Thursday, October 18, 2007

Grumpy Old Journo decides to redirect his efforts and make life easier for himself

Note from Ian Skinner:

I want to make life easier, so it's unlikely I'll resume posting to Grumpy Old Tutor or to What, Me Grumpy. The structure of my set of blogs had its merits, but it took extra time and broadband fees (expecially as BigPond charges for uploads as well as downloads).

That time and effort will be better spent increasing the quality and frequency of the posts to my original blog, Grumpy Old Journo.

Hope to see you there.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

When TAFE and industry work together

Let's look at some of the things being achieved by TAFE as it becomes more attuned to the needs of industrial and commercial clients.

For instance, TAFE NSW's Riverina Institute, with partial funding from the Workplace English Language and Literacy (WELL) Program, recently worked with SunRice to create hundreds of in-house training materials based on the Food Processing Training Package.

Or that students and professionals from various industries can obtain a coveted global Information Technology (IT) qualification – Microsoft Certification, now offered through TAFE NSW's Sydney and Hunter institutes.

These initiatives and others are detailed in the latest TAFELINK, an online newsletter published by TAFE NSW. I'm grateful to Suzanne Fleming for passing it on.

In the previous post, Grumpy Old Tutor mocked Andrew Robb, the new Federal Minister for Vocational and Further Education, after he told The Australian he would reform Australia's TAFEs by sending them out into workplaces. As we pointed out, TAFEs around the nation had carried out those reforms years ago.

You can read TAFELINK here.

In fairness to Robb, we'd also like to point to Robb's speech to the National Press Club in mid-March, where he spelled out his plans for vocational education in Australia. They go a long way beyond the measures described in the next post, which was based on The Australian's report.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Andrew Robb should learn the facts before he opens his mouth about TAFE training

Andrew Robb is one of those hard-right political conservatives who share a trait with our Prime Minister – he knows what needs to be done, and he's not going to waste any time learning the facts before he spells it out.

So the newly appointed Federal Minister for Vocational and Further Education, in an interview published by The Australian yesterday under the heading “Plan for TAFE to go into worksites”, said TAFE colleges would offer flying squads of teachers for workplace classrooms under a government blueprint for education reform.

“Under his plan, TAFE colleges would become more entrepreneurial. They will be allowed to keep profits from innovative course offerings and send trainers to work sites rather than forcing employers to let their staff have time off to travel to education centres,” The Australian reported.

“The whole four-walls, classroom mentality of TAFE has to change," he told the newspaper.

“It's about being able to work with local industry on designing programs which can be delivered in the workplace, at a price.”

I've got news for Andrew Robb. TAFE in New South Wales made those changes years ago. And I believe they're matched by other Technical and Further Education systems throughout Australia.

I emailed a friend, Suzanne Fleming – who is also an occasional mentor for my blogging – and she assured me that TAFE in New South Wales has been going into workplaces for years. Suzanne, I should say, knows what she's talking about.

For almost three years, she was the State Manager for the TAFE/Workcover Retraining Project – a major project to retrain injured workers. The program had an annual budget of two million dollars and it was delivered at all TAFE NSW institutes, at a total of 17 campuses.

In an email a while back, she told me: “It was the first big fee-for-service program TAFE became involved in. Now they do much larger ones, but this one broke new ground.”

One of Suzanne's friends helped organise TAFE's delivery of a meat-cutting training module for Australia's most successful supermarket chain, which had decided it did not need fully qualified tradesmen butchers for much of its meat preparation.

TAFE now offers modules instead of subjects. Butchery workers may take a module covering basic meat-cutting skills, but they could go on to complete all the modules to receive recognition for the full meat trades course.

Another TAFE project delivers life and job skills for people released from prison on parole. The list goes on and on, but you get the idea.

Perhaps TAFE could now prepare a program to correct the ignorance of newly appointed Federal government ministers.

It could be delivered in Parliament House, and of course, for a fee – which would have to be substantial, if the program was to be good enough turn “born to rule” conservatives into open-minded administrators.

You can read The Australian's report here:,20867,21472399-12332,00.html?from=public_rss

And for evidence that an alive and aware TAFE already offers tailored courses to individual businesses, with the training available in the clients' premises, check these two links.

Readers might also note that two posts down in this blog, I republish Suzanne's passionate defence of what TAFE now achieves in turning out fully prepared, job-ready people.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Cultural literacy revisited

It’s a great idea until you try to pin it down. To participate in any society, you need to share a common knowledge with the other members of that society. But cultural literacy is a slippery concept, and one which is often hijacked by people pushing their own agendas, particularly those of conservative views.

There's evidence the idea – which is distinct from the common literacy of reading and writing – is being groomed for another outing.

Take, for example, the new test that would-be Australians must pass to become citizens. (I wonder how we old Aussies would go if we had to sit the test alongside the newcomers.)

And should we heed those people who say we should be able to name all of Australia's prime ministers? Or those who say students should be required to study Pride and Prejudice?

Just over two years ago there was similar pressure for a national agenda of common knowledge, and I went back to a book I'd stashed away some years before —Cultural Literacy, by E.D. Hirsch Jr. This piece is based on my thoughts at that time.

Through the 1980s, Hirsch, Professor of English at the University of Virginia, developed his theory that literacy is far more than a skill and that it requires large amounts of specific information.

In Cultural Literacy, a US bestseller published in 1987, Hirsch wrote: “It is the background information, stored in their minds, that enables [all competent readers] to take up a newspaper and read it with an adequate level of comprehension, getting the point, grasping the implications, relating what they read to the unstated context which alone gives meaning to what they read.”

So far so good. Even more acceptable are Professor Hirsch’s opening words in the preface: “To be culturally literate is to possess the basic information to thrive in the modern world. The breadth of that information is great, extending over the major domains of human activity from sports to science.”

And further: “Cultural literacy constitutes the only sure avenue of opportunity for disadvantaged children, the only reliable way of combating the social determinism that now condemns them to remain in the same social and educational condition as their parents.

“That children from poor and illiterate homes tend to remain poor and illiterate is an unacceptable failure of our schools, one which has occurred not because our teachers are inept but chiefly because they are compelled to teach a fragmented curriculum based on faulty educational theories.”

The chapters which follow present a well-argued exposition of his theories. Like most readers, I skipped through the heavy stuff to the appendix, to test myself against, “What Literate Americans Know: A preliminary list.” Generally, the list is as wide-ranging as promised, and stumbling around azimuth, Balzac, belles lettres and comme il faut, one feels literate Americans may well be better educated than their Australian peers.

But what’s this? You don’t actually have to have read a book, just recognise its title, to be culturally literate, says Hirsch. As an example he names Das Kapital.

In an Australian context, would that mean you don’t actually have to read Geoffrey Blainey’s histories—just recognise the titles—to be culturally literate? Saves a lot of time if you don’t have to read The Tyranny of Distance before tossing it into dinner table conversation.

Other books you needn’t bother to read would include The Lucky Country and A Fortunate Life. And anyone would understand if you found six volumes of Manning Clark’s prose less than gripping.

Like most Americans and Australians, I recognise Black Hole of Calcutta. But Hirsch’s list does not include Amritsar. And it was not until I saw Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film, Gandhi, and checked some histories that I learned that in 1919 British troops killed at least 379 Indians and wounded 1200 when they opened fire on a political rally in a Sikh temple (unofficial sources give much higher figures, as this shows).

So we’re all culturally literate if we vaguely know that in the mid-18th Century some treacherous Indian nawab locked 146 decent Brits and their supporters in a small room, causing many of them to suffocate, but it’s not part of that literacy to know of a far worse massacre by our side in modern times.

Couldn’t find Allende in the list, either. Perhaps in 1987, when Hirsch published his book, there was no need for Americans to know that 14 years earlier, the CIA had participated in a coup by Pinochet and other right-wing generals that deposed the elected socialist President of Chile, leading to Allende’s death and the murder of many thousands of his supporters.

In more recent times, however, that knowledge might have helped Americans understand why most of the world was cool about the otherwise commendable regime change in Iraq.

Cultural literacy is a fine concept, until ideologues start squabbling about what should make the cut. Should we try to develop a list of worthy concepts, and instruct our teachers to put it in the curriculum? What about the dissenters?

We should bear in mind that one of our Prime Minister’s proudest boasts is that his government has abolished political correctness – a boast repeated not long after he had unleashed his supporters to get rid of National Museum director Dawn Casey, apparently because she phrased exhibit captions in a way they disliked.

What's the difference between "abolishing political correctness" and punishing those who dissent?

Another example: Australians have constructed a Gallipoli mythology which encompasses a brave and generous foe in "Johnny Turk", but, as Robert Manne pointed out in The Monthly's February issue, nowhere does that narrative acknowledge Turkey's carrying out the first great genocide of the 20th century, the killing of a million Armenians, at the same time as the Gallipoli campaign. Should knowledge of the Armenian genocide be part of our cultural literacy?

Even for those of us who would agree, tentatively, with Hirsch’s arguments, the potential for ideologues to set a canon must be a worry. Will we end up with a list prescribed by those with the power and the inclination to get rid of those who offer opinions with which they disagree?

And what about the generation gap? I do a little volunteer tutoring at a high school, and one of the stock literacy exercises involves a passage about Anne Frank, her hiding place and her diary. It’s rare to find a student who’s heard of her.

Similarly, I have encountered students who have never heard of the Tent Embassy (well, they weren’t born then), nor of the Australian Constitution, and who are unsure whether the Vietnam War or World War II came first. These are not stupid kids, it’s just they haven't been told.

In a recent post on my other blog, I referred to the Profumo affair. Then I realised my younger readers wouldn't know what I was talking about (a link to Wikipedia fixed that).

But then, I may buy Australia’s biggest selling newspaper and find the lead stories on the first five pages are about people of whom I've never heard. Who is this Delta? Or Paris? Or Brad – he’s an actor or something, isn’t he?

A young friend of mine used to have fits of giggles when she had to explain who Eric Clapton was.

How then do we stimulate cultural literacy? The answer – and I am sure this reflects what Hirsch was saying – is that it must come from the discourse of people of diverse backgrounds and interests.

That means I cannot claim cultural literacy until I am aware of the leading pop bands, and our youngsters not until they understand what we oldies are talking about.

More seriously, cultural literacy must be illuminated by the sort of education and public debate that leads to questioning, evaluation and creative thinking. It should not be devoid of values – some matters must be more worthwhile than others – but those values must encompass more than the prejudices of a ruling class.

And a final note. To me, the term cultural literacy seems a little precious. Once we just talked of a well-read person, or of someone possessing good general knowledge.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Let's admit TAFE is getting it right

It was the front-page lead of The Australian on Wednesday last week, so I could hardly miss it:

UNIVERSITY graduates are increasingly being forced to enrol in TAFE courses to improve their job prospects, with students armed with arts and science degrees finding they do not have the skills to enter the workforce.

New data shows one in five students enrolled in some technical courses had completed university but required further study to obtain employment in their desired field.

As employers demanded higher skills from graduates, an OECD report released yesterday found Australia's schools spent too much time preparing students for university and gave inadequate attention to other training options.

Here's the story:,20867,21228752-601,00.html

I have an understanding with a friend and occasional mentor, Suzanne Fleming, where I watch out for relevant items printed on dead trees. This one seemed ideal, so I emailed the link. Here's the comment she posted on one of her blogs.

It’s no accident that TAFE is leading the jobs training way. For the past fifteen years the planning and curriculum people have actually been sitting down with industry and commerce leaders and asking them what they need.

TAFE listened and responded. It changed course content, improved teaching methods and it got rid of course padding. Thank God for that. They actually chucked out all that bloody stuff that did nothing to enhance training quality.

And now we can take pride in the fact that graduating TAFE students are properly prepared for the jobs they’re employed for. They can actually be productive workers when they first start their job.

Apart from the usual inductions, TAFE trained people start working on real tasks immediately. Employers don’t have to spend valuable hours retraining them, they can be assigned productive tasks from day one.

I just love wandering around the trade schools. It’s great to watch students building brick walls, house frames, fixing electrical equipment and motor vehicle components or building a boat.

TAFE teachers can take pride in the fact we do it well. The students we send out have great vocational skills.

Can teachers cope with the digital onrush?

This is adapted from a post on my other blog last week. I've moved it here because I've trimmed it down to issues confronting educators as the digital revolution sweeps us forward. Again I've picked up comments from one of Suzanne Fleming's blogs.

The Weekend Australian's Review section a week ago had an account of the race between Google and Microsoft to scan the entire contents of the world's great libraries. The scale of these projects is mind-boggling. Google has now scanned one million books, while Microsoft has an initial deal to scan 100,000 books in the British Library.

The article's author, Bryan Appleyard, says: “We are, it seems, about to lose physical contact with books, the primary experience and foundation of civilisation for the past 500 years.”

In his last paragraph, he says teachers must prime young minds to deal with the information deluge coming our way – “on that priming depends the future of civilisation.” Thought provoking stuff. Read it here.

And on that topic – how to prepare young people for the digital world which is racing towards us – education and new technology guru Dale Spender offered valuable ideas in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Here are her concluding paragraphs: “At present many of the information skills that students need for earning and living are learned outside educational institutions (they are just so brilliant at doing and creating for themselves) . . .

“But if they excel at digital activity and inventiveness, students now need more support and guidance when it comes to evaluation and critical judgment. They need to know when one idea, one way of doing something, has more going for it than another.

“What they don't need are rules about how much Australian history they should be able to reproduce, or how many Shakespearean speeches they should be able to quote . . .”

Read her article. Readers may like to check out Dr Spender's website, although it hasn't been updated for a while.

Suzanne praised Dr Spender's views with these comments:

Finally there is someone else who understands young people's learning needs. And the fact they need, and want, a new way of interacting with the world.

Young people do not want, or need, to be taught 'talk and chalk' style.Why? Because they found out a long time ago, that teachers aren't God. And they also found out that teachers don't know everything.

And guess what else they found out? Shock, horror, they found out they actually know a lot more than teachers often give them credit for. And wonder of wonders, they have discovered the joy of being actively involved in the learning process.

They made some great discoveries in very short timeframe. Congratulations to all those young learners out there. Well done kids!

Young people want mentors who can guide them. People who talk to them honestly about the world they're soon going to enter. They want to hear about the good, the bad and the ugly.

They want to be able to make informed decisions about their own learning and how it fits into the scheme of things. Especially how it fits into the world of industry and commerce.

They need good teachers who respect them. Teachers who trust their ability to make exciting and worthwhile discoveries for themselves.

Young learners need window openers and encouragers. They don't need to be: talked at - talked down to - and most of all they don't need people telling them they can't take responsbility for their own learning.

Your grumpy old moderator manages a wee smile when he contemplates this scenario:

Scene: A class in almost any junior public high school.

Teacher: "Now girls, put your books away. We've completed your daily instalment of Pride and Prejudice, and we'll move on to the next period. If someone will get those bananas out of the cupboard, we'll make sure you've learned your lessons on how to roll on a condom." It happens (the bananas bit). I checked with a granddaughter.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

More on chaplains and secular education

Well, now we know. School chaplains appointed under a new $30 million-a-year Federal Government program will “act as a reference point for students, staff and other members of the school community on religious, spiritual issues, values, human relationships and wellbeing issues”.

But they must not to try to convert any student to their faith – “proselytising by a school chaplain on behalf of any one group or denomination is not appropriate within a school environment,” says the code of conduct set for the new chaplains.

They must “respect, accept and be sensitive to other people's views, values and beliefs that may be different from his or her own.”

And, some reassurance for parents – chaplains must avoid physical contact with students unless it is strictly necessary, perhaps because a student is injured, and they must avoid being placed in compromising situations.

Readers may recall that in my previous post (just below) I queried the need for a Federal subsidy for chaplains, and I worried that it may chip away at the secular foundation of public schools in Australia. Now the government has released details of the scheme, under which any school can apply for $20,000 a year towards the cost of employing a chaplain (the “school community” must commit a similar amount).

We can expect most school chaplains to perform useful roles. But why chaplains? Any school counsellor should be able to fulfill the duties defined under the National School Chaplaincy Program, including impartial referrals to religious or spiritual support when appropriate. And is religious conviction really necessary before one can offer ethical guidance?

Cynics may argue that this is a method by which the Prime Minister can push more public funds into church schools. It's likely many government schools, particularly those serving ethnically diverse communities, will find it all too hard. Church-affiliated schools, on the other hand, will leap on the money.

John Howard wouldn't think like that, would he? Actually, I don't think he does – this time. It's more likely he's convinced that if we all had Christian values like his, we'd be better people. As I said before, that's a bit rich from him, and I'll stick to my values, thanks.

In my earlier post, I claimed that the secular foundation of public education had contributed greatly to Australia's tolerant society. I think secular is the right word, although in some commentary these days it's equated to atheism. We'd better clear any confusion.

Here's what Amanda Lohrey said in Quarterly Essay No 22 on Christianity and Politics in Australia:

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of secularism: the militant version that is anti-religion per se, and the secularism that conceives of the state as a neutral referee between competing belief systems; the upholder of individual liberty and freedom of conscience (provided that freedom is not harmful to others). This latter is the secularism that most Australians endorse.

She goes on to say that Australia is the most secular liberal democracy in the world -- “But it doesn't mean that we are godless, and this conflation of secular and godless is too often and too glibly made.”

The historian John Hirst looked at these issues in an essay about multiculturalism, Australia's Absurd History, published in Overland magazine in February 1990, and republished last year in a collection of his articles, Sense and Nonsense in Australian History.

The Irish were present in large numbers from the beginning of European settlement in Australia. Hence Australian society as it was forming had to accommodate the antagonism of Catholic and Protestant which had torn Europe apart and still poisoned relations between England and Ireland. If the Church of England, established by law and funded by compulsory contributions from all, was transferred intact to Australia, the old battles would begin again.

So, in 1836, Governor Bourke – a Protestant Irishman – decided that if there were to be established churches, all three of the great divisions of Christianity within Britain should be established. He would allot public funds on the same terms to the Church of England, the Catholic Church and the Presbyterians. The system worked well and was expanded to include other faiths, lasting until 1862 in NSW and 1870 in Victoria.Those colonies then adopted South Australia's principle of complete separation of church and state.

Hirst notes there was also a strong desire to avoid old world antagonisms in the education system.

The liberal hope for education was that children of all religions could come together in schools run by the state. Religion would still be taught.
Either the regular teachers would teach a common Christianity – the essentials of the faith to be agreed on by all the churches – or clergymen of the different churches would be allowed to come to the schools to instruct their own children.

The opponents of these schemes were the churches, or more precisely the clergy. The laity in general supported them.

The only church finally which could sustain its opposition to these schemes was the one where clergy had the most power over the laity – the Catholic. Here old world antagonisms could not be kept at bay.

So, does the new chaplaincy scheme threaten the secular foundations of public education? In terms of the 19th century's “liberal hope for education”, where a common Christianity was assumed, probably not. Also, the code of conduct for the chaplains will make their role positively secular, in the more benign sense of the word.

Which takes us back – why chaplains? Why spend $90 million over three years on this scheme, when schools have so many more pressing needs?