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Trawling through some forgotten corners of edu-Twitter last week, I was pointed toward an entertaining episode of ‘Today’ from 1972, in which presenter Bill Grundy and Dr Rhodes Boyson discuss his criticism of the (1960s-70s) British educational system, including some punchy counter-debate from Albert Rowe and a specially invited audience of teachers and students. The episode (below) is worth a look, if only for the spectacular sideburns.

However, this article is not about the British educational system from half a century ago, nor an attempt to engage in the fairly tedious – and apparently never-ending – topic of new-fangled teaching techniques, declining National Standards and the perpetual state of crisis that some would have us believe education is in.

No, dear reader, this article is about zombies.

I’ve been inspired by Bryan Goodwin’s excellent educational leadership article on ‘Zombie Ideas in Education’:

“Some bad ideas never seem to die, despite research showing they don’t actually work. It can be hard to spot them at first. Those dispelled education theories that research shot down long ago. They creep up in studies, shuffling around mumbling in the reference lists, or moan loudly in blog posts.”

Rather than rehash Goodwin’s content – it can be found here – I’ve decided to write about zombies through the lens of dichotomies in education; those polar opposites in schooling that – if episodes from Today in the 70s are anything to go by – have been around for at least the last five decades, and probably much longer.

To define, a dichotomy is a contrast between two things that are held to be entirely in opposition: the classic ‘this or that, but never both’. Dichotomies can prompt us to consider the extreme ends of an argument or point of view, and to illustrate errors in our thinking at a basic level. However, they become problematic when we construct false dichotomies to represent really complex issues as apparently very simple ones, and especially when we use them to guide our thinking around such a nuanced, contextual and changeable undertaking as educating young people.

Some dichotomies simply refuse to die, and lurch around the public narrative around schooling with alarming persistence; they are indeed zombies!

I have worked in academic leadership in schools for a while now, and have lost count of the times issues have been presented to me as either ‘academic’ or ‘pastoral’ – as if there was any chance of anything ever being purely one or the other – and this is probably my least-favourite false dichotomy of all. We apparently love a good dichotomy in the education community, and there are scores of others. How many of us as students considered ourselves ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’, for example – or ‘hands-on’ versus ‘bookish’? How many teachers are either traditional or progressive, or strict/kind, or ‘teachers of students/teachers of subjects’? How many learning programs are touted as being student led/teacher led, theory versus practical, rote learning versus discovery? False dichotomies all, but alarmingly popular and pervasive.

On Today 1972-style, Dr Boyson and Albert Rowe did a fairly good job of acknowledging the difficulty in reducing the complexity of a school’s chosen approach to educating children as either ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’; it’s interesting how keen their audience members were to draw a hard line between the two, and I think that even now there are many who might prefer to think along these lines as well.

To use a current example, many of us are following the current debate in the Australian Curriculum review about whether education should be about fundamentals or problem solving – as though these are mutually exclusive – and this is a variation on the undead ‘knowledge versus skills’ dichotomy which has been bouncing around for decades. I don’t mean to understate the concerns articulated about the proposed ACARA changes – the concerns are real and valid – but it is not useful to demand allegiance to one side of an imaginary divide; it is of course possible to favour a curriculum that contains a rigorous knowledge sequence as well as opportunity for inquiry and problem-solving; the challenge is one of curriculum and assessment design rather than a question of doctrine.

Similarly it might be interesting to compare Australian Mathematics classrooms to their Singaporean counterparts – apparently it is easy to attribute Singapore’s exceptional international (PISA) performance in this subject to ‘problem-solving’ rather than, say, their students just knowing considerably more Maths – but less useful to just emulate individual aspects of a different curriculum system assuming they will work for us too. This is the true ‘zombie’ nature of a false dichotomy; not that they are long-dead edu-theories that simply refuse to die; rather the damage that they continue to be capable of, the lack of sophistication or nuance in a zombie herd, the single-minded conviction that there is only one correct approach that stands at odds with all others.

Never too shy to wade into areas of complexity, St John’s Grammar is engaging with these tough questions this year.

This work of our High-Impact Teaching team is so important because it asks key questions about what really works at our school: what approaches actually result in maximum progress, in happy and productive classrooms with excellent learning going on. This, also, is why the input of the whole school staff is critical to help us ask authentic questions that every teacher should ponder: ideology aside, what actually works with this subject, this school and with these students? How will we know? What does ‘high impact’ actually look like, and how will we develop ourselves further to achieve it? This is the difference between schools adopting a top-down manifesto, philosophy or framework of education, versus the bottom-up work of reaching into effective classrooms, successful teaching and empowered students to really describe where success is born.

Through this lens we can, and should, really interrogate where students’ love for a subject might be nurtured, how we can effectively track their progress, where we can be flexible and responsive to individual student need, and if we are helping students close the gap or maybe perpetuating disadvantage through our chosen approach.

These are not easy questions to answer and it does not help to be staggering blindly toward an imagined single vision of schooling that best suits our philosophy.

Zombie dichotomies are not just philosophical and need to be challenged; they can have a real impact on our ability to care for our students well and allow teachers to teach with a range of effective approaches, and this should be the key focus of every school, every teacher, and the daily experience of each individual student.

Nick Raimondo
Leader of Learning & Curriculum

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