Stop turning schools into training centres

The teacher below makes a very good case for a broad High School education.  I certainly benefited greatly from one in the traditional school system of long ago.  I came out with a knowledge of two foreign languages, Chaucer, Tennyson, Schubert and Bach, to mention just a few of the things I am so glad about.

As I was writing this I felt transformed by the wonderful music I was listening to at the same time: JS Bach's St Matthew Passion - sung by the Thomanerchor Leipzig (Video with subtitles).  A great pinnacle of Christian music sung by a wonderful choir of German young people. The Thomanerchor, the choir of the Thomaskirche, was founded in 1212 and is one of the oldest and most famous boys' choirs in Germany.

But I learned useful bits about Physics, Chemistry and mathematics too.  And I still became a useful employee.  I ended up teaching statistics and computer programming at university level!  But it is the poetry and classical music that is continually running through my head that gives me unfailing pleasure

But the author below fails to address the problem of how to get good teachers of the humanities. My view is that enthusiasm for your subject is the sine qua non of a good teacher, regardless of the subject.  There are even mathematics teachers who make their pupils enthusiastic about mathematics. My son was so enthused.

But are there enough teachers of humanities subjects who can  enthuse their students?  Obviously not, I think.  So once again we have a case for large class sizes so that the talents of the limited number of enthusiastic teachers can be maximally spread around.  With the aid of class assistants, large classes should rarely be a problem.  So, in my view, the fad for small class sizes is the biggest enemy of a humanities education for all -- JR

Going by the language that politicians and their advisers use these days to discuss education policy, you would think teachers are answerable to the business community.

Consider the terminology in the Australian Labor Party’s ‘New Directions’ paper, released in the lead-up to the federal ALP victory in 2007, and you get a fairly clear idea of where the government intended to take education. The paper identified ‘productivity growth’ and ‘human-capital investment’ as ‘the critical link’ to ‘long-term prosperity’, concluding that ‘if Australia is to turn its productivity performance around as well as enhance workforce participation, the Australian economy needs an education revolution in the quantity of our investment in human capital and quality of the outcomes that the education system delivers’.

As Stephen J Ball points out in his book, The Education Debate, the ‘New Directions’ paper collapsed the social and economic purposes of Australian education ‘into a single overriding emphasis on policymaking for economic competitiveness’. This suggests that the so-called ‘education revolution’ had more to do with strengthening Australia’s economic future than radical pedagogical reform and development.

If the current government is dedicated to strengthening education, it needs to establish a clear understanding of teachers’ roles in schools. Do schools need teachers who stimulate curiosity and inspire life-long learning? Or is it ‘trainers’ they need – people who skill-up children for the labour market? If the language Australian principals and school leaders use these days is anything to go by, it’s probably the latter.

Pick up an education policy or ‘school business plan’ and you’re bound to encounter terms that belong in a corporate manual. Attend a staff-development session in an Australian state school and you’re likely to hear reference to the school’s ‘strategic-planning initiative’, and the need to ‘build on maximum capacity’ and ‘value add’. There will also be talk of ‘targets’ and ‘benchmarks’, as well as the need for increased ‘market share’.

All of this suggests that schools are becoming more like businesses that trade in skilled human capital, than places of learning. Put simply, schools are becoming little more than training centres that procure compliant and attentive candidates for the workplace, and lessons are becoming little more than training sessions for the job market.

The American philosopher Sidney Hook wrote that ‘everyone who remembers his own education remembers teachers, not their methods and techniques. The teacher is the heart of the educational system.’ Most of us remember a teacher who had a significant influence on us. Mine was my English teacher. He would enter the classroom with nothing more than the prescribed novel, a stick of chalk, a mellifluous voice and a good story. And with these basic tools he would draw every member of the class into a world of wonder.

It was not easy. But his methods were simple: no jargon, no hackneyed phrases and certainly no corporate language. Just good stories, with which he was able to stimulate thinking and discussion about life’s big questions. I know it’s an old-fashioned notion, but he made learning enjoyable.

As an English and philosophy teacher, my students often ask me how reading a novel written more than 100 years ago, or studying an ancient civilisation, will help them get a job. I say: ‘It’s not meant to. Not everything we do in life, and indeed school, is geared to material gain.’ Forming relationships, engaging in interesting conversation, sharing stories, reading books, inventing, creating and labouring over things you love – all are valuable in themselves. Pleasure is a sufficient reward, and it certainly can’t be measured by a standardised test or exam.

But, sadly, there is very little time for this kind of learning in a curriculum geared to government targets and benchmarks. And there’s hardly any time for students to tinker, make mistakes, pull apart, dissect, rebuild and make serendipitous discoveries.

Informative as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results are, they can’t tell us everything about the quality of schools. These are crude instruments that don’t take into account the complexities of education. Yet they are gaining increasing prominence in Australian schools. Excessive reliance on National Assessment Program: Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) results, test scores and league tables has diminished the teacher’s role, narrowed the curriculum and substituted real teaching for training kids up for tests.

Any ‘training facilitator’ can impart lower-order rote skills, which require little more than memorising information and conducting simple operations. But, unlike a trainer or an online module where students (or should I say clients?) are required to read, memorise and click to submit, a teacher releases the creative energy that all children possess and fans the flames of curiosity. Teachers help kids make sense of a world that is becoming increasingly complex and confusing. And they help students make sense of the torrent of information the internet spews out, by providing them with something a search engine never can: understanding.

Good teachers enter the profession because they are good communicators, not ventriloquists for technocrats and business leaders. If you want teachers to kill enthusiasm for learning, then tell them to conduct their lessons like a corporate trainer, preferably with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation. Kids lose interest and disengage the moment a teacher stops teaching and begins to train, as many teachers are instructed to do, particularly when it comes to lifting NAPLAN scores.

Here is a revolutionary idea: why not place an embargo on corporate speak in schools? If education analysts are to have a meaningful discussion on advancing education, then why not use meaningful language instead of vapid corporate terminology that would make anyone, let alone a teacher, glaze over?

Schools do not need ‘improvement strategies’ prepared by a consultancy agency; they need teachers, those who have been entrusted by society to teach children to live well. After all, it is the students who will judge teachers, not politicians, economists, business managers or captains of industry.


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