Life lessons for education overhaul
The exciting new Government is promising to do the sort of thing that exciting new governments do. It’s going to overhaul the education system.
The last time this happened was 30 years ago when they created Tomorrow’s Schools. And I think it is safe to say that never in the history of government was a piece of legislation worse named. But now after three decades of being today’s schools, Tomorrow’s Schools are about to become yesterday’s schools, dumped deep in the red bin of history never to be recycled.
What will tomorrow’s Tomorrow’s Schools look like? Like you I don’t know and like you I amwaiting with breath so bated you could catch cod with it. (Provided, of course, that the cod can’t spell, which under Tomorrow’s Schools has been a distinct possibility.)
Now, I amconfident that the commission tasked with overhauling education will spend many millions of dollars. I amalso confident that it will call on many hundreds of experts, consultants and similar life forms. But I am less confident that it will call on me. So I amcalling on it, here.
Urged on by a phalanx of supporters consisting of a woman in Whanganui, I have distilled 17 years of teaching into five miniatures of educational petrol. If the commission tips them into its tank it will find itself tootling down the Boulevard of Intellectual Clarity in sunny weather. If it ignores them it will sink to the axles in the Swamp of Educational Theory.
(I would note before I start that what I have to say may or may not apply to primary schools. I wouldn’t know. On the few occasions I tried to teach primary school kids I proved good at getting them to climb the walls with excitement. I proved less good, however, at getting them down again. My admiration for primary teachers is without limit.)
So here are my five miniatures of advice:
1. Keep some children handy at all times. Test everything said about children against the reality of actual children. And never call them students. Kids at school are pupils. They are there under compulsion. They have the legal status of prisoners. Should they abscond the police fetch them back.
If kids were students they would barely need teachers. ‘‘Here children,’’ you could say, ‘‘is a textbook and the internet. Go study, and please let us know when you’ve finished.’’ But that is not, was not and never will be how it is.
The word student is a lie, well- meant, perhaps, but still a lie. And if the commission starts with a lie, then anything they base on it will be a bigger lie.
2. Don’t overestimate the influence of schools. Schools love to boast about forming rounded characters and producing responsible citizens. They do no such thing.
If schools formed character then their alumni would all be similar. But every school produces both murderers and murderees, warm-hearts and ingrates, butchers and nurses, lovers and thieves. A school can work only with what it’s given. And what’s it’s given is the product of genes and environment, of nature and nurture. School’s powerless against nature, obviously. And it’s pretty feeble against nurture. As any psychologist will tell you, all the nurturing that matters is done by the age of five.
Schools are excellent things, but they don’t form character or create life-long learners or any of the other guff to be found in prospectuses or ministry websites. Let’s not pretend they do.
3. And please, keep parents out of schools. The whole point of free, universal and compulsory education is to give kids a chance to escape their parents, to transcend their upbringing, however benign that upbringing may be, however loving those parents. It is an axiom of teaching that when you meet the parents, you forgive the child everything. School is a slope that helps apples to roll away from the tree.
4. Don’t be in thrall to technology. It is only ever a teaching aid. And it dates so very fast. All schools have cupboards crammed with dead technology, millions of dollars worth, from language labs to camcorders, all of it once considered the new and indispensable teaching wondertool. What never dates, however, is good teaching.
5. And finally, and simply, remember your own school days. Ask yourself what mattered at the time and what has stuck. What mattered will not have been the classroom. It will have been other kids, your friendships and enmities, the emotional intensity of growing up. Far more is learned in school than what is taught.
But with luck you will remember a teacher or two, a teacher whose interests meshed with yours, whose enthusiasm lit a light that has never gone out. Teachers matter. Education is personal. Teachers make schools.
It is an axiom of teaching that when you meet the parents, you forgive the child everything.
It’s back to the drawing board for teachers as the government plans to revamp NZ’s education system.