ALS Topic 20 - The Best Model? => Education = Procedures + Stories to Justify +... = Job (???)

Focus questions for Adelaide Lunchtime Seminar, 21 October 2018
Venue: · Adelaide
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Note: About Focus Questions: a) Please read them before you come to the meetup. Think about them so you have more than "instant opinions" to offer. b) Feel free to add more focus questions. c) THE FOCUS QUESTIONS ARE JUST A MENU TO CHOOSE FROM. From this menu we can discuss whatever seems interesting. d) Focus questions are not intended to push one viewpoint! You can adopt any position you wish. We actually like friendly disagreement - it can lead to deeper understanding.


Focus Questions

1. So when does it end? - Education, that is. When you have a diploma that licences you to do a job?
2. Only a few people are really good at their jobs. Only a few really enjoy their jobs. Does this mean that something in education has failed?

3. The measurement of learning (assessment) overwhelmingly controls what people try to learn formally. if you want to change education, you have to change the content and method of assessment. What are your suggestions for reform here? What are the options?

4. Five years after graduation in any subject most people couldn't pass an exam in what they studied. Does this matter? Has their education failed? What can be done about this flaky property of learning?

5. Almost every job involves a set of routine procedures + a storyline to justify the procedures. Either the procedure or the storyline or both are often inadequate. Once 'diploma-ed' people will ferociously resist challenges to their procedures & storylines. Why are they so protective of failure? What kind of education can overcome their resistance? (Think of actual examples).

6. Educational institutions worldwide are awash with fraud and deception. What are some examples of this? What are the reasons behind it? What can be done about it?

7. When I was about 22 y.o. a literature tutor asked me haughtily if I considered myself to be an educated man; (she clearly thought I wasn't). I wanted to ask her if she could tune the dual barrel carburettor on my Triumph motorbike. How can we develop informed respect for other people's particular knowledge?

8. As a fresh graduate I thought I 'knew' my subject. That's as far as most people get. Later as a researcher I felt like a small child on the edge of a vast ocean of ignorance. Ever since i have distrusted education cultures that leave students with a sense that they have learned it all. Marketing promotes that illusion. How can we change it? How can we leave graduating students with a strong desire to learn more?

9. If you have ever been a teacher, or especially a lecturer, you will know that there is a huge temptation to run the same content year after year with each set of freshmen (just one 50 minute lecture is equivalent to writing a 5000 word essay). The problem is not that you have lost interest, but that creating that program afresh each time means 80 hour weeks and endless reading (there is a constant torrent of new research). Also, your reputation is wrapped up in what you said last year. What suggestions do you have for getting around this problem?

10. Information has been democratized. Online is more information on any topic than you will find in the best universities. The trouble is that a large proportion of it is trash, and a lot of the rest is tentative science with the best experts disagreeing. Students are no better at sifting fake knowledge than the general public is at sifting fake news. How can we equip students with the will, and the skills to tackle this challenge?


Comments & Extra Reading


The selection of articles by me below all contain many other web links, a good few of higher quality than my own contribution. I add the papers here as a starting point for anyone who is interested in a particular topic.

Thor May (2015) "Understanding Active Thinking" - The point at which we use “thinking” as a term worth mentioning beyond the normal background buzz of daily life is quite arbitrary. In principle, you can “think actively” about going down the street to buy an ice cream, and that might be closer to a normal usage of “thinking” than solving quadratic equations. This particular essay has paid more attention to situations which require a somewhat sophisticated level of attention, persistence and ingenuity in a world where complex problems are constantly arising. @ 

Thor May (2014) "The Purpose of Education - a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy?" - Any Internet search will reveal a myriad of articles and blogs on this topic. The variety of comment is not surprising since formal education of some kind affects every family and every individual in almost every country. Informal education has probably effected just about everyone since humans evolved. What the online material does show is that while the process is universal, the objectives are diverse and often in conflict. Indeed much of the discussion seems to be at cross purposes. I have been a teacher, mostly to young adults, for 35 years in seven countries with quite different cultures, so I am deeply familiar with the currents of intention and counter-intention which touch everyone in the enterprise of education. My own doctoral dissertation was an analysis of 20 case studies in institutions where the publicly expressed purposes of education were often sabotaged. Although I have seen some of the failures, the institutional reasons for such failures are so embedded and so internationally widespread that I can see little direct hope for major changes. What I do see is that for technological and cultural reasons, the relationships between public mass education and personal self-education are changing drastically. The outcomes of that melding are still unclear, but the process offers hope. @ 

Thor May (2014) "So we had a few failures. Was that the end of university?" - The source of this short document is intensely personal. It is the story of early university misadventure by one individual, myself. At first glance it might seem of little interest to anyone but the protagonist. I am publishing it because in fact pieces of this story fit the lives of so many students who simply disappear from the statistics and into oblivion. Educational administrators may make assumptions about them, perhaps based on personal prejudice and hearsay, while political decisions about which kinds of students to fund tend to be founded in ideology rather than the real life stories of actual individuals and their development. @

Thor May (2014) "Some Uses and Misuses of Reason" - When the sun rises each morning we may say the reason is that the earth on its elliptical orbit spins so that one point faces that star. Or we may say that the Sun God has mounted his chariot. Or we may say, after Ptolemy and the Christian elders until a few centuries ago, that the sun is moving around the earth. Take your pick. They have all seemed good reasons from reasonable men in their time. Our acceptance of what passes for reasoned argument has a great deal to do with the company we keep. Perhaps for most people, the word of accepted authority is the ultimate parameter on where those reasoned arguments may venture. @ 

Thor May (2013) "International Language Testing Washback – standing the monster on its head" -
At the top of the assessment pyramid are multinational testing corporations, best known by the names of their standardized tests, such as IELTS, TOEIC, TOEFL, BULATS, TKT, Cambridge ESOL main suite, or G-TELP (there are many other aspirants). In some ways these testing companies can be thought of as the Big Pharma corporations (i.e. drug companies) of the educational world. Like Big Pharma they are subject to constant challenges to their ethics and reliability from within and without, and like Big Pharma they are rather prone to corrupt the issues which they were designed to assist with. The possible corruption of language learning by the requirements of testing is known as wash-back. Wash-back is not always malignant. The analysis in this paper is a tentative attempt to manipulate the wash-back from an international test in a manner which actually assists genuine language acquisition. This material is drawn from some Masters degree work (2005) and comes to 138 pages. @

Thor May (2013) "Testing for Teaching; Teaching to What?" - The outline which follows analyses the two halves of a language teacher’s profession: a) The first half is daily classroom practice : what is taught and how is it evaluated? b) The second half of a teacher’s profession is to know or at least estimate what is going on in the brains of her students : what is learned and how is it learned? Teaching is a simulation machine. Learning is for life. The implicit professional challenge is in making the simulation useful for living. @ 

Thor May (2010) "Language Tangle - Predicting & Facilitating Outcomes in Language Education" - PhD Thesis - This thesis argues that foreign and second language teaching productivity can only reach its proper potential when it is accorded priority, second only to language learner productivity, amongst the many competing productivities which are always asserted by stakeholders in educational institutions. Note: This is a collection of 20 case studies of institutions from 7 countries, examining why they mostly struggled to to achieve what they advertised themselve to be offering. It is (in my view) a somewhat scrappy analysis, but it does lay bare in plain, unsparing language, the limits of institutional education. 

Thor May (2008) "Corruption and Other Distortions as Variables in Language Education - Abstract : This paper examines some of the ways in which foreign language education has been affected by corrupt practices and various other distortions of best teaching practice. Particular attention is paid to South Korea. The nature of corruption and its social origins are identified. Pressures affecting students, teachers and institutions are all seen to play a part. It is noted that mass education is a simulation which leaves space for fraud, whereas actual live language performance is its own test. Perhaps as a consequence, the gradual insertion of a new language code like English into a speech community might succeed over the long term even where immediate educational practices suggest failure. @

Thor May (2002) "The paradox of scholarship: pissing on every lamp post" - Scholarship is that process of becoming familiar with, ordering, and acknowledging the thinking of earlier workers in a particular line of inquiry. It can easily become a lifetime task. The process is obviously valuable. Subduing the arrogance of an ignorant mind (especially one's own) is very healthy. Scholarship not only helps to avoid past mistakes and save the waste of "reinventing the wheel", but can also be a stimulus for new and more sophisticated ideas about a topic. However, the largest body of scholarship always remains inert, not only failing to stimulate new ideas, but actually forming a bulwark against the intrusion of fresh thinking... @

Thor May (1987) "Super-Culture And The Ghost In The Machine" - This little essay is a bit mischievous, and apparently politically incorrect enough to have sparked outrage in the minds of some sensitive souls from the polite dinner party set. Although it has no claims to academic decency, I have preserved it online as a stimulant to fancier research, since I think the metaphor the essay runs on captures some essential truths. The essay had its genesis in the startled observations of a fresh expatriate teaching in foreign surrounds. In this case, it was the PNG University of Technology, Lae, Papua New Guinea in 1987. I found my untried liberal conscience struggling to comprehend the sheer incompetence of people faced with institutions and technology which didn't seem to work. Many of the locals were bright and friendly enough, but somewhere a spark of insight was missing. Much later, surveying Australia with the naked eyes of a returnee, it was all too clear that the paralysis of imagination was a universal problem. @ 


Thor May - Education for diplomas & narrow vocational skills leave people desperately unequipped to navigate the shark pool of wider society. For example, this: Chris Zappone (13 October 2018) "'Regime change without a war': we need to get smarter about fake news". Brisbane Times @  [my comment on this posted to the Brisbane Times: The business model of military-industrial-political complexes, and overwhelmingly the one centred on Washington, has heavily leaned for at least two generations on the propagation of fake news. Fake news underpins the public opinion that guarantees their budgets and tax demands. So now the Russians, Big Pharma, and everyone else is offering competition in that space. They are hugely aided by the electronic tsunamis which sites like Twitter generate. Especially Twitter, since the largest part of every population is not functionally literate enough to take in more than a written sentence or two. Ask Donald Trump about that. Getting people motivated and analytic enough to navigate all this stuff may be the biggest challenge our civilizations face. Conventional 'education' systems do not cut it right now at this critical level, and it is hard to see how they can be made to. ]

Wendy Tuohy (12 October 2018) "Um, there's no such thing as a 'good-grade guarantee'". [... except there is such a thing... I've lost jobs over this. Also read the comments in the news story] Brisbane Times @ 

So what cause are you fighting for today, or haven't you yet made a selection from the supermarket of dreams? 'The problem with any ideology is that it gives the answer before you look at the evidence'. Here is a thoughtful piece on how that is shaping up in India, but not only India: Sundar Sarukkai (October 18, 2018) "Labelling, the new illiteracy of our times" The Hindu (newspaper) @

Dorothy Leonard & Walter Swap (September 2004) "Deep Smarts - When a person sizes up a complex situation and comes to a rapid decision that proves to be not just good but brilliant, you think, “That was smart.” After you’ve watched him do this a few times, you realize you’re in the presence of something special. It’s not raw brainpower, though that helps. It’s not emotional intelligence, either, though that, too, is often involved. It’s deep smarts, the stuff that produces that mysterious quality, good judgment ..." Harvard Business Review @

Kirsty Needham (21 September 2017) "Chinese students question Australian education sending chills through industry - She changed universities after failing a subject, and spent two million yuan over six years studying finance in Australia before returning this year. Back in China she struggled to find a low-level job paying just 5000 yuan a month. Amid a wave of stories about disillusioned Chinese students returning from overseas, and social media debate, the official People's Daily published an editorial saying returnees may be "incompatible to domestic society". The risk of studying abroad was getting bigger because it did not guarantee a good job, the editorial said. A survey of 150,000 Chinese overseas students found on average that they make only 500 Chinese yuan ($100) more per month than Chinese university graduates. One Chinese social media user, commenting on Lin's story, wrote that his friend had spent 2 million yuan studying in Australia since high school, but the family would have made a better investment buying two apartments because the rentals would exceed his salary." Brisbane Times @   

Kate Aubusson (22 March 2017) "Scientists outwit predatory publishers by tricking them into appointing a fake editor". Brisbane Times @ 

Henrietta Cook (26 June 2018) "How unis can beat the cheats by finding 'fingerprints' in their essays". Brisbane Times @ 

David Batty (14 March 2018) "'Some families are too shady to work with': meet the tutors of the ultra-rich". The Guardian @ 

Peter Martin (17 February 2018) "It's worth getting a degree even if what you learn is useless". Brisbane Times @ 

Paul Karp (9 April 2018) "Bizarre' Naplan writing test measures 'all the wrong things', US expert says - Test rewards students for using big words rather than simple language, Les Perelman finds - Of the 10 to 12 international tests Les Perelman has examined, the Naplan writing test is ‘by far the most absurd’". [Comment by Thor: Naplan is a supreme example of testing abuse. Its designers intended it to be diagnostic, so teachers could fix what apparently needed to be fixed for each student. Instead, given mass public and political ignorance of what a DIAGNOSTIC test is (as opposed to an exit achievement exam), it has been weaponized to evaluate teachers and rank schools. Therefore as an act of personal survival, teachers and school administrators warp the system themselves. This kind of perversion is a core dilemma in institutional education systems, perhaps inevitably.] The Guardian @ 

Matthew D. Lieberman (June 19, 2012) "Why We Stop Learning: The Paradox of Expertise - How to keep learning when people think you know it all." Psychology Today @ 

Daniel Amen (March 7, 2017) "When You Stop Learning, Your Brain Starts Dying". Linkedin @  

Leigh Drogen (December 31, 2012) "Is The World Too Complicated For People?". [Thor: recommend] Blog @ 

Darius Foroux (February 5, 2018) "Don’t Know What You Want? Improve These 7 Universal Skills". Blog @

Madeleine King (22 August 2016) "The hidden costs of low literacy in Australia" SBS website @

BBC (n.d.) "Reciprocal Teaching: A Classroom Strategy that Promotes Interactive Learning" BBC @

Brian Bethune (March 20 2017) "Why Americans have come to worship their own ignorance
Author Tom Nichols argues that people are angry at journalists for giving them what they want: pared-down stories tailored to them". Macleans website @

Ned Manning (2 December 2016) "Stop blaming teachers for falling results and give them the trust and time to actually teach - Our obsession with accountability means that every spare moment of a teacher’s life is spent satisfying bureaucratic demands"/ The Guardian @ 

Jonathan Graehl (28 June 2011) "Heightened Learning While Walking or Running (but Not Driving?)". Blog @

Thor's own websites:

1. articles at ;

2. legacy site: .


The Best Model? => Education = Procedures + Stories to Justify +... = Job (???) (c) Thor May 2018 return to Ddiscussion