Every now and then, in the busy-ness of the term, I find myself with a very rare opportunity on a weekend to sit down and read something of my own choosing. Any teacher can tell you that that doesn’t happen often.
So when an invite appeared in my inbox to a presentation by journalist Lucy Clark, author of the recently released Beautiful Failures: How the quest for success is harming our kids, I opted to pick up a copy from my local bookstore and settled down on the couch to read. That was yesterday. I finished the book early this afternoon.
Clark presents an account of the flaws in the Australian education system that are leading our children and young people to experience unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety, disengagement with school and difficulty finding employment at the end of their education than ever before. This could easily have become an exercise in teacher bashing, and as someone who fakes a smile but secretly seethes each time a friend jokes (I know, they’re just joking, stop being so sensitive, right?) that as a teacher I only work from 9am – 3pm each day and am basically a glorified baby sitter, I tend to put up the defences when it comes to people who might actually be arguing that seriously.
But this piece, by Suzanne Leal at The Australian, coupled with the invitation I received convinced me that the book might be worth a read. And, boy, was it!
Clark draws on a large body of research to consider the nature of our educational system and other systems around the world and to explore how the high stakes competition and testing impacts children who, like her daughter and many others, are “square pegs in round holes”; they don’t fit the mould that the traditional educational model, dating back in many ways to the nineteenth century, imposes upon them. And because of this, they are seen as failures – the deficit is with them.
It would be the easy way out for Clark to start pointing fingers at teachers and I can already feel people bristling as they read that last sentence. Yet this is the opposite of what she does and she recognises that most teachers and principals do not see their students that way. However, Clark doesn’t pull any punches in her deconstruction of the current system’s manner of reducing students to numbers and rankings and limiting the creativity and professional agency of teachers and principals. The well-being of students is severely compromised as is that of their teachers. Curriculum is prescriptive and tests and exams carry with them the perceived threat of “not achieving in life” and sometimes the very real threat of being limited or excluded from subjects, schools, and universities. She cites incidences of higher rates of teenage self-harm and suicide in countries and areas (including Australia) where this pressure to achieve a number as determined by a set of criteria can, in the minds of many, literally define a young person. As I read through her analysis of what this competition is doing to many students, I couldn’t help but nod my head sadly. I cringe each time one of my students asks for where they ranked in the class after an assessment task, and the fact that in some places this actually gets published in black ink on their report card galls me. My heart breaks for the students who try so hard and yet see that number and perceive themselves as ‘unworthy.’ I worry as much for the straight A student in middle school whose worry – and it was a distressing one for this child – was that she wouldn’t top the class this year because of one B on a task. Clark asks, as many parents and teachers would ask, is this what education is really there for?
Clark explores the government’s powerful role in shaping the environment in which students learn. Education, she says, is like a political pawn or football that is tossed around by those in power to satisfy their own agenda, even if all research says this is to the detriment of our kids. And with the Australian government currently changing it’s Prime Minister almost as often as a pair of underpants, stable leadership in the matter and bipartisan support for projects that espouse a long-term solution is difficult to attain. One only need look at how bipartisan support for Gonski has diminished and fluctuated since the Liberal government took over under Tony Abbott to see why we manage to achieve such little change as a system.
Parents are not left out of Clark’s consideration either. She looks at how often well-intentioned parents bring their own ‘baggage’ and past experience of education to the table when it comes to the schooling of their children. There is an exploration of the “Tiger Mum” phenomenon heralding from East-Asia, the exhausting hours of coaching children are signed up for, the pressure felt by parents to get their children the ‘golden ticket’ into the most elite and selective schools, and the tendency of some parents to believe that they know best about education just because they went to school themselves. She calls for respectful partnerships between parents and schools, where the teacher is the expert in education and the parent is the expert in their child. Yes, question the teacher about how they are doing their job, she says in one chapter. As a parent you have every right because they are working with your child. But do so with respect and do not tell them how to do their job.
In a conversation on Twitter today, someone mentioned that parts of the book left them feeling quite disheartened about education, and there were times when I certainly felt the same way. But Clark shows the same compassion towards parents, teachers and principals as she is advocating for for the students who don’t fit the specifications our industrial model education system places on them. She describes an education system that has some inherent and serious flaws and I found myself nodding my head in agreement the whole way through. Alternative solutions are offered through explorations of Finland’s high achieving, low pressure approach to education (they top the PISA rankings, consistently ahead of countries such as Korea where students could be involved in study for 16 hours a day, and are well ahead of other western countries such as Australia and the United States), Steiner education, and progressive and collaborative schools who have entirely rethought their approach to learning such as the Northern Beaches Christian School in Sydney and Templestowe College in Melbourne. But I’m still left wondering, unless something revolutionary occurs at the level of government and policy, will Australia ever be able to adequately address these flaws in the system, which lead to 26 percent of teenagers not completing high school, on a national scale?
Clark’s book is conversational and engaging and I have only managed to scratch the surface of her extensive research. Despite the complexity of the issues she deals with, this is a book that is as accessible to parents and people less familiar with the inner workings of education as it is to educators. If you have the opportunity and are invested in any way, shape or form in our educational system, have a read. It may make you curious, it may make you angry, it may make you disheartened and it may make you hopeful. But it will certainly get you thinking.