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.

0 Replies to “Why School Sucks”

  1. One aspect of the new knowledge regime that intrigues me is how do institutions such as the BOS and schools cope with the doubling of knowledge every ‘few hours’.

    As I see, there is only so much time in a teacher’s day, right? Time is finite, right? If there is so much more knowledge for students to learn, where do we fit it all in? What do we stop teaching? Should there be lots more shorter courses?

    I am sure someone has thought about this and has THE ANSWER?

  2. Sammyjo, perfect opportunity to speak up here… Sammyjo is an ex-student of mine, and completed the HSC last year. I would be really interested in your perspective here Sam… Would you mind posting a considered comment with your reaction to some of these things? I think it would make for a really worthwhile conversation.

    Terry, my view on this has always been that we need to teach students HOW to learn, not WHAT to learn. If a student grows into an adult that can, as Alvin Toffler wrote, learn, unlearn and relearn, then we will have prepared them well to deal with the world they are growing up in. If we just spoon feed them a collection of sanitised, prepackaged content (like the syllabus dictates) then I think we do them a huge injustice. The underlying principle of most school systems seems to be to focus on WHAT to learn. If you think in terms of the amount of knowledge that students must learn then of course they will never be able to learn it all, especially if it keeps increasing at the current rate. However if we focus of ensuring that a student knows how to find information when they need it, how to see the world through the lens of intelligent questions and give them strategies for finding intelligent answers, then, in my opinion, we have done vastly more to equip them for life than simply knowing the correct answers to the narrow range of “knowledge” bundled into the current syllabus.

  3. Chris,

    Couldn’t agree more with what you say.

    How do we get the Australian Board of Studies to go own that path? Seems to me they are still focused on product (content) rather than process.

    Terry Fogarty

  4. Mate, that’s the $64,000 question isn’t it? 😉 They are VERY much still focussed on content and not process, and that’s really what started this little rant the other day. I wish I had a good answer to offer, but I’m not sure I do. I suppose the first step is to start raising awareness among the general teaching population that the current way it works does not serve our students well, and that as long as we blindly accept that it is the way it is because it is the way it is, then nothing will change.

  5. Should we do some Visioning along the lines ‘What I would do if I ran education in Australia?’

    What would we do if we started with a clean slate (sorry there is probably a better phrase to use).

    What are the teaching and learning processes we know will work?

    What are the process competencies we knwo every kid will need in the future?

    I’m not agin some content, I like a lot of what we do.

    However, I do get frustrated that we are not given the opportunity to work with kids in school to the extent I would like on the things that really matter.


    Sorry, I’m rambling.

    Again, I am sure someone else has been thinking longer and harder on this, and is more experienced than me.

    Our problem is that education, as it is, is well established. It seems that the political line on education is a cricle with both parties encamped within.

    This needs to change or Australia will never achive its potential.


  6. Great post from a blog I’m happy to have just discovered!

    I just returned from the Learning2.0 conference in Shanghai, where I got to mention in an unconference with Will Richardson that Australia’s equivalent of the absolutely horrible American AP (Advanced Placement) test is lightyears more progressive than the AP exam.

    I agree that school sucks (my blog has an “unschooling” tag dedicated to the subject), but agree with you that Australia is less depressing than America, when all is said and done. And as an American abroad (I’m in Seoul), I find this depressing.

    Again, great post (and Doug Noon’s a great blogger, isn’t he?).

That's all well and good, but what do YOU think?