Secondary schooling in Australia needs to change: throw out the tests and bring in deep learning

There is a problem in some Australian secondary schools right now.  ‘Endgame’ assessments such as the Higher School Certificate (HSC) in NSW and the requirements of an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) to gain entrance to university, place restrictions on the kinds of teaching and learning that goes on in classrooms. Some teachers are frustrated that this ‘current game’ of secondary school is the only one that can be played.

So, alternative models of secondary schooling are becoming regular topics of conversation, debate and disquiet in the world of education. Just look at an education discussion on Twitter or go to an education conference or TeachMeet and you will hear the lament: there has to be a better way.

The desire for something else

At a few education forums in past months both here and overseas I have invited audiences of principals, system leaders, teachers, students and in one case, parents, to consider reimagining high school.

I tell them I believe teachers and students might be better served by teaching that is not ‘high stakes’ focused.  Could we dare to move away from the rigid systems we currently impose?

When I deliver such ideas people gasp and clap. But no rotten tomatoes are thrown. Afterwards, delegates email me to share: “high schools are not serving many adolescents well” or “we could focus on learning” type messages. I believe there is gathering momentum and a mood for change. There is unrest in the education ranks.

How could secondary schooling change?

Educators are talking a lot more about the type of skills mentioned in the Australian Curriculum general capabilities, such as critical and creative thinking, ICT capability, personal and social capability, and ethical and intercultural understanding as well as literacy and numeracy across subject areas. As I see it, these are quite a few of the ‘necessary skills’; the ‘grit skills’, the ‘growth skills’, the ‘public good skills’ = making ‘a good life skills’ for young people.

In the early years at some high schools, teachers and whole year groups are doing week-long interdisciplinary assessments. These are not just brief end-of year tasks but deep learning opportunities that include real-world projects, significant design challenges and creative exercises to enrich and create a vision of schooling that is able to better to inform, critique and question a ‘post truth’ society.

Let’s agree, what we are doing is not working

We saw it with the most recent announcement of international maths and science comparisons. Now the 2016 PISA results are out and Australia has fallen further down ‘the global assessment gradient’. All the usual ‘click bait’, ministerial cries, glib talk-back radio, hand wringing and finger pointing radiated out across the country. It is because we have a problem with schools/principals/teachers/parents/teacher educators … we will need more checks, frequent tests, new assessments. And now a commercial business is to develop the PISA 2018 Student Assessment 21st Century Frameworks for the OECD.

However, as Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel says, “… do I take these findings seriously? Yes, I do.”

Well folks, guess what, the current model in Australian secondary schools is not working.

Yes there are whole industries who support same old same old (government policies, think-tank reports, the current political climate, boards of study, coaching schools, instruction makers, publishing houses and education research). Changing things would not be easy. Also the altruistic nature of teaching means that as long as final ‘high stakes’ assessments are valued in secondary schooling, teachers won’t compromise their students by considering more student-centred pedagogies. There is a lot more talk needed about all of that.

But, just maybe, as another education year draws to a close, it is time to #rethinkhighschool. Seriously.

Dr Jane Hunter is an education researcher in the School of Education, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. She is conducting a series of STEM studies in Australian schools; in this work she leads teachers, school principals, students and communities to better understand and support education change. Her book ”Technology Integration and High Possibility Classrooms: Building from TPACK” is advancing new ways of enacting pedagogy in K-12 schools. Jane was a classroom teacher, and she has received national and international teaching awards for outstanding contributions to student learning. She enjoys writing and her research-based presentations at national and international conferences challenge audiences to consider alternate education possibilities. You can follow her on Twitter @janehunter01