Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Culture Wars - the importance of evidence

Photo: Clare Belshaw, Paris, December 2004

I had not intended to post again today. Then I had to take Helen to work. When I came back, the cleaners were here and Clare and I had to go outside. She had her HSC (NSW Higher Certificate) school books with her and spent the next hour or so explaining her plans and reactions to individual books.

Growing up in an all male household, I now have three rather wonderful women (wife, two daughters) around me. It's not always easy for me as a mere male to survive, but I manage.

The point? When I sounded off to Clare about aspects of the NSW school curriculum she brought me back to earth by asking me questions about my own knowledge of ancient history. I got her on a few (she did not know who the Gracchi were), but I also realised how much I had forgotten.

This morning she actually brought out the NSW ancient history curriculum and read it out, asking me my opinion. This is unfair. Why should I not be able to simply comment?

Now let me tell you my response. With the exception of a small number of value laden words, I would handle this by getting rid of the words leaving the topics untouched, I found it rigorous and unexceptionable from a professional perspective.

This brings me to my first tentative entry into the detail of the culture wars. I am not interested in the broad sweep. What I really want to know is what the evidence tells me. If Julie tells me that there are problems with English, someone else that everything is fine, I take neither as gospel. I want to know the actual evidence so that I can make a personal judgement.


Anonymous said...

Interesting prospects ahead. About HSC English: I think the course is good but does need to be taught intelligently. I have found one can fulfil the requirements without departing from a rigorous even traditonal study of the texts. On the other hand, I am all in favour of opening up the content to incude things like "Citizen Kane", for example, or even a critical study of a website, which we could not do in the past.

However, it is far too crowded a syllabus, even when every moment of the four terms is used as efficiently as possible. Part of the problem is the enormous amount of time lost in assessment tasks -- perhaps as much as a whole month vanishes that way. I am sure you will see what I mean if you look at your daughter's assessment schedule.

Another problem is that there is a tremendous demand on the teacher's knowledge. Unless teachers have been very active keeping up with recent developments in English Studies, and with recent literature, film, and technology, they may find themselves all at sea; this was even worse between 2001 and say 2003, as very few teachers could draw on the training they may have received decades ago and experience since in order to find all they needed. They really had to get on the proverbial steep learning curve, and I include myself in that. My first go at an Extension Class on postmodern texts (the film "Orlando", "Dead White Males", and "The French Lieutenant's Woman" -- all of them good to do) was a challenge both for the class and myself. You can get some idea of how we coped by visiting the site I made for the students: "Pomosh" Part 1: Postmodernism for Year 12 Extension 1 2002. "Pomosh" stood for Post Modernism Sydney High.

There is no doubt the course can be badly taught. Inservice training was insufficient, relying on websites, which, while good, are no substitute for thorough induction in real training sessions.

I did not like the course at first, but have grown into it. At the same time, I think they should make examiners, if not all teachers, sit for the HSC papers themselves. The results could be quite instructive. Some tasks are not very realistic for forty-minute exercises. I am serious about examiners actually trying their own papers!

Jim Belshaw said...

Very interesting, Neil. Helen did advanced, Clare is proposing to do 4 unit and also showed me her total set of English books.

In fact, Clare is doing 4 major project subjects (English, D&T, Drama and Art) as well as ancient history and maths. It took a fair bit of drive and good negotiation skills for her to get this through the school. One of her killer arguments when told that she might drop her UAI score was to point out that she did not need a UAI in the nineties to do what she wanted to do, so why not have the added fun?

I won't give away all her secrets, but she has already defined an approach that allows cross-overs between subjects. So in drama she has chosen script and already has her plot at least roughly defined,in Art her major work links to some of the English texts, the D&T major work links to an ancient history text. Quite remarkable really.

The assessment approach does worry me not just because of the time involved but because of the pressure it creates. I love the idea of examiners having to sit their own papers! And I was impressed with the 2002 web site.