Assessment, technology and the impact of social concerns
This edition of Professional Voice is largely about the ways in which controversies and dilemmas in society and the political world become important issues in the operation and curriculum of schools and pre-schools. Schools are seen as both the medium for addressing social concerns and, in some instances, an important location of these concerns. For example, the harmful issues around sexual consent and racism in the wider society have become part of the compulsory school curriculum, and school policies are implemented to address their manifestation in school playgrounds and classrooms. The scourge of family violence is brought into school and early childhood communities through its impact on individual students, individual staff members and their families, while the ongoing project of enabling and ensuring gender equity, from broad awareness to fine-grained actions, encompasses everything in education; taking in school and classroom culture, student health and wellbeing and curriculum content and practices.
The fact that schools and pre-schools have been identified as fundamental to solving social problems is a testament to the importance of education in our society. There is now a common understanding that societies improve and progress through the education of their younger members. There are, however, certain drawbacks to education being used in this way. If there is an add-on rather than an integrated approach, the curriculum can become crowded with issue-based problem-solving which distorts its structure and balance. There are also the political wars over what some groups see as controversial issues. In the era of social media, divisions in the community are stretched even further through processes such as ‘confirmation bias’ so that teaching mainstream science about matters such as climate change (or even vaccinations) are seen by some parents and commentators as provocative and unproven.
The other theme of this Professional Voice is tracking and reassessing two of the longstanding and still current debates within schooling – assessment and technology. Grades and numerical scores have long obfuscated the assessment of learning and worked against the development of measures to encourage student learning progress. In the first decade of this century external standardised testing of student performance in primary and lower secondary was promoted by politicians and the media as the only ‘reliable’ means of judging student achievement. Whatever learning was happening in classrooms and schools was seen through the lenses of national, and increasingly international, testing programs. Political goals for education became improving these testing results rather than valuing and endorsing, and resourcing, the sort of classroom and school environments which research evidence indicated improved the learning outcomes of all students.
The substantial increase in the uptake of technology in education ranks alongside the renewed focus on mental health and wellbeing and the willingness to act collectively in the interests of the community as a whole, as one of the defining characteristics of the pandemic environment in Australia in 2020 and 2021. Technology provided a convenient quick fix as face-to-face schooling became too risky with the COVID virus spreading through the community. Initially, the value and benefits of having the option of online learning when confronted by an unprecedented health hazard were widely supported. Once implemented on a mass scale however, the limitations of this form of learning became increasingly evident. It tended to exacerbate the existing inequities in society and create inferior teaching and learning conditions, all of which made teachers, parents and most students appreciate the worth of the existing model of in-person school learning.
After outlining the flaws in relying on NAPLAN as the yardstick measure for education in Australia Rachel Wilson and Pasi Sahlberg propose a new national assessment system “…that puts students’ interests first and prioritises supporting them, and their teachers and parents, so that teaching and learning can flourish.” Their contention is that NAPLAN has proved itself incapable of doing this. Rather than meeting student, teacher and parent needs it has been “preoccupied with system monitoring and accountability”. Claims that it has diagnostic or formative value for student, teacher and school performance lack any credibility and have been refuted by research. The new assessment system would replace NAPLAN population literacy and numeracy tests with sample-based testing across the curriculum, together with classroom assessment linked to national standards. The system would bring back respect for professional classroom assessment work by utilising “teachers’ professional wisdom and collective expertise”.
Geoff Masters contends that assessment grades are poor indicators of where students are in their long-term learning progress. “This is because grades are always specific to a particular piece of work or a particular course of learning. They are ratings of how students performed on a defined and limited body of curriculum content.” Despite their apparent clarity (A means A, E means E etc) grades are far from transparent indicators of student learning achievement and progress and the meaning of, and distinctions between, grades are often lost on parents. And because they are specific to each year’s curriculum some students receive the same grade each year, and are potentially labelled as a ‘D-student’, despite their progress. A useful school report identifies and explains where students have reached in their learning and what the next steps should be and how parents could assist them in making those steps.
Amanda Keddie outlines the research that shows while young people are critical of the sexuality education in schools, they would welcome the opportunity to explore sexual relationships, the negotiation of consent and sexual violence. Providing these opportunities however, is difficult as schools “…are adult-centred in their authority and regulatory structures and tend not to be conducive to encouraging open and critical discussions about issues of sex and sexuality”. Classroom discussions tend to be controlled and young people’s sexual behaviours are often infantilised so that the complex realities of these behaviours are not part of the conversation. Many teachers feel ill-equipped and uncomfortable discussing the gendered dimensions of sexual consent with students, while students themselves are also likely to feel unsettled and uncomfortable in such conversations. While schools may find this work difficult when they do it they create “…safe and inclusive spaces where students feel able to share their views and ask questions about sexual consent without judgment and shame”.
One of the consequences of the COVID lockdowns in 2020 was an increase in family violence. Jodi Dorney provides a summary of the research about the negative impacts of family violence and relates this to early childhood education. The effects on children living with family violence can be psychological, physical and behavioural with negative impacts on cognitive development and social and emotional development and functioning. Children in these circumstances can often find respite and relief from the abusive and violent family environment they live in when they attend their early childhood centre. Such children benefit from predictability, routine and structure throughout the day so they feel safe and more able to participate and learn. It is also important for these children to have choices about where they play, the times they eat, and the ways in which they use materials or resources. This gives them a sense of control and autonomy, something often missing in their intrafamilial environment.
Niranjan Casinader supports the inclusion of intercultural understanding in the Australian Curriculum as a strategy for dealing with racist behaviour and language, but believes this should be seen as only a first step. He writes: “To be subject to the continual presumption that skin colour other than white is country-specific and non-Australian is humiliating, no matter how subtle it may be.” The best way to change children’s attitudes towards race is to introduce them to “pedagogies of discomfort” where they are made to feel uneasy through experiencing the negative feelings people of different races, and with different skin colours, can feel. Research suggests teachers who have learned from personal and professional experiences involving “cultural displacement” are more likely to have developed the kind of expertise required to manage “pedagogies of discomfort” in the classroom.
Girls and ADHD
According to Rachael Murrihy, the way ADHD presents in girls can be quite different to the way it manifests itself in boys. While symptoms of hyperactivity-impulsivity are present across genders (with some studies showing more hyperactivity in boys), symptoms of inattention, which can be easier to overlook, are seen more frequently in girls. Because symptoms of hyperactivity tend to present early in school life and inattentiveness has a slightly later onset, girls with ADHD can often go undetected until late primary and high school. For many girls, ADHD is a serious and debilitating illness and they are at higher risk of developing depression and anxiety than boys. Long-held stereotypes of an ADHD child as a disruptive and hyperactive boy with difficulties staying still and keeping on-task means parents and teachers are less likely to refer girls to treatment. Ensuring girls are identified early and accurately and that they receive evidence-based treatment is crucial.
Neil Selwyn wants teachers to retain a healthy level of scepticism in their use of digital technologies. In the Professional Voice interview he expresses a hope that after their experience of remote learning everyone in education will be more willing to push-back against future promises and hype around ed-tech. Once schooling moved online, the yawning digital divide became glaringly obvious with “…middle-class families rushing out to buy extra devices, desks and learning resources, hire private tutors and generally make sure that their children remained engaged and learning” while other families had three children sharing one smartphone. He wants teachers to have greater agency in dealing with AI and know who is accountable for the decisions that the software is making. If teachers end up being directed rather than supported by digital technologies then “…they are not really teaching.” More fundamentally, he sees the present use of technology creating an unsustainable environmental burden on the Earth and that: “From now on, our conversations around ed-tech need to be about eco-justice just as much as efficiency and effectiveness”.
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 written extensively about 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 14.1 Assessment, technology and the impact of social concerns.