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Education: Life’s Choices – Introductory Background

A great deal is understood about education and learning and teaching. That understanding and knowledge comes from first class research and scholarship by educational research people in universities and research institutions in Australia and around the world. Much of it is communicated at conferences large and small, some of them amongst the most stimulating of such events in any field. To many casually reading about or listening to the education debate, this will come as news!


Continue to essays on education:

A Word on Economics

Neoclassical Economics : a Failure of Theory or a Theoretical Failure?

An Alternative View: Behavioural Economics

Early Childhood: A World of Relationships,

Early Childhood: The Nature of Early Experiences

Early Childhood: Critical Relationships with the Mother

School Leadership: Leadership In Education

Organising Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago

A summary of some of the main ideas developed in the essays on education was delivered at a talk in August 2012 entitled Unicorns and Trees: Why education reform isn’t working.

There is also an earlier essay delivered as a talk, ‘Is there a future for an educated Australia‘,  as part of the “Lunch Box Lectures” at Griffith University’s College of the Arts, Brisbane, 19 September 2007


The following is repeated from the initial post on Education:

The principal thesis of the collection of essays is that many different things are connected. Attention to early childhood is essential: successful emergence from those early years is influenced by the social and economic circumstances of the family and also by the experiences of the mother when she was young. The health of the child is also influenced by the social and economic circumstances of the family and that in turn influences brain and cognitive development. The economic circumstances of the family are determined very much by the employment situation of the parents. High levels of unemployment likely lead to domestic problems which lead to poor health which reduces the likelihood of successful cognitive development. Economic and social conditions continue to influence the child’s educational development through school and  beyond.

Of the greatest importance is the fact that early childhood intervention has greatest impact on low socio-economic families: support for preschool and for parental leave is an employment issue – the usual focus of the debate – but it is much more importantly an educational  issue. The evidence is that especially in the case of low socio-economic families, simply having very young children minded by a friend or relative will not advantage the child’s cognitive development. A full fifty percent of the child’s achievement at school is determined by what the child brings to the school experience. If that has been poor it is far less likely that any subsequent intervention will overcome the deficit. Unless substantial additional resources are allocated!


Life is Learning

First, it is important to emphasise that life is learning, the aggregated and continually modified experiences of everyday. What is remembered, that is retained in long-term memory, is that which is reinforced. Other experiences and knowledge which is transient is by definition not retained in the longer term. Learning is sometimes conflated with what is remembered, that is what can be recalled on demand. Knowledge is the collection of accumulated facts gained from experience, understanding is the ability to connect relevant items of knowledge and apply that to new situations including new analyses or rearrangements of previous understandings. These processes are going on all the time, in all animals, even those considered relatively primitive such as wasps and spiders. Because every individual’s experiences are unique, every individual’s understandings are unique though there are understandings which are widespread and shared. An individual’s knowledge and understanding cannot necessarily be considered to constitute truth.

Early Childhood is critical

Amongst the most critically important understandings to emerge in recent times is that early childhood, when relationships are first formed and when the brain architecture undergoes most of its development, is the time when most gains can be made in preparing the individual for later life, including a life of learning. And it is here that social and economic conditions have most effect and must be considered. In countries where children do well in developing their learning there is attention to early childhood and to parental care. The return on investment in early childhood, especially for children from socially and economically disadvantaged circumstances, is substantial, not least in reduction of crime and increase in employment in adulthood. Poor health affects mental development and health is affected by the environment in which the child grows up.

Learning is constructivist

Secondly, there is vast evidence to support the view that learning is constructivist, in other words heavily influenced by previous experience, by relationship with others relatives, peers and teachers: it is socially constructed by the learner. Studies of what goes on in the classroom show this clearly. Some passages of the wonderful book White Teeth by Zadie Smith contain accounts illustrating this view of learning which is radically and significantly different from Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and Mr Gradgrind’s exhortation to learn the facts, “just the facts”. Unfortunately, some people still demand maximum attention to learning “facts”. Thereby pedagogy, the nature of teaching, is marginalised and the student’s gain diminished.

Parent income and education predict student achievement

Thirdly, there is a strong correlation between student achievement and parent income and educational background. Persistent poverty is a principal determinant of poor cognitive development and low educational attainment. Once the child starts school, the class environment, the social and economic background of the other students, significantly influences individual achievement. In Australia especially recently, considerable additional funding has been provided to independent schools by the central government. Those schools choose who to enrol. Government funded schools cannot choose who to enrol. Though they end up with the bulk of the students in a community, and are very much less well funded, in many cases their students do as well as or better than well-funded independent schools. What the financial privileging of independent schools has done is ignore the influences of average social and economic advantage on individual students.

There are those who can acknowledge this relationship yet maintain that generous funding of independent schools ought to continue. In the U.S., where funding for schools is mostly at the local level and dependent on local government revenues related to local wealth, support for non government schools such as charter schools continues despite no evidence that their students do better. Education historian and writer and former advocate Diane Ravitch now campaigns strongly against these developments.

Support for  disadvantage, a strong and diverse curriculum and trust in teachers bring success

Fourth, in the countries whose students do best in international tests, schools are relatively uniform in their funding though special funding and additional resources are provided for disadvantage, a strong and diverse curriculum is promoted and teachers are trusted and given substantial freedom. The reforms in Ontario, Canada under the McGuinty government and in Finland are an example. In these countries market economics or neoliberalism, the rise of which is so dominant in some developed countries, does not provide the basis of policy.

Support for creativity is vital

Above all, what is important in education is a genuine encouragement of creativity. Experience after experience shows just how people can grow and develop given opportunities to exploit their creative potential. The advocacy of Sir Ken Robinson in his TED and other lectures is inspirational. The gains from encouragement and genuine appraisal which directs young people to evaluation of their own achievement and progress are evident from any consideration. However, in education systems and policy the future is mostly imagined as being more of the same, something requiring what we are doing now, only better and more often. The long run needed to really acknowledge what people are capable of is seldom provided, the attention to giving each individual the respect which acknowledges that they are valuable as people is a scarce commodity, as if there was competition for the time and the attention, as if it was all too risky, as if competition was all that mattered.

Ignorance prevails in many countries

In general public discussion, political comment and media reportage in some countries, notably the USA, Britain and Australia, most of these factors which typify successful education systems are ignored in favour of rhetoric and ideology! Instead, accountability and community participation in such things as management of schools are emphasised. Choice by parents as to what school their child attends is positioned as a democratic right along with the right to know the details of the scholastic achievement of each school which can be ascertained, it is said, by test scores. Accountability for teachers means judging their performance by the test scores of their pupils. To retain the best teachers merit pay should be introduced and poorly performing teachers should be dismissed if they cannot improve their performance. Most of those proclaiming such remedies ignore the lack of statistical validity and utility of such metrics and the consequences and the substantial evidence showing merit pay has no influence on student performance or teacher behaviour.

Teachers deserve appropriate support

Whilst good teachers are time and again acknowledged as essential to educational success, in many countries they are not very well paid and treated even worse. Work space is limited, teaching time is high, meaningful appraisal is minimal and control over teaching and curriculum presentation is substantial. In some countries great attention is given to new initiatives or success in some school or set of schools: looking more carefully we find that a lot of money and effort has been put into the schemes, the very thing that is missing from schooling in general in those same countries, schooling which is said to be failing. Even the number of teachers dismissed for poor performance is wrongly reported to be lower than in other professions. In the USA  the solution to improving schooling is considered to be enrolment in good charter schools;  some prominent advocates believe that is appropriately achieved by running a lottery for entry to such schools.

Financial rewards are not the be-all and end-all of teaching or any other profession but when teachers’ salaries are haggled about and limited to the extent of gaining no increase over time, one has to question the commitment of authorities to education. Like all people, teachers do best in a climate of trust by the community. For the most part it is lacking! Instead of applying the best of what we know, the trend has been standardised tests which narrow the curriculum and focus on repeatable “facts” instead of developing understanding, critical analytical ability and a longer lasting interest in learning.

Universities have been overtaken by managerialism

Universities have been impacted no less than any other part of the education system by the centralised system of managerialism which is part of neoliberalism. Not the least important fallout has been little advance in effective teaching and in some universities the rush for outside funding to compensate for the lack of government funding has ended up in corruption as Daniel Greenberg shows in his books The Politics of Pure Science and Science, Money and Politics and his novel Tech Transfer.

Because the notion that the gains from a university education are largely to the individual fees for attendance have been applied in some countries, notably the U.S. The result has been ballooning debt in funds borrowed to pay the fees: in the U.S. these debts exceed total credit card debt of all citizens!  Meanwhile classes increase and teaching is devolved by research engaged academics to graduate students. The demand is for skills! The professors are judged by research publications. Universities are said to be vitally important for our progress! The situation has been documented in several recent books. None of the reforms instituted bear any relationship to those strategies which in fact stimulate outstanding achievement: careful staff selection, challenging but trusting work environment, demand for high standards of performance.

Lessons about organisations and management have been imported from somewhere other than the best businesses. Efficiency has been conflated with effectiveness and progress stultified. Democratic notions of choice have been promoted but the system more closely resembles that obtaining in that centralised astonishing failure known as the Soviet Union as outlined by British senior civil servant Professor Ron Amann eight years ago. Emeritus Professor Max Corden of Melbourne University detailed six years ago the working of this in Australian universities after Education Minister John Dawkins forced their amalgamation with colleges of advanced education and institutes of technology and gave emphasis to uniformity and being business like!

Neoliberal economics has led to inequality which has diminished educational achievement

The application of neoliberalism and neoclassical economics forms the principal divide between successful and less successful education systems in the developed world. Neoliberal economics attends to the individual, it is based on the notion that people are motivated mainly by financial incentives, that they are utility maximisers, that the private sector gets crowded out by government which accordingly should be diminished, that we need more accountability and transparency. The result has been increasing inequality. Applied to government agencies the result has been not greater freedom as expounded by the ambassadors for this philosophy but with less, with centralised control, with continual accounting for that which can be measured and audited, with instruction from the top as to what should be done, how people should behave. Meanwhile corporate behaviour is daily exposed as failing to live by its rhetoric, directors fail but executives profit.

The neoliberal basis of economic theory is at variance with the experiences revealed by behavioural economics and most particularly by the studies in many fields of humans and what it means to be human. As Tim Jackson, Professor of Sustainability at the University of Surrey, so aptly put it in his 2010 Deakin lecture, people’s concern is with issues like the health of families, the trust of friends, the security of communities. “It’s about participation in the life of society. It’s about some sense perhaps of having a meaningful life and a hope for the future…” Jackson pointed out, “there is no evidence in social psychology that we really are the narrow, materialistic, selfish, individualistic consumers that the economy would have us believe that we are… We evolved as much as social beings as we did as individual beings. We evolved as much in laying down the foundations for a stable society as we did in continually pursuing novelty.”

It is a mark of the current British coalition Government led by Prime Minister David Cameron that the move to independently managed schools or academies managed by private corporations continues and that tuition fees for university attendance will treble and funding for humanities courses cut. It is likewise significant that the Sustainability Commission has been abolished, that financial reductions have been made in numerous social services, reductions which will have the greatest impact on those least able to cope.

Recent Australian government policies have sought lessons from those countries which are considered to be best understood – Britain and the United States – and not those where students perform best. It seems like a continuation of the cultural cringe of the early part of last century. Australian students do significantly better in international tests than students from Britain or the United States, and so do those from New Zealand and Canada. Why should it be thought that Australians have lessons to learn from the U.S. and Britain?

Innovation, so central to the future, comes from trust, from cooperation, from genuine opportunity and from both encouraging  and challenging the individual. It comes from informed and courageous political leadership which takes the long view. It doesn’t come from uniformity or from competition. And it doesn’t come from central control or from ideology. It has very little to do with the normal run of commercial business. That, as Peter Drucker said, is mostly tight cost control!

Success in education is being held hostage to the tenets of neoliberal economics.