Community highlights

The Conversation receives a lot of comments each day and you can’t read everything. That’s why we occasionally end the week with a selection of community highlights: comments we enjoyed or thought interesting. Read on for six comments or discussions I thought worth highlighting.

Explainer: how is literacy taught in schools?

Maureen McInroy shared her experiences teaching English and the skills she feels children aren’t being taught:

Thank you for an interesting and encouraging article. Reading and writing are the skills upon which much later education is based and children need to acquire confidence in these at an early age.

There is however one aspect which this article does not cover and which I have become alert to since I have been teaching English as a foreign language.

It has become obvious to me that the other two basic language skills, listening and speaking, are not well taught in schools. Each country sees one of the major tasks of its early childhood education to be the teaching of reading and writing but few teachers have learned how to teach listening and speaking skills. When children come to school able to listen to and speak the language used in the class room they can proceed directly to acquiring the skills this article refers to.

But what of those many children, especially in a country like Australia, who do not speak the official language? How good are we at helping them to acquire the listening and speaking skills that normally precede reading and writing in the order in which native speakers acquire language skills?

This problem has become obvious to me watching students of all ages struggling to learn English listening and speaking skills. There is such a focus on teaching and testing by focusing on pen and paper skills that the other two basic skills are under-developed.

And I often wonder if this failure to think about the importance of listening and speaking skills preceding reading and writing fluency is the reason our many forays into teaching foreign, particularly Asian, languages soon fade away.

Orang-utans play video games too, and it can enrich their lives in the zoo

Clive Hamilton and Lawrence Trevanion discussed the differences between humans and orang-utans.

Clive Hamilton:

So, to explain. Although this is a very interesting and well-written article, it reflects a strong trend of recent times to make out that primates are really just like us. They are intelligent, emotionally sensitive, and curious. They play with human children, they engage with breast-feeding, they can use video games “creating a powerful sense of connection for the human player”. “Smart” animals use their intellect to explore and solve problems. Keepers “prepare a new fiendish food puzzle, only to see the orang-utans solve it in a matter of minutes.” And so on.But they are not like us. A vast gulf separates humans from all animals, including primates. Humans compose symphonies, build cathedrals, send humans into space, understand calculus and hold conferences to talk about the latest research into primate behaviour.The argument that there is not much difference between humans and apes seems motivated by a desire to prick the bubble of human hubris, and to encourage greater compassion towards animals. They are noble goals, but no one really believes the argument, because it flies in the face of the manifest facts. In my view, it is better to own the fact that humans have enormous power, including power over animals (like keeping them in zoos), that can be used for good or ill.

Lawrence Trevanion:

The issue is one of perspective.

The idea of a “vast gulf” is relative. So, for example, two stars might be regarded as being a long way apart, a few light years perhaps, or alternatively they could be regarded as very close together.

Similarly in biology, we could say that humans and orang-utans are vastly different, or, in a perspective that includes bacteria we could say they are almost identical.

Your insistence that a particular perspective is the correct one is wrong in principle and unhelpful in practice, particularly in the study of human evolution, the evolution of language and the mechanising of language. It leads you to propose, as for exmple in your most recent article, that there are “questions humans have always asked” when there is no basis for supposing there are any such questions.

Clive Hamilton:

This is an odd argument. First, the context of this article is not evolution. Bacteria appear nowhere in it. The context is about comparing orang-utans with humans, and betwen them is a vast gulf. Second, even if it were about evolution my argument would stand. In the spectrum of life, there are vast gulfs between, say, bacteria and plants and plants and higher animals. But that does not mean there is not a vast gulf between primates and humans. And the context that matters most, the one that defines the modern era, is that of the ecological crisis, now amplified by the Earth System scientists into the Anthropocene. In that context the vast gulf between humans and primates (and every other creature) is one of responsibility. We have it; they don’t.

Gender neutral policies are a myth: why we need a women’s budget

Sue Gaffney ofference up some thoughts about gender, wages and work choices:

While considering the statements about differences in wage earnings and home undertakings it occurred to me that differences in income earning data continue to average gender income without reference to facts. If largely female work choices are comprised of caring, service and part-time roles (few of which are paid at 100s of dollars per hour) then of course there will be gender disparity. And as suggested, if blokes wages contribute less to households; then perhaps the answer is to accept the gender preferences for occupation and pastime activity by genuinely subsidising caring roles. Factors impacting on what is being called gendered income should be considered. Career choices, contribution to society and the current disparity of potential income need to be acknowledged.

To which the article’s author, Miranda Stewart, replied:

Thanks Sue. There is a question here of the social construction of choice. Is there a reason why men could or should not share caring roles? The pay gap as determined statistically is about full time equivalent weekly earnings and so it is not about the choices for home care/work. Unpaid caring work contributes tremendously to the economy. I would like to see us design social, tax and welfare policy that enables women (and men) who do such work to have economic independence and security.

Joanne Crawford shared her experiences preparing a Women’s Budget Statement:

Thanks for this article. Very timely. A gender budget process would improve policy effectiveness. It’s that simple, and well-articulated here.

I want to contribute some reflections as someone who was closely involved in the preparation of the 1992-3 and 1993-4 Women’s Budget Statement, when Australia was a global leader in this space.

No country has achieved gender equality. Women and men in their diversity and individuals rejecting binary categories, in every country, have different interests and needs, roles and responsibilities, are differently integrated in the economy and play different productive and reproductive roles at various life stages. Evidence shows clearly that cultural and structural factors of various kinds continue to produce significant differences in outcomes for women as a group and men as a group. The evidence is also clear that women and men are not homogenous and when gender-based differences intersect with barriers linked to disability, identity, sociocultural background, age and more, difficulties are magnified and outcomes are typically poorer.

For policy and programming to be informed and effective, gender needs to be a routine consideration. As the article clearly argues, there are no gender-neutral policies, only gender-blind ones. Understanding how programs and policies will impact by gender (and age and other factors) matters if governments are to make the most of opportunities to promote gender equality and avoid exacerbating existing inequalities. This is particularly important when budgets are tight.

As the article highlights, Australia was once regarded as a leader internationally for its gender-informed policy frameworks and budget processes, providing a model for other countries to adopt. For a short period in the late 1980s to the late 1990s, the Commonwealth Government prepared a Women’s Budget Statement (reflecting the language and conceptual framing of the times) as one of the formal, comprehensive annual budget papers tabled in parliament, reporting on the work and activities of every department. It was accompanied by budget formulation processes that ensured that virtually all Cabinet proposals for new expenditure or savings were reviewed by the Commonwealth Government’s Office for the Status of Women for their impact on women and specific or differential issues and impacts were separately identified for Cabinet and its Expenditure Review Committee (ERC. I know this because I reviewed these submissions and wrote accompanying briefs.

Compiling the Women’s Budget Statement ensured that there was some formal consideration of the impact of policies, programs, expenditure and savings on women and that these were available for Cabinet to factor into decision-making. The process also signalled to decision makers, administrators and the wider community that the effect of policies and programs on women was an important public policy consideration. Its 300+ pages of narrative and numbers was a resource for civil society in accessing rights, improving policies and programs and holding the Government to account for what was done and said, and what was not. This formal budget document should not be confused with the Women’s Budget Statements produced subsequently, which were essentially a brief (eg 25 pages in 2012) public communication tool highlighting selective policy and program achievements and budget measures.

Having contributed to and then coordinated a Women’s Budget Statement in the early-mid 1990s, I know there were limitations to the reach of these arrangements and their impact on outcomes, learnings which can no doubt strengthen future policy architecture and administrative arrangements. Rhonda Sharp & Ray Broomhill’s study is valuable in documenting some of these. The arrangements also focused on ensuring women’s specific needs and interests were targeted, often via specific women-focused initiatives, and need to be updated to reflect a wider focus on gender issues and dynamics. But they did institutionalise a process for reviewing virtually all expenditure and savings proposals for their impact on women, and reporting on the policies and programs of every department in addressing prevailing inequalities.

Establishing a whole of government gender budget process would accelerate Australia’s efforts to advance gender equality within and beyond our borders and strengthen policy effectiveness, transparency and accountability. We have Australia’s previous experience to draw on, and more recent international experience, to inform design arrangements that support a focus on quality and impact of programs, rather than the number of programs implemented or resources allocated.

A high-level gender equality policy unit within Prime Minister and Cabinet could (again) provide policy leadership, integrating gender as a routine part of policy development, and focusing on issues requiring a whole of government effort, such as recognising, valuing and making visible the economic contribution of reproductive and care work, or addressing the persistent gender pay gap. Learnings could also inform Australia’s dialogue with development partners about social and economic policy and social protection arrangements, given that the majority of the world’s poor are now in middle income countries.

Gender-responsive budgeting improves policy effectiveness and coherence. Done well, it will also transform government accountability and transparency on gender and accelerate progress towards gender equality. It’s a no-brainer really.

Miranda Stewart said this in response:

Spoken as a true expert! You are right that the detailed work needed for gender impact analysis is time consuming and challenging, and issues arise about how to estimate costs and consider the data. It may be that a more targeted statement along specific government policy lines addressing gender inequality would be helpful. One issue I’m interested in highlighting is conflicting policies that undermine rather than reinforce overall policy goals.

Graeme Bowman shared his views on patriarchal culture and how that can influence life:

The need for a women’s budget, and hence the empowerment of girls and women, reflects a mega-trend that is gradually moving us away from the world’s dominant ‘human operating system’, which grew out of the archaic and toxic values of patriarchy. (Just to be clear, patriarchy is not synonymous with ‘men’, and the absence of patriarchy does not mean it is replaced by matriarchy.)

Trying to change the world without understanding patriarchy is like trying to go to the moon without understanding gravity. While it may not always be apparent amid the confusion and complexity of everyday life and business, we are, I believe, experiencing a global transition towards a non-patriarchal future, where a different set of values – far more congruent with the way our planet works – will govern human behaviour and decision making.

Pi and its part in the most beautiful formula in mathematics

Finally, Pi Day may have passed us by, but Neil Ruedlinger has provided a mathematical excuse to eat pie:

I went a bit extra nerdy and calculated the other day that on Pi Day, the best approximate time to consume a pie or a pizza, would be: 3:08:30pm.

How did I calculate this? Well from 3.14159265358979323… taking away the 3 for 3pm, leaves 0.14159265358979323… multiplied by 60 gives:8.4955592153875938 taking away 8 leaves 0.4955592153875938… multiplied by 60 gives 29.733552923255628, which we may be excused in rounding up to 30 seconds?

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