Are Our Teachers Failing Themselves?

Johanna O’Farrell started it. She wrote an article for The Age titled ‘Splashing Cash won’t Fix Australia’s Broken Education System‘. The piece was basically a tirade against 21st century learning from the point of view of a secondary teacher. There have already been a few responses written including +Mel Cashen‘s ‘Why our schools are NOT failing your children‘ and +Celia Coffa‘s ‘Why Our Schools Are Not Failing Your Children – Another Teacher Tells‘. Both of which shared their passion about why schools are not failing. Leaving the hyperbole and exclusive language aside, I would like to add my own response by unpacking a few of O’Farrell’s arguments a bit further.
 

Reading … Books?

O’Farrell states:
Instead, the strategy is that children will simply learn to read and write ”by osmosis”. This is all well and good for children from families where reading is habitual. However, those from households where television and video games constitute the main part of a child’s ”diet” fall by the wayside.
I have two questions for this, firstly why ‘books’ and secondly, is ‘reading’ the real issue? In regards to the first question, I was reminded of a post written by +Kynan RobinsonDigital Literacy, Gaming and Contemporary Narrative Writing‘ in which he spoke about the rise of digital media and what it offers. One of the key points is that it is a considerable shift from the way we considered literacy in yesteryear. In addition to this, some of the dominant forms of writing and consumption, such as novels and film, are now dead as a medium. They no longer have the same power to engage and persuade, basically because they are linear in nature. When I think about the novel, I am taken back to the Victorian era and the rise of the locomotive, where people would read Charles Dickens in serial form, similar to the way we watch shows like Breaking Bad, where people by subscriptions for instalments. Sadly what O’Farrell is unwilling to recognise is that everything has its time and that maybe there are more texts out there than just books.
 
Associated with what texts are chosen is the actual act of ‘reading’. As I have stated in the past, reading is only one part of the equation, the bigger concern from my point of view is students actually responding. The problem is that students are often forced to respond, whether it be creatively or in the form of an essay. They are denied the ‘rights of the reader’ as Daniel Pennac would put it. I think what stands out most about Pennac’s list is his one warning, “don’t make fun of people who don’t read or else they never will.” So often the students who succeed in exam environments and with writing essays are those that actually care, rather than those with ability. The bigger challenge for students is to get them to engage with texts and write what they feel needs to be written, not simply what someone else has told them to write. For that we can only guide and nurture them, encourage and support, not just force and coerce.
 

The Great Primary/Secondary Schism

O’Farrell states:
What I see is that the vast majority of students simply do not have the intellectual skills to meet the demands of the secondary school curriculum. So, understandably, they disengage. 
I was a little confused by the appeal to ‘intellectual skills’. I sometimes get concerned that the secondary sector itself is letting students down by not following on from the example set by primary school. In a previous post I spoke about education being like a river. Students all find their own way to the river and then meander through primary school. However, when they get to secondary school, the delta of all learning, they take many different and divergent paths. What this often leads to is a fear amongst some educators that students may miss out on a particular piece of knowledge or a certain skill, such as our origins in Medieval Europe or what BOLTSS stands for. That is how I used to think until an aide, with no bachelor or post-graduate diploma, just the instincts of a mother, who was working with me, pointed out that what students often remember is incidental and usually more about relationships than the content. The greatest fear is that we have the danger of killing creativity, as Sir Ken Robinson put it in his 2006 Ted Talk ‘How Schools Kill Creativity‘. He argued that often we only accept a certain type of student and subsequently deny many students the opportunity to blossom and shine. He gave the example of Gillian Lynne, a famous dancer, who was having problems in school, until someone uncovered her passion.
 

ICT as a Facilitator

O’Farrell states:

ICT in recent years has been treated as education’s ”silver bullet”. But I believe ICT is in fact little more than a gimmick – and I know that the novelty of it as a tool for engagement is fast wearing off.
I was particularly saddened to see ICT been spoken about as a merely being a tool for engagement. When you think about the SAMR model, using technology in this way is nothing other than a substitution for what is already been done. It denies the opportunity to utilise technology to redefine the way students are taught. More significantly, it denies the fact that ICT has “shaped behaviours, cultures, classrooms, schools and contexts” as +Peter Skillen has suggested. Although personally we may not agree with all of these changes, it is not good enough to put your head in the ground and deny it.

What’s Good for the Goose is Good for the Gander?

O’Farrell states:
We need only to think of many of Australia’s best and brightest, or indeed the great poets, artists, scientists and orators of the 20th century, to realise that a blackboard and chalk, a pen and paper, a few good books and some learned teachers sufficed. Indeed, in the case of my own parents – both baby boomers and both competent users of English and proficient mathematicians – the absence of open-plan learning, iPads and interactive whiteboards in their classrooms does not seem to have been too detrimental.
I always thought that the purpose of history was to add perspective to the present and recognise how and why things changed. I am not sure how much perspective O’Farrell is demonstrating. Just as the world changes, so do we. Many of the jobs that the baby boomers did no longer suffice. +Celia Coffa sums it up best when she says, “education reflected the society that I lived in. Do we really want our students to be educated in a system that reflects a society of 10 – 20 – 30 – 40 years ago?” In addition to this, I believe that many of Australia’s best and brightest often succeed in spit of their education. Whenever I think about Australia’s artists and authors I am reminded of a culture of exploration and experimentation. Fine they had to learn their trade somewhere, but it is often within communes like the Heidelberg School, rather than at an actual formal schools. It just seems far to simplistic to equate artistic expression and scientific innovation with rote learning.
 

What Feedback and For Who?

O’Farrell states:
Student teachers in primary schools have been told they can’t correct a child’s spelling, but instead must identify and congratulate the student on all the letters they got right.
I understand that intuitively it seems wrong to not be able to correct a spelling test, isn’t the sole purpose of it, to tell a student whether they are right or wrong. However, when you take a step back and consider such rote situations as spelling tests and times table races, two questions come to mind: what is the purpose of the actual task and how does the feedback support students with their learning. So often students hammer through test after test, based on words, knowledge and ideas that are chosen for them, not by them. Simply telling them what they got right or wrong gives us an indication as to where they may be at, but it does not really help them improve in regards to their spelling. If you look at John Hattie’s infamous effect size list, it is interesting that above feedback is self-report grades. Students self-managing their own learning, setting goals, reviewing them, supporting each other, surely this is the ideal, rather than teacher dictated learning, where students are told they are either right or wrong, where the feedback is restricted to the task at hand, where results are given months later, with little to take away for future learning. From a constructivist point of view, our focus should be on how we solve problems and develop solutions by connecting and collaborating with others, instead of being a font of all knowledge.
 

Behaviour vs. Relationships

O’Farrell states:
I have not even mentioned the enormous challenges relating to discipline and poor student behaviour.
What is frustrating is that she has not spoken at all about the importance of relationships. I am of the belief that if you provide an engaging and purposeful curriculum and show some interest in the lives and interests of the students, then poor behaviour and discipline issues will sort themselves out. However, if you enter the classroom with discipline on your mind, rather than relationships, should there be any surprise if students show poor behaviour? 

 

 

To Include or Exclude, That is the Question

At the end of the day, everyone is entitled to their opinion and maybe the furore carried out on Twitter has gone a bit far. As Mark O’Meara put it:

There have to be better responses than piling onto people who say things we find disagreeable. Self-righteous rage not all that constructive
— Mark O’Meara (@MarkOMeara) December 22, 2013

However, what concerned me most about Johanna O’Farrell’s piece is that it kills the conversation. Although it was highly emotive piece, it was almost too emotive. While there is little evidence or statistics used to support I am really confused about what Johanna wished to achieve by writing her piece. Are teachers like Johanna O’Farrell in fact failing themselves and their colleagues? If things are to evolve, it will only be through dialogue and I just don’t know how open Johanna is to continuing the conversation. For now, the bear has been baited and the tribe has united.


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Aaron Davis

I am an Australian educator whose life has granted a breadth of opportunities. I also have a keen interest in ICT and 21st Century pedagogies. My current role finds me supporting schools with the integration of technology.

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