The despairing commentary of the most recent international maths and science performances by Australian students is as predictable as it is unfortunate.
Despite the commentary, Australia’s education system is not broken.
We’re just talking too much about a race that may not be worth entering.
The reality of the data is that Australia’s test scores in science and maths have essentially remained stagnant for many years, while other ‘competing’ countries have invested heavily on lifting these results.
I’ve been in classrooms overseas and have seen some of these nations that have improved in these international tests.
The difference is that many of these other countries, including Shanghai, which was noted as “outperforming” Australia, focus on rote learning.
You will see rows of desks occupied by 40-60 students, all compliantly gazing at the blackboard, hanging on every word of the teacher.
The difference between us and these countries is not the skill of the teacher, the resources of the school, or the content of their curriculum, but in the respective cultures. There is a difference by a country mile in work ethic and expectations. The really intriguing thing is that teachers in Shanghai are saying that they need to look to Australia because we have a greater values-based education, something they are lusting after.
The real question we should be asking is, “what is an education worth having?” Is it one where we adopt a ‘me too’ philosophy and simply judge ourselves by the results of some standardised testing, or should we think more broadly? Should we think more creatively.
My worry is that the narrative of a failing education system will continue to gain momentum. The implications for teachers and students are alarming.
There will inevitably be a growing temptation among educators to ‘teach to the test’. Teachers will be encouraged to prioritise students’ standardised test results at all costs and the effects will be twofold.
One, we’ll likely rise on the international leader board ranking, causing policymakers and commentators to cheer.
Second, we’ll cripple the creativity of classes, leading to a generation of students who are great at sitting tests, but with no imagination.
If you were to consult the C-suite of Australian businesses regarding what they most value in their employees, I would expect “the ability to perform well in standardised testing’ would not rank among the highest answers.
They would likely say that a candidate’s ability to problem-solve, think laterally, persist in the face of obstacles and work in teams would be valued far more highly.
And this is the disconnect – the education sector is being pushed in one direction, while business is pulling in another. And these latest international rankings and predictable outrage will only reinforce this misdirected status quo.
The reality is that, to prepare students for the needs of a current and future workforce, one where many of the jobs they’ll be performing don’t yet exist, we need to prioritise more than just test results. Students need high levels of creativity, the ability to persist through failure, an innovative mindset and an entrepreneurial spirit.
The challenge for educators is how to find ways in which to help students access and grow their remarkable creative capacity. The encourage them to develop resilience and not see failure as ‘the end’.
At St Paul’s School, we recently ran an Entrepreneurs Club. Students from Years 7-12 (and even some teachers) worked alongside one another to prototype and pitch a business to a panel of investors. One idea was a bin that disintegrates rubbish, improving waste management systems.
Some ideas won’t work, but one or two have already generated investor interest with a view to becoming fully-funded start-ups.
However, how will these students find the time to develop these businesses while also needing to prepare for the pressure of standardised testing? The unhealthy preoccupation with this testing is potentially costing Australia it’s next Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Baxter.
Australian educators, corporates and policymakers need to work hand in hand to help realise a vision for Australian education that isn’t based on comparing ourselves to a set metric. Rather, we must all work together to build an entrepreneurial, innovative and creative capacity into our education system.
Let’s not teach to the test, but focus on what is best – and that is preparing our students to be the real leaders of tomorrow.