Neil Whitfield had a rather good post pointing to some of the issues in Australia's current education system. He actually pre-empted something that I had been intending to write on the importance of the establishment of the public education system in the 19th century as one of the five best things that had happened in Australia.
There was, however, one thing in Neil's post that I disagreed with quite strongly. Neil wrote:
What we have so far managed to resist is confusing education with training.
Neil, I fear that this horse had already bolted to the detriment of us all.
I am in part a professional trainer. When working as a trainer, my core task is to give people the knowledge and skills they need to do specific things. My performance is or should be measured solely by my trainees' capacity to do.
Education is a different thing, for there the focus is on getting people to think. Yes, the acquisition of specific skills is part of the process, but education is much more. It involves the creation of the capacity to learn to do new things, to discover new things, to critically examine existing ways of thinking, to develop new ways of thinking. In a democracy, education is critically important to the citizen's role as a thinking member of the community.
These are difficult things to measure, in part because we can only ever do it in retrospect, and then sometimes only partially. However, even simple measures provide a simple reality check.
Why is it, for example, that the small isolated population of Canterbury in New Zealand in the first two decades of the twentieth century turned out relative to size more world class intellectuals than the entire Australian system in the last two decades? We spend more. More of our children go to school and university, they go for longer. Yet our relative performance is not as good.
The language of training pervades the entire education system.
We talk about objectives and learning outcomes set in the context of specific disciplines. This is training because we are focusing on and trying to measure specific results from past activities. We can see this even more clearly when we look at current and proposed national measures - these are all narrowly skill based.
Consider the current focus on process in education. We look at critical evaluation, we focus on problem solving, we try to teach children project management skills, we tell them about various hats. These are all skills.
Then consider the education system itself, the way it works. It is a crowded system, with complex rules mandating what must be studied, often how it should be studied. We use continuous assessment techniques that themselves take up time. What do they measure? Specific knowledge and skills.
In all this, time to think and imagine - the guts of education - gets crowded out.
There is a simple test here. Assume that we actually achieve all the things that the current Federal Government, and its predecessor before it, are talking about. Do we really believe that we will actually have a more creative population? Will our population be better able to participate in civic activities? I really doubt it.
Just at present, the concept of Australia as an innovative country is going through another fashion phase. I say another phase, because I have seen all this before.
Australians traditionally have been an innovative people capable of seeing new solutions to problems. Often, we have had to work out practical solutions taking limited resources into account. I think that this is under threat.
Even if we take the current focus on innovation at its face value, and it is a fairly narrow concept as often expressed, there is (I would argue) little in our current education system that encourages kids to think in new ways. At best, we teach them to do existing things in a more efficient and effective fashion.
There is, of course, a balance question in all this.
I am not saying that there are not good schools or inspiring teachers in the current system, nor do I see education and training as mutually exclusive.
In the early stages of the Dawkins revolution in Australia, I was actually a strong supporter of the introduction of standards based competency approaches within the education and training system. I saw it as a way of improving standards, of increasing diversity, of freeing up rigidities that had crept into the official system.
The Dawkins revolution - a true education revolution - was driven by the need to improve an industrial system that had become too rigid and sclerotic. For that reason, it focused on skills formation and on measurement based approaches. What I had not expected, but should have in hindsight, was the wholesale application of the new approaches in a rigid way independent of the need to be met.