February 15th 2014

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EDITORIAL: SPC Ardmona and Holden: Australian icons disappear

CANBERRA OBSERVED: The Abbott government's economic dilemma

ENVIRONMENT: Bushfires rage because of whitefellas' ignorance

AUSTRALIAN CONSTITUTION: Our constitution is the best, so why change it?

SCHOOLS: Two recent rival threats to sensible teaching

EDUCATION: Rhymes of the times: poetry's still important

ECONOMIC AFFAIRS: Harvard economist re-thinks free-market orthodoxy

TAIWAN: Innovating to achieve a clean and green future

SOCIETY: Sexual madness in an age of 'polymorphous perversity'

AUSTRALIAN HISTORY: Why no posthumous VC for naval hero Robert Rankin?

LETTERS: Jeffry Babb; Trevor Dawes; Alan Barron.

CINEMA:  Investigating private investigators:  
Sam Spade and The Maltese Falcon

BOOK REVIEW The red traitors in FDR's administration

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Two recent rival threats to sensible teaching

by Geoffrey Partington

News Weekly, February 15, 2014

Federal Education minister Christopher Pyne is justifiably concerned that some teachers are, knowingly or unknowingly, biased and unfair in their presentation to students of controversial issues.

Yet this is a permanent problem: part of the paradox of freedom. We want to teach what we believe to be true, but fear the effects of teaching what we believe to be false, even if sincerely held by their advocates.

Many issues are essentially contestable. By this the Scottish philosopher W.B. Gallie meant that men and women of equal intelligence, experience and integrity may legitimately come to different and even incompatible conclusions from studying the same evidence.

Christopher Pyne,

Minister for Education.

This does not mean that anything goes. David Hume was surely right in noting that the consistent appearance of phenomena is not a logical basis for certainty that tomorrow tides will still be influenced by the relationship between Earth and Moon; but Hume also argued that common sense compelled us to assume that (all other things being equal, of course) our experiences of the past are the most reliable basis for our expectations of the morrow.

Australia needs neither a national curriculum nor a series of compulsory curricula devised and enforced by the states. There is every justification for discussion of the relative significance and importance of kinds of knowledge and ways of knowing, but not for preventing qualified teachers from making their own decisions about classroom priorities. Specimen syllabuses? Yes! Compulsory curricula? No!

Conflicts between relativism and objectivism may be separated into disputes about facts and those about values. Although on some matters the accepted facts are unsure and disagreement justifiable, there are far more that can be relied upon.

Teachers are justified in instructing students — or explaining to them why — that, in our system of notation, six plus three will be nine tomorrow, as it was yesterday and is today, or why increased printing of currency by governments without increases in productivity leads to price inflation, and so on.

Thomas Kuhn’s identification, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), of “paradigm shifts”,[1] did not undermine the case for objective knowledge of phenomena outside individual minds, but provided further assurance that error can be reduced, if not entirely eliminated, by patient study.

With conflicting values there is rarely much likelihood of their being significantly reduced by further evidence or even if every relevant fact were known and acknowledged to be true, but this is not a matter for despair but the very basis on which pluralist, open societies are founded. What we can reasonably expect is that different perspectives and their underlying values should be presented fairly. This is often so now, even though there is great scope for improvement.

Even self-proclaimed radical sceptics could not meaningfully denounce bias unless they held that unbiased, or at any rate less biased, accounts were possible. They defend their own conclusions as less biased than those of their adversaries and concede that some accounts on “their side” are unfair, and that some of their opponents offer relatively fair and logical arguments. Indeed, many critics of the theoretical possibility of objective knowledge seem confident that their own views are objective, true and factual.

A solution to the apparent values dilemma may lie in contingent relativism or, it could also be termed, contingent absolutism. This approach accepts first order or prima facie moral values, but understands that these may conflict with each other: truth-telling and avoiding unnecessary pain are often hard to reconcile. It acknowledges that our choices are often not between good and evil but between lesser and greater evils. Should we resist evil rulers if anarchy or civil war may follow their overthrow? Should there be tighter controls on the use and distribution of dangerous drugs if further restrictions may raise prices and encourage more smuggling and other criminal activity?

Contingent relativism accepts that what is right in one situation may not be right in another, because the action may in context strengthen or weaken a first-order value such as freedom or security. This is not mere casuistry. We should oppose “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” as the basis of our own judicial system; but in the laws of Hammurabi of Babylon the idea was intended to restrict revenge killings.

We may judge torture and slavery differently if they are milder alternatives to killing captives, just as we may regard torture as the lesser evil if the sole purpose is to extract information that might save many lives from a terrorist atrocity, or the life of one child at the hands of an abductor.

Bias then is a relatively minor issue compared with two more recent threats to the very basics of learning and teaching that now have gained a grip on many of our schools. The two extreme deviations from sensible learning theory and practice are constructivism and direct instruction (DI).

Each of these, although in opposite ways, exemplifies how reactions against perceived faults may easily lead to greater faults, especially when the ideas and practices attacked are over-simplified for mockery.

1) Constructivism

Constructivism, like other child-centred educational theories, emerged in opposition to what seemed depersonalised and excessively bureaucratically organised classrooms, in which technology was weakening the relationship between students and teachers. The faults of what existed were often exaggerated and many constructivists condemned past education in general as attempts to pour information into “empty vessels”.

A common quip defined learning as being a case of knowledge passing from the textbook of the teacher into the exercise-book of the student without entering the minds of either — although these days this definition has been less used ever since the “textbook of the teacher” was supplemented or supplanted by “the resources of the media”.

Several very different ways of teaching or promoting children’s learning can be highly successful (or a downright failure). In my experience, the best teachers are not all set in one mould but share a willingness to vary the balance between the contributions to learning made by teacher and student in explanation and questioning, between consolidating what is already at least partly understood and posing fresh challenges.

The age and ability of students, the overall structure of the school, the behavioural atmosphere of the classroom and the state of mind of the teacher — all these are among the elements that influence just how the teacher tries to teach and the students to learn. Too much flexibility may undermine structure and continuity, but too much rigidity may stifle independent and creative thinking. Considerations such as those, however, seem seldom to have worried either constructivists or advocates of DI.

Constructivism made significant progress in Western education during the 1970s. In some ways it seemed to be a fusion between child-centred ideas and relativist versions of neo-Marxism. Britain, the United States and Canada were prominent in early constructivism, but New Zealand and Australia were even more influential constructivist pioneers. Writing in 2000, Richard Fox observed, “Constructivism now appears to dominate the view of learning articulated in the educational literature, at least in the Anglo-Saxon academic world, and especially in the domain of teacher education.”[2]

Constructivism expanded to be almost a total educational theory. Nearly all its supporters were active opponents of corporal punishment, and of setting and streaming, and were advocates of “deep green” environmentalism. Another high correlation was perhaps fortuitous: when discussing learning how to read, most constructivists were enthusiasts for the whole-word sight-recognition approach. In contrast, most supporters of DI were keen on the older phonics approach.

Constructivism proved concertina-like. On the attack constructivists argued that “learning is an active process” and denounced as reactionary classrooms characterised by listening and reading; but on the defensive they often conceded that listening and reading may be active processes.

On the attack they asserted that “the way in which science ideas are constructed by pupils reflects the nature and status of science as public knowledge” and constitutes a valid “alternative conception” of science.[3] In retreat they claimed they were only concerned to vindicate the active role of the student in learning.

On the attack, they argued that “knowledge” (not genuine knowledge, of course) does not and cannot represent independent reality. When attacked, they may concede that independent reality sometimes forces us to change our ideas.

Key slogans of constructivism included:

a) Learning is an active process.

Comment: Yes, but it is not only an active process, and only then given an unusual definition of activity. Many constructivists are inconsistent in whether they classify reading and listening as merely passive modes of learning.

Reading provides another classic example of conflicting evaluation. Proponents of the child-centred approach generally argue that children will only begin to learn to read in earnest once they understand the use and purpose of reading (or of mastering Pythagoras’s Theorem or the Tragedies of Shakespeare, etc.). Yet even more children only begin to see its point after they learn to do it. Did rote-learning by Greek children of Homer, or by Serbian children of the national defeat at Kosovo, inhibit or expand their capacity for understanding literature and history?

Sometimes, however, inconsistency may save the day. Many teachers like the sound of their own voices, and it is the rare constructivist who consistently remains silent or a passive bystander.

b) Knowledge is constructed

Comment: Constructivists became divided broadly between those who hold that knowledge is personal and constructed by each individual and those who argue for its social construction. Individual constructivism is based, according to New Zealander Beverley Bell, on the basis that “knowledge is the personal construct of an individual and does not exist externally to be transmitted”.[4]

Some educators were attracted by what they saw in constructivism as acceptance of the importance of identifying misconceptions in students’ thinking as part of the process of fostering better understanding, but constructivist scepticism as to whether external reality can itself be apprehended may undermine basic processes within learning. The problem of the biased teacher is small compared with that of teachers who decline, on fair-sounding grounds, to instruct the children in their charge. Biased teaching is deplorable, but over the generations many students have reacted successfully against bias and developed their own ideas, whereas constructivism may provide students with inadequate information to support or refute propositions.

Although teachers should take account of children’s experiences outside school, there is often no direct line from personal experience to scientific understanding. Many basic concepts of modern science, such as atoms, hydrogen, neutrons, genes and DNA, are outside the realm of everyday perception. Were this not so, every person would long ago have advanced to scientific understanding, since all experience the natural phenomena around them.

Contrary to constructivist claims, lasting learning requires initiation into rules and principles, accompanied by appropriate techniques. If knowledge cannot be imparted and can only be acquired by direct personal construction, how can children ever master complex conceptual schemes that have taken generations of experts to establish?

Paul Black and my former colleague at Flinders University of South Australia, Arthur Lucas, who as an expatriate became principal of King’s College, University of London and arguably the most able educational administrator in the English-speaking world, commented in the book they co-authored, Children’s Informal Ideas in Science (1993), that in the United Kingdom the “extent to which the recent work on children’s intuitive ideas about the natural world has paid off in terms of improved classroom practice is so far disappointing”.[5] Greater successes have not been achieved by constructivism since then.

Other teachers who view themselves as progressive or radical are attracted to constructivism by what seem egalitarian values in the reduction of teacher-power and the enlargement of students’ own contribution to their learning. However, as the French Marxist sociologist Pierre Bourdieu discovered, children from well-informed families that employ “extended language” frequently in the home are put at an even greater advantage compared with students with little cultural capital at home, a restricted code of language and, in consequence, greater dependence on schools and teachers, if the teachers fail to play an directly active part in instruction.

Evidence of the growing ascendancy of constructivism was provided a decade ago by The Australian (February 4, 2004). One of the winners of the paper’s $40,000 2003 Australian Awards for University Teaching, Professor Laurie Brady of Sydney University of Technology, was reported as condemning “a culture of education that inflicted learning upon pupils”. He added that, 30 years previously, “teaching was regarded as the transmission of knowledge. Now it is active and personal experience”.

Professor Brady was right that, decades ago, many teachers still tried to inflict learning upon pupils and to transmit knowledge. Alas! Were it up to him, none, rather than a declining few, would be doing so today.

My former employer, Flinders University of South Australia, illustrated the dominance by constructivism over some two or three decades. On my last visit there, the aim of Curriculum Studies Mathematics 1 (R-7) was stated to be: “[t]o assist students to gain an understanding of the processes of learning and developing mathematics, to apply this understanding to the development of concepts and processes in elementary mathematics and to investigate activities which will enable children to construct mathematical concepts and processes in both school and non-school settings.

“Learning outcomes sought are ‘recognition of the differences between mathematics and numeracy’ and ‘knowledge of the conditions and approaches which enhance the constructive learning of mathematics’. In Curriculum Studies Science, ‘methods and resources based on a constructivist view of learning will be illustrated and discussed’ and success in the assessment requires ‘preparing (and justifying) plans that are consistent with contemporary guidelines and practice’. Acceptance of constructivism seems to be a condition of passing such courses, even though the maths course claims that it is ‘developing a critical stance to issues and practices in learning mathematics’….”

Few student teachers enrolled in mathematics and science teaching methods courses had passed Year 12 maths, physics or chemistry at school! Somehow, people who know little about mathematics or science, but who have been on courses about constructivism, were thought more likely to be effective teachers than people with considerable substantive knowledge who have not been initiated into constructivist pedagogies. Were this the case, there would be no such thing as “shortage” subjects, since initiation into constructivism would enable all of us to teach anything.

It is sometimes alleged by conservative or right-wing commentators that opposition to structured teaching was part of a well-planned left-wing conspiracy. In 1967, the German student movement leader Rudi Dutschke (1940-1979), inspired by the Italian communist theoretician Antonio Gramsci, coined the phrase “the long march through the institutions”. This was his way of describing how victory in the long-term ideological struggle was to be attained, particularly in universities and schools.

However, the reality was more complex and requires more thought than even right-wing think-tanks are willing to give to it. In fact, the Left was deeply divided internationally and in several Western countries. The Soviet Union and other states under its influence were insistent on rigorous sequence in learning and on firm discipline in classrooms.

In England, for example, the “ultra Left” of the 1970s and 198os were largely young teachers, many of whom condemned senior teachers in their own schools as reactionary agents exemplifying French communist Louis Althusser’s concept of the ideological state apparatus.

Those the “ultra Left” picked out for particular abuse included leading communists, three of whom became presidents of the National Union of Teachers.

Many militant constructivists were deeply hostile to formal, especially external examinations; but several senior examiners were communists or their allies. They believed that what you know was more important than who you know, and worked with success for some years in increasing the number of boys and girls in Britain whose educational achievements were significantly higher than that of the previous generation. Members of the “Old Left” should perhaps have had their own past defence of Soviet policies on their consciences, but much was owed to them as inspirers of educational progress.

2) Direct instruction

Direct instruction (DI) is the mirror image of constructivism. Whereas constructivism rejected excessive teacher control and direction, DI attracted adherents to its approach by its apparent capacity to bring some structure and order to the abysmally low standards of Aboriginal education more or less throughout Australia.

Getting out of this awful mess was, and remains, very difficult. The fundamental reasons for this deep-rooted malaise lie, of course, outside the educational system. Broken homes, poor diet, alcohol and drug abuse, avoidable self-inflicted damage to hearing and sight, domestic violence and the like ruin the lives of large numbers of Aboriginal children.

However, the educational establishment bears its share of the blame for the following reasons:

• Aborigines are constantly told that the remaining shreds of their traditional cultures and languages are rich and valuable for their futures, so that the preservation and strengthening of “Aboriginal identity” should be the prime educational objective.

• Very little criticism is made of individual student errors for fear of reducing their self-esteem. Criticism of families and communities is construed very often as racism, not accepted, in public at least, as accurate and worthy of serious response.

• There are insufficient incentives of either the “stick” or “carrot” type to persuade many Aboriginal students to engage seriously in demanding and difficult work at school. Many Aboriginal students believe, probably correctly, that they would be looked after by the Australian government if they never even looked for work. They consider they deserve much more than they get because once the whole of Australia belonged to them but was stolen from them.

• Generations at least of failed promises about the supposed benefits of higher expenditure on education have engendered indigenous scepticism and cynicism about any significant benefits from extended education.

• Truancy, truly hard to reduce let alone eradicate, is made a justification for lack of continuity in instruction, since so few students have attended the earlier lessons in particular sequences.

• Committees and commissions of inquiry consist largely of the people now in control of Aboriginal education who are significantly responsible for making bad situations worse.

• It is hard to find Australians, irrespective of their indigenous status, who can be trusted to be open and candid in any investigations they may undertake concerning Aborigines.

It is hardly surprising that Noel Pearson and his educational advisers, desperate to find a radical alternative to educational anarchy, looked outside Australia for advice. Pearson became convinced that the American National Institute for Direct Instruction (NIFDI) has the answers; but he may not have allowed for the “Hawthorne effect” (sometimes called the observer effect), a phenomenon whereby participants modify or improve an aspect of their behaviour as a result of being part of an experiment or study.

Trial schemes often produce very good results that are not sustained when extended beyond the initial participants. Those Pearson has chosen to head DI in Cape York seem capable and energetic. With the spotlight of publicity on them, and with well-publicised support from successive prime ministers, this dedicated team has produced promising results. Patrick Mallett, the principal of the largest of the Pearson-inspired schools at Aurukun, wrote, as cited by the sympathetic Nicholas Rothwell, that he “came quickly to realise that DI was a miracle that had dropped out of the sky, and the people here were the best I’ve ever worked with. We’ve stumbled upon the solution to what has been perplexing the rest of Australia” (The Australian, May 11, 2013).

Would that he were right! However, Rothwell conceded that there was “disquiet when some of the figures from Aurukun showed a mild decline in some subject areas” last September.

During the 1980s, I was invited to report on a very similar, perhaps the same, system, employed then by “born-again Christian” schools in South Australia and Victoria, as well as by several families opting for home-teaching. During the 1990s I was commissioned by the New Zealand Business Roundtable (NZBR) to conduct some research that included visits to a school there of that type, which was supported then by The Master’s College (TMC), a Christian liberal arts college in Santa Clarita, California.

DI is an extreme, or highly consistent, variety of programmed learning. If followed exactly, as in the schools and colleges developed by Noel Pearson, it has the advantage of being almost teacher-proof, since every step, virtually every word, is set down; and no time is wasted on teachers’ digressions. And little, if any, scope is provided for student initiative.

The historically aware will see a similarity to the monitorial, or Lancasterian, system that dominated elementary education in England around 1800. The most expert Lancasterian teacher claimed to be able to teach a thousand children more effectively than other teachers could a hundred. About 30 older (age 11-13 usually) and brighter boys and girls were selected as monitors. They assembled around the teacher, usually a man who taught them two or three facts. The monitors then dispersed and taught these same facts to a group about 30-strong. Once they were satisfied that the new facts had been learned, they returned to the master for the next facts. In any time gap, the master checked that the monitors had been accurate.

Obviously this was not a system that encouraged creativity or independence of thought, but it proved far more successful than commentators today usually allow. It was adopted in Britain during the French wars because there were few suitable teachers available and little money; but Australian today has ample numbers of teachers who possess at least paper qualifications in higher education and have undergone teacher training.

Attempts to turn around a deeply flawed system have to start somewhere, but DI should be seen as only a short-term emergency policy that may get at least a few more Aboriginal children learning a bit more than they do at present. Excessive praise lavished on so restricted a scheme may well jeopardise attempts to achieve a sensible balance between the under-teaching of constructivism and the spoon-feeding with small cutlery of DI.

The groups that commissioned me copied the American setting of the exercises uncritically. It would not have been difficult to replace environmental features and local names of American Midwest towns with those in Adelaide suburbs or the Cape York Outback; but the organisers regarded the script almost as sacred writ. They even argued, ludicrously, that the American setting would promote geographical knowledge. Pearson’s team also uses the American context without alteration.

There is very little likelihood of Aboriginal children acquiring at school both adequate contemporary knowledge and traditional lore. DI distinguishes between three distinct learning domains:

1) Class: designed to deliver literacy and numeracy;

2) Club: lessons in sport and music; and

3) Culture: a subject that includes local languages and traditional and environmental knowledge, and has a syllabus drawn up by the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy (CYAAA)’s own team, not borrowed from the United States.

Twenty hours a week are devoted to Class, but Club and Culture have only optional lessons that “extend the school day by 90 minutes”. Nicholas Rothwell comments that “attendance is almost universal” (The Australian, May 11, 2013).

It is sensible to concentrate on the sphere of Class, but it is unclear whether the supplements for Club and Culture are designed to placate the advocates of Aboriginal languages and traditional beliefs in the schools or are seriously intended. In reality they must either be diluted close to nothingness or undermine the main objective. Aborigines cannot gain equality or prosperity by trying to perpetuate a set of cultural remnants of little more relevance towards mastering modernity than the myths of the Celts or Saxons.

Constructivists were wrong when they claimed that mainstream education was based on the bucket theory of learning in which students are merely passive receptacles, but that charge is certainly justified when used against direct instruction (DI).

Geoffrey Partington, PhD, was born in Lancashire and currently lives in Melbourne. He has academic degrees in history, sociology and education, and last year published a book, Making Sense of History. His next book, soon to be published, is Making Sense of Education


[1] Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [1962] (University of Chicago Press, 4th edition, 2012).

[2] Richard Fox, “Constructivism examined”, in Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 27, No. 1, March 2001, p.23.

[3] Rosalind Driver, Ann Squires, Peter Rushworth and Valerie Wood-Robinson, Making Sense of Secondary Science: Research into Children’s Ideas (London: Routledge, 1994), p.7.

[4] Beverley F. Bell, “The Form 1-5 science review — effecting change”, in New Zealand Science Teacher, 48, 1986, pp.6-9.

[5] Paul Black and Arthur Lucas (eds), Children’s Informal Ideas in Science (London: Routledge, 1993), p.190. 

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