Kevin Donnelly tirelessly argues the case that our schools are failing. He
was at it in The Age again recently with
this piece.

Donnelly’s argument basically goes that schools have been taken over by leftist
progressives who are "committed to overthrowing the status quo and turning
students into politically correct new age warriors"
(from “Cannon fodder of the culture wars” ) and not much
about educational standards. Under the influence of these radicals we have brought
up a generation of kids who can’t read or write. (Funny who this generation
of illeterates has produced 40 million odd blogs.)

According to this view, teachers fall into three
categories. The radicals themselves. Those who are too afraid to speak out against
what they know (according to Donnelly and his supporters) is bad teaching. Finally
there are those who are two lazy to care. I suspect Donnelly believes this last
category is the majority.

Donnelly’s answer the industrialist’s response. That is to force this lazy
majority into action by threat of the sack. He wants to measure their performance
and sack those that don’t meet his standards. His measurement approach is also
taken straight out of the industrial revolution – measure the product. Test
the students. I think if he had his way he would test the students in every
class in the nation every day. That way we could tell what improvment the teachers
had made in their students on a day to day basis.

There is a whole argument here about the value of testing and what we measure
when we give students tests but I will leave that for another day.

Rather, Donnelly’s industrial response to a human problem is the issue for
today. Schools are the only modern institution that was born in the industrial
revolution and we have never been able to remove ourselves from the industrial
model. Students are placed in groups and move along an assembly line. Conformity
is key. Students are thought of as fodder for the manufacturing process. The
standard they reach is a product of the school and teacher. Good teachers produce
good students. Lazy teachers produce underperforming students. Student performance
can be measured precisely with the micrometer of standardised tests. Thost that
don’t measure up are rejected and have to be "re-manufactured."

I am struck by the strong parallels of this approach and those of
Theory X
. McGregor, a 1950s industrial theorist noted that there seemed to be
two basic "theories" operating amongst the managers he observed. One
group of managers operated according to Theory X. According to this theory workers
are lazy and unmotivated. The only way to get them to work productively is by
threatening them. They have to be continually supervised and have the threat
of losing their jobs hanging over the heads at all times. This was the predominant
paradigm in management for most of the industrial era.

McGregor discovered that it was not the only paradigm. There was another group
of managers who seemed to be operating according to a different theory. McGregor
called this Theory Y. According to these managers, workers came to work to do
a good job. They were inherently motivated. These managers saw their job as
enabling their workers to get on with their jobs. To remove the obstacles that
prevented them from doing the best they could. To co-ordinate their energy to
a common goal. To encourage them and resolve problems when motivations clashed.

This paradigm gained the ascendency during the 70s – at the same time that
school reform was occuring on a large scale – but has lost some of the ground
that it made during its heyday. However, there are very few mainstream western
organisations that now openly operate on a Theory X paradigm. Sure we’ve learnt
a lot since the 60s and 70s and our understanding of human organisational behaviour
has increased immensely since then.

Well at least it has for some of us. The Australian Government’s recently announcend
industrial relations reforms seem to be based mostly on the Theory X paradigm.

And of course, Dr Donnelly seems firmly entrenched in the view.

I find it really hard to accept that at the beginning of the 21st Century we
are still having to fight the fights of on hundred years ago. That we can’t
move on from this view of schools as production lines. That we can’t see children
as young people who need nurturing and encouragement. That we just can’t see
these naturally enquisitive minds and instead of killing the desire to learn
(as Theory X does) we can’t nurture it. That we can’t see teachers as the greatest
asset we have a society and we can’t support them in the difficult, agonising
and exhausting task they have committed themselves to.

If teachers are lazy its because the’ve given up in the face of continuous
attacks on them over the last two decades at the same time that resources and
support have been denied.

I completed my Diploma of Education in 1976. I remember one of the lecturers
speaking about teacher morale. He told us of his belief that the biggest single
thing the Minister for Education could do to improve the quality of teaching
would be to praise teachers. No buts. No hidden messages. No backhand compliments.
Just pure hearfelt praise.

I cry at the thought of how little has changed over three decades.