My favourite episode of the American television comedy Seinfeld is the one titled “The Opposite”. Jerry Seinfeld’s mate, George, was always down on his luck until one day he decided to do the opposite of everything that came into his head.
His natural instincts had gotten him nowhere. He had no job and was still living with his parents well into adulthood. The results of George’s decision to do the opposite were that he changed his whole daily routine, found a new partner who liked his faults and landed an amazing job with the New York Yankees.
I was reminded of George in “The Opposite” episode when the Australian government launched its new Gonski report, Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools.
The review challenges the current schooling system by calling out the vestiges of the assembly line industrial age of education and the current lack of investment in “individualized” learning and future-focused skills. It calls for new types of online formative assessment (that is assessment carried out by teachers in their classrooms as part of the teaching process) and a different progression of learning schemes to focus on early literacy and numeracy skills. It wants us to reinvent years 11 and 12 of high school, to make them more creativity and innovation-based.
This is sounding like “The Opposite” to me.
The premise of this new scheme is line with the best thinkers on education in the world, from Thomas R. Guskey who encourages teachers to “make well designed assessments an integral part of the instructional process”, to Yong Zhao who wants the public to be informed of the “side effects of sweeping education policies” such school choice. It is also following the type of reforms made in the most educationally progressive nations in the world (yes, sorry folks, Finland, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands).
However, disappointingly, the assessment recommendations are a reboot of more of the same, or worse.
The review is advocating for assembly-line type assessments in the early years. That is the opposite of how educators boost literacy and numeracy skills in young children. And here again I think of Zhao and his side effects warnings, as he puts it : “This practice can help your children become a better student, but it may make her less creative”; or “This program helps improve your students’ reading scores, but it may make them hate reading forever.”
The glaring contradiction in the report, as I see it, its that it asks for massive changes to an assembly-line reality by advocating for more assessment assembly-lines. Ken Boston in his recent commentary speaks to this by advocating that this is a “evolution not a revolution.” What is missing from this argument for learning progressions is the assumption that learning can be standardized across children. Chunking a NAPLAN component a day or week turns teachers into test givers and paper pushers rather than gifted learning scientists negotiating each child’s journey through the curriculum so that they are engaged and inspired, not lab rats.
I also noticed that some of the recommendations on learning progressions in the report have already failed elsewhere and have been dumped for that reason. For example New Zealand’s system, where young people faced ‘a test a day’, resulted in standards that continued to fall anyway in international comparisons. So they scrapped their national assessment program altogether.
What can we do?
I recommend that all of us who work in schools and with student performance data spend time this year advocating for reinventing the opposite of our current systems; not for more government-run assessment but for less.
We want to prepare children to be successful in their futures and to do that they need knowledge, skills and dispositions to be passionate, vibrant, dynamic, curious, open-minded, engaged (and literate and numerate) participants in their own journeys. We can’t assembly-line assess that.
If we are truly interested in improving literacy we need to read more with children. And while I know that this is told to parents and teachers over and over, the reality is we don’t do enough of it. It also means getting more books in the hands (yes, old school books) of infants, toddlers and young children. Again, we know this, but I believe we don’t to enough to make sure it happens. There should be at least 50 books in each home (age appropriate) by the time a child is five years old. The secret to literacy is reading more not assessing more.
Most importantly, we need high quality early childhood education for all children, not just the wealthy. Some of the recent practices downgrade early childhood workers to carer/babysitter status in salary and qualifications, just at the time we know so much more about this vital time of building cognitive capacity and hopefulness in the developing brain.
And basic, but usually ignored in education reform debates, is the glaring need for better supplementary health care for working class families in Australia. One that allows affordable dental, eye and specialist care so that these crucial wellbeing issues are not factors that negatively impact a child’s development.
In Australia we have doubled down on entrance and exit requirements for initial teacher education, now we have proposed new standardized formative assessment schemes, and these all piggy back on our mostly failed summative assessment systems (where children are tested at the end of their studies. The proposed progressions of learning assessments narrowly simplify the process of learning into linear chunks that are not how young people learn. And they will create false measures of learning. Teachers should not have their pedagogical imaginations stripped to conform to practices that are not congruent with promoting learning.
One urban legend definition of insanity is “doing the same things over and over again and expecting better results”. When assembly line schooling is transformed to individualized learning, but the assessment scheme is from the same original mindset, we have the cart in front of the horse. And that is insane. “Stop, drop and test” assessment schemes are obsolete. It is time we in the field called this out and moved forward to build learning centers instead of testing centers. Let’s pull an “opposite George” out of our hats!
Dr John Fischetti is Professor and Head of School/Dean of Education at the University of Newcastle. John’s research focuses on reframing teacher education, school reform and learner-focussed teaching. John can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @fischettij