After all, just about everyone has been to school themselves and the majority of older people have had children or grandchildren at school.
Kevin Donnelly is no exception, except he’s an “expert”. He’s certainly a prodigious commentator: he’s written a couple of books on the subject and he’s the education commentator of choice in The Australian. You can go here for a fairly comprehensive selection of his commentary.
My problem with Donnelly is that, no matter how much he writes, he’s really only got one story. Australia’s education systems are failing and the remedy is "back to basics” - phonics, rote learning, highly structured and prescriptive teaching and learning.
Now, there are undoubtedly elements of the story which ring true. Nothing is perfect – continuous efforts at improvement are to be applauded, as we learned in Blog # 2 – and from time-to-time, as in all areas of human endeavour, teachers and education policymakers stuff up.
BUT: by and large, Australian schools do pretty well by most Australian kids.
At one level, I’m speaking from personal experience. I went to school and my posse of kids have been/are going to school. And it is my considered view that, in every single aspect, the education experience of my kids is more exciting, more interesting and far more demanding than my own.
And my story – that Australian schools are doing OK by Australian kids – is not merely based on the rather subjective measure of my “experience”: it’s supported by data.
You see, Kevin Donnelly would have us believe that the “failure” of Australian schools is supported by international surveys showing Australian school children falling further and further behind school children from other countries in literacy, numeracy and study of science.
This is simply not so, and Donnelly’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the data simply discredits, in my view, what ever elements of truth and insight his story may actually contain.
In the Programme for International Student Assessment of the OECD, it is true that Australian kids are “outperformed” on some measures by kids from some other countries. But the reverse also applies: Australian kids outperform kids from other countries on some other measures. Only the kids of Finland consistently outperform Australian kids on all measures, as they do all other kids in all other countries. Here"s an analysis of the 2003 results by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which concluded that
....Australian 15 year olds performed well when compared with 41 OECD and other countries across both mathematics and science scores. Australia's average (mean) scores of 524 in mathematics literacy and 525 in science literacy placed it above the OECD average of 500 for each skill area and in the top third of countries.
The then Commonwealth Minister, who was not given to gratuitous praise of Australian education, seemed pretty impressed too - OECD study ranks Australian school students amongst the world's best.
Admittedly, Donnelly is not a fan of PISA – he believes the results for Australian children are somehow “cooked” – so he defaults to Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies [TIMSS]. But that doesn’t really support his case much at all. For the 2003 TIMSS survey, in grade 8 mathematics, Australian children rated 14 out of 50 with a score of 505 as against the average of 467. With respect to science, the report noted that significant improvements in achievement occurred in seven countries, including Australia.
Any which way I look at the data, Australian kids do pretty well.
At the risk of falling into post-modernism – a particularly nasty affliction, apparently – I have come to the conclusion that there may be a distinctly ideological basis to the Donnelly critique.
Like John Howard (who launched his latest book a couple of weeks ago), Donnelly decries public education (and possibly Sydney C of E Girls Grammar School as well) as being “values free”. Well, it (they) would be values free if it weren’t for the legions of left-wing teachers polluting the minds of our little ones with such Maoist claptrap as tolerating diversity and pursuing independent inquiry in considering issues. And that damnable “black armband” view of Australian history would be positively subversive to the interests of the nation, if they taught Australian history (fortunately they don’t and Julie Bishop had a summit to prove that).
This brings me to one of Donnelly’s pet subjects, which could be described as – well, it’s the way I will describe it – the “liturgy of the canon”.
You see, before he became an expert, Donnelly was a secondary school English teacher and accordingly he has firm views on what constitutes the study of “English”. It seems to be classical literature, with the works of Shakespeare at its heart. This is the “canon” and, like the Bible, it is apparently immutable. Anything written after a particular point in time is likely to be suspect (although Donnelly’s not quite clear on this point – all I can work out is that if you haven’t read Shakespeare, you’re a bit of a nong if not an actual dunce).
I am quite fond of the work of Shakespeare myself, even though it is chock full of clichés. But don’t tell me that it is the end all and be all of “English”. While the study of Shakespeare would seem to me to be pretty important in the study of English literature and the evolution of the English language (aforementioned clichés), it‘s not actually essential to learning English as a language, as a means of communication. On that point, the English of Shakespeare is almost a foreign language compared to today’s English.
This is, in my experience, the way it’s been for a long while – it’s not merely a “modern” view or practice. When I did Year 12 – it may well have still been called “Matric”, that’s how long ago it was - there were 2 streams of English:
• “English” which was compulsory and which involved some study of literature – a couple of novels, a modern play or two but no Shakespeare – and a range of writing skills, - composition, précis and so on.
• “English Literature”, an intensive study of texts, including Shakespeare but also texts such as Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.
It seems to me to be much the same structure available to senior secondary students today but, in the general English component (still compulsory), taking account of a wider range of texts and media. Donnelly expresses outrage that analysis of SMS texts are accorded the same “value” as analysis of Shakespeare – I don’t think that’s the case (and I don’t see what any conventionally trained English teacher might teach any young person about SMSing, frankly). But is it an outrage that a contemporary English assignment might comprise a review of a film or TV program? Why? While I’m sure Shakespeare would be gratified – if not stunned – that some people read his plays for enjoyment and intellectual edification, surely he meant that his plays actually be performed, heard, viewed? Would Shakespeare have eschewed film and video, if it had been available to him? Is the study of a complete reinterpretation of Shakespeare, in modern settings and language (as in the recent series screened on ABC TV), completely devoid of educational merit?
Donnelly has other objections, in particular, the way in which English literature is taught. Here’s the flavour of what he’s got to say:
The South Australian Curriculum, Standards and Accountability Framework English document also adopts a politicised view of English, one where "students learn that language transmits cultural perspectives, including gender, ethnicity and class; and who or what is or is not important" and where being literate "involves an understanding of the past, present and possible future relations between language, power and society”.
How on earth could you study, in any meaningful way, the works of Shakespeare without considering issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and class and/or power relationships? What would the modern reader make of Huckleberry Finn without considering the social and cultural context in which the novel is set (and perhaps reflecting upon the significant changes in perspectives and values that have occurred since that time?). How would you consider the novels of Jane Austen in isolation from relevant cultural perspectives?
Donnelly’s objection extends to other disciplines – for example, modern day students of geography study not only the environment (truly) but also issues surrounding climate change.
It’s little wonder that Donnelly decided to leave teaching to become an expert. His English classes must have been about as interesting and engaging as those of the hapless civics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Post Script1. In researching this article I came across this quote (see comments on Y this Generation is ready to teach our children);
Your boy has just got his HSC, and yet he has no cultural interests. He despises classical music, never reads a serious book, and seldom uses a word beyond the range of a six-year old child. And he has no manners….this generation of teenagers is inferior in almost every respect to the generation of, say, the 1930s. (William F. Broderick, “The Ugly Teenager”, The Age, 7/2/1976)
A case of plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose?
2. Earlier this year, Time magazine published its list of the 10 greatest books of all time. As yet, I can only mark four off the list but thankfully there will be an abridged version of War and Peace soon, so I will be able to lift my score to say, 4 1/2 .