Unemployment or under-employment?

February 28, 2009

The government’s Job Summit has come and gone and the real work is now starting.   

Economic discourse often seems to focus too much on effects rather than causes. A rising level of unemployment is a visible symptom of the first downward cycle of recession. So is a loss of business and consumer confidence. Both reinforce the vicious spiral which leads to more unemployed. But the root causes lie elsewhere, and so do the real solutions.

  In the case of the current financial and economic crisis, the causes are largely systematic. Despite references by commentators to previous recessions and depressions (Gordon Brown has just used the dreaded D word), the current crisis has completely new dimensions, not least in the way global financial institutions, intertwined Medusa-like, can rapidly accelerate movement both up and down the financial game of snakes and ladders.

 New Zealand seems to be sheltered to a degree, at least temporarily, from Northern Hemisphere excesses. Our depreciating dollar has ameliorated the effects on our exports, though sales are softening, and our (mainly Australian owned) banks seem to be in a reasonable shape because of their comparatively  conservative stance, though it is to be hoped this very conservatism is not a barrier to banks being involved in creative solutions such as the proposed equity capital fund.

  It is very laudable to try to keep more people in work by such measures suggested at the Summit as the proposed nine day fortnight for some industries plus a training day. The government looks as it will put up the cost of the training though not of the wage costs. This could create some much needed momentum for the Skills Strategy of the previous government.

 Used properly, the 10th day for each worker is a great opportunity for timely and relevant education and training, particularly if this results in a genuine upskilling of the trade, technical, people and sales skills which will both help an organisation survived the downturn or worse, and position it for the eventual upswing.

 However the real challenge for New Zealand is not just unemployment, it is under-employment. As the annual Gallup surveys of employee engagement show, even in good times a large percentage of the workforce in many organisation is either switched off or not fully engaged   http://www.gallup.com/consulting/52/Employee-Engagement.aspx  . 

Everybody needs a fresh challenge and new opportunities from time to time. Here is a great opportunity to match intelligent business strategy with people development.

In its pre-election manifesto National talked about the “ladder of opportunity” in terms of student achievement, especially for those whom the education system  had not served well. Managed properly, a workplace-based skills programme involving everybody from the board table to the shopfloor, would create an escalator of opportunities.  As people stepped up into new jobs-governance, management, mentoring and coaching, marketing and sales, team leading, trade and technical and so on- room would be created on the step of the escalator  formerly occupied by someone now on the step above.

 This is a contrast to the Tokyo railway station-like approach to unemployment by government agencies in years gone by, with the focus on creating a scrum to push as many passengers on to the stationery train as they can manage at any one time. The first metaphor is dynamic, the second static.

What is requires is a shift of thinking from focusing on the unemployed to focusing on the under-employed. It is all about tapping the talents of our nation in new ways. It is about helping people find out what they are good at and encouraging them do more of that in new, challenging and rewarding ways.

 Of course, this is what good education is all about- drawing out and developing the talents and skills of individual learners of all ages and stages. 

The backdrop to the economic crisis consists of the breath-taking new developments in science and technology which have already transformed the world and which contain the seeds of solutions for new ways of working together. 

 There is no prefabricated template to move us forward. We had to find our own answers for our own organisations. Experts won’t help us; by definition, their expertise is grounded in the past. In increasingly complex times, we need leaders who can be open to recognizing emerging trends and not trapped in the patterns of the past like the generals of World War I.

 First we need the right questions. Handling uncertainty with flair and creativity and admitting you don’t know many of  the answers is a good start for leaders who genuinely want to find a way through the present crisis and have  their organisations in good shape when  the business cycle picks up.  People are much more likely to be engaged in finding answers and solutions if they are not cut and dried.

The key thing is to build awareness that we are all in this together. We are all engaged in steering or paddling the organisation’s waka. Direction, purpose and harmony, and the right balance of paddlers is the key to keeping the waka afloat. If your end sinks so does mine!

Feedback on feedback

February 28, 2009

I read with interest the report of the PPTA’s attack on Prof. John Hattie in the Press 25/2/09 – “Teacher Union Head criticises NZ Expert”. http://www.stuff.co.nz/4858846a7694.html  

In her first message to members, new PPTA President Kate Gainsford made disparaging comments about “doing research on research” and “self-professed experts” telling people in the classroom what to do.  

Last month, Auckland University professor Hattie published his book Visible Learning based on a synthesis of more than 50,000 achievement studies from around the world. He used the studies to rank 138 aspects of schooling. Gainsford’s defensive/aggressive stance seems to have been triggered by Hattie’s ranking of the factors which made a significant difference to student learning and achievement in the classroom.

At the top of the list was feedback: “unequivocally, … the single most important factor in student learning was the quality of teacher feedback”. Some way down the ranking list was the PPTA’s perennial favourite, class sizes. No doubt to the PPTA’s chagrin, Hattie’s study rated smaller class sizes a relatively less important determinant of student achievement. Gainsford told teachers the quality of teacher feedback was likely to be worse if class sizes were so large that the teacher had no time to give individual attention to their students. In response Hattie said “It turns out that when you take teachers from classes of 30 and put them in classes of 15, they teach the same way,”

There certainly has been a fashion in the last few years of Ministry of Education funded “best evidence synthesis” projects, most notably that of Prof. Viviane Robinson, University of Auckland, with her current  Best Evidence Synthesis on the impact of school leadership on a range of valued student outcomes.

I have even heard tautologous references to “evidence-based research”. 

But rather than giving the hapless Hattie six of the best, Mistress Gainsford could have been less dismissive of the work which was regarded as teaching’s “Holy Grail” in a review in the Times Educational Supplement, and more welcoming of the opportunity for her members to improve the way they give feedback to students by reflecting on the implications of the research and shifting the discussion to the how to improve effective learning by increasing the repertoire and quality of feedback techniques.

 Better understanding the principles of more effective feedback in the day-to-day learning work of the classroom would be a good move towards a better articulated model of professional practice. The New Zealand education system has long been obsessed with assessment. Reducing the demands of over-rigorous formal assessment on teachers and students alike would help create more space for teachers to improve their teaching practice and learners to learn more effectively.

 In this teachers can enlist other interested parties.  By way of contrast to the attitude of the PPTA the Press  had a good adjacent article  on a school’s innovative use of technology http://www.stuff.co.nz/4858847a7694.html   Fendalton primary pupils are using information technology like Youtube, blogs and photo sharing which feed into the school web site during the day and give parents-and grandparents- the opportunities to give pupils feedback on work in progress.  

The PPTA hierarchy needs to remember that the “A” in the title stands for “association” not “union”. Salary and conditions for teachers are important, but as many teachers will attest, more important still is the achievement of their students. 

It is time for a  more professional leadership by the PPTA.  Their primary colleagues in the NZEI seem to be more open to constructive feedback than their secondary counterparts and more willing to play a professional leadership role. Of course, the real work  happens in primary and secondary schools across the country where practitioners are open to new ideas and to better ways of  teaching and learning , with the help of informed research and the involvement of their learning communities.

To give John Hattie the last word: “I have no problem with enhancing teachers’ working conditions but we should not confuse enhancing working conditions necessarily with outcomes for kids.”

Global Economic Cooling

February 22, 2009

 Downturn, recession, depression and the end of the world as we know it?

As usual hindsight is 20/20 but few saw the crisis coming. Laurence Ball, an economist at Johns Hopkins “Nobody ever sees anything coming,” he says. “Nobody saw stagflation coming, nobody saw the Great Depression coming, nobody saw Pearl Harbor or 9/11 coming. Really big, bad things tend to be surprises.”

One prescient exception is New Zealand economic editor and commentator Neville Bennett:  “The yield curve is rather flat and appears to be flattening … Every recession has been preceded by a flat curve. There is a massive credit crunch taking place.” NBR June 2, 2006.

Another is the two British comedians, with their spoof but spookily prophetic TV interview in 2007   http://www.brasschecktv.com/page/187.html

To navigate our way through the maelstrom we need to adopt a default setting somewhere between the doom and gloom of Chicken Little and the opaque optimism of Pollyanna. We do have to admire this attitude at  http://www.lighthouseillumination.com/  Business As Usual. We wish to advise that due to prior commitments we are unable to participate in the current recession.

However if we are to find a way through, positive affirmations are necessary but not sufficient.  A decade ago Victor Navone  made his first animated short video Alien Song www.navone.org . The chantreuse, a cross between Diana Ross and a Venusian migrant, finds that chanting “I will survive!”  is  sadly not enough to escape the plummetting disco ball if you are standing under it on the dance floor of life.  

As the economic climate rapidly cools, it’s an ill perfect storm that blows nobody any good. The volatile swings of the financial system and the reciprocal economic gyrations are playing out against a background of quantum leaps in science and technology. New technology itself is disruptive, but it also contains the seeds of new ways of working, living and being.

It’s a biological commonplace that those organisms which best adapt  survive longest. Obama’s bailing out of the behemoths in the United States does appear to be dancing dangerously with dinosaurs. Monsters are much more immediately visible than evolving new life forms but is the latter which carry the seeds of the future by being smarter and more agile in the way they organise their genetic material to respond to radical environmental change.

A recent apocalyptic (and dyslexic) commentator traversed what he thought would be the fate of “The Untied States and Untied Kingdom” as a result of the present crisis. Apart from other portents, this slip could prove prophetic. Wasn’t  it WB Yeats  who said between the two World Wars?  “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…..”

The way the rugby ball bounces

February 21, 2009

It would be a supreme irony if a Maori rugby team were not able to play some or all its proposed games in South Africa because it is a “racially selected” team. 

As a young student, I took part in the “No Maoris No Tour “ protest before the All Blacks tour of South Africa in 1960.  I was obviously a good loser and soon had my ears adhered to the radio in the middle of the night to the enthralling call of commentator Winston McCarthy.

In 1976, the year that New Zealand triggered a boycott of the Montréal Olympics by African nations because of the equivocal policy of Robert Muldoon’s government towards South African rugby, I visited the Republic as the guest of Round Table South Africa  (the service club not a business association). Ironically the movie on the South African Airways flight from Sydney was on the life of Scott Joplin, with hardly a white actor to be seen.

The next movie I saw a few days later, in the Northern Cape town of Prieska, was a Northern, the Afrikaans equivalent of a Western, about the heroic white settlers, holding out against the guerrillas in the mist. Apart from some long shots there was hardly a black actor to be seen. At this fundraising black tie but whites only “premiere” put on by Round Table I had fresh memories of touring Soweto a few days before, just weeks after the riots of 1976, to see the legacy of damage and talk with some of the  youth involved.

Just before the Prieska movie I had been shown a tour of the town. We stopped at a tennis game being played on a corporate tennis court for me to take photos.  Almost as if this had been choreographed for my benefit  (perhaps it was) there were four players, in the nomenclature of the day a European, an Indian,  a black and a  coloured. I was momentarily impressed by this multicultural display before reminding myself that such a game of literally mixed doubles was prohibited in the town’s public facilities and in the rest of the Republic.

Membership of Round Table then was more English than Afrikaans and more liberal than, say, the South African Rugby Union but it, too was segregated racially. However, the black tennis player, who rejoiced in the name of Petrus Pollyanna, was an honorary member, accorded the same sort of  temporarily colour blind status given to Maoris in touring All Black teams after 1960.

Petrus also doubled as the movie projectionist, as I found when the film broke down part way through and, as a zealous teacher,  I helped rethread the derailed 16 mm film. Afterwards Petrus invited me back to his home. He lived only 3 km from downtown Prieska  in a segregated black area but in socio-economic terms it was like driving from the middle of Ashburton to a less favoured part  of Mumbai.  The Petrus family lived in a small rented house on state land. Pride of place in the living room was a photo of  a family member incarcerated on Robbins Island with Nelson Mandela.

We discussed the Soweto riots and his view of the state of race relations. His optimistic attitude fitted his surname but while he was proud of his honorary Round Table status, if  apartheid was openly challenged and  things got hot he was quite clear where his allegiance would lie. “ …if this house catches fire, I will do all I can to save my family but the house and the land are not mine.”  The implications of the bulk of the population not having a  real vested interest were chillingly clear.

The conflagration was averted and the new rainbow world of South Africa was proclaimed when President Mandela wore the national rugby jersey to celebrate South Africa’s Rugby World Cup win in 1995. Now, ironically, the new slogan could be “No Pakeha No Tour” unless commonsense prevails and the cultural dimension of a Maori rugby team is appreciated, together with an understanding of the level of intermarriage and other cultural interaction in New Zealand for more than 200 years.

Boy Racers –New Rule of Thumb?

February 14, 2009


Christchurch now has the unenviable reputation at home and abroad for being the city of motorised hoons aka boy racers.


One possible part solution to this problem which has not been discussed much in the media is the role of the public.


The swarming behaviour of often noisy cars is made possible not just by cheap imported cars, often modified not to enhance performance but to maximise nuisance value, but by mobile communications, especially texting. The community needs to respond using the same enabling technology.


Many examples of hoonish driving, annoying though they are, do not warrant a call to the police emergency number. However, they should not go unreported.  The question is what happens when they are reported.


There has been for some time a non-urgent cell phone number (*555) for traffic offences. But this appears in most cases to lead to miscreants receiving a tut tutting letter several days or weeks later about their driving behaviour and nothing more.  Unless a personal visit is made to a police station by a complainant it appears that no charges will be laid. This process is cumbersome and time-consuming for all concerned.


The process needs to be augmented, if not replaced, by a system of information sharing by members of the public which allows the police to be proactive as well as reactive. The key is to use the right pattern recognizing technology to form profiles of selected cars and drivers more easily and quickly. 


What is needed is to enlist the aid of citizens to report infractions using a simple text taxonomy graded from minor to major:


  1. noisy exhausts
  2. inconsiderate driving
  3. doughnuts
  4. burnouts
  5. speeding
  6. dangerous driving
  7. static assemblies
  8. mobile convoys
  9. threatening behaviour
  10. violence
  11. mob violence
  12. other

 Obviously, plate numbers and other information would be added by the person reporting. Date and approximate times would be recorded automatically. The message might be as simple as

*555     AB123   #8.  [2.15 a.m. 14/2/09]


Particular offences may well go unpunished but at the higher end of the scale police resources could be mobilised more quickly and at the lower end of the scale the authorities will be able to put pressure on those vehicles and drivers who appear most in the profiles. Data matching would determine which drivers had unpaid fines and previous traffic and other convictions and which cars were unlicensed.  A good many, but of course not all, drivers may well respond at least temporarily to the knowledge that they are on a watchlist.


Neighbourhood watch organisations and other local groups and concerned citizens could be enlisted to use the system. Texting, with the appropriate electronic triaging, will take pressure off the phone operated emergency and non-emergency police services and provide a continuous stream of information as a packs of hoons swarm. Cell phone photographs and video clips and better quality video footage could be forwarded to an intelligence centre staffed partly by volunteers, especially computer savvy retirees. 


It seems that the police already scan Bebo, Facebook and other social networking site to pick up evidence of traffic and other crimes. The community needs to be mobilised and enabled to provide useful information in an accessible format both via the *555 system and also, where appropriate, on a designated citizen’s website accessed live or later by the police.


A new rule of thumb is required if we are to reclaim our streets in the face of escalating anti-social behaviour on wheels. But first we need to extract our digits.

Testing Times for Schools

February 14, 2009

  “You don’t make a pig fatter by measuring it.”   

Try telling that to a pig farmer, Roger Douglas perhaps, if he’s still in the  business. The epithet may have a grain of truth in regards to one individual pig over a short span of time   Taking a longer diagnostic view and looking at a cohort of pigs and a control group, periodic measurement helps track the added value from different diets and improve porcine outcomes, prematurely terminal though they may be.


The new Government’s early move to institute a national testing regime in schools and provide better reporting to parents has really set the cat among the pigs. Teachers in New Zealand, especially in secondary schools, already have to deal with onerous assessment requirements, especially in respect to NCEA qualifications.


The inevitable suspicion is that not only our children going to be tested more rigorously but so are our teachers and schools. Some fear increased testing as a basis for school funding and performance pay for teachers and think that it will distort the learning system.  Freakonomist Steven Levitt demonstrated that in the 1990s a significant minority of teachers in the Chicago public schools system cheated to boost test results either out of misguided concern for the pupils or, more likely, concern for their own careers in the face of the introduction of rather blunt “high-stakes” tests.


Some take extreme positions: according to the British Professional Association of Teachers the word “fail” should be banned from use in British classrooms and replaced with the phase “deferred success” to avoid demoralising pupils. They argue that telling pupils they have failed could put them off learning for life.


The key is to get the right balance of summative and formative assessment assessment of learning and assessment for learning. Educational researcher Robert Stake uses this analogy: “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative. When the guests taste the soup, that’s summative.”    He might have added that too many cooks can spoil the broth, especially if they’re using different recipes.


The tricky bit is developing the appropriate metrics to measure knowledge, skills and attitudes at the individual, class and school levels. In the end assessment practices depend on the theoretical framework of practitioners and their assumptions about the nature of human mind and the process of learning. New neurological insights are outstripping learning theory and practice.


Assessment and on-going feedback in a learning context is not just about ensuring a bedrock of minimum standards and fixing learning deficits. Used judiciously it supports the true goal of education: drawing out and developing the talents of individuals and adding to the intangible asset base of the nation in terms of what people know and can do.


February 13, 2009

 When asked what events stood out in her memory and where she was at the time historian Dr Claudia Orange said (Press 7/2/09): “Man on the moon. I remember drawing my children to the television to watch it happen so they would remember it. For them, it’s become their indelible memory, too. It’s that sense of wonderment, taking a huge leap into what was then a fairly unknown world for the average New Zealander.”

The inference is that the Orange family watched the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing live. If they did they must have been in the USA or Australia or elsewhere. The first live international broadcast in New Zealand was not until 1973. In fact, it was only in 1969 that TV news bulletins were broadcast from all four main centres simultaneously.

If Dr Orange were in New Zealand, what she may have done is either drawn her children to the radio, which provided gripping live coverage, or to TV news bulletins with delayed coverage. This came via our trans-Tasman cousins, who did have satellite TV coverage of the moon landing and who helped media-deprived Kiwis by rushing film to NZ on an RAAF bomber. This was still, of course, amazing footage although the quality was very variable, but it was not watching it as it happened.

It would be interesting to know where she was at the time. It is possible that her memory of the event became overlaid with the delayed TV film footage. If so, we can all relate to such conflations and distortions of memory. This may, in fact, be an interesting insight into the fallibility and malleability of memory which reinforces the need for special care in handling oral historical evidence.

Digital Dividend?

February 1, 2009

…but soft, what light from yonder window breaks?       It’s just their new flat screen TV you silly bugger!

At the end of November I took part in the Taupo Cycle Challenge with an old Canadian flatmate from the mid-60s who came back to NZ especially for the event. When we flatted together, I had just started teaching history and Gord was doing postgraduate research in electrical engineering. The new computer at the University of Canterbury was in a designated, if not consecrated, building and only the elect were permitted entry. Gord was one such. To me, as an Arts graduate, what he did in that holy of holies with the stacks of punched cards he occasionally brought home was incomprehensible.

Before the end of that  tumultuous decade, the world saw its first personal computer. 40 years ago Stanford researcher Douglas Engelbart showed off his lab’s research project: the first personal computer complete with the first mouse and an interactive screen . The demonstration gave people in the audience the first inkling that computers could be workplace or household objects helping ordinary people, not just rocket scientists, solve problems and collaborate. They were  not just enormous number-crunching machines with a voracious appetite for punch cards.  Then, as Moore’s law  worked  itself out, first in our workplaces, then our homes, and finally on our persons,  the new technology multiplied in smaller and smaller packages.

Before the cycle event, Gord, and I communicated by e-mail and Skype, we found ourselves in the crowd afterwards by cellphone, and we exchanged photographs and video clips digitally at the speed of light minus the ISP factor. We may not be dinkum digital natives but looking back over four decades I, for one, am somewhat surprised by my relative digital dexterity, though because I’m not a text maniac, I am in no danger of developing a posthensile thumb.

I have another friend from the same era for whom for anything to do with computers and cellphones-and indeed anything digital besides his own hands-is the work of the technological devil.  Richard  is a very cultured man and reads a lot of books,  as indeed I  still do myself, though with a less literary bent.  He thinks that I’m frying my neurons by looking at words- let images- on the LCD screen.

Every year he joins the flock of greying Kiwis and flies off to Queensland for the worst of the winter. Apart from the very occasional use of a fax he is incommunicado. But after his return last spring, despite his long-standing techno-aversion, he announced in ringing tones that despite grave misgivings, he was considering buying a cellphone.  (He was facing the annual quandary about reinstating his landmine and was now mentally prepared to enter the first ranks of the  digiterati).  But despite some setting up help and a little coaching from his contemporaries and more importantly from two real digital natives, his nieces, the new device has been left very much to its own devices. It is all the things he feared: digital, but too small to manipulate digitally by a grown man with hands of his size; in need of regular recharging, unlike his old landline which he could plug in and forget. Worst of all, he is flummoxed by the sequence in which one must send a text message. Why, he wails, do you have to write the message first before entering the recipient’s number? Why could the sequence not be dial number first then communicate?

The phone sits unused in the corner. The digital divide remains unbridged. At least his neurons are safe.