Brisbane Writers Festival

I spent last Saturday at the Brisbane Writers Festival, and while I spent two of those sessions with YA authors, (Melina Marchetta and Kirsty Eager), I spent the other two listening to people talk about educational topics.

artofreadingOne session was a bloke called Damon Young. He is a philosopher and a writer. This session was about a book he had published called The Art of Reading. I haven’t read the book, nor did I purchase it, but it did sound as though it would be a useful addition to a collection. In it, he talks about the idea of ‘excellent reading’, and muses on why it is never discussed, or considered valuable.

He breaks the book into literary virtues, such as the virtue of curiosity, and the virtue of temperance, and so on, and it was mostly about the virtue of patience to which he addressed us (with intelligence and an incredible vocabulary). The literary virtue of patience, in Damon’s mind, means the need to realise that sometimes we can try to read a book, and that we’re not in the right head space, or at the right age, or even in the right geographical place to appreciate a particular text. He went on in detail about this fact, and I could see a way it would fit into our libraries. Not all kids are at the same level of maturity or reading ability to take on the same books at the same chronological age. As librarians, we are fully aware of this, but to have it confirmed and written down, is a validation we sometimes need.

He also talked about the way that although reading can increase our empathy, our compassion, particularly for people who are completely unlike us, it doesn’t necessarily make us better people. He said there a lot of prolific readers who aren’t nice people. This really threw me. I guess I have a sense of moral superiority about my reading, and I do believe I am a better person for having read 108 books already this year. But that’s probably not the case. His comments were challenging and provocative. Audience members tried to politicise the situation, asking what Damon thought might be on the bookshelves of Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison, and Damon was wise and witty, and careful.

The art of, and love for reading, seems to be strong, but I am not sure we are asking enough of our young readers, and maybe a book like this could be something aspirational.

The last session of the day that I attended was a conversation with Lucy Clark. I know very little about this author, or her book, Beautiful Failures, but beautfailMegan regards it highly, so we went to listen. It turns out Lucy is a journalist and struggled for years with their daughter as a school-refuser. She talked passionately about the high levels of stress to which our children are exposed, and as part of her journey to figure out why that is the case, she traveled all over the world to speak to parents, educators and young people about school systems, and why education still predominately functions under a (clearly outdated) 19th century industrial model.

See, I have been part of this struggle for my entire teaching career. It amazes me when people come to this fresh and proclaim, something needs to be done. Hello! We have been trying! Don’t blame the teachers! Look, bless her, she’s articulate and passionate and informed, so yeah, maybe she can reach policy makers. Maybe she can make a difference. One good thing she did say to parents: Don’t ask your kids about their marks, ask about what they’re learning, what they’re loving in school. Talk about ways to learn. That was nice.

A lot of her scorn lies with high level testing–The PISA tests, NAPLAN, external exams for Year 12 students aiming for university. She also had a lot of anger towards elite private secondary schools who, she says, pressures children from the minute they walk through the hallowed halls in Grade 7 (6? 5? even earlier?). There was praise for the Finnish system, where private education was outlawed 50 years ago. Clark says equality of resources and allowing students some autonomy with their learning are steps in the right direction to bring joy back to learning.

In an an article, she examines the myths of education which is short and interesting. In the session, she spoke against streaming, and was quite scathing of gifted and talented programs, and yet in this article, she condones ‘stage not age’, which is a concept linked to streaming. You can’t put kids in a stage appropriate for them requiring some vertical groupings, without it being a type of streaming. I could feel her anger about the global situation of education, and while she tried not to generalise too much, she was always in danger of stereotyping and contradicting herself (which she did).

All of her proposed changes to education aligned with 21st century teaching and learning practices. It’s funny that we want students to be playful, to be curious and delight in learning and follow their passions, and yet once they express an interest in tertiary learning, it becomes a completely different playground. Not so playful, not so joyous, and dependent on rules, outputs, and confined pathways.

So, while I agreed with many of her points, I was also frustrated and to be honest, left depressed.





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