On the Permanence of Emergency Responses by Dr Tyson Yunkaporta

Emergencies are so liberating – in a rush of power and adrenaline we leap into the fray, crush the evildoers and save the children. There are no complexities, relationships, protocols or even laws to be considered. There is no shameful past and no problematic future, only a simple and single-minded present. Could there be more fertile ground than this for exploitative political agendas, and could there be a more dramatic, high-stakes emergency site than education?

The standard emergency response in an educational disaster zone (indicated by low test scores) is to simplify curriculum down to “the basics”. There is no room for logic, analysis, synthesis, transfer or application in this educational first-aid, only basic drills and memorization of facts. There is no time or space for research or best practice here, only common sense. “They can’t be expected to think before they can spell properly!” So the band-aid of work-sheets, crosswords, phonics drills and prolific testing is applied. But, unlike standard first-aid practice, further advice and treatment is seldom sought.


I often ask these schools, “So what is your time frame for transition? What will be the focus of your curriculum when the students have caught up, and who do you have working on that curriculum?” They never have an answer for me, because they have never thought that far ahead. Instead, they tell me about the merits of whatever regurgitated permutation of a catch-up reading program they are currently running, usually purchased from the U.S.

At that stage I ask them how long they expect this world-class program to take to elevate their students to the state average. Surely, if they are just learning “the basics” and they have the best available program and pedagogy, it should only take six months. Twelve months? What is the plan here?

After a lot of embarrassed shuffling and fidgeting, it soon becomes clear that “the basics” is all there has ever been at this school. The old hands will tell you that every now and then the imported programs are rebadged, renamed and paid for again. They recite these programs like the names of ancestors, tracing the lineage of the emergency literacy response over generations of teachers and students going back three decades.

And it has never, ever worked. Just as first-aid alone is not a cure, remedial education programs cannot be expected to replace good curriculum and pedagogy in the long term.
At this stage of the conversation, teachers say it’s out of their hands, that principals force them to do this. The principals blame the teachers, so I bring them both together and they point further up the chain of command. So I go to the regional executive and policy makers, who assert that they forbid schools to “teach to the test” and insist on contextualized tasks and projects. I look everywhere to find where the buck stops, and in the end it is with us – the voting public.
We are the ones who respond to (and therefore co-create) the simplest slogans and lowest common denominator logic. We a