VIC ROWLANDS. Gonski and better learning.

The Holy Grail of teaching is not how children learn so much as when and why they learn, why they learn differently with the same teacher, or differently within the same class. The Age (26/5) reported:  “Schools have largely ignored data on their students published on the government’s  MySchool website, and one in four principals say the initiative has harmed their school.” (Two thirds said the effect was neutral.) 

The problem with any testing regime is that although the base information is diagnostically useful,  the comparisons which inevitably flow from them such as international league tables, politically popular though they might be, are not reliable because they cannot fairly equate the variables in the comparisons. Finland, for example, with which Australia is often compared, is ethnically 93% Finnish, while Australia is a much more ethnically diverse country, with nearly a quarter of the population having a language other than English spoken at home. Finland has highly qualified teachers but another important difference is that children in Finland start school at seven years of age after 98% complete a compulsory pre-schooling.

When there is strong disagreement among schools and “experts” on what test results really mean, it is fanciful to expect that the public generally can make other than superficial judgements. Parents always try to give their children the best opportunities, but their decisions are driven as much by perceptions as any objective analysis of results. No matter how you give people information about schools. they will put it into an order of merit which, too often, negatively impacts on government schools.

Every child needs to begin school, socially and intellectually, as ready to learn as possible. It is up to society to provide support structures which address known socio-economic factors that are likely to impact on learning. The school’s responsibility to build on the child’s readiness to motivate and stimulate them to enjoy learning. Quality compulsory pre-schooling is critical to this.

Experienced prep teachers will tell you they see many kids not ready to learn. This stems from an array of factors including dislocation of families and previously unrecognised medical conditions, which underpin many of the causes of learning difficulties, and which, if not ameliorated, become increasingly difficult to arrest and a long term determinant of student learning and achievement.

Aside from clinical disorders, problems with the emotional foundation contributing to readiness to learn (whether children feel safe and happy) cannot be measured, medically diagnosed or medically treated. Paul Tough (“How Children Succeed”) argues that non- cognitive skills such as perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism and self control are the most critical to success in school and life. He also advocates testing for A.C.A. (Adverse Childhood Experiences), and his ideas have gained some traction in North America.

Sir James Darling, the legendary former Headmaster of Geelong Grammar School, was once asked what makes a good teacher, to which he replied: “You first have to like kids and like being locked up with them six hours a day”.  Students invariably rate the ability to relate positively and productively to them as the most important quality in a teacher. This indefinable quality can’t be measured, is different in every single teacher, regardless of gender, age, appearance and race.  Qualifications are important, but not if teachers can’t get through to students. Few, if any, of the qualities in teachers that students rate highly are measurable but they are often assessed.

In the past bonded teaching studentships for graduates enabled all schools the opportunity to get good teachers, including distant country and remote schools. These students are as entitled to good teaching as any other, but the corporate, self-managing approach to schooling now is very much an urban centric policy. Studentships were yesterday’s solution but with HECS debt now it doesn’t takes much imagination to see how a similar plan could be adapted to help.

Gonski wants to see the status of teachers lifted. “More needs to be done to raise the public esteem of the teaching profession and celebrate its merits and its contribution to Australian society.” Teachers deserve much higher remuneration but better pay is more wage justice than status. Status is not conferred. The status of teaching in society is different from the feeling of status which teachers might call respect and job satisfaction. In schools a teacher’s status begins when they enter a classroom, and builds if they do their job well. The public status of teachers is impacted by a focus on tests and exam results which can obscure and detract from an understanding of what the school is really doing. Feeling respected comes from giving teachers the support and conditions to do their job well – and trusting them. They still have to be accountable. Too many things now get between the teacher and the task – external testing regimes, media driven fixation about teacher competency, endless paperwork, new initiatives not adequately funded and so on.

Technological advances in learning, developed to support individualised learning programs, as important as they will be, must not be at the expense of the quality of the relationship between teacher and student. As Tony Ryan, (“The Future of Education for Your Children”), says: If we become too obsessed with this technology we may find it begins to alter some essential human experiences such as play and verbal communication”.  Technology must not subsume and overpower a diverse and broad curriculum, much of which balances an increasing tendency to mechanised learning. Reducing education to utilitarian objectives, which is what building it excessively around tests and examinations does, risks dehumanising it. The challenges of the century will be best met by an education which embraces equality and develops understanding, compassion, co-operation and embedding evidence-based learning.

Can Gonski bring a common sense of purpose to a redirection of education both in curriculum and methodology?  The initial response from the conservative right so far is predictable because of their manic fear of progressive education change. The inordinate power and influence they have in both policy and funding means change won’t be conceded easily.

Vic Rowlands former teacher and secondary school principal.

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