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Itís about more than education in the 3Rs

By Pamela Weatherill - posted Monday, 12 March 2012


There’s no doubt about it, the pace of technological advancement means we all feel out of date most of the time, and unless we educate Australians to work, live, and play in the ever changing digital landscape, we might just fail as a nation. Never before have we seen this pace of change in the technologies we use to communicate or share information. With endless technical developments comes the need to learn new skills and be life-long learners. Enter education, life-long principle-based education, for it is the only solution that makes sense.

The release of the OECD report on equity and quality in education, showing Australia below the OECD average, and the recent Gonski report with its recommendations about funding models for Australian schools, has raised debate about education in Australia (when we weren’t being side-tracked with the Gillard-Rudd leadership soap opera that is).

At times it was not so useful when social commentators simply bickered about how much money to spend and where. However having conversations and making us once again look at effective ways to build a smart global Australia, and a skilled labour market to go along with it, is very useful and timely. While we need hearty debate though, we also need action or the world around us won’t be recognisable and we will have missed the boat.

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It is critical that we see education of all Australians, young and old(er) as an investment. Like a family budget prioritises education, the Australian nation needs to do the same. The first step to making a difference is to cost out effective education. What will it really cost and where will the money need to be spent? Then, budget it and spend it. After infrastructure for critical basics like water, food, health and safety, education is all that matters. So budget and spend. Get on with it. For the cost of not providing effective education is too much for the nation in a world of exponential technological change. We are already beginning to lag behind, and simply building the NBN isn’t enough.

While education is more than just training a labour market, the end result is that your education does determine your labour path to a significant degree. This includes the link between education and having a skilled labour force ready for periods of current and future growth across sectors.  Investing in effective education from K-12 through to the tertiary sector is important for education generally, but also critical for having a skilled labour market. Or have we forgotten what it was like pre-GFC, when quite frankly managers were employing pretty much anyone with a pulse and clear police certificate to fill many positions?

So how would an effective education curriculum look? While he may not have had Twitter to spread his words of wisdom, Greek philosopher Heraclitus is still remembered for saying, ‘the only constant in life is change’ - because it is true. It’s a principle for learning: a non-specific truth, which can be taught and applied across multiple settings.

We need more teaching of principle-centred learning and less about facts and figures tested as the 3Rs. We need to build curriculum around future societies, future industry and future communication technology. While testing for the 3Rs might be well and good, I want to know tomorrow’s doctors have the fine motor skills to use digitally enhanced tools, and that our emergency services all know how to communicate effectively with whatever digital tools and software are available now and into the future. I want to know any education and training is sustainable into the unknown future.  Enter principle-centred learning.

It’s like the Chinese proverb : ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’.  When you teach the principles of learning new technologies, of basic communication, mathematics, language and moral thinking, you allow application across all kinds and rates of change. When we simply teach and test specifics, we only know that for today, our students are succeeding. So while we are talking about effective education and spending hard earned taxes, let’s consider the value we get when we teach sustainable principles.

As a university educator, I sometimes feel like I am teaching ‘current history’ to students, knowing that when we talk about how the world works today, it will look different by the time they graduate. The jobs they are likely to do, the skills they are likely to need, have not all been invented yet.  Unless we educate through principle-based learning, and teach them how to learn in their chosen broad field, we do them an injustice. For many, when they complete their degree, the information imparted in their first year of university (at least) will be out of date. And what does this say of their earlier years in primary and secondary education?

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This is not an argument against a return to basics. It’s an argument about being even more basic, at all levels of learning. Let’s teach how to learn, and how to discern the plethora of information available to us. Let’s teach how to share and apply this knowledge in a multitude of settings. Let’s support (yes, fund!) educators, at all levels, to keep up with the technological change and what it means for both their teaching and their student’s learning. Let’s be serious about preparing ourselves for being a successful, smart nation, long into the future, and concentrate on teaching and learning in the digital economy. Let’s think beyond three-year political cycles and partisanship for a start. By definition the digital economy crosses global networks of both work and society and if we want to survive this exponential change, then quite simply, we just need to fund it. There will come a time when pretty much nothing else matters if we don’t get it right now.

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About the Author

Pamela Weatherill is a technology social scientist, currently undertaking a PhD on computer mediated communication and teaching online at Edith Cowan University Perth, and residing in Queensland. She has a number of journal and magazine (and e-zine) publications and a Blog (on computer mediated communications) at http://www.text-to-me.com/.

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