Guaranteeing a Generation of Dolts

edu-babble IIIAfter reading the results of David Gonski’s 2.0 review into how best to raise standards, one only hopes the Sydney-based businessman is more effective as chair of the ANZ bank than he is in his occasional role as Australia’s educational guru. The report, released this week, epitomizes all that is wrong with Australia’s education system and represents yet another example of the Turnbull government’s political ineptitude.

The report, Through Growth to Achievement, supposedly sets out the most effective way to spend the additional billions promised in an attempt to raise standards, as measured by our dismal performance in the international tests. If anything, such is the flawed, misconceived and simplistic nature of the report and its recommendations that, if implemented by the states and territories, it will have the opposite effect.  It will condemn even more students to a dumbed-down and substandard educational experience.

One of the principal recommendations of the 2014 national curriculum review I co-chaired, based on a number of expert submissions, argued against including general capabilities like critical and creative thinking and personal and social capability in the curriculum. Such capabilities do not exist in isolation, as by their very nature they only arise when grounded in established disciplines or subjects.  It is impossible to be creative if you don’t know anything. The ability to think critically must be taught in the context of particular subjects.

See also: Education Then and Now

The ability to be creative with language requires a knowledge of grammar, punctuation, syntax as well as the language exemplified by our finest literature. Critical thinking, in addition to being taught in English, is also central to the type of logical processes needed when learning mathematical algorithms.

The Gonski 2.0 report, instead of acknowledging the central importance of giving students a rigorous and detailed grounding in essential knowledge, priorities “the acquisition of general capabilities”. The justification, in the vacuous jargon much loved by progressive educators, is because students are living in “a complex and challenging world”, one that is “ever-changing” and characterized by “significant economic, social and technological change”. Not only are such statements trite, they ignore the reality as argued by Michael Oakeshott that education involves a conversation that has been on-going for centuries.  What is described as the core curriculum, involving mathematics, science, literature, art, music and history, can be traced back to through the Reformation and all the way to ancient Rome and Greece. As proven by tragedies such as Medea, The Bacchae and the Oedipus trilogy, human nature has changed very little over thousands of years. To be human is to face enduring questions about the nature of existence, what constitutes the good life and how best to find happiness and fulfilment.

One of the prevailing fads in education relates to “personalised learning” (formerly known as “child-centred leaning”) where the student is placed at centre stage and the purpose of education is to promote individual growth.  Linked to this approach is the replacement of summative assessment, which sees some pass and some fail, with formative, diagnostic assessment on the basis that all must be winners. As such, the Gonski 2.0 report argues schools must get rid of year levels and the assumption that students should achieve set standards at key stages.  Ranking students in terms of performance is also verboten, as the focus must be on “the individual progress a student makes over time along a defined learning progression”. Teachers are also told they must adopt “tailored teaching for growth” where each student leaves school “a creative, connected and engaged learner with a growth mindset”.  In addition, they must “transition to diagnostic assessment  and differentiated teaching within a framework of learning progressions”.

In addition to the Gonski 2.0 report being awash with edu-babble and ignoring the research about how best to raise standards it also shows an appalling ignorance of what has been happening in schools and what is possible in relation to its recommendations. For years now, schools have had to adopt personalised approaches to learning and assessment where each student has to be monitored, evaluated and assessed on a daily basis.  Teachers are also told they must devise individualised learning plans for each student and that assessment must be “collaborative, negotiated and continuous”.

In addition to turning teachers into bean counters and drowning them in red tape and checklists, they are denied the time and opportunity to actually teach – to engage and motivate students  and see them interact as a class.  Gonski 2.0 represents more of the same.

Given the money and time invested in the review it is also scandalous that there is little, if any, recognition of what characterises stronger-performing education systems and schools.

One looks in vain for any recognition of the benefits of autonomy, diversity and choice represented by a more market driven model of education or the strengths of an academically rigorous curriculum and an assessment system with explicit standards ranking students at key stages.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of Dumbing Down.



7 thoughts on “Guaranteeing a Generation of Dolts

  • Jody says:

    Most of my days teaching were spent on paperwork and having to chase students who hadn’t completed assessment tasks for the HSC. This involved an endless round of forms; that one isn’t returned, send another and another. One day I exploded and said to the HT, “I’m not doing this anymore; read my lips”. She said I had to and I shook my head, “I repeat: I’m not responsible for that student’s refusal to pull his weight. Sack me if you don’t like it”. My sheep-like colleagues sat by incredulously watching this display, but that wasn’t enough to teach them anything about standing up for your principles.

  • Geoffrey Luck says:

    And there’s another thing lacking- discipline. When I first went to school we lined up, saluted the flag, sang the national anthem, had our fingernails inspected and then marched to our classrooms. Every teacher had a cane and used it judiciously. Flagrantly bad behaviour went to the headmaster for six of the best. There was individually tailored learning, in a sensible way. The brightest boys were put at the back of the class, the dullards in the very front row where the teacher could see their level of comprehension and make allowances for them. They always got more attention than the rest of us. But the idea of responsibility was inculcated from age 8, by questions, tests and reminders to do better if we wanted to get on. Above all, we were taught life was competitive, and rewards were there in praise and special treatment for progress and excellence. My grandsons went to a school where I was shocked to see every boy in every class brought onto the stage and awarded the same cheap plastic trophy. Because nobody could be more equal than anyone else!

    • Jody says:

      I’m not at all sure teachers used the cane judiciously. Today if you brought back the cane the students would hit you back. Fact.

      There are still some tremendous students in state schools; they come from good homes, have a work ethic are trustworthy and eager to please. It was a pleasure to go to school every day to face those kinds of students, have a good laugh at the end of the lesson and everybody know his/her role. But it’s the tail wagging the dog now; discipline problems take up everybody’s time and it’s the elephant in the room never discussed. I could never understand this and after retirement in the State system I taught on a casual basis for a bit in the local Catholic high school. I was STAGGERED by the difference; phones in all the classrooms (in case of trouble – which there never was!) which saved kids having to be ‘messengers’ and missing class. Discipline was generally very good and there were strong Christian values of care and concern for one another (students, I mean). My children all went to that school over the years (they had left when I got there). It was like living on a different planet to the state school where I had worked. One student had been expelled from that Catholic school and came over to our state comprehensive. I spoke to him in the playground one day and he commented on the high levels of noise coming from classrooms. When I told my colleagues they said, “yes, the students here are working and learning”!! There’s no winning when teachers gang up and won’t admit the problem – because it’s a bad reflection on THEM (or so they think). I grew bored with it and left.

      • Geoffrey Luck says:

        I should have said “mostly judiciously”. At age 11 I was driven to a nervous breakdown by a sado-machistic teacher who beat me every morning with his specially-made cowhide strap.

  • lloveday says:

    “I’m not at all sure teachers used the cane judiciously.”

    I am certain some did not; there were a few sadistic teachers back then.

    A good friend was the last “designated whacker” at his 1-7 school – the Headmaster opted out. My mate used a ping-pong bat rather than a cane and during the last year before corporal punishment was criminalised, only “whacked” one boy; the others he terrified (he was 6’5″ and playing top-grade football) with threats of what would happen next time and gave them a menial task as punishment.

    After the criminalisation, with the threat, rather than, in his case at least, the reality gone, misbehaviour increased, and female teachers used to send the boys they could not handle to sit in his class. One told him “You are not allowed to touch me” and he responded along the line “I am allowed to, indeed obliged to, stop you from touching me, touching anyone else or harming property or yourself, and how do you think a little boy is going to stop me”, while towering over the boy.

    At the same time he was told he could not apply for a Advanced Skills (I think that was the designation) advancement as only females could apply until the gender imbalance was rectified. Pissed off? You bet!

    The cane was nothing to fear other from the sadists – in Year 6 I was given the option of the cane or staying in after school and writing lines. And miss kicking the football around on the oval? Out went the hand.

  • gardner.peter.d says:

    It could be worse. Australia could be as bad as UK.

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