Rupert Murdoch has used his fourth Boyer Lecture to slam Australian schooling. No punches pulled here. “Our public education systems are a disgrace” was almost his opening sentence. And the reason is clear: “despite spending more and more money, our children seem to be learning less and less.”
A residual affection for the land of his birth is probably the main driving force of his critique. His country is going down the gurgler. It is a realistic assessment of the situation we are in. India and China, especially, are poised to wipe us out. Finland irks. Singapore and Korea also graduate students who both know more and think better than Aussie grads. Intellectual sophistication in Australia is an increasingly rare and obviously endangered phenomenon. Football commands the Aussie imagination. Those who study think of learning as work, from which escape must be regularly programmed in order to maintain sanity.
Explanations for poor results abound. The teaching staff of our schools manifest a huge compassion for instance, for the children who have a low SES (Socio-Economic Status) rating, and stress that these children don’t/can’t learn because they don’t have space at home to do their homework. Murdoch is properly scathing about this and about all the other various excuses offered to explain why so many children are learning so little: “a whole industry of pedagogues (is) devoted to explaining why some schools and some students are failing. Some say classrooms are too large. Others complain that not enough public funding is devoted to this or that program. Still others will tell you that the students who come from certain backgrounds just can’t learn.”
While George Bush may be reasonably classified as a major disaster, someone seems to have provided him with a memorable, useful and highly pertinent assessment. (The US Department of Education has been a good deal more useful to humanity than its Department Of Defence). His words were resonant. He said we should overthrow “the tyranny of low expectations”. (I have written more extensively on this dereliction of professional duty in a paper that can be read here.)
Murdoch is of the same view, that all our students need us to have high expectations of them, and “the real answer is to start pursuing success”.
Having observed that “70 million people are joining the new global middle class each year”, and that “these people are talented, they are confident, and they are increasingly well-educated” Murdoch notes that “When I travel to places like India and China, I do not hear people making lame excuses for mediocre schools. Instead of suggesting that their students cannot learn, they set high standards and expect they will be met.”
What Murdoch doesn’t say, because his lecture shows some concern for being diplomatic and not getting too many folk offside, is that all the excuses are marvellously useful for teachers who are not scholars, who are not passionately in love with their subjects, and really do not want (or do not know how) to spend their time trying to strike a spark of intellectual fire in their classes. Instead of hectoring a teaching staff that cannot really respond to the demands we would like to make of them, why not insist that all high school teachers, for instance, be recruited exclusively from among those who have obtained a university degree.
This situation we are dealing with is a direct consequence of 50 years of training teachers in pedagogic method, and downplaying the importance of subject knowledge. From 1958 in Victoria student teachers destined for high school placement went directly to the then newly established Secondary Teachers’ College, instead of as previously, getting a University degree and then a teaching qualification (the one year post-graduate Diploma of Education)
A corollary of this dropped connection with university taught subject matter was the acceptability of a lower Year 12 (Matriculation) score as an entry ticket. If you only needed to know how to “encourage” students to learn (by themselves, or in the soon-to-be-ubiquitous group), then you didn’t need to know your subject. In a sense anybody at all could learn to be a teacher of any subject at all.
[I found this situation personally quite galling when, as a History Honours graduate, with a second postgrad degree from an Ivy League US campus, I did a stint in an Adelaide High School teaching English, while History was being taught by the Phys Ed teacher! My consolation was to be told that English was “more important”!]
The old furphy of class sizes is often introduced by teachers and teacher unions trying to explain poor assessment outcomes while extracting more money from government for more salaried positions.
A teacher who cares and is knowledgeable about their subject could inspire a lecture theatre full of students packed to the rafters. To such a teacher a class of 30 is very little different from a class of 20. It is true there are a few minor downsides from larger classes - marking written work can become a burden, and so-called “individual attention” might have to be curtailed. But the doctrine gained currency that a teacher should be a guide on the side, not a sage on the stage. This was the “teacher as facilitator” model for the professional. We are being severely punished for insisting that teachers regard themselves as facilitators.
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