South Island Association Intermediate and Middle Schools
Annual Principals’ Conference Wednesday, 24 March, 2010
[My purpose in re-publishing part of this address from 2010 is to provide a narrative and sense of continuity from over four years ago to a point from which we can proceed in the present – proceed defensively. The election, I suggest from a reading of this posting, hasn’t changed anything except to make everything profoundly more imminent and dangerous. This posting ends with the following dire warning: ‘There won’t be decisive change for the better until, sometime in the future, New Zealand faces a crisis, probably a combination of the economic, social, and moral. In that circumstance, we should be ready with some ideas, carefully considered ideas, for a better way of going about things …’ This juncture as a result of this election is of considerable dismay but no surprise.]
The basic ideals of a western-style education system rest on the consistency with which the welfare of the child is at the centre of decision making; the ethicality of decision making; and the degree of freedom the main participants have to express their ideas freely and influence that decision making. Leaving aside the children, the main participants are the government, the bureaucracies, teachers, academics, parents, and the media. The central argument in this talk is that our system is seriously corrupted: a corruption that has moved on apace since Tomorrow’s Schools – a change in system which has the increased power of governments, bureaucracies, and some academics, at the expense of the welfare of children and teachers.
Though I paint a dark picture of where we are, I want to say that the situation in schools is always better than an analysis might suggest. There is a certain irrepressibility about New Zealand children, teachers and principals. No matter what the circumstances, teachers and principals always strive for the positive, buoyed by the children and their desire to do well for them.
A main idea in this talk is that system corruption in the New Zealand primary school education is rife. System corruption occurs in two ways – along with an associated phenomenon: the first way is when people in education feel constrained by fear and other influences from challenging or diverging from official ideology. The second is when people in education use the system, whether consciously or unconsciously, to their advantage, and the disadvantage of others, especially teachers and children. And the associated phenomenon is the way people can, as individuals, appear benign, but the group or institution they represent, can be sources of considerable harm.
Our education system is out of balance, lacking sufficient checks and balances – creating an environment in which certain participants feel free to act blithely, unscrupulously, autocratically, without due consideration for some other participants, namely teachers and children. When a lie is told, a distortion is advanced, arrogance is displayed, unethical behaviour occurs, a little bit of what is there for teachers and children dies
What can you say about an education system when the review office reports are narrowly focused and fantastically based; when the nature of the relationship between the review office and schools is sublimated fear; when the ministry of education won’t acknowledge that national standards are having a devastating effect on a curriculum they helped to develop?
What can you say about a system when you have university freedom of speech curtailed and distorted through being bound by contracts to the government; when you have an evasive like Professor John Hattie considered a leading academic; when Professor Helen Timperley, on the eve of going to Wellington for contract talks, says she thinks ‘national standards are on the right track’ (and has said nary a further word in elaboration); when you have narrowly academically self-serving publications like Best Evidence Syntheses dominating education; when you don’t have the best people appointed to teacher education positions because of the PBRF system; when number-bound academics overwhelmingly dominate; when number-bound academics go out of their way to talk down family and socio-economic influences on learning, to their aggrandisement and teachers’ despair; when much number-bound research is akin to lying; when the Hawthorne effect and other research influences are much talked about – also much relied on to produce career-enhancing results; when, because of high stakes’ situations abounding, most numbers produced about anything in education are, at the minimum, distortions?
What can you say about a system when learning and teaching are separated from assessment for bureaucratic convenience; when assessment is valued over substance; when uniformity is valued over variety; when skills are valued over children knowing; when principals choose professional development for their schools, not to meet the needs of children and teachers, but to cover themselves for review office visits; when principals have only government-contracted professional developer providers to choose from; when the arts, science, and social studies are languishing and their advisers dismissed; when a teaching by numbers idea like WALTS dominates to the degree it does (‘what the review office wants’); when the ‘big swerve’ by parents occurs to avoid brown-faced schools; and when you have nauseous-inducing publications like the Education Gazette fronting for the minister and the bureaucracies?
At the heart of this talk I am going to use George Orwell’s 1984 as an analytic source to examine the validity of the claim of system corruption being rife, with attention throughout to the ministry, quantitative academics, and particularly the education review office.
There will be reference to ‘hate’ sessions, big lies, doublethink, newspeak, the difference between confession and betrayal, controlling the past, and the end being contained in the beginning
The talk will conclude with a brief look at the state of the curriculum today.
Early in the Orwell comparison I will take a brief look at the ministry. My attention there will be on the ministry’s claim that national standards fit comfortably into the new curriculum.
Throughout the Orwell comparison, I will highlight a group some find difficult to see as harmful to school education – quantitative academics. I sometimes call them the academic quantitatives of certainty. My argument will be that the influence of this group is everywhere and often pernicious.
I will say that there needs to be a growing awareness that our education system is in the grip of a management philosophy that stifles initiative, variety, and creativity.
A crucial part of that philosophy being the ideological reliance of governments on a certain group of academics who, as ‘experts’, provide ‘certainty’ for the centralised, command control of education.
I will say that the reward for those experts, with their self-serving myth of certainty, what Wittgenstein described as a modern-day superstition, is status, power, influence, and awards. For us, though, the outcome is a shafting.
I will say that as a result of this group’s ideological control of the system from professional development in schools, to schools of education, to the functioning of the review office, to the ministry, and to advice to governments – the holistic philosophy barely gets a look in. I will say that the review office talks of being impartial and unbiased, but it can easily feign this because it is its pedagogy that carries the substance of this partiality and bias. I will say that it is the uniformity office, the imposition office, the no alternative office – the office whose authority, in the last resort, is based on fear.
Using Orwell’s ideas to analyse our education system should not be considered too much of a stretch. But I don’t want to over-interpret Orwell into the present at the risk of trivialising his ideas or distorting the present: I want rather to provide you with the opportunity to make the connections as you see fit.
‘They were grouped in the centre of the hall opposite the big telescreen, in preparation for the Two Minutes Hate.’
To relate this to the present is, though, something of an over-interpretation, but in material I’ve gained from the Official Information Act and observing the minister and her bureaucrats, I believe their attitude toward teachers and principals is derogatory, condescending, resentful, and sometimes hostile. Teachers and principals are seen as obstructions to their evidence-based plans and certainties. Teachers and principals are mainly seen as functioning on myths and hand-me-down ideas. A behaviour I see emanating from this ministry attitude is a picking off of certain principals for punishment through an unethical use of the statutory commissioner system, unlawful reporting to bloggers and newspapers for harassment and mocking, and a heavy treatment by the education review office.
‘His mind slid away to the labyrinthine world of doublethink. To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them; to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it; … to forget whatever was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, then promptly forget it again …Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.’
The ministry provides the perfect storm for this in its claims that the new curriculum and national standards are compatible. We who prefer not to have to doublethink don’t want to hear any more of this. We don’t want to hear any more about the need for school connectedness when national standards are about schools competing; about treating children as individuals when the basis for league tables is being laid; about creativity and imagination as the curriculum narrows; about pathways to literacy and numeracy as existing pathways disappear and curriculum advisers are being dismissed; about the promise of the competencies as they are being replaced by the betrayal of the national standards; about the need for teachers to take ownership of the new curriculum as they are scapegoated, condescended to, and swarmed over by bureaucrats.
We don’t want to go backwards from national standards to the new curriculum – we want to go forward from the new curriculum.
For the perfect living example of doublethink think Hattie, the person billed with suggesting the idea of national standards, as well as being billed as a leading critic of them.
What’s that all about?
Hattie’s concern with national standards is not with national standards but that they are not his national standards.
Hattie only runs with the hares to hunt with the hounds.
But the greatest source of doublethink by far is the education review office. As a result of review office doublethink, teachers are caught up in the unrelenting logic of an irrational system: a measurement-based system that in its full expression exists nowhere, and will never exist – yet such a system is put forward as not only desirable but attainable. Schools in true Orwellian style, have to meet expectations of a reality that don’t exist. Given that unattainability, let alone its lack of desirability, schools are in the invidious position of trying to work out what, in the circumstances, will be acceptable, will get them through. This uncertainty, to make sure they are on the safe side, drives schools to ever greater conformity, sometimes to conformity well beyond even the expectations of the review office.
Schools, as a result of the doublethink of the review office, are expected to function in a teaching and learning reality that does not and cannot exist, is acknowledged informally as not being able to exist but, officially, as something that is achievable. This means review officers can pull the rule book out whenever they have a mind to. And in true Orwellian style they don’t have to have a mind to too often to establish the fear that is the coin for their existence. They have the ultimate power – that of determining the length of a piece of string.
Think of the highly systematised self-review idea that is associated with the education review office. The point is this: self-review whether brilliant or blather (it’s blather) is not a voluntary policy for schools to consider; you know you have to do it, or they will get you on that matter or a related one, so you do it, possibly coming to have some sort of belief in it, but also knowing deep down it’s just another bureaucratic process being fixed on the school.
That is doublethink, believing in two contrary ideas simultaneously.
As well, as defined in the introduction, it is also an example of how our system is being corrupted: people, can, as individuals, appear benign, but the group or institution they represent, be sources of considerable harm.
Schools have to sort of believe in what the review office believes in, but also know that what the review office believes in is mainly baloney.
I can’t stress enough how nearly all the education bureaucracy, and a large part of academia, live in a dream world.
‘Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought …’
‘No word in the … vocabulary was ideologically neutral.’
Evidence-based learning means forget about teacher-generated knowledge; best evidence synthesis means an assemblage of dodgy research, dependent for its existence on the Hawthorne effect, exclusions, clinical and other highly unreal situations, lack of robustness, and carelessness about sustainability; achievement means pressured test results; best evidence synthesis means task force green employment for quantitative academics; assessment used instead of evaluation; instruction used instead of teaching; accountability used instead of responsibility; stakeholders used instead of parents.
The ‘school improvement’ category of research and thought means excluding consideration of socio-economic influences on learning; ‘They won’t all learn to the same level on the same day, but they will all learn’ as used by Avis Glaze (introduced from Ontario as the overseas expert on national standards) means she is downplaying socio-economic influences on learning; excellence means measurement-based learning; high-trust learning (as used by the review office) means low-trust learning; school self-review (as used by the review office) means journey where you like as long as you end up at destination review office; ‘We are improving schools without ranking schools’ (in Ontario as used by Avis Glaze) means we are ranking schools; ‘We don’t have national standards’ (in Ontario as used by Avis Glaze) means they have state standards run by a private company; and Education Gazette means periodic bouts of nausea.
Holistic learning (as used by the review office) means atomised learning assembled en masse; best practice means an imagination-free teaching zone; skills means abilities stripped of the cognitive and the affective to allow taxonomies, lists, categories, and measurement; WALTS means plastic tiki student participatory democracy; ‘unbiased and objective view’ (as used by the review office) means biased and objective; minimising compliance demands (as used by the review office) means increasing them; ‘ERO and the Ministry of Education … meet regularly to discuss items of mutual interest’ means devising ‘gotcha’ situations; ‘increasing evaluation capacity’ means imposing more bureaucratic demands on schools; management-by-objectives means leadership without vision; ‘National standards could set New Zealand education back a generation’ means I gave John Key the idea; and the Inaugural Prime Ministers’ Science Awards means sorry honey I’ve just shrunk science in primary schools.
Competency-based education, performance-based education, competency-based education, next-step learning, mastery learning, criterion-referenced testing, outcomes-led education, standards-based education, feedback (up, forward, sideways to the left, now to the right), and benchmarking, to name a few – means have we gone crazy? and the quantitative academics of certainty are in control.
Three-quarters of the leadership of schools don’t know how well their children are doing means, oh no! the minister is talking (lying) again.
‘I don’t mean confessing. Confession is not betrayal … only feelings matter. If they could stop me loving you – that would be real betrayal.’
‘She thought it over … They can make you say anything – anything – but they can’t make you believe it. They can’t get inside you.’
‘No,’ he said a little more hopefully, “no” that’s quite true. They can’t get inside you. If you can feel that staying human is worthwhile, even when it can’t have any result, you’ve beaten them.’ [On this turned the story and the tragedy.]
This reminded me of my talk to the principals in 1999 when I said I accepted that they would have to conform with a lot of things they might not agree with, that were inimical to children’s learning and teacher professionalism, but urged them to retain in their hearts and minds the feeling and knowledge that there was a better way. My advice, I think was good, but the repression asked of principals almost impossible to hold to.
‘He wondered vaguely how many others like her there might be who had grown up in this world … knowing nothing else, accepting the Party as something unalterable, like the sky, not rebelling against its authority but simply evading it, as a rabbit dodges a dog.’
‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’
‘Past events, it is argued, have no objective existence, but survive only in written records and in human memory.’
‘At one time it had been a sign of madness to believe the earth goes around the sun: today it is to believe that the past is unalterable.’
‘The alteration of the past is necessary … to safeguard the infallibility of the Party.’
‘If one is to rule, and to continue ruling, one must be able to dislocate the sense of reality.’
Of all Orwell’s messages, this, for me, is the most telling.
Young teachers coming through are presented with one reality: the reality emanating from the academic quantitatives of certainty – a reality of visible learning, in other words, learning that can be measured; learning that can be divided up for individual children as exact next-step learning; learning that is like pieces of a jigsaw to be put together by the teacher; learning that eschews the affective because it can’t be measured; learning that is presented as efficient and modern; learning that implies other ways of learning are old hat; learning that discounts socio-economic influences; learning that elevates certain academics to positions of power; learning that crowds out teacher-generated knowledge; and learning that appeals to politicians who like its unambiguity.
All this is backed up with the one kind of education philosophy dominating colleges of education courses, reinforced by the effects on lecturer appointments of the iniquitous Performance-Based Research Fund (PBRF). How much do students hear about Warner, Richardson, Beeby, Snook or overseas educationists like Dewey, Apple, or Eisner?
The overwhelming message is there is no alternative.
If by some miracle a student does come out with some knowledge of the holistic, what chance for its survival in the world of professional development contracts given only to exponents of a number-based philosophy; of the smooth flow of quantitative jargonspeak that is a kind of education muzak; of doing it by numbers WALTS; of the best evidence synthesis syndrome which is really a parade of academic status; of management by measurable objectives philosophy of the review office and now of national standards?
Leaving aside the minister who, when she talks, manages the remarkable feat of always leaving the truth undisturbed, a major source of big lies is from the academic quantitatives of certainty and their near fraudulent research (Hawthorne, exclusions, clinical and other highly unreal situations, a lack of robustness, and carelessness about sustainability) which replaces reality with their own fantastical one.
Two examples: In Teacher Professional Learning and Development, a Best Evidence Synthesis publication in the Timperley series – she writes: ‘The limitations of this process must be acknowledged. Much professional learning is informal and incidental or occurs in meetings after school. In such situations, neither the process nor the outcomes are typically documented, so they do not appear in this synthesis. We do, however, wish to acknowledge their importance and the possibilities for promoting professional learning.’ (xxiv)
This was, at least, acknowledged, though to no tempering of the book’s conclusions. The nub of the issue is that teacher knowledge needs space and a sympathetic environment to develop; it has neither.
Timperley, of course, misrepresents the issue: the limitations in the research she refers to, are far more than about the professional learning that occurs informally or incidentally; they are also about the disappearance of professional learning that used to occur formally but divergently. In the past, official providers had the freedom to be divergent, and the schools loved it; there were also a range people from outside the official system who provided divergent curriculum approaches.
Professional development courses are now almost entirely dominated by universities and by private providers who invariably conform to official policy. They all conform to official policy because they are officially bound to, or because schools, for reasons we have already canvassed, feel under pressure to seek such courses. I know that schools sometimes break out for courses like thinking, or whole brain learning – to do so is of almost spiritual relief to them, but all these kinds of courses float above the curriculum.
Once again, anything but the curriculum.
Helen, you and your associates are killing us!
The second example: In Visible Learning Hattie says ‘It is not a book about what cannot be influenced by schools – thus critical discussions about class, poverty, resources in families, health in families, and nutrition are not included – but this is NOT [his capitalisation] because they are unimportant, indeed they may be more important than many of the influences discussed in the book. It is just that I have not included these topics in my orbit.’
This exclusion, the enigmatic nature of its wording, and its breath-taking illogic, is the new reality and the new tyranny for us, and the new big lie.
Hattie is doubletalking. He seems to be saying that socio-economic influences on learning are very important, but in the same sentence he is qualifies this by saying he has omitted consideration of them – ‘NOT because they are unimportant [a slightly dodgy way of leading into a point, don’t you think?], indeed they may be more important [only may be?] than many other influences discussed in this book [heavens – in the plural: what would those be John?].
This is typical quantitative snake oil (doublethink).
Hattie has excluded socio-economic influences on learning from his ‘orbit’ not because they can’t influence a book like his on education, but because such influences hinder his push to control the present.
To control the present he needs to establish another reality, a quantitative reality.
It is resoundingly Orwellian: ‘Who controls the past … controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’
Hattie is moving to control the present; therefore the past; therefore the future. If schools can’t alter socio-economic influences, then best to put them to one side and forget about them. To refer to them is to provide an excuse. Better to establish a new reality without reference to socio-economic influences. Teachers are really being told they are using, and have used, socio-economic influences on learning as an excuse for why certain groups of children have not done as well as other children – and that this excuse will not be available in the future.
The fact that he omitted socio-economic influences on learning, which he says are not unimportant, does not stop him from presenting his ‘findings’ in percentage points. Confirmation of his real view is best gauged by noting how he seriously downplays socio-economic influences on learning in the advice he gives to politicians.
This is not the place to go further into this issue, except to say that downplaying socio-economic influences on learning is a retreat from reality and an obstruction to developing programmes for meeting the needs of particular groups of children and their families. And, as part of this, it serves to get governments off the hook from having to address the causes of those socio-economic influences. The near exclusion of socio-economic influences is resulting in schools and teachers being made scapegoats to the power advantage of politicians, bureaucrats, and certain quantitative academics.
‘Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him: or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.’
‘The end was contained in the beginning.’
‘Our only true life is in the future. We shall take part in it as handfuls of dust and splinters of bone. But how far away that future may be, there is no knowing. It might be a thousand years. At present nothing is possible except to extend the area of sanity little by little.’ [The irony here, in a declaration that sounds profound, philosophical, and true, is that it was made by the intellectually charismatic Party loyalist drawing the protagonist into a trap.]
There won’t be decisive change for the better until, sometime in the future, New Zealand faces a crisis, probably a combination of the economic, social, and moral. In that circumstance, we should be ready with some ideas, carefully considered ideas, for a better way of going about things. In the meantime, especially in education, power structures being the way they are, we must expect that education will be increasingly unsatisfying for children and disappointing for society (both economically and spiritually). This will be especially so in New Zealand which doesn’t receive the lavish funding, say, UK, Australian, or American schools have received; and poverty increases with its flow-on education effects. All we can do, I believe, is slow down the decline by opposing the characteristics of scientific management, by exposing the myth of the academic expert, proposing alternative ways, and campaigning for a fairer society.
What concerns me is the similarity in sentiment between my statement and the insidious Party loyalist ensnaring the hero. Is my statement defeatist? However, I stand by it.
This, then, has been about system corruption, that is, the way in our education system we are increasingly constrained from challenging or diverging from official ideology through fear, power disadvantage, and other influences.
Another gripe I have with national standards is that it is stopping us addressing genuine and widespread problems evident in the curriculum.
The curriculum in schools is something of a Rocky Horror Show.
You can do your own casting, but the teachers are, of course, Janet and Brad.
The main points I would make are that under the control of the curriculum by quantitative academics, and the measurement-based review office – as teachers have sought pedagogical relief, the curriculum has become faddish; cluttered with add-ons; and dishearteningly uniform (though there is evident from school to school a famine or feast characteristic in art, physical education, and music).
Discussion of the curriculum has become discussion of everything but the curriculum; or discussion of things that sound like the curriculum, but aren’t – things like self-review.
In some ways, leaving aside literacy and numeracy, there isn’t anyone there to discuss the curriculum with.
As a substitute for discussing the curriculum we discuss enquiry learning when we should be discussing the essence of curriculum areas; we discuss thinking skills or activities when we should be discussing how to establish challenging affective-cognitive contexts within which thinking most usefully occurs; we discuss student decision-making without providing sufficient structure and time for that to be genuine; we discuss outcomes-based learning (and its myriad of derivatives) thereby participating in the destructive process of separating teaching from assessment; we discuss progressions when we are simply discussing jargon accretion; we try to catch children’s affective attention without establishing the necessary knowledge base; we discuss complicated solutions to problems and ignore straightforward ones from our holistic tradition; and we design professional development programmes to cover the school for an ERO visit, not the needs of children and teachers.
I would have loved to have spent the morning talking about holistic teaching and learning; about valuing knowledge as a way to the affective; of true democratic classrooms not the WALTS’ caricature; of the need for time and space to allow true thinking and learning; of how to make best use of the best part of the new curriculum, the second competency. But all this would have been a waste of your time – we first have to regain control of our professional lives.
So I conclude with words already delivered:
‘There won’t be decisive change for the better until, sometime in the future, New Zealand faces a crisis, probably a combination of the economic, social, and moral. In that circumstance, we should be ready with some ideas, carefully considered ideas, for a better way of going about things …’ and so on, and so on.
‘All we can do, I believe, is slow down the decline by opposing the characteristics of scientific management, by exposing the myth of the academic expert, proposing alternative ways, and campaigning for a fairer society.’
As for the fate of national standards, ‘The end was contained in the beginning’ – but that is another story for another time.
SIAIMS Annual Principals’ Conference
Wednesday, 24 March, 2010