After 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.