Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Little Black Schoolbook 2

I have previously reviewed the first volume of Mark Lopez’s The Little Black Schoolbook. (Declaration of interest: Mark is a friend of mine and we have often discussed the issues in his book.) The second volume Exams is now available.

Dr Mark Lopez is the author of the best study of public policy in Australia, The Origins of Multiculturalism. (His eccentric research method was to talk to all the people involved and read all the documents.) Origins shows lucidly how public policy actually works.

For about 18 years, he has run a private tutoring business, Competitive Advantage, helping students cope with their teachers. He gave evidence to a Senate inquiry about his experience and the experience of his students. On 24 March, Dr Lopez spoke at the Sydney Institute (a podcast of the talk can be downloaded from the Sydney Institute website).

Both volumes of The Little Black School Book are Machiavelli meets the self-help genre. They are, at times, a bit disturbing in their unsentimental realism. Neither volume is about bravely stating your views regardless of consequences, they are about dealing with people in authority over you so as to get the best results (for you) that you can. It is about subterranean empowerment: about apparently dancing to the tune of teachers and examiners to get the outcome you want, using techniques Dr Lopez originally developed in his own experiences as a student—in his Ph.D. thesis which became The Origins of Multiculturalism, Dr Lopez adapted the linguistic techniques of C17th freethinkers in avoiding Christian persecution in order to get around academe’s hegemonic multiculturalist discourse—and which he has refined over 18 years of running a tutoring business.

The book was rejected by mainstream publishers in Australia: clearly too confronting for them. Mainstream Australian publishers also all rejected Keith Windschuttle’s The Killing of History, since acknowledged as a minor classic. There is something of an “ideological cartel” in Australian publishing, which extends to which books get reviewed in the major newspapers. But, in the case of The Little Black Schoolbook, Connor Court publishing took up the opportunity in the process of carving out a niche for itself as a publisher of views outside of that ideological cartel. Most successfully with Ian Plimer’s Heaven and Earth (on its fifth print run) and Garth Paltridge’s The Climate Caper (currently on its third print run).

The Little Black School Book Volume 2: Exams is divided into five chapters. The first, A New Approach to Achieving Consistent Success in the Education System (the key word being ‘System’), is a short reprise of the method set out in Volume 1.

Chapter 2, The Realities About Assessment And How You Can Turn Them To Your Advantage, goes carefully through methods of assessment and their psychological and other realities. The central principle is:
The key to positive assessment in assignments and exams is to determine what your educators think they want (officially) and, as well as what they need (psychologically), and then appear to provide the former while actually providing both, with a covert emphasis on the latter (p.6).
It is a matter of determining purposes (of the course), methods (of teaching and assessment) and emotions (to be induced in the examiner). Thus, for example, a strong introduction is recommended since that will frame how a busy marker will view the student’s offering (p.18) particularly as a lot of marking is essentially done “on autopilot” (p.19).
The book contains various bolded statements, such as:
Context shapes perception and therefore influences opinion (p.30).
This is a book very clear that offering something for assessment is a process of persuasion. Which means ideology matters for:
People, including educators, tend to be primed to question what conflicts with their ideology and accept what conforms to it. Ideology shapes perception, especially perceptions of proportion and quality (p.33)
Clearly true. And, as Lopez points out, once you notice this principle, you see it in operation all over the place:
For example, when politically correct reviewers review agreeably politically correct book, little mistakes are often ignored or marginalized and excused, while for politically correct texts, little mistakes (real or perceived) are treated as if they characterise the quality of the entire work, justifying severe criticism or condemnation (p.34).

Not that all educators are members of “the chattering classes”, some are members of the “whispering classes”, the politically incorrect. For:
… they have witnessed the boldest of their ranks venture forth to challenge the politically correct in the public arena only to receive a torrent of vilification and persecution until they were marginalized or silenced. In addition to observing these periodic public spectacles in horror, the politically incorrect may have experienced similarly unpleasant encounters with the politically correct to those more famous examples that attract the media spotlight (p.35).
Hence their greater reticence. But precisely because of their relative isolation, such educators may particularly appreciate students who seem to agree with them.

Not that it is simply a matter of pandering to bias. As Lopez points out, if the teacher has no strong view, often taking a middle position is sensible for the student, since people often feel the truth must lie between two positions (if they are not committed to one end of the debate). One is playing to what the teacher will find intuitively congenial (Pp35ff).

Lopez—precisely because he is building on so many years of experience—not only has some wonderful illustrative anecdotes but has also identified various strong patterns. One of which is that second assessors within the same school rarely alter the first assessment (Pp46ff). (As game theory, for example, would predict.) This sense of the psychology of teachers and teaching provides much amusement, as in pointing out that Frank McCourt—who spent decades as a teacher before retiring and writing the best-selling Angela’s Ashes—is a hero figure to many teachers as he represents their self-ideal (p.64).

The Little Black Schoolbook is about managing people in positions of authority over you. Hence principles such as:
Teachers must be able to assume ownership of your success (p.70)
Principles discovered from Lopez’s tutoring experience and illustrated by telling examples. As he writes:
… it is often the case that the most apparently absurd and extreme comments by teachers are the most revealing as to the nature of what really goes on in teachers’ minds during assessment (p.72).
An assessment illustrated with some warming examples of what a big mistake it is for a student to tell a teacher that they have a private tutor—for that is a form of “two-timing”, a vote of no-confidence in the teacher. As Lopez writes:
With any system, including the educational system, there is the official version of how it works and then there is how it really works, the latter being the knowledge that you need most to succeed in the system (p.76).
And the book is very, very realist about that.

Chapter 3, Making Exams An Easier Option, Lopez points out that exams teach you to deliver when you need to deliver—to perform at a time and place of someone else’s choosing. That is a definitely a life skill. He also waxes lyrical about the value of having a dream to motivate you and propel you forward. The chapter is very much a practical how-to guide to preparing for, and dealing with exams. Such as study notes should be aimed at developing understanding, not memorization using the example that the number 1914191819391945 would be hard to remember but 1914 1918 1939 1945 as the dates of the C20th’s two World Wars rather less so (Pp110-1). He concludes the chapter pointing out how delightful it is to achieve a dream you have worked for, but how falling short can be a test of character which you can also overcome.

Chapter 4, The Success Orientation, starts with his observation that the best single indicator he has found of whether a student he tutors is likely to be successful is punctuality, as that is a sign of continuing determination (p.147). Success is about dealing with the world as you actually find it. For example, in dealing with teachers you are dealing with people removed from the consequences of their actions.

(Personal note: it was a conversation with me on a tram coming back from a Picasso Exhibition which brought this point home to him. It applies even more to why pedagogical theory is so pone to nonsense, as I point out here.)

Lopez is talking of larger life skill issues here, using the education system as a familiar (in the sense of we have all gone through it) but nevertheless re-framed (since he has such a realist, “dis-enchanting” approach) example. But if one “dis-enchants” that can also encourage cynicism, and Lopez is counterbalances the advice on how to deal with others by emphasizing the point that you should not let others define your self-worth:
The opinions of others, such as your examiners, affect your degree of success in the world but they should not define your concept of your own worth. Instead, you need to be your own chief examiner. … A disappointing grade will no longer be seen as a measure of your worth but merely as an indicator that your tactics may need to be adjusted (Pp158-9).
Just as The Little Black Schoolbook emphasizes the need to master the subject so it, in effect, speaks to the advantages of mastering yourself. It is very much a book about personal empowerment. So the example of a student who had to deal with an English teacher who seriously misunderstood the assigned novels—requiring attention to the teacher’s idiosyncrasies in submitted class work but an accurate understanding for the final exams in order to get the marks required to qualify for Law—is followed by a discussion of why cheating is a bad idea even if, in some ways especially if, you “get away with it” (Pp160ff). It is all part of learning how to be “a free agent, shaping your own destiny” (p.165).

Chapter 5, Closing Thoughts, is a brief summing which sets out the key features of the book as:
This is a book about empowering the individual. …
This is a book to help those who help themselves. …
This is a book for those who like winning. …
This is a book for those who appreciate the transformative power of ideas. …
This is a book for realists. …
This is a book for those who want results. …
This is a book for those who like to make their work fun (Pp167ff).
This is a book for students to succeed in the education system as a wider exercise in personal empowerment and for others to understand what modern education is like in terms of pedagogy, ideology and assessment. It is a book about ridding oneself of illusions: as a work of realist analysis, it very much works.

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