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Monday, 23 February 2015

RE

I've got nothing against Religious Education (RE). I am, however, going to take issue with what's happening in the school that is, rightfully, being taken to court over its Bible indoctrination classes. Okay, so what's the difference?

You read about these sorts of cases every few months or, at least, it seems that way. They all follow the same pattern. Some school somewhere either has people come in or uses its own staff to talk Bible with its pupils. Often this is done while the school is, legally, closed but in a real sense it is very much open. This is because were the school legally open, it'd be breaking the law. Generally, if not always, the system is also an opt-out system. Opt-out is either code for "We're using peer pressure to force pupils into these things" or "We're trying to stop users from knowing that we're doing some unethical practice". The latter is what you find when the likes of Facebook or Google have opt out services, but it's also something that applies with the schools that do this. Any defence along the lines of "it's education!" is also seriously flawed, if common. Why? Because they're just the Bible and they're not happening just when you have things like Easter or Christmas. That is, to explain why we celebrate these now secular holidays the way we do. They're regular things.

Now, there's possibly something suspect about the Easter/Christmas thing. All I know for sure is that's what tended to happen at my primary but I can't remember them specifically. The thing you remember are the candy canes, you see. In a theoretical sense, though, I don't have a problem with someone coming along and saying, "Christians believe that this dude Jesus was the son of God and he died and then undied but wasn't a zombie a few days later and this is the origin of Easter". Why, because that's what religious education looks like. It's something that looks at a religion and religious beliefs and explains what these religions are in the context of "This group believe these things". It's also something that should cover many religions. If it doesn't it needs to be constricted to just explaining things that intrude... in the same way that most history lessons prior to the age of 11 are going to be worksheets or the equivalent prior to public holidays.

I'd have quite liked to do some proper RE. To my mind it would cover, primarily, the most common religious positions in the country in question. It would cover the general beliefs and contexts from which those beliefs arose. Practices and the ways that these beliefs and practices are relevant would also be covered. In many respects, it would look not dissimilar to a history lesson on the English Civil War in an NZ classroom. Who was involved, what was involved, why it happened and how it matters. There is no room to indoctrinate because it is always in that removed context of, "This is how some people think".

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Choice

From 2009-2013 I took drama for five years. That adds up to a great many performances as characters who aren't me. Four of these were multi-night performances in front of dozens of people. It has also meant a lot of group work, creative and analytical thinking and a fair few school trips. But it didn't have to be this way. Just choosing to do drama in year eight and taking it for half a year in year nine as a consequence didn't lock me in some dramatic path. For instance, I have been 100% uninvolved with drama for over a year now... it was never something that I intended to be involved with as a career. So, why, then, did I choose to take drama for five years in a row?

I'm finished with school now but I know the feeling of choosing subjects quite well. I can remember it acutely because I didn't always make those choices easily. I also remember them because, naturally, choosing courses is much the same (although the difference there is that stress lies more in a) determining what one likes, b) considering when you'll wrap up a degree and what needs to be done for said degree and c) making the damn picks fit together in a timetable). The point I am trying to make is that things aren't necessarily straightforward and every pupil needs to have some way of deciding things. And, while it may not seem that way at all times, that metric is what my big point is about. Just remember that as I wander through memoir lane.

At my secondary school we always had decisions to make. This has had a strong influence on my opinions about specialisation and education, but it was also something that sometimes made me do a lot of thinking. At first things were pretty easy. Choosing, as a year eight, a language was simplicity in itself. I was going to do German because Dutch wasn't an option (my back up was Japanese because Digimon). One of the two arts options was even easier. I would do art (because I like drawing). I don't know why I chose to do drama for that first year. Maybe I eliminated all other options. I like music but I have about as much talent for music as, well, frankly I'm not sure there's anything quite as untalented as me. I also never really felt much desire to learn, either. Dance I've never liked. I'm pretty sure this left me with drama, and I am fairly certain this is how I ended up taking it in year nine. So, when I hit college it was with a timetable that was constructed based on interests, skills and elimination.

When it came time to choose year ten's subjects I imagine I thought it'd be just as simple. I was wrong. I'd really liked drama so that was in. Technologies of any sort required closed toe shoes so they were out. Dance and music, again, were never in the running. Enterprise sounded interesting and this other random subject that I've since forgotten the name of had a really bad reputation (it was apparently about problem solving; update it was called TAPS: thinking and problem solving). This was mostly irrelevant though because I wanted to keep going with German and art. The problem was that we had to pick subjects from lists. The exact nature of the system I've forgotten but what it meant in practice was that art, drama and German were all in the same list and, consequently, the rules said I couldn't do them together. Thus, I was forced to compromise and ended up putting myself down for Design instead of Art (similar subject, design was more project oriented). Apparently, though, this was impossible and I ended up being put down for Spanish instead of German. This introduced me to the fascinating world of administration and by the time school started I was doing what I was apparently not allowed to do: German, art and drama.

Naturally, we had other subjects. The idea was to introduce us to a broad range of options as well as provide the grounding we'd need in our core subjects: maths, English, social studies and science. In year nine, we also had tech (split into hard materials and food tech, which we did for two terms each) and PE, although these were done with a different set of class members than with the core subjects (for which we had the same class). In year ten, obviously, technologies became optional but all the other classes remained in place (although PE now functioned as a core subject). The frequency also varied. Science was featured three times in the timetable for year nine compared to PE's four and the four of the other cores. In year ten, all cores were in there four times, except for PE and social studies which became three-timers. The up shot is, though, that we had contact with a wide variety of subjects in the first year and half... the time period from which we'd draw experiences that'd help us choose our three optional subjects for year eleven.

In New Zealand, year eleven isn't some meaningless mid-way point. It is, in fact, the first year in which NCEA levels are generally sat. Choosing the subjects for year eleven, then, is serious business with more intrusive consequences. There were, also, fewer subjects (now we'd only have six) altogether, which really made the longer term ramifications even more obvious to the 14/15 year old having to make decisions which, for some, could feel like the decisions in which one's life path is made. Sure, English, maths and science are all compulsory but what about these other ones? Social studies still exists but it's joined by history and geography. Enterprise became accounting and economics. There are yet more tech subjects around. Fewer subjects, more options. It's an interesting place to be, no? For me, it was a difficult place to be. PE was gone... my thinking was that I was too unfit to do well (the absence of sports in my life would be missed)... as were my previously dismissed subjects and areas. History was in. I had always wanted to do history so it was going to go no-where. I decided that I need a fun subject because year eleven was serious. This was drama. The trouble was whether or not I should do German or art for that sixth subject. This was somewhat agonising. I was good at both, enjoyed both enough (although art was better) and I couldn't even look at my long term plan because whichever one I chose wasn't going to be carried forward in year twelve. Tricky.

Let's think about that long term plan. How was it decided? Well, it was based purely on what I liked. In year twelve I would do English, maths, biology, classical studies, drama and history. The first two were compulsory. The third was because evolution would eventually be a topic (human, in year thirteen). Classical studies was ancient Greece and Rome but, especially, their myths. How could I not do it? (Maybe I'd have been less keen if I'd known how little mythology there'd be, but then I'd never have taken a subject which is right up there with my favourite subjects ever.) History was a shoe in. In year nine I just liked history. By year ten I was craving to do it because we did very little that was historically minded in social studies. Drama was my fun subject. At this stage I had no idea what I wanted to do when I left school, beyond uni. Right now I still don't know what career area I see myself in. This sort of interest-derived long term plan was, therefore, created in the same way as my short term plans. It could never help me solve a problem that arose from conflicting interests and practical space... even if one of German and Art was in it.

Faced with this situation I talked to my art teacher. I remember doing this and she was pretty cool. However, whether I did this before or after I'd decided I'm not sure. Did I seek advice or reassurance that I'd made the right call? I don't remember doing anything of the sort with my German teacher and I doubt I'd have considered it. But, hey, maybe I did. 2015 me is not 2010 me, after all. What really clinched the decision was talking about it with my mother. What I took away from that conversation was that I already had a "less academic" subject... but my mother was mostly trying to say that I should do what I wanted to, as I discovered when I told her why I went with German in the end. And that's how my form looked when I handed it in. German, Drama and History. Other subjects never really got a look in. I did briefly consider them (especially economics because a close friend of mine asked my social studies teacher about what it really meant), but they just didn't matter. Naturally, once I made the choice I just continued with life.

So, it's year eleven and I'm putting my long term plan's subject array down on my list of subjects for year twelve, right? Well, actually, no. Once again administration intervened. This time to tell me that seven people was three people too few for a year eleven German class. Damn. I mean, a "friend" (we were very antagonistic in 2010) had told me that this would happen but I hadn't really believed her. Still, I wasn't, as a result, entirely surprised to be up in front of my dean listening to the words that meant "I'm afraid you're going to have to make another choice". Still, after all that trouble choosing between German and Art I wasn't going to have trouble choosing this time, right? Well, yeah but I had to shake things up a bit. After a brief flirtation with the ideas of PE and correspondence German (actually went quite far down that path before pulling out), I went with economics. The moment I got that slip telling me to see my dean is increasingly looking like it's going to mean I'm one of those people who can literally pinpoint the moments when things changed completely. Why? I had a long term plan. Eco wasn't on it. Why would that slip mean anything in the long run? The answer lies in how I made the long term plan in the first place.

The problem with choosing things based on how much you like them is simple: what happens when you start to like something new? This was me and economics. But, I didn't just like it. I was good at it. It was interesting in all sorts of ways. And this was before we even started macro stuff, which was the year twelve course and it sounded even more interesting. This is a huge thing with me because I hate being bored. In year eleven I even said things like, "Life is the space between laughs". Sounds like laughter = death but that's not the point. What that really means is that the tricky stuff happens when you're not amused, which is married to boredom, when you think about it. I am also, as it happens, bored a lot. So... where did this leave me? Maths wasn't going anywhere even though it was no longer compulsory. Why? Well, probably because I hated English in year eleven and possibly because I saw it at very necessary. I'm not sure, I just never considered not doing it (the unthinkable). English was compulsory so it survived by default. History hadn't quite been what I thought it would be but it was there. Classics was definitely in. This meant that drama, economics and biology were all competing for two slots. Great.

This was, if anything, more troublesome than the previous year's decision. Why? Well, not taking biology in year twelve would mean that I shut myself off from science when I was 16. Hmm, doesn't sound too great, does it? Drama was being pretty awesome. Economics was just too awesome to drop, but I was meant to, right? But, then, it had no similarity with the other things I did: I would have essentially wasted an entire year on a subject I'd take no-where. Sounds pointless, yeah? Yes, undoubtedly and that's why the question soon became biology versus drama. Sure, I may have asked a friend if I was a physics person and he said I should do bio over physics. Sure I may have considered just classics and no history. Sure I probably entertained other options. The point is true: drama or bio? There could only be one. Academically I was doing about as well in both. But, drama was my fun subject, was it time for fun to step aside? (If I'd known about how year twelve classics would go, I think biology would have been the easy choice.) Was it worth making a subject with a truly epic school trip (to watch a play for our end of year exams) step aside for something I only wanted to do in year thirteen? Did I really like human evolution that much? My year eleven self, I feel, decided, "No, I didn't". Although, honestly, it was probably more the practical experiment side that decided it (closed toes again). Drama made it and I haven't done science since 2011 (excluding maths and stats).

So, despite a whole lot of problems, following what interested me was a pretty practical system. Year Twelve's choices for year thirteen, though? Could a pony that had mostly worked, mostly work again? Yes. It was kind of easy really. Swap English for study and be done with it. Except, was it really worth doing drama again? It wasn't as fun as I expected when I was choosing my subjects. But, not doing drama would mean, what? Statistics? Good Lord no, I was getting in all sorts of knots with probability (which, by the way, is piss easy in NCEA Level 2) and that featured heavily in Level 3 stats. I could keep doing English? No thanks. Science was closed off... although maybe the head of faculty would let me do it on account of my being up there with my cohort's bright sparks. I don't know, I never bothered finding out. I just went with the swap. A large part of the reason for this was finding out that English was not necessary for a degree in economics. If it had been required I think I would've said, with some reluctance despite year twelve's disappointments, goodbye to drama.

Year Thirteen, despite the absence of a year fourteen, would prove to follow in much the same vein as the previous years. Choosing a uni wasn't an issue. The odds of my not being accepted into Auckland were very slim. You could, in all honesty, describe it with the phrase "A Snowball's Chance in Hell". For this reason and the lesser distance between home and Auckland, I never bothered applying to anywhere else. I did, however, face considerably greater problems in deciding what programme I wanted to pursue. A BCom in Economics? A BA in History? A BA/BCom in history and economics? A double major BA in the two? But BCom sounds cool? Auckland's courses and careers day didn't help much either. Why? Because the talk they gave on maths in 2013 sounded really awesome. I mean it. It was inspiring and enthralling. Suddenly, given that talk and the enjoyment factor that calculus had with my teacher I had some more options. That is, BA/BCom in maths & history and economics and BA/BSc in history & economics and maths. Luckily, I could apply for all of these... and I did. When I did have to choose at the start of 2014, I think the BCom bit just seemed more appealing... possibly because a lot of my friends were doing BComs. Maybe the building is just shinier.

OGGB vs. HSB; no contest, really
What am I actually saying? I've spent all that time outlining my personal story with subject choice and I've said a lot. I've also made a point. Whatever anyone says, picking subjects because you like them works. It doesn't work for everyone, of course. I mean, even with me you can see complications with the system. But, for some people, such as some of my friends who haven't yet/recently decided what they want to major in, choosing what is interesting is a really valuable option. It's better, I feel, than using career options. Why? Because those are invariably derived from what one is interested in. If you're in year nine and you're trying to choose year ten's subjects because you want to be a cop, stop. Absolutely stop and just choose the more interesting things. This is early enough that there is a lot of room for you, as an individual, to change and start valuing other things but also so that it doesn't really matter. In year eleven, you'll be closer to yourself but, at the same time, if I'd chosen things because I wanted to, say, be an English teacher (I liked English a lot before year eleven; that my Y11 English teacher had done classics at school actually made me rethink for at least a few minutes)) I think that I'd have made a big mistake. But some people will say you need to think about the job applicability despite this obvious flaw. Even in year eleven it's really important to choose what is interesting because this is where a lot of new areas open up. You could end up like me or, more accurately, maybe everyone is like me but the difference is that not everyone gets that note saying "See the dean".

Now, I'm not saying always follow your interests rigidly. I didn't do this. Sure, a lot of those times it was because I either couldn't decide based on interests or because I had no choice but you do need to be flexible. This is, of course, another issue with having the sort of rigid plan that is likely to come from being overly focussed on the job at the end. But it is my honest and heartfelt belief that you will do less harm by following the interests path than any other. This is also coupled with the chance of generating the most reward. The difference, they say, between a job and a career is that the latter appeals to you. Never underestimate the potential reward that comes from being fulfilled. You're also less likely to end up bored stiff.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

AGS Principal Asks to Set Fees

http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/66204089/turn-donations-into-fees--grammar-principal

Somehow it's always Auckland Grammar, isn't it? The school that private schools want to be, wants to be a private school. But it's in the state system and it's never going to get out of there. Unless, of course, it can take on all the dressings of a private school... complete with fees (which, presumably, would be $1075/pupil and, therefore, no different to the voluntary donations)... because then the distinction is meaningless.

That's one way to understand Tim O'Connor's plea. There's another way.

Faced with a government that just doesn't care and which continues to use its most incompetent minister as the theoretical chief because the mainstream public doesn't care either, AGS has resorted to extreme measures. Tim O'Connor, the current principal, has this week tried to prompt a serious conversation about how we fund our schools by asking for state schools to be able to set fees instead of ask for "voluntary donations".

I'm not sure which of those is true. With the previous principal I'd probably lean towards the first paragraph's assessment of motives. Indeed, it was my first thought. However, when you think about the second paragraph it raises some serious points that do need considering.

Firstly, does National care much about education? Well, it does use Hekia Parata when pretty much anyone can see she's one of the least suitable ministers NZ's had for a long time (excluding the corrupt or dodgy ones). That doesn't suggest yes. On the other hand, National has had three biggish education policies. Introducing charter schools is allegedly one of ACT's but it's really National's and it shows consummate uncaring. The idea hasn't worked overseas and won't work here (and, in fact, already isn't). There's is a particular model that has worked wellish but that doesn't excuse the rest. It's pure ideology. National Standards is in a similar boat. That is, hasn't really worked elsewhere, is being used here because ideology. Prior to the last election, National also brought in this policy of "super teachers". That's one thing and it's arguably a way of getting something close enough to performance pay in. It's also reasonably well received but it's still only one sign of caring.

Secondly, let's look funding, yeah? And by funding, I mean deciles. Again, because I've already sort of done this.

The problems with deciles:

  • Many people think that high decile = good school and low decile = bad school. Metro tries to avoid increasing this impression in its league tables by trying to make comparisons mainly within, not between, deciles. Seven Periods With Mr Gormsby and other media tends to make this impression worse. What's the reality? The impression exists because the decile system doesn't achieve what it's meant to (i.e. close the resource gap/even it out) and, therefore, wealthy pupils (i.e. those that tend to go to higher decile schools) still get a leg up and end up attaining at a higher rate. This makes their schools look better.
  • Deciles try to give lower decile schools proportionately more resources than higher decile schools. What actually happens is that lower decile schools don't get enough (either per pupil or in overall terms, the latter because they tend to have smaller roles due to things like "white flight") and high decile schools are even further away from enough. As a consequence, the decile system doesn't correct for a wealthy family having more resources at all. It also forces higher decile schools to spend more time and effort in getting parents involved with the school. In an ideal world. they'd all get paid more and lower decile schools would get additional funding to help engage parents.
  • They're a blunt tool. Poorer families do live in the Grammar zone (and, indeed, the double Grammar zone... i.e. AGS and EGGS) or likewise with other high decile schools and do end up going to those schools. However, because of the way decile funding works the school will treat everyone as being, say, a Decile Ten family.* This makes life very difficult for such pupils because they face all the same, higher, costs as other families with far less ability to pay for them. This is particularly true for Bring Your Own Device schools (easily the most inequitable and least necessary idea in schools since ever) because you do need to have the devices, pay for internet access and you really should have insurance. That's a huge and, indeed, impossible ask. It's nuts that mid decile schools have BYOD for this reason.
What would I replace deciles with?

Well, frankly, make the funding follow the pupil. Take the per pupil amount that the very lowest decile school's get and tack that annual sum on to every pupil (maybe start issuing National Student Numbers with new entrants). Furthermore, keep the current decile system in place (so, now, some schools will receive twice as much). However, chucking money at the problem doesn't help, at all. To correct for this, really work on increasing support networks for lower decile schools and establish assistance funding.

This will add a lot to current costs. Therefore, remove all subsidies for private schools and put that money where it should be. That is, back in the state system. Likewise, either dismantle charter/partnership schools or make them state integrated. Eventually, work on un-partially privatising State Owned Enterprises and use that revenue (which should never have been lost) to help out. Also, encourage Public Private Partnerships. If this means more schools have buildings named in similar ways to Auckland Uni's Fisher and Paykell Auditorium, so be it. If a private entity wants to help out and improve its brand image, let it but don't let it control curricula or appoint teachers. Let it plaster its name all over the place (maybe even with a discrete place on the uniform) but that's as far as it should go.

If this was the USA, I'd suggest shifting funding from the military but that's not an option here. There's a good argument to make that our defence forces are somewhat underfunded. We have, in some ways, limited options. Taxes should be raised, yes, but I'd prefer that revenue were spent on infrastructure primarily. Shift funding first, seek alternative revenue streams second and raise taxes third. Borrow as a last resort, in this case (or, as part of the renationalisation process). It'd be cool if we had some entity designed to invest money here and overseas with the dividends coming back for use in education.



*Strictly speaking, decile ten means that there a very few students in poverty on the school's roll as a proportion... not that the area is extremely wealthy, so this doesn't, then, make sense (unless you're familiar with how deciles are used and understood more widely).

Art

There are a lot of people out there who complain about modern art. A lot of these people don't know what modern art is. They will, quite happily, say that they like Vincent van Gogh. In many cases, he may be the only artist other than Leonardo Da Vinci (and, maybe, Michelangelo) who they can name. The problem is that van Gogh is a modern artist. What these people really mean is that they dislike particular movements in modern and contemporary art. Generally, I am in complete agreement. For instance, I look around at the gallery in Te Papa and I spend most of my time wincing. Especially at that crappy series of photos of Auckland War Memorial Museum at night which are up there as you walk in. Jeepers. I mean, really?

Irises, Vincent van Gogh (Wikimedia)
I'm a big fan of impressionism and, in general, artists whose work is close to impressionism (e.g. like van Gogh). In part this is because, as a person with myopia, the way I see the world is quite like that in an impressionist painting. That is, large on colour, small on detail. The exception to this, of course, is what's really close to my eyes. Although, the comparison isn't apt... there's usually lots of detail. And, as a rule, I like art that looks like it a) is something and b) takes skill to create. I don't, for instance, care much for Cubism. Well, that's not fair. Wikipedia tells me that the below is Cubist and I quite like it.

L'Homme au Balcon, Man on a Balcony (Portrait of Dr. Théo Morinaud), Albert Gleizes
That should tell you something about me and art. I am very far from an expert. I can tell you a teeny little bit about Greek sculpture and vase painting. A little bit less again about Renaissance art in general and bit about Vincent van Gogh (with some minimal details on impressionists). I can't really name many artists myself, except for a few of van Gogh's contemporaries, Picasso, the odd Dutch master and the occasional Renaissance figure. However, I can tell you what I do like and what I consider art.

Campbell's Soup I, Andy Warhol (Wikipedia)
For me, this is not art. It is, however, a very famous piece of art. I don't know what the rationale is. Other examples of pop art (for instance, much of Wayne Thiebaud's work) are art. What's the difference? Well, frankly, they're not broadly equivalent to a diagram of a lung in a textbook. That's not the case here. Sometimes they are many different diagrams (to breathe further life into the comparison) which have been specifically chosen and used together for their aesthetic value. That's art because it's judgement in a way that this will never be. This exists, in my mind, to a) push boundaries, to see just how far art critics will go up their own arses to find the exit of the rabbit hole b) to make a point. For me art can never make a point. If it makes a point it's a text. It's a static bloody image. It's a political cartoon. Something, anything. Art, for me, exists purely for its aesthetic value. Commissioned works are art. While they exist because payment, that payment is for the aesthetic worth. Therefore, the aesthetic worth is the reason it's there in the world of things that exist.

Something I made in Paint.NET tonight
So, is this, then, art? It exists purely because I like how it looks (i.e. aesthetic worth). No, it's not. Art is also something that is big. What do I mean by that? Well, that scribble I made when I was two is small. That beautifully illustrated picture book is small. That avant garde comic you're reading is small too. These are all artistic things with inherent artistic worth (or, not, in the case of the scribble). Smallness is, really, a way of describing whether or not something is intended to be displayed. Something that is big is something that revels in its existence and wants further display. But, it's something where there is choice. So, all the art in a school's calf club is small a art. Not Art art. It's intended for display but it's not there with choice. A similar display in a college is probably Art art. The teacher will have had less to no input on the subject matter. It won't necessarily be displayed (but because it's intended to be assessed it qualifies) so there's choice in that sense as well. So, small and big is another way of talking about letters. Which reminds me: there's another way of talking about the above.

Something Similar to the previous, just older
This, and those like it, don't literally exist for their aesthetic worth. They really exist because I was bored and wanted something to do. Something that required some kind of thought but nothing really taxing. A lot of landscapes, for instance, arguably exist to capture something that is there. Sculpture of people is the same. So, there is some arbitrary nature to what I am saying. I will exclude that because I want to exclude it and include this because I feel like it. Art is paraphyletic! But these things (not the things I've made) are art. They just have to be. Otherwise they're... what we did before we had photography. Ah, yes, photography.

Nice Photo
To me photography can never be more than artistic. What? Why? Well, we're sort of at this arbitrary thing again, aren't we? (Er, we never moved on from it.) Art has to be created. Photography isn't created. It's, well, made. It's the outcome of a process over which one can't actually exert any control. You add some sort of filter or change the mechanism.. it's still the process. Photography is as much art as that dollop of Caesar dressing you had with lunch. That is, not at all. When you've arranged everything that the process takes in or seriously manipulated the end result? Now we can have a conversation because you make the outcome of the process either equivalent to (in the second case) your oil paints or (in the first) dependent on creation (that is, it's art because it's capturing art). Again, big photography is there for aesthetic worth or preserved for aesthetic work (i.e. aesthetics may not be why it began to exist but because it continues to exist). A landscape image, of course, lacks this issue with the process... it's inherently created.

A different Paint.NET something
We were talking about creation and processes. The two previous examples of things that I made were, really, outcomes of processes. I created the base image. This is often polka dots but the first was a series of coloured rectangles. Then I use processes I don't understand and can't affect, except in how they're targeted, to end up with aesthetically pleasing boredom busters. The above is different. In this case Paint.NET was a digital set of artist's brushes and paints. But, those former ones are a bit like that too. Why? Because they're many processes. In the same way that many diagrams can be chosen and used for art, many processes can be as well. So, a single photo of a tree that just exists can never be art. But many photos of trees (or, even, just that single tree) could be. It can go from a process to something broadly equivalent to the above.

Art
There's something a reader should gather from this post. There's art I like and art I don't like. I'm reasonably good at coming up with a vaguely coherent conception of art that excludes what I don't want to be art. But, ultimately, art is incredibly easy to explain and state. Art is judgement. It absolutely is judgement and, in a big sense, that means it's nothing else (i.e. the only defining feature of art is judgement). This idea is there...even in my explanations for why lots of things you get in contemporary art aren't art (e.g. really abstract stuff, which falls afoul of  art doesn't exist "to push boundaries, to see just how far art critics will go up their own arses to find the exit of the rabbit hole" and "to make a point"). It's throughout this post, if in the background. But, we don't have to accept that this is what art is. We don't have to be enslaved by this to the delusions of artists and art critics always trying to push the envelope.* They get away with it because art is judgement. It doesn't have to be this way. We can make art, if we feel so inclined, be more meaningful than this. Make it less embracing and give it more meaning (sounds a bit paradoxical, don't it?).

Cafe Terrace at Night, do you really need to ask?
But, maybe, this is the point. Art has feeling. Like this does. Not like random squares. Not like my computer generated swirls. Art, I suppose, just has to feel human. And I think contemporary "art" has lost a lot of that.

*I think, perhaps, they ran out of ideas. At last.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Fall in Scholarship Exam Candidates 2014

At the start of last year I wrote a post called "Scholarship Fee Changes". I briefly described the change (from three free ones to paying $30 per standard attempted) and talked about how this was an inequitable system. I also described how it incorporates yet another example of the unreality of New Zealand's free education system (i.e. that there is an NCEA charge of, currently, $76.70). At any rate, despite the fee changes only coming into effect for this year (i.e. 2015), Stuff.co.nz is reporting a fall in the number or Scholarship candidates.

While we cannot be certain that this is due to the fees, I believe that it probably is. Developing a mechanism for this isn't so easy, however.. In my experience at a mid decile state school (as opposed to a high decile or private school where a factory like approach to Scholarship is taken -- this is partly why so many of the top awards come out of the same schools year in, year out), those who do Scholarship are those who put their hands up to do it. If the fee changes were to have an effect, it would rely on smart people misunderstanding the information available and assuming that the fee changes were already effective. However, there is some level encouragement coming from the school and/or teachers (this is potentially subject dependent). If, say, a school had traditionally seen many of its Schol candidates choose to sit the exams after having been tapped on the shoulder (as it were) by its teachers, then we could expect that teachers, adapting for when this would be necessary, tapping fewer pupils on the shoulder. Teachers don't want to set their pupils up for failure and would be particularly incentivised to be more selective if the pupil stood to lose something from not succeeding.

Naturally, this is a problem that would affect schools in the lower and middle parts of the decile system more. These are schools which have fewer resources due to flaws in the decile system and, due to a whole range of reasons, have to be far more focussed on passing. That's as opposed to building on success. Two big reasons are internal and external pressures to get good pass percentages. One of the flaws with school choice is that parents won't send children to schools when they think their children won't get a decent chance to succeed. New Zealand's approach school choice has been a half in, half out thing. Many lower decile schools don't have zones or have very large ones because they have very few pupils. This is largely because parents have some ability to get their children into other schools (whether through private options, out of zone applications, lying about where they live or moving house). As a consequence of this, and tables published by the likes of Metro, there is a fair amount of pressure on schools to get good results in things like NCEA that is external. Naturally, within a school you're going to be generating pressure to help pupils pass (without resorting to unethical actions) anyway. This is particularly true if many of the pupils are marginal or behind... as is quite likely when you're in a school system as inequitable as New Zealand's. This adds up to environment where the majority of resources are focussed at trying to bring people up to where they should be, rather than trying to bring them up to where the pupils (hopefully) would like to be.

There is some limited evidence to support the idea that the fee changes, working through something like the above mechanism, is responsible for the fall in candidates. That is, of course, the sizeable jump to nearly 30% of candidates passing scholarship exams from 2013's 21.8%. This is exactly what we'd expect to see if schools were being more selective in the pupils that they suggested try Scholarship.

Now, there are naturally other options. The 2010-14 cohort may have felt, in general terms, that it was fairly thick and didn't have a hope and, therefore, fewer pupils decided to try it of its own accord due to low self esteem. That's probably unreasonable. Maybe the 2011-15 cohort is considered to be thick by teachers and fewer high achievers were encouraged to try Scholarship in Year Twelve than previously. Again, probably unreasonable. It's possible that there was a decline in the pool from which Scholarship candidates rise. That is, perhaps the decline is not seen if you look at the proportion of NCEA Level Three Candidates who are also Scholarship Candidates between 2013 and 2014. That's obviously a proxy as there are a lot of CIE pupils who do scholarship (and schools which have issues with NCEA strangely, but not really, have no issues with Schol). Maybe the reputation of Schol fell due to the rise in the UE standard and fewer CIE schools encourage pupils to have a go at Schol (but the numbers are pretty big so I doubt it's this one). It doesn't even have to be due to one of these or even some of these... the fee thing I described above could explain some of the fall and factors like these more. Frankly, I'm not sure we'll ever know. But we can make some inferences on the likelihood of each one.

NZQA Annual Report on NCEA and New Zealand Scholarship Data and Statistics (2013), pg. 71














What does this say? Well, retention rates have been increasing for some time now. It is, therefore, unlikely that there was a noticeable drop in the number of candidates around. In other words, we should expect that there is a difference in the aforementioned proportions. Incidentally, these trends hold true for decile, gender and ethnicity breakdowns of the data. I won't include any images of them because they need to be quite big to be of any use. However, the argument would still hold true if there was an overall population dip. Assuming that everything else was pretty much unchanged, a population dip could well explain there being 2558 fewer Scholarship Candidates. And, that is indeed, what is the case:

NZQA Annual Report on NCEA and New Zealand Scholarship Data and Statistics (2013), pg. 75

So, that's a reduction of 2087 (assuming the 60,44 figure is meant to be 60,440). In other words, the population dip is a very convincing explanation. It also means that my proposed mechanism is likely wrong. There could be some effect, which would help explain the increase in the proportion of passes. However, that increasing proportion is likely better explained by the 2013 Schol candidates being guinea pigs. That is to say, the 2013 candidates faced newly realigned Scholarship standards that may or may not have been close to the versions used for the 2012 examinations. The 2014 lot of candidates could, additionally, be smarter anyway.

So, I will have to wait another whole year to see if my predictions for the effects of the fee changes are correct. Because, when you look at the evidence, there isn't anything that suggests that I'm right. Even my one hint, is better explained by another factor. In some sense, then, this blog post was an utter waste of time or an exercise in showing off my rationality (i.e. I can change my beliefs based on facts). It wasn't meant to be like this. It's more an example of the folly in coming to a conclusion and then doing the research.

p.s. in that post last year I mentioned that I was unlikely to have passed my economics Scholarship. That turned out to be true, by a single mark. If I had got that mark I would've been in for a sizeable reward due to having passed history (easily, but not really close to an outsanding pass) and classical studies (barely, just scraped through). All up, that meant $1000, which I've only now mostly all spent.

Exams

Exams are performances. They are little more than elaborate little plays.

Think about it. Exams come with rehearsals -- frequently known as tests. The multiple exams periods (e.g. term two, mocks, externals) correspond well with taking a show on tour and performing at a variety of different venues. That each exam period has multiple exams is a perfect, or at least natural, analogy for having multiple performances of a given play within a season. Exam preparation also resembles, reasonably closely, the processes that an actor might undertake whilst learning lines or getting to grips with their character. Blocking = practising exam structure (for instance, TEER or SEX paragraphs). Teachers are directors and supervisors stage managers; both of whom make sure everything works smoothly. Fellow pupils are other actors up for the same awards or competing to achieve recognition. The audience is more complex because the chief observer of what happens in the exam is, in fact, its maker. There's also the marker and the exam taker's family and friends... their conception of their future self is also an important, metaphorical, audience member.

This holds true on other levels as well. Psychologically, exams and plays are both daunting only to the unprepared. Stage fright doesn't exist. Poor preparation does. In some sense, plays exist to capture some semblance of reality and explore it (hence why analysts might talk of reality and unreality in discussing plays). Exams are like this too. They're firstly there to assess what their takers know and understand... every other aspect of an exam is secondary to this aim. However, exams do this through unreality. As a thing, an exam is an incredibly contrived situation. This is like akin to a playwright's having total control over the world of a play. It's not real (even if Prince George never quite understands this in Blackadder the Third), but that doesn't mean that it can't say something meaningful about reality. Is that not the same as an exam?

Thinking of exams as performances brings, I feel, an interesting light to The History Boys. Irwin spends the entire play/film trying to teach his pupils how to play the game. This was revolutionary for the boys in the story. In the past, the standard approach of schools was to ignore such things as exam technique. Instead, their focus was entirely on learning or memorisation of facts or whatever else was required. Things like flair just didn't seem to be something that was needed. The History Boys is set in the eighties not because this is where this paradigm was overturned but because it's when the central problem to be resolved ceased to exist. In that sense, Irwin's ideas could be too early or too late when compared with reality but the point is that they're true. And when you think of exams as performances, you see this better than if you consider exams as games. Success in a game, after all, is all about what the likes of Dakin and co. were doing. The first thing you do is know what you need to do. The second thing you do is get as efficient at doing that as possible. While it's true that a lot of the greats bring something else (for instance, Usain Bolt is a character), solid efficiency is enough and, frankly, frequently better. But, for an actor, it's not enough to be efficient. You can't just be incredibly truthful. You have to bring a sense of vitality to your performance as well. And that, ultimately, is Irwin's message. Truth isn't what stands out. Everyone knows the truth and writes about that. You need to bring something that rises above that (usually achieved by having a non-conventional take on things).

In short, exams are performances. They are made great as much by style as they are by substance.