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Jules Vahl and Akin Brown reflect on their educational experiences, through the fictional persona of Miro. In doing so, they provide a penetrating insight into the heart of the education system, both in Australia and New Zealand.
Authors’ Note: This article tells the story of Miro. As you read it, reflect on your own educational experiences, and your definition of what it means to be ‘educated’.
Monday. 8.30am. A frosty morning in Christchurch. Miro is attending their first day of school. It’s a daunting experience moving into a school with 600 students. A shock to the system for all the pre-primary students starting their journey through the school system.
Miro settles in easily enough and finds that weeks pass by effortlessly. They get into a routine: they start the day with writing classes and finish it learning Maths. Throughout the rest of the day Miro learns about a range of topics: the structure of honeycomb; the basics of Māori; the building of bridges.
Miro’s teachers focus on helping the class of 25 to read and write. The class would write weekly summaries of their activities. Miro would drag their parents out to the New Brighton pier for some local fish and chips so that they had something to write about for that week’s reflection. Sometimes Miro forgets to write their weekly reflections and the teacher doesn’t catch them out.
Miro’s parents one day get a call from their Australian relatives. Miro and their cousins hijack the conversation to regale each other with stories from school. Miro is surprised to hear that their cousins aren’t learning about the native flora of Mt. Cook but are instead visiting the Australian Parliament House in Canberra as part of their study of Government.
But Miro’s cousins become jealous when they hear about Miro’s year 6 ‘bridge building’ project. Miro’s group designed their own miniature Golden Gate Bridge that won the prize for best in the class.
As Miro enters high school, they find it slightly different, but not overly difficult. They finally have a structured day – but Miro would trade the organised day for the primary system in a heartbeat if they never had to hear “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell” again.
At the end of Year 8, Miro’s parents are offered well-paying jobs in Sydney. Miro will move to a private high school and is looking forward to seeing what surprises await them.
Miro didn’t anticipate how rigorously standardised the Australian system was. They are intimidated by the innumerable hoops to jump through, the marks to get, the intense competition at their school of over 1000 students. Weekly tests? Yep. Two sets of formal exams per year? Yep. A very heavy curriculum and workload? Yep. Choosing what they learn? No. Learning vocational skills? Definitely not.
At the same time, Miro’s new school puts their previous vocational education under the microscope. Every knowledge gap, every small defect is detected, and addressed. Miro begins to enjoy the aesthetic of pen and paper, the depth of intellectual discussion with teachers, the treasures of the Canon, and the very antithesis of practicality: ancient languages.
With the aid of the classics, Miro finds power in their newfound ability to analyse and interpret literature. To recognise not only when people use the wrong “your” or spell the plural days of the week with an apostrophe (Mondays vs Monday’s), but also Conrad’s ideas about human nature in Heart of Darkness, or Orwell’s in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Never before had their eyes been so opened to the wonders of the abstract, philosophical world. How different it was from New Zealand! Here they build bridges in the brain, not in the real world.
However, Miro does find shortcomings with traditional liberal education. They have no unstructured time: every hour of the day is cluttered with activities. Homework and the exigencies of exams are stressful. Competitiveness drives a toxic culture of academic superiority. There is a belief in being ‘too posh’ for vocational subjects. Questions like, “When are we going to use this in the real world?” start flooding back into Miro’s mind. There is a tug-of-war occurring between two very different sets of values, and Miro is not sure which set will win.
Year 12 is a defining year for Miro. The HSC is all-consuming, but one thing tradition has taught them is time-management and efficiency. With standardised tests, discipline and skill count in equal measure. There are certainly times, in the midst of looming deadlines and assessments, where Miro wishes vainly that they had stayed in New Zealand and avoided all this. But by the time they finish their experience, Miro can appreciate the challenge that the HSC posed to them, and is proud of their resilience. Traditional education, despite its faults, has opened new doors, unlocked new skills, and prepared Miro for their next phase of study: tertiary education.
Miro steps onto the University of Sydney’s campus for the first time in Welcome Week. They’re no longer in an environment where they know everyone’s name: with 60,000 people studying here it’ll be an achievement to remember but a few! Miro’s first impressions of the University are amplified by the first-year Geosciences class held in the Seymour Centre. They’re excited to Major in Geosciences, and their Bachelor of Science also allowed them to pick up a Minor in Latin. The smaller class size makes Miro comfortable and welcome…even as a Kiwi. Unfortunately the dragging two-hour lectures given in geosciences are causing Miro to fall behind and into the gaps, something they know all too well will come back to bite them…
Miro’s story invites us to consider several questions about what it means to be ‘educated’: Do we use more vocational or traditional education skills in day-to-day life? Should one system be preferred to the other? What should students value as part of their educational experience? Can we forge a middle ground between vocational and educational systems?
It’s an age old question: would you rather know how to change a tire, or write an essay? File a tax return, or learn about history?
Miro’s story illustrates the tension between vocational and traditional education skills. They find vocational skills more practically and physically stimulating, whereas their traditional skills are more intellectually stimulating. Sure, Miro might use more vocational skills in their adult life, but where else would they get the opportunity to develop their skills in literary analysis, philosophy, and politics if not at school? Day-to-day life is rife with challenges that demand both vocational and traditional skills. These days, some vocational skills can be taught at the click of a button, whereas traditional skills take years of training to perfect.
This is not to say that one skill set is more important than the other: each skill set, whether vocational or traditional, arises at some point in one’s life. Miro’s own story, which blends traditional passions with vocational applications, is a prime example of this. Since vocation and tradition are equally important to Miro, how should these schools of thought compromise? Should one system be preferred to the other?
Comparing the Australian and New Zealand education systems can offer some useful insights. New Zealand primary school operates under an inquiry-based learning structure where students or teachers pose a question to the class and they embark on answering that question. This provides curious students with critical thinking skills that appropriately prepare them for high school. Recall Miro’s experience building bridges. Although not academic in the traditional sense, Miro learnt about practical applications of concepts such as triangulation. The inquiry model allows for a smooth transition into high school in NZ.
High school itself in NZ offers its students many pathways to success, including ones that don’t involve tertiary education. By contrast, the Australian system, in its rigour, takes a more targeted approach to encouraging their students to pursue tertiary education. The Australian system offers an avenue of academia to Miro that wasn’t entirely present beforehand. However, Miro misses the practical aspects of a more vocational approach. Clearly, both systems have their advantages, but does one address the student’s values more than the other?
Remember Miro’s passion for Latin: would they have had the same opportunity to pursue their interest in the New Zealand system? No, but there is the opportunity to develop practical life skills in the NZ system. The Australian system seems to prepare Miro for tertiary education more than the NZ system, but is Miro learning what they want to learn? The inquiry-based learning model allowed Miro to explore their own ideas in a way that the Australian primary system does not accomodate. But as we saw, Miro would struggle to engage in their love for Latin at an NZ institution.
A traditional approach can give Miro a broad brushstroke of knowledge across subject areas, allowing Miro to make an informed decision concerning where they see their trajectory in education. A NZ style of education can provide a similar breadth of knowledge but not in the same depth. However, Miro can now decide if, in fact, a vocation is more suited to them. For the average learner this helps them in understanding where their future lies, but for students like Miro who seek specialised subjects like Latin, the vocational approach leaves them lacking.
The diversity of educational systems present in Australia and NZ today is a testament to the complexity of the issues raised by Miro’s story. Whether an integrated system of vocation and tradition will emerge is a question for the politicians of tomorrow. However, our advice to all the Miros is as follows: keep building bridges.
Whether they be made out of cardboard, steel or synapses, bridges mean progress. Bridges mean connection. Bridges mean education.
This piece was entered in the St Andrew’s College Collaborative Writing Competition 2021.