Education – When Will They Ever Learn?

One of my sons is a primary school teacher. It pleases me when I meet people who say, “Our child really prospered when he/she was in your son’s class” or quite frequently, “I hope our child gets into your son’s class”. Guiding young minds in such formative years is no doubt an important and often rewarding calling.

It is a pity that we are not making a better fist of it. Recent newspaper articles making international comparisons with the progress of Australian children in key areas, such as basic numeracy and literacy indicate that we are falling behind on many fronts. It is not hard to find evidence of this. The young people serving you at the local supermarket checkout seem to be unable to add a couple of numbers together without electronic aid. Universities regularly provide remedial programs in mathematics and English to compensate for the poor skills of many of those graduating from high schools.

The conventional wisdom as expounded by academics, the teachers’ unions and largely taken up by the Gronski report is that we just need to spend more money, recruit more teachers and reduce class sizes. This seems wrong-minded to me. I read somewhere recently that the per capita spend on education has increased by 40% in real terms over the last decade. During this period our international rankings have been rapidly diminishing. It is hard to believe that doing more of the same but more frenetically is really going to help anyone much except the teachers’ unions who will gain more members.

It seems to becoming more readily accepted that increasing the autonomy of schools, with more discretion over hiring and firing decisions and an increased capacity to integrate with local communities is a necessary step and some states have moved in this direction.

But what are the other determinants of success in education? This I suppose leads us to question the quality of our teachers. The drive to recruit and train more teachers would probably inevitably lead to a diminution of the intellectual capability of teachers. (Unless, of course at the same time we raised salaries and related remuneration to teaching outcomes in the classroom – I can already hear the unions squealing about that!)

I don’t mean to offend those many fine teachers who are very competent, dedicated and effective (among whom I would include my son) but to question the adequacy of teacher training and the support provided to teachers. My son readily admits that his university education in teaching has not provided an ideal platform for the practice of his profession. He tells me that the practical work in placements in schools whilst he was completing his formal studies was far more useful. That of course is a very pervasive thought amongst many professionals. I, myself, have stated on many occasions that the most important learnings that I have had, came from outside the formal education system. It is hard to emphasise enough the benefits of experiential learning. My son relates to me the hours that he spent learning to regurgitate the developmental stages of the foetus in order to pass his exams, which seems to have little relevance on teaching children. When trying to increase his skills to be able to add some musical training to his repertoire an inordinate amount of time was spent learning the principles of atonal music as developed by Schoenberg which would seem to me to be of little use in teaching musical appreciation to young people.

There is therefore a case to revisit teacher education. It might be better to expose our aspiring teachers to more who might be role models in the teaching process rather than those who have acquired an academic teaching post based on some abstract, obtuse thesis with little application to guiding young minds to useful knowledge in the real world. I note from some of the reports from the higher performing nations in education that mentoring from a respected role model is often a significant part of their teacher training.

In my day job, I work as an executive coach. I provide many of my clients with books and papers to read to help them. But I hope I can add value to that material by relating real examples in my working career about the application of such principles. I am sure such mentoring would be hugely beneficial to teachers as well.

When I talk to my son about what works in the classroom he is emphatic that behavioural control and parent support are paramount.

When he starts a new class each year, he spends some time with his students to establish a behavioural compact. He encourages them to identify the behaviours that are helpful in the classroom. He moderates a discussion amongst the children to agree on what behaviours will be acceptable and what behaviours won’t be tolerated.

Many parents have not come to realise that education is a compact between the child, the teacher and the parents. And again my son stresses the value of parental support. It is not surprising that many of the countries performing well in the education stakes are countries where the family is very important and parental expectations of children are high. I am not suggesting that we emulate all the cultural characteristics of such countries, but I am sure the education of our children would benefit from more parental support in the teaching process.

I have also been long of the opinion that some of the government targets in education are not helpful For example I believe that the attempt to have as many young people as possible finish high school creates underlying problems.

In my youth, those who were not academically inclined left school early to become a junior in the local store, start an apprenticeship, repair tyres in the local garage or whatever. In short they became part of the local economy, contributing their skills and learning to play a part in the community. Now we have many young people who are locked into school and simultaneously locked out of society. They attend school with little chance of success with dire consequences to their self-esteem. The consequent behavioural issues make school a much more difficult place for teachers and students alike. It seems ridiculous to rate schools by their retention rates, rewarding them to keep students locked in irrespective of the educational outcomes.

Angela Shanahan, writing in the Weekend Australian also points out that these failings of our education system are being born disproportionately by boys. On most indicators girls are outperforming our boys in schools. This trend became apparent some 10years ago when the then Education Minister, Brendan Nelson, commissioned an enquiry into the issue. Unfortunately the report was never acted on and, shortly after, Nelson left the Education portfolio to become Defence Minister.

Shanahan writes, “According to experts such as Kevin Donnelly, CIS’s Jennifer Buckingham and Peter West, an expert in boys’ education and development, this is because for too long both curriculum and pedagogy have been feminized. Education has been skewed to the psychological and physical development of the girls.”

Buckingham maintains that the usual contemporary teaching methods such as continuous assessment and more collaborative techniques work well for girls but not so well for boys. This is exacerbated by the fact the emotional development of girls can be up to two years ahead of boys.

So, all in all, it seems as though if we are to improve our place on the international league tables for educational outcomes, we need to examine our approach to education in a more fundamental way than suggested in the Gronski report.

Among the issues that need to be seriously looked at are:
1. More autonomy for schools
2. Better teacher training including mentoring for teachers
3. Engagement of parents to support teachers
4. Establishing improved classroom behaviour
5. Getting the academic underperformers out of schools and into the workplace
6. Addressing the imbalance between the outcomes of boys and girls

Then we might have a chance of meeting some of the ambitious goals that the Prime Minister has set our education sector.

I find it hard when talking about schooling not to make mention of the recent mass shootings at the Newtown school in Connecticut.

What an appalling thing that 20 innocent, beautiful, young children should have their lives ended in such a way.

I have often in my blog essays put the point of view that the most influential determinant of our sense of well-being and our psychological adjustment is the efficacy of our world-view. I recently came across some of the writings of Brian Swimme who is a specialist in mathematical cosmology and he wrote “Diseased mindscapes only produce diseased landscapes” which seemed to me to be an elegant way of expressing the same sentiment.

I can’t imagine a more vivid example of a “diseased mindscape” creating a “diseased landscape” than what I’ve instanced above. And the diseased mindscape just doesn’t belong to the crazed killer but to the American culture and its obsession with guns.

I have been disappointed with President Obama whose presidency promised so much and delivered so little. It is time for him to make amends and stare down the gun lobby!

7 Replies to “Education – When Will They Ever Learn?”

  1. Great blog as usual Ted. A. Recent major study in NZ I think it was found that,surprise, surprise, the single most important determinant in educational achievement was a willingness to learn. Amazing stuff. I remarked to my 4 year old grandson recently how wonderful it was going to Kindy and learning stuff. He agreed. His Mum and Dad have him on the right path already! Others aren’t so lucky.

    1. Thanks Pete. Parental support in the educational process is so important. It was lovely (but not surprising) to hear of your personal experience.

  2. Agreed Ted – regarding boys’education at any rate.

    I rememeber being surprised 20 years ago how many girls and Asians took the academic prizes at high schools we sponsored, whereas the boys seemed comfortable with their lot in the sports field. What a shock! In the 50’s and 60’s boys were encouraged and expected to excel in the classics and maths (whereas sport was seen as a day off!).

    Perhaps the decline did come in with the feminist era, I hadn’t thought of that. My teachers were all men, Priests actually, and all high-grade scholars at that. So therefore we had a model for our role. The intoduction in the late 60’s of mixed classes and women teachers may well have played a critical role in lowering the quality of mens’ education. How politically incorrect is that thought!

    And Ted what’s your thought on vocational education (the Marxist idea of deciding what role the citizen should fill) versus the liberal arts where the students is fitted for life with all its vicissitudes?

    Merry Christmas Ted….


    1. You raise some interesting points Jack. I was going to mention in my blog essay the preponderance of women teachers, particularly in primary school which doesn’t help with the issue about boys. Some of these boys come from dysfunctional families, often raised by a single mother, with no positive male role models whatsoever. And despite the protestations of the sisterhood, I don’t believe this is a helpful situation. And this is not meant as a criticism of the mothers – this is a criticism of the men that have abandonned their progeny.

      I am not a Marxist, Jack as you have probably already discerned. I just believe that there are many children in our schools who are gaining no benefit from their schooling. I have been involved in a whole lot of stuff about these issues – not the least as a result of my role on the Board of the Beacon Foundation and my role as Chair of the Board of an indigenous school. I instituted a program when I first got to Rockhampton for so-called “children at risk” at the local high school. The teachers complainned that these kids (all boys) were disruptive in class and had no interest in furthering their education. We managed to take ten of these young people and instead of going to school for a term we placed them in local workplaces. To his credit the local manager of Commerce Qld helped us place them. Whilst these kids were seen as a problem at school, given useful work to do in a workplace they prospered. They were lauded by the employers as useful and cooperative employees. Quite a few of them were subsequently offered jobs. We lock these young people (mostly boys) into a schooling regime that has no benefits for them. We should be trying to place them into industry where they can do something useful (and most of them can) and the subsequent fulfilment they acquire from this helps them to be useful contributors to our society. In schools they are disruptive, dissatisfied and infulfilled. It is time we tried to minimise this effect.

  3. Ted

    A tremendously important topic. Education is the future of the nation. My wife is a former secondary school teacher. We still mix with lots of current teachers. In addition to the points you make, it appears that Australian society has progressively devalued its respect for teachers. Parents too have been increasingly willing to place more onus on the teachers for the general development of the child, compromising the teachers ability to spend core time on the fundamentals of the curriculum. Good parenting is central to this issue. How do we teach that?


    1. Indeed you are right Peter. I have often said in the past that what we are now seeing as a failure of education is in no small part due to a failure in parenting. The role of teachers is made hugely more difficult because behavioural standards are not taught and maintained by parents.

  4. A very topical post and discussion Ted. My wife has just decided to take on the role of teacher in our society, which is great. A few weeks as teacher aid at Berserker State School and she was bitten.

    Like consulting (my trade), life, work and parenting experience are very valuable to be an effective teacher. Maybe not ‘necessary’ and maybe not even ‘sufficient’, but certainly very, very useful.

    Merry Christmas, …Geoff

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