Friday, August 18, 2023

Selling our Kids Short: Educating the Disadvantaged

This is a topic that has been around since I was a teacher many years ago. How do we support and help children who are disadvantaged to learn and flourish? The challenge is close to my heart, for I was one of those children. Born with a father who was a coal miner, as was his father, grandfather and great grandfather. Before that my family was growing potatoes in Ireland.

There were nine boys in my father's family, and when they came to Australia in 1922 they were all highly literate. They were all readers, performed reasonably well at school and went on to become leaders of a movement seeking to support and promote the needs of the worker, by helping to build strong unions. Two built the nation's largest poultry farm. How were a bunch of mine workers whose ancestors struggled, and lived in a two room miner's cottage with only shared a outside pit toilet and washroom able to do these things (my Father's town below). 

           Above: Main street of Caldercruix (Scotland)

Beyond the amazing resilience of the miners and their families, there was a strong commitment in Scotland to school education. In the late 18th and early 19th Century the government set out to educate the poor. Its public education system was a leader around the world. What about today? How well do our public systems compare today?

Why was their education so good?

I discovered an old post that I didn't quite finish back in 2011! In it I reported the comments of Alfie Kohn titled "Poor Teaching for Poor Children". The following snatch from it is still very current:

"Love them or hate them, the proposals collectively known as 'school reform' are mostly top-down policies ... pitting states against one another in a race for federal education dollars...  offering rewards when test scores go up ... firing the teachers or closing the schools when they don’t."

I hear many echoes of this today. Alfie Kohn continues:

"Policy makers and the general public have paid much less attention to what happens inside classrooms - the particulars of teaching and learning - especially in low-income neighborhoods."
Education Week was held just three weeks ago in NSW. We put our best face forward for the general public, and rightly celebrated all the good things about our schools and our teachers. What we didn't hear much of were the inner groans of our teachers, who find it hard to teach the way many would like to, due to the pressure politically to ensure children do well on public testing published for all to see. Every time, bureaucrats and governments groan about "falling standards", we are back on a familiar merry go round.
Meanwhile, how are our teachers using their time?
In Australia, our teachers are typically buried in paperwork, helping their students prepare for public testing (national and state), ticking boxes, writing reports etc. Where is the time to prepare the lessons they might plan, and the opportunities to form creative young people to become the leaders of tomorrow?
As a young teacher, in my first appointment in a difficult community in Western Sydney in the 1970s, this wasn't the case. I found myself with primary school classes of 30-36 students with mixed ability students. No classes were graded. What to do? Thankfully, we were not hounded to teach to the test. So my plan was to work hard to excite my students about learning, to get them to enjoy school and be challenged. Along the way, I still taught them the basic skills for life. Yes, reading, writing, mathematics, knowledge of the world etc.

Above: My first class

But I had a fair degree of autonomy to vary my routine when something exciting happened. These opportunities occurred often in my classrooms with questions and comments like "I don't get it", "Sir, did you know that...", "have you ever seen a Wedge Tailed eagle" and so on. I had the chance to follow some of these interests and questions, and be creative myself. I wrote a book over 30 years ago in which I shared some of my ideas and strategies for making literature and reading exciting. 'Other Worlds, the Endless Possibilities of Reading'. You might still find a copy on Amazon.

For example, one day on my way to school, I saw an old 1930s gramophone on the footpath, being tossed out. I asked the owner could I have it, he said yes! I jostled it into the back of my car and took it to school. With the help of another teacher we carried it to my room. I just sat it at the front of the room. As the children arrived, they saw it and questioned, "what's that Sir?" I asked them to tell me.

Above: Gramaphone restored

One child finally recognized it; there was one in his grandfather's garage. He went home for lunch and brought back some old 78 Bakelite records. I set aside most of the day to help them find out more about it. We played the records, discussed the differences between the player and the records. We then spent the rest of the day in varied exploration, drawing, writing, researching etc. Sadly, this type of spontaneous activity is hardly possible today. Paperwork, reporting and preparation for public exams take up far too much of teachers' time (not by choice).
Finding ways to break this cycle
The life of the teacher has been discouraging for quite some time in Australia. Things seem to be getting worse as a direct result of the “reform” and strategies pursued by governments in most countries. Most are promoting getting back to skills, 'the basics', testing students and schools against the standards of other unlike groups. Sadly, such reforms are cheered on by education departments, many parents and journalists.
It's hard to see how we change things, but we need to look for opportunities. I am so happy that during 'Book Week' in Australia this month, we can return (in a sense) to celebrating and enjoying learning with a creative focus on literature. We can try to recapture the joy, and challenge of education which can occur by reading for pleasure and enjoyment. No test afterwards, just the joy of reading, responding to it, sharing it with friends and so on. 
One of our key performance goals in schools, should always be to influence our students to become avid readers. That was something the Scottish system in the 18th and 19th centuries understood. We need to recapture this in Australian schools, and work to enable our students to explore, enjoy and perhaps even write inspired by literature. I'll write a post on our award winning children's books when they are announced next week.

The last word

Alfie Kohn's thoughts helped frame this post. He offered good insights from varied educators and scholars, including Deborah Meier. I'll let this educator and author who founded extraordinary schools in New York and Boston have the last word:
"...The very idea of 'school' has radically different meanings for middle-class kids, who are “expected to have opinions,” and poor kids, who are expected to do what they’re told. Schools for the well-off are about inquiry and choices; schools for the poor are about drills and compliance. The two types of institutions barely have any connection to each other".

How can we work to achieve this in our varied countries? I can't say I recognize it in many schools. Do we just keep enduring the stress on skills and testing, or in the interest of our children's education, will we take a stand to see some changes made?

I may offer a second post on this in the future.

Above: One of my early primary school classes (41 students)


Lorraine said...

Love this Trevor ... and always enjoy your posts. I can't pick you 10 years younger in your primary school photo however. The one who might be you looks more like a rascal than how I think of you :)

Lorraine McDonald

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks Lorraine, always nice to hear from you.