“Our schools are a place of the future. You need to believe in us. People should start thinking about the future and give students more responsibility. When we’re in science classes we’re being taught about climate change and how the world will look. Well, why aren’t we finding alternatives? We have to start fostering the change the world needs in a school environment. People put learning in boxes for us and tell us what to do with it. Let us do real things. We can be the change the world needs.” — Lucy Perso, Year 11 student.
The students I spoke to have strong voices and ideas about their education. They have worries about global warming and want their schools to be places where they can use their imaginations and undertake real-world, experiential learning.
Speaking with parents, teachers, school leaders, students and academics, I got the feeling there’s tension within our education system, friction between two ideologies. There’s an old-school model of education that’s largely in place (think teacher as knowledge bearer, children sitting at tables quietly, completing work given to them and lots of photocopied worksheets). Then there’s this colourful contemporary riptide towards something more meaningful: learning through doing, playing and exploring, our students being respected as capable, innovative, value-adding humans.
Education trends are calling for our future citizens to engage in creative thinking, problem-solving and big-picture thinking. These ideas are mottos on school newsletters and government web pages everywhere, but are we really nurturing these states of being in our current education system?
Dr Monica Green is a senior lecturer in education at Federation University’s Churchill campus. On a cloudy morning at a café in Traralgon, I ask Monica about the education trends in Gippsland. She says, “In Gippsland, like any region, we generally subscribe to the broader educational narrative, which I think is very neoliberal. It’s got a focus on testing and a mandated curriculum. It’s very strict. A lot of teachers spend a lot of time teaching to prepare kids for those tests. Still happening in many of our schools is the idea that the teacher is the holder of knowledge and the children are the recipients.
“The role of a teacher and of schools is extremely complex but they have become stuck in tradition. I’m suggesting we just can’t afford to subscribe to that anymore”.
VCE student Chiana Evans reveals “Some classes get you excited about school. Classes where you can express yourself. Classes where you just do what the teacher says don’t make you feel like learning”.
Lucy adds, “The kind of learning, where you’re given questions and there’s right and wrong, it sets you up for failure. There are so many ways to get it wrong and only one right answer.”
Sitting in a classroom full of rows of tables and chairs, Year 7 student Owen Sanderson says, “Sometimes kids get really stressed, sitting at a table, in the same spot for so long”.
It’s complicated. There are infinite nuanced layers to each unique school. Peter Seal, principal of Orbost Secondary College, is passionate about inquiry learning. His vision for education — meaningful learning. Peter says, “There are elements we’re locked into within the current system. We’re still locked into VCE, where kids need to get an ATAR score”.
Peter also talks about some of the other factors that affect how a school operates, “We find it hard to get teachers out here [in Orbost]. We’ve advertised the position for the head of the English faculty position four times in the last seven months”.
I meet Dr Marie Clark at Maffra Secondary College. Marie has a PhD in immunology and is now a science teacher. She speaks openly about her love of teaching — the incredible moments when students get lost in their learning. Marie also speaks about the unbelievable burden on teachers our current education system can be, “It’s like juggling 50 balls at once. The main thing everyone doesn’t have enough of is time. There are a lot of really committed teachers everywhere and often there’s not enough time to teach the way you want, do enough professional development and to read the evidence that’s out there. Then there are often new initiatives coming from the government to take on board as well. The load’s big. It’s challenging. Teachers are passionate but it’s overwhelming. There are a lot of old-fashioned ways of teaching still happening that brings the creativity out of it but lots of great things are happening in our schools too”.
Year 8 student Sam Guy says, “Our learning should be connected to life and real stuff and things we care about”.
So, what do our Gippslandians involved in education want and what’s already happening here? Are our young people valuable enough for us to trust, to allow them opportunities to interact with and reimagine the world we live in and to guide their own learning journeys?
“We want to learn by creating with our own ideas”, suggests Sam.
Also in Year 8, Sam Brown says, “When you come up with your own ideas you can do something unique, that’s yours… you want to do it”.
Sam Fankhauser and Ben Smethurst are VCE students; I’m chatting to them in a theatre class. Sam says, “There’s research showing secondary students aren’t ready to learn until at least 10 am. Why doesn’t anyone take note of this?”
Ben adds, “And I’m not always feeling like I want to do math, or whatever it is, at a given time, especially at nine or 10 in the morning. It might be better for me to do it later on, and everyone is different and has their own opinion so why couldn’t we work out what’s best for ourselves? If you allow people to individualise their learning you might see a better return. If this was a business making profit the system would have changed ages ago”.
Dr Monica Green works with her teachers-in-training at Fed Uni to shake up their thinking around what education is. She says, “I aim to disrupt my student teachers’ ideas about education. The contemporary teacher has to create learning environments that generate learning our young people want to engage in. All the curriculum can be covered when learning in a natural or experience-based environment. You get into a wetland, the local community or your school grounds and kids can be autonomous in their learning. Our students need to be empowered learners. Schools can and should be phenomenal places. I like to take my student teachers to sites where there’s deep learning happening and they go, ‘Holy shit, this is amazing!’. What this does is disrupt the concept of the teacher as ‘controller’ and it becomes the teacher as ‘enabler’”.
The day I go to the Buchan Bush Kinder there are 14 children, ranging from nine months to five years old deeply engrossed in their learning. A patch of bush is their classroom. It’s bordered by a creek and a steep rocky hill. There are children carrying around sticks, crossing the creek and sitting in trees. After spending the last few days visiting secondary schools, the contrast between bush kinder and a traditional classroom couldn’t be more startling.
There’s a group of children crouched around a hole in a log that’s lying next to the creek. Questions flow naturally, “Who could live down this hole?”, “What happens to the leaves after they fall off the trees?”, “Why is the moon still in the sky?”, “How can we build a bridge?”
Cynthia McStephens from Bruthen homeschooled her children who are both now living in Melbourne and at university. Cynthia writes for the Home Education Network. She says, “As a society, we generally have lower traditional academic expectations on preschoolers. Ironically, this means we’ve given preschoolers more autonomy over their learning and have put them in a space more likely to generate all the elements of learning we say we want for our students in schools”.
Rocio Levings is the educator at Buchan Bush Kinder. I watch her listen, observe and step back from the children. “I believe a teacher’s role is to teach from behind”, she says, “Young people should be the guides of their own learning. I only hone in when I see I can open another layer of wonder in a child’s imagination and curiosity. I have the highest expectations of these children. I know they are capable of working through their own mistakes and journeys.
“When learning’s in nature or the community, or even if within your school you approach learning in a holistic way, all the pressure of ticking off curriculum and expectations are gone. The curriculum, that’s inter-connected, real learning, is everywhere”.
All schools run some programs that shake up the old-school notion of education and Foster Secondary College has a couple of cool initiatives. “We have a fully functioning and economically viable greenhouse. We propagate native species and sell them to the local supermarket”, says teacher Kit Rotthier.
“And our students volunteer at the local aged care centre”, continues Kit. “I want to see kids get better at what they want to do, whether it be footy or science or building a boat. It’s not a choice anymore — schools have to get on board with this kind of learning”.
Todd Cleeland is a teacher from Cowes Primary. He says he’s working towards a more interactive, student-led education experience. “I work with students with technology. There’s a difference between using technology purposefully then using it for entertainment. Students and I work with coding, robotics and 3D printing. Our learning is collaborative. It’s not sitting at the desk by yourself where if you get stuck you need to wait for help from a teacher. Students can get help straight away from each other”, Todd says.
So what should the future of education be for our younger citizens?
Rebecca Stephens is in Year 8 and she says she wants to be a writer. Rebecca’s idea is, “We still need to learn the basics. We need to know how to read and write and stuff like that, but it can be for a smaller amount of time. We need much more time to apply our ideas”.
Dr Monica Green says, “It has to be integrated learning. We still separate subjects. I think it’s problematic. It says well science is over here, English is over here and maths is over here. Well, no actually, they have to be interwoven so that kids can draw from them no matter what challenge or level of thinking or task they’re doing, they’re drawing on all these things to make sense of something.
“It does take contemporary leadership for this change to really take off but I like to hope my graduating teachers feel empowered enough to take on this approach within their schools and even influence others. To take their students into nature. To bring experts in from the community. To make learning meaningful and purposeful and give all of us more hope for a better future”.
Science teacher Dr Marie Clark says, “It’s time for change but how that looks, works and happens… there are so many stakeholders in education, that’s where it’s hard.”
Marie continues, “There is a push to move away from the old model of teaching. Not learning facts but applying facts. No one’s going to give you a job and say list the last five prime ministers of Australia, they’re going to go ‘tell me about a time you solved a problem’. If you can google it, do you need to know it? Do you need to learn things off by heart anymore? I don’t think learning the periodic table off by heart is going to serve anyone well. You can have one in front of you in five seconds on your smartphone. They’re saying that 40% of jobs are going to be replaced with automation and if you don’t have the skills like creativity, communication and critical thinking, finding a job will be hard.”
“I wish school was more like a home”, says Zander Zeele, Year 7, “It would be more of a comfortable space. A space we recognise. A space we want to be in”.
Peter Hutton is infamous for transforming Templestowe College. He now works as an education consultant. Chatting over the phone, Peter says, “Principals and school leadership do have the autonomy to be innovative and creative in their vision for their schools. You can be radical within the current frameworks. Just like our students need to be thinking outside the square, our teachers and leaders in schools should be too. Our students are capable of fulfilling the highest expectations. They can make a change, create, invent, build and think for themselves. No one should be doing meaningless tasks anymore”.
Our schools are complex, changing organisms. They are places filled with ideas, thought bubbles and questions, possibilities, dreams, and ways to be and become.
Spaces filled with humans finding their way in the world will never be simple. But perhaps they can be better. Healthier. More humane.
What do you want for our children’s education?
There are infinite ways to express your ideas on this question, from abstract dance to social algorithms, and this article is packed with poignant clues to assist.
Maybe our young citizens could ask their own questions, discover their own answers and support their wonderful inquiring minds as they explore our big, beautiful planet.
What will it be? Let’s strip it back, and in an act of subversion, use the form below.
Please circle one option
A. Maintain the status quo.
B. We need another curriculum document added to the current system.
C. Vive la révolution!
Illustration // Roland Harvey