Education policymakers have their heads fixed in the wrong direction, forcing teachers to take their “eyes off the ball” when it comes to preparing students for the future, a new report has argued.
Titled Beyond Certainty: A Process for Thinking About Futures for Australian Education and commissioned by the Australian Secondary Principals’ Association (ASPA), the report presents a scathing assessment of our current education agenda.
Author Professor Alan Reid from the University of South Australia says he is “concerned” that schools are suffering under a sweeping policy that fails to come to grips with the demands of the future.
He blames a fixated penchant for PISA and NAPLAN scores as just one case in point.
“I think the research from here and overseas, show those (standardising) directions, really aren’t working and aren’t up to meeting the needs of the future,” Reid tells EducationHQ.
“I am speaking about this heavy reliance on standardised tests like PISA, and NAPLAN, which I think I serve in the end ... to narrow the curriculum and take educators' eyes off the ball.”
The ‘ball’ Reid speaks of encompasses a “whole range of other things that students need to be able to know and do to make their way in the world".
The expert says he set out in the paper to explore the tension between the innovation agenda that schools rightly want to follow, and the rigid ‘one size fits all’ approach pushed by policymakers.
“I was intrigued that there are two parallel discourses,” Reid explains.
“If you like, ‘conversations’ that are going on about education; the standardising one and then you talk to teachers and others involved in education about the future and they are doing some exciting things, and they have a kind of ‘futures’ focus - but it’s the standardising agenda that’s winning out.”
Determined to deduce why the vision generated by teachers and school leaders at the coalface is seemingly denied at the systems level, Reid delved into some research of his own. He found:
• there is no agreement about the purposes of education today and into the future;
• there is not a deep consideration of the key social, economic, political and environmental challenges facing our society today, and what role education can play in meeting these challenges;
• there are no assessment mechanisms to help policy makers and the community make judgments about the quality of education systems. The few measures being used, such as the international PISA test, do not provide an accurate reading of our educational health, and are actually harmful;
• some of the proposals in the recent Gonski 2.0 report, if accepted, will make things worse;
• lastly, there are a range of misunderstandings in the public debate about important aspects of teaching and learning.
On the first point, Reid argues schools have been left to flounder aimlessly through a curriculum that lacks clear purpose.
“Unless you have a reference point to say ‘yes, this is what we are trying to achieve’ it's then very difficult to know the direction you should take.
“So I make the point in the paper that we should return to the purposes of education and look more closely at them.
"And when I did that I came up with some very general purposes; education is about preparing young people to be young citizens, members of our democracy, preparing young people for the workforce, [for entry] into the labour market, developing young people to their fullest potential ... and developing people who have the capacities to move in a multicultural and diverse society...”
To meet these aims, those setting our education agenda need to expand their vision.
“I am saying that education policy makers are too inward looking.
"I think schools are doing their upmost best.
“One of the things I argue, is that we have to trust our teachers and trust their professionalism and expertise to a much greater extent that we have done.
"Policymakers, I think, aren’t focused on these bigger issues or questions.”
Reid asserts a contemporary curriculum needs to cover and include disciplinary learning, interdisciplinary learning, general capabilities and a new concept he’s coined as ‘meta-learning’.
“I proposed a (meta-learning) framework, which draws together all that we know about learning in different ways.
"So the things that we have learnt about the brain through neuroscience and brain plasticity, the things we know about sensory learning or emotional learning, or learning through physical development or languages learning, what we know about work in cognitive psychology.”
Andrew Pierpoint, president of the ASPA, has hailed the paper as a “ground-breaking”, offering that is “rich in ideas”.
Yet as to whether his report will stimulate change from the top, Reid is openly sceptical.
“I don’t think the Government is going to pick up this report and say ‘ah, here is the blueprint for the future’, so I had the freedom to propose a range of different ideas.”