It’s tempting to feel sorry for David Gonski. When he dropped his panel’s platitudinous, light on detail and, in parts, just plain wrong report on a waiting public last Monday, he must have expected the usual slaps on the back. The worst he might have predicted would have been apathy, as the report struggled for column inches against the latest Trump antics or leaked titbits from the impending budget. Nevertheless, he would have been sure that the education community would line up behind him and quietly set to work turning his vague recommendations into policy detail and bureaucracy.
He must have expected such a response because it is the way of these things. Think of the knowledge-lite 2008 National Curriculum in England. Think of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence. Think of the impending Donaldson Disaster in Wales. Think of every one of those conferences where speakers rise to criticise the industrial model of schooling and transmission teaching before predicting an uncertain future full of jobs that don’t exist yet that, in order to prepare for, we need to do more projects or meditation or something. And think of all the delegates nodding sagely, half aware in the manner of listening to the words of a well-known song, asking each other what time lunch is scheduled and rating the quality of the goodie bag.
But something has changed.
By Wednesday, David Gonski felt the need to write an editorial for the Fairfax newspapers, defending his half-plans. Some journalists understood what was going on whereas others were baffled, trying to look at it through the old left-right lens. The ground had shifted.
People who know things started to comment. It’s strange, they noted, to suggest that personalised learning is the key to improving scores on international tests when it is missing from those countries that already do well. Where’s the evidence? It’s strange, they noted, to claim that we need a greater focus on general capabilities such as critical and creative thinking when cognitive science suggests these are not really general capabilities. Where’s the evidence? And it’s a funny thing, they noted, to place such an emphasis on growth mindset interventions just as the research is starting to show they have little impact.
Where, these critics asked, is knowledge in all this? If there is one big scientific shift in thinking about education that has occurred over the past few years, it is an understanding of the central role of content knowledge in, well, any kind of academic thinking. How will we build a structured, sequenced, knowledge-rich curriculum if individual children are passing along literacy learning progressions at their own pace and if we disdain the idea of an age-based curriculum? Does this not mistake literacy for a context-independent skill; something it clearly is not once the basics of decoding have been mastered? And what about those basics? What about the most important job of the entire education system: teaching kids to read? Why is Gonski’s review so silent on this when it’s something we know we must improve?
I don’t think this debate is just happening in my Twitter bubble because it has been played-out in articles across the media. Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the way that even those who are sympathetic to many of the aims of the report have had to try to minimise, or distance themselves from, others. We all know too much now, and that includes knowing the best arguments of our opponents.
The peace of the ignorant is over.