The front-page headline on the Sunday Herald Sun, December 8, 2019, boldly announced the failure of Australia’s current education system, heralding a “Back to Basics” approach for our schools as Federal Education Minister, Dan Tehan articulated. The newspaper, reporting Mr Tehan was “surprised and disappointed” with the latest PISA results, showed Australia’s 15-year-olds had fallen years behind the rest of the world in maths, reading and science. The leading countries are China and Singapore, with even Estonia out-ranking Australia. Vowing to take “a chainsaw to the curriculum” to reinstate literacy and numeracy as curriculum priorities, Mr Tehan asserted students needed to master the basics of reading, writing and mathematics before “expanding to other areas of knowledge.” His comments were in the context of education experts claiming “the syllabus is overcrowded, complex and riddled with ‘box-ticking’ subjects hijacked by fringe groups.”

Apparently, tuition now focuses on areas such as dance, road safety, health, gender-based violence and cyber safety, relegating the 3Rs into the distance, if not irrelevance. Consequently, the falling standards assessed by PISA have engendered a disparaging diatribe against teachers who it is alleged are ill-equipped and ill-prepared for the classroom, many of them also unable to read properly, think clearly and critically, write lucidly and have an inadequate knowledge of maths. At the same time, it is believed the entry score (ATAR) for teaching studies at universities is too low and must be raised to ensure teachers are more academically competent in literacy and numeracy themselves. There are also arguments that teachers should be perceived more valuably in society, receiving more lucrative incomes and accorded greater professional status.

Contrarily however, what’s highlighted too is the unrealistic, if not overwhelming, work teachers now have to undertake, with admin and bureaucratic duties consuming important time that could be more advantageously spent in professional development, assisting struggling students and focusing on improving their classroom skills. This workload is complicated further by a reality that has dictated, however surreptitiously, that teachers can, and should, perform a myriad of other professional duties such as social worker, nurse and counsellor, among others; simply untenable expectations to meet.

Then there is educational economics, with $20 billion invested over recent years to seemingly no avail in the context of the PISA results as is claimed by many commentators; massive amounts of money for miniscule gain. There is also blame levelled at universities for ceasing to make high level maths and science compulsory for entry into medicine, engineering or economics, while business leaders increasingly complain young people are unemployable and not job ready on leaving school and university. Furthermore, there is apparently a shortage of qualified maths teachers with the education union estimating 40 per cent of teachers unqualified in the subject.

The attacks are on all fronts, with suggestions parents are enrolling their kids in schools for educational instruction they were traditionally responsible for. Moreover, one letter writer to the Herald Sun, Dave of Bonbeach, pointed out that “Foreign students excel because they want to learn; it’s an exercise in attitude, not abilities.” It is also believed that disruptive students impact others’ learning on a regular basis.

So what is the truth, if we can even genuinely ascertain it, and is it really doom and gloom? Moreover, what, in this 21st century, are the roles and responsibilities of schools and parents, and do students even deserve a say? Have educational standards really slipped so badly that our kids can’t read, write or add up as well as other students in the world? Of course, I haven’t done the assessments or the research, but I offer my opinions based on my own schooling, my parental education and a brief period as a secondary school teacher, albeit nearly 30 years ago.

A few weeks ago I watched an SBS-TV Dateline documentary about young kids at school and at home in Singapore, where a young boy approaching 11 years spent most of his waking day and night, at school and at home respectively, studying to prepare for a country-wide exam for 11-year-olds that decide their educational future. By scoring very high marks on the exam, he would be accepted into a prestigious, academic-oriented school in the pursuit of a professional career later. Failing to achieve top marks, he would instead have to enter a vocationally oriented school regarded of less social status and success than the former, far less actually. To meet his mother’s expectations and possibly his own as absorbed from the pervading social milieu, this young boy was out of bed at 4.30am to study before school, then eat breakfast and attend school for six hours of rigorous lessons in maths and science undertaken by highly-trained and specialist teachers. It was home again for more study, dinner and study again, not retiring to bed until 11pm, with his mother as strict supervisor. He didn’t partake in social activities with other kids, participate in any sport or even play alone, his life dedicated completely to achieving top exam marks. His mother’s attitude focused on being successful, defined by his intellectual acumen and later, his career, the money he earned a definitive factor.
By contrast, the documentary featured a young female student who I think was about 15, who was attending a vocational school having performed poorly on the exam. Enrolled in hospitality studies, she seemed happy to learn about the hospitality industry, pointing out this did not have high social status or income. Positively, she said she enjoyed her studies, whereas the young boy’s life seemed sad, if not pitiful, driven by his mother, and to some extent himself, to study without any obvious enjoyment or fun. In this context, it is not surprising that Singapore ranked among the top countries in the PISA results.

My teaching studies, in history, politics and English as a Second Language, at one the world’s top-ranking universities, Melbourne, in 1990, was less than 12-months, incorporating only nine weeks practical, classroom experience. Graduating with an Arts degree from the university in 1972, and accepted into law too which I declined to pursue a journalistic career instead, as well as a winner of a Commonwealth scholarship on completing Year 12 with honours in three subjects, I assume I achieved very high marks in the final exams as we did not then receive a score. Obviously, I was a pretty high achiever, but this did not translate into being a good teacher, despite being told by my examiners that being mature-age, I would have many advantages over younger teachers who went straight from school to university. Certainly, I had decades of work and life experience, but my teaching studies did not even come close to preparing me for the classroom.

Agreeing with Dave of Bonbeach, I found student attitudes’ wanting, seemingly more interested in mucking about than listening to a word I said. They didn’t pay attention and disappointingly and surprisingly, many Year 10 students I taught history to couldn’t read the textbook properly and struggled to write a competent assignment, their English skills abysmally lacking. Shocked at how some of these students had made it to Year 10 without being able to read and write properly, I discussed this with a couple of other teachers at the school, in a middle-class suburban area of Melbourne. They imparted that the students, Australian born and of Anglo backgrounds, had simply proceeded through the year levels because schools stopped keeping kids down several decades previously. They didn’t have to obtain particular competencies to pass on to the next year. Moreover, I was informed that failing to read and write was common, typical of the “modern” student. Primary school teachers had a lot to answer for I was told, but so too did the system which promoted students beyond their capabilities. The curriculum was also very different from our own schooling in the 50s and 60s which focused on the 3Rs; more recently classroom learning emphasised imaginative ideas and self-expression as more educationally important than literacy and numeracy.

In this perspective, maybe what is evidenced now in the PISA results has been gestating for years with one letter writer to the Herald Sun on December 7, summing it up succinctly, if not brilliantly, a non- identified writer who wrote “I used to teach numbers, but now I “teach” resilience, I used to teach algebra, but now I “teach” persistence, I used to teach geometry, but now I “teach” respectful relationships, I used to teach measurement, but now I “teach” curiosity, I used to teach statistics, but now I “teach” intercultural capabilities…I used to teach applied maths, but now, I “teach”…well, I “facilitate” learning because the students tell me what they want to learn about. And we wonder why our PISA maths scores are falling.” Ditto I think for English, including reading and writing.

An old acquaintance of mine, a teacher of maths and science in Years 7 & 8, told me a few years ago that his teaching was designed for rote learning, without students having to understand why and what they were expected to learn. With decades of teaching experience, his interest in the profession had waned, also claiming the students seemed switched off from learning and restless in the classroom. They evinced no genuine enthusiasm for learning; their attitude more focused on just having to be “there” without any commitment to the cause. Another teacher at a school I taught in told me negatively “I am just a glorified baby-sitter” for kids who don’t even want to be in school. My experience also attested to kids being disruptive and unruly, with me unable to exercise control or discipline.

Moreover, another young male acquaintance of mine seven years ago, aged just 24, had attended the elitist Knox Grammar School in Sydney, claiming his education at the school was all based on rote learning. He didn’t enjoy it. During my teaching studies, I always had a teacher supervisor in the classroom, but out on my own, I was incapable of maintaining order, let alone even managing to ensure the kids listened to me. I was also aware that rote learning underpinned the curriculum. Certainly, when I taught English as a Second Language to senior students in a regional Victorian town, it was very different, as the students were refugees or migrants and very interested in learning how to speak, read and write English. I did not have behavioural problems in the classroom, but became bored, even frustrated, by their difficulties mastering English. Realising I was just not a good teacher, I abandoned the profession to return to journalism. One pertinent factor is that I actually wanted to teach politics, which was my main passion, but there were no available jobs, only musing on whether I would have been competent in that role. I didn’t stick around to find out.

Obviously, I’m being selective about what I write but compared to my own strict and structured school days, my experience as a teacher was disheartening. Being a high achiever and even mature-age did not make me a good teacher. Realising my commitment was floundering I’m glad I left, but I also found that teaching history from a text-book was limiting and uninspiring. The way the syllabus was organised seemed antithetic to inspiring kids’ interest as it was dry, all about dates and facts, with little content about the whys and wherefores of the facts. Discussion about the underlying impetus of events was proscribed by exams which demanded rote learning. I have often tried to argue that one can learn facts simultaneously with critical and creative thinking about them, but the history syllabus did not encompass this aspect, much to my disappointment. I realised that probably, teaching politics would be similarly proscribed, as my 24-year-old Knox student confirmed.

This now brings me to my own school days, where I attended a public, select-entry co-ed high school, studying politics and history in Year 12. Yes, I scored honours in the exams, but I was not a very studious young person, talking too much and often bored in the classroom. The teacher knew his facts, but there was little discussion about why or how, and focused on rote learning too. I also believed certain opinions were unacceptable at that time, keeping some of my own thoughts and ideas private and personal, intent on passing and doing well by conforming to academic expectations. Moreover, as an incessant chatterer throughout my high school years, my report book consistently stated I could do better if I applied myself more keenly. No teacher ever inquired as to why I talked so much. Despite my misbehaviour, I was considered “very bright”.
Given that I was in a prestigious school with strict standards (I received many detentions after school), maybe being at school during adolescence when so many other issues seem more relevant, is just incompatible, and one that I believe should be examined more carefully and critically. The Singapore exam for 11-year-olds, like the 11-plus in the UK, singles out kids for the future when they are still so young, immature and undeveloped, especially their brains. Some of my friends and acquaintances did not flourish academically until they had left school and worked for a couple of years. Perhaps I contend, we expect too much from young people academically when teenage years can be so fraught, with complex, psychological and practical issues that overwhelm many students and inhibit their learning, and more importantly, their want to learn.

It has been reported in the mainstream media that the incidence of mental health problems among young people is increasing, with depression and anxiety seemingly so common, with students struggling to cope with the pressures of their peers and stresses of school and early university years. With family violence so pervasive as well as family break-ups for all sorts of reasons, how can we expect young kids to sit quietly in class and pay undivided attention? Moreover, with hormones running rampant and social media broadcasting endless narratives about the bright, brilliant and beautiful, is it any wonder young people aren’t achieving on the PISA tests? Being preoccupied with self is understandable when young people are forging their identities as sentient and sexual beings as is living in a peaceful home conducive for study as well as enjoyment and fun, with learning sadly missing out for some young people as just that. Indeed, learning can be an opportunity for enriching entertainment about events and experiences if conveyed with enthusiasm and expertise; whether it is about reading, writing or arithmetic. In all the articles I’ve perused and letters written about the PISA results, enjoying one’s education has not been mentioned, as if having fun and actually enjoying learning are a contradiction in terms. Sadly instead, there seems to be a perspective that learning is just something young people have to do to acquire jobs for the future.

Making learning relevant to young people’s world is critical in ensuring a desire and interest in learning and I think many teachers are themselves unaware and ignorant of young people’s world and reality. At school, I know I felt my teachers had no idea of my real interests, family life, or problems, let alone making their teaching relevant to the real world. So much of my maths, science and even history were taught in abstract concepts, isolated from the real world and failing to align with how that world worked. Is it then surprising students are telling teachers “what they want to learn about” as the non-identified Herald Sun letter writer experienced?

The real challenge for teachers is to ensure the 3Rs are what students want to learn about by making them appreciate that without mastering these subjects, they will be incapable of really learning about anything else, or that their learning will be greatly proscribed, if not profoundly limited. Teachers themselves should learn how to make these core subjects relevant and exciting for learning in the here and now, and the future. A shortage of maths teachers is probably, if not possibly, due to maths’ teaching seemingly being unreal and too abstract with young people uninterested in learning about it, particularly at senior level for potential teachers.

The NSW government recently announced it was considering making Year 12 maths compulsory for all students, and while I do not concur with this, I do believe the teaching of maths must become more attuned to reality so students appreciate its relevance, inspiring some of them to undertake it in their senior years. I studied a reasonably sophisticated level of maths in Year 11, and while I didn’t excel in it, I passed, glad to have studied it. If it was only made more accessible, enjoyable and relatable to what I considered world happenings, I may have continued studying it. I didn’t. For Year 12, I jettisoned the subject, never really appreciating how important it was for understanding the complexities of economics, scientific research and endeavour and even historical discoveries and theories until the last few years. Certainly, I never heard about making education relevant to the real world during my teaching studies or any reference to making my teaching relatable, let alone enjoyable. Maybe it was assumed, but as much as I became aware of this issue, what I had to teach took no account of this in the syllabus. It is one of the big problems I assert with our education system.

This was true of my primary school years too, though I really loved those early schools years excelling in all subjects. Fortunate that my father initially taught me to read at about 4 years from the bold, large headlines of the daily newspaper, I entered school ahead of my peers, while my mother and him also taught me basic arithmetic, using coins to add up and subtract. First enrolled in a prep class at 5 years-old, I jumped into the first grade after just six months because I could read well, though wasn’t the only student to do so as there were about four or five of us, but it meant I was almost a year younger than my peers throughout my schooling. Moreover, both my parents read many books, my father also teaching me chess and spending time playing board games. On starting school, my mother taught me Scrabble, developing a life-long love of words and the English language. As a stay-at-home mum till I was about nine, I believe she was a positive and beneficial influence on my learning. Arriving home from school, either by foot or on a bus, I really enjoyed talking to her about my school day, as she often sat alongside me for assistance as I happily engaged with my homework. My father, who arrived home from work at around 6pm for dinner, often suggested playing chess afterwards and discussed what I’d learned in school, helping me if I was struggling to understand things.

In this era, with both parents so often working full-time and glued obsessively to their phones, it seems they have scant opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation with their kids about their education. Significantly, neither of my parents attended university, my mother leaving school at 14 and working as a secretary before marriage, while my father was an electrical and mechanical engineer but attended a technical college. Nonetheless, they were always interested in my education with time to help if needed. Despite being migrants who came to Australia from eastern Europe as young children, they spoke, read and wrote English pretty well, placing a great emphasis on learning. I recall really interesting dinner conversations about world affairs, the books they were reading and what the newspapers, which we had two delivered daily, were reporting.

Their interest in ‘educating’ themselves rubbed off on me, as I was an avid reader, reading the newspapers, listening to the radio eagerly and watching the TV news every night. Certainly, I continued these routines throughout adolescence and even now; learning embedded in my psyche as an enjoyable life-long pursuit. At the same time, my parents went without many material possessions such as new clothes, the latest appliance, annual holidays or the Britannica encyclopaedias which some of my friends had, as they struggled to pay the bills and meet expenses, but we borrowed books from libraries, were always well-fed and clothed, and knew education was a pathway to a better, more prosperous future. They both set great examples as interested learners, always having the time and energy for my education, which extended beyond the classroom at school. Scrimping on themselves, they managed to pay for piano lessons for many years, and we had an old radiogram which played LPs, my mother having a good collection of music that I loved listening to, often dancing with me to the music after dinner and on weekends. Lessons about road safety still stick in my mind; look right, then left and right again before crossing the road. I was also instructed to take care about talking to strangers, but after school, I would often go shopping for my mother with my dog, teaching me about managing money, how much things cost and contributing to my maths’ learning. Two of this costs how much? Can I afford another? Ten times an item is what? Learning to live on a budget at an early age has been invaluable as was learning to appreciate healthy food and the importance of regular exercise. We only had one car and I walked everywhere as my father drove to work. I was also allowed to climb trees, muck about in the bushy environs around the nearby Yarra River, and tumble on a gym bar my father installed in our backyard. My father also first taught me to swim at the beach, but our school held compulsory swimming lessons at our suburban pool, and although I was never very good it as an asthmatic as I lost my breath very quickly, I covered 25 and then 50 yards across the pool. In retrospect, I was a very happy child with lots of friends, and despite them living in more modern houses with more modern appliances and more clothes, their more comfortable lifestyle didn’t impact me with feelings of deprivation or jealousy. Later in my teens these factors did assume some significance, but I withstood some of the snobbish attitudes I encountered because my mother had also taught me to look beyond appearances, “don’t buy a pig in a poke” she would often remind me when I sometimes complained. I also started working at 13-years-old during school holidays, to pay for little presents for myself my parents couldn’t afford. That working experience was extremely valuable, my parents teaching me that “money doesn’t grow on trees” and that if you wanted or needed things, even food and shelter, you have to work for them. Learning to look after myself was also instilled in me by my parents, washing my own clothes, cleaning the house and my own bedroom as we couldn’t afford home help. I also helped my father wash the car, asking him questions about the pistons, radiator and batteries which as an engineer, he explained to me clearly. I never did obtain my driver’s licence, glad that I used public transport to school and the city and have walked all my life. I’m pretty fit now too, still walking everywhere when I can. How many kids today actually help in domestic duties or even walk to their local supermarket?

Yet, while I obviously absorbed many of my parents’ routines and habits in loving to read, write and importantly, to keep on learning, this isn’t the case with many children. Indeed, one of my sisters and her husband, both high school teachers, were both avid readers of books, newspapers and magazines, but their two children reacted very differently; the daughter reading prolifically while the son eschewed reading much, content with only reading the sports’ pages of the daily newspaper. Attending university to study commerce, he was never into literary pursuits. Similarly, a male friend of mine, 16 years younger than me, who attended a reputable private school and whose father was a doctor, never read books either, satisfied to peruse the sports’ pages on newspapers too. These realities reflect that engendering a love of reading, and especially learning, is difficult, with parents as role models no intrinsic guarantee that their offspring will emulate them. Teachers thus face great challenges in inspiring students to learn, with family not necessarily a significant influence. Peers, and what they indulge in, may be more pertinent. Yet, many of my friends throughout my schooldays did not read many of the books I read, which makes me opine that perhaps interests and passions are individual, each young person developing and maturing to their own beat.

Parents, even teachers, can only achieve so much; kids will inevitably pursue their own wants and needs. Of course, letting kids dictate what they should learn in schools can be a negative in mastering the 3Rs, but I do believe they deserve a say in learning about what they’re interested in. The challenge is to make them interested in, and enjoy, studying science and maths as well as nurturing a love of reading. It’s not easy. Furthermore, many high achievers are that because of their desire for a particular career and the status, prestige and money it brings, irrespective of their genuine interests. Schooling success is often due to future aspirations, rather than specific passions at that time. The documentary about Singapore attests to this reality. Parents certainly can be a big influence in directing their children’s course of study, but children will always react very differently, even siblings in the same home. Having two older sisters, we had very different interest and passions as children and teenagers, and when we became adults.

In conclusion, it seems that education is not intrinsically considered as a pleasure of life to be enjoyed; rather, something important for work and money on leaving school. That being said, the focus on science subjects seems misguided as while understanding technology is currently significant in most jobs, and is appreciated as becoming increasingly more relevant in the future, the arts and humanities seem disappointingly to have paled into insignificance. Certainly, a couple of universities in NSW are now offering courses in western civilisation focusing on history, philosophy and great thinkers of the past, but in our schools, it is the maths and sciences that are deemed of more worthy attention. Furthermore, while many educationalists have posited a need to teach creative and critical thinking in schools, this can only be embodied in a curriculum that embraces reading and writing as fundamental; similarly basic maths. Young teachers who were not adequately schooled in those core subjects cannot be expected to teach them and I believe primary schools need to return to the basics as Dan Tehan articulated. Standards must be met before students pass on to the next year level.

Parents too must accept their responsibilities as teachers of influence; maybe working less to have more time to attend to their kids’ educational demands, especially in instructing them about dance, health, cyber safety and respectful relationships, among others. They should also be available as “counsellors” or “social workers” for them. Learning to put their phones down, turning off Netflix and stopping worrying about keeping up appearances would give them time to engage in more meaningful and constructive conversations with their kids.

Personally, I feel very lucky to have had parents who placed education as a high priority, instilling in me a love of learning that I still revel in today. They were great role models in this way, but even over 50 years ago, my teachers (most of them) did not inspire me in the classroom, my academic acumen more to do with good genetics and my family environs. I do not know what is included now in teaching courses, but I believe they should focus more on developing communication skills than simply informing on facts. Imparting knowledge is important, but challenging students to want to gain knowledge is the first step. This was never mentioned during my course, the emphasis on preparing lesson plans and being well-organised. A more creative approach to teaching, whatever subject, seems paramount.

No doubt the debate will continue about how to improve students’ performance in the 3Rs when the next PISA assessments are calculated, but enjoying education as a life-long endeavour should attract more support than it does. I hate to think that students here would one day live like the young boy in Singapore and maybe more people should have watched the documentary. Money is clearly not the answer to falling standards, and it is the system, parents and unrealistic expectations that need to be reviewed and changed. This is not my last word on education.