Pyne: a pain for education in Australia

It took all my strength, when reading Daniel Hurst’s article “New broom Pyne ready to reshape the curriculum,” appearing in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald News Review, to not beat myself over my head repeatedly with my morning cup of green tea. Mr Pyne is ready to take on education in Australia, and woe-betide any authority, teacher, or student that gets in his way.

Of particular concern was Pyne’s intent to effect change, purely so everyone knew there had been a change of government; his misguided views on pedagogy; and apparent disregard for ACARA making any kind of decision regarding education.

After raising concerns about individuals in positions of power, with no background in education, making huge decisions about education in my article about firing teachers on the basis of NAPLAN results, my fears have yet again surfaced.

Like Klein, Chris Pyne is a law graduate and has worked as a solicitor. Pyne has served the coalition as a Parliamentary Secretary from 2003 to 2007, and was appointed Shadow Minister for Education, Apprenticeships and Training in 2008. Pyne has had a long time to consider what he wants to achieve as Minister, and is evidently keen to let everyone know “there is a new management in town.”

Pyne believes ”The Westminster system of government requires ministers to take a hands-on approach to matters within their portfolio.” Hands-on is one thing, but ignoring the expertise of others in order to stamp one’s authority is irrational, egotistical, and potentially devastating.

Pyne has signalled he will take a “hands-on” approach to education, as he considers that the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authoriy (ACARA) are “not the final arbiter on everything that is good in education.”

Apparently, if you want the authority on education in Australia you go to the lawyers, not the teachers, because a law degree makes one better qualified to make significant decisions on education in Australia than an executive of experienced, well-qualified, educators.

This does not mean that I necessarily agree with every decision of ACARA: rather that I disagree more with the consistent arrogance of society in assuming that everyone knows better than teachers. Despite most members of Australian society having no background in education, formal qualifications or teaching experience, a ‘society is the expert’ attitude typifies education in Australia and general attitudes towards teaching.

Pyne believes that a ‘back to basics approach to education is what the country is looking for, what the parents feel comfortable about.’ There is so much inherantly flawed with this statement.

I’m sure that many parents feel comfortable with a ‘back to basics’ approach: back-to-basics is how they were taught. Individuals tend to be more comfortable with what is familiar. However, if we are satisified to stick with what is familiar, what is comfortable, what is easy, we will fail to meet our potential.

It is through trying new approaches, being open to creativity and innovation, that improvements are made. It is not enough to be satisfied with the status quo.

Pyne is opposed to child-centred instruction, typified by hands-on learning and engaging with material (often referred to as constructivism) and instead favours direct instruction. Direct instruction essentially views children as giant buckets, with teachers’ jobs being to impart as much information as possible to fill this bucket.

What Pyne apparently fails to recognise is the distinction between obtaining information and learning.

Constructivist (student-centred) approaches have been the predominant epistomology in mathematics education since the early 1990s. Constructivist approaches to learning emphasise the role of the individual student in making sense of information new information. Constructivism considers that learning is an active process, and that the transmission of facts does not constitute learning. The teacher is not considered to be the bearer of all knowledge: rather, they facilitate each students’ learning process.

The hallmark of quality learning is not the number of notes written on a white board (as Mr Pyne seems to believe): rather quality learning is evident through depth of understanding and engagement.

It is important to note that student-centred learning is not opposed to learning ‘the basics.’ There is no reason to believe that students that have experienced student-centred learning have somehow completed their schooling with a far insufficient knowledge bank.

Rather, student-centred learning actively encourages a far wider skill set than simply memorising facts. Current curriculum, including the Australian Curriculum, emphasise the importance of developing skills in problem-solving and communicating. Student-centered learning recognises the importance in fostering a classroom climate conducive to developing independent, self-regulated learners, where academic discourse is the norm.

In an age where a plethora of information is instantly accessible via our smart phones and tablets, there is an increased emphasis on skills required for learning and making sense of information: being able to memorise facts doesn’t cut it any more.

Information is important, yes, but learning is about more than information.

Mr Pyne, your archaic notions of what constitutes ‘good teaching’ will be at the expense of students acquiring skills necessary to be active, informed, capable members of the 21st century. Persisting with changes, simply for the sake of change because you want everyone to know there’s been a change in government will have devastating consequences for students in Australia.

I will leave the harangue of Pyne’s criticism’s of the Australian history curriculum to the history teachers.

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About madelinebevs

Mathematics and religion teacher and researcher. Runner. Home-renovation enthusiast. PhD Candidate. I'm excited by education. Having taught high-school mathematics for several years I am currently studying a Master of Education (Honours) in mathematics education, with the aim to ‘upgrade’ to a PhD later this year. My research is addressing how the constructivist epistemology (more specifically explicit instruction in metacognitive and self-reflective strategies) influences students’ affective domain. Mathematics education and research excites me greatly. I’m thrilled that I have the opportunity to write and work in this area. This blog will be (mostly) a collection of opinion pieces published several times a week on contemporary issues in mathematics education, with an Australian focus. More often than not topics will be generated from recent news headlines.
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12 Responses to Pyne: a pain for education in Australia

  1. purplesus says:

    Perfectly put! I’m already frightened by what we may be faced with – we need to arm ourselves with what research says and solid practice. We need to be sure our communities know what good learning looks like; get out the armour and be ready for a fight!

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  4. Rhondda says:

    Agree! Learning is not regurgitating facts. Active learning and building inquisitive minds that seek new knowledge should be part of education today. It is being able to take information and use it to create or build upon their previous knowledge. To be able to think independently, make decisions, solve problems, apply knowledge in the appropriate way and communicate with others are all part of learning. Of course these are harder to apply simple testing methods to. Politicians seem to only want these simple testing methods so they can make these general statements to the public. After all they have all been to school so they understand schools and education perfectly.

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  7. Grumpy1 says:

    Don’t agree. While I’m no fan of the conservatives I have seen what the constructivist approach has done at our local State primary school that my children attend. The emphasis on inquiry/discovery learning at such a young age can indeed leave students without knowledge and basic skills they need to navigate more complex areas. Many schools have simply taken the constructivist approach to far and have forgotten they kids need to lean things like addition tables, times tables, phonics. All the hands on projects, peer assisted learning that you speak of seem to be a complete waste of time to me. eg for science bring in a cardboard box and decorate it so it looks like a bush fire….Sorry what did they learn from that? My children are crying out for facts. They are thirsty for knowl;edge which needs to be imparted by the teacher as they are to young to have accumulated a lot of knowledge themselves. They need to be told if an answer is correct and that getting the right answer is important! I think so much time is wasted it school. I know have to fork out the money to have them tutored in maths because they were never taught the basics so to me they are very important. They’re maths marks have improved immensley since doing so. Mastery is important. Please read Hirsch or Ken Rowe and get some education and teaching back into schools. Stop making it about where you sit on th eplitical divide but about evidence. And all the studies show that direct/explicit instruction is the best way to teach young children. I also get tired of the experts stating that parents do not have the qualifications to enter into this debate. Sorrry but these are our children and we have some idea of their capabilites and when they don’t reach them we can often see why. I find it very arrogant that such statements are made avout parents. We care and I have studied many different approaches to education. As we know all teachers are only taught one approach to teaching at Uni. anyway so they aren’t exactly experts on this topic either. They are completely indoctrinated into constructivism and are probably unaware that there are opposing views.One side note. I do not support the sacking of teachers base don Naplan result nor do I think teachers should be pitted against each other to gain bonuses.

    • madelinebevs says:

      Thanks for commenting.

      I’m not opposed to direct instruction, I see a place for different forms of instruction within the classroom. My teaching (high school mathematics) certainly involves both direct instruction and a more constructivist approach to teaching.

      Yes I think parents should have an opinion on their children’s schooling and it’s fantastic that you have educated yourself on different approaches to education. However, I do grow tired of continued criticism of teachers and their methods for teaching. Until you are in the classroom day-in-day-out, and have truly walked a mile in a teachers’ shoes, I don’t think you can fully appreciate what it is like to work with a class of pupils. My university study has included MANY approaches to teaching and learning. I’m not sure where you’re getting your information from about this, although all uni courses are different.

      I would be hesitant to use a phrase such as ‘ all the studies show that direct/explicit instruction is the best way to teach young children.’ This is certainly not the case in the research I have studied (extensively) as part of my PhD. I have found numerous research to the contrary.

      Facts are important, and I place high emphasis on basic maths ‘facts’ in my classroom (such as times tables). These are integral to a student developing confidence with engaging in mathematics. However it is also important for students to learn critical thinking skills, and these are not developed effectively through rote memorisation practices. Critical thinking skills are essential for learners in the 21st century. Huge volumes of data are widely available through smart-phones and tablets, and individuals need to be able to navigate this data quickly and effectively.

      I don’t think age is necessarily an indicator of level of knowledge or understanding of a topic. To assume that because a teacher is young they don’t have the requisite knowledge or skills to teach a class is incredibly arrogant. Diversity amongst ages and backgrounds is essential to any workforce.

      Thanks again for reading and taking the time to reply.

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