"Why do the media report the decline in our ranking rather than the decline in our results?"
- Dr. Rachel Wilson.
Assessment is a topic that is critically important, hot, and over done. Yet there was an attitude that came through from the abstract for Rachel's presentation that sounded positive and excited about assessment which is not an attitude that I have come across before.
Rachel made some cold points to start with. We have, she began, an assessment system which is essentially external to the classroom and which created a situation where her own daughters, currently in fourth grade, have already sat more exams than Rachel did during her entire schooling and which has created a competitive streak in them she had not expected. She made the point that research demonstrates that emotions and feelings are at the heart of learning and therefore that these things should be at the heart of our education system which is certainly not the case when the perception of school is that it prepares you for an exam which serves only one purpose; to determine what university and courses you are eligible for.
The media reported, quite vociferously, the recent release of the latest PISA results (for example here, here, here and here). The issue is that the stance taken is one of bemoaning our drop in ranking relative to other countries. Rachel questioned this attitude; "why does it matter if we are ranked below Kazakhstan in PISA?" Rachel continued by acknowledging that our testing results across reading, writing, mathematics and scientific literacy are certainly declining, despite the near zealous focus on standardised national testing
We were asked to consider how often a student has been unable to answer a question or complete a task in a test situation that they have demonstrated the ability to do ordinarily. It is quite often, and the rhetoric around oh, I'm not a test person is demonstrative of the fact that we are aware of the impact that testing can have on our emotions and feelings. Rachel invoked Hattie's research and exhorted us to know our impact and to consider the impact that our choices have on our students.
Assessment should, we were told, engage students. It should be something that they want to complete. Consider how eager the majority of students are to learn and to engage with learning tasks in their early years of schooling. What happens that we then see the fourth grade slump and students disengaging with learning? Assessment should engage students and allow for professional judgement. This is not, as far as I can see, reconcilable with the current system of mandatory reporting each semester in an A-E fashion how a student is going relative to their peers across a range of subject areas and the pressures put upon teachers and students to ensure growth, but that perhaps says more about the focus of our education and schooling systems.
Rachel then took the audience on a whirlwind history tour of assessment in Australia. We have traditionally utilised three main forms of assessment. Norm referenced demonstrated where students sat on a bell curve. Criterion referenced assessments were designed to measure student achievement against a clear set of criteria or learning standards that indicated what students should know and/or be able to demonstrate. Standards references assessment was designed to be a process of collecting and interpreting information about students learning and allows for teacher professional judgement. Much assessment that goes on at the moment is a hybrid of all three models, however, there is another option. Ipsative assessment.
Ipsative assessment was not a term that I had heard of previously, however, a read of the brief overview provided onscreen (captured in the above tweet) indicated that this is probably being used on a regular basis in many classrooms, though perhaps not in the structured and formal way that Rachel was indicating. She went on to talk about an online system that is used in New Zealand that allows teachers to log on and see data across a range of curriculum areas and quickly identify gaps in learning which can be used for planning purposes. It also allows assessment tasks to be completed on an as needed and appropriate basis rather than the current model here in Australia of a big day or week of assessment testing each year. Being able to input student results, have them mapped to curriculum areas and use that data for planning in a timely manner would be useful, especially given that the purpose of assessment of learning should be to inform the next steps in that area. It highlights the fact that the delay in results after NAPLAN testing makes the tests themselves completely redundant as a pedagogical tool, especially considering that neither the student or teacher is given access to their test paper to talk about what they have done and use it as a feedback tool.
Rachel's talk was very intriguing and seemed to be well received by the audience. I heard a few people sitting around me comment that they wanted to research ipsative assessment more and look at how they could adapt their current assessment processes to suit and the buzz as we moved out to lunch demonstrated that she had given many people food for thought.
If you have missed any of the articles in this series or Storifies of the Tweets from FutureSchools, you can find them here.
"There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning."
- Attributed to Jiddu Krishnamurti
Disclosure: My attendance at FutureSchools 2017 is under a media pass provided by the organisers.
The structure of FutureSchools 2017 is going to be rather different to my experience over the last two years. The Australian Technology Park venue in Sydney did not allow for plenary sessions and so it is not a big surprise to see that plenary sessions are on the agenda with the move to the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. I have previously written previews of the five conference streams (read it here) and what they are themed around, as well as a Masterclass Preview article. In this session I am going to explore the agendas for day one of FutureSchools 2017, highlighting the sessions in particular that I will be visiting.
This year’s FutureSchools event will be opening with a plenary session featuring the three keynote speakers, presenting on very different topics. After the welcoming remarks by Jenny Luca of Wesley College Melbourne, delegates will be hearing from Dr. Milton Chen about the role of the Arts, Nature, and Place-Based Learning. The topic intrigues me. I strongly believe that we do not give enough love to the creative and performing arts. Whilst I absolutely agree that literacy and numeracy are important domains of learning, and have a significant impact on a successful life, I believe that the Arts play a significant role in our ability to be creative and empathetic.
The role of Nature and Place-Based Learning is one that intrigues me. I recall a talk at FutureSchools 2015 where a Primary School in Western Australia had created a nature-play space complete with climbing trees, dirt pits for playing in and other nature-based play spaces (though I cannot find the article in question or recall who it was). I am not sure if this is what Dr. Chen is referring to in his title, nor do I know what is meant by the phrase place-based learning, however, the Arts are something I value and I am intrigued as to his view of how they connect with the other two topics.
Following Dr. Chen is Jan Owen, AM Hon DLitt speaking about skills, particularly entrepreneurial skills, needed by today’s (and presumably tomorrow’s) youth. This is a topic that I am generally a little sceptical about. I recently wrote an article about the nature of twenty-first century skills and the fact that there is nothing twenty-first century about them, other than a temporal reference to when we are utilising these skills. The abstract for Jan’s presentation indicates that the session will help us to identify entrepreneurial skills needed by immersing us in leading research and insights into changing enterprise.
I would not personally consider myself an entrepreneur nor would I necessarily be able to list the particular skill set an entrepreneur would need, however, I would imagine that they would be similar to those that entrepreneurs needed in previous generations. Talk about studentpreneurs, teacherpreneurs, and edupreneurs is, from my perspective, concerning. Perhaps I am coming at this from the wrong angle, and I would encourage you to let me know in the comments if you think that is the case, however, entrepreneur has business and commercial connotations in my mind and implies a sense of going about something for commercial benefit or profit. This is not what education is or should be about (although I acknowledge that what education is and should be about is a particularly large and divisive topic in its own right). It implies a focus on teaching our students a set of skills that allow one to be successful, but in one particular area of society; business. The focus on money and keeping up with the Jones' is pervasive in society today and is in my view a sad indictment on our collective societal and cultural drive.
All of that said, I am interested to hear what Jan has to say as I have not actually listened to a presentation on this topic in the past. I will also put my hand up and acknowledge that I could be coming at this topic from the wrong angle. It would not be the first time I have gone into a presentation on a particular topic with a viewpoint and walked out forced to rethink it, such as this PBL session with the Hewes' family).
The final keynote speaker is Prakash Nair under the title of Learning Environments: Optimising Places and Spaces for Learning. I am particularly interested in this talk as my current school has recently undergone a capital building project with the view to removing the twelve demountable buildings on site in order to reclaim play ground space. The demountables are gone, the new building is open, and it is the final preparation of the new playground space that is now underway. The new building looks amazing from the outside, it looks good from the inside, and I am hearing from the teachers in those spaces that they are largely enjoying the team-teaching aspect. I am not in the new building, however my current classroom used to contain three spaces separated by walls; namely the library, the librarian’s office and the computer lab. It has been renovated and turned into a single space for two classrooms, and I am enjoying working in a team-teaching context.
Following the plenary keynote session is the ever important morning tea break, a chance to recharge laptops, connect with old friends, meet other educators and stretch the legs and mind after an intense opening session. The second session is where delegates break into their respective conference streams and this is where the media pass under which I am attending FutureSchools this year kicks in. Part of the agreement is that I attend at least one session in each conference stream, a relatively easy request as each stream has sessions that I am interested in. I will be beginning with the Special Needs and Inclusion conference stream where I will be hearing Deborah Nicholson speak about Bridging the equity gap for vulnerable students through music and arts programs.
There is an equity gap in our schools, a fact that at the moment is inescapable and strategies put in place, such as Gonksi seem to be helping. I have seen students who are not academically inclined light up during music or PE or drama lessons as it is an area they are successful in. I have seen students from difficult backgrounds turn a corner when they are able to be provided additional support in class through a Learning Support Intervention funded by Gonski. The different it can make to the confidence and self-belief for a student who struggles with [insert numeracy or literacy struggle here].
Following Deborah’s presentation, I will be shuffling quickly across to the ClassTech conference stream to hear Linda Ray speak about the impact of technology in the classroom on digital dementia. The abstract contends that neuroleadership ensures that our focus remains on the real, not virtual tasks at hand. This promises to be an interesting session as the impact of technology on students’ ability to focus is still being assessed. There has been some research in this field, however, to the best of my knowledge, the debate is certainly not over. Understanding how to recognise, avoid and combat cognitive overload from educational technology is a skill which I feel will become more and more important as technology becomes more pervasive throughout our education systems.
The final session before lunch and a return to the plenary room is, for me, in the Future Leaders conference stream where Dr. Rachel Wilson will be speaking about …aspiration, trends, challenges and cautions in assessment. This topic is rather timely given the teeth gnashing that occurred when the latest PISA results were recently released, the current public debate about the HSC changes to English and Physics as well as the deplorable changes to being eligible to sit the Higher School Certificate which are being proposed. I will be interested to hear what role the Australian Curriculum has in the talk as well as what role having a national final exam may play, if any.
The current system of assessment is broken if you listen to the media but they do not seem to be able to offer any genuinely viable alternatives. There are certainly areas of opportunity for improving assessment, but the teachers at the coalface can only do so much.
After lunch is when the breakout sessions are scheduled. I have not been particularly impressed with the structure and organisation of this session at the previous iterations of FutureSchools I have attended; however, I acknowledge that the organisers were hamstrung with the spaces available to them at the Australian Technology Park. I am hopeful that this year, with a new venue, that greater consideration to the logistics and acoustics of the breakout sessions is given and that they are more beneficial to everyone who attends the, not just those who sit nearest the presenter.
The final session of the day will see delegates return to the plenary room for two final keynotes. The first, from Marita Cheng focuses on the impact that the Victorian Government’s TechSchools Initiative is having, particularly in the STEM area and the impact that early exposure to technology and engineering is having on students. Finishing the day off is Lisa Rodgers, the CEO of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) presenting under the title From Young Learners to Lifelong Learning. It should be an interesting session as the abstract promises to [b]uild insight to raise achievement and improve system effectiveness. Discover the levers that really lift educational attainment. Given that it is the final session of the day, it will either be very well or very poorly attended. I do not know what the wider educational community’s attitude towards AITSL is, however, I personally have heard a range of opinions.
Day one of FutureSchools 2017 will of course be concluding with the customary networking drinks event and I look forward to seeing some old friends and meeting some new ones. Let me know in the comments what you think will be the highlight from the FutureSchools timetable and what your thoughts are on the edupreneur conversations which seem to be taking place more frequently.