Scream! Run! Hide! The release of the TIMMS and PISA results have spark one almighty apocalypse in the education world. Cometh the results, cometh the hyperventilating opinions of why Australia is lagging behind other countries, and what we will need to do in order to improve our global standing. Independent think tanks and social commentators will be lifting their broad shoulders and shouting that our system is failing (“I told you so….”) while the Federal Government will be saying it’s about teacher quality, school autonomy and not the money.
Others will come out and say that students will need more sleep time, less sleep time, more technology, less screen time, more school time, eat more, eat less, change your diet, more iodine, more sport, less sport, more discipline, less discipline, and then attribute every pedagogical strategy in the past to the solutions of the future.
Then we will get the so called self acclaimed external pedagogical theorists (who by the way, often vacated schools last century to become commentating guides on the side but have very little credibility with teachers) that will say the issue is the curriculum and that not enough time is spent on Literacy, Numeracy and now Science, and we need more and more testing, and more and more evidence so that no child is left behind. Bring back direct instruction as the only way to teach will be their cry. Suddenly, there will be a plethora of the global corporations coming out to say, “Buy this spanking new Literacy, Numeracy or Science program to fix up your school’s results, and the assessment pack – scientifically proven (and without the steak knives)”
Yes. Everyone will have an opinion except the exhausted teachers who will be fronting up to their 8S5 Science class on a Friday afternoon in period 6 and thinking about the weekend of marking assignments ahead of them, or the primary teacher making school resources to all hours in the evening while at the same time organising the next school excursion (and slaving over risk assessements) to give students a concrete rather than a vicarious learning experience. At some point, these teachers’ wellbeing will suffer from the endless pounding away of the relentless shift blaming while at the same time rejoice in the fact that they have made a difference in the lives of so many.
Teachers know that our students are not failing but achieving outcomes at differing stages of their schooling. For one student, learning to write a sentence in English in Year 4 may be a major breakthrough after missing years of schooling due to being in a refugee camp, or children showing resilience by attending school each day when they have been exposed to domestic violence. Teachers know that students who struggle learning in one curriculum area may end up excelling in sporting and cultural pursuits – areas that are not measured globally.
Over the past two months, I have coincidentally come across some of my past students and listened with joy to some of their success stories – sort of like the ABC Television show Australian Stories. One student was at Harvey Norman, just on Parramatta Road, Auburn. As I walked into the store, he recognised me and called out Mr Goh, in a nice loud voice while wearing his coloured Microsoft T-shirt, and then proceeded to remind me of his schooling in a low socio-economic school community. This person is studying law at the University of Western Sydney and working part-time to raise income for his studies. A second student caught up with me at the University of Technology Sydney Sparks Festival and he owns a business that involves teaching students about astronomy. His company funds students to attend space camp in America. At the same time, he still lives in the same low socio-economic community. A third came from the local florist who telephoned me in tears to say that her nephew and my former student was called up to play for the Wallabies – the Australian Rugby Union Team.
Similarities exist between all three people:
1. No one talked about their Basic Skills Test, NAPLAN or HSC marks. Achieving a mark does not define who you are or your future success (when was the last time you went to a school reunion and someone talked about their marks or grades). Achieving a piece of paper that says I finished school does not define your self-worth. In fact, many employers in some of the largest companies in the world are now looking at skills: teamwork, collaboration, problems solving, resilience, caring for the environment and others, and being able to speak up for issues that matter are more important than whether you achieved the top mark.
2. All three had enthusiasm, passion and commitment in what they wanted to achieve. One student had a passion of astronomy, starting from primary school, another in sporting field of rugby and the third in technology. Primary School is the starting point, high school enables you to set goals to aim high and take a step closer to what you want to achieve.
Just last weekend, I finally caught up with the NSW Schools spectacular. To see over 5000 students perform in the largest Variety Show in the world is an example of what schools do best – giving opportunities for students to learn and dream big. Each one of those students were not global failures as the Federal Government would make out, nor are the students’ schools.
The notion that Australia is failing in the global education world is not panic stations when we listen to former students share their own success stories. Nor is it a time to start apportion unfounded critiques of schools or teachers. Success is not measured in a score and certainly not compared to other countries in a corridor of curriculum areas. Politicians, after all, never sat through NAPLAN and I doubt many sat TIMMS or PISA. However, we are lagging in the closing of the equity gap to enable all students to fulfil their full potential – that’s where Gonski kicks in to ensure that all students are funded according to their needs, and teachers taking the opportunities to continue developing themselves for the betterment of their students.