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?

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