Education is broken – but it doesn’t have to be

If you read this blog regularly you will know that my heart weeps for education.
At a time in which the world faces its greatest ever challenges, we are returning to
models of education that were essentially developed 200 years ago.

In Australia, we have the NAPLAN and
MySchool which are regressive simplistic
measures of student and school performance respectively. It is as though we have not moved a
millimetre from the industrial revolution model of education since wide scale public education
became common in the mid 19th Century.

In addition the Australian federal Education Minister,
Julia Gillard, declaring herself
a world expert on education has just announced a ‘back to basics’
national curriculum.

Kevin Donnelly, one of the most
conservative education commentators in the country has completed a 180 degree shift on national
testing. Previously one of the strongest and most vocal advocates for public accountability of
schools through ‘league tables’ Donnelly

now argues
that the evidence from overseas indicates that these measures do not increase
educational performance.

In this piece on the ABC website, he argues:

…an argument is put that test scores, while giving the impression of being scientific,
are not completely objective or reliable. In addition, standardised, multiple and short answer
tests (like Australia’s National Assessment Programme Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN)) measure a
limited range of skills as schools are forced to narrow “the curriculum towards the knowledge
and skills that are easy to assess on such tests”


Jeremy Ludowyke
, principal of
Melbourne High School,
(itself ranked #1 on literacy in Victoria), pointing out that his school is one of those that
stands to gain the most from national comparisons of the type promoted by MySchool describes
the whole initiative as ‘nonsense’
(The Age 8/2/10.)

At heart these initiatives are based on a belief that 

  • teachers have a cosy life and have little or no interest in providing high quality education
  • education has been hijacked by left wing ideology (eg see this piece by Donnelly)
  • parents demands are more important than the view of educators

It doesn’t have to be like this.

Wide scale public education was a mid 19th Century response to the industrial revolution.

Many argue that as a result it was modelled on the successes of industrial production. Children could be treated as items to be produced. You start with raw materials and apply the same processes consistently to produce items of consistent quality. Put all children through the same education and they will all learn the same things. Of course, some children are ‘naughty’ or ‘lazy’ and refuse to either apply themselves or to learn. But, by and large, the successful products of the system have similar characteristics.

Right there, at the beginning of public education, we were confronted with a dilemma. Do we educate children to provide fodder for the industrial machine or do we educate them to produce thinking individuals who will experience better lives because of their ability to make decisions for themselves?

We have never fully addresses this dilemma.

Perhaps we don’t have to. Perhaps we have moved beyond the industrial revolution to a place where educated, independent thinking individuals able to make independent decisions are what we need as a post industrial society and is also a socially just outcome of education.

In a future article I will discuss ‘modern’ approaches to education and how they might indeed be just what we need.

Clara Schumann

Do a google search on Schumann and you will most likely find references to Robert Schumann, the 19th century composer. You won’t immediately find that his wife Clara Schumann, was also a noted composer and virtuoso pianist.

As an interesting aside there was a strong and complex relationship between Robert, Clara and Johannes Brahms

Marie Curie

Marie Curie‘s name is intimately associated with the discovery of ‘radioactivity.’ This is not accurate as that discovery belongs to Henri Becquerel. To me precise she isolated the active radioactive source within pitchblende. Starting with several tonnes of pitchblende working with he husband Pierre, she isolated one gram of pure Radium.

From the Nobel Prize website:

Her early researches, together with her husband, were often performed under difficult conditions, laboratory arrangements were poor and both had to undertake much teaching to earn a livelihood. The discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896 inspired the Curies in their brilliant researches and analyses which led to the isolation of polonium, named after the country of Marie’s birth, and radium. Mme. Curie developed methods for the separation of radium from radioactive residues in sufficient quantities to allow for its characterization and the careful study of its properties, therapeutic properties in particular.

Frank Tate

Frank Tate was Victoria’s first Director of Education. Reading his biography is an amazing experience. Here was someone who was passionate about education and an educational reformer. He addressed issues we think of as modern.

Tate was not content to be a routine inspector and embarked on a personal crusade to revive Victorian state education. He sped through his huge district, winning the loyalty of teachers by his gift for humour, anecdote and epigram, and by his seemingly inexhaustible flow of quotations from English literature, especially Shakespeare. He offered them a vision of a liberal curriculum, imaginative and realistic methods, and a gentler and more constructive discipline; he introduced them to the ideas of the ‘new education’, a loosely organized reform movement which was gaining popularity in Britain. He showed teachers, as they toiled for meagre salaries in century heat in their tin-roofed schools, that their task, although grossly undervalued by society, was one of importance and dignity. Through them, state-school children, previously offered a narrow and unappealing fare dominated by the three Rs taught rigidly and by rote, could be introduced to the richness and variety of a great culture.

Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi held no pubic office and was the head of no organisation yet he was one of the most influential people of the 20th Century.

Character of the day: Eleanor Roosevelt

Eleanor Roosevelt may be best known as the wife of US President Franklin D Roosevelt. However she was an amazing and influential woman in her own right.