We need to stop the noise about students falling behind during these lockdowns.  It is a useful political tool as parents are easily triggered by threats to the children. 

But it is just noise and the question we need to ask is:

Behind what?

There seems to be this strange belief that curricula are somehow set in stone. That there is a certain amount of knowledge that needs to be poured into the heads of students by the end of formal schooling. 

As if the knowledge is the curriculum, education is the process of transmission and school is where it happens.

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Before I go further it is important that I make something clear. I absolutely believe that education is the single most important thing, apart from good health, that we offer our children. No exceptions. But what that education looks like is flexible. 

Early education.

Think about this.

The first western, formal ‘public’ academy was the Lyceum, founded by Aristotle in 334 B.C.E.  

Students did not attend formal education before the age of 17 years. Before that, education happened in the family. Aristotle believed that ‘first, children must learn the moral virtues; later, when their intellectual powers have matured, they may learn to conduct themselves according to reason by exercising the intellectual virtues.’ 

For Aristotle, it was important that teachers work to promote that ‘which is good or ‘right’, rather than that which is merely ‘correct.’ He was also, as were many of his time, convinced that education must be balanced. There needed to be a combination of play, debate, philosophy, science, physical training and music. 

Aristotle also believed that the state should be responsible for educating its citizens, because it was the state that benefited from a well educated citizenry.

Modern Education.

The most famous examples of art, music, architecture, literature and science were created before schools became compulsory, or curricula were imposed. Share on X

For hundreds of years the responsibility for education stayed within the home. Wealthy families employed governesses whose role included being a nanny and a teacher. The only qualifications that these governesses had was their own education, acquired in their own home. 

For those who could afford it, the ultimate educational experience was the ‘Grand Tour.’

Beginning in the 17th C and continuing through the the 19th C, the Grand Tour was the opposite of a gap year. Wealthy young men, with a tutor in tow, would leave the shores of England and travel through Europe. This tour would last many months, and the young man would learn about the history, art and tradition of the countries visited. They would also work on learning languages. Most importantly, they would learn that while there are some universal human conditions, their way of life was not the same as that of others. 

There was no set curriculum, no compulsory set of skills that the students had to acquire during the tour. 

Yet, some of the most astounding examples of human creativity were achieved during the thousands of years before ‘school.’ Times when there were no specific curricula.

The most famous examples of art, music, architecture, literature and science were created before schools became compulsory, or curricula were imposed.

Human achievement
Human achievement.
Taj Mahal - Human Achievement
Great Wall of China

More Recently.

Until the mid 1800s in Britain and Australia, the only schools were those run by religious groups for the education of their children. The main textbook was the bible and there was no specific training for teachers. 

The ‘Sandon Act’ (of 1876) put steps in place to ensure that all children between the ages of 5-10 were educated. In 1880, the ‘Mundella Act’ made it compulsory. This was important as many parents were poor and would send children out to work. 

In Australia, the topic of schools for children was debated all through the 1860s. Much of the debate centred on the religious control of schools. 

Victoria was the first to introduce ‘free, compulsory, secular’ education for children between 6  and 15 years, with the passing of the  Education Act 1872 (No.447). This Act also put a stop to state funding of religious schools. 

The number of children educated rose by 50% when education became free and compulsory. Though it was not until the 1890s that teachers had to complete high school and attend training college. 

So while there was some required knowledge to be covered, the curriculum did not cover even a fraction of what we expect of current students. 

Yet Australia produced artists, architects, builders, musicians, actors, writers and scientists. 

Slide Rules and Log Books.

For those of us who did school in the 60s and 70s, mathematics and physics required slide rules, (they were really cool) and log books. Then came scientific calculators, and the mathematics syllabus got more advanced. 

I am sure that if I had a look at any maths syllabi in 2020 it would take more than the wonderful Mr Eddie Woo to explain it to me.

Yet in those years a team of Australian scientists managed a radio satellite dish that assisted in the moon landing. 

And students in those days went on to pioneer heart transplant surgeries and IVF, to name but two of the advancements. 

Diceman Stephen West - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6174237

My point is, that curricula are education constructs devised in and for particular social groups. And to be ‘behind’ requires something to be behind of.

Global Pandemic.

For the first time in human history, that we know of, the whole world has been hit by the same thing. Schools have closed globally, Every student is missing school. No-one is going to be any more ahead or behind than they normally are.

And the only thing we should be taking away from this is that we need to do something for the students in other parts of the world who are really behind. 

In an article published on August 2nd, Paul Ronalds, CEO of Save The Children wrote about the students who were going to be really behind because of this pandemic, and students in Australia were not amongst them.

Like many parents who now need to supervise home learning, (If you are not designing a curriculum and creating all the necessary materials, you are not home schooling. It is a real thing and a difficult one.) he was frustrated. However, he was quick to recognize first world problems. Our students have computers, access to the internet and continued support from their teachers.

While there are certainly Australian students for whom the current situation is very difficult, this will pass and they will return to school. Children in other places are not so fortunate.

Ronalds speaks of up to 1.6 billion children forced out of school when the first wave hit. For many it was the end to their education. It is entirely possible that for some, education is now gone forever. 

A recent Save The Children  report suggests that 10 million children may never return to school. Add that to the 258 million students who were already out of school before the pandemic occurred and there is a level of tragedy that should not exist in the 21st C

Decades of development progress will be reversed and the future for these children is not one we would want to imagine. 

All is made worse by a biopic growth of nationalist sentiment that sees wealthy nations cut their already paltry foreign aid budgets.

This is not the case for students in developed nations like ours. 

What is the problem with closing schools?

When the Covid-19 first became evident the Victorian Premier announced an immediate close of schools and a switch to virtual schooling. For the next couple of months the federal government and some very loud politicians kept shrieking that schools were perfectly safe and that children did not catch or carry the virus.

This was blatantly untrue. There was already evidence from Europe and the US that indicated they may have been premature in this conclusion. We were even told that physical distancing was not needed in schools. Many of us have tried to work out what particular brand of fairy dust was being sprinkled over school gates to make all those who passed through immune.

Some politicians seem to think that educators actually don’t have an education and that they will therefore buy into ridiculousness. The one that gets me the most is where they claim that children are not getting it because the numbers are low. The fact that the numbers were low because we weren’t testing children seemed to be beyond their comprehension. 

It was when Prime Minister Morrison took to social media to plead with teachers to open schools that I got really cranky. In the article Morrison’s Gaslighting of the Teaching Profession I pointed out that teachers were not the ones making decisions about school openings, and by taking aim at them, Morrison had just given everyone else permission to do the same.

Teachers in the US are now suffering the very same. On August 4th, their president tweeted, ‘OPEN THE SCHOOLS!!!’ 

The very issues that teachers in Australia were dealing with in April and May are being played out in countries in the northern hemisphere as the new school year approaches. 

Trevor Muir, a teacher in the US who I follow, posted a video the other day which addressed the same fears that teachers in Australia have had. He says what every teacher knows, that there is no way to enforce physical distancing in K-12 education. 

The major argument for getting schools open is so that parents have somewhere to put their children so they can work without interruption. It was, and is about the economy. 

The second wave

As Victoria entered a second wave of shutdowns, schools have closed once again. Fortunately principals have spoken out this time asking for schools to be closed. 

Many of the same people who were adamant that schools were safe and should be open are realising that that is not true and that they should be closed. 

What surprises me so much in Australia is that we have had some infections in schools, but as of now thankfully, no deaths.

There is a long list of passionate and committed educators who have died of the virus in the US. That they would even consider opening schools seems like pure madness. 

Yet we are supposed to worry about the economy. 

My heart broke a little when I read a post by a long time teacher in the US who had that day submitted her resignation. The teachers were being told they had to go back to face to face teaching and she was being attacked by parents because she was not prepared to risk her health or the health of her family. She was called a coward.

There is a simple, universal truth, students need to be alive to learn things and teachers need to be alive to teach them.

What are they really missing?

Most of the discussion in Australia about students missing out is not about their education as much as it is about their ATAR. 

The ATAR is not a score so much as it is a ranking. It places all the graduating Year 12 students on a type of ladder. It doesn’t in any way indicate how much they know, only what they know in relation to what another student knows. 

So, if everyone is missing out on education then the ATAR isn’t going to change much.

Like all ‘standardised’ testing tools, the ATAR does not measure knowledge, nor does it always accurately predict future learning ability. 

American linguist Noam Chomsky  is quoted as saying “If kids are studying for a test, they’re not going to learn anything. We all know that from our own experience. You study for a test and pass it and you forget what the topic was, you know.” 

Make no mistake, curricula are designed to be measured. They are not primarily designed to educate. But more of that in a bit.

Educators have long argued that standardised testing is the enemy of education.

At the forefront of the campaign to kill the ATAR in Australia is Peter Hutton and the Future Schools Alliance. Hutton is not alone in arguing that covid-19 has given us a great opportunity to make changes to the way we design education and he is vigorously arguing for the end of ATAR.

Hutton’s street cred comes from his success in turning a struggling school in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs into a high performing school. A school that was so successful parents moved into the area so their students could attend. 

Yet it was a school without year levels, where every student had their own individual learning plan and where there were no compulsory subjects. 

A school where students helped to design their learning. Where they needed to be active rather than passive learners. 

And it worked. 

Rites of passage.

There are things that our Year 12s are missing that are more important than lessons. They are missing their ‘formal/prom.’ They are missing being School and House Captains and the leadership skills that come with those. They are missing being looked up to by younger students.

Students in Year 6 are also missing those. I have twin nephews in Year 6 in Melbourne and they are missing their school trip to Canberra.

It is those rites of passage that are most being missed. Fortunately there are great creative educators out there who are making plans for when this virus passes. 

Actor John Krasinski launched his show Some Good News in the first lockdown. He committed one episode to a graduation show for high school students who were missing theirs. It is worth watching. 

What do they need to know?

We have seen already that what students need to know changes. 

Teachers have long known that it is more important to teach students how to think, not what to think. 

The OECD released their report on 21stC skills in 2018. The skills that our students need to master include critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, media and technology literacy, flexibility and social skills. 

Collaboration is particularly difficult to learn in an educational environment that ranks students against each other. 

It is very likely that 2020 may actually benefit students in developed countries. They have certainly learned to be more flexible, to take responsibility for their own learning.


Alternative pathways.

All students attending ‘school’ through to Year 12 is a relatively recent occurrence. Even in the late 1960s large numbers left at the end of Year 10. Many entered into apprenticeships and others just got jobs. 

Leaving school at the end of Year 10 was certainly not seen as a failure. And it shouldn’t be now. 

While school is a welcome safe space for some students, for others it is the opposite. High School can be a difficult place for many students. Fortunately, now there are options, though we need more.

We are lucky in Australia that there are a number of alternative pathways and learning opportunities for students and we need to ensure they are aware of them.

I was guilty many, many times of telling students that the main value in completing Year 12 as a teenager was that your parents would feed and support you while you did it. I was 23 years old when I went back to complete Year 12. I wasn’t living at home. 

No matter what learning they ‘miss’ while schools are closed, our students will not suffer long term. They will learn what they need to know. 

We need to remember that schools closing, for our students, does not mean learning has stopped. There are so many lessons to be learnt that don’t require a classroom, and teachers are working hard to support them. 

 Possible benefits.

An article by Sarah Prestridge and Donna Pendergast  on August 5th, in The Conversation argued that senior students may find the experience of remote learning will set them up better for their future. 

The writers claim that ‘The chance to develop online learning capabilities while being supported by their school teachers will give Year 12s learning remotely a real advantage.’

They ran a survey that found Year 12 students liked the flexibility of learning at their own pace and organising their week in a way that best suited them. Many Year 12 students‘ said they preferred to concentrate on one subject a day and to work intensely’ rather than follow a school timetable. 

Many adults complain if their days consist of chopping and changing focus, yet that is how most schools are run.


Is face to face better?

There have been a number of studies carried out in relation to the effects of natural disasters on students’ future options. 

Most agree with what educators know to be true. For the majority of students face to face teaching is better in the long term. And face to face teaching is very much easier.

However, there is also evidence that in the short term, the effect is minimal.

Trusting teachers.

What I find particularly annoying is that while we have continually increased the level of education and professionalism required of teachers, as a society our respect for them has diminished. 

We don’t trust them to know how their students are learning so we impose ridiculous standardised tests to collect data. Data that is often interpreted by people who are not educators.  

When history books are written about the year 2020 they are going to record a year of incredible educational activity. 

They will record a plethora of virtual professional learning networks. Networks made up of teachers from all over the world who have come together to share knowledge, ideas and pedagogy. 

I take part in a Twitter chat that runs on Sunday nights with the hashtag #aussieED. Last Sunday evening they hosted their 300th episode. Led by Brett Salakas and  Zeina Chalich among others, and  beginning in 2013, #aussieED hosts a space that has 14,639 unique users each month on average. One chat in 2017 had a tweet reach greater than the whole Australian population. 

Another I love being part of is #tmmelb . TeachMeet Melbourne was begun by Steven Kolber as a physical event where educators met to present information on different topics. Then we all went out to dinner and talked. It is good and has a small but committed group of people who attend regularly. Discovering this group was one of the highlights of 2019.

Covid-19 sent it online where it has exploded. Each month a growing and diverse group of educators meet to discuss real issues and share knowledge, resources and ideas to improve student outcomes.

There is a Facebook group in India called Teachers Help Teachers. The group has more than 10,000 members. Since India went into lockdown in March, the group has hosted and supported professional learning events every week. Often many days each week.

I have been privileged to present two PD webinars to the group and it has been wonderful to learn from them.

These are only a few examples of the monumental amount of work teachers are doing behind the scenes. 

And they are doing this while being simultaneously praised, criticized, encouraged and gaslit.

If we ever needed proof that schools and curriculum are not interdependent, this virus has provided it. 

Many years ago, a well educated friend told us that his father believed education was a lifelong activity, interrupted only by the need to go to school. 

School is, or should be, a place of exploration, a place where the variety of learning styles and methods is possible and encouraged. Education is a process of learning that occurs in multiple places throughout a lifetime. Curricula are moving feasts that need to support education, not define it.