I have written a few essays on education in the past, being an area of some interest of mine. I have been thinking lately, that perhaps we should go back and ask some basic questions about education.
It is a very ambitious task, I know, but I am going to attempt to address the following questions about education:
- What is its function,
- Who is responsible for it, and
- How should it be conducted?
Obviously in a short essay I can only skim over these issues.
Education is the process by which we acquire skills, knowledge, and behavioural patterns. Whilst we are all undergoing such processes, it is conventional to talk about education largely as it applies to young people, and this essay will confine itself to that end. (But mind you, I am always aware that when I write these essays for you, I have to stop to think about the subject matter and do a little research to support my work, so in educational terms I am probably the major beneficiary. So I will submit that whilst I will write about the education of the young it is still my intention to educate myself and some of my adult readers as well!)
In our more remote history, the principal educational techniques were emulation, where those with skills demonstrated them to others, which then through trial and error were attempted to be replicated. By and large we learnt by doing under the tutelage of a subject matter expert. Even in today’s environment with its overlay of technology and notions of pedagogy, experiential learning is still one of the most effective educational techniques.
Today, education is envisaged as a “top-down” enterprise. It is largely seen as an undertaking where teachers, in authoritarian way, strut in front of a class where they through, dint of their larger knowledge, deliver tuition for the children in the class arrayed behind desks to assimilate as best they can. This is a relatively recent approach to education, adopted in the last couple of centuries. The fabric of this approach to education is dependent on agreed curriculum, regulated teaching sessions and an assumption that the prime source of knowledge is the teacher.
Educators and public commentators have ambivalent opinions about the purpose of education. Some, obviously dominated by the business lobby, believe the prime aim of education is to prepare young people for the world of work, providing them with basic literacy, numeracy and vocational skills to be useful as an employee. Others believe education has a broader function. They want our children to have broad exposure to literature and the Arts, to understand personal relationships, to appreciate our history, to promote their personal intellectual and psychological development and so on. It is obviously impossible to meet all these demands through the formal education system.
The systematic teaching of vocational skills in an organised way probably started in the late Middle Ages with the formation of crafts guilds. Under the guidance of the guilds, craftsmen took on apprentices who were mentored by the craftsmen so that a skills transfer was achieved.
More general education however, was largely provided by the church. From around the twelfth century churches took it upon themselves to provide secular education along with religious education largely for boys. In successive centuries church schools were often funded as well by local government. Eventually private schools began to proliferate. Surprisingly, even before the State took over the responsibility of education and often made it compulsory, in many countries there had developed high levels of numeracy and literacy. For example when the British state brought in compulsory education in 1880 its population was already almost entirely literate. Literacy had risen from about 50% amongst English men and about 10% amongst English women in 1700 to about 90% of both sexes by 1870.
The economic historian, Stephen Davies, dates the modern form of the school to 1806. In that year Napoleon defeated Prussia which humiliated its residents. Under the influence of its leading intellectual, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Prussia devised a program of rigorous, compulsory education, the main aim of which was to train young men to be obedient in battle so that they would not desert when under stress. These Prussian schools developed many of the pedagogical techniques which were soon assumed by schools in other European countries.
Features of such schools included:
- Teaching by year group rather than ability.
- Children sitting behind rows of desks in front of standing teachers,
- A set school day punctuated by the ringing of bells indicating the change of classes or the commencement of breaks, and
- A predetermined syllabus rather than open learning.
These features seemed to have been adopted by most schools as state provided education became more prevalent.
One of the fathers of American education, Horace Mann was a keen advocate of the Prussian model and visited Prussia in 1843 to further his knowledge of their particular form of pedagogy. He returned to the US convinced that the prime purpose of education was to instil in students “obedience to authority, promptness in attendance, and organising the time according to bell ringing”. All this was necessary because “it helped students prepare for future employment”.
One nineteenth century Japanese education minister reputedly said, “In administration of all schools, it must be kept in mind, what is to be done is not for the sake of the pupils, but for the sake of the country”. This seems to have been quite a prevalent thought amongst nations worldwide.
Schools have existed in Australia for more than 200 years, beginning in NSW and proliferating across the country as other settlements began. Public School systems did not begin until considerably later than this, beginning with primary level schools, then expanding into the secondary area beginning in the 1880s. Universities first arose in the middle of the 19th century, with early childhood education in the form of kindergartens and preschools lagging well behind all other sectors.
The Queensland Education Department chronicles that in Queensland in 1826 “Mrs Esther Roberts conducted the first school. Sixteen pupils attended and Mrs Roberts was paid £20 a year.”
Queensland became a separate colony in 1859 and thus responsible for education within its boundaries. The first National schools in Brisbane were established in 1860 – Brisbane Boys and Brisbane Girls. In the same year the Education Act placed all primary education under one general and comprehensive system controlled by the Board of General Education. A second act, the Grammar Schools Act, provided for the establishment of a grammar (secondary) school in any locality where a sum of not less than £1000 had been raised for this purpose.
In Queensland, and Australia more generally, schools still reflect to some degree those early Prussian principles.
If we look at the International league table for educational outcomes, Australia is steadily falling back into the pack. This is a worrying state of affairs, because Australia’s expenditure on education has grown dramatically in recent times. Obviously we are spending our money on education unwisely.
Until recently a considerable amount of the growing expenditure was devoted to reducing class sizes. This approach was diligently promoted by the teachers’ unions who were of course beneficiaries of this approach. Research has however shown little correlation between class sizes and educational outcomes.
More recently it has been recognised that the quality of our teachers needs addressing and we need to raise the status of teaching as a profession to attract more talent into its ranks.
Technology is beginning to make some difference to teaching methods, but mainstream schools tend to teach in similar ways to those of the past. As Minerva Academy’s Stephen Kosslyn observes, “Lectures are a great way to teach but a terrible way to learn!” Nevertheless many of the countries that outperform Australia still use traditional teaching methods. How is it then that they consistently outperform us?
Well, to begin with, they revere their teachers. Consequently teaching is a sought after profession. In my own youth those graduating from high schools without the credentials to go to universities often took up teaching. Teaching was not their preferred but second-best option. We want our teachers to be not only well-credentialed academically, but to have a genuine desire to teach.
But, I suspect, more importantly the countries that out-achieve us have cultures that better support education. And those cultures support education in at least two ways.
Firstly, they are supportive of teachers and their efforts. They ensure that children do their homework and respect their teachers. It is enlightening, for example, to see the stellar performance of the children of many migrants to Australia. They often surpass the results of native-born Australians. It is likely that many of us might denigrate these parents because they hover over their children and expect them to fulfil the rigours of the education system that is meted out to them. However their children have better educational outcomes than the average. It seems that parental support and parental expectations are critical determinants of educational success for children.
Many Australian parents intervene in the schools that their progeny attend to ensure that their children are not mistreated. Whilst this is an admirable ambition, many parents believe that their children are mistreated if they are asked to do things that the children would prefer not to do. It is not uncommon for parental indulgence to thwart the best efforts of teachers.
In the best families not only is education important, but it is also accepted that education is not the sole prerogative of schools and that families and the broader community have a part to play.
So if we go back to the questions I posed at the beginning, the function of education is to aid our children be competent members of society. Whilst this includes preparing our children with vocational skills so that they can perform adequately in the world of work, it also means developing their societal skills so they can take their place in society at large.
Teachers complain about the burgeoning curriculum they have to teach, and rightly so because each generation and often each change of government insist that schools teach different material. To resolve this issue we need to address the second question that I asked, “Who is responsible for the education of our children?” In some ways we all are, but in this context principally our children’s teachers and their families. It is common, for example, for parents to complain to teachers about the behaviour of their children, as though that was the teacher’s responsibility. Parental guidance, and more importantly the role modelling of parents, is at least as important to childhood learning as what is conveyed via the school curriculum.
It is unfair for parents to complain about the educational outcomes of their children if they have not provided their children with an environment supportive of education. We need family environments that support the authority of teachers, that value educational outcomes, that ensure children have parents who are interested in and supportive of learning, and who ensure homework is done and that the distractions of social media, television and other digital distractions don’t interfere with the broader objectives of their children’s education.
The third question I asked was, “How should education be conducted?” This is probably the most difficult of the questions I have proposed. I suspect I am not well qualified to respond.
But let me say this. People learn best when they are engaged in the process. I can well remember going to a presentation from Professor John Edwards from the School of Education at James Cook University who talked about students “drowning in a sea of blah!” And so much of our educational processes seem to be aligned to this method.
I don’t have any magical answers to this flaw in our educational processes. I have been myself a contributor to the problem. I can think back about the countless lectures I have delivered and presentations I have given at conferences and seminars when I have indulged in the same inappropriate process. In my experience some of the worst educators I have encountered have been the cleverest people. Some of my own university lecturers spring to my mind. But it does highlight the fact that to be a good educator requires more than being a subject matter expert. Those teachers who can use all the technology at their disposal to engage and stimulate their students will serve us best.
And where once upon a time the chief educational resource available to a child was the educated mind of its teacher, today the internet provides an almost limitless educational resource if used properly. Consequently the best teachers don’t see themselves as “the font of all knowledge” but as the facilitators of learning. This seems to suggest that modern day teachers need a different skill set to those traditionalists ensconced in the Prussian school model. But is it is hard to escape the fact that skilled teachers are essential for good educational outcomes.