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Chronological Archive • April 06, 2003 - April 12, 2003
April 11, 2003
Literacy what are we doing right?

Like Natalie Solent (blogger archiving buggered blah blah scroll down to April 10 2.51pm) I am intrigued by this in the electric Indy the day before yesterday, which says that English children are doing really quite well at literacy, compared to children from other countries.

Children in English primary schools are among the world's best readers, although they spend more time watching television or playing computer games than their peers in most other countries.

A survey of reading standards of pupils aged nine and ten in 35 countries put the English in third place, beaten only by those in Sweden and the Netherlands.

Two immediate responses: Wow! and: Why? Aren't English schools supposed to be all over the place literacy-wise? That's certainly what I've been saying here.

What follows is only guesswork, but for what it is worth, here is my guess, at least concerning where to look for an answer about what is going on here.

The more I study literacy, the more I am convinced of the vital, pivotal, crucial role of parents. When it comes to teaching nuclear physics or brain surgery or medieval French, no good schools means no good students, but the lower down the education tree you go, the more parents can and do contribute. Although even at the very top they make a big difference, by pushing their kids to learn things that they themselves may not understand.

Suppose your kids are being "taught" at a "look and say" dominated school. Suppose, that is to say, they are being mis-taught, in a way that, uncorrected, would slow them down horribly and might well make them dyslexic. What do you do? Complain? That would almost certainly do nothing except make enemies of your child's teachers. Send them to another school? Home school them, perhaps? Maybe, but these are horribly big and disruptive procedures. The sensible thing to do, and if I ever have kids it is quite possible that this is what I and/or mumwill do, is teach them literacy yourself, for about a quarter of an hour per day, probably making use of the reading material that the school is supplying.

The Anglo-Saxon world has been fraught with rows about literacy teaching, and this is because the state of official literacy teaching in the Anglo-Saxon world has been uniquely chaotic, uniquely deranged by look-and-say methods. It's another big, big question why that is, but my theory is that because English spelling is so all over the place compared to most other spellings, just giving up on phonetic spelling is, although horribly damaging, a more tempting error IN Angl-Saxonia than elsewhere.

But if that's true, what is England doing right? How come we came third in that survey, rather than twenty-third or thirty-third?

Well, something else that has happened in the Anglo-Saxon world is that there has been a ferocious counter-revolution in response to look-and-say. Organisations like the Reading Reform Foundation, already referred to here on several occasions, most recently in this posting, have lambasted the educational establishment, screaming at them and begging at them to mend their ways.

Most of this screaming and begging has failed, if by success you mean beating sense into teachers, and into the Men from the Ministry. The new "national literacy strategy" is and remains a shambles. Things are improving slowly, but nothing like fast enough to explain England getting a literacy bronz medal.

But what if, although the RRFers have mostly failed to spread enlightenment to teachers, they have succeeded in spreading enlightenment, if not to all parents, at least to a great many of them?

Plus, maybe you do have to give the government some credit here. They haven't improved literacy teaching very much, but they have at least made a great fuss of the matter - "national literacy hour" and so forth, to the point where parents are noticing, and, unlike most of the teaching profession, they are now applying their commonsense to the matter of teaching their own children.

And that's not even to mention the explosion in private tutoring that is now occurring. This too is, of course, parent driven.

Because of their failure to straighten out most of the teachers, I have tended to regard the RRF and their ilk as, although right about reading and writing, inept about politics, and I think that's true. But what I think this survey may be picking up is that when it comes to simply spreading their ideas among regular people, the RRFers may have started to win a huge victory. Thanks to them, and allies of them like, if I may say so, me, parents all over the English speaking world are now giving a few minutes a day to teaching their kids letters and sounds, and maybe buying "synthetic phonics" videos, and then later helping their kids with their homework in a way that actually helps. And this may now be adding up to a huge educational success story. And if the teachers take the credit for all this, well, so what? The important thing, from the parental point of view, is to get the job done.

There is much talk from people like me about the "educational private sector", by which I mean alternative schools. But by far the biggest educational private sector is the home.

The newspaper story I've been quoting from makes much of exactly how much time children spend watching TV. If they spend all night, they don't learn literacy skills well. If they watch quite a lot, but not all night, they do much better. The implication is that this may throw some light on the educational value or lack of it of TV.

I think what it throws light on is the differences between some parents and otehrs. It doesn't take long to teach literacy, provided you do it approximately right. The big difference is between doing a bit per day (or so), and not doing any. The TV findings, I think, point to that difference. TV all the time kids are being raised as near barbarians, by near barbarian parents. TV some of the time means a much happier story.

If the story that I'm telling, about parental educational input, is right, it would also make sense of another finding that literacy surveys like this one always find:

The report, by the National Foundation for Educational Research, also confirmed the findings of a recent study that the gap between the highest and lowest performers was greater in England than in most countries.

my take on that being that parental input is more important in England, where official literacy teaching is so bad and where the rows about this have been so loud, than elsewhere.

As I often say at the end of my more speculative blog-postings: I don't know, but it makes sense to me.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:03 PM
Category: Literacy
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April 10, 2003
This won't work

The British government is going to start up a new TV channel devoted to teachers and teaching, presumably in order to recruit more teachers.

The usual story put out by all who preside over failing policies, in this case the policy of trying to contrive more and more effective state teachers, is that "the message isn't getting across". But usually the message is getting across only too well. People just don't agree with it.

Who among us does not know that the British government is desperate to get more good people to go into state teaching, and once in, to stay in? So why don't we become state teachers? Because we don't want to, is why.

This new TV channel will cost quite a lot, and merely publicise the government's policy failures, either by being putrescent propaganda which fools nobody, or by telling the truth. Either way it will be an embarrassment.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:14 PM
Category: Politics
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April 09, 2003
Steven Pinker - confusing school with learning?

Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate (on page 222 of my 2002 BCA/Penguin paperback edition) says this, of schooling:

Children don't have to go to school to learn to walk, talk, recognize objects, or remember the personalities of their friends, even though these tasks are much harder than reading, adding, or remembering dates in history. They do have to go to school to learn written language, arithmetic, and science, because those bodies of knowledge and skill were invented too recently for any species-wide knack for them to have evolved.

The central point Pinker is trying to make here is a true one. Stick a clutch of babies on a desert island with lots of food and drink readily available, and come back in ten years time. By then they will have their own language, crude yet effective, and they'll be speaking it fluently and grammatically. What they will not be doing is reading or writing in it, because that is not "natural".

But there is more to human nature than cognitive skills, as Pinker tells us at length, elsewhere in this same book. It is in the nature of children little children especially to pay attention to adults and to copy them and to learn from them and even to hero worship them, their parents especially of course. It is in the nature of children to tune in to the culture around them. If their model adults and their wider culture includes arguments and propaganda in favour of learning to read and write, and help to do these things, then they'll pitch into such tasks naturally. Even though these tasks are, in another sense, not "natural" at all.

To put it another way, the artificiality that a complicated mind makes possible is a natural part of being a human. A skyscraper is as much a natural phenomenon as a beaver dam.

And all of that means that going to "school" is only one of several ways to learn to read and write, and not necessarily the best one by any means. Especially when you consider how bad at plain old teaching so many schools are these days.

As lars says in his comment on this:

There are children who learn to read without lessons. Surrounded by a world with words everywhere, where people get around by reading signs and know what to buy by reading the labels on packages and where the information from the words on the video games helps to play the game and where people enjoy reading books and newspapers and magazines, learning to read as one is interested in learning it happens. Having someone to read things to them, when they can't read it for their self (books, games etc), to ask if this letter makes what sound, to think up and play games about letters/words with when the interest is there- helping a child learn in ways that are interesting to them- I think that is the way to 'teach' reading. Though, I don't think of it as 'teaching'- that seems like a concept laden with authority that can get in the way of learning. I think of it as helping to learn.


But let's give Pinker the benefit of the doubt, and accept first, that he's not really thinking about the home-schooling, home-learning, school-schooling debate. Let's allow him an elastic meaning to "going to school", and agree that if by learning to read and write "naturally", we mean children learning these things without anyone or anything laying them in front of them or making good noises about them, then indeed, children do indeed have to "go to school".

But if that's what is meant by "school", then there is more than one way to school your child, and your local school may be one of the worst.

My understanding of literacy teaching is that children who depend only on their school to learn literacy skills are right away at a near crippling disadvantage.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:23 PM
Category: Home education
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April 08, 2003

I did a piece yesterday on Samizdata about the piece I did here about the training methods used by the British Army. And a comment has appeared there of just the sort I was hoping for, from "gearweasle", whoever he might be.

EDIP, Explain, Demonstrate, Imitate, Practice: another child of WWI 's Charles R. (Skipper) Allen's four step training method for training shipyard workers in the United States, and revamped in WWII by AT&T's Michael J. Kane (working for the US's Training Within Industry program).

Kane's revamped method was Allen's four step method expanded to seven steps:

1. Show workers how to do it.
2. Explain key points, tricks, knacks
3. Let them watch you do it again.
4. Let them do the simple parts of the job.
5. Help them do the whole job.
6. Let them do the whole job -- but watch them.
7. Put them on their own.

Anyway, the USA in 1940 had just realized it needed to begin production on a massive scale, and was going to have to train millions of people in war work, while losing millions of trained people to the armed services.

Training Within Industry, an advisory service formed by the National Defense Advisory Commission, developed eventually three training programs (JIT, Job Instructor Training; JM, Job Methods; and JR, Job Relations), which was well written about by Bird McCord in: Chapter 32: Job Instruction, in Training and Development Handbook 2nd Edition a guide to human resource development, edited by Robert L. Craig, sponsored by the American Society for Training and Development, ISBN 0-07-013350-6.

The easy read of the "J" Programs is the 1943 Reader's Digest (US editions, sorry) series of three articles over the months of September, October, and November. Gives good feel for "how they did it", that is, how they trained the trainers to train the people who did the jobs, and how to train them how to look at the jobs.

And for a fascinating overview of what it meant to conceive and start up these gigantic coordinated industries just for airpower read General Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold's Global Mission. Wowser.

Postscript. Come to think of it, EDIP is only the JIT portion of the "J" Programs; they also worked on worker relations (Job Relations), and motion economy training (Job Methods).

Well, I don't know how many of us will be doing all that homework, but you do get a sense of the sheer power of the USA and its culture from that. I do, anyway. It may all sound rather impersonal ("human resource" development, etc.), but it's all part of the American dream. If they treat you as a human resource, they are at least treating you as human, which for a lot of people then was a big step in the right direction.

There has been argument here already about whether mere "training" has anything very much to do with the profundities that constitute "education". I say that training has a lot to do with education.

Think about how much is got across in the "training" that the gearweasle man describes. I don't think these guys (and girls) only learned how to fly (or build) an airplane, or to wire up a telephone exchange. I think they learned a whole attitude, a whole new confidence in their own power to get things done, things in general.

Okay, it all sounds a bit Big Businessy, in a bad way (in bed with the Government) as well as a good way (big because so well organised). But these guys were the people who took the USA from the Great Depression, through World War 2, to the deadlock in the Cold War that the next generation was able to turn into another huge win. And now we are witnessing this latest Iraq operation, which, whatever you think of its wisdom or moral justification, has been a miracle of coordinated human skill and savvy such as the world seldom witnesses.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:22 AM
Category: Adult education
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April 07, 2003
Behave or we'll home school you!!

In early February Julius Blumfeld did a piece here about why he favours homeschooling for his children. Today, long after it would be noticed by anybody in the normal course of events, this very scary comment was attached to Julius's piece, from one Moira Rogow. I want, as they say in California, to share it with you.

My husband and I never (and I mean NEVER!) thought of home-schooling our kids, but I used to threaten them with homeschooling from time to time and it really put 'the fear of God into them' as they say. We were in no position to follow up on this threat, but the kids didn't know and the thought of being stuck at home with one of us instead of at school often helped 'bring them around'.

I didn't remember that until I read your blog!

Ah, happy days.

It kind of puts a new slant on the relative attractions of staying at home or going to school, doesn't it?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:35 PM
Category: Home education
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