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Time for the real education revolution to stand up

 Australia wants to move forward in education, not backwards, and this mission needs to be done as soon as possible. Susan Ma reports.

SOME would argue that going back to basics is the key to an education revolution. Others would say highly-advanced technological resources construct the 21st Century classroom. Amidst this raging political football, parents, teachers and students are left pondering in the darkness, wondering whether it will ever be laid to rest.

For 50 years, education reforms adopted in Australia have been derived from USA and Britain, where many of the projects have been rather unsuccessful. With the Australian National Curriculum due around the corner, one can only hope that there will be major modifications to the current cluttered and old-fashioned education system.

According to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report in 2009, Australian high school students are among the highest performers in online literacy, with Korea and Finland topping the report.

This was two years ago when little was happening with the Australian education system. The conversion of 20th century classrooms to 21st Century would have been undeniably out of question due to the extensive funding, training and resources needed.

This has ultimately changed over the last few years as teachers and students have witnessed some incredible transformations within Australia’s once-outmoded classrooms.

As part of the $16.2 billion Building the Education Revolution (BER) program, Labor has built new school halls, libraries, outdoor learning areas and fibre-optics systems into classrooms. And if you thought that wasn’t generous enough, the Federal and NSW Governments have also invested a further $2.4 billion as part of their Digital Education Revolution (DER) program, which includes $442 million in laptops for every Year 9-12 student, and $158 million on ICT teaching and learning facilities.

School students in every NSW public school are now being switched on to some of the most advanced technology available. From interactive whiteboards, to video-conferencing facilities and even virtual classrooms, classrooms have been given complete makeovers to ensure that they are up to scratch with the 21st Century.

Despite this massive push towards the 21st Century education within our schools, Rupert Murdoch, billionaire boss of the News Corp media empire, recently criticised that the so-called ‘education revolution’ movement amongst most countries is not enough as pupils are still condemned to dreary ‘Victorian-age’ classrooms.

The Australian-born, New York-based businessman says that we are “keeping the potential of millions of children buried in the ground”.

Murdoch believes he can “remove some of the drudgery of teaching” by urging companies to develop more software (such as online expert tutorials and computer programmes) that tailors schooling for students, and also ‘diagnose’ students’ needs to help them learn faster.

With an increase of online classes over the past decade such as Future School and Kahn Academy, this nostrum seems to have potential. It might however, put more than a dent in teachers’ reputations, but perhaps students can benefit from Murdoch’s proposed initiative.

According to last year’s comprehensive OECD world education ranking report, Australia is the 6th highest ranking country in the world, trailing behind countries including New Zealand, Japan and Finland. United States and United Kingdom were nowhere to be seen on the Top 10 rankings, as they came 14th and 20th respectively.

National-state test results have also been recently released, revealing NSW students are behind other states in everything except spelling. Dr Bruniges, Director-General of Education and Communities, said the basics of literacy, numeracy and quality teaching were ‘more important’ than class sizes or the number of computers within classrooms.

“Reading, writing, handwriting – they are the fundamental building blocks in numeracy,” Dr Bruinges says. “To do science, to do maths, to do history… if you can’t read and write, how do you understand these concepts?”

This point is reasonably agreeable, but what is going to be more important to a Year 7 student by the time he/she leaves school? The ability to read, handwrite, perform Math equations and string proper sentences? Or perhaps the ability to navigate the web and technologies? Shouldn’t we also focus on educating students a range of skills that will be beneficial for them in the future?

Unfortunately, we see a Government pushing for greater literacy and numeracy achievement, using NAPLAN results to measure schools’ success but in actual fact decreasing the amount of viable resources needed to ensure that all required areas are adequately covered in schools.

However, one cannot deny the extraordinary value that has been invested by the State and Federal Governments.

A year ago, Governor Philip King Public School (Sydney South West) did not have any form of ICT teaching and learning equipments in their classrooms. Now, with three fully-equipped video-conferencing classrooms and interactive whiteboards in almost every main classroom, Principal Jason Corcoran said the school and its community were “exceptionally happy” with the new technologies, as there was “no way that they could have afforded the upgrades and resources on its own”.

“You can’t imagine how happy we are — If you walk into any of the classrooms right now, they’re using the resources as we speak,” Principal Jason Corcoran said.

“Technology will never replace teachers. But when we talk about value for money, they’re such great resources that enhance teaching and learning within the classrooms.”

But is it really enough? Is this actually the 21st Century education classroom that the Government had envisioned?

According to Dan Haesler, an advocate in educational reform, there is “nothing about revolutionising education” with the DER program.

The Macquarie Australian Encyclopaedic Dictionary defines a ‘revolution’ as;

“(n) 1. A complete overthrow of an established government or political system. 2) A complete or marked change in something.”

Haesler believes that most people think 21st century education is “all about the additional computers and/or having the latest technologies” within the classroom.

“One can’t help but wonder if people sometimes think that 21st Century education is basically doing what we have done before, but with just a tiny difference — on computers,” Haesler said.

OECD Director of Education, Barbara Ischinger, says that “digital technologies provide a great opportunity to make students more active participants in classroom learning”.

“These technologies will tailor learning better to individual students’ needs, and give students access to the world’s current research and thinking,” Ischinger said.

This would be the case if the schools were given the opportunity to achieve this, despite the acquisition of technological resources in their hands.

Social media for instance, is a major issue. Unfortunately, in most NSW schools, Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are banned. While it is understandable that people are wary of social-media’s problematics — if teachers and students cannot access them in schools, how will they be able to demonstrate and understand the amazing potential of social-media in conjunction with teaching and learning? How can we teach kids how to be global online citizens, and also effective digital-media users?

By the end of the day, these resources are slightly left to waste, and this was a result of restricting the opportunities in the first place, removing all the opportunities that had once tagged along.

The Australian Government needs to step back and resist using the terms ‘Education Revolution’ because we are still far from the utopian idea of a 21st Century education.

What we need now is a proper national curriculum that addresses the demands of this century, not the last. 21st Century education ultimately needs to be about providing the best education at its latest, and at its best for teachers and students.

The Government needs to ensure that technology is integrated efficiently and flawlessly intertwined with students’ education, because that is when the real education revolution starts.

So let us not lose sight of this fantastic opportunity to transform teaching and learning in Australia.  Let us use our time and resources more appropriately, radically rethink the way we approach education, and help cultivate better methods of teaching and learning for students of the 21st Century.

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