Saturday, 4 May 2013

Teaching To Test -v- Lifelong Learning : Chomsky at Harvard : Educational Oppression : Respect, Empowerment and Social Justice

Picture at right: Stella Maris College, Bowen. Junior (Grade 10) class - 1959.  Miss Eagle is the one in the middle - the only one who does not have black shoes.

I come from a working class family. My school education took place in the Catholic system from 1949 to 1959 - first in a suburban convent school in Brisbane, Wynnum Central, until 1955 and then in a country town, Bowen, in North Queensland from 1955 to 1959.  When I hear of the happenings around education to-day I am rather amazed.  I remember nuns who didn't have university degrees but who, in many cases, were studying for one after days spent in crowded class rooms and, in the case of Bowen, class rooms that were old and dusty.  I'm not saying that education has to be like that - but I think the education I and my fellow students received was pretty amazing and led us to some interesting places.

And we got religion.  Catholicism was a different world back then - we were encouraged to daily mass, daily rosary, giving pennies to the missions.  The nuns were of the Sisters of Mercy variety - practical people and mostly Irish.  My beautiful Grade 8 teacher, Sister Mary Peter, left Ireland when she was 17.  She could recall actually seeing the Black and Tans

The 50s too saw the rise of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) which infected Catholic parishes across the country.  The Split began in Victoria in 1955; was kept out of NSW by Cardinal Gilroy; but reached Queensland with the blessing of Archbishop Duhig in 1957.  Many Christian denominations have turned their backs on trade unionism, ignoring the fact that its originators - people like the Tolpuddle Martyrs - were Christian. Not so in 1950s Bowen - the only town in Australia ever to elect a communist to an Australia parliament.  My recollection is of two political ideas that were transmitted to us - firstly, that our ultimate obedience was to God above all governments and human-made laws; secondly, Catholics should join their trade unions because if we did not there would be a vacuum that the Communists would fill.  

My parents were not political people although 'current affairs' did get discussed.  My mother was a Bob Menzies voter and my father never ever disclosed whom he favoured politically - which leads me to believe that he did not always vote the same way my mother did.  My sister and I did eventually change our mother's mind  - in the Fraser years - but it was always a puzzle to her how she managed to rear two republican daughters who went on to work for a trade union.

By the time I was fifteen and leaving High School, there were three political ideas that influenced me - the idea of ultimate obedience to God above fallible human law-making; and studying, if ever so superficially, the independence movements of Ireland and India.  

For me formal education re-commenced in 1976.  I was then a stay-at-home mum with a husband and three kids.  I was encouraged by a lecturer at the then Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education. The Whitlam years had opened up education to those who never dreamed that such a possibility was open to them.  Eventually - after stops and starts and changes of institutions - I received, in 1988, a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Queensland done mainly by external study.

When compared with what is considered a sound education to-day with children groomed like Black Caviar in private schools, my education was not up to scratch.  However, I learned things at an early age like grammar and derivation and parsing and analysis which now are only taught at university level in linguistic classes.  I can do arithmetic in my head without a calculator or a computer.  I am an excellent speller and I have good handwriting.  I am a very good public speaker and I can write or tell a story.  

I outline these skills to point out that, under modern teaching methods, many children leave our education system in their teens without some or all of these basics.  In short, what I wish to point out is that education is - for most of us - what we get after we leave primary and secondary schooling behind.  What we need from primary and secondary schooling are the building blocks that will help us to move forward in life and learning and decide for ourselves the directions of our lives - and that is not always possible in Grade 12 or the first years of university.  

All this is a prelude to drawing attention to this article from the Harvard Gazette titled Subversive Education  which has come to me via Popular Education Network Australia - on Facebook here

In his recent Harvard lecture in the Askwith Forums, Chomsky said “Teaching to test, that’s our education system.”  With Australian education receiving particular attention from Prime Minister Julia Gillard and from what we hear of how NAPLAN testing is working at school level, many teachers in Australia are saying that, with regard to NAPLAN, they are teaching to test.

Looking back, I think teaching to test was a vital part of the Catholic education system.  There were public examinations - in Queensland, Grade 8 was, in my time, known as The Scholarship Examination, and Grade 10 was known as Junior and Grade 12 was known as Senior.  In these years we were worked very hard.  We were at school at 8am and didn't leave until 4.30pm, at least.  The reputation of Catholic education was built on the examination results published in The Courier-Mail every December.  Young women out of Catholic high schools were considered good value by employers (except the sectarian ones). We were well-educated, well-mannered, well-behaved.  

What has to be demonstrated - and I don't believe it is in modern Australia - is that education is a social exercise and is a whole-of-life journey.  Modern education, it seems to me, is career driven. It locks people in.  Its goal is 'a career'. And we churn people out of educational institutions as young adults burdened with a debt at the time they should be thinking about embarking on family life and establishing a home.  

I believe that the whole community needs to understand that education is a life-long process.  We do need basic building blocks to participate fully - and sometimes rote learning is the best way to get the mechanics in place.  

The best education is life - painful though it may at times be.  Education is not just a head thing.  It is a social thing.  It happens within a social milieu not a career directive. We should be able and free to come to great teachers to take on board those things, subjects, literatures which shine lights into our lives.  

This would mean that what we seek in education is not to be found in a straight trajectory towards a goal. It will mean a zig-zagging into and out of all sorts of knowledges that are applicable to our lives at different stages. 
  • To do this we need the community to first recognise that this is how education can be.  
  • To do this we need to recognise that education must be free of charge to the consumer, student, client but that socially responsible people will put back into such an education system to enable others to continue their participation.  
  • To do this, we must not hibernate those being educated in academic cloisters.  Hands, head and heart must act together in our learning.  


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