The big schooling issues for the roaring 20s: Professor John Fischetti - Education Matters Magazine The big schooling issues for the roaring 20s
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The big schooling issues for the roaring 20s: Professor John Fischetti

The new ‘roaring 20s’ are here – the 2020s that is. Professor John Fischetti from the University of Newcastle talks about some of the big issues facing schooling this year – and this decade – in Australian schools.

This article was produced for Education Matters earlier this year before the COVID-19 lockdown.

Working through the dual tragedies of the ongoing bushfires and catastrophic drought have to take precedence over anything else in our whole education sector. And the coronavirus outbreak has made us conscious about how interconnected and vulnerable the world truly is. Here, we look at the next layer of issues affecting schools and education.

Student and staff wellbeing

Ten years ago, we may not have envisioned that the number one issue facing our education sector would be the wellbeing of our young people and the adults who teach and lead schools. However, in 2020 the over-reliance on high stakes assessments, the addiction many have to overusing social media, the trauma and stigmas many young people face and the reality of a challenging economy for working families have all put pressure on students and educators personally – as well as on the educational system to ‘fix it’. These burdens are putting schools under pressure like never before to manage learner and staff wellbeing. Great examples of interventions and new support systems are popping up all over Australia. Wellbeing is the priority educational issue for the 20s.

Old school and new school approaches

Just as our society is transitioning to a new set of norms for an increasingly interconnected world, schools are negotiating the transition from ‘old school’ to ‘new school’. We are moving away from schools focussed mostly on teacher-centred pedagogies, learner compliance, rules-based, sameness, equality and summative assessment for sorting. ‘New school’ approaches, geared toward success for all, evolve the functions and processes of schooling toward learner-focused, passion-based, personalised, fairness and equity-centred mindsets, with assessment ‘for’ and ‘as’ rather than ‘of’ learning. We must rethink how to eliminate sustained learning gaps with our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, focus on adapting and modifying approaches to serve students with individual learning needs and recognise the role of schools in facilitating social change processes. Should school designs be organised to keep things the same or to aid in our societal transformation?

We are moving from literacy and numeracy as ‘the’ core content to seeing them as critical parts of a larger set of core skills including adaptive reasoning, critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, open-mindedness, wellbeing, Indigenous knowledges, cultural competence, global awareness, ethics, digital literacy and more.

Unfortunately, few of these skills are assessed by governments on standardised tests.

Breadth versus depth

A major challenge of the movement toward ‘new’ school approaches is how much of the curriculum can be ‘covered’ when teachers use more engaging pedagogies and authentic assessments. Clearly, not as much. This tension between covering subjects with depth versus ‘getting through’ the curriculum has left some schools leery to deviate from a prescribed syllabus.

We know that most of what we teach is forgotten not long after we teach it because of the way our brains remember stuff. How we navigate this trade-off will be a fundamental issue of the decade ahead.

The role of smart technologies in the classroom

The average Australian over the age of 12 and under the age of 60 is now online nine hours a day, three of which are on social media. Many primary school students have unfettered access to the Internet on their parents’ – or their own – devices. This extraordinary transformation of how we spend our time has accelerated over the past decade with the massification of the smartphone. Schools now face the tremendous challenge of managing both the learning potential and the threats from this access to ‘everything’.

Many states and territories have banned the use of smart technologies in school. The risk of the vile and corrupt dark side of the internet, the use of tools for harm to others, and the stress and disruption they can cause means that ministers are faced with tough decisions around public safety and wellbeing versus educational benefits. The risks are clear. However, we must find a common ground of decency and educational potential to selectively weave the power of these tools into the learning space. The opportunities for collaboration, creativity, global connectivity, and knowledge exchange/creation are too great to lose through wholesale technology bans. Working with our best experts, we need to chart a path this decade to rational, safe use of smart tools. It is the full educational potential of these tools that must be exploited, not our kids.

The imminent teacher shortage

The prevailing assumption over the past decade has been that thousands of would-be teachers have been chasing very few available positions. The reality of the ‘20s is that there will be a profound teacher shortage across Australia, in all sectors and regions from early childhood through to primary and secondary. That shortage incudes school leaders. The need for high-quality teachers and principals will impact all of the issues presented above and jeopardises opportunities for real transformation of teaching and learning. The shortage is caused by a general disrespect for the profession leading to many top candidates shying away from teaching. There is also a lack of incentives for teachers to enter in STEM subjects. And there is an overregulation of the accreditation process created by bolted on ‘hoops’ making the process of becoming a teacher far more complex than necessary. The solution is not in quick-fix programs that create a mercenary-like teacher population that leads to high attrition and a churn of adults through the lives of young people.

While these five trends are not the only big issues facing education in Australia, as we start the decade, they will certainly impact our ability to reach our goals of success for all of our children, and for increased equity and long-term prosperity for our society.