It’s that time of year again. The time where thirteen years of schooling reaches its pinnacle and the HSC examinations begin. Whilst the HSC plays an important role in providing an indication of what a student can reproduce of their knowledge under examination conditions …(oh dear, I didn’t do a very good job of masking my opinion then did I?)...we should not be misled into believing that it is an indicator of how well a student can think.
At Turramurra High School we are working towards fully embedding 4C’s transformative Learning (Jefferson & Anderson) into our approach to teaching, learning and leadership. This approach focuses on teaching and assessing learning dispositions - the mindsets that help us to think critically and creatively, to genuinely collaborate and effectively communicate - the mindsets that the HSC does not examine.
When it comes to international measures of educational success, Singapore is the highest achieving country in OECD (Organisation for the Economic Cooperation Development) testing. Their examination scores, particularly in numeracy, exceed every other country worldwide. Recently a colleague who had attended an education conference in Singapore told me that the Singaporean Education system had decided to remove all high stakes testing because in their words, "it is killing our kids". Tragically, in the environment where high test performance is everything, students reach a point where the decision to take their own life is easier to make than facing the fear of failure. And, by the way, let’s not be naive enough to think that we are not seeing that same thing amongst students here in the leafy North Shore of Sydney. It is not OK for our kids to reach this point. This article about the Singapore system is an interesting adjunct to this: https://qz.com/780752/singapore-is-rethinking-high-stakes-tests/
The following section of the article resonates most clearly with me in the light of our 4C’s approach as mentioned above:
"Kapur’s research, and others’, show tests measure kids ability to apply what they know, but not to generate new ideas. They measure performance in a vacuum, meaning kids are not allowed to draw on critical real-life resources like computers and the internet, and feedback from peers and other people. Also, the questions do not require persistence; they basically measure a kid’s ability to provide rapid-fire responses. In other words, these tests do not encourage the skills needed to succeed in the 21st century, like creativity, inventiveness, communication, and collaboration."
If you’ve got three minutes, I can also recommend the video from the Minister for Education in Singapore which is embedded in the above article : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kms7gzaYkCk
I wonder if, like me, you were shocked in the video at Shirley’s mark after resitting the exam? I think our reaction says a lot about how we have been conditioned to think about exams. Even just the fact that we place so much meaning on a number without knowing anything more about the required learning, speaks volumes. How would you feel if your child’s semester report came home with no marks on it and only an assessment of their learning dispositions? How might that change the way your child sees their learning in particular subjects?
I’ve held onto an article from the Sydney Morning Herald from earlier this year because I think it makes some very interesting points about the perceptions held about the HSC. It really makes you rethink when a parent makes the following observation about our school system:
"Now I can say it. With my youngest child having safely fled the school system, I can finally say, without fear of jinx or reprisal, that how we educate our kids is insane. It's not the teachers, who show the normal human range from fine to feeble. Not the particular schools, which included public and private, selective and non-selective. What's insane is the system and – feeding it, as fear feeds war – an intensifying cultural madness. Not theirs. Ours"
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts after reading the article: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/the-way-we-teach-our-children-is-truly-crazy-20170223-gujyh1.html
So when it comes down to it, what can we do about this crazy system that we are caught in where the HSC is defining so much of what it means to be a student as well as who we are as teachers and parents that there is no room for thinking anymore? No one wants to be the brave one that tries to change things because the cost is too high - "What if it adversely affects my child’s HSC result?" But if we consider what the cost is at the moment, we might be more open to it.
It is reassuring that in the revised HSC from the NSW Educational Standards Authority (NESA - formerly the Board of Studies/ BOSTES) there is a requirement to reduce the number of assessment tasks completed under exam conditions. There is also a required reduction in the overall number of assessment tasks that can be issued by each subject and the HSC exams are to be designed to require students to do more thinking and less regurgitating of information.
An interesting endnote - when I run into ex-students in various places, I have never once had one say to me that they are unhappy with their life or career path despite for some, not having gained the ATAR that they were hoping for. Interestingly however, I have run into a number of ex-students who have said to me that they have changed their university degree because they had realised that the course they had applied for in their HSC year had been chosen to either a) please someone else...a parent perhaps.. or b) because they realised that they were choosing a course to "cash in" their highest possible ATAR mark but later realised that they weren’t actually interested in, or happy with, that degree at all.
The change needs to come from our mindset, and the message that our students receive, about what is important. If we value thinking and problem-solving, if we see failure as a learning experience and if we genuinely embrace opportunities to reward effort not just results, then we might be moving in the right direction.