Release type: Speech


Address – Science of Learning Research Classroom, University of Melbourne


The Hon Senator Scott Ryan
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education and Training

Check against delivery

It is a great pleasure to be back at Melbourne University, thank you very much for having me here today. 

I don’t have a background in education myself, however one of the things I have learnt in this role now, having been in it for 18 months since this Government took office, is that my speciality when I was a graduate student in Commonwealth-state relations is as good a training as you can get for debates in education.  

But more seriously, we all went to school. My mother is a teacher, she just retired after more than 40 years in primary school so I have seen the lifelong commitment teachers bring to educating children and preparing them for life. I also know the burdens we place upon them. 

The other thing about education is that we all went to school and did somewhere between 10 to 13 years of formal education, plus some time at a college, university or TAFE sometime afterwards. That gives people a degree of familiarity and a degree of ownership over what happens in our classrooms that is not present in virtually any other area of public policy. 

I joke that everyone votes, and so everyone is an owner of democracy, but unlike a hospital where you only go to if you really have to, unlike aged care facilities which you might only deal with when your parents require it or attend later in life, we all went to school in our formative years, we all spent time in a classroom, and we all grabbed a hand of a son or a daughter and walked them back to a classroom about 15 years after we leave. 

There are a very few areas of public policy about which people feel such a degree of ownership, but also importantly a degree of experience. This means that when we talk about education policy as politicians, as decisions makers, as academic leaders that we have to understand that it is a little bit different – it’s a little bit different because we are talking to people about something that they feel they have a higher degree of ownership or experience of. 

If we go and speak to a health conference and listen to a group of doctors talk, there is an automatic assumption of, to use the economist language I sometimes refer to, an information asymmetry. 

We all think doctors, to a certain extent, have their 10 or 12 years training and have a certain degree of expertise, but we haven’t always thought that about education. 

As someone who has come into this portfolio without a specific background in education, I think that is one of my key learnings. It is also something that all of us need to do better with the community at large because I finished high school in 1990 and I walked into a classroom now and they are utterly unrecognisable from a quarter of a century ago. 

Imagine what it was like for people who left school at 16 or 18 years old who might not, because my generation has children later in life, walk back into a classroom 20 years later. They are nothing like they once were, yet, I don’t know how much of a job we have done – and I say we as a collective here – of explaining to parents why that has taken place, and why when they walk in with Sally or John or whoever the child may be, that the classroom  is unrecognisable from their experience. 

Institutions like this play a very important role in that and this facility will continue to play a very important role – not only in generating the information that can tell us how children learn – the evidence to not only guess, but to design our education system and techniques about how we actually better teach our students, how we know they leave these classrooms with not only the knowledge, but also the skills to work, to participate, to live happily in a world that is much more complex than it was, even when I left school, let alone when my parents did. 

So my congratulations to all those involved and I know there is a great deal of collaboration here led by the University of Queensland and several institutions around the world, as well as state education departments, who we can’t forget run our schools for the majority of Australian students, and also non-government organisations. 

I think institutions like this will develop the evidence, but one thing we have to remember is that just as it is the jobs of experts to come up with what is best, that is also our job, and I say our collectively as well here, to actually talk this through with parents and teachers. 

When I first read about this, it was a bit confronting to think that there are all these video cameras here, it is not one of the aspects of my life – that I have to assume that there is always a microphone or camera nearby – that I always enjoy. 

I accept a different generation is growing up with different expectations but we also need to use this evidence to talk to key decision makers and to give them, in my view when they know what goes on in centres like this, a much greater degree of confidence in what happens in the classroom. 

Can I also reflect on what we do for teachers? I say this having seen a society that has put more and more expectations on teachers. 

I know there were some problems that we didn’t always notice 20, 30, 40 years ago – the hidden toll of violence and substance abuse, all those things were there, but when we train our teachers, I know they are trained in things like mandatory reporting which exists in all states and territories across Australia, let’s not also forget the teachers that came out of the system 10, 20, 30 years ago, who might not have been trained in the skills we teach in rooms such as this today. 

We do ask a lot of our teachers, and we don’t always remember that there are 20 or 30 years of teachers in the pipeline who are doing everything they can in a classroom to educate our children, but sometimes we only talk about what we are teaching teachers today. So I know that is a very big focus of centres like this, like universities like this, because we all care about what teachers do and also their welfare. 

Thank you very much for the opportunity to join you here again today, it is always great to come back to Melbourne Uni and I look forward to hearing in more detail about how this centre will work. 

Thank you.