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“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.”
The Age “Splashing cash won’t fix Australia’s broken education system”

A few weeks ago, “The Age” had an opinion piece from a young teacher who complained about ICT being a distraction. (My immediate thought was that it sounded like he was having trouble with classroom management and if his kids weren’t using computers, he may have been complaining about the paper planes that they were making. Of course, an article from a young teacher about kids being distracted by paper would never be published.)

Today it followed up with a similar piece from another person who’d been barely completed their full teacher registration, Johanna O’Farrell, , entitled, “Splashing Cash Won’t Fix Australia’s Broken Education System”.

I can’t help but wonder if there’s an agenda here, but it seems to me strange that you’d run two similar articles so close together. Why I call them similar is that both are from teachers with relatively little experience, advocating a rejection of technology. Both, it should be added, were short on anything apart from the anecdotal evidence of the particular teacher writing the article. In today’s article, although the description of her as an English and History teacher would suggest that she was in the secondary area, Johanna O’Farrell asserts various generalisations about primary school education without citing any actual examples or statistics.

A few weeks ago, I delivered a seminar to a group of English teachers on using ICT in the classroom. I began by telling them that if they thought using technology would excite the kids, forget it. For today’s generation, technology is just part of the way they live, and they should be encouraged to take a break from it in some classes. And by encouraged, I mean, make sure that they don’t use any, for anything. That said, I went on to point out, there are all sorts of things that help in the learning process, and lots of technology that doesn’t. There is, for example, an app on the iPad for spelling tests. Unlike a traditional spelling test, where you get a mark out ten and the teacher tells you to learn the words you don’t know, the app doesn’t let you move on until you actually spell the word correctly. To me, this works better in terms of learning. And you can still give them the traditional test later.

But, and this was the main point of my little introduction, technology is all around us. We use it every day. And to suggest that somehow we’ll be able to take it out of the classroom and go back to doing things as they were in my father’s day, is not only ridiculous, but it’s educationally unsound.

There is an argument for rote learning to occur at some stages in a child’s learning. I can cite articles and research that suggest that some rote learning is good, but the idea that somehow we need to stop “throwing money” at education, just get back to the basics and then everything would be all right overlooks the reality of what prevents many students from reaching their potential.

What are the basics? Well, most people will tell you that it’s enabling students to read and write properly (to some this means completely free of spelling mistakes), and being able to do basic arithmetic. (Of course, many things get added to what should be a “basic” education as soon as it’s discovered that some 16 year old at work doesn’t know them. “You don’t know who Edward VII married? That should be basic.”)

I have absolutely no problem with these things being taught, but it certainly won’t take thirteen years to learn them. Why and how some people fail to achieve a basic understanding in these areas will vary from student to student, but the idea that simply replacing the computer with a blackboard (actually a whiteboard, in most schools these days) will somehow fix the problem overlooks the fact that for a large number that’s what didn’t work in the first place. The “stand and deliver” method of teaching is much more prevalent than the media would have you believe.

The argument that we didn’t have that it once so it must be ok to do without it, would never be applied to other areas. Nobody writes articles that say my grandfather went to work in a horse and buggy so that should be enough for anyone, let’s abolish the car.

Perhaps though, I take most objection to the language. On page three of the same paper, it was suggested that Australia’s automobile industry won’t be saved by “throwing money” at it. “Splashing cash” at education.

These words suggest carelessness and a lack of thought. In the case of education, an enormous amount of work went into the Gonski Report. Submissions were taken from a wide range of people. It then made specific recommendations about where money should be targetted in order to make to facilitate improvements.

If you want to talk about what’s wrong with the education system, I can give you a long list based on a number years experience, and extensive reading. So why is “The Age” is publishing an article with the hook on the front page, “What’s wrong with education? A teacher tells” as though it’s from someone who has the answers. From someone who concludes:

“The problems are vast, systemic and pervasive – and I have not even mentioned the enormous challenges relating to discipline and poor student behaviour.

I have been teaching for only three years, but I believe the system is so broken that it cannot be fixed, at least not in my lifetime.”

There you have it. It’s all overwhelming. Let’s save our money. The system is broken. Nobody’s learning anything.

Except that you’ll probably find that there are many, many competent literate students out there. Students who’ve gone through the system and succeeded. We were all encouraged to feel the recent drop in rankings was the end of civilization, but it was rarely pointed out that, in fact, we were still higher than the vast majority of developed countries.

So, Johanna O’Farrell has written an article about how her generation are incapable of writing to express themselves. I hope she didn’t write it on computer! And she is arguing that there is nothing that can be done to improve education. If that’s the way she feels, if she doesn’t feel as though she’s can do anything with her students and that it’s all the fault of the system, I would suggest that for her to continue to work as a teacher is hypocritical.

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