The future of education in Canberra?

By 10 December, 2011 20

The University of Canberra’s Vice-Chancellor Stephen Parker gave the Don Aitkin lecture last week and he’s now posted it on his blog.

It’s something I think you should all read in full, unless you are already very, very smart it will make you smarter.

But for mine the essence of it is this bit.

In educational terms, Assurance and Assessment are our competitive advantages. Our currency is our testamur. We in universities will need to move our focus more towards assessment, and the rock-solid accreditation this implies, and accept that students will find many different pathways towards earning it. We curate the content. We draw a routemap with many different routes. But we alone tell the world that the students have arrived there.

EIGHT PROPOSITIONS

1. Although possibly changing, our approach to education systems is still based on a view of people and society appropriate to the industrial age.

2. Continued adherence to it will hold Australia back in global competition, based as it will be on innovation and services, and it will damage our people.

3. Conversely, moving beyond it will advantage Australia relatively.

4. We need a period of deliberate experimentation to design a post-industrial educational system: or, possibly, not a system at all, but “a genuine ecology of talent” (Robinson).

5. Australia has a perennial skills crisis (even in times of unemployment), seems always to be surprised by it, and presumably hopes that immigration will come to the rescue, as long as people arrive politely by plane. But :

• fundamentally, however good our institutions and teachers, our education system isn’t designed to maximise everyone’s talents and so it fails to enthuse all students (with an increasing problem in relation to Anglo-background males);

• unless we transform our approach to education, our population size might always be too small to deliver our desired standard of living.

6. Conceptual distinctions around which our education system has been structured for generations are outmoded, and in practice are violated for reasons explained more by social class than intellectual rigor:

• vocational institutions now offer generalist programs;

• higher education institutions now offer very narrow ones and are shifting to work-integrated learning, skills training and so on;

• numerous subjects now offered in universities, such as languages, performing arts and music could validly be described as “vocational”. And what about medicine?

All these labels such as academic, vocational, practical, higher and training have become problematic differentiators. All our comfortable distinctions are collapsing.

7. Institutional boundaries do matter, however: a strong sense of institutional mission is a powerful driver of success.

• Being the best at what you set out to do is a fine goal;

• There is no point in setting out to do anything, or staying in it, unless you can credibly strive to be good at it;

• The omniversity isn’t about dabbling in a bit of everything.

8. The notion of research-led education in universities, and the systems and arrangements built around it, is too expensive and inconvenient to apply across the board on the scale of system that a developed country like Australia is considering. Something will have to give.

THE UC GROUP

Imperfectly, no doubt, and with much more to be worked out and failures to confront, these experiences, ideas and propositions have led to the UC omniversity idea; an idea about education for life, where different members of the UC Group provide distinct forms of education, connected by a common series of values. If we get this right, students can be exposed to numerous styles of education. Teachers, too, can see the innovations of teachers in other institutions whom they might never otherwise even meet.

And one of the reasons this is so exciting is that each member of the group provides scale to all the others. UC can confer on UC Senior Secondary College discipline strengths that no school on its own could ever acquire: after all, hundreds of millions of dollars have gone into us over four decades. UC Poly will experiment with new learning technologies, to benefit the whole Group. UC Schools can work with our Education Faculty so that our trainee teachers have the most practical experience of any in the country. And so on.

In part it’s the university trying to future proof itself against the distance education tsunami which is threatening to sweep away a great many educational edifices.

But in terms of the ludicrous and harmful nature of our current education system and the need to replace it with something much better I think he’s spot on.

As with all things the devil lies in the detail, and good ideas are worthless if they’re not executed well.

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20 Responses to The future of education in Canberra?
#1
26041:56 pm, 10 Dec 11

There is some merit to some of what he says, but a lot of it is the same new-age nonsense which has caused many of the current problems in government education in the ACT in particular.

Point 4 in particular is wrong-headed, ie, the idea that we need a “period of deliberate experimentation”. Experimentation is fine in the abstract, but education doesn’t take place in the abstract. It involves the lives of real people, most of whom will have no real opportunities in life other than the opportunity to get a good education and use it. You can’t afford to experiment with some new education system or process for a few years and then revert to the old one which worked better, because in the meantime an entire cohort of people will have been disadvantaged.

Likewise, point 5 talks about “failing to enthuse all students”. This idea that school and university have to be tailored to appeal to students and keep their interest and attention at all times amounts to pandering of the worst kind and can only lead to dumbing down. The reality is that to get anywhere in life you at times need to do things that you find tedious, or boring, or a chore. Home study, or maths problems, or research, can be extremely boring for students, however they are the means to a very valuable end, and getting rid of them makes it impossible to get to that end.

I recently went to a retirement function for the vice-principal of my old high school (incidentally, the one also attended by JB and Jazz). He had taught for 40 years. He made the point that he had seen countless new theories and reforms and fads in education over those 40 years. In the end, people always revert to traditional teaching models (in the school context – students respecting teachers, stringent rules of conduct, homework being set), because that is what works.

#2
madamcholet2:02 pm, 10 Dec 11

I heard Stephen Parker being interviewed on 666 ABC last week and my god does he make some sense. One thing that I heard him say, and hopefully interpreted correctly, is that the education system should be looked at as a whole – starting at pre-school, which makes enormous sense – we educate our kids form the day dot these days in very formal ways starting through childcare. I know that our child care centre is curriculum based and not just a set and forget place until you pick them up at the end of the day, but obviously it’s also a privately funded facility so not related to the national system at all, but probably takes some leads from there.

Will take some time to digest those points, and will endeavour to read the whole thing as it sounds so interesting.

#3
poetix3:09 pm, 10 Dec 11

‘Universities can become huge flight deck simulators.’ Sounds awfully Biggles to me, and somehow worrying, as if a simulacrum of learning is replacing knowledge. I still believe that universities should be primarily about research. The best ones, anyway.

#4
GardeningGirl5:00 pm, 10 Dec 11

2604 said :

There is some merit to some of what he says, but a lot of it is the same new-age nonsense which has caused many of the current problems in government education in the ACT in particular.

Point 4 in particular is wrong-headed, ie, the idea that we need a “period of deliberate experimentation”. Experimentation is fine in the abstract, but education doesn’t take place in the abstract. It involves the lives of real people, most of whom will have no real opportunities in life other than the opportunity to get a good education and use it. You can’t afford to experiment with some new education system or process for a few years and then revert to the old one which worked better, because in the meantime an entire cohort of people will have been disadvantaged.

Likewise, point 5 talks about “failing to enthuse all students”. This idea that school and university have to be tailored to appeal to students and keep their interest and attention at all times amounts to pandering of the worst kind and can only lead to dumbing down. The reality is that to get anywhere in life you at times need to do things that you find tedious, or boring, or a chore. Home study, or maths problems, or research, can be extremely boring for students, however they are the means to a very valuable end, and getting rid of them makes it impossible to get to that end.

I recently went to a retirement function for the vice-principal of my old high school (incidentally, the one also attended by JB and Jazz). He had taught for 40 years. He made the point that he had seen countless new theories and reforms and fads in education over those 40 years. In the end, people always revert to traditional teaching models (in the school context – students respecting teachers, stringent rules of conduct, homework being set), because that is what works.

+1

Three decades ago the big new thing was splitting secondary education into high school and college, now it’s back together and throw the primary years in there too.

Education is education, it’s not entertainment. Hopefully students will have the benefit of inspiring educators and they will gain a sense of satisfaction from their own efforts and looking back they will consider it overall an enjoyable time in their lives, but there is a purpose and it’s not merely to keep them entertained and enthused. I’ve seen the dumbing down that results from that at high school.

#5
Filipio8:49 pm, 10 Dec 11

The biggest problem higher ed institutions in Canberra face is longstanding: a small catchment area of potential students, combined with an established lack of willingness among school leavers in Australia to move from their city of residence for undergrad study.

With the imminent lifting of course quotas, the situation will only get worse for ANU and UC — a proportion of Canberra undergrads will be drawn to larger cities elsewhere for the experience/change, but the reverse hasn’t been true and isn’t likely to become so.

How to continue to attract undergrads to study in Canberra (let alone increasing numbers) will become a huge challenge. And high home rental costs aren’t helping.

I suspect the ‘research-led’ model will be inevitable as undergrad numbers slump and the main earner and focus becomes post-grads. People will move, even internationally, to seek appropriate expertise for higher degrees.

#6
Classified5:19 am, 11 Dec 11

As someone who has had the painful task of interviewing and hiring graduates, the biggest problem seems to have gone unnoticed: that too many degrees are too easy to get. I’ve seen kids come out of courses with almost no ability at all in the supposed area of study (even the standard textbook stuff is missing), and many with zero skills in communication, including the ability to write a simple sentence and prepare a report. How these kids got through their course I have no idea. Sometimes I think it would be better to hire straight out of highschool/college, make them work for a year then decide which ones would be sent to uni, which would be kept without further study and which ones shown the door.

#7
trevar8:17 am, 11 Dec 11

2604 said :

In the end, people always revert to traditional teaching models (in the school context – students respecting teachers, stringent rules of conduct, homework being set), because that is what works.

I don’t think your retiring VP is entirely wrong; teachers do revert to old methods, but it’s not because they work. They only work in a few circumstances. Teachers revert to them for the reason given in Stephen Parker’s first proposition; that our school system is old. And I disagree with him on one detail too.

The education system we have is not based on an Industrial Age system; it’s based on a late 15th Century system, which last underwent significant modification in the Industrial Age. The reason teachers revert to industrial age pedagogy (and as a teacher I’ve done this myself) is because it fits comfortably into the structure of the school system. That doesn’t mean it works universally; it works for upper-middle and upper class Caucasian females with English as a first language, and a few males and a few non-Caucasians and a few folk with English as a second or later language. That’s a reasonable swathe of the population, but barely even a majority! A better result is possible, but only if reform is driven by research and development.

I hold out very little hope in reality for any change to this. The leaders of our school systems are not educators, they’re mostly lawyers who have no background in educational practice and whose driving energy is political ambition rather than pedagogy. So rather than change being driven by empirical pedagogical research and its application, it is driven by the electorate, which by its nature resists deep change. So until we can drive educational reform by educational experts rather than politicians, valuable reform is impossible.

The National Curriculum is a case in point. It could have been an opportunity to develop a curriculum relevant to the educational landscape and pedagogical knowledge. But because of the political process around it, what we ended up with is essentially nothing more than a statistical average of the eight curricula that preceded it. It’s a basis for mediocrity.

And mediocrity will remain the outcome of our education system until reform is driven by pedagogy rather than politics. There is thus no hope for valuable reform.

#8
johnboy11:07 am, 11 Dec 11

I put it to you all, by way of example, that a teacher would be better positioned to track the development and wellbeing of a student with one hour a week of 1 on 1 review of what they’ve learned.

5 students a day for five days gives the same sort of teacher student ratios we have now, but instead of droning into glazed eyes they’d actually be having a conversation.

The rest of the teaching as information delivery can be done electronically with scope for far better presentations than a bored teacher unfamiliar with the material can deliver.

You’d still need labs, and offices, and studios, but do any defenders of the current system really believe a teacher writing words from a text book onto a white board to be copied down by students is really the most effective way to teach?

That’s training for the scribe and clerical work of the 18th and 19th centuries, obsoleted many times over.

#9
Jethro11:18 am, 11 Dec 11

Your idea has merit JB.

However, I don’t think too many teachers teach using the ‘stand in front of a class and lecture’ approach any more. Any teacher who does that isn’t doing their job properly. (Obviously this is not the case at university, where the lecture is well and truly alive).

#10
johnboy11:24 am, 11 Dec 11

Jethro said :

Your idea has merit JB.

However, I don’t think too many teachers teach using the ‘stand in front of a class and lecture’ approach any more. Any teacher who does that isn’t doing their job properly. (Obviously this is not the case at university, where the lecture is well and truly alive).

True, but the thing is *ALL* group teaching would almost always be better delivered electronically, and huge swathes of exercises done electronically can also be marked that way.

The real question for the way we structure our schools is whether as a society we really prefer them to keep the kids off the streets.

But we seem to manage during school holidays.

#11
poetix11:50 am, 11 Dec 11

@JB’s comments
I would hate you to think that I support the Tom Brown’s Schooldays is the only way to go view of education, which some people here seem to have engrained into them. (My previous comment was directed more to universities than schools.) The one on one time is a good idea; my own child is changing from one system of education to another and actually spoke to the woman in charge of the new school for an hour; something that non-disruptive students (or, to put it in a more compassionate way, those students who do not have behavioural issues) just do not get at her current school.

However, a lot of knowledge actually comes from interaction, the exchange of ideas between the students and each other and the teacher, and there are also subjects such as music and drama that have groups at their core, and that can’t be changed, and shouldn’t be, IMHO. I am not anti-technology, and think that new means of communication can add richness to our lives (hence my addiction to this site!) but an approach that has students alone more seems to be ignoring emotional development.

Just as a side issue, many have touched on the difficulties boys have with education. This is not reflected in wage rates after education finishes. But the behaviour of some boys who are patently unhappy is one of the reasons my child is going to a girls’ school now.

#12
johnboy11:54 am, 11 Dec 11

poetix said :

@JB’s comments
I would hate you to think that I support the Tom Brown’s Schooldays is the only way to go view of education, which some people here seem to have engrained into them. (My previous comment was directed more to universities than schools.) The one on one time is a good idea; my own child is changing from one system of education to another and actually spoke to the woman in charge of the new school for an hour; something that non-disruptive students (or, to put it in a more compassionate way, those students who do not have behavioural issues) just do not get at her current school.

However, a lot of knowledge actually comes from interaction, the exchange of ideas between the students and each other and the teacher, and there are also subjects such as music and drama that have groups at their core, and that can’t be changed, and shouldn’t be, IMHO. I am not anti-technology, and think that new means of communication can add richness to our lives (hence my addiction to this site!) but an approach that has students alone more seems to be ignoring emotional development.

Just as a side issue, many have touched on the difficulties boys have with education. This is not reflected in wage rates after education finishes. But the behaviour of some boys who are patently unhappy is one of the reasons my child is going to a girls’ school now.

Actually music teaching is something of a model for my thinking. A hell of a lot of it is a one hour one on one lesson and then the student putting in hours of practice without direct supervision.

But as Stephen Parker says, there are many ways to learn and the trick will be having them available and finding what works for individuals rather than what works, not even for the majority, for the largest minority being imposed on all.

#13
ChrisN12:07 pm, 11 Dec 11

I completely agree with the author above and with some of the more astute observations below about the issues facing education today. Many detractors adhere to the “it it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” model – eg: ” In the end, people always revert to traditional teaching models (in the school context – students respecting teachers, stringent rules of conduct, homework being set), because that is what works.” Well often it doesn’t work, and children are educated in spite of it in many circumstances, either by the determination of the individuals, or the intervention by their parents.

The there are two major obstacles to change and improvement – Firstly homeostasis, where the system works to maintain itself above all else. It’s the familiar, the “we’ve always done it this way” approach, and the resistance to change is because of the homeostatic system to maintain itself. A bit like dieting, it is very hard to change your weight and move to a different way of being, even though you intentions are great. The homeostasis of our body tries to bring everything back to the way it was – what it is used to.

Secondly it’s the fear of change.

So often change = risk; change = loss… Almost every change in our lives means some kind of loss to someone. So, because we so often associate change with the loss of something or the risk of loosing something, we fight to avoid it – and respond to the fear. When you act in this fearful way, your reasoning system changes from logic to belief and reactivity. We either run away or fight – regardless of how valuable, obviously sensible or logical the suggested change is. To this we get responses defending the very system which is breaking down under modern pressures, when clearly new methodologies need to be established to teach our children and give them all the best things that good education can bring them. It’s not the TEACHERS who are the problem – it’s the system, and it’s also letting down the teachers.

A big trap many fall into, both for those calling for reform and those calling for re-entrenchment of the old system, is that they think reform = complete removal of everything existing to move to a new better system – the “Big Bang” approach. Not only is this a bad idea, it doesn’t work.

Our current system of education not all bad, but neither is it all good. The key I think, is to innovate with practical sense and with a positive view of continual improvement – some radical and some minor. A logical and considered approach, with a clear sense about what does and doesn’t work, must be a fundamental part of our education system.

However, change for the sake of change is rubbish, it has to make practical sense and be understood before application. Thus experimentation is not the abandonment of everything to try something new, but instead about introducing new concepts and ways and means to establish the value of such new ideas. ANd then to monitor it and scrutinise it. It need not result in a failed generation, because such changes can be tentatively, but positively introduced.

New methods need not be “new age” or about a “dumbing down”. In fact they should be the opposite – more challenging for the children. The last thing we need is children who are only as capable as we think they need to be. We need children who with our encouragement and teaching support, get to push their boundaries considerably. Our society still tends to treat children like they are idiots – disrespect moves in both directions – and that they are not as smart or as capable as adults, when in so many cases this has been shown to be quite wrong. They are FAR more capable than so many of us think they are. And the contempt and condescension to which some engaged in the education business, hold children and young people, makes a mockery of the very education system they are trying to preserve.

I think we also need to go to widely to teachers and ask them what they think an ideal world of education would look like. In the end, education reform and renewal is not simply about academic research any more than it is about political/bureaucratic NAPLAN testing. It’s about the creation and recreation of what helps our children in their striving quest for knowledge, skills and the development and honing of their specific talents. This practical side cannot easily be gleaned outside of the schools and colleges of our nation. We must see and hear the whole picture, no just that which we already know.

To strive for a better education system is NOT a bad thing, it’s vital for the development and future of our young who are moving into a more and more difficult world.

#14
Mumbucks12:39 pm, 11 Dec 11

There needs to be different models of education to cater for the different needs of students. They do not need to be congealed into one big pot. It won’t work. Further, having smaller ratios of teacher to students and using a tutorial like groups to recap what has been taught needs further extension work.

#15
Jethro12:50 pm, 11 Dec 11

johnboy said :

Jethro said :

Your idea has merit JB.

However, I don’t think too many teachers teach using the ‘stand in front of a class and lecture’ approach any more. Any teacher who does that isn’t doing their job properly. (Obviously this is not the case at university, where the lecture is well and truly alive).

True, but the thing is *ALL* group teaching would almost always be better delivered electronically, and huge swathes of exercises done electronically can also be marked that way.

I think you would be surprised to see how much the public schools in Canberra are already moving towards this type of online learning environment. Some schools (or more precisely, some teachers within some schools) have all of their coursework online, students submit their work online, receive feedback online, etc. Wikis, discussion boards, etc can be made available. Some teachers are doing incredible stuff with technology.

However, to expect that all kids will benefit by having ‘content’ all delivered electronically is to ignore the fact that this relies upon kids being motivated to access and read the content. It also assumes that all kids learn though reading. Unfortunately, kids who acquire content knowledge best through reading are in a minority.

Certainly, moving education from a classroom with a whiteboard at the front to an online environment is something we should want, but it can’t replace the classroom altogether.

#16
shadow boxer2:25 pm, 11 Dec 11

Isn’t it more about horses for courses. Most of the great education systems in the world now have middle schools catering for years 6,7,8.

Prior to that school is about learning by rote and teaching the three r’s and some basic social skills.

The real trick is getting thos kids in what I heard described as the other day “the emotionally charged middle school years”.

These kids need to removed from distractions, be placed in smaller schools where kids falling through the gaps can ber identified and they can and get taught how to study and how to learn in preparation for senior school.

Years 9 and 10 are then available to personalise the last two years (not everyone can be a doctor)

This is how it is done in ACT private schools and it is the opposite of the current super school concept. People are voting with their feet.

#17
Hanksinatra3:01 pm, 11 Dec 11

Canberra has the most highly “educated” urban population in Australia as an average. Fact
Canberra is the home of orthodoxy as a philosphy in Australia. Conjecture
Go figure

#18
Hanksinatra10:09 pm, 11 Dec 11

After carefully reading all posts here and considering fashions in conversations, would it not be of benifit to define education as opposed to training? At least in the humanities a clear distinction is a salient consideration.

#19
whitelaughter2:11 am, 12 Dec 11

ok, running through the full article:
- yes, we’re still largely stuck in the industrial age: but there’s nothing here that Toffler hadn’t written about back in the 1980s. (No complaints about the content, just pointing out that it’s not new).
- the importance of literacy to progress is well made, but overstated: increased literacy has been pushed in the Arab world so that they could read the koran, without the benefits that northern europe gained when increasing literacy for Bible-reading. *What* you read is important – don’t expect to build a civilization on the women’s weekly!
- the Bible society considers one of the reasons to translate the Bible into every language to ensure the survival of that language, so again, nothing new.
- the Enlightenment was a hankering for the bad old days of Greek philosophy, and brought back many bad habits. The insistence on experimentation came from the religious belief that the world was an artwork (by God the artist) and so could not be understood by the exclusive use of abstract thought – treating the universe as a machine though strips the need for experimentation, as the assumption is that it has to follow ‘rules’ (a belief that quantum mechanics should have shot down in flames).
- he is correct to warn us that the public service is not bound to Canberra. Easy communication and travel undercuts the need for a central location, and political expediency will inevitably move jobs to marginal electorates.
- yes, Canberra should seriously consider selling ourselves as an educational hub: with no sea or river port, no international airport nor natural resources, we have few alteratives! However, we are well set up for education, with multiple high profile educational institutions (don’t forget the military ones, btw).

#20
MariaC6:05 pm, 12 Dec 11

JB, what level of schooling are you talking about? I was assuming secondary, but 5 students a day for 5 days would only achieve the same teacher/student ratio if the other 4 classes they normally have to teach are eliminated. There would have to be an enormous increase in teaching numbers.

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