The simple policy line that is promoted by more than a few education ministers - and party leaders - is that there is a crisis in our schools; that today’s children don’t do the same things that their parents (and grandparents!) did when they were in school.
And this observation is generally taken as a convincing argument that schools have (suddenly) become so bad that students are (suddenly) leaving in droves, without basic literacy and numeracy.
The media is full of complaints from “mature” adults only too keen to outdo each other in their claims of what’s wrong with schools. Headlines which insist that “Schools have swapped Shakespeare for studying pop songs”, and that today’s students “don’t do mental arithmetic, and can’t spell”, help to add to public anxiety and parental concern. (And they don’t do much for the self-concepts of the children.)
There are newspaper journalists, TV commentators and talk-back radio hosts who are more than happy to invite politicians to take aim at this educational sitting target. Because in one way the critics are stating the bleeding obvious.
A good education today - and a responsible education - would have to include the study of pop lyrics and the role they play in shaping attitudes and values. And it is the case that children don’t do mental arithmetic like they used to. Nor do they spend hours memorising spelling lists.
But what the critics of today’s schools don’t recognise is that what the kids don’t do is only the beginning of the debate on 21st century education. It’s what the kids can do that all the education discussion should be about.
Not that the Australian public gets to know this: Australians get a raw deal because almost all the media coverage in the country is devoted to the so-called decline in standards in the classroom.
Take The Australian for example, where you can routinely find articles by Kevin Donnelly, (the author of Dumbing Down) who still suffers from the cultural shock of the 1960s. He blames everything from flower power to feminism for what he believes is the terrible state of our schools. They have become places where truancy soars, academic standards plummet, students are left morally adrift - and where kids just don’t know anything any more.
Kevin Donnelly (and his allies, including the Prime Minister) is entitled to his conspiracy view of state school teachers supposedly plotting the ruin of today’s youth. But his position does have a few flaws. His running accusation that the education system has become dumbed down and politically correct is open to a number of challenges.
And the Australian public is entitled to know about them.
But parents, policy makers, and even politicians, who are worried by Kevin Donnelly’s denunciation of schools and teachers, will have to look long and hard if they want to find any criticisms of his claims in the newspaper.
There is no promotion of contrary voices: no attempt to provide a balance. There are no recognised “champions” of the new and creative education that is required for the 21st century.
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