Why School Sucks

Reading through some messages on a mail forum today, one particular message really hit me, and encapsulated what I find so “wrong” about our Higher School Certificate… (and not just the NSW HSC either, but all forms of centralised, Standards based, high stakes testing)… The idea that our HSC (and by extension our entire system of schooling) does not encourage a “love of learning”, but rather a “what do I need to do to pass?” attitude.

The notion that a learning journey should be kept within the tight boundaries of a restrictive syllabus, where certain concepts HAVE to be covered in specific degrees of detail (whether they are actually relevant or not), certain concepts have to be emphasised/de-emphasised (not based on student interest, but on what the syllabus says is their value), and that there is content that need not be covered at all (it might be valuable and interesting, but it’s not in the syllabus so we leave it out completely). It just seems so counterproductive to me that our system puts such a strait-jacket on the idea of learning for the sake of learning. Yes I know, you’ll say “we need to have standards” and “how will we decide who gets to go to university?”, etc. It just makes me really sad that our system does so much discourage learning for the sake of learning, and instead put so much focus on learning a preselected set of facts. This email was referring to some syllabus changes that will phased in over the next two years, and even the notion that we should say that one version of the facts is relevant for a particular year, but a modified version of those facts is going to be relevant for the following year… The notion that some content is relevant while other content isn’t… The notion that there is content that “need not be covered”… it’s all so wrong to me.

It makes me sad/annoyed/angry that we have a situation where top-down decisions are made about what knowledge matters and what knowledge doesn’t, and that we have built a whole school system around enshrining that ridiculous notion. Every good teacher knows this total focus on an end product is not what a true education should be about, and yet we accept it. And it impacts on everything we get to do in our classrooms. Everyone I speak to acknowledges this focus on end-product is restrictive and limiting to real education, but we still go along with it. I just don’t get it.

I’m sure I’ve quoted this before, but Doug Noon once wrote in his blog…

“My classroom doesn’t work the way I want it to. In the Age of Accountability, I still focus on process, and see product as a secondary concern. I’m an ill-fitting peg, uneasy about participating in what, for me, amounts to a charade – emulating archaic practices designed for kids from bygone eras. Looking at the group I’m with now, thinking about them, and not the generic, bloodless beings called Students, statistical incarnations of demographically catalogued learners, I feel more strongly than ever that I owe each of them more than mere delivery of the curriculum, and concern for where they stand relative to a standard that I don’t endorse.”

Amen to that.

By the way, as standards-based testing goes, the NSW Higher School Certificate is actually one of the better implementations of the concept. There is at least some flexibility for pathways and options built into it, and there are many similar systems around the world that are far worse. But it still depresses me.

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CC BY-SA 4.0 Why School Sucks by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.