The aims of the system

This is not about people in the system but the system itself.

It is difficult to know how the current controversies, the numerous proposed changes in the way education is organised in NSW and Australia, will impact on the next generation of children. A national curriculum, new funding arrangements for schools, the impact of technology on learning, state v federal agenda, proposed new operating paradigms for state schools and the very nature of schooling itself all jostle in a highly politicised (and unstable) landscape.

It concerns me that so little of the conversation is about the realities of teaching and learning in classrooms or how our changed societal paradigms need to be reflected in the ways we educate the young (and all our citizens). Students will still file into examination halls to do pen and paper tests. Most students in our schools will not have a personal device that connects to the internet. Old fashioned, often out-of-date school reports will be sent home each semester. We measure and collect data to be used in the most dubious of ways and our system appears, to many, to be reproducing disadvantage rather than providing genuinely egalitarian opportunity to the many.

There have been many discussions at school and online recently where I find myself playing devil’s advocate, in a range of very different contexts, more in order to stretch my own increasingly uncertain thinking about these challenges for educators, than through any certainty of what is the correct course of action. Yeats’ lines:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity

come quickly to mind as the ground beneath our feet is very unknowable and likely to change rapidly. Do changes, whatever they may be, merely mean more of the scourge of managerialism, that John Ralston Saul articulated in the mid-90s and in a later defence of public education? Or, will genuine innovation be possible in a potential environment of performance pay and high stakes testing?

My last post asks people to imagine what they would do in the field of education if they could start from scratch. How could schooling, or to my way of thinking, learning, be re-imagined? I asked, ‘what is the aim of the system’?

Here’s my most concise answer:

  1. extend our civil society and strengthen democracy
  2. enable our young citizens to learn how to learn

Students need to be highly critically literate, technologically capable, life-long learners with environmental understanding and scientific savvy if these aims are to be achieved. We can tinker with funding and who manages various outputs in any system but without a cohesive narrative, of what all of us, in every part of the system, are aiming to do, it is difficult to imagine genuine progress being made. Currently, many feel, there is a great deal of highly politicised tinkering but not much direction.

My two points seems simple but show me where they are being espoused and held up as of fundamental importance? Does not everything we do in education flow from these two aims? How important is nurturing democracy? How essential is really valuing learning how to learn (and the personalised nature of such a focus) over content?


cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by Joe Plocki (turbojoe)

What should be the aims of our system?
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10 Comments

  1. Penny:

    We seem to have lost the focus of teaching and learning and started to look at finance. Having taught in north Carolina in a performance pay system I can say that the focus on the whole student and education was lost and teaching to a test was the focus. This is a frightening thought.

  2. Thanks for this focused, pertinent and timely post. I agree with you. About the only adjustment I might make is to reverse the order of your two concise points. Without citizens that understand how to learn critically and in a way that connects them with others, I fear that the future of democracy, as we might imagine it, is likely to be short.

  3. Roberta Von Heupt:

    Why are there so many experts making decisions about education when their only expertise in the subject is schoolattendance. As an educator I feel so disconnected at times with the process of uninformed decision making.
    As an historian it disconcerts me to consider a generation of ‘clents’ as opposed to ‘critical thinkers’ voting. Why is it so hard to value learning in our first world nation when most of us have seen its rewards? Sigh, The Idealist

  4. Followed a mention from Steve Collis here. Your questions on the system are deeply political and cultural and as you mention and comments above surrounded by well intentioned (and some misguided) educationalists who as Larry Cuban and David Tyack has coined “Tinker Towards Utopia”. The discussion on citizenship has a path from Plato in western tradition (our lens in this stream) that is illuminated with excellent action based in political philosophy that at times has fomented action to defend the ideals of democracy. Education is a highly political and ideologically driven part of our world. Getting to the root of our system can be eye opening and frustrating. John Muir (an American conservationist) reminded us that the more we try to isolate things the more we find them connected. My few cents would be to ask what is at the heart of our educational systems first. What roles do our shared histories, political ideologies, languages and even religions have is forming education in our western “secular” societies. What role does the state play, and what role do non-state actors like corporations play in treatment of these topics, I would suggest looking at, Illich (1970) Deschooling Society Apple (2004) Ideology and Curriculum, 25th Anniversary 3rd Edition. New York: Routledge, The Routledge International Handbook of Critical Education. New York: Routledge, 2009, Apple (2010) Global Crises, Social Justice, and Education. New York: Routledge. To finish, do not forget to listen carefully to children laughing and at wild play, questioning or crying. These human traits are at the root of any conversation in “learning”. As long as we see young people, we will continue to ask the right questions and act.

    • Andrew FitzSimons:

      Well said Sir.

      Our constant challenge is to balance our operational present, whilst contemplating our prefered future. Mr Moore is identifying those challenges.

      Communities, families, individuals, teachers, the economy; all currently need to know what to do, what to expect at 0828 each week day; walk quietly to roll call. ie we need to invent the future whist still doing everything possible to make the school experience inclusive, humane, stimulating, expansive, exhilerating, sequential, predicatable, unpredictable, enjoyable.

      These are interesting times..

  5. Once again, Darcy, you are asking the right hard questions. When I read of this announcement yesterday I just shook my head. Do politicians who dream this stuff up know what we need in an education system? The fact that they think money is the main motivator for teachers shows how drastically out of step with REAL need. More teachers I believe is the answer, this would mean more time to prepare great, engaging learning experiences for the ones who care – the student!

  6. Ben Krikstolaitis:

    In reply I must ask; why democracy? In a system that we are hypothetically rebuilding, what makes democracy the ultimate choice? Why must we be constrained by the limitations of ideological western thinking especially when it comes to education modelling.

    I agree with you regarding the nature of the current contest but perhaps it is the first steps towards a better education system. The politicians and public servants who dictate educational policy can do only that, what happens at the coal face is up to the educators and the students. Change at the top will flow down and gain momentum meaning greater choices and better systems in which teachers can operate. the system is not ideal but change is always important.

    Perhaps those that are worried about the performance base testing are the ones that should be worried…?

    • Darcy Moore:

      Hello Ben,

      Thanks for your comment. You probably realise the point to my post was to keep our collective eye on the main game, learning in classrooms (and elsewhere) and how the system must be made to serve these aims.

      Yes, it is very possible that change will be beneficial. I like change. Education needs a radical overhaul but what we have at the moment is what could be called ‘managerialist’ tinkering, without clear educational benefits for our ‘New Times’. We have a lot of change suggested and only partially commenced – national curriculum (NSW reneging on implementation through concerns about quality); standardised testing being reported via websites and newspapers creating League Tables; Gonski (as yet unfunded) and of course, the announcements on the weekend – that are all in the works and will unfold (have been unfolding) slowly. We do not know the detail at the moment so it is difficult to evaluate what will happen. NB There are many issues with what you call ‘performance base testing’ and how it narrows curriculum and the experience of learning for children (see US/GB) that need to be considered.

      My point, as I said, is that we need to keep our aims in mind and make sure the system supports these. I mentioned ‘civil society’ and Ben, to dismiss ‘democracy’ is your right but one would suggest that having our community participate in our shared experience is of the utmost importance for ensuring equity, continuity and change (see my Denmark posts).

      What do you believe the aims should be?

      Finally, I personally believe that a somewhat more radical approach to change is needed (in the same way that Public Education was once itself a radical proposition). I have repeatedly espoused a number of ideas at this blog about learning and technology and systems that I can point you to (if you like).

      Cheers.

  7. I’m not going to try and compete with the well thought comments above me here but thought I would just chime in with my thoughts on the system, and on being a part of that system. The system is a very large machine that has been put together over a long period of time – so much that it is not controlled by any one person or group of people. Here in South Australia, we have a new CEO imported from England (because experts always come from far away) and even though he is the new head of DECD and has priorities and plans for our system, he is certainly not in control of how the system will conduct itself. There are embedded histories, sacred cows, people with specialised roles and information whose survival and place in the system depends on their specialised niche which will all dictate how the CEO’s vision for education in our state will pan out. So if the guy at the top can only hang on for the ride, what influence do I have as a (junior) leader within a school? There are times when I just feel like a cog in the machine and that it is a hard enough job to try and influence my colleagues at my immediate school to consider new ways of doing things. The reality also bites that even these changes still are minor tinkering within the institution called school. Even the most innovative sites still have roll books, classrooms, annual reports and are required to do NAPLAN. So yes, I’m inclined to agree that while people are in the system, the system itself can only be a collective conscious combination of the political masters of the day and senior decision makers within that system. And interestingly, regardless of the stated aims of the system, what happens in any given classroom at any given time still rests with one person, that teacher.
    So, what have I said? I suppose I’m agreeing that the system is difficult to influence from the grassroots level but the aims of that system need grassroots support before the aims can become reality. An example would be a few years back when a particular sub-section of DECS (as it was known as then) decided that professional e-portfolios aligned to professional teaching standards was a noble priority for the department to have. There were project officers appointed to head up the initiative, professional development was supplied to interested schools, focus groups formed and glossy documents authored with the goal in mind. But the idea never took off with chalkface educators who failed to see the perceived value of a professional e-portfolio, and the system never built in any compulsion for this idea to become part of the “way things are done”.

  8. rondargh:

    How can we expect our system to extend civil society and strengthen democracy when all levels of the system – from departmental down to the classroom – are little more than dictatorships? :P

    I believe (in my usual hyperbolic and cynical way :P) that the aims of our system are:
    1. To teach humans how to follow the herd.
    2. To sort humans into grades of meat.

    No matter what lofty ideals some of us might hold, I think this is what our system is fundamentally geared to achieve. And I think this mindset is so unquestioningly embedded in the minds of so many people (educators and non-educators alike) that it’s pointless to even try and fight it anymore. It’s just easier to drop out and/or find like-minded types and pursue alternatives, because battling the status quo achieves very little except to raise one’s blood pressure and give one a sore forehead from bashing their head repeatedly against brick walls :P

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