Actual learning must take precedence over self-centred programs

David Penberthy, Sunday Herald Sun, 12 March 2017

MY KIDS were laughing the other night about that hapless couple who got booted off My Kitchen Rules after devising a Japanese-Italian menu that sought to combine pasta and pizza with sushi and sashimi.

I joked that perhaps they had been inspired by World War II and should have a themed Axis Powers restaurant serving raw tuna with pesto on a bed of sauerkraut. The kids, aged 10 and 14, looked at me blankly and a brief chat established that they had no idea what I was on about. That is because in Australia these days it is possible to be in year 6, or year 9, without having learnt about the three of the chief protagonists of the defining conflict of the 20th century.

Our schools have changed a lot in one generation. Effective rote-learning teaching methods have been wound back. The discipline of a morning spelling bee, the start of all my primary school days, seems to have vanished. Traditional sciences have made way for environmental studies, health and nutrition has become a subject, possibly to make up for poor parenting, and concepts such as wellness and emotional intelligence have equal billing with what were once regarded as the nuts and bolts of the curriculum.

Victoria is something of a Petri dish for the trendiest thinking in education, 2017-style, as illustrated by its Resilience, Rights and Respectful Relationships program. The Victorian Government is championing the program in part as a political response to the attacks on the Safe Schools program. Much of the discussion has centred on its sexual and gender-based content. There is a fair bit of that in it, for sure. Some of it is so PC as to invite derision, such as the book for kids entitled Tango Makes Three, which targets heteronormative bigotry (among five-year-olds) by telling them the story of two gay male penguins who decide to adopt a penguin chick. The stuff for the teenagers is racier but I don’t know why you need group discussions among teenage boys about masturbating. I’m sure they will have worked that out on their own. The program’s objectives are defined on the website: “Efforts to promote social and emotional skills and positive gender norms in children and young people have been shown to improve health-related outcomes and subjective wellbeing. It also reduces anti-social behaviours including engagement in gender-related violence.” Reading through the modules, the program in essence is about teaching young people self-esteem and shielding them from prejudice. That’s noble but it strikes me as an alternative to the one thing that schools should provide. Learning. Historically, self-esteem was something you developed by learning meaningful skills, ideally in a safe environment. It didn’t matter if it was history, maths or English, technical skills such as woodwork and metalwork or home economics, proficiency at sport … all those helped you develop a sense of purpose and self.

Much of the focus of Victoria’s resilience program strikes me as a kind of Oprah Winfrey show for teens and tots, where everyone talks about how they feel, without actually learning anything. It is feel-good stuff that has been plonked in the curriculum at the expense of acquiring knowledge. Its focus on gender identity and sexuality strikes me almost as a cult of the self, where very young people, many of whom may never have had a sexually driven or gender-based thought, are encouraged to spend time thinking about themselves in the context of their gender and sexual identity.

The year-by-year benchmarks for the “outcomes” of this program are illustrative. The key moments of World War II aren’t mentioned, but by year 5 kids should have learnt about gender identity and whether gender is “born or made”, the difference between same-sex-attracted, heterosexual and transgender and the power divisions between men and women, including unequal pay. That’s not me paraphrasing. It is the stated aim of the modules for students in years 5 and 6.

I would not be dismissive of the need to challenge and eliminate prejudice towards gay youths or kids dealing with gender issues. But there is a big leap from teaching respect and tackling discrimination to subsuming actual learning for this self-centred stuff. Anyone who disputes that should reflect on the recent NAPLAN results, which showed a continuing slide across the nation in literacy and numeracy. Perhaps the vibe of the times is that those things matter less, as long as everyone feels good about themselves.

David Penberthy is a Sunday Herald Sun columnist


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