Education – Testing times or a brand new frontier?

Posted: February 10, 2013 in Education, society, Uncategorized

There are two basic pushes in Australian schools today. The first is a movement to embrace new technologies which often talks about 21st Century Education. The second is a regime in which testing a central role, as part of a ‘back to basics’ approach. This is, of course, an oversimplification. Every school will be affected and influenced to varying degrees by these, and teachers working in schools will usually find themselves having to embrace both ideas. Depending on the school and the teacher, the idea of new technologies may be seen as the great hope for the future. For other schools the idea of more testing may be something to be welcomed. This is not an either/or situation for anyone actually involved with education.

For some, technology is just a gimmick. I’ve heard more than one teacher refer to an iPad as a new toy. I’ve heard a Maths teacher assert that he won’t allow technology in his classroom, completely overlooking the fact that all his students are expected to bring calculators. Calculators initially met with some resistance. How would kids develop skills with a slide rule, if they were allowed to use these devices?

And yes, I’ve looked at a number of apps where there is no good reason to use them. I’ve seen kids distracted by technology, but I’ve also seen students distracted by what’s out the window; I’m yet to hear anyone suggest that windows of the glass variety need to be kept out of the classroom. For me, the whole point about technology is not whether we use if or not, but how we use it, and to what extent we need to structure its use. While some schools are abandoning 1:1 programs in favour of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), other schools are concerned when they lose control of the programs and the way in which the laptop is configured. Whichever path you’re on, and however you feel about it, technology is a part of the 21st Century. People who were unconcerned with students reading and writing for hours on end, are putting forward theories that staring at screen for too long is bad for you. And yes, students shouldn’t be staring at computer screens ALL THE TIME, any more than they should have their heads shoved in a textbook ALL THE TIME. Which brings us to some of the other aspects of 21st Century education, perhaps best expressed with the idea of “fluencies”.   See 21 Century Fluency Project.

Basic to a lot of 21st Century learning concepts is the idea that the ownership of knowledge has been undergoing radical changes since the invention of the printing press. Prior to that, only a few people had access to information, but with the mass production of books it become easier to spread knowledge. The Internet means that most of us have access to almost anything we wish to know. We have moved from an era when we have moved from consulting the encyclopedia to wikipedia. The skill we need now is how to be discerning and to assess the information being presented to us. (“Information Fluency is the ability to unconsciously and intuitively interpret information in all forms and formats in order to extract the essential knowledge, authenticate it, and perceive its meaning and significance.” From the 21 Century Fluency Project)

There is nothing in any of this which prevents testing, either on a local or a national scale. There is no problem with the NAPLAN, providing it is used in an intelligent and sensitive way, but, unfortunately, the driving force behind much of the testing can best be summed up with the word: Nostalgia. Let’s go back to the good old days when the 3Rs were taught properly and the function of schools was clear. And, in those halcyon days, we didn’t have these problems. “Unless we go back to teaching kids phonics, they’ll never be able to spell properly,” commentators lament, completely overlooking the fact that students are still taught the phonics – or fonnix – approach to sounding out words they don’t understand, along with a range of other strategies.

For many, the great thing about a test is that is gives an objective standard of where the student is academically. Unfortunately, this is not altogether true. In some cases, it will measure the students understanding of the what is being asked. In others, it will measure their capacity to do tests. But, as most people realize, a test is only a snapshot on a given day, and once it starts to be used to reward teachers and schools for their achievements, it becomes a “game” – we don’t care what the test is telling us, all we want to do is manipulate the game so that we end up winners.

Transparency is a noble idea, and I certainly don’t think that schools have anything to hide, but when we begin to talk about publishing the results for all to see, I have misgivings. Would we happen if this were applied to other areas of life. For example, should doctors have to publish what percentage of their patients are being treated as HIV positive?

We already know which schools “succeed”: The ones with parents in the top socio-economic groups who take an interest in education. That’s why we consider it unfair to compare these schools to schools where students aren’t so lucky. We end up comparing ‘like’ to ‘like’ and creating lists that are about as meaningful as who were the best tennis players of the last fifty years.

Ready or not, schools will be forced to juggle the conflicting demands. In the past, schools have been a political football, either responsible for or expected to fix the majority of society’s problems. It’s time to fight back against the quick fixes, the easy solutions and to work toward a properly funded effective education system which encourages students to become life-long learners!

Victorian Professional Development

    • As a teacher myself, I have no problem with the incorporation of technology into the classroom and into all learning processes, but I do find it worrying that children at Primary School level are using calculators before they have learned any form of mental arithmetic and basic functions such as fractions and times tables, as these are mathematical functions that they will use for the rest of their lives, but also, more importantly, these functions have a huge impact on the development of the cognitive abilities of the brain. Similarly, the ability to write by hand is very important in the development of fine motor skills and even though computers will most probably always be with us, it is a skill that they will likewise use for the remainder of their lives. I have found that the novelty of ICT had led to far too much dependence on technology at the sacrifice of basic skills that are still necessary for the adequate and functional education of children.

      As far as NAPLAN goes, there is absolutely nothing wrong with competency testing, but in order to get the greatest benefit from it there needs to be minimal in-class preparation, just maybe one short practise test so the children understand the format of the test. Teachers should be strongly discouraged from teaching the content of the test or else it no longer functions as a true measure of the literacy and numeracy competency of the children involved.

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