaire, Whole Word or Phonic based Reading are examples. Nothing that is not endorsed unanimously by classroom teachers will work. That’s why NAPLAN, now in charge of the curriculum, wont help anything. It’s taking longer to get rid of than most execrable impositions have taken because the business- based cum profit-making cum totalitarian political force imposing its dictatorial will on the conduct of schooling is stronger than any previous.]
Things were going well, until, in mid-1980s, befuddled academics with high level politico-bureaucratic control absorbed a special scato-meme invented by corporate managerialists from Up-over somewhere, who believed only in impersonal structural alterations just for the sake of change. In scatological terms, it came from the bottom of the pit. In my state, the Education Minister and the Director-General, both of whom had had unpleasant experiences in their short teaching careers decided to get rid of Inspectors and those sections that were concentrating on curriculum delivery, teaching and learning and teacher development and seemed to be enjoying it. The pair just didn’t like their own lack of control over effective schooling and felt inadequate. So, they blatantly manipulated fellow officers and deceitfully arranged for a ‘preferred option’ to be preferred because it was the one that they wanted. With skilful adherence to managerialism’s impersonal forms of structure, they arranged for learning activities to be ‘outsourced’, introduced ‘performance indicators’ that relied on best-written CVs and thespian skills, ‘down-sized’ the Inspectorate by summarily removing their positions, and removed the school-experience-base of primary and secondary schooling by getting rid of divisional control. Out went any semblance of an Education Department that was supposed, from time immemorial, to be school based.
They made things easy for a rookie Premier, under the influence of managerial high-flyers such as Peter Coaldrake and Kevin Rudd to confuse the public service generally...especially the caring services.
This kind of organisation model, common to all Australian states and federal governance, has devalued school experience, caring for kids, belief in teaching as a pupilling enterprise, basic humanity and belief in professional ethics...from the Australian school system. It’s been hellish for children and caring teachers. It devalues down-to-earth, hands-on experience. It stinks.
NAPLAN is the devil child of these kinds of irrelevant and irreverent changes to schooling arrangements. Efficacy hawks and testucators, quite unfamiliar with classroom practices, went wild with the blessing of Joel Klein and his Australian agent, now PM, and have had a field day supporting the destruction of learning development and belief in the human spirit. Small wonder that little useful progress of the kind that was a probable dream in the 1980s has been bastardised and that irreparable damage has been done to at least a generation of our future citizens. Australia is now committed to mediocrity. Our controllers just do not know what they are doing
[ http://www.saveourschools.com.au “How Figures Show No Progress in Reducing Low Student Achievement in the Past 30 Years” ]
What a pity that we couldn’t have done what the Finns did in the 1980s? STOP and THINK ! THINK. What goes on in those classrooms, we should be asking. It’s not too late, if we are prepared to drop the stupidities completely, return the dignity of the teaching profession to its owners, trust our schools to produce the goods; and encourage a love for learning in each school child for his or her entire school life, Australia can do it. It has a teaching force, that has been the envy of the world. It needs to be trusted. It can lead the world if it tries, not fall behind as it is doing now....thanks to NAPLAN.
Principals. Stop being such gutless wonders. Reclaim your school. Reclaim your ethics. Believe in your professional ethics and exercise that belief. Stop being a party to the cruel outcomes of fear-based learning. You’ve been duped. No half-measures. You can get rid of all of the stupidity by simply saying, “No more”. Send the tests back, if your representatives have been too eichmannised to act on your behalf.
Teachers. You unfortunate pussy-cats. Your pleasant co-operative nature, part of your DNA, so necessary for the most wonderful of the caring professions, is being compromised. Your professional leaders are letting you down and your unions have deserted you. Believe in yourselves again. Things are tough for you. You can tell the parents of your pupils how you feel and advocate that they opt-out by removing their children from the May tests. It’s so easy. You are also part of an enormous, locally-influential voting bloc. You do have power if you wish to exercise it. Just talk about NAPLAN to everyone you meet.
Parents. You can help by sending a simple note to your child’s school, telling it that you opt-out. Also, you vote. So do teachers. If, together perhaps, you ask your local candidates where they stand in regard to the banning of NAPLAN with the intention of voting only for those who would ban it, there would certainly be more political thought about the pestilence.
Are schools suffering from Eichmanism?
Politicians. You can show a bit of spunk in your party meetings. Until now, you will have heard little of NAPLAN mentioned, because Peter and Christopher have you by the short and curlies. Think of what they are trying to do to your child. Think about Australia’s future. Mouthing commands, platitudes and ‘We will do it.” is all hot air without decent Aussie, fair-dinkum, experience-based care to back up their meadow mayonnaise. THINK!
In the early 1980s, I dreamed of a wonderful future of happy children at school – right through to Year 12 – bursting a boiler to get to school each day because of all the rich learning experiences that they could share. Shared evaluation of efforts to achieve at the highest level would change to self-evaluation as the pupils moved through school and would continue through life. The development of happy, exciting achievements in learning was on the way. My closer primary school colleagues of the 80s and I could feel the joys of learning in primary schools spreading, and, between us we had more experience at recognising learning improvement than most. We foresaw that the children at school at the time would love whatever they had to do and would constantly try to do better....whether it was digging a neat ditch or solving a tricky bit of space science. Learning would become a part of a happy, useful life-style. Ah well!
Then came managerialism....square pegs in charge...encouraged by a ridiculous, verging on a stupid, political take-over of school-based learning enterprises....pushing around compliant high-level pussy-cats who don’t give a rats about kids.
Dreams shattered. Truly, Today’s NAPLAN control of schooling in Australia is devastating and disgusting. The longer NAPLAN exists, the worse it will get.You can bet on it.
Poor little Treehorn. His parents, teachers and principals still ignore his problems and those of his school mates.
Hang in there, kid. One day!!! 2013 ?? Let’s pray.
We both have NO to NAPLAN stickers on our cars.
Have you?
Love you.
Phil Cullen

2 comments:

RIAZ UDDIN said...

How To Be a Primary Teacher and what is it like to be a primary school teacher in the 21st century? What you think?

Anonymous said...

Really enjoyed Phil's guest blog - his scenario is to be played out in New Zealand. Lets hope educators and parents wake up what is ahead of them.