Beware magpies


Everyone knows about Australia’s dangerous creatures: Crocodiles, snakes, spiders and even jellyfish fill the imaginations of tourists, but the fact is that you are unlikely to happen upon these critters often. I have lived here since 2010, I have personally encountered two potentially dangerous spiders, no snakes and no crocodiles. A much more significant problem are the magpies.

Magpies? To folks from the UK, the idea that magpies pose any kind of threat seems strange. But our magpies are not closely related to European magpies. They are a feistier sort of bird entirely.

Frustratingly, this is all based upon a misunderstanding. Magpies nest between August and October and the males have the job of guarding the nest. Most of them do not swoop, but the ones that do are trying to protect their young from attack. Fast moving runners and cyclists must appear particularly threatening to a magpie, even though few runners and cyclists have an interest in killing and eating magpie chicks.

I think education suffers from magpie-like behaviour. Suggest that systematic phonics is a better approach for teaching early reading than balanced literacy and the education magpies are likely to swoop you for being a neoliberal shill of Big Phonics bent on making children hate reading, when the reality is that phonics proponents just want more children to learn to read and it is balanced literacy programmes such as Fountas and Pinnell or Lucy Calkins that are the big money-spinners for publishers.

Similar swooping behaviour can be provoked by suggesting that it is important for children to learn and practice standard approaches to solving maths problems, that students need to commit facts to memory, that they should learn about powerful cultural ideas or read classic texts, or that student behaviour needs to be actively managed, school leadership need a plan for this and school exclusion is sometimes necessary. Anyone putting forward these ideas is likely to have their motives questioned even though all of these ideas can be advanced on their own terms with an appeal to evidence and rational argument. You may not agree with the validity of that evidence or those arguments, but that is an entirely different matter to assuming that your opponents are prejudiced conservatives who hate children and want to kill creativity.

Let’s anthropomorphise Australian magpies for a moment. I wonder what would happen if we could talk to them and explain that we had no dastardly designs on their babies. I wonder how they would feel about that. I suspect they would feel similar to teachers on Twitter when they learn of evidence they were never taught about at university or exposed to in training sessions run by school leaders and consultants. I suspect they would be angry at first and then relieved. I suspect they would feel unburdened. I suspect they would want to share this message.

You cannot blame the magpies. They are only trying to protect their young, no matter how misguided they are and, unfortunately, we cannot explain to them why. But educations magpies are all around us and they deserve the truth. I suggest you wear a helmet.

3 thoughts on “Beware magpies

  1. Money spinning is not restricted to balanced literacy educompanies. Commercial SSP programs are huge money spinners here and in the UK. UK govt give schools millions of £ per year to spend only on SSP programs. I’m thinking Jolly Phonics and Multilit are making a bit of money here in Australia from media that is pushing the ‘reading crisis’ and pushing SSP as the only way to teach phonics.
    There is no conclusive evidence that SSP is the best way to teach phonics but somehow all of the commercial magpies are swooping into education to make huge money.

  2. I am not sure your anthropomorphism would go that way. If these magpies had twitter you would likely see them boasting about how they drew blood or nearly took an eye out or sent that kid running. It is entirely likely that the swoopers get huge satisfaction from a job well done and would not appreciate in any way hearing that they are scaring well meaning passers by instead of protecting their family.

    (I may be biased I had to cycle by these guys every day on my way to school. Best advice: head down, don’t look up, protect your eyes.)

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