The rise of 'education rage'. Is this why Australian education never seems to get ahead?

It seems there is no quicker way to generate heated discussion in the mainstream press or on social media than to advocate doing education differently. And interestingly the rage that typically follows is loudest from those not directly involved in the education process.

Yes, Australia has become a country where ‘everybody is an expert’ on education and it is this aspect of our culture that sustains the constant flow of emotionally-charged debates and cynically-driven arguments that we read and hear across all forms of media.

And when you combine this amount of passion with 'zero-sum thinking' it can lead to large chunks of the population with ill-informed positions on what is needed to improve educational outcomes for our students.

'Zero-sum thinking'?? Let me explain...

In regards to education, zero-sum thinking believes that everything in a student's educational experience is finite and fixed (especially the scope of curriculum content and the time that it takes to cover that curriculum).

For example, if a school system advertises that they will be teaching "21st century skills" ALONGSIDE "the basics" zero-sum thinkers will quickly conclude that teaching both is impossible. That's because when the zero-sum belief is put into practice it facilitates a very narrow band of reasoning - in this case, "You can only teach one or the other!" - a reasoning which can only lead to one conclusion: "I don't want my child being taught 21st century skills because that means she will miss out on the basics!"

This Twitter feed is but one example of zero-sum thinking at work on this issue -

If you were to read down the whole stream of angry tweets, without knowing the background or context, you could be forgiven for thinking that the head of the ACT Education Directorate had just advocated sending all Canberran children to work in the salt mines:

"That's the ACT Government for you. That's why this Canberran sends his son to a private school!"

"What a disgrace to all of the professionals working in education!"

"I am gobsmacked"

"This is an extension of Lenin's 'Give me the child'"

"The West will collapse from the rot within, much like Rome."

"It takes time to build an idiocracy ... this is the fast-track!"


But, no, Kris Willis had advocated teaching creativity, critical thinking and complex problem solving skills to children in ACT government schools.

And why would he advocate teaching such skills in addition to core curriculum? Because, clearly, in the future it won’t be enough to read, write, calculate and recall facts. Employers want more. Even more than university degrees. Just ask any CEO or human resources head.

(See the top 10 list of in-demand skills in this article: )

So why is education rage, coupled with zero-sum thinking, a problem for Australian education going forward?

Firstly, media tap into this rage through selective (inaccurate) headlines and misrepresented facts that stroke and stoke the education rage of readers (I presume to boost clicks, hits, engagement and sales). I can give you dozens of examples of this kind of reporting.

But of greater concern is that politicians can pander to this education rage, and its associated black-and-white thinking, to boost votes. Political parties and ministers will factor in ‘what resonates with voters’ when making big decisions on education policy prior to an election. And if the electorate is perceived to be incensed (though ill-informed and misdirected) about an educational issue then the concern is that politicians might re-write policy to appease or appeal to voters - at the expense of best educational practice.

I believe entrenched zero-sum thinking is one of the biggest barriers to the advancement of education in Australia. It overly influences policy making, it discourages innovation in schools and systems - and it ultimately ignores the perspectives and insights of the real experts: the classroom teachers and education researchers.

If we really want Australia to become a powerhouse of education then our nation - from our politicians to our parents to our media - will firstly need to change the way we think about education issues and policy.

Now what that thinking actually looks like is another post for another day.

James Phelps