Last night I went to the annual Phillip Hughes Lecture presented by the Australian College of Educators. Phillip died a year or so ago, but his named lecture has been running for ten years: he was a great Australian educator, one of the very best. When he knew that he had terminal cancer he decided that he would produce one more book, and he wrote to his friends and colleagues asking them to supply a chapter on their understanding of the title of this post. That book, Phillip Hughes (ed.), Achieving Quality Education for All (Springer, 2013), was launched at the Lecture
It was easy for me to respond, and I wrote my essay in one burst of creative energy. It was a topic that had interested me throughout my life, growing up as I did as the child of two teachers, and wanting to be a teacher, first at the primary-school level, then at high school, then at university. In my working life I have had a lot to do with all levels of education, and I think Australia has done a good job, compared with the way things were when I was young. (That was also the judgment of the Phillip Hughes Lecturer, Professor Stephen Dinham, and I’ll talk about his wonderfully aggressive speech tomorrow.)
But compared with what we might do, if we really did take education seriously, and got past flashy slogans like ‘the education revolution’, we have hardly begun. Our schools, colleges and universities still follow the ‘one size fits all’ model. Our educational institutions are not especially effective in what they do. There are just too many failures, too many uninterested kids, too little real learning. And that is not in any way to disparage teachers and their often Herculean efforts.
If we were to take seriously the notion that every child needs to be well educated, then we would organise education rather differently, I think. Howard Gardner, the Harvard scholar whose work has greatly affected my own thinking in this area, has said somewhere that the major advance in school education in the last thousand years has been in bringing children in out of the rain. Ideally, we would have much more knowledge than we now do about each child’s portfolio of skills and interest, and we would design a program for that child so that his/her development proceeded steadily.
We would try to balance that development, so that we did not in the end produce lop-sided adults who were extraordinarily proficient in one field but quite undeveloped in others. Since we would not know what occupation that child would have we would do our best to prepare him or her for a variety of possible areas of life and work, recognising that by late adolescence the future career path or paths might be quite plain.
The child would still be in a school, but the school would have quite a lot more staff, both teachers and support people. It would be organised differently too. High schools might start after lunch, in recognition of the different circadian rhythms that come in adolescence. Some might be co-educational in part, but mostly single-sex in specific areas, recognising that puberty can interfere with good learning. The desired outcome would be the development of skilled, self-confident, productive, creative, altruistic adults who would in time be the parents of children whose development they supervised with encouraging, disinterested love.
If that is really our goal we will have to go past thinking of improvements to our schools, our teachers and the timetable, important though they are. We will need to start with the decision to make a new baby, the circumstances in which that baby will emerge into the world, and its likely course over its first five years. At once we face a major hurdle, because making a baby is regarded as an absolutely private matter, one in which the state ought to have no interest. And that is paradoxical, because the moment the baby is born the state moves to take notice of it. Why not start earlier? Making a baby is a socially important decision with all sorts of consequences, as I have been arguing about the single-parents benefit.
We are long way from a community understanding that every baby is a future adult, and that babies are not possessions, or someone to love who loves us, or achievements to justify our own lives, or warriors sent out into the world to achieve what we have so far been unable to achieve. More, it is doubtful that our community understands that those first five years represent only a little more than five per cent of the future adult’s life, but they are very probably the most important five years of all. In fact during our own lives we will encounter our children mostly as fellow adults, not as small people dependent on us for almost everything. From this perspective, or so it seems to me, we should be striving to ensure that our adult children are equipped to cope with life in a resilient, confident and helpful way, and likely to see us as special friends, rather than as ‘parents’.
There is a long way to go. But I am not disheartened. When I left high school in 1953 only two per cent of my age-group went on to any form of further education. Today the proportion is some 60 per cent. In the 1940s and early 1950s most girls were not educated past age 15, on the ground that they would only marry and have babies: any money and energy should be devoted to boys. That is no longer the case, and the country is vastly better for it.