Raising academic acheivement is important for individuals. According to the OECD, the level of education you receive can have a significant impact on life outcomes. Education plays a key role in providing the knowledge and skills needed to fully participate in society and the economy. You will find it easier to find a job and earn enough money to live a good life if you have a good level of education. What’s more, a person’s earning potential increases with the amount of education they receive, and educated individuals tend to live longer, actively participate more in society and commit fewer crimes. It seems clear that without good academic qualifications, you are statistically less likely to live a good life.
The world is also changing rapidly, which is increasing the need for good academic qualifications. The days of working without academic qualifications are rapidly coming to an end as the world economy becomes knowledge-based. This will likely result in an unprecedented change in the rewards for skill (See Wiliam’s thoughts). We already know academic qualifications are important for positive life outcomes and this is only going to become even more important. The days of earning a living with your hands are closing. Making sure students reach the threshold of academic achievement required to participate in the future economy is high stakes for individuals. Statistically, their life outcomes depend on it.
The future knowledge-based economy has significant implications for educators. Strangely, the response from educators (influenced heavily by misguided gurus) has been to make schooling less knowledge-based in favour of a skills-based curriculum with a focus on soft skills. The rationale being that, as the world becomes more uncertain, students need not develop expertise, but should acquire a broad range of capabilities to deal with the unpredictable changing world we will face.
I believe this is a misguided approach. As noted, the rewards for expertise are only going to increase. It seems odd that the solution to a future where knowledge will be valued is to lower the amount of knowledge students receive. Not only does this idea fly in the face of research on expertise and skill development, it also, in my opinion, has the pernicious effect of lowering the academic rigour of schooling. This trade-off is considered fine because students need soft skills; academics may suffer but that is okay because the students are gaining the soft skills they need. Given what we know about how academic achievement supports an individual’s life outcomes, I very much doubt this approach is the right one for the future. Why lower academic rigour when academic achievement is so important?
The best teachers are probably not lowering academic rigour. As teachers hurry to embrace a skills-based focus to teaching and learning – particularly in primary science, history and geography – the best teachers are probably getting on with maintaining high standards of academic rigour. We have known since the famous pygmalion study that high expectations lead to high academic achievement, and this is because the teachers kept the academic rigour high for these so-called highly talented students. They did not lower the bar; they expected the students to achieve at a high academic standard. That is precisely what the best teachers are likely doing every day in their classrooms for every single one of their students while the rest focus on fluff like the 4Cs in the false hope that this will prepare them for an uncertain future (ironically an uncertain future where high academic achievement and highly specialised knowledge and skills will be heavily rewarded)
I love how Doug Lemov puts it in his book, “Champion teachers are always pushing to create an environment in which the maximum level of academic rigour is expected, practiced and valued.” Great teachers are actively engaged in create an academic ethos in their classroom, one that I do not think is possible if we focus less on academic content and more on ‘general’ skills. If you are a primary teacher, perhaps stop to ask yourself, is what I’m doing lowering the academic rigour in my classroom? It may well be that you unintentionally are. You are not supported by a rigorous curriculum or by quality resources. The Australian Curriculum is not rigorous and popular programs aren’t either.
Check yourself: how rigorous is your classroom? I advise not falling into the trap of lowering the bar because of the future. The best teachers are probably not doing it and your kids deserve the best you can give.