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Abandon preconceptions, all ye who enter here

By Mercurius Goldstein - posted Friday, 11 July 2008

How can educational experiences in the USA inform policy decisions in Australia? In the age of the Internet, it's easy to read US papers, journals and information clearing houses, and just as tempting to make one-to-one mappings between the results of US policy experiments to their possible effects in Australia. But often the different cultural assumptions and institutional features in our two countries defeat such comparison, like grafting the skin of an orange onto an apple.

When Australians look across the Pacific towards the USA, we first have to see over the horizon of our own preconceptions. This can be a difficult and depersonalising process, as we squint to see through a fog of presumption about what constitutes a valid system of education.

As an Australian expatriate in the USA, this process is much easier and quicker for me than it would be from afar. Immersing myself in the daily minutiae of American life, I have become aware that educational features and ideas that seem normal and natural in Australia become objects of curiosity, or simply irrelevant here - and vice versa.


This is because when we first examine a foreign education system, the surface features may look so unfamiliar, so at odds with what we "know" works, that we might scratch our heads and wonder how they got it so wrong. But these initial reactions may derive more from our own assumptions than they do from any clear-sighted understanding of why the system presents as it does. Our analysis breaks up and sinks when it crashes into the cultural iceberg beneath the surface.

So this article is a way of “clearing the fog” as I embark on a journey to understand what policy factors are at play in the USA, and how they might differ in magnitude or effect back home in Australia.

The ultimate aim of this series is to discover, through cross-cultural comparison, what might be the essential features of viable education policies in Australia - and what features may be negotiable, reviewable or even unnecessary.

Following are just three general features that will help to frame the discussion of more specific initiatives in future articles. The first relates to the more nuanced nature of the public debate in the US, the second concerns the plurality and diversity of systems here, and the final one relates to the relatively low-key role played by large-scale bureaucracies or government programs.


Despite what many Australians unfairly characterise as the American propensity for bombast and a lack of subtlety, the language of public debate here seems to contain far fewer hyperbolic or superlative claims when compared with the thundering denunciations and prophecies of doom we so often hear in Australia.

When one reads below the headlines, one finds that single issues are rarely presented as simply dichotomous, and less often are opponents characterised as being wrong-headed or motivated by ill intention. By contrast, so much of Australia's recent education debates seek to offer us all-or-nothing choices (public v private, merit-pay v seniority, phonics v whole-word), and an insistence that opposing ideas (insert caricatured villain here) will lead to rack and ruin.


The origins of this foment may lie in the vast differences in the scale and diversity of education in each country, viz my next point:


In the USA, at least 50 flowers boom (one for each state), and many more in the different systems and approaches available nationwide. The population size and historical differences in schooling mean that there is room for everybody. From this arises a sense of reassurance that any policy initiative, no matter whether it's mainstream, innovative, radical, reactionary or just plain kooky, can find a home somewhere.

The counter-intuitive effect of all this messy diversity is that it takes a considerable amount of heat out of the debates, and lets in more light. Everybody knows they can get a hearing, and a chance to run with their ideas in some form, somewhere.

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About the Author

Mercurius Goldstein is Head Teacher at an International School and is retained as a consultant at The University of Sydney as a teacher educator for visiting English language teachers. He is a recipient of the 2007 Outstanding Graduate award from the Australian College of Educators, holding the Bachelor of Education (Hons.1st Class) from The University of Sydney. He teaches Japanese language and ESL. These views are his own.

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