January 21 2008

The warmest wishes for 2008 to you all. Let’s hope for a wonderful peaceful year for the world, and lots of richly rewarding experiences for us and our children.

I went to France in early January for the wedding of Tim and Clothilde Berryman. Tim is Principal of Fitzroy Community School, and he met Clothilde, who is French, in China. They were actually married in Melbourne some months ago, at a registry office, because in France a church wedding has no legal status. But the real celebration was the church wedding, which was held in a beautiful part of Normandy, near Rouen.

Given the international flavour of their union, it seemed appropriate that guests came from Africa, China, Finland, Australia, England, Thailand and of course France. It was a wonderful weekend – a great celebration of family, friends, love and all those good things. I was deeply impressed by the calibre of the young people, Tim and Clothilde and their friends, most in their twenties and early thirties, many of whom I already knew, many of them ex-students of Fitzroy Community School, but so principled, thoughtful, kind and good-humoured. If Candlebark graduates have those qualities I’ll be happy.

I then went back to Paris for a week of tourist type stuff, but also to work on a book in peace! I’m on a deadline to get an edited manuscript to a publisher by the end of this month, and knocked it off successfully (I hope) before leaving to return to Australia.

However whilst in Paris I nicked over to London for a day via the amazing Eurostar train for the biggest educational technology exhibition in the world. I’d been wanting to go to this for years, and it was well worth the trip. I staggered out after seven hours without a break, dazzled, starry-eyed, amazed and generally gob-smacked. Pretty hungry too actually. But even after seven hours I only left because all the stands had been packed up and they were turning out the lights (It was the last day of the show).

My main interest was in finding out just what is going down for students with learning difficulties, and I knew that whatever they had there would be state-of-the-art; absolute up-to-the-minute. It sure was.

I picked up a couple of kilos (not kidding) of demonstration CD’s and DVD’s. and spent a good deal of time on the trip home evaluating them. Ever since they put power sockets for computers into planes, my travel habits have changed dramatically. In fact I’m writing this on the plane at 3.35 a.m. Australian time, no doubt to the annoyance of my fellow passengers. J. I’m half-way between Seoul and Melbourne, January 17.

The items that excited me most from the show were a couple of programmes that use human voice. One works best for children who have difficulty writing. For example, one of the things this programme does is to immediately read back to the child each word the child writes, so the child knows right away whether the word’s right or wrong. If it’s wrong, the computer will suggest alternative words so the child can identify the correct one he or she wants to use. This all happens instantly, so the child can move the story or piece of writing along at a good pace.

In other words, the child is immediately made aware when he or she has made a spelling mistake, and then gets to choose the correctly spelled word from a list – and further, will immediately realise if the wrong choice has been made from that list.

But my favourite programme is one that can be installed on your computer as a floating toolbar, and which reads to you whatever text you ask it to. I thought this looked pretty promising when the guy demonstrated it to me at the show (the demonstrators were very generous to me, given that most of them knew they wouldn’t be selling me much stock, as soon as they looked at my name-tag and saw I came from Australia). But I swear to god, when I tested this stuff on my computer on the Paris-Seoul leg of this trip I nearly leapt out of my seat and ran around the cabin cheering. It is totally astonishing. If I want, right now, I can put on my headphones, press a key, and the computer will immediately read me this letter to you, in a flawless, fluent, attractive voice. I would guess it makes about one mistake per two thousand words.

Not only that, but when you get the full version, you can choose from about twenty different voices, two of which are Australian – one male, one female.

The voices read with quite reasonable expression, they totally respect punctuation, and they read made-up words without a blink.

However, the disc I’ve got does go haywire occasionally, so I’m hoping that’s just a minor glitch affecting this particular disc.

One of the applications – just one – of this new software is that we can scan, for example, an English novel onto a computer and a child who is not a good reader will be able to have it read to him. If the child follows the text on the screen at the same time, we are basically giving the child a course of neuro-linguistic programming – one of the most powerful ways of improving reading in children with learning difficulties.

Imagine also the advantages for teaching foreign languages!

Now I know that these programmes are doing exactly what a sympathetic adult sitting next to a child could be doing, and so in a way we are paying a lot of money to have technology replace humans (yet again!) But in the real world those humans aren’t always available. And all kinds of emotional issues come into play when adults work with children who are struggling academically.

Above all, to me, the main advantages of these two programmes is that they put tremendous power and independence into the hands of kids who typically don’t enjoy a lot of power and independence in their school careers, because their learning difficulties make them so dependent on adults.

The other advantage is that children who are struggling with schoolwork can get a lot more done! With the best will in the world we can’t provide kids with full-time individual tutors, any more than parents at home can sit with children for hours every night. But a child with a half-way decent attitude to learning will be able to make huge progress with this kind of software. And for children who are severely dyslexic, these may become life-long tools of great value.

Another item at the show which blew my socks off was a 3D T.V. I don’t think we’ll be picking up one of those, but it was extraordinary. No special glasses required, but you did have to stand at a particular spot to watch it, i.e. to get the 3D effect.

Anyway, onto other stuff. I’ve been catching up on professional reading during the holidays and found some interesting snippets, including this one on learning problems.
A major study by Macquarie University compared the reading test results of identical twins, (identical twins have the same genetic identity), with the reading results of non-identical twins (who on average have half identical genes).

What they already knew was that identical twins get the same scores on reading tests, but non-identical twins get varied results. It reminds me of two sets of identical twins I’ve known, from other schools where I’ve taught: in one case, they got identical HSC/VCE scores, in the other they were a mark apart… 589 vs. 588.

Given that they could not – surely? – have done exactly the same amount of work, it made me wonder whether education does any `value-adding’ at all.

The Macquarie people knew already, but confirmed again with their results, that genetics has a major impact on reading success and reading problems. It figures, given that basic language skills, attention skills and memory skills are all highly heritable.

But this particular study went a little further. They compared the effect of genes on the two methods of learning to read – phonics, which we use at Candlebark, especially in the younger years, and word recognition, which we also use.

They found what they expected to find, which was that different children inherit a `preference’ for one system over the other.

Schools would ignore that finding at their peril – or at the peril of the children.

The same team also researched spelling with the same groups of twins. Spelling’s not something that most researchers get into much – not sexy enough I guess. What they found was that again spelling is highly affected by genes, and it seems the same genes are responsible for both spelling and reading. But with spelling, there is not the differentiation between the two approaches that they found with learning to read.

At the same time genes ain’t everything (that’s not quite how they put it in their article). What they actually said, with a nice double negative, was `It’s never the case that we find no environmental factors.’

Another item I came across which was absolutely no surprise was one concerning drugs like Ritalin. Plagiarism warning – I’ll quote this pretty much word for word: The USA multi-modal treatment study of children with ADHD has been monitoring the treatment of 600 children since the 1990’s. The study found that treating children’s attention-deficit-disorder with stimulant drugs is not effective in the long-term. It found that after three years of treatment, stimulants are no more effective than therapy. The research also suggested that use of such drugs could stunt children’s growth.

In the same educational journal, dating from mid-November (hadn’t had time to read it till now) was a story about research into children’s preferences for play. The study, a UK one, found (no surprises coming up) that “children wanted to play football and to play outside. Rarely did they mention wanting more playgrounds as such.”

The researchers said: “Part of the problem with playgrounds was that small budgets and risk-aversion led to areas with unexciting equipment.”

It reminded me of the wonderful story (tragic story actually) also from the UK, about a year ago – a letter to the paper from a school principal describing how his school had spent nearly a million dollars (pounds? — I can’t remember) on play equipment in recent years. And he said that they’d had some good value from it. But he had never seen children having so much fun as when a few truckloads of soil were dumped at the school in preparation for a new building. Just a big pile of dirt – and the kids were ecstatic.

Next up is a collation of info about the Finnish school system, which is suddenly attracting enormous attention after surveys showing Finnish kids getting the highest scores in the world in tests which assess reading and science standards, and the second-highest (behind Hong Kong) in maths.

Trolling through three different articles, I ended up with the following information:

  • Most Finnish children go to day care until the age of six. Means-tested subsidised child care is available to everyone for children aged between 10 months and seven years. Some children get up to 55 hours a week free.
  • There is no attempt to teach academic content at the child-care centres; the emphasis is strictly on play. The people who run centres in the most affluent areas have given an estimate of 20% for the number of children who can read by the age of five. No statistics are available, because Finland simply doesn’t “do” testing and assessment, until age 16.
  • Academic learning begins at the age of seven. This includes learning to read.
  • In Finland, teachers come from the top 10% of matriculating students. (In the USA, they come from the bottom 30%.) (I shudder to think what the figures are for Australia. I’m still scarred by the applicant for the English teaching position who confided that she was poor at grammar. About 20% of the applications I get contain spelling errors.) In Finland, a master’s degree is a minimum requirement. Students compete to get places in teaching courses, even though salaries for teachers are not high.
  • The respect in which teachers in Finland are held means that they are trusted to get on with the job. There are no inspections of schools, no AIMS tests or equivalent, no publication in the newspapers of comparisons between schools.
  • However there are fears that changes are imminent. Parents who are returning from living overseas are demanding the kind of information about schools, and their own children’s standards in relation to others, that schools in other countries often provide. Also, a large influx of immigrants is causing some reaction among some Finnish parents.
  • And, to finish on a sober note: you may remember that at the start of November an 18-year-old high school student went berserk in a Finnish high school and shot seven other students, the Principal, and then himself. So, again we are reminded, in this tragic way, that when it comes to schools and schooling systems, Utopia doesn’t exist.

Back home now, and delighted to see how good everything looks. Roll on, 2008!