The Melbourne Declaration published in 2008 is the road map that education ministers and state, territory and commonwealth bureaucracies have been using for the last 11 years to inform school education policy and it is currently being reviewed.
The first stage of the review involved a national forum of key stakeholders held earlier this year and the second stage involves the recently-released Review of the Melbourne Declaration Discussion Paper calling for submissions with the deadline of June 14, 2019. Central to the Melbourne Declaration are the two goals of promoting ‘equity and excellence’ and ensuring all students ‘become successful learners, confident and creative individuals and active and informed citizens’.
No matter who wins the election, based on the initial forum and the Review, it’s clear that Australia’s education system will remain substandard and mired in mediocrity and meaningless educational fads like 21st-century learning, collaborative negotiated goal setting and an overreliance on technology and STEM subjects.
The discussion paper is replete with the type of edubabble so much loved by bureaucrats far removed from the realities of the classroom. Any new national declaration must be ‘aspirational’, ‘contemporary’ and capable of producing ‘adaptable, resilient learners’ committed to ‘life-learning learning’. Education must focus on ‘the capabilities and skills that best prepare students for future work’ and that enable students to deal with ‘complex real-world issues and situations’. We are living in a time of ‘major economic, technological and social change’ where ‘digital literacy has become critically important’.
In addition, much of the discussion paper’s observations and insights about education and the challenges facing society are so banal the only conclusion is that those responsible are products of the very flawed education system they are now seeking to direct. Examples include: ‘Australia’s prosperity and social cohesion will continue to rely on improving educational outcomes for all Australians’, ‘Digital literacy has become important for all Australians’ and ‘The nature of our society is also changing rapidly’. Not surprisingly, the discussion paper endorses the findings of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools that also champions a new-age approach to the curriculum guaranteed to further dumb down our education system and to ensure students continue to leave school culturally illiterate and morally adrift.
So destructive is this approach that Jennifer Buckingham (Spectator, 30 April, 2018) condemns it as follows: ‘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’.Based on cognitive research on how students best learn, Buckingham also makes the point that it is impossible to teach so-called generic competencies and skills unless they are grounded in the subject disciplines. Being creative and capable of critical thinking rely on the content associated with specific areas of knowledge.
The most egregious example of the discussion paper’s bias and inability to break free from the politically correct, cultural-Left group think dominating education in Australia, is that when listing ‘reforms and influential reports since 2008’, it ignores the 2014 report arising out of the review of the Australian national curriculum I co-chaired.
The Review of the National Curriculum Report is based on meetings across Australia with curriculum authorities and experts, hundreds of submissions and related research and it advocates a view of education antithetical to that promoted by those currently controlling Australia’s education system. Instead of privileging a utilitarian view of education and one based on emphasising STEM subjects and the new digital technologies the 2014 report emphasises a cultural view of schooling where the purpose of education centres on what Matthew Arnold terms ‘the best that has been thought and said’. To be fully educated all students have to be familiar with what the Victorian Blackburn Report describes as ‘our best validated knowledge and artistic achievement’. In particular, students have to encounter the great books of Western culture and epochal events like the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment that constitute the grand narrative that underpins and informs our way of life.
Contrary to the belief that education should centre on the skills and competencies necessary to prepare students for ‘future work’ and to be ‘productive community members and embrace opportunities’ the 2014 report argues that the moral and spiritual aspects of education are equally, if not more important.
In an increasingly materialistic and narcissistic world students need to be grounded in virtues such as prudence, justice, courage and truthfulness as well as learning what is morally and ethically acceptable and unacceptable. Whereas the Gonski review on how to achieve excellence and the Melbourne Declaration discussion paper promote unproven fads like student agency (where students are in control of the classroom) and progression points (where students are no longer ranked one against the other or against year-level standards) the 2014 review puts a very different view; arguing in favour of teachers being in control, instead of being ‘guides by the side’, and for the curriculum to be based on essential knowledge, understanding and skills. In opposition to the mistaken belief that rote learning and memorisation are obsolete and harmful the national curriculum report also concludes, especially in the early years, that rote learning is critically important.
Cognitive research demonstrates that before students can master higher- order skills and concepts they need to have memorised the basics. Times tables and reading, for example, must become automatic and accomplished with minimum effort. The evidence that standards continue to fall and that Australia’s education system is moribund include: unacceptable performance in the TIMSS, PISA and PIRLS international science, literacy and numeracy tests; remedial classes for first year tertiary students and high levels of anxiety and lack of resilience. In addition, after 12 years, too many students leave school culturally impoverished, academically at risk and unaware that the spiritual and transcendent are vital aspects of anyone’s education.
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