Interesting article by David Penberthy in the News papers yesterday.
When it comes to writing, spelling and grammar and punctuation, migrant students are performing better than their Aussie-born classmates across the board.
Okay – we’re all familiar with these stories.
The only area where they lag, and only very marginally, is reading. But in the writing section of the test, 94.9 per cent of Year 5 migrant students reached the minimum standard, compared to 93.2 per cent of children from English-speaking backgrounds.
The biggest difference for spelling was among Year 3 students where 96.3 per cent of migrant children reached the minimum standard, compared to 94.4 per cent of children whose family speak English.
So a couple of things. Those numbers are pretty good. Okay I know that the system is somewhat gamed – the not-so-smart kids get encouraged to not turn up on the day and so forth. But still those numbers are pretty good. Next thing – we don’t know if those differences are statistically significantly different from each other.
So what does Penbo blame the difference on?
If your parents have fled here on a boat from the killing fields of Cambodia, with half your family back home wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, you’ve got a pretty powerful demonstration of how bleak things can be, and how important it is to grab life with both hands.
To be sure – there is some of that. But Australia’s refugee intake relative to the overall migrant intake is relatively small.
Over the past four decades there has been a lamentable shift away from the nuts-and-bolts teaching of the building blocks of literacy – that is, the basic rules of grammar and the humdrum of daily spelling tests.
There is now a bigger emphasis on creative writing and persuasive writing, and less on the old-fashioned rote learning and repetitive learning to stamp out errors of grammar and syntax.
Yes – this is true. Unfortunately the Orange Free State education system were ‘enlightened” pioneers in this trend, and I didn’t do any grammar in high school at all.
The benefit migrant students have is that many of them study English as a language in its own right through ESL, English as a Second Language. It would probably benefit a lot of Aussie-born kids to enrol in ESL, too, as it is framed around teaching the foundations of the language to prepare students for its use.
Yes – I agree with that.
The other added component to all this might involve the ubiquity of technology in Australian households where parents are both more affluent and more ambivalent about their children’s performance.
I have no doubt that the rise of spellcheck and the constant exposure to the literally-challenged world of social media is having a corrosive effect on the proper use of the language.
I’m less sure here.
One of the criticisms we constantly hear about technological change relates to ‘deskilling’. I agree we are deskilling at some margins. Unlike me my children have never changed a car tyre, push started a manual car, hell – driven a manual car, siphoned petrol, and so on. Unlike my father, I have never stripped an engine and rebuilt it. Unlike my ancestors I have never grown and cultivated my own food, dug a well, painted myself blue and run naked into battle against the English invaders. I have other skills.
So too with Penbo’s bugbear – spelling.
Hitting a command to check the spelling of a word doesn’t teach you how to spell, it teaches you how to be lazy. It has the added benefit of not really working anyway, as there is no spellcheck program that can reliably identify words that have been misspelt in their context, but remain correctly-spelled words in English.
Penbo – mate – these days you don’t have to hit a command. The technology tells you immediately if the word is misspelt. Right now the technology is telling me the word ‘misspelt’ is itself misspelt. The technology can also suggest alternatives. Do you mean compliment or complement? And so on. But the argument remains. One shouldn’t begin a sentence with the word ‘But’ or ‘However’.
There is a deskilling around spelling.
The question is whether that really matters?
To education snobs – yes. Many such people view spelling as a signal of having had a better education. Grammar and spelling errors identify one as being a savage, or worse nouveau riche.
To everyone else? Less so. As long as words are correctly spelt (is that a split infinite – shocking) at appropriate times and places does it really matter that the author had technological assistance is spelling the word? Would Penbo argue that we shouldn’t use calculators because our mental arithmetic should be better?
It seems to me that perfect spelling is less valuable now than what it was a generation ago. Other skills are more valuable and as long as we deploy the cognitive savings from perfect spelling to other (more) valuable skills we are better off.
Update: Mark Latham has some interesting thoughts on education over at Quadrant.
Educationists have developed a long list of junk programs: play-based learning, philosophy circles, guided group work, inquiry-based learning, facilitation teaching, so-called “twenty-first-century skills”, general capabilities, creative thinking, growth mindset, co-teaching, collaborative classrooms, flexible learning spaces and constructivist teaching. John Hattie’s research (a global meta-analysis of 95,000 studies involving 300 million students) tells us that Direct Instruction achieves the best classroom results. That is, when teachers actually teach, standing at the front of the classroom and instructing their students on how to do things, creating a rich interchange of knowledge, ideas and inspiration. Yet in many schools this evidence has been wiped and Direct Instruction abandoned.