Monday, 11 April 2011
What subjects did you
study at school for O/A levels, Intermediate/Leaving/Matriculation/ School Certificate or whatever you had to do? In the rural South Australian schools I went to there was no choice. If you were in the Public Examination Board stream you did English, Maths 1, Maths 2, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Geography, History and either Woodwork (boys) or Needlework (girls). They were plain, straightforward subjects with a set curriculum. They were designed to get a few boys to university to study science and a few girls to study nursing or perhaps teaching. The other stream was the "Area School" stream where the standard was considered to be not quite as high and Agricultural Science (boys) and Domestic Arts (girls) were featured, along with Art for both sexes. No languages were taught. One of the reasons for that was the high turnover of very new, young teachers. The Education Department would send them to rural schools for several years before allowing them to work in more urban environments. Very few teachers had any language skills at all. I was taught only Australian history and geography. Physics was taught to me by someone who had only done a further year of physics himself. My maths teacher at Intermediate level had only done a further two years of maths. As headmaster my father struggled with trying to teach English to four different year levels and run the school. There were many times when we left to our own devices and I marvel now at how well behaved we were. In this morning's paper there is a page three piece about the way students are abandoning subjects like geography and history and are failing to continue foreign language studies. Instead they are choosing subjects they believe will lead to employment, subjects such as IT and health. I wonder if any of them, given only my non-choice of subjects, would do what I did. I read copious amounts (borrowed from the Country Lending Service) and did Ancient History and Economic History as well as History. My father gave me the Latin textbook and told me to learn the contents. Being utterly hopeless at Needlework I was permitted to cease doing it. Instead I did Art in which I was allowed to include a hefty dose of History of Art. Yes, I was heavy on the history. It was something I could learn alone and for which textbooks were available. I look now at the vast array of subjects students can choose from. The choices they make often appear to be related to what might provide employment or what might be "easy". There is also a compulsory "research" topic of the student's own choice. The Whirlwind is already thinking about this. She is six years away from having to do it and the system will almost certainly have changed by then but we have talked about it. She is keeping lists of the books she reads and short notes about them. She talks enthusiastically about books, reading, English, History, the languages she is doing and her Art classes. She tolerates Maths and Science with good humour but not the same enthusiasm. "I just want to learn things" she tells people when they ask her what she wants to do. She still does not know what she might want to do. Her father is encouraging that, so is her school. I wish more children would "just want to learn things" - and that the pressure to do otherwise would be taken from them.