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Education revolution anyone?

By Glynne Sutcliffe - posted Friday, 8 February 2008

The fixes are many - smaller class sizes and more money being the most notoriously useless. Better school buildings, and better equipped libraries (maybe with gyms and piped music …) are also niceties that promise an edge to something already going well. But if it’s not going well?

So what might be more helpful? Highly trained teachers look like a good idea. And teachers who care most about content mastery are likely to be considerably better than teachers who have been required to prioritise generalist classroom management skills. Teaching “methods” should be the cream on the cake, but one gets sick on an exclusive diet of cream without cake.

Kevin Rudd seems to think that a computer on every child’s lap will fix a lot. Certainly the children, and probably their parents, will be happy about getting a free computer. So, no doubt, it will get support. Will it help all children become high achievers? Probably not. (Mark Latham’s unfortunate fixation on buying three books for every baby was possibly more promising, if given a tweak here and there.)


On the “early learning” front, Kevin Rudd has done his homework better than Latham ever did. His 15 hours of pre-school per week for every four-year-old is a significant structural change. It could improve school prospects for the following generations of children. Its greatest weakness, however, is that it depends on the current system to generate space, staff and curriculum. It will take years to be institutionalised, and the process of institutionalisation will automatically take the teeth out of it anyway. (We have already had Allen Luke from Queensland in January this year going in to bat for “whole language”, thus proving there is some truth in what everyone says about “ed schools” (i.e. university faculties of education) being bastions of eduthink and the source of most educational problems around the country.)

So - how about stopping the search for a fix, and doing a little meditation on the topic of a good society and what it takes to create one.

Those who have identified John Dewey’s legacy of “progressivism” (“child-centred” or “constructivist” approaches to education) as the root source of educational malaise are on the way to facing up to the real problem.

What we are looking for is Blake’s worm in the heart of the rose. There is no doubt but that progressivist eduspeak sounds beautiful, smells beautiful, and looks good on the table. The children are “enjoying” school, and “having fun” and sometimes actually learning a few things. They are “owning” the topics they are “working on”, they are “taking responsibility” for understanding the various bits of the universe of created and uncreated things they are contemplating. They are not in crowded classrooms chanting the times table in front of a teacher who wields a ruler and barks at them.

Sometimes of course, and some people think all too often, the children are lost, don’t know what they are supposed to be doing, get non-committal answers to questions they ask the teacher, and do their “assignments” in a state of profound alienation. What should be an excited and exciting exploration of a new topic area all too often becomes a chore, a task set to be completed by a given date. Those who are more capable of grasping what needs to be done (the “upper” end of the ability curve) might not look lost, but frequently are just as alienated - feeling like monkeys trained to perform tricks. They hand in work, get good marks, and forget the subject matter of an assignment, reckoning it was good if they learned through it how to better use the web as a research tool, or found a better way to build a bibliography.

My father once tossed off the thought that if the pupil hasn’t learnt, then the teacher hasn’t taught. But under progressivist pedagogies teachers aren’t supposed to teach - they are specifically told that they should abandon completely the role of “sage on a stage”, and instead be a “guide on the side” - the much over-hyped “facilitator”.


Ten years ago, on a European holiday, I made a point of visiting Vienna, so that I could go and see the house of Sigmund Freud. One of his journals was left open on a table for the visitors (pilgrims) to read. So I read. And lo! The topic of the paragraph in the middle of the page was what he remembered from his schooling. Well! It turned out that all he remembered with any clarity were his teachers. And he didn’t remember what they taught him only their personalities!

If Freud’s account is a clue to the socio-psychological dynamics of classrooms, then what on earth are we trying to do by telling teachers to be facilitators, utterly nondescript nothings with whom the children have no personal connection - while they concentrate their attention on the “task in hand”, that is to say, whatever the current topic they have selected or been assigned for study.

In India, the aspiring student (in any religious arena at least) is told, first choose your guru. Without a guru you can go nowhere and learn nothing of value.

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About the Author

Glynne Sutcliffe MA (Chicago) BA (Hons Hist) Dip Ed (Melb) is a Director of the Early Reading Play School in South Australia.

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