So the ATAR is irrelevant –what next?

Reflections on ATARs are irrelevant, vice-chancellors say – by Henrietta Cook

The demolition of the ATAR seems well under way, so it may be prudent to look ahead to see what may happen, and even what may already be happening.

At first glance the demise of the ATAR will do away with many of the unpleasant aspects of the transition from secondary to tertiary education.  With the ATAR gone so too will the fierce competition across large cohorts, the unreliable published cut-off scores, the need to undertake a broad curriculum, and the ignominy of being reduced to a single number.  But what else will we lose?

With the ATAR under attack a number of foundational aspects of our education system are also under attack: a broad curriculum, portability of aspirations, equity and fairness, and transparency.

A broad curriculum, such as Victoria’s VCE, initiates students into broader cultural aspects of society.  The link that ATAR provides between the VCE and university motivates students to undertake a broad curriculum.  Alternative university selection regimes, such as those used for medicine, tend to be uni-dimensional focussing on limited curricula.  An increase in the use of these uni-dimensional assessments for tertiary selection will lead to a contraction of secondary school curricula; noting that the VCE currently has over 100 subjects including community languages.

Student aspirations can change from the time they commence VCE.  By undertaking subjects that a student is good at and likes within a generic ATAR framework provides students with flexibility.  A student may finish Year 10 wanting to become a doctor and undertake a VCE with a science focus. If that student changes their mind during the VCE to become a lawyer, for example, that can be readily accommodated within the ATAR.  The demise of a common generic ATAR will only give rise to costly proprietary selection tests for sought after university courses.  Each proprietary selection test will require their own preparation regimes which will make it harder for students to change aspirations during their VCE, their gap year, or even early tertiary studies.

Equity and fairness are paramount in the current VCE and ATAR process.  Within the VCE students are able to demonstrate their effort and competence in a range of subjects and through a wide range of assessment types.  The VCE processes – including double marking and moderation between school based and central assessments – provide for fair scores and ATARs that are blind to matters such as socio-economic and cultural background.  While processes such as interviews and portfolios are likely to provide relevant information for university selection, they are also more prone to selection bias.  For example, it’s not hard to imagine a dilemma for a medical degree selection panel when two students are equal except background. If one candidate’s parents were both doctors while the other unskilled refugees we might all imagine which one the panel would choose. But the transparency of that selection will diminish, with a potential loss of equity.

Given that the ATAR is common to most secondary school students in Australia it provides a great source of population statistics for monitoring things such as equity. It also provides some guidance to students on where different university courses sit in terms of demand.  Although these guides are necessarily imprecise given that universities supplement ATARs with interviews and the like.  The ATAR also allows for the tracking of students to enable reporting on matters such as equity. That is, while the awarding of the ATAR maybe fair in terms educational achievement, the distribution of the ATAR may reveal certain inequities in our education system. The ATAR thereby provides a valuable input into political discourse.  The abandonment of the ATAR, and a move towards proprietary selection regimes, will remove this transparency as the requirement to report will diminish.  As the ATAR diminishes Australians will have diminished political recourse to tertiary selection and instead will need to seek market remedies to selection issues. This does not auger well for a fair society.

The roots of the ATAR go back to the 1960s, a time of full employment and high demand for university graduates.  Merit, equity and transparency were becoming important as Australia saw itself as becoming more egalitarian leaving behind its class-based English roots. It was a time when any student with ability and initiative could become whatever they wanted to become regardless of background.  This led to a prosperous and socially mobile generation. The 2010s are different. Employment is a lot softer and the clear career options of fifty years ago no longer exist. The focus on merit, equity and transparency has moved to more market driven dynamics.  This has led to an increased focus on gaming the system and attaining branded cache rather the pursuit of knowledge and personal aspirations.

The power of the ATAR to enfranchise students and to link them to a vast world of possibilities is demonstrated by the efforts of Casimira Tipiloura (see SMH article). Casimira is the first Tiwi Islands student to graduate with and ATAR.  The sense of celebration accompanying this effort surely points to what Australia is, and could become.

Australia’s education system is being put in a precarious place with the sustained attack on the ATAR. The easy option is to ditch the ATAR and to leave it to an open market. This is likely to lead to diminished transparency and fairness. Let’s hope that instead effort will be taken to ensure that the ATAR and its functions are improved so that Australia remains the country of the fair go. Something that we can no longer take for granted.

Eternal Education Headlines

These things we consider known and self-evident and no longer require research effort:

  1. Australian educational performance is precipitously declining
  2. The achievement gap between students from rich and poor backgrounds is growing
  3. Australian students are being left behind by Asian students
  4. Markets are ruining education
  5. Think tanks are ruining education
  6. The Traditional versus Progressive debate will be over when everybody starts listening to me
  7. All educational debates will be over when everybody starts listening to me
  8. Pearson are bad, how can I get a job with them.
  9. Teaching is not that hard, why are people making it so difficult.
  10. If only everybody knew where students are in their learning.

ATAR – it’s about fairness, not prediction

There is a tradition across the political spectrum to attack institutions like the ATAR.  These attacks come in two flavours. The ‘right’ attack elites for imposing artificial social engineering, the ‘left’ attack systems for imposing arbitrary rules that erode liberty. Then there are commentators who confound these arguments to generate media storms of no substance.

We are currently witnessing a flurry of attacks on the ATAR, an institution that has evolved over several decades to provide exiting secondary students with enfranchisement to Australia’s tertiary educational intuitions.  The ATAR provides a relatively transparent national clearinghouse where students can use their secondary schooling outcomes to open up conversations with tertiary institutions throughout the country.

A consistent complaint about the ATAR relates to its lack of predictive power for future academic success.  This complaint demonstrates a fundamental misconception of educational effort. When teachers and students make an above average effort to achieve an ATAR they are in effect seeking to defeat predicted behaviour.  Similarly for universities where students and lecturers make varying degrees of effort to defeat predicated behaviour. The motivation for much educational effort is social mobility, to transcend one’s background for a more enlightened and prosperous future. It is the variability of this educational effort that makes the ATAR a less than ideal predictor.  What the ATAR seeks to do is fairly recognise educational effort.

The demand that ATAR be an accurate predictor of future academic success is a dangerous one.  From a statistical point of view there are a range of background variables that can predict academic success. These include sex, socio-economic background, ethnicity, and a range of other factors. These variables are reliably used by studies such as PISA and TIMSS to evaluate the fairness of education systems. These variables are also often used in value-added models and measures, notwithstanding that there are many cautions on the use of such measures (see AERA).  These variables could also be used to enhance the predictive validity of tertiary selection.  But enhancing the predictive validity of tertiary selection through such psychometric techniques would only deny opportunities for students with disadvantage who make an effort to overcome that disadvantage.

Another feature of the ATAR is that it looks to both the past and to a future.  Primary and secondary schooling is about more than further education and careers.  A sound education seeks to make well-rounded citizens capable of making a civil contribution as well as being capable of living subjective meaningful lives. So when a student reads Shakespeare as part of a secondary level English credential it is read not solely for furthering educational and career prospects but also to be initiated  into broader aspects of society. By valuing educational effort across a broad range of curriculum the ATAR contributes to a civil society. This contrasts to the growing trend of uni-dimensional selection regimes.

As an institution open to public scrutiny and accountability, the ATAR is highly visible and easy to attack for those seeking a sensational story. The public transparency of the ATAR contrasts to the opaque nature of competing selection regimes, such as those used in fields as medicine, that can be costly and which play no role in informing the broader national debate on educational equity.  Proprietary selection regimes also tend to be uni-dimensional with a greater focus on predictive validity rather than broader learning.  As the use of these proprietary selection regimes increases the transparency and public accountability will diminish as will the broad curriculum of secondary education in Australia.

Many attacks on public institutions can be framed in the psychological terms of the present and munificent ’good mother’ and the absent and scarce’bad mother’ that we experience as children  As we mature, we integrate these two views and recognize the competing priorities  into an integrated whole. Many of the attacks on the ATAR simply seek to kill the bad, but in doing so will also kill of the good emancipatory interests that the ATAR provides for.  The death of the ATAR would simply leave students to the vagaries of wolves in the marketplace, or throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The competing interests of diversity and uniformity underpin much of the misunderstanding of the ATAR.  The ATAR seeks to integrate the idiosyncratic nature of each state’s secondary credentialing regime.   There are different subjects, different assessment processes, and different reporting mechanisms within each state.  There are independent schools, public schools and Catholic schools that need to be catered for.  There are also non-state based credentialing institutions such as the International Baccalaureate that need to be integrated into the ATAR.  Then there are mature age students, and others who haven’t completed a Year 12, who also seek an ATAR.  The ATAR needs to accommodate all this diversity into a single ranking useful for universities.

Another misunderstanding is that the ATAR is a monolithic hegemonic system. Instead, the ATAR is a central clearing house where prospective students and institutions connect.  Within this system students and institutions have autonomy. The ATAR exists to provide a streamlined conversation between prospective students and institutions.  Some institutions, with the motivation and resources, will supplement information provided by the ATAR with reviews of portfolios, through auditions, and interviews. These conversations may also involve discussion of various pathways that a student might undertake to achieve their goals. These negotiated outcomes that consider both the needs of the student and institution make the published ATAR cut-off necessarily unreliable.  Furthermore, the ATAR can make no demand for universities to use it fairly. Universities are held to account through their own structures.

The ATAR is not there to be gamed, students seeking to pursue a course or a profession should do so on the basis of what goal they are seeking to achieve. No matter what ATAR is attained there is likely to be a pathway to pursue that goal for students with the aptitude and disposition.  Those seeking to gain prestige by selecting a course on the basis of a published ATAR cut-off are likely to be disappointed.

The ATAR is a crude instrument, it is not a predictor of student success, it is not a measure of value-add by the school, it is not a reliable method for evaluating university courses.  There are other methods for that. Each ATAR belongs to each student in the first instance, as but one signpost in life’s journey of hopes and dreams.  The ATAR should not be perversely appropriated by others for political, marketing or commercial purposes.

Technology, Aesthetics and Culture in Education

This blog was stimulated by a short twitter exchange on technology, technics and STEM, and articulates some thinking for my PhD.

The grouping of science, technology, engineering and mathematics into the STEM acronym to form a target for educational policy consideration is curious through its exclusion of aesthetics and culture.  An argument could be made that mathematics, science and engineering are abstract endeavours, but technology is infused with cultural and aesthetic considerations.

The 1965 video for the Martha and the Vandellas’ hit ‘Nowhere To Run’ is a great illustration of how technology, aesthetics and culture are linked. Without doing a ‘Full Roland’ (my term see “The New Citroen” Barthes, 1993, pp. 88–90),  this video shows the vitality of the generation, the vibrancy of youth, automotive as the technology du jour, the cultural icon of the Mustang car, Fordism as a  means of mass production, alienated labour, attitudes towards race, and attitudes towards gender.  Many manifestations of technology contain these elements, so why are these not explicitly included within STEM?

Technology is not free from ethical or moral considerations, technology involves choice and it involves power(e.g. Wajcman, 2004). Technology is a fundamental human endeavour in pursuit of functionality, utility and aesthetics. In this endeavour there are good choices and bad choices, there is beautiful and ugly, and there are winners and losers. How do we then make sense of technology in education when it’s placed side-by-side with science, engineering and mathematics?

Richard Stanley Peters’ notion of education as initiation provides a framework for exploring the nexus between technology and education. Education as initiation addresses the traditional notion of education as cultural transmission as well as the progressive notion of education as regeneration. The progressive notion of regeneration includes critical scrutiny of technology and to concern about its management (following from Cuypers & Martin, 2011, pp. 38–39; Waks, 2013). First, in broad terms, the traditional transmission aspect of education could be considered to involve initiation into using and consuming technology. In this sense consuming might also involve a secondary or derivative form of production such as the use of medical diagnosis equipment, the use of car maintenance equipment, or the use of musical equipment. The second progressive regeneration aspect of education can be further divided into educational activities that promote students attaining a critical capacity towards technology, and educational activities that promote a student’s capacity to technologically innovate. These three aspects of technology education are illustrated in the diagram below.


How an education system balances its energies across these aspects of education will both influence, and be influenced by, the economy, society and culture in which the education system is embedded.  Service oriented economies that rely on technological innovation from external economies may focus on the traditional transmission of technology know-how.  Transmission here could include how to operate the technologies used within the economy as well as repair and service for these technologies.  Economies seeking regeneration through technological innovation may focus on developing the required depth of science and engineering skills to facilitate regeneration and innovation in a particular field of technology.  It is in this spirit of innovation that the current focus on ‘coding’ within the curriculum might be understood, and also in which the STEM acronym might be best understood. However, the STEM framing of technology ignores the broader progressive regenerative aspects of education that require students to be initiated into the critique and management of technology.

Several writers have examined the relationship between technology and culture (e.g. Stiegler, 1998; Wajcman, 2004, 2008, 2010, 2015). This relationship is often expressed and framed in different ways, such as technics and humanity, or, the artificial and the human.  This work illustrates that technology cannot be factored out of cultural and aesthetic considerations as readily as mathematics, science and engineering might be.  These writers explore how technologies change the relationship that humans have with space and time, and how technological systems can facilitate as well as hinder dialogue between cultures.  While these changes can be beneficial the changes are also arenas of considerable political contestation.  Societies that wish for its citizens to participate in these contests and developments need to ensure that students have the appropriate skills to critique and manage technology at the personal and broader levels.

Among all the curriculum areas, technology related subjects are amongst the subjects whose curriculum is most closely tied to local historical and cultural contexts.  Technology directly relates to the means of production and cultural expression of societies and economies in which school systems operate.  The technology taught in schools to support the aerospace industries in Seattle would be different to those supporting the motoring industry in Detroit, and different again to the IT industries in California’s Silicon Valley.  Technology in schools therefore needs to articulate with local, state and national government initiatives, and technology teachers should be involved in forums at all these levels of government.

Aesthetics is a key area in the use of technology.  Technology can be crass and alienating, or it can be beautiful and engaging.  Societies express their values in their built environment through technologically laden disciplines such as architecture and industrial design.  Societies also use technology to express themselves culturally and to export that culture.  Institutions such as London’s Abbey Road and the New York’s Brill Building come to mind for music, as does the Pixar Animation Studios when it comes to movies.  New forms of cultural expression through technology now exist in the form of games and virtual realities.  Each society, and their governments, will need to decide if they are to take a consumer or producer stance towards these developments.

Societies, economies and governments need to make choices about technology  – either organically through markets or through government interventions – on which technologies it will consume and which ones it will produce.  One example of a government making such a decision is the imminent closure of Australia’s automotive industry, a decision that will have consequential effects for many educational institutions.  In selecting which technologies it will produce governments will need to facilitate an appropriate environment including infrastructure networks the provision of related services such as education. When selecting which technologies to consume societies and their governments will need to establish appropriate legislation and regulations to monitor their use (e.g. drones).  These decisions entail considerable consequential coordination across societies.

Of all the subjects taught in schools, the content of ‘technology’ is one of the most dependent on broader aesthetic, cultural and economic considerations.  Tethering the technology discipline to science, engineering and mathematics is therefore fraught.

Barthes, R. (1993). Mythologies. (A. Lavers, Trans.). London: Vintage. Retrieved from

Cuypers, S. E., & Martin, C. (2011). Reading R. S. Peters Today: Analysis, Ethics, and the Aims of Education. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons.

Stiegler, B. (1998). Technics and Time: Disorientation. Stanford University Press. Retrieved from

Wajcman, J. (2004). TechnoFeminism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Wajcman, J. (2008). Life in the fast lane? Towards a sociology of technology and time. British Journal of Sociology, 59(1), 59–77. doi:10.1111/j.1468-4446.2007.00182.x

Wajcman, J. (2010). Further reflections on the sociology of technology and time: A response to Hassan. British Journal of Sociology, 61(2), 375–381. doi:10.1111/j.1468-4446.2010.01317.x

Wajcman, J. (2015). Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Waks, L. (2013). Education as Initiation Revisited: General Rituals and the Passage to Adulthood. PHILOSOPHY OF EDUCATION, 133–141.

Confounding political legitimacy with markets

In response to a short twitter conversation about the Australia Day ‘Google Doodle’ that required a fuller explanation.

Using corporations to gazump political argument, or using corporations to legitimize political argument, has always troubled me. The latest case in point is the ‘Google Doodle’ used for Australian Day.

The doodle was appropriate for the day, and I’m sure appropriate for Google’s target market.  This in itself says a lot, but to consider the doodle a ‘pointed political statement’ as claimed by New Matilda is to relinquish political agency to the commercial market and undermine the hard work of political activists.  Corporations follow the market and follow governments, but they do not always follow good principle.  Spectacular examples include the Krupp, Bayer and Volkswagen corporations during World War 2.  Continuing with World War 2 example, the behavior of these corporations contrasts to the individual activists who resisted during that period.

Political enfranchisement is a right of all citizens irrespective of what they consume and in which target market they are located.  Sound argument cannot, and should not, be legitimized or delegitimized by corporate marketing machines.  Corporations rarely act voluntarily against their own self-interest. The ‘Google Doodle’ was not an act of political sacrifice but an act of commercial marketing. This contrasts to the sacrifices made by political activists over the centuries who have toiled for justice for Australian Aboriginals including the stolen generations.

The ‘Google Doodle’ comes in the wake of many years of hard fought political activism by activists for Aboriginal rights. That the cause is now appropriate for use in the commercial market is a testament to their efforts; but Google is not leading this debate.

Sure, the doodle indicates that Australians are probably comfortable with the notion of a ‘Stolen Dreamtime’, and that it’s time for Australia’s political processes to digest Australia’s history in full. But we should never cede political legitimacy to marketing machines.

On teaching as a profession

Reflections on Is teaching a profession?

The idea that the term ‘teacher’ be universally understood seems sensible; particularly if the term ‘teacher’ is used in conjunction with qualifiers such as ‘trained’ or ‘accredited’.  While this may seem sensible and consistent with community expectations, the means for achieving a universal understanding is problematic in a pluralist society.

Universality has many appeals.  It allows for teachers, deemed ‘accredited’ in one context, to transfer jobs to a context sharing that accreditation process. It also assists students to develop a consistent understanding of what a teacher is so that they can match those expectations.

That universality is too controlling and prescriptive is one anticipated criticism. Indeed, universality could be seen as a return for direct instruction, explicit teaching, and highly structured curricula and syllabi.  Such prescriptions would indeed de-professionalise teaching as a profession.  So a more open definition of universality needs to be developed, a definition that’s able to capture diversity and difference and leaves the way open for certain forms of innovation. Claims for universality should not simply be on the basis of asserting a particular way of doing things, a particularly methodology, or even a particular ideology.

My working hypothesis/principle regarding universality is that a competent teacher acts in a way that other competent teachers would agree with. This is a working hypothesis only and will need to be adjusted and developed as I work though it.  It follows the work of Habermas and his principle of universalisation and principle of discourse ethics(Habermas, 1996).  My working hypothesis/principle allows for diversity of methods and outlooks within a broadly agreed framework.

My working principle relies on the development of norms for education. As I have argued elsewhere [norms and teachers], in my experience norms and standards provide for prosperity. Further, all successful innovative project I’ve worked on became routine and successful once norms were agreed across participants. However, the creation of norms is not straight forward in a plural society undergoing significant structural transformations at a number of levels.  Education is responding to demands from feminist theory, minority discourses, post-colonial discourses, new means of wealth creation, new means of production, and emerging technologies. All these influences make valid claims of education and need to be incorporated into new norms.

Teacher-led movements are a good way to develop new norms that are consistent with broader societal expectations. Unfortunately the involvement of teacher led institutions in education has diminished in recent decades, particularly the role of subject associations. Again following Habermas (Habermas, 1987), much of the atrophy in teacher participation is due to colonization by the system (non school actors) of the lifeworld of the classroom. Instrumental reasoning (e.g. uni-dimensional assessment) , strategic management, and expert coteries have subsumed many forms of teacher engagement. Grassroots movements such as researchED, Northern Rocks, WomenEd, teachmeets, as well as online forums are therefore a welcome development that needs to be built upon.

Teacher-led institutions are essential for vibrant education systems. Systems and central bureaucracies also need to engage with teacher groups as many new norms will need central and institutional support to implement. These include norms related to curriculum, and norms requiring regulation or legislation such as those pertaining to privacy and technology. Other norms require central support in terms of technological and infrastructure provision.  In return for this support, by way of reciprocity, teachers will need to come to table being able to constructively engage with a range of perspectives in order to work towards solutions that are agreeable to all.

Habermas (Habermas, 1985) also alerts us to the dangers of regressing to instrumental or technical reasoning when reasoning about disagreements. Habermas suggests that in coming to an agreed understanding participants need to engage three worlds; the technical or objective world, the inter-subjective world of norms, and the personal world of integrity and intent.  Learning styles provides a good practical example. For example, much research indicates that learning styles have no efficacy in terms of learning outcomes, nevertheless most people do indicate a preference for a particular style (see Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2008). So from a technical perspective learning styles may be of no use, where as from a perspective of norms it may be seen as important in terms of generosity. Why serve a cup of tea if someone prefers a coffee? So perspectives are important and make discussion more complex. Furthermore, validity around technical reasoning is becoming increasingly more sophisticated, particularly in relation to the validity of measurement, causation, and meaning (e.g. see Markus & Borsboom, 2013; Newton & Shaw, 2014). These developments increase the cognitive load on norm setting participants.

While teacher involvement through teacher-led associations and central office working parties is welcome, care needs to be taken to ensure that such groups do not descend into group think or other forms of balkanisation.  These groups need to be broadly representative, and representatives need to be competent to participate. Society is becoming increasingly complex and knowledge becoming increasingly differentiated. Education needs to respond to these changes. Teachers need to be in the forefront of these transformations.

Habermas, J. (1985). The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and the rationalization of society. (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press.

Habermas, J. (1987). Lifeworld and system: a critique of functionalist reason. (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press.

Habermas, J. (1996). Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. (C. Lenhardt & S. W. Nicholsen, Trans.). Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Markus, K. A., & Borsboom, D. (2013). Frontiers of Test Validity Theory : Measurement, Causation, and Meaning. New York: Routledge.

Newton, P. E., & Shaw, S. D. (2014). Validity in Educational and Psychological Assessment. London: SAGE.

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

Norms and Teachers

In response to a short twitter conversation, that required a fuller explanation.

When I first started teaching in the 1980s I was assigned to a school with declining enrolments but good infrastructure. In particular there was a large ‘open span’ classroom for over 100 students, the legacy of a group of innovative team-teaching maths teachers from the seventies. When I started these teachers had left, and the school had reverted to a one teacher, one class, one room setup. I have since observed several cycles between open plan including team teaching and regular classrooms, a norm to which it always seems to revert.  This scenario is emblematic; however an increasing urgency is developing around norms in education.

What norms can do – the heyday!

Norms come from practical and social influences and we may not always recognise them. After World War 2, and arising from a practical economic imperative, many Victorian children were taught in grey Light Timber Construction Schools.  In hindsight these were drab, but their standardisation allowed them to be quickly built across the state.  We also have educational content norms such as curriculum and the common books we read. There are also social norms related to what culture we consume such the films we watch and bands we listen to.  These norms provided for a social cohesive and prosperous post war generation.

One norm that I would like to focus on a bit more is the humble A4 paper.  Some like myself still remember foolscap, but the A4 standard won the day. This allowed printers, paper suppliers, photocopy manufacturers and a range of distributors to streamline operations. It also gave us a common understanding of fairness on exams and NAPLAN tests that are in standard white A4 for all students, other than perhaps for special supplements.

The norms we once took for granted are becoming less relevant, and new norms need to be created. Over the decades, educational norms have been challenged by developments such as feminist theory and minority discourses.  Norms are also being challenged in a massive way by technology, from the way that classrooms are physically organised to the way that educational content is delivered.  But required new norms are not being created or manifest as proprietary patents or trade secrets.  There is a wild west in technology towards norms and standards.

When norms fail

Some spectacular examples of failures in norms include technology problems with the GSCE exams in the UK, the Apple-Pearson curriculum in the US, and the Utranet in Australia. All these projects involved achievable technology, but I contend failed due a lack of appropriate norms.

A more spectacular example include the difficulty of getting high stakes exams on computers.  Exams such as the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) are massive logistic exercises requiring coordination across all VCE teachers and schools, central offices, printers, and related stakeholders and suppliers.  There are established norms for the size of paper and how to behave in terms of seating and not copying.  These established norms do not apply to computer-based exams, and new ones need to be created. How will fairness be managed with NAPLAN on BYOD where students with better computers may be at an advantage. Time will tell, whenever computer-based NAPLAN is implemented.

But these are small examples of a massive range of new norms that need to be developed for technology-based education. In particular new norms for how we manage space and time in education.

The Role of Teachers

Drawing on the work of R.S Peters, a key purpose of education is initiation into society that involves both cultural transmission and cultural regeneration. Teachers are central to this process of shaping, moulding and growing.  To abrogate this responsibility is to leave students in a technological ‘Lord of the Flies’ limbo, we cannot leave this to students to decide. No matter how complex this task, this moment in history requires teachers to be particularly involved in creating the environment for students to be socialised into broader society so that they can live happy and fulfilled lives.

How to Create Norms

Norms are about broad agreement and common understanding, they cannot be imposed. Wherever teachers withdraw their participation coteries of experts and commercial interests are more than happy to step in. However, these groups are not as well placed to inform the development of norms as teachers. Teachers know how students work, teachers are aware of antecedent norms and their workings, teachers know what’s practical, and teachers tend to better clued in to society including what business wants.  So teachers are well placed.

Teachers therefore need to make greater demands for the establishment of, and participation in, government-based working groups and committees to establish new norms. These norms need to address new usages of technology including general specifications for new learning spaces and technology-based curriculum. This may be expensive, but it is likely to be more effective than clueless expert coteries and solo innovators.

I have been involved in a small number of successful innovative projects from the classroom through to the international level. In hindsight, the success of each of these projects rested on the establishment of agreed norms across participants. Norms are as important as facts.

On Measuring Global Reading Progress

Reflections and comments on ACER’s Next steps: measuring reading progress

Strong governments and strong global institutions are important for defining, monitoring and addressing inequality in education.  These three policy activities are linked by policy narratives that need to be strong, coherent and consistent to garner global legitimacy. The efforts of ACER’s Centre for Global Education and Monitoring is to be commended on this front.

Work on the United Nation’s Sustainable Global Development (SGD) goals goes back to 1972, and its 2030 agenda focusing on Poverty, Food, Health, Education, Gender and Water is laudable and an agenda to which we could all agree.  However agreement on implementation requires the legitimation of a stronger narrative, and there are elements of the ACER approach that I would like to explore in this blog.

There are many things to like about ACER’s approach; the use of Item Response Theory (IRT) to develop a commonly agreed scale is one of them. IRT is a proven methodology for system and national evaluation, even though the methodology becomes suspect at the school, class and student levels.  The other welcome element is the use of pairwise comparisons in the development of content. The recent increase in the use of teacher-based pairwise comparison is welcome because it reengages the teaching profession with scale formation, an engagement that has atrophied over recent decades due to the use of IRT scaling methodologies. However, in the ACER proposal teacher engagement seems limited to pairwise comparisons in preliminary item selection, and does not seem to extend to international agreement on content.

Where the proposal is likely to encounter legitimation issues relate to the hypothesis that educational skills are universal across the target countries and able to be described on a common scale.  Sure, technically this can be done, I’ve rarely seen any test data that doesn’t scale, and where some items don’t scale properly these can be removed for ‘mysterious item reasons’. However there is bound to be concern around the legitimacy of claims about the universality of scales developed in this manner.

As I have argued elsewhere [on a unifying principle], the notion of being able to universally ‘identify where a student is’ is problematic. There are many ways of describing this issue. One way is to say that it’s too Kantian and ignores the work of Hegel in showing that knowledge is historically and socially located, and the work of Marxists that shows that formulations of knowledge can reinforce disadvantage.  Another way is to describe the approach as too metaphysical by presupposing a universal Cartesian space in which students can be located. Realism is yet another word that comes to mind, an approach that assumes that what IRT measures actually exists in reality.  Again, as I have argued elsewhere [constellation and continuum], the continuum metaphor is only one way to describe learning progress. So the observation that ‘progression occurs in a somewhat lumpy way’, is more than likely a reflection of the IRT model or metaphor, and not a phenomenon from the underlying reality of learning.  This is not to discredit the validity of the IRT model or results derived from it for the purpose of international evaluation; it simply questions the universality of any claims made.

An alternative to presupposing universal realism across nations and cultures on matters such as reading and mathematics, is to develop a procedure for SGD countries to agree on what is common to all with respect to these content areas and to create a common scale around that agreed content and then report explicitly to that effect. That is, report that the scales represent what has agreed to be common, and not was is considered universal and enduring.  The claims to universality, along with the described content methodology, could be characterised as cultural appropriation followed by cultural imperialism. Such an approach is likely to meet with resistance from teachers and the like at some point. People are social and cultural beings who use language to express themselves socially and culturally.  Of course reading progress is important to these expressions and for prosperity, but these expressions are also specific to each cultural context and not a universal function of language.

French President Charles de Gaulle’s famous 1962 observation on “How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?” provides a good example of where language equivalence does not mean cultural equivalence. Cheese (Australian), kaas (Dutch) and fromage (French) are language equivalents, but Australians have Cheddar and Tasty, the Dutch have Edam and Gouda, and the French have a much broader variety.  Claims to social and cultural equivalence based on the simple language equivalence of ‘cheese’ is therefore likely to meet resistance. Reporting with claims to universality based on assessments that are only linguistically equivalent could therefore be perceived through a hegemonic narrative instead of the emancipatory one that is being sought by the UN.

It is difficult to know the status of the paper on which I’m commenting (research or marketing). It describes a comprehensive and worthwhile exercise, but it will require comprehensive consultation and discourse among target countries to develop legitimate measures that are acceptable to all.

Reflections on Rosie Batty as Australian of the Year

As Rosie Batty’s term as Australian of the Year comes to an end, I would briefly like to reflect on the impact and possible lessons we could learn from her experience and advocacy.

Like most people, the first time I saw Rosie Batty on television was in an interview shortly after Luke’s death. That interview had a profound effect. It wasn’t filled with anger, hatred or blame. Instead it was filled with sadness, compassion and understanding; including towards Luke’s father.  That she could have been anyone’s mum, daughter or friend, made me suddenly realize that this sort of domestic violence could happen to anyone.

Each time I saw Rosie on television I thought that in a better world we would never have known her.   As Australian of the Year, each one of us would have gained their own insights and inspiration from Rosie’s experience. Mine, mundane as it is, is that we should all make an effort to ensure we never put anyone in Rosie Batty’s position again.

Throughout the reporting a few key things stood out for me. The incident was not random and the justice and welfare systems had sufficient interventions to identify the problem. Further, Luke’s father had a number of active arrest warrants and intervention orders. The police even had the opportunity to arrest and detain him, but did not do so because of problems with the police database.

Problems with the Victorian police database go back a number of years.  In 2005, the director of Police Integrity, George Brouwer, called for the database to be replaced and that cost should not be a deterrent. Assistant Commissioner Kieran Walshe at time did not agree and did not consider it a priority. Successive Victorian governments have history of problems in public sector IT services includeing CenITex, LEAP, MYKI and Ultranet to name a few.

Large computer systems are not hard or impossible by their nature. What makes these projects hard are greed and fanatical desires for efficiency.  What I’ve learnt from Rosie Batty is that things that ensure the safety and welfare of our children run deep, and each of us can make a difference at every level of society.  To make a better world we could begin with a duty of care when developing IT systems, get that right and the balance sheet will look after itself.


The Age – a report on the inquest

7.30 Report story

ABC Report – 2005, on LEAP database

CenITex story

The Uncanny Progressive versus Traditional Debate

Meditation on the following blogs

Dr Beardface  On reading (part 1)  On defending shit work  On ideology

Linda J. Graham  On tax-payer funded research   Angry white men

Greg Ashman   Come, join the enlightenment    Loose ends    The disconnect

debsnet   Traditional Progressivity or Progressive Traditionalism: Ditch the dichotomy

Corinne Campbell  On TeachMeets, EduChats and Marketing

My recent twitter feed has had much discussion about traditional and enlightenment values. While some seem satisfied with their respective positions, to me it’s a manifestation of an underlying discontent that’s been brewing throughout my 30 career in education, and these blogs provide an opportunity to consider these issues propelled by real people with real emotions, not abstract ones.

While the debate had material for many tangential excursions, I will restrict this blog to a couple of key themes – post structuralism, sex and race, the Enlightenment, and the role of teachers in a post traditional landscape. Further, I haven’t addressed all the blogs related to this debate.

This blog is part of my public thinking for my PhD, and the references are as much for my research purposes as for any academic pretensions.  This topic is really too big for twitter and the blogosphere so this is more of an essay, in some ways proving the point that the topic is too dense and complex.

Post Structuralism

Issues with post-structuralism in education drove much of the twitter debate to which I’m responding, perhaps it’s best to quickly summarise my understanding of this endeavour. Structuralism was an attempt to identify underlying structures, codes and conventions that produce meaning and make meaning possible.  However early structuralists like Barthes, Lacan and Foucault recognized that meaning making is not independent of the person making the meaning; that is, a subject’s sex, social class and ethnic identity affect meaning making.  This led to post structuralism and in particular Deconstruction led by Derrida who critiqued hierarchical oppositions in Western thought. Derrida showed that notions such as inside/outside, mind/body, nature/culture were not natural but a construction.  While the work of Deconstruction sought to dismantle and reinscribe textual meaning, it did not seek to destroy meaning. However, in effect, Deconstruction did become a teasing out of warring forces of signification within a text and is therefore associated with broader movements such feminist theory, various psychoanalytic theories, Marxist thought, Post-Colonial Theory, and Minority discourses (Culler, 1997, pp. 125–131)

Posts-structuralism has generated much academic activity and material, and even if a small percentage of this material is dross, this seems to be sufficient to attract much ridicule from traditionalists. Nevertheless, post-structuralism remains a valid and useful endeavour, particularly for education which has a key interest in matters of content and representation. Drawing on the notion of education’s instructional core(Elmore, 1996), students, teachers and content are the three central concerns of education; from a post-structural perspective this translates into two meaning-making subjects and a collection of externally produced content signifiers.  It is the concern with signification and the subject that makes post-structuralism particularly relevant to education, more so than some of the other ‘posts’ related to economics, management, art and culture (e.g. Drucker, 1993; Jameson, 1991). Furthermore, all these ‘posts’ sits within broader changes within western societies sometimes described as a condition of postmodernity (e.g. Harvey, 1990; Lyotard, 1984).

Post-structuralism has failed in many respects to live up to its political promise, while it provides a range of social enquiries it seemed to have had little interest in concrete political issues such as justice, freedom, truth and autonomy (Eagleton, 2008, p. 199). One example is post-structuralism’s scepticism of Government  (see Governmentality e.g. Foucault, Burchell, Gordon, & Miller, 1991; Foucault, 2008). Without recourse to an effective government it becomes difficult to mount a case for emancipatory interests such as equality. A case for equality requires a government capable of both monitoring equality and implementing effective policy in response. Equality requires ‘governmentality’, and universal education is traditionally provided by government. So post-structuralism’s scepticism and critique of the role of government has, unwittingly or otherwise, weakened the position of the state to define, monitor and redress disadvantage in education. Furthermore, in diminishing the state’s role in defining and redressing disadvantage, post-structuralism has, again perhaps unwittingly, opened up the landscape for market forces to redefine and address perceived disadvantage.  Post-structuralism can redress this by either better scoping out its concerns to focus on signification, or by developing a stronger narrative in favour of systems and government.

Irrespective, post-structuralism will continue to have a strong role to play in education due to its concern for signification and representation, particularly when it’s able to take a ‘structuralist’ stance to inform how subject matter should be represented in the digital age. This will continue to be a highly contested area (Beavis, 2010; Kress, 2003). For this reason, post-structuralism is unlikely to be usurped by the more contemporary post-humanism  (Barad, 2003) within the field of education any time soon.

Sex, Race and Uncanny Australia

The trad-prog debate also involved sex and race through the invocation of Angry-White-Men, a reformulation of the post-modern Dead-White-Men. This invocation generated some offence as well as ironic amusement.  There is no doubting the phenomenon of the violent angry male, but there are also men who are angry about other things such as Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and quality of universal education.  Conflating these forms of anger may not be useful.

Collins Street

Collins St, 5p.m.1955, John Brack © National Gallery of Victoria 

The distinct strata that once divided men and women has evaporated  

The distinct strata that once divided men and women in Australia have also evaporated.  Two of the protagonists propelling the twitter exchange, for example, included a senior female academic and a male student, a reversal of traditional power relations.  These inversions are no longer isolated, Australia’s richest person is now a woman, and we have had a woman prime minister. Further, for each Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt in the public sphere there are is now a corresponding – and arguably more articulate and successful – Clementine Ford and Jane Caro.  Nevertheless, while ‘social media’ power between men and women may have equalised in the public sphere, this has not necessarily translated into real economic or political equality.

Similar issues exist for race. White Australia once was able offer generosity to its Asian neighbours for failed colonisation practices in Vietnam for example. In education this led to a culture of inclusiveness. White Australia is no longer able to assert itself through either colonisation or generosity in the same way from a position of power. Chinese nationals now have the economic upper hand to purchase property within the catchment areas of some of Australia’s most sought after public schools (Chinese buyers flock to Glen Waverley). The Australian economy is no longer able to assert itself within an Occidental context of dominant white Anglo-Saxon men and women. Australia is becoming increasingly dependent on Oriental forces (see Said, 1994 for post-colonial framing of Oriental and Occidental).

So the traditional framings of feminism and post-colonialism are no longer able to provide a coherent narrative of power relations in Australia in a way that resonates with the lived experience of many Australians. Most Australians, particularly in education, now routinely report to by both men and women of both Occidental and Oriental backgrounds.  This is not to say that there are no systemic structural inequities based on sex or race, and that sex and race are no longer valid targets of public policy, but structural inequities can no longer be fully explained in terms of hegemonic white male power.   Nor can white male anger be dismissed as a contemporary manifestation of dead white men, it is likely to be more pernicious than that and involve female protagonists (e.g. Pauline Hanson)

There is therefore unfamiliarity and strangeness around the roles of sex and race in power relations, boundaries that once distinguished one from the other may no longer be tenable or recognisable.  Gelder and Jacobs, drawing on Freud and Kristeva, developed the notion of an uncanny Australia with respect to the sacredness in Aboriginal culture(Gelder & Jacobs, 1998, p. 26).  This notion of uncanniness could be extended to sex and race, an uncanniness that could itself be the root of anger.

A flight to Enlightenment

A flight to Enlightenment and towards the certainty of empiricism is one response to an uncanny Australia and a more complex environment.  While such a flight could be dismissed as a simple psychological defence, it also seems part of a broader trend and therefore worthy of exploration.  For example, Geoff Masters, CEO of Australia’s preeminent educational research organisation, considers the field of educational assessment as currently divided and in disarray due to fault lines occurring between competing philosophies, methods and approaches (Masters, 2013, p. 1). As I have argued elsewhere, Masters’ response to this disarray is a unifying principle that takes a Kantian metaphysical philosophical stance, or an early Enlightenment stance. A stance that presupposes a cognition (presumably white male) before another cognition that acts as a philosophical arbiter of practical reason, judgement, and theoretical reason (Habermas, 1996, p. 2).  Masters’ proposed principle also privileges the role of objective measurement and the Rasch Model (Masters, 1982) of which Masters is a world leading exponent. In doing so Masters also regresses to an early version of the Enlightenment that ignores Hegel’s work in showing that philosophy is not transcendental but historically located (Singer, 2001, p. 13)

Furthermore, education at heart is not a science but a social activity. Education does deal with facts, but mainly deals with norms that are socially constructed.  Facts and Norms should not be confused. Curriculum, for example, cannot be determined by empirical means. Instead, curriculum is developed by drawing on social norms and social reasoning and articulates the shared expectations of a broader community.  Even for those aspects of education that can be measured, the notion of causation is less well understood,  and the validity of meaning making is underdeveloped and under-theorized (Markus & Borsboom, 2013, p. 15). Blind experiments that are able to test some of the more contentious issues are also not possible in education due to ethical constraints, so for many of these issues effective social reasoning is required because empiricism is simply not an option.

While a retreat to the Enlightenment may be comforting and provide certainty in a time of uncanniness, even those dedicated to retrieving the Enlightenment, such as Habermas, emphasise the centrality of moral discourse and pragmatics (Habermas, 1985, 1987, 1996, 1998).

Teachers and Systems

From an effective teachers point of view the dichotomy between traditional and progressive, or any hierarchical oppositions, make little sense. Teachers are practical and pragmatic reasoners who, when given sufficient autonomy and support, use their educational expertise, their engagement with the broader educational community, and their knowledge of their students, to deliver lessons that effortlessly traverse oppositions. It is this skill and experience that makes teachers excellent social reasoners and moral agents. However articulating these skills with systems remains problematic.

Systems provide the resources and administrative authority for teachers to conduct their work, and the system-teacher relationship requires reciprocity.  Where this reciprocity is distorted it can lead to systems colonizing the world of teachers (see Habermas, 1987). One example of where the nature of reciprocity has changed relates to educational standards. Traditionally teachers, as moral agents, contributed significantly to standard setting exercises that reflected social expectations (Cizek, 2012). However, the social process of standard setting is increasingly being replaced by instrumentally defined cut-off points and levels (e.g. see OECD, 2012, pp. 258–263) which may be appropriate for system evaluation but perhaps less so for reporting to students and parents.  The diminishing role of subject associations is evidence of this transition which has led to a weakened relationship between teachers and systems.  System consultations with the teaching profession are being increasingly replaced by private discussions among board-level coteries. There is also the phenomenon of teachers in leadership positions being appropriated (bought, seduced, corrupted) by commercial interests.

So while there is reason to be sanguine about the capacity of teachers to navigate divides within their classrooms, systemic problems remain that require political action to generalise teacher experience across systems.

Looking Ahead

Julia Gillard prime ministership may provide a useful glimpse of what the future might look like. Germaine Greer describes it thus

it’s important to realise that Julia Gillard is part of a coalition. What that means is that she has to negotiate every single policy position. What that means is camel trading on the floor. It happens to be what she’s good at. You can say, ‘We want to know what she really, really believes.’ In fact, it’s irrelevant because whatever she really, really believes is not what’s going to happen.(“Q&A :Politics and porn in a post-feminist world,” 2012)

To me, this is the future. It doesn’t matter what any of us think, it is our capacity to engage and negotiate issues into action that makes us effective.  Who knows what the world would look like when men and women are equal, where the Occident and the Orient are equal, and where the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is resolved.  Nobody knows, and we will only find out if we take the necessary steps forward to engage and negotiate. There is a strong argument to be made that Gillard has been Australia’s most effective Prime Minister, not by way of being able to unify a majority around a single set of ideas in the manner of Bob Hawke, but by way of being able to effectively negotiate difference in a manner that delivered a more enlightened post-traditional society.  Further, Gillard’s post-traditional effectiveness was matched by a traditional hostility including that of Greer, who quickly followed up the above quote with comment that Gillard had a ‘big arse’; probably one of the most disappointing moments in Australia’s gender debate. Almost uncanny.

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