What does “Education” mean to Australians?

By Principal Jennifer Haynes

I was listening to an interesting discussion on “The Minefield” on Radio National today,  discussing the purpose of education in our country and it made me think about our obsession with finding an answer to this question, outside of Australia.  I am waiting with trepidation for the day the Australian government decides to implement the Finnish system of education.  I know I am stepping out on a dangerously uncool limb of educational theorising here, but I would like to posit that the overarching features of the Finnish education system don’t really tell me anything I need to know—unless I’m planning on living in Finland. Instead we should look at the power of the Finnish culture to design its education system around what its human and natural systems require to flourish.

My reason for suggesting this is because the international test success of Finland, as well as their happy and joyful students and teachers, seems like an impossible dream to us at this point in our educational history. Features of the Finnish system that are touted as innovative include shorter school days, a dab of better teacher education, a smattering of more freedom for teachers to design learning, add in some freedom for students to choose their learning, maybe less testing and more flexibility, mix it all together with a wave of our collective hopes and BAM!  Our students get better results.

The problem with this approach stems from a core issue: inserting someone else’s successful education system into the Australian system doesn’t work. Australia has tried this and failed in the past. We blindly took on Outcomes and Standards Based Education and data driven schooling. We assumed that Phonics was the only way to teach every child in Australia how to read. These experiments were tested in other countries like the US, Hong Kong, and the UK before being squeezed into our education system—only to fail at improving outcomes.  So let’s learn from these failures and try something different.

Instead of pointing to features of the Finnish education system as the “winning package”, how about we undertake to learn what it is that makes the Finnish education system so successful?  In a nutshell, Finland has identified what its children need in their own cultural context and modelled their educational system to achieve these goals.

Finland has defied all demands by international educational facilities for it to change and rejected expectations to fit the homogenous design of their systems.

This is the standout feature of the Finnish education system. In the face of an onslaught that demanded data, data, data and ignored the individuality of the child, Finland held firm their core cultural beliefs that defined their spirit as a nation.

“The Finnish basic education system has been based on the philosophy of inclusion for a long time. Basic education is the same for all…”

“The key words in Finnish education policy are quality, efficiency, equity and internationalisation. The basic right to education and culture is recorded in the Constitution…”

From http://www.oph.fi/english

A similar cursory search in Australia tells us a lot about how our Australian spirit is absent from our education system. The Department of Education and Training describes itself as:

“…responsible for national policies and programs that help Australians access quality and affordable early child care and childhood education, school education, higher education, vocational education and training, international education and research.”

Where is the language that defines our people and our feelings about learning and education?

The cold and systemic language of our curriculum does not capture the richness of how First Nations people spoke, farmed, and viewed this land and created systems of learning.  It doesn’t reflect the journey of Europeans learning how to adapt and thrive in this land of fires, cyclones and snakes.  Nor represent the courage of people from new cultures who have followed to create this incredible diverse and inherently joyous and irreverent nation.

When we ask ourselves why our children are disengaged with their learning, we should instead ask “What is in our curriculum that reflects our culture of courage, tenacity, rebellion and irreverence”.

When despairing over our inability to attract or retain dynamic thinkers to teaching, perhaps the place to start is with the creation of an education system that actually allows thinkers to challenge and problem solve. Because that is what Australians do, we are a nation of innovators, adaptors and dreamers.

Why do we now look at our wriggly Preppies who can’t sit in a seat and see it as a problem? They can’t concentrate on reading yet, because the sun, the creek, the birds and the trees are the first things they need to learn about, because they know,  Australia isn’t tame.  The landscape calls to all of us, roaring rebelliously to get outside the classroom door.  Let them heed that call.  Our greatest writers are those that share our stories of adventures from our land and our people.  Our thinkers, makers, artists and scientists are mesmerised by this diverse and intense land and it makes for diverse and intense peoples with diverse and intense learning needs.

My challenge to us all, is to demand this conversation from our Australian Government. Our current system is NOT working, so let’s start exploring how to make an Australian Education System that will make our nation shine with its own powerful spirit.  Step up Simon Birmingham and leave a legacy of growth and vision!