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Politicians should listen to educators and employers – standardised testing is a waste of time

As our politicians bemoan Australia’s sliding international ranking in standardised testing, calling for a back to basics direct instruction approach, they are ignoring the things that really matter.

In 2015, Australia placed first in the Global Creativity Index which ranked 139 nations worldwide on “three Ts” as measures of economic development — talent, technology, and tolerance.

The creative class, comprising more than forty percent of the workforce amongst advanced nations, includes scientists, technologists, artists, media workers as well as business and healthcare professionals.

Unlike traditional factors of production, creativity is “an infinitely renewable resource that can be continually replenished and deepened.”

As Australia’s economy transitions out of traditional structures to a more service-based economy, progress and innovation will “stem from diversity and openness to talented people across the board.”

The results found Australia to be a leader on talent, or human capital, which is a primary driver of economic growth along with technology.

While Australia did feature in the top ten for tolerance, other countries such as Canada and Iceland scored higher in this category suggesting there is room for improvement. The report says “places that are open to different kinds of people gain an edge in both attracting talent from across the spectrum and mobilizing new ideas”. In particular this involves openness to ethnic and religious minorities and openness to gay and lesbian people.

Countries that scored highly on the index were seen as having higher levels of productivity — as measured by economic output per person and GDP per capita — as well as competitiveness and overall human development.

There was a strong correlation between creativity and entrepreneurship with startup companies powering the rise of new industries.

South Korea places very highly in standardised test scores but they pay a very high price for it in societal collateral damage.

“To be a South Korean child ultimately is not about freedom, personal choice or happiness; it is about production, performance and obedience,” argued Yale academic See-Wong Koo.

The 2014 Youth Happiness Index found for instance that only 67.6% of Korean youth said they are satisfied with their life (OECD average is 85.8%), mostly because of study pressure.

South Korea has one of the highest rates of suicide (28.9%) in the OECD and ranks among the highest for household debt, depression, divorce, and alcohol consumption.

Companies are increasingly changing the criteria on which they hire people.

Google’s Senior Vice President of People Operations Laszlo Bock said they don’t even ask for GPA or test scores from candidates anymore.

“Academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment,” he says.

While in school, people are trained to give specific answers, “it’s much more interesting to solve problems where there isn’t an obvious answer,” Bock says. “You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”

Good grades indicate a certain level of intelligence and diligence; but maybe the wrong kind. The highest-value jobs don’t come with a ton of instructions. They require adaptation and learning on the job, rather than being told what to do.

“Companies want someone who thrives on challenge [and is] willing to learn something new,” Josh Bersin, the principal and founder of Bersin by Deloitte, a data-centric HR consultancy. “[They want] a seeker of information, willing to adapt. “

“Every HR person I talk to says that your passion and drive overcomes educational background and ability except for one thing,” Bersin said.

The one innate quality that is absolutely necessary for every job is “learning agility.” That’s the ability to pick things up quickly, to learn on the job, and to take initiative.

Over and over again, the people who perform best are the ones who don’t need to be told what to do, the ones that love challenges, seek information on their own, and quickly adapt.

People who follow instructions are mostly substitutable. Those who can be thrown into a new situation and thrive are truly valuable.

That is something that our kids are very good at as shown by their many successes in international competitions that require them to come up with new and creative ideas.

NAPLAN and PISA are not the be all and end all. In fact, slavish preoccupation with standardised test results is stultifying the attributes students need most to succeed – creativity, initiative, innovation, agility, teamwork and good communication skills.


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  1. Matters Not

    Good grades indicate a certain level of intelligence and diligence; but maybe the wrong kind.

    Up to a point. Once, spent three weeks travelling through Dalmatia with a group that included a senior Vice-President from the Boeing Corporation. (Seriously wealthy via stock options and the like.) Boeing recruit across the world and don’t really care too much about an applicant’s academic attainments provided they have strong mathematical skills. Mathematics is essential . Given that background, Boeing believes the ‘rest’ can be learned.

  2. wam

    There are 9 political education ministers and 9 departments full of highly paid duplicators who will tweak anything to keep their job.
    There are 100s of vice chancellors and institute CEOs who desperately want to pig-out on the public purse.
    There are 10s of 1000s of functionally illiterate and enumerate taking ‘bridging’ courses.

    Any educator who teaches in a secondary school these days(2006 was my last effort) can see a maths faculty with a majority who would struggle excelling at NAPLAN maths or english and yr 12 cohorts with a majority of kids who couldn’t achieve satifactory at primary NAPLAN math. Some systems award year 12 certificates to students who reach grade 3 writing or some can negotiate a lower educational level. Queensland will go to an exam in 2018 but, apart from for show, why?

    There should be multiple methods of supporting teachers in identifying learning difficulties but money is scarce so slipping through the cracks is the norm for thousands of kids with difficulties they can hide behind bluff, a nodding head or by disruption.

    Similarly those with exceptional talents should be identified and all students should show improvement.

    Sadly, I firmly believe NAPLAN is the only tool we have to discover the progress of students through our system. The fact that vested interests have bastardised the tests is unfortunate and hides the important function of the tests as a guide to the progress through 3, 5, 7, 9 in literacy and numeracy. The results should only be with the school and referring to the individual student.
    Ideally the parents would be shown the progress the parent teacher nights with a yearly update for those with difficulties and principal would assess the effectiveness of the school programs and delivery.

  3. Kaye Lee

    Maths sure helps and besides, it’s fun 🙂

  4. Matters Not

    slavish preoccupation with standardised test results is stultifying the attributes students need most to succeed

    Indeed! Japanese educators – although thoroughly immersed in the Confucian tradition with its emphasis on ‘correct’ answers, ‘rote’ learning and the like – recognised that the future required much more flexibility and creativity. Much greater emphasis on problem solving and much less stress on conformity. But they were also well aware that the required change of attitude did not come easy. Indeed they were quite conscious that educational ‘insights’ did not translate easily – if at all – across cultural boundaries

    (Remember at the time, a few decades ago, that a Japanese teacher had beaten a child to death for wearing the wrong uniform on a school excursion. Discipline, conformity and the like were paramount. Nevertheless, the delegation’s embarrassment seemed to be rooted in the fact that our local press featured the story, rather than the act itself.)

  5. guest

    In the past many students have been recognised as being in need of special attention as early as Reception or Grade 1, but not very much was done in subsequent years. There are all kinds of possible explanations, but in the end funding is clearly a factor, even though some conservative pundits (and newspaper chaps) think money has nothing to do with it.

    Then there is the Oz attitude that education is not so important. Kids dream of playing top level sport, or of jobs which pay well for trades skills or truck driving in remote places. But we are finding that many jobs are under threat from technology which will make some traditional jobs redundant, but will create new jobs requiring different skills.

    Beside, a well educated population is more likely to make better decisions about political, economic and social matters. Perhaps even better politicians.

  6. Arthur Tarry

    A profoundly interesting article though I wonder if any of our politicians have the wit to understand or implement such ideas as they seem to be so wedded to conformity. I guess we can’t expect them to be too far ahead as it is the social conservatism of most Australians that hinder progress.

  7. jim

    Watching Insiders on “our ABC” ( keyhole look to the world) a clip of a union rallier sounded threatening to members of the ABCC whereby, from “our ABC” , “CFMEU boss John Setka has apologised for his public tirade against federal construction industry watchdog inspectors at a rally in Melbourne this week.” this was not mentioned on insiders rather something about “is this the end of the Labor Party” Phew what LNP favored Biased the show is but very clever,now bring on tthe election Pleeese.

  8. Win Jeavons

    Wam, surely you mean innumerate ? Enumerate is a verb. When I taught maths it was a battle to make pupils to think for themselves, they expected ready made answers. I assumed this was because most parents and many teachers did not understand the purpose and nature of education. They, like the public and media in general saw education as merely job preparation, jobs to be mostly what had already been around for ages. I am over 80 now and still educating myself daily. I hope it makes me a better citizen.

  9. Matters Not

    Win Jeavons re the purpose and nature of education. Care to elaborate?

    Is the purpose and nature of education the same as the purpose and nature of schooling?

    Am interested in your thoughts.

  10. Kaye Lee

    I agree with Win. It is important to instil a love of learning and to equip kids with the tools to learn more, to be curious, to think laterally, to not be scared to try, to think critically, to question, to research. At the same time, we should be fostering teamwork and communication skills. We should recognise kids’ talents and interests, as well as helping them improve their weaknesses. We should help them develop social skills, respect, tolerance, self esteem and a sense of community.

    That’s what schooling should be about – an education for life

  11. Kaye Lee

    Pauline Hanson’s idea of education…

    “I am telling you, that is what the real shock in our society is, because the kids are not competing in the classrooms and they are not competing when they get out of the classrooms either. When they get out into the real world and into the workforce, there is no competition, and life is about competition.

    It is absolutely pathetic, seeing the way children write—or that they cannot write. We used to have a decent standard of handwriting called ‘running writing’. In my shop, we had the till there, and the till would tell you what change to give, but when we had blackouts the young staff did not even know how to count money out. Unless the till tells them how to do it, they cannot calculate—they cannot work out anything in life—because they are not taught the maths. We are relying for everything on computers, on calculators, and in real life that is not always at your fingertips to use.

    We need to go back to the basics. In the classroom there is a lack of discipline. The teachers are told that they cannot discipline the kids. And our educational system is now teaching the kids their rights. They say, ‘Your parents can’t tell you what to do, because you have your rights.’ Then when the kids go home their parents tell them something and the kids say, ‘You can’t tell me that; I know my rights.’

    Regarding the push for Safe Schools, most parents I talk to don’t want that. They think it is a load of rubbish and they do not want their kids to be confronted with this. Yes, it has been forced onto the kids in some schools.

    Why don’t we give them a better understanding so that businesses can go to classrooms and tell them what it is like to be a plumber, an electrician or an IT professional, or something else, rather than peer pressure saying to them that they must go on to university. It will be a cost to the taxpayer and the student will never pass.”

    Thank god she went into politics and not teaching!

  12. Kaye Lee

    Great link thanks Orejano.

    I agree wholeheartedly that we should learn from the kids’ lived experience and give them some input in how and what they study.

    It is often outside influences that are the cause of disruptive behaviour. One very sad example in my experience – there was a girl in my maths class that I thought had potential to do much better than “the tests” showed. Her classwork was good but she never did any homework. I offered to help her at lunchtime but it would take a brave kid to tell their friends they were heading off to do maths voluntarily. After a few warnings, I sent a note home to inform the parents and ask that they help make sure she did her homework. I offered to write it in her maths book so they could check what needed doing. The note was to be signed and brought back. After no response for several weeks, I told the girl I would like to ring her parents at which stage she burst into tears. Long story short, mum had left, dad was drunk all the time and was prostituting her out to his mates. For some kids, school is the only safe place they have.

    The point I am trying to make is that we need to understand what is going on with each individual kid. If there is a medical condition then I need to know so I can give them what they need. If there is a behavioural problem then we work together, as a team, to teach them better self-management and ways to cope. Getting kids to help others can change their attitudes. I saw a program where pretty tough prison inmates were helping other inmates who had intellectual disabilities – the tough guys really learned to care for others.

    Labels shouldn’t be a reason for stigma but a help for us to understand and meet individual needs. Sadly, it tends not to be that way.

    Thanks again for that article.

    PS Standardised testing is the enemy of the flexibility we need to cater for individual improvement programs.

  13. Freethinker

    Kaye, IMO it is tremendous difficult to ask the teachers, with the present resources, to be able to focus large part of their time in one or two children.
    Teachers need an assistant, perhaps a student in their last couple of years in their university studies to help.
    In many cases the attention to a children with special needs can become a label which will be known by the other children. This can bring many negative consequences including that the child will think that is a loser which as a side effect bring depression or rebel behavior.
    At the end of the day all is related to funds and priorities and the minority is far down in the list.
    There are ignorant people like Pauline and there the others, the economists that only understand about numbers.

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