The great divide…

I read Dale Worsley’s post this morning and thought about how lucky I am to work in a primary school with a dynamic learning culture, where passionate teachers constantly seek the most engaging and meaningful ways for their young learners to take ownership of their learning, where the learning is for ‘now’ AND for the kind of future in which they will live and learn.

I recently received this email from a friend whose daughter has just started High School (She’s 12. In Australia, children move from Primary School directly to High School. We don’t have Middle School as a separate stage).

My daughter’s education to date has been nothing short of remarkable. She has soaked up and been enticed by all that the school has to offer.

She has inquired and pushed boundaries. She has investigated and wondered her way through the most intriguing PYP journey. She is a thinker and has loved being knee deep in creative expression and pondering units of inquiry that encouraged her to be open minded and inquire into things she wonders about. With amazing guidance, she whole heartedly explored her area of passion and with excitement and exuberance presented her findings at the Year 6 exhibition.

Now in year 7, her school bag is full of thick text books (which also sit on her iPad) which travel to and from school. She sits at night working through pages of maths problems from the text books. Just as I had done when I was in high school (a million years ago) … A little archaic.

I understand it is very early days yet, but where has that amazing transformative thinking gone? The creative learning that is so full of colour and excitement…

Please tell me Ed, that it is on its way????

My sad reply: ‘I cant’

And again I wonder about the great divide between primary schools and (many) high schools…


  • Why is that as soon as our students turn 12, they need to start preparing for the demands of VCE and university entry?
  • Why are the demands of formal education frequently out of touch with the reality of the world in which our students live and LEARN and contribute? (independently, without the assistance of school!)
  • Why do many high school students still do the same kinds of things their parents and teachers did when they went to school, while the rest of the world changes rapidly and dramatically?
  • Why did a parent once reprimand a high school teacher whom I know for encouraging the students to (gasp) think instead of preparing them for the exams?
  • Why should the focus shift from learning (in primary school) to work (in high school)?
  • Why should grades and results matter more than thinking, learning how to learn and contributing to the world in a meaningful way?


A thoughtful response by @alohalavina – Crossing the Great Divide

24 thoughts on “The great divide…

  1. The divide is a scary one for secondary teachers and even more so for administrators who either dont/wont recognise the divide or dont know where to begin to bridge the gap (NB: I am generalising, I work with some great Sec teachers who engage and get Ss to inquire). Secondary teachers often hit the fail safe button excuse for dishing out content- exams, the universities need scores, the IBDP results etc….when in fact once you unlock the passion of learning and develop thinking skills the ‘content’ becomes much easier to engage, make sense of and be critical of. I often hear Sec teachers talk about scores and not about the learning. Of course what do universities do? In undergrad it seems to be content based, write the exam, pass take another unit then repeat. Then we get to Masters or Doctorate where now we are expected to think critically again and our inquisitive nature has been so numb for so long from being ‘schooled’ its very hard! The shift in the divide needs to come from Universities/Colleges and they need to recognise other ways of assessing and evaluating learners. of course this requires more hard work and deep though. Content will remain king.


  2. One of the more significant issues holding Secondary teachers back (speaking as one – and I try to push the boundaries fairly often) is the entire idea that we’re preparing students for University. The roll-down impact of this is that we feel the need to prepare kids to a) get into uni (tests, content, etc), b) be able to sit through lectures and c) deliver syllabi that have been created to suit universities rather than the kids 9 times out of 10. We also have parents who, while not as directly involved as they are in Primary, see anything that diverts from the path as being a “waste of time” regardless of the learning and thinking skills that go on in those activities.

    Essentially, we’re caught between a rock and a hard place, with few ways of expressing our creative and innovative practices and still meeting all those other goals.

    Having said all that, there are bright lights in the distance – I have staff who value the learning and thinking as highly as the content (as we all should) and are trying all sorts of different things in their classes. Also – there’s no excuse for kids to be carrying around textbooks and writing out heaps of homework in the dog-tired old school manner when they’re in a school that has obviously moved into a technologically integrated curriculum.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Richard. As Jason says above (Mitra too!), unless the expectations of Higher Ed change, high schools seems to be stuck in a system that defines them. It doesn’t help having an Australian Curriculum full of content that would require one to be at school for about 40 years in order to cover it all! The bright lights and innovative teachers are encouraging… I think change has to come from within, one teacher at a time, one class at a time… with a teaspoon, as Pete Seeger said.


  3. I understand. My daughter told me she could be a secondary school math teacher as all you have to do is set some pages of a text. Can you image how sad this makes me? She has come from fantastic primary teachers where maths was engaging, meaningful and hard. I don’t understand what has happened. I feeel under-prepared to have this professional dialogue.


      1. Where I teach, I see High school educators really pushing boundaries and getting required assessment to fall out of meaningful, engaging projects. Like this one from @learningideasnz However, I think too often there are lone teachers wanting to try things who get swamped with admin and exams and “how it’s always been done.” I think there has to be significant vision and desire from the leadership team to shift the HIgh school model.


  4. My daughter is in the same boat as your friend’s. Just left a PYP Gr 5 and entered the middle school run by the Cambridge curriculum. In the last 5 months she has gone from “I love learning about …” to “I got __ % on my last quiz/test/homework”. We’ll be switching schools next year to one with MYP and hopes that her “I love learning about..” will come back. As a PYP primary school teacher, we focus on educating students for life, not for exams. It is time for secondary education to also have a hard look at what’s important and worth learning in school. ( is a good place to start!


    1. Thanks Jane. I wonder if the MYP sustains the focus on learning rather than results, that we have in PYP. I know The MYP Next Chapter is working towards this, but from what I hear, it depends greatly on how teachers interpret it and carry it out. I love this post by Aloha Lavina, an MYP educator, in response to mine
      Great link, thanks. I’m reading the Perkins book at the moment!


  5. Hi, I’m a Head of an International Primary school and have been in a K-13 environment for most of my working career. The school I am in now is the most advanced for Middle Years that I have experienced, as they are now following a self-made Middle Years curriculum based on skills and core competencies. This is however the exception rather than the rule in my experience. The story of your friend’s daughter is all too familiar. It seems increasingly clear to me, after 25 years in teaching, that Primary school teachers tend to be more focussed on pedagogy and Secondary teachers, on subject content. I think this comes with being specialists in a particular subject as you do also see the same subject content focus sometimes with Language teachers (even in Primary). Alternatively, maybe it is due to the external pressures of exams.


  6. Thanks for weighing in David. Interesting to realise how ‘global’ the issue is. I hadn’t thought of it as being related to specific subject teaching. I don’t think I agree with you there! I can’t think of a reason why specific subject learning can’t take place in a student centred way…


  7. Because the people who write to education ministers complain that their child is not being prepared for work or an exam and the business lobbies in their ear complain that the kids who come to work for them don’t have work skills. We all have different ideas about what schools should do. Squeaky wheels get heard. Unfortunately education experts are low on the list.


  8. Thanks for posting this, Ed. It would make for a good continuum chat.

    As an MYPCo and HS teacher, I’m on a mission to switch the grades-focus of students and teachers as much as I can. It is very difficult, especially as kids get older and the stakes of university entry (and the intense backwash it creates) kick in. But we can inquire in meaningful ways in HS and as we chip away we see the students expect a different experience. Lectures and tests eventually don’t cut it anymore. GPA’s never help.

    Key to inquiry across the divide is understanding its definitions and helping others see how we can value inquiry and engaged learning in order to build enthusiasm and curiosity for learning the ‘canon’ of stuff that makes up these exams. MYP:NC makes this much easier to sell and is a more operable (and less ‘alien’) framework for teachers new to all of the great elements of an IB education in the MS-HS.

    Sometimes I have to remember that teachers come into the IB systems from all sorts of backgrounds, some of which are generations’ worth of terrible – restrictive syllabus, test-driven assessment, high-stakes outcomes (driven by league tables), %-based grading (ugh), high-homework, low-service. Fear can drive a lot of creativity out of otherwise passionate people. We have to help them get it back.


  9. Hi Ed, Thanks for this post. It inspired me so much that I had to write a reply!

    As a MYP and DP teacher, I’ve used inquiry approaches in my Language and literature classroom, and it was a matter of changing the process of learning, the pedagogy, more than anything. It is a challenging change, especially when one has the pressure of exams and results. I think of exam performance as by-products of engaged, personally meaningful learning, which can be achieved through inquiry approaches. is another post inspired by your reflective post. Many thanks for provoking thought on what it means to make our students partners in learning and to structure learning in ways that allow multiple entry points rather than a single receptive and productive response.


  10. Thank you, Aloha, for your thoughtful and instructive post, to which I have now added a link in my post! Many high school teachers become defensive, saying they are limited in what they can do because of curriculum requirements and the demands of the system. You have simply and clearly laid out how an inquiry approach is possible at any stage of learning. It’s so encouraging to get positive responses from expert practitioners who are willing to explore possibilities.
    PS I LOVE the new post, just re-reading it now 🙂


  11. I sometimes think many of us who are able to positively change the school paradigm actually live in a bubble. Recently popped into a friend’s school and this stark reality hit me. So as repetitive as the message seems to get, it still needs articulating and re-articulating.


  12. Great post Edna. As a trained Secondary teacher, I could not agree more with you concerns. I wrote a piece comparing the two contexts a while back ( What concerns me is that the push of ‘exams’ is going deeper and deeper into Primary school. There are far too many sausage factories, as Yong Zhao would put it, for my own liking. Not exactly sure of the answer, but it is a problem that needs to be resolved. When, I am not sure. I think that one step is in highlighting those Secondary schools/teachers who are working against the grain and celebrate the small successes.


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