May 17th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Ethanol - behind the disinformation

EDITORIAL: New situations demand new policies

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Government sets itself a trap on Medicare

Will South Australia Upper House hold the line on life issues?

STRAWS IN THE WIND: We get the rights / Rap festival / Bogus leftists, fairy luddites

QUEENSLAND: Beattie challenges Nationals over sugar deregulation

Iraq fallout may end multilateral trade deals

HEALTH: Stopping feeding and hydration is true euthanasia

EDUCATION: Surviving the latest classroom fads

LIFESTYLE: SARS, AIDS and public policy

FAMILY: Bush and Howard diverge on life and family

BOOK REVIEW: The World We're In, by Will Hutton

BOOK REVIEW: Growth Fetish, by Clive Hamilton

ARTS: Melbourne Comedy Festival: A comedy of political errors?

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Surviving the latest classroom fads

by Dr Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, May 17, 2003
The following paper was delivered recently by educational consultant, Dr Kevin Donnelly, to an NCC sponsored forum in Brisbane.

How successful are Australian schools? Judged by the annual complaints of the Australian Education Union (AEU), the answer is that our school system is failing and nothing will improve until more money is spent.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of more effective teaching and learning being dependent on smaller classes and more teachers, the reality is that it is what actually happens in the classroom that decides how well students learn.


As such, any discussion about strengthening Australia's school system needs to focus on the curriculum and the question of what is the most effective and successful way to structure "what" and "how" students learn.

One only needs to look at the range of educational "fads" that have washed over Australian classrooms since the early 1970s to realise how abysmal we are in this regard.

Whereas those countries that perform best in international maths and science tests have an academic and rigorous approach to curriculum, Australian schools have been forced to adopt a series of education experiments that have proven to be abject failures.

One of the most influential "fads" to impact on schools is the neo-Marxist, 'left-wing' view of schools and their place in society.

According to the Labor-friendly Australian Education Union, education is used to maintain the status quo and to reproduce inequality and social injustice.

Some years ago, Joan Kirner (one time Victorian Education Minister and Premier) argued at a Fabian Society forum that education had to be reshaped:

" ... so that it is part of the socialist struggle for equality, participation and social change, rather than an instrument of the capitalist system."

The Australian Education Union also argues that education must be used to promote "equality of outcomes" and that, on issues like peace studies, the environment, multiculturalism and gender politics, students must be taught what the Left considers to be politically correct.

The result is that students are often given a "black armband" view of Australian History and, in relation to events such as the war in Iraq, the union becomes a mouthpiece of those causes much loved by the Left.

Witness the AEU's call to teachers, at the start of the war in Iraq, to condemn Australia's involvement; to support students who attend peace rallies and to write to the French Ambassador to support France's opposition to the war.

A second "fad" to wash over Australian schools is the "progressive" education movement. Teachers are urged to jettison traditional subjects like Literature and History and to make the individual child the centre of the classroom.

Learning is based on what is immediately relevant, contemporary and local and, as a result, students study popular culture (videos, TV shows like Neighbours and pop songs) instead of literary classics like Shakespeare and the fables and myths associated with the Western tradition.


Uncritically nurturing a child's self-esteem takes the place of regular testing and teachers "facilitate" instead of teaching to the class as a whole. The emphasis is on "process" instead of "content" on the assumption that it does not matter what students learn as long as they develop so-called investigative skills and "multiple intelligences".

The worst excesses of progressive education can be found in "whole language" (used to teach literacy instead of phonics) and "fuzzy maths". The result, as discovered three to four years ago, is that approximately 25% of students were leaving primary school unable to read and write.

In addition to literacy, numeracy has also suffered. Many students cannot repeat their times tables or carry out the simplest forms of mental arithmetic. At the university level, maths and science courses are regularly "dumbed down" and academics agree that tertiary standards have definitely fallen over the last 20 or so years.

During the 70s and 80s, when the then centralised control over curriculum, inspectors and examinations were removed, Australian schools embraced what was termed school-based curriculum development. Individual schools and teachers were free to design and enact their own curriculum.

Such was the failure of school-based curriculum development that, during the 1990s, Australian schools were forced to embrace a third 'fad', what is termed outcomes-based education (OBE). Arising out of the Keating Government's national statements and profiles, all Australian states and territories designed outcomes-based documents in the 8 key learning areas.

While the new curriculum is supposed to raise standards and to give teachers a clear and succinct 'road map' of what students should learn or be able to do in subjects like science, mathematics and English, once again, the approach is substandard and flawed.


The OBE approach adopts the worst excesses of progressive education and the actual statements are often so vague, imprecise and general that teachers have little idea of what is expected.

History disappears to be replaced by Studies of Society and the Environment (SOSE) and instead of giving teachers a clear idea of what is to be taught they are simply told that students, for example, should know about "important historical events".

The Eureka Stockade or the history of the Wesminster form of government are on the same footing as the death of Princess Di or studying the local community. Worse still, students are generally given a left-wing view of issues as they are taught to be socially-critical and to interpret the past in terms of the marginalised and the dispossessed.

Such is the failure of OBE, that in the United States it has been replaced by the "standards" approach. The expectation is that, unlike in Australia, curriculum should be clear and succinct, academically sound, measurable and related to specific year levels.

The most recent "fads" to impact on teachers relates to "edubabble" and the "postmodern". The Australian Deans of Education are strong supporters of "edubabble". The Deans condemn "learning by rote and knowing the correct answers" as antiquated and obsolete (tell that to a surgeon or an airline pilot).

More traditional approaches to learning, such as "drilling the times tables, memorising spelling lists, learning the parts of speech and correct grammar" are attacked as "old learning".

In opposition, the Deans promote "new learning"; a situation where "Good learners will not come to any situation with pre-ordained, known answers. Rather, they will come equipped with problem solving skills, multiple strategies for tackling a task and a flexible, solutions-orientation to knowledge".

Forgotten is that learning by rote and memorisation are fundamental to developing higher order skills and that knowledge and understanding do not happen intuitively or by accident. Ignored is also the point that creativity and flexibility can only arise through discipline and structure.

The attack of the 'postmodern' has also sought to influence the work of schools. In literature everything (tissue boxes, videos, graffiti) becomes a worthwhile text for study. Students are also taught that language cannot be restricted to an agreed meaning and that interpretation is both subjective and relative.

Thus, Shakespeare is attacked as "bourgeois, patriarchal and ethnocentric" and students are taught that there is no "right" or "wrong" answer, as learning is conditional and each individual is free to express his or her highly subjective response.

Fortunately, there are many Australian teachers and some schools who, notwithstanding the "fads" that have sought to influence their work, commit themselves to an alternative approach to education.

Learning is based on a more traditional approach to the subjects, there is regular testing and accountability and, in the classroom, there is an emphasis on formal teaching where students are able to learn in a structured, disciplined environment.

  • Dr Kevin Donnelly is Director of Education Strategies, a Melbourne-based company. He taught for 12 years in government and non-government schools and his PhD thesis offers a critique of curriculum developments over the last 30 years.

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