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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
ISSN: 1448-0743
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Why the study of education matters

Lyn Yates

This article is an edited version of Professor Yates’ Occasional Address, Education Graduation Ceremony, University of Melbourne, March 2006.

Education is a field that is often underestimated. It is underestimated partly because it’s too familiar. We’ve all been to school. We think we know what teachers are. But that doesn’t mean we necessarily appreciate what their work involves.

Education is also underestimated because we expect impossible things of it then blame it for not measuring up. If you took seriously all the criticisms made of schools you would expect that, if only they did things right, no adult would live in poverty; students and teachers would be on task 24/7; there would be no bad drivers, no drunk drivers, no crime, no sexism or racism or discrimination of any kind; everyone would eat healthy diets and be active and slim; schools would produce just the right mix of young people to fill the shortages in all the skilled and unskilled trades; and, at the same time, every school would be better than every other school and every student would complete year 12 and get an ENTER score over 99 so they could all go on to do medical degrees at the University of Melbourne. It’s a tall order.

Education is underestimated because we fail to appreciate the complexity and difficulty of the challenges associated with a changing world. Today’s classroom is likely to contain children from diverse language, cultural and religious backgrounds and types of families; children who have grown up with television and the internet; children who will have to go out and work in jobs that didn’t even exist when our main employment was in farms or factories or, if you were a woman, in the home; children who will have to learn to communicate at a distance and not just in person, to manipulate new technologies, to go on learning new things and to learn to get on with other people in a different kind of global world.

Adapting education to a changing world

In the late 20th century, it had become fashionable for governments to look for ways to spend less money on education and to think that most of what teachers needed to learn they could pick up by being in schools. But the tide has now dramatically turned. The call now is for education to draw on better research in order to do things differently and more effectively, and not just to go on always copying the past or even the present.

This isn't about looking for endless novelty or saying that we have to get rid of everything that has been done well in the past. But there are new challenges now: both about how to do things better and about what we need to be teaching to develop new thinkers, and good citizens, and the type of lifelong learning needed in the future.

It is not just schools and vocational trainers that are facing these questions. The University of Melbourne has set up its own Curriculum Commission and is planning some major changes to all its programs over the next few years, as it takes up these real challenges about what undergraduates in the 21st century need to be doing and learning.

In the Education Faculty we’ve already begun our own re-assessment. This year we have undergone a major restructure to give more prominence to the research we are doing, to enhance its international impact and the contribution it can make to policy, practice and professional training. We have been fortunate to appoint Professor Barry McGaw as Director of our Research Institute. Barry has just returned to Australia from a decade as Director of Education at the OECD.

Tracking the complex outcomes of schooling

One of the international studies Barry directed at OECD was the international mapping of student achievement in different countries known as PISA. Australia actually comes up very well in terms of our overall student achievement. What it comes up poorly on is its achievement range: compared with other countries, there is more spread in achievement in this country – more likelihood that children from poorer backgrounds will achieve much less than those of richer backgrounds. This is one of the many problems that researchers in the Melbourne University Education Faculty, including myself, are working on.

In one of my own projects, with Julie McLeod, we followed young people in four Victorian schools, through every year from the age of 12 to the age of 18, to see how they formed their views about themselves and their futures today: what sense of themselves does this generation, girls and boys, rich and poor, bring to school? How does this get re-worked as they go through different kinds of secondary schools? What have they achieved by age 18 and what tracks have they been set on by that point?

In the 12 to 18 Project, it wasn’t a surprise that most of the young people at the elite private school in the study ended up coming to this university, while none of the young people at the other three high schools did. This type of pattern is one this university is grappling with in its own restructure: how to build excellence without having that distorted by social advantage?

What was more unexpected in our own longitudinal study was that two different high schools with somewhat similar intakes had an evident effect on the type of people their students became by the end of school. At one school, by 18, the typical graduate was in a vocationally-oriented tertiary course (engineering, nursing, medical studies) and planning their next steps. At another school, with a similar demographic intake, the typical first-year-out student was dropping out of their university course and still trying to work out who they were and where they were going. Students from the two schools had also developed some distinctly different social values about racism, sexism and unemployment.

So we need to remember that what people get out of education is complex; it goes well beyond that final ENTER score and often has long-lasting effects on individuals as well as social patterns.

The ongoing value of education research

Six years ago, the Australian Government commissioned its own review of the impact of education research in this country. One of its rather unexpected findings was hard evidence that Australian education research is extremely highly regarded and used internationally. Barry McGaw's appointment to the OECD is one example of that. Another finding of that report is that a very large amount of education research in this country is produced by postgraduate students.

In Science and Arts, the typical graduate student is in their early 20s and proceeds directly from their first studies. In Education, our research students come from all over the world as well as Australia; they are normally older and they are often already leading members of their profession when they return to study. They are people whose study and research directly influences and has impact on their profession.

It is important that Education graduates do go on studying and researching their field. Being involved in education is like being involved in a continuing conversation, and education research is one important means we use to go on being able to speak and act intelligently in a very changing world.


Subject Headings

Teacher training
Educational studies
Educational planning
Educational evaluation
Education research