The path to education

All parents want their offspring to be educated, to enable them to live in society in a viable manner. All parents would surely want their children to acquire such skills as necessary to enable them to enjoy a life of security, stability, and a degree of comfort.

In this expectation, parents and teachers have a joint responsibility. The parents to teach personal habits, social skills, and morality. The teachers initially to teach the children to manipulate numbers and words; to understand the significance of places, the relevance of the past, and the way things work through asking why is it so?; and, in secondary school, to teach appropriate content, associated with the acquisition of necessary skills.

Because schools introduce cross-ethnic contact, which homes generally do not, teachers would guide the development of mutual cross-cultural respect, associated with good behaviour.

One would not expect teachers to be child-minders, or to teach personal hygiene, or to decide what is taught in class. As professionals, they would be responsible for how their students are taught, and to ensure that the students benefit from their time in school each year by acquiring requisite learning before being promoted. The teachers would not introduce their politics, religion, or social beliefs into their classrooms, or follow newly-created fads in teaching which are not evidence-based.

Avoiding fads may be difficult, were teacher-training institutions to create these fads, especially when wrapped in jargon-phrases of an extreme high level of abstraction.

As for what is taught, that is for the community to decide. In this decision, parents are led by their elected political leaders, supported professionally by competent bureaucrats possessing appropriate qualifications. What is taught would obviously have to meet the needs of the nation.

In the arena of literacy, there should be no place for the shibboleth that there is no intrinsic meaning in any word or combination of words. Students need to acquire relevant content while learning how to learn; and therefore not to expect that Google, or the computer, or the calculating machine are adequate substitutes for knowledge of both process and content.

The human brain is here to be used, developed – and used again. That would be the path to education.

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?