Learning what exactly?
Russell Degnan

The first time I was at university, a friend in my maths class told me that "you're never really at uni until you've failed something". I had no intention of failing anything at university, but I got close enough - thrice - to get his point.

You only get out of university what you put into it, and you, personally, are responsible for setting those expectations.

In high school, and primary school, this is not the case. As well as your own, your expectations are set by your teachers, the school culture, your parents, and your friends. This confuses the issue on what makes a good education, who can provide it, and how to achieve it. Nice facilities raise expectations, as does academic selection, good teachers, a history of good academic performance, smaller schools, testing, and uniforms; but for a wide variety of reasons. But extracting the effect of these disparate factors is near impossible when doing research, which is why government school policy contents itself with such measurable but useless figures as class sizes and retention rates. In addition to outright destructive policies like changing the curriculum - which normally only serves to confuse students.

Expectations are everything when you are learning. There is no part of the high school curriculum, nor in most spheres of knowledge, that someone of even mediocre intelligence could not learn given sufficient motivation to do so. It is finding the motivation that is difficult. By contrast with the time when public education was created, policy on what students should and need to know at all levels is nothing but a hodge podge of standardised tests and political grand-standing.

For starters, some egregious assumptions need to be changed regarding students.

The learning experience is talked about as if it is always the same. It is not. A student's attitude to learning and school undergoes enormous change as they progress through the system at all levels. There is a big difference in intellectual development, and the potential to grasp some concepts between (for example) a year 7 and a year 9. Likewise socially, where schools tend towards an anarchist distopia, while students stumble into a moral system noone is willing to tell them about.

In conception, they are polarised between pliant sinkholes that will learn if all conditions are right, and completely independent entities that sink or swim on their own merit. Again, they are not, they are complex, slightly naive, highly impressionable, and constantly changing individuals. It is a testament to their abilities that students learn anything in the rigid structure they are forced through.

A debate needs to be had about what students can and should be expected to learn at each level of education. A trend towards universal university education is useless unless there is some expectation beyond "you need it to get a job". And students, in whose interests the interminable debate on education quality is carried out, need to know what these are and why.

This is where private schools do better right now, not in funding, facilities, teachers, or discipline, but in expectations. They - and state selectives - sell one expectation - that of getting to university - to parents willing to pay for it. It may be a shallow limited view of scholing but it is apparently what people want. For state schools, there is no funding impediment to a good education. They have some good teachers, their facilities can be inadequate but they serve, and any student can do research and reading on the internet. But they are getting worse, because with a few exceptions, the students with high expectations aren't there, and their parents with high expectations aren't there, and those teachers with high expectations get discouraged or leave.

As it is, we are putting children through thirteen - or seventeen - years of education with no end goal. It is not quite using teachers as Glorified Babysitters. But it is not far off.

Sterner Matters 31st July, 2004 18:57:22   [#] [2 comments] 

In case of emergency, empty dam
Russell Degnan

We've had a fair amount of rain recently, so rightly, the fountains are being turned back on. Despite this, Melbourne Water have said that we still need to save water, so the depleted catchments can refill. Again, rightly. But beyond that some of the assumptions about water conservation don't match the reality of our water usage.

That reality is of ever-increasing per capita usage, despite claims to the contrary. What Melbourne Water do claim is a per household reduction from 340 kL in the early 1980s to 220 kL in 1993. This looks fantastic except for two points. One, average household size has reduced substantially in that period, so much of that gain is illusory. Two, the points chosen for comparison are right before the start of water restrictions in the early 1980s and during restrictions now. Examining water usage as a trend tells a different story.

source: Melbourne Water

What this shows (and a per capita graph shows it better, but I had none at hand), is that water usage is inversely related to rain, and that we continue to use more and more as every year passes on.

One thing at a time. Average summer water usage in Melbourne is 1600 ML a day. The average generally is 1200 ML. The average this week was 1000 ML. The reason: when it rains, people don't water their garden, and gardens are both the biggest and most fluctuating use of water. During a drought, they can use up to 60% of total water, as compared to 35% normally.

There is a constant pattern over the course of the drought cycle (a complicated and unpredicatable thing, but which generally runs in patterns of 4, 7 and 11 years). Water usage when restrictions are eased rises quickly, before smoothing out until the drought starts. At this point, the lack of rain means people start watering their dying gardens, water storage levels drop, and restrictions are introduced until the drought eases. Then the pattern begins again.
Except that each successive cycle has seen higher usage than the previous one. I am not sure why. It is not dissimilar to the Induced Demand Hypothesis as it applies to roads. But road use that can be explained as a willingness to travel further in the same time frame. Increased water use because it is available has no similar rhime nor reason. Except that people water gardens because they can, and every year we get more and more greenery.

It is for this reason that water savings measures cannot be the be-all and end-all of Melbourne's water policy, as proposed. Droughts cause more water to be used, droughts occur often in Melbourne, and Melbourne has a finite supply of water that is nearing (in fact it is past) the limit of what can be taken. And rationing water more heavily in the wet part of the drought cycle doesn't help when uses that normally make no, or small demands on water - such as most gardens - start making heavy demands on water for lack of a natural supply.

For that we will need water restrictions. Or harsh water pricing that achieves the same ends. Till next time though, we have our fountains again. And a fine sight they are.

Sterner Matters 29th July, 2004 00:21:11   [#] [4 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: XXXVIII, July 2004
Russell Degnan

And now for something completely different. Though not stylistically. April 2004

Melbourne Town 27th July, 2004 22:00:10   [#] [0 comments] 

One step forward, two back
Russell Degnan

No news to comment on at the moment so I'll mention an interesting article on Salon.com (hat tip: John Massengale). Despite green awareness being much higher in the United States, the size of the houses is more than negating any benefits from good design.

Here in Victoria the government has just brought in the 5 star energy rating for new houses. The enormous McMansion on the front of the site is a dead giveaway that it doesn't include any references to house size in it. (An aside - that house may be north facing, but it has enormous windows and no eaves, and is built almost against the edge of the block. How did it get 5 stars?) Instead, the site offers a neat contradiction by saying both that: "Apartments and terrace houses have a natural advantage in energy efficiency." and that smaller blocks are a "challenge". Whereas, the Salon article points out that design can be far more flexible on smaller blocks.

Now that the building industry is being forced into line on green building standards the Planning industry needs to do likewise. Large block-sizes, discrimination - not to mention nimbyism - against terrace houses will work against any good the new legislation might achieve. Unless house-size is incorporated into the next round of green building legislation, but that would really cause some angst.

Sterner Matters 25th July, 2004 20:00:34   [#] [2 comments] 

Russell Degnan

Hedges is a short, simple game for two players requiring a healthy dose of luck and some small skill.


Number of Players

Two, one player plays low cards, the other high.


A Whole deck is used. Aces are considered both high - above a King - and low - below a two.

The Deal

Two cards are dealt to each player. The remaining cards are placed face down in a pile.

The Table

There are four empty piles between the two players. Each player may play cards in either their left-most pile, or their third pile - second from the right.

From the player playing the low cards point of view. To play a card onto oen of their piles, it must be lower than, or equal to, the top-most card in the pile to its right; and greater than, or equal to, the top-most card in the pile to its left (if any). An empty pile has no bearing on the playing of a card.

Similarly, from the player playing the high cards point of view. To play a card onto one of their piles, it must be greater than, or equal to, the top-most card in the pile to its right; and less than, or equal to, the top-most card in the pile to its left (if any).

The Hand

Each player takes turns at playing a card from their hand. They may play in either of their piles provided that they have a card in their hand that can be played. The aim is to hedge your opponent in such a way that they cannot play a card themselves.

After a player has had their turn they draw another card from the remainder pile, regardless of whether they could successfully play a card or no. Hence, a player will generally, over the course of the game, accumulate more cards.

The Game

After the remainder pile has been exhausted, the player take turns playing until they have no more cards. The first player to get rid of all their cards wins.

Frivolous Pastimes 22nd July, 2004 23:13:05   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: XXXVII, July 2004
Russell Degnan

And the Melbourne Town Hall. Taken June 2004

Melbourne Town 19th July, 2004 23:59:05   [#] [0 comments] 

Write your own Zone: Any four toppings
Russell Degnan

The Age A3 Yesterday made an oblique reference to the changes to the Port Phillip Planning Scheme that were gazetted this week. The crux of the change is the new schedule to a special use zone in the St. Kilda 'Triangle Site'.

I don't plan to deal with the residents arguments that the site "isn't broke" except to point out that it is surrounded by two very busy pedestrian unfriendly roads and has an ugly carpark. That the Palais is crumbling from neglect - maybe all these rich musos should buy it instead of whining - and that the Palace might be a great venue but it is also a seedy shack. And, that you have to have some plan, and this is what has been created.

But what a strange creation. When the new planning schemes came in they were designed to reduce the number of zones, to give developer certainty. But what this shows is that with State Government acquiesance you can have whatever zoning laws you might wish for any piece of land you might choose. This site has an 'as-of-right' use for a cinema, function centre, indoor recreation, nightclub or restaurant. It takes into account heritage, architectural and urban design, and pedestrian issues normally just hinted at.

Most controversially, it exempts the developer "from the notice requirements of Section 52(1)(a), (b) and (d), the decision requirements of Section 64(1), (2) and (3) and the appeal rights of Section 82(1) of the Act". This is in accordance with the Act in each of these Sections that allow it to happen. The question is, why is this site so different as to warrant removing some of the core democratic parts of the act?

The mayor claims that it is for "commercial certainty" but if commercial certainty was an aim for a planning scheme then the best measure would be to abolish it completely. In effect, by removing the right of appeal, and rewriting the zoning to be site specific, the council has made itself the sole arbiter of what will go there. The statements in the document are almost irrelevant. What we have now is a political fight between the council, residents and the developer, whomever that is. Objective planning will go out the window the second it leaves the planning office and enters the council chambers.

It may, in fact, be a useful thing. For such a controversial site, a political and legal fight was almost inevitable. Allowing the council take leadership on the issue (barring a ministerial call-in) at least makes the responsibility clear to everyone. Not least of all, to electors. But your mileage may vary there. Does it lend itself to corruption? To favouritism? To good or bad planning outcomes? To controversy? To more, or less uncertainty?

Either way, interesting times ahead.

Sterner Matters 17th July, 2004 18:24:00   [#] [0 comments] 

On the Annoying Habits of Essay Markers
Russell Degnan

For a disturbingly high number of my subjects the essays assigned have an all too short word limit of 2000. Now, I write essays the same way I write computer programs, with a single statement supported by a logical sequence of arguments each of which is, in turn, supported by a heirachy of similar arguments. For short essays, with a necessarily broad question, as we are given, this means having a very shallow heirachy in the larger sense, building on broad, and often controversial ideas. You can ameliorate this somewhat, by not saying very much, by making the question more specific, or by blowing the word limit to pieces; but you are heavily constrained. To then recieve comments that seem to ignore these constraints is bewildering. If therefore, you are marking an essay, please desist from the following without good cause:

"Why didn't you talk about..." There may be times when this is appropriate; when I've made a large and embarassing omission of an author, event or idea central to the arguments I'm making. But unless it can be pointed out, within my essay, that addressing this omission would substantially change my argument, or that there is a school of thought that should have been mentioned that address a similar point, then it shouldn't be written. It certainly shouldn't be written on an essay where the question has been defined specifically to exclude discussion of a large and unwielding body of work; the inclusion of which, would make a mockery of the so-called 'word limit'.

"Your sources are..." "Too few" isn't something I get often, but again, it has to be assessed in the context of what is being written. Some authors have done a lot of research on a similar topic and can be drawn on heavily for facts and quotes. Some areas - such as Melbourne's early history - have very few primary sources, all of which are recycled endlessly. And it should never be assumed that a list of 'references' is the sum total of all reading done. As a rule it is normally well less than half what I have looked at.

"Mostly online" is one I did get. This is a reliability issue. If I'm dragging information from blogs then perhaps it would be reasonable. But if - as in this case - the sources are online versions of print journals, articles on websites of prominent authors, and Australian and international agencies then it is nonsense. You may as well remark that 'all your sources came from a library'.

"But couldn't it be said that..." Nothing wrong with this. I love to hear an alternative view. But before it is made could the marker make the courtesy of reading the whole essay. There are hundreds of ways to order an argument, and saying something that is in the next paragraph, or a few pages later, or worst of all, already said, is rude. Don't interrupt.

"Excellent. 4/5" I come from the scientific school, where marks are given for passing a hurdle, and removed for tripping over it. If you are marking my structure and you detect no discernable edifice then you can give zero and say so. If you mark it lacking in some way though, I'd like to know where. It was, last I checked, the reason for marking in the first place. Too often essay marking is seemingly arbitrary, overly harsh, or rushed. It is the only chance, often, when teaching to give feedback - particularly to the quiet people in a class - it needs to be done properly.

" " Same as above, but twice over.

"The question was about..." Actually, no it isn't. It is about whatever I said I'd talk about in the introduction; particularly if you've said in the tutorial that we can reinterpret the question to make it more specific. And if I have questioned the assumptions underpinning the question itself in that interpretation, then this comment shows a lack of comprehension on your part. If you had wanted to read the same series of dull cook's tours on a generic question then might I suggest the natural sciences.

"...was..." My grammar can be sloppy, is often archaic, but it is rarely obfuscatory. Years doing computer programming has made me very careful with my wording. There is an old rule on usenet that says that any spelling flame will invariably contain a spelling error. If you are going to correct me, could you do me the courtesy of, one, making sure you are right, and two, reading the sentence properly, instead of trying to rephrase it to say something else.

It is not just the annoying habits though. Universities place no value on undergraduates for a variety of reasons. This comes out in the marking and the teaching. Is it too much to write, "I don't agree with this because...", or "Try the works of X or Y, they talk about...". Essays as they are marked are the exam when you don't have an exam. A mere checklist of things to write about and do. The problems with that approach will have to be the subject of another essay, but suffice to say, it encourages teaching for 'credit' instead of for 'learning' and devalues an education.

Passing Fancy 17th July, 2004 17:27:19   [#] [0 comments] 

Monday Melbourne: XXXVI, July 2004
Russell Degnan

Continuing a theme. The North Melbourne Town Hall. Taken March 2003

Melbourne Town 12th July, 2004 23:57:30   [#] [2 comments] 

The advantages conveyed by having a 'nice' city
Russell Degnan

I had occasion last weekend, to take a jaunt to the gold mining regions of central Victoria. The stated purpose was to see the art galleries of the region; since they have a fine reputation. But I'm also fascinated by the area.

If ever the goal was to recreate Mother England in the distant colonies, it had no better implementation than this region. The major towns and country are - not surprisingly - the living reincarnation of the Jerusalem Hymn. Rolling green hills and pastures, few native trees, and a collection of grand churches and public buildings that shames Melbourne (who tore so many of theirs down).

These towns should be shadows of their former selves. The gold rush finished 140 years ago. The towns lost substantial proportions of their populations with the collapse of their major resource. Although away from the coast, their presence on the major routes to Melbourne from the country allowed them to maintain themselves through the early 20th century. But with faster modern transport methods and limited natural resources there is no geographical reason that medium size cities like Castlemaine, Ballarat, Bendigo or Daylesford ought to exist. And yet they are booming.

The Castlemaine post office and streetscape

The reason is their relative proximity to Melbourne, and the benefits of sound urban management 150 years ago. The citizens of the boom towns laid out wide (even too wide), graceful streets, built majestic buildings, planted large trees, and started galleries, libraries and other sources of civic pride. You can tell Melbourne is starting to reach the limit of its growth, not because the government has implemented an urban growth boundary which may or may not hold; but because so many people are moving to country towns to live. While there is a marginally longer commute than living on the urban fringe, country residents reap the benefits of the afore-mentioned urban amenities, and accessible walkable neighbourhoods.

Meanwhile, Melbourne residents come out to those cities on day trips in their thousands. Castlemaine has so many antique shops and cafes (though many were closed last week) as to have no other industry. The galleries started 150 years ago are - through donations and acquisition - now full of Australia's best artists from the past: Buvelot, McCubbin, Streeton, and an impressive collection of modern art as well.

If the boom period of the 1850s was an example of the benefits of sound urban practise, the boom period of the 1950s is a perfect example of the opposite effect. Both saw a rapid increase in population - though the 1850s was an order of magnitude worse - and desperate shortages of housing, and infrastructure. The 1950s however, produced sloppy concrete buildings and ugly townships and suburbs, lacking in any grace, trees, sources of civic pride and basically: care.

If you were to travel in an easterly direction you'll come across the Latrobe Valley. Despite being well within the day trip range of Melbourne, its' cities are largely devoid of cafes and activity. In Moe - traditionally, yet rightly bashed - the job losses from power industry reform in the 1990s have left shops closed and streets deserted. Unlike the gold regions though, Moe can't trade on its' grand buildings, and its' beauty, because it doesn't have any. Whatever money it managed to extract from 50 years attached to the power industry hasn't gone to making the city a better place. Now there is a downturn, all that is left is a dying city.

Economic sustainability is a bit of a myth - particularly if you are involved in mining. All things can and do change. A city is much like a surfer, all they can do is keep their head up and be ready to catch the next wave. For Castlemaine and Ballarat, decisions made a hundred and more years ago are being turned to their advantage. I highly recommend a visit, the galleries are better than I expected, the food is generally excellent, and if you like late Victorian, the architecture is as impressive as any place in the world.

Sterner Matters 11th July, 2004 18:04:02   [#] [1 comment] 

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