Those perilous young are not learning anything again.  Apparently, if a recent Lowy Institute poll is anything to go by, Australian students show little appreciation or understanding of what democracy means: “A lack of enthusiasm among young Australians for democracy shows civics education in schools has failed… a national poll showing many young adults are lukewarm about the merits of democracy should raise alarm bells among teachers, policy makers and others who care about human rights.”

Really? Is our liberal democracy under threat? Are young Australians planning something drastic like overthrowing the government, imposing martial law, or rampaging the streets in protest of our political system?  Given current political machinations, from Government and Opposition, I possibly wouldn’t blame them.

To say, however, that the civics education program has failed to teach young people, looks at the issue wrongly in two ways.

ONE: democracy, political activism and civic participation has vastly changed in nature over the past couple of decades (not to mention the last decade), since civics and citizenship education was first envisioned in Australia during the 1980s. A program teaching young people about the role of citizens would be negligent to ignore the role that social media can play (think Arab uprisings, Kevin 07, Obama’s Presidential campaigns, GetUp’s grassroots activism, Wikileaks etc.). With this in mind, it is not the students who are failing to reach particular curriculum standards, but the standards that are failing to reach the students.

TWO: how has student achievement been measured? In large part, by surveys and by the National Assessment Program (Civics and Citizenship version of NAPLAN). Since this education is supposed to teach students about becoming “active and involved citizens” (Melbourne Declaration), how can cognitive tests and self-report questionnaires (Year 6 and Year 10 NAP CC information) properly assess this? I would argue that this is an area in which assessment of this kind is not applicable – to know if students have become active and informed citizens, we must think about what type of citizen we are seeking (controversial of course), and then consider whether such values, attitudes and actions can be explicitly measured. We need to also consider whether the values, attitudes and actions can be measured immediately after the education has taken place, or if this education has a longer-term goal of affecting the wider community.

It will be interesting to see in what way assessment of the new national civics and citizenship curriculum progresses.

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A little thing called NAPLAN

This week was NAPLAN.  For those who live in the world outside of nationwide standardised testing, NAPLAN is the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy. Australian students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 sat through 5 tests over 3 days.  According to the body that organises the testing, ACARA, “NAPLAN tests the sorts of skills that are essential for every child to progress through school and life, such as reading, writing, spelling and numeracy.”

Now, I must be up front in my belief about NAPLAN: I don’t hold it in particularly high regard.  While I understand its use in making broad comparisons across schools, states and school systems, due to the way it has developed the testing places unnecessary strain on individual students. Media hype has confused the purpose of NAPLAN, portraying it as a summative rather than formative assessment.  These tests are not ends in themselves; they should not be used to denigrate schools or to make claims about what some educators are failing to do for their students.  Rather, these tests should be used by states, schools and other educators to examine the learning that is taking place within their locus of control.

If a school finds that its students have excelled in a particular skill, then it should celebrate that success and be proud of what it is achieving.  If, on the other hand, results show that students have been broadly unable to apply another skill, then it is indicative of what more needs to be done, of an area of learning that may have been neglected.  But since learning does not end with NAPLAN, such results should only be used to provide direction in further teaching and learning, not to indicate failure.

What would be serious is if over time, the testing shows a school/state to be continually performing poorly on the same skills; that is to say, if they have not learned from prior mistakes. And that is what we should all pay attention to.

All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind have been convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth. (Unknown)

As I step into the classroom this week for the very first time as the teacher, not the student, I am in a unique position to reflect on the role of this ancient profession.  What is it that has drawn me into this path?  Why have I chosen to move away, leave family and friends, to plunge into this role, uncertain of what it has in store for me in the years to come?
The answers to these questions are not important right now.  What is important, is the belief that I have in teachers to potentially make amazing, wide-reaching, dramatic changes to those maturing individuals that come before them.  It is a profession that I, like many others, have many opinions about – I critique, I judge, I compare.  However, I am in awe of what teachers do in transmitting skills and knowledge to their students.
At the micro level, the learning of the student is in the hands of their teacher: initially, they can only know as much as the teacher knows. Is the developing mind of a child imprinted by the content and boundaries of their teacher’s own limitations of thought? Think Locke’s tabula rasa (blank slate)… Yet the inside of the classroom does also mirror the structure and governing rules of society at large.
The teacher in many ways is a vehicle for educating the future adult citizens of society and inducting them into the norms of society.  This role is elucidated by particular frameworks that are articulated by government, from vague and value-laden, to more tightly prescriptive.  In Australia, these frameworks include the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians and the incoming Australian Curriculum.  I argue that in addition, the NAPLAN tests carry strong messages into classrooms about what sort of citizens we want our young people to be (in particular, I am thinking of ideas around comparison and constant, measurable progress).
In many ways, teachers are technicians, who take in the normative ideas and language of the local, national and even global communities, and re-craft these into messages that slowly build up a foundation of knowledge for students.  It is with this knowledge, and toolbox of skills, that students then equipped, are able to emerge into the world as capable young adults.
At this knowing-yet-not-knowing stage of teaching, I do not have the hindsight to reflect upon my own practice. I can only look forward onto an uncertain path, hesitant yet eager to begin my work.