Sometimes it’s hard to read a newspaper’s page one lead story and not find yourself morphing from cheerful, breakfast-ready, a-new-day-has-dawned human to a cartoon figure with gnashing teeth and wild eyes.

That’s how I felt when I read the weekend before last’s Weekend Australian page one with a splash titled: “Shift to ‘radical’ curriculum”. It reported apparent moves at the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) and it began “Australian students are set to be taught fashionable but contentious 21st century skills …”

It also raised the fact that an American educator, regarded as a key proponent of the 21st century skills movement, Charles Fadel, had been engaged by ACARA to work on a new maths curriculum that “explicitly addresses the learning needs of students for life and work in the 21st century”.

The last quote is from a story on Fadel’s website for his Center for Curriculum Redesign, and ACARA, announcing the joint project in late July, linked readers to the piece.

Critical thinking versus “general capabilities”

Dear God I thought on that Saturday. Why are our leading educators and so-called experts so seemingly impervious to the empirical evidence that clearly shows that none of the radical ideas that have infected our education system over the decades under different names – progressive education, constructivism, outcomes-based education, child-centred learning, and now 21st century skills – have done anything but contribute to declining literacy and numeracy rates? And a workforce that is causing problems for corporate Australia.

Yet The Australian had also reported that, at the McKell Institute in early September, Labor deputy leader and the party’s education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek was endorsing the push for greater focus in the curriculum on the teaching of the so-called “general capabilities”.

This in spite of other evidence that shows that such qualities as creative and critical thinking, problem-solving, ethical understanding, personal capabilities, resilience and the like – also called 21st century skills – evolve in us as we master subjects and knowledge, learn and question, and start fitting into society.

After the Weekend Australian’s piece on ACARA appeared, there was a bit of movement. By the Monday, the body’s CEO, Robert Randall, had issued a media release denying there was any review of the Australian Curriculum underway or any “shift” away from what has been agreed for Australian students to learn in school.

But that same announcement still included the background that yes, ACARA has “engaged Fadel’s Centre for Curriculum Redesign for expert advice and assistance as one of the actions under our program of research. Working together with experts from Australia and overseas, the participants of the project intend to produce a blueprint of a world-leading mathematics curriculum that any country could use to inform their own curriculum design”.

The backgrounding also included the information that “there is interest in how [general capabilities] might be given greater emphasis”.

Then came Dan Tehan

Then, thank goodness, the new federal minister for education, Dan Tehan, got involved. It was reported that he had sought a meeting with the heads of ACARA and that he had made it clear “he would not support moves to radically redesign the curriculum”. Tehan himself also wrote a carefully worded piece for this last Saturday’s Weekend Australian that still made it clear where the minister stood: “Parents don’t send their kids to school to be taught the latest fashionable trends in education. And parents would be concerned, rightly, if they thought schools were moving away from the essentials…”

Stand by for more.

After all, we’ve just had the news of the extra billions of federal funding for our schools. That’s on top of approximately $40 billion our state and territories governments, the major funders, put into school education each year. We should all be entitled to ask if those billions are being put to best use.

Former curriculum director of ACARA, Fiona Mueller, who resigned in late 2017 after two years, was brave enough to be quoted and photographed for the original Weekend Australian article.

Mueller, a teacher of English, history and foreign languages, is also a former Head of ANU College at the Australian National University and it was her work there, getting overseas students but also local students up to speed for their degree courses, that reinforced her concerns about the deficits in local schooling and the lack of equitable access to high quality learning.

The Melbourne Declaration

In an earlier piece for the e-journal “Online Opinion”, subtitled “An education that builds a nation”, Mueller and co-author Deirdre Clary asked: “how does the fixation on 21st century ‘competencies’ serve the Australian people and nation?”

They also drily pointed out that such skills “are not new to education or to Australian society. Children and families who lived through the Federation Drought, the Great Depression and international conflicts  found ways to survive and thrive”.

The article repeated the importance of an education system, as outlined in the 2008 Melbourne Declaration, that “will produce active and informed citizens who value Australia’s social, cultural and linguistic diversity, possess an understanding of Australian systems of government, history and culture …”

The duo critiqued the national curriculum, writing that the “documents lack succinct, overarching statements of national purpose and principles” and referred to “uninspiring but politically correct motherhood statements” and “template ideology”.

They also wrote that government strategy continued to be about looking overseas for the “next big thing” and defaulting here to the “same old group of experts”. This last could make a worthwhile starting point for an education reporter with the time and resources.

Mueller, as a language teacher – and let’s remember learning a language requires all the memorisation, drilling, discipline, practice and teacher-centred instruction that is now dubbed “elitist” and “last century” – has watched language studies decline to the point that only one in ten Year 12 students now take them. She stresses that all the things learning a language requires are things “our brains are wired to do very well”. She laments the fact that the subjects that require that kind of learning – physics, advanced maths, as well as languages – have suffered. “The hard subjects are now the electives.”

Now take a deep breath; for – unbelievably – we have had over 100 years of this kind of debate and decline. A “changing world” has invariably always been mentioned by the proselytisers of a different way of delivering education.

It started with John Dewey

It begins in the early 20th century when an American, John Dewey, started tackling the US education system. He argued that rather than teacher-down lessons, the child should be a “learner”, classes should be student-centred. One of his constant themes was that a school was a social institution and vital for creating social change and reform.

It was Dewey in 1902 who wrote – possibly having no idea what he was setting in train – that “Not knowledge or information but self-realisation is the goal”. And so, progressivism began to hit its stride.

By 1946, a teenaged Susan Sontag was suffering a mortifying encounter with writer Thomas Mann, an émigré to California from Nazi Germany, as Kevin Starr relates in his Californian chronicle The Dream Endures. When Mann, a product of the rigorous German gymnasium education system, asked her about her own studies at North Hollywood High School, she wondered later did he know that “Latin was gone, and Shakespeare too, and that for months of tenth grade English the visibly befuddled teacher handed out copies of the Reader’s Digest …”

In 1953, an American professor Albert Lynd released his book Quackery in the Public Schools which Kirkus Reviews at the time described as “a spirited and heated but at all times substantiated attack against ‘quackery’ – which is essentially progressivism – in our schools today…. Lynd has assembled some fairly indisputable evidence on the lowering of learning and literacy in schools where the ‘real needs’ curriculum has displaced the fundamentals …”

What was fuelling these “quackery” trends was a belief that in a globalising world, with changing technology, we were supposed to need a different kind of citizen, and therefore, that citizen needed to be educated – moulded – in a different way.

Let’s hear it for common sense

In his new book The Truth About Teaching, Melbourne teacher Greg Ashman quotes Life’s magazine’s exasperation with where all of this had landed the average American schoolchild: “A quarter century has been wasted with squabbling over whether to make a child well-adjusted or to teach him something.”

For a short period, Ashman recounts, as the Russians squared off against the United States in the space race, the US government intervened in the curriculum to bring it back to something resembling common sense. And then, as federal funding fizzled, “the intellectual and bureaucratic centres of American education largely returned to the pre-1957 consensus”.

Since then there have been plenty of other scares about declining literacy and numeracy, just like the one currently worrying parents, politicians and the public here. And yet the faddish ideas and trends have continued and prospered. And they continue today, just under new names.

What always astonishes me about the way parts of these ideas are expressed is that the speakers actually assume much of what they say is totally new. As if such concepts had never occurred to the proponents of what we would now call teacher-centred traditional education.

The value of teachers

Teachers, for instance, have always responded, and still do, to the different needs of their students (though I bet it was a lot easier to do that when I was a pupil than now, when teachers had nothing like the administrative and process burdens that they currently carry).

Teachers have always encouraged questioning of texts.

As I wrote back in 2006, about the Sisters of Mercy who took me through Othello and the Merchant of Venice, exploring its themes and sub-texts along the way, “If the nuns at a not particularly prominent convent school in Perth were content and broadminded enough to discuss such issues [racism, anti-semitism, the role of women] in 1968, I think we can be assured that the current crop of teachers did not invent this particular wheel.”

And when I say these faddish educational trends have prospered, I don’t mean the education system has prospered, nor our generations of students.

In one delicious post on the concept of 21st century skills, on the Washington Post website, a reader commented: “Because the problems of public education are so intractable and because virtually everyone is a stakeholder in the success of public education, there’s the endless quest for the magic sluice gate that will create the rising tide for all boats.

“Alas, there is no such thing. Learning takes hard work and individual dedication. That fact really hasn’t changed ever since Euclid told King Ptolemy of Egypt that ‘there is no royal road to geometry’.”

Another writer online, a Canadian educator Paul. W. Bennett, cautions: “Beware of the 21st century zealots. Frightened of a more globalised, competitive, fast-paced future, they want to retreat back into the womb of soft student-centred pedagogy, classroom info-tainment, and nurturing the self-esteem of students. The Internet [that is, the much used line that children don’t need to learn things anymore because they can access it all on the net] and social media are the latest gizmos and innovations to be used to ‘stay relevant’ and keep the kids happy in schools.”

Fiona Mueller has a sensible proposal for Tehan about Australia’s schools.

“He could say, ‘I’m new to the job and I want to get some clear air around this. I’ll set up a portal and invite people to register and contact me, to write one page of what they think.”

Meanwhile, Mueller stresses that there are “thousands of amazing teachers who are masters of their discipline and dedicated to trying to be the best they can, but they are being let down by these faddists.”

As the commenter on the Washington Post site concluded and none of us should forget this, including our political and business leaders: “the most important skills for students to acquire – 21st century or otherwise – will be the ability to read critically and to write cogently”.


It’s funny how, in this fast-changing world of ours, you can suddenly find yourself nostalgic for the simplest things. Quiet cafes for instance. Or even a bus-ride with no-one talking loudly on their mobile phone.

But the other day, I realised I was missing something else: the ease with which a cashier once used to hand me a receipt.

The first couple of times I recently noticed the person behind the counter struggling with their digital till or device to get it to spit out the piece of paper, I didn’t think much of it. A glitch. But by the time, I got to the fourth time in five weeks, I was astounded.

A fortnight after that, and a café barista was struggling to give me a receipt from his fancy iPad-style payment register.

He was half my age. I told him that 30 years ago, getting a receipt took seconds. Everything was easier. He waved a tattoo-ed arm in desperation, “I know!”

He enlarged, “Here we are trying to give you a receipt and can you imagine if there was a queue behind you?”

In the end, he closed down the device and then restarted it. “Hi, I’m Albert” it perkily announced as the minutes ticked by, the manager made rude gestures at it, and my friend outside the café wondered what on earth we were doing.

By this stage, I wasn’t really interested in the receipt. I just wanted to see how long this would all take, and to hear from someone so young how he felt about all this digital efficiency. I think you get what he felt.

Another friend with a small business explained to me: “The internet can go down, the phone system, the power… all for just a moment.” But that’s enough to halt the next transaction and, as he says, “it’s always when you have a ton of things to do and people waiting”.

Robert Gordon’s excellent The Rise and Fall of American Growth makes a key point about the recent digital changes in all our lives.

This American macroeconomist describes how, in the first half of the 20th century, a series of second industrial revolution inventions took hold in our lives, homes and workplaces. Try and imagine your life without them: electricity, the internal combustion engine, refrigeration, telephony, water and sewage connections. Oh, and productivity rose through the roof as a result of them.

By comparison, Gordon asserts, of the digital revolution, that “though there had been continuous innovation since 1970” it has focussed on information, entertainment and communication technology. He stresses the difference between the pace of innovation (“frenetic” in the case of the digital revolution) and its actual impact.

I know the impact it often has on my life and I bet you do too. Of course, advances are welcome and there are many, many digital inventions that have improved our lives remarkably.

But let’s keep our feet on the ground. Keep complaining when things don’t work. That’ll fix them.


Digging around, I also found an article on Slate that – as early as 2011 – was criticising the ubiquity of the touchscreen, the marvel that changed our phones forever and which also produced tablets. The writer, Erik Sofge, pointed out that because such a screen with its “multi-touch capacitive [finger sensitive] display” then “transformed the way we interact with technology”,

it is now picked up by the world’s manufacturers and applied to products where it is manifestly unsuitable, or where it even results in danger.

Sofge was particularly concerned about touch screen consoles in cars which means that a driver’s attention is diverted from watching the road because you can’t use a touch screen to navigate unless you’re actually looking at the screen. With the old knob systems, you could do it by touch and familiarity.

Every new car I’ve seen, has a touchscreen console.

Who is using their common sense?


Rushing late to a dinner, I got out my new lip pencil – blokes, hang in here, there’s stuff here for you too – and realised I didn’t know how to use it.

I’d snapped it up that morning at Mecca as a replacement for my worn-down stub. I remembered too late that the salesgirl had done a quick demo of its features as I reached for my wallet but I hadn’t paid much attention. It was a lip pencil, which is basically the same as any colouring-in pencil except the coloured bit is softer.

How hard could it be?

So hard, it turned out, that I had to scamper to my laptop to check in on YouTube to get lessons.

First, I couldn’t get the cap off, then I couldn’t get it back on.

The coloured bit turned out to be in a swivel tube but when I twisted it, only a tiny wee bit protruded.

A magic sharpener in the lid seemed to have chewed it all up.

The next morning when I went back to Mecca to swap it, explaining that I didn’t want a lip pencil that required an engineering degree, the very nice and efficient salesgirl murmured that yes, it was a state-of-the-art pencil …


Is this where we’re directing our energy and creativity these days?

Apparently yes because several weeks ago I did battle with my newly packaged Sard Wonder Power Stain Remover. After 20 minutes of fruitlessly trying to work out how to get the nozzle to turn on, I rang their customer service and left a terse message. I think this time the words “physics degree” might have passed my lips.

In fact, if I’d just used my instincts, I could have got the spray to work in a few seconds. What threw me was the drawing on the nozzle that purported to explain how to turn it on.

Here it is.


A while ago, Omo was packaging its Ultimate laundry liquid with a funny little spiky round hard plastic container thing tucked into its handle. According to a set of hard-to-believe instructions, I think you were supposed to pop it out, fill it with detergent, and then stick it in with your wash and it would get to work on embedded dirt. It looked to me as if it would do a lot of damage.

I rang them too to ask why they’d gone to all that bother to create yet more plastic bits and pieces in the world. Customer Service was thin-lipped about my lack of appreciation but I see now that the latest bottles of Ultimate now come spiky thingamajig free. I can’t have been the only one who rang asking: que?

A friend once told me that after she’d bought a Miele oven she hadn’t been able to use it until she’d signed up for classes. Another friend bought an apartment with a Miele oven recently and, not knowing about the classes, still hasn’t used it she is so daunted.

A few months ago, I left a perfectly good Miele vacuum cleaner on the footpath with a notice on it telling people that if they could work out how to follow the instructions, they were welcome to it.

I replaced it with a cheap Hoover that has a delightfully simple how-to-use booklet, with pictures, that is the equivalent of a Dick and Dora reading book.

Industrial designers, are you hearing me?

Just stop it.

Stop being so damned smart. Think of us, not your peers or awards ceremonies.

As we head deeper and ever more irrevocably into this techie age, remember that clever and high tech doesn’t always mean useful.

I love the news, possibly apocryphal, that swish Londoners, having done their sleek renovations or built their new homes with the ultimate in sophisticated technology – including lights that come on by clapping your hands or via an app in your phone or by bowing to the new moon three times – are now ringing up their builders and whining: can we get some light switches?


But let me recognise when designers do get it right. With great trepidation, given it had to be operated from my phone and would have to connect with my wifi – I bought my first basic Sonos speaker. It was a prelude to setting up an audio system I could hear throughout my house and I took the excellent advice of Sonos’s support person, Daniel.

And guess what, it worked! The app worked! The instructions worked!

A miracle in an age where I still can’t get my Fuji Xerox printer to talk wirelessly to my Mac laptop and have to use a connecting cable; where that same laptop refuses to recognise my Android phone though the phone is very friendly and happily recognises the laptop; and when, the last time I recorded an interview – having being told my brand new recorder would be Mac compatible – I couldn’t listen to it on the laptop until I’d paid my computer guy to find the software that would make them listen-able.

I immediately rushed out and bought a more sophisticated Sonos speaker for downstairs and guess what! That connected without sweat too!

So Sonos designers wherever you are and whoever you are, please clone yourselves and start teaching the rest of the digital world.


More good news. I have never belonged – and I hope this applies to you too – to the club that believes that the moment anyone tells you they have been diagnosed with a cancer, you are compelled to immediately buy them a book about meditation, carrot juice, raw foods, yoga and the occasional moon ceremony. For the recently diagnosed, being polite to such well-meaning busybodies must be a huge stress and no wonder so many keep their mouths shut about their condition simply to stop the torrents of advice.

But I have been so heartened by the recent research studies that show how beneficial exercise, and the right kind of exercise, can be, that yes, I do now send links like this and this.

One cancer researcher, Prue Cormie,  wrote in The Conversation, “If the effects of exercise could be encapsulated in a pill, it would be prescribed to every cancer patient worldwide and viewed as a major breakthrough in cancer treatment.”

And, “Cancer patients who exercise regularly experience fewer and less severe side effects from treatments. They also have a lower relative risk of cancer recurrence and a lower relative risk of dying from their cancer.”

And now there is a crucial chapter in an engaging and highly readable book which could be worth buying, especially for a bloke.

It’s ABC science broadcaster Robyn Williams’ new memoir, Turmoil (NewSouth Publishing). It covers his life story, with all its encounters and discoveries, his passion for science, his astonishing if inspiring frugality, and his concerns about the future.

But Williams is also brave enough, and funny enough, to share the horrors and lessons of his bout with bowel cancer.

At one stage, after he has had surgery and is on chemo with a bag, he is sleeping on a flight when an attendant discreetly wakes him to alert him to a leaking “bodily fluids” situation. The Qantas air staff couldn’t have been more careful, efficient and considerate.

In another anecdote, Williams relates what happened when an interviewee, a famous professor, decided to keep going with caveats and illustrations and then an addendum though Williams had already felt what he called a “belly alert”. As the professor talked on, he hoped it was just wind. It wasn’t. “Repairs in the loo below took me 20 minutes,” Williams writes.

But it is how Williams has dealt with his condition that makes this book a good buy for anyone with similar worries.

Williams, under the tutelage of his partner, Dr Jonica Newby, engages a personal trainer, Jacquie, who “knows what resistance training you need to mobilise the adrenaline which turns out to be the stimulant for bodily juices that zap potential tumours”.

He says Newby promised him that, after the constant workouts, he’d feel better than he did before his operation.

“She’s right. Once a year I run the length of the Seven Mile Beach. I feel slightly weary during the last quarter mile.”

Everyone’s body chemistry is different. What works for one may not work for another but we humans do like to have control and one of the most devastating aspects of cancer is its damned contrariness, wilfulness, ability to surprise, and its spite.

So to know that there is at least one thing you can possibly do for yourself – according to this new research – is a breakthrough of a stupendous kind. As Nicole Cooper, who was diagnosed with stage four bowel cancer but is now in remission, told the ABC, after she started a programme of strenuous running and lifting heavy weights, “I found it energising, the idea that I had something in my control that I could own … Cancer is a lifelong battle, once you have it, you’re kind of with it. So you have to plan out your life around how you can live best [and] I’m certainly doing that now.”

Thank you, science.


I am carefully collecting DVDs as studios cull the titles that used to be so widely available for sale. Their decisions can seem arbitrary. Easy to find some lack-lustre comedy but where is State and Main? Working Girl? And one of my favourites, a movie with a brilliant cast and script that never got the kudos it deserved, Something To Talk About? It also has one of the best and dance scenes ever, with Julia Roberts and Dennis Quaid.