I have asked an Australian parent to write a guest post for my blog. She describes herself first and then her post follows:
I am a 50 year old stay-at-home mother of two daughters, aged 10 (Year 5) and 12 (Year 7). I live in the outer southern suburbs of Brisbane in an old Queenslander with my partner, my daughters, two mutts, one moggy, a fish and three, recently acquired, guinea pigs. I have a keen interest in history and studied a Masters of Public History through Monash University. I was hoping to one day work in the area of built heritage. Learning more about educational issues in Australia and overseas has become a strong interest of mine. As a person who aligns herself with the Left, politically, it is my hope that one day the Left will see the necessity in embracing a traditional education and a knowledge-based curriculum if they wish to address the issues of inequality.
I like history. It was one of my favourite subjects at school so I chose to study it at university too. I also think it’s an extremely important subject as it helps us make sense of our world and our place in it; it is our cultural heritage. My Year 7 daughter is studying Ancient Roman Civilization at school – well she’s supposed to be.
Yesterday I asked her what she had learnt that day (one of our usual afternoon conversations) and she responded with her usual “nothing much.”
“But what did you learn in history? What did you learn about the Romans?” I retorted.
A shrugging of shoulders and then: “…Well I’ve got some homework”.
Ah, good, I thought. “Right, what is it?”
“I have to write up a Roman menu” she responded.
Her friend added “Yeah, It’ll be fun”.
I’m not sure it is fun but it sure is easy. They are not required to learn anything of substance, anything that pertains to ancient Rome, any really relevant or important content or facts. Instead my daughter spent about 10 minutes Googling websites to find out what Romans liked to eat and designed a pretty menu on her laptop. Is it imperative that she knows what Romans liked to eat when she has no conception of Roman society, no knowledge of how it arose – what came before or what came after- , it’s characteristics or the legacy it left? But I guess that’s not the point. I guess the point is that she put into action some really important 21st century skills – she googled some sites and copied and pasted some words onto a blank page that she decorated using her art skills; Lucky she’s quite good at art!
Meanwhile, at another highly regarded state high school not far away a friend’s daughter did her history assessment for the term. She dressed up as a Tudor Queen (her parents went to the trouble of hiring her a costume) and she spent the evening behind a booth, decorated with some velvet and a few goblets that her parents had gathered together, talking to passing parents while in character. Her parents were pleased because she got an A. I wondered how much of the A was based on her acting ability and her parents’ willingness to pay for the costume and props, how much it was based on what she actually understood about Tudor times – of who the Tudors were, of the power of the monarch, of the connection between politics and religion, of Henry Vlll’s break with Rome, of Shakespeare, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More. Researching this particular queen may have given her a keyhole glimpse into history but that was all. And what of the student who has a sound grasp of all the above but lacks parents with the means to buy stage props? How does this student demonstrate his/her breadth of knowledge? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have students write an essay on the period or test their knowledge?
I’m not a teacher or an educator – just a parent. When my children first went to school (Prep) I actually believed the current philosophy. I believed that children would learn naturally, I thought learning through play sounded wonderful, I thought a classroom that wasn’t filled with pretty pictures and painted boxes was an indication that the teacher was boring and didn’t understand the students’ creative needs. But I was blind, blinded by the edu-bling. I never stopped to ask what the edu-jargon meant, I never wondered how much my kids where learning when they spent a major part of their time doing craft, painting or having group discussions rather than being taught by the teacher. I thought learning should be fun. As long as they were happy, right? It was only when my eldest started struggling in maths that I began to wonder and ask questions about how she was being taught and what she was being taught. After a while my questions were met with hostility and I was branded “one of those parents”.
The penny finally dropped when I was in my daughter’s Year3 parent/teacher interview and the teacher told me not to worry about her maths ability; – she’s very good at Literacy. She also tried to allay my fears (or distract me and so stop my questions) by taking me over to show me a box my daughter had painted for Geography. Supposedly this box, decorated with a painting of a bushfire, demonstrated my daughter’s ability to understand something – I’m still not sure what – about Geography. She gushed about it while I stood wondering what it was I was looking at. Again, I imagine the only reason she got her A is because of her art skills. Then I was worried because I realised that all her results on her report card were questionable. It was entirely possible that she was graded for bizarre things like computer skills, acting skills and art skills in subjects ranging from English to Science to History and that she actually didn’t have much knowledge at all. And I was right.
Rewind. I went to a VERY progressive primary school in Queensland, The Brisbane Independent School. It was the late 1960’s when my grandparents donated a sizable piece of land so the school could be set up. My parents, both leftist radicals, along with other like-minded parents and teachers, decided that they didn’t want their children treated like sheep, herded into classrooms and told what to do by scary teachers wielding sticks. Their ideas were obviously a backlash against the harshness of the primary schools of the era. So I spent my primary years frolicking around hills, doing lots of craft and writing the odd story or poem if I felt like it. I did learn to read, knit, cook damper bread and feed chickens but when I left seven years later I couldn’t spell or punctuate, do arithmetic, recite my times tables, I knew no Geography ( I wouldn’t have been able to locate any country on a map, bar Australia) and my historical knowledge was non-existent too. In addition, I hadn’t learnt to be resilient or about perseverance, as I gaily flitted from one thing to another with little supervision.
When I got to high school I was in for a shock. I had so much catching up to do that I took the easy option (not surprising since I hadn’t learnt to work hard at anything) and opted to be the class clown and “chuck” academic work. I feel sad now when I think of that child, full of promise, who really was eager to learn and be clever. By some miracle I scraped through and got a mark high enough for entry to University, but my poor education, my lack of strong foundations, has plagued me all my life, destroyed my confidence and closed many doors.
Somehow the ideas that blossomed in the 1970’s, that typified my primary years, became more mainstream and flowed into state-run schools. They became the norm, the unquestionable orthodoxy. I guess it’s little wonder that with its good intentions and seductive rhetoric, progressive education hoodwinked many smart people, including my parents, grandparents and college professors and the like.
I am so worried for kids in our schools. I worry that most of them will end up like me without foundations, without background knowledge. Teachers’ are now facilitators: they don’t teach, they guide. The responsibility of teaching has been handed over to computers, talking heads on white boards, movies (instead of books) and parents. In my experience there appears to be little systematic, sequential or chronological teaching of subject matter. Instead, there is a glad-bag, a chaotic assortment that teachers dip into and which prevents any connections being made. There is little time spent committing knowledge and skills to long term memory. Literature is of dubious quality with popular books such as The Vampire Dairies becoming set texts in English. My year 5 daughter is studying Dr Zeus’s The Lorax this term. Parents are sending their kids to tutoring centres just to learn basic arithmetic. Just this week a friend, who is a single mum, struggling with part-time work, started her daughter at Kumon. She can ill-afford the time or the money yet she is determined her year five daughter will, at the very least, learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide by the end of primary school. That’s how much she cares.
Most worryingly of all, skills have been elevated above knowledge. As a result our children are ignorant and their cultural experience is impoverished. How can our children become critical thinkers when they don’t know anything?
Personally, I’m sending my kids to school to become knowledgeable and informed citizens. I’m not interested in the very narrow agenda set by “skills-based” schooling, or social engineering – preaching instead of teaching. For me education is not necessarily about jobs; its purpose is not so utilitarian – Rather I want them to be exposed and absorb the very best that has been thought and said by the most brilliant minds. Quite simply, I want them to be educated.