Monday, September 19, 2005

Lemmings and similar phenomena

I just realised I had an unfinished post from months back in relation to computing and related technologies in education. When I ever get around to finishing it, a very poor substitute for a book that is still to be written, it will argue that the real issue is around education, or its formal bits, that of schooling and here I like to think in terms of primary, secondary and tertiary schooling. The more one reads research, talks to teachers, students and most other folk who are somehow involved in or with schooling it is clear that, at least for secondary schooling (I think similar crits of primary and tertiary are possible but it is at its most glaring here) is a game that almost no one believes in. There are many instances where humans do foolish, sometimes heroic things for no good reason. Indeed, biologists tell us that along with a blind mole rat in Africa, we are the only species capable of giving up our life to save the life of another of our species. One can understand moments of foolishness and heroism. It is part of being human. These are events which contribute to a sense of who we are and why we are. With Secondary schooling we have a system which, in my view, is increasingly difficult to justify. It is a form of what might be called organised child abuse which repeats itself over and over again, year in, year out. The only beneficiaries of this system are a handful of private schools in each capital city. That is not to say the huge efforts and energy goes into trying to do school differently. There is an amazing array of things that teachers do to try and escape the nonsense of a sytem that was designed to send a small elite onto university in the 50's and 60's. But any or all of these, and particularly if they appear to be working well for students are dubbed fringe or satellite to the main game, the high status subjects of years 11 and 12. It is important to recognise that what began as a system to select an elite has been turned into a mass system of ranking and rating that serves no purpose other than to determine access to a small number of high demand courses in a couple of universities in each State. One might say that this is a very expensive selection machine and it is. The human cost, of telling around two thirds of each cohort passing through school that they are dumb, deficient or in some way not up to scratch is an appalling outcome. While the system does not physically kill these students it stamps them as failures of one kind or other and then expects them to get on with their lives as if this trauma is akin to falling down and grazing one's knee. I work in a university. We have what is effectively an all expenses paid ranking system. It is not a good predictor of university success and why should it be given the disconnected nature of the high elements of the curriculum? But the best part is that universities don't have to pay a cent for it. Are there better ways to select? Yes. Are there better ways to support all students in our secondary schools and provide them with the genuinely high expectations that will prepare them well to shape, lead and grow this country? Of course. Do we have the will to do anything about it? Sadly, it appears that it is more important to attend to the low level expectations. Let's make sure everyone can spell catastrophe or onomatopoeia. But let's make sure our children do not learn how to engage the world, nor develop agency in it. It is easy to attend to some of the measurable stuff. It is more important to be concerned about spelling skills of the young but less about how the system treats them and what the social consequences are. So let's turn out the best spellers in the world and keep counting the lemmings as they run off the edge.