Changing educational objectives

Teachers are normally trusted to know how to teach. But they do not have the right to decide what to teach. That is for the community to decide, through our elected representatives. The operational aspects are the responsibility of public officials.

In British Malaya, following a curriculum set in the UK, our schools did produce quality graduates able to enter the universities of many countries. Competition being very strong, teachers and students worked very hard. A number of my teachers had been trained in the UK. Except for history, many specifics of which were quite meaningless for us in the colonies, my primary school program covered what seemed to me (much later in life, of course) essentials of knowledge. That is, we were provided with a necessary foundation to last a lifetime.

We had to learn (and to retain that knowledge) how to manipulate words and numbers; to have some insight about the physical world (science); to know where others lived (geography); of past events of some relevance (history); and to acquire a few odd skills such as potato-printing, and basket-making with cane. The development of memory was heavily emphasised. We were being equipped to succeed in a harsh, competitive, uncaring, world. Where primary school meant learning basic skills and acquiring relevant understanding, high school was more about content. How much of it was relevant later in life? I remember studying how to make steel!

The education my children were exposed to in Australia was less rigorous. Through being chairman of a school board in primary school and then President of the Parents & Citizens’ Association of a high school, I discovered that ‘actualising the potential’ of the students was the primary objective of education; employability was secondary. Annual assessments of learning were based on a teacher’s appraisal of the student’s natural ability; a ‘bright’ kid could earn a series of Bs and Cs, whereas his ‘less bright’ friend could receive a series of As.

When my granddaughter commenced school, I found that she could not read even after schooling for nearly 2 years because she could not cope with the new whole-of-word approach. I remedied that in 2 brief sessions, using the traditional method. Otherwise she was considered to be ‘bright.’ Soon, there were new approaches to teaching, supported by academics in education. For instance, when Cuisenaire rods came into fashion, we were told that the children did not have to learn their ‘times’ tables any more. When hand-held computers became available, there was less emphasis in competence in numerical calculations. Then, the content of learning began to be underplayed. Had these new approaches ever been validated?

The crucial issue was whether our youth were about to be over-run by those in other nations who are more aware that, in a globalising world, no one owes them a living! While the top students are safe, what about the plight of those at the lower end of achievement?