Fire!

2014 is election year in New Zealand, and it would seem that education is going to be one of the defining topics. This isn’t surprising. Education is one of those issues where almost everybody feels invested. If you’re not directly involved yourself, chances are you have children, grandchildren or neighbours who are. Furthermore, it’s about children and the future, both great platforms from which to launch one’s rhetorical missiles. This time round, there’s also a sense that the gap between rich and poor is going to be used by opposition parties to establish a clear point of difference between them and the current goverment, and whatever the solution offered to that particular conundrum, education clearly has to be part of the package. Good schools and good teachers do offer kids from deprived backgrounds a way of breaking the cycle; there’s strong evidence that this happens. Not to the extent that it can be the whole solution, the front end of deprivation also needs addressing, but the best policies are going to come at this problem both ways.

First out of the blocks were National, with a move that surprised most commentators. Their plan is to use financial incentives as a way of spreading best teaching practice through and between school communities. Just shy of $360 million over four years is being put into a four pronged attack. Struggling schools looking to appoint new principals will be able to offer $50, 000 incentives in order to attract top quality candidates. Of the moves, this strikes me as the smartest and most hopeful. An effective leader can do a huge amount for a school, (Makoura College in Masterton is an excellent example that I’ve seen in action) and maybe this is a way of moving talent to those areas where it can be best used. I like that, at the very least, it’s a policy with a focus.

The second move, taking principals who are identified as doing a good job, and then  inviting them to take a leadership role across school clusters, seems to me to be far more speculative. Although relief time is provided to release those principals, it’s not at all clear that removing them from a function they’re performing well, in order to involve them in what could very easily turn into another layer of consultation and bureaucracy, is high risk. Perhaps this level of engagement across schools will lead to better sharing of resources and systems, but my hunch is it’s mostly going to lead to a while heap more talking when there’s work to be done. If this is the outcome, then it will be money badly spent. The detail of how the policy makers plan to avoid this trap is the level at which this should be judged, and that’s something they’re working on.

The other moves, focussing on classroom teachers, I’m even more sceptical about, although I note the secondary union have offered initial support. They would have done better, I suspect, to have held off on their judgements. These moves involve offering pay rewards ($10, 000 and $20, 000 positions, so both significant salary boosts) to teachers identified as being particularly proficient in key areas of delivery. In return, these teachers are expected to share their practice with colleagues, and in the more senior of the positions extend this across neighbouring schools. My reservations here are to do with a mismatch between the problem and solution.

We know where the problem area for New Zealand education is, we have a significant bunch of kids at the bottom end who are not getting the skills they need to participate fully in our society, and the price they’re paying is horrendous. And the thing is, these strugglers are not spread evenly throughout our school system. There are particular schools and particular regions where you’ll find them in far greater numbers. Crudely put, we’re failing Maori and Pasifika students, and we’re failing the children of the poor.

So, it seems to me, if you’re looking to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at that problem, then the absolute priority is to make sure every last dollar of it is put where it’s most likely to at least come into contact with the target group. So, I was expecting, when I heard of these incentives, that they would be specifically aimed at schools with low achievement profiles, but there’s been no talk of this at all. Rather, if I’m reading it correctly, we’re going to see the rewards spread amongst the workforce in a way that is regarded as fair, and the make-up of the steering group almost guarantees that this sort of compromise will occur. And that’s plain stupid. Not only should the money go to particular areas and decile ratings, but it should also go mostly into early childhood and primary institutions, because, developmentally speaking, that’s where you get the biggest bang for your buck (and I say this as a secondary school teacher).

There are all sorts of other fish hooks in this proposal, not least the way these lead teachers are going to be identified, but these are side issues. The crucial thing is that National have come up with the money, but rather than pointing the hose at the flames, so to speak, for some unfathomable reason have decided to squirt the cash about randomly and hope some of it will end up doing some good. There are perhaps good political reasons for doing it this way, but educationally it’s a lost opportunity.

This afternoon the Greens announced their alternative, which on first read looks smarter in terms of targeting, and Labour are surely scrambling to grab their share of the headlines as I type, so maybe I’ll get to talking about them soon.

A piece of PISA

The 2012 international survey of student academic prowess was released this week, and has led to the usual flurry of breast beating and pomposity . There is much to say about this survey, which provides a rich and provocative data set identifying educational trends around the globe. It’s certainly worth spending a little time at the official website where you can peruse the performance of 15 year olds in maths, reading and science at your leisure. The headlines, though a little shrill, capture the essential trends well enough. It does appear that a number of Asian nations are making great strides, educationally speaking, and as a result the top order has been shuffled somewhat (an effect exaggerated by the curious way in which Chinese results are reported).

On the home front, it is also true that New Zealand has suffered some significant slippage. It’s not just that we’ve fallen down the rankings, which I want to suggest is much less important, but rather that for the first time since 2000, we’ve seen a sharp decline in our raw scores. It’s not end of the world stuff, we’ve gone from being one of the elite nations to being still solidly above the OECD average, but the shift in results is large enough to cry out for an explanation. I can’t immediately think what the result does reflect, in terms of background education conditions. We’re talking the difference between a cohort born in 1994, and one born in 1997, and given that this fall doesn’t appear to be part of any broader international trend, the issue is presumably local. None of the usual suspects (socio-economic shifts, national standards, NCEA) seem well matched to the time frame. So, any thoughts, anyone?

Meanwhile, may I take issue with the obsession with rankings that seems to be emerging on the back of this survey. Whether we are educating our children well or not is apparently, if the way we’re reporting this reflects our mood, far less important than whether we are out-scoring our neighbours/competitors. Framing the debate in this way, as if the purpose of an education system is to produce young people who are better at tests than young people in other countries, requires a special, although apparently common, kind of stupid. As soon as we adopt the ‘must do better than others’ stance, we commit ourselves  to prioritising those incremental shifts that might just be enough to push us up a single place in the rankings. Dull minded politicians will begin to set targets and make promises, and as a result precious resources will be moved out of the true priority areas, like dealing with educational inequalities, or walking the talk on the broader values articulated in our world leading curriculum.

The premise on which the obsession with competition appears to be based is the rather crude idea that national economies are analogous to competing businesses, and which ever one can produce the best product at the lowest price will ultimately force the other  out of business. The fear then is that if New Zealand’s students aren’t quite as hot at algebra as those in Thailand, then that’s the end of economic opportunity for us.  Economist Paul Krugman, who’s won a nobel prize for his work on trade theory, and presumably knows a little about such things, has been most vocal in rubbishing this approach, and his work is well worth hunting down. Meanwhile, it should be suffice to note that in all the years where New Zealand’s educational performance sat atop the international pyramid, our economic performance remained below average. The correlation between educational achievement and economic prosperity, at least at the margins picked up by shifts in the pisa data, is negligible, and for very good reason.

Overall investment patterns are much more important than small shifts in the average measures of academic prowess, when it comes to determining economic capacity. The dullard with a dump truck is always  going to shift a load more dirt than the genius with a wheelbarrow.

New Plays

Two new plays just added on the plays page, Hutt High School Musical and Resolution Bay. Both have just had their first runs at school over the last month, and in each case I was reminded, yet again, why theatre is my favourite art form. There’s nothing quite like the immediacy of the connection between audience and actor, and being able to stand on the sidelines and absorb the strange alchemy that such an interaction represents. Novels are fine, film is fun, but theatre is real story telling, from one living breathing person to another. Nothing beats that.

Into The River

Recently I’ve received a few emails from people upset by the book we chose as NZ Post Children’s Book Awards book of the year, the wonderful Into the River by Ted Dawes. Below is the response I’ve sent. If you want to get involved in the debate, here’s one place to express yourself. Although maybe think about reading the book before you form an opinion – just a thought.

Thanks for taking the time to write. This is an important issue, and it’s crucial that people care about the types of things our young people are reading. I sincerely commend you for taking a stand.

I’m also glad to have an opportunity to further explain my part in the decision to name Into the River our book of the year. It’s a truly marvellous and indeed moral book, and I do encourage you to read it and contemplate the messages it contains. I should also like to discuss briefly the broader issues of censorship and how, in a pluralistic society, we might go about establishing mores that truly respect all of those who have a stake in this process.

First, to the book itself. This is a story that captures, better than any I’ve read, the plight of the young Maori boy, looking for a place to stand. Our protagonist is smart, ambitious, and eager to please, and when he wins a scholarship to an elite Auckland school, we are encouraged to believe that this is his chance to make his mark. But life is not that simple.

What this book shows, with tremendous skill and courage, is the complexity of the problem these young men face. If you want to better understand the price we pay for depriving young Maori a place to stand, then this is the book to read. It is not didactic, nor is it sentimental. Rather, it forces us to consider the subtle but powerful forces that make a nonsense of the popular myth that all the dispossessed need to do is pull their socks up and make an effort.

If we measure a society’s moral strength by the way it treats its most vulnerable, then this is a book that speaks to the heart of our obligation to be better members of this community. To be more understanding, more open to difference, more willing to accept the part we play in perpetuating the pain.

I want young people to consider this message, and so I want them to read this book. That groups purporting to care about family values should seek to oppose it is perplexing. Yes, there are harsh aspects to this story. There have to be. Without the harshness, we could not properly understand the price that is being paid. This is a book about what happens when a young man is forced to the periphery, that place where the normal social constraints do not reach. And out there risks are taken, and damage is done. This book stands as a call to arms to those who wish to see an end to such needless, racially primed vandalism.

The language, the sexual references and the drugs are as integral to this story as domestic violence is integral to Othello. That is my considered opinion as an author of ten novels, as a teacher for over twenty years, and as a judge who has read this book slowly and carefully.

Now, it may be that you accept this is an important, and indeed moral novel, and you accept that the graphic content is a necessary part of this book’s story, but still oppose it on the grounds that the price we pay for this message is too high. Specifically, it might be that you believe that young adults reading this book will be encouraged to use the less palatable language themselves, or indeed take this book as licence to indulge in the high risk activities that are portrayed. To this, I would only say, trust your children more, and trust yourselves as parents more. It is simply not true that the young refrain from swearing because they have never heard it. There are no words in this book that a teenager will not have heard in the school ground, at the shopping mall, the bus stop or read online. That they will suddenly, at the twenty third exposure, switch lexicons on us, is an absurd suggestion. All teenagers are exposed to offensive language (‘bugger’ was turned into a national advertising campaign) and most of them, most of the time, manage to express themselves beautifully without it. It is the way we raise them, the way we win their respect, and earn our place as role models, that matters.

With regard to the bullying, the drug taking or the casual sex, there is nothing glamorous about the lifestyle into which our protagonist falls. To argue that because the content is there, young readers will imitate it, is fanciful. Nobody opposes books about World War One, on the grounds that we don’t want our children heading off to shoot Germans. Nor are we afraid of our children seeing the bible, least they develop a taste for crucifixion. The way we process content is entirely dependent upon the context within which we encounter it. Read the whole book. Think about it. Then pass it on to a young adult you care about. They’ll thank you for it.

Finally, although you may not agree with my judgement, ours must not be portrayed as a disagreement between the moral and the apathetic. Those of us who believe in literature like this are as driven to make a better world for our children as those who oppose it. Nor is this even a disagreement about what stands as moral, for I too seek a place where the young may move with safety and joy, live in respect and tolerance, and form healthy, nourishing relationships. To the extent we do disagree, it is about the way this book will be read, and more broadly, the way that reading will influence world view and behaviour. These are difficult questions, to be approached with a cautious and open mind, and crucially, with careful study and evidence to support one’s case. Do that, and there is a chance we can move together towards the sort of world we all desire. Turn this into a tribal war, between the putatively decent and depraved, and everybody suffers.

Again, thank you for engaging.

Kind regards

Bernard Beckett

Bad song Petey.

Today one of my young sons (three and a bit) was having a moment of frustration with his father’s stubbornness/stupidity/inflexibility, and trawled through his ever-expanding vocabulary for a phrase that might adequately convey his rage. Eventually, hands balled into determined little fists, he pronounced,
‘You wrote a bad song, Petey.’
I laughed, and then he laughed, and the moment passed, as the childish moments do. For those of you who don’t recognise the line, it’s from the brilliant Wes Anderson film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. It’s uttered by Michael Gambon, to the hapless folk singer (played by Jarvis Cocker, of Pulp fame) and is one of a series of superb moments that lift the film beyond entertainment and on towards art. If those are the sorts of insults my boys are going to settle upon when feeling fraught, I couldn’t be happier.

And that got me thinking about film, and television, and children. (I am aware, by the way, that some time in the distant past I promised my next post would be about free will. I meant it at the time, and fully intended to follow through. And didn’t. Which by itself tells you plenty about free will, I suspect. Another time.) Our home is an increasingly common one, in that we have no television. We’re not anti-television, the likes of West Wing or The Wire have moments to match the very best from the world of film, theatre or literature (sometimes I think that in contemporary terms they exceed it). But one can buy box sets of DVDs, buy films online and use the computer for viewing, and that’s plenty for us. An occasional pleasure, rather than a part of the daily routine; none of the desperate popularity contest that network news has become, and with no idiot screaming out at you at regular intervals to get down to some shop or other and change your life. The balance feels about right.

And, without the big screen as a constant background companion, nothing to suck the young ones away from their worlds of construction and make believe. However, we’re a long long way away form being the sort who see the small screen as some sort of poison which children must be protested from. Quite the opposite. I want my children to engage with story telling in every form. I want them to be read to, I want them to attend the theatre, to have sing-alongs, to spin endless yarns to one other, to improvise puppet shows and yes, watch films and television. Because some of the films being made for children today are simply remarkable. Engaging, challenging, inventive and so, so funny. I think of some of their favourites: Shrek, which is such a smart piece of film making, Toy Story, which somehow kept lifting its game over three instalments (can you think of an adult series that has done the same) Madagascar, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc… If you’re a parent, chances are you know the list.

And, if you’re a parent, there’s also every chance you’ve watched your exhausted children sink into the couch at the end of a long day, while you take the moment to get dinner together, and felt the tiniest pang of something like guilt. Isn’t it wrong to plug your children into the screen in this way? Aren’t we meant to be, you know, playing games with them, making interesting things out of dried pasta and teaching them algebra? Aren’t their studies showing that too much television is strongly linked with under-performance later in life? Isn’t Toy Story 3 the first foot on a slippery slope to neglect and stupidity?

The answer, of course, is not even a little bit. To deprive them of the experience of film would be every bit as stupid and depriving them of the joy of books. Yes, one can watch too much television, and at some point that’s going to make you a fairly sad specimen, but then again one can read too many books, and that’s not going to do wonders for your engagement with the world either. You can do too much exercise and become a self absorbed idiot, you can be too careful with your food and develop an eating disorder… you get the point. Yet nobody suggests letting one’s child eat well, read or exercise is irresponsible. That would be insane. So why do we see television and film differently (and we certainly seem to).

To be honest, I don’t have much idea. Perhaps it’s one part snobbery, one part fear. The great thing about the screen is that it’s accessible to almost everybody, in a way that books, for example, aren’t. Some children struggle to make sense of the words on the page, because they are dyslexic, perhaps, or because the foundations were never adequately established. To be a reader is therefore a measure of one’s success, a way to set yourself out as somehow a bit better than those who don’t. But when Alex the lion bites Marty the zebra on the butt, well any idiot can see that and laugh. And so obsessed are we with comparisons (and here my own obsession shows itself again) that universality becomes code for lack of quality. And in the world of children’s film, that is absolutely inaccurate.

As for fear, parenting seems to hit the ‘what if I’m doing this wrong?’ switch more powerfully than any other human activity. Television, then, is just one of a long list of bogey men, threatening to make disasters of your offspring and so cripple you with a lifetime’s guilt. Yet, to steal an analogy (I think I read it in a Matt Ridley book) child rearing is a little like vitamin C. Everybody needs it, and if you don’t get enough, the consequences are serious. But, almost everybody does get enough, and once the minimum threshold is met, any extra makes little difference. The goal is simply adequacy, beyond that fate will do what it will (free will, there’s just no escaping it). To parent adequately is extremely difficult, of course, but almost everybody manages it. Fretting about the difference between forty minutes of youtube versus and hour is like lying awake at night wondering if five segments of orange in their lunchbox was enough, or should have you given them six? Bonkers.

The power of metaphor

In my inbox today, news that the Dutch edition of my novel August (to be called Willoos, I believe) is on its way. International editions are great that way, bringing with them the bonus of thinking again about a book that otherwise has faded into the past. Coincidentally, the first book I ever had published, Lester, popped into my head while I was out running during the week. Or more specifically, a particular story one of the characters tells in that book, a story I hadn’t thought about for years, came back to me. And the thing is, that story and the novel August, are linked in a way I hadn’t previously realised.

August is a novel that attempts to grapple with the problem of free will. Its two main characters are trapped upside down in a car, after it has tumbled down a hillside, and as the novel progresses and they tell one another their stories, we get to understand how it is they have come to be together in these circumstances. At the time of writing it, I had been reading and thinking about free will a lot, and attempted in the novel to give a dramatic form to my understanding of what is potentially a fairly dry and abstract philosophical notion. In hindsight, I didn’t entirely succeed, in part because my understanding of the issue I wished to represent came too late in the process, and a great deal of the early drafts consisted of me groping my way towards understanding. As is often the case with a novel, some aspect of the early drafts puts down roots, and no matter how you try to rethink the story, that element remains stubbornly in place.

So, while I eventually reached an understanding of the aspect of free will I wished to highlight (a tricky notion that maybe I’ll write about next time) the story I’d committed to didn’t quite deliver up that element. And then, during this week, I realised that I’d already written about exactly this issue before, in the form of a story an old tramp tells to two teenagers in Lester. And that was more than a decade before I’d consciously started to think about the issue of free will. The striking thing, when I realised this, was that the metaphor I used in that earlier novel, captured the essence of what I wanted to say about free will, much better than the August version. And there’s a lesson in there somewhere, both about the writing process, and about the way understanding develops.

With regard to writing, the lesson is that it’s very easy to end up trying too hard. Although a story should be motivated by the desire to say something about the world, when that message becomes too explicit, and the desire to tell it too didactic, something vital about the creative process is lost. To create in some sense is to discover, and when a piece of writing is really beginning to work, the process of developing it is full of surprise and indeed playfulness.

In terms of understanding, very often we comprehend something before we can fully explain it. Which is to say, very often the appropriateness of a metaphor is clear to us well before we can explain exactly what it is the image is conveying. We sense meaning, if you like, the sensation of connections forming in a manner that is consistent and satisfying, even if we can’t quite produce a blueprint for the final thought. Art often does this, I think: to view, to read, or to listen can create an experience akin to understanding. In schools we tend to ask ourselves, what does it mean for a student to know something? Our answers necessarily include some form of demonstration, a student understands a concept if they can apply it to an unfamiliar situation, say, or compare and contrast it with a similar but distinct notion. And that is reasonable; ultimately real understanding does deliver up those capacities. But knowledge is also a feeling, a sense of rightness, of fit, or indeed intellectual peace, that is not so easily dissected.

In the literature we more often aim at the second type of understanding. When we read a great passage in a novel, there is a moment of recognition, of ‘yes, this is how it is to be human’, and it is very often not the type of recognition that is easily translated into the dry and rigorous terms of a philosophical proposition. There is something delightful about the necessary looseness of fit between concept and expression, it provides the wriggle room in which we may invent.

The story in Lester did not quite rise to those heights, but it was nevertheless odd for me to realise how clearly I had anticipated, in narrative form, an understanding I would later struggle mightily to develop intelelctually.

I can’t leave this without at least nodding to the content of that story. It involved three travellers, each trying to row their way across a lake, and each confronted by the fact that while they had control of one oar, beside them sat fate, and it controlled the motion of the second. One person chose to ignore fate, paid no attention to what the other oar was doing, and simply tried with the single oar to make their way across the lake. Predictably, the journey was one of maddening circles. The second traveller not only acknowledged fate, but sat back and let it row him to his destiny. Again, unsurprisingly, the boat travelled in hopeless circles. It was only the third who understood that in order to progress, it was necessary first to observe the motion of the second oar and then adjust his own strokes accordingly. They could not get exactly where they wanted when they wanted, but they did get somewhere.

And that simple story (made more poetic in the novel) ultimately said as much about free will in two pages, than August managed to do with more than a hundred times the word count. Which in itself is a metaphor of sorts, I suppose.

First among equals

I wonder if there is any more insidious myth in our modern society than the myth of competition. That our worth as individuals can only be gauged by measuring ourselves against others, and that it is only by rising above them that we can hope for any sort of future.

I was reminded of how strong the comparison instinct is when having a conversation the other day about how easily one can fall into the most absurd thought patterns regarding one’s own children. How attentive we become when the parents of similarly aged children report on the various visible signs of progress. Who’s sleeping how long, who’s sitting up, who has teeth, is eating vegetables, has smiled, pointed, can hold a pencil, walk, remember whole nursery rhymes, do differential equations… And while your rational side is quite comfortable dismissing the whole conversation as paranoid nonsense (it’s tremendously uncommon, when walking down the street, to come across an adult still stuck in the crawling phase, they get it eventually) who can honestly say they haven’t at some point felt a momentary twinge of concern? Maybe my child doesn’t measure up. The sky is falling.

The obsession of the times is easily read in such moments. We care, it seems to me, beyond all proportion, about the intellectual development of our children. I don’t mean will they be able to read and write and speak and listen, all of which matter very much. Rather I mean, is my child going to be smart (which is to say smarter than other children)? And this, I’m sure, matters far less than we imagine.

As a school teacher, I am well aware that what is perhaps nothing more than an amusing aside in the early years, can later develop into something much more sinister. As parents are encouraged, via the most ponderous and unimaginative assessment regimes, to focus almost solely on the child’s relative development (above or below the national standard, by how much?) we begin to define our children’s lives in terms of success and failure. This would be bad enough in itself, but given that we actually mean relative success and failure, it’s even worse. Because, as soon as you define failure as an inability to outstrip your neighbours, you render society helpless in addressing that failure. It’s become a built in feature of the society.

From here we fret about zoning, or getting our child into the right school. We hope the classes will be streamed (so long as our child is in the top stream of course, but they will be, there are places waiting for those whose parents fret.) Money is wasted on tutors, schools feel obliged to chase down publishable results, education is reduced to an anaemic imitation of its potential. Anxiety in our young people rises, they find it harder and harder to work out what they want to do with their lives, because we have sold them on the lie that only the select few can have a worthwhile future.

And what a lie it is. It only takes a moment’s reflection to realise that none of the most valuable things in our lives are best understood using a competitive model. We laugh louder when others laugh with us, we learn better when others learn around us, we love better when others around us love, we live better when others around you live well. We are essentially social creatures, and the quality of our individual futures is crucially shaped not by our ability to rise above, but by our ability to work within. As a teacher I look not to the students that top the academic tables, but those that have learned the knack of happiness, and social engagement. Yes, I wish they’d shut up sometimes, but their enthusiasm for living that fills me with hope, and makes my job worthwhile. Individual school grades are an awful predictor of future success, no matter how you measure it. So is the age of teething. And our children will only grow to be smart when their parents stop worrying about things that are so very stupid.

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