21st century schools remain far away

| March 18, 2013

Education curriculum expert, Paul Grover, examines why Australian schools still have a long way to go to reach the potential of the 21st century.

School education has not changed much in the last 100 years. We are still building 19th century institutions, with all their bureaucratic hierarchies and self-fulfilling ‘factory fodder’ principles, while modern society is looking for highly adaptable, highly flexible, highly skilled, highly engaged and highly motivated young people ready for a rapidly-changing, information-rich global community.

A clip on YouTube recently produced by the US Corning corporation shows how technology will one day change the way children learn in schools. There are interactive built-in desk computers, amazing in-the-field links to online information and spectacular computer-generated holograms to engage with. It is a high-tech, fast moving and dynamic future – and the children appear enthusiastic, engaged and absorbed in their learning, while the teacher is a true professional working with young people to develop their skills and knowledge.

So why can we still walk into many school classrooms around Australia and find rows of desks with silent children drearily working their way through print book chapters, with a teacher at the front of the room writing notes on a board for students to copy down? How much has the school building ‘design brief’ changed in the past hundred years? Not much. There are still desks and chairs, one room per class, and one board.

You would think that in the 21st century there would be widespread learning centres packed with sophisticated equipment, resource centres brimming with contemporary learning materials and state-of-the-art schools employing highly-trained, professionally resourced and highly-valued teachers. Sadly this is still a futuristic fantasy for more than 95 per cent of our school students.

Tradition still grips system

Compare a typical office building, shop or factory of the early 1900s with a successful business in the 21st century. What has changed? Today you’ll find integrated computer systems, high-quality media products and processes, contemporary designs, environmentally friendly workplaces, occupational health and safety priorities, modern management practices, strong investments in infrastructure and equipment, high professional standards, effective human resource programs and much, much more.

If our society was truly serious about the value of educating our young, we would do things very differently. We would have schools that were as contemporary in design and organisation as any modern major corporation. We would have highly paid and qualified professional educators working with small groups of students in innovative and inclusive ways, using all the resources of our contemporary world while actively engaging with the community each day. We would have governments promoting and supporting the value of priority investments in schools and education programs throughout the country.

We would have rich educational resources that blend print, online and flexible learning, so students could access creative and enriching resources for learning anywhere and anytime, so they could work collaboratively with others while challenging their skills and extending their knowledge. We would have professional educators with responsibility for shaping the curriculum their students engage with.

Mass testing flawed

Truly professional educators work to encourage rational autonomy and humane sensitivity. Professional autonomy informs teachers about their role, and offers a strong voice in considering what and how to teach. There is a trend towards a national system of standardised tests, like NAPLAN, attempting to measure educational growth, with a desire to publish results in a ‘league table’ to ‘measure’ a student’s, school’s, teacher’s, or school system’s performance, sometimes all at once. Measuring educational growth, teacher performance, school achievement or student success through mass testing is deeply flawed and highly contested.

Mass testing discounts the professional role of the educator, and discounts active engagement within the student. A student is not respected if the model of the curriculum points towards mass testing – this will not develop rational autonomy and humane sensitivity. Mass testing is not education. It is an outdated, industrial model of production that measures a mass-produced product. Mass testing does not value the individual and their unique qualities and potentials, nor does it appreciate or value the multiple pathways and diverse timeframes for student learning.

Learning takes time

Mass testing is also flawed as a single measure of growth or achievement– one measure taken on one day in one year cannot assess growth over time. A child’s intellectual development does not occur within a straight line or consistent pattern. A one-off test can ‘hit’ during a time of rapid emotional, psychological or intellectual growth, in a period of slow consolidation, or even at a time of reversal due to personal, social or family circumstances. Evaluating teacher performance, student achievement or a whole school’s teaching program is a complex and rigorous process requiring wide-ranging strategies, multiple instruments and professional processes over time.

One nasty outcome of mass testing is the reduction of a professional educator’s autonomy to shape the delivery of curriculum for their own students. A teacher can be reduced to a mere presenter of packaged instruction according to a predetermined agenda. This does not produce good teachers or skilled students.

Teachers need the freedom to be professional educators, and their professional integrity, creative dedication and intellectual commitment need to be respected and enhanced by the community. This same professional principle applies in medical, legal, engineering, dentistry, architecture and other professional fields – and there it is rarely questioned.

All is not lost

We are moving towards 21st century teaching and learning, with quality flexible resources blending online and print materials. We are developing more and more online tools for students in schools, and we have thousands of enthusiastic and committed teachers engaging students with collaborative, even global, learning opportunities.

We must not allow a backward-looking view of teaching and learning to shape our children’s future. The world of business and industry knows this only too well – if you live in the past you’ll quickly become part of it. We must actively support our schools and teachers to look to the future, and then the future won’t be so far, far away.

Paul Grover

Paul Grover in an education lecturer with Charles Sturt University’s School of Education. Paul worked as a secondary English and History teacher and Head Teacher for 35 years. He has also worked with the NSW Board of Studies for more than 15 years as a syllabus committee member, HSC examination Supervisor of Marking and Coordinating Supervisor of Marking, and HSC English examination Assessor. Over the past 25 years, Paul has written and edited an extensive range of secondary school English and History course and resource books for students and teachers. His latest books are a new series of print and online English language and literacy skills books for the new Australian curriculum.