Several of the many facets of the complexity of schooling moved into the public arena with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Four Corners program, DigiKids. DigiKids aired on Monday 11 November, 2019.
The program touched on an extensive range of issues. The achievements of our students as measured on both the NAPLAN tests and PISA assessments. What children are taught and how, the influence of technology. Teachers both having great success with their students and others feeling inadequate to the task. Footage of students experiencing versions of interacting with the language. Experts, commentators and students had a say.
We can refer to the program from the big picture perspective of the 2019 review of national goals for education, building on the Melbourne Declaration of 2009.
Over the past decade, the Melbourne Declaration has played a key role in shaping reform and defining foundational knowledge, skills and values, general capabilities and curriculum learning areas for Australia’s school system.
Australian Government: Department of Education (June 2019)
That statement indicates that we are getting exactly the kind of school system that we have stated we want.
But it isn’t as simple as that.
At the Melbourne Education Council Communiqué Forum in February, 2019, to discuss the review of the Melbourne Declaration, it was agreed that the content was sound, but needed updating.
Improvements will be considered to modernise the declaration and reflect:
the factors that impact on the success of education
the changing nature of education, the economy and work
the place of learning within broader society
the importance of early learning
the increasing need for lifelong learning
a renewed focus on equity and embracing diversity
the importance of smooth transitions and appropriate learning pathways.
Education Council Melbourne 2019
Every one of these was agreed to by the 11 Ministers and 54 delegates from across all education sectors, young Australians, parents, industry and union representatives and education academics (Education Council Melbourne 2019) who attended the forum.
This is the aspiration.
These are notable for their relevance to issues raised in DigiKids.
Early learning and fluid transitions
DigiKids introduced these concerns – the importance of early learning, and the importance of ‘fluid transitions’ for students across key points in the education system.
Focus on early learning ensures that children have a solid grounding in what is needed for literacy and numeracy development, and for future learning across the curriculum. This does not begin when the child walks into the kindergarten classroom for their orientation day and identifies their name from a selection of 10 or 12 others.
Literacy is about communication – having something to say and having the skills to say it; caring enough to listen to others who also have something to say. There is an integrity in this. For schooling to work most effectively, it requires strong partnerships with parents, carers, families and communities to recognise, honour and build the contributions of everyone.
The provision of universal, free pre-school learning opportunities for Australian children will provide a greater focus on early learning. Calls for this to be addressed have been long and frustrated.
Learning is also about the models we provide for our children, as one of the most powerful and essential elements of the teaching and learning cycle. It’s learning about the power of communication and the world itself in those early years, to provide the basis for the skills of reading, writing, working with texts. This can take many forms, and may not necessarily involve the reading of books. We have to accommodate this, despite the shock of hearing Shyane’s response to the question put to her:
LOUISE MILLIGAN TO SHYANE: Do you know anyone who reads books?
LOUISE MILLIGAN: Not a single person?
SHYANE, SHAKES HEAD: Nup.
— DigiKids Transcript
Shyane and her companions have other avenues for learning.
English is a gorgeous language. We’re so lucky it’s ours. Kids should be thrilled to be working with it, playing with it, understanding how they could have an impact upon the reader …
Adoniou, DigiKids transcript, 2019
So they should. So should their teachers and their carers, and the wider community. Here we are with public discourse that appears as a shouting match of opinions, variations on different truths, and, frequently, blatant lies. The same banalities used in advertisements for washing products in 1960 are still on our screens. Persuasive text? Who is being convinced here? How can our children see the value in developing the skills to carefully craft discussions when the loudest voices are often with the least to say and are the most listened to?
Sometimes the artificiality of what we do in classrooms as well as in the broader Australian context is enough to show kids (and teachers) that learning isn’t really about them, it’s about a secret code that some kids can get and others don’t, about secret data-gathering that counts the ticks then smooshes everything that happens in the classroom into averages that consistently tell all teachers and all students that they are failing.
Success and failure
We know the current systems – plural – are not working for every child. Nor are they working for teachers or for the wider community.
Our Year 9 students are not performing to the standards apparently promised by early achievement. The figures quoted in DigiKids are alarming. That is, the figures from the tests.
Yet there are numerous schools where excellent progress and excellent results are being achieved. The teachers at these schools are passionate about authentic learning, and about students achieving authentic growth in their command of the language. Ways to harness and build in what these teachers do are in the public domain. And still we reduce considerations of what happens in our classrooms to apparently instant programs that will fix everything for every child almost instantaneously.
Greater focus on student well-being
While the Four Corners program was punctuated by children repeating some of the sounds represented by letters, there were also children speaking about broad textual concepts in English, and demonstrating sophisticated strategies and considerations in their use of the language.
The key theme of greater focus on student well-being is devalued.
It is possible to do both. Teachers who were animated and engaged with the learning of their students as they explored the language on DigiKids was demonstration of teacher attention on the well-being of their students in rigorous, high stakes learning.
Things have changed in the last twenty years or so. We have shifted teaching and learning from understanding about how the language works for each child in order to communicate, to checklists of observable behaviours. We are carrying the results of the years of ‘tick and flick’ assessments so that we only teach – or learn – that which has been itemised. Like a shopping list.
Except for those teachers in schools that aren’t, and don’t. A greater understanding of the different types of success our students are achieving may well come out of the review of the Melbourne Declaration.
‘Diverse pathways’ will have to wait. I don’t believe these are possible as part of the current structure of education in Australia. They won’t be until the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, known as the ‘Disability Royal Commission’ are fully implemented, and our once superb TAFE system has a review and rebuild. The title of the first, with its ongoing findings, is shocking, and together with the collapse of the latter, are indictments of our education system as a whole.
Key themes in reform
There is a total of eleven ‘key themes’ identified during the consultation process for the review of the Melbourne Declaration. These three have been repeatedly identified as requiring attention.
They are inter-related:
Greater focus on early learning, fluid transitions and diverse pathways
Greater focus on student well-being
Student diversity and stronger partnerships with parents, carers, families and communities
Education Council 2019
Perhaps this renewed public discussion will spur the appropriate financial, academic and practical support to turn the aspirations of our 2019 Declaration into action for all our students.
NOTE: DigiKids can also be seen on ABC iview and at abc.net.au/4corners
PETAA is addressing the essential features of understanding and teaching the principles that support our English language with their award-winning publication The alphabetic principle and beyond – surveying the landscape (2019), winner of the Educational Publishing Awards Australia: Primary Reference Resource Award 2019.
PISA – the latest news:
Upcoming – Results from PISA 2018
Over half a million 15-year-olds from 79 countries and economies took the PISA test in 2018. They were tested in reading, mathematics and science with a focus on reading. In addition, students in some countries took tests on financial literacy and on global competence. Results of this PISA round (PISA 2018) will be released on 3 December 2019.
In the meantime you can consult information on the theory underpinning the main assessment & the assessment of global competence (the innovative domain).
You can also discover some questions that students took for the Field Trial.
Australian Broadcasting Corporation (2019) Four Corners: Digikids at https://www.abc.net.au/4corners/digi-kids/11693706 accessed 13/11/2019
Education Council (2019) Communiqué Forum to discuss a review of the Melbourne Declaration, Grand Hyatt Melbourne 22 February 2019 at http://educationcouncil.edu.au/site/DefaultSite/filesystem/documents/Miscellaneous/Forum%20Communique%2022%20February.pdf (accessed 15/11/2019)