Posts Tagged ‘Unintended lessons’

Pot, this is kettle… Sunday Times (W.A.) provides resource for English teachers. (3)

April 4, 2016

Sometimes I do tell the Sunday Times of the writing I have found annoying.  An example:

The Editor
The Sunday Times

In your B+S supplement (and, too often, the abbreviation letters are appropriate) of 03 April 2016 page 3, one of the suggestions for a healthier life is “Swap this… book for iPad.”

Reading on, one learns that sleep quality is likely to be better if one reads a paper text rather than reading on a tablet. In Standard Australian English, if I swap this for that, I dispose of this and receive that; if I substitute this for that I use this rather than that. Your paper often uses these incorrectly. In this case, the heading should have read “Swap this … iPad for book.”

This is one of a string of errors and malapropisms which have made your newspaper a valuable teaching resource. I believe that, in your efforts to cut costs, you have outsourced editing to people who are not truly familiar with English. My occasional telephone complaints have been brushed off with “You know what we meant,” and my written corrections have not changed your performance. This shows the general public that “You know what I mean!” is a valid response to criticism of one’s English usage. So why should students bother to learn correct usage?

Although I appreciate the chance to let primary school children correct adults’ published texts – ego-boosting editing practice – I think it is time you spent the money to employ literate editors. THEN you could complain about the quality of teaching in Australia.

August 14, 2015
There are differences between judging others based on their writings, making allowance for the perils of Murphy (Muphry’s Law when one criticises others’ writing) and wishing to be accurate oneself.

The Standard English forms of spelling and grammar were set up partly to facilitate accurate communication, and the standardisation has led us to be able to share the thoughts of people who spoke dialects we would struggle to understand and who lived hundreds of years ago.  We learn our individual forms of written English (as with all languages) through our lifetime’s experiences linking form with meaning.

Accurate (that is, adhering to the Standard form) spelling and grammar are a matter of peacock’s tail (display of energy beyond essentials for survival, thus good genetics) and also a matter of courtesy to the reader (we ought not have to guess what you meant to say.) I do not mind making allowances for those with a learning disorder, but would prefer to rewrite poorly constructed comments with standard spelling and grammar before putting them online. Why? Not mainly for personal display. Not just as courtesy to readers. Largely because online items are, for many students, the main form of reading and writing, and thus the main source of background awareness and practice of spelling and grammar.

Students who have the capacity to learn the more esoteric levels of Standard spelling and grammar are not doing so, and thus are unable to read with ease more complex texts containing very deep concepts and subtle humour. They therefore fail to develop their greater potential depth of understandings and ability to describe complexity as rapidly as was previously possible, when true speed reading (not skimming, but reading well beyond speaking speeds full text perception and comprehension) made access to thought much more rapid than is possible with TED-talk transmission.  They may not develop to their full potential for thinking at all, which is a loss for Humanity.  They also miss out on great ideas and great entertainment – wonderful things which they could translate for the many who have not the potential or the time to read the difficult texts, another loss for us all.
So, as a public service, if you can be correct – do so.

What is normal?

January 27, 2015

This was left in a caravan park in the 1950’s, earlier provenance unknown, but the hairstyles date it.

My, how culture changes: we are no longer allowed to see the range of shapes as normal, let alone have images of them or names for them except on unsavoury internet sites. Some may object to the descriptive lables, but I think they are rather poetic.

In these days of Barbies, airbrushing, and boob-jobs it could be a valuable health-ed and art resource.  Imagine comic-books with the full range depicted…


Frightened to touch – is that good for your class?

May 16, 2011

Combine  the ideas in  David Brook’s address to the Commonwealth Club of California, Harlow’s research on the rhesus monkey’s need for comforting touch,  the recognition of the need for affective touch leading to the development of special cuddleable robots for hospitalised children,   the recognition by the marketing community of the importance of touch in selling (extend it to selling a person as being caring),  the link between childhood experiences of touch and adolescent social and emotional development, and the link between physical aggression and touch deprivation including touch in adolescence.  Stir in a dose of any of the films of primates de-escalating tense situations, or doing “group bonding activities”.  Add awareness of the busy family using electronics to babysit, and of  families where non-aggressive, non-sexual touch is rare for less socially accepted reasons.

What does this  say about the no-touch approach in school?  What are the effects of the policy being stronger  after the children are 8 years old, and its being stronger for men in teaching?

Entirely apart from the failure to use a strong reinforcer (oxytocin release) with known links to opinion change, calming, and later cooperative behaviour;  and ignoring the chance to help children at risk of later developmental problems –

I see an unintended lesson:  teachers, especially men, are perverts, who must be prevented from molesting you by rules against their touching you.  Another blow to the social status of teachers.

All rather sad, really.  I’m sure the fashion will change eventually, but at the moment – so sad.

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.


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

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


Of course we don’t teach to the test. Really. No, really … Stop laughing already!

February 25, 2011

Most teachers and school administrators strongly deny that their schools  “teach to the test.”  After all, concentrating on  the development of deep understandings and the use of curiosity-driven investigations leads to better performance in the long run… that’s the current doctrine.

Let’s look at it in practice, in Literacy / Writing:

In recent years, many teachers in Australia have been concentrating on narrative / recount structures – stories the students want to write are, after all, a good way to get them to practice the general skills of writing.

The skeleton of the narrative writing aspect is the understandable sequence of the story,complexity of the plot,  and richness of characterisation including characters very different in thought from the author;   the flesh is general writing skills,  The same flesh is required for persuasive writing, with the skeleton seeming different until you look twice:   having introduction / sequenced arguments / conclusion, having more than one argument, arguments showing understanding of different opinions, and appreciation of the complexity of real world situations .

In an amazing coincidence, following the announcement that NAPLAN’s Australia-wide writing assessment will be based on a piece of persuasive writing instead of a narrative, all across Australia schools are concentrating more on persuasive writing and less on narrative.

If one examines the NAPLAN writing assessment guides and examples, it is clear that the bulk of the rating comes from general writing skills – how the author puts flesh on the skeleton.  Given the parallels between the skeletons, I doubt that the sudden change in format will reduce writing skills or seriously affect marks in general.  I do wonder how it will affect those who have had low ratings because they are happy with real-world matters but freeze in terror when asked to make up a story.  Could it be a surprise to some teachers?

(Aside:  I wonder whether this year’s NAPLAN writing scores will correlate more strongly with later Science performance than have the previous scores?  Are there that many bright students preferring reality-based writing?)

I also wonder what lessons the students will learn from the obvious conflict between speech and action on the part of educators – especially if a clique of parents has been influential in changing the course of classroom activities.  Furthermore,  some teachers believe what they say.  How much stress do they suffer from the cognitive dissonance inherent in their required participation in this approach?  How will it affect their future philosophy of teaching?  These are not quite rhetorical questions – rather,  they are questions I am still considering while I watch the real world.