We’ve gotten things the wrong way round

In the current system of universal compulsory education, where education is a right, we’ve gotten things the wrong way round.

In aiming for universal education, we end up achieving something far less superior. If we aimed at something far more modest, we’d get further in our goals. Let me explain.

Currently, the disruptive students receive a lot of the teacher’s attention. They’re not entirely rational, but one thing they are quite good at is knowing how much they can misbehave before the consequences are too dire. They push the limits, and in doing so, they stymie the class’s progress. It is these small acts of individual defiance, rebellion or fun that wear away at the goal of universal education.

The disruptive students receive much of the teacher’s attention, while the more academic students sit frustrated and bored. The result is that we do not maximise the learning that could take place. The disruptive students are learning very little, while the academic students are substantially impeded. What we need is a situation where we maximise learning, which would come from a situation where more academic students receive the education and challenge they require, and if the other students cannot meet the standard, they are moved onto something else. We’ve got things exactly the wrong way round.

If we were harsher on our disruptive students, and focused more on the academic students, there would be more learning and less disruption. The disruptive students would realise that in order for them to be able to participate in the class, they would need to change their behaviour. If we increased the consequences for misbehaviour, the part of them that is rational may well adjust to this new environment. In doing so, learning is maximised. The disruptive students would be less disruptive, and both the disruptive students and the academic students would do more learning. For those that cannot handle this environment, they would have alternative options (in a more pluralistic and diverse education system).

There is a major caveat here. In forcing our children to go to school, they are very dependent on the environment of that school, which comes down to the school culture and rules and the quality of the teaching. I want to make a small point here on the quality of the teaching. If the teaching is bad or mediocre, it is difficult to blame students for not being interested and disrupting the class. They are very dependent on their environment. Therefore, for a system like this to be a fair one, it has to be a high performing system. Unfortunately, the NSW public education system is not one.

Another caveat is that we need a more pluralistic system to enable students that cannot cope in a more disciplined, rigorous academic classroom to be able to do something else with their time. This would require a range of different types of schools offering a range of different types of programs. Unfortunately, we do not have that and arguably cannot produce that in the NSW system.

A final caveat is that in forcing education upon the students, it is likely to meet resistance, and if not, is not likely to deeply resonate with them. The Socratic wisdom that you cannot educate someone until he or she is asking the relevant questions is still relevant. Many students are not overly academic and will not be asking questions about Rome, or chemistry or Hamlet. It is not surprising that there is a huge compliance problem in getting students to participate and learn when there is insufficient choice and relevance, and where other options have been removed from their lives.

In summary, if we aim for universal education, we will not achieve it and our efforts will backfire. We need a more disciplined approach in the classroom, and more options for those that do not fit. We need to abolish the compulsory nature of education (while maintaining public funding), and make our schools much more accountable. One way to do this would be to give the students the option of exit. Currently, the education system is an example of the imposed wisdom of planners on innocent children, who have other plans and naturally stymie the grand vision of compulsory universal education.



A case for streaming

Consider my two Year 10 classes. One is a streamed class, the top class (class A). The other is mixed ability (class B). Some of the top students in the mixed class are also in the streamed class (the classes are for different subjects).

Today, and for the whole week, class A has worked mostly productively and cooperatively with substantial freedom. I gave them a broad topic and question to answer, and they were able to choose their specific topic and direct their research from there. They worked beautifully.

Class B was a battle today. They’re often a battle and today was one of the worst lessons. I attempted to step them through the assessment task I had just handed them. I was effectively giving them the keys to the door, which the could convert to easy marks. It was a gift. But not only were about a quarter of the students disrupting the class, they weren’t even paying attention or writing notes. They flatly refused easy marks. This is entirely irrational behaviour, some supporting evidence against the rationality thesis.

The looks of frustration on the faces of the strong students in class B was deeply saddening. I was trying my best but today I just couldn’t create the environment that they deserve.

Let’s compare productivity between the two classes:

  • Class B: the disruptive students did not get much from the class, nor did the presence of strong students seem to improve their attitudes. Meanwhile, the strong students were constantly waiting for us to proceed so that they could get the information they needed. The net result: the disruptive students have not benefited from being in a mixed class. But the top students have suffered.
  • Class A had no impediments to productivity, and was so functional and mature that they were able to work independently,  a welcome deviation from our typical, more traditional lessons. They were working at capacity.

The conclusion? Top students gained from streaming. The top students suffer from mixed ability, while the disruptive students have not gained. Given the level of disengagement in the mixed class, I can’t imagine worse behaviour in their streamed class will have much of a negative impact compared to the mixed class. They simply weren’t paying adequate attention in the mixed class for the presence of top students to have any positive effect. These students got very little to nothing from this lesson.

From this small sample, I conclude: streaming is better.




Shielded and protected in the state system

It’s a sad image: an ageing but experienced teacher, constantly yelling at his students, a sign that he’s lost touch and control. It’s time to go. It’s been time for a while. But he’s going out on his own terms…at the end of the year.

If he were in a normal work environment, where customers had the option of exit and his employer had considerably more power than the school does over him, he would’ve been gone a long time ago. Because it’s either that or the customers go elsewhere. But a teacher like this one has a captive audience. His students can’t go anywhere. And the school can’t, or doesn’t let him go. He’s a nuisance but a bearable one.

So he continues teaching yelling. And yelling. And yelling at his students. They continue despising him, annoying him, tolerating him. Very little learning occurs, and very little in the way of human connection and development. It’s a constant battle, a war of attrition. But he’s hanging on. After all, he’s secured for himself a very comfortable economic rent. They’re hard to give up.

It’s only in a system that lacks accountability, both from the employer and from the customer, that a man such as this can continue in such an untenable position. This is the argument for school choice. Give the students the option of exit, alongside greater power to the schools, and watch as people like this teacher are sent on their merry ways. This man is an argument for massive deregulation. And there’s plenty like him.