Archive for March, 2011

Turn off the lights for an hour – and then?

March 28, 2011

To start with, I want to say that I have a history of suggesting weird ideas.  It takes ten years or more, but a lot of them turn up in society, when someone else has the idea and the contacts to get it going.

Thirty years ago I was saying that fines should be proportional to disposable income, as fifty dollars for someone on $237/week total ($237 in 2011, that is,  the income for those on single-person unemployment benefits in Australia)  is much worse than it is for someone on a telephone-number income – and was told it was impossible, really.  A few years later Finland started doing that – how long before we catch up?

Twenty years ago I was saying that the Federal government should put aside some actual money each year to invest for the age pensions of the current unemployed and disability pensioners (the baby-boom bump, who won’t have as many young workers to support the payments as they age) and for other far-future commitments easily foreseen – and was metaphorically patted on the head and told that it was not practical.  A few years later they started the “Future Fund”.

Fifteen years ago I tried to get people interested in having an Australia-wide “turn out the lights” hour, when we could all go out, look at the stars as a Nation, and maybe even have kids in cities see the Milky Way.  I was told that it couldn’t be done, that councils would not be able to cut lighting to the  minimum for safety.  Well, they couldn’t, could they …. not without Green pressure.

I’ll skip the umpteen others.

Well, here’s my next campaign, and I know it’s really not original in the basics – for example http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/4791478.stm in 2006.  However, the superstructure is significantly different.

The Trigger

A class of teaching students was told to be professional in their appearance – to learn to iron their clothes.  They were also told to be models of behaviour for their students, including environmental awareness.

Does anyone else see a conflict here?

The thought

I think that the willingness of the Australian people to do the symbolic non-electric hour could well be harnessed to make the symbolic choice to wear clothes as they are once dried: unironed.

More details

Running the iron for the time needed for current standards of appearance uses less power than one might think (a 1600 W iron was reported on http://www.willsmith.org/climatechange/domestic.html#Kitchen to use about 250W/hour, as it does not heat continuously) , but it still adds up.   Add to this the time it takes from energy-saving labour-intensive options (like having a veggie garden) and the effect is greater.  Many people haven’t the time for it, and pay the travel costs and processing costs of commercial cleaning to get the smooth finish and still have time to sleep.

For many materials, careful hanging while damp gives a reasonable finish, but some workplaces feel that is not good enough.  Some all-natural materials are not naturally really smooth after washing, and currently have to be ironed for a reasonable (by current standards) appearance – even requiring some starch-equivalent to keep that quality.  Strangely, some materials which are naturally smooth are processed to have a crinkled or crushed appearance which can also be “Professional” (I never said that custom has to be logical…)

The Campaign: Wash and Wear

So, spread the word: any time the need to cut power use, or the desirability of home-grown food, or standards of dress are mentioned  …  Put in a plug for having materials in the washed-but-not-ironed state as The Standard for Professional Appearance.  Start with the school uniform and teacher dress requirements, and publicise it as an Environmentally Responsible School.

And in fifteen years I can say I said so

– and this time, I’ll have www-proof.

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Backbenchers, Blackhawks, and battling teachers

March 21, 2011

One of the problems for teachers is increasing conflict with different parents’ ideas of “the best” education for their children.  And I do mean that ambiguously.  At the same time, the teachers are feeling less valued by society – and with reason.  This devaluation does, I believe, result in the teacher having less social standing, and thus less interpersonal influence when there is a difference of opinion with a parent.

Parental actions
Compared with the 1970s, there is now less acceptance of difference of opinion between parent and teacher, or between parents of different families, and less willingness to wait so that others’ needs can be met  I think this is related to this being a time of one or two child families, and with parents also raised in small families:  firstly, there is less experience of inescapable tests of patience and deferral of desires in the toddler years;  secondly, there is less of a relaxed, experienced parent willingness to allow experimentation (you can catch up later, really); thirdly, although it is risky to admit it, in a larger family there is the sense of “hey, we have a spare …

So, when a clique of Blackhawk parents (not mere caring helicopter parents – these are the ones which attack with metaphoric heavy weapons in military-style strikes) do the ring-around and demand that the principal intervene, without having spoken to the class teacher –  remember, they really want the best for their children.  One can only hope  the principal can support the teacher – at least by suggesting that the parents  see the teacher to start with.  When two such groups start a brush-war over control of the teaching of the class, with irreconcilable differences in opinion on what “real” schoolwork is, it is easier for the teacher at first – but the inter-group tension can sour the whole class!

It takes a lot of energy to combine opinion-change and classroom teaching and administration liaison. It takes a lot of time to talk with everyone who wants to be heard.  It also takes formally collected data and references to show that the teaching style is best-practice. At the same time, the teacher still has to do the usual programming, but with the unnerving sensation that it may all be changed from force of parents rather than the usual change from force of events  or Government policy.  Also, at the same time, they have to come to terms with the new National Curriculum and cope with  mainstreamed special needs students.  No wonder teachers are finding their workmore stressful now.

Salary
In Western AUstralia, a backbencher MP from August 2010 gets $134,526 p.a. before allowances (1) ; a federal member gets $136,640 effective from 1 August 2010 (2);  a new teacher gets $56,112  rising to a maximum of $84,863 (3).

In 1975 the federal MP’s base annual rate was $14 500  (4);  a new WA teacher in 1975 was paid 176.8 per cent of Australian average ordinary time earnings, AWE (5) .  At $157.70 per week (6) that is roughly $14 600.  (The same multiple applied to November 2010 AWE gives an annual rate now of $224 978.)

The change is from roughly equal salaries to the new backbencher getting 2.4 times more than the new teacher.  Since 1975, has the politician’s workload really got that much greater than the teacher’s has?  New teachers used to be able to buy a home and have a stay-at-home spouse to nurture them; now they need both partners working to pay the rent, let alone buy, and their partner is tired, with less energy to share their troubles.  In effect, regardless of the above pressures their paid work has become harder because they now have to do more about the house and have less emotional support at home.

Economic and Social History: why the change?

It is unusually simple:  teachers have, like others who work in human-contact (productivity inherently fixed) work, in Australia suffered a decline in relative income resulting from the 1980s national decision to abandon Cost of Living – linked pay increases.   As long as increases in pay are productivity linked, the problem will continue.  Police, nurses, taxi drivers, social workers and orderlies are some of the others  similarly affected – you may have noticed them complaining, too.

Conclusion:

As Leigh and Ryan note (on a statistical basis:  (7)), as the salary drops relative to other careers those with stronger talents see that higher cash rewards are available in other careers and many follow the money.  Add the resulting change in average ability to the inevitable nouveau-riche tendency to value a person solely by their income, and the result is inevitable.

It takes a special person to be very bright, creative, and choose to teach in the current environment.  These are the teachers who can reach the disaffected, alienated geniuses in the class – the ones who can become brilliant leaders, researchers, drifters, druggies, or  very well organised criminals.  If you get one of those teachers, protect them from the Blackhawks – the whole world may owe you one day.

Let’s start a campaign: return to 1975 relativities.  While we are at it, adjust the taxation thresholds, deductions, and child/carer allowances  to 1975 times CPI increases – now, that is interesting maths!  (Is there a volunteer to calculate the new figures?)

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1. http://www.sat.wa.gov.au/MembersOfParliament/2010August/Pages/Default.aspx)

2. http://www.remtribunal.gov.au/federalParliamentarians/default.asp?menu=Sec5&switch=on

3.  http://www.det.wa.edu.au/teachingwa/detcms/navigation/working-in-a-public-school/salaries-and-teaching-levels/?page=1&tab=Main#toc1 ).

4.  http://www.sat.wa.gov.au/MembersOfParliament/Pages/1999December.aspx

5.    Chris Curtis on http://blogs.news.com.au/dailytelegraph/maralynparker/index.php/dailytelegraph/comments/greedy_nsw_government_takes_money_from_public_primary_school_students/6.  ttp://www.ausstats.abs.gov.au/ausstats/free.nsf/0/5BACEEAF1C7DF296CA25750C00194241/$File/63020_SEP1975.pdf

7.  http://people.anu.edu.au/andrew.leigh/pdf/TrendsTeacherQuality.pdf)

History repeats itself because too few listen: Do you see purple cats?

March 8, 2011

I recently heard a speaker state that men and women think differently, and that education should take account of that.  I would like to review recent history before I explain what this has to do with purple cats.

In the 1960s, everyone knew that men and women think differently.  Women were not good at logic  – subjects like maths and science – and complex tasks like map-reading or metalwork, and men were not good at emotional things or remembering birthdays and anniversaries (of course they could remember scheduled Rotary or Council events.)  Teachers expected the boys to shine at the logic subjects, and accepted the odd girls as talented.

The odd girls felt very odd, and were teased about their talents.  The same happened to the odd boys who appreciated classical music, visual arts, or dance – and the very odd ones who went for ballet or poetry.  It was a time when a grandmother would advise an A-student girl “Don’t let your intelligence show too much, dear, men don’t like girls who are smarter than they are.”

Women were mostly expected to leave work once they married – wages were based on the assumption that a man would support his wife and family. (Pay rates were the same whether single or married, so women supporting a family got less than single men.)  In Australia until 1966 women were dismissed from public service positions as soon as they married.  Therefore, education was based on the assumption that most women would be at-home parents.  However, things had advanced from the late 1800s, when women had to struggle to be allowed to attend University lectures and there was an assumption that too much book-learning made women … odd.

Working-class boys and girls were not expected to try for University – they often took apprenticeships by 15 years of age.  Things were changing: in the 1950s, they and Aboriginals would have been told that it wasn’t worth their trying.

Oddly enough, boys excelled at maths, science, and map-reading; few women took the science subjects in University, and few low-income families had children go on to University studies..

With the social movements of the 1960s and 70s, things changed.

Now, housing prices rely on the assumption that a family has two working parents.  It is assumed that people should get the same pay for the same work (although confidential pay agreements and sex-linked work-type pay rates somehow find men’s work more valuable.)  In many families, academic excellence in girls as seen as a great thing, opening the way to a high-status profession or at least a high-income career.  It is assumed that bright students from any background can succeed at University.

Oddly enough, more low income families have children go on to University, girls take science subjects at University, and a middle-aged man is shocked as a teenage girl reads the street directory efficiently.

Current Problem: Back to the first line.

There is concern that girls are outshining the boys academically now – is it just that previously pure logic approaches (naked Maths and Physics, for example) are being dressed up in essay-style work, where boys may be at a statistical disadvantage?  Is it that teachers are using a teaching style better suited to one range of learning preferences?  Is it the range of other activities available, and do we need more Tiger parents?  Is it that girls and boys learn differently, and we should have single-sex classes?

I suspect a combination of factors, including one not mentioned in polite society: the girls are no longer performing the 1960s’ version of the role of “girls at school”.

It was shown in the 1960s to 1990s that education in gender roles begins before children can talk.  It is partly affected by the child’s preferences, and there are gender differences in some child behaviours which can affect adults’ treatment of them – I particularly like the 1999 study suggesting that male baby vocalisations tend to be preferred to female baby vocalisations based on physical structures affecting their sonorance. ( 1)  Nonetheless, it was clearly shown that infants with disguised gender were treated differently on the basis of their perceived gender, and that the adults were unaware of the biases in their behaviours. (e.g. (2))

From everyday observation I can confirm that the experiments would find the same results today.  The actual treatments the babies would receive now are different, being based on different underlying assumptions.  Indeed, with the increasing range of cultural backgrounds from both migration and the range of electronic viewing preferences available, the range of actual treatments is also greater.

It is clear that the society-wide gender assumptions are still powerful – have you seen the toy catalogues? Have you seen the “boys” and “girls” sections in book advertising (and, alas, libraries?)

The consequences of breaking society’s gender role expectations at school are still unpleasant.  I am particularly concerned for the sensitive years just before and during puberty, where breaking the expectation can lead to questioning of sexual orientation.  In real terms, schoolchildren (and some adults) assume that if you don’t think like a “real” child of your gender you must be gay.  Or a (squid / squint / nerd) asexual brain.

Therefore, students who struggle with the “proper” style for their gender in the wider culture may avoid playing to their strengths.

What have Purple Cats got to do with it?

If adults , especially teachers, accept the current “Men are from Mars …” approach, ignoring the inevitable ranges of human individuality and disregarding warnings such as Dr Fine’s “Delusions of Gender” (3)  , the risk is that they will expect boys to learn / behave  in one way (or set of ways) and girls to learn in another.

Now to the cats.

A busload of highschool students were waiting for the bus home.  They noticed a cat climbing in a nearby tree, but got only a brief glimpse before it was hidden in the leaves.  Some said it was white, some said it was grey, some said it was brown.  “No,” said one, “It was purple.”

“But there’s no such thing as a purple cat!”

It turned out that a family had dyed their white cat purple.

Are cats like babies?

It is a rare person who sees the unexpected.  One of the most common problems for those who change their behaviours is that everyone else continues acting as though they were still behaving in the same old way;  a woman who does not shave her legs or underarms and is not a radical lesbian separatist is likely to be seen by workmates as a vegetarian even if she has eaten a meat pie in the office (yes, that happened to me); and you can change many things in a scene without people noticing – it’s all in the way the human brain processes daily life.  We simply haven’t the processing space to see what is really there most of the time, so we rely on learned patterns to fill in the gaps.

If the pattern you learn is an assumption about how people think, you will be at risk of missing the moment when it is clear that you have a non-standard thinker.  It’s the things we think are so which aren’t that cause the most difficulty – avoid the delusion of gender when you deal with students.

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1.  Bloom, K. Moore-Schoenmakers K.,  & Masataka, N. (1999).  Nasality of Infant Vocalizations Determines Gender Bias in Adult Favorability Ratings.  Journal of Nonverbal Behavior Volume 23, Number 3, 219-236, DOI: 10.1023/A:1021317310745)

2.  Culp, R.E., Cook, A.S.,  & Patricia C. Housley, P.C.  (1983).  A comparison of observed and reported adult-infant interactions: Effects of perceived sex.  Sex Roles 9(4), 475-479, DOI: 10.1007/BF00289787

3. Fine, C  ( 2010) Delusions of Gender:  The real science behind sex differences. Icon Books.

Teaching Mathematics: not wrong, just differently right

March 4, 2011

In the usual order of presentation of fractions, the concept of ratios is left until the upper primary years.  I am not sure that approach is wise.

I have noticed that a fair proportion of those learning fractions  (even at 11 years old)   if asked to write the fraction shown by  [X X X X X O O O] (really by a corresponding set of black / white circles, an image which I am too lazy to insert here)  will write either 3/8 or 3/5.

A computer would mark both of these as incorrect.

Many teachers explain to the class that they expect students to count the coloured circles as the fractional part, and accept the 3/8 at least once, but mark the 3/5 as wrong.   Few explain that the student has seen the ratio relationship – in the time constraints of class they say  just that it is not the fraction.  The unintended lesson hits – the ratio-perceivers’ perception is flawed, they do not “see” maths.

Consider a different approach:  ask the class to “write the fractions shown by the image”.  Touch on the darkened ones traditionally being the fraction numerator, and thus the one they should use for teachers.  Welcome the 3/5,  or 5/3,and explain that the student has noticed the ratio relationship – but that it should be written as 3:5, not 3/5 (we traditionally write the smaller first.)   By using the vinculum we are saying that the bottom represents one set  divided into that many parts and the top shows how many of these parts are in the subset we are examining, whereas the ratio (:)  form says that the colon-separated sides add to make the whole.  (This format allows for cooking  ratios such as 1:1:2, basic biscuit and cake weights of butter / sugar/ flour.)

Aside: a topic for another time – like the technical terms “phone” ,”phoneme”, and “morpheme”, does the term “subset” belong in class before upper – primary?

Ask the class whether they want to investigate  ratios as well as fractions, even if they are not on the curriculum for the year (a conspiracy of learning [1]).

What can this mean to the students? The non-standard forms are seen as mathematically sound, but not the traditional (and thus  preferred) form  – just a matter of presentation, and thus not a big error.    The ratio perceivers have opened up an option for the class to explore – their perception is affirmed as being of an important mathematical relationship, though it is not the fractional one.  They just have to learn which label we use for which relationship – again, a matter of presentation – and they can go home saying “I saw ratios, and most of the others hadn’t noticed them!” .  Isn’t that better than “I suck at Maths!”?

In addition, there is the opportunity to re-emphasise that the key to fractions is that they are the relation of a current subset to the theoretical unit set, related by division of the unit set (into the number of parts shown in the denominator) and multiplication of the unit fraction by the numerator.     This is a difficult concept, but can be examined using the excellent physical approach to fractions reported by Doug Clarke [2], explicitly forming fractions by sharing (i.e. division and multiplication).  This is the key to grasping equivalent fractions  rather than “doing the sums” without understanding.

Aside:  this links to the concept of fractions as pure numbers  (How big is a quarter?  How big is one?  One what? 1/4 cup is larger than 1/2 teaspoon.)   Eventually, it also links to the concept of  percentages as special fractions where the unit set is divided into a hundred parts, so we can have fractions or decimals as numerators.  The excellent and widely used First Steps in Mathematics/Number [3],  says that percentages are special ratios – and indeed, being a subset of the special ratios called “fractions”, they are – but I think it makes more sense to link them in the first place to the immediate superordinate set.

1. Louden, W, Rohl, M, & Hopkins, S. (2008).  Teaching For Growth:  Effective teaching of literacy and numeracy.  Department of Education and Training, Western Australia http://www.uwa.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/615686/TFG_Final_Report.pdf.

2.  Clarke, D.  Fractions as division: The forgotten notion?  Australian Primary Mathematics Classroom 11 (3) 2006

3.  Willis,S., Jacob,L., Powell,B., Tomazos,D. & Treacy,K. (2004).
“First Steps in Mathematics: Number – understand whole and decimal numbers, understand fractional numbers.” Port Melbourne, Victoria: Rigby / Harcourt Education, 2004

 

Interwebs and Arts: in praise of “Ghost in the Shell”

March 1, 2011

I have sometimes linked to particular sites which caught my attention for non-professional artistic skills, but recently I’ve been considering the commercial side.

For example, the ability to purchase movie videos not available even in the speciality rental stores – like “The Muppet Frog Prince”, or “Bell Book and Candle” (that is the predecessor of “Bewitched”, and shows that Jimmy Stewart really could act,) or “Separate Tables” (not flashy, but brilliant acting.)

More interesting is the finding of videos not commonly known, and the art they include. I have been struck by the quality of some of these, and particularly the start and end credits of the animé series “Ghost in the Shell”

(Aside:  End credits have great music and some important details, including who was that actor I thought I recognised — which is part of why I promote a revolt against those TV stations which shrink end credits and put ad visuals and sounds over  them.  Media and Arts Alliance take note.)

I was impressed by all the opening and closing versions, but I want to focus on “Inner Universe”.

The lyrics from Yoko Kanno/Origa’s “Inner Universe” have a fascinating net-presence.  There is argument on who wrote what and what the lyrics mean, and argument on what the lyrics are (sorry about the advert links on that site!).   The subtitled versions on the DVD set,  alternating between Japanese and English subtitles per episode, are worth seeing:

A follower of such things told me (I omit ver name for privacy preference) that the animation was devised with the music and subtitle placement in mind.  I am inclined to believe that, as the subtitled  sequence calls me to view it from time to time (in both forms) without watching the episodes.

On this basis I feel the video is an artwork in its own right.

Go on, get hold of a copy.  All you need to know is that the female character is a law operative in an artificial, internet/computer/brain linked, almost indestructible body.  Now, try to analyse what the video does and how.  Maybe discuss it with visual arts and music specialists.   There you have a major multimedia education experience, unavailable but for the internet allowing oddballs to chase up overseas interests, with totally fair financial rewards to the DVD company which made it available internationally.

Appreciating excellence is a joyful activity.