Educational reforms are inadequate diddlings

Recently the Queensland Education Department set up community forums and feedback on their decision to take grade 7 (12 years olds) into highschool. The only 12 year old I have been able to speak to about it, anxiously shook her head at the prospect she would have had to go up to highschool. In any case, it seems to me that the Education Departments are, like many other government departments and professional organisations, running themselves further and further into a policy cul de sac in which the fundamental purpose of education and a vision for society is not being addressed. Therefore, within the cul de sac, all answers seem to be rationally answered while in the out-of-schools world, very few social problems are being answered. Are we going to continue to run children down educational culs de sac which equip them poorly for the adult world. It seems much of the really good educational progress for children is being facilitated outside school.

As a parent of three sons, the youngest now in senior year and the older two in final year of university degrees is that I have been unable to get a sense of a relevant vision of schooling as a place for the best development of the child and adolescent.

Schooling seems to come from a very topsy turvy concept, that the child can be groomed for the adult world, although the adult world of the child is a world that is completely alien to the current crop of adults, especially the middle aged adults who manage the education industry. Even that phrase, education industry, rings alarm bells that school is not about culture or society but continues to be, at least, based on a concept of a manufactured product, at worst based on the concepts of 19th century industry. Schools do not even resemble much modern industry, and certainly not those at cutting edge technologies. Likewise, it cannot be said with any surety, that cutting edge technologies that dazzle our life’s experiences, are particularly necessary, nor fruitful for the development of best society. The primary characteristic among all the most successful people I know is a penchant for interpersonal communication and a self-confidence for learning.

From experience, I can say that my sons have enjoyed schooling for the social outlet it has given them and have applied themselves to academic components about 50% of their time in the school. I was often dismayed with the little study they applied in highschool and often amazed that they achieved quite well for all of that. But I am left with a strong impression that schools are wasting 50% of the child’s time.

It occurs to me that a true educational reform would look seriously at the best research around developing the child as an intellectual, emotional, social, artistic, working, playing, co-operative human being. It would be striving to become a system which is integrated with and responsive to the community. It should be working with the community at a local level, with an awareness of regional, national, and global issues, to create a ‘real life’ learning process for children. It should not be asking the community to become more responsive to its agenda, as the school is not able to provide any certainty as to the direction of society and society’s processes, economic or cultural.

So what is the purpose of the school? Sure, the current society needs a group or trained people (teachers) to co-ordinate a guide the learning processes of the child and adolescent. But what are the necessary learning processes and does the infrastructure of the schooling factory represent an environment for best achieving that process?

Literacy and numeracy are certainly absolutely important for anyone to act with confidence in society. Yet that confidence and capacity to interact, even to trade, is increased more by being able to communicate, serve, cooperate, and teach others peers, younger and older people. So at least one major component of education should be to guide the child and adolescent in working with others, especially adults including the elder community, but also the younger, even the baby. In this component, they can be guided in developing worthy human characteristics such as patience, tolerance, kindliness, creativity, consideration, being of service. They can be guided in appropriate communication skills and emotional management. They will be rewarded by success in service to others. They will be able to set learning goals based on their need to provide further service to those others. Those goals will create the structure for learning in history, science, but also manual and technological skills.

It is increasingly clear that the learning capacity of children is enhanced by experience with nature, and with informal exploratory play. The role of learning artistic skills such as acting, visual arts, singing, dancing and music, are also increasing been found to enhance learning and application of more formal academic lessons. It therefore seems that a considerable portion of a child and adolescent’s life should be engaged in these arenas.

The concern with Australian students falling behind the world in average academic scores needs to be put into the perspective of the world we want to live in. It is clear that no more than 20% of any age group across the nation will be able to develop the scholastic skills to apply to the best standards of tertiary education. Nor is there any reason to believe that more than 20% of such well-qualified people, have access to relevant jobs.

Rather the concern should be how to create a learning environment in which the middle 60% of students leave school with a set of useful social competencies including an ability to learn the business and technical skills necessary to trade and serve in the community, communicate and problem-solve well with others across all age groups, and enhance the cultural quality of the community. In this, there must be a strong element of playing well with community politics.

Of specific concern will be the 20% of children who for a vast number of reasons, lie at the bottom of the bell curve for many types of learning. All endeavour to enhance their learning capacity, including additional tuition and support (family, physical and emotional), should be applied through adequate policy and budget. Theirs should be the expectation that, unless too severely disabled, they have a proactive human role to play. For the severely handicapped (physical, intellectual, psychological), adequate support and stimulation is vital to their well-being, and their direct interaction with other children are an important aspect of both the able-bodied and disabled persons education.

A significant mention is made in educational systems of behavioural management. While this has improved vastly since my own school days, its sense is to blame the student rather than the system (including the family and the community). Educational systems should be moving towards a behavioural improvement model in which isolation of students is only one short term intervention in a system that is frustration–free and facilitation strong.

In summary, as a ball park concept, I believe that the goal of the education system should be to eventually reduce the use of the school classroom, for primary and secondary academic lesson, to 3 hours per day, for all ages, except for those 20% of student in Senior highschool who have shown capacity and orientation toward highest standards of academic work. 2 to 3 hours per day should be given to community work communication, problem-solving and other skill learning, even from as young as 8. 2 to 3 hours given to informal activities in the outdoors including socialisation, moving in nature, informal play. The arts sit in the interfaces of these three broad areas as the creative process that underlies problem-solving, insightfulness, and communication. Formal sports should be relegated to the interface of learning about the body and technical skills but would be advantaged by increasing venturing styles eg orienteering. All of these components carry with them a strong element of problem-solving in which the teacher should play a pivotal guidance role. If there is a place for volunteers, it is that education systems become a process that is engaging the whole family.

The educational vision should be broadened to permit students a longer developmental phase for learning, so that more youth are entering the workforce at a technical ability, earlier, but more adults are completing senior academic work as adults and then moving into tertiary studies. This concept would allow the youth to begin families earlier, develop mature responsibilities, and yet not be ultimately dissuaded from education towards a professional career.

Under this concept, schools themselves could double their carrying capacity, although teacher and teacher aid to student ratios and volunteer mentoring and student support in the community would increase (double). The essential 21st educational reform is the vanguard of community reform. Community reform will be essential to address the burden of a growing global population and all that it implies for urban planning, food production, trade, and environmental conservation.

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