Reconciling different goals

By David Zyngier
August 7 2002

Three very different articles in Education (July 24) - ``New gateways open to challenge the gifted'', by Paul Edwards; ``Why divided we are conquered'', by Tony Knight and Art Pearl; and ``Children need to learn to think, not just adhere to a set of rules'', by Neil Hooley - sent me scurrying to the library to reread Pierre Bourdieu's powerful critique of education and its role in society.

Bourdieu makes the point that ``educational titles or credentials fulfil, in a different historical context, a social function quite analogous to that which befell nobility titles in feudal society - it continues to stand in very close statistical relationship to social origins, to birth''.

These articles, in different ways, seem to accept the inevitability of a demarcation of earnings and status based on these credentials as ``the defining measure of social and economic success'' (Knight and Pearl).

They beg the fundamental question: ``What is the purpose of public schooling?''

While Knight and Pearl suggest that the goal of education is to develop informed and responsible citizenship, Hooley states that public schools have a responsibility to involve all children in what he calls deep learning and not be diverted by political trends, pressure for artificial efficiencies and simplistic examinations. Edwards, in his article lauding separate development for gifted and talented children, asks: ``What of the children who aren't considered gifted? Are they missing out on something?''

The answer provided by the organisers of the gifted programs is the standard ``schools already provide for individual student's needs, with sport, music and drama, as well as reading recovery programs, competitions in numeracy and literacy and science talent quests. Similarly (we provide) for students who have special educational needs because they are highly able.''

Innovations being trialled in Queensland state schools perhaps provide a way to reconcile these contrasting positions. Confusingly called ``New Basics'', this program is in no way related to the ``Back to Basics'' so popular with the Federal Minister and state education critics.

The recently released Queensland School Reform Longitudinal Study (QSRLS 2001) was a threeyear intensive observation of 24 representative state primary and secondary schools by preeminent educational thinkers.

Almost 1000 lessons were observed and analysed according to international methodology across a variety of subjects and year levels. The final report represents the largest and most detailed schoolreform study - almost 500 pages of exhaustive and important education research - undertaken in Australia.

The study, in line with the aims of educators everywhere, was concerned with how student learning, both academic and social, could be enhanced. The base assumption of the research was that this enhancement required quality classroom teaching and assessment practices.

An emphasis on a credentialled society defines quality student outcomes in terms of results from limited, standardised testing of basic skills. The New Basics instead defines quality student outcomes in terms of a sustained and disciplined inquiry focused on powerful, important ideas and concepts that are connected to students' experiences and the world in which they live.

The QSRLS identified major challenges confronting state school education today: the changing patterns of family poverty, the generation change in the teaching workforce, the apparently destabilising federal policy in relation to state and nonstate education and declining retention rates, loss of enrolment share and low teacher morale.

In response to these challenges, the study's original contribution to the school reform debate is to specify which aspects of teaching require schools' urgent attention.

The key finding should be no surprise - the higher the level of intellectual demand expected of students by teachers, the greater the improved productive performance and, hence, improved student outcomes.

In order for this to be achieved, schools and the teachers in the classroom must shift teacher attention from the emphasis on socalled basic skills to what we know as higher order thinking - towards what the study has termed ``productive pedagogies''.

Quality learning experience is acknowledged as what our best teachers have always provided for their students - intellectually challenging material that is relevant and connected to the children's lives, recognising that children learn in different ways and have different needs, all done in a supportive classroom environment.

This concept of productive pedagogies is a key plank of the New Basics Project being trialled in Queensland. It is also gaining recognition nationally as a framework for professional development that focuses on classroom practices and emphasises equity in education.

The research also found that it was students most at risk of failure, from socially, culturally and economically disadvantaged conditions, who were the least likely to be exposed to the intellectually challenging and relevant material.

The presence of all four elements - intellectually challenging material, connectedness, difference and social supportiveness - in a particular lesson contributes to the practice of a productive pedagogy.

Although, in some lessons, some elements might be more appropriate than others.

The Queensland New Basics is not an attempt to deskill teachers. It accepts that there is no one true way of teaching and that appropriate teaching for particular contexts needs to be determined by the teacher and students and school communities.

One of the things often commented on by parents, students, school communities and even begrudgingly by politicians, is the level of commitment of teachers to their students, both inside and outside the classroom. Without doubt, teachers and their school communities want their students to get the best learning possible.

However, the study suggests that ``structural restraints work against this will in ways which lead to cynicism and often to despair amongst teachers. It is the creation of cultures of despair which has the effects of inhibiting productive changes within schools''.

The Queensland New Basics may just provide the answers to the problems identified by Bourdieu.

David Zyngier, an education consultant and former school principal, recently completed the ``ruMAD?'' program - Kids Making a Difference in the Community - for the Education Foundation.