Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The “Good Enough” Education System

By Professor Mary O’Kane

Does Australia have the education system it needs for a vibrant economic future?

Concerns are expressed almost daily that while Australia has emerged relatively unscathed from the world economic crisis and is in the midst of a resources-driven boom, the country is facing a major challenge in the decline of its productivity growth.

Conventional wisdom tells us that for productivity growth to occur, a nation needs innovation, and a key enabler of that innovation is a strong education system.

In 1953 the British paediatrician Donald Winnicott introduced the concept of the “good-enough mother”, highlighting that children benefit most from a mother who begins with almost “complete adaptation to her infant’s needs” but as time progresses she “adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure”. The good-enough mother is not neglectful but provides a container for the child to develop by experiencing failure and learning-by-doing. Winnicott asserted that the good-enough mother is better for children than the perfect mother.

So when it comes to influencing productivity growth, do we have a “good-enough education system”? One way to explore this is to examine how education contributes to innovation in Australia by studying various international indices that gauge a country’s innovation capacity through a set of indicators.

Australia is currently placed 20th in the world – down from 15th in 2008–09 – on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, and 21st on the INSEAD Global Innovation Index. Overall Australia tends to do well on what’s often referred to as innovation enabling sub-indices, which are calculated from indicators referring to institutions, health, education and research, and knowledge workers.

We tend to do less well in innovation output measures like knowledge absorption (50th of Global Innovation Index) and knowledge diffusion (70th on the same index). So while we are good at teaching and generating knowledge we are not good at translating knowledge into wealth – that is, turning it into skills, products and services.

Our rankings on education sub-indices may be decent, but could it be that we have a good-enough education system structurally but need to think about aspects of its content? For example, we are clearly not educating enough engineers, a worry for a country in the midst of a mining boom. In the Global Competitiveness Index, Australia ranked 60th for the availability of scientists and engineers. We are ranked 22nd on the Global Innovation Index for the percentage of tertiary science graduates but are ranked 68th for the percentage of tertiary engineering graduates.

But the tougher question around education content is the question of how we should change our education systems to increase our innovation performance in terms of turning knowledge production into wealth.

Maybe we need to take on the notion of innovation education. US President Barak Obama is promoting the idea that we have to educate to innovate.

Like Obama, I don’t think this is just at the MBA level but at all levels of our education system. If we are about what is in many ways cultural change, it is more likely to be useful early in schooling where kids can learn the skills of entrepreneurs. It’s also where we begin to understand who has aptitude and can package knowledge and turn it into good business.

In what is a relatively new field of research, Larisa Shavinina at the University of Quebec has assembled evidence that children with a talent for innovation can be identified and encouraged. She discusses a rare group of students who are able to generate ideas and implement them into practice, turning them into products, processes or services. These young innovators are not necessarily “gifted” students so far as the traditional definition goes, but possess an entrepreneurial giftedness and a set of qualities that make them predisposed to innovative thinking and activities.

Many of these qualities can be acquired by practising appropriate generic skills. These skills include perseverance, critical thinking, how to communicate, knowledge acquisition but also knowledge application, how to specify problems and, significantly, how to appreciate failure.

Should we identify those with innovation aptitude and move them into selective schools where their abilities can be fostered? (These are kids who often have attitude too – so getting them out of the standard school system might be a blessing to all concerned.) Or should we attempt to teach all kids innovation skills?

Our education system needs attention to be fit-for-purpose. As with the concept of the good-enough mother, we need to ensure no child is neglected by the education system but also that our education system provides all the necessary tools, flexibility and support for students to think for themselves and accept failure as a part of the process. The student needs to understand that he/she is the agent of progress and the protagonist of the innovation story.

If we are to stand any chance of reversing our productivity growth problem, we need to have a much more innovative culture. To get that, we will have to modify our education system. It doesn’t need to be perfect but it does need to be good enough.

Professor Mary O’Kane FTSE is the NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer and also Executive Chairman of Mary O’Kane & Associates Pty Ltd, which advises governments, universities and the private sector on innovation, research education and development. She is also Chair of the Australian Centre for Renewable Energy and the CRC for Spatial Information.