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Friday, March 9, 2012

Education's next important step.

I worked as a teacher aide in a city state school for two years and as a teacher in a country state school for two and a half years.  In my time at these schools I observed many children who our system deems "at risk".  These kids were not just slipping through the cracks, they had gone.  There was little left that the current education system could do for them.  They were practically illiterate, innumerate, had no self-worth and no motivation to try to do anything to improve their own education.

I also saw kids who were highly motivated, had a fabulous outlook on life and were getting exceptional grades.  It distressed me that these students had no real skills which would benefit them out in the world.  What I mean is, that they could use a formula, write a story, read a book and pass a test.  What concerns me is that they had no idea how to manage money and it didn't occur to them that there was an alternative to getting a job or going to university for further study to get a different type of job.  Even then, they don't have the interview skills to be able to get a job, let alone negotiate wages.

Within Queensland's Educational curriculum I was unable to help either of these groups of children.  The new Australian curriculum also does not allow for students to gain the necessary assistance.  Here's why:

1.   Students are assigned a grade based on their age.  This does not allow for gifted students or those requiring extra support to get the help they need to progress at their own level.  Teachers are unable to help students because they have to teach a certain level to this group as a whole.  Even if the entire class is  at a level lower than they should be, the teacher still has to teach the work at which they should be, because they have to report on that higher level.  For example, I might have a class of fifteen year old students.  They are in grade ten.  The grade ten curriculum requires that they learn algebra to a certain difficulty level.  The parents are expecting a report on their child's progress at this level from A to E.  To give them this report, I must assess the students at this difficulty level, to assess them, I must therefore teach this work.  No problem so far, I'm all for giving kids the opportunity to excel.  But if I teach everything on the year ten maths curriculum, I don't have time to catch these kids up on things that they don't understand that they should have mastered by grade 5.  And tell me, what is the point of standing up in front of a class and explaining pythagoras' theorem when the entire class of kids themselves think that 4.12 is bigger than 4.4?  They don't get it, they don't care and they're not going to do the work anyway so why not just teach place value instead?  Because I have to give them a test so that their parents know that their kid is an E standard in year 10 maths?

2.  The work the students are expected to do, conditions them for a world in which we no longer live.  Before computers, it would have been an advantage to be able to recall vast amounts of information.  A person who was good at learning facts could have gone far in a company.  Now there is no need to be able to recall huge amounts of data.  Science has shown that within days after learning something, we recall barely ten percent of what we have learned.  Even if we memorise something, unless we use the information regularly, we will forget it soon enough anyway.  So what is the point of the current forms of testing in schools?  Would it not be better to give students the skills to find the information they need rather than learn complex formulas and historical facts.  There is nothing in the world resembling the current form of "tests".  Even if people are given the data, and a time frame in which to extrapolate some meaning from it, they are given days or weeks, not mere hours and they have access to other research tools, other people's skill sets and opinions on which they can draw to gain an answer.  Instead of "Testing" our kids individually, should we not be encouraging and teaching teamwork, communication, negotiation, research and critical analysis of sources?

3.  The subject matter which is compulsory in schools barely gives students any skills which they will require on completion of their studies.  By all means, teach the kids to read and write and do basic mathematics, but beyond year eight, the conditioning process begins and students are only being prepared for a life of further study.  Think about what every person does when they leave school.  They have to earn an income in some way.  They have to drive a car.  They have to vote in government elections.  They are likely to enter a romantic relationship.  None of these things are addressed in school.  English, Maths, Science and History should take a back seat to new subjects which teach our kids something useful.  If they want to read Shakespeare down the track, or learn calculus, by all means, let them at it. But how about we teach our kids how to find work, both with an employer, and on their own merit.  How about we give them communication, negotiation and teamwork skills to be able to run a committee or speak to an employer in an interview.  What if we have an entire subject on responsible driving and get them all a car, bus, motorbike, heavy vehicle and powerboat licence before they leave school.  What if the majority of Australians were taught about our current political systems and were encouraged to speculate on its merits.  What if relationships and parenting were subjects taught over five years during high school?  Would our divorce rate drop?  What would the next generation of kids benefit from that?  Let's teach financial management as a subject instead of a brief unit in one strand of a Maths option (a perceived lesser option that the "Smart" kids don't take).  How would our country fare if everyone knew how to maintain a surplus monetary fund?  Our "A" students are not tomorrows leaders, they are tomorrow's followers.  They are fully conditioned to work hard, get a good job, not challenge authority, vote for the party representing the working class, and pass on these values to their kids.  How often do we hear that our leaders (I'm not talking political leaders) and wealthy people were school dropouts.

4. The school terms are not conducive to learning.  Let's argue for a minute that what students are taught in school is actually worth learning, and for primary school, I do believe that it is.   Our current school year is made up of four, ten-week terms with a fortnights break between them.   The first four weeks of each term is filled with productive learning.  The teachers are motivated and organised, the students are refreshed from their break and everyone is on top of their game.  Then we get mid-term testing and everyone breaths a sigh of relief that the unit is over.  After about week six, it's a hard slog for everyone.  Teachers are burned out and students are tired.  Lessons drag, and everyone is counting the days until the final week of term.  More testing takes place and student attendance starts to drop off during the last two weeks of term.  Whilst schools maintain a policy of teaching right up to the last minute, no real learning takes place in that last week.  Ten weeks is just too long... for everybody.  My suggestion is that we shorten the terms to six weeks.  You can fit six units of six weeks into the calendar year with two weeks break in between each one and a six week break at Christmas (our summer holiday).  You lose four weeks from our current model, but if the last week of term is just filling in time at the moment, what is the difference?  Spend the first five weeks teaching and learning and the last week completing assignments (not tests).  Have a break and begin again refreshed and revived.

I will be home-schooling my children through their primary years because I live in a rural/remote area.  I'd like them to be able to attend a high school for social reasons as well as resources that I do not have at home.  I'd like my children to be able to stand in front of a room of people and speak confidently.  I can't teach them that when there are no other students here.  But I will not accept that they be conditioned in the manner in which the Australian public is currently schooled.  I have twelve years, I guess, to write a new curriculum and start a new type of school.  I would appreciate any and all help in this crusade.  Please contact me by email if you have anything to contribute.

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