From the Principal

Andreas Schleicher – What Really Works for Students?

At the Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia and New Zealand Conference during the last holiday, I was very fortunate to listen to Andreas Schleicher’s presentation. Andreas is the Head of the OECD education assessment program, PISA. He is a very intelligent, socially aware person, who is able to assess vast, complex data sets and see patterns and trends in a way that I have not previously seen others demonstrate.

Andreas’ view of Australia’s PISA progress was far from the media’s cynical and pessimistic presentation and affirmed Australia’s balanced and committed approach to education, while also acknowledging a number of areas that I suspect we would all reference for review, in the same presentation.

Amongst other aspects of education, Andreas looked at what teaching strategies achieved measureable change in student outcomes and also examined the very contentious aspect of ‘efficiency’ (both academic learning efficiency and also financial efficiency) in education.

Amongst other domains and conclusions, the OECD data indicated the following, without question:

  • Smaller class sizes do not benefit students and restrict teachers’ abilities to do their job well. They actually (ironically) create loads on staff that prevent optimal professional learning and growth for staff and restrict their ability to collaborate with other staff and thus improve their teaching practice.
  • Smaller classes are also a significant financial drain on schools and school systems without any measurable consequential gain in academic or social/emotional growth for students. As both a teacher and a parent, I found this surprising as it is counter-intuitive to me, but the research is data is compelling on this point and does reinforce the findings of John Hattie’s Visible Learning work.
  • Other countries’ models, with larger classes, less teacher contact time, greater opportunity for PD and collegial collaboration actually produce better outcomes for students.
  • These models also ensure the greater personal and professional growth of staff I referred to above, and a more intuitive understanding of the world young people will be moving out into.
  • Repetition, drilling and rote learning are proven short-term, poor long-term outcome teaching methodologies by schools, and (in Andreas’ view at least) a short-sighted view of what will equip students best for their future. This approach to teaching equips students to solve low-level, known, and linear problems effectively, but does not equip students to go into unknown areas or problems with confidence; an expectation that will be a part of their post-school world.
  • Balanced against this is the confidence this drilling and repetition approach tends to reinforce in young men and particularly, young women. There is an argument that this approach will lay foundations for confidence and risk-taking that will negate the above. This is a compelling discussion for us all as parents.

So, what does this mean for schools?

To be frank, the picture is not clear, and further muddied by compliance expectations created by standardised testing and the ATAR.

The following are two aspects of future education that may be worth some contemplation, based on Andreas’ presentation and the thinking of other educational futurists.

Teaching style – Direct instruction or enquiry?

We clearly need to retain some direct instruction, particularly in the primary years, to ensure basic skills and knowledge in literacy and numeracy are instilled ahead of broader aims. Greater growth for students will be achieved through deep engagement in non-linear and unknown tasks (particularly in the latter years of secondary schooling), in many cases this will be enquiry-based. We can do this within the Australian Curriculum in the Middle Years, but it is more difficult in the final two years because of the current content volume in VCE and IB courses.

Assessment and the ATAR

There is no evidence that the Australian government’s fixation on the NAPLAN standardised testing does anything to improve standards of numeracy or literacy in the population. Its results are only vaguely indicative for any individual student for a range of reasons, but it does allow schools to look at how well they grow their students from NAPLAN to NAPLAN. From that perspective, it provides a tool for schools to examine their effectiveness. Its effectiveness as a tool to improve teaching and learning is entirely unproven.

In an analogous way, Australia’s reliance on the ATAR binds schools to a commitment to performance in standardised testing and examinations. The ATAR exists primarily to filter university entrance and as such, every child will maximise their future options and opportunities by doing as well as they can with their ATAR score.

Earlier this year PWC announced the start of a ‘cadet’ style program where they would take in young people directly from school, without a university degree in Commerce or Economics. This is a very significant change and, combined with early entry to universities through scholarship programs, indicates the beginnings of the erosion of reliance on the ATAR.

As this gathers pace, and at the AHISA conference in New Zealand the opinions of Principals were that this will happen quickly, the ATAR will become less and less relevant. Universities will likely begin to assess applicants’ capabilities in other areas; collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and other, non-content based capabilities. In turn, as that happens, schools will progressively be freed to deliver more relevant educational offerings to young people who will be entering our rapidly changing world.

It is clear that ahead are challenging and uncertain times in education, but also exciting ones. We have more objective and valuable data than ever before and this enables us to kow what really works and what clearly doesn’t. On the other hand, we still do not have a crystal ball to predict what will be the future of 2030 that the Prep students of 2017 will go out into.

Factis non verbis

Brad Fry



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