Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Has true innovation in Australian education declined?

I was at my e-publishing course tonight (What do you want to know about e-publishing? ) and time is limited.

In tonight's short post, I want to pick up just one important point from my last post. There I wrote:

Winton's Can democracies adapt? actually deals with a pretty fundamental problem. If you can't make mistakes, how can you advance? And how can you do things if everything has to be evaluated first in terms of risk?

In extending the argument, I want to make two points:

  1. Experimentation is important in testing new things in a controlled way.
  2. Experimentation has become more difficult, at least in the public sector.

If you look at the history of education in Australia, you will find that innovations that had long term impact often came from particular individuals who had ideas and who, by happenstance, found themselves in a position to test their ideas. You will also find constant find constant borrowings between jurisdictions as experiments that  seem to have worked in one jurisdiction were tested in another.

If you look at the history of education in Australia over the last twenty years, the period since the Dawkins reforms, you will find the opposite. The Dawkins reforms themselves were truly revolutionary, although their implementation was not. Since then, we find an emphasis on:

  1. National standardisation that has greatly reduced the capacity of individual jurisdictions to experiment.
  2. Command and control management systems including an emphasis on particular types of measurement that have greatly reduced freedom to experiment. People can do new things, but only if they fit within the existing rules.
  3. A rise in administrative overheads associated with compliance that increase costs and reduces resources available to actually do new things.
  4. The use of officially mandated pilots - controlled experiments - to test, but which must occur within narrowing bounds and whose primary purpose is actually to justify and refine previously made decisions.

Am I unfair? Maybe, but I would like to see a counter argument.   


Rummuser said...

Your post is as applicable to India as it is to Australia. The innovation that is usually top down every time there is a change in the government in the center or in the states results in public outcry and reverting to the status quo. Quite what needs to be done is a mystery to everyone and there are many arm chair pundits who advise on what is to be done. The latest is to bring in the German system of apprenticeship rather than higher education which may just be the right thing. Our graduates from all disciplines are simply unemployable and need to be given on the job training any way. Here is something that was reported just this morning.

Evan said...

Hi Jim, I guess you won't be surprised to hear that I absolute and completely agree without qualification.

Winton Bates said...

Me too!

Some of the stuff I have read about 'child centered education' suggests that it isn't good for all kids and makes it difficult for teachers to maintain order.

Instead of a sensible system of experimentation at local level we seem to have become locked into system-wide experiments imposed from the top.

Winton Bates said...

On second thoughts, perhaps I should qualify that a little. I think standard testing of core skills in literacy and numeracy is both possible and desirable to ensure minimal standards are being met in all schools. The argument that these skills are the basis for all learning seems to me to make a lot of sense.

I don't know enough about the way this testing is actually being done to be sure these objectives are being met.

Another point is that experimentation obviously involves measurement. However, the measurement required should probably include such things as ability of kids to get jobs when they leave school.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Ramana. I got your email.

As a general comment on the comments, I know from the education blogs that I follow that innovation is alive and well at teacher level. The problem as I see it is more systemic.

Current administrative systems are incredibly dense and complex. If you want to get a feel for this, try mapping them using Microsoft Project building in steps, decision points and estimated lags. It's actually suprising that anything gets done. It's not surprising that a lot of time is involved.

Then experimentation depends upon space to experiment in, resources to experiment with. The idea that systemic rigidities can impede new things is not knew. The term skunk works widely used in business, engineering, and technical fields to describe a group within an organization given a high degree of autonomy and unhampered by bureaucracy, tasked with working on advanced or secret projects. See

The problem in education is that scope for experimentation has narrowed, while its harder to find resources. There is no educational equivalent of a skunk works.

Winton, I have no problem with the testing of core skills. I do have a problem is this is seen as the centre of an "education revolution." The test becomes the end.