Praying for Gonski 3.0

We were treated to Gonski 2.0 this week. You can read the full report here, though it does come with the following health warning: you may find your blood pressure raised considerably as you trawl one edu-cliche after another. At least it has the good grace to wait until page 2 before taking a pot-shot at the fallacy of the ‘industrial model of School education’, but this sets the tone for a paper that shows scant regard for evidence and logic, instead focusing on the hardly-new ideas of the two ‘R’s: Rousseau (personalised learning) and Robinson (teaching creativity, and other ‘general capabilities’).

Whereas no-one would argue the desire to develop individuals that are independent, creative and collaborative critical thinkers, this is not going to happen by attempting to teach these skills directly. We all want pupils to comprehend what they read, to critically evaluate material and to develop informed opinions on issues of national and international importance, but starting with the end-goal rarely works. The tape at the finish line is not broken until the race has been run, and we’re ignoring the race itself by focusing only on the tape. I’ll admit this analogy doesn’t work fully, because education does not have a finishing line – there is always more depth and breadth to every aspect of education. Education does have a start line, however, and we set the next generation up for failure if we ignore what happens after this start.

Just three years after the Australian National Curriculum was agreed and adopted by all States, the Gonski panel now provides a Review to Achieve Excellence in Australian Schools. More erudite individuals than I have offered their criticism of the report here and here so I don’t expect I am adding anything new, but I will take a swing at what I think is the most misguided of all the key themes appearing periodically throughout the 23 (!) recommendations.

I mentioned the Australian Curriculum in the previous paragraph, and I suppose in its current format it is a curriculum of sorts. It is light on content and academic rigour; it is repetitive; it offers little by way of logical academic progression. However, given that it leads into separate individual State-developed programmes of study in Years 11 and 12, it was always likely to pander to the lowest common denominator. For example, my own State’s flagship programme, the SACE, assumes limited prior knowledge for a variety of its subjects, such that an intelligent individual could take up a subject from scratch in Year 11 (or even Year 12), and reach apparent ‘mastery’ just 30-odd weeks later.

The Gonski report, despite mentioning the word curriculum, suggests its fragmentation to the point that, as reported by the ABC:

‘Teachers could then create individual learning plans for students that would not be tied to what year group they are in.’

This suggests that we are committing to personalised learning, differentiated instruction (taken to an extreme level) and effectively allowing pupils to learn what they like.

This is the very opposite of what a curriculum should be – that is, the essential knowledge and understanding we expect pupils to develop in a specific course. Presumably, we want all Australian Schoolchildren to be able to read, write and be numerate, but we also want them to know about the battle of Gallipoli (and in full context), about the colonial history of the country and the stolen generation, to name just two examples.

Curriculum *is* important and there must be a body of knowledge, a ‘tradition’, that we wish to pass on from generation to generation, even if these things are available (to some degree) on the internet. By knowing and understanding the substance of the subjects and the communal information we deem necessary to know, we are better able to understand ourselves, our nationality and our humanity. This knowledge is not just something we learn for exams, henceforth to be forgotten; it is something that exists within us, often in the background, to enable us to make wise decisions, to have compassion for others and to better understand ourselves. When, in Hamlet, the unstable Ophelia says ‘Lord, we know what we are, but not what we may be’, she hints at the uncertainty of the future (coincidentally a favourite topic amongst the edu-scaremongers). But the further we move into the future and the more knowledge and understanding we develop, we also know better who we are.

If we allow all pupils to follow individualised learning paths, we lose the joy of communal learning, unless it occurs by coincidence. We are less able to understand each other and each other’s point of view. There is a certain selfishness in learning only what interests you, rather than what might be good or useful. Expanding on this point, it fits within the context of that modern-day phenomenon, the veneration of the child. Many of us are terrified lest children should ever be bored, unhappy or academically challenged. By allowing for personalised learning, we promote selfishness, entitlement and ‘what I want’, rather than what is good for me. One of the Gonski recommendations is to… ensure all students have the opportunity within schools to be partners in their own learning. This is at best specious; how can students not be the dominant partner in their own learning, given that anything they learn can only ever be done by themselves?

The assumption of Gonski is that the reason for Australia’s relative decline since 2000 is at least in part due to the holding back of some of our most able pupils through a slavish devotion to an uninspiring curriculum. The curriculum is indeed uninspiring, but it need not be this way.  Genuine subject engagement comes from depth understanding within that subject, and achieving a degree of mastery. If teachers were liberated from the focus on ‘general capabilities’ and we instead left free to teach the central tenets of their subjects, better learning and more joy would ensue. All good teachers offer a natural differentiation within each class, extending the brightest children and ensuring those that struggle end up knowing at least what they need to know. The key is to set the minimum bar high (what needs to be learned by all) and then to soar over that bar where possible. Curriculum should be liberating, not constricting, but a fragmented curriculum is merely chaotic.

Back to the modern religion: the worship of children. One has only to look at the mushrooming of T20 cricket and the family-marketed Big Bash in particular (and now the ludicrous #100balls), the juggernaut of Superhero films or Disney kids’ movies and the willingness of parents to acts as slaves to their children to note the direction society is taking. Gonski is a essentially a reactive report, produced as an echo to a culture where too many adults are afraid to play the role of an adult (possibly due to a subconscious fear of being labelled as a promoter of adultism?

Maybe we need to re-visit the line from A Game of Chess, in T S Eliot’s The Waste Land: ‘what you get married for if you don’t want children?‘, as spoken by the garrulous cockney in the pub.

Here’s the modern-day version: what you have children for if you don’t want to educate them?