The Australian education system : Is the sky falling?

Already February 8 2017 – doesn’t time fly! We are all so busy, juggling work, family and study, keeping the house presentable and dreaming of a long distant holiday when we can ‘get away from it all’. Change seems constant, we suffer from information overload and demands seem to come from every direction. Has life ever been as complex and challenging?

We are constantly connected and receiving information – whereas once we read the morning newspaper, watched the evening television news bulletin and got in touch with family with a weekly phone call and an annual Christmas card, we now have a 24 hour news cycle, mobile access to the web and social networks that put us in touch with everyone we’ve ever met (and even those we haven’t). We talk, text, emoji, email, message, blog, tweet, insta and snapchat, and so does everyone else.

Our work is changing too; we once left school, became employed, and had a job for life. No longer. While many of us are familiar with statistics that suggest the average person will have 17 different jobs and up to 5 different careers in their lifetime, new ways of working are perhaps less well known. However ads like the one below for AirTasker are soon going to change that.

Airtasker is just one of the ways technology is ‘disrupting’ the job market. Rather than focusing on jobs, young people are being challenged to focus on developing skills which will allow them to be employed across a range of different positions – or alternatively, to sell through sites such as AirTasker.

What does all of this have to do with the status of education in Australia? So much!

Every day it seems as though we are being bombarded with headlines such as the ones in the picture that leads this post. These headlines scream our imminent demise, with a future that is barely literate and the rest of the world laughing as we descend into uneducated chaos. As someone who has been involved in education for over twenty years, of course this concerns me. Is the sky really falling, or is this hyperbole aimed at boosting ratings and getting mass response on social media?

I would like to suggest that these reports paint a very black and white picture, and that, like most parts of life, things just aren’t that simple. While some groups of Australian students may not be performing on PISA tests and NAPLAN to the level that politicians would like (remember, we have a hugely diverse population, and the numbers that are crunched produce averages), I believe that the usual cries for ‘back to basics’ will not provide the answer.

Click image to read press release
Click image to read this report

This doesn’t mean that I am anti-phonics or believe that spelling and learning the times tables is not important – I value these skills very much, and take great pride in the fact that when I taught in the Early Years, I delivered a holistic curriculum that focused on both phonics and whole language teaching strategies, as well as immersion in high quality literature, literacy circles and a regular chant of the times tables (some things you just have to learn off by heart). What it does mean is that I think when politicians and ‘decision makers’ say ‘back to basics’, they aren’t thinking of what might best support students who are living in a completely different world – they are appealing to our (faulty) memories of the good old days, when computers weren’t a part of everyday life, and coding was what you did in your Sherlock Holmes Activity Book on the weekends.

Just like in every other part of society, education is situated in a context of massive change. The way technology is impacting on our home lives, our work lives, the way we learn, communicate and enjoy ourselves is not something anyone has ever experienced in this lifetime. At the World Economic Forum, it is being suggested that we are entering the fourth industrial revolution:

This echoes the research being done by Carlotta Perez, whose work examines the relationship between technology and economic development, between finance and technological diffusion and between technical and institutional change. Happily, Carlotta sees great potential for positive change in the quality of life for humanity – but only if we make the right decisions.

Testing literacy and numeracy skills using standardised testing may have its place – but standardised testing is just one tiny snapshot of our learners’ capabilities. Making decisions about the entire system of schooling based upon these numbers is very black and white indeed. Students must be literate and numerate – yes, definitely – but with the affordances of technology, and the changing expectations of what an individual will need to know and be able to do for success in later life, we need to massively re-examine what we teach, and even more importantly, how we teach it.

We need to let go of rosy memories of desks in lines and a blackboard at the front of the room – and give teachers the space to plan creative, authentic and rich learning, that embeds appropriate technology and engages students so that they want to learn. Many teachers are already doing this – although I do not always agree with John Hattie (for an excellent critique of some of his research that I thoroughly agree with, take a look at these blog posts here and here by my colleague and mentor, Mandy Lupton) – one thing he says that I do value is that we need to recognise the positive work so many of our teachers are doing, and learn from this. Rather than publishing headlines of doom and gloom and the views of politicians who may have never returned to a classroom since their own school days, why not publish all of the amazing, inspiring, innovative and creative learning that is happening in our schools?

Teachers are highly qualified dedicated professionals. They go into teaching because they love learning, love sharing learning with others, want to give something of themselves to students – they do not go into teaching for the pay (it’s not bad, but there are so many other jobs that pay better and have better working conditions), nor do they go into teaching because they love paperwork! While Finland is a completely different country, with a far more homogenous population, the message in this short clip is what needs to be heard:

I don’t have the answers – I don’t think any one person does. My PhD study will hopefully contribute, and I’ve shared before my thoughts on how creativity in the classroom is another important consideration. But I do know that the answers do not lie in monolithic, one size fits all, back to basics responses which usually hinge on more testing, and more content to be taught. Why don’t we consider taking the focus off the politicians and the voices shouting on social media, and listen to teachers and students. Let’s recognise that we live in times that are changing rapidly, and rather than locking down routines, curricula and testing, seek models such as the Connected Learning Framework which have been designed with digital technologies and modern students in mind. It doesn’t have to be an either/or solution. Why not a ‘yes, and’ response.

Maybe I’m dreaming. I’m sure if this were published in a public forum, there would be lots of people commenting saying that I am an academic in a tower, who doesn’t know what’s happening in the ‘real’ world. Maybe that’s true. However teachers and students are drowning in stress and are overwhelmed by the constantly revolving demands being made on them. We need a fresh approach – and trusting teachers, focusing on students (who are the central and only reason schools exist) and considering breaking ‘the rules’ to do something different might just be the way to go.

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