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Educating our kids

This is Jay Somasundaram's second contribution to Webdiary (his first was May we live in interesting times), and we thank him for his latest, thought-provoking piece.


Educating our kids
by Jay Somasundaram

Suffer little children, and forbid them not to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven

Atul Gawande aptly illustrates the difference between a craft and an industry. Delivering babies using forceps is known to produce superior outcomes to caesareans. Nevertheless (US) statistics show that caesarean births are increasing. Dr. Gawande argues that modern obstetrics is an industry, not a craft, and in an industry, caesareans produce better outcomes for the patients. Using forceps for difficult births is a complex art – hard to teach, hard to accredit. In an industry that requires the mass production of obstetricians, focusing on producing competence in caesareans rather than forceps deliveries produces better health outcomes for society as a whole.

Like it or not, our school system is an industry. We like to pretend it’s a craft, and blame our teachers – that if all our teachers were craftsmen, that if the teaching profession attracted the “best and the brightest” (whatever that means) then all problems would be solved. Increasing the quality of our teachers will achieve incremental benefits with increased costs. Treating schooling as an industry and applying industrial design principles will deliver sizable benefits while lowering costs.

The ferocious debate on phonetic versus whole language reading is an embarrassment for the profession. It indicates a disjoint between science and the profession that such a fundamental issue is still being debated. A craft approach has the luxury of allowing a craftsman to chose their own preference, and become expert in that technique. An industry, on the other hand, would likely conclude that the best outcome is situational on the student and their learning stage, and provide the professional teacher with an appropriate toolbox for diagnosis and treatment.

Or take the debate on national standards and testing. An industry would take them as a given – an essential pre-requisite for developing quality systems. True, the counter-arguments that these tests are far from being reliable measures of good learning or teaching, and that the information will be used inappropriately, have a lot of merit. There is an increasing body of evidence in management that performance measures and bonuses do more harm than good. Nevertheless, the benefits outweigh the harm. If we wish to understand and improve learning at a national level, we need to start measuring it, however imperfectly. After all, we use the same imperfect technique for deciding who goes to university and who doesn’t.

Reading, ’riting and ‘rithmetic are not the objectives of an education system. Rather, they are by-products. What an education system must primarily do is foster a love of learning – the skills and attributes that a child learning to walk has, but appears to lose with age. When children enjoy and know how to learn, then they are able to better utilise the multiplicity of resources they have – their family and friends, their school, TV, libraries… – to better learn their 3 Rs and everything else.

Education is of course the primary purpose of our schooling system. Schools, however, provide two other very real and important purposes. Firstly, they provide a baby-sitting service for parents. Secondly, they provide employment for the education industry (which includes not only teachers, but administrators, policy-makers, text-book publishers …). These are valid policy objectives. My objection is not their validity but that they are not openly identified and addressed. When we are not explicit about these objectives, they are met through sub-conscious actions, resulting in sub-optimal systems designs.

In an industry, investment decisions are made on cost-benefit grounds. The greatest investments are made at points where the returns are highest. The Jesuit maxim “give me the child until seven and I will give you the man” is proven by increasing research: the first few years are by far the most important for learning. And yet, public investment on education starts only at age six and increases with age.

An industry in the private sector changes due to market forces. Established, large and powerful companies may either overtly or subconsciously resists these changes, but new entrants force disruptive innovations to occur relatively rapidly. Radical change is more difficult in the public sector. Radical change can occur, but is more likely to be driven by political ideology than empirical evidence. Implementation is more easily influenced by stakeholders – except that children, the most affected stakeholders, have no voice.

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Schooling is designed by the state for the state. Children are the raw material. Prussia invented the modern school system to overcome others on the battlefield. The trend in outcomes for individuals has been declining in the USA for 100 years or so. The tests get easier and the 3Rs are less absorbed, year by year.

The good thing about the loss of employment is that mums and dads can teach their child to read at home. Very rewarding. True wealth creation. Try to keep them away from all the conditioning on TV and in certain books. 

Good luck to all!

a query

Jay , John, Fiona - anybody. Can someone explain what this "phonetics versus whole reading" debate  is actually about?

I know it has been about for years, seems like the demand feeding versus scheduled feeding with infants i.e. esoteric and interminable and the term is often used without being explained.

On another issue, I don't overly much mind funding (certain) other people's children, provided sufficient shekels remain for me, too. But I wish their parents would train them to keep their sporting and other equipment out of my b....y yard and off my roof.

Secret Squirrel

Paul, phonetics is teaching reading based on recognising the letters and putting together their sounds to form words. Whole language is based on readers picking up whole words, phrases and sentences as patterns matching meaning to them.

A common pro-phonetics argument is that their method allows readers to deal with unfamiliar words.  A counter-argument from the other side is that phonetic  English is confusing (e.g. a 'c' can be sea sound or a k sound).

Here is a good Wikipedia article.

Jay, thanks for try

Jay, thanks for try. Read a large chunk of the Wiki entry, but must confess its one of these situatons where the true meaning of it all only becomes apparent after my internal remote controlled penny dropper operates. Could be seconds, could be years.

Give me a child until seven

Jay: "The Jesuit maxim “give me the child until seven and I will give you the man” is proven by increasing research: the first few years are by far the most important for learning. And yet, public investment on education starts only at age six and increases with age."

You are correct when you point to the early years of a child's life being the most important. I think the current policy of privatised child care is wrong.

I fail to understand why the government does not make available places within our primary schools for children of all ages. Surely this would simplify the education system. You are also right when you say that a primary role of schools is child minding. I think we should have child minding in all schools so parents can have one place to drop off their children, in a  place that has full government accreditation and properly trained staff. This would mean much less disruption for children as they move up the school classes.

It would also help children from disadvantaged homes such as those affected by violence, drugs or alcohol to have a more stable childhood.

Trapped in the box

John, you are quite right that we need to think outside the box to find solutions.

Money, of course is (quite rightly) a prime consideration in policy making. I think that the the government currently pays a partial child-care subsidy and provides some tax relief as well. To some extent, the question is - should a person without children pay for the expenses of those with children?

There are two major arguments for education being paid for by the public. Firstly, that education is an equity issue, and secondly that it provides benefits to the broader public (in addition to those provided to the individual).

Child minding is, of course, cheaper than teaching. [Fiona: Why "of course", Jay - specifically, why should it be cheaper?] The teacher-student ratio also needs to be lower with younger students. However, one of the boxes we are trapped in is thinking that education only happens in a teacher-student framework.

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