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Early previews of Avatar were stunning. But it looked preachy right from the beginning – like a magnificent sci-fi retelling of the noble green fight against logging in Tasmania.

Jim Schembri at The Age has seen it, and says this is exactly right:

THERE’S no argument that, as a showcase for the immersive potential of 3D visual effects technology, James Cameron’s long-awaited $300 million sci-fi epic Avatar – his first film since 1997’s world-conquering Titanic – is an unqualified triumph.

But as a story designed to engage, enthral and entertain adult audiences for almost three hours, it is a major disappointment strewn with weak characters, environmental platitudes and anti-progress cliches. …

The lush alien world Cameron creates is a magnificent, photo-realistic landscape of multi-coloured dragons, dinosaurs, endless waterfalls and floating mountains. But with its patronising, predictable images of noble savages, evil technology and gigantic bulldozers crunching their way through precious alien rainforests, the film often feels like a megalithic piece of green propaganda. As superbly rendered as his 3D world is, Cameron has populated it with characters who are strictly 2D. And sometimes not even that.

A compulsive envelope-pusher, Cameron invented a pioneering camera system and ground-breaking visual processing techniques for the film, but perhaps he should have spent a little less time obsessing over the technology and a tad more developing the story beyond the compendium of cliches it regrettably is.

But I’ll still go and see it.

Catherine Deveny, comedy writer, stand-up comedian and perpetual sad sack.

I have never encountered a column writer who has such an immense talent for finding something offensive or hurtful in ordinary day to day life and human interaction.

But she manages to slip beneath even her former underwhelming efforts in her column variously titled private schools muck up, watch those grammars, or private school values.

Firstly she is offended by the idea that a private school principal might have some friends who could assist someone in need.

Did you read about the boy who may lose hearing in one ear because a Melbourne Grammar boy threw an egg at him during a muck-up prank gone wrong? Did anyone else feel sickened but at the same time not at all surprised when the principal of Melbourne Grammar said in an interview: “[The injured boy’s mother] asked for help because . . . her son was not able to gain access to a surgeon. I was able to, through contacts, get him an appointment with a surgeon the very next day.’

Well, actually no. I was not sickened by this. I was pleased to hear of school authorities taking responsibility and doing what they could to assist.

It is still not clear to me what Catherine found so distressing.

The idea that some people actually have friends? The idea that some people might be willing to help someone in need? The idea that some people might be in a position to help someone in need?


Then she is offended by being invited to mentor a gifted student at another private school. Well, offended that no pay is offered. The school is surprised that she asks. No one else has done so.

Catherine suggests the school is greedy, attempting to shame her into working for nothing to increase their company profitability.

But private schools are not businesses. They are non-profit organisations whose income goes entirely into providing facilities for students and their communities.

Private schools receive substantially less government funding than state schools – on average $5000 less for every student. Parents and school communities work hard to make up the rest.

Catherine told the schoool that she would mentor a student if the school agreed to donate $200 to the Asylum Seekers’ Resource Centre. They agreed, and she mentored the student.

The school should have just said ‘No thanks’ right at the start.

There are some people who walk into my shop whom I know within thirty seconds of their opening their mouths that I do not want as customers. There are some people you will just never be able to please.

But having agreed, it should have given the money.

Catherine claims the school reneged on the agreement. Maybe they did.

She took their not wanting to communicate with her as proof. Maybe they had just reached the same conclusion about her that I reach about some of my customers – too much trouble when weighed against possible benefits.

If they did not give the money, their failure to do so is reprehensible.

But one incident of one school not doing the right thing does not make greed and dishonesty ‘private school values.’ There is something wrong in thought processes that can lead to such a claim being made with such blind certainty.

What is wrong with Catherine Deveny?

You could quibble about the headline.

By tough love, the ABC reporter means parents setting boundaries and sticking to them. Children don’t seem to be smarter, just more resilient, more confident, more capable. And setting consistent rules is raising children, not breeding them.

But it is an interesting story.

9,000 families were studied over eight years.

Children treated with warmth, and given clear consistent guidelines, followed up by clear, consistent discipline, were much better at developing life skills including self-control and empathy.

Before you start thinking that this is as much of a headline as Britney’s lip-synching, let me tell you what I think is interesting.

The study claims that clear rules and firm discipline are more important to a child’s self-esteem and future success than any other factor, including household wealth, single or both parents, etc.

But it also notes that discipline is likely to be firmer and more consistent in families with average or better income, and in families where both parents are involved in raising children.

Why might this be?

Raising children is emotionally exhausting. Children are hungry, energetic, rude, thoughtless, constantly testing the boundaries. It is often tempting to give in. Having a loving and supportive partner makes it easier to say no, to stay in charge and in control.

But why should a good income make it easier? The answer, I think, is that it is not the income that makes it easier, but the skills and self-discipline that are the usual pre-requisites to earning a good income.

If you are capable of saying no to yourself, capable of making sacrifices, capable of managing your time, and see the value of work and study, you are more likely to take the harder road of firm, fair discipline in raising your children.

Teacher friends have frequently confirmed this, telling me it is generally (but not always, obviously!) the children from two parent families on reasonable incomes who are more considerate, more creative, better workers, with more confidence in themselves and the world, and consequently more chance to succeed.

But if all of that is true, and I think it is, how do we in Australia begin to address the huge problems facing young people from groups where confidence in the world around, and consistent, positive, active parenting have been lost?

One of my best friends is a highly intelligent and capable woman who has raised four lovely daughters, run a successful business, and is a respected teacher whose students have produced consistently good results.

This will be her last year of teaching. She just does not have the energy to struggle every day with children who are rude, have no interest in learning, and for whom everything is boring. Of course it is they who are boring, because they have no interests, no skills, no informed opinions to share.

My friend is also dismayed by the level of verbal and physical abuse directed at staff and other students, and by the inability or unwillingness of Education department staff and politicians to recognise the problem, and to put reasonable structures in place to encourage learning, or even to ensure schools are safe places to work and learn.

The always interesting Boris Johnson makes a case for greater support for teachers, and more meaningful (though not necessarily corporal) discipline policies and processes.

A study of more than 12, 000 British children between the ages of seven and nine has found that children who spend large amounts of time in daycare because both parents (or a sole parent) work, are significantly more likely to become obese, and to suffer other long term health problems.

Naturally there are howls of outrage. An article in the Australian says the results have been refuted by Queensland mums. No they haven’t. To refute something means to show it is untrue. A couple of working mothers saying ‘Well my kid’s healthy, and eats salad and stuff’ does not refute the findings of an independent study of over 12,000 children.

Previous studies have found that extensive time in daycare in the early years can have long term negative effects on vocabulary acquisition and behaviour – effects which may be cause children to struggle at school and in later life.

Time to think again about subsidised daycare.

My general rule is that if something needs to be subsidised, it probably shouldn’t be.

For example, South Australian taxpayers pay about $2 for every $1 a commuter pays for a train or bus ticket in Adelaide. I travel 100 kilometres to work and back each day, with petrol prices on the island about 30% higher than in the city. So why should I be asked to subsidise the transport costs of people who travel 10 kilometres to work and back each day, and already pay less for petrol?

Likewise, why should parents who make the decision to sacrifice income so that one of them can parent their children full-time, be asked to subsidise parents who both work? The only reason would be that doing so provided some clear benefit to the wider community. But the now well established negative effects of long term early day care make it difficult to see any such benefits.

Parents shouldn’t be stopped from sending their children to daycare, of course. But they shouldn’t expect other people to pay for it.

A Brisbane lawyer and mother of four children, Mrs Tempe Harvey, agrees. She is establishing a lobby group for children’s welfare, the Kids First Parents Association of Australia. One of their policies is the scrapping of childcare subsidies. Good news.

Reviewing the results of the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment, Walter Williams notes:

..the longer American children are in school, the worse they perform compared to their international peers. In recent cross-country comparisons of fourth grade reading, math, and science, US students scored in the top quarter or top half of advanced nations. By age 15 these rankings drop to the bottom half. In other words, American students are farthest behind just as they are about to enter higher education or the workforce.” That’s a sobering thought. The longer kids are in school and the more money we spend on them, the further behind they get.

Australia does not participate in PISA, but I would be surprised if our results were much different.

There is no evidence that throwing money at education, or any of the popular demands like smaller class sizes, a laptop for every student, etc, make the slightest bit of difference to learning outcomes.

What does? Making schools compete for students.

This leads to more involvement by parents, more concentration on learning as opposed to fluffy fillers, more cost effective personnel and resource management, and employment of more effective teachers.

The voucher system is one way of achieving this. Bring it on!

One of my close friends is a muslim and a teacher. She is a delightful and interesting woman with a bright smile. I speak with her three or four times a week.

She is Indonesian, and teaches Indonesian language and culture.

As part of her programme she talks about the religious culture of Indonesia. She tells the students she is a Muslim, and explains something of her faith. I have no problem with any of that.

A couple of days ago she was distressed and angry after school. I asked her what had happened. She told me she had been telling the students Islam was a religion of peace. They laughed at her.

That was rude. And to be fair, she is not always treated well, by staff or students. But I almost laughed too.

This is the monthly jihad report for April 2009 from Religion of Peace:

 Jihad Attacks: 158
 Countries: 15
 Religions: 5
 Dead Bodies: 715
 Critically Injured: 1135

Her response to the class resulted in further laughter.

She started by telling the class that the way people thought about Islam was because of distortions by the media.

Christians killed people just as much, she said. Martin Bryant, for example, killed all those people at Port Arthur. And then to illustrate how morally lax Christianity was, she pointed out that here in Australia lots of men have sex with one another.

She assumes that everyone in Australia, or every white person, is a Christian. She has been here long enough to know better.

But more alarming is the blindness, even in this intelligent and largely westernised woman, to the horrors perpetrated in the name of Islam

Where to begin?

The questions at the end of the article on NAPLAN testing (a few posts below) were selected from those close to the end of the paper. They are among the harder questions

Question One.

Each person gets two votes. So there will be twice as many votes as people. Add up the number of votes shown by each bar in the graph to get a total number of votes. Divide that total by two. There are twenty-six votes, so there are thirteen people in the club.

Question Two.

I had to stop and think about this one. There are two unknown factors of 96. One factor divided by the other = six. So (at least) one of the two factors is divisible by six.

The next step, unless you are very brainy, is to write down the six times table: 1×6=6,2×6=12, 3×6=18, 4×6=24. We can stop there, because 4×24=96. So we know 4 and 24 are the two mystery factors.

We can check by remembering that the problem tells us their product is 96, and that one divided by the other is 6. 24 x 4 = 96. 24 divided by 4 is 6.

Question 3.

Total weight lifted = 26kgs. The bar weighs 4kgs. So the total amount of weights to be added to the bar is 22kgs. Divide this by two to get the amount to put on each side = 11kgs.

Of the weights shown, what combination will make 11kgs? Three 2kg weights, and one 5kg weight. So to show the total number of weights used, you would shade six 2kg weights, and two 5kg weights.

These questions are not easy – but why should they be? Most of the questions, like problems one and three in my examples, involve  commonplace, real life applications of maths skills.

I won’t wish students and teachers good luck. Too much everyday success or failure is blamed on luck or the lack of it.

With good teaching and conscientious study, you don’t need good luck.

Teachers are preparing their year 3, 5, 7 and 9 students for the National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy tests which will take place around Australia from the 12th to the 19th of May.

This national testing scheme was introduced last year. The idea is that it gives students, teachers and parents an objective way to compare their school’s, and individual children’s, level of knowledge and skill with others around the country. This makes it easier to identify particular schools and children who need more support.

It may also help in identifying teachers who are underperforming, so naturally the AEU (Australian Education Union) doesn’t like it.

One of the criticisms was that the tests were unrealistically hard.

I was able obtain copies of last year’s tests. There was some spelling in the literacy tests, but the greatest emphasis seemed to be on students’ ability to interpret a variety of common texts: recipes, a newspaper cutting, a short story.

The literacy tests seemed fair for their year level. They required an ability to think about the meaning of ordinary texts, and to apply that knowledge. Generally single word answers were required, and these were either right or wrong – making the test easy to mark, and providing a straightforward objective result.

This is exactly what parents want. They want clear, objective information that shows what their child has learned, and how his or her performance compares with that of other students in their own community and nationally.

The numeracy tests were also good in terms of design, and questions were appropriate for the year level they were testing.

I have run a number of quiz nights for various organisations over the years. In each bracket of ten questions I will put a couple which any dimwit should be able to answer. Then there will be five or six which you might confidently expect someone in a group of six or eight adults to know.  Then there will be two or three which will test even an intelligent and well-read person

The NAPLAN tests seemed to be organised in much the same way. At each year level there were some questions which any student with half a brain should have been able to answer. Most of the other questions were solvable with a bit of thought by an average student. And a few were required some deeper knowledge or thought.

I have copied three (out of 45) questions below from the year five (11 year olds) numeracy test. I’ll post answers and explanations a little later. Enjoy!

NAPLAN Numeracy Problem 1

NAPLAN Numeracy Problem 1


NAPLAN Numeracy Problem 2

NAPLAN Numeracy Problem 2


NAPLAN Numeracy Problem 3

NAPLAN Numeracy Problem 3

I only heard of this today. Australian parents and caregivers can get back up to 50% of the cost of eligible education expenses for primary and secondary schooling. The link is worth following if you live in Australia and have children at school.

Eligible expenses includes computers and related equipment, computer repairs, internet costs, etc.

It might do my business some good, so I’m not going to complain.

But that money given back to some means more money taken from others. Or reduced government spending elsewhere.

OK, so that’s not likely. You’re right. It’s going to come out of your pocket.

Via John Ray’s Education Watch, this article from The Age about the damage caused by bad behaviour at school.

My wife is a teacher, as are many of my friends. Disruptive behaviour is endemic in Australian schools. Not the slightly cheeky, have a bit of fun at the teacher’s expense stuff that I remember, but outright bullying, and violent or abusive behaviour that means schools are not safe places for either students or staff.

There are many reasons for this decline in behaviour. One is poor behaviour by staff. You’ll see posters about bullying and class rules everywhere. But teachers often do not model safe, considerate behaviour. Teachers who are new or do not fit the mould are frequently isolated, denied access to resources, not given information about meetings or events, etc. Students see this behaviour from staff, so they assume it is all right, no matter what the posters say.

It’s more than just bullying of staff by staff of course. I have known teachers who get drunk on the weekends, get into fights, commit acts of vandalism, use drugs, and then turn up on Monday expecting their students to respect their authority and do what they are told.

Good teachers do model good behaviour, and try to make a difference by setting rules about acceptable behaviour and encouraging students to follow them. But they are frequently undermined by senior staff who are either lazy, or more concerned about their careers or placating parents than making classrooms places where real learning can take place.

Then there are ‘counselors’ who insist students should not have to face the consequences of their behaviour because they come from a ‘troubled background.’ Instead students who are disruptive, even violent, are pampered, given ‘supportive’ one on one attention, taken for treats, etc. Nonsense of course. Whatever your background or feelings, you are still responsible for how you act. Rewarding bad behaviour does even more to discourage the good students.

Students who by any standard should be suspended or expelled are not, because ‘We have a responsibility for them, and they have nowhere else to go.’ Yes, but schools also have an equal or even greater responsibility to the majority of students who want to listen, participate and learn. What about their rights, and the rights of teachers – the right to be able to learn and to teach in a safe environment? Those who are violent or abusive, even if it is true that ‘they have nowhere else to go’ can solve the problem any time they like simply by changing their behaviour. Conscientious students do not have that choice. They are stuck with the problem till someone fixes it.

It is absolutely true, as The Age article notes, that an unfair burden is placed on teachers, who are expected no longer just to teach (actually, I’m sure good teachers always expected to do more than just teach)  but to ‘solve society’s problems,’ including diet, manners, self-esteem, etc.

If parents have not been willing or able to instil some sense of the value of learning, to teach good manners and respect for others, and to set and maintain fair boundaries for behaviour, then by the time a child gets to school it is probably too late. Children who won’t take responsibility or are angry, or see no point in being at school, frequently have parents who won’t take responsibility, or are angry, or see no point in education. So they are unlikely to be supportive of school or teacher efforts to get the child to do what they don’t value themselves, and will sometimes be actively hostile.

Good teachers will try to help. But constantly badly behaved children in a class take up a vastly disproportionate amount of a teacher’s time, which means less time for the good students, the ones who want to learn. Also, and obviously, the more time a teacher has to spend correcting and controlling bad behaviour, the less time there is to spend on teaching and learning, and the more difficult it is for a teacher to build a positive relationship with the class as a whole. And then, equally obviously, noisy, argumentative, rude or violent students create an environment which is not conducive to learning, either because other students (and often the teacher as well) do not feel safe, or simply because of constant noise and interruptions.

So yes, enough is enough.

Teachers and other staff are right to expect and demand that parents take more responsibility, both for teaching values and manners, and for correcting bad behaviour when it does occur. But the fact that many parents have not done so and won’t do so is at least partly the fault of teacher organisations, which have trodden over parents’ rights and concerns.

School documents may say parents are the primary teachers, and that the school works in partnership with them, but the reality is often very different. Parent concerns about curriculum are treated as a joke, and schools have insisted, often against strong resistance from parents, that they have a ‘duty’ to teach sex education, morals, politics, and ‘childrens rights’ – frequently in ways that parents find offensive or counter to their own values. So it is a bit rich for teacher organisations, which by their actions have told parents they are incompetent and should stay out, now to start blaming parents for not taking more responsibility.

I have often seen the signs at hospitals that say something like “We are obliged to provide a safe environment for patients and staff. Abusive behaviour will not be tolerated.”

If the same kind of zero tolerance policy were put in place at schools, if education departments took seriously their responsibility to provide a safe work environment for staff, and a safe learning environment for students, our schools would be very different.