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Metadata, Class Sizes And The Need For Some Slow Thinking

“Worse, in the twenty-first century the massive technological changes that have vastly changed our society have had little effect on our schools; in too many places, the technology is merely being used as the next, best filmstrip, or worse, a better way to quiz and test our students, rather than as a way to open up our classroom windows and doors so that students can learn what they need to, create what they want, and expand the reach of their ideas to almost limitless bounds.”

Building Schools 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need by Chris Lehman and Zac Chase

Every time someone releases figures about how Australia is performing in the education stakes, someone from the Coalition government uses it to justify their stance on education. So recently when the OECD’s snapshot of 46 countries came out recently it showed a number of things, but prinicipally it told us that Australia proportionally spends more on education than most developed nations. It also suggested that Australia went backwards on a number of indicators.

Now while going backwards may not necessarily be as disastrous as the media would have you think or an indication of a complete failure, I’d certainly agree that we need to make sure that money going into education is well spent. However, it’s the idea that you can draw valid conclusions from looking at metadata that I find most frustrating. Metadata may indicate what you need to look at in more detail but one can’t draw definitive conclusions from metadata.

If we take class sizes as an example, then even if the metadata suggests that class sizes make no difference to outcomes, we can’t make that conclusion by looking at the respective performances of the various countries because we have more than one variable. Even my Year 10 Psychology students know that you can only test one variable at a time. If you want to make any accurate conclusions, you’d need to get classes from the same school and create a control group of the usual class size and compare to classes with significantly less and/or significantly more students.

If we really want to determine whether class sizes make no difference, then maybe we should organise an experiment where a school puts one group of students in a class of fifteen at the beginning of their school career and another group of students in a class of thirty and then tests them at the end of each year. While parents may be reluctant to put their child in the class of thirty, surely there’d be enough advocates of the idea that class size makes no difference who’d be happy to place their offspring in such a class.

To compare the results of students in different countries tells us nothing because there’ll be a whole range of possible reasons for superior performance on particular tests including attitudes to education, the number of non-native speakers in the population and whether the difference in class sizes has made any difference to the way schools structure the learning.

Part of the trouble with looking at metadata is best explained by looking at the work of Daniel Kahneman. As he points out in Thinking Fast and Slow, humans are often quick to reach a conclusion and then they use their rational brains to justify that conclusion, rather than questioning their original conclusion. So if politicians have been looking to cut education funding, then any suggestion that increased spending hasn’t led to amazing improvements in education is immediately confirmation of their idea that it’s “quality teaching that counts”, rather than a more detailed examination of whether there are areas where increased expenditure has improved outcomes.

Until metadata is broken down with some “slow thinking” it tells you nothing. For example, we can increase average income of everyone in a group and conclude that money doesn’t improve work satisfaction at all, based on the results of a survey telling us that people were even less happy than they were the year before. It’s only when you dig deeper and discover that the average income was increased by giving a massive bonus to two people, while everyone else worked for less that we can begin to surmise that this may have led to the rise in dissatisfaction.

Another point being raised is that Australia’s increase in spending on technology hasn’t made a “significant” difference to literacy and numeracy. While I suspect that a large part of the reason for that is that many teachers have only used the technology to do what they’ve always done – reading a text off a screen instead of on the page is no more likely to increase literacy than moving from chalk to whiteboards – I’ve never thought that the reason that schools need to use technology is to improve the literacy and numeracy rates. Schools need to use technology because society uses technology. While I’m not advocating that schools’ role is to prepare for the workforce, we certainly don’t want a situation where a school-leaver walks into a job asking, “What’s Excel?” More than that, however, we need to be building student awareness of both the potential and drawbacks of technology.

For Australia, nobody should be drawing answers from the OECD results. All metadata really does is help form the questions.

First published on Rossleigh’s Education Blog.


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  1. bobrafto

    Damn no satire to be read in this article.

  2. Matters Not

    Yes, there’s no satire in this article but it’s among his very best.

    When my kids went to school, I was much more interested in how they achieved that went far above and beyond ‘test scores’. That ‘interest’ is widely shared, as evidenced by those wealthy who choose to spend enormous amounts of money on sending their children to schools whose ‘test’ results are somewhat behind that displayed by students who attend ‘free schools’.

    But a child’s ‘education’ is so much more important than test scores. (And is not easily measured.)

    For example, do we keep scores on the percentage of students who exist school being able to swim 100 metres in less than X seconds? Why not? Do we keep records on … moral reasoning, understanding of ethical systems, … take your pick. Or don’t we measure those aspects? Why not?

    Great article Ross.

  3. Bacchus

    When I read this, I thought it should be filed under ‘News and Politics’ rather than just ‘Rossleigh’.

    Well done AIMN – that’s exactly what you’ve done with this excellent article.

    It’s always good to get an ‘insider’s view’ into matters discussed – plenty of former or current teachers (and education ‘administrators’) have a lot to offer to those of us peering through the window.

  4. Matters Not

    Yes Bacchus, there’s much to like about this article, including the underlying assumption that there’s much to be ‘discussed’. He’s not arguing for ‘truth’ in any absolute sense but taking a particular, advanced ‘common sense’ and ‘analysing’ same.

    While I may have problems with how certain questions are framed (I usually do) I can only applaud his final sentence: All metadata really does is help form the questions .

    Yep it’s always about ‘thinking’. About ‘questioning’. About ‘theorising’. And then giving ‘meaning’ to same. And being prepared to accept different ‘constructions of reality’.

  5. lawrencesroberts

    Passing a school notice board which read “Freedom to Learn”, I wanted to add the word “What?”
    Core curriculum is the problem and it should be simple and universal across the nation.

  6. Kaye Lee

    How do standardised tests measure creativity? How can they measure emotional development? How do they measure co-operation?

    lawrenceroberts, I have always felt that a prime job of a teacher is to teach children how to learn more than what to learn.

  7. Möbius Ecko

    I’ve been hearing a little lately about marking progress instead of outright results. Apparently there’s a school that does this and the results have been remarkable. The same occurred in a lower socio under performing school in the US.

    By marking a student on the progress they make instead of an outright score evens the playing field. Bright high performing students progress less, already being near the peak, but for an under performing or student who has difficulty learning any step forward is a good gain.

    What do the educators here think of this?

  8. Kaye Lee


    I was forced to give my bottom year 8 maths class common tests. I had spent all my time working on their confidence and their willingness to try so this was a real setback. I decided that, when returning the papers, for the sake of my class, whoever got the top mark got 100% and everyone else’s paper was marked out of that top mark eg if the top mark was 30/100 someone who got 15/100 was given 15/30=50%.

    I gave out three awards each time – best and fairest, runner up, but the kid who got most improved (dependent on place in class not mark) also got an early mark to go to the canteen with a note to put whatever they bought on my tab.

    When handing back the paper to kids who had done poorly I would quietly whisper “you are a shoe-in for the most improved next time – I know you could have got these three questions right if you had checked your work. We’ll go over it because quite a few kids got that wrong so I may not have explained it well”.

    Ticks and crosses make kids scared of maths instead of willing to try different approaches. Confidence and self-esteem are so important.

  9. jim

    Well unfortunately Ms J Gillard thought it more important to educate children than to steer Australia out of the economic etc…mess. and the escalating war that bombing Syria has created……… ISIL now have a target ……us….. yep….. even me and you sitting at home this has futher triggered the Lunatics in our society and there’s way too many of them… now have a target us

    Hi, you said,”Another point being raised is that Australia’s increase in spending on technology hasn’t made a “significant” difference to literacy and numeracy”. Well off the top of me head I’d vehemently state that having ipads and /or Apple PC is a step in the wrong direction why? priority software, one example If you want stereo ear buds ok even hardware there’s no other option but to pay the overpriced apple brand.

  10. helvityni

    “There are no mandated standardized tests in Finland, apart from one exam at the end of students’ senior year in high school. There are no rankings, no comparisons or competition between students, schools or regions. Finland’s schools are publicly funded. The people in the government agencies running them, from national officials to local authorities, are educators, not business people, military leaders or career politicians. Every school has the same national goals and draws from the same pool of university-trained educators. The result is that a Finnish child has a good shot at getting the same quality education no matter whether he or she lives in a rural village or a university town. The differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). “Equality is the most important word in Finnish education. All political parties on the right and left agree on this,” said Olli Luukkainen, president of Finland’s powerful teachers union.”

    Above is a snippet of a longer article on

  11. guest

    Class size has always been an interesting topic to chew on if you are so inclined. In one education domain it was found that increasing the number of students in each class by one student across the state would save 300 salaries per year. So,imagine how much would be saved by adding 3-4 per class. Money, we are told, has nothing to do with the quality of education. Socrates gave a first class education in the market place.

    In “Oliver Twist”, Dickens reminded us how the ‘experimental philosopher’ of the Utilitarian kind who had a theory about a horse being able to live without eating. He got his horse down to a straw a day – but unfortunately it died before he could feed it nothing.

    In “Hard Times”, Dickens satirises schooling at a time when the idea of the Manchester Lancasterian School led to the teaching of 1000 students in one huge room by monitors and a monitor-general in a manner designed to crush any urge by the students to find out or understand anything for themselves. Rather like Direct Instruction.

    The aim of the Gonski Reforms is to place education spending where it is required according to need, not willy-nilly Some people find that idea rather radical, even impossible to understand.

    As for Julia Gillard and her education program, that was taken up on the advice of people who were of the kind mentioned above. It involved testing of the NAPLAN kind (or the international PISA kind). Such ideas emanated from the USA, such as Bush’s No Child Left Behind, in which schools which merely achieved an A ranking again received less revenue because it had not “improved”; so also for schools which failed. It was a plan which led to all kinds of inequalities and accusations of cheating and infighting about league tables. Sound familiar?

    But as for your bizarre claims, jim, about Gillard’s supposed attacks on Syria and the resulting fear of terrorism, what a load of bollocks! You have forgotten all about the GFC and Labor’s later reduction in spending compared to the commitment of the Coalition of the Willing (Blair, Bush, Howard) and the bombing of Iraq with no good reason – and later the effects of Howard’s profligacy leading to our present lack of revenue, a continuing military involvement in the Middle East – and a blowout in debt by the Coalition. One third of the increase in GDP this year was from military spending!

    So we see in all this the way our perceptions of everything is coloured by our political leanings with no regard for their truth or otherwise.

  12. Rossleigh

    Jim was probably educated in those halcyon days when punctuation etc … sentence structure …and how to write …meaningful sentences meant that nobody ever came out with poor skills.
    Then again…

  13. Kaye Lee

    I really like the idea of personal improvement rather than ranking against other students. It would require far more individualised feedback and setting of goals but it is definitely a worthwhile idea.

  14. helvityni

    How are you making Jim feel, pretty small, I assume…?

    Teachers should never ever belittle their students.

  15. Michael Taylor

    Rossleigh’s comment was sitting in the ‘deleted’ comments. I wasn’t sure if it went there accidentally – which has been happening to a lot of comments lately – so bearing that in mind I restored it. I now realise that Rossleigh may have deleted it himself. I apologise if I have caused any embarrassment.

  16. king1394

    Literacy takes off when students find the right book/s and suddenly they are reading all the time. I have seen this so many times with anything from Enid Blyton’s Noddy books, and the quite horrid “Goosebumps” books to the Harry Potter series or a never-ending parade of horse stories. A young woman I know (in her 20s) who has never been fluent in reading although her computer skills are great, recently came across Sarah Douglass’ ‘The Troy Game’ series, and the door to reading for pleasure which is the key to fluency, has opened. She burst through book 1 and 2 and is in Book 3 and is now longer anxious about reading. What will she find to read next – the library is open and she can’t wait to get there.
    I’ve not yet seen anyone choosing to read, and read, and read book after book from a computer screen.

  17. jim

    Well unfortunately Ms J Gillard thought it more important to educate children than to steer Australia out of the economic etc…mess.Full stop. And the escalating war that bombing Syria has created(nothing to do with Ms Gillard) are you smoking ……… ISIL now have a target ……us….. yep….. even me and you sitting at home this has futher triggered the Lunatics in our society and there’s way too many of them… now have a target us Hope that helps.

  18. Matters Not

    Jim I have no sympathy for many of the educational decisions made under Julia Gillard’s watch. Mainly because most of those decisions can be traced back to Rudd and his ‘beliefs’. Gillard’s discovery of education was late in coming and only blossomed when she was appointed as the relevant Minister in a Department whose ‘direction’ (ideologies and the like) can be easily traced back to David Kemp. (It was also a time when neo-liberalism was the ‘common sense’).

    Rudd, ever the micro manager, was quite happy with the direction that the Federal Department was pursuing so Gillard became a pliant Minister. Hence she imported US advisors that recommended the Arne Duncan ideology that it was all about ‘testing’ (NAPLAN equivalents), ‘charter schools’ and the like.

    Nevertheless your comment:

    more important to educate children than to steer Australia out of the economic …

    is somewhat ‘simplistic’. As though she couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time.

    Gillard will be remembered for championing the Gonski Report and she should be. Her ‘insights’ into education were sparse (to put it mildly) but she did realise that putting resources into where they were needed was certainly ‘useful’ and ought to be commended. The pity is that such a direction was known for years and her understanding came far too late.

  19. guest

    Matters Not, the situation for Gillard was even more complex than you admit.

    There had been a demand for a National Curriculum – a ‘roadmap’ to say what was to be taught and how. Howard began that process, which had been developing for some time (since the ’80s). And there were the Literacy Wars and the Culture Wars.

    When Gillard continued the development of the National Curriculum, the cry was: No, not that National Curriculum – and there were arguments about History and Social Studies, etc. Suddenly the ‘roadmap’ pundits started saying the a National Curriculum out of Canberra was a top-down leftish long march through the curriculum. Schools should develop their own curriculums (sic). So Frameworks for curriculum development were written and re-written. The claim then was that Frameworks were not detailed enough.

    Then there was the mattter of funding which for the Howard government was decided by post-codes. Much has been written about such funding. But no surprise when Gonski came along and it was realised that some private schools were receiving large subsidies above their requirements. As well, Gonski would require large amounts of money to deal with the neglect. So the cry was: You do not need money for schools to be good. And then of course there was/is the class size debate.

    While all that is still going on, we have had the Pyne muddle and we have not heard much from Birmingham in the policy free Turnbull government. We have also had the trade skills scams.

    Education in Oz is not highly valued or well understood. Just another political football.

    Gillard did very well, given the circumstances under which she had to operate.

  20. Steve Laing -

    Using scientific methodology to measure stuff? In Australia? Don’t be daft man, that’s not how we do it here.

    Everyone knows we do it on gut feel, and what worked best for me personally. And if our donors can make a quid or two, then that is clearly the model we should be following.

  21. Matters Not

    guest, I don’t have any problem (basic agreement) with the general thrust of what you write (and it’s even more complicated) but there’s one detail that needs correction because it was crucial in understanding how the unfairness was magnified You say: mattter of funding which for the Howard government was decided by post-codes which is not quite correct. Post-codes were far too large so the decision was made to use a finer measure – CCDs.

    the rate at which non‐government schools receive GRGs (government recurring grants) is determined by a measure of the capacity of a school’s community to support its school; that is, its socioeconomic status (SES). This measure is calculated by linking student residential addresses to the latest Census Collection Districts and then applying an SES Index to obtain an average SES score for each school.

    There’s more here.

  22. guest

    Matters Not, my mention of post-codes is supported by your explanation of student residential addresses linked to Census Collection Districts and then applying an SES index to get an average SES score. Weird. Sounds like some kind of medieval alchemy to me.

    Gonski please.

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