An insight to a future of nerdy number-crunchers
The scene is a Thursday evening in a suburban Australian home in 2018. Dad is on the biodegradable couch watching some vintage Mad Men, remastered in interactive 3D, on a fifth-generation iPad. His 10-year-old daughter throws a digital notebook in his lap. “Daddy, can you help?” she says. “I’ve done the statistical tables but I’m not sure how to justify the relationship between the variables.”
Forget emperor Nasi Goreng building the Great Wall to keep the rabbits out. The draft national curriculum released yesterday will test future parents almost as much as it does kids. Much of its maths and science content is currently the preserve of think-tanks and universities, stuff wholly alien to modern parents and even recent graduates of Australian schools.
For all the arguing about how the curriculum handles history this is primarily a document about the future. Is about building new skills Australia will need in its workforce over coming generations.
It will have a significant impact on how, down the track, Australia presents to companies trying to find the skills they want in an increasingly competitive global labour market.
The Rudd Government has been taking a thumping for not delivering on its education reform among other things but this is an ambitious and comprehensive initiative that aims to transform the country’s schooling system and build a platform for the nation’s future prosperity.
As a case in point this week’s edition of The Economist carries a special feature on what it calls the “data deluge”. It looks at the proliferation of all types of data and notes “mankind created 150 exabytes (billion gigabytes) of data in 2005. This year, it will create 1200 exabytes”.
How much is 1200 exabytes? Most would describe it as “an absolute shitload”. Few of us can get our heads around these kinds of numbers because we’ve never been taught to understand them.
The national curriculum recognises this need for not just basic arithmetic skills but numeracy – understanding numbers rather than just adding and subtracting them – is becoming increasingly critical skill in a world where there are more and more columns of numbers to analyse.
It was by total accident that I took a full year of statistics at university. Every Thursday was stats day and because it was part of the Psychology course, more than 600 people were enrolled in the class. By the end of the year only about 50 people were attending each week.
I never really enjoyed it but here’s the thing: statistics was probably the most useful thing I studied at uni. It’s mainly about looking at a bunch of numbers and trying to figure out why some are important and some aren’t, so it comes in handy in all sorts of ways: looking at auction results, comparing flight prices, or looking at any chart or graph.
Which is where the daughter’s question comes in. OK, she won’t be asking about “justifying the variables” - that’s the learning goal - but she will be asking how she should explain varying and complex types of charts. Kids will be learning this bit in Year 5. But the curriculum includes includes statistics and probability as part of the maths learning from kindergarten up.
As you can probably tell I think this is a good thing. Standard arithmetic is a vital basic life skill, but these days if you’re going into a career that involves crunching numbers - even retail - a calculator or a spreadsheet does the work for you. It’s not arithmetic you need. It’s numeracy.
The plans for the science taught in schools, too, are about equipping people for the future. There are three strands. There’s the familiar stuff of understanding science and learning how to do it. The third is the loftily-titled “Science as human endeavour”, which is really about explaining how it affects daily life.
Part of this is about scientists fighting the perception that they live locked in laboratory-equipped ivory towers. But unless you’re a creationist and believe at some point humans weren’t apes, a curriculum that proselytises basic scientific knowledge is surely a useful one.
In Year 8, for example, it covers how awareness of science can help people “make choices about issues in life and evaluate claims made in a range of media and advertising”. By Year 10, while students are learning about the big bang theory and the dynamic interactions between matter and energy – Einstein, basically – they will also be covering how science “provides reliable knowledge and enables valid predictions and conclusions to inform choices”.
There has been some criticism of aspects of the science content - including that it teaches students about Aboriginal insights into health and the environment. These are details are up for discussion and much of the criticism will be warranted and necessary.
But it is self-evident that a broad understanding of science would be useful in the current debate about climate change. Ditto for stem cell research.
If you have kids or are thinking of having them at any point in the future the curriculum is worth a look. The website is also astonishingly detailed – you can rate an leave feedback on every single point in the plan.
And while you might get a little bit spooked at the stuff your kids will be learning at school which you know nothing about, it’s a great thought-starter.
Because this is a giant blueprint for the future of what kinds of skills and knowledge will be available in the country a generation from now. I reckon it’s the right start.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…