Education – And Now For Something Completely Different???

Posted: September 1, 2013 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

A teacher up the front talking to the class, informing them, students sitting neatly in rows, listening attentively and at the end of the class, they will have all learned something. This, for many people, is how school should be. John Howard, a recent Australian Prime Minister asserted “I am also an unabashed supporter of competitive examinations, teacher-directed lessons and the importance of academic disciplines”, as though his personal inclination should mean something even though he’d had no actual experience in education beyond his time in school in the fifties and sixties. Neither did he find it necessary to explain what that meant or quote any research to show its effectiveness.  We just all KNOW that’s what education looked like in those halcyon days when schools were truly good. 

Or take this from the Opposition Education Spokesman, Christopher Pyne: “Child-centred learning should be abandoned for a return to more explicit instruction driven by teachers..  More practical teaching methods based on more didactic teaching methods, more traditional methods rather than the child-centred learning that has dominated the system for the past 20, 30 or 40 years’.

”In other words, mounting evidence suggests that primary school children or students with particular types of disadvantage would be better off being taught this way. Unfortunately this research has been ignored by most teacher training and in many instances attempts to return to explicit instruction pedagogy have been blocked by state education departments.” He, of course, fails to cite this “mounting evidence”. 

Perhaps, the comments by columnist, Katharine Murphy sum up the views of a lot of people: “Hearing Pyne talk more extensively about his portfolio (hooray) made me nostalgic for some of my best teachers who made me sit on my backside, stop talking and write notes until my hand ached.”

Of course, nostalgia is all very well for a weekend catching up with old friends. To base an education policy on the idea that writing till one’s aches is hardly relevant in the technology rich 21st Century. Will we see the Government abandoning any computer program, because kids hands aren’t aching enough?

One only has to look at a few basic truths to understand how simplistic many of these ideas are. The “good ole days” of education meant that a large number of people left school at fifteen, a defined percentage failed Matriculation or Higher School Certificate as it later became known, and students who didn’t perform were regarded as not worthy of educating. “But back then we all learnt to read and spell correctly,” asserts someone I know, completely ignoring their own inability to spell many basic words.

More importantly, the idea that people “learn” best through listening is demonstrably false. Try to remember the last time you were listening to someone speak to a large group for more than five minutes. Whether interesting or boring, I suspect that you won’t be able to remember more than a fraction of what was said, even if you took notes. As the person spoke, even if it were directly relevant to you, there’s a good chance that you started thinking about how what was being said applied to your workplace or your home or whatever. And, as a result, you missed the next bit.

Research suggests that only about five percent of information is retained from a lecture. Reading it for yourself is only slightly higher. These days the vast majority of Australian schools have taken away the fixed desks which all faced the front, and replaced them with more flexible tables and chairs, but anyone who teaches will be have encountered with at least one teacher who persists in demanding that the tables and chairs be set up in a manner resembling the old face-the-front desk.

I’m not suggesting that education doesn’t benefit from outside feedback, or that all change is necessarily good. The difficulty is how to reconcile the demand for constant improvement with the idea that the past has all the answers. Politicians are quick to introduce reforms with either no consultation, or consulation with only those that suit their own agenda. 

The simple fact is that our education system has “worked” for many people, particularly the ones writing and commentating on it. To many of them, the idea that we are constantly finding ways to help students learn more effectively is trendy nonsense. (“A good dose of Latin roots – that’d help their spelling!”) 

So what will we see should the Coalition win this Saturday? The sort of reforms Gonski said are necessary, or arguments for austerity and “living within our means”. Will we be told that class sizes are unimportant and technology not something that kids really need? Or will there be an acknowledgement that to improve education – even if you think the answer is “better teachers” – you have to fund it adequately. That was one of Gonski’s points – we need a massive investment in education. Even the Gillard/Rudd proposals were short of what Gonski said was necessary.

I read somewhere recently that the fore-runner of the Spitfire was nearly shelved in 1929 because of a Government austerity drive. It was suggested that creating a faster plane was a luxury they could do without.  A little of ten years later – when the Spitfire was saving Britain from the Luftwaffe – no-one considered it a “luxury”! (It was saved, incedently, by a private benefactor – I hold no similar hope that Gina Rinehart or Rupert Murdoch will save education)

We need to ensure that we are not costing ourselves a future “Spitfire” by saving a few dollars now. 




  1. I love your end comment of no private benefactor – it was once, that if you had two coats you would share one with someone who didn’t. Those days seem to have left us, but I hope they’ll make a come back.

  2. RichardU says:

    Would an educated electorate find much to their liking in News Limited papers? Or Foxtel when there are so much good material on Youtube? Or free to air for that matter?

  3. Russ says:

    It was pretty clear from the reaction of Abbott and Pyne after the release of the Gonski report (“there’s nothing wrong with the funding model we presently have”) that neither of them had actually read the report. Like Howard, they don’t need to. How much informed commentary have we hade from Liberal spokespeople on health, defence, industry and all the other important portfolios? No need, they were all in government once, and they know how to make it all work. We are heading for another Dark Age.

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