On Peter Garrett and the Futility of it All

Midnight Oil played a concert in Sydney’s Domain on Saturday night that I was lucky enough to attend. It was a beautiful, warm spring evening – perfect for a night out.

Oils At The Domain
PIcture courtesy @bodgerog

As I listened, I realised that the protest songs the Oils wrote are as relevant today, as they were in the 70’s and 80’s, if not more so. It made me wonder what the point of it all has been.

Peter Garrett brought Australia’s and the World’s attention to Australian social justice issues through his music and through his activism with the Australian Conservation Foundation and Greenpeace.  He went into politics, first founding the Nuclear Disarmament Party, and later joining the Australian Labor party and becoming a minister in the Gillard Government.

From my outsider perspective, his ministerial position seemed to compromise him. He no longer spoke out as stridently or as passionately as he once did. He was silent when I wished he would speak up, he seemed neutered, ineffectual.

So it was great to see him performing again. It was like the Garrett of old. He sang and spoke so passionately and well about issues facing Australia, in particular, the Adani mine. He was inspiring, bold, convincing.

But it leaves me wondering. If someone like Garrett, whose years of activism and of politics can’t change things, then who can?

Do democratic politics not matter?  They don’t seem to. Those who have taken bold stances before coming into power, seem to become weakened when obtaining power. Former PM,  Kevin Rudd turned his back on climate change,  our current PM, Malcom Turnbull appears to have compromised just about everything he ever claimed to care for. I’m watching to see what becomes of Anne Aly.

So if we can’t achieve social change, or protect what is important through music, activism, academia, politics, how can we?

Are we so enslaved to the capitalist system that nothing else matters?  Will we continue to destroy ourselves because the people with real power in this world are people like Murdoch and Donald Trump?

Is there really any way out?

I have no answers. I don’t believe we can give up. I know I am complicit, I  am by the fact of my whiteness, and of my middle-class privilege, my consumerism, my use of products like my iPhone,  produced through the exploitation of the poor, and destruction of our earth.

I do believe we need to keep trying to make the world a better, fairer and kinder place.  I hope that one day, we’ll figure out how.

If Australia’s Education was One School

Imagine a school that organises itself in the following way:
The children from wealthy families are put in separate classrooms to those from poor families.
The parents of the  wealthy children donate money to improve their children’s classrooms. The principal agrees with this, so the children in the wealthy classrooms have nice furnishing, great technology, climate control, maybe even some additional teaching support.

The children in the poorer classes have basic furnishings and outdated technology.

And then, to raise student achievement and cater for individual needs, they divide the school even further. The ‘gifted’ kids are separated from the others. Those with disabilities are also taught separately.

Yet what we find (I hope) absolutely unacceptable for a school is the way we Australians run our education system. We need to THINK about this.  Really really think.

Not Such a Safe Space After All

After a few years of fairly prolific blogging about education, I quite suddenly fell silent. I had, I think, been naïve to assume that putting my thoughts out into the public sphere was a safe activity. But, just over a year ago, someone took and twisted the words of my blog and used them in a particularly nasty attempt to sabotage my career. It was their first, but not their last attempt to do so.

It’s taken over a year to come to terms with the knowledge that there are people who act with such cowardice and malice, and that what we put into the public sphere can make us vulnerable. But I miss being part of the conversation about education. I miss blogging, I miss being a part of the public dialogue, and I don’t like being silenced. That act of cruelty hurt, but I think  I’ve enough courage to return to the public space. So this term break, I plan to start writing a few posts again, but perhaps with a little more caution… Stay tuned.


Phonics in a Post-Truth Age


There have been renewed calls for phonics instruction in Australian primary schools, along with a mandatory phonics test for students in Year One.

The calls come from many sources. They come from well-intentioned professionals like speech pathologists, who work with children who’ve struggled to learn to read. They come from think-tanks and politicians. They come from people with financial interests in selling phonics programs to schools.

They don’t, however, come from the professionally qualified experts who teach young children to read in schools every day. They don’t come from the education academics who specialise in the teaching of reading and development of literacy. They don’t come from the curriculum experts who carefully develop reading curriculum for our schools, or from the school and system leaders who are responsible for the ongoing professional development of our teachers.

At this point, I’m sure I will be accused of the logical fallacy of ‘appeal to authority.’ It shouldn’t matter who is making the argument, what matters is whether their claims are true.

But it does matter who makes the argument. It matters a lot. We should not so easily dismiss the views of professionals with not only the most relevant academic credentials but also the closest knowledge of what actually happens in classrooms every day.

The phonics lobby, as I’ve chosen to label the group that so stridently calls for its return to schools, would have us believe that primary teachers:

  • teach reading using a whole-language approach
  • do not teach phonics explicitly
  • if they do teach phonics, they don’t teach it well
  • do not know how to assess phonics
  • have no idea what they are doing

In NSW the whole language approach ended in around 1994 when a new curriculum for English was released. I remember it well because I’d just started my professional teaching career and had to suddenly re-learn how to teach English, this time explicitly.

This brings me to another criticism that the phonics lobby like to throw at us. Charitably, they tell us it’s not our fault we have no idea what we are doing. It’s the fault of our training. We were all indoctrinated by into our kumbaya ways by the left-wing progressive post-modern academics who dominate teacher education.

I admit that it’s possible. I have turned out to be left-leaning educator and have been known to sing Joni Mitchell while strumming guitar after a few too many beers. But I’ve no idea what the dominant ideology of teachers or teacher educators might be, if there even is one.

But the point is, that really doesn’t matter. Initial Teacher Education (ITE) is just that – INITIAL teacher education. We don’t stop learning the moment we graduate university. In fact, to maintain our accreditation against the  Australian Professional Teaching Standards we must continue our professional learning throughout our career.  At university, I learned to teach reading using the whole language approach. Upon graduation, with a new curriculum requiring an explicit teaching approach, I re-learned. The NSW government provided, and continues to provide extensive professional learning for teachers around the state to ensure we have the knowledge and skills to do our work well.

I think it was around 2010 that the Best Start initiative was rolled out to NSW primary schools. Along with an initial assessment of all children upon entry to Kindergarten, all schools had to ensure that they were teaching phonics. And not just any phonics – synthetic phonics, which is the preferred method of the phonics lobby.

All public schools across NSW were provided with extensive professional learning involving a series of face to face workshops, in-school tasks, and participation in professional learning communities. That training continues. Every year, courses continue to be provided to schools to ensure that any untrained teachers, new to teaching the early years have access to that professional development.

We were provided resources to create our own phonics and phonemic awareness programs, and we were even provided the assessment tools.

NSW has been teaching reading, including phonics, explicitly since 1994, and have been teaching synthetic phonics since 2010. Yet the phonics lobby would have us believe that none of this is happening, phonics are ignored, and whole-language is our method of choice.

They either have no idea what they are talking about when it comes to what ACTUALLY is going on in schools, or they are deliberately misleading the public. After all,  in this post-truth age, why let facts get in the way of our agendas.


Don’t Look at The Elephant

CC Image courtesy of David Blackwell on Flickr
  • 10-year-old with a brain injury  who was removed from  family due to physical abuse.
  • 11-year-old living  in a  shelter, on the run from mother’s abusive spouse.
  • 8-year-old with an STD
  • 12-year-old rescued from a house fire. The mother and sister  weren’t so lucky.
  • 11-year-old who found her sibling hanging from the backyard hills hoist, a few months after the father was arrested for murdering the child’s mother.
  • 9-year-old who cowered while the family was held in a siege.
  • 8-year-old who hid behind a tree as Martin Bryant shot people at Port Arthur.
  • 6-year-old whose sister was burned in a horrific car accident.
  • 7- year-old who visited his father in jail each weekend and wanted him home for Christmas.

These are just some of the children I’ve  taught  (details changed to prevent identification). Every teacher has stories they could share.

Domestic violence, drugs, alcohol, crime, trauma, tragic accidents, mental illness, misadventure, sickness – this is the world many of our children inhabit.

Meanwhile, teachers and principals are consumed with knowing our impact,  ensuring every child has a year’s growth for a year’s education, that no one is coasting, that standards aren’t slipping, that our impact is measured and our effect size is greater than 0.4.

And our education reformers focus on no excuses policiesmandatory phonics tests, literacy and numeracy tests for teachers, and how to deliver education on a budget.

The Power of Pedagogy: Why We Shouldn’t Teach Like Champions

This is excellent…

Cities, Suburbs and School Choice

According to Milton Friedman, one of the foundational advocates of a school choice system, one goal of school choice is to reinvigorate the teaching profession, replacing ineffective teachers with the “many talented people who are currently deterred from entering the teaching profession by the dreadful state of so many of our schools” (Friedman 1997, 344). Indeed, prominent charter networks frequently boast that their teachers are uniquely qualified, passionate, and eager for their students to succeed (see the below images from Uncommon Schools and Achievement First). The notion that teachers in charter schools are more talented, more determined, or more loving than those in public schools is one theme charter schools use to attract families. After all, what parent would not jump at the chance to ensure excellent teachers for their child?

Screenshot (16) “We Are Uncommon | Uncommon Schools,” [http://www.uncommonschools.org/our-approach/who-we-are]

Screenshot (15) “Our Mission and Vision,” [http://www.achievementfirst.org/our-approach/mission/]

       To make this claim a reality…

View original post 5,177 more words


“What doesn’t work in education? The politics of distraction” by John Hattie was published by Pearson last year. It’s an interesting read.

Michael Barber writes in the forward,

In this new paper, the first of two, he [Hattie] addresses the question of what this search for more impact means, and he does two things powerfully. The first is to make the case that the minimum goal of education, when rightly expressed, should be for all students to make at least one year’s progress for one year’s input, no matter where they start. The second is to argue that at the level of public policy there are many ideas, many of them popular and plausible, which do not pass the 0.4 test.  These comprise what he calls the politics of distraction.

Hattie argues that many popular education reforms, such as lowering class sizes, are distracting us from what will really make a difference, and that we should put our efforts into those areas evidence tells us will maximise our impact on student learning.

It’s a seductive argument. It seems so… sensible.

But, dismissing the importance of investing in school buildings and infrastructure, or of lowering the teacher-student ratio fills me with unease. Effect size on learning or not, the environments in which we learn and the relationships between teachers and students should not be undervalued.

Hattie’s reform agenda, based on impact and effect size is, I believe, a distraction in itself. The minimum goal of education should never be reduced to “one year’s progress for one year’s input”. Education has always, and must always serve a broader purpose.


Here in Australia, the gap between the richest and poorest Australians increased by 13% between 2005 and 2015, with a further widening of 10.4% expected in the next decade.

(Source: Living Standards Trends in Australia, 2015)

We have utterly failed to improve reading and numeracy outcomes, employment outcomes and life expectancy for Indigenous Australians.

(Source: Closing the Gap 2015 Progress against Targets)

Students with disability continue to face barriers to education including:

  • Difficulties in enrolling
  • Failure of schools to provide reasonable adjustments
  • Exclusion from school activities
  • Low expectations
  • Shortage of services in rural and remote settings

(Source: Education and Employment References Committee: Access to real learning: the impact of policy, funding and culture on students with disability 2016)

Almost one in seven (13.9%) 4-17 year-olds were assessed as having mental disorders in the previous 12 months. This is equivalent to 560,000 Australian children and adolescents.

(Source: http://youngmindsmatter.org.au/survey-results/prevalence-of-mental-disorders/)

There are increasing incidents of racism and violence occurring across our society and growing numbers of young people at risk of radicalisation.

A year’s growth for a year of schooling presents an impoverished view of education. For schooling is about more than academic growth. Our education system is how we  maintain a cohesive, civil society. We can’t afford to be distracted from that.

Holding out for a Hattie

The hero teacher is a trope that has been around for many years. I first remember coming across it with To Sir With Love which seemed to frequently be the midday movie when I was growing up. That inspiring individual, usually fresh out of university, who by sheer strength of will is able to break through whatever social and systemic barriers exist and turn disengaged, marginalised and failing students into successes.

The hero teacher will be appointed to work in a disadvantaged school, staffed by that other teacher trope, the tired teacher: old,  experienced, jaded and uninspired.
Tired teacher knows that students in this school can’t be trusted, won’t learn and aren’t worth caring about. He shakes his head at Hero Teacher’s efforts, knowing they won’t work. But eventually, Hero Teacher overcomes all odds with nothing but passion and innovative teaching methods that no one has ever tried before.
Teach for Australia, a fast-track training program for teachers seems built on this fictional trope. It replaces a 4-year university degree with a short-term apprenticeship style model. The program recruits top graduates from other fields and parachutes them into needy schools to break the cycle of disadvantage.
And then there’s the discourse on Edu-Twitter. The heroic, innovative teachers, making a difference, but having to continually overcome the obstacles put in their paths by those old-school teachers, the laggards. Old teachers. The ones who are slow to adopt the new ideas, or worse, push back against them. Who sit their students in rows, use worksheets, kill creativity and prefer an industrial model fo schooling.
Everyone wants a hero.
In fact,  if one was to judge by the tweets that came from the Visible Learning conference in united states, John Hattie may very well be the hero that education has been holding out for. He channels Martin Luther King and inspires us to dream:

I mean education needs a hero, right?

These tropes may inspire us, but ultimately they divide. They encourage us to think of ourselves, of each other in binaries.  Good teacher/bad teacher, inspiring teacher/lazy teacher, quality teacher……
We’re more complex than that, education is more complex than that.
We each might harbour a private fantasy to be that hero teacher, or to find a hero to follow, but it’s a dream. Heroic individuals won’t overcome the systemic issues that create such inequity in education outcomes, and nor will quality teachers. We need to work together.