Quantitatives: stop destroying the reading chances of our youngsters 1

In the battle of two knowledges it is teachers’ knowledge that is getting a hammering. In every western education system, one knowledge dominates, and the other is on the defensive. It is only by knowing about those knowledges that one can truly understand what is occurring, and has occurred, in our schools, and from there be in a position to respond effectively. The knowledge that dominates in nearly all western education systems is a university-elitist one, suggesting that in New Zealand the relatively late development of university education departments contributed to  holistic and progressive education taking a firmer hold here than in many other countries, but that time is now well and truly over.

I advise the reader that this posting is a precursor to something that might appear quotidian in relation to this battle of knowledges but to me is of supreme importance, the welfare of our youngest learners and, in particular, their manner of learning to read – but more on that, much more, in subsequent postings.

The association of one of those knowledges, its philosophy, and its academics with conservative governments has been a consistent theme throughout the post-war period and following that the neoliberal one. The association has become a complex and structured bond of mutual convenience: the one side (the academics) receiving the funding, contracted appointments, guarantee of near exclusivity of action, and satisfying expression of vocational power and influence; the other side (the government) gaining the sort of knowledge and backing that helps it control the directions of education, schools and teachers, the kinds of teaching practices used, and the cost of education.

The two knowledges derive from two philosophies: that of positivism, expressed in classrooms as  hierarchical and behaviourist and represented in general terms by the quantitative academics of the Tunmers, Chapmans, Nicholsons, Gillons, and Hatties; and that of pragmatism,  expressed in classrooms as democratic and holistic and represented by the qualitative academics of the Thrupps, O’Neills, Snooks, Clays, and Deweys. (There are other qualities that define which group academics fall into, particularly in relationship to research design.)

I challenge the reader to consider what Auguste Comte (1798-1857) stated as the tenets of positivism and from there recognise their ready applicability to the quantitative academics of today:

  • Thought in various fields can be ultimately reduced to mathematics
  • Observation is superior to imagination
  • Facts arising from observation are distinct from explanations
  • Observation is neutral towards questions of value  and theory
  • Scientists have an elite position in relation to knowledge and society in general.

Positivist and quantitative expression in school education today is expressed by:

  • The elitist relationship of those in the in administration and academia to those in classrooms
  • The hierarchical and technocratic trends in education administration
  • The increasing role separation of administrators, teachers, and evaluators from each other
  • The idea that administration is value free
  • The superiority of the scientifically developed knowledge of experts over the knowledge developed by teachers
  • The belief that what is learnt by children can be validly broken down into their analytic parts and expressed in behavioural objectives
  • The trend towards measurement of education outcomes.

These expressions describe exactly the situation in our education system and classrooms – and in respect to junior reading in New Zealand describe exactly the situation of how quantitatives and the government have colluded to pull a fast one over teachers.  And this didn’t happen by chance: conservative governments unless kept in check always go for phonics, and quantitatives expressing the positivist philosophy are always pressuring for phonics, and both being elitist are always looking to bypass teachers and their representatives. And now they have. In behind this will be Bill Tunmer and James Chapman – I am not sure where Tom Nicholson is – who will have approached Hekia Parata directly.

As readers will find in postings to come, for decades teachers and NZEI fought off moves by Tunmer, Chapman, and Nicholson, preventing them and others  gaining the official right to dominate early reading practices in schools. In the past, if they approached the government  – the government called in a group comprising early childhood, reading association representatives, NZEI, expert teachers, and academics of both philosophies.  Leaving aside one or two times when National was in government the moves by the quantitatives were blunted.

There is much more to be said but four quick pointers: the research by quantitatives in reading is horse feathers; part of that is the almost exclusive attention to short term effects and carelessness with the Hawthorne effect; when quantitatives claim their reading approaches are evidence-based they mean evidence exclusively drawn from their philosophy; and if phonics is the answer why isn’t the home of phonics – America – the acknowledged home of reading success?

The holistic derives from a coherent philosophy given powerful expression by John Dewey in the 1920s and ’30s. The following are some of the outcomes of the pragmatic philosophy:

  • Education is not an absolute practice – it only makes sense relative to its social context
  • The organisational structure and administration of education cannot be separated from the curriculum
  • Teaching and learning are not reducible to mathematical formulae
  • Education should be co-operative – it should work on the basis of agreement amongst those involved
  • Learning occurs best when teachers have substantial control over what and how they teach
  • Children gain a multiplicity of meanings, personal to them, from information they receive and experiences they have
  • Learning occurs best when children’s affective processes are considerably involved
  • Learning occurs best when children see learning as having considerable intrinsic value
  • Learning occurs best when children have considerable control over their learning.

The production and validation of education knowledge should be a shared responsibility. Such knowledge should not be dropped on classrooms as a finished and absolute product.  As sentient New Zealanders, quantitatives should step outside their elitist and privileged education position and recognise the obvious – no set of education beliefs has all the answers for all children all the time. One of the reasons why New Zealand primary classrooms functioned so well for so long was the inherent checks and balances in the system. These checks and balances arose from, and were the cause of, the relative co-operativeness in the way various groups related to one another. No group could carry out its functions without the support of a number of others, and no group could force its will on any other. That surely, in the value-laden area of education, is how it ought to be.

Quantitatives: what you are doing with your shabby, imposed, and ill-conceived phonics programmes is a disgrace?

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2 Responses to Quantitatives: stop destroying the reading chances of our youngsters 1

  1. Keep battling for us Kelvin. We need people like you with such knowledge and courage.

  2. Mac Stevenson says:

    Hi Kelvin. Seems the more removed from the classroom the supposed “expert” is the more they are able to influence education policy nowadays. We need your wisdom and good sense.

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