Gradgrind versus the flower children

August 5, 2006

Interesting skewering of feel-good ‘edubable’ associated with outcomes based education by Kevin Donnelly in the Weekend Australian.,20867,20019599-13881,00.html

Donnelly has a strong case. Much of the language of US academic William Spady, at least as it is reported by Donnelly, does grate. Its rapturous echoes of the Age of Aquarius tend to run counter to a more phlegmatic Australian sensibility. Other points made by Donnelly also strike a chord with me. Certainly, as an English teacher I- like Donnelly – believe in tradition and continuity. It is my firm belief that students should learn to value the best that has been thought and said. (It’s at the point of how we are to understand the best way for students to learn to do this that I take issue with Donnelly.) Students in my classes this year have studied, amongst others, Socrates, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Orwell, and Huxley.

Donnelly’s critique of Spady’s language and outcomes based educational philosophy (OBE in the shorthand of The Australian) inevitably focuses attention on the alternatives he puts forward. And the critical examination of these is my theme today.

The issue I want to explore is whether Donnelly’s ideas can withstand the same sort of scrutiny he gives Spady’s. Reversing the ‘framing’ of Donnelly’s piece – namely that Spady’s language indicates how far his ideas are from common sense- I will apply Donnelly’s approach to his own  writing and thinking, with the intention of asking just how close to ‘common sense’ is Donnelly’s educational philosophy?

Donnelly states his opposition to Spady’s ‘transformational’ approach to student learning. What exactly then is Donnelly’s curriculum about: stasis, or even regression? Given his stated view that it is necessary for some students to be labelled ‘failures’, this suggestion does not appear to be so wide of the mark.

Donnelly advocates the rational and logical over the emotional, also criticising Spady’s idea of a ‘learning community’. This fails to give due regard to the importance to learning of psychic engagement on a number of different levels: teachers making students feel safe and secure – or comfortable with them as an authority figure, as well as the curriculum being offered – and the fostering of a sense of connection amongst students to both the ‘group’ (class, school etc.) and the curriculum content. Interestingly, most mainstream thinking on ‘intelligence’ and learning gives due regard to both the ‘heart’ and the ‘head’. For example, Gardiner’s idea of multiple intelligences delineates both interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences
and Bloom’s taxonomy specifies an ‘affective’ domain.

Donnelly makes much of Spady’s emphasis on a spiritual element in education. Yet, at a time when depression is a profound social problem, and too many young lives are lost to suicide, is Spady’s call for an increased focus on spirituality such a bad thing? We certainly do not need schools to be placing more emphasis on the importance of material acquisition, or encouraging the idea that what we own will necessarily bring us fulfilment. Australian sociologist John Carroll, a conservative thinker in the best sense, elegantly captured the fact that there is a malaise at the heart of our rationalistic and consumeristic culture when he wrote in The Western Dreaming that ‘the western world is dying for want of a good story’.

[It strikes me as odd that Donnelly does not acknowledge that his own emphasis on the power of great literature to help us to transcend our immediate material circumstances and connect to something ‘larger’ is not so far removed from Spady’s notion of students coming to understand their “intuitive connection to universal wisdom.” Sure, Spady’s language is ‘hippy trippy’, but the sentiment is much the same as Donnelly’s.]

Donnelly apparently favours a traditional, pre-1990s curriculum that emphasises rote learning above all else. Donnelly’s curriculum would have no mandated outcomes, meaning no definable results for teachers to work towards and no overarching curriculum standards and accountabilities for teachers. This late 19th century, Gradgrind-like view of schooling is hardly going to wash with the community given the demands of life and work in the 21st century. Donnelly’s anachronistic emphasis on a print based, individualistic and competitive curriculum runs counter to widely accepted thinking within business and government on what is required to equip students for the workplace of the modern knowledge economy. Such thinking emphasises skills in ICTs, self-management, team work, problem solving, critical thinking, flexible network building, flat management structures, initiative, goal setting and lateral thinking.

So, does Kevin Donnelly have a monopoly on ‘common sense’ in educational thinking? Hardly. The alternatives he puts up against the supposed extremes of OBE will do little to prepare students for life and work in the twenty first century. Nor will they foster social stability in Australia, in what are, on a global scale, divisive and troubled times.