I subscribe to an electronic newsletter known as The Educator Australia. It’s pretty good for news stories and the release of new government policy papers or think-tank reports. However, one popular type of article is less welcome in my inbox. These are the breathless puff pieces heralding the coming revolution in education.
On the 20th March, we read about a school’s new ‘future-focused’ learning centre, complete with an ‘imaginarium’ and a ‘learning pit’ (which oddly sounds like it could be part of a particularly draconian discipline policy). According to the principal, “This new facility is supporting the way we’re changing our approach to learning which is enquiry-based rather than content-based teaching.”
On the 26th March, we read of a principal claiming that the industrial model for education is over and, “School leaders are in a challenging situation as they deal with the final breathes of the HSC [the public exam system in New South Wales]. The HSC has been focused on content until recent changes that provide opportunities for students to engage in an inquiry-based pedagogy.”
On the 27th March, we learnt about a new school in India designed by architects from New York (in this particular universe, architects are considered to be education experts). In the new school, students won’t be drilled in maths and science problems. According to the architect, “The focus will not just be cramming kids’ heads with information, regurgitating it out to us and having no sense of why it matters… It’s about flipping the priorities of traditional pedagogy.” Because traditionally, of course, nobody has ever been concerned with why ‘information’ (for which I read ‘knowledge’) matters.
And yesterday, we were informed of a conference in New South Wales aimed at promoting ‘deeper learning’ and the ideas of 1920s education theorist, Kurt Hahn, who believed that students are corrupted by society as they grow up. Apparently, “the keynotes will expand the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of the changes that schools face as they move from a model of servicing student content consumption to enabling learners to be effective contributors and producers of content for the real world.” This involves project-based learning or something.
These stories all represent the same set of derivative ideas. Each time, they are presented as new and revolutionary (even if yesterday’s reference to Kurt Hahn is revealing), as if they have not been tried many times before. In each piece, vague notions of the future are invoked. And in each piece, the learning of knowledge is dismissed and approaches such as inquiry learning are promoted.
When I write about the lack of evidence for inquiry learning, I am often accused of setting-up a false choice or arguing against a straw man. Nobody is opposed to knowledge, it is claimed, it is just that there is a time and place for inquiry activities. Yeah, right.
You are lucky. You read education blogs and so you are probably aware of the criticisms. You are inoculated against this stuff.
However, out there, these ideas form an avalanche, gathering momentum as they slide from the moneyed peaks of architects firms, conference businesses and IT companies, through media outlets and PR firms toward a school near you, burying some fine teachers in the process.