You have to feel just a little bit sorry for Simon Birmingham. The federal education minister was effectively shoe-horned into asking David Gonski — a philanthropist and businessman, and by all accounts a very nice man — to do a second review of schooling, even after the political debacle created by the first one.
Birmingham must have had an inkling that the result would be a report that was more blue-sky than blueprint, and that’s what he got.
The report released today is full of self-evident platitudes about education. For example, this amazing insight: “School systems and schools have a critical role to play in improving educational outcomes”. It offers proposals that completely misdiagnose the problems ailing our schools.
One of the most grating elements is the trope that our schools are based on an outdated ‘industrial model’ of schooling, and that they must be transformed to prepare students for the future of work. US cognitive scientist and education researcher Daniel Willingham has given the best response to this well-worn argument: “Apparently schools are bad because 100 years ago evil corporations duped them into prepping workers for factories. And the solution is to emphasise cooperative, creative work, because that’s what present-day, non-evil corporations say is needed for jobs of the future. Got it.”
The report warns that students must be prepared to participate in the new ‘knowledge economies’ rather than the old resource-driven industries. Apparently, none of the review committee have been to a mine recently. It is not pick-axes and steam engines any more, guys. Mining is a cutting edge, high-tech knowledge industry. To set one against the other is patronising.
The report was supposed to ‘examine evidence’ and provide advice on how to spend the additional funding going to schools over the next 10 years in ways that maximise student outcomes. However, the report completely ignores the copious amount of educational evidence on how children learn and how to best teach them — and fails to meet the terms of reference in several important ways.
The most obvious example is that one of the explicit terms of reference — to ‘improve the preparedness of school-leavers to succeed in employment, further training, or higher education’ — was not addressed. For some reason, the committee kicked senior secondary schooling into the long grass, calling for yet another review. Gonski 3.0, anyone?
Most grievous, however, is that the central recommendations of the report have no research to support them, putting psychobabble over cognitive science. There is absolutely no evidence that the proposed new assessment and reporting regimes will have the impacts claimed — that continuous assessment of learning growth will be more motivating for students and therefore lead to higher achievement.
These assumptions seem to be based on the report’s pre-occupation with the idea of ‘growth mindset’, a psychological construct of the relationship between a student’s beliefs about their ability to achieve and their achievement. While it makes sense on a surface level, two recent meta-analyses found ‘growth mindset’ was a very weak predictor of achievement. This is a flimsy premise for a very expensive and complicated set of policy reforms.
Similarly the idea that learning progressions should be developed for the entire curriculum, including progressions for the so-called ‘general capabilities’. Even if things like creativity and critical thinking could be taught and assessed separate from the academic disciplines — which they can’t — these proposals would take at least five years to develop and another five to implement properly. By which time most of the kids in school today will have moved on.
These criticisms barely scratch the surface of what is wrong with this report. The best thing the federal government could do with Gonski 2.0 is cut their losses, politely thank the committee for their time, and back away quietly.
Dr Jennifer Buckingham is a senior research fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and Director of the Five from Five reading campaign.
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