Improving Schools: A Response to Kumbaya

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WholeChildBannerBy Sean Slade

sladequoteLate last year, Australia’s government released a report of the country’s national curriculum, written by appointed chairs Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire. According to a recent Daily Telegraph article by Taylor Auerbach and Bruce McDougall about the state of Australia’s schools, “the two chairs of the government’s review into the national curriculum fear our schools are becoming too ‘kumbaya’ and overrun with ‘progressive, new-age fads’ that are hurting our children.” Despite the fact that the report came out many months ago, the war of words continues. And even though this is a debate occurring down under, it still has relevance to the broader global discussion of why we have education and what we want out of it.

What factors are ruining education?

According to the article, Donnelly and Wiltshire’s report blames Australia’s education issues “on the fact that students have been handed autonomy in the classroom and that wishy-washy ideals like ‘child-guided learning’ and ‘collaborative negotiated goal-setting’ are overtaking the traditional model of teachers imparting knowledge.” The article goes on to reference Wiltshire’s belief that Australia should follow Asia’s Confucian approach to teaching (where teachers are “up the front” of the classroom, not “up the side”) as well as Donnelly’s belief that Australia’s schools are suffering because “many teachers and administrators got their tertiary education during the ‘flower power’ era.”

What is the purpose of education?

Quite understandably, there has been some push back to Donnelly and Wiltshire’s report, but rather than argue the case for “child-guided learning,” I’d like to take the conversation in a different direction. In the report, Donnelly and Wiltshire address something the education community is dealing with, both in Sydney and here in Washington, D.C. The section titled “The Purpose of Education” (p. 17–25) summarizes five views and rationales for why we have education and what we are trying to achieve with it:

  1. Help students develop practical skills and focus on work-related outcomes, ultimately to help boost economic productivity (utilitarian)
  2. Prepare students to deal with current issues that affect the future and well-being of society (21st century learning)
  3. Help students develop by focusing on individual needs, interests, and learning styles (personalized learning)
  4. Teach students about inequality and injustice so they can transform society (equity and social justice)
  5. Introduce students to “the best that has been thought and said”—education for education’s sake (enculturation)

Donnelly and Wiltshire then continue their analysis of the purpose of education: “It should also be noted that any one approach to designing a curriculum can, and often does, incorporate a range of beliefs about the purpose of education . . . the various beliefs about the purpose of education have a significant impact on the nature and role of the intended curriculum and how it is developed, implemented and evaluated in schools and classrooms” (p. 24).

This discussion about the purpose of education is where all (or at least most) of our education arguments stem from.

What are we trying to achieve out of an education system?

If you believe that education is to be utilitarian and operate using a future-based perspective, then “[e]quipping citizens with the skills necessary to achieve their full potential, participate in an increasingly interconnected global economy, and ultimately convert better jobs into better lives” (OECD’s PISA 2012 Results report, volume 3) by focusing attention on learning how to learn, the skills of collaboration, problem solving, and perseverance makes perfect sense.

If you desire to expand the potential of each child and cultivate his innate curiosity, then personalized learning with a focus on increasing opportunities, reducing inequities, providing choice, and fostering empowerment is not only valid but also essential.

If you believe that the purpose of education is to ensure core basic understandings and to impart “best validated knowledge and artistic achievements” (p. 21), then focusing curricula and instruction on that approach also makes sense.

If you believe in the classical view of education, then you also accept that not teaching the classics, delivering core pieces of set information proven over time to be critical to Western civilization, and imparting directive moral teachings is analogous to not educating our youth.

What is the problem?

The discussion of why we have education and what we want to achieve through it is one that is too rarely discussed and almost never debated to the degree that it must be. This core understanding dictates everything else that we work toward. My thoughts on the topic have been circulated, and others such as Sir Ken Robinson and Noam Chomsky have also had their fair share of readership (millions of hits). The issue, though, is that why we teach still isn’t the first thing debated and it’s too frequently only realized after education ministers and secretaries have been appointed, policies written, and curriculum set. But by then it’s too late and we have to spend our time and energy trying to redo what has already been implemented as opposed to forging ahead with a coherent mission and purpose.

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