STEPHANIE DOWRICK. What is education for?

May 17, 2018

That quite distinctly beautiful word “education” has its origins in the Latin educare – to draw out or bring forth. But we’re entitled to ask: bring forth and draw towards what? It is well established that the happiest (least discontented, least endangering) people across all cultures are those able to participate actively in their society, small or large; those who are as concerned with the common good as they are with their own survival or success. We are social creatures. We depend upon one another for our wellbeing and safety. Our self-respect depends on that flow of giving as well as receiving. Education, therefore, both explicit and as it is modelled and imbued through daily life, surely needs to support us to contribute “according to our abilities” – from childhood onwards. But this familiar humanist view of education needs to take into account also how we learn, especially in the formative years of childhood when the more hidden curricula that develop moral and emotional intelligence and drive human behaviour are too seldom privileged. 

Meanwhile, education is seen increasingly as vocational preparation for a “real world” where competition rules. And where the common good is too seldom envisioned. On those familiar measures, the federal government is increasingly concerned about the academic testing scores of Australian school children. As local results sink below competitors like Kazakhstan, Bulgaria or Cyprus, they want our children to do “far better”. What they seemingly do not want to do is to ask those pretty fundamental questions about what education is for. Or what an adequate 21st-century education – at every level from pre-school to post-graduate –  could be.

How and where are children considered in all this? Not just their measurable “results” but their emotional and intellectual wellbeing, and especially their enthusiasm to learn? The government and their consultants also seem reluctant to look too far into the reality of life for teachers, upon whom the burden and joys of school education devolve. This particularly affects newer teachers who may lack adequate support for the extremely complex job that teaching has become. They may also and too often lack job security, especially in the vital public sector. Rewarding “exceptional teachers” isn’t good enough. Just like the ceaseless testing imposed even on young children, the very concept of “exceptional teachers” vs. the rest is wide open to manipulation. It may result in even narrower “teaching to the tests” than already exists. Also, and very seriously, it mitigates against the kind of mutuality of interest and support that lets adults as well as children trust and flourish.

Falsely “tough” competitiveness between children, adults, companies and nations seems to drive conservative ideology increasingly. And it is profoundly unintelligent. It doesn’t bring out the best in those currently “winning” – but living in fear of losing their edge – nor in those already missing out or regarding themselves as “losers”.

By its very nature, competitiveness pits us against one another, driven by the premise that there’s only so much of what we desire to go around and that if you have it, then I don’t and won’t.  Competitiveness is often defended as a way of driving us forward. But that’s primitive thinking, long disputed in some of the countries where educational results are soaring and social wellbeing is valued.

Narrow testing – which is indeed being questioned on many fronts – leaves out the emotional context in which we learn, fail or flourish. None of us does well when we are constantly stressed or anxious. Or when we turn away, despairing. Whatever our age, we learn best when we can trust that our efforts count. Self-respect and respect from others also matter. We need to regard peers as friends, not enemies, as people we can co-operate with, learn from and like. This is not about “mollycoddling” children. Or pretending that “no effort” is good enough. On the contrary, it’s about responding with vigour and imagination to that precious, innate desire in every child to learn as they grow, if their circumstances support that.

As someone who has written books, has a late-life doctorate, who had parents who were both school teachers, and who has been teaching adults in various settings for the last 25-plus years, I share these thoughts because I care so much about what education can bring and give. It scarcely needs saying that every one of us needs the life-saving skills not of reading and maths only, but also of research, of “finding out” in an information-driven world. There’s no doubt we need at least some basic science and especially an understanding of the natural sciences to comprehend and protect the awesome world around us. We need the skills of better-than-adequate written and spoken expression to find our place in a complex universe. We need three-dimensional, practical skills also, all of us, using hands and bodies as well as brains. The question is not whether these are necessary skills. It is, surely, how these multiple, inter-connected skills are modelled through our education system and in our homes: how they are imbued and respected, as well as “taught”.

Just three years ago one of my grandchildren started kindergarten at a well-resourced, high-scoring, Sydney public school. She began with unconditional enthusiasm, her face bright with excitement. This changed. Each Friday, my granddaughter – not yet five – was “tested” for her spelling. If she got more than two words wrong, she had the embarrassment (for her) of the same list again. And again. Her teacher also disallowed “sounding out” – moving her mouth as she read.  An eager little girl came to regard herself in that first precious year of school as a failure. To my mind – and she is no longer at the school, and yes, I know this wouldn’t happen in more enlightened public schools – it was not the child who was the failure. It was a testing-driven system that requires a school to “prove itself” on the narrowest of measures, risking the wellbeing of at least some children and the very meaning of education itself.

Let’s have a robust conversation about education, teachers, and especially the wellbeing of children. But can we please do it with at least some vision? Can we do it with care for what learning and knowledge really are and allow? And with far greater care and respect for children – and the world they will inherit?

Stephanie Dowrick is a writer and long-time social commentator.

A shorter version of this article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 5 May 2018.

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