Friday, October 06, 2006

Aide Memoire to Self - Things to Remember

This post is far closer to a diary entry than my normal post, really an aide memoire to myself of things not to forget, of ideas and conversations, things read and thoughts. I do keep notes, mainly on scraps of paper, then other things intervene and I lose the notes.

I work mainly from home and have been largely responsible over recent years for the main child care role, itself a sign of the changes that have taken place in Australia. It has given me a closeness to my daughters that I value highly and played a valuable role in keeping me in touch across the generations. Any parent will know the way in which a car load of kids chat, forgetting that you are there. But it does make for a sometimes chaotic life as I try to balance work and family.

My two work main work spaces - kitchen and home office - are really the same room separated by a bench, making mental separation of home and work hard and adding to the general untidiness. Not naturally a tidy person, something my mother used to bewail, I struggle to keep order. I sometimes think in fact that my family is my mother's curse upon me, since I am now the tidiest of the family!

So in place of notes I would jot some thoughts down as an aide memoire to myself.

Migration Matters

My focus here has been on mass migration after the second world war. I wanted to tease out the distinctive things in the Australian experience, looking also at the changes that had taken place.

A post on Geoff's southcoast blog pointed me to an article by John Hirst in Quadrant on the Distinctiveness of Australian Democracy. Geoff was critical of the article for reasons I can understand, but there are also some interesting ideas there directly relevant to the issues that I have been trying to tease out. So I have to review.

Generation X, Generation Y etc

A comment from eldest daughter Helen started me on the Gen X, Gen Y question. I personally think it unfortunate that we imported the terms from Canada and the United States (here and here) because our experience has been different and because we are setting up a structure that may lead to difficulties. Where do we go after Z? However, it has clearly had some resonance (here, here, here , here , here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here for just a few examples) so has to be dealt with.

My original interest was in the process of generational change in Australia, linked back to the migration debate. Here I have always found it more helpful to look at the time when people went to primary school since this is when so many views are formed.

Now in this context I had an interesting discussion with my daughters about problems currently being experienced at two schools that we know well, a discussion that triggered new thoughts. I won't repeat all the conversation. Both daughters know that our discussions sometimes appear in public, indeed I have read some entries to them, but they also trust me to observe a certain degree of discretion.

"It's all about respect", my eldest said as a summary of what she saw as the major issues. Respect for teachers, respect by teachers for students including traditions and privileges, respect by younger students for senior students. Neither were talking about the authoritarian world of the old school, but about immediate current changes.

There were many issues in the conversation worthy of comment. But one key one was the differences they saw in the values, views and attitudes of children now coming out of primary school as compared to their respective age cohorts just those few years before. It left me wondering whether we were actually witnessing the birth of Gen Z! But then we must be definitionally given some of the age definitions applied to Y.

Schools, Schooling and Education Issues

Education and training issues have been much on my mind because they sit at the centre of many of my personal and professional interests.

Clare has been looking at her Higher School Certficate options. I found the structure and especially the grading system very hard to understand when Helen was doing the HSC and then found that teachers as well found it confusing. I was also concerned with what I saw as discrepancies in Helen's marks in drama, between what I knew of her class standard and the final outcomes so far as the HSC results were concerned.

I was helped here by the mum of one of Clare's friends who sent me a technical report on last year's outcomes. Apart from helping me in regard to Clare, this provided grist for my setting the scene story on Gen X etc. But I am conscious of a terrible irony in all this.

Historical time is asymmetrical. New developments can take a long time to mature, whereas things can sometimes be torn down quite quickly. This is something I have been meaning to write about.

The relevance for the present is that original thinking on the current NSW school structure actually dates back to the 1930s when my grandfather was Minister for Education. That's the irony. As an educational reformer Drummond looked at reshaping the entire public education system. One of his key advisers was Harold Wyndham, a family friend and head of Department's Research Branch. Many of the reform moves failed at the time because of the depression, the onset of War and then defeat of the Government of which Drummond was part. So it would be sixtiesties before the Wyndham scheme came into place.

My misbegotten PhD thesis, I say misbegotten because it met serious conflict among the examiners and confusion in the PhD committee to the point I gave the whole thing up, was biography of Drummond's life up to 1941. As part of this, I traced through the history of NSW education, trying to put it into a broader context of educational change while linking it back to Drummond's personality, approach and role as a regional politician.

Now looking back, I wonder what he would have thought of the current system. I suspect that he would not have been happy. Here we can make a clear distinction between structures, principles and implementation.

Drummond believed profoundly in technical education and, more broadly, in the role of universally available education in helping individuals and society. His early history gave him a compassion for the underdog as well as a consciousness of his own failure to take advantage of the opportunities he had been given, his later success showed what was possible.

I know that he would have been happy at the spread of mass education. I think that he would also have understood many of the changes brought about by the Training Reform Agenda from the 1980s, although I suspect that he would have been uncomfortable about the mass transfer of some of these concepts into the school system and about some of the rigidities now associated with the system.

Even though he paid for me to do my secondary education at a private school and also played an early role in the provision of support for the Catholic education system, I think that he would not have been happy at the decline in his public education system because he saw it as the critical universal building block. And I suspect that he would find the current curriculum structure downright confusing, even suspect and would probably be appalled at the load we now put on school students and teachers.

I have drifted. In terms of my current thinking, I can see advantages in writing about some of the historical education material because it is still relevant. In an earlier debate on the Learning Circuits blog one poster suggested that things changed so fast that anything written longer than nine years ago was irrelevant.

This is a modern myth that pervades much thinking. Just as the current structures in NSW education reflect thinking that is now over seventy years old, so the Training Reform Agenda debates of the 1980s have created structures and idea sets that will still be powerful thirty years from now. And those ideas reflect in part the emergence of the international quality movement thirty years earlier, if modified to meet particular Australian institutional structures.

This modern myth is connected to a second one, that knowledge has been expanding at an exponential rate. Certainly access to information has been expanding at an exponential rate. But when we look at the actual on-ground position, I really question just how much knowledge is in fact expanding.

My daughters know about far more subjects than I did at the same stage. Their information access and processing skills are far better. And so they should given the time now spent on teaching process skills. But their knowledge on particular subjects is much lower than mine was at the equivalent age.

Then look at the rate of scientific and technical progress. Now I might be wrong, but I think that this has slowed dramatically. Patents are up to blazes, there is a constant stream of new technology because we are good at modifying and extending what we have, but when we come to look at the fundamental discoveries that really change the future, progress has slowed.

If I am right, and I stand to be corrected, we should not be surprised. Original thought takes time and depends upon interaction with others because we build upon other people's ideas. We have little time, while interaction is locked out by both absence of time and intellectual property issues. Powerpointese is not an effective substitute for carefully prepared written thought.


Anonymous said...

The last point you make is much the same as what I tried to say the other day in Brevity may be the shoal of wit...

I was interested too in what you say about state education and Drummond; I think the default position of governments until very recently has been that a vibrant public education system, free compulsory and secular, really is the main game, and private education is for those who for one reason or another want it, but not at the expense of the public. You will see from my most recent post that I take a very dark view indeed of recent developments. Too dark? That remains to be seen.

I don't recall my grandfather ever mentioning Drummond; he did talk about Peter Board though. Although my grandfather's Scots Presbyterian background, love of "home" (as he still called the Old Country) combined with love of the Australian bush and country people, and his generally conservative politics, would no doubt have made him very comfortable with your grandfather, I am afraid he was no great believer in the New State movement.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you for this comment, Neil. I agree.

On the school issue, I have been playing around in my mind, thinking of having some fun, of writing a post showing what would happen if I was CEO of NSW Gov Ed Ltd and the full model was applied. You see, I think that the public school system could compete but if, and only if, it was allowed to do so. And there is the rub. I wonder how Cranbrook and Scots would go if the nearby state schools were free to cherry pick their (Cranbrook and Scots) best students?

I normally write as a historian, but for a lot of my professional life I worked as an economist so know the models pretty well. Will think about it.

Peter Board was a pretty impressive man. If you look at his ADB article written by Harold Wyndham - - you will see what I mean.

Still on your granddad, because I have written up some of background material, I was thinking of taking your material and wrapping some historical context around it. Not sure that this would work, but it might make an interesting post. Any problems with this?

Finally, on the new state, not everybody is perfect!

Anonymous said...

No problem, and I have another page (1906-the early 20s) to add when I get around to transcribing my mother's memoir.

As to your Scots/Cranbrook comment, I guess the result would be similar to what has happened as Sydney High creams off from, say, Matraville High and other former comprehensives...

And speaking of Sydney High, where I went, I remember back around 1957 listening to a talk by famous old boy Sir Earle Page. Don't ask me what he said though.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Neil re use of the material on your grandfather. The Sydney high matraville example is relevant. If there were full scale competition, I would expect some of the private schools to complain very strongly.

Interesting re Page and Sydney High. Because Page and my grandfather were friends and I also knew Ulrich Ellis very well, I knew Page (more accurately of him) very well.

In 1961 my grandfather's last election campaign campaign he fullfilled a long standing promise and took me and a cousin on the campaign with him. We had worked our way from meeting to meeting, school visit to school visit, to Tentefield when the news came through of Page's collapse. We hitched home while Drummond rushed down to Cowper in an unsuccesful attempt to try to pull the Page election campaign out of the hole. Page died without knowing that he had been defeated,