Can a ‘sensible middle’ exist in Australian education?

A recent visit to Australia by the Director for Education and Skills at the OECD, Andreas Schleicher has reignited the seemingly annual discussion on Australia’s declining performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings. In a similar vein, the 2015 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) report released in November 2016 highlighted the stagnation of Australia’s performance over the 20 years between 1995 and 2015. Such international assessments provide a wealth of information for the public, educators and policymakers to utilise in reflecting on the effectiveness of current education practices and policy settings.

It needs to be noted that both PISA and TIMSS are different in their structure and purpose; TIMSS assesses student content knowledge at Year 4 and Year 8 while PISA assesses the ability of 15-year old students to apply this knowledge in realistic situations. Unfortunately, using simplistic country comparisons as indicators of success tend to ignite passionate debate over, among others things, how teaching and learning is conducted in Australia’s classrooms.

The polarising arguments flow thick and fast. Should educators use more inquiry-based learning strategies, encouraging students to take ownership of their learning with engaging tasks that they direct? Surely with greater ownership of the learning, they will be more connected with the content and therefore learn more?

Alternatively, should we take a ‘back-to-basics’ approach where teachers determine an age- and stage- appropriate learning sequence that support the Australian Curriculum sequences of learning? Students participating with such direct instruction will surely then have the skills and tools required to solve more complex problems on their own?

Dave Thompson/PA Wire

Education is not the same as politics (thankfully).

Australian politics has for a long time had a fascination with the ‘sensible middle’, where common sense and level-headed decision making took precedent over partisan hectoring and loud-mouthed polemics. When PISA, TIMSS or NAPLAN results are released each year, parts of the education sector and media often swing to the extremes of the pedagogical spectrum in search of ‘a solution’ to a real lack of progress; lamenting the policies of previous governments, spruiking the education systems of Finland/Singapore/Shanghai as exemplary versions of what we should be doing or belittling the competency of the schools/principals/teachers themselves.

The reality is much more nuanced – Australia has one of the largest divides between our most advantaged and disadvantaged students in all of the OECD. There are multiple reasons for this including levels of remoteness and indigeneity as well as diverse socio-economic levels across the population. When looking to improve our standing in international assessments, it is important that everyone – the media, parents, teachers, education leaders and policy makers recognise that the only path to improvement is through interventions that are respectful and reflective of the unique situation of Australian students within their local context.

A ‘sensible middle’ in Australian education would recognise the value of play-based learning in the early years of life and that direct instruction in the first few years of education are both proven methods for improving connectedness to education and raising the literacy and numeracy standards of both indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. It would embrace this pedagogy just as enthusiastically as it would a program of integrated inquiry- and problem-based learning in the late primary and early secondary years of compulsory education; programs intended to leverage strong fundamental foundations with opportunities for creative expression and out-of-the-box thinking. It would not only encourage entrepreneurship and enterprise in our students but also the humility to accept that nothing will be achieved without hard work and application.

A ‘sensible middle’ in Australian education would also respect that local knowledge and local conditions could render such a learning strategy useless. It would be flexible and mature enough to recognise that variations influence the delivery and scope of learning interventions and that such variations are valuable. Schools working with a student population that consists of newly arrived migrants need to feel empowered to deliver culturally inclusive and community-focused programs that offer educational services to the whole family, not just the child. Likewise, the children of parents that choose to make sacrifices and send their children to fee-paying schools should not be excluded from needs-based funding models because of this choice. Tertiary education would be an option for all of our students – migrant or fee-paying, indigenous or non-indigenous – but an option equally valued to an apprenticeship or other vocational learning pathway for its contribution to the common wealth of the nation.

A ‘sensible middle’ in Australian education would recognise that high capacity teachers that are supported with ongoing, job-embedded professional development are key to a successful education system. Getting the right people into the classroom working alongside our children and not blocking their way with sub-standard teacher preparation courses or burdensome administrative demands. Encouraging teachers to be comfortable with standards-based and competitive assessment systems in the later secondary years; systems that are not devoid of value but are essential certification waypoints in what is hopefully a lifelong journey of learning. Trusting these teachers – as professionals – to do what is in the best interests of the children in their care and giving them the time to collaborate widely on ways to ensure continuous improvement in themselves and their students.

Despite the connotations of the term, we should not for a moment advocating that the ‘sensible middle’ of Australian education be a place of comfort and ease. It should be a place where our education system is undergoing continual reflection and adaptation; where the critical evaluation of improvement strategies is based upon relevant data and informed by those people in the best position to effect change. Rather than using the education of our youth as a tool for political point-scoring or as an ideological point of difference, we should advocate that we return our attention to what is in the best interests of the children – and keep it there. In some regards, the results of international assessments could be seen as an annual refuelling of our relentless pursuit of the best for our children and young people. From this will stem our continued growth and prosperity as a nation.


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