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Primary school teaching ‘devalues knowledge’, academic warns

education fads

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PRIMARY schooling is based on “folklore, dogma, ritual and untested assumptions”, in the view of leading education academic Stephen Dinham, who describes the curriculum as devaluing knowledge in favour of acquiring skills and values.

In a fiery speech to be delivered today, Professor Dinham, president of the Australian College of Educators, calls for a rethink of primary schooling, to develop teaching practice that is based on evidence not fads, and fosters learning rather than engagement.

“It is debatable whether primary education today is more effective overall than it was 50 years ago,” he will say.

Professor Dinham, chair of teacher education at Melbourne University, will tell the ACE conference in Adelaide that the primary curriculum in particular has become “largely content-free”, with content knowledge viewed by many “as counter to the learning process”.

Since the 1970s, “learning processes, issues and activities tended to be privileged over knowledge, and formal testing declined”.

Professor Dinham cites the example of an Australian history class he witnessed in which a group of students created an animation of the First Fleet entering Sydney Harbour in 1788 led by Captain James Cook, who was dead by then.

“Was this error seen as significant? No, because the most important thing was that the students had been engaged in the process,” he says.

“Learning to learn is seen as preferable to learning. Teacher-directed learning is seen as old-fashioned, even harmful, while student activity and choice is championed, regardless of what that activity might entail.”

In an interview with The Australian, Professor Dinham emphasised his criticism was of primary schooling and education training, not teachers.

“I have a great deal of sympathy for primary teachers because their role is becoming untenable,” he said.

“Primary teachers have to be expert across all areas of curriculum and they’re in the frontline to deal with society’s problems. If kids come to school hungry, haven’t slept, with emotional and social needs that haven’t been met, schools have to meet those.”

Professor Dinham said the day of the generalist primary teacher was over, and primary schools, particularly in the upper years, should adopt some of the practices of high schools, including specialist teachers for each subject.

As well, primary schools should have paraprofessionals to deal with some of the welfare needs of students.

“Teachers can’t be good counsellors, they can’t be social workers as well,” he said.

In the speech, Professor Dinham argues the need “to question from a basis of firm evidence the foundations for what teachers do in schools”.

“There is a need to reject the pseudoscience and the shiny products people want to sell educators,” he says. “There are well-developed protocols prior to the introduction of any new drug or treatment in medicine yet educators readily experiment upon students — a situation where lives are also at stake — with unproven or even disproved methods.”

Professor Dinham told The Australian that many discredited teaching approaches were still included in official education department documents, such as learning styles, thinking hats, multiple intelligences, “discovery” learning or “learning to learn, where you teach yourself what you don’t know”.

Professor Dinham said many teachers adopting such methods had an ideological attachment but they could inflict harm on students by categorising them and limiting children’s expectations of what they could achieve.

“I’ve seen schools where kids are categorised according to learning styles,” he said. “One of the most damning ones was a school in western Sydney where in the classrooms were the white middle-class kids using books.

“Out in the playground were the Aboriginal kids passing a football, because everyone knows they’re good at sport and kinaesthetic learners.”

Another widespread belief was that, with the advent of the internet, teachers no longer had to be the expert at the front of the classroom, “the sage on the stage”, but instead should be the “guide by the side”, facilitating student learning.

Professor Dinham rejected this belief, saying effective, knowledgeable teachers were needed more than ever to assist students to navigate the mass of material available online.

“We are really suckers for false dichotomies in education, so content knowledge becomes a bad thing,” he said. “It becomes either/or.”

The Australian College of Educators represents teachers and academics across all education sectors, with more than 5500 members from preschool to university.