Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table. 3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.
It is easy to understand why people find the idea of inquiry learning so appealing. It’s a lovely notion that children can and will learn important concepts and knowledge simply by being given an opportunity to discover them for themselves.
This is allegedly the education of the future — a future in which children need only to learn how to find what they need at the time they need it.
But is it true that children learn best by inquiry? You would think so if you listened to Andreas Schleicher, the Director of the OECD Education Directorate, which runs the Program for International Assessment (PISA). Professor Schleicher was in Australia recently, giving interviews and speaking at events and forums. Disappointingly, he did not mention the pedagogical elephant in the room — that OECD reports show that inquiry learning is strongly negatively associated with PISA scores.
A deeper analysis of the PISA scores by McKinsey and Co found that the ideal balance is for almost all lessons to be teacher-directed with a small number of inquiry-based lessons. This fits well with the cognitive science-informed framework in which novice learners need more highly structured, explicit teaching, with a gradual shift to independent inquiry as they consolidate their knowledge and develop expertise.
The PISA data is supported by numerous other studies showing that explicit, teacher-directed instruction is more effective than inquiry learning.
Strangely, however, the more evidence stacks up against inquiry learning, the more it seems to take on a mythical status of being unassailably superior.
This week the long line of heavy weights endorsing inquiry learning included the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers, and a German maths professor who happily acknowledged that her version of inquiry learning is not based on cutting edge research but on a centuries-old theory that was refined in the 1920s and popularised in the 1960s.
Inquiry learning can be useful when administered in the right doses at the right time in the learning process. It is not a miracle cure for a new age.
The winds of change are beginning to blow in the Northern Territory, with the Northern Land Council announcing they are willing to explore devolving some of their decision-making powers to East Arnhem Land’s Baniyala Nimbarrki Land Authority Aboriginal Corporation (as allowed under the relevant Act). This devolution of power includes the ability to grant leases for economic development on Aboriginal land and is the latest in a series of decisions to grant communities greater control over the management and administration of their land.
There is widespread belief that the disadvantage experienced by remote Indigenous Australians is because they are unable to use their land as collateral for economic development and that leases will remedy the situation.
This was the same rationale given for the introduction of the original 99 year-township leases in 2006. However, despite the government’s rhetoric, the township leases have not increased communities’ economic independence. Rather, the coercive and top-down policy approach has increased government control over communities’ land-use decisions.
Instead of Aboriginal people holding leases to enable them to own their own home or business, the majority of leases and subleases have been granted to government entities or government departments for social housing and government-owned facilities.
In recognition of the failure of the 2006 changes to contribute to improved economic outcomes in Indigenous communities, two years ago the government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Gunyangara community in East Arnhem Land for a community township lease. This reform is designed to enable the community to hold the head lease and grant subleases. The hope is that by placing Aboriginal people in control, this form of leasing will lead to greater development opportunities.
While it’s too soon to say whether the new leasing arrangements will have the desired effect, moving away from a government-controlled, top-down model is a step in the right direction.
Zimbabwe goes to the polls next year with political in-fighting over who will succeed aging despot Robert Mugabe adding to the problems of an economy in freefall (again) and increasing hardship among ordinary people.
These factors are now combining to create a ‘perfect storm’ that could erupt as the country enters a dangerous period in its history — according to Zimbabwean senator David Coltart in an interview with Robert Forsyth in the Spring issue of Policy.
Coltart is the author of The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe, a detailed and at times harrowing account of the struggle to achieve democratic change in his beloved country. Reviewed by Forsyth in the preceding Winter issue, the book serves at the very least “as a warning of the terrible damage bad government can to do a country.”
To take just one telling statistic as a case in point: Mugabe turns 94 years old next year, yet he presides over a country where the average life expectancy is 55 years — one of the lowest in the world and lower than when he took power 37 years ago.
When he became leader at independence in 1980, he inherited the ‘jewel of Africa’ — a prosperous country with good infrastructure, abundant natural resources, a benign climate and fertile farmland. That jewel now lies in ruins, as has been well-documented elsewhere.
Mugabe never dismantled the instruments of repression and control put in place by the white regime he replaced. Instead he has ruled with an even greater iron fist, becoming a black Ian Smith in the process. A report in The Atlantic Monthly entitled ‘How to Kill a Country’ noted back in 2003:
Although Zimbabwe is as broken as any country on the planet, it offers a testament not to some inherent African inability to govern but to a minority rule as oppressive and inconsiderate of the welfare of citizens as its ignominious white predecessor.
Or as Coltart notes in his book: “Rhodes begat Smith and Smith begat Mugabe.”