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Education Revolution - radical change or chucking a 360?

By John Ridd - posted Friday, 21 December 2007

Mr Rudd is fond of talking about his Education Revolution. But what does he mean by that fine phrase? In normal usage a revolution implies a radical change. Whenever we think of the American, French or Russian Revolutions, we are thinking about incidents that fundamentally changed nations in a radical way. A different sort of radical revolution was the Industrial Revolution which first changed a nation - Britain - and then the world as a whole.

In all of those cases there were losers, individuals or groups that lost in some way as a consequence of the revolution. Some literally lost their heads, or were killed in some other fashion; many more lost their power and others their property. Even the Industrial Revolution which was relatively non violent caused serious losses for skilled cottage industries such as spinners and weavers. They suffered terrible privation, dislocation and starvation.

An alternative sort of revolution is the mathematical one, i.e. 360 degrees. Youths who wish to show off “chuck a 360”. That consists of spinning the car in a tight circle, the consequences of which are to leave the car pointing in the same direction as it started, making black marks on the road and damaging the tyres. Lots of noise and hype, but no change of direction.


So which sort of revolution does Mr Rudd intend? Will he enforce radical and drastic change to improve the lamentable condition of education (especially in STEM - science, technology, engineering and maths), or are we just going to run round in a circle (or several circles) and land up where we are now only breathless?

I am sure that Mr Rudd intends a real revolution, a radical change to improve the situation. In that case he and Ms Gillard must first determine what the root problems are. That the situation is poor in STEM cannot really be denied.

The most recent of the long standing TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) showed, for example, that in Maths, Australian children in Year 8 got a score of 505 points. Yes, that was above the international average of 467, but is well behind Singapore with 605. Singapore was as far ahead of Australia as Australia was ahead of Tunisia, Egypt and the Palestine National Authority. Sadly it gets worse. A pitiful 7 per cent of Australian children were categorised as “advanced” as compared to 43 per cent in Singapore.

Clearly we are letting down our more gifted children in a big way. Bearing in mind that those are the students who will go on to study STEM subjects in Years 11, 12 and at university, is it any wonder that so few are doing those subjects?

Nearly three years ago, in another On Line Opinion article “Wadderloader; Maths and Science teaching in Australia” I described the Education Establishment, alias the four horsemen of the educational apocalypse, as comprising the:

  • university education faculties who produce all of the peculiar ideas that pervade education and - supposedly - train teachers;
  • the various State Boards of Study who produce all subject syllabi and associated assessment systems;
  • State education departments; and
  • teacher unions, where they oppose verifiable assessments of student outcomes.

Of these the Boards of Study are by far the most important because they are the action arm, the militant wing of the Education Establishment. They produce the syllabi and assessment systems for all subjects for all grades in every school, both public and private.

Both the Prime Minister and the Treasurer are Queenslanders and were educated in Queensland in the public school system - in the days when Queensland provided a rigorous education for the students. Alas, no more. I hope that they will take particular notice of the condition of education in their home state now. It is woeful. Syllabi are of a low standard - insofar as it is possible to understand them, so inevitably there is a huge gap in STEM subjects between Years 10 and 11.

Assessment systems that have any validity are non existent to the end of Year 10. In Years 11 and 12 assessment systems are non-numerate and the “methods” used to assign final subject results totally unclear. Consequently it is a simple statement of fact that no student knows what a piece of assessment is worth and has no idea of the system used to reach the final subject result. Virtually all assessments are by way of “assignments”. Furthermore in many subjects in Years 11 and 12 there is no teaching in the formal sense at all, all they get is one assignment after the other.

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About the Author

John Ridd taught and lectured in maths and physics in UK, Nigeria and Queensland. He co-authored a series of maths textbooks and after retirement worked for and was awarded a PhD, the topic being 'participation in rigorous maths and science.'

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