From learning styles to semiotic resources

Like many, I was introduced to several theories of learning styles in the 1990s.  Neuro-linguistic programming (Grinder, 1991) and experiential learning cycles (Kolb & Fry, 1975) were two that I remember. I never tested my students on what style worked best for them.  I didn’t even ask if they had a preference, even though Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, and Bjork (2008) find that there is “ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences” (p 105). Instead, I used theories of learning styles to cycle through different ways of approaching and presenting educational content.  Cycling through various teaching approaches proved effective for the aims and objectives at the time.  I accept that these approaches are now out of date.

During the nineties, I also had an interest in cultural studies (what ever happened to that) with a focussed interest on semiotics (Barthes, 1967, 1957/1993; Chandler, 2002; Eco, 1980/1998, 1988/2001).  That was fun.

When I left teaching I was lucky enough to get a job working on the PISA project (I didn’t mention that before :-). As all the important people were busy, I found myself managing PISA’s first computer-based assessment which was a side project (OECD, 2010). Luckily, I was surrounded by competent people, mainly university students whose opinions hadn’t yet calcified, so the project went well.  It was in managing this project that a basic understanding of the visual (movies, animations and images), kinaesthetic (input devices) and auditory (sound) proved useful. As was a rudimentary understanding of semiotics.

Field operations for the PISA’s first computer-based assessment went well.  The project specified that countries cart standardised laptops to all sampled schools.  This meant that the assessment conditions were highly standardised and the data of good quality. However, national centres found lugging laptops too cumbersome, and as countries started to complain they began to call it the Koomen model.  Three countries persisted to a main trial, and when the data was analysed, that’s when the real problem began.

The data from the computer-based test made sense, but was quite distinct from the paper-based test. The movies, animations and other features suggested that the science assessed on the computer was different to science assessed using paper.  For example, boys did better on computer-based because the reading load was less.  The Koomen model didn’t work due to the heavy laptops, and because the data didn’t fit with the paper. So, I went to hide in the public service for a bit.

The mental models (Senge, 1992) I had at the time didn’t fit computer-based assessment. However, I have recently been contemplating Kress (2010, pp. 5-7) who argues that technology provides for greater ‘semiotic resources’ for meaning making. This is now becoming the key idea for me. Technology has afforded new ways of making meaning and education has not quite caught up. Education is still caught up in solid, but dated, forms of syntactic structures (Chomsky, 1957/2015), dated forms of learning styles (Grinder, 1991), and dated approaches to culture (Jameson, 1991). From my perspective, educational research could focus more on how the newly available ‘semiotic resources’ affect meaning making for students. It is these developments that are likely to underlie Schleicher’s admission that the new computer-based PISA results might not be comparable, and why ACARA is having trouble moving NAPLAN online.

Habermas (1979) argues that societies develop along cognitive-technical and moral-practical dimensions. I would also argue that societies develop along an aesthetic-expressive dimension. Habermas (1975/2005) also argues that developments along the cognitive-technical dimension can fracture normative structures and destroy barriers of participation and create dysfunction and regression.  This is the focus of my research in technology-based educational assessment.

Barthes, R. (1967). The death of the author (S. Heath, Trans.). In S. Heath (Ed.), Image Music Text (pp. 142-148). London: Fontana Press.

Barthes, R. (1993). Mythologies. London: Vintage.  (Original work published 1957)

Chandler, D. (2002). Semiotics: the basics. New York: Routledge.

Chomsky, N. (2015). Syntactic structures. Mansfield Centre, USA: Martino Publishing.  (Original work published 1957)

Eco, U. (1998). The name of the rose. London: Vintage.  (Original work published 1980)

Eco, U. (2001). Foucault’s pendulum. LOndon: Vintage.  (Original work published 1988)

Grinder, M. (1991). Righting the educational conveyor belt: Metamorphous Press Portland, OR.

Habermas, J. (1979). Communication and the Evolution of Society (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press.

Habermas, J. (2005). Legitimation crisis (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press.  (Original work published 1975)

Jameson, F. (1991). Postmodernism, or, the cultural logic of late capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kolb, D. A., & Fry, R. (1975). Towards an applied theory of experiential learning. In C. L. Cooper (Ed.), Theories of group processes (pp. 33-57). London: John Wiley & Sons.

OECD. (2010). PISA Computer-Based Assessment of Student Skills in Science. Paris: OECD Publishing.  

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning Styles. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 3, 105-119.

Senge, P. M. (1992). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization. Milsons Point: Random House.

Easter reflections on NAPLAN Online and Safe Schools

Easter signals a time of new beginnings, a celebration of the spring Goddess (antipodes). Some think of the Germanic Ēostre, the Greek Eos, or the Roman Aurora. There are other characterisations. However one regards Easter, it is a time for spending time together and reflecting.

Easter, like spring, celebrates the possibility of the new. Transition from an old to a new is progress, but regression from the new to the old is also possible. These transitions have traditions too, the Greeks had the vanquished Titans and the victorious Olympians. The Olympians had the fabulous Dionysiac forces of creative-destruction; forces appropriated for capitalism by the economist Schumpeter.

The old is associated with violent struggles exemplified in Greek mythology through the authoritarian Cronos who wielded the harvesting scythe. Christian mythology has the one vengeful god of the old testament. In each tradition, the new is associated with plurality and greater shared understanding.

The Easter festival of spring brings hope for a new way of being. A hope to move away from the old violent confrontation of the Titans, towards the pluralistic understanding of the Olympians. A transition talked about by Confucius when he asks never to impose on others what you would not choose for yourself.  This maxim has had variation over the centuries and is a sentiment that asks us to consider a range of narrative traditions other than our own.

I have been reflecting on these things since reading Nietzsche’s Birth of the Tragedy over the weekend, it is a book that draws on the Dionysiac tradition of Greek theatre. I have been reflecting on what these myths can tell us about the NAPLAN online, and about Safe Schools.

Over a decade ago, I was fortunate enough to find myself leading a team implementing the first computer-based assessment in PISA. It worked, as no one was watching. The technical innovation was mainly created by university students, who made it look easy. The project brought together item developers, film directors, animators, software developers, psychometricians and field operations experts. It worked because experts in each field recognised the needs of experts in other fields. For me, it demonstrated the plurality of Olympus, and the plurality of the new testament. This project allowed me to glimpse in what the future might look like.

Off course, the future did not arrive. Instead of progress, there was regression. There was money to be made and the Titans with singular interests returned.

While I have no details, I imagine ten years later NAPLAN online is still stuck in that destructive battle of the Titans.  NAPLAN online is a task eminently doable, it could have been done several years ago. But I imagine that people are fighting for their own vested interests, with an unwillingness, or an incapacity, to consider the perspectives of others.

Regression is also evident in the battle over safe schools, a failure of one to see the point of view of the other. A failure to see a plurality of views, regressing to a clash of the Titans.

To save NAPLAN online, to save Safe Schools, we all need to morally develop so that we understand a plurality of perspectives.  And while the mortal Titans fight, the Olympians’ unquenchable thirst for laughter will remain.


Approach drawn from

 Olympus Inc : Intervening for Cultural Change in Organizations – Neville & Dalmau
The Birth of Tragedy –  Nietzsche 

Time to rewrite tropes on gender

Whenever I see Mark Latham in trouble my first reaction is to question his mental health.  The latest episode was not different, it simply led me to question Sky’s health and safety policy and practices, not their strategic and editorial decisions.

I cannot see how a sane man can make the kind of comments Latham makes. I know his sanity has been endorsed by greats such as Whitlam, as well as the vetting processes of the ALP, various elite writer’s conferences, and for Latham’s Sky media gig. Yet I cannot accept his commentary as being that of rational person.

So why are people so drawn to Latham, why did Sky keep him for so long, why did Jacqueline Maley write such an ironically engaging article on not engaging with him. What is the world’s fascination with Mark Latham? What is this trope, what is this anger, and why are people drawn?

The validity of the feminist cause is beyond challenge. The battle over the principle of equality was won decades ago, but social change has been slow and is now confused. To recap, there has always been a grand emancipatory narrative between master and slave (Hegel), or proletariat and bourgeoisie (Marx). However feminist writers, for example Irigaray, have correctly challenged this traditional grand emancipatory narrative by arguing that women are treated as goods for exchange within it. That is, women were traditionally not accepted as citizens within the broader emancipatory narrative. This required women to write their own emancipatory narrative we know as feminism, or what some conservative French philosophers might call a self-legitimating little narrative.

The narrative of feminism has had some, yet not universal, success in broadening opportunities for women and providing women access to power. That progress has been uneven is leading to new toxic dynamics.  There are now women in positions of power, while underlying inequality remains and festers.

Contemporary problems are more evident among the elites than among the hoi polloi. One Nation has shown that conservative men and women do not have problems with female leadership. Pauline Hanson’s stable leadership of Australia’s conservative movement for over 20 years is in stark contrast to other parties considered more progressive.  That Queensland is the only state to popularly elect a woman, twice, shows that Hanson is not an isolated case. Given a choice between an authoritarian male (Newman), and a sensible female (Palaszczuk), even conservatives seem to prefer the later. Among the general population there seems little problem with women and power.

Problems are more evident among elites and spheres of life considered progressive. That only 25 per cent of professors and one third of vice-chancellor in Australian universities are women is one example (click for article). The progressive Greens have only been led by a woman for 3 of the 20 odd years in parliament, or around 15% of the time. The progressive ALP butchered their one chance, with Gillard’s chances being cruelled more by internal machinations than harassment from outside the party.

The elite trade of the fourth estate provides another example. The ABC’s Insiders program, the elite political show on Australia’s elite broadcaster, has 74% male appearances to date for 2017 (see table below).  This is comparable to the gender crisis in academia. Part of this male dominance could be explained by vestiges of a patriarchal past; in that it could be argued that Barrie Cassidy and Mike Bowers are the preeminent experts due to past male advantage. This is the sort of argument the ALP uses to kick the gender equality can down the road to 2025 (click for article).  However, that over 75% of guests are men as well as nearly two thirds of guest panellists, is freshly baked contemporary gender bias. There is nothing self-evident in contemporary Australian society to suggest that men are better panellists and guests than women. Particularly given the tiresome spats between Henderson and Marr that are relics from the sixties.

The ABC’s Insiders exemplifies some broader dynamics.  It shows that journalism is one field where women are as competent as men, yet still lack voice in shaping the social sphere and the debates. This seems not isolated to journalism, as women are often promoted in other fields based on their functional efficiency then ignored in conversations that shape their workplace and society, with women remaining as good for exchange, this time as a “highly functional robot”.  What is also not isolated is that such gender bias is often excused when it involves a charismatic male, which in the case of the ABC’s Insiders is Barrie Cassidy.  I have no doubt that Barrie Cassidy is the good bloke as presented. But all systemic injustices breed contempt, and I often wonder if this contempt is not projected on the faces of the likes of Latham.

The toxicity of the current gender debates might be better explained by dynamics among the elites than among the hoi polloi.  Women working in the elite of the fourth estate are clearly being denied equal voice within it. We also have women in the elite of the fourth estate who ply their craft in a form of journalism that projects responsibility for inequality onto males of the proletariat. They seek to antagonise certain elements of the male proletariat, then thrive on the inarticulate toxicity of their trolling. They tease inarticulate marginalised working class men for their inability to exploit their natural advantage as white men. A class of men traditionally addressed by the emancipatory politics of the labour movement.  It is sometimes difficult to ascertain the purpose of such journalism other than for its shock value. Of course, I do not include Badham and Maley to be among this group.

The gender dynamics that Badham writes about are real and as nefarious as she describes. However, I do wonder if feminism should continue to be the dominant vehicle through which they are addressed, and whether it may not be better to pursue them through a broader emancipatory narrative. This is not to say that women cannot pursue their issues through feminism, there is always freedom of association. But with equality women get equal rights to be as stupid, strategic and as nasty some men.  Equality also gives women of the elite equal rights to be nasty to both men and women of the proletariat.

The trope of the self-legitimating little narrative espoused by French philosophers of the past has perhaps run its course. It has served the disempowered and minorities well for decades with some effectiveness.  But the self-legitimating little narratives of identity politics have been appropriated for harm by the likes of Geert Wilders, and with catastrophic potential by those in power like Donald Trump.  It may be time to again address the disenfranchised through a broader emancipatory narrative, as one species on one planet.

I’ve happened upon two powerful and memorable pieces of television in my lifetime. One was Keating’s Redfern speech, the second was Rosie Batty’s first press conference after the death of her son. It would have been perfectly reasonable to expect a tale of misandry from Rosie Batty after such a horrific event. Instead, Rosie exemplified reason and compassion in saying that bad things can happen to all people at any time. She then successfully campaigned for better public policy and for better justice under one law. We can all continue to learn from Rosie’s approach. That Mark Latham was Rosie’s harshest critic, best exemplifies the state of his mental health.


Rejoinder after ACARA response: The silent tragedy of NAPLAN, students reported in misleading bands

First I would like to thank ACARA for engaging with my blog The silent tragedy of NAPLAN, students reported in misleading bands.  It is great to see that we still have an attentive and responsive public service. For that I am grateful. My problem is with the Australian body politic that drives some of NAPLAN’s policies.

First a quick thanks to all those who responded to the blog. The response was heartening.

The point that I was trying to make with the blog was that there are random students doing NAPLAN who are getting widely misleading results.  Probably not a high percentage, but when over a million students undertake the test, 5% is 50,000 students. Most of those students might not even be psychologically affected. But some, perhaps those who tried hard on the promise of an ice-cream, or those who tried hard to please mum who is going through a rough trot, or those who tried hard one last time to be good at numbers or words, will be. Out of one million, the number of students may be less than 10,000, or less than 1%.  But this worries the caring teacher type as it causes unnecessary grief.

Students, perhaps more than adults, are particularly vulnerable when things are unfair. Students roughly know where they are with their school work. When they receive feedback that is fair, justified and agrees with their self-perceptions, they generally accept it thoughtfully.  Fairness is a big thing in testing (for example, see Camilli, 2006; Zieky, 2015).  When feedback is unfair, students can have maladaptive emotions (for example see Vogl & Pekrun, 2016).

As a former maths teacher, I like the mathematics of assessment, often finding it more beautiful than useful. I like the simplicity, elegance and flexibility of the Rasch model (Adams & Wu, 2007; Rasch, 1960). I like the magic of plausible values, that random numbers can sometimes be more useful than real ones (Wu & Adams, 2002). And what is there not to like about a number called a warm estimate (or WLE), that gives a student who doesn’t get anything right a non zero score.  But this magic does not always work for me with NAPLAN reports.

Response 1 (it gets a bit boring here)  


Link to ACARA NAPLAN equivalence tables

Some points

  • in the blog, I mentioned that confidence intervals were not included, I didn’t mention standard errors (trivial difference though)
  • The confidence intervals are not shown on student reports (from what I’m told)
  • the equivalence tables for 2016 is 26 pages of raw numbers, hardly amenable for parents.

A hypothetical example, using the 2016 Year 3 Spelling Score Equivalence Table, (see below)

A student gets a raw score of      13

from table, is a scaled score of      439.7

from table is reported band      5

from table scale Standard Error      20.36

therefore 90% Confidence interval = 1.64 x 20.36        33.4

therefore 90% Confidence range          473 (Band 5) – 406 (Band 4)

so this student’s graphic report looks something like this (on top) then annotated below


So my claim that student scores are not reliably reported in NAPLAN remains, as does the observation that this unreliability is not clearly communicated to students and parents. Further, it used inappropriately by the media to label improvers, coasters and strugglers .

Response 2

Sure, and most school-based paper-and-pencil tests administered by teachers are administered under classical test theory (CTT) principles. Perhaps CTT tests lack precision, but student scores relate to the content on the test which enables teachers to give meaningful feedback around that content on the test.

NAPLAN, is based on the Rasch (1960) principle that the raw score is the sufficient statistic and reports on levels which is abstracted from the content (read the book). This makes it close to impossible to give meaningful feedback. Teachers would need to administer another test, or get evidence from elsewhere,  to provide meaningful feedback.

Online may provide enhanced precision, but the feedback will remain less useful, and that students within cohorts will do different forms, teachers will need to trawl through test forms to have any hope of providing feedback. Further, the socialising narrative of the test will be diminished, and likely to alienate marginal students.


Moss (2003) argues that in “much of what I do, I have no need to draw and warrant fixed interpretations of students’ capabilities; rather, it is my job to help them make those interpretations obsolete.”  The reporting regime of NAPLAN makes results, in the terms of Austin (1962), performative. That is, NAPLAN reporting does not so much describe, but they create and define.    Performative statements are not true or false, but either happy or unhappy.  Some of NAPLAN student reporting is unhappy.

(I’m happy to amend or withdraw if there are errors, let me know)



Adams, R. J., & Wu, M. (2007). The mixed-coefficients multinomial logit model: A generalized form of the Rasch model. In M. v. Davier & C. H. Carstensen (Eds.), Multivariate and mixture distribution Rasch models (pp. 57-75). New York, NY: Springer New York.

Austin, J. L. (1962). How to Do Things with Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Camilli, G. (2006). Test fairness. In R. L. Brennan (Ed.), Educational measurement (4th ed., pp. 221-256). Westport, CT: American Council on Education and Praeger Publishers.

Moss, P. A. (2003). Reconceptualizing validity for classroom assessment. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 22(4), 13-25.

Rasch, G. (1980). Probabilistic Models for Some Intelligence and Attainment Tests. Chicago: MESA PRESS.  (Original work published 1960)

Vogl, E., & Pekrun, R. (2016). Emotions that matter to achievement. In G. T. Brown & L. R. Harris (Eds.), Handbook of human and social conditions in assessment (pp. 111-128). New York: Routledge.

Wu, M., & Adams, R. J. (2002). Plausible Values–why they are important. Paper presented at the International Objective Measurement Workshop, New Orleans.

Zieky, M. J. (2015). Developing fair tests. In S. Lane, M. R. Raymond, & T. M. Haladyna (Eds.), The handbook of test development (2 ed., pp. 81-99). New York: Routledge.

The silent tragedy of NAPLAN, students reported in misleading bands

The release of international reports on education as well as NAPLAN have placed teachers under much pressure. Most of this pressure arises from innuendo, or what statisticians call correlations. Is this pressure warranted?

NAPLAN reporting of student abilities is unreliable. This is likely to have tragic effects for some students. These individual tragedies are largely silent except to the student. The dubious accuracy of NAPLAN results questions the fairness of recent media reports that label students as big improvers, coasters, and strugglers.

NAPLAN reports student results as dots within bands numbered from 1 to 10. That these dots are solid conveys a sense of certainty, a certainty not matched by the mathematics. It is normal practice in statistics to show a confidence interval.  For example, a 90% confidence interval would show a range in which we are 90% confident a student’s ability is located.  NAPLAN does not report these confidence intervals for individual students.

Margaret Wu (2016) finds that if NAPLAN included confidence intervals, it would not be possible to confidently locate a student in a particular band. That is, around one in ten students is being reported in the wrong band. This effect is random and potentially has tragic consequences.

Over one million students do the NAPLAN tests so there are over one million stories. Once the unreliability is considered new stories emerge for our improvers, coasters and strugglers. Improvers, for example, could simply be those students reported below their level one year, and above their level the next. Most students would be coasters. In statistics, this is regression to the mean.

While most students would receive a NAPLAN score close to where they should, about 10%, or more than 100,000 students, receive a misleading message. This includes students who may have tried hard to improve, only to be randomly reported below their real level. It also includes students who are coasting, but are randomly reported as excelling. Both types of misleading messages affect student motivation. That these little tragedies are occurring in large numbers is likely to be undermining Australia’s international performance.

NAPLAN doesn’t assess curriculum, it only  “broadly reflect aspects of literacy and numeracy within the curriculum in all jurisdictions” (ACARA, 2016). If teachers were to teach only ‘aspects of curriculum’, and provide student feedback in the haphazard fashion of NAPLAN, they would be ridiculed.

Teachers are being held accountable to dubious statistics. For example, the American Educational Research Association (2015) strongly cautions against the use of value-added-models. Yet Australia reports student progress without reservation or qualification on the My School website ( This is not in the interest of students, teachers, or schools. In whose interest this reporting is occurring remains opaque.

Australia’s education measurement industry is a plagued with vested interests. With over 300,000 Australian teachers, everybody wants a piece of the pie. Teacher training, teacher supply, and teacher development provide commercial opportunities. This feeding frenzy is a disgrace and should stop.

addendum: Link to my rejoinder to ACARA’s Twitter response

ACARA. (2016). NAPLAN Achievement in reading, writing, language conventions and numeracy: National report for 2016. ACARA: Sydney.

American Educational Research Association. (2015). AERA Statement on Use of Value-Added Models (VAM) for the Evaluation of Educators and Educator Preparation Programs [Press release]

Wu, M. (2016). What national testing data can tell us. In B. Lingard, G. Thompson, & S. Sellar (Eds.), National testing in schools: An Australian assessment. London: Routledge.

PISA is about education systems, not teachers

Education can be talked about in two ways, as a culturally lived experience, or as a commodity. It’s like marriage, you can talk about the depth of the relationship, or talk about the size of the ring. As we begin to digest the latest round of international reports on educational achievement we have a similar choice. We can discuss the lived experience of students and teachers, or simply discuss the numbers. This article focuses on the culturally lived experience of education.

Assessment is universal in education. It can be as simple as a teacher asking a student “are you ok?”, or as complex as an international assessment program. Both show a concern for students and demand a response. Teacher assessment demands a response from teachers, and international assessment demands a response from systems.

Those that consider education a commodity will look for that golden nugget, that vital statistic that explains, and brings kudos to the finder. Those that consider education a complex cultural process will know that these statistics are a faint echo of a multiplicity of intersecting systems. They see the diversity of interests that go into making a school, a classroom, and learning happen.

Seeing children struggle can be painful, particularly for teachers. Some will seek to relieve feelings of guilt by conjuring a LouAnne Johnson from Dangerous Minds. These silver bullet solutions are consistent with our own educational experience –  where one good teacher changes our lives.  Some gladly proffer a LouAnne Johnson, for a fee. Others recognise that these initiatives are superficial with no system impact. It only leads to marketing and publicity that demeans the broader teaching workforce.

Education systems are complex.  There are legislative complexities, with different legislative frameworks for the early years and for the school years. There are jurisdictional complexities between state and federal governments. There are many systems for managing teachers and managing finance. There are also complex information systems, building and infrastructure systems, payroll systems, curriculum systems, assessment systems, and various support systems. Each with its own jurisdictional and legislative complexity. Each with its own problems and levels of both competence and incompetence. These systems cater for over 3 million primary and secondary students across Australia.

Most in education work hard and are dedicated to doing their best. Particularly teachers, who bear the sins of systems, the sins of students, and the sins of colleagues. Teaching is hard, its emotionally draining, tiring, and often quite isolating.  Opportunities for teacher professional development are sparse compared to corporate careers, making diffusion of innovation difficult. Yet teachers are exposed to high levels of control, monitoring, and auditing.  Nevertheless, most teachers work in good faith and embrace systems, explain them when required, and apologise for them when they fail. They are primed for the sucker punch.

The sucker punch comes every couple of years when international test results such as PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS are released. Teachers react to such media storms as they would a bushfire that has burnt their school.  Teachers first internalise the bad news, then frame hope, then look for lessons to be learned. This makes them prone to attacks from commentators, researchers and think tanks. Teachers react in good faith by listening for lessons, and their instinct to defend education is deliberately misconstrued by some as recalcitrance. Teachers are not to blame, systems are.  Teachers are vulnerable.

Some believe that over two hundred thousand teachers can, and are, conspiring in an ideological plot. Various quick fix solutions are offered. Perhaps an ideological fix, a silver bullet teaching approach, a handful of glamour young wiz bang teachers, or a career restructure. All these suggestions fail to take into account the systemic nature of education. These suggestions are in the main glib, and cast teachers or teaching as the problem, they demean the profession and are hurtful towards those in it.

Suggestions are often portrayed as ‘strategic’, but this is misleading as they are mostly bereft of strategy and better characterised as opportunistic.  They often use hard data such as PISA, TIMSS, PIRLS and NAPLAN, but lack the sort of finesse encouraged by strategic thinkers like Henry Mintzberg. Instead they just rehash data and add spin, often with a vested interest. They often proffer simple quick fix solutions from overseas, in doing so they ignore the strategic work of Michael Porter, who argues that in order for nations to be competitive they must develop capacity and appropriate industry structure.  Those offering solutions from overseas have greater interest in arbitrage than education.  Then there are those that ignore Mark H. Moore’s work on authorising environments, and fail to take into account the legislative and jurisdictional complexities of the quick fixes they propose. In being blind to the systemic nature of education, they only see the teacher, and blame them. Then there are those proposing mindless assessment, without regard for system complexities, as shown by delays in getting NAPLAN online. These suggestions by commentators, think tanks and researchers are devoid of rigour.

Systems need to respond to the latest round of testing results, not teachers. This necessarily requires structured engagement from intersectional interests across the system. Australia could revisit outcome focused education.  Outcomes focused education is when abstract educational measures are used as economic proxies in a neoclassical economic supply and demand sense. Australia has been doing this for a number of years, using data from programs such as NAPLAN, PISA and TIMSS to control the work of teachers through markets.  This has been at the expense of a concern with educational inputs such a syllabus, curriculum, teaching practice and so forth. There is much assessment for monitoring, but not much assessment for providing useful information to teachers. The neoclassical economic approach to education appears not to be working.

Another possible area to look at is transparency of vested interest.  While there are good arguments for competition for services such cleaning contracts, the argument for competition in education is less compelling. Nevertheless, the rise of markets and technology within a relatively buoyant economy creates an educational environment with intense competition. Particularly for services such as testing.  It is often difficult to decipher if calls for more testing are motivated by educational interest or by vested financial interest. Particularly given the significant amount of cross organisational board membership and financial interests in the sector.  These interests span government, not-for-profit, and private sector organisations as well as universities. The lack of transparency could be draining the energy out of the education system and be causing Australia’s educational decline. It’s an area worthy of inquiry at the governmental level.

Given the expenditure on education, economics is an important consideration. David Gonski’s report on funding is a good example of how PISA and NAPLAN data provide a useful broad brush for identifying issues. The recent Productivity Commission report had similar conclusions and draft recommendations relating to data. But it was disappointing that the Commission did not make a greater effort to look at the sector and industry structure. There is little depth to these analyses from an industry perspective.

Teacher education is another area rife with issues, not because of the people working in it as often portrayed by simplistic commentators. Teacher education has complex jurisdictional issues in a climate of higher education reform and the rise of markets. Teacher education should be an arena of intense cooperation, but the rise of markets often means Deans of Education need to compete with each other. Academics too are often torn between servicing the broad needs of teachers, and servicing the specialised needs of academic publishing for career progression. Educational leaders could be addressing this issue, but ignore it perhaps due to vested interest. Particularly as private players are seeking entry to this potentially lucrative market, in often opaque ways.

The obsession with teacher and teaching quality is puzzling. It demeans the individual for faults of the system. Rather than teacher quality, there are bigger issues with many teachers teaching out-of-field through no fault of their own, particularly in mathematics and science. There are also structural issues with teachers on short term contracts. These are industry wide structural issues, not the individual teacher, or teacher education, issues.

Education is a complex system for which teachers and teacher educators are the public face. However, international testing and reporting do not address these vulnerable teachers. Teachers will naturally be curious and gain much from reading the reports. However, the purpose of these reports is to hold the system to account and to inform policy development and reform.

terpodcast on which this blog is based

What is outcome focused education?

Outcome focused education is not so much an approach or philosophy. It is remarkable for what it lacks and is akin to Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’.  It has two components, neoclassical economics and Rasch-based measures. It lacks a focus on curriculum.

The knowledge and skills valued by society are traditionally determined by policy-makers in consultation with stakeholders who implement systems to develop and deliver curricula consistent with community needs, expectations and values. Teachers, relevant organisations, and government authorities work together to generate shared meanings that are expressed through curriculum. However, it is these activities that are increasingly missing from an outcome focused approach to education. This void becomes manifest when educational issues are identified and solutions are proffered from overseas.

Seminal developments in both the Rasch Model and neoclassical economics come out of Chicago. While George Rasch was originally from Denmark, it was at the University of Chicago that researchers such as George Wright and Australia’s Geoff Masters made seminal developments during the 1980s.  The Rasch model is mathematically elegant, and perhaps even beautiful in its simplicity and generalisability. It is a model that informs assessment measures using link items with wide horizons. PISA measures, for example, have horizons over participating countries and over time. Similarly, NAPLAN measures have horizons over Australian states and over time. For trend reporting, these horizons are necessarily anchored, and for PISA and NAPLAN they are anchored on conceptions of knowledge defined in the initial cycles of PISA. So while the measures were good at the time, and remain very relevant, they haven’t evolved much in consideration with things such as the internet and graphic calculators.

While PISA initially made a big effort with its testing material, good content is not really required for using the Rasch Model. George Wright lauded the Rasch model on the basis that it transcends the questions, and transcends the measuring instrument.  So educational content is not so important for Rasch. This is reflected in NAPLAN for example, with ACARA only claiming that NAPLAN broadly reflects aspects of literacy and numeracy within the curriculum across the states and territories. So NAPLAN doesn’t actually assess curriculum, just somewhat assesses curriculum. Due to the need to report trends, NAPLAN is anchored in aspects of curriculum from several years ago.

The beauty and the pernicious of the Rasch model is exemplified in the diagram below. It illustrates two students doing a rudimentary mathematics test. Student A can do all four operations but only with small numbers, Student B can only do two operations but with both high and low numbers. Yet their scores are the same, and their Rasch measures would also be the same.


What is remarkable about this example is that based on the Rasch scores these students are the same.  That is, in more complex assessments such as NAPLAN with a set of broader tasks, similarly varying skill profiles are not able to be detected. Rasch measures are not useful for determining what a teacher should teach next. These measures are only useful at a system level. Teachers are left to scramble in the dark. They may be implored to “dig into the data”, but that well is really dry; there is no more information there. NAPLAN doesn’t provide the sort of information a teacher needs to target or differentiate teaching.

NAPLAN and PISA are useful for system management in a broad brush economic sense, they provide a means for bureaucrats, think tanks and pundits to meaningfully talk about education.  They provide a link to neoclassical economics by providing proxies for output in the supply and demand equation. They are used in reports by Gonski and the Productivity Commission. They are also used by think tanks such as the Grattan Institute, and Mitchell Institute.  It is noticeable that these reports generally lack reference to curriculum documents or pedagogy. In this way, think tank commentary is both out of date and out of context. It is meaningful in that these data are the best data available at the system level, but most commentary is vacuous discussion about numbers, not meaning. Everybody feels like an economist when they talk using PISA and NAPLAN data, and nobody feels like a teacher.

NAPLAN and PISA are not useful for talking about students or teachers, mainly because these tests don’t reflect the work that they are engaged in. Teachers and students are engaged in curriculum, while neither NAPLAN or PISA are.

Teaching is a rare profession from a Human Resource perspective.  Their work is judged on measures that have nothing to do with their roles.  Further, any overt attempts at achieve targets is frowned upon, even called cheating.  I often wonder how long it will be before this house of cards is formally challenged in the courts.


Is this the end of outcome focused education?

There will be much media reporting in the next few weeks arising from the recent release of PIRLS and TIMSS, and the imminent release of PISA. Should the results be good, some will credit system management, others will credit teachers and teacher educators.  Should the result be bad, these positions will of course be reversed.  The position taken basically boils down to one of two beliefs. One belief is that 250,000+ teachers are capable and actually engaging in some sort of conspiracy, while a more rational alternative is that results are products of the system.

To date, the commentary from think tanks and peak bodies have been remarkably shallow.  They do not do the strategic work they purport to do.  They tend to blame teachers, teacher educators, or ideology, and proffer suggestions for faded educational fads from the past, such as synthetic phonics, new forms of assessment, a particular product (buy 5 Fingers Literacy now for only $9.99!).  Such commentary is both superficial and unhelpful, with teachers generally already doing their best to incorporate useful practices to provide balanced, inclusive approaches.

As an aside, among the more insidious suggestions tend to be small impact projects that generate publicity. Examples include exiting disengaged teachers at $50,000 a pop, or placing selected graduates straight into the classroom. These types of initiatives have very little system impact, but tend to do well for those managing them, and create much shade for the rest of 250,000+ teaching workforce.

Economists also seek to provide a reasoned response, but they rely on PISA and NAPLAN data. The big problem with these data is that they have reified conceptions of knowledge. This is because they rely on link items and equating techniques. Unfortunately, while economists understand things like Net Present Value, they don’t understand educational assessment and how it evolves over time and how it has context. So, for example, PISA is using conceptions of mathematics and science before the age of Facebook, twitter and YouTube . They do not reflect Australian curriculum or the work teachers are expected to do. Oh well, economists do talk.

But it’s the system, and systems have inertia with much lag and lead, and here the problem reveals itself. Australia is about 20 years down an education trial of outcome focused education, and this trial is miserably failing.

Forward thinking educators have seen this coming of course, but over ten years ago, on November 22 in 2005 in the Australian newspaper, Geoff Masters made an emphatic defence of outcome focused education. In that article Masters said that it was no longer sufficient to know that teachers are teaching the syllabus. Instead, he advocated for an outcomes focus with measures of what students are learning. At that time, Masters claimed that there was no evidence of a plunge in Australia’s education achievement, as teachers were claiming at the time.

Masters made two missteps.  The first was that he called Australia’s trend too early as it takes 9 years between cycles to establish reliable trends on PISA. This is because, for example, Reading was a major domain in 2000 and again in 2009. Masters made his call after only 5 years of PISA when trends were not yet reliable. The second consequential misstep, is that Masters’ call for a more outcome focused education was heeded, and what started in Victoria during the 1990s as the LAP, and then the AIM, was taken up nationally as NAPLAN in 2008. And here we are, 20 years of outcome focused education, and this mess.

Masters, an eminent exponent of the Rasch model, is of course not to blame for Australia’s demise.  He is informed by an elaborate coterie of interests. This coterie is constructed through cross board memberships and project collaborations, and ranges across interests from the private to the public sector. It includes governments, educational providers and universities.  This coterie has had much to gain from an outcome focused approach to education.  Outcome focused education is ostensibly self-managing, and the move away from the focus on inputs to outputs has seen a demise in the focus of curriculum and ideas. Much of Australia’s meaning making infrastructure has been gutted, and continues to be under attack, from those advocating and strategizing for a continued focus on outcome focused education. These include the demise of subject associations and restricted funding to curriculum bodies.

So as the debate continues, and people start laying the blame, perhaps we should start to focus on the various system coteries and beneficiaries, and not to simply lay the blame at teachers and teacher educators, which are already among the tightest regulated fields in Australia.

Just don’t expect these arguments to come from think tanks and related organisations. Check their boards, their backers and their networks. Unfortunately, don’t expect teachers to articulate it either, for one they are too busy helping students getting band aids, taking music, counselling children, dealing with crises or writing reports. Sure teachers get it, but they get it intuitively, they don’t have the language or the time. They rely and expect system mangers to articulate and argue for them, and on this they have been poorly let down by coteries of vested interest.

The writing genre of responding to international achievement reports in education

I’d like to start by saying that I’m a nice person, not like all those other nasty commentators, by proposing something small and manageable. I just want to highlight that I’m not part of the feeding frenzy created by this latest report.

I’d like to begin by establishing my credentials as someone who cares. I will do this by talking about disadvantaged students identified by this study.  I will do this using devices such as the socioeconomic gradient, and how certain groups are overrepresented in some band or other.  By doing this, you will know I care, and that I’m looking out for the little person, whoever they may be.  I will also be using statistics which establishes my smartness and that I know about these things.

At this point I’m generally out of ideas. But everybody knows that education has teachers as well people teaching those teachers, so I’ll just have a crack at all of them.

It’s good to pick on teachers. School buildings, curriculum, school location and the like are pretty boring. So I’ll avoid them.  I also have no idea how to implement anything, teachers do this right? I don’t understand systems, system managers, public policy and industry structure – that’s for boffins. While I talk at the system-level, I don’t really know what system-level means. Lucky I care so I don’t have to talk like a manager.

Then I’ll drag up some good idea from the past that has faded. I will present them as my own new idea. Or I’ll promote something that will benefit my company or my friend’s company. Maybe something about phonics, assessment, methods of instruction, or just something plain old zany like ‘teach like bushranger’.

I will blame the inertia in the system on all those bad people. You might know them as those other people, those ‘post’ people responsible for post-truth. Whenever I can’t explain myself I will blame teachers and other bad people.

I will finish with a platitude, perhaps a need to look more at the data. Teachers should manage the change though; they get 3 days of professional development per year right? That should do it! Those bad teachers (not the teachers that are reading this, they are good teachers, those other teachers are bad).

My older and younger brother

An allegory on German Philosophy

This story is about my chaotic family, in particular my two older brothers. We will call them the older and younger for now.  My older brother is a very tidy person who values logic and reason but he can be excessively orderly and fussy.  My younger brother is quite a contrast, he’s very likeable and creative but he likes a smoke and a drink and his life can get pretty chaotic.

I could tell that things were going to be different for our family from an early age.  The first time was when the older brother was still a kid.  He went to his best mate Peter’s birthday party and took the younger brother along also. The younger created a real fuss by driving Peter’s mum, along with other women at the party, so mad with his special herbs that she was tricked into cutting off Peter’s head. A pretty violent death for old Pete, and we soon had to slink off home to regroup.

To keep us occupied, our mum gave us a machine to make words and books.  Dr Immanuel came along and gave us some lessons.  The older took a real interest in the book machine. He enjoyed writing about his ideal world and sharing those ideals with others.  But it wasn’t long before the younger started kicking up trying to gain attention by romantically going around dancing, playing music and making art.  Tension remained within the family so mum got Dr Friedrich in.  Dr Friedrich thought our family the ants pants and capable of doing all sorts of things.

I’m not sure how helpful Dr Friedrich was though.  Mum had just bought a new set of kitchen appliances when our neighbour Alf started having trouble with his housemate. My brothers thought it a good idea to just throw the troublesome housemate straight into mum’s new oven.  Dead as doornail, and our neighbour Sam across the road was furious.

Sam gave us a deserved hiding, and while we took our medicine Sam developed his own issues. First Sam became a good friend of the older who helped him make a nice picket fence and some fancy rockets. This soon got boring and then Sam took an interest in the younger.  This led to some good parties for a while with good music and lots of peace and harmony as well as lots of those funny smokes.  But all that came to a sudden end when a bunch of Sam’s drug induced girls started randomly killing people again, in particular an attractive young actress who was pregnant with her first child at the time. It was a horrible end to the party.

Now mum has got us a new toy to occupy us called the internet, the book machine has become boring.  At first this internet was a lot of fun but now tensions are emerging again. The older brother likes the internet for things like study, but he’s also a bit of a snoop and he’s using it to control other people’s lives too.  The younger, well, he’s always liked sex and spends most of his time making and looking at pornography when he’s not whipping up social storms.  It’s all seems like fun for the moment, but I think there will be trouble ahead if mum doesn’t do something.

But I don’t know what mum should do.

My older brother is Apollo, the younger is Dionysus.