Why Our Schools Are Failing..(are they?)

@1 May 2005 

Thor gets to play Dorothy Dix ...


Dear Thor,

I just finished my DipEd (Secondary) looking for a LOTE or IT teaching job in Melbourne after my previous laid offs in IT industry. While preparing for my response to job selection criteria, your articles on the Internet came into my sight. I think you have a broad range of teaching experience and insights.

What's your opinions of Why Our Schools Are Failing and Classroom Basics a Better Outcome ?

Kind Regards,

Ming, Mr
[blog http://gradspot.blogspot.com]


Hello Ming,

The questions you raised don't have easy answers, and anything I say is of course just my view of the world.

The articles you referred me to are political documents, prepared to promote the agenda of one political party (they front as coming from a 'research centre', but that is a blind to look respectable). I'm afraid I have a low opinion of their analysis of this subject. Their use of international comparisons is simply dishonest.

Let us take the example of South Korean education, which is quoted as a model education system. Anyone with even basic knowledge of South Korean education knows that it is in constant crisis; (I have taught in South Korean universities since September 2000, and in Central China for two years before that).

Korean parents have so little faith in the system that huge numbers send their children overseas to be educated, causing a major drain on Korean currency reserves. They also invest up to a third of their disposable incomes sending kids to cram schools after they get home from the government schools.

What is the result? I spent last year training Korean graduate teachers to teach English. They came from universities all over Korea. Hardly one of them had ever written an essay in their lives, in any language, and they lacked even the basic research skills which we would expect of any Australian graduate.

Academic cheating in South Korea is at epidemic proportions, as it is in China; you may be aware of that. As for the vaunted results in mathematics (as per the quoted articles above), Koreans of course have their proportion of very bright students. Courses are also narrowly focused on exam success. However I simply would not trust the selection procedures for a competition or survey of that kind in Korea -- misplaced national pride constantly leads to conspiracies of deception in international forums.

So "why are our schools failing"? Australia has no monopoly on that problem. There was no golden age of education, anywhere, ever.

In many ways "mass education" is a contradiction in terms. In any school environment teaching large numbers of people, some will succeed within the system fairly easily. The majority will manage, more or less, and scrape through with basic skills. It will take many more resources and much more skilled teaching to bring the majority to success, than it will to bring the scholastically gifted to success.

Then there will be a significant number of students who find school life extremely hard. For those people, bringing them to scholastic success requires great personal attention, large amounts of teacher time, and the best teaching resources available. In practice, in almost all mass education systems, these less gifted students get the least personal attention, the smallest amount of teacher time and the worst teaching resources.

Teachers who devote their lives to less scholastically gifted students earn little public respect. There are usually administrative, political and cultural decisions made that the increased effort needed to teach less gifted students is not worth the effort beyond a certain point. However, the society as a whole often pays a heavy price for this neglect, since crime and antisocial behaviour is overwhelmingly committed by young people who feel that the system has nothing to offer them.

The 'return to basics' political movement is really a fantasy. The problems have always been there, but the increasing complexity of society is making life increasingly impossible for many people who may have felt quite competent in, say, a farming village a hundred years ago.

Conservative political views in general, and some cultural traditions (for example the Chinese one) tend to favour greater external discipline as a solution to school failure.

It is true that some kind of discipline is necessary for most systematic learning. Self-discipline is by far the most effective. More gifted students respond best to less imposed discipline, together with assistance in developing their own self discipline.

Less intelligent people do tend to favour more structured and predictable environments; (one reason why prisons, where most people are not too bright, are very strictly organized places).

A good professional teacher will adapt the level of external discipline to suite the kind of students he is teaching. Similarly, the level of structure built into curriculums needs to be varied for the different habits and preferences of different kinds of students.

As for teachers themselves, many of their limitations as a group are found in people of every trade and profession. The sad truth is that most people everywhere are not excellent at their jobs, no matter how long their training is.

Take medical doctors who are supposed to be chosen from the best and the brightest. I have thought systematically about my experiences with doctors over the last 59 years, and come to the conclusion that 70% to 80% of the diagnosis, treatment and advice I have been offered was useless to dangerous. Some of it was life-threatening. If I had accepted medical advice uncritically, I would be a drug-dependent cripple, and maybe dead; (how many people of 59 do you know who are not hooked for life on so-called medications?).

If you look at lawyers, or motor mechanics, or the presidents of countries you will find a similar sorry story. There are many reasons for the mediocrity of most workers, and it would require a book to analyse them. Briefly though, we can say that a majority of people choose to spend the passionate part of the 24 hours in every day away from their work place.

Also, most societies offer respect for money, status, power etc, but little for simply being 'good at what you choose to do'. Personally I keep my respect for people who are 'good at what they do' (whether street sweepers or presidents), but that is a minority viewpoint.

As a LOTE* [*languages other than English]teacher in Australia you will have some special problems, as you are probably aware. Immigrants have a fairly high success rate in learning English, because the social and survival motivations are so powerful. People learning second languages in schools as a foreign language have a terrible success rate in most countries (some countries much worse than others).

In formal environments, the Europeans have probably been the most successful at foreign language teaching(British excepted). The failure rate in foreign L2 learning in America has sometimes been estimated at about 97%. That is, students may "pass" an exam, but they can't do anything useful with the new language. Australia is probably not much better. This must be very discouraging for foreign language teachers.

One result of the low status and low success rate of foreign language teaching is that the general population in countries like Australia, and the politicians, have little idea of how much work and time really needs to go into mastering a second language. Well, I guess you are an optimist ^_^ .

regards, Thor

All opinions expressed in Thor's Unwise Ideas and The Passionate Skeptic are entirely those of the author, who has no aim to influence, proselytize or persuade others to a point of view. He is pleased if his writing generates reflection in readers, either for or against the sentiment of the argument. Personal names are changed where they might embarrass the owners.

"Why Our Schools Are Failing .. (are they?) " copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 2005

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