The release of the report authored by David Gonski and his committee, commonly referred to as Gonski 2 and actually named Through Growth to Achievement has unleashed a large number of media and social media reports, commentary and opinions.
All types of media struggle in reporting on school education for a number of reasons. Firstly, school education is both complex and yet simple. It is simple in that most school operate in similar ways and we all know about school education as we all attended school or our children and grandchildren currently attend school.
Yet schools are also complex. They are about people and learning. In our case about 1000 people come and go from the site each day, creating multiple perspectives and views on what occurs each day at school.
As a school principal, the school where I currently work is nothing like what school was like when I started teaching, let alone my memories of the schooling I received. A school education today is much richer, more varied, subtle and focused more on the learning of each child, where teachers adapt lessons, provide individual help and vary the structure of lessons when covering complex material. This was much less the case when I started teaching.
A media story is usually relatively short. It needs simplicity. It requires a ‘hook’ to get you interested and to have you keep reading. A good story thrives on tension or conflict and thus there is a tendency towards a story taking an approach to a report on schools or school education, where any aspect being reported is either good or bad.
As an example, positive reports on Gonski 2 point to an increasing focus on student’s development of general capabilities and raising the status of these general capabilities. General capabilities include critical and creative thinking, ethical and intercultural capabilities, personal and social capabilities. Critical responses point out that Gonski fix puts basics at risk (Headline page 7, The Weekend Australian May 5-6 2018) with one of my peers in Sydney reported as describing the Gonski report as a hidden danger for education, with so-called 21st century skills coming at the expense of traditional knowledge-centred learning.
The reality is that staff at great schools are already managing these complexities and defining a balance that works for students and is aligned with parental expectations.
As a school principal, I spend a lot of my time ensuring that we meet the needs of current students as well as we possibly can and that we are developing the skills and systems that we will need to meet the needs of the students who graduate from the school in the future.
For example, the students currently in Prep and thus six years of age this year will be 18 years of age in 12 years’ time when they graduate in 2030. If you look back 12 years (2006) and consider the changes that have occurred in that time, it is easy to come to the conclusion that the world of 2030 that year 12 graduates will enter will be considerably different. Yet it is quite difficult to know how it will be different.
As a result, I have come to define a narrative of three journeys that will position a child in 2018 for success in their adult life beginning in 2030.
Each of these journeys works best with a collaborative partnership amongst the adults in a child’s life, especially parents and teachers.
The first journey is the development of personality and character, the definition of values, moral, spiritual and ethical frameworks and boundaries; the foundations of how we define ourselves as an individual, a family member and part of a community. This journey is heavily defined and influenced by parents, with the school a strong and supportive influence. A student spends considerable time at school, experiencing the school’s particular culture and style, social norms and expectations. Where the values of the school and family align closely, students move seamlessly from home to school and back with little discernible difference in social norms and expectations.
The second journey is the traditional academic journey of school, where a strong knowledge base is developed and literacy and numeracy are a strong focus in the younger years. This traditional knowledge-centred learning remains critically important despite the common cliché that it is no longer important as you can look anything up online. This tradition remains important for many reasons, but two are worthy of mention.
Older adults grew up without any online access and thus our knowledge base was developed through traditional means. We had access to knowledge through books at home and in the public and school libraries. Nearly all the books we accessed had been filtered or approved by well-educated adults who cared about our education (parents, teachers and librarians). Thus in an online world we have a well-established traditional knowledge base by which to judge online information. Even then, I have difficulty at times distinguishing truth from lie, quality from dross, fact from opinion.
I have great empathy for the difficulty young people at school face when they have access to unlimited online information and have to use a knowledge base that remains in the early stages of development as a major means of discernment and decision making. They need adult assistance.
The third journey through school is the development of the skills and attitudes commonly called General Capabilities in curriculum documents and 21st century skills in the popular media. These skills and attitudes cannot be taught, learned, developed, practised or refined in a content free zone. Thus a knowledge base must be used for the development of these skills and attitudes.
Indeed, the manner in which these skills are learned and exhibited differs, dependent upon the discipline in which they are practised. Creativity differs in the context of a Science discipline such as Chemistry, compared to what creativity looks like in a discipline from the Arts such as Drawing. Even within the Arts, creativity differs between Drama and Drawing. Thus a strong and solid knowledge base remains an important component of school education; the second journey to adulthood.
The third journey is not new but has perhaps taken on greater significance in a time of developing Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and the proliferation of robots undertaking repetitive tasks, whether these repetitive tasks are physical or mental.
The third journey through childhood into young adulthood, that is through the school years is one of developing the skills for thriving in a fast changing and complex world, and understanding how to enjoy and thrive in in that world.
The skills of the third journey are sometimes called the Four C’s: skills in critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. They are ‘people skills’ or ‘soft skills’ and the development of high levels of skills in these areas combined with the attributes from the other two journeys creates a coherent whole, a person who thrives.
Schools are inherently human places. The quality of a school depends upon the quality of the people within that school community, especially staff. High quality schools are well led by teams of staff who combine all three journeys described above in to a coherent experience for students at school, working in partnership with parents.
Great teachers connect with students, building positive relationships; they explicitly and positively influence and shape students; they model good thinking skills and provoke student thinking and finally, great teachers position their students for success in their short and long term future.
Please be wary of simplistic solutions to complex matters. They are rarely accurate.