Every day, students file in and out of my classroom. I do my very best to teach them what I am told to by the curriculum. I measure their performance in specified ways so they can be labelled as an ‘A’ or a ‘C’ or a ‘D’. They go through this process whether they have any interest in learning what I am teaching, and whether it will be of any use to them in the future. Their performance must be labelled with a grade regardless of what is happening in their lives, or where they may be headed. Every now and then a question creeps into my head, and I am sure into my student’s minds as well; what are we doing here?
The Australian Curriculum is being rolled out across the country, and it states: “Education plays a critical role in shaping the lives of young Australians and contributing to a democratic, equitable and just society that is prosperous, cohesive and culturally diverse.” It also dictates that this shall be done by all students being taught the same things, and assessed against the same standards.
But the concepts of democracy, equity and diversity just don’t seem compatible with everyone learning the same things and being assessed against the exact same standards. So if education is about creating a society as described in the Australian Curriculum, are we doing it wrong? And is the society that schools are designed for going to change?
The more time you spend in schools the more it feels like they have lost sight of their overarching purpose. The importance placed on narrow academic outcomes, NAPLAN results, and school performance is continually growing. Everything that is done needs to be economically rationalised and justified.
Teachers and schools are measured and graded almost as much as the students are. But I have no recollection of anyone measuring how democratic, equitable or just the school I work in is, or giving the school a huge pat on the back for promoting those qualities.
Literacy and numeracy levels dominate the public and political debate about education. The greatest level of public concern falls to Australia falling behind in these simple measurable categories. An argument is rightfully made that education and society can’t be equitable if its members can’t read, write or calculate at the same basic level. This is an issue that needs addressing today, but what happens beyond that? Our students are still learning how to read and count… is it vitally important that they do that slightly sooner or later than students from other countries? And will literacy and numeracy remain vital in a future where computers change how we read, write and calculate?
Modern education systems were born out of the needs of the Industrial Revolution to prepare young people for work. It appears hundreds of years later that it is still viewed as the primary purpose by those in positions of educational power.
Mark Scott laid out an economic vision of education when appointed as the Secretary of the NSW Department of Education last year. His vision specifically called for returns on economic investment in education, and for more evidence-based practice. This economic viewpoint is not uncommon and the need to prepare students for today’s workforce fits with it nicely. The Australian Curriculum supports this, by saying that students need the skills for life and work in the 21st century.
To assess if we are giving students the education they need to be contributors to a modern society for the rest of this century, we must consider what that society is going to look like. Automation and technological change are quickly changing the economy. In the next couple of decades there will be fewer jobs and those that remain will require creative and critical thought.
It’s very difficult to measure creativity, and it’s hard to teach, especially in an education system designed to transfer a specific range of current knowledge. This transfer of knowledge and skills is required to be measured and justified at every turn in our schools. We are using old thinking to prepare for a new future, and it’s going to continue to fail us further as time goes on.
The vision set out in the Australian Curriculum may not need much adjustment. The application, however, requires revision. A teaching colleague once told me that he saw schools as places where young people should be given the widest range of experiences as possible. That was so they could choose which roles in society they wanted to play. His perspective seems far more aligned with the potential shape of a future Australian society.
In a world where we will soon be working less, the economic and employment approaches to education are becoming less relevant. It seems inequitable to prepare all students in the same way for a future that will be so different from the society of today.
Australian society and people’s roles within it are going to become more diverse rather than more similar. Given a greater amount of leisure time to pursue personal interests and pursuits, we may need to foster personal purpose in students far more greatly than economic contributions.
School students already have a sense of this impending change, and are asking more questions about how they will use the knowledge we are passing to them. And as their teacher so am I.