The NSW government is busy overhauling the education curriculum. However, I believe they’ve stumbled at the first step. Time for a rethink.
As we speak, the NSW government is busy “overhauling” its entire school curriculum. It isn’t doing that itself, obviously, because although Rob Stokes, the Minister for Education, has been at the receiving end of schooling for a long period of time (double degree law and arts, PhD, Diploma of Biblical Studies), he is not actually an expert in the field of teaching. Planning is more his forte, which is why he has left the review of what needs to be done to Professor Geoff Masters from the Australian Council for Education Research. This may be, as the saying goes, good news and bad news. Professor Masters is a recognised specialist: he has been Chair or President of almost every educational organisation in the country and outside of it. In short, he is a reasonable man, and that might be a problem. Because what we need for Australians schools at the moment is a revolution. We need to blow them up and start again. And that, I’m afraid, will not be the result of the Masters’ review. Especially because Minister Stokes has already put down very narrow parameters. What he thinks needs to happen is “a greater focus on the basics”, a “decluttering” of the system, and “more pride in what has made us great”. I think that will not only not be enough, it will make things worse.
Let’s start at the beginning. Everywhere in the Western world, countries are looking at their education systems. The reason for this is that they were set up in the 1850s, during the Industrial Revolution. If you’ve got fifteen minutes, go to Youtube and listen to Ken Robinson, the great British education expert, explain it. But just for now, I will quickly run you through it. Robinson says that governments have economic and cultural reasons to want to change their schools. First of all, they want to educate children for the jobs of the future, although nobody knows what those jobs are going to be. And secondly, countries want to keep their cultural identity, so children know where they are from and where they belong, while being part of globalisation. The problem is that they are trying to meet the future by doing what they did in the past. Schools are modelled on factory lines, complete with ringing bells, separate subjects and gender differences. We also still educate children by batches, like “the most important facet of a child is its date of manufacture”. It is based, Robinson says, on a production line mentality: although all children are different, they get the same education at the same time, are tested in the same way and have to give the same answers. It is about conformity and standardisation. And that is a problem, because jobs of the future will most likely not be about reproducing facts, but about thinking outside of the box, and working with others to come up with new and lateral solutions.
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One of the saddest examples Robinson gives is that of research into children’s capabilities of doing that. When they are at Kindergarten, they are geniuses at it. But the longer they are in school, the more they lose that capacity. Because, Robinson says, education has taught them that there is only one answer to a question and that you are punished if you come up with more creative solutions. The reason for this is that schools are not designed to educate children, but to turn them into obedient workers, productive employees who don’t ask too many questions. What they should do instead is teach “competencies”, attitudes to help them navigate life. Robinson advocates three things in particular: “Curiosity, the constant drive to pay attention to the world and ask questions. Creativity, the ability to come up with new ideas to solve complex, interesting problems and implement them. And criticism, the courage to question even your own answers, filter out facts from opinions and distinguish the signal from the noise.”
What this means, and Minister Stokes has got this part right, is an “overhaul” of the way children are educated now. But just fiddling at the edges is not enough. Far be it from me to give solutions, but let’s look at some alternatives. Ron Berger is a teacher at a high school in Virginia, in the USA. Fifteen years ago he wrote a book explaining the new system of education he had been working with for quite some time. A few things had changed in Berger’s classes. First of all, he had done away with year levels. Instead of being taught with people their own age, children were taught in groups of differing abilities, so they could learn and teach their peers at the same time. They were also doing extended cross-curricular studies that involved genuine research, investigation and even publishing. They were often long-running projects, like working together with children at a school for the deaf or analysing the town’s water supply. For weeks and sometimes months, students worked together, compiled portfolios, engaged in peer assessments, collaborated with people from outside of the school and were often encouraged to implement change. This way the school functioned as part of the community and students learnt to feel responsible for it, for each other and for their teachers. At the same time, teachers were given autonomy, support to do their work well and trust that they would step up to the plate. Because of a strong classroom culture of excellence, children shone and when they grew up, the community improved as well.
We have examples of alternatives in Australia too. In 2006, author John Marsden opened Candlebark in Victoria, accompanied in 2016 by a high school called the Alice Miller School. Both focus on Robinson’s trinity of curiosity, creativity and criticism. Marsden himself calls it “discovery” and says his aim is to teach children to become self-reliant and responsible. So students clean their own classrooms at the end of the day and chop the wood for the heaters. Students and teachers have breakfast together, there are no school uniforms, small classes and, of course, the school is co-ed. Marsden echoes Robinson when he says that children are accustomed now to enormous amounts of varied information, a high degree of autonomy and countless options in their non-school lives. The rigid authoritarian structure of most schools, with its mostly boring curriculum, is at odds with that world. What children are taught is knowledge, but very little understanding and wisdom, Marsden thinks. That comes from first-hand experiences that we have taken away from them. They are not allowed to run, wrestle, climb trees or roam on their own. We protect them to death, and are surprised when they are not able to look after themselves, take initiatives and be strong and independent members of their community. Protection, Marsden says, can be “the oldest form of repression”, which is why his schools try to treat students like proper human beings who can “take care, take risks”. Again, it all starts with teachers. The best in the business, obviously, but also well-paid, and more to the point: trusted to do their job.
Students were encouraged to implement change. The school functioned as part of the community and when they grew up, the community improved as well.
This is one of the issues with the current “overhaul”; that it isn’t the first one and won’t be the last. And that none of them really take the job of teacher seriously. Or of student, for that matter. When The Guardian reported on the NSW government’s plans, there were hundreds of comments, mostly from teachers. “Spare us” was the general consensus. More bureaucracy, more administrative box-ticking, more talk of “outcomes” and “roadmaps”. Interestingly enough, most of them agreed on the solutions; to put good teachers in schools, who are well-trained, well-paid and trusted to do what they are good at; to realise that there is no “one size fits all”; that we need smaller classrooms, and to move on from the industrial model and inject more money – for public schools in particular, probably following the New Zealand model, where private schools are not funded by government at all. We need, they said, to teach children that they are more than pawns in the capitalist system. That they are individuals, who should be given the opportunity to follow their own path, with peer and elder help, encouragement and collaboration. At the top of their requirements was one word: passion. Not being reasonable, like Masters, but being passionate. Then, and only then, would a change be a real change. Something the Minister, and we, could be proud of.