December 06, 2014

English And Mathematics Are Being Sorely Neglected


I think this applies to many countries. 
Whilst technology has made incredible advances some things have been left behind. 

We use abbreviations for fast texting obviously, but this has been at the expense of spelling and face-to-face communication.We write emails instead of proper letters most of the time.

If we want to know anything we simply get on the internet and find what we want which, in the past, would have taken hours of research at a local library.

And yet, apart from training good teachers, the internet can help us regain a lot of what we have lost. We just have to want to do it! It's really self -motivation for improvement.

Master Ben is proving a reluctant student. “I hate grammar,” he declares; “What’s the use of it?” His mother, however, is in no doubt as to its value; for her, it is less the gateway to good breeding than the cornerstone of civilisation itself. As Eliot notes, in a sardonic aside, in the event of a “general wreck of society” she would hold her book of grammar “above the waves”.

It is easy to laugh at “grammar nazis” — easy and, frequently, necessary. People who obsess about beginning sentences with conjunctions or ending them with prepositions are to be studiously avoided at parties, while those who object to the use of “which” in restrictive clauses are only marginally less irritating.

As for the empurpled nitwits who complain loudly about split infinitives (an invented rule, and the crowning stupidity of 19th-century prescriptivism) — those who haven’t died of natural causes should be, for their own sakes, humanely put down.

Nevertheless, it is plain — or it should be — that we have strayed too far from grammar’s arms.

The idea that language is “caught”, not taught — that it is primarily through reading, not teaching, that students learn the rules of language — was a necessary cor­rective to grammatical pre­scriptivism. But we also need a vocabulary in which to talk about what is wrong, and why, and the name for this vocabulary, traditionally, is grammar. Of the competencies analysed in this year’s national literacy tests (spelling, punctuation and so on), sentence structure fared especially badly. Only 4 per cent of Year 7 students used correct or varied sentences, while the figure for Year 9s was 13 per cent. Clearly, this isn’t good enough.

For a number of years now, I’ve taught literacy competency at the University of Notre Dame in Fremantle, as part of the bridging or “enabling” program offered to prospective students.
And while my student sample is necessarily limited, I think I’ve gained a fair idea of the kind of knowledge that is lacking in this area. Indeed, the problem is immediately apparent whenever I meet a new group of students. 

The first five minutes tend to go like this …

I write a sentence out on the whiteboard — “Me and my sister went shopping today” — and invite my charges to raise their hands if they think there is nothing wrong with it. No hands go up — a good sign.

Next, I ask them to raise their hands if they think there is something wrong with the sentence. Most hands go up — also a good sign. Then I ask them what is wrong with the sentence, at which point one student will invariably say, “It should be ‘My sister and I.’ ”
Ah, but I didn’t ask what it should be (I say). I asked why “Me and my sister” was wrong. At this stage, there is usually a furrowing of brows.

I then rub out the words “and my sister”, leaving only ‘‘Me went shopping today”. Would we say (I ask) “Me went shopping today”? No, we wouldn’t. At this stage, brows unfurrow slightly. Now, precisely why “Me went” is wrong and “I went” is right is an interesting question, but it isn’t one that need detain us here. 

The point is that all students who have English as a first language know immediately that “Me went shopping” sounds wrong. More importantly, they have grasped, in a simple way, the principle at the heart of grammar: that one part of a sentence should agree with another.

This principle applies at the most basic level. In every English sentence — here’s the next lesson — someone or something is doing or being something. The someone or something can be singular or plural, and the doing or being must follow suit. Would you say, I ask my students, “My friend are in Paris”? No, they wouldn’t say “My friend are in Paris”. Would they say “My friends is in Prague”? No, they wouldn’t say “My friends is in Prague”. What about “The teaching of spelling and grammar are not all that important”? Is that right? 

By this stage, on average, about half the students are able to spot that since the subject is singular the main verb needs to be singular too. The sentence should read, “The teaching … is …” And we’re still only 10 minutes into the lesson.

Obviously, when it comes to writing at this level, the problems tend to be of a higher order than a bit of subject-verb confusion. The essays I read are littered with mistakes — mistakes of spelling and punctuation, yes, but especially mistakes of sentence structure. Even after a heavy night, my students are, in conversation, mutually intelligible. But when it comes to writing, in most cases the reader is doing 50 per cent of the work.

Even in the work of my brightest students, pronouns don’t agree with their antecedents, verb ­tenses are confused, and sentence fragments abound. None of these problems can be rectified without a basic grounding in the principles of grammar.

The problem is simple but it goes very deep. It is clear from anecdotal evidence that we now have a generation of teachers — possibly even two generations of teachers — who have no idea of how to teach grammar.

This is not the fault of the teachers themselves. It is the fault of policy decisions made as long ago as the 1970s. At any rate, any effort to improve grammar “outcomes” (as educators like to say) will need to address this fundamental problem.

This needn’t be an arduous task. True, it is impossible to talk about grammar without a certain amount of technical language. (Since the subject of an English sentence is always a noun or noun-equivalent, we need to know what a noun and its equivalents are!) But the principles underlying basic grammar are simple.

They are agreement and consistency. These principles, together with an emphasis on simplicity — on saying one thing at a time, as simply as one can — will go a long way to improving the current ­situation.

Recently, I had a conversation with a teacher who suggested that as far as his school was concerned, ideas were more important than language skills. 

His students were marked on the originality of their thinking rather than on their sentence structure.
There are two problems with this approach.

The first is that good sentence structure and the ability to have original or interesting ideas are, far from being mutually exclusive, connected at a deep level. (As US philosopher John Searle once put it, ‘‘You cannot think clearly if you cannot speak and write clearly.’)

And the second is that, even if this were not the case, the ability to have original or interesting ideas is a pretty pointless one to have if you can’t convey those ideas to someone else.

And that’s the key point I’d like to make: literacy is not only fundamental to our life chances but also essential to the health of our democracy.

To be heard is one thing. To be understood is another.

Richard King is a sessional tutor at the University of Notre Dame and the author of On Offence: The Politics of Indignation.

With thanks to The Australian
Picture credit, and further help:  Dot Mesh       



Counting The Cost Of National Maths Failure


Mathematics and Physics were always a challenge for me and I admit I was fearful of them.
Now I find both subjects fascinating and vital. And it can be fun finding out more and more about them.                                  

WHAT’S five times four? Geophysicist Peter Ridd was gobsmacked to see a first-year university student pull out a calculator to work out the no-brainer equation. 
The James Cook University professor blames the dumbing down of a generation of Australian students on modern teaching philosophies that deride rote learning as “drill and kill”. His alarm is echoed by eminent maths, science and education professors concerned that under­qualified teachers, “student-led” pedagogy and assignment-based assessment methods are rendering a generation of Australian children innumerate.

“Modern educational theory says you don’t need knowledge because it’s all online; there’s Google,’’ Ridd tells Inquirer. “But you ultimately do need a basic proficiency in spelling and numbers; you need knowledge inside your head. I’ve seen uni kids, when I’ve asked them ‘What’s 61 x 0?’, pick up a calculator.’’

Scientist Jennifer Stow, a former Harvard University researcher with a PhD from Monash University and a postdoctoral degree from Yale, shares Ridd’s dismay. As laboratory head at the University of Queensland Institute for Molecular Bio­science, and a principal research fellow with the National Health and Medical Research Council, she teaches science to undergraduates and trains PhD students.

Stow is “flabbergasted” by what she views as substandard skills in maths and English among many Australian undergraduates. Foreign PhD science students outnumber the locals in her field, she says, because local students are so far behind in maths.

“They can’t do basic maths,’’ Stow tells Inquirer.

“A lot of them haven’t learned the times tables at school, they haven’t been drilled in spelling and they come to university not being able to do division.

“There are lots of international students at university now, and kids from places like Singapore have got much better reading, writing and maths skills than the Australian kids.’’
The sliding standards are spelled out in the latest results from the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment. The international PISA test, last conducted in 2012, reveals the numeracy levels of Australian teenagers have plunged so far in a decade that four out of 10 lack “baseline” maths skills.

Australia’s maths performance in Year 10 fell by the equivalent of six months of schooling between 2003 and 2012. Australia dropped from 11th to 19th place in the league table of 65 countries. China, Singapore, South Korea and Japan topped the class; the average 15-year-old from Shanghai is 1½ years ahead in maths than a typical Australian student. Just 15 per cent of Australian students were top performers, compared with 55 per cent in Shanghai. One-fifth of Australian students were ranked among the poorest performers in maths, in contrast to 3.8 per cent of Chinese students.

The national curriculum for maths has won broad support from maths teachers and university educators. Kevin Donnelly, one of two educational experts appointed to review the curriculum for the Abbott government, believes style and quality of teaching count as much as the content.

“If it’s not rigorous, and teaching isn’t explicit and well structured, you do get into trouble,’’ he tells Inquirer. “There needs to be rote learning, memorisation and mental arithmetic so it becomes automatic. The fashion for the past 20 years has been very much against memorisation and we need to bring that back.’’

The steady decline in mathematics performance in Australian schools has resulted, in turn, in a shortage of qualified maths teachers. Thousands of children are being taught maths by teachers who specialised in humanities subjects at university.

“At high school the person teaching physics is more likely to be a physical education teacher than someone qualified to teach science,’’ notes Ridd.

Forty per cent of Australia’s maths teachers are “out of field”. Queensland’s Auditor-General has revealed that one in eight maths B teachers in years 11 and 12, and one in three maths teachers in years 8 to 10, lacks a tertiary qualification in maths. Four times more phys-ed teachers graduated from Queensland universities than maths teachers in 2012. The audit noted a shortage of maths, science and technology teachers in high schools — but an oversupply of physical education, music, drama and dance instructors.

Stephen Norton, a senior lecturer in mathematics education at Griffith University’s school of education and professional studies, tests the numeracy of all his would-be teachers. The results are worrying: the average undergraduate teacher has the maths skills of a Year 7 student. Half would struggle with a Year 9 National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy test, which measures basic levels of literacy and numeracy for 14-year-olds.

Norton believes most univer­sity teaching courses fail to demand “reasonable levels of numeracy’’ from trainee teachers. Instead, course lecturers concentrate on teaching “learning theories, the role of technology, mathematics of indigenous cultures, learners’ attitudes towards mathematics and curriculum trends”. A typical four-year teaching degree, Norton says, dedicates just 32 hours to the teaching of maths.

“Every year I test my students and they’ve got the understanding of a Year 7 or Year 8 kid,’’ he says. “Maybe 25 per cent have a good knowledge. They struggle with fractions and proportional rea­soning and anything to do with algebra. I believe it is our res­ponsibility in universities to make sure we can remediate that.’’

Norton is critical of schools’ emphasis on “inquiry-based teaching” at the expense of drills and memorisation. Performance is falling, he says, “not because our kids are dumber; it’s because they haven’t got the basics”.

“We’ve got to find a balance where we don’t stifle creativity but we give students the basics to apply in higher order ways,” he arg­ues. “On the one hand, we want kids to discover how to do things themselves and be persistent and resilient. But what happens when you have inquiry-based pedagogy, with teachers who don’t ­really know the discipline and don’t emphasise the basic skills, is that children end up falling behind.”

One example of the modern “student-directed learning” style is the maths homework set for 10-year-olds at a Brisbane state school this week. “Write a reflection that highlights at least 2 areas in maths that you feel more confident about as we draw to the end of Year 5,’’ it says. “List at least two target areas that you would like to work on and explain what strategies you will use to take responsibility for your learning.”

Ridd, the James Cook University scientist who despairs at the reliance on calculators for simple sums, is highly critical of Queensland’s unique but controversial assessment methods for high school maths. While other states and territories rely on regular external testing of kids’ maths ability, Queensland high schools set a series of written assignments that can be 10,000 words long.

“We (scientists) want someone who can solve an equation and add fractions,’’ Ridd says. “The Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority wants someone who can write an essay. The problem for us is the mark that comes down from the high school is a very poor predictor of whether the students can do simple maths. The subject has been hijacked by education theorists who have no idea what’s going on.”

A Queensland parliamentary inquiry has recommended that external testing be introduced for 50 per cent of students’ marks in years 11 and 12 — in line with the southern states — with a limit of one written maths assignment each year.

The Liberal National Party government, having sat on the findings for 14 months, is now promising a “draft response” by Christmas. This week it published a vague “30-year vision” on education reform, which referred to the need to “attract, retain and reward the best and brightest teachers”. It will appoint 300 “master teachers” to 463 schools next year. 

Queensland is also reviewing its OP system, which ranks students on their “overall position” in relation to other students, without external exams.

It is telling that Education Queensland’s selective Academy of Science, Mathematics and Technology — reserved for the state’s brightest students — has shunned the official curriculum. Instead, its students study the International Baccalaureate Diploma, which the academy describes as a “program for rigorous learning and assessment”.

Matthew Dean, a researcher and former first-year lecturer at the University of Queensland school of mathematics and physics, believes teachers who let kids use calculators at primary school are “ruining children’s lives”.

In a submission to the national curriculum review, Dean explained that technology had a “smart end” consisting of the creators, and a “dumb end” of consumers. “Rather than making all Australian students and parents pay to be at the dumb end of technology, a good education system would give students the freedom to one day be at the smart, creative end, if they so choose,” he wrote. “The way to this freedom and ability is through mastering mathematics — the power of thought behind science and technology.”

Dean likens reciting the times table to learning musical scales on the piano: boring and repetitive but essential to mastering more advanced pieces. Having lectured first-year maths students at university for five years, he notes that many have knowledge of mathematical concepts but not the skills to solve problems. “It’s as if they’ve done a mathematical appreciation course,” he says. “They know of things but don’t have the skill to do it themselves.”

Nationally, the number of Year 12 students enrolled in advanced maths has fallen 22 per cent in a decade, choking the supply of graduates for research institutions and industry.
The Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute is warning of a looming skills shortage for industries such as banking, mining, information security, IT, biotech and communications.
Stow, whose groundbreaking medical research is tracking the movement of proteins within cells, complains that high school students are getting “dumber by the minute”. 

She champions a return to the times tables and spelling bees in primary school. “There is no substitute for rote learning and it is the only way to build neural networks and imprint things into your brain,” she insists.

A surgeon, Stow argues, has no time to Google in an emergency. “You can’t operate that way,” she says. “You need a certain amount of basic skills and instant recall to do the job properly. You’ve got a computer; it’s called your brain.’’

By Natasha Bita

With thanks to The Australian

Picture credit:Peer Tutoring Service 

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