March 29th 2008

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: The truth about Australia's birth rate

EDITORIAL: NSW electricity to be privatised?

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Opposition needs new policies, not stunts

WATER: Time to build new reservoirs

QUARANTINE: EI inquiry flags major changes to horse quarantine

INTERNATIONAL TRADE: Rudd Government to re-examine FTAs

ENVIRONMENT: Conference rejects climate change alarmism

HIGH SCHOOLS: School: ladder of opportunity or game of snakes and ladders?

HUMAN RIGHTS: Behind Beijing's crackdown in Tibet

UNITED STATES: California court attacks parental rights

DRUGS: Australia's complicity in global drugs menace

UNITED NATIONS: Feminist frolics at the UN

AS THE WORLD TURNS: Muslim attacks forcing Jews out of Paris suburbs / School vouchers flourishing in Sweden / Coal tipped to be world's top energy source

MEDIA: ABC's take on Islamic school controversy

CINEMA: BELLA: A gentle film with a big heart

BOOKS: DARWIN DAY IN AMERICA: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, by John G. West


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School: ladder of opportunity or game of snakes and ladders?

by Mark Lopez

News Weekly, March 29, 2008
Today's education system allows for wide variations in teacher quality, presenting many pitfalls for the unsuspecting student, argues Mark Lopez.

"Andrew Bovell, who's he?" This was a Year 12 English teacher's response to a student after reading this name in the opening of her essay on the award-winning Australian film Lantana, his corrections having included the placement of two question marks above this apparently mysterious name. The student had completed an essay on Lantana, which had been checked by her teacher. The essay had been done as practice for the externally assessed final exam, which, for this anxious student, was fast approaching.

"He wrote it," the student replied politely, doing her best to conceal her surprise that her teacher did not recognise the author of the screenplay of the text he was teaching.

Curiously, the student's slip in expression in her essay, by referring to Bovell but neglecting to introduce him as the author, had revealed a telling fact about the teacher's poor grasp of the subject matter.

Suffering the consequences

When dealing with teachers, students are dealing with a section of the workforce who are, for the most part, separated from the consequences of their actions. By contrast, when students make mistakes in their studies, they suffer the consequences. However, when their teachers make mistakes in their lessons, corrections, assessments or study advice, again it is the students who suffer the consequences.

This characteristic of the education system, which is currently reinforced by the industrial practices of the powerful teachers' unions and accentuated by the wide variations in educational standards intrinsic to "progressive" education, can have a significant impact on the motivation of teachers to produce quality work or to address their mistakes and rectify injustices.

The dedicated competent teachers are likely to do a fine job simply because it is in their nature to do so, but, unfortunately, there are others who will not follow their example. This wide variation in teacher quality constitutes a confronting reality that puts the responsibility back on individual students to protect their own academic and career interests by taking responsibility for their own education.

This means that clever ambitious students, who want to do better than pass, need to treat the prevailing education system as more like a precarious game of snakes and ladders rather than as a sturdy ladder of opportunity.

While encounters with the dedicated competent teachers should be treated as valuable opportunities to be seized with enthusiasm, inevitable encounters with teachers with a poor grasp of their course material, or of the nature of sound scholarship, present additional challenges that must be recognised and overcome.

Regrettably, that teacher with a poor grasp of Lantana is far from alone in his misunderstanding. From my vantage point as a private tutor, what I have noticed with too many English teachers, including the one mentioned above, is that they regularly refer to the authorship of a film with a routine phrase like "Ray Lawrence's Lantana", in a manner that incorrectly implies that the film's director, Ray Lawrence, is the sole source of the ideas in the film. They then instruct their students to throw this kind of phrase into their essays in a manner more akin to a reflex action rather than something based on careful thought and perceptive analysis.

Unlike most novels, a film is usually a collective effort. The dedicated competent teachers would appreciate this and accordingly instruct their students to recognise and distinguish between the contributions of the author of the screenplay (who usually developed many or most of the film's ideas), the film's director (who contributed additional ideas by artistically interpreting the screenplay and directing its cinematic realisation), the production designer (who designed or organised the props and sets), and so on, and to incorporate this knowledge into their analysis of the film. This is the kind of knowledge necessary to equip students to perform well in high-risk externally assessed final exams.

Although there are academic debates about the attribution of film authorship, this teacher's comment cannot be interpreted as his having taken a position in these debates. He simply did not have a solid grasp of the material he was employed to teach. In addition to not recognising the name of the author of the screenplay, his clumsy attempts to analyse scenes from the film in class saw him engage in the embarrassing practice of trying to find meaning where there was none. In other words, he muddled his way through.

Sadly, there are teachers, many of whom may be likeable and well meaning, who do not know their subject matter well and who teach intellectually shallow or erroneous analyses to their students who are preparing for crucial externally-assessed final exams. Unfortunately, the poor quality lessons and study advice provided by these teachers can be inadvertently sabotaging the chances of those conscientious ambitious students who obediently trust and rely upon the knowledge received in class.

In the weeks preceding the final exams, I prepare my students for the challenges ahead. This includes correcting mistakes made by students so they can perform at their best. However, with a number of students these potentially damaging mistakes did not originate with them. Instead, they were the consequence of poor quality teaching in the classroom. With some concern, I have observed that diligent students with an erroneous teacher, who attempt to improve their exam performance by doing practice essays to be checked by their teacher, can unfortunately be giving that teacher the opportunity to introduce costly mistakes into the students' work that were not there previously.

With ambitious students seeking university enter scores of over 99 per cent to qualify for courses in medicine or law, one slip could cost them dearly. There are students in the classes of these erroneous teachers who will go to the exams with their trust placed in faulty knowledge. Their heartbreaking final results will represent the human cost resulting from the dramatically wide variation in educational standards between different teachers that appear to be common in the age of progressive teaching.

A tale of two teachers

Consider the contrast in educational opportunities afforded to students by the following examples of two Year 12 English teachers at the same school. The first teacher allows his lessons to go in whatever direction his mood or the circumstances take him. This teacher intermittently reads aloud from the novel being studied, in this case The Plague by Albert Camus, and then asks the class questions, or chats, often making quaint jokes about the novel.

However, in his unsystematic lessons he overlooked teaching one of the central concepts of the novel, the philosophical notion of "the absurd", the idea that it is impossible for humans to find predictability or certainty in life, with the likelihood of chance intervening to disrupt the best-laid plans and expectations. According to this notion, unexpected quirks of fate could produce consequences that defy explanation in terms of notions of certainty, fairness, justice or destiny.

With what is a difficult novel to interpret, students may not appreciate its meaning without the expert guidance they expect and deserve from their teacher. The absurd irony is that without an understanding of "the absurd", any confident expectation these students may have of performing well in an exam on this text, on the basis of what they learnt from their teacher, is seriously compromised without them realising, no matter how diligently they study the notes that they took in class. In other words, due to their teacher's poor grasp of the subject matter, these students are handicapped without knowing it.

Meanwhile, the second teacher at that school has a more traditional approach to education. This teacher industriously prepares lessons that constitute detailed summaries of every chapter of the novel. Rather than meander through lessons according to laid-back progressive teaching approaches, her lessons are commendably systematic and comprehensive. Consequently, her students learn a great deal in class about the novel that will assist them in their final exam.

What is worse is that the first teacher, who inadvertently misled his students about the meaning of the text being studied, would have assessed the course-work on that text that is officially allocated for internal or class-teacher assessment. This teacher would be prone to reward with high grades those students who closely reflected his (erroneous) understanding of the text in their essays. His rewarding of them would consequently have the psychological effect of reinforcing their confidence in an (erroneous) interpretation of the novel to therefore make them likely to repeat this performance when attempting to do equally well in the final exam. Unfortunately, they are more likely to find themselves penalised by the unseen external examiners and left bewildered as to why their results were so disappointing since they did everything their teacher told them to do.

Although educated at the same school, the students whom fate placed in the second teacher's class were fortunate. However, the students in the first teacher's class were not.

Elementary mistakes

The mistakes made by some English teachers are so elementary that they would warrant concern if made by a student. However, when made by teachers, they raise serious issues about the ability of the education system to meet the expectations of parents, students and governments. For example, several of my students have encountered English teachers teaching Shakespearean tragedies, such as Macbeth or Hamlet, who did not seem to know the specific meaning of "tragedy" in literature, a term that refers to a genre that traditionally centres on a great man or hero who falls from grace due to a flaw, or flaws, in his character. This in turn provides a warning to members of the audience to guard against similar flaws in their characters. These teachers instead imposed on their students the unscholarly notion that a tragedy simply meant a sad event.

One Year 12 English teacher even sternly reprimanded a student in front of the class who, when asked, had (correctly) described the character Hamlet as principally a tragic figure. After the lesson, this unflinching Year 12 English teacher warned the student that she would fail him in his forthcoming essay if he referred to Hamlet in this fashion. This was the student's last piece of class-teacher assessed coursework before the final exam. Fortunately, the student had the insight to humour his class-teacher (as I advised him to do) by providing her with the kind of answer that she wanted to hear, which she had taught in class, while saving his more scholarly answer for his performance in the externally assessed final exam, for which he later received an "A+".

This student had learnt the survival skills necessary to manoeuvre nimbly through an education system that presents many pitfalls to catch the unsuspecting. Tragically, it is the most trusting students who are likely to suffer most due to the confidence that they place in an erroneous teacher who, to them, is seen as their principal means to achieve academic success and social mobility.

Unfortunately, for students who are yet to mature sufficiently to acquire a protective shell of self-confidence, an unexpected severe downgrading in assessment resulting from the idiosyncratic erroneousness of their class teacher risks crushing the very initiative and capacity for independent critical inquiry that the advocates of progressive education claim to foster and that most university academics and employers value highly. There are significant human costs that result from bad teaching. It hurts young people. It can damage their lives.

In this context, the widespread assumption, often held by teachers, potential employers and even by many students and their parents, that a disappointing school result was solely due to the student's shortfalls, arguably warrants careful reconsideration in many cases.

Fortunately, the existence of dramatic variations in teacher quality has an upside. There are dedicated competent teachers who provide opportunities for high school to be both intellectually rewarding and enjoyable.


However, for students to avoid suffering the adverse consequences that can result from relying upon any ill-informed unscholarly class teachers allotted to them, they need to seek other sources of learning to avoid becoming dependent upon any teachers who may not live up to the trust placed in them. They should read widely and purposefully, and should cultivate relationships with the dedicated competent teachers at their school if they were not fortunate to have one of them as their allocated teacher.

If necessary, and without their class-teacher knowing, they should ask these dedicated competent teachers for study advice, handouts of notes, or recommendations for further reading. They should also present their pre-exam practice essays to these teachers for feedback instead of to their class teacher.

One of the most commendable features of the current education system is that these dedicated competent teachers are often genuinely kind and helpful people who are usually delighted to be appreciated by students.

Their consequent feelings of validation would be small compensation for the fact that they are often paid an equivalent salary to that of their under-performing colleagues whose impact on the education of their students can sometimes be damaging.

In an education system that allows for such wide variations in teacher quality, high school students need to take sensible precautions to ensure that they are successful academically. It is beneficial for students to listen to their teacher. However, they should listen with discretion. With this realistic attitude, students can be successful both because of what the education system has to offer and in spite of it.

- Dr Mark Lopez runs a private tutoring business in Melbourne. He is the author of The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics 1945-1975 (Melbourne University Press, 2000).

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