Not enough passion
There’s too much analysis and not enough chance to learn to love and appreciate subjects. I keep thinking of the early scenes in Dead Poets Society where Robin William’s teacher has the students read the introduction to their poetry book which sets out a formula for appreciating poetry. He then has them tear it up.
We’re not teaching kids to love art, or literature or maths or science. We’re making subjects that should be energising and exciting and full of wonder into lifeless point-scoring exercises.
Now I know it has always been so. But the difference today is that there’s simply no excuse. There are unbelievable resources available to teachers and students today. Science, maths, art can all be brought to life in ways that were unimaginable a generation ago. There are studies, lesson plans, research to back alternative approaches. So the fact that my English teacher 30 years ago did damage to my appreciation of Shakespeare that I am only now recovering from is no excuse, none, to inflict the same on students today.
We need students wanting to learn because they see the wonder in the world around them. We want them pushing against the tight parameters set by the curriculum. We need the thinkers and the seekers being recognised more than the exam-passers.
And for reasons that have been hashed over too many times to repeat, but which never seem to be given more than lip-service to, we do not need a bunch of kids that can pass a test in information they neither care about nor will ever use again.
A lack of zombie survival skills
How much of what we teach our kids will help them survive the zombie apocalypse? Fatuous question I know: but think about it, look at the average HSC graduate and think about how they would fare if society melts down. And I’m not talking about how to make fire or fashion clothes out of skins.
Have we taught them to improvise? Have we taught them to create? Have we taught them the principles of physics that would allow them to create a pump to get petrol out of an underground tank? The maths that would… Simple answer is no?
I’ve been watching an old TV series recently called Rough Science. It may well be the best means of teaching practical science that I, an avid watcher of the YouTube science shows, have ever seen. It teaches by showing how the learning and skills are relevant. How would you make a motor out of a tine can and some magnets. How do you improvise a Davey Safety lamp that allows you to explore caves safely. And, the kicker, the principles behind why these things work. But the real beauty is in realising that if you understand the basic principles involved you can improvise solutions with a bunch of stuff lying around your kitchen; which is, of course, how you’ll survive a zombie apocalypse.
But more pertinently how much of what we are teaching deals with real-world skills that we would hope a fully-fledged member of our society would have. And I am very definitely not talking about teaching kids the skills they need to become a good little worker. I am not about teaching them to use Microsoft Word, or to drive a coal-mining truck. I do want them learning how to break a problem up and tackle it in approachable pieces. To work effectively in a team. To be able to program. To understand the principles involved in building a strong bridge, even if they never come close to doing that themselves. I’d like them not being taught to use Photoshop to edit something out of a picture, but being shown how an appreciation of great art can lead to composing a picture that has balance. Or understanding the golden measure and how that impacts on taking a photograph, instead of being taught how to take a photo with an iPad.
Everything is in a silo
We’ve divided education up into artificial silos that are more about teacher education than they are about bodies of knowledge. Students learn about cooking, something I applaud, but the cooking teacher fails to take advantage of the opportunity to explain that the lovely fluffy bubbles come from carbon dioxide. Maths is everywhere but we not only allow students to avoid it in their senior years, we don’t show how it pervades all other subjects.
This is never clearer than in the subject closest to my own heart – coding. We should not be teaching coding as an end in itself, but as a way of facilitating other learning. If you can create a program to model the water cycle, you understand the water cycle. And so on.
Lest you spot the silo in my argument, I would state that these three problems feed off each other, they’re not independent. All three need to be addressed, now. There simply is no excuse: The tools are available, the approaches are available, the thought-leaders are available – we just seem to lack the will to do better.
So if there’s a problem: Who is responsible? Let’s start with very clearly stating: I don’t blame the teachers.
I blame everyone. I blame parents who can think of no better outcome for their kids than the capacity to work themselves to death to pay off a mortgage while watching television in their spare time. I blame governments that want to create competitive workers, rather than leading thinkers. I do blame, although sympathise with, the teachers that have let themselves be worn down by all of this to the point that they can no longer fight the system.
We are as a society and community all responsible. We’re losing sight of education as opposed to exam results: And the end result is a cohort of kids who wont survive the zombie apocalypse. And, truly sadly, who wouldn’t even survive a competitive modern world if it weren’t for the fact that everyone else is doing a similarly abysmal job of educating the next generation.