Posts Tagged ‘Equality’

School reality in Austria

Inferno
Inferno
Sat Mar 08, 2014 12:00 am by Inferno

I’ve been meaning to write this for quite some time now but I never got around to it. I wanted to continue my politics series, but atm Austrian politics really sucks and I’d rather not talk about it.

In my last post on education, I briefly brushed on one astounding fact: Education is hereditary. I stated that “between 60-80% of learning achievement can be predicted by looking at the background of children”.

I won’t delve into why that is too much, but I want to explain how that creates problems for teachers.

I am currently teaching at a school in Vienna. It’s not a bad school at all, in fact I’m quite happy about the school’s infrastructure, the colleagues there, the children and of course the parents. All in all, I’m satisfied.

Could things be better? Of course they could. Our computers and printers are slow and old, our projectors hardly work at all and we’ve barely got enough space to work on. (About the size of an average computer screen, 1.5 if you’re lucky.)
Compared to Nordic countries, that’s nothing! In Sweden, I had my own desk and two cupboards. That’s about as much as our head mistress gets!

All that aside, there’s a much deeper problem with our education, one that can’t easily be fixed.

 

Let’s back up a little. A few decades ago, kids were still beaten. Kids were scared to go to school, but they went anyway. Kids had suffered through a damn lot.

And yet, they got good grades, learned a lot and essentially built what we have today: A (more or less) functional society with (more or less) good morals and a (more or less) slowly closing gender gap, with (more or less) little discrimination against people due to whatever reason… All in all it’s a good society, though of course there are still things we can improve.

However, kids were more polite, though that is of course not due to any innate quality of generations past, but rather because they feared the rod. In any case, teachers in those days had it much easier but used inadequate methods to teach.

Nowadays, we have the exact opposite. Teachers have the benefit of smartboards, neuroscience, excellent teacher training, readily available teaching materials and so on and so forth.

And yet, teaching is more difficult than ever. You have to make your subject not only more interesting than the other subjects, but you actually have to compete with video games, movies, taking drugs, drinking and even sex. Try doing that, making your subject more interesting than sex: Good fucking luck.

 

If that were the only problem, we’d be in trouble, but we would be able to fix it: Appeal to the parents, make them work a bit.

Here’s the real problem: Many parents, at least in Austria, think they know better than the teachers. I’ll give you an example. Last week, we talked about “animals” in class: Basic vocabulary, talking about them, etc. Possibly the easiest animal for a German kid to remember is “rat”. So I was surprised to see that a boy had written “ret”. While my colleague was teaching, I went up to him and asked him about that. Here’s the short discussion that ensued:

Kid: “My mom told me you spell it like that.”

Me: “Well that’s a problem then because that’s not the way it’s spelled. I studied English for a reason, did your mom? Look, here’s the book spelling it “rat”, here’s the dictionary, here’s…”

Kid: “I don’t care. My mom told me you guys suck anyway, so I don’t have to listen to you.”

Now this might be an isolated incident, but it’s still representative of the mentality many parents hold: Teachers are lazy, get paid too much and they know absolutely nothing. Here’s another example. We’re currently re-structuring the curricula at my teachers university college (PH Wien) and I volunteered to help. Needless to say we have no power to do anything at all, but we still meet regularly. During the first meeting, one of the participants (parents association representative) asked, and I paraphrase his long question: “How come, after all this training, there are still bad teachers?”

Now this, of course, betrays a wild ignorance of Gaussian distribution: Some people are very good, a lot are medium and some are very bad. Teachers training doesn’t get rid of the bottom percent, it just moves the whole curve a bit to the right, aka. towards the “better” part of the curve. However, there is a deeper message: Teachers need to be controlled, they need to be supervised, they need to be watched over.

On the whole, of course, I agree: Teachers should do their absolute best, just as doctors and firefighters and … should do their absolute best. No questions asked. However, that’s not possible without public support (aka money) and public support (aka supporting parents and society).

 

The third problem, and I’ll be sure to confuse you with this sentence, is migration.

“Wahhh, right wing scum.”

No, don’t get me wrong. The problem isn’t with migrants, it’s with how we accept migrants. This may be different in other countries, but migrants in generally aren’t welcomed in Austria: There’s a strong anti-immigration strain-of-thought, especially in large cities. If the only thing you tell migrants is that they’re lazy and that their language isn’t worth a damn, then we’ll have a society of people who think just that. If we tell people that only our language is important, then not only will migrant children lose their identity, but we’ll lose the ability (or willingness) to adapt to new cultures.

This may have something to do with our history: We’ve had a long-standing feud with the Ottoman Empire (aka the Turks) and we’ve been invaded more often than possibly any country on earth. (This may or may not be a slight exaggeration) We were once a mighty empire with loads of cultures where we didn’t have to fear diversity, now we’re a tiny country with no say in any matter. However, fear of diversity will kill this small country: Only through increased diversity and increased acceptance of it will we be able to hold our place.

Finally, it is exactly the wrong approach to tell children that their language isn’t worth anything: We must encourage them to learn their mother tongue, if only because mastery of one language will make mastery of a second language more probable. The earlier, the better; the more, the better. In short: If, as a foreigner, you want your kid to learn English, teach it your mother tongue first.

 

Jumping back to the beginning, I think I’ve identified a few problems with schools as they’re currently run:

1) School needs to be exciting, but schools nowadays are boring.

2) Society neither trusts teachers, nor are they seen as authority figures. Where respect and mutual aid used to be the norm, distrust and low-profile conflict are now much more common. Parents tell their kids not to trust their teachers because “those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach”. Parents think they’re experts in education, simply because they have a kid and have read a few books on the subject.

3) Education isn’t as “interesting” a political topic any more. Screw what they said in “House of Cards”: Education isn’t anything that will capture votes. Or maybe it will, but after that we won’t do anything useful. I’ll have an entire post about that soon. *

4) Cultural identity and the benefits from it aren’t recognised as worth protecting, instead we want people to assimilate in a way that’s comfortable for us. Never mind what’s best for the kid, let’s think about what’s best for me.

These are just a few of the problems teachers in Austria (and probably also in other countries) face. I’m not saying that teachers are saints, of course not. Neither am I saying that they’re purely victims. I’m saying that we should be realistic about the challenges of teaching, that parents should support a child’s learning and that schools can’t work miracles. When in doubt, talk to your child’s teacher once in a while and formulate a plan how you can best support your child.

*There are many things I could talk about, but I think this will be the most interesting. I’ll be talking about current problems in schools (due to the system), current scientific investigations into the topics including possible solutions, and I’ll talk about how the state is trying to fix it: By doing the opposite of what experts are telling them, I might add.

If you have any questions regarding schools, school reforms, teaching practices, etc. I’ll be happy to answer.

Equity now?

Inferno
Inferno
Thu Jun 13, 2013 3:44 pm by Inferno

Whoever you are, we are not equals.

You might be a person living in a less economically developed country. In that case, we might be equally happy, but chances are I’m more educated (not intelligent, mind), healthy and have a better standard of living than you. We are not equal.

You might live in a more economically developed country, but you might be a woman. Although you are more likely to live a longer and healthier life and be more educated, I have better chances of getting a better-paid job, I am less likely of having to quit my job for the kids and I am less likely to work part-time. We are not equal.

You might be male, with the same education and chances of getting a job as I do. But you might be shorter than me, which increases my chances of me getting a better-paid job than you. You might be less fit, bald, etc. We are not equal.

But let us suppose that we are, in all the above mentioned respects, identical. We are both men, 22 years old, with an almost complete tertiary education degree. We are both 187cm tall, reasonably fit and with full hair. We are still not equal.

At this point, you might either understand what I’m getting at or you might be in utter despair. How are you not equal?

Well, you might be better at Basketball, while I’m better at the Trumpet. I might be better at cycling, you’re better at running. I might be a better kisser, you might be better in the sack. (Purely for the sake of comparison, of course! I excel at both.) You might be better in law, I’m better in educational studies. We are NOT equal.

We are, however, of equal value. It’s harder to make this distinction in English than it is in, for example, German. In German, we use the word “Gleich” to describe “equal”, “Gleichberechtigt” to say “of the same right” and “Gleichwertig” to say “of the same value”. In English, “equality” means all of these. I will get to one last thing it means in a second.

Everybody has a different set of talents. Whether you are a woman, chinese, a man, black, short, bald, hispanic, or anything else… there are some things you are good at and some things you are less good at. These things make you you, perhaps unique, but they do not make us equal.

Now, I talked of equality one paragraph up and mentioned a further word. Equality can also be understood as “sameness”. That’s the real danger with “equal” and “equality” I see. We miss the larger point: We are individuals and we need to be treated accordingly.

 

Joss Whedon’s speech “Equality now” is a beautiful speech about the equality of women. He explains why he writes “such strong female characters” and why he thinks we should have equality now rather than later.

However, equality doesn’t cut it.

So I suggest the much underused “equity” and I will even suggest that equality, at least in the way described above, is not what we want in many cases.

We want equality in racial matters, when it comes to LGBT-rights and so on. But ideally, we want equity when it comes to economic matters, to matters of handicaps (in whichever way they might come) and also in schooling. (Giving resources especially to kids who don’t meet the minimum requirements.) Equality can be applied wherever there is no inherent (dis)advantage on one side, while equity applies in exactly those cases.

After all this, you might ask for my justification. “Why do you want either equality or equity?”, you might ask. “Every person is the architect of his/her fortune.”

This would be the case if ours were a Darwinian society. Luckily, in my opinion, it’s not. We take care of others because we have some sense of moral duty. We take care of them because we want to be taken care of when we’re in trouble. We also do it because we ourselves profit from equity.

There’s lots and lots I could talk about on this subject, but I want to get some discussion going. Do you think this is purely semantic? If there are changes, what will they be?

Education: Some facts

Inferno
Inferno
Wed May 22, 2013 10:00 pm by Inferno

Education has been around since before written history. In one form or another, people have taught other people about stuff they know, and sometimes even about stuff they don’t or can’t know.

Real “education for the masses” has been around for only a relatively short time, since the enlightenment. I’ll talk about the enlightenment specifically in a future post, so I won’t lose time here on the why’s and how’s. In Austria, we owe our first real school reform to Maria Theresa, Empress of Austria, in 1775. She made education compulsory for all 6 to 12 year olds, which was really revolutionary in these days. She caught a lot of flack for that.

Today in the world, we have a total literacy rate of roughly 85%. That number is slightly higher for men (88.5% in 2011) and lower for women (79.8% in 2011). I won’t talk about this here, though I will remark that this imbalance is atrocious.

Global Literacy Rates in 2011

One will note that the highest one gets in this graph is “>97%” literacy. That might strike some as odd, but remember that there are a fair number of people who can’t go to school, for one reason or another, and there is a surprisingly big number of functional illiterates. (That is to say, people can’t read and write well enough “to manage daily living and employment tasks that require reading skills beyond a basic level.”)

Functional illiterates are often thought to make up anywhere between 3% and 99% of the population. In less economically developed countries (LEDC’s), to give them their proper term, the numbers of literacy in itself is low (26.2% for Mali in 2009, see page 174) and the percentage of those 26% being functional illiterates may also be high. More economically developed countries (MEDC’s) tend to have higher literacy rates (usually calculated as 99% for the HDI), but may have huge rates of functional illiterates. Wikipedia claims nearly 50% for Italy in 2003, to name but one example.

These estimates are almost certainly too high. Official figures estimate about 200,000 to 400,000 functional illiterates (plus about 80,000 illiterates) in Austria, so anywhere between 2.5% and 5%.

How many people enrol in school? The numbers are a tad more difficult here. We would need to differentiate between different ethnic groups in the US to do this topic justice, but I don’t have time for that. The general trend is: Whites enrol more than Blacks than Hispanics. (Note: I am using the language from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).)

At most 40% of the population are enrolled in preschool, generally over 90% are enrolled from ages 7 to 17. Then, the numbers drop rapidly. About 30% of the population continue some kind of tertiary education, though half of these are 2-3 year courses. Only 16% of adults are still enrolled between the ages of 22 and 24 (generally the time needed for a Masters or equivalent), compared to about 25% of the population in Finland.

Another thing is worth mentioning in this post: PISA. Arguably the most important assessment of secondary education today is the PISA study. Done every three years, it sets out to test students in three areas (Reading literacy, Mathematics and Science) in a standardized manner. Among the top five countries (well, regions really) in the last few years were almost always Finland, Shanghai, Hong Kong and South Korea.

Now I don’t have data on South Korea’s system of education, nor on Hong Kong or Shanghai, but I think it’s fairly safe to expect that these countries are strongly influenced by at least one socialist trend: Long compulsory education for everybody. It’s certainly true for Finland.

If you want to learn more about various education systems in the EU, I suggest Eurypedia.

I want to end on a slightly depressing note. Research shows (unsourced, I think I read it in Hattie 2007) that between 60-80% of learning achievement can be predicted by looking at the background of children. (Note: Pasi Sahlberg claims about 2/3rds, so my figure is fairly accurate.) Are they from a rich family? Does the family care about education? Do the parents hold at least one degree?

This is a travesty in two ways: It means that, no matter what teachers and the education system of today are doing, we will almost certainly lose a large portion of the children. I hope that we will find ways to make this better.

Second, it means that economic inequality has lasting consequences on your descendants. That’s unacceptable, or should be. Society should work towards making society more equal. All working toward a common goal… wouldn’t that be nice?

In future posts, I will be talking about teaching strategies, effectiveness of teaching, the Hattie study, the politics of education and different systems of education. I want to use this post as a starting point for these later discussions.

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