Rupert Murdoch’s Radio National Boyer Lecture on schooling (November 23) is both alarming and inspiring.
It is alarming that Murdoch forecasts the future to be so extremely competitive. "Fortune favours the smart" and there is no room for those who do not earn it. Rather than life getting better for our children, it will be more stressful. But inspiring is Murdoch’s insistence that “a solid education is the one hope for rising in society and leveling the playing field. If we have any real sense of fairness, we owe (to all) children school systems that hold them to high standards.”
Schools must focus on making achievement both desirable and possible in literacy and basic maths, through hard work, which also results in “good work habits, the judgment that comes from experience, a sense of creativity, a curiosity about the world, and the ability to think for oneself”. Hard work and sacrifice are children’s tickets to greater rewards.
Being practical about his ideals, Rupert supports two inspiring schools in disadvantaged areas, Shuang Wen Public School, for young Chinese-Americans, and a public school for Afro-American boys, designed to help - indeed, to push them - to rise out of poverty. However, the intensity of work required in these schools is alarming, from early morning to six at night and then some.
Mr Murdoch has got where he has through being practical, a man who never dealt out a new pencil until the old stub was returned. To discuss education in his terms must be about practicalities - the pencil stubs. Generalities are more dignified to talk about, but they need to be spelled out for action. The most common question teachers asked me as a school psychologist was always “I know the theory - but how do I put it into practice?” What are the practicalities in Australia, of taking on Rupert’s inspiration while reducing the alarms associated with it?
There may be alarm at the emphasis on testing, which is reaching plague proportions in America. There are even commercial tests for parents to apply at home. There are booklets for teachers to record 90 items about every child in the class once a week. Surely notes made as needed are sufficient to help teachers follow progress and needs? Testing so that teachers know what needs teaching is one thing, and audit of annual progress is another, but constant assessment grinds noses to wheels, and arouses the other extreme of rejecting all tests.
The assessment boom arises out of panic. Murdoch criticises the present schooling in Australia, Britain and particularly the United States, as a disgrace. “Despite spending more and more money, our children seem to be learning less and less - especially those who are most vulnerable in our society.” He has a case.
Education revolutions are being seen in money language, with insufficient eye on how much may be misdirected. It used to be assumed that children were little jugs to fill up with knowledge. Today they are little jugs to fill up from costly resources and to bombard with information overload. Teachers who have their confidence shaken turn, in America particularly, to commercial literacy programs, which can cost up to US$250,000 a package.
Good teachers can select what their class needs, but others may go step-by-step-by step, dragging their class behind them. The need for constant novelty is costly; and can also mean a teacher never has any curriculum safely under her belt, to teach with ease and more skill each year, updating and adapting it to students as needed. Instead, she is always struggling with the new.
Activities and group discussions proliferate, so that some children lose the main track. Computers are fine - but will they be used for ever more entertaining trivialities and dead-end skills?
Class size? Could some things be better taught to one or two students, some to 20, 50, 500, or even 1 million online?
Morale struggles when schools are grotty, but even a palace can be quickly vandalised if the human factors are overlooked.
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