Will this be in the test, My Pyne? Old school is not way to go #weneedvision

Christopher Pyne is the Australian Education Minister in-waiting, with an election due in September this year. We have been waiting for a clear vision for the students in our nation and are yet to receive it. The current government hasn’t delivered. This piece appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald this week.

Old School is way to go, says Pyne (emphasis mine – see below)

Child-centred learning should be abandoned for a return to more explicit instruction driven by teachers, the Liberal education spokesman, Christopher Pyne, says.

Mr Pyne on Wednesday advocated ”more practical teaching methods based on more didactic teaching methods, more traditional methods rather than the child-centred learning that has dominated the system for the past 20, 30 or 40 years’‘.

”In other words, mounting evidence suggests that primary school children or students with particular types of disadvantage would be better off being taught this way,” he said. ”Unfortunately this research has been ignored by most teacher training and in many instances attempts to return to explicit instruction pedagogy have been blocked by state education departments.

Dear Mr Pyne,

The world has changed significantly from when I was at school. I’m not sure who’s advising you, so maybe I can help. In 2013 it is not feasible to look to the so-called good old days and say, “it didn’t do me any harm”. Rather than appeal to the voting public (parents) with seemingly reassuring words about getting back to the past, we need an Education Minister who can look forward and see the amazing opportunities our children have before them.

I’m sure as a student you knuckled down and worked hard to get where you are today. But learning is personal, and I wonder if there were peers in your classes who were like a ‘fish out of water’ at your school.

Today I want an education system where there are no more of these ‘fishes’ at school, that we are able to personalise the learning for the success of all students – with a curriculum that is deep, engaging, rigorous and purposeful. Not a policy that will just win votes.

In no other profession do we yearn for the past. For those of us over 40, think back to our childhood. Would we want to go back to the way it was for a visit to the dentist or the hospital? I wouldn’t. Similarly, the world of education and learning has significantly shifted and we are looking to the leaders, like yourself, as alternate Education Minister, not to turn back the clock based on your own experience, but gain a greater understanding of the world we are preparing our young people for, especially the opportunities that technology bring.

Just to ge things straight

Child-centred learning that has dominated the system for the past 20, 30 or 40 years This term was used when I started my career in education 30 years ago. In 1979 I started my pre-service teacher education and it seemed that in the right conditions learning would happen, as if by osmosis.

Rather, I think today forward thinking educators would say that the curriculum needs to be learner-driven, not putting the student in charge of the content, but the teacher. ‘Learner-driven’ is more about the students as engaged and passionate learners, who actively pursue learning as a lifelong endeavour.

Return to more explicit instruction, driven by teachers. Now I’m really confused. We now know that quality teachers are more important than ever. I see many passionate teachers that are taking responsibility for the ‘stickiness’ of their students’ learning. Back-in-the-day it was a simple blame game – if students didn’t learn it was their fault or problem, with associated punishment. I am impressed with the education professionals in my world who are constantly assessing students and evaluating their own practice, thus seeking to ensure that they provide the conditions for students to learn.

This may also include instructional teaching, as part of the tool kit, but this can be done in a variety of ways that frees up the teacher from the one-to-many approach, allowing more quality time with students.

Mounting evidence suggests that primary school children or students with particular types of disadvantage would be better off being taught this way. Does this mean that because these students require a particular approach, then there needs to be a blanket rule for all students? There is no one size fits all education. Let’s aim to give all students the approach they need to realise their potential and achieve success in life.

In many instances attempts to return to explicit instruction pedagogy have been blocked by state education departments. I can only speak from the NSW perspective, perhaps one of the most prescriptive curriculum jurisdictions across Australia. I am very familiar with the requirements for the registration and accreditation of schools and I am not aware of any such blockage. The breadth of outcomes to be met in NSW actually lends itself to explicit instruction, as this is the only way that many teachers feel they can meet the statutory requirements.

I am currently reading social researcher, Hugh Mackay’s book, What makes us tick? The ten desires that drive us. In the chapter, ‘The Desire to be Taken Seriously’, Mackay talks about the need to focus on intrinsic motivation. Rewards and punishments come from extrinsic sources, says Mackay, then we focus on control. This is very evident in school:

Students who become obsessed by the marks they are getting tend to be less engaged learners – in the richest sense of ‘learning’ – than those who are not driven by the extrinsic reward of marks. Marks become the goal. Learning, questioning, exploring ideas, making mistakes – all the hallmarks of an engaged student – tend to diminish in the pursuit of rewards.

In one secondary school famous for high marks achieved by its students, teachers reported that the students’ focus on marks was distorting their approach to learning: ‘Will this be in the exam?’ students would ask, whenever a teacher introduced a topic or mentioned a book worth reading. The clear implication was that if there were no marks in it the students wouldn’t bother paying attention to it.

I don’t know about you, but I would like to provide the conditions for rich and engaged learners. I definitely don’t want these young people to face school as I experienced it.

Be the change, Mr Pyne, if you become the new school Education Minister for Australia

PS… Please don’t take counsel from Mr Gove. Instead, watch the TED talks by Sir Ken Robinson and Sugata Mitra.