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Category Archives: exams and assessment

A five-finger exercise

While my coachee slaved away on a Trial HSC English Advanced paper this morning I undertook to answer the creative writing question from our previous session: “Select one of the following quotations. Use this quotation as a catalyst for your own piece of writing on belonging.” I think I rather overdid the thematic side, but I was hoping to demonstrate how this rather artificial task may be done. It isn’t fiction, but that’s in the parameters given.

c) “My fondest childhood memories”

When you think about it there is a lot of truth in the old Catholic saying “Give me a child to the age of seven and I will show you the man.” By that age our sense of identity, which is so much shaped by our sense of belonging to family, home, town and country, are basically set – if not in stone, at least firmly enough that escape if needed is quite difficult.

In my case my grandfather rather than my father was the key influence. My father, you see, was rarely home, being overseas with the RAAF, so my family were living with my grandparents, and the one who had time for me most was my grandfather.

My grandfather was a retired teacher. I don’t know how he did it, can’t remember, but before I went to school I could already read and tell the time. This led to early alienation in Kindergarten. Invited in week one to “write” on the blackboard I wrote “Sydney Morning Herald” and the date. I gather the teacher was not amused and rang my mother to complain – strange as that may seem.

He was a mine of information, my grandfather, and I was a hyper-inquisitive child. Once he was gardening and I asked him: “What are snails for?” He stood up and took me round the garden, showing me snails, describing their life-cycle, their means of locomotion and their feeding habits and why, if we wanted our lettuces, he had to get rid of them. “Yes,” I replied with precocious analytical skills, “but what are they FOR?” Since the metaphysics of the snail was not something that had occurred to him he became uncharacteristically short with me and called out to my mother, “Get this bloody kid out of here!”

I never have found out what snails are for, but I guess they fit into the web of life. Even snails belong, don’t they?

Another thing about my grandfather was that he talked to just about everybody. He was genuinely interested in their lives and what they did. I would accompany him on his walks and get impatient as he stopped at this fence or that gate to chat to someone for what seemed like hours to me. I was not displeased though when he would climb over the railway fence to chat to the driver of the milk train when it was waiting at the siding for the express train to go through. There were steam engines in those days and I was enthralled standing on the tracks with my grandfather as the fireman and driver leaned down from the cab to share finer points of their trade.

On the other hand, so I am told, when my father at last returned from overseas my first words to him were “Get that man out of here!” (Perhaps I learned the expression from my grandfather.) To me my father was the picture on the dressing table, not this large imposter who had suddenly disrupted my life, just when I had my mother pretty much in control. What this may have done to our relationship, indeed to my father’s recovery of his belonging, I can now only guess – but it did rather colour our later lives.

You can see what a network one close relative can set up for you in those formative years. With my grandfather I explored so many aspects of my environment and he was, you could say, my map-maker. Through him were developing all those templates of background, culture and place which shape so much where “I” fits in – belongs, indeed.

There are many other stories I could tell of my grandfather. Did I mention he only had one eye? No? But that is another story.

I was 21 when my grandfather died. He had mentored me in so many ways, easing the pain of high school maths, answering my incessant questions about other countries as we browsed the atlas together, showing by example tolerance of people from other cultures, leading me (without pressure) to emulate him in my choice of career. If he were removed from my life story I wonder if I would today have the network of belongings that I now possess, modified as they may have been by other experiences and circumstances. Nonetheless, if I look for the rock on which it all has been built I need look no further than those childhood experiences with Roy C. – my grandfather.

 

Recession solving teacher shortage?

Ironic, isn’t it?

See When going gets tough, get teaching in today’s Australian.

IF Australia slides into recession, Connie and Peter Watson will be among the last to feel it.

As teachers in the public school system for decades, the couple not only love their profession, they know it provides a safe haven from what Kevin Rudd described this week as the financial "cyclone" about to hit our shores.

And they are not alone.

As the world descends into financial crisis, increasing numbers of school-leavers and early victims of the job crunch in other industries are cramming into education courses to seek a new, safer career.

This is no more apparent than in the former boom state of Western Australia, where anecdotal evidence suggests a significant rise in the number of applicants to teaching courses since the global slump in demand for resources brought the mining super-cycle to an abrupt halt.

"As a teacher, you not only ride out bad times, you don’t even notice them," Ms Watson told The Weekend Australian.

"You trade off a higher wage in the short term but you have solid employment and a predictable income."

The teacher of 40 years, who is now principal of Fitzroy North Primary School in Melbourne’s inner north, said she had recently hired several mature-aged graduate teachers who had come from the private sector.

"They have decided they would really like to teach and the security of teaching appeals to them after the ups and downs of the private sector," she said. "I am sure one of the strong appeals is the security of the job and the fact that people will always be needed." …

How to lift quality education outcomes? Test less…

I have mentioned this before, because it runs counter to conservative opinion – in which I include the various Labor governments in Australia! It also runs counter to most bureaucratic thinking in the Western world, wedded as that is to models derived from the corporate world and obsessed with measuring everything, even things which probably can’t be validly measured.

I mention it again because my English/ESL blog has recently had several visits from Reflections on TESOL,  a blog run by a Muslim English teacher at a university in the UK. That in itself is culturally interesting.

A recent post there is To test or not to test or teach?

…I recently came across an article about education in Finland as well as a podcast on the BBC. It was fascinating stuff!

In Finland, for most of a student’s life, there are no exams, and everyone passes. There are no failures. Finland’s philosophy on education is education for education’s sake it seems. Everyone must have the opportunity to be educated.

Teaching is the most popular profession. Hard to believe! Respect? For teachers? Is this the paradise we are all looking for? What’s more, for every teaching vacancy there are ten applicants.

In a UN survey, Finland came top.

Why are we not reading up on Finish educational techniques? They’re obviously doing something right.

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2009 in Australia, education, English studies, ESL, exams and assessment

 

Random

Just so you know what time of year this is, here is a pic I took a few minutes ago. People in the Northern Hemisphere, eat your hearts out!

dec18 003

And speaking of weather, or rather, climate, Miranda has been regurgitating again** with her accustomed objectivity and deep scientific training: “The tantrums from Australia’s screeching environmental banshees have barely abated since the Government revealed its plan to cut Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions from between 5 and 15 per cent by 2020, an amount deemed too small by green groups.” Or: “The fact is temperatures have not risen in a decade, and have actually been falling in recent years, despite increasing carbon emissions. The tide has turned for the fundamentalist zealots of the climate change movement as more scientists declare their doubts that the science on climate change is ‘settled’, and opinion polls show the public growing ever more reluctant to make personal sacrifices to reduce carbon emissions…”

Shame about the other climate story in the same newspaper: Weather watch: a record year of extreme events.

AUSTRALIAN temperatures remained hotter than average this year, the World Meteorological Organisation reports, summing up the year as one marked by extreme weather events.

They included floods, severe and persistent droughts, snowstorms, heatwaves, cold waves and the shrinking of the Arctic sea ice to its second-lowest level on record.

The year is expected to rank as the 10th-warmest on record for the planet. Temperatures were about one-third of a degree above average despite the normally cooling impact of a La Nina event. Australia’s temperatures were 0.37 degrees above average, making this year the 15th-warmest on record for the nation since 1910, even with a strong La Nina bringing flooding rains to Queensland and NSW.

"Its warmer than most previous La Nina years," said Dr Andrew Watkins, a senior climatologist with Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology. "Generally with La Nina events we get cooler than normal temperatures over Australia."…

I don’t consider myself a “banshee” or a “fundamentalist zealot of the climate change movement”  — as I probably demonstrated in  Very quick assertions, not arguments, about the Rudd government’s climate package, but Miranda is just such an idiot on this topic, and persistent too. Yes, what we do in fact makes only a small difference, but to still believe there isn’t a problem is to be in a very select group, most of whom Miranda quotes – again. Visit the side bar and look for Climate sceptics… There you will find plenty of reasons for taking Miranda less than seriously.

Meantime, the HSC is out, and The Mine has done not too badly. 60 Band 6 in English is not bad at all, given The Mine’s clientele.

hsc10

The graphic links to the Herald story from which it is taken. Doesn’t one of those arrows point the wrong way??

I was also happy to see a coachee from a little while ago made it into the top 1% in ESL English.

Update

** On 22 December fellow right-wing columnist Paul Sheehan responded: Politics trumps policy on polluters.

Miranda Devine and her husband are coming over for Christmas drinks tonight. She’s good company, even if we do fundamentally disagree on the most important issue facing the country.

Last week she ripped into Kevin Rudd’s policy response to global warming, the Government’s multibillion-dollar plan to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. She quoted Professor Bob Carter describing the plan as "a non-solution to a non-problem". She weighed into the "screeching environmental banshees" who say the policy is not enough. She raised the grim fact that while Australia contributes 1.5 per cent of global greenhouse emissions, "China will almost double its emissions by 2030, from 18.3 per cent in 2005 to 33 per cent in 2030, [so] even if we reduced our emissions by 100 per cent, as the crazies want us to, our sacrifice would be meaningless".

Good point. Rudd’s grand plan is a grand illusion. It is so badly designed it would have been better if the Government had done nothing and let the US president-elect, Barack Obama, provide the leadership next year.

At this point, Devine and I diverge. Because I believe this policy is a non-solution to a big problem. Rudd’s strategy has been praised as political shrewdness, but it is political capitulation….

See also my post on 27 November: Miranda and Piers in duet after “Quadrant” dinner….

 

Ken Boston outsources, falls on sword…

I will give Ken Boston some marks for integrity, to judge from Australian steps down as Britain’s exams chief after marking debacle. Ken Boston is a familiar name to any of us who were teaching here in NSW in the 80s and 90s. As the article explains: “Dr Boston, 65, was instrumental in delivering many reforms to the NSW education system during the early 1990s under Dr Terry Metherell. He has headed the British authority since 2002.” Here is what happened, according to the Sydney Morning Herald:

ONE of Britain’s most highly paid and powerful public servants, the former NSW education chief Ken Boston, has resigned his £328,000 ($873,000)-a-year post after a chaotic round of national curriculum tests.

Dr Boston, who began his career as a teacher in Victoria and was in his sixth year at the helm of the British schools testing watchdog, announced that he believed in public officials "taking responsibility when things go wrong".

Thousands of British children aged 11 and 14 received late – or incorrect – Standard Assessment Test results this year after the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority outsourced their administration to an American company, ETS, which signed a £156 million contract for the job. The British Government sacked the company in August.

Known as SATs, the tests are given at the end of years 2, 6 and 9 and are designed to measure children’s progress in comparison with peers born in the same month. The mess led the Government to drop the tests for 14-year-olds and there has been debate about scrapping the tests for 11-year-olds.

An inquiry by Lord Sutherland was launched into the disastrous round of SATs three months ago and is widely predicted to contain serious criticisms of the authority. The report is due to be handed down in London tomorrow…

He said at the weekend that the performance of ETS had been "quite unacceptable" and repeated an apology issued to the 1.2 million students who took the tests and their teachers at the end of the summer term in Britain.

Criticism of Dr Boston has been tough since the disastrous results and he has come under pressure about his salary package, which includes the use of a £1 million apartment in London’s fashionable Chelsea district as well as six business-class flights a year back to Australia. London newspapers have also made an issue of his ownership of a yacht in Sydney…

Our measurement fetish – and theirs in the UK, and ditto in the USA — really needs to be looked at in the light of these events, not to mention the perils of outsourcing to private concerns. The same mob did our Adult Literacy Survey under Howard in 2006: Australian Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey 2 (with comments by Jim Belshaw).

I wrote more on the Educational Testing Service a year ago on English/ESL: Email about the Educational Testing Service.

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2008 in Australia, awful warnings, Brendan Nelson, curriculum, education, exams and assessment, future schooling, Jim Belshaw, John Howard, literacy, London

 

Measuring the quality of education not as simple as it seems – Letters – Opinion

Measuring the quality of education not as simple as it seems writes Greg Whitby, Executive director of schools, Catholic diocese of Parramatta. How true that is! Mind you I wonder a little at his opening paragraph, though I can see why he has done it. Can’t help wondering who the UNprofessional educators might be though… Perhaps “teachers” is enough?

Professional educators would welcome Julia Gillard’s assertion that teaching excellence should be identified and rewarded, and that high standards be expected of all students (“Tell-all report cards to compare schools“, August 12). We all want better schools.

However, the strategies for improving education require careful scrutiny. Comprehensive and valid data is a necessary basis for any improvement strategy. However, great care must be taken in interpreting and applying this data if it is expected to guide the educational agenda and determine resource levels.

A test-driven curriculum would undoubtedly distort educational programs; and general comparisons of schools, not based on a thorough understanding of the complexities of learning and teaching, would simply mislead and distract the public.

Even comparisons of schools in similar environments, and with similar problems, may not be helpful unless based on a deeply informed understanding of the specific context, culture and rate of improvement of the schools concerned.

When governments around the world have adopted quick and simple solutions to complex educational problems, they have usually got it wrong and seem determined to continue doing so.

It would be so much easier if schools were factories, created to produce easily measured, standardised products. But they are not. They are full of vibrant, growing, learning human beings, each with individual needs, styles, natural abilities and background experiences.

We have known for well over two decades now that the key to improving students’ learning is a combination of good teachers using relevant methods. We would be better served by helping teachers to continuously improve the effectiveness of their teaching, rather than focusing on narrow measures of some aspects of student achievement that don’t show the whole picture.

The world of learning is delightfully complex. We need to be careful we do not confine learning to a simplistic mindset of measurements and comparisons in our endeavour for a better education system.

We do seem fated to chase the phantom again; the new government is not much better than the Howard government in its pursuit of the measurable — whatever can be crunched in a computer is the limit of reality, it seems.

Look, people; I’m retired. Fatalistically, I will just let them go on their preset course reinventing the wheel. At the end of some period — five, ten years — they will wake up to discover that little has changed and certainly not much has improved.

I have said my piece before.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, education, exams and assessment, future schooling, Kevin Rudd, teaching

 

Sense, nonsense, speculation and invective

Always a lot of the last three around, not so much of the first — though there are times all four can coexist. Such seems to be the case with Paul Keating’s interview on last night’s 7.30 Report, which I did not see as I was watching the movie I tell you about in the next entry. The occasion of the interview was the launch of Unfinished Business: Paul Keating’s interrupted revolution by David Love, a book I wouldn’t mind reading. Keating, it appears, was in fine form.

KERRY OBRIEN: What, so Kevin Rudd does talk to you? Have you come in from the cold because Labor in opposition didn’t seem to know how to treat you, did they?
PAUL KEATING: The great pity for the post-me Labor Party is they gave — as this book today, the cause of our interview says — they gifted to Howard and Costello a two per cent inflation rate, a four per cent growth rate, a three per cent productivity rate, which they said thank you and stuck in their pockets. So now the Labor Party has come round to reality. You now have to deal with real things.
KERRY OBRIEN: How do you critique the first eight months of the Rudd Government?
PAUL KEATING: Um, solid. Solid but cautious. I think if there’s any problem the Government has it is that. When I say a problem I don’t any it’s a problem necessarily but it is to not have an over arching narrative in place. You know, I always talked about the internationalisation of the economy, the opening of the product financial and labour markets, the flexibility of the kind we have with all of our financial institutions, the exchange rate, wages. All of the Cabinet understood that, the message was always the same. We call that the narrative…

KERRY OBRIEN: Kevin Rudd has been painted as micro manager. Now whatever you and Bob Hawke were accused of as prime ministers I don’t think micro manager was one of them. Can a Prime Minister afford to engage in the small detail in running Government? In the end do you have to invest trust and significant autonomy in your ministerial colleagues?
PAUL KEATING: Absolutely. You can’t micro manage a thing like the Commonwealth…

Not entirely nonsense, that.

Pretty close to nonsense is Miranda Devine today psychoanalysing Liberal Party leaders (or leadership aspirants) in terms of sibling rivalry. It isn’t the worst thing she has ever written, and is quite innocuous comparatively speaking, I suppose.  I should add I was #3 in our family…

Everyone’s favourite topic has surfaced again as the annual Great HSC Sacrifice of Youth approaches: The futile 13 years: lid lifted on HSC. Anna Patty starts with a suitably sensationalist hook after that shock horror headine:

MOST students can complete 13 years of school without having to demonstrate basic literacy and numeracy skills, says a leading educational assessment expert.

The chief executive officer for the Australian Council for Educational Research, Geoff Masters, says minimum standards of reading, writing and maths should be met by all students before they are awarded an HSC or equivalent qualification.

In his address to the council’s annual research conference in Brisbane next week, Professor Masters will raise concerns about Australia’s failure to ensure all students have reached basic standards when they finish school…

There is, Anna, a great difference between “demonstrating” something in accordance with some universal bureaucratic benchmark and actually being able to do that something. It strikes me as sheer hyperbole, and quite misleading, to suggest the most — what: 90%? 51%? — students get through to the end of high school without “basic literacy and numeracy skills.” In fact these days the poor mites are tested and measured to death through their thirteen years of schooling, much more so than my cohort was fifty years ago. We just had an Intermediate in Year 9, mostly internal and none of it “objective” or “standardised”, and a Leaving in Year 11. (I speak of course of NSW there.) No basic skills tests in Year 3, Year 6, Year 7, Year 8 and Year 10 in our day.

The article goes on to quote OECD figures showing “13 per cent of Australians aged 15 were below the standard at which students were considered to be at risk of not having the basic skills.” Let’s just take that at face value for the moment: I think you will agree that 13% is by no definition “most students.” Whether that figure is disgusting, or simply a reflection of what might be expected in the real world, and what it actually means, I have gone into before. Check the literacy tag in the side bar, and for a systematic discussion see an essay from 1998: Literacy on Ninglun’s Specials. Honestly, there’s not much new under the sun in this area; take it from one who has been around the education business for over four decades, whose familiarity with the issues through family connection and reading goes back more than a century.

It may be that Geoff Masters has something reasonable to say, but that seems to have been filtered somewhat in the Herald story.

Finally, I should mention that one of my favourite books on English Studies is the mock-critical collection The Pooh Perplex by Frederick Crews.

The essays:

  • Paradoxical Persona: The Hierarchy of Heroism in Winnie-the-Pooh (Harvey C. Windrow)
  • A Bourgeois Writer’s Proletarian Fables (Martin Tempralis)
  • The Theory and Practice of Bardic Verse: Notations on the Hums of Pooh (P.R. Honeycomb)
  • Poisoned Paradise: The Underside of Pooh (Myron Masterson)
  • O Felix Culpa! The Sacramental Meaning of Winnie-the-Pooh (C.J.L. Culpepper, D.Litt,, Oxon)
  • Winnie and the Cultural Stream (Murphy A. Sweat)
  • A la recherche du Pooh perdu (Woodbine Meadowlark)
  • A Complete Analsis of Winnie-the-Pooh (Duns C. Penwiper)
  • Another Book to Cross Off Your List (Simon Lacerous)
  • The Style of Pooh: Sources, Analogues, and Influences (Benjamin Thumb)
  • A.A. Milne’s Honey-Balloon-Pit-Gun-Tail-Bathtubcomplex (Karl Anschauung, M.D.)
  • Prolegomena to Any Future Study of Winnie-the-Pooh (Smedley Force)

As Danny Yee says in the review from which I took that summary, The Pooh Perplex is very old (1964 — just in time to delight me during my Honours English year at Sydney University) but has had a 2001 sequel Postmodern Pooh. I couldn’t help thinking of Crews when I read Darwin to the Rescue: A group of scholars thinks evolutionary science can reinvigorate literary studies via A&L Daily about a week ago.

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Posted by on August 7, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, awful warnings, book reviews, education, English studies, exams and assessment, literacy, literary theory/criticism, politics, reading, teaching, weirdness

 

Interlude: the exam paradox

I have no problem in general with criterion-referenced marking; indeed I welcome it as being more transparent than the mysterious processes that we used to employ. (If you want argument about this visit my other sites.) But nothing is perfect, and criterion-referenced marking — indeed almost any kind of quantifying — falls down in the area we conventionally think of as “creative writing” — as if any writing is actually “uncreative” but I guess we roughly know what we mean by the term.

I have just had a good example of this. One of the students I have been tutoring is in Year 12 where they now must do “creative writing” — good and long overdue — but the “skill” (ugh!) is “examined” in Question 2 of Paper 1 where the glib are invited to construct a confection in forty minutes which must reflect, somehow, the “concept of The Journey” and which is then marked by criterion reference. OK, some criteria are not too problematic. Those of course are the ones that in reality may be least important.

My student has been speaking English for just six years, having been born in China. His English is well in advance of what research tells us to expect. In his “creative writing” question he took his own life as a journey and wrote a remarkably honest, beautifully expressed (some minor second language issues aside and some major punctuation issues aside) reflection on that journey. For example:

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Posted by on September 25, 2007 in creativity, ESL, exams and assessment, writing