Monday, March 23, 2009

Problems with words and measurements

Just a few comments tonight.

A conversation today with a colleague gave me pause. She complained that the word community had become a much misused word. Whenever she heard it, she asked at once what it meant in the mind of the writer.

The example she gave was a simple one.

Take some people who have a fight. This is a bad thing when it spreads over into civil disorder. The papers report it. We ask why?

Now assume that the papers say that the fight was between members of the Pacific Island and Aboriginal communities. This is war talk. The meaning changes. But how do we know that it wasn't simply a brawl? What do the writers actually mean by community?

This is a misuse of words. But what about misuse of numbers, the failure to critically examine underlying premises?

Here I want to use an example from Neil. Not, I hasten to add, to attack Neil, but because he has actually brought out an example of what I see as sloppy thinking.

I suggest that you read first Who are you calling an ideologue?. This post deals with a debate in Australia about the teaching of English. Without going into the details, this debate links to Australia's own unique culture wars, a clash of ideas enveloped in political venom on both sides.

If you look at Miranda Devine's article, and assuming her reporting is in any way correct, then Brian Cambourne is engaged in an intellectual war. Miranda Devine's response falls to the same class.

Neil, an experienced English teacher, is sympathetic to Brian Cambourne's position, but also believes the whole debate misses the point - there is no single solution. Neil is right. I think that I can show quite simply and clearly that the debate is misdirected.

Complaints from university lecturers about the literacy of new students first emerged in the eighties and have continued. Business interests complain as well.

The conclusion drawn from this is that the standard of English teaching has declined. This seems self-evident. But is there another explanation?

Two things have changed since I started University.

The first is the huge increase in the proportion of the Australian population going to university. In purely statistical terms, this means that the absolute number of people with lower English ability is likely to have increased. Then, too, we have changed marking approaches with a greater emphasis on multiple choice or short answer questions intended to test specific knowledge as compared to the old exam essay approach.

So does the apparent decline in English standards reflect teaching failures, or simply increases in student numbers combined with different examination approaches? Is it possible that English teaching has in fact been a success because it has been able to compensate, to some degree at least, for other changes?

My point here, and it is one that I make so often, is the need in these debates to subject the analysis to very basic questions, to look for alternative solutions and meanings.


Time to shine said...

Indeed it's true that the way we take examinations now is far more different than the ones in the older generation and in my personal point of view, this may be one of the critical factors of the decreasing of English literacy.

Jim Belshaw said...

I think that's right.