On June 23 1990, at Madison Park High School in Boston, Massachusetts Nelson Mandela stated ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’.
Today in Australia, there are continual concerns about the decline of achievement for children in what we term education. Basic reading, writing and numeracy skills levels in Australia are not where we want them to be, and despite the policy changes, curriculum reviews and ever-increasing amounts of money thrown at the issue, the decline continues apace. So what are the issues and are there any actual solutions, other than another curriculum review?
The too often the big issues become battles. In terms of content, should we be teaching hard skills or soft skills? That is to say should there be a focus more on traditional knowledge and facts such as science or Shakespeare or should be teaching empathy and creativity?
With reading, the wars continue between those that would promote ‘whole word teaching’ and those that see phonics as the key to unlocking literacy. Such arguments follow through to assessment with more standardised assessments at younger ages; and those desiring to scrap NAPLAN and ATAR scores.
In addition, there are the arguments for teaching methods, separate to curriculum content. Should pedagogy be traditional teacher directed, or more progressive with the teacher as facilitator? How teaching is presented leads to discussion on behaviour management with the opposing camps being based in zero tolerance versus promoting positive behaviour; and that is before we even deal with the issues such as selective schools or inclusion and the role of gifted and talented and support classes for disability.
However, none of this address the real issues of why achievement across the board is appearing to decline. All of the above is but ‘rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic’. The fundamental problem lies in the system.
Changing methods and changing funding models or curriculum content will never be a solution if it ignores the wider systemic issue, what is the purpose of schooling and how to be support our children by meeting the three pillars of sustainability: economic, social and environmental. Whilst we may have flipped classrooms and project learning, fundamentally schools run with one teacher, 25 children in a room with desks and chairs. We need radical change.
Social poverty and inequity has to be addressed to support children’s needs, but there are solutions that education can apply. Teachers need to be allowed to be life-long learners, so let’s allow them time to do so. Half load teaching timetables, allowing the other 50% of time for learning and preparation. Shared classes, so there can be true collegiality. Increase wages, increase status of degrees and increased official hours (the best teachers spend significantly more hours doing their job than their contract states) so all of society can respect the profession.
Change the schooling ages. Why start formal education so early? Allow children to explore and play before formal learning. Allow students to choose a path other than academic, through a revitalised and funded TAFE system. Fund education fully from pre-school/child care through to undergraduate degrees. Recognise education as a social good, not an economic burden.
Allow children to move between age and stage, recognise subjects are not silos but use skills across multiple disciplines. Deliver soft skills through teaching hard knowledge. Google may have the content, but teachers need to guide students as to what is important and required. The two are not mutually exclusive. There is a place for all teaching methods. Direct Instruction and group skills both have their place.
Children are learning to be adults, so allow them to make mistakes, promote positive behaviour but also teach consequences. We learn with a carrot, but we need to know there is a metaphorical stick. Celebrate collegiality, student self-regulation but create opportunity for students to have some control of their learning.
Finally, too many educational changes are made by bureaucrats. There are three expert groups that need to be listened to. Teaching/ school staff, academic researchers (whom are often experienced teachers) and finally the students themselves. We have rich resources and we should use them.
One final note, whilst we can look at very different systems around the world and ask what we can learn from them. They tend to all have one thing in common. Children are introduced to a second language from an early age.
Thus, they understand how language works (important for reading and writing) and they understand how systems work (needed for numeracy) and they understand how other cultures work (needed for soft skills). There may not be a causation between 2nd language acquisition and academic success, but there is a correlation.
David Roy is a senior lecturer of education at the University of Newcastle