Be more amphoteric

“It is an important and popular fact that things are not always what they seem.”

So wrote Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He was referring to the juxtaposition between the clearly superior intelligence of man over dolphins (as assumed by man), and the opposite view (as assumed by the aquatic mammals).

Remaining in the water, the H2O molecule is a good example of something that is not always what it seems. It is amphoteric, meaning that it is able to react as both an acid and a base. Given that acids and bases are chemical opposites, this means water is a molecule that struggles to make up its mind. In the presence of an acid, it behaves as a base, and in the presence of a base, it is acidic.

I consider myself to be a centrist and there are few (if any) hills I will chose to die on. I am a social liberal but a fiscal and educational conservative. I can understand and accept most people’s views, even if I do not agree with them. The reason for disagreement is sometimes an inability/unwillingness to see things from another’s point of view, and I’m aware that I am guilty of this on occasions. We are never able to see the same thing with the same set of eyes, and from the same angle, so making the effort to see a different point of view is as essential as it is difficult.

I feel like a water molecule every time I engage on social media, particularly Twitter. When debating education, I am classified as an out of touch right-winger, given that advocating for teacher subject expertise and strong discipline inexplicably characterises one as a staunch Tory/Liberal (via the UK/Australian definition). Concerning Brexit, however, I’m apparently a woolly liberal, naive in the hope that we should believe in a European ideal. Twitter is dominated by strong acids and bases and each are assertive in their own way. 280 characters gives little room for nuance, hence conversations are punctuated by bold assertions, vigorous certainty and pugilistic defence when challenged. It seems more important to win than to be made to think, and if in doubt, just make stuff up. I realise that when debating on Twitter, you are less trying to  change the mind of the person you debate with, than persuade the silent onlookers (or floating voters) with reason and logic (as opposed to relying on bombast and sloppy spelling).

There are so many ‘untouchables’ in Australian education that even trying to open up a discussion is difficult. Poke the bear just once, it seems, and the bear attempts to rip your head off. Try for yourself – suggest that perhaps examinations are a fair way to assess student knowledge, and see what vitriol comes back your way. It seems that throwing acid isn’t wrong, at least in some people’s eyes. Or maybe suggest that students shouldn’t be given much choice in what they learn; or that ‘student voice’ tends to be more tokenistic than of genuine value; or that School funding is perhaps not the main reason for improving or declining educational outcomes…

If we can’t debate these issues, and refuse to listen to alternative views, we end up splitting into acids and bases. We agree with everything our fellow acids say, and excuse their rudeness as mere ‘passion’. We reject anything the opposing bases have to offer and consider them not only wrong but morally corrupt. I suspect that most of us are more amphoteric that we let on, and we’re forced into acidic or basic behaviour by the people with whom we choose to interact. This is ok, so long as it doesn’t force us to one or t’other end of the continuum on a permanent basis. The last thing we need is even less nuance on these platforms.


You can’t have anything you want.

“You can have anything you want if you want it badly enough. You can be anything you want to be, do anything you set out to accomplish if you hold to that desire with singleness of purpose.”

So said Abraham Lincoln, presumably whilst sharpening an ax. He also appeared in the video for Gay Bar by Electric 6, remember, so he was a man of many and diverse talents. But he’s wrong of course, because talent, luck and hard work all matter more than the nebulous ‘want’. You cannot have a yacht unless you have the money to purchase one and you cannot play cricket for England unless you have Stokes-like talent.

Teddy Roosevelt was closer to the mark with this one:

“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”

The effort. The struggle. The time invested. The desire to succeed and achieve that is so great that we can overcome obstacles that litter the path.

Then we come to this article in today’s Australian, showing that despite increased investment in education, performance in NAPLAN has flatlined since its inception in 2008. The NAPLAN tests are far from perfect, but to blame NAPLAN (as some choose to do) is odd. Don’t blame the messenger because you don’t like the message.

Now look at the comments in the article; from educators, research fellows and academics, highlighting what needs to be done (and what is being done in Schools that show good outcomes/improvement):

‘Explicit teaching methods and targeted interventions for students who needed it…’

‘We need to focus on explicit, whole-class teaching, set high ­expectations and reintroduce memorisation and rote learning…’

See how far we have moved away from sound principles of education, such that the statements above are seen as necessary solutions, rather than just stuff everyone should be doing as a matter of course. The more we listen to futurists, tech-salesmen and Sir Ken, the more we move away from what’s necessary when it comes to mastering English and Mathematics. Unlocking and harnessing creativity comes from a solid grasp of the basics – a second-nature fluency that allows creative thought to be articulated and number problems to be solved with elegant solutions.

But amidst all the hand-wringing about what Schools should be doing to improve reading, writing and doing sums, there’s another oft-unmentioned group with a significant responsibility: parents.

We all want our children to read and write fluently, but do we (as parents) want it badly enough? Encouraging, (nay, forcing,) your children to read; setting an example by reading yourself; discussing the books with your children; making them feel clever by reading clever books; helping them when they trip over words; taking them to the library on a Saturday morning as well as to footy. You can do this.

If we’re serious as a country about improving standards in Maths and (especially) English, we cannot afford to outsource everything to teachers and Schools.

I interviewed a boy for a place at School recently, and I asked the young chap what book he had enjoyed recently. His mother leant across, put her hand on his, looked me in the eye and said ‘he doesn’t read’. ‘He will when he comes here’, I said, and then we talked about dinosaurs for a while.


Assessment, assessment everywhere

I have written before about the need to keep education simple. The core pillars of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment are set firmly in place, and it will always be thus. If you are having conversations in School not directly linked to these three, my advice is not to waste your time. Educational silver bullets abound, with seductive twin promises of modernisation and revolution, terms that involve moving away from the mythical ‘factory model’ and embracing the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. The fact that neither of these soundbites is true doesn’t seem to bother education consultants or teachers keen to leave the classroom and forge a career telling colleagues about jobs that don’t exist.

No system is perfect, but an effective system should:

  1. Enable excellent teachers to be recruited, retained and developed.
  2. Provide a stimulating curriculum for pupils to gain expertise in a range of subjects.
  3. Eschew ideology in favour of evidence (but also allow for teacher autonomy).
  4. Offer a valid and non-invasive system of assessment.

Some of these are easier said than done (particularly the first), but by concentrating on ‘core business’ we should be able to retain the best of what we offer whilst seeking gradual improvement via harnessing modern research, evidence and technology.

Let’s concentrate on point 4 – assessment. Learning is invisible; we can only tell what pupils have learned and understood if we assess them. Assessment takes many forms – written or oral, timed or timeless, standardised or not. It can be as simple as a short quiz, or be the product of a year’s work (or more). All assessment has a core purpose: to find out what children know and can do. We usually test a sample to give us information about a domain and effective assessment should therefore allow us to make wider inferences than simply the mark achieved. This is why the task is of lesser interest than what it tells us about that child’s expertise in the domain.

Here follows some general considerations when considering assessment:

High stakes v low stakes assessment

Low-stakes assessment is often more useful. A teacher will assess the pupils in a way they feel is necessary to glean information about understanding. Low-stakes assessment provides data used by the teacher to guide learning; it does not become the central focus, as can be the case with high-stakes assessment, where the mark on the task is all-important. All assessment should be formative, but high-stakes assessment is less likely to embrace the formative. In extreme cases, high-stakes can become the sum goal. An example of high-stakes assessment is a terminal examination; these are necessary to ensure valid grading of the pupils taking that examination, but they should be the pleasant by-product of excellent learning, guided by genuine formative assessment.

Generic assessment

One valid criticism of examinations is that they can be practised ad infinitum, so pupils end up becoming proficient in exams rather than the subject. There are many examples of this, and taken to extremes, pupils can spend more time working through past papers attempting to question-spot than learning the subject. The answer here is to produce better examinations – ones that test genuine understanding and the ability to synthesise ideas to solve unfamiliar problems, rather than just regurgitating answers on automatic pilot. A bad version of anything is open to criticism; exams need to be stand-alone, not like an IQ test where IQ goes up simply by taking more versions of a similar test.

Continuous assessment

Yes, of course. Teachers should be taking readings to gauge pupil understanding on a lesson by lesson basis. But this need not be invasive; it does not need to be assessment ‘that counts’; it need not be part of a formal assessment schedule. Trust teachers to deliver the material, check understanding and allow it to build through logical sequencing of lessons. If a course lasts for two years, what does it matter how much a child has mastered after one year, unless it’s for formative purposes? Including assessment that counts to a final mark before the whole course has been taught makes little sense. As mentioned above, learning is invisible, but it’s also messy. We can rarely plot a linear path of pupil learning – some reach a plateau of understanding, whilst others improve exponentially. All assessment that counts should be delivered at (or near to) the end of the course; we don’t call the winner of the match at half time!

Who should write the assessment?

My simplistic view is that teachers should be trusted to assess their pupils in any way they feel is necessary during the course, and then assessment should be taken out of the hands of teachers in the final summative reckoning. It’s not a case of not trusting teachers, but of ameliorating their workload and ensuring the pressure of summative assessment is taken away from the educator. Having the educator prepare the test, especially when it’s a sample of the domain is unfair, considering the high-stakes nature of this assessment and external pressure from parents. In this case, teachers will always default to ‘teaching to the test’, which is a common complaint when preparing for terminal examinations, but will be exacerbated when the teacher has written the test!

Let’s see what we have in the South Australian Certificate of Education (SACE):

Who writes the assessment?

Teachers, in the main. 70% of assessment that counts to ATAR is written by the teachers, who then deliver that assessment to their students. So pupils in different Schools are doing different assessments, written by their own teachers and graded by their own teachers. The teachers then choose the moderation sample themselves, which is a small fraction of the whole. Surely anyone can spot the flaw in this system?

Continuous assessment?

Yes, lots of it. On average, a pupil will produce around 75 assessment pieces that count during their final two years at School. This invasive assessment is akin to coaching a team that only plays matches but never trains. Assessment, far from retaining its key purpose (to find out what pupils know, remember?), has become a sum-goal grind, less about testing knowledge and understanding and more about producing the task by whatever means possible. Many teachers will write the assessment task before looking at how to teach the course – they then plot the most linear route to that task. If the task was different, so is the teaching, but that makes no sense educationally, right?

Generic assessment?

Yes, very. As is usually the case when assessment is not only high stakes but also internally controllable, it makes sense to both widen the hoops and to bring the hoops so close to the students’ heads that they can’t help but fall through them. It is in everyone’s interest for assessment to be unchallenging and controllable, with either multiple similar ‘practice assessments’ being implemented prior to the real thing or using a lengthy drafting process to polish pupil work.

High stakes v Low stakes?

It’s mostly all high stakes. Boys and girls build their ATAR from 75 assessment bricks. They don’t need to worry about expertise in a subject, because that isn’t really the goal. Satisfying assessment criteria, jumping through assessment hoops, submitting drafts and outsourcing work to tutors have all become the norm, and what has been squeezed out is the joy of learning and the satisfaction of developing expertise.

I suppose I would mind less if at least there was some honesty and transparency about the process. But there isn’t. This system of assessment that is ripe for gaming and actively promotes a tactical approach to education is advertised as a standard that is shifting at the pace of change. Whatever than means.

Tall poppies?

Teaching. There are many and varied reasons for choosing this career. I doubt that wealth features on people’s lists, but a deep interest in one’s subject and a desire to communicate that subject probably should feature highly. So should a genuine commitment to educating children in the widest sense of the word – to model the sort of behaviour we wish to see mirrored. Days full of human interaction are invigorating and make us feel alive. Teaching can be a wonderful experience if one commits to the above.

When I taught in the UK, I didn’t feel teaching was always awarded the status it deserved. It certainly wasn’t a low status profession, but the majority of people felt they could do the job. This was distinctly different from airline pilots or eye surgeons. Everyone has been to School, therefore everyone has an opinion on School. But many of those opinions were poorly informed and I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been given soundbite advice from non-teachers. However, on the flip side, it was generally accepted that one needed to be clever to be a teacher. When informing people that I taught chemistry (and when we’d moved beyond the fact that their chemistry teacher was mad/old/hopeless), I was pleased to note the warming breeze of respect that fluttered over me as they realised I must know some difficult stuff to teach a difficult subject. This made me feel proud: being thought of as clever is pleasant.

In Australia, teaching is a relatively low-status profession. It is not a particularly competitive or desirable profession, as evidenced by the low ATAR requirements for teacher education courses at university. I think the pay is quite generous, but one is unlikely to become as rich as one might do, say, working in finance. So again, we are left clinging to the fact that at least the public perception of teachers as being clever people is assured, right? Wrong.

I am keen to simplify education and teaching. An effective teacher needs to understand their subject well, be able to communicate that subject well, and ideally have some charisma and intuition (regarding children) to accompany those essentials. The first point requires teachers to be clever – this is a pre-requisite if one is to become a subject expert. Flaubert said that ‘writing history is like drinking an ocean and pissing a cupful‘. Teaching is similar – to make one’s subject come alive for children (at any level), one needs a massive ‘backstory’. We need anecdotes, historical context; weird, wonderful and forgotten stories; the people behind the discoveries, the lost manuscripts, the failures before the success and an ability to extend topics and stories in multiple directions.

It is possible to be a giant brain, with wonderful expertise, and to be poor at communicating this to children. But the first does not automatically lead to the second, and this is where things become problematic in Australia. There is a general assumption that the cleverer you are, the worse you will be at communicating your expertise to children, as though there is some inverse relationship at play. The exception has become the rule. I argue we are unlikely to be able to educate some of the finest minds of the next generation without employing some of the finest minds of the current one.

Not only does the above inverse relationship make little sense, it is actively damaging to the status of the profession to imply your intellectual ability is somehow irrelevant (or worse still, damaging) to your chances of being a successful teacher. Maybe we’re in classic ‘tall poppy’ territory, which is a concept beloved by Australians: if we’re going to give with one hand, it’s best to take with the other; we can’t have people getting above their station. This is ingrained so deeply that it even makes the following list (just after barbecue sauce, which give you an idea of the love Australians have for TPS):

Maybe we need to ditch the image of teacher as ‘Aussie battler’ and instead respect the profession for its expertise and intellect. Who knows? We might even raise the ATAR requirements into the 60s!

Do we really love our children enough?

One of the things I tend to ask prospective teachers when they come for interview is what they think education is for, or what’s its purpose. It tends to stump most people, a bit like when people ask you about your favourite books, and then you suddenly can’t think of a single one. I don’t mind what people say – social mobility, the passing on of a cultural literacy, preparation for the world of work – I just mind that people have spent a little time thinking about it. Otherwise, we’re just cogs in a machine, following the next lesson in the scheme of work, right? Some teachers talk about how much they enjoy working with children and young adults, which seems to be a pre-requisite for the job. I have occasionally worked with people who appeared to actively dislike children, but come to think of it, they disliked adults too.

In terms of the ultimate purpose of education, I’m with Hannah Arendt. Her seminal essay, The Crisis in Education, reads as relevant today as when published in 1954. She argues that we need to educate children in order for them to take responsibility for a world not of their making. We need to bring the world to them, and them to the world.

‘Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.’

Hannah Arendt, The Crisis in Education (1954)

Much has been written about the Pygmalion (or Rosenthal) effect and the power of expectations. The reliably good Tom Sherrington has written about it here, in fact:

Great Teaching.  The Power of Expectations.

It is becoming harder, however, to insist on these high expectations [note, I am not talking about unrealistic expectations]. I have used the following line to parents: ‘please do not ask me to lower the standards I have for your son’, which always goes down well, until a point of tension is reached. Academic challenge becomes ever more strongly linked to stress, anxiety and mental health, with these words and phrases used ever more liberally. Directly in the cross-hairs are standardised assessment and examinations, and the fact these generally give the most reliable measure of student learning is perhaps more than a coincidence. The instant medicalisation of standard negative human emotions is a relatively recent practice, and it seems that one teacher’s high expectations can quickly become another’s unfair application of stress and pressure.

Do we love our children enough to maintain our high expectations, and to encourage them to develop genuine resilience and coping strategies; to work their way through difficult challenge and periods of uncertainty. Or do we love them so much that we rob them of the pleasure to be gained from overcoming challenges, instead seeking to whisk away all obstacles in their path? This mis-characterisation of care does little to help children, and instead becomes a banal ‘arms race’ [often played out on social media] for who can virtue signal their love of children loudest. Hashtags like #kidsdeserveit or #doingitforthekids are good identifiers of a commitment to low expectations.

Expecting more of the children we teach (and ourselves too; we are not immune) is perhaps the ultimate compliment to them. It shows that we believe in them – we know that they can, with our role to help, encourage and support. Making excuses and removing difficult or unpalatable situations will not breed resilience but encourage feebleness and entitlement. it will not ameliorate the concerns of children, but will make them less likely to be able to cope with problems further down the line. Normalising high expectations and effort, and occasional frustration, may do more good in the long run.

One question worth asking yourself is this: when was the last time any pupil reached the end of their schooling and thanked you for making things easy for them, for flattening the obstacles and skirting the challenge? Now compare with those who thanked you for believing in them and pushing them to be as good as you knew they could be.

Not a contest, is it?

The hate that dare not speak its name

I gave an assembly to Year 9 boys this week. They sit mid-year examinations during Term 2 and I speak to every year group about how to approach the tests. I give revision tips, explain how to behave during examination season and how to use papers for academic improvement once they are returned. By the time they’ve heard the same thing a few times, boys tend to tune out, so I mixed things up a little this time, and talked about exams in the context of the overall learning process. I explained that exams are a fair form of assessment; that they provide useful feedback to boys about their knowledge and understanding and feedback to us about how to adapt our teaching. I also talked a little about poetry, and I’ll pick up on that later.

Exams are neutral. They are diagnostic, like an X-ray or a dental check-up. They are neither good nor bad, though it seems that adult thinking makes it so. The hysteria about examinations (whether it be SATs in the UK, the examined component of the VCE in Victoria, or (going full tonto) NUI Galway’s need for ‘therapy dogs’ to calm students frazzled after a study session) has surely reached peak. There are two significant reasons for it, neither of which involve the children taking the papers.

Teachers: do not attempt to motivate your pupils by telling them how important exams are; by telling them these results will define the rest of their lives; by talking about how ‘this time it really counts’. Do not put countdown charts on walls. Do not attempt to improve performance by the introduction of fear. This is lazy teaching and the opposite of genuine motivation. You do not develop a healthy group dynamic by collective panic. Ensure your pupils are well taught, know how to revise, understand the style of the examination and how to approach the paper on the day. Make sure they take things seriously, but not to the point that the exam’s shadow is larger than the exam itself. Make sure they take joint responsibility for their performance, and know what they need to improve for next time. Make sure they know that almost examinations are formative; they take a reading, which may lead to certain adjustments being made. Help them to understand what these adjustments are and how they are implemented. Do not entertain phrases like ‘exam technique’ unless this is a genuine concern – most of the time ‘poor exam technique’ is ‘didn’t know the work well enough’. Disappointment when performance is not good is to be expected, and occasional disappointment is inevitable. Speak to performance in terms of individual progress and the individual’s journey, not in terms of absolute grades or relation to year level averages.

Adults in general: encourage your children to embrace occasional testing, as a necessary part of Schooling and an opportunity to show off all you have learned to that point. Do not reach for words like ‘anxiety’, ‘stress’, ‘pressure’  and ‘overwhelming’, unless these are genuinely observed. Be careful with your words, for they may end up being self-fulfilling if used liberally and in advance of the tests themselves. Remember what it was like when you were a child faced with exams and tests, and try to find the words you wish someone had said to you. Build up children, don’t encourage them towards ‘learned helplessness’. Encourage them to face challenges head on, and to overcome these challenges, whilst providing that support to do so. Do not take away the obstacles before they have even reached them. Most children are far more resilient and robust than caring adults seem to think.

In my assembly, I referred to the Edward Thomas poem ‘Rain’, in the context of how much more enjoyment can be gained from a poem by knowing a little about the structure and rhythm of language and by understanding something of the historical background to the poem. I am not one for making children feel guilty, but a certain irony was not lost on me. Edward Thomas was meditating on his own likely death whilst sitting listening to the rain spatter on his corrugated iron hut [in fact, he was killed at the Battle of Arras, just one year later]. This experience is likely to provoke feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. The idea that studying poetry like this and having to provide a written response under timed conditions could have a similar effect is grotesque. We must retain a sense of perspective. It is possible to care about things that matter without them taking over our lives.

Education and competition

I rarely write blogs as direct responses, but I thought I’d make an exception having read the following article, printed in The Advertiser earlier this month:

It is written by the Chief executive of the SACE board, Martin Westwell. For those who are not aware, SACE is the South Australian equivalent of the HSC, or the IB, or A levels. The short post makes several points, some of which I agree with. In particular, the point about ‘gaming the system’ and employing a tactical approach to subject choice is something about which I have deep concerns.

Equity between subjects is important, and students should choose subjects based on interest, aptitude and ambition, not simply with an eye on maximising their ATAR. As Martin says:

If we define student success as doing better than someone else in a mythical competition then they and their teachers will feel pressure to play the game to win. Stay away from subjects which you might find difficult, “tick and flick” the Research Project, and learn for assessment rather than assess for learning.

The logical conclusion is that an effective assessment system should ensure parity between subjects. It should not be possible to improve academic outcomes solely through tactical choice of subjects. Students should be rewarded for their mastery of subjects, achievable via a combination of talent and hard work. But it is entirely possible to game the system in SACE. 70% of all assessment is internal, written by individual teachers. Most work is not subject to external moderation, and teachers choose most of the work that makes up the moderation sample. Many subjects are non-examined, which encourages students to stay away from these subjects, given the lack of ‘controllability’. Mathematics and English are tiered, and it is possible to gain the maximum possible ATAR (99.95) despite studying lower tiers. Hence, students are actively encouraged to stay away from subjects they might find difficult, which is precisely what Martin seeks to avoid. The post continues:

Education is not a competition. Our post-industrial, globalised world, doesn’t care if a student is winning or losing in a test against their peers. What the world cares about is what that student knows and, more importantly, what they can do with what they know. The world cares if the student is good enough to meet the world’s expectations, whether they are up to the standard. That is how the world measures student success.

There are multiple meanings of the word ‘standard’ at work here. A driving test is a binary standard – you either pass or fail. A system of assessment in education is similar in that it is also pass/fail; there are, however, a set of standards within the overall title of ‘pass’ – either you know enough for an A grade, or a B etc. The concept of a standard that refers to the world’s expectations is tricky to justify given the breadth of that concept. If we take ‘what they can do with what they know’ to be the main thing about which the world cares (and this is not unreasonable), ‘knowing’ is an essential part. Not sufficient, perhaps, but certainly necessary. We should be careful in embracing any narrative which seeks to downplay (or bypass) this importance of knowing. I’d also question when this has ever not been true – we have not sought to promote a nation of people who know things purely for the benefit of pub quizzes in the past! Finally, with 70% of SACE assessment completed during the final year of Schooling, one might also make the point that the world does not care what you know at various points during the year, only what you know by the end. Education (in the pure sense) may not have a finish line, but School does, and it should only matter what you know at the end point.

When skills have a half-life of five years they go out of date so quickly that being “skillable” is more important than ever. The world will judge our young people against this standard.

Here is another use of the word ‘standard’ and one I’m not sure I understand. I think it means there is such a thing as being ‘skillable’, which is to be able to learn new skills quickly (and presumably to be able to forget those skills that go out of date in five years or so). The problem here is that skills such as critical thinking and problem solving are not only domain-specific but also reliant on deep knowledge within that domain. The oft-shared information from the WEF (below) lists the Top 10 Skills needed in both 2015 and 2020. It seems as though negotiation is on the way down, but creativity is on the way up! It’s difficult to find reasons for this, or to find a skill that is teachable explicitly (or new).


The standard is not just about knowledge and skills, it is about how you can use them in your life. Being able to take what you know and influence others, to work ethically, and to think a proposed solution to a problem all the way through to the end. That’s the standard. Demonstrating that you can harness diversity, make the most of technology, and have the entrepreneurial thinking to just get stuff done. That’s the standard.

Here’s another standard – the skills standard. Problem solving and entrepreneurial thinking are standards. As Paul Kirschner states, quoting from Daniel Willingham:

Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts, and that’s true not just because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care most about – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).

Problem solving is not a transferable skill. I find it easy to solve problems in organic chemistry because I have expertise in that area. Solving the problem of my car not starting is a different matter. And back to the first point:

If we define student success as doing better than someone else in a mythical competition…

The competition only semi-mythical. Like it or not, there is an element of competition, and that can be healthy or unhealthy. There are a limited number of places for courses at university, and therefore students are in competition with their peers. Achieving the standard required to access a History degree at Oxford is only part of the story – you still need to be better than most of the other standard-hitting applicants to be accepted. And it’s important to get used to competition. In the job market, there’s usually only one successful applicant, and there may be large numbers of applicants who meet the required standard.

The SACE is not a competition. It’s a standard. A standard that is shifting at the pace of change. 

This is a final line that concerns me. Is the standard shifting up or down, or simply shifting focus? In any case, what does this mean for the students involved?

Education overcomplication

I have written before about the fashion where chefs, having been in the culinary game a long time, reach such a stage of mastery that they take ingredients *out* of dishes rather than add them. This refusal to overcomplicate ends up prioritising taste, and assuming taste is the most important part of restaurant dining, I’m all for it. That’s not to say that the odd dry ice moment isn’t welcome on a special occasion, but it shouldn’t be the main feature. It is also worth noting that if done too often or for too long, what passes for ‘wow’ moments today look tired in a year’s time.

Cooking, coaching or teaching: the temptation to overcomplicate is real. Education is stuck with a kind of ‘improvement narrative’ where the search for new paradigms is never-ending and real. Even when a new paradigm is found, further investigation reveals that is was a couple of old paradigms, one standing on the shoulders of the other and both wrapped in a large raincoat.

Despite advances in technology, we cannot speed up (or worse, bypass) the teaching of reading, writing or basic mathematics. Human beings develop cognitively at a broadly similar rate as they did a hundred years ago (and more). The fact it is now easier to find information at the click of a button will not ensure children gain expertise quicker in these areas. In fact, without appropriate guidance, they are far more likely to end up with misinformation and misunderstandings, with time wasted and frustration evident.

The most efficient and effective way to educate children is for the teacher to be an expert in what they are teaching and to pass on their knowledge and understanding of that subject. The skill of the teacher is to structure instruction into a logical sequence, to provide clear explanations where necessary, to pre-empt and address likely misunderstandings, to allow for appropriate practice so concepts are mastered and (just as importantly) to make the content come alive. The teacher should be an expert story-teller, sprinkling the occasionally dry subject matter with the holy water of interesting anecdote.

Lorraine Hammond wrote a good article in The Conversation recently, explaining what is meant by explicit instruction and how it helps children to learn. It is clear, logical, backed up by research and makes a strong case for effective teaching via this model. But explicit teaching is not the ‘go-to’ teaching model in Australia. Project-based and enquiry learning are more popular, seemingly because this allows children to follow their own interests and hence become more ‘engaged’. This also deals with the twin problem of poor behaviour (children will behave better if allowed to do what they like) and lack of teacher expertise (children can learn for themselves from the internet and the teacher can simply guide learning).

This is dressed up as a ‘democratic’ classroom, and given that modern-day veneration of children’s interests, it does appeal to parents. But just as we should not let ideology stand in the way of evidence, we should also be careful of overcomplication. A good example of this is the following comment, made in response to Lorraine Hammond’s article, by an associate professor of education at Deakin University. It is a good example of something that sounds sensible on the surface, even fundamental, but does not stand up to scrutiny. The author attempts to differentiate learning from education, and criticises explicit methodology as the passing on of information, or mere indoctrination, thus different from genuine conceptual understanding. This makes no sense – deeper understanding comes from learning more and being able to make more connections between what has been learned. This desire to overcomplicate, to pretend that intimately related areas of education are mutually exclusive, does no-one any favours. Flawed and dogmatic ideology is rife in Australian education. It is hard for people to sieve out the useful advice and ideas, and particularly so for those new to the profession who are more susceptible to seduction via new paradigms. How genuinely useful is the following comment:

And here’s the original article. You can make up your own mind here too.

Stretch and challenge?

The title of this blog is a phrase (and associated philosophy) that emerged around the mid-2000s. I could be wrong about the timing, but I do remember having a ‘S+C’ column in schemes of work when I was a Head of Department, so unless I was a man ahead of his time, I think that resinates the approach to 2005. A strong counter-argument is that the term was clearly influenced by Stretch and Vern’s 1996 seminal dance classic I’m Alive, and the likelihood of education’s policy-making heavyweights taking almost a decade to make this link seems unlikely.

Overall, it’s a good idea (Stretch and Challenge, not Stretch and Vern) – ensuring each topic has activities to develop and extend the thinking of the most able pupils. It also ensures that teachers don’t mistake teaching the syllabus for teaching the subject. It is often easier to understand the syllabus material if extra content is explained.

Unfortunately, it also gave rise to a new form of terrible PD, where consultants and School managers gave workshops on how to incorporate S+C activities into one’s teaching, usually for the supposed benefit of Ofsted. This infographic is a favourite:

Image result for stretch and challenge

We’re only missing The Twilight Zone for the full set. I’m particularly pleased that the Stretch Zone involves the pupils being ‘alive’ (a further nod to Stretch and Vern). This also raises the stakes somewhat, implying that too much time in the Comfort or Panic zones will lead to death.

It’s relatively easy to incorporate extension activities within specific subjects. Almost any topic/concept/genre etc can be developed in terms of breadth or depth. All one needs is the time to be able to explore and a teacher with the inclination, interest and knowledge to be able to deliver. Both these essentials cannot be taken for granted.

The most joyful form of learning can take place with extension and enrichment that is not specifically linked to curriculum subjects. When one is freed from the constraints of syllabus and associated assessments and examinations, we open up a purer form of learning. This non-examined curriculum is where one gets a true sense of the academic culture and priorities of a School. It’s advice I give to prospective parents – to look beyond the median ATAR headline figure. Look at uptake in the IB, in higher level Maths and English. Look at the ambition in the Performing Arts programme, the books read in the School Library. Look to the opportunities in the non-examined curriculum.

Accelerating pupils through Year 11 Maths in Year 10 and Year 12 Maths in Year 11 is not extension. It’s teaching the minimum content quicker, and if it leads to the subject being dropped in Year 12, it’s an even more pointless strategy, suggesting that mastery of a subject pales into insignificance when considering tactics to maximise ATAR. Gifted and Talented classes where children work on their own passion projects can lead to the child extending themselves, but that’s the point: they are doing it themselves, meaning they are perfectly capable of doing that independent of their teacher.

Our approach to the non-examined curriculum is to create a sense of enjoyment and achievement in learning and understanding. We aim to teach things that boys would not come across in the usual scheme of things. We decouple this from the standard curriculum because a sense of freedom is brought about in learning without assessment. Links between topics appear naturally and these links strengthen over the years children are involved in our programme. The focus on knowledge is clear and the fallacious argument that because one cannot teach all human knowledge it is pointless to teach any is not one we entertain.

This approach is not possible without dedicated, inspirational and knowledgable colleagues, and it’s a significant undertaking, with 14 teachers and almost 200 boys involved in our programme. It’s also one of the things I am most proud of, and though I expect it does benefit our median ATAR in an indirect manner, I wouldn’t care if it didn’t. Some things are just worth doing.

We’re six and a half weeks into the academic year and we’ve already run sessions on the following:

Constantinople; Frederic Remington and Tom Roberts at the Art Gallery of South Australia; the Classical Languages of Architecture; King Kong (1933) and the Northern States’ fear of black migration; Hannah Arendt and The Banality of Evil; The siege of Leningrad and Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony; really big numbers and counting apples and oranges; indigenous empires in world history; Al Capone and Bugsy Malone.

That’s in Years 7 to 9, and there’s far more Stretch and Challenge where that came from.

The World of Work

The great education debate is in a state of permanent flux. Even the debate about what the debate is about, is in a state of flux. Some people deny the debate exists, usually just before they add their tuppence to the debate. Others haughtily declare the debate irrelevant, before being triggered by someone who deigns not to share their view. One of the statements I’d like to debate is the statement, often presented as axiomatic, that the true purpose of education is to prepare children for the world of work.

It is part of human nature to want to be useful and to contribute in a positive way to society. Even those people who claim to hate their job, those who would ‘give it all up today’ if they won the lottery, may well be desirous of a sense of purpose within a few months. Working allows us to reveal our merit and to play a role in the betterment of society. We are more than just Marxian cogs in a machine, but the knowledge that even the grandest machine can be brought to its metaphorical knees by the removal of the most insignificant cog provides reassurance to us all.

To some, work is merely The Curse of Adam, without whom we might have lived forever in paradise. The fact he gave in to temptation and crunched that apple is directly responsible for the mind-numbing tedium we endure on a daily basis. Or perhaps he should be lauded for giving us the opportunity to gossip by the water-cooler about the grim humanity revealed on Married at First Sight.

The arguments against the narrow-minded and reductionist view represented by ‘education as preparation for the world of work’ have been stated, and persuasively, on many occasions. Education exists to make minds, not careers; what is the point of STEM, without the accompanying flower (the Arts); Oakeshott’s ‘Conversation of Mankind’. And so on. I subscribe wholeheartedly to these views, and I play my part in the education of children because I believe in education for the sole purpose of becoming educated.

But in addition to this, preparation for the world of work is a nonsense. If we assume, as is almost certainly the case, that most of the children we educate today will enter similar jobs to those of ten or twenty years ago, preparation for the world of work would mostly involve:

  • How to swiftly transfer blame to others and hoard credit for oneself.
  • How to appear permanently busy so no-one loads you with the floating jobs.
  • How to take a sickie and have people believe you really are sick (Wednesday tickle cough, Thursday heavy hacking, Friday Netflix).
  • How to make people believe you are paying attention in meetings.
  • How to prepare your own lunch without ending up eating the same sad gruel out of misted tupperware every day.

Because that’s what work is, and lots of it is boring for plenty of people. On the other hand, the joy in learning and understanding some of the works and ideas of the most intellectually and culturally advanced members of our species is what should happen in School. The joy to be found in music, art, theatre, film and literature is what can sustain us through even the most tedious day at work and it is this we should be teaching and promoting during the limited time we have with the young and impressionable.

Bede the Venerable died in the year 735. I have walked past Bede’s tomb in Durham Cathedral on many occasions (he was interred there in 1020). It is almost 1300 years since he died, yet his quote about the futility of the human condition is unlikely to be bettered any time soon:

It seems to me that life is like the flight of a little bird through a fire-lit hall on a winter’s evening where the soldiers are feasting; out in the forests the storm is raging; the bird flies swiftly through the bright room then vanishes back into the cold darkness from which it came. So too we live: moments of brightness engulfed in the vast unknown.

Education is not about preparation for the world of work, but to ensure that we are able to enjoy more of those moments of brightness than might otherwise be the case.