Opening up thinking about education today for tomorrow - Imagining possibilities and solutions

Saturday, August 08, 2009

What would be a real revolution in education?

Here in Australia there is a show on the ABC called QandA, Adventures in Democracy.

The show’s format essentially is to have a panel of 5 people consisting of politicians, activists, community group representation moderated by a journalist. Questions are put to the panellists.

The ABC saw that recent show (Thursday 6th August 2009)

"was a special episode of Q&A in which the leaders of the present discussed the issues of the day with the leaders of tomorrow. The entire audience and three of the panel members were in the 16-25 age bracket….” (from transcript accessed 8th August 2009).

The panellists on the show were Julia Gillard (Deputy Prime Minister), Malcolm Turnbull (Leader of the Opposition), Sara Haghoodsti (climate change activist), Mitchell Grady (law student) and Linden Brownley (indigenous advocate).

The following question was put to the panel by Jono Leonard:

"I would like to ask a question in regard to the Labor party's 'Education revolution'. Should the government be focusing more of the $14.7 billion away from infrastructure and more towards productive means of education such as smaller class sizes, and better trained teachers? Shouldn't all teachers be 'superteachers'?"

The discussion was interesting, but at times I found a little irritating.

So what irritated me?

Reference to quality teachers, rather than quality of teaching. This resonated with a discussion I was part of at a recent forum I attended where it was noted that discussions around health care don’t focus on Quality Doctors; discussions about the legal system doesn’t focus on Quality Lawyers, Barristers and Judges.

In talking about quality teachers it is implied that there is a pervasive lack of quality teachers.

Greg Whitby recently tweeted about this:

Can any one explain what a quality teacher is? Mustn't all teachers be doing quality work or they shouldn't be teaching?

Statements from that panelists that the solution lies in “a) the curriculum; and b) having quality teachers to interpret and teach that curriculum” over simplifies the complexity of the work of teachers.

Further statements that “our numeracy rates are lowering. Our literacy standards are lowering. We're not going to fix that with a new gymnasium. We're going to fix that with better teachers teaching better curriculum” create a crisis that doesn’t exist by all accounts from international testing.

Such understandings can lead to attempts to teacher-proof the curriculum which lead us nowhere.

"Putting disinfectant right through the system"

Discussion moved into the publishing of schools' results publicly to allow for comparisons of "like schools". Publishing results to allow for comparisons of like-schools may well serve parent choice (though probably not those in disadvantaged communities). It does not however serve learning. The example of league tables in the UK and policies such as No child left behind in the US, that purported transparency and public accountability, have actually compounded the problem.

Julia Gillard, in response to a question in relation to disadvantage and publication of school performance data stated

“We can make a difference to that disadvantage if we focus on it.
That's what the transparency I was asked about [publishing performace data] is all about - putting disinfectant right through the system, every school, putting their results up so we can see where the problems are.”

An interesting analogy – “putting disinfectant right through the system.” Does it presuppose an infected system in need of cleansing, or at least prevention against possible infection?

World's best school systems

The McKinsey Report (2007), How the world’s best-performing school systems come out on top, studied 25 of the world's school systems, inlcuding 10 of the top performers. This study, conducted by Barber and Mourshed , identified that

“The experience of these top schools systems suggests that three things matter most: 1) getting the right people to become teachers, 2) developing them into effective instructors and, 3) ensuring that the system is able to deliver the best possible instruction for every child.”

This involves society, including politicians, appreciating the complex work of teachers and valuing that work and what it does contribute to society in terms that are broader than the predominant economic ones.

The issues are complex and require well thought out and whole system solutions. This, I think, requires smarter policies with a view to the long term and the future, not a short term political cycle.

It requires a view that says that our students need basic skills as well as skills and capabilities for an uncertain future. Our students need to understand oppression, patriarchy and discrimination to create a civil society – not just learn to spell these words; and indeed they can understand the concepts without necessarily being able to spell them!

They will require skills and capabilities to engage in and solve the problems they will face them: global warming, the water crisis, learning to live with diversity in a globalised world.

They also require teachers who can teach for uncertain futures. Teachers who understand learning and how today's world shapes how young people learn. Teachers that understands digital natives; but also understand that not all students use digital technology the same way or are in fact digital natives.

This requires time and space for teachers to learn. It has been argued by Professor Brian Caldwell that teachers should spend 20 days a year in professional learning.

The Australian Education Revolution, whilst well intentioned may not move us that much forward.

It seems to me that schooling, as presently experienced in disadvantaged communities, isn’t working well for those communities. Maybe there needs to be less emphasis on the business of schooling and being concerned with how to do school, and a stronger focus on learning and how learning is mediated, of which school maybe a part. This requires structural and institutional changes, not just “quality teachers”.

The Building Education Revolution doesn’t seem to be paying attention to creating spaces for learning, but rather seems to be replicating what has been – halls, gymnasiums, rooms for classes.

The Digital Education Revolution doesn’t appear to be paying much attention to emerging technologies. Laptops for every student may be superseded but more flexible, mobile technologies that can achieve the same. Maybe this is because those that design the policies don't engage with the technologies.

Understand learning

For me part of the solution lies in teachers better understanding learning and how to support the learning of a diverse group of students and engage them in learning. There is no one size fits all. The “cookie cutter” or “production-line” approach to schooling doesn’t serve us well today.

  • What if the focus were on learning and not schooling?
  • What if the profession of teaching were charged with the responsibility for ensuring the quality of teaching?
  • What if every backbencher worked in spaces with teachers for a week every year?
  • What if teachers had professional learning that focused on solving the complex problems of ensuring learning for all?

Great educational experiences depend on great teaching that takes place in great spaces (virtual and real), supported by great professional learning with great valuing of the complexity and significance of educators by the community.

I am left wondering, “What would be a real revolution in education?”


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