Last night’s edition of the Australian current affairs programme, Q&A, was billed as a ‘teaching special’. I think it demonstrated a number of key points about Australian education, at the same time as raising a few questions. It has caused me to reflect on the following:
1. It’s good to have a practising teacher on a panel
Eddie Woo is a maths teacher and media personality who rose to fame through his YouTube channel. Prior to last night’s debate, I wasn’t really sure what Eddie’s position was on the major issues. Disappointingly, he made claims about schools being ‘industrial’ and suggested that curriculum be decoupled from student age in a similar way to the recommendations of the recent Gonski 2.0 review. Woo used the example of the sequence of grades that people who learn a musical instrument pass through and how these are not associated with any particular age group. I think this is a flawed argument for a number of reasons. Firstly, it does not take account of the need to build general knowledge of the world and the fact that the order in which this is done can be pretty flexible. Secondly, it ignores the way that subjects are interlinked such as through the literacy demand of senior maths and science subjects. Instead, such as stance tends to view curriculum as a discrete set of decontextualised skills; an approach that is particularly unsuited to areas such as reading and writing. Finally, it ignores the social aspects of being the 12-year-old in a class full of seven- and eight-year-olds; an inevitable result.
Nevertheless, Woo brought an element of practical sense to the discussion, tempering the more hyperbolic statements made by some in the audience and on the panel. This shows that, even when we are wrong, the practical experience of teachers is essential to any discussion of education.
Yet I wonder if the ABC would have had a teacher on the show if they didn’t have someone with Woo’s profile to call upon.
2. The media has a blind-spot on Finland, as demonstrated by Tony Jones
Tony Jones, the moderator, deferentially and uncritically kept referring to Finnish education in his interactions with Pasi Sahlberg. It doesn’t appear that Jones is aware that Finland’s PISA results – the results that drew attention to the country in the early 2000s – have significantly declined in recent years.
This lack of background research was apparent when Alyssa Meli, a Year 12 student, asked the panel about the pressure of Year 12 exams. Jones clearly wanted to focus specifically on Year 12 because he shut down Jennifer Buckingham when she wanted to discuss NAPLAN. Yet he threw to Sahlberg for the anti-testing counterargument against Australia’s exam system, as if he was completely unaware of the high-stakes and time-consuming matriculation exam that Finnish students sit at the same age.
Later in the programme, Vivian Zhu opened up the possibility of a little critical thinking about Finland with an excellent question:
“Given that Finland has a largely homogenous population in terms of race and religion and less inequality than Australia, do you think that modelling the Australian education system after the Finnish one is really viable in terms of culture and economics?”
Jones threw this to Sahlberg and then quickly changed the question to one that focused on a more positive angle about Finnish teachers having masters degrees. Nobody else had a chance to comment, despite Jennifer Buckingham having written articles on the issue.
I wonder whether the temptation of a simple narrative is too strong for media generalists who have to move swiftly from one subject to another and it makes me wonder about the media treatment of subjects that I know a lot less about.
3. We have conflated the concept of professionalism with that of a lack of accountability
When it comes to teachers, people seem to link professionalism with a lack of accountability. NAPLAN testing is wrong, it is claimed, because it takes away teacher autonomy. This seems an odd argument. Engineers don’t get to autonomously design bridges and surgeons don’t get to autonomously perform operations. Both occupations are professions and both occupations are governed by a strong set of standards and are accountable for measurable results.
I do sympathise with the antipathy towards needless bureaucracy, much of which is driven by flawed ideas and managerialism, but this is a separate issue.
4. How can indigenous STEM education be improved?
I was struck by Cindy Berwick’s comments about indigenous maths education. Berwick talked about running Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) programmes for indigenous students in which they learnt math through culturally relevant activities such as studying the aerodynamics of boomerangs. She also suggested that a lack of cultural awareness meant that NAPLAN assessments effectively discriminate against indigenous youngsters.
I am sure Berwick’s camps are excellent, but if we are going to address an issue such as this then we will need to do so on a daily basis. Textbooks and assessments that are used every day will need to have cultural relevance. Readers of this blog will also be aware that I see motivation and achievement as reciprocal, with a greater part of future motivation resulting from a previous sense of achievement. Indigenous youngsters will need to be taught maths well in order to gain that sense of achievement and this needs to be part of the focus.