LIFE AFTER NOEL Bill Kerr, this draft January 23, 2018

“Do not judge my story by the chapter you walked in on” Unknown

Noel's Adelaide speech 10+ years ago inspired me to think that I could help to make a difference in that most difficult of endeavors: indigenous education. Noel stripped out the historical legacy from the immediate issues, welfare dependency leading to grog and drug abuse. By tackling head on the immediate problems a solution seemed possible. His words were powerful.

I explored further. I read most of Noel's writings. I listened to his powerful rhetoric on Youtube. Here was an indigenous leader who combined deep, analytical thought with hard headed pragmatism. What had seemed to me to be too hard now entered into the realm of the possible.

Noel criticised both sides of politics. Liberals for their hard hearts. Labour for their wishful thinking sentimentality. But by combining the best elements from both sides he created a vision of a radical centre which could solve problems. He also criticised his own people. His message was “our right to take responsibility”. Avoid victim mentality. All of this rang so true from my perspective and understandings.

I read Noel's Radical Hope essay (2009). This was an education manifesto with all the right elements – dark emotion, serious, analytical, challenging and demanding improvement. A catchup programme, Direct Instruction (DI), with a strong record of success in America was advocated as an essential ingredient in the way forward.

One, albeit too simple, way to look at the spectrum of educational theories is to categorise them on a continuum from constructivist (open ended exploration) to behaviourist (teacher directed). DI was on the teacher directed end of this spectrum. My educational preference had been at the constructivist end. I had won awards for designing innovative courses in game making using constructionist software. Nevertheless, I had also taught extensively in Disadvantaged schools and knew that Direct Instruction had a necessary place for students who had missed out on the basics in their early years of education. Specifically, I had had what I called Skinner moments, for example, when I designed software which put students in a receptive posture to master Quadratic equations. The success of this approach made me think that good teachers had to master the full repertoire of methodologies.

So, I did not avert my gaze, as so many “progessives” do, but decided to take a long, hard look at DI.

The language and maths culture wars have raged in education circles for more than 50 years. Those who regard themselves as progressive / creative educators have a profound gut reaction against Direct Instruction because it puts the child into a dependent, receptive mode. This repels the “progressives” to their freedom loving core.

Nevertheless, from an evidence based perspective it can be said that “DI works”. For those who have missed out in the early years in particular DI is the most reliable catchup method.

In 2012, Djarragun College, near Cairns, was caught up in a crisis. Jean Illingworth, the Principal, had allegedly faked extra enrolments, not for personal gain, but to secure more money for the school. She spent time in gaol and eventually pleaded guilty. Noel got on the phone to his wealthy mates and raised enough money to buy the school. This would supplement his already established DI program in more remote locations (Aurukun, Coen and Hopevale).

I wanted to know more. I had some experience in aboriginal education but didn't want to go remote. I was working with teachers who had gone remote. Most of them had burnt out within 18 months. I heard one story about aboriginal people joking about “cheap white goods”. I listened to the teacher's stories. Most of them said that the remote communities were too dysfunctional. My thinking was that what was needed was an overarching plan. Noel, with his political connections, his powerful Cape York Partnership (CYP) organisation, analytical theorising and pragmatic solutions was delivering such a plan.

So, in 2012 I visited Djarragun College for a 4 day observation of DI in practice. I was very impressed. I wrote a report supportive of DI and Noel a version of which was published in The Australian.

Another important part of Noel’s agenda was the Family Responsibility Commission (FRC). Noel argued that welfare should be quarantined if a family failed to meet their responsibilities to their children. I supported this. I spoke to Cathy Ford who had toured with the FRC and observed it operations and had written an insightful article about it in The Monthly, Great Expectations: Inside Noel Pearson's social experiment .

Over time I thought of indigenous education as a jigsaw puzzle. Lots of people have had a go at the jigsaw. Noel, I still think, found a couple of important pieces of that jigsaw (DI and the FRC) and he generated enough political clout to put them in place in a few schools in Far North Queensland (FNQ).

Previous to my observation visit to Djarragun Tony Koch had written a critical article about Noel in The Australian. A junior reporter had written an expose about a group of aboriginal people not respecting the environment. Noel phoned her in the early hours of the morning and abused her. I knew that Noel had a temper but that seemed a trivial matter. If a little anger is the price to pay for the pressures involved in carving out a new, well thought out policy for aboriginal people then that seemed vanishingly insignificant in the overall scheme of things.

I was more thoughtful about remarks from both Noel supporters and critics, attributed to him, such as “my way or the highway”. This didn't fit my criteria of good leadership. Good leaders feed off criticism in a positive way, incorporating valid criticism into new projections. Good leaders build a team of other deep thinking leaders around them. Differences of opinion are vitally important in charting better directions. Policy is never fixed. Contexts and information continue to evolve. There is always room for improvement.

So, I became concerned about the “my way or the highway” issue which I began to think of as a less than ideal “intellectual climate” within the CYP.

I had a “google alerts” out on Noel and one day a story came through from the Sydney Morning Herald that Noel had visited the office, got into an argument with the editor and threatened to throw him off the balcony. WTF! This was craziness, not fearlessness. My enthusiastic support for Noel began to cool.

Nevertheless, partly due to other issues in my life, in 2016, I resolved to head north and explore DI further. Perhaps I could help make a difference.

I had read in the media that Noel's DI experiment had influenced the Abbott government to implement DI in a raft of new schools in Queensland, NT and WA. I found out later that DI performance results had been presented to a parliamentary committee by another of Noel's organisations, Good to Great Schools. Politics in action. Nevertheless, I have wondered why a peer reviewed article presenting those statistics had never appeared in a teacher journal. This smacks of political lobbying rather than a serious attempt to win the hearts and minds of thinking teachers.

Initially I thought of going to one of those other DI schools. Then I received an invitation to teach at Djarragun College which was too good to refuse.

I had been pre warned. But Djarragun College in 2016 was a shock. Many kids wagging class and roaming around outside. At times it felt like a zoo as those outside tapped on the classroom windows having fun while those inside were sometimes paying attention to the teacher and sometimes not. There didn't seem to be any significant penalties for the waggers and disruptors.

I could go on and on about how difficult it was to teach in those first few weeks. I have taught in tough schools before. But now I was encountering behaviours I had never seen before. Relentless tapping on the desks. Students lying face down on the floor. Students walking in and out of their class whenever they felt like. Students invading other classes they didn't belong to. Students fighting in class and out in the yard. Students ignoring efforts to change their behaviour. There were some good students there as well. But the bad behaviour was at such a level that sometimes it became impossible to control or teach the class.

The first 10 weeks were hell but I hung in there thanks to support and advice from both teaching staff and from indigenous helpers.

In the first few days I was exercising outside on a weekend which amused one of the groundsmen. We talked. “xxx has gone mad”, he informed me. “He's enrolled all these kids from Doomadgee. All they know is swearing and fighting”. Curious, I googled Doomadgee. Sure enough, google provides pop up hints about the most popular searches. “Doomadgee fights” appeared at the top of the list.

Put together different bunches of unvetted kids from fighting tribes across Queensland, NT and WA and what do you get? Tribal warfare. A version of that is what happened at Djarragun in 2016. During a lull in one battle between the Yarrabah tribe and the Doomadgee tribe I approached the Yarrabah boys and inquired, “Just what is it you don't like about those Doomadgee kids”. One of them looked at me as though I was a retard and replied, “Sir, they're cunts”.

The enrolment policy seemed designed to make the school fail. We had kids from Doomadgee, Yarrabah, Torres Strait, Kowanyama, Hopevale, Aurukun, Palm Island, Groote Eylandt, Elcho Island, Wadeye, Alice Springs, etc. All of them knew how to fight. Fighting ability is one of the essential requirements for surviving in those remote communities.

Many of those who were fighting were sent home / expelled from the school. Cast out, left behind. As I was writing this my eyes fell on the back cover of the later edition of Radical Hope. The blurb says in large letters, “A vision of a future in which no child is left behind”. “No child left behind” is the bold slogan of Zig Engelman's DI programme. This slogan is repeated periodically in Djarragun College publications. After a while you come to realise that such outrageous, disgusting propaganda, with no regard to the reality, is just the way things are done by Cape York Partnerships.

Eventually I came to understand what it was all about. Money: $45,000 for a Boarder; $25,000 for a Day student were the figures I heard. Two of those “Doomadgee cunts” were paying my wage so who was I to complain? The teachers were the sacrificial lambs for a Noel Pearson cash cow.

The school leadership didn't have much of a clue about how to improve things. I learnt that there had been multiple Principals and other senior leaders in the past 7 years. Most of them had arrived with a plan about how to improve the school and without talking with teachers or other staff who had been there for a while went ahead and implemented their plan. Not surprisingly, these plans which failed to incorporate the expertise of those in the know failed. Then the leaders would call it quits and move on. As I speak, Djarragun College is in yet another iteration of this process.

This pattern is repeated over and over in indigenous education, particularly in remote locations. Djarragun is not exceptional here. After the youthful idealists and change agents have burnt out and learnt their lesson the communities are left with those who remain. Most of the remainders are missionaries, misfits or mercenaries. As I became disillusioned I began to wonder which of those categories I fitted into.

Cognitive level. This varied a lot. Some good attenders had very low level; some very poor attenders had much higher level. So, overall there was chaotic, fractured learning. I had a lower level combined year 11/12 class. On average their maths ability was at year 2/3 level (sic) with some higher and some lower. For instance, one problem required a student to double 50. He told me the answer was 10. I asked him to show me how he got that so he wrote down:
50 50
x2 x2
0 10

2x0=0, write down the 0
2x5 =10 so the answer is 10

Mistakes such as these were common. Teaching from the front was a waste of time with so many gaps in the students knowledge. In the end I gave them simple work and moved from desk to desk helping individuals one by one. Nothing else worked.

What you outsiders don't understand is that such a school no longer fits into a category called normal. You have to reinvent yourself in strange ways to survive. But the real problems arise when the insiders whose job description allows them to hide in their offices continue to think and act as though the school is normal. You have to be a little mad to continue to go on in a mad environment. But the real madness comes from those who don't face up to the reality that their environment is mad.

Alice: “I don't want to go among mad people”
The cat: “You can't help that, we're all mad here. I'm mad. Your mad”
Alice: “How do you know that I'm mad”
The cat: “You must be or you wouldn't have come here”

I'm trying to make a connection between the situation I found in the school and Noel's educational leadership abilities. I began to think of Noel as an absent landlord or a neglectful parent. Either he didn't know or didn't care what was happening at Djarragun. This puzzled, shocked and angered me. He had written passionately about educational reform in Radical Hope. He had given speeches about the virtues of NIFDI Direct Instruction, the educational reform he had introduced to Australia.

At one point I was invited with a couple of other experienced teachers to a Board meeting to discuss curriculum. Would I have the guts to describe the real situation in my year 11/12 maths class? 15+ on the roll, with only 2 passing the lowest level maths course available. And one of those passing had arrived recently and then left abruptly, so only one was left passing. In my naivetee I thought spelling out this reality would persuade the Board to take a long hard fresh look at curriculum. Zzz, was there, one of Noel's lawyer mates. When I raised this issue all he was interested in was why the passing student had left. The issue of a whole class failing maths was not on his radar. The point I wanted to make, how could we formulate a plan, to improve these results was ignored. Such a head in the sand response was shocking and just did not connect with the passionate rhetoric to face up to reality and improve on past failure from Noel in Radical Hope.

CYP has its fingers in many pies: Bama services, Cape York Timber, Pama Language Centre, O- Hub Family Support, Leaders Program. The educational arm is represented by Good to Great Schools. Their educational agenda is confined to Direct Instruction and Explicit Instruction.

What you won't find in CYP is an educational think tank designed to build on and develop further the starting point outlined by Noel in Radical Hope in 2009. Indigenous education is an ongoing and evolving territory. The interesting and challenging ideas of educational leaders in the indigenous field such as Martin Nakata (Cultural Interface theory) and Chris Matthews (one of the founders of the YuMi Deadly Maths programme) need to be critically evaluated and developed further. CYP, Good to Great Schools and Noel are silent on such issues. Noel took the DI programme off the shelf in 2009 and then walked away.

Aurukun events 2016

What we witnessed by most commentaries in the media was an ignorant critique of an analysis by Noel which has many correct points. It has become fashionable to criticise Noel for all the wrong reasons.

It makes no sense to argue that because there is a law and order problem in Aurukun outside of the school that DI has failed inside the school. This is lazy, ignorant analysis. It is more relevant though to ask about the success or otherwise of the other main string in Noel's agenda to fix things, the Family Responsibility Commission (FRC).

The important issue here is that you can't separate a school from the environment it operates in. If the local environment has 40% of dysfunctional families, as claimed by Cathy Ford in her article about the FRC, then that can't be quarantined indefinitely from the school itself. The two attacks on the Principal and car jacking out of school hours in 2016 illustrates this.

Should this be conceptualised as simply a law and order issue or a failure of the FRC? As an outsider from Aurukun I don't know enough to judge. But with respect to Noel's analysis and policies this is the important question to ask IMO. Media commentaries that I have seen have not yet discovered the important question.

The upshot from the Aurukun violent carjacking incidents in 2016 is that the Education Department commissioned a report and then claimed back the school from the CYP. CYP then withdrew it's support from the Aurukun DI trial. Politicians like Warren Entsch made ignorant comments “…there’ll be dancing in the streets”. One reality is that the kids have lost the DI program that does help them to read and write English and master basic maths. Another reality is that Noel made himself vulnerable to take over by not developing his analysis further beyond his two sound insights (DI + FRC).

So, what is the truth about Noel? I can see many Noels. Noel the lawyer, the politician, the black bourgeois, the brilliant analyst, the cutting edge rhetorician, the foul mouthed bomber and last but not least Noel the educator. Since I am a teacher with a deep interest in educational practice and theory especially for the Disadvantaged then I can make critical judgement on this last issue.

The personality critique, Noel's foul mouth on the phone in the early hours of the morning has attracted a lot of attention. Does that behaviour impact significantly on his policy directions? Yes, it does. It prevents the building of a deep thinking team. As a team builder and creator of dynamic intellectual climate in FNQ Noel has failed because he does not welcome and actively discourages constructive criticism of his ideas. Full and frank discussion is not part of Noel's agenda. As a general guideline “My way or the highway” is poor leadership. That is important because it hinders further evolution. Noel as an abusive absent landlord or neglectful parent is not a good educational leader.

In writing my analysis I had to decide whether to write to Noel or about Noel. Initially I thought he couldn't possibly be aware of the reality at Djarragun, it was so far alien from his vision in Radical Hope. But one thing you learn when you are inside the organisation is that Noel has few supporters on the ground. Due to his toxic style he has failed to win the hearts and minds. I have heard too many bad stories. I reluctantly realised it would be both futile and not wise to write to him.

The word I kept hearing from insiders was “toxic”. Toxic leadership. Toxic organisation. Noel's toxic leadership breeds other toxics around him.

The educational agenda itself. DI plus FRC. This is based on a plausible, possibly even profound, cutting edge analysis that the way forward is to confront the immediate problems of welfare dependency and drug abuse directly and then to seize the moment to teach the children basic English and Maths in the most evidence based method possible (Engelmann's DI). The thinking here can be justified with the pragmatic words, “DI works”. And there are enough reports and analysis around to show that up to a point it does work.

I have now taught DI maths intensively and currently believe I can obtain better results with that method than any other I am aware of. Nevertheless, I think it's anal, an insult to a deep thinking teacher. For instance there is an insistence to religiously stick to a script. But if I can see a better way then as a thinking educator I tweak it, which I'm not meant to do. But still it works and it works well.

But I see a connection here between Noel's top down approach, not listening to those below, breeding other top down leaders and the DI programme which treats teachers as script readers. The whole approach is too formulaic. Noel, like everyone else, says he wants great teachers. But great teachers will always question and innovate and there is a conflict there with the expectation of the DI programme.

I feel that more theoretical work needs to be done on the issue of why DI works.

I wrote above, “Noel took the DI programme off the shelf in 2009 and then walked away”. This is the key point. Noel has remained distanced from Djarragun, the school he bought after Jean Illingworth was gaoled for fraud. He has been very busy on other issues, notably constitutional reform. But good educational leadership does not work that way. There has to be an ongoing evolution of experience, followed by reflection, followed by further improvement.

One problem here, ironically for me, is that of oversimplification. Ironically for me because it was the simplification in Noel's analysis, separating out the immediately doable from the shameful but debilitating historical legacy that hooked me into thinking that I could make a contribution to this very difficult issue.

Where does this leave me now as an ageing white man originally from down south who still wants to make a difference? I was drawn into this struggle by Noel's rhetorical brilliance. But now I don't trust him as an educational leader, although I still believe that he found a couple of important pieces of the jigsaw.

I have worked with other teachers and teacher assistants day in and day out who have good hearts, who don't think about Noel as much as I have, many of whom are committed to making a difference. But they too are frustrated by the bad leadership that infects indigenous affairs be it of a careerist or political variety. The ongoing crisis in indigenous affairs is a crisis of rotten leadership.

Religion is part of the solution but I'm not religious. The indigenous soul has come close but still eludes my cosmopolitan psyche. On a good day, with the good humoured brazen cheek, irreverence and friendship of my students it seems achievable. On a bad day, it slips away again.

I will keep looking for the other pieces of this complex jigsaw that make up this problem and point towards a solution. I have read widely and talked to many on the ground who have done the hard yards. The truth is out there. The pieces can be found. But that is a much bigger project. The lesson I have learnt from Noel is that real life is far, far more complex than even highly plausible, cutting edge analysis and great rhetoric. My conclusion is that the indigenous education jigsaw puzzle is complex. Embracing and coming to grips with that complexity is the path forward. In many journeys you come full circle and return to the beginning but the beginning looks very different from when you started out. Invited in, chewed up, spat out, wiser, older.

“We are all visitors to this time and place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love … and then we return home”

Footnote: I began rereading and taking fresh notes of Radical Hope. I still see in it now analytical depth and brilliant rhetoric but also I see error, exaggeration, blind spots and above all a breathtaking failure to meet the high standards set in his essay. Tellingly, there is error too in the dialectical analysis, because Noel prides himself on his grasp of dialectics. I'm not sure whether it is worth while to complete a full analysis from my new perspective. The damage to Noel's project, represented by the loss of Aurukun, may well be terminal. The theoretical errors in Radical Hope may no longer be of interest to anyone. If anyone who has read Radical Hope wants to hear more then please get in touch.

The problem I face is one of transitioning from the outside to partly, not fully, on the inside. Rereading Radical Hope is difficult in that Noel exposes Bill Clinton (p. 14) or Bob Hawke (p. 16) for cynically or stupidly spinning rhetoric which did not match reality. Then Noel claims the high moral ground in exposing government's systemic lack of memory, the same failed policies being recycled as something new (27,28). All of this rhetoric, exposing others, adds to his own credibility as being the real deal, the one who won't tolerate the bullshit any long. But then all that exposure can equally be applied to Noel himself. And I only know now because I am partly on the inside

Bill Kerr, January 23, 2018
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