Posts Tagged ‘elementary schooling’

Sunday Times (W.A.) provides resource for English teachers. (2)

February 28, 2016

Once again The Sunday Times has provided Western Australian teachers with real-life examples so their students can have the opportunity to criticize adults’ writing.  The best one this week is from the Editorial. (Responsibility for editorial comment is taken by the editor, Rod Savage, 34 Stirling St, Perth, Western Australia  6000 – do send him a letter of thanks!)

In the section headed “Keep Bullies at Bay” (Page 38, News, The Sunday Times, 28 February 2016) the Editor addresses controversy over the Safe Schools scheme, which – acknowledging that ignorance is often behind out-grouping – addresses the range of sexual orientations.  The editorial’s final two paragraphs provide several topics for criticism and discussion:

“Everyone recognises the need to implement strategies to protect all children from bullying.  And that must include students who are gay, lesbian, or transgender.  We should not let these children down just because the scheme doesn’t sit comfortably with some politicians.  We can’t ignore the real risks of suicide and self-harm.  We live in an enlightened society and we shouldn’t incubate schools from that.  Critics say the scheme has highly sexual content which is more about ideology than helping children deal with bullying.

By all means, review the content, but we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Remember, prejudice, fear and by extension bullying, stem from ignorance.”


  1.  “… we shouldn’t incubate schools from that …”
    In this case, the desired word is probably “insulate.”  Mrs Malaprop had the habit of using fancy words in order to try to appear admirably educated, and (like Kath and Kim) showed her actual class by her incompetence – thus the literate reader’s derision of malapropisms.  However, in the more Hemingway-driven style of the popular press,  a technical term is often used because there is no simpler alternative, so the journalist who is not certain must not rely on the spellchecker.  “I don’t think that word means what you think it means”  is a marvellous tag.
  2. The first paragraph sentence order and sentence division
    “Everyone recognises the need to implement strategies to protect all children from bullying, and that must include students who are gay, lesbian, or transgender.  We can’t ignore the real risks of suicide and self-harm.  We should not let these children down just because the scheme doesn’t sit comfortably with some politicians:   we live in an enlightened society and we shouldn’t incubate (sic) schools from that. ”  Is that a better order?  Is it better to combine the first two sentences by using the comma before  “and” instead of a full stop?  Is the colon a better choice than a full-stop after “politicians”? Why, or why not?
  3. The paragraph break. 
    Would the final sentence of the second-last paragraph  be better as the first sentence of the final paragraph?  Why, or why not?
  4. Remember, prejudice, fear and by extension bullying, stem from ignorance.”
    This is also  worth a class discussion:
    – Why does the author have “by extension” before “bullying”?  – Would “as a result” be better than “by extension”?  Do the answers to the following change if we use “as a result”?
    – Would it be better as “… prejudice, fear, and (by extension) bullying stem …” or as  “… prejudice, fear, and by extension bullying stem …”  or as “… prejudice and fear and, by extension, bullying stem …” or even as  “…prejudice and fear (and, by extension, bullying) stem …” ?
    –  Is the Oxford Comma the best choice here, and if not, why not?
    Why do the suggested alternatives remove the comma between “bullying” and “stem”?   Should the comma remain? Why?
    – Why do the suggested alternatives separate  “by extension” from the surrounding “and bullying”?  Is this necessary? Why?

Thank you, Rod Savage.  Perhaps you could consider these questions before passing such items for publication?

Sunday Times (W.A.) provides resource for English teachers.

February 22, 2016

Australian newspaper editors seem to have decided to follow the advice to journalists “to write at a 7th-grade level” 

Unfortunately, they are printing works at the level of current 12-year-old average output, not at the level a 12-year-old might be expected to read.  This provides weekly items to help teachers develop their students’ editing skills, including reading the surrounding text to infer the probable meaning and then discussing the choice of improved wording.

For example, in a piece on education (I did appreciate the irony) regarding Civics and Citizenship, Claire Dickers wrote:

Education Minister Peter Collier conceded the approach to teaching history had been “ad hoc” for generations.

But, he would be “very surprised” if teachers using contemporary examples within the classroom politics.

(The Sunday Times 21.02.2016, News, page 35)


I think it was supposed to mean “if teachers were not also using contemporary examples to teach the basics of Australian politics.”   It may have carried some implication that the use of past examples in teaching politics contributes to students’ awareness of Australian history.

I would prefer “However,” to “But,” as a sentence beginning, particularly as it is a new paragraph.  Had the author written “generations, but he …”  I would not have complained about the conjunction.

Then, on the very next page, a photograph caption  begins:

Fearless West Australian surfer Jarryd Foster has taken on, and defeated, a death-defying wave in Portugal.

(The Sunday Times 21.02.2016, News, page 36)


I do not think the wave had any inclination to defy death.  The photograph suggested that surfing it might possibly be deadly, and to most of us would be terrifying – and riding it was certainly a death-defying act.  The wave itself, however, seems to be (if one may attribute such things as attitude and awareness of its future to a hydrological event) merely going about its duties in an exemplary, even enthusiastic manner, with no attempt to evade the final cessation of the wave-form.  Surely, the wave was (again, providing one accepts that it can have attitude and awareness) accepting rather than defying its death?

The dissection of a gruesomely malformed creature may be educational, but I would prefer not to have to see such things on a Sunday morning.

OK, climb trees. Now, about the rules on fighting …

January 27, 2014

Interested in , I wondered about other rules that have been, with the best of intentions, added to schools.

I know that “Saturday night is alright for a fight” was true long ago, but attacks without warning used to be “not on.”  This has changed.  And it’s not really the alcohol/ amphetamines: youths report hearing others going out deliberately NOT using the mind-altering stuffs because they want to fight better.

Pigeons in cages  may peck each other to death once they start, because they have no innate off-signal for aggression and are unable to flee.  Dogs have submission and dominance signals.  Humans have socially determined dominance and submission signals, and social rules about when to ignore them.  The later we are trained in them, the less profoundly we are constrained by them.

I have been wondering whether the increase in young adult unprovoked violence is related to the fashion for forbidding schoolyard fighting / wrestling between consenting equals.  Consider the outcomes of the rough-and-tumble:  experiencing pain; accidentally causing more damage than intended; passing on cultural rules such as “It is cowardly to attack a weak opponent” and “Don’t kick a man when he’s down;”  developing rules about “proper” ways to start a fight – and all in the years before 9 years old, the years of setting up the rules that become “just natural” in the adult mind.

Now, consider the possibility of making young boys and girls more reluctant to attack without cause and yet more resilient in the face of physical threat.  I like it.


Literacy, Numeracy, unfilled vacancies and classroom realities

April 4, 2011

There is a burst of interest in the number of Australians lacking the degree of literacy/numeracy required for understanding the training they require.  There is also the suggestion that unemployment benefits might be stopped in areas where unskilled vacancies exist.

Primary Education
From my children’s primary school years, I know that – for a class of thirty – there will be three who have some specific learning disability or are severely academically limited.  The latter have difficulty remembering new work the next week, and usually cannot find or remember patterns in information, or  generalise from one situation to another.  This means they find it difficult to use a method learned for one situation in another situation – even to the extent of understanding that the place value relationship from units to tens is the same as the patterns from tens to hundreds and from hundreds to thousands,  They have to learn these groups separately, and may never get beyond just doing them the way they are shown,  Similarly, they struggle with the pattern recognition tasks needed for reading beyond the basics, and the idea-pattern making needed for understanding science and society/environment lessons after age 9.

In addition, there will be somewhere between three and twenty who are not interested in school-learning, or who have some difficulty with the way the school system requires them to work.  Depending on the families and local culture they may merely do the minimum to keep the teacher quiet, and gossip or daydream as much as they can without being disciplined;  some are actively disruptive.  Some of them have chemical difficulties – undiagnosed attention or psychiatric disorders or frequent use of marijuana, for example.  Some of them may be classed with the first group, but shine academically in very small group environments.

These are the ones who could follow instructions, and might even excel, if the teacher has the gifts to capture their attention or if they find their own passion and follow it.  Or if the medical system gets the treatment right.

The former group will not all always struggle. Many will find ways to work to their strengths, or may suddenly “get it” as they mature, but chances are that one in each kindergarten class will be chronically unemployed because they are so hard to train.

The latter group has a larger proportion who learn what they want to when they need to, and can really benefit from adult access to primary school content.  However, it also includes the subset who will damage their brains through licit or illicit drugs, ending up unable to learn when they choose, and those who have deep emotional scars blocking formal learning.

A group not covered in thinking of the primary class is the normal or gifted who have later damage from illness or accident which reduces their memory, judgement, emotional control and/or ability to learn.

According to Centrelink contacts, there is a pool of adults, not officially unfit to work, not officially intellectually impaired, needing extensive one-on-one training to be fit for even theoretically “unskilled” work.  It’s not that they won’t do the jobs, or that they can’t work.  It’s just that there are very few of the undemanding jobs left, and even fewer who are willing to train people for them. This is inevitable in this age of high productivity (= use machines / dangerous chemicals = need to learn safety routines; also = less supervision time per worker = desire to employ quick learners).  Centrelink workers (anonymous for obvious reasons)  figure that, between congenital limitations and later damage, about 3% of the workforce will always struggle to get and keep an unskilled job.  In some areas, the percentage is higher. For a workforce of 10 million , that is about 300 000 people.

These would-be workers also have more difficulty meeting bureaucratic requirements – filling in forms, getting to appointments, understanding the written or verbal advice, and so take up more of the agency worker’s time per client.  Unfortunately, at the time of the peak in unemployment the funding for Centrelink’s unemployment workers was based  on the number of clients, so that when the easy customers got jobs the staff hours were cut, even though the number of time-consuming clients had not reduced much.  Please be patient with them.

Back to the chronically  unemployed and stopping benefits.

Remembering the employers who have “jobs no-one will take” which are so badly paid or harshly run that only the brain-damaged would take them (see the underpayment of Toys-R-Us employees), there will always be doubt as to the wisdom of stopping benefits purely because there are vacant positions.  Adding to this the well-recognised percentage of effectively unemployable, the doubt becomes stronger.  Adding to this the vision of a sympathetic but overworked Centrelink officer seeing a client who doesn’t understand the forms* for a special exemption from loss of benefits, and who doesn’t see verself as “unemployable” – the matter is certain.

Well, that deals with the learning side of chronic unemployment.

Learning in employment.

Now, looking at the expected distribution of abilities, consider those who can get work. We can expect that the normal distribution of abilities will apply – so that if 3% don’t meet the bottom limit, another 10% will be very close to it – and there you have over a million who will have difficulty with the training required to meet changes to their work.  Add to this those who are employed at their functional limit (inevitable: The Peter Principle,, and you get easily one-fifth of the workforce restricted in their ability to benefit from the training they require.

The scary part is that improving educational outcomes as measured by tests probably won’t change this much: the limit factor is really capacity to learn new stuff, and improved outcomes in tests are most easily reached by training in taking the type of tests used.   Consider the New York  experience  as reported by Radio National :  improved performance did not generalise.

Time to go away and consider our options.

Maybe it is time to explore  “the physical sensation of learning new stuff”, and condition more  children to find that sensation enjoyable.   Maybe it is time to use the asessment tools from Special Needs areas and apply them to the “at Benchmark” students, so that their limitations can be recognised by the Unemployment specialists.  (Unfortunately, that would take expensive staff, and have the emotional weight of labelling.)  Maybe it’s time to rename “Benchmarks” as “At Risk Levels”, so parents aren’t surprised when the child who made the benchmark struggles in high school, and so they encourage their children to work harder “to be more safe”.  Maybe it’s time to insist the schools help these children learn the skills to live on the dole when they have to.   Maybe it’s time to give cash incentives for additional  offspring to families whose children learn rapidly.  (Imagine the ads:  Don’t be an elderly primagravida  – Have your first child before you are 24,  so you have more time to prove your child’s gifted and thus get a bonus for your later children.)

If society wants to have a smaller proportion of the workforce struggling with the learning demands of their chosen employment, something must be changed.

*I made that up, I think they’d have to be invented.

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

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


From Polygon Song to Michael Jackson

January 25, 2011

Thoughts on “Polygon Song” by Peter Weatherall

I was looking for ways to help children remember the polygons’ names, and was struck by a performance of “Polygon Song”,  (with students in costume singing and acting the parts) at an assembly.   At first I thought this was an unexceptionable, really  good teaching song.

Then I considered the subtext:

“Nah. nah nah, nah, nah, just a boring Square.

I wish I was a pentagon, but I am just a square.
I wish I was a pentagon, but I am just a square.
My sides equal four, but if I had one more
I’d be a pentagon and not a square

Nah. nah nah, nah, nah, just a boring Square.”

So far, not bad.

The song continues, with desire to have more sides (triangles are not mentioned) and dissatisfaction with the main player’s squareness repeated.

So, where does it go – to the amazing properties of the tesseract?  To the practical designer choosing the square above the rest?

“(Play act  the square going behind a screen with a surgeon, and bits of paper tossed out)

Well now I am a decagon, and not a square.
Now I am a decagon, and very rare.
I won’t complain again ‘cos my sides equal ten,
I am a decagon, and not a square.

When I was just a square, I thought it wasn’t fair,
So I had surgery to my geometry ….
Now look at me!

Nah. nah nah, nah, nah, not a boring Square.”

The subtext I see is :  strong social acceptance of plastic surgery to change a standard but socially less valued appearance – with bust enhancement and nose reductions being normalised, the full Jackson option anyone?

I think I may still  use the song, but as a piece to introduce the idea of subtext to older students.