Monday, May 07, 2018

Problems with Gonski 2.0

I have been reading, more precisely trying to read, the Australian Gonski 2.0 report into school education. It is so full of jargon that I am finding it almost impenetrable. Since I'm not prepared to devote hours of my life to getting through the jargon, I thought that I would stand back and make a few general observations roughly linked to the report.

Education for what?

I think that one of the problems with Gonski et al is that they fail to look at the purpose of education. One aim is to give people certain basis skills. This is what tends to be measured in the basic tests so beloved by educational administrators. However, education also provide knowledge of particular domains and teaches people to think critically. It teaches social skills. It also provides a smorgasbord from which students can accept or reject things in terms of interests and later choices.

Children vary enormously in interest and learning speeds. They slow and accelerate. Often, the things that they most value later are not seen at the time but come to be valued in retrospect. Often they have little to do with formal courses but are linked to particular events or teachers. Sometimes, rejection or rebellion are the main things remembered from school days.

The purpose of education is not national economic efficiency, a concept popularised by the German Empire at a time of fierce competition between empires.. Rather, education has multiple purposes which can conflict and whose results at individual level may not be measurable for years.

Child focused

We are told that schooling should be child focused. The way that this is phrased is, to my mind, a nonsense. By child focused, we mean that education needs to focus on the child as the best way of getting them to perform in ways that we want, to get them to do what we want them to do, to allow them to measure up as determined by the externally imposed measures that we have set. This has little to do with the individual needs of the child. The child becomes an input into a process.

Measurement and national  performance

We are told that Australia is falling behind international educational performance. If that's true, it's a devastating criticism of two decades of education performance focused on improved performance. But is is true? The performance comparison are based on specific measure such as the PISA tests, tests that measure a small number of dimensions. Singapore is cited as a performance example.I wonder how many Australian parents would actually want thier children to go through that system.

Continuous improvement

The report makes much play with the idea that the school system must seek to improve performance: teachers must become more professional and constantly seek to improve their performance; coasting schools (those comfortable to sit in the middle of the pack) must be encouraged to improve; school "leaders" must be encouraged to improve their performance; pupils must be pushed to improve performance and improve their individual performance.

The concept of continuous improvement is a slippery one.It's a concept that I have supported as a management consultant in advising particular organisations, in part because it is a useful corrective to the alternative idea that an organisation can suddenly make a quantum performance leap.To a degree, Gonski 2.0 wants both continuous improvement and a quantum leap.

In looking at performance improvement, I have always been conscious of the need to take into account individual variation. A teacher may be doing a good job within limits set by their own aspirations, time availability,  needs and alternative priorities. A student may be coasting in certain ways because they neither need or want to do better. They prefer to do other things, seek other paths.

If you try to push either group beyond the limits they have set, you create tensions, pressure and stress. Performance drops as a consequence.

To my mind, we have an increasingly stressed school system measured by teacher and pupil stress. I did the old NSW leaving certificate. This was a relatively stress-free environment. My children did the NSW Higher School Certificate. Stress levels were far higher to the point the school had to have programs to help kids manage it. Today I have friends whose children are doing the Higher School Certificate. Stress levels are higher again.

I think it absurd that a year 11 or 12 student is so stressed out that they need medical support and may make their parents' life a misery..And for what purpose? In most cases, the variation in their marks will have no impact on their longer term career or options. Ironically, the lower performing students who perhaps should be worried are likely to be those who worry least because they don't care. It is the conscientious kid who suffers.

Evidence based approaches

There is the usual focus on evidence based approaches and teachers as professionals. My concern in both cases lies in the lack of definition applied to these terms.

Conclusion

Mr Gonski and his panel members may well argue and with some justice that in standing back the way I have ignored some of their arguments and key principles. For example, the idea that advancement should be based upon progress independent of formal year structures, that the school curriculum should include more generic skills to equip students for a rapidly changing world.

My problem apart from the jargon involved is that Gonski 2.0 remains a centralised command and control measurement based approach that will do little to increase the flexibility of the schooling system or give teachers more freedom to diverge from mandated approaches.
 
This post is also the Monday Forum post.
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