Disclaimer: This article is the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect that of all Teachers' Christian Fellowship members.
When driving, it is disconcerting to come to a sign that says GO BACK! YOU ARE GOING THE WRONG WAY. For over twenty years, NSW has led the charge to test literacy and numeracy, schools have focussed on literacy and numeracy, with many skilling their students in the test format, and the NSW government has poured additional resources into schools for literacy and numeracy. Other state and the Australian governments have followed, and one result is the current NAPLAN arrangements. Originally planned to give diagnostic information to schools and individual students, these testing goals were quickly sublimated in the political and bureaucratic spheres by the need to know whether the students today are doing any better than in the past. The development of item response theory and regression analysis and its associated scales have seen the continual monitoring of students’ performances in total, by state, by school, by location and by student backgrounds. And what does all this monitoring show? Good grief! There is at best no change and internationally ranked we are going backwards. All that testing, all that teaching focus and all those resources – what has gone wrong?
The following list, including media reports, illustrates that, as Australia attempts to find solutions to declining standards and lower international rankings, there is an array of interest groups that want their agenda implemented. But any solution is unlikely to lie in any one factor
In overview, parents, educational bureaucrats and politicians want learning to improve. Politicians are ultimately accountable to the people who elect them and want to stay in power at all costs. But plans to bring about change are complicated by the different levels of government; the responsibility of individual states for education; the competition for funding between private and government sectors; disagreement and ideological intransigence between educational “experts” as to what might be best; a resistance by teacher unions to suggestions that teachers might in any way be responsible; the independence of universities over teacher training and their need for funds; an inability of decision makers to commit to long term solutions as opposed to wanting band aids and quick fixes; a community that sees teachers as responsible for their children’s learning with little parental input and that lacks empathy for equity that might involve reallocating resources from the privileged and high performing schools; and a persistent belief amongst many teachers that students from low socioeconomic areas can’t learn as well as other students. The problem being faced on educational standards is multifaceted.
In the midst of this disarray, Christians have a role to play and a philosophy of education that can help Australia work through this mess. They don’t provide solutions, but approaches to aspects of the problem and might contribute to a positive change.
In This year’s kindergarten students will face a different world when they graduate (SMH 28 January 2018) Michael Anderson, Professor of Education University of Sydney, argues that Our kids will need to build cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal dispositions to help them to not only survive but thrive in their personal, community and work lives. Twenty-first century capacities such as creativity, collaboration, critical reflection and communication are knowable and teachable. He envisages a different classroom where students need to verify, interpret, adapt, apply, synthesise and create knowledge. To achieve the change in classroom practice that is outlined, there will need to be a complete reversal of education direction. The issues discussed above and listed below have to be addressed otherwise such changes will not be system-wide, but only in the few schools that have exposure to such programs.
This year’s kindergarten students will face a different world when they graduate
Our kids will need to build cognitive, interpersonal and intrapersonal dispositions to help them to not only survive but thrive in their personal, community and work lives. Twenty-first century capacities such as creativity, collaboration, critical reflection and communication are knowable and teachable
students need to verify, interpret, adapt, apply, synthesise and create knowledge
Schools operate in a complex social, political, educational, industrial and cultural context. Embedding change is always accompanied by seeming insurmountable challenges. In the past, change has relied on inclusion and consultation. All the stakeholders, being involved in decision making and their constituents being consulted, hasn’t worked. A different approach is needed.
There are no quick fixes, but that should not deter consideration of a multifaceted approach to a multifaceted problem that is a product of deep seeded issues within Australian schooling and society. These issues need to be addressed and include (neither in any order nor exhaustive):
Overwhelmed, how can these issues be addressed? With political and bipartisan agreement between the Australian and state governments, a small 5-8 person education expert group could be set up to tackle all these matters at the one time and to provide a blue-print for school education reform in Australia. This would not be a representative group but an expert group that would be appointed from nominations involving all the educational stakeholders in a selection process. However, the group will be charged with inclusive consultation with all stakeholders along the journey.
Setting up a huge representative structure or taskforce would lead to all the vested interests being represented and the protection of their own patches. Something different, with all the stakeholders having a say about who will be in the group, but keeping the group small is desirable. This group could define the parameters of their work, seek submissions within those parameters and consult widely. Their report should be a blue print for change and contain a set of specific education goals for schooling in Australia with recommendations about the changes needed for them to be achieved and who would be responsible for their implementation.
Patchwork incremental change has not helped Australian schools maintain standards and maintain international rankings. A different approach is needed that will engage all the stakeholders but cut through the ideological, structural and bureaucratic barriers that have stifled change and supported vested interests. Our students deserve no less than a school education transformation. Christians are not frightened by change. They are grounded on Jesus Christ being the same yesterday, today and forever. They are open to what God is doing in his world, to knowing more about him, to participating in change and being confident in moulding the outcomes.
Without a big picture - transformational blueprint - Australian schooling will continue to bumble along with good teachers getting good results to prop up the national standing, while everyone else says “too hard” and nothing changes. It may seem like “mission impossible”, but in all the episodes I have seen, the impossible becomes possible. Surely this is one mission worth accepting.