Bouncebackability

Certain words and phrases in education have, in recent times, been applied so far and widely to have become almost meaningless. ‘Engagement’ and ‘wellbeing’ are my top two, but ‘resilience’ is hot on their heels. ‘Vulnerability’ is a good bet to take over in time, but but for now it’s well back in the field, alongside ‘higher order thinking’ and ‘the 5 Cs’.

I like the Elizabeth Edwards version, defining resilience as accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. This is how we cope with bereavement, or the break-up of a relationship. Ask any alcoholic (presumably before 11am) and they will tell you: the first step to solving your problem is acceptance that the problem exists. Being resilient requires one to take the rough with the smooth (or, in the words of Mellors the gardener, Tha mun ta’e th’ rough wi’ th’ smooth). Life can turn on a sixpence; we should never get too high when the going is good, lest we increase the depth of the fall when things take a turn for the worse. Keeping one’s emotional amplitude to a minimum is a sensible way to ensure resilience.

In a School context, we should praise genuine resilience when we see it; that which Iain Dowie coined ‘bouncebackability’. We should praise anything that is praiseworthy. But we should also be cautious about over-praising, lest it loses its validity. Praising children for not misbehaving on School trips was always a personal annoyance. My general rule was never to praise those who carry out standard expectations; save the praise for when individuals have done something exceptional; something out of the ordinary.

Which brings us to this, produced by the SACE board and featuring various SACE co-ordinators, presumably as a gee-up to children across the state that their collective ‘backs’ have been well and truly ‘got’. It is a solid example of over-praising. A secondary point is why some of them decided to chose *that* background to their clip, but perhaps we’ll never know:

Students in South Australia have missed approximately one week of teaching time, and may have had another week or two of teaching done remotely. The current global pandemic causes us all to worry, but there are few better places to be in the world than South Australia, and the level of resilience we have needed to show is far less than many countries around the world. Disruption has been minimal, and though the level of uncertainty has been high, most of the heavy lifting has been done by teachers, not students.

I have a high opinion of the boys I teach. I think they are perfectly capable of coping with a couple of weeks of learning at home. I think they require a degree of reassurance, but also clarity of instruction and expectation. I do not think the Covid-19 experience will either break or define them, which makes this comment from the video above:

I’ve no doubt that in a few years time, you’ll be one of the most innovative and resilient group (sic) of young people…

an example of serious over-stretching.

To find yourself, think for yourself

We will be embracing a term of remote learning from next week. That is probably a worst-case scenario and I hope and expect we will be functioning as something that resembles a traditional School well before the end of term. Getting back to normal is a priority for everyone. Teachers all over the world have been scrambling for some weeks now and it is to their credit that they have adapted to provide a worthwhile learning experience. It has required us to be agile, flexible, resourceful and imaginative.

The teachers who will find the remote learning phase most difficult are probably those trying to replicate traditional classroom delivery. The first step on the road to alcoholic recovery is admission, and this is also the first step on the road to remote learning nirvana. We need to admit that remote learning is at best different, and almost certainly less efficient. Defining what success looks like is important to its evaluation and I estimate that working to 50% efficiency during extended remote learning is a clear win.

Remote learning does not mean slavish devotion to technological platforms. I delivered most of my lessons face to face via Zoom in the early days of remote learning, but I expect to pull back over time. Given the choice of a pupil reading, memorising and then stepping outside to recite a poem as an early-morning sun salutation, or watching a set of voice annotated power-point slides, I know which I would choose.

One of the inevitabilities of remote learning is that it will cause a stretching effect amongst pupils. Those who are bright, motivated and resourceful will have a fulfilling educational experience and those who lack a strong work ethic and self-regulation will fall behind. Developing independent learners has been a mantra for Schools for at least the last two decades; now we are able to judge the fruits of our labours.

Everyone is able to learn independently. Granted there are some who will learn more, or quicker, but the ability to learn is within the control of us all. What varies is the willingness to stick to a task, the conviction not to give up until what needs to be learned has been learned. It is as much a test of character as it is of ability. A remote environment presents opportunities to learn, but also opportunities for distraction. As teachers we need to accept that and be willing to pass some genuine responsibility over to those tasked with learning.

Pandemic fun, pandemic empowerment

Andreas Schleicher is the Director for Education and Skills at the OECD. He’s quite popular in Australia, mostly for his fuzzy progressive rhetoric and willingness to ignore the data produced by his own organisation whenever it doesn’t suit his ideology. Which is most of the time. Never one to let the opportunity presented by a global pandemic pass him by, he used his recent keynote at the optimistically titled Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined on-line seminar, to offer this: 

You’re going to have a lot of young people who have experienced different forms of learning in this crisis, learning that was more fun, more empowering. They will go back to their teachers and say: can we do things differently?

I wonder what these different forms of learning are to which he’s referring? Perhaps the thrill of sitting in front of your screen at home, working through lots of questions posted on the School’s LMS? Or perhaps it’s the lesson taught remotely via a power-point, live-narrated by the teacher? He couldn’t mean the whole class Zoom bun fight, featuring a mixture of comedy backgrounds and pupils appearing with hilarious aliases, surely? Or perhaps it’s the desperate attempt of ‘flip-teaching’ to make a comeback via teacher-produced YouTube videos?

Children miss their friends; they miss the routine of School; they miss the human connection that is central to learning (and I don’t just mean the teachers they like). There will be some teacher up-skilling, aspects of which can be taken forward and incorporated into standard teaching when we are back to normal. But the idea that Covid-19 will bring about some educational revolution, where children realise that auto-didacticism is a valid model for mass education, is a fanciful notion to be taken seriously by zero educators who consider themselves to be serious about their craft.

When so-called futurists make predictions about what percentage of future jobs do not yet exist, it’s frustrating that we have to wait years for them to be proved wrong. In the case of Schleicher’s prediction above, we should have our answer before the year is out.

 

 

 

 

A little knowledge…

…is a dangerous thing. So wrote Alexander Pope, in the early Eighteenth Century, in An Essay on Criticism. In adult educational circles, having a little knowledge is infinitely more dangerous that having none at all. A pupil with a little knowledge may be able to bag a higher grade than one with zero knowledge of the subject at hand; but when it comes to edu-policy makers and those in positions of authority, possessing little knowledge places one in dangerous territory.

Socrates was probably displaying false modesty when he said: ‘I know that I know nothing’. He may not have even said it, but that’s another story: Plato’s not around to be interrogated. However, if we take the literal interpretation of the phrase, being certain that you know nothing about a subject means you are unlikely to over-reach. When you know nothing, it’s better to keep your mouth shut and listen to those who do actually know something. Knowing that you know nothing has a certain power because you naturally refuse to be drawn into a conversation where you will only prove your ignorance. Knowing nothing makes you a neutral individual – you are unable to contribute usefully to debate, but by removing yourself from said debate, at least you’re not dangerous.

Some of us possess genuine expertise in a limited number of areas and having lots of knowledge in a certain field makes one the opposite of dangerous. Expertise, used assiduously and not for selfish reasons, makes us actively useful. We are able to contribute widely in the field in question, with the aim of increasing overall understanding. Expertise also brings with it a sense of intellectual humility. The more we know, the more we understand there is left to know – and we may even have a role to play in furthering human understanding. Standing on the shoulders of giants allows us to see further, but there’s always more beyond the horizon. One is only able to contemplate the enormity of the field when we know enough for the field to reveal itself fully.

Most of us possess a little knowledge in all sorts of areas – politics, philosophy, culture and religion – and this is where things can get dangerous. Intellectual hubris kicks in well before it is tamed by intellectual humility, and conversations about education are dominated by people that over-estimate their understanding of a complex area. If solutions were simple, they would already have been enacted; many of the silver bullets actually turn out to be bullet-shaped turds wrapped in aluminium foil. Entrepreneurial thinking, focusing on STEM, project-based learning and following student interest are all easily saleable and have a ring of truth to them, but tend to be pushed by those sitting comfortably in the zone of little knowledge. Much as we would love them to be true, fitting evidence to suit our ideology is the exact opposite of critical thinking.

Alexander Pope had something else to say in An Essay on Criticism. He opined that ‘To err is Humane; to Forgive, Divine. I genuinely believe that everyone involved in education is trying to do their best for the children in their care. No-one goes into education to become rich or for pure self-aggrandisement. But we owe it to those we educate that if we wish to raise ourselves from the protective environment of knowing nothing, we should aim to bypass a little knowledge as quickly as possible, to get to the land of nectar and ambrosia that is true enlightenment. Until we get there, it’s wise to keep our powder dry and keep our potentially dangerous ideas to ourselves.

 

A night with Pasi

I’ve had a date in my calendar for some time, and the entry read ‘A Night with Pasi’. The Pasi in question is Pasi Sahlberg, Professor of Education Policy at the Gonski Institute for Education at the University of New South Wales. He has an impressive back catalogue, and you can peruse his gongs here. The night in question was last night, and by the time the educational part finished, I was ready for the heavy drinking part to begin.

The education part lasted one hour, and at the end of that hour it was difficult to isolate any key takeaways. One of the reasons I like ResearchEd is the diversity of presenters, and that includes teachers. Teachers work at the coal-face, and the translation of education research into classroom practice provides some of the most useful professional learning one can undertake. Education researchers and policy-makers are important people to listen to; but without the vital link of transfer to the classroom, even valid research and sensible policy can end up existing in a vacuum.

There was a hint of Sir Ken about Pasi. We were told early on that the standard of teaching in Australia is high, and that we should not be looking to improve in this area.  Instead, straight from Ken’s playbook, it was the ‘system’ that was problematic. This enables one to blame teachers without really blaming teachers, given that we are (at least in part) the system. NAPLAN was aired briefly, just enough time for teacher hackles to be raised, and we had a few avuncular anecdotes about Pasi’s year in Australia.

The talk supposedly centred on improving equity in education, and we were treated to a long explanation of how equity and equality are not the same thing. I expect he may have misjudged the audience, because it felt for the most part that we were being Fin-splained, and at a funereal pace. The graphic of three children of different heights standing on crates and trying to pick apples from a tree was used to illustrate the point. You know the one – it’s second only to the ‘fish climbing a tree‘ one for its ubiquity.

It seems that, according to PISA, Australia is bang-average for both overall performance in English and Maths *and* equity (which in simple terms was defined as the link between ICSEA and performance). The countries ranking highly in both were Canada, Estonia, Finland, Japan and Hong Kong – so find the common features there if you can. We were told that we needed to climb a ‘Stairway to Heaven’, given that these countries appeared in the top right-hand corner of the graph, but no suggestion of how this was to happen was posited. Instead, we were asked (excruciatingly) to wave our arms in time to Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. Being the edu-grinch I am, I refused.

Not only is it tricky to see what these countries have in common, it’s also noticeable that they are moving in different directions. High performance and falling is not a system one should ape, even if it were possible to transfer the building blocks of one country’s education system to another (note: it isn’t). Another common problem with PISA data (or any data) is the cherry-picking of reasons to support these data. Finland’s educational decline was not mentioned, and neither were its high-stakes terminal examinations or the high-status (and relatively high supply) of teachers. Instead, Finland’s longer and outdoor recess time was highlighted as a key reason, even to the point of stating that the longer children spend time in Australia, the less educated they become. If that’s not a slight on teachers, I’m not sure what is.

The importance of funding was mentioned, and though it may seem axiomatic to suggest this is important, there was no indication of how increased funding would improve outcomes or equity. The importance of focusing on early years was mentioned, which is probably a good point, but again it was only in the context of funding, not (for example) evidence-based approaches to teaching reading.

As a conclusion, we were left with three points. The first was fair funding (an undoubted crowd pleaser, but unclear on the links to equity/outcomes). The second was ambiguously titled ‘educate the parents’. I’m unsure if this meant increase parents’ cultural capital to avoid children falling behind when *not* in School, or whether we needed to being parents on board with best practice in education, but it was odd to see a concluding point make an appearance only in the conclusion, rather than at any point during the talk. The final point was that ‘healthy kids learn better’, which again seemed to come from nowhere, other than as a nod to Finland’s outdoor play.

Pasi Sahlberg must be a capable educationalist, surely? You can’t get all the gongs simply by impersonating Sir Ken, can you? But I cannot believe anyone was convinced or reassured by this presentation. The whole evening was amateurish, from him being introduced on several occasions as Pasi Salzburg, as though we could expect Finland’s top Mozart impersonator, to his mis-pronounciation of the researcher after whom the lecture is named, to the confusion of Austria and Australia on one of the funding graphs. Or maybe we just need some spatzle with our morning tea?

I will keep attending education conferences, workshops and lectures. We need to remain aware of our biases and open to the opinions of other informed individuals. But this evening was gossamer-thin in useful content and gave no reassurance that the Australian educational powers that be have a vision (or blueprint) for educational improvement in this country. If they want an example of equity in education, they should look to Schools like Katharine Birbalsingh’s Michaela, but I expect the ideological opposition to knowledge-development and testing, as well as an ingrained rejection of intellectualism will prevent this. Ho hum.

Buying cars in Wales

For a country with a population of just over three million, it’s not only rugby union where Wales punches above its weight.

In the cerebral fields of literature, poetry, art and music, Wales has contributed much. The Thomas brothers (Dylan and R S), Gruff Rhys, Augustus John, John Cale, The Mabinogion and the magnificently named Adam the Welshman are solid examples.

Wales is an ancient and mysterious country and its cultural traditions have had plenty of time to develop.

Fast-forward to 2019, however, and intellectual progress seems to have stalled. The Welsh Youth Parliament clearly is less interested in literature and language than ‘how to clean, and buy cars’:

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-50126863

Aside from the fact that instruction on how to buy a car probably isn’t going to take much time (you know how you buy anything – by having the money to pay for it, then handing it over? It’s like that), this suggested collection of life-hacks has nothing to do with intellectual development, and more to do with filling a void left by parents. It cannot be the job of Schools to fill in every time parents (or society) are judged to have failed. This does not mean we shouldn’t seek to educate via more than just subjects, but there is a limit to what Schools can achieve.

One shouldn’t blame the children of the Welsh Youth Parliament either. At least they’re not suggesting compulsory study of Shakin’ Stevens. But neither are they curriculum experts, and asking 14-year olds what they think should be taught in Schools is not something that would be enacted in fields taken more seriously than education. Pupils are always likely to revert to these sort of suggestions, partly because they have no idea about the more complex aspects of curriculum design.

There are two other points worth making:

  • Why are we unconcerned with how fearful young people are about real life? The fact that they yearn for lessons in how to deal with grief, how to speak in public and how to maintain healthy relationships is a matter of genuine concern. I suspect this is a reflection of the confidence we have drained from this generation, with endless talk of safety, offence, resilience, mental health and vulnerability. The more we encourage these conversations, the more we seem to push our neuroses onto them. The curriculum suggestions of these children should act as a wake-up call for us.
  • It is clear that these children have a very limited view of what an academic education can do for you. Knowledge and understanding is liberating and helps us to navigate the world better. It allows us to become independent thinkers. What they have done is analogous to understanding the need to become an independent thinker, and then suggesting that we introduce lessons on independent thinking. Education doesn’t work like that.

It is fine for children to have opinions on their education, but it’s also worth remembering the words of the late and great Douglas Adams:

“All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.”

The Factory Fallacy

When you next attend a poor edu-conference (and let’s be honest, that probably means your next edu-conference), one way to avoid gnawing your hands off during some of the worst presentations is to play bingo. Not the ‘Maggie’s Den’ type, but seeing if you can get a line or full house of edu-BS and tired cliches. One of the commonest of these is the ‘Factory Model’ of education. This is a favourite of the C21 skills brigade, because it can be used to denigrate just about anything they don’t like – children in rows, teacher teaching from the front, a common curriculum etc. The fact that many people lambast this model whilst orating from the front to a rapt audience of teachers seated is rows is an irony unnoticed by many. Perhaps they’re too busy weeping inwardly at the grainy black and white photos of young children with chalk, slates and abacuses, staring mournfully at the camera lens and reminding us that it really was grim in the early C20.

For a comprehensive take-down of why the factory model (as presented in this manner) is wrong, you may wish to read this article. It’s certainly far better than the following hastily assembled contribution.

I wish to make two points. The first is that children seated in rows, learning powerful knowledge from an expert teacher is something to be lauded, not scoffed at. The passing on of an academic ‘tradition’ is one of the hallmarks of an educated society. It demonstrates a commitment to making minds and a care for the intellectual and cultural development of children. The fact that all children are exposed to this curriculum is an educational and social leveller, and whereas we may (and should) debate the content that makes up a curriculum, a communal approach to learning is a wonderful way to bring children together; to emphasise they are part of something bigger than the self.

The second point is to highlight where we do have a problem with a ‘factory model’ in education, and certainly in the education system where I currently reside. ‘Factories’ are concerned with ‘products’. How the product is formed is perhaps of lesser interest, so long as the process is efficient and cheap, with appropriate quality control built in. Our product is ATAR, and that remains the key focus for too many. The process has become joyless for many, with efficiency and minimisation of risk being the main considerations. Quality control comes in the form of myriad assessment tasks, except these aren’t really anything of the sort – they’re just mini-products that come together in the end for the final ATAR product. The tasks are written by teachers who then mark the tasks; there’s a whole tutoring industry that exists (at least in some cases) for the work to be outsourced to, and we are all complicit because the final product justifies the trudging journey.

Along the way, we squeeze out resilience (there’s no need), ameliorate risk (it can be mitigated) and reduce the importance of subject mastery (due to the domination of the ‘task’). The only thing that suffers is the children’s knowledge and understanding, and the associated joy that *could* develop as a result. Instead, they are the ones on the factory conveyor belt, and instead of refusing to accept this system of education, the Holy Grail of ATAR and university shines so brightly as to blind them to the absence of education in its true sense.

I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad if the phrase that sums up this rather uninspiring approach to education (‘The Factory Model’) had not instead been tagged to something which represents a possible, and brighter, alternative. There’s so much confusion about education, but this might be the most glaringly obvious.

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.