Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Education is Gonski

I often consider, and lament, the fact that I'm not overly intelligent. In fact I'd almost go as far as saying I'm unintelligent. I don't know much about geography, I don't know much about human history or the Arts and I am far from Einstein when it comes to mathematics.

When my 16 year old sister hands me her maths textbook and asks me to help her figure out some algebraic problem, I usually make an excuse to leave the room, perform a quick and hidden Google search and come back as the wise older bro. "Come on, that's easy. What you subtract from one side of the equation, you must add to the other side".

By the way, I didn't Google that one. It's one of the rare things I remember about algebra, and no thanks to my private school education but my Dad who drummed it into me at home.

Seriously, it's year 11 math! Why don't I remember it? I certainly passed it when I was in year 11 but I reckon I forgot it a week later.

What about year 10 American history? I can't even remember the names of the main Indian tribes that were constantly fighting each other for land and money.

How about English and Literature? I don't think I actually finished reading any of the novels I had to do an exam on.

However, ask me just about anything about the majority of popular sports and I'll chew your ear off for a week. The ironic thing is, I didn't learn sport history at school.

I went through what is considered an upper class private school. My parents forked out 12 grand a year back in the late '90s and early 2000s in order to give me one of the best educations you could get in this state.

I passed everything but the problem is, I feel like I left uneducated. Google and Wikipedia are my best friends when I hear names like Plato or Aristotle. Or when I hear about the Battle of Hastings. When my brother in law talks philosophy to me and explains situations where you can apply the Genetic Fallacy, I'm like a fish out of water.

I don't know about everyone else, but the older I get, the more I question why we exist. What is our purpose? Who are we? Where have we come from? Who are our forefathers? What did they achieve? 

I regret not learning at school the history of humanity. Rather than studying random periods in history for ten weeks at a time, I believe it would have been more beneficial to be taught how humanity flourished and floundered through the ancient times, how it evolved through to the medieval times and the renaissance period and gradually on to modern times. I would have then had a greater understanding of how humans acted back in those days and what we have, or should have, learnt from prior generations. 

It would have been good to understand, on a basic level, Einstein's theory of relativity, how Edison invented the light bulb or what Plato and Aristotle agreed and disagreed on in terms of basic philosophy.

I never learnt how to structure arguments or how to think and reason with logic. Basically, I don't feel like I received a rounded education.

These days we have teachers who are too scared to mark a test 4 out of 10 because it might hurt the student's self esteem. Don't worry about how their self esteem will be when they are adults and can't perform simple tasks because they never learnt the lesson as youngsters.

Johanna O'Farrell is an English and history teacher at a renowned private school in Melbourne. She recently wrote an article in The Age regarding the problems she sees with education standards. Specifically regarding teachers not actually marking students based on their learning:

"Student teachers in primary schools have been told they can't correct a child's spelling, but instead must identify and congratulate the student on all the letters they got right."
So if they got 2 out of 10 right, they're made to feel like superstars. It's a lax attitude to teaching and hinders rather than helps the student in the long run.

My sister is currently in year 7. She told me the other day that her teacher handed out a cheat sheet with basic times tables on it so her fellow classmates could get through their maths test. I remember my whole grade 2 class lining up in two lines while the teacher yelled out random times tables to the two in the front of their respective lines to see who could answer the quickest. You felt like a dill if you constantly got the answer out slower than your opponent. Hardly anyone struggled to actually provide the answer.

In this generation we have teachers who let their students choose their own lessons. Albion North Maths Specialist teacher Michael Nicolaides allows his students to choose their own curriculum. As he says:

"I believe that it should come from the students, let them have a say. What are they struggling with?"
I'd suggest they are struggling to learn anything if you're not teaching them the basics.

"Hi Sir, I'm struggling with my times tables in year 7."

"No worries. Here's a cheat sheet. Anything else you're struggling with?"

Johanna O'Farrell addresses this point also:
"Instead of mastering the basics of maths and English, and learning other core disciplines such as geography, history, science and languages other than English, primary-aged children are embarking on ''inquiry learning days'' where they spend one day a week researching a topic of their choice; anything from skateboarding to South Park."
The Government's apparent solution to fixing the education problem is to blindly throw more money at it. However, this doesn't seem to be providing any solutions. The Education at a Glance Report from June last year provided some alarming statistics.
"Despite enjoying a growth in public spending [in Australia] of more than four times the OECD average, test results across most rankings have fallen..."
"The Education at a Glance report said spending on schools in Australia increased by 24 per cent between 2008 and 2010 - more than four times the average increase of five per cent."
Meanwhile our teachers are among the highest paid in the world. 
"Teachers' salaries are above the OECD average and have risen steadily, some 13 per cent since 2000 at all education levels."
So our kids are declining in terms of their learning standards compared to those overseas and our teachers are getting paid more than overseas teachers.

We are breeding a generation of intellectual zombies. Unfortunately, in my opinion, the education system here is Gonski.

It's back to Google for me.

All the best,
Dom Meese.

* Photo courtesy of The Express Tribune with the International New York Times


  1. While Jo made some relevant points, I think it's always a danger to oversimplify and generalise about school's 'these days'.
    Inquiry based learning definitely has its place, but very few teachers would say that it should be the order of the day all the time, in the class room.
    In fact, the only reason I took such an interest in Medievel History is because my high school teacher encouraged me to look and see if my family name was recorded in the Doomsday book.
    Inquiry based learning is nothing new, in fact Aquinas based his method of philosophical inquiry on it.
    He knew that as human beings, we learn best by taking outside realities, our own experiences and internalising them, and through that, we are able to go into the deeper mysteries of life.
    This is opposed to 'receiving' knowledge through the 'drip down' approach, considering the teacher as the font of all knowledge, and the student as an empty vessel. You don't have to use your imagination to see how horribly wrong this approach can go.
    In my experience of 25 years in formal education, the best teachers are ones who understand their students, the way they learn best, and then hook them in by what interests them in order to go beyond.


    1. Hi AMW. Thanks for your comment.

      I have to respectfully disagree with your point on 'these days'. It seems logical to me to draw a line between the emergence of "inquiry based learning" and the drop in education levels in this generation. It seems to me that we are intent on dumbing down the nation and giving all kids a gold star and not telling them where they are going wrong. There is now a push to get rid of the standard A to E grading system. It's akin to the Olympics without medals.


      While it was great of your teacher to encourage you to seek out medieval history yourself, wouldn't it be better if this was part of the curriculum for all students? Surely it could be taught to some extent during the 13 years students attend school. If this was the case in your school days, you would have come across the subject anyway, and a larger number of students would have received more knowledge in history.

      Re the Aquinas approach, surely this is something we all do throughout our life - outside of our education? I have learnt more about life issues sine leaving school by asking questions and researching myself as well as through general life experience. How does the Aquinas approach work in the case of a student who has a strong interest in one or two areas and chooses not to learn any other core subjects?

      Completely agree with your last point re teachers hooking students up with more to go beyond the standard. Shouldn't the mark of a good teacher be one who demonstrates this on top of teaching them the core subjects?

  2. That's a great article Dom. The education system is really letting kids down. People seem to think that the problem is "resources", but this couldn't be further from the truth. Better education lies in a more robust curriculum and better teachers.

    Have a read of some of Kevin Donnelly's pieces. He's got some great figures on the topic, especially in relation to classroom management, and comparisons to overseas schools which fare much better than ours.

    Keep up the good work,

    1. Hi Laura

      Thanks for your comment.

      Agree, I don't think it's as much a problem of resources than the approach to curriculum and ways of learning. If we implemented a rounded curriculum that teaches the basics in major periods of history, the basics of mathematics, science, geography etc, we could also train teachers to be proficient in this rounded curriculum and everyone would fare better.

  3. That's exactly my point Dom, apologies if it wasn't clear.
    The inquiry based approach is not instead of the core curriculum, and very few teachers would say it was. We so often only get one side of the story.
    From the example I gave, the whole class was indeed presented with the same period of history, but my teacher taught it in a way which wasn't didactic.
    I would say that part of the reason for the drop in standards and outcomes is that the core curriculum isn't as strong as it was, and teachers are having to rely on methods of teaching which aren't effective, not having the time to really get to know their students to work out which way they learn best.
    We have also started to view education in a purely vocational light, which presents a whole other myriad of problems. Perhaps it's because university is now no longer free, and students don't have the ability to pursue higher education to learn for life. It's now seen as a luxury, not a necessity.
    Sir Ken Robinson has some really interesting ideas about how we've turned education into a 'conveyor belt' process.


  4. Hi AMW, apologies I misunderstood your first comment. Can't fault your second comment.

    As discussed with Laura, I agree, the standard curriculum needs to be addressed and the ways we teach it.

    As it stands, I don't feel like I learnt a heap and I certainly worry about putting my son through it. I think the general attitude of "memorize content for an exam, pass school, pass uni, get a good job and make as much money as possible" also needs to change. Students need to adopt a stronger will to learn for knowledge sake. Not sure how you encourage this though

  5. I look forward to a positive piece from you Dom. There are already enough negative critics in this desperate world. We are so blessed to have an accessible education system in this country.

  6. Thanks for the comment. I think I have written some positive pieces. I've commented on the importance of women in society and how men should treat them with dignity and respect. I've praised parents for the tough job of bringing up kids. I've commented on the effects of porn in the hope of helping others who battle with it.

    The sad fact is, there are some pretty messed up things in our world, and having an opinion on them is not always going to come across as warm and fuzzy.

    Can I ask you what you mean by "desperate world"?.

    I have to respectfully disagree with your last comment. I think we are blessed to have an accessible system. Not sure how much educating is actually happening.

    Each to their own though. I appreciate your view. Keep them coming as discussing these things is important to everyone.