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    Changing Education: New Wine, Old Wine Skins 


    Earlier this year, I was driving through northern Victoria, amazed to see hundreds of acres of farmland growing rows and rows of wine grapes. It was extraordinary to think that just a few years ago, all these acres would have been under sheep and cereal crops.

    What a huge decision it is for a property owner to make such a change! It involves learning new knowledge and skills, purchasing expensive new equipment, developing new marketing strategies and networks. It would also be a challenge, I am sure, to let go of the old, into which much time and effort, perhaps even generations of family tradition, have been invested. It would mean letting go of substantial financial investment, in sheds, equipment, transport, yards, etc. that would no longer be needed. Indeed, much of that investment might now be sitting idle on those properties. Then it would mean spending many dollars investing in new infrastructure. .  Even more dramatically for the farmer, such a radical change may involve the heart-breaking decision to sell a property that had been in the family for generations.

    A new crop, in a new market, requires radically different forms of infrastructure as the owner embarks on what is essentially a fundamentally different task. It is a case of new wine needing new wine skins. The old wine skins would not work.  (Mt 9:17)

     On further thought, it struck me that school systems are very much like that. As the years have unfolded, things have changed in fundamental ways. Society has expected very different things from its schools. Yet, for all those changes, school systems still look very much the same as they did decades ago. There is new wine, so to speak, but the wineskins are old.

    Quite recently, I came across a book by American academic, Clayton Christensen, called Disrupting Class. (New York, McGraw Hill, 2008). Despite what the title might suggest, it is not a book about naughty children! Rather, it is a book that suggests that, as the function of the school system has changed over time, the way that system works must be disrupted to enable it to meet its new challenges. This disruption is very similar to the disruption the farmer would experience as he or she moves from wool and fat lamb production to wine, for example.

    Now, while this book addresses the American public school context and, in fact, admits to making some broad generalisations that mask important details and exceptions, there are clear parallels to be found here in Australia.

    In brief, Christensen argues that school systems and schools themselves have been extraordinarily successful in developing to meet the constantly changing demands that society places on them. He suggests that, “schools have been required to do the equivalent of rebuilding an airplane (sic) in mid flight.” He argues that, in private enterprise, if dramatic changes in purpose were required, as he demonstrates they were in the USA over the past two hundred or so years, entirely new businesses would have to be created. That is because existing structures find it very difficult to make radical changes to themselves.  However, he points out that schools and systems have managed to do that quite often and to do it successfully.

    A similar argument can be mounted here in Australia. In early colonial times, schools were established to “tame” children, to build an orderly society, conscious that its roots were actually in a convict siociety. Schools were small and very few went beyond the early years of primary school. Education was an option available to relatively few.

    As our nation grew through the 19th and into the 20th centuries, society made ever changing demands; the goal posts kept moving and schools moved successfully to line up those new goal positions. The later years of the 19th century, saw the Education Acts, which made schooling  “Free, Compulsory and Secular” – all three resulting in a completely different approach to school education and a very much wider clientele. Structurally, it also led to the establishment of our Catholic schools – but that is a different part of the story. The Education Acts changed the goal posts.  School systems were disrupted. They had to change the way they worked.

    Over time we have moved from “taming” youngsters, to making them active contributors to society and the economy. More and more people needed access to secondary school, though it was certainly not for everyone. When the school leaving age was 14, I remember a significant number of pupils in my own primary and secondary classes of the late 1950s and early 1960s who were very clearly just filling in time and taking up classroom space until they turned 14 and could leave to  get a job. In those days, many of them still managed to make real successes of their lives.

    Even those of us who stayed into secondary school at that time were offered a very narrow curriculum. In the Catholic boys’ secondary school I attended in the 1960s, I had a choice of either maths and science or humanities. That was all! Two choices! Some who were considered less academic had the option of “tech schools” where choices were basically wood or metal. How different today!  Society’s expectations have changed dramatically. The goal posts moved again.

    A look at our VELS framework shows how broad is the learning offered in schools and, to look at the list of options available in the senior years of our secondary schools, is quite mind boggling.

    One more set of goal posts was added, particularly during the 20th century. Schools became the means by which people were sorted into different social classes. One set of results from one set of schools ensured that there were plenty of people to take on the low paid, less desirable roles in the workforce and in society. A different set ensured that there were people to take the roles of doctors and lawyers, as members of a “higher” class.  Of course, there were and still are exceptions, but the barriers remain very high.

    Another way of looking at this “sorting” role carried by school systems, is to realise that it did not much matter, at that time, if a pupil “failed” at school  (that is filled in time to leave on the 14th birthday!). In fact, society needed such “failures” to fill its lower order roles. School systems today still carry some of that “social sorting” function in our society.

    Now, though, emphasis is changing again. Now, it is expected that every child will have the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential. That was certainly not language I heard when I was a student at school. “Failure” at school is not an option any more.  Now, parents scan web sites and interview principals to find the “right” school for their child. Schools are pushed into competition with one another and that competition is promoted and facilitated by such government initiatives as national testing and the MySchool website. We have new wine that needs a new wine skin. But the way our school systems are structured look is the same as it was fifty or more years ago.

    Through all these changes, it was not as though schools stopped meeting one set of expectations while they “tooled up” to meet another. Rather, these new expectations were accepted as additional to those already existing. It was as though school systems were kicking for two or even more sets of goal posts at the same time – and were expected to score on them all.

    Schools have always dealt with moving goal posts, and will continue to deal with them. But it does require new approaches, new systemic structures.  Teachers in schools are making amazing efforts to meet those changing goals. Some are flying; some are floundering. But an outmoded system structure so often gets in the way. It remains a constant challenge to us all.

    The traditional way that our school system is structured, a structure that we have inherited from previous days when the goals were different, will just not do it anymore.  We still have a school system today built on a “cages for ages” approach, one that sees pupils move through the school according to age, rather than through interest or level of knowledge. It is a system that requires children to go to the nearest school, regardless of what it offers.  It is a system that requires teachers to teach the same thing in the same way at the same time to a whole block of pupils who happen to have been born in about the same year and live in about the same vicinity.

    While primary schools have greater flexibility and many are doing great work moving to create the necessary new structures, even within what is essentially a restrictive system, it is much more difficult in the secondary school.  There, despite extraordinary efforts to broaden the curriculum, the system places much greater restriction. Yet, as young people mature in secondary schools, their needs and interests tend to be far more differentiated than those of primary children. But it is in secondary schools that the “cages for ages” is most evident. I suggest that there needs to be a disruption to our schooling system just as there has been a disruption to those old sheep properties with which we began. We need to find new wine skins for our new wine.

     This little column raises a question rather than suggests an answer. What that answer looks like is yet to be determined.  Christensen believes that the answer lies in technology.  He may well be right. I have every confidence that the answer will come from the commitment and creativity of teachers and schools. But by then the goal posts may have shifted again. I wonder what our new wineskins will look like then.

    There are similar issues with changing goal posts in the realm of religious education, too, but that will have to wait until next month.