“What works in Singapore, works because we are Singaporean.”
– Brett quoting a Singaporean Principal he worked under
Disclosure: My attendance at Education Nation (#EduNationAu) was through a media pass provided by the conference organisers.
As you read this, I would like you to consider what you believe the purpose and goal of the education system should be. I will openly admit that I am a conference junky. I have written previously about my love of conferences and being in the same room as those on the same page as yourself, however, I had forgotten how tiring, both mentally and physically, they are. I am sitting in my hotel room using my phone to hotspot so I can write this, with Pink Floyd playing, still buzzing from conversations I have had, connections I have made and people from my online professional learning network (PLN) that I have known for some time, but never met in person.
I am going to structure my Education Nation series of review articles slightly differently to review articles from previous conferences. Ordinarily, I would write the review of each session, weaving general feedback on the conference event as a whole throughout, as it fit the session. For this set of articles, I want to focus on the speaker and their message; and instead, will keep those overview reflections to a specific article, which will be the final article in the series, to act as a conclusion piece. If you have managed to miss the pre-Education Nation articles that I wrote, you can find those in a consolidated list of the articles for this event by clicking here.
As I wrote in a previous article, I had the opportunity, unlike most attendees, to move between the conference streams. My first session was a part of the Rethinking Reform stream and was Brett Salakas (@Mrsalakas) speaking under the title PISA Pipe Dreams. Brett opened by asking people to share what they were learning, questions, critiques and ideas via Twitter using the conference hashtag, #EduNationAu, which many people did. Brett then continued by telling us what he was not.
This was followed by a brief historical overview of PISA and its purpose, which he summarised as being a way of helping governments monitor education system achievements and the impacts of education. By giving all of the students, who are the same age, the same test, it sounds like it should be a good way of tracking trends and variances between countries. Yet, Brett says, it is actually that which makes it rather murky. Students sit a two-hour written test which covers scientific literacy, mathematics, reading and financial literacy.
What this means is that the state of our education system in comparison to other countries is based on a test which takes place once every three years, and allows students roughly thirty minutes for each of the four sections, which then packages the data up in neat statistical bundles which are then able to be misused and misrepresented in the media, creating a sense of fear and concern, and a backlash, against the state of the education system in Australia.
These headlines create this sense of worry about the state of our education system, the quality of our teachers and the worry about how we will remedy the situation. Often, it is easy to look to the leaders of the PISA results and ask the question “what are they doing? Let’s do that” and attempt to translate education policies and practices directly into the Australian context, without thinking through a range of issues that arise in doing so.
Brett then made the quote that I have included at the top of the article, which points out that we need to take into account the cultural context of what is happening and why it is working. Brett related that when he taught in Singapore the entire education system was streamed by ability groupings into the top, middle, and bottom third of academic results and students were taught and trained to perform to a high standard. Then he made a comment, told us about a standard practice which blew my mind and which would never happen here in Australia.
“My Year One ESL class in Singapore finished at nine pm on a Monday night.”
Stop and think about what that means for a moment.
Year One students, most of whom will be either six or seven years old, lining up waiting for their teacher to arrive, beginning class and then not finishing until a time when I would like to be in bed. Presumably, there is going to be a period of travel time before those children arrive at home, and then actually get to bed and then fall asleep. That practice would cause uproar and outrage if suggested here in Australia. We need to find a solution that works here, for us, in our context.
Brett continued by pointing out a few facts about PISA, which he made quite clear were all confirmable on the PISA website. He reminded us that this fear-mongering and panic is based upon, essentially, a thirty-minute test (for each subject area PISA concerns itself with) and that there are a number of factors in play that are not typically talked about. He spoke about research by Alma Harris (@AlmaHarris1) that indicated many Nordic countries exclude migrants and refugees from the PISA testing and that some research shows many Asian countries prepare their students for PISA in a period of time immediately beforehand, in an effort to boost their results.
An interesting point was then raised, which I ha not thought about, but which does make sense, which was that although the PISA tests are written in one language, they do need to be translated into a range of languages as required for each country. The very act of translating the questions can have an impact on the complexity of the question, from a cultural point of view, as well as an academic perspective.
The next issue is a phenomenon referred to as the Wild Geese of Korea, or, in Korean, Gireogi appa (literally ‘goose dad’), wherein Korean families are sending the mother and child to a Western country, to receive a Western education, perceived to be of a higher standard than a Korean education, whilst the father remains in Korea, in a small unit.The terminology applied within Korea regarding this is quite complex and structured. However, this phenomenon raises a very important question; what are the Koreans seeing about education in the Western countries, that we are not?
This segued into an amusing clip from the movie 300, the tale of King Leonidas of Spart and his eventual defeat during the Battle of Thermopylae. This clip, however, had the audio in French, with some clever subtitles. My thanks to Kelly Hollis for finding the original link
This clip was the entry point into a discussion about the attributes we actually would like to see developed in our students. Brett related an incident that occurred at his school during an athletics carnival; specifically, the Girls one hundred metre final, which would determine the age champion for that year. Brett spoke about two girls who, for their primary education, had ben the two standout athletes, sharing honours across athletics events each year, and that this would be the decider between them. It was a significant event, with lots of parents attending to watch, as happens at sports carnivals and both girls were taking it quite seriously, the eleven-year-old Olympics, as it were.
Only a short distance into the race, one of the two girls hurt herself, pulling a hamstring. Her rival had the advantage from the start and had pulled ahead and so was not aware of what had happened, however, the other girls all stopped to check and see if she was ok. Eventually, the leading girl realised something was not right and turned around to look. Upon seeing that her rival had stopped, injured, she made a choice. Instead of continuing to take the win and the title of age champion, she went back to her rival, her friend, and did what she could to help and show concern. Brett then made a poignant statement; “every parent there at that moment knew exactly, from what had happened, why they sent their daughter to this school. That choice, that act made it clear.”
The education system in Singapore and the other high-performing countries on PISA tests work in their context as there are specific attributes which are being looked for. We need to decide what attributes we want to see in our children. Conveniently, Brett had an Answergarden for us to indicate the attributes that we feel are important.
We need to stop cherry picking aspects of education systems from countries which obtain high results on PISA testing and have a real conversation about what we, as a nation, want for our students from out education system. The countries which perform, and have performed, highly on those international standardised testing have historically put educational policies in place many years before they have had their purple patch which has focused on enabling their goal for education to be achieved. Correct me if I am wrong, but I do not believe that there has ever been a national conversation in Australia about the purpose and goals of education and how we go about achieving those goals*. Many key attributes that show up on the word cloud above, resilience, collaboration, confidence, are, Brett says, nationally imbued and are seen as typical Aussie characteristics; mateship, innovation, a fair go etc.
“Don’t curse the darkness, be the light”
-Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt
This quote was Brett’s final message. We need to act as beacons of light and positivity in education to stave off the darkness and the negativity, and connecting with other educators, those who are working to shine the light, is a fantastic way of helping to do that. Brett shared ten (it was actually twelve) educators who he sees as great educators to follow.
My key takeaway from Brett’s session was that we need to have the why and what conversation about education, and work to gain some sort of consensus about education’s goal in order to stop the cycle of ideological-based policies and provide some consistency of expectation and purpose. The over-reliance on PISA as a measure needs to be re-evaluated as well, as this feeds into the media fear-mongering about education and influences, negatively, the education conversation and perception.
What was your key takeaway from Brett’s keynote? What do you believe the purpose and goal of education should be in Australia? Let me know, either by commenting on this article or by tweeting me.
The next article in this Education Nation series will look at the presentation by Professor Geoff Masters (@GMastersACER).
As always, thank you for reading. IF you have missed any articles in this series, please click here.
*In the time since I published this article, I have been reminded of the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians, which I had forgotten about. Whilst it does provide a potential launchpad for a national conversation about the purposes and goals of education, it was not, in itself, a national conversation, given that it came out of a meeting of politicians.