The Illusion of Schooling

The Treehorn Express

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The Treehorn Express Theme song: ‘Care for Kids’

 The Illusion of Schooling 

If one wanted to start an education system for a one-language, socially and financially stable, smallish country [Say 23 million inhabitants – about the same size as some world cities] what do you think should be the shape of its schooling system?  Before active learning centres called classrooms can be established, there is a number of organisational requirements to ensure that these classrooms operate with as little turbulence as possible….      right?  And…children need to develop their learning habits from birth as seamlessly as possible. Right? The natural  inquisitive joy of learning that very young children show, needs to be nurtured, fostered, expanded and developed for their entire school life and beyond. Right?

What happens in class each day is so crucial. Who, then,  would be better to arrange a  design for an efficient and effective schooling system  than ordinary, everyday classroom teachers?  Okay? Why not?

A wise government asks itself: Who are the most capable, most experienced, most needs-sensitive to design a world-class system of schooling?  Ordinary, practicing classroom teachers?  Practicing academics ? A group of any Ph.Ds who are smart? A group of elected and politically chosen Ministers of Education?  Officials with a background in public service and, maybe a bit of school experience? A group of politicians…Senators perhaps? Rich corporate business men [e.g. Rupert Murdoch, Bill Gates, Koch Brothers]? Lawyers [e.g. Joel Klein, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd]? Bankers?

To date, countries, seemingly keen on impregnating classroom practices with mediocrity leading to backwardness, have tried all of the above groups….. except the first group… those in charge of our children’s future every day of every school year.  Their turn?  Not their unions; just worthwhile representatives. They’ll tell it as it is; and make sensible suggestions.

Starting Age The age to start ‘formal’ [as it is called] schooling needs to be consistent for every child. Of course. How to start the school-learning life of each individual is so important. Each child is different, but a common starting age makes administrative sense, and to have a small population start from a variety of ages is plain crazy. That’s if the rituals of ‘formal’ schooling have any meaning. Right?  Extremely silly. So some high-octane thinking about starting age is needed before any thing else gets off the ground. It would be pretty silly, wouldn’t it, to have a common curriculum with prescriptive overtones for schools before you knew their exact shape?

Contemporary and earlier research as well as school experience shows that the best age for a child to begin experiences that classrooms provide is at about age 7.  All educationally advanced countries start at this age. Starting earlier than this curbs childhood curiosity, problem-solving capacity, ability to play [non-work] and starting too early can have a life-time effect on confidence, curiosity, attitude to occupational interests,  social/ cultural competencies, general expectations and other serious developmental attitudes.

Many busy Mums don’t like the idea of helping, guiding, tolerating kids at home for a few more years, however.

Developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld suggests that four, five, six year olds are not ready to learn [as schools expect them to do] because the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that control feelings, is still under construction. ’It only gets wired at between five and seven years of age.”  He reckons that monkeys and elephants can be taught to perform if that’s what you think your child should do. Is that the reason for starting school earlier than necessary? It seems so.


School-based child development, as an responsibility of the state, can [and should] be divided into three phases 1. Early Childhood [Ages 0-7]. 2. Middle Childhood [Ages 8-14]. 3. Late Childhood [Ages 14+]. Of course, the middle and late childhood ages are usually called Primary and Secondary schooling.  It’s the pupils of these legislated levels of schooling for which governments take most responsibility through law. Only a government that sponsors fairness, likes children, has faith in their potential and wants them to develop their learning potential, considers what it does with its children very, very seriously [e.g. Finland]. Other governments tinker. Australia has a variety of starting ages, most of them around the 4-5 years with different names for the first year…Prep., Kindergarten, Reception, Transition. Pure gimmickry. Surely. Can’t  the first year of ‘formal’ schooling be called Year 1 with a non-prescriptive curriculum to match?

The pre-school early ages [aka Early Childhood] in an advanced society concentrate on happiness, get-along-ability, developing curiosity and inquisitiveness, enjoying childhood for seven years under the control of parents. The first of these, happiness, deserves more consideration than it is given.   See  Pre-school  agencies that offer help to Mums and Grand-mums would be as diverse as possible. Parents make the choices and decide the pattern of learning to best suit their little ones. Children can then move to ‘formal’ public schooling with confidence and a true sense of inquiry. A progressive country then ensures that a network of well supervised, experience-based public schools set a standard for all other kinds of schooling.

It’s at the real school level that parents learn to challenge their own beliefs. Do they continue to believe in schooling as a developmental agency where each child’s potential is warmly challenged to its highest degree, or a place for  each child is force-fed material and is regarded as a passive, obedient receptacle of information that someone else has decided each should know? Many governments and their agencies are incapable of lateral thinking, so they adhere to anachronistic forms of schooling that actually demonise the learning process from Year 1.

Wide scale blanket testing is a typical example. Parents and some teachers, even, believe that if one knows their tables and spelling and grammar then they are set for life; and that a school is a good school if its children do well collectively on certain performance categories. This New York based genius is now embedded in Australian political savvy and in some ‘educators’ belief systems. This act of worship has its genesis in a firm belief that we each have a fixed measure of intelligence. Americans have loved this notion since 1916 because they can number it, score it and grade it. Fixing firm scores is embedded in American thinking. Australia follows American ideas as faithfully as possible, and is now moving back with it to the original idea that the wheat should be sorted from the chaff and schooling arrangement be made to suit.

The father of IQ branding, Lewis Termin wrote the guidelines for how poor performers should be handled: “Children of this group should be segregated in special classes and be given instruction which is concrete and practical. They cannot master abstractions, but they can often be made efficient workers, able to look after themselves. There is no possibility of convincing society that they should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their prolific breeding.” [“The Measurement of Intelligence” pp91-92, 1916 – cited in ‘Eugenic Legacies Still Influence Education” [David B. Cohen]:

It’s a dangerous legacy. It ignores the conscious integrity of learning in the teaching/learning [aka Learnacy] context of a school. It infers that testing can sponsor improvement in attitudes towards learning. Dangerous. It instinctively implies that a New York lawyer knows more about how to rear and encourage our children than we do. It implies that spending more school and private time on test preparation is preferable and more effective for child development than spending time on exploring the beauty of mathematics, the intrigue of our fascinating English language, the wonders of science.

Parents and teachers bow low to the near-sighted, narrow-minded, illogicality of totalitarian control. They tend to laud or approve by their silence,  the efforts of those governments which just throw money thoughtlessly at ‘education’; and make whimsical alterations to system structures without finding out what happens in the classroom and what the ones within the classroom feel about any change. Is a tight and demanding prescriptive curriculum with common core objectives in a strict age-grade, subject-centred organisational mode, the only way to school our children and does it help them with their general education? Should children at school be treated as students or as pupils?

There are so many important questions to be asked. Until we do, our learning-destructive Klein system remains; and our children pay the penalty.

Despite the irrefutable evidence that children progress faster and achieve higher when they are loved and unthreatened; and when teachers are highly regarded for what they do and respected for their opinions, we continue to approve of our Orwellian forms of control by our silence. Our culture of silence says that we salute authoritarianism at the expense of enlightenment. To our eternal shame, we allow demonising national blanket testing to exist.


Read what Valerie Strauss, education journalist for The Washington Post has to say. Her column, by the way, always features a quote from Albert Einstein : “It’s a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

Valerie points out Seven Misconceptions about How Students Learn , suggesting that ‘many people – educators included – still cling to some of these misconceptions about learning because they think on their own  experiences in school, ignoring what 21st century science and experience are revealing.’


If you have 4 minutes 17 seconds to spare from your busy schedule, click on the theme song “Care for Kids” above, relax and ‘take in’ the words. Meditate on the plight of today’s generation of Aussie kids.

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Phil Cullen

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3 thoughts on “The Illusion of Schooling

  1. Reading this sad account of the degradation of public education by conservative politicians, especially in the US, you might imagine that it couldn’t get much worse. Well brace yourselves, the New York Public Education System has reached a new low: If any of its professional victims – the teachers trying to educate children under its hellish regime – fail to achieve acceptable test scores for their classes, they will now be named and shamed in newspapers!

    The ultimate irony is that this critical article is written by a successful American entrepreneur, Bill Gates. Contrary to common opinion, Gates is a staunch supporter of some positive experiments in education (Google ‘Big Picture Schools’, one of the most exciting and effective student centred learning systems operating anywhere in the world)
    Gates is highly critical of the name and shame policy, and affirms that he would never have dreamed of treating his workers that way because he knows it would be utterly counterproductive.
    While it’s true Australia’s scholastic results are not ‘top drawer’, they’re well above average for OECD countries, while the US languishes near the bottom, especially in maths where it is stone motherless last!
    You’d think our Prime Minister and former Education Minister, Julia Gillard, would have picked a better performing country to follow than the US, which is already way behind our standard, and by every indication seems determined to fall even further behind. Oh, that’s right, she’s a lawyer by training.
    Sadly, just changing to a Liberal Government lead by Tony Abbott will not result in a reversal of this lunatic trend in Australia. If anything, it is likely to make it worse!

  2. Ok, I’ll reply to myself. I found the following article in the NYTmes this morning:

    I’m still having trouble deciphering it, but I think it says that attempts to adjust test score results for socio-economic determinants, resulted in teachers whose students received consistently high test scores were downgraded because they were expected to ‘improve’ their students’ results, not merely ‘hold the line’.

    The term ‘can of worms’ comes to mind. Maybe they ought to drop all this measuring madness and just offer guidance and support for their teachers, along with a long overdue boost to their status. You never know, it might just change the culture enough to help the kids, all of the kids, to do better.

  3. Right on, John. Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and their herds, obviously, do not like ordinary school children; and, so, they support the fear-driven ‘measuring madness’. May I ask, ” Do you, or any Aussie voter, know of any politician who has cried out with school pupils,their parents and teachers for a better understanding of their predicament?” I do not know one pollie who would be prepared to say. “Let’s get rid of the damaging NAPLAN blanket-testing.” Do you? Does anyone?
    I should like to hear of just one Australian pollie with the gumption to say such a thing in public and at his Pary’s conference or general meeting. Some would probaby say. “It is appaling what we do..”…but not say, “Let’s get rid of it.”…and let’s help our children learn as much as they can in a climate of pleasant Aussie fair-dinkumness.

    May I respect and repeat your sage counsel that “…they ought to drop all this measuring madness and just offer guidance and support to their teachers, along with a long overdue boost to their status. You never know, it might just change the cultrue enough to help the kids, all the kids, to do better.”
    You know and I know that kids will do better. Teaching colleagues also know this. Where are they?

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