Everything Old Is New – Or Should Be – Again

The Anxious Generation

Dear Reader,

In his recent book, The Anxious Generation, the American psychologist Jonathan Haidt warns about the debilitating and destructive impact of mobile phones and the virtual world on children and adolescents.

Haidt argues, “By designing a slew of addictive content that entered through kids’ eyes and ears, and by displacing physical play and in-person socialising, these companies have rewired childhood and changed human development on an almost unimaginable scale.”

Haidt recommends drastic action. Parents are told, if their child is to have a phone before they turn 14, it must be a basic model without internet access.

While academically stronger performing countries promote teachers as authority figures and learning models that embrace memorisation and rote learning, in Australia, 93.7 per cent of students report using computers at school, and there is a large dependency on third party online material. It is commonplace for even prep classes to have iPads for students – so the expectation and normalising of regular access to digital material is embedded very early.

Haidt makes a compelling case that the loss of the play-based childhood, along with helicopter parenting, deprives our children of the very experiences they need to develop into confident self-governing adults, and that the digitally based childhood is a great source of mental distress among teenagers.

Research undertaken by the American-based Pew Research Centre shows 72 per cent of teenagers check their phones when they first wake up and 56 per cent feel anxious and lonely if their mobile is not within reach. I suspect many of us adults feel a similar level of uneasiness when our own phone is not nearby.

While schools continue to demand one-to-one technology and bring-your-own devices to class, claiming it results in increased engagement and participation, the downsides of a digital umbilical cord are now, finally, being identified.

Who is in Charge?

School principals are experiencing worsening levels of physical violence, threats and bullying, according to a long-running national survey measuring wellbeing among school leaders. Forty-eight per cent of the 2,300 principals who took part in the Australian Catholic University's (ACU) annual principal safety survey, reported experiencing or witnessing physical violence, and about 54 per cent were threatened with violence.

And the most recent OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked our classrooms 71st out of 80 for classroom discipline.

What is empowering our students to feel so entitled and unrestrained?

Amongst several potential culprits, one significant area that warrants attention is the ‘student-centric’ teaching practices, long understood to be detrimental, but which persist in many of our schools.

The Australian education system has long been dominated by a ‘student-led’ educational philosophy, where the teacher is seen not as the authority figure and responsible adult, but as a guide or partner in a child’s education. Discipline in such environments is viewed more as a counselling session, and when a student misbehaves the underlying message is that the teacher, not the student, has somehow failed.

There are limitations in comparing schools in other countries with those in Australia, but in Singapore for example – placed first in the PISA results – teachers are held in high regard and students are taught and expected to demonstrate respect. Disciplinary consequences such as detention, suspension and corrective community service are mainstream. In the UK, at the Michaela Community School – referred to as the ‘strictest school in the UK’ – despite its students being amongst the least privileged in the country, more than half (54 per cent) of its students achieved the equivalent of the old-style ‘A’ in at least five subjects, which was more than twice the national average. The connection between the learning environment and academic attainment is surely no coincidence.

Back home, however, laws introduced into the Queensland parliament last month proposed an overhaul of the disciplinary system in schools – giving parents the right to appeal consecutive short disciplinary measures. Matilda Alexander, chief executive of Queensland Advocacy for Inclusion, said “Every child has a right to learn. Let’s keep our kids in schools”. And of course, the predictable cry for more funding follows. 

Totalitarian rule is not what I am suggesting, but how does further undermining a school’s authority respect the right of all students to an appropriate learning environment?

No other workplace would accept its employees being regularly exposed to the shocking conditions our teachers and principals currently endure. The connection between a disproven student-centric ideology, appalling classroom and workplace environments, and dismal academic performance can no longer be ignored.

Class Action out and about

Is maths racist? What is maths and who gets to decide what and how it is taught?

Professor Rowena Ball leads a research and teaching initiative called Mathematics Without Borders at the ANU, aimed at “broadening and diversifying the cultural base and content of mathematics. Mathematics has been gatekept by the West and defined to exclude entire cultures…” she claims.

This attempt to inject political activism and race-based content into the subject of mathematics fundamentally misrepresents the subject and its principles. 

You can see me talking on Sky News with Rita Panahi about this below: 

Click here to watch

As always, I finish with a quote. This one, attributed to Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) struck me as timely.

If I were again beginning my studies, I would follow the advice of Plato and start with mathematics.
— Galileo Galilei


Colleen Harkin

National Manager, Class Action Program and Research Fellow