Professional Voice 13.3.1

The new basics: equity, wellbeing and technology

John Graham

The slogan ‘back to basics’ has become an entrenched part of the political lexicon, particularly in education. It falls into the category of ‘thought-terminating clichés’ which are “typically short, generic truisms that offer seemingly simple answers to complex questions or that distract attention away from other lines of thought”.[1] In her article in this edition of Professional Voice, Naomi Barnes writes about the string of politicians in Australia who have employed the back to basics catchcry over the past 30 years to justify everything from curriculum reviews, NAPLAN, and My School, to funding cuts and John Howard’s school flagpoles policy.

More recently, the former federal Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, used the ‘thought-terminating cliché’ approach when he told the media that Australia’s “disappointing” PISA results were due to a drift away from “the basics” and people had to “step back and admit there has been too much focus on other things and they are wrong”.  So, what did he mean? He offered no evidence that schools had neglected the basics or even what he meant by “the basics” (the 3Rs taught by rote methods?) and no explanation of what the “other things” are that schools shouldn’t be focusing on. Instead his message acted to shift any blame for the results from himself and his government’s policies to unidentified bad practice in schools and, faced with the complex and contested nature of modern education, to claim he had a simple common-sense remedy to fix the problem.

 The article by John Graham points out that a decade of NAPLAN-coloured back to basics in Australian schools has seen no overall improvement in either achievement or equity. By locking schools and teachers into standardised test-based accountability and top-down targets, the NAPLAN culture has distorted the curriculum and pedagogy and taken away most of the oxygen to innovate. NAPLAN results are used to identify ‘effective learning’ at the expense of capacities such as critical-thinking, creativity and aptitude for continuous learning, which are not easily measured, able to be compared or become the data for accountability regimes. The CEO of ACER, Geoff Masters, has warned that the central role of NAPLAN has promoted an undesirable focus in schools on basic skills rather than the high-level capacities which students will increasingly require in their post-school lives.

Future employees will require more than basic skills such as literacy and numeracy. They will need to be able to think, solve problems, create new solutions, draw on deep understandings – in short, to do what machines cannot – or risk long-term unemployment.[2]

 Literacy and numeracy have always been central to the school curriculum in terms of the way it is enacted in the classroom.  They are a necessary but not a sufficient condition of a good education. If they become linked to high stakes testing however, they can desiccate the curriculum by reducing or eliminating other important areas of knowledge and skills. Leon de Bruin’s article makes the case for music education in schools. Despite its centrality to our lives and our wellbeing, it has become marginalised in schools through a lack of resources and a lack of understanding about its benefits to the overall education of students. Rather than being treated as a basic skill and an area of knowledge which should be developed by all students, instrumental music education is seen more as a luxury add-on, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds who attend government schools.

Understanding student achievement in all areas of the curriculum depends upon the conditions of their learning - student background, school resourcing, levels of teacher and student wellbeing and the impact of technology. In her article, Sue Thomson sets out in stark contrast the differences between the educational experience and outcomes of students from disadvantaged and advantaged backgrounds in Australian schools. She finds that students from disadvantaged backgrounds whose achievement levels may be up to three school years behind their more advantaged counterparts, report significantly lower levels of support and feedback. These differences are compounded when the schools they are more likely to attend are compared.   Principals report that ‘instruction is hindered’ by a range of factors such as a lack of teaching staff (34% in disadvantaged schools, compared to 3% in advantaged schools), a lack of physical infrastructure (45% compared to 6%) and a lack of educational material (21% compared to 1%).

Trevor Cobbold, an ex-Productivity Commission member and the head of Save Our Schools, is our interview subject in this edition of the journal. His passion is to make Australia a fairer society. He has written extensively about the way in which governments in Australia perpetuate and extend the gap between students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. This is most obvious in government school funding policies which enable private schools to have a huge resource advantage over public schools, despite public schools enrolling the majority of high needs students. Cobbold argues that school funding in a fair society would be based on social justice principles such as reducing social segregation and a commitment from schools that, in return for public funding, they will adopt inclusive, non-selective enrolment practices and provide access to a comprehensive curriculum.

Concerns about teacher and student mental health, wellbeing and safety were exacerbated in 2020 as the pandemic drastically changed the conditions of work and learning. Cathy Sheehan’s article describes a major research study of AEU members carried out by Monash University in the second half of 2019. While the study pre-dates the impact of COVID, its findings highlight the poor welfare and wellbeing situation of education staff during ‘normal’ times. Survey respondents reported high job demands, low job control, and significant levels of stress associated with the management of workplace change and manager support. Using international norms, the study found that the sense of well-being was low and educators showed increasing resistance to speaking up as an outcome of fear of consequences and also due to a sense of hopelessness. Despite these negative experiences, educators were still committed to learning and improving, and were engaged in what they do. 

In her previous article for Professional Voice, Erica Southgate wrote about the ways in which technology is becoming more ‘intelligent’ and less transparent as it integrates itself into classrooms and school administration through artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). In this edition of the journal she concentrates on how artificial intelligence is now challenging the authentication of student work and commonly held notions of originality. Increasingly AI is like the fabled Ouroboros consuming its own tail as it is used both to detect plagiarism and to produce imitations and false representations in the form of ‘deep fakes’. It is also blurring the lines between student original work and ‘machine-augmented’ original work.

Imagine a future where a student uses an AI application to produce an AI product (music, text, visual art) that could gain a pass or credit grade. AI could produce work where no two responses would be the same because it would learn to check against what it and other AI had already created: in other words, to check its original work against other AI original work. No doubt an AI will be developed to detect or authenticate AI-generated work but as machines continue to learn by themselves they may very well learn to avoid such detection.

‘Machine-augmented’ learning in schools through online resources and a plethora of software applications and packages which has been around for some time will, according to Southgate, only grow over time as AI takes this process to a whole new level of sophistication. Faced with these developments, teachers need to be given the resources to understand the use and direction of AI and its impact on their professional work.

Collectively, the articles in this journal make a case for reinterpreting the basics of schooling to ensure that education is fit for the sort of evolving society and economy we want to live in. Equity, wellbeing and technology should be integrated into the base of school education. They are part of what could be termed ‘the new basics’ which are essential to realise the learning potential of all students.

End notes

[1] Kathleen Taylor (2006), Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, OUP. p. 21.   

[2] Geoff Masters (2019), Focus on basics leaves schoolkids short in essential deep thinking, Research Developments, ACER, 4 December


John Graham is editor of Professional Voice and works as a research officer at the Australian Education Union (Vic). He has been a secondary teacher, worked on national and state-based education programs and in the policy division of the Victorian Education Department. He has carried out research in a wide range of areas related to education and training. He has had particular responsibility for the many issues impacting on teachers and teaching as a profession, teacher education, curriculum change, and the politics, organisation and funding of public education.

This article appears in Professional Voice 13.3 The new basics.