Student against student, school against school, state against state, nation against nation, it seems the education hunger games has only just begun. And we’ve got data for everything – data for numeracy, literacy, cohort performance, school performance, state performance, national performance. But we don’t mention teacher performance because that, it seems, is too political.
Never mind kids learning, what’s their score? What’s their number? Where are they on the scale? To which percentile do they belong? And who can we blame? Because when we sift the data and find the cause of the problem – eliminate!
The poisonous venom of constant fault-finding that has become the new norm for education in Australia is having an impact upon students. Only this week I had lengthy talks with my 8-year-old daughter who was about to sit her first national test. She was apprehensive about the ominous NAPLAN, and as she was explaining how ‘big’ this test was I became acutely aware that the argy-bargy of education politics had tricked down through the ranks of bureaucracy and was manifesting itself in my dining room.
The mother in me was concerned. The educational researcher in me was more than concerned.
Let’s get some things straight.
Learning is not a lesson, a curriculum or a test score. Learning is a human trait. We all do it, most of the time. Our children do it a lot. It is one of the qualities that makes us human.
Education, on the other hand, does not happen all the time. Education is more akin to intervention, and usually occurs when a more knowledgeable person shows a learner new information, ways of thinking, or skills. Both education and learning are inherently social in nature.
An effective education system expedites learning. But if an education system is failing, as some do, student learning does not necessarily cease, it just changes.
For example, instead of learning science or music, students might learn work avoidance behaviours or survival skills. Some learning is productive, while other learning is survival-based. So not all learning is equal, but all learning is social at some level.
In its purest form, learning is organic. A healthy child grows in a healthy environment. To maximise growth, we have learnt to cultivate learning experiences, and in Australia we generally do this at school. We have education systems to facilitate learning, and we collect data to measure progress.
This is where education becomes complicated, because once we introduce data we introduce ranks and hierarchies. Having a background in educational research, I have a healthy respect for data, but it is so frequently misused in Australian schooling. When data is used to compare student against student, class against class, school against school, district against district – and dare I say teacher against teacher – we undermine the social fabric of education and learning.
No longer are students attending school with their friends, they are attending school with the competition. And shall I broach the topic of inter-class competition as different sectors of society compete for resources and funding? It’s like a real life hunger games, a survival of the fittest. Struggles like these erode community cohesion as individuals vie for higher rank. Communal intelligence is exponentially more powerful than individual intelligence, but current systems seemed obsessed with comparing community members against each other by mandating that schools publish comparative data.
Where does this leave the most vulnerable? How can young learners thrive in such hostile environments? There is a balance to strike between systemic and organic factors in human learning – if there is no system then learning is not optimised, but if the system is too onerous then learning is repressed.
As parents and teachers we really need to take a step back and look at our education system with greater perspective. Is the system serving us, or are we serving it? Is it strengthening our communities or tearing them apart?
While we jeopardise the social fabric of learning with layers of comparison and competition between students, schools and sectors, learners are left to fend for themselves. It is the individual against the system. Sounds frighteningly like popular dystopian fiction to me.
Dr. Alison Willis is the author of Nurturing Intelligence, and works as a university lecturer and classroom teacher.
What do you think of NAPLAN and the way the education system is run in Australia? Did you kids do NAPLAN this week? Have they done it yet?