There’s plenty Australia could learn from Asia
By 9am on a typical Monday morning at Beijing No. 80 Middle School, the students sitting in neat rows with school uniforms perfectly ironed have already learned their nine times tables and recited a poem or two.
Meanwhile at Carlton Public in Melbourne, Australia the last of the class is just straggling in, weekend homework’s not done and the teacher is struggling to take control of the classroom.
In terms of day to day experience the two could not be further apart. Yet the ideal education borrows from both.
The biggest problem with today’s education debate is inflexibility.
On the one hand there’s student-centred learning: a system that focuses on fostering a child’s personal development in an organic way. Rules, regulation and systematic learning are scrapped in favour of students being set free to find their own passions and niches at their own individual pace.
The other approach essentially advocates the revered East Asian system: a didactic structure of rote learning, strict adherence to curriculum, routine and uniform, where diligence, hard work and conforming are rewarded above all else.
There must be a way to find a balance between the two.
Think of school education like a tree. Each student should start at the roots with a system of broad, basic and rote learning of arithmetic, grammar, spelling in conjunction with the development of social skills.
By mid-primary the student ascends the lower branches, where a more sophisticated system of learning is integrated. It would empower the student to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, like comprehension, basic essay writing skills or algebra, which would orient them for life.
The journey continues on to the pointy end of the tree, the final years of high school, where each student is encouraged to focus on their preferred selection of subjects. They’d also be encouraged to develop an area of specialisation, in preparation for tertiary education and future career.
The end result is a balanced education that’s rooted in the basics. We’d raise a generation of people just as able to balance a till without using a calculator as spell a difficult word. And understand the coordinates on a map, as quickly as they could participate in a conversation about the social versus political reasons behind the eruptions of both world wars.
This combination approach would also counterbalance the negative aspects that exist in each separate system of learning.
The East Asian method cultivates focus in its strict and didactic approach to education, but that determination and single focus can also be unhealthy.
Consider the story of Liu Qing, and Yang Taoyua two students interviewed by the Edward Wong of The New York Times for a recent piece on China’s competitive college entrance exam.
Qing’s family and teachers hid from her for two months the fact that her father had died so as not to upset her before the exam. While Yang’s parents rented him an apartment close to the school so he would not waste time commuting in his final year of school.
Both students probably achieved high marks but human resilience is not built this way. How will each then fare when faced with juggling the complexities of everyday life as working adults when they’ve been taught that the key to success is relentless pursuit of a single focus?
The Australian system also has significant failings. According to this terrific piece by Peter Wilson, a teacher who has spent the last 12 years working in a range of Australian schools, says some teachers spend an inordinate amount of time battling to control their classrooms.
He says the concept of getting a good education has been completely destroyed by our national adherence to the “tall poppy syndrome”. And in this kind of environment, self-discipline and competiveness, the hallmarks of the East Asian system, are the first casualties.
So how to merge the two? Advocates of the East Asian method, like the authors of this study by the Grattan Institute, claim its close mentorship of teachers. While Wilson says the solution must go further, that society as a whole has to re-value education.
No matter what your views on which shape education in Australia should take, it’s clear that our current system is lacking. And whatever path we take, let’s hope the decision is made quickly because the minds of the next generation of Australians depend on it.
Follow me on Twitter: @lucyjk
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