One of the things that professionals in their field don’t tend to love is outsiders telling them how to do their jobs. Even more frustrating is when those outsiders have such influence over how we do our jobs. Typically in Australia that is the media, politicians, and economists. At the Australian Science Teachers Association conference this year – CONASTA67 – there were two such presentations that appeared to come from without to fix our profession.
It could be argued that Simon Birmingham (Australia’s national education minister) is not entirely external to the education system. Our education system is largely run at a state level but it is reliant on both State and Federal funding depending on the which sector you’re referring to. However, @Birmo, as he’s known on Twitter, in my opinion, tends to be at odds with those in the profession more often than not. Similarly, there is a superficial argument that the nation’s Chief Scientist (or chief scientific bureaucrat), Alan Finkel, has some insight into what a good education in Science looks like. After all, he works in the scientific field. Yet, I’m of the opinion that he’s making a rather large assumption – that we educate students in Science with the goal of them all becoming scientists. A scientifically literate citizen (I think this tends to be the modern liberal goal of high school Science education) is different from a scientist.
Simon Birmingham opened the conference and as is typical of his profession, talked for quite a long while without saying anything much at all. It became pretty obvious to anyone following the Twitter hashtag #CONASTA67 or those in the room that his speech was falling rather flat (you can read it here), it was less so in the reporting of the event. Alan Finkel, on the other hand, was at the rear of the Conference and echoed his speech – almost as if he had a company line to toe (it can be read here).
Dr Alan Finkel’s talk was much more impressive and he wowed us with his nerd cred’ – the overall analogy he used was the education of Paul Atreides in Dune. Dune being a masterful science fiction novel and this crowd being peak nerd, this was always a winning strategy. I want it on the record though that I’m not nearly as harsh on the truly surreal screen adaptation. I was raised on Twin Peaks and any chance to see Kyle MacLachlan striding across the sand is fine by me.
This analogy was actually something I found quite appealing. The idea of building a problem-solving student with what many refer to as soft skills built upon a foundation of knowledge. Although, I feel this could equally be reversed. In other words, here we have Alan Finkel supporting the idea of well-rounded students, a balance on the skills/content spectrum. Not some conservative ideal. Although, closer to the traditionalist side and I’m guessing from some of the not so subtle jabs at educational progressives in his speech that this isn’t an accident.
Australian Eduguru Corinne Campbell once said in a tweet that she doesn’t teach her primary students simply to prepare them for high school, she educates them to meet their needs now. Her goal was to make them complete and whole students now, not excellent high school students in the future. Where I found Alan Finkel’s presentation disturbing and Simon Birmingham’s unsurprising was the focus on educating students for their usefulness as economic units. Education itself is an economic driver but instead of it being seen as a public good it seems that both of these men are pushing very similar agendas. That the students we teach come out at the end as an economic good and that this should be our primary objective.
There is a lot of talk from within education centered around students as widgets. Often the call to arms by progressive educationalists/edupreneurs and most importantly teachers is that students aren’t widgets within the factory of education. They’re individuals with individual needs and desires. Indeed, both of these men focused on what we need to do with our brightest and best with very little thought as to what STEM education has to offer those who find school more of a challenge.
More and more I’m seeing those from outside education talking instead about education as the production of widgets for society, to fit into our economy and plug a hole. In particular, I see this increasingly coming from politicians and repeated unquestioningly in the conservative media. Both Alan Finkel and our federal education minister took to the stage in their political/politicised speeches to tell us what products we need from education – and not what education needs to provide for our students. From my perspective, they were both wide of the mark.