Features Australia

When will they ever learn?

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

One January morning in 1800, a mysterious being emerged from the woods near Aveyron in France. The size of a twelve year-old boy, dressed only in a torn shirt, this strange creature was unbothered by the winter cold and oblivious to his nakedness. He grunted but didn’t speak, and he ate ravenously. He became known as the Wild Boy of Aveyron.

The discovery of the wild boy stimulated considerable interest among educators. Was he an example of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’? Would the boy’s innate abilities allow him to ‘discover’ how the world works, just like Rousseau’s famous Émile?

Jean-Marc Itard, a Parisian doctor, undertook to find out. He adopted the child and named him Victor after a character in a play about a wild boy. (The woods seemed to be full of them in those days.) Based on Rousseau’s theories, Itard developed a program of discovery-based education. Instead of showing Victor how to add up numbers or attach sounds to letters and words to objects, Itard took the boy on field trips—to the zoo, museums and concerts. Following Rousseau, Itard believed that exposing the child to a stimulating environment would allow him to teach himself how to speak, read and do mathematics.

Alas, the experiment failed. Victor learned little and only ever said one word, lait (milk). After five years, teacher and pupil parted. The boy could not go back to the woods nor could he function in the urban world of Paris. He remained in the care of Itard’s housekeeper until he died.

Victor’s sad fate caused educators to question the value of Rousseau’s educational ideas, but the philosopher’s supporters fought back. Itard’s teaching methods were perfectly adequate, they claimed. Victor was just incapable of learning. He was probably retarded, or autistic or intellectually disadvantaged by his life in the woods.


This ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ logic is depressingly common in education. By blaming the child for failing to learn, ineffective, even ludicrous, educational methods can remain in use for decades. In his famous 1955 book, Why Johnny Can’t Read, Rudolf Flesh showed how a widely used teaching method, ‘whole language learning’, failed to teach school children to read. Flesh recommended teaching phonics instead. Sixty-three years later, we are still fighting about it.

Maths faces similar problems. Rejecting what they call ‘drill and kill’, some teachers shun traditional teaching methods such as memorising multiplication tables. They encourage students to deduce their own arithmetic techniques. The result, as measured by the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa) has been plummeting numeracy scores.

The same story keeps repeating. Numerous studies have shown that ‘student-centred learning’ (allowing students to teach themselves) is inferior to teacher-led instruction, but educators continue to claim the opposite. The latest to do so is Dr Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator soon to take up a position in Sydney.

Even before arriving in Sydney, Sahlberg dismissed Australia’s national assessment of literacy and numeracy skills (Naplan) as ‘harmful’ to children. (Here is a question from the Year 3 Naplan: Ben collected 68 cans. Jack collected 109 cans. How many cans did Ben and Jack collect altogether? Can you spot the harm?)

Sahlberg singles out Melbourne’s Templestowe College as an example to be emulated nationally. Templestowe permits students to choose which subjects they would like to study and how they wish to learn. According to its principal, ‘everything is negotiable’ including what time kids turn up for school. Students even help to choose their ‘learning mentors’ (Templestowe’s pretentious term for what most other schools call teachers).

The principal of Templestowe says that giving students the freedom to choose teachers, subjects, learning methods and even school starting times allows them to take charge and learn in their own special ways.

Does this approach to education work? The only way to find out is by assessing Templestowe’s students’ learning using a standardised measure of educational achievement. In other words, by having them sit those ‘harmful’ Naplan tests. Unfortunately, only 63 per cent of Templestowe’s Year 9 students sat the Naplan examination last year (the national average is 91 per cent). Why did so many Templestowe’s students avoid Naplan? What would the results have shown had these students sat the examination? It is impossible to know. What we can say is that Sahlberg singled out a school for praise with no evidence on which to base his judgement.

Dr Sahlberg should know better. His own country’s Pisa scores slipped as its education system moved from formal teacher-led instruction to student-centred learning. Canada now scores higher than Finland in mathematics and reading; and Estonia (Finland’s neighbour) scores higher in science. The top Pisa performers in the world are all Asian and not one of them follows Sahlberg’s advice. Learning is teacher-led, school days are long, homework is routine, public accountability is the norm and there are plenty of assessments. It is telling that Australia has not imported education advisors from these world-leading countries. Following their advice would mean embracing traditional teaching methods—modelling, drilling, practice and lots of hard work. Who needs all that when we can achieve great results by magic?

Idealistic educational fads promising effortless achievement have an understandable appeal, but they did not work for Victor and they have produced tragic outcomes for generations of students. Instead of rejecting tests such as Naplan, we should use them to find out which teaching techniques work best and then disseminate those techniques around the country.

The education of our children is too important to be trusted to fanciful ideas about how students learn.

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