Educational contradictions – a modular life?

Within two pages of this Weekend Australian, the glaring contradictions about the educational needs of children and adolescents were boldly declared. On page 3, the remote Cape York town of Coen has, under the leadership of one of Australia’s foremost Aboriginal leaders, Noel Pearson, adopted a 9 hour school day, to bring educational standards up to national levels and ensure cultural training including language. On page 5, Prince Edward, Federal and NSW Sport’s Ministers, Headmaster of an elite Sydney school, and parents, supported the necessity of the danger factor in the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, after a schoolboy died on a sole bushwalk as part of the program.

So, indigenous children are, ‘catching up’ by being constrained within the school boundaries for the best part of their life, while middle and upper class children are being taught that only “real experience, out of comfort zones, with risk, will equip and empower you for life”.

I can understand the dilemma on Cape York. Family dysfunction, alcohol use, child abuse, truancy, and community violence, is extraordinary. Noel Pearson, having become Australia’s most well-known Aboriginal lawyers after being brought up in Lutheran mission conditions, must see the answer for children in stable, disciplined institutional parameters. He has certainly had advice from some educational experts and cooperation from the Queensland Teachers union. This educational model is not only about the children, it is about re-engineering whole communities.

The irony is, that Cape York Aboriginal Communities were traditionally people of the vast landscape with vast expertise in flora, fauna, geology, within their own world-view. But experience of a life lived daily with very real risks were part of the traditional lifestyles.

Meanwhile, middle and upper class children who lead the way in mall surfing, whose parents built the malls, now find that a taste of dangerous wilderness after school hours is important for the ‘real’ world. For the elite side of Sydney, the ‘real’ world is the corporate boardroom and a tower of lawyers, or on the up side, breakthroughs in technological research, and then, on weekends, taking the most expensive pieces of boating technology onto Sydney Harbour for a ‘buzz’ or a leisurely lunch.

It seems that Noel Pearson would like Cape York Aboriginal Children to emulate elite Sydney-siders. His hope seems to be that they will be able to build and work within developmental infrastructures in trade, training and governance on Cape York. And maybe more than just a few will venture down to the big smoke and become industry leaders. I can’t blame his hope. In many ways I support it. I think it is necessary, even inevitable. However, I wish there was a way that community and educational designers were able to look at our society through a larger telescope, understand that much of this ‘sitting in boxes’ is harmful to a child’s development and the development of future society.

Both Coen and Sydney schools, should be moving away from the modular approach to education towards a more experiential, problem-solving approach. ‘Sitting in boxes’ is valuable for specific abstract learning functions such as reading, writing, mathematics, research and evaluation processes, and learning to use information technologies. Access to workshops are important for learning artistic and manufacturing methods. These are the tools of a modern social person. Yet, every hour in a ‘tool’ learning process should be supported by a couple of hours in an application in the community. Such applications should place the child and youth in a place of responsibility, especially of others. It should assist the child to communicate clearly with a range of community members from toddlers to the very aged, in a variety of settings, home, businesses, labouring, outdoor environments. It should assist the child to be able to move through all landscapes, natural and built, with ease and dignity. It should build awareness in the child of its limitations, the process of increasing capacity, and the nature of risk. It should allow the child self-guided exploration, rest, and free association with others.

The near future world is one of extreme risk. Coen school is right to want to educate children so that they are adaptable to the world that will place them at greatest risk. But the risk itself, will probably be multiplied if we continue to establish communities and educational processes that are modular. The risk can only be mitigated by children who are raised to be whole social and environmental beings, for in this, their knowledge is more acutely balanced, their ethics clearer and their ability to provide leadership stronger.


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