Since Christopher Pyne announced his education review earlier in the year, criticism has raged about the men assigned to the task, and their dubious education credentials. But in the fuss, two important reasons why the review will serve no useful purpose have been missed.
The first is that curriculum content is not the principal issue in learning and schooling is not the main contributor to eventual learning outcomes. The second is that there are already substantial studies of learning and of curriculum development.
The proposition that simply including certain pertinent “facts” in the curriculum will somehow improve Australia's education system is wrong. It's one side of a debate that asks whether Australian students should be taught lists of successful battles of World War I and names of generals, or discuss historical background and economic and political consequences?
Diane Ravitch points out in The Death And Life Of The American School System that every American child is taught a substantial slab of history about the US post 1608. "They fly the flag, celebrate Thanksgiving and argue about whether the Civil War was about slavery … but knowledge of anything more detailed is generally lacking”.
Studies of science education consistently find that drilling “facts”, as opposed to telling stories, achieves no gains in understanding. That is why the European Union emphasises “inquiry-based learning”.
As distinguished expert on mathematics education Celia Hoyles says, achieving better math education is best advanced by several day workshops for teachers and getting a math content expert into each school.
In learning, what is absorbed into memory is strongly influenced by previous understandings. Learning is constructivist, developed over time. Stanford University’s Jonathan Osborne and Deakin University’s Russell Tytler call it “argumentation” and University of Pittsburgh’s Lauren Resnick “accountable talk”. Carefully managed and specific feedback is critical to learning, as John Hattie of Melbourne University and others have shown.
The child must be able to focus on specific issues of interest and understand their meanings and relevance. Reading to understand improves literacy, reading to learn the words does not.
In all this argument too little consideration is given to creativity, which in many cases declines over time from the earliest years when games of make-believe enriched the imagination, making mistakes didn’t matter and life within the family was relatively secure, for many.
The second reason why the review is pointless is that schooling is not the main place where cognitive development — learning — takes place.
The earliest years are the most important. In those years stimulation and opportunities may be provided and the child encouraged to be interested, to develop a habit of reading to comprehend and explore the world around them.
In advantaged situations where the child is secure and has a diverse lifestyle, the child learns. In disadvantaged situations, where there is little by way of stimulation, the child has few opportunities for play, parents may be absent much of the time and visits to museums and the like are few.
Opportunities to learn other languages are mostly absent and so are opportunities to engage in creative activities. This helps explains the causal relationship between disadvantage and educational achievement.
Preschools staffed by well-trained professionals make a substantial difference in these disadvantaged situations. That disadvantage persists into school where, surrounded by similarly disadvantaged children, the result may be more than a two year lag compared with a child in a diverse class including many advantaged children in which there is no compromise on the curriculum or in expected learning outcomes.
That is why Commonwealth and State Ministers have agreed on a national program for universal preschool. It is why newly elected mayor of New York Bill De Blasio proposes to tax the wealthy so he can fund universal kindergarten. Early childhood intervention contributes to later development and a productive life.
Professor David Berliner of Arizona State University has pointed out that when the variance in student scores on achievement tests is examined along with the many potential factors that may have contributed to those test scores, school effects account for about 20 per cent of the variation in achievement test scores. Peers, school principal leadership and teacher turnover are among many factors also playing a part in student achievement.
In his Menzies Oration at Melbourne University in July 2006, professor James Wilkinson of Harvard University noted:
“Choosing an appropriate content is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for getting anyone to learn anything. The sufficient condition is for it to be taught well. And by “taught well” … I mean taught so that [the students]are capable of understanding and applying what they claim to know.”
When all is said and done, content is not irrelevant. But for Pyne to put so much time, energy and money into reviewing this aspect of our education system is a mistake.
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