The Trojan Horse

“Never let a good crisis go to waste” is an admonition which is frequently, and perhaps incorrectly, attributed to Winston Churchill. Whoever originally said (or wrote) it has found a very willing audience among the ranks of progressivist “educators”. As a matter of fact, given the barely-disguised glee with which they have been banging their respective drums in recent weeks, a cynic might be tempted to conclude that they are relishing the opportunities provided by this grim, unprecedented period in modern human history.

We have had the predictable calls to scrap the ATAR as a means of determining entry to Australian universities; not just for 2020, but for good. We have had the wide-eyed encouragement to step up the implementation of “online learning”, as if its obligatory implementation so far has been anything other than a stressful muddle. And now, the icing has been put on the cake by one of the high priests of the progressivists, the egregious Professor Yong Zhao (you remember, the “literacy is less important now because of text-to-audio translators” man).

I suppose you have to give Professor Zhao full marks for chutzpah. To transmute a period of immense frustration, uncertainty and anxiety for students into “an opportunity for reimagining education” takes, well, a certain impish self-confidence.

So what exactly is the good Professor suggesting? Naturally, it’s the usual impenetrable forest of abstract nouns:

…global interdependence…interconnectedness…competencies…authentic learning experiences…

These things are apparently needed now more than ever, apparently, because of, you know, “xenophobia, racism, nationalism” and all the other Bad Things.

All of this is, of course, boilerplate. But what I find much more interesting and revealing are Prof. Zhao’s justifications for “reimagining education”.

First, Covid19 has forced the cancellation of many high stakes examinations students have been subject to, at least temporarily removing the pressure to teach to the test.

Note one thing in particular here: the huge elision between teaching a subject for which there exists an external examination and “teaching to the test”, as if all that teachers did (even prior to matriculation year) was drill students in the types of questions used in an external examination.

This outlook dovetails closely with the “test-taking-as-a-skill” delusion, about which I will probably have more to say in the future.

Third, governments and accrediting bodies cannot reasonably expect schools to comply with their prescribed curriculum during the crisis.

Again, a staggering elision. Are schools now exempted from doing their best to continue teaching five-year-olds to read? Governments can, and have every right to, expect that schools will do their utmost to deliver the prescribed curriculum. This would be expected by parents and the community at large, and is actually far easier on teachers (not to mention students) than taking some ill-considered leap into the unknown.

Fourth, online education is not conducive to deliver (sic) high quality instruction of some traditionally valued subjects.

The fact that this is being adduced as a reason to make wholesale and permanent changes to the curriculum surely speaks for itself in its fatuity. I will spare you the dozens of obvious, and damning, analogies. And the fact that such a line of reasoning is being used by a professor of education is…breathtaking.

Sixth, during this crisis, parents and the public are more concerned about the physical safety as well as social and emotional wellbeing than academic content, so should educators.

Never mind the elisions, the professor does a good line in false dichotomies as well. And there is, of course, an obvious objection here: which is the more likely to foster “emotional wellbeing” during this period – work with clear instructions which draws on existing knowledge and skills and/or builds on them incrementally, or ill-defined, open-ended tasks replete with the abstract nouns which Prof. Zhao is so keen on? I think most teachers and students (not to mention parents) would opt for the former.

In my view, the most important thing for anyone to keep in mind during this miserable period is: this is temporary. It may last for a considerable time, but eventually we will return to something approaching normal life…with all its comfort and familiarity. With this in mind, I think it is particularly important that educational bodies are particularly wary of making the sort of sweeping changes being demanded by those who are using Covid-19 as a Trojan horse. Even leaving aside the likely effects on teachers and students, these avid proposals for change currently appear to be based on little more than wishful thinking, airy futurism, and in many cases sly opportunism as well.

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