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What can schools do? Knowledge, social identities and the changing world (part 2)

Lyn Yates

In the first part of this article, featured last week, Lyn Yates outlined a range of issues surrounding the school curriculum. This week in the second and concluding part of her article, she draws on her involvement in three major projects funded by the Australian Research Council to look at how these issues play out at the local level for schools and students.

The Effects Project

In the Effects Project, Debra Hayes, Shirley Alexander and I worked with the New South Wales Department of Education and Training to study what was actually happening in state schools that had reputations for doing good things with computers. We found:

  • A really enormous gap between rhetoric and reality. The selected schools were known to have good teachers and practices, but what we most often observed were malfunctions of the equipment, teacher frustrations, lack of resources, lack of training, teachers trying to scrabble around in their own time learning to use the equipment, and very little that looked at all like transforming learning.
  • Too much emphasis on hardware, too little on professional space to work well with it.
  • Lack of adequate attention to inequalities. Children with good equipment and knowledgeable parents were very clearly advantaged, and gender stereotyped activities that schools had spent a lot of time getting away from in the 1980s were flourishing because of a heavy emphasis on letting students choose their own activities.
  • Schools overall were struggling with what to emphasise and how to be systematic with such a major change.
  • However, in some cases the very challenges were used by principals and teachers to re-energise their focus on how their school was working and their students learning.

To some extent the first response of many education systems and individual schools to ICT has been to focus on impression management, eg through shiny new equipment and creating school websites. It is only now that they are coming to grips with the new principles needed to apply the new technology successfully. Schools and teachers need input from curriculum developers and experts, but they also need, and tend not to get, more space to work on these things for themselves.

The 12 to 18 Project

This project, carried out by Julie McLeod and myself, was a qualitative longitudinal study of young people and secondary schooling. Involving frequent visits to four schools, and over 350 interviews, the study let us do something that the big statistical reports and databases don’t: to look at what happens to particular young people with particular backgrounds in particular schools.

Twice a year, for slightly more than seven years, we conducted lengthy interviews with young people of different backgrounds and at four different types of secondary school. It is notoriously difficult to separate family influence from school influence, but by close-up attention to young people from different backgrounds at a particular school, we could look at whether there was some coming together of values and aspirations over the high school years. And by looking at people from similar backgrounds in different schools, we could look at whether different types of schools were producing different possibilities for them.

The issue of gender seemed like an old-hat issue to the students in our study, although that does not mean that there were no gender issues affecting them. The girls and the boys expected that both men and women would be in paid work for most of their lives. They said that there is now equal opportunity and they weren’t interested in special provision for boys or for girls. However, the things we were finding here, both about how they thought, and about what happened to different groups, are highly relevant to questions that major inquiries like the ‘boys inquiry’ and ‘career education inquiries’ try to take up.

The group in our study who most wanted life to be like it was in the past were some boys of disadvantaged background in a provincial town. Their school was doing a lot to provide them with work opportunities and dual accreditation subjects, but they basically just wanted to get out of school as soon as possible, to be somewhere like a factory or a worksite where they were treated as men rather than as students. The sad thing was that when we visited them at 18, they were unemployed. The factory jobs were going out of existence. And they were being put off apprenticeships as work dried up. They had little to draw on to get other sorts of jobs. So if we are trying to do something about boys from disadvantaged backgrounds and their futures, we have to take account of the fact that they are itching to get out of places that feel like school, as well as of the fact that just giving them what they say they want is likely to set them up poorly for the way work is going in the future.

The rich private school in our study prided itself on valuing diversity. But what we heard from students was that the diversity it valued was not social differences, but diversity in ways of becoming a higher achiever. Over time, two of the students we followed felt ground-down by the elitism and conformity of the environment, and dropped out and changed schools. This isn’t something obvious from the database statistics about this school.

At the most disadvantaged school in our study, despite the best effort of the school and teachers to provide creative and useful curriculum experiences, including integrated curriculum, good use of new technologies, and dual accreditation opportunities, the school's achievements in database terms did not look good compared with the other schools in our study. The expectations of the students at this school, the history of the parents and their own unhappy experiences with school, and the community reputation of the school as one for losers, tended to overwhelm whatever the school did.

We found that all of the four schools did have some impact on the way the young people saw themselves and the social world. In one school the students valued diversity and would speak out about racism even when they left school, but were not highly on track with either courses or work in their first post-school year: they were still dwelling a lot on who they were and what they should be doing in life. In another school, with comparable intake, young people became highly instrumental over the course of school. At 18 they were on track in new courses and jobs and planning their next step, convinced that this was a dog-eat-dog world, and that where you got was the result of your own efforts.

These trajectories matter in relation to the things the OECD is talking about, but they are not things captured in the hard facts and figures databases about who gets what. They are by and large not the result of the formal curriculum, or even of what the school says in its brochures. They are the result of the school culture overall: of how the teachers act in small day to day interactions with students, of how the school is organised, of the history of the school culture and of those who go to it.

The Vocational Pedagogies Project

In this study with colleagues from the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS), we looked at how classrooms (in schools, TAFE, universities, community colleges, private training colleges) were going about producing the ‘new worker’, who is supposedly a flexible and lifelong learner, and able to communicate well and work well in teams.

The literature in this area tends to blur the issue of whether the skills being assessed can be taught through programs, or rest on social background or gendered accomplishments. There is a potential here for continuing to reward the advantages that different groups bring to the classroom, rather than opening these issues up in the teaching.

Teachers were having to juggle two old and conflicting ideas of what knowledge looks like. One is the Australian Qualifications Framework (AQF) idea that knowledge is a skill, it is what you can do – teachers had long booklets of skills to check off for each student. The other is the Year 12 examination idea that knowledge is something you display in writing and something that can be graded to sort out who has got more intelligence and who will do better at university. Neither of these ideas is much like the ideas of situated and process knowledge that a lot of the workplace literature is getting excited about.

The study let us see some of the things that don’t get sufficiently looked at in the policies that governments and industry groups are continually putting out: the fact that industry or economy needs, employer needs and student needs are not identical and may cut across each other. At entry level, as school teachers were very aware, the employers wanted someone who was competent and obedient. Working in teams meant knowing your place. This isn’t the way curriculum documents tend to talk about what they are aiming at in Year 12.

From an industry perspective, we found a demand for workers who are flexible, who can quickly learn and do new things – who might therefore have a different sense of the industry than that held by the employers they actually go to for work experience, who are more concerned with their immediate level of competence.

All of these things are just tasters of issues that are highly relevant to curriculum, and that need working on both conceptually and empirically.

Final comments

The curriculum field is both highly intellectual and a necessarily practical, political and pragmatic endeavour. Curriculum will be better if we try to draw into the conversation about it people who work in education faculties and other parts of the university, and whose brief is not just to deal with ‘what do I do on Monday?’ or ‘how do I respond to today’s political pressure?', although those questions do have to be dealt with too.

I’d like to see more complex, powerful and interdisciplinary engagements and research on the big questions. But I’d also like room for attention to the small and local as well as the big, and for creative enquiry as well as measurement research.

My own final bit of utopian hope for all of us – teachers, students, researchers – is to be given a bit more space to think and read and investigate and discuss these things; to allow us to consider the persons as well as the products; to consider where we are going as well as how well we are doing things; and to not be pressured, in every facet of our activities, to produce performance indicators for each minute of our day.


Copies of Professor Yates’ original lecture are available from the University of Melbourne’s media unit. Contact Katherine Smith (k.smith@unimelb.edu.au)



Subject Headings

VET (Vocational Education and Training)
Transitions in schooling
Information and Communications Technology (ICT)
Educational evaluation
Education research
Curriculum planning
Curriculum studies