The advent of the Australian Curriculum provides a tremendous opportunity to rethink the way school education is delivered in Australia. The curriculum documents in English, Mathematics, Science, History and Geography have been completed and endorsed and schools are beginning in their implementation across the Foundation years to Year 10, with Senior School program development now underway.
The Melbourne Declaration of Educational Goals for Young Australians, 2008, set out a long list of goals:
Educational goals for young Australians
• develop their capacity to learn and play an active role in their own learning
• have the essential skills in literacy and numeracy and are creative and productive users of
technology, especially ICT, as a foundation for success in all learning areas
• are able to think deeply and logically, and obtain and evaluate evidence in a disciplined way as the result of studying fundamental disciplines
• are creative, innovative and resourceful, and are able to solve problems in ways that draw upon a range of learning areas and disciplines
• are able to plan activities independently, collaborate, work in teams and communicate ideas
• are able to make sense of their world and think about how things have become the way they are
• are on a pathway towards continued success in further education, training or employment, and acquire the skills to make informed learning and employment decisions throughout their lives
• are motivated to reach their full potential.
It is wonderful to see such comprehensive goals spelt out, and hopefully the Declaration will set the tone for a future which embraces quality education for all Australian children. I can’t help thinking however that the way the curriculum writing has developed since 2008 shows there is still a unquestioned belief in the independence of the disciplines as distinct packages of learning. There seems to be little said about the need or value of a cross-discipline approach to inquiry learning. I believe this compartmentalised subject matter can hinder students from following their passions – the best avenue into meaningful educational experiences for any child.
The Australian Curriculum is being backed by digital teaching resources developed by Education Services Australia, a company set up specifically for this purpose. Their products are marketed under the name Scoolte. The digital materials include interactive multimedia resources that result from partnerships with national private, public and cultural collection agencies. There are also tools for teachers and students to create learning resources that can be added to the ESA offerings along with sample units of work and assessment items. Excellent as this may seem, like a similar scheme already operated by Education Queensland, it is more likely to generate conformity than innovation.
Unlike the Kahn Academy the lesson videos or resource units are not freely available for students to use at home. Students and parents who do not have email addresses associated with an educational institution cannot access these teaching resources. They can only be used at school unless of course the parent is a teacher or works for a State or Federal government educational institution. Every other child is discriminated against in such a system.
I intend to argue that it is now imperative we re-think the out-dated ‘English’ secondary school model and replace it with a system that supports the child’s innate capacity to explore and learn. We need to provide stimulus and opportunity that will engage the students in developing their strengths and talents well beyond our society’s current expectations. It should be a system that appeals to the most reluctant and disadvantaged learners as well as those from prosperous homes and stable family lives. It should be a system that makes the best use of the remarkable advances in information technology, and a system that acknowledges that the classroom is a restrictive environment that is bound to shut in and narrow the field of thinking, rather than accommodate the best of learning strategies.
In an essay I wrote in 2012 I described good teachers as the ‘nutritionists of the mind’ pointing out that we tend to undervalue the excellent contribution they make within our society, but I did not mean to imply that the teacher needs to be an absolute master of his or her subject discipline, operating with an encyclopaedic brain. The best teachers are not fountains of knowledge but explorers themselves who lead by example. They are mentors for their pupils, not instructors on a mission to produce flattering exam results. The brain should not be seen as a computer to be loaded with more and more data. Rather the teaching should focus on demonstrating the pathways and applications that may be followed to make use of all the information that has been stored by the individual brain or is available for import through ICT. And boy! What a bonanza of information there is now just a finger click away!
What drives the need for change?
1. Everyday Neuroscience is discovering more and more about the brain and how it works. Foremost in this new understanding is the recognition that students learn best when discovering things for themselves. It is obvious to us that the brain of the infant child is genetically wired to do this. They recognize faces, relate to odours, listen for familiar sounds, and experiment with their muscles to learn the complex task of walking upright. We could go on with an ever-expanding list of achievements through the pre-school years. These achievements are all dependent on tapping into the circuitry in the brain. Our marvellous organ has fantastic abilities that we often fail to use effectively.
As kids grow childhood play becomes a strategy for learning just as much as a source of enjoyment. We don’t learn when we are not open to discovery. This experiential learning goes on throughout life. It is essential to the way we know and understand our world. Science will never progress without curiosity. The arts cannot flourish without creativity. Schools that tie children to a set curriculum perceived as the best for them are bound to stymie imagination and alienate many of the students so that they withdraw and shut down their thinking. Misunderstood students who feel undervalued become resentful and antagonistic. Their attitudes may infect others in their peer group. Classrooms can become a battleground for order. The educational atmosphere is poisoned: fertility is lost.
Another revelation from Neuroscience is the extent to which our senses are capable of capturing an enormous amount of information way outside our conscious spectrum. Advertisers know this in the way they subtly manipulate our feelings and desires without us knowing it. The teacher does not need to speak to be discouraging. The roll of the eyes can equally announce failure, while a joke and smile might encourage the child to try again. Schools always need to develop a healthy learning atmosphere of respect, encouragement and trust.
Un-tapping, sorting and re-analysing all that our senses capture is the key to making a rich experience out of the enormous loads of potential information. However this processing by our brains is mostly intuitive, controlled by programs captured in our genes. We are not in control in the way we might think we are either morally, emotionally or intellectually. Genius may be defined as breaking the established brain circuits in a beneficial way, like a biological mutation that creates advantage for an individual or species. Let us not shut the door and think this can’t be done with slow learners or the economically or socially disadvantaged. Pupils with physical, emotional and mental handicaps are already benefiting greatly through our understanding at how the brain compensates for disabilities. They are able to adjust through using other circuits in the multitude of pathways the brain makes available for learning.
There is ample evidence like that provided by Sugarta Mitra that children will quickly teach themselves ways to make use of modern technology. Computer games and puzzles can occupy them for hours. This ability can be directed to purposeful learning if the child finds appeal in the subject matter. Teachers are often left behind in understanding applications and the extent to which the technology can be useful in learning. But in harnessing this technology we will fail to reap the best rewards without using the new knowledge being uncovered about the brain.
2. Information and Communication Technology is leaving schooling behind. If a students wants to know the characteristics of the best surfboards, how they are made and where to buy them, as well as where the best wave breaks are, and the best weather conditions for surfing, they are unlikely to seek help at school. They might consult their surfing friends in person or on Facebook, but are just as likely to do their own web search. Is this education? Of course it is! And it can be done at school with the added benefit that under direction and encouragement the learner can go on to discover a great deal about fibre-glass and synthetic materials used in the production process; about the chemistry and the machinery involved in the manufacture; about the pricing and sales statistics; about the best surf breaks around the world, the physics of wave motion, the influence of wind, currents and coastal configurations, and how to read the weather charts and meteorological systems that influence the surf. Such an inquiry project has potential to build on what the student already knows in chemistry, physics, geography, history, business, marketing and surf safety while the student is still switched on. There are no dreary lessons here. Mathematics, English literacy, Geography, Science and Information Technology are imbedded in the enquiry in a meaningful way.
In an address at the 2012 Annual Conference of the Science teachers Association of Victoria, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, referred to an article on The Conversation website by David Blair of the Australian International Research Centre.
Professor Blair set out to teach 11 and 12 year olds two of Einstein’s theories given some background on the history of the development of Einstein’s ideas. “After a few sessions these children learned Einstein’s key prediction that time depends on your height above the ground. They also learnt how GPS navigators only work by correcting this time warp that Earth creates.” Apparently Blair was amazed that the children were not surprised by their ability to comprehend the theories nor did they think they were too young to learn about them.
In his article, Placed-Based Knowledge in the Digital Age, Thomas Fisher from the University of Minnesota explains that the networked digital world is changing our intellectual lives. We no longer need to begin with the basics of a subject like physics and build up to a degree of sophistication where we can understand Einstein’s theories. Rather we can plunge right in at the theory level with links from there that will take us in many different ways as we explore and increase our understanding. Here is how Fisher explains this idea:
“The increasingly web-like way of seeing the world, in turn, has profound implications for how and in what form we will seek information. The printed book offers us a linear way of doing so. We begin at the beginning – or maybe at the end, with the index – and work forward or backward through a book or at least part of it to find the information we need. Digital media, in contrast, operate in networked ways, with hyperlinked texts taking us in multiple directions, social media placing us in multiple communities, and geographical information systems arranging data in multiple layers. No one starting place, relationship, or layer has privilege over any other in such a world.”