Core, not corona

I watched the education special on Q and A last night. It was in fact advertised as a ‘teaching special’. It is impossible in one hour of discussion to address all issues concerning teaching, but the terms of reference might have included discussion about what makes an excellent teacher and perhaps where our current system of education is working well, and what might be improved. These are central issues, but much of the programme concentrated on items that ranged between the emotive and the peripheral.

Here’s a peripheral item: I do not believe that the Finnish education system merits much air-play when discussing issues facing Australian schooling. Finland is a country as far from Australia culturally as it is geographically and it makes no more sense to focus on Finland than any other country high up in PISA rankings, such as Estonia or Singapore. Given that Finland has been on the slide over the past decade, it is even more nonsensical to ape their educational philosophy. The excitement about Finnish education seems be that if one assumes their system is the highest performing in the world (it isn’t) and then cherry-picks aspects of their system (children start School at a later age, an absence of standardised testing), it appears we can improve Australian education by working fewer hours and abandoning testing. It’s a comforting message: make things better by doing less work and creating less stress. Just to be clear, the bit about a lack of standardised testing in Finland isn’t true, but that generally gets glossed over, and of course, cherry-picking only the bits one finds palatable is unlikely to produce success.

Now that’s off my chest, much of the discussion (when Finland wasn’t being trumpeted) centred on testing – exam stress, the genuine value of NAPLAN, and teacher workload (also linked to testing). The question of what makes an excellent teacher, and how we might seek to employ, develop and retain more of these people, never got much of a look-in. This is a great shame, because if your country has all the best teachers, it’s certain that its children will be educated well. Why did the conversation focus so much on testing, therefore? The simple answer is that this panders to the current narrative of stressed teens and a factory model of education (where pupils are treated as though they are on a conveyor belt). We can then all blame the exams for the alleged rise of mental health issues and claim that if we just trusted teachers and abandoned standardised testing, all would be well. But when issues are complex, answers are rarely simple, and if we really want to get to the core (rather than fiddle around at the corona), we need to interrogate education in a more fundamental sense.

I believe the role of examinations and assessment is simple – they exist to test what pupils know and what they can do. Assessment should not be the main focus – learning is the focus, and assessment provides a valid measure of that learning. Assessment should not be invasive but it should be standardised. I don’t know why the ‘standardised’ aspect gets so many people riled. Standardised simply means ‘fair’ and ‘valid’ in this case; it is not some affront to the individuality of children. I sense that many object to the word without having spent time considering what it means. The exact nature of the assessment may vary from subject to subject but it must be valid, transparent and open to as little subjectivity as possible. If you are going to assess via examination, these should be externally written, marked, contain varied styles of question and not be so generic that one is able to perform well via extended practice of previous similar papers. We should be able to extrapolate from any task, in order to make valid judgments about what the individual pupil knows and understands in that subject.

Australia has a bizarre love-hate relationship with testing and assessment. One the one hand, examinations and assessment tasks are often made the end goal, therefore taking on a significance greater than the learning of essential subject matter. This prioritising of the examination over the content (or even the enjoyment of learning) is akin to prioritising the driving test over the ability to drive. If we trust our educative process, the quality of our teachers and the hard work of our pupils, examinations and assessments should look after themselves. Stress and worry is reduced, partly because the pupils are better educated, but also because the assessment does not have an overblown sense of importance attached to it. However, many of the same teachers who promote assessment as the main purpose and end-goal of education are also those who claim that an over-focus leads to stress in teachers and pupils alike. I don’t think you can have it both ways.

I expect by de-emphasising the importance of testing, we could free up teachers to teach and pupils to learn. We may even re-discover joy in learning things that are unrelated (at least directly) to essential content and find that making connections allows us to understand more, and be more creative. Steve Jobs said that ‘creativity is just connecting things’, and there is some fundamental education wisdom in those five words.

I therefore believe that by concentrating on NAPLAN and Finland, we ignore (perhaps deliberately) the most important issue facing us, and that is the casual side-lining of intellectual development, when this should be the main purpose of education. Success in examinations is a by-product of intellectual development, and if we are to re-emphasise this as the main purpose, we will require a flipping of focus. It will also require a deep cultural shift in Australian education, and perhaps in the country as a whole. To take the words of the national anthem: Beneath our radiant Southern Cross We’ll toil with hearts and hands…; perhaps hearts and minds might be a good place to start?