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A bare pass vs mastery: why our children are failing at school

By Gordon Cochaud - 12 December 2016 9

Education

For decades our governments have spent considerable time and money on the education of the masses. The common error in belief is that improving education must correspondingly improve learning. Over the past fifty years during which the Commonwealth Government has ‘put’ money into education little attention has been paid to maximising the learning by individual students. Perhaps the present is the time for that imbalance to be redressed. Whether we, as lifelong students like the fact or not, education is a passive situation whereas learning is a never ending, active mental process.

These days, a high proportion of assessment is done at the completion (by the teacher) of each topic – and a pass is good enough for the student to attend the classes for the next topic! Where the content is more or less descriptive (the lowest level in Bloom’s Cognitive Taxonomy) it probably does not matter. However, where higher cognitive activities are required learning for the next topic it does matter because, without mastery of the prerequisite knowledge, the student is doomed to an even poorer assessment – as has been and is still the situation for too many students! In the real world there is skills-based certification for many occupations: however, this has always been the case for registered tradespeople and those entering highly paid professions.   To add to the confounding, little research is devoted to learning; whereas most is on aspects of education. Let us continue then, with some of what is known about learning.

Firstly, whatever we learn has to become related to something we already know, that is, stored in our memory: for which the corollary is that whatever is learnt is retrievable and available for further learning.  As a sentient being, I can only learn more based on what I already know. Each new topic requires particular, prerequisite knowledge and without all of that, the new topic cannot be sufficiently understood – a ‘pass’ for the prerequisite knowledge is unacceptable. Each topic must be learnt thoroughly and the only acceptable grade is mastery of the content.  This brings us to the next point.

Secondly, the time taken for any student to master (= learn) a particular topic varies according to the student and to the topic. Each of us, in an idiosyncratic way, more or less struggles with learning throughout life!   Hereditary and environment have conspired to ensure this continues for the near future.

Thirdly, without a reason to learn, most students remember very little that requires cognitive effort.

Because of our current methods of timetabling and assessment in schools, these three laws of learning are fortuitously followed by a few students and apparently not applicable to the rest. Insisting that every student learns the content of each topic at a pace each learner can achieve mastery does bring numerous benefits to the student. Failure is not an option: each topic is a work in progress. On leaving school, each student receives a certificate with the names of the last topic mastered in each discipline. Other educational institutes can now define their entrance requirements and be sure that all new students are fully prepared. Year 12 public examinations and their statistically massaged results to “prove” that standards are being maintained when they are not, will be unnecessary. Modern technology enables students, even with any of many impediments to learning, to fit in seamlessly with all other students. Students will be able to enter any educational institution at an earlier or later age depending on when they have mastered the prerequisites.

What’s Your opinion?


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9 Responses to
A bare pass vs mastery: why our children are failing at school
HenryBG 10:11 am 18 Dec 16

Spiral said :

The teacher requested our son run to get help. The student then chased down our son and attacked him from behind. The school’s response was to always send two kids running for help on the assumption he couldn’t catch both.

That’s like something out of Mad Max.

The problems with education in this country are as follows:
– a pervasive culture of anti-intellectualism
– a ridiculous obsession with sport
– the majority of teaching degrees are completed as PE degrees. Schools unable to fill real teaching positions, especially in maths and sciences, are then forced to make do with numbnut PE teachers in those positions instead.
– the poor quality of teachers means schools are increasingly unable to demonstrate critical thinking skills to their students
– a lack of critical thinking results in teachers thinking they are entitled to foist their fringe political beliefs onto their students
– as these fringe political beliefs become entranched, they migrate up the line into curriculum development, and before you know it, you have Australian children missing out on an intellectual development as they are force-fed shallow and misguided politics.

Spiral 7:57 am 14 Dec 16

Having had a few kids go through the system, we have noticed several issues. Obviously how large an impact each one has is debatable.

Some parents are very dismissive towards education and this attitude is then learnt by their kids. That is really hard for teachers to overcome.

Perhaps the kids have changed. In our modern world with our soundbite society perhaps kids just can’t concentrate on one thing for long. Of course movies and games seem to be able to hold their attention for much longer than a class.

Many teachers are simply unable to control a classroom. This can be because they are poor teachers, or they have some kids who should not be in normal classes.

We once received a call from a primary school to explain why our grade 4 son was coming home with bruises. During a class PE lesson one child went berserk and attacked the teacher. The teacher requested our son run to get help. The student then chased down our son and attacked him from behind. The school’s response was to always send two kids running for help on the assumption he couldn’t catch both.

A friend of ours (different school), when asking how her son received an injured arm in class was told by the teacher she didn’t know as the kids were rioting at the time.

We have had many occasions over the years where the school has gone into lockdown because a student has become violent.

Inclusiveness is a nice concept, but in the real world with limited resources and less than perfect teachers it does in some cases affect the learning of the rest of the classes.

When I was at school, the rules for grades were rather simple. For an assignment or test, the score you received dictated the grade you received (obviously English and arts were a bit trickier). So for a science test, if you scored over (say) 95% you got an A with a similar concept for end of year results.

It meant you knew it was possible to get a good grade and it really felt good when you did. In high school it also led to competition, which also led to many kids (not all) actually studying.

It has probably changed again, but I remember being told by one of my kid’s teachers that an A was only given to students who were at least 2 years ahead of where they should be. Yes there are some kids who do manage this but the real result seems to be that the vast majority get a C. It seems to lead to an attitude of “why try harder as it isn’t going to get any noticeable result”. A cynic might think this was part of an inclusiveness plan to make everyone feel good by reducing the number of high achievers and to stop competitive behaviour hurting kid’s feelings.

We have had some great teachers over the years, but some really bad ones. It may just be faulty memory but it really does seem the spelling and grammar abilities of many teachers today is noticeably inferior to a generation ago. It may be a case of the old “if you pay peanuts you get monkeys” problem, or it may be something else such as a general degradation of these skills in society.

“New theories” in education can be failures and it is not nice when your child is a failed experiment. Our oldest two children were at primary school when the big thing in education was to avoid rote learning. To this day the basic maths skills of the oldest are poor yet he scored amongst the top in his class. If I was to ask him what 7 times 8 is, he just can’t blurt out 56. Rote learning is not the answer for everything, but it does have its place. I offer a very sarcastic “thanks heaps” to the genius who decided it shouldn’t be used for times tables at the primary school my son went to. Yes once we worked out the problem, we did minimize the damage by doing it at home, despite the objections of the teacher.

Some teachers push their own views at the expense of education. One son had an assignment on the nuclear bombing of Japan in high school, and when reading through it I noticed his assignment was claiming the Americans dropped the bombs because they believed that would cause outrage amongst the Japanese and make them fight longer. Once I pointed out that this was not the case my son (and I) were concerned he would fail that assignment. He received a very high score. I checked the source materials the teacher had suggested they use and it was very obvious they were extremely biased. Discussing the assignment with the teacher revealed a virulent anti-American attitude. Only once a few parents raised the issue with the principal was action taken. The whole class was given the result which means their work was un-assessable for that whole semester.

Many schools claim they are anti-bullying but won’t do anything about it when it happens.

A good principal does wonders for a school. A bad one ruins it. Some of my kids went to a school that with a change of principal went from being one were people from out of area tried to move their kids into, to one where many in area families moved their kids out of. Every person we spoke to who left claimed it was because of the new principal.

One high school principal our kids had was so bad he was funny. My wife and I would play games. She would always ask the questions. He was such a sexist pig that he would never respond to women but would always address the response to the man.

Perhaps we should send fact finding missions to investigate the countries that have recently overtaken Australia in the world rankings to work out what they are now doing right and what we are doing wrong?

I am a Rabbit™ 11:53 pm 13 Dec 16

wildturkeycanoe said :

As Australia’s workforce merges from the technical, manufacturing, scientific and educational fields to part time and casual hospitality based industries, what use is a good education?

Source? The statistics on the ABS website indicates that white collar jobs (mainly the scientific, education and technical sectors) are experiencing surges – even in full-time work. There’s a fair amount of elimination of redundant white collar jobs that are being automated, but demand for “highly” skilled professions (which require education) is still very strong.

wildturkeycanoe said :

On the flip side, those who left in year 10, bypassing the HSC for a labouring job or an apprenticeship, are now doing exceptionally well in their high paying jobs, or even run their own businesses.

The commercial and residential market for tradies is over-saturated, and the only reason that they look like they’re in demand is because Australia is in the midst of the most unsustainable property boom in the world. Commodities have been in decline for ages now, and the problems with the real-estate sector are obvious to anyone that doesn’t have their head in the sand. The only “safe” labouring jobs require education – such as industrial electricians.

dungfungus 8:45 pm 13 Dec 16

switch said :

wildturkeycanoe said :

They then wonder if it was all worth it, just to end up overqualified and inexperienced.

And with a large HECS/HELP/whatever they’re calling it this week debt.

That “whatever they call it” debt is now about $50 billion and it is doubtful if much of it will be repaid.

So much for “free” tertiary education.

switch 5:07 pm 13 Dec 16

wildturkeycanoe said :

They then wonder if it was all worth it, just to end up overqualified and inexperienced.

And with a large HECS/HELP/whatever they’re calling it this week debt.

wildturkeycanoe 4:14 pm 13 Dec 16

dungfungus said :

Doesn’t matter if they don’t get a job because they are brainwashed into accepting that their parents and the state will sustain them.

There is a lot to support home schooling now.

In the real world, do school marks really matter? Does an awesome grade in technology studies land you that IT apprenticeship? Does your above average final mark in chemistry pave the way for an entry role in pharmaceuticals? If the views of diploma qualified students who are now in the dole queue are anything to go by, education alone will not get you a job. Being book smart doesn’t put you ahead of the rest. It appears that making contacts in the industry, having friends in high places or a wad of cash to start your own business are about the only way for future generations to get a foothold in the world of employment.
As Australia’s workforce merges from the technical, manufacturing, scientific and educational fields to part time and casual hospitality based industries, what use is a good education? It won’t help you serve drinks or look after old people, it certainly doesn’t enhance your ability to serve fast food and will not hold a candle to having done a pre-apprenticeship course in the building industry.
Even from my own generation, far removed from today’s youth, the passing of time showed that the academically successful students that attended university straight out of high school, ended up not following their ambitions. Most of those I know who trained in various fields of study are now in mundane supermarket roles, other retail jobs and not doing particularly well. On the flip side, those who left in year 10, bypassing the HSC for a labouring job or an apprenticeship, are now doing exceptionally well in their high paying jobs, or even run their own businesses.
Times have certainly changed and i don’t know what is more important, getting good grades or learning how to swindle your way into a good life. It is pretty certain that with the abundance of tertiary courses on offer, both in-house, on line and distance education, the competition has become much harder. The higher paying white collar jobs now have an abundance of recent graduates to choose from, but it isn’t how well they did in the course that counts, but how many years of experience they have. That is why more and more job applicants are in the struggle of how to get this experience, even though they’ve aced the intellectual part. They then wonder if it was all worth it, just to end up overqualified and inexperienced.

dungfungus 8:20 am 13 Dec 16

wildturkeycanoe said :

After attending the school award night which recognizes the brightest students in each class, I came to realise an unfortunate pattern.
Many moons ago, the academic excellence awards were held at the last school assembly for the year. It was a long, drawn out event with the multitude of recipients going up onto stage one by one to receive their certificates of merit. The last two years at least, the recognition of performing well at class was not done in front of students’ peers, but in a ceremony after hours, like a gathering of the KKK done in secret so nobody else knew how well young “Johnny” did in mathematics for the year. Whilst the academic achievements slunk away into the night, recognition awards for those who were in the bottom percentiles of the class became the norm. Every second or fourth assembly there were special merit achievements given to the students who’d be seen on a daily basis bullying smaller kids, disrupting the classroom and generally doing a pretty average effort of learning. But if they magically make a little progress towards becoming a productive member of society, the whole school has to know about it at a public praising event. How is it fair to give such commendation to troubled minds that disrupt everyone else’ learning, whilst hiding away rewards for those who are doing a terrific job fulfilling the basic requirements of their education? Not only that, but the numbers of students getting a “A” for a subject/s have been in steady decline. Last night’s event went so quickly because there would have been less than half as many as there were just a couple of years ago.
Have kids gotten dumber? My answer to this question is no. The teachers seem to be making it more difficult to get an “A” for a subject and it isn’t in my opinion a completely honest and fair guide for students. For instance, our youngest child this year achieved unbelievable results in the Naplan testing for English and mathematics, so good that the result was in the very top arrow of the results indicator. He went on to do the ICAS tests and also gained incredible results in mathematics and English, scoring in the 99th percentile, which is in the top 1% of all students in not just his school, not just his state, but in the entire country! Out of over a million participants, to get such a score and earning a high distinction is a brilliant achievement, or you would think so. But apparently that is not enough to get you an “A” or an excellence award in English. We just couldn’t believe it. For a kid whose grasp of spelling and punctuation is at such a high standard along with other subjects, that they have been skipped at year entirely, to only get two “A”s is a smack in the face. Previous years he’d managed to go from two awards, to three, then four and last year five. Now the bar is so high there are fewer and fewer attending the awards night, and less awards being handed out. Surely kids haven’t just gotten dumber all of a sudden, there must be a change in either the teaching effectiveness or the standards against which the kids are measured.

It’s all about “inclusiveness and diversity these days”. Everybody gets an award or a prize.
Australia Day is now Invasion Day etc.

Doesn’t matter if they don’t get a job because they are brainwashed into accepting that their parents and the state will sustain them.

There is a lot to support home schooling now.

wildturkeycanoe 6:37 am 13 Dec 16

After attending the school award night which recognizes the brightest students in each class, I came to realise an unfortunate pattern.
Many moons ago, the academic excellence awards were held at the last school assembly for the year. It was a long, drawn out event with the multitude of recipients going up onto stage one by one to receive their certificates of merit. The last two years at least, the recognition of performing well at class was not done in front of students’ peers, but in a ceremony after hours, like a gathering of the KKK done in secret so nobody else knew how well young “Johnny” did in mathematics for the year. Whilst the academic achievements slunk away into the night, recognition awards for those who were in the bottom percentiles of the class became the norm. Every second or fourth assembly there were special merit achievements given to the students who’d be seen on a daily basis bullying smaller kids, disrupting the classroom and generally doing a pretty average effort of learning. But if they magically make a little progress towards becoming a productive member of society, the whole school has to know about it at a public praising event. How is it fair to give such commendation to troubled minds that disrupt everyone else’ learning, whilst hiding away rewards for those who are doing a terrific job fulfilling the basic requirements of their education? Not only that, but the numbers of students getting a “A” for a subject/s have been in steady decline. Last night’s event went so quickly because there would have been less than half as many as there were just a couple of years ago.
Have kids gotten dumber? My answer to this question is no. The teachers seem to be making it more difficult to get an “A” for a subject and it isn’t in my opinion a completely honest and fair guide for students. For instance, our youngest child this year achieved unbelievable results in the Naplan testing for English and mathematics, so good that the result was in the very top arrow of the results indicator. He went on to do the ICAS tests and also gained incredible results in mathematics and English, scoring in the 99th percentile, which is in the top 1% of all students in not just his school, not just his state, but in the entire country! Out of over a million participants, to get such a score and earning a high distinction is a brilliant achievement, or you would think so. But apparently that is not enough to get you an “A” or an excellence award in English. We just couldn’t believe it. For a kid whose grasp of spelling and punctuation is at such a high standard along with other subjects, that they have been skipped at year entirely, to only get two “A”s is a smack in the face. Previous years he’d managed to go from two awards, to three, then four and last year five. Now the bar is so high there are fewer and fewer attending the awards night, and less awards being handed out. Surely kids haven’t just gotten dumber all of a sudden, there must be a change in either the teaching effectiveness or the standards against which the kids are measured.

danholliday 1:27 pm 12 Dec 16

Great article Gordon.
Public education is a big, broad issue and I want to comment on one aspect.
Having taught in adult basic education in TAFE colleges in recent years I remain dismayed that some students in the trades couldn’t answer simple questions of area and volume, information that should be understood some years before leaving school.
Clearly some are slipping through the net.
In a system designed to serve large numbers, those in the middle range of the bell curve must be catered to first to justify expenditure and I understand that the pedagogy has improved in this last generation. The internet allows people to access information that once had to be remembered but can replace neither understanding the information nor when and why it should be applied.
I believe that one of the major flaws in the education of our children lies in the area of social responsibility. We have made it difficult for the schools to maintain discipline in the classroom.
I have heard so often of the time lost in class to recalcitrant students misbehaving and disrupting in class. How can we teach most of our kids when a few take up so much time?
For public education to be effective, it must be able to devote most of its time to most of the students. If it can do that, then hopefully it can give more time to the very bright and those who find it more of a challenge.
As you say, learning is a process not just in the class room but also in our society; we learn what is right and wrong and where the bounds of acceptable and unacceptable behaviour lie.
There is a proverb that says: “It takes a whole village to raise a child.” Perhaps we need to find our way back to taking responsibility for our future generations at a community level. As I understand it, great advances have been made in the development of the pedagogy used in public education so let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater but we need to return to the teachers and the administrators the ability to maintain discipline in the class room so that most of our kids get most of the teaching time.

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