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When it comes to Schooling the Wheel is Turning

Eric Sidoti

Eric Sidoti

It is tempting to think that when it comes to schooling we have simply lost the plot.

There is so much time devoted to debates about education among our politicians, in the media and around dinner tables but you can’t help but feel that it is all so much noise. The same old tunes on constant repeat. Track one: funding. Track two: testing. Track three: world rankings. Track four: standards. Track five: teacher performance (or lack thereof). Track six: disaster stories.

There is so much noise that we forget that Gonski’s “Review of Funding for Schooling” was as much about what lay behind the funding model as the proposed funding model itself. Gonski made an argument that there is much more to schooling than just developing academic skills. There was a reminder throughout the report of the 2008 Melbourne Declaration where all Australian Governments agreed to focus on equity and excellence and on young Australians becoming successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens.

Addressing the impact of standardised testing, for example, Gonski warned us that an excessive focus on what is testable, measurable and publicly reportable carries the risk of an imbalance in the school curriculum. “Independence, confidence, initiative and teamwork,” he said, “are learned as much through elements of the curriculum that are not readily measured by an external test as through those areas in which outcomes can be readily tested and reported.”

Some five years later it’s pretty hard to find anyone who is really satisfied with how it’s going and till now it’s been well-nigh impossible to find people willing to look beyond the funding disputes to ask just what it is we’re educating our kids for.

However, there’s a whiff of change in the air.

Lucy Clark’s recently released book Beautiful Failures is touching a chord among educators and parents alike. Clark was driven to start asking questions and looking for answers by her own daughter’s struggles. Struggles it quickly emerged that were recognised by many others.

It makes you wonder whether the more we measure, the less we achieve. Taken at face failure the PISA data and NAPLAN results constantly being wheeled out by proponents of standardised testing and the ‘high performing’ road to education, suggest that the new (and still growing) testing regime far from paving the way to higher performance has been accompanied by a steady decline in educational attainment.

If that isn’t sufficient cause for caution, then Clark’s perceptive account of the impact this is all having on Australian children should be. Her conclusion that there is something deeply disturbing going on with our kids resonates with research on the impact of ‘high stakes’ testing commissioned over several years under a Whitlam Institute education project. The final report concluded with Professor Johanna Wynn and her colleagues from the Melbourne Graduate School of Education finding that NAPLAN undermines quality education and is “not in the best interests of Australian children”.

The brunt of our collective failure is borne most directly by children and their families. However, the questions raised go to the heart of what we value and just what sort of society we actually want. 

Clark invokes Plato who argued that education’s primary purpose was to bring out the best in people: “The highest goal of education is the knowledge of Good, to nurture a man [sic] to be a better human being”.

Dr Geoff Masters, Chief Executive Officer at the Australian Centre for Educational Research (ACER), reflects something of the changing mood in a paper he wrote earlier this year asking “Is there another way to think about schooling?”. He leaves no doubt that he thinks the answer is “yes”. He calls on us to think differently about learning: about learners; about curriculum; what it means ‘to teach’; the role of assessment and ‘reporting’. “In short,” he says, “to think differently about schooling itself”.

The truth is it is not all gloom and doom. In Australia we have great examples of what teachers and schools can do for their students - and their communities - and what more schools could do given the chance.

These examples though will remain but glimmers on the horizon if we are not prepared to challenge the prevailing assumptions about what education is really for and open the way to re-fashioning our education system so that it genuinely puts the best interest of our children first.

A first step would be to recognise that education is essentially social in nature and intent. You get that right and the economics benefits will flow. The ‘high performance’ cheer squad have had their chance and been found wanting. It might just be time to change the game.

Read the Whitlam Institute's 2014 report The Experience of Education: the impacts of high stakes testing on school students and their families: A Qualitative Study here. 

This study was undertaken for the Whitlam Institute by Professor Johanna Wyn and her colleagues at the Youth Research Centre at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne.