The deafening failure of open-plan classrooms

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Walking around Australian schools today, it is hard to miss the large, barn-like rooms housing hundreds of students.

We were promised ‘agile learning areas’, built on collaboration, flexibility and student-centred learning. What we got was far from a conducive learning environment.

It seems, however, that we may finally be waking up to the failure of another progressive educational fad, with The Age reporting that while schools ‘knocked down walls to revolutionise learning‘, they are now putting them back up to reduce the noise, distractions and disruptions.

On a teaching placement, I regularly observed a class of more than 50 students in an open-plan environment. Chaos is the only word that could be used to describe it. Students routinely went missing, noise levels were extremely high with conversation rarely on-task, and concentration and focus was almost non-existent. One student even flat-out refused to do work at all, declaring ‘my home is my learning environment; school is my play environment’.

Student complaints included that it is ‘so noisy I can’t even feel myself think!’, ‘you can never hear the teacher even if you try’, and ‘I don’t even bother listening because no one is quiet while the teachers are talking’. The negative impact of noise is supported by recent research showing that 50-70 per cent of children learning in open-plan classrooms were unable to hear their teacher very well, or at all, when the other classes were doing activities.

Research shows that children learn best when their environment is orderly and engaging. The establishment and enforcement of clear rules, expectations and boundaries help children build a sense of self-control, responsibility and accountability for their actions.

Open-plan classrooms fail this test. They are an environment more synonymous with chaos than with learning, and the sooner we recognise this, the better.

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Budget emergency continues, with no end in sight

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Various economic forecasters have been chancing their arm at predicting the federal budget position, in advance of the mid‑December Mid-year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) statement.

The prognosis is that the budget is still looking in a sickly state as ever:

A top budget expert warns Australia is inexorably drifting towards bigger government because the federal government appears unwilling to curb spending despite tax shortfalls that will contribute to $120 billion of budget deficits over the next four years.

Predicting deficits as far as the eye can see, Deloitte Access Economics partner Chris Richardson blames China’s slowdown and falling national income from commodities for 90 per cent of the deterioration, which has worsened the fiscal bottom line by $38 billion since the May budget.

In the mid-year update in a fortnight, Treasurer Scott Morrison will most likely unveil an underlying cash deficit in 2015-16 of $40.3 billion – some $5.2 billion more than foreshadowed in the budget and a significant deterioration from last year’s deficit of $37.9 billion, Mr Richardson estimates.

There is something of a mixed picture concerning how various economic aggregates, such as wage growth and output growth, will shape the forthcoming budgetary outlook to be revealed in MYEFO, but one thing is almost depressingly certain.

The budget emergency, which the former Treasurer Joe Hockey once diagnosed, persists as a result of overspending pressures, and without reforms to reduce expenditures the harder the task of budget repair will become.

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Is this the next step, following mandatory data retention?

Draft national security legislation revealed last Friday would add little value to Australia’s efforts to combat terrorism, and will be a significant regulatory burden on the telecommunications sector.

According to the exposure draft, the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2015 would if passed compel carriage service providers to “do their best” to

protect telecommunications networks and facilities from unauthorised interference, or unauthorised access, for the purposes of security. Carriers and carriage service providers must notify changes to telecommunications services or telecommunications systems that are likely to have a material adverse effect on their capacity to comply with this duty 

Since such service providers would naturally “do their best” to see that their networks are uncompromised, it is unclear what is added by the bill. It is fuzzy law at best, and would be remarkably difficult for a person to know if they are meeting their legal obligations.

While the national security benefits are unclear, the proposed regulatory burdens are not. For instance, section 314A(3) of the bill requires carriage service providers to notify the government (the “Communications Access Co-ordinator“) of its intention to implement a change to telecommunications services. Sections 315A and 315B could potentially see the Attorney-General issue directions to carriage service providers to “cease using or supplying… carriage services” or “to do, or to refrain from doing , a specified act or thing within the period specified in the direction.”

From mandatory data retention, to online piracy legislation, 2015 has seen a suite of burdensome but ineffectual laws passed at the intersection of technology, telecommunications and national security. If passed, these new proposals would add to that list.

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Top 3 articles from last week you must read

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George Will

1. Andrew Roberts in CapX last Monday advised policy makers to listen to the advice of the Confederation of British Industry – and do the exact opposite

2. George Will in the Washington Post on Friday described the collapse of the constitutional separation of powers in the United States, and the battle to wind back the executive-dominated “administrative state

3. And also on Friday, Matt Ridley and Benny Peiser in the Wall Street Journal told readers what to expect from COP21 in Paris. For your complete guide to the climate debate, read here ($).

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Solar farms, wind farms… diesel farms?

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Just when you thought the UK’s renewable electricity market couldn’t get any more ridiculous, along comes news that some of the small diesel power generators that Matt Ridley said are offering reserve electricity are actually owned by wind and solar farms.

In a traditional electricity market, consumers demand electricity, then coal, gas, nuclear or oil fueled power stations bid to supply it, and adjust their machines up or down to deliver their product, with a price set based on the level of demand and cost of supply. Simple.

However in a renewables-rich market, because wind and solar farms have no control, grid operators are required to ensure that extra generation capacity is held in reserve, paying generously for this back-up. With many traditional power sources banned, discouraged or run down, diesel is emerging to fill the gap.

Unsurprisingly, this dirty little secret tends to be hushed up. It certainly doesn’t appear on the Hive Energy or Kettering Energy Park websites.

It is the height of hypocrisy for wind and solar farms to take taxpayer-funded subsidies to generate so-called ‘clean’ wind and solar power with one hand, while accepting subsidies to generate diesel power with the other. Especially if this is a way to subvert proposed new rules to make wind and solar farms pay for intermittency costs.

If you are in business and you can’t deliver a product then you should close, and let someone else take your place. But if your customer is the government, they will probably pay regardless.

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Tongue tied by the “big stick” of the law

Interesting article by Nicola Berkovic in the Weekend Australian today, featuring recent instances of anti-discrimination laws being used to chill speech across Australia. It is well worth reading ($).

My colleague Simon Breheny was also quoted in relation to the Archbishop Porteous case in Tasmania:

The IPA’s Simon Breheny believes section 17 of Tasmania’s Anti-Discrimination Act sets an “unreasonably low threshold” for unlawful conduct and should be amended. He says the legitimacy of the plebiscite result will rely on the freedom of Australian citizens to voice their opinions.

“It is too easy to ‘offend’, ‘humiliate’, ‘insult’ or ‘ridicule’ a person in the course of robust debate,” he says.

“These words should be removed to ensure that a free discussion can take place.”

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Why Turnbull and Shorten are both wrong about our energy future

Labor leader Bill Shorten has decided to outflank Malcolm Turnbull from the left with a commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 and achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

The Coalition government has committed to 26-28 per cent cuts by 2030, which it says takes into account Australia’s position as a world energy exporter.

Targets are popular with politicians because they divorce them from the policies needed to make them happen. However it is not the target that does a country damage – it is the policies that must be implemented to achieve that target.

Taking Wednesday’s South Australian Low Carbon Economy Experts Panel report as a guide, we can expect such  policies to include more renewable electricity, more inner city apartments, discouraging the use of cars and a relocation of traditional manufacturing jobs to other countries.

Given that the Greens’ Renew Australia pledge from just last week pledged net zero emissions by 2040 with a 90 per cent renewable energy target, it stands to reason that Labor’s July pledge of a 50 per cent renewables target will need to be adjusted upwards as well.

An extra 2.5 billion people will move to cities throughout the world over the next 35 years, and emissions will continue to increase. Whatever Australia does will mean nothing for world CO₂ levels, as countries in the developing world will continue to build the homes, factories, roads, buildings and cars that they are entitled to, to achieve the standards of living we enjoy in the west.

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See what this state MP had to say about FreedomWatch in parliament

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Peter Katsambanis MLC

FreedomWatch readers may be interested to read this speech from WA state MP Peter Katsambanis, who spoke in the Legislative Council yesterday afternoon to a motion in support of free speech. In the course of his speech, Katsambanis made this interesting reference:

[L]ast week I noticed something on the FreedomWatch website that is run by the Institute of Public Affairs Australia of which I am proud member. It is a great freedom fighter for freedom of speech in particular.

Published on that FreedomWatch site were the results of a global survey from Pew Research Center. It indicated that Australians have strong support for free speech and free expression. Australia is ranked seventh out of 38 countries that were polled on their attitudes to freedom of expression…

It found that 95 per cent of Australians supported criticism of government policies, 56 per cent supported statements that are offensive to minority groups and, interestingly, 62 per cent of Australians supporting freedom of expression even when that expression led to statements that were offensive to their own religion or beliefs, because Australians value the opportunity to debate rather than to be shut down. They value the opportunity to have a proper public discourse rather than to hound away people with threats, intimidation and criticism.

Well done to the Institute of Public Affairs for continuing to highlight those figures.

See his whole speech on page 18-19 of Hansard, here.

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Special treatment for environmentalists corrupts the rule of law

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Legal affairs editor Chris Merritt in The Australian today:

The next time some lobby group demands special treatment by federal law, keep in mind how things turned out when politicians caved in to green activists. It cost taxpayers dearly.

The losses are real but they are not the only problem. [A] fundamental tenet of the rule of law has been corrupted by the special treatment of green activists. The most obvious consequence is the ease with which these groups have been using the courts to delay major development projects.

By giving green activists automatic standing to challenge major developments, the politicians in Canberra have given them a level of access to the courts that is denied to everyone else.

This has made it possible for millions of dollars in taxpayers’ funds — and shareholders’ funds — to be lost.

Continue reading here.

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Electric cars – powered by coal

electric-cars-chargeProving again that government intervention rarely goes quite as intended, yesterday’s Australian Financial Review featured an article which explained how Dutch tax incentives to increase the use of electric cars has led also to an increase in coal-fired power to charge them:

Three new coal-fired power plants, including two here on the Rotterdam harbor, are supplying much of the power to fuel the Netherlands’ electric-car boom.

… Alongside the boom has come a surging demand for power to charge the vehicles, which can consume as much electricity in a single charge as the average refrigerator does in a month and a half.

The adoption of electric cars throughout the world will significantly increase demand for electricity. Given the intermittency problems of wind and solar, this is much more likely to be fuelled by coal or gas.

Environmentalists typically offer no solution to this dilemma and, as in this article, instead choose to talk up car batteries as an additional source of, or storage mechanism for, electricity. Of course, batteries don’t create electricity and can only store the excess that someone else has to create.

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