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The education of Christopher Pyne

By Des Griffin - posted Thursday, 14 November 2013

Effective learning is student-centred. Mr Pyne favours replacing student-centred learning with a 'more didactic approach' to teaching and said so on ABC TV's Q&A . This flies in the face of the research of the last 20 or more years including some of the most important studies of what actually goes on in classrooms and what we know about cognitive development. It ignores the evidence from studies by Stanford's Jonathan Osborne together with Deakin University's Russell Tytler and by University of Pittsburgh's Lauren Resnick about genuine engagement of students in discussion: argumentation and 'accountable talk'.

That teaching has been didactic and devoid of any human narrative is a significant reason why history and science teaching so often fails. It ignores the importance of meaningful engagement and feedback, as opposed to indiscriminate praise, by teachers to student as revealed by Melbourne University's John Hattie and Helen Timperley of Auckland University and by research in England. And it ignores the importance of intrinsic motivation revealed by University of Sydney's Andrew Martin.

A challenging and engaging curriculum. Minister Pyne, like Prime Minister Howard, criticises history curricula for promoting 'left-leaning' views which ignore the events and people he thinks are important. In these and other areas traditional teaching amounts to little more than facts: it is Dickens' Mr Gradgrind!


History and science and every area of knowledge are evolving all the time, new themes and new views emerge, older theories are overturned. If curricula are to be alive and engaging then these new understandings must be incorporated. In areas considered difficult special efforts must be made: distinguished mathematics educator Celia Hoyles from the UK, speaking at a conference on curricula two years ago, recommended an extra specialist math teacher in every school. Australians don't do all that well in mathematics as shown by the latest OECD study of adult literacy and numeracy: Hoyle's comments went unreported! And unnoticed!

The traditional approach to education promoted by Minister Pyne is a significant reason why children emerge from school not really knowing much about any subject except what they have developed an interest in by their own inquiries. Many students can repeat learned facts but cannot engage in analysis of the issues involved in those domains of knowledge. Qualities like analytical ability and cooperation are most important: they are considered to be essential by many employers outside the fast food and similar industries.

Far more attention is needed to a range of issues including economic disadvantage, the nature of learning, the responsibility of business and the role of government. It is absolutely not a matter of firing bad teachers, merit pay for better teachers or testing students for their literacy and numeracy. The absolute failure of reforms in the US and the UK over the last 20 years has lessons for us. But Australian governments seem intent on unquestionably following those reforms and simplistic notions about productivity, motivation and behaviour derived from neoclassical economics.

The overall approach of the Coalition's education policies completely ignores the critical importance of early childhood, relationships of the very young child with the mother and the vital importance of the education of girls and support for mothers. The latest Human Development Report, for 2013, from the United Nations points out that a mother's education level is more important to child survival than is household income.

The single greatest contribution to improving educational achievement would be support for early childhood including preschool and interventions such as equitable access to parental leave. Support within the home before the child enters school contributes about 50% of the child's eventual educational achievement. That is where advantage is addressed. Advantage also comes from out of school or informal education, visits to museums, zoos, botanic gardens and libraries. The gains are particularly strong for children from disadvantaged backgrounds: provision of qualified preschool teachers is essential. It is not child-minding. Economic gains are many multiples of the initial outlay.

By next year, according to the 2008 National Partnership Agreement on Early Childhood Education established by COAG, every child should have access set a target of all children in the year before they attend formal schooling should have access to pre-school delivered by a university qualified early childhood teacher for 15 hours a week, 40 weeks a year. Funding of almost a billion dollars has been committed. Support for this agreement is essential.


Education does not, by itself, diminish poverty! To pretend it does is to ignore the evidence. It is not an individual matter only. The resort to preconceived ideology has to be put aside.

But there is something else about all this testing, didactic, independent school view: it's boring. Actor and comedian Tim Minchin is much more interesting. He spoke with passion at the University of Western Australia, "life is best filled by learning as much as you can about as much as you can, taking pride in whatever you're doing, having compassion, sharing ideas, running(!), being enthusiastic".

Much of education reform is just the unwinding of intelligence and creativity!

Mr Pyne could learn a great deal just by listening to ABC RN programs.

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About the Author

Des Griffin AM served as Director of the Australian Museum, Sydney from 1976 until 1998 and presently is Gerard Krefft Memorial Fellow, an honorary position at the Australian Museum, Sydney.

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