ADELAIDE - During my working life, I succeeded in rising from the complete anonymity of small town, rural Australia to the very heights of provincial bureaucratic obscurity. History will not treat me kindly or unkindly: my efforts simply will be studiously ignored.
My five-year sojourn in Papua New Guinea was, in the grand scheme of things, simply a diversion in a career that followed an almost entirely unplanned path through the byzantine byways of the South Australian public service.
In my travels, I spent some time (1975–79) as an employee of the Education Department, rising to the exulted heights of chief clerk. This grandiose title camouflaged the fact that I was a mere petty bureaucrat amongst many others but it sounded good on my curriculum vitae, which was a plus.
Anyway, during my time as chief clerk, the department was undergoing a revolution of sorts. The cadre of old teachers who had trained pre-World War II and risen laboriously through the ranks to dominate the upper echelons of the department was being replaced by the so-called ‘Young Turks’.
The latter was a group of proverbial bright young things: their MA’s and PhD’s bristling; their brains bursting with energy and ideas for change. They were bent upon converting mere teachers into educators and, as part of this transformative process, had begun to invent an entirely new language to describe what education was about.
Pretty soon terms like ‘team teaching’, ‘open space learning’, ‘new maths’, ‘outcomes based education’ and so forth began to appear in conversations and official correspondence.
There was a veritable blizzard of policies and new curricula unleashed upon the teaching workforce intended to facilitate a great leap forward for education in the 20th century.
Gone would be the old ways of teaching the basics by rote, repetition and constant testing. There would be no more ‘chalk and talk’. Instead, a fabulous new world of meticulously researched and planned new methodologies would arise to replace outdated pedagogy.
The revised curriculum would be composed of new subjects like social studies, where various aspects of fusty old and outdated disciplines like history and geography would be seamlessly melded together with emerging disciplines like sociology to provide children with a more rounded and holistic view of the world.
Multi-disciplinary topics were to be all the go in the brave new world.
The old discipline of mathematics would be split into subjects with differing degrees of difficulty ranging from the very highest level (Newton’s calculus, imaginary numbers, advanced trigonometry, etc) through to what the students soon nicknamed ‘spud maths’ for those who struggled to add, subtract, multiply or divide with any level of success.
English disappeared as a compulsory subject as did the insistence upon correct grammar and spelling. What mattered was fostering the student’s imagination and creativity which could be stifled by old fashioned insistence upon adherence to the basic rules of the English language.
Workforce training was not spared reform. Gone was the chance to go to a teachers’ college to get a two-year diploma in primary education, which once equipped a teacher to ‘go bush’ to tend to the needs of kids living in the remote outback or places like PNG.
Instead, the minimum qualification rapidly became a three- year bachelor’s degree plus a post graduate diploma of education or equivalent. Masters level qualifications were thought desirable for those seeking promotion beyond the classroom into the management stream.
The fruit of this revolution was to be a new generation of superbly educated children who would, in due course, become the skilled knowledge workers and leaders of tomorrow.
I left the department before the transformation process was anywhere near complete but it was already apparent that implementing the grand plan was rather more difficult than its proponents had anticipated.
Also the early results were not what had been expected, as teachers and students alike struggled to cope with the changes imposed upon them.
Contrary to expectations, educational outcomes did not drastically improve. They basically stayed the same. This was a puzzle and spurred the reformers onto new and even more transformative (and expensive) measures.
Class sizes decreased further and squadrons of teaching assistants were recruited to allow classroom teachers more time and resources to focus even more strongly on meeting the specific needs of individual students.
Now, more than 40 years later, it is by no means clear that children today are much better educated than most of their parents. No measures of basic competency in language, mathematics or literacy exist which unequivocally prove that an educational revolution has actually occurred.
There is even some suspicion that modern children are actually relatively less proficient in the basics than their forebears despite the vast fortune spent to make them more capable.
There is evidence that nearly 50% of the population cannot successfully complete things like passport applications or tax forms, while somewhat more than 40% of mortgage holders have been found to not understand the essential nature of the loans they have signed up for, let alone basic concepts like compound interest.
The educational reform process also unleashed ‘market forces’ upon our previously elitist universities by attaching government funding to individual students rather than providing the traditional block grants. This effectively forced universities to compete for students to maintain or increase their funding levels.
The net result has been a massive increase in graduate numbers but an associated dumbing down of both academic entry requirements and much course content. Some universities actually provide remedial reading classes for prospective students.
Compounding all this, computers have ushered in a genuine technological revolution (and accompanying jargon) that has truly begun to revolutionise schools, universities and workplaces. This is a revolution yet to run its full course and no-one knows what its outcomes will be.
The overwhelming tendency of this transformation has been towards complexity and away from simplicity.
I mention all this because, in his recent article about PNG education losing its way, Joe Kuman has, with the best of intentions, inadvertently written a piece demonstrating the degree to which our educators have lost the ability to describe their basic tasks in simple enough terms that an ordinary person might reasonably hope to understand them.
I mean no ill will or disrespect to Joe in saying this. He is simply a victim of our collective descent into jargon, acronyms and sheer techno-babble as a means of communicating what are, at bottom, relatively simple ideas.
In the pursuit of excellence we have collectively lost our ability to apply the famous KISS principle: ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’.
By losing the ability to reduce complex matters into a few simple statements, we consequently lose our ability to focus hard on the things that matter most.
We bamboozle ourselves with our choice of complex language to elaborately describe problems and then devise even more elaborate proposed solutions. I think that this is the genesis of a great deal of the confusion, doubt and conflict which now bedevils much of the democratic world. All too often, we just cannot see the wood for the trees.
In the context of education, this appears to have resulted in a failure to understand that in a complex and rapidly changing world, the correct response is to equip our children with the basic skill set required to be life time learners, not indulge in a futile attempt to cover everything that they might encounter in life.
It is manifestly apparent that we have collectively attempted to cram too much into the curriculum in a vain attempt to give our children a ‘comprehensive’ education.
We have stuffed it full of socially important learning about things like gender roles, human sexuality, discrimination based upon race, religion and ethnicity and so forth, but seem to have done so at the expense of getting the basics right.
As one disgruntled teacher said, “The curriculum is a mile wide and an inch deep”.
Given that it is impossible to provide a comprehensive enough education to cover literally every important issue in this world, isn’t it about time to refocus on getting the basics right?
I think that, at bottom, this is what Joe Kuman is saying but it doesn’t jump out at you when you read his article because the quite complex language and educational jargon he uses would not be comprehended by many people.
Just in case Joe and other educators feel they are being unfairly singled out for criticism, I should mention that as a former hospital administrator, I too became complicit in the mania for collecting and analysing data, not to mention learning to speak health technobabble with the best (or worst) of them. For such sins, I expect to be sent to the fourth circle of hell.
In my experience, the Australian health system is several orders of magnitude more prone to bamboozle itself with big data and the almost overwhelming complexity of its various professional practices, technologies and systems than is the education system.
This is an important reason why our politicians seem so singularly incapable of solving the problems now manifest in it, but that is another story.
So my plea to Joe and other educators of good intent in PNG is to remember the KISS principle and apply it ruthlessly to thinking of others and, of course, to their own thinking, about the purposes of schools.
Developing a workable and understandable curriculum (or any other plan for that matter) is not rocket science, just a question of being clear about what is to be done, how it will be done, who will do it and when it will be done.
This should then be written down in plain English so that both teachers and their students can understand it without difficulty.
As a rule of thumb, if you cannot successfully explain what you are doing and why to your partner or non-teacher friends or your neighbor or your students, then you probably don’t know what you are talking about.
It may sometimes be painful to apply KISS, but the consequent clarity of understanding is worth the price of a little embarrassment or a slightly dented ego.
I think that this is something we might usefully teach our kids too.