Rethinking education

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The great change in American educational policy, Howard Gardner once told me, was bringing the children in out of the rain. In the 1870s, having decided to do the same, build school buildings, and pay for teachers to teach all children, we in Australia missed the opportunity to educate Protestant and Catholic children together. In 2005 we’re still grappling with the consequences. In the fifty years of my working life, education policy hasn’t changed very much. I learned quickly enough in the 1940s that children could be ‘bright’ or ‘dull’. The bright ones were in the A classes, the less bright in the B classes, and down you went. The uneducable were in a class called ‘GA’, which meant ‘General Activities’. I never found out what these activities were, but the kids in the GA class were often outside, which seemed pretty good to me some days when the rest of us were inside, our heads over some kind of exercise or taking part in drill.

Thanks to Hive

Thanks to Hive

The other quick discovery was that only a few kids were bright. Life seemed like this in other ways: only a few could draw, or paint, or play tennis well, or run fast. Certainly our schools were based on this supposition. Funnily enough, kids whose parents gave them a tennis racquet seemed better at tennis than those without such implements. Those whose parents read books turned out to be better at reading books than kids whose parents had no books at all; and so on. At university, in psychology, I learned that a test called the IQ test separated out the bright from the not so bright. It seemed perfectly appropriate that the bright ones were at university, learning about brightness. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which I was reading at the same time, portrayed a world in which there were five genetically ordered classes, with the bright ones, in command, being Alphas, and the dumbos, who fetched and carried, being Epsilons. It was good to be an Alpha. I’m sending it all up a bit, but only a bit. The point of it all was being top, or on top – winning. Our schools were organised that way, and in this they only reflected the values of the broader community. I now recognise it is an essentially male phenomenon, embodying the ruling life metaphor for men – The Game – whose point is winning. Fifty or sixty years later, I can see just how hollow all this was. I blame no one, for by and large what was done was done within what passed for knowledge. A half-century of work in education has shown me not only that it is wrong, but also how difficult it will be to change things. In 1954 I was part of the 2 per cent of our age-group which went off to university. When I was a young academic the proportion had shot up to 10 per cent. When I was a professor it had passed 20 per cent. Today it is around 50 per cent, if you allow for the fact that some of today’s cohort won’t actually go to university until they are in their twenties or thirties. About three in every hundred Australians are at university right now, and about 3.5 million have been to university.

Take music. It’s hard to be quite sure how many orchestras there were in Australia in 1950, but I’ll plump for twenty. Today there are around 200, along with 500 choirs, and more than 100 brass bands. Painting and drawing? No one knows how many paint or draw and sculpt or turn wood. Two estimates from people in the business range from a quarter of the population to more than half. The sporting life? In today’s Australia more than 7,000 organisations are involved in the provision of sporting and recreational activities; 750 actually administer sports. All told they earn $10 billion and employ 100 000 people, with another 200 000 plus acting as volunteers. Six in every ten Australians over eighteen claim to play a sport of some kind (walking is defined for this purpose as a sport). The Masters Games, for those of ‘mature age’, attract more than 11 000 people competing in sixty one sports. Mathematics? Now that is surely reserved only for the intellectually elite. Well, actually, no. The Australian Mathematics Competition, run out of a trust at the University of Canberra, goes into two in every three high schools in Australia, and pulls in about half a million competitors each year. That makes it the largest event in Australia that is not a Federal or State election, and the largest event for which a fee is charged.

I could go on. Around seven Australians in every ten claim to read books for pleasure, and more than a thousand bookshops supply them with what they need. About eight in ten read a newspaper. While newspaper circulations are declining, the number of readers for each newspaper is much higher than it used to be. The fact is that we Australians turn out to be educable, to be musical, artistic, sporty and curious – just about all of us.

How can this be? Back to Howard Gardner, Professor of Education at Harvard, who published a great book, Frames of Mind, in 1983. According to Howard, we are all born intelligent. He says there are eight and a half kinds of intelligence (of which only one is ‘logico-mathematical’ and another ‘linguistic’ – the two bases of the old IQ test). All of us have these intelligences, and any of us can, with motivation, encouragement and preparation, become very good at anything. That doesn’t mean that we can all be Wimbledon champions, because we have constructed competitive tennis to produce only one winner. But we could all, for the sake of argument, be good enough to enter. Yes, some of us will turn out have slightly faster reflexes, or slightly sharper hand-eye co-ordination than others, but then we might have a tad less encouragement or preparation. Sport is like that. And we only have one life. It takes time to develop and hone any of our intelligences, and while we’re doing that the others are not growing much. That sad truth gives us the absent-minded professor, the inarticulate sportsman, the speakers who completely misread audiences, and so on. It means that our potential can never be completely fulfilled: we simply don’t live long enough if eighty five years is all that we have.

But it does mean that we need to think again about what education is for. The reason that some kids don’t seem educable while others are keen and interested has enormously to do with their upbringing so far. Those loved and encouraged by their parents to develop their potential will be revealing this plainly at age five. Those whose parents (or parent) are simply too busy, or uninterested in their kids, or unaware of the huge importance of these early years, or think that all this is the school’s job, will deliver five-year-olds to school who are unlikely to make the teacher’s life an uplifting experience and will get little out of school themselves.

There are two strong reasons for seeing schools, and indeed the whole educational system, as needing a thorough re-think – especially from the perspective of ‘multiple intelligences’ (Gardner’s term). One is that to do so is democratic and egalitarian. If we are all born with all the talents we need to become self-actuating, responsible and self-sufficient adults, then our society should ensure that we have that opportunity. The other is that to do so is a form of good management. People who have an active creative live, whether it be in painting, music, reading, bush-walking or anything else, are most unlikely to engage in burglaries, homicide, assault or other crime. Creativity, the use of our intelligences in a satisfying way, is life-enhancing and confidence-boosting; we learn more about ourselves and learn from each other. We are less interested in money and material things. Our criminal justice system costs about $7 billion a year, and is rising faster than inflation. To keep people in prison costs about the same, in daily terms, as keeping them in a five star hotel, though much less pleasantly for the guests.

Alas, our schools and the way we construct them, with winners and losers defined (in fact, though not in theory) largely in terms of the child’s more or less fortunate upbringing, are at the moment part of the problem. We could make them part of the solution. But to do so we first have to get rid of the odious notion that somehow parents have the right of ‘choice’, which means that those who have sufficient money can choose and those who don’t, can’t. Wealthy parents can choose, in effect, to buy positional goods for their children, like access to excellent schools, extra coaching, computers and libraries. That will make the children look ‘brighter’ and give them an extra opportunity to do well at exams. There is no easy solution to any of this, but knowing about it is the first step.

Ideally, children should be born into happy relationships between creative and self-confident adults, and prepared, motivated and encouraged in an almost disinterested fashion (meaning that the parents are not seeking to have their child live out some parental dream). But of course this is not an ideal world, although it is a distinct improvement on the Australia of the 1950s. We can’t improve the school system until Australians understand that they are – all of them – capable of many different careers, creative pastimes and sports, and that capability applies to the newly born as well.

I’m much less impressed with winners and winning than I once was. I’m much more impressed with the possibilities for a good society that are evident in the huge numbers that have been to university, engage in artistic creativity of all kinds and look after themselves. That, I think, ought to be the position of those responsible for governing us. But it isn’t, not yet.

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