Waiting for Superman, the documentary about education from the makers of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, was released in Australia last week. While a doco about the American public school system isn’t likely to have the same level of popularity in Australia as its climate change sibling – it has a very limited arthouse release in capital cities – the film raises some interesting questions about current trends in Australian education, especially given the fondness of our current PM for educational ‘borrowing and lending’.
The film tells the heart-wrenching story of five children in urban schools in the US and their quest to succeed in the public lotteries that stand between them and entry into privately run public schools, known in the US as ‘charter schools’.
It’s a seamless piece of neo-liberal propaganda that points to the deficiencies of the public school system, the demonic force that teacher unions represent and the capability of the private sector to save poor children from the fate-worse-than-death that mainstream public education represents. Like all good propaganda, there are a few assumptions that underpin the action that go unarticulated, and as it happens these are some of the big questions that we are currently grappling with on a global scale when it comes to education.
The first of these is that poor teaching is to blame for educational systems and structures that fail to prepare young people adequately for life. The truth is that teachers are neither society's heroes nor society's villains. There are some life-changing teachers and some that should probably be on nil-by-mouth. Both of these groups are in the absolute minority. It's the same for GPs, accountants, social workers, shop assistants and lawyers. The point is that what we need are structures that support all teachers to develop in their professional practice over the course of their careers, and structures that support the very small minority who are unsuited to teaching to exit the profession in a dignified manner. The best way to improve the learning of our children is to support the learning of the teachers who teach them. Blaming the kids or the teachers won't actually fix systems that are outdated or broken, and strategies that will fix the system are expensive and intensive and so it's far easier to go for the quick fix. Enter the next iteration of teacher standards and a series of administrative hoops for teachers to jump through that do nothing to improve the quality of their teaching but make it look to us all like something is being done.
Supermanhas something to say about good teaching. According to the film, bad teachers cover only 50% of a full year’s content while good teachers cover more like 150%. Oh that we could measure teachers so simply according to their 'coverage'. Actually, Howard Gardner, a fairly respected name in American education, says that you can: "coverage is the enemy of understanding", he once wrote: teachers in effect have to make a choice between where to start – with what I’m going to ‘cover’ – or what they’re going to understand. Seeing education as a process of 'covering' material is an impoverished view of what should be going on in our classrooms. As a teacher, I don't have a lot of 'stuff' to cover. I actually have a lot of 'stuff' to uncover, a lot of doors to open for my students that lead to a deep understanding of the world they live in and their own place in it. I could go so far as to say that I don't think it matters hugely whether they know about the Magna Carta when they leave school: the critical thing is that they are curious about the world, have a sense of how much they don't know and can access and evaluate information when they need it. We could argue forever about the little bits of knowledge that are essential for our children to have - in fact as any History teacher in Australia will tell you, we have been arguing about this forever - but it's a pointless exercise. At the end of the day there are as many lists of essentials as there are people in our society. The important thing is that our kids leave school with a passion for the acquisition of knowledge and the skills to make it happen.
Superman focuses on the improvement of basic literacy and numeracy among students who live in circumstances of disadvantage. Like motherhood it’s hard to argue that this isn’t a noble aim, but we need to understand that good literacy and numeracy is a starting point, not the big aim of education. Add to this an implicit assumption that good results on standardized testing equate with a good education, and we have a big problem. A nation full of people who can read, write and do ‘rithmetic is one thing, but if we want to be a nation that can genuinely compete in the international knowledge economy, we need much much more than that.
The fact is that focusing on test scores isn't the way to make children better learners, or to equip them for life, either before or after they leave school. Teachers know that the most efficient way to get good results on standardized tests is to teach to them, sacrificing actual education to test scores. Unfortunately that's counterproductive when it comes to preparing students for life. The countries that do the best on the much-lauded OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores – like Finland – do so not because a ‘default curriculum’ has taken over schools as teachers teach to standardized tests (like it has in the US and is in danger of doing here: you might see this in your local school as NAPLAN season arrives upon us shortly) but rather because they put resources into teacher development, have very limited standardized testing and have a broad curriculum that goes out of its way to engage students and develop understanding.
It might not be common sense but believe it or not, good teachers have some knowledge of how to 'do' education that goes beyond what you pick up as a school student, even if you're at it for 13 years. The fact is that good teaching isn't about transmission of knowledge or 'banking', to use Paulo Freire’s powerful metaphor, where the teacher makes 'deposits' that the student can withdraw at some point down the track (or on testing day). If only it was that simple.
In my experience, good teachers look very unlike the depiction of teachers in Superman, or indeed most other places they can be found in popular culture and the media. Good teachers move among their students while they're learning, asking finely-tuned questions and finding out where the misconceptions are. They understand that good learning happens when the learner takes charge, to borrow from Seymour Papert, and that it largely relies on strong teacher-learner relationships. They rarely stand in front of a blackboard or whiteboard scrawling notes or conduct lessons like performance pieces.
Supermanoffers us a few ‘inconvenient truths’, unfortunately not via what it says but rather via what it leaves unsaid. As a portrait of a system that’s carried some of the ideas we now hold dear in Australia through to their ugly conclusion, it should highlight for us the perils of applying simple solutions and common sense ‘quick fixes’ to educational conundrums that are actually very complex and require some patience.
That’s right, patience. We’re not likely to develop the best possible education system in one electoral cycle. Ah, there’s the rub…