A history lesson for Kevin Donnelly

Gillard’s record as education minister, under Kevin Rudd’s leadership, is one of failure, waste and mismanagement…

Under her control, billions have been wasted on the Building the Education Revolution program that forced off-the-shelf, centrally mandated infrastructure on schools with little, if any, educational benefit.

The much-heralded computers in schools program, notwithstanding the cost, has delivered thousands and thousands of now out-of-date computers that schools can ill-afford to maintain or update.

Kevin Donnelly,   The Australian, 2 April 2013

Term 1 is over. As I relax into my two week ‘holiday’ I am getting on top of those tasks that were pushed to the bottom of my to-do list during term: report-writing, marking, planning. The marking primarily consists of year 7 history assignments on Ancient Egypt. For this, students learnt to form inquiry questions, conduct research and develop their understanding of history through concepts such as evidence, change, continuity and significance.

The students are being marked in line with the new Australian Curriculum. It states that at Level 7 students are to be able to “Locate, compare, select and use information from a range of sources as evidence”. While some students are treading a fine line between plagiarising and quoting, others have shown themselves to be more adept at this skill already at this early stage in the year. As 2013 progresses, it is clear that as a class we will need to go through this distinction though and also delve into the question of why it is important to use evidence in backing up claims.

It is fortunate that the majority of my students did not follow Kevin Donnelly’s example from his recent article in The Australian, for they included a reference list.

In his article, Donnelly – who touts himself as “one of Australia [sic] leading education commentators” – is quick to criticise and lay blame on the Federal Government’s past mistakes in education. He is particularly scathing of Prime Minister Gillard.

This criticism could perhaps be accepted if sufficient evidence were provided. Instead, Donnelly’s use of words twists the article from insightful political commentary to a piece that is obscenely emotive and one-sided. In addition to the quote at the start of this post, and to further highlight this, phrases adopted by Donnelly include:

  • “an increasingly sceptical and disillusioned public is no longer listening”
  • “the fetish for limiting education to what can be measured… are stifling innovation and change” (my italics)
  • “The Gillard-inspired national curriculum… is awash with progressive fads.”

If this were a Year 7 history assignment, not only would I have to mark him down for lack of evidence, but Donnelly would also score poorly on “Draw[ing] conclusions about the usefulness of sources” (Level 7, Historical Skills). From where has he drawn his conclusions?

Indeed, Donnelly’s sloppiness and cherry-picking of ideas has been noted elsewhere by another educator.

It is a pity that prominent input into the current education debate in Australia occurs at this level. If education is to be a key focus of the upcoming federal election, we can only hope that contributions to this debate are more carefully formed, with the aim of furthering rather than watering-down meaningful discussion.