Wednesday, July 15, 2015

We make people



So I came across an interesting idea recently. For some reason I was listening to David Graeber give a conference presentation  in Hamburg. He is an academic famously associated with the Occupy movement who always says some interesting things that I'm never quite sure I properly understand or entirely agree with. The idea he was exploring here is that economies, and the jobs within them are ultimately about producing people. 

If you bake bread for a living, you don't do that to make money, or even to make bread. You do that to make people. Specifically, to make people keep on living because food is a necessary part of that. If you make roads, or drive a tram, you are in the business of getting people to where they need to be. If you are a paramedic or a GP, you are in the business of keeping people alive when they are ill. If you run the local swimming pool, you maintain a facility so that people can meet with other people and have an experience together that all those people appreciate. People are the ends of all of our means. This mode of thinking appeals to me because it demonstrates that parents have a fundamentally important job and hedge fund managers have a fundamentally bullshit job

Teachers too, in this mode of thinking are fundamentally important. We are important in ways that don't often get talked about in schools. The standard narrative around schools is that it is important to raise the ATARs of students. That way they get into a better university, can get access to better employment, earn more money and contribute more to the economy. For some students, schools have that function as a ladder out of poverty. But if we look at teachers as producers of people all of those things are kind of secondary. Better, more capable people will naturally be able to access better paid, more fulfilling work. Although this is nice, my goal is not to get people access to better jobs, it is to make better people. Poverty, by the way, tends to make people worse. People who are worried about where their next meal is coming from or how they are going to keep a roof over the heads of their family are less capable in a range of ways because they are in poverty - which tends to keep them there. 

It is not my object here to put the boot in to the illiterate (for example). Rather my object is to point out that if you take an illiterate person and work to make them literate then you have improved that person. You have made them more capable of achieving their goals, more able to engage in society, more likely to move humanity as a whole forward. 

By teaching we are trying to create the world - as long as your view is that the most important thing in the world is the people. 

This realisation also allows us to moderate some of the worst excesses in education. Heavy competition between students, hours of study that push out the rest of life, homework policies that create family conflict - all of these things might improve academic performance but they do not make our students better people on balance. Realising that we produce people and not test scores, or job skills, or university entrance credentials means realising the fundamental humanity of the teaching profession and encourages us to be more human and more humane in the way we practice that profession. 

There is also a bit of a current in some schools where the aim is to improve the school's results. This could mean increasing the average ATAR score, or improving NAPLAN scores, or even getting more students to volunteer in the community. The thing to keep in mind that all of these school improvement goals are secondary goals - you have to remember that the primary goal is to improve the people who are students in our school. You could achieve any of these three goals by somehow attracting more impressive students to your school - students who study harder, are more literate or like helping little old ladies. In that case your school might look like it is improving but you wouldn't actually be doing anything towards your real job - producing better people. 


So I think this is a better way of thinking about my job and it also leads into an excellent answer to the question 'So what do you make?'

Sunday, June 7, 2015

It never was an attack on Hermione

My four loyal readers (love you guys - Hi Mum!) will remember my stance on raising hands in class.


The Age recently published a little piece about Toorak College and Frankston High School using the same idea. The piece is a good explanation of the idea but the sub-editors made it look like it was an effort to suppress the Hermiones of the class.

I couldn't resist replying so I wrote them a letter which they published yesterday. Here 'tis:
I just want Professor Snape's approval.

Outside of fictional universes there are no students who raise their hand for every question ("Teachers ban students from putting up hands", 5/6). Even Hermione Granger keeps her head down when she is unsure of her knowledge. That uncertainty is my bread and butter. Right answers are not very interesting to me as a teacher. If I only get right answers I'm out of a job.

By calling on Hermione when she doesn't have her hand up I will eventually strike a gap in her knowledge of all things magical, despite her laudably comprehensive reading of the set texts. Then I get to teach. The paddlepop sticks also let me see what is missed by the Crabbes and Goyles – even purebloods need to have their misunderstandings corrected. And despite their reputations as thugs, these two occasionally contribute useful insights, giving Hermione an excellent opportunity to question her anti-Slytherin prejudice.

Sometimes I learn that my question is far too hard for the majority of the class. At this point I ask Hermione and that nice Harry Potter boy to discuss the question and try to come up with an answer together. After all, we're hardly likely to defeat the Dark Lord without the ability to ask for a little help from our friends.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

What happens when the MOOCS invade high school?

Is this the high school of the future? (photo by Victor Lima on Flickr)
I just got done reading another article about MOOCS - these are Massive Open Online Courses. Think MIT Open Course Ware. Universities are now putting up masses of content free on the web. You can download lectures on iTunes and listen to the best teachers in the world whatever your subject. This has now been taken to a new level with people publishing courses that actually include assessment and a full sequence of instruction. Some see this as the future of university education with the scale of the courses solving many of the expense problems of providing individual instructors. Others are terrified and are seeing the end of teaching as we know it. I wonder what this is going to look like when it starts impacting on high schools. Read on for a list of possibilities:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why you should be up early next Saturday


One of the many benefits of being a parent of young children is that you have a regular incentive to rise early. This means that on a Saturday morning when the cupboard is bare and there is nothing for breakfast, you can go to the bakery before they really open.

Poor, sad, childless couples sleep in on Saturday mornings and go to the bakery after nine to be served at the counter by some teenage girl that I probably teach. She’ll ask them a series of clipped questions: “White brown or wholemeal? Seeds or no seeds? Thick-sliced or thin?” and get them out of the way as soon as possible. When she takes your money she is making sure that the till balances and calculating the wages for the shift that she’ll spend on new shoes or a movie ticket or lunch at the dingy food court around the corner.

But when you’re up early you get there before she has got out of bed. The shutters are still closed except for the one on the end. The ovens are still on and no one has booted up the cash register yet. In the early morning you get sold bread by a baker and this is an entirely different proposition.
Firstly, for the baker, selling you bread is a novelty. He is up before the world and he would normally go home before any of his customers show up. To have you here—already!—to buy the bread before he has even finished baking is a rare privilege.