Sunday, February 12, 2012

Revolution in Australian Classrooms

ABC TV broadcast the documentary "Revolution in the Classroom" (Four Corners, ABC TV, 6 February 2012). This covered several issues, including the level of government funding to public versus private schools, if smaller class sizes, use of computers or better school buildings improved education. The main message of the program was that improving teacher performance and empowering school principals had more effect on students that other measures. The mentoring of a teacher using student feedback reports was shown.

What I found interesting was that the size and nature of schools was only discussed peripherally. The example of three Melbourne high schools being replaced by one larger school (Hume Central Secondary College) was mentioned early in the program. The school was portrayed as being very large, but I was surprised to find it had only 1,100 students (the size of the high school I attended). While the improvement in student performance at the new school was attributed to the policies of the new "super principal", it may be simply that the schools replaced were too small to be viable and did not have the economies of scale needed. An example of the facilities of a modern Australian upper secondary school is Gungahlin College, designed for 900 students, it is collocated with the Gungahlin Public Library and a CIT Learning Centre (TAFE campus).

The program also showed students at the private and public schools sitting around tables having discussions, using computers and also using smart boards. There was mention of cultivating critical thinking by students. But overall the value of new educational approaches were dismissed as not being effective.

The program emphasized the teaching staff paying individual attention to students and the teaching staff being mentored by peers and monitored by superiors. What was not discussed was where the extra resources to do this came from. The implication was that the private schools could afford to do this due to extra resources. However, what was not pointed out that this could also be done in the public schools by shifting resources from other areas.

One way to free up staff time for individual student help is by reducing administrative overheads. One way to do this is with larger schools. This was hinted at in the ABC program, but it was not pointed out that Hume Central has three campuses, sharing one administrative structure: Town Park Senior, Blair Street and Dimboola. It is also possible to extend administrative structures shared between campuses, via on-line means.

Another way is to reduce the amount of formal lessons by teachers (also hinted at). The one way not explored by the program was to use the computer systems now in schools to replace some of the administration and individual teacher lessons. That is the computer systems can be used to present the routine material to the students, leaving the teacher free to tutor those who need assistance. In my view, this will be the real digital educational revolution.

Most students will be undertake most academic subjects with little more than occasional encouragement from the teacher. A few students will need a lot of individual help. The key to the educational revolution is to identify those students who need the help and concentrate the resources on them.

An example of what not to do is given by a morning parade, which still takes place at some schools (such as St Brendan’s Primary School Annandale). Students are compelled to assemble on the parade ground, like a 19th century colonial army. The head teacher then shouts at the students over a pubic address system, about how they need to be quiet and respect others (while being noisy and causing annoyance to the surrounding neighborhood). All this morning parade does is lower the student's respect for the competence and sincerity of their teachers and waste valuable teaching time.

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