Why Katharine Murphy is conservative

In today’s article (7 September 2019) Murphy laments a lack of coherence and plan across political parties with Labor and Kristina Keneally today’s target. While critique of both is overdue, that’s not my issue here. Instead it’s Murphy’s underlying assumptions which are far from progressive and are deeply conservative.

Political parties are not brands or bands like Pepsi and the Beatles. Political parties are just that, political. Political parties need to reinvent themselves, particularly after election losses. Good political parties reinvent themselves politically, through debate and argument, and bring the public into these conversations. Federal Labor party does not need to be told that it’s a loser, it knows it lost the election. Every time Labor MPs show up to parliament they are reminded as they face winners as losers. All parties in opposition know that if it wants to become a winner it needs to change. But authentic political change is not like brand change where messages are first market-tested behind closed doors. Political change is more like changing musical direction in a band, brutal and likely to involve multiple schisms.

Murphy lambasts a lack of grand masterplan and of certainty; ideas from the 1950s. She also pillories Albanese and Morrison for taking a pragmatic view by feeling their way forward in uncharted waters. While political patterns are eternal, their day-to-day manifestation is always uncertain. It is this that we expect journalists and commentators to contextualise. We expect journalists to contextualise how what is happening today fits in within these broader patterns. Is it pointing towards universal prosperity or towards crises and war?

They problem is evident in Murphy’s book On Disruption that observes that “There is no way to know if the disruption will settle into a new normal, or whether chaos is the new normal”. The kind of change that Murphy is so anxious about is grist to the mill for Marxists who understand historical materialism and capitalists who understand creative-destruction. These are eternal processes that were once progressively addressed by universities and their publishers, and not reacted against by journalists.

Social progress is achieved through principle and is never certain. Equality for women is principally good but we wouldn’t know what it looks like when it happens.  Although the Labor party gives it a pretty good sense, you get a party with lots of women in positions of power.  Women are just like any other politicians, yet diversity brings great potential to make life better for all. Do we know what will happen if mercy (horrifyingly applicable) is shown towards the Biloela Tamil family? There is no certainty at all, the boats might indeed start again. This needs to be thought through, and on principle and not on political expediency. Similar goes for other progressive ideas, like Makarrata Commission and a republic. These forces cannot be master planned and their consequences are unknown, but we do know it will make for a better world.

Political progress is banal and often goes unnoticed. This occurred to me when watching the election coverage and seeing Penny Wong. When asked to contextualise Labor’s defeat she put herself and the party in the legacy of John Curtin and Ben Chifley. At that point it occurred to me that the Labor party had incorporated the discontents of the 1968 generation, when Marxism and worker solidarity was ditched because it could not address the emancipation of women, race, sexuality and the environment. Yet Wong demonstrated in that moment that the Labor party had reached a new zenith, an achievement long in the making through Emily’s list and staring down the likes of Joe de Bruyn.

Penny Wong is herself conservative with her passion accompanied by pragmatic restraint. She represents a new dawn in the politics of inclusiveness along dimensions that have divided Marxists a long time. Keneally is also conservative through her advocacy of abortion being safe, legal and rare. We should be hanging on to and developing on what has been achieved: women having control over their bodies, people included regardless of race and gender, and a start towards saving the planet (remember Wong and Macfarlane and the ETS).  This is the kind of conservatism I want.

Should Hanson be driving the left?

Pauline Hanson captures the mood of a nation and expresses it poorly. She has endured where others have fallen, even though she continues to show poor political judgement, particularly in choice of running mates.

Hanson’s first speech over two decades ago spoke of issues now dominating politics. The first was “the privileges Aboriginals enjoy over other Australians” and the second Australia “being swamped by Asians”. These two are tied and clumsily expressed by Hanson.

First Nation people do enjoy the unique privilege of being better placed to make a rightful claim to this land. Further, if settler culture cannot make a rightful claim, what is to stop an Asian nation making an unfounded claim similar to the British. If Batman was once able to dupe Australian land owners with blankets and scissors, could someone else do the same today with shinny electronic devices? Is Hanson a modern-day Cassandra.

The first step to consciousness-raising is to talk. Perhaps the left should be celebrating Hanson as she has been talking about key issues for decades. The next step is to create clarity, and it is here the left has failed.

The left tradition makes a rightful claim to the domains of reason and language. Educators also rightfully claim these domains.  But reason has not been used to transform and clarify Hanson’s fears. Language has instead been used for ridicule.

Claims that conservatives are bullied are justified. People like Pauline Hanson are generally not the smartest in a room. That is clear. The left bullying conservatives is like paramedics blaming bystanders at a car crash. The left should be working us out of problems, not ridiculing those awkwardly raising alarm.

The left live in a world of cultural theory where the media is the message. It reads and writes about life as if it were a novel. It uses plot devices to create intrigue to leave out facts and include fantasy. This tradition is now hollow.

The left has forgone reason on climate. Climate change is real and its science moderately complex. The left does not engage this complexity but embraces fairy-tale plot devices like Greta Thunberg. Good on Greta, her parents and teachers should be proud. But Greta is not the climate.

Writing festivals have merged reality with fiction. It is no longer about who can explain clearly but who has the best plot. The “good take” and “well written piece” are more important than fact. Plots have feeble connections to reality. Here the left is gazumped by Donald Trump.

The renewed interest in Lionel Schriver is a case in point. Schriver is a fiction writer who captured the imagination of the cultural left in 2016 with off the cuff rhetoric designed to provoke. She has returned to provoke but this time at the behest of the conservative Centre for Independent Studies. This is interesting development in itself. But to criticise Schriver is to criticise fiction as if it is real.

Not much has changed in settler land since Hanson’s first speech. The First Nation voice is getting louder as their culture is reasserted. Asian nations have technologically usurped Australia. All while settler culture is stuck in the quick sand of literary fiction.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart is not just about the First Nation. It is also about the second nation and if there will be a third. It is to this that Hanson has been talking, and it is real.

If journalism can’t talk truth to politician’s behaviour, who can?

Julia Baird makes a sound case when observing “many women I know are really, really angry” over the behaviour of Luke Foley and David Elliott.

As she observes, “powerful men can be extremely dangerous for women” and draws on the Greek Myth of Medusa to make this point. The three brothers Poseidon, Zeus, and Hades are indeed nefarious and capricious figures, and reveal the violence inherent in sexual relations.

The Greeks were of course aware of the fraught relationship, Plato’s Republic for example, asks “what is the nature of this community of women and children, for we are of the opinion that the right or wrong management of such matters will have a great and paramount influence on the State for good or for evil”.

The Greek solution to the inherent dangers in the relationship between men and women is in plain view. Greece’s capital is called Athens and the temple on the acropolis is dedicated to the goddess Athena. The temple to Zeus, Athena’s father, is small and insignificant by comparison. The Greek golden age had this sorted by making a woman the protector and patron of the state.

There are things we can learn from the Greeks.  The choice of Athena Parthenos, the virgin goddess, as patron is a deliberate one. Athena’s virginity is not by way of patriarchal subservience. It is instead a symbol of disavowal of the social contract that asks men to enter the social world by penetrating it, and women to enter it by receiving it. Athena is impervious to the seductive forces of men and is renowned for using her skill of warcraft in pursuit of just causes. Athena has a distaste for frivolous gender games such as the judgement of Paris involving herself, Hera and Aphrodite. Athena was a reluctant and distant participant in the Trojan war over the most beautiful Helen that resulted from Paris’ judgment.

The goddess Athena is evident in the present day through leaders like Julia Gillard, Penny Wong, Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel. The recent election of Kerryn Phelps is further proof that in the main, people embrace the leadership of women when it is cast in terms of the public good, and in search for truth and justice. Matters of state are not matters of gender games but matters of ensuring a good life for all citizens.

Gender games in politics is not about the two opposing forces of men and women, but about managing complex dynamics the Greeks understood through a polytheistic pantheon. The complexity of this relationship is most recently evident in the phenomena of Trump, supported into office by 53% of white women who continue to support him to this day.

In the Greek pantheon, the subjugation to the patriarchy comes through the goddess Hera (Juno). Where Athena’s interest is in matters of state, Hera addresses the feminine relationship to a dominant patriarchy through a concern for family and childbirth. One can’t but help think that Baird’s intervention is an invention in the spirit of Hera, and not in the spirit of Athena. It is not an intervention of matters of state that addresses the interests of all. It is instead an intervention presaged on patriarchy to set up a sexual game in the nature referred to by Eric Berne as Let’s You and Him Fight.

The perspective of Hera is important to society, but it is also important to note that it does not address matters of state. Matters of state and political journalism requires active repudiation of the violent alcoholic seductive forces of Zeus and brothers.  Journalism is not in the realm of the hapless Persephone abducted by Hades while picking flowers over whom Demeter mourns. Matters of state, and matters of journalism, are in the realm of the virgin goddess of war Athena and her sibling Hermes (Mercury).

The most pernicious issues of sexual and domestic violence are silent. I was recently in discussion with one child abuse survivor who described abuse in terms of an absence of language. This echoes the thinking of Gramsci and Spivak who ask if the subaltern can speak. But this is not the realm of journalism. If journalists cannot speak truth to the behaviour of Foley and Elliott, who can. The field of journalism needs to sort itself out.

The NAPLAN online controversy is about a failure of meaning, and not about a failure of technology

Recent issues with NAPLAN online are more profound in nature than the usual botching of government technology.  The controversy is not akin to the usual technical failures like those of the My Health Record, the Australian Census, and money laundering through deposit machines.  Instead, the issues with NAPLAN online allude to a broader malaise in Australian education around meaning-making.

Doubts over the NAPLAN online assessment challenges broader assumptions around literacy and numeracy in Australian education. That NAPLAN online results are not comparable to paper-based results shatters the illusion that conceptions of numeracy and literacy are fixed. It forces policy-makers to confront that linguistic and numeric skills are culturally and technology dependent.

The illusion that literacy and numeracy are fixed concepts allows educators and commentators to talk about education through abstract numbers, bands and levels. It allows commentators to avoid talking about educational content and curriculum. NAPLAN tests do not assess curriculum in any state or territory. Instead, NAPLAN assesses content not tied to any specific cultural context or curriculum, to present an illusion that it assesses timeless skills and knowledge. This illusion is shattered by the transition to NAPLAN online.

The abstract nature of NAPLAN makes it useful for policy-making purposes and broader commentary about educational issues. NAPLAN allows for conversations about education that go beyond and across curriculum and cultural boundaries. It allows for commentary on the performance gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous, and on differences between certain states and territories. More importantly, NAPLAN underpins funding arguments such as those in Gonski 2.0. While NAPLAN does not assess how particular students relate to the curriculum they are taught it does provide for these broader conversations. The importance of NAPLAN in these broader policy and funding discussions generates a strong policy imperative for its survival.

NAPLAN makes the work of policy-makers, researchers, and commentators easier. NAPLAN allows policy-makers to mount arguments while ignoring changes in the world experienced by teachers and students. Developments in social media, computational technology, and science more generally, are not addressed by NAPLAN. The imperative to report longitudinally through trends makes responding to technological developments difficult for NAPLAN. This leads to a disconnect between the world of policy and the world of the classroom. It is a disconnect that increases with each cycle of NAPLAN.

The challenge presented to policy-makers by the latest NAPLAN online results are significant. The results expose the fragility of NAPLAN data at a student level. On the one hand, that the online tests adapt to student responses makes estimates of student ability more precise. On the other hand, students are presented with questions that target their ability which can increase their engagement to enhance performance. That some things are easier or harder to see on a screen than on paper can also affect performance. Further challenges to trend reporting will be presented as the online test begins to evolve to incorporate videos, simulations, and games. These effects of a transition from paper-based to computer-based tests are well known and the subject of ongoing research. These effects also point to the broader malaise in Australian educational discourse.

The inability of NAPLAN to reflect broader developments in society is being exposed by the transition to NAPLAN online. The latest NAPLAN controversy is not the result of a glitch or technical incompetence. Instead, the controversy exposes a broader conceptual problem in Australian education. Australian policy-makers and commentators have been spoiled by Australia coming of high-base of educational performance, and by an abundance of educational data that allows for broad and sweeping policy commentary. However, this approach is leading to a continued decline in Australian educational achievement. NAPLAN online exposes the need to reconnect educational assessment with the world that students experience.

The Gonski 2.0 report calls for a national effort to develop an on-demand formative assessment system. However, there is a strong sense that the Australian education sector is hopelessly under-prepared and under-skilled to create such a system. Such a system would require re-engagement with curriculum, educational content and student ability levels. The Australian obsession with numerical focused assessment systems and critique based on these systems has atrophied the connection with educational content. This is what the current NAPLAN online controversy exposes.

Modern Art, and the Art of Educational Assessment

The spheres of science, morality and art are a recurring pattern in sociology. Weber saw these spheres split into expert cultures as religion collapsed. Habermas refers to these spheres as the objective, social, and subjective worlds. Lyotard uses the warmer terms of truth, justice and beauty. The modern world has difficulty holding these spheres together.

A failure to integrate is described by Weber as the iron cage, by Marx as alienation, by Lyotard as the terrors of performativity, and by Habermas as legitimation crises. Each thinker proffers a solution; respectively bureaucracy, revolution, paralogy, and postconventional reasoning.

As a physics teacher, science was always my strong suit.  I had difficulty with normative ethics, and as year level coordinator often couldn’t offer good argument as to why a student should comply with uniform policy. I was both year level coordinator and school timetabler for a period. I always put greater effort into the timetable. I knew if I could make sure students from 9A didn’t meet students from 9C in the quadrangle during period changeover, my year level coordinator duties would be much diminished.

The literature and art teachers hung out at the staffroom low chairs, from where a weekly cake club was also organised.  It was from these low chairs that my most fruitful teaching collaborations sprang, as well as my lasting friendships.  It was where my physics teaching merged into technology, and then into art, through subjects such as textiles and sound engineering, as well as the school radio club.

Even though a physics teacher, I knew the other subjects were the most important. I admired those who taught normative ethics through humanities, and meaning through the arts. I considered science, and functions like the timetable, as simply facilitating the more important aspects of life. These collaborations changed with the rise of neoliberalism, my interest waned, and I left teaching.

I was lucky to get a job on the PISA project as a junior, and because I could juggle technology and art in the normative context of the PISA, I was lucky enough to lead the PISA’s computer-based test of science 2006.  I had to coordinate software engineers and test developers who had to develop test items. Gunther Kress wasn’t big yet, but I’d read Umberto Eco, and so I explained this new media in terms of Foucault’s Pendulum, and the Name of the Rose, and got the job done. The project worked well, and while the PISA was a rewarding job, it really couldn’t handle the data from this new medium. I didn’t see that as a problem at the time, and I also thought the whole exercise a bit remote, like timetabling, and couldn’t see myself working for a statistics centre cycle after cycle. How boring would that be, and how wrong I was. I was in the eye of the storm.

After a decade of working in the department, I decided to revisit the assessment period of my life through a PhD. In between drafts, I have found time to revisit art. In preparation for Melbourne’s MOMA exhibition, I read Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New. And this too, told me a lot about the development in educational assessment.

Educational assessment, like art, is about creating symbols and representations. Hughes’ does a great job of describing the tortured history art has with the unrepresentable. There is a similar tension in educational assessment. Two analogies struck me, the mechanical fascination for verticality, illustrated by The Red Tower by Robert Delaunay from ~1912, and the absurd rise of the commercial art market in the 1970s and 1980s.

Robert Delaynay – The Red Tower 1911-12

The fascination with verticality in art is reflected in the fascination with the linear scale in educational assessment. It’s as if the higher you go, the further that you can see. And through the power of the gaze comes the power of the observer.

I understand the PISA’s exacting scientific methods. I also understand that it presents the best evidence, and also that at best, its evidence is just an impression. More like a Cézanne painting than a photographic snapshot.

Paul Cézanne – Mont Sainte-Victoire 1904

Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that the symbols that the PISA produces cannot be used as currency, in conferences, papers and arguments. But the way I see them used, it also reminds me of  Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, and that educational assessment, like any symbol, can act as an  “operational double, a programmatic, metastable, perfectly descriptive machine that offers all the signs of the real and shortcircuits all its vicissitudes”.

Art tells us that educational assessment simply produces symbols that are at best a pale reflection of a preconceived reality. These symbols can be distorted and exploited, until one day their utility will diminish, and a new dawn will emerge.

Should men or society stop the Harvey Weinstein’s of this world

There is universal outrage over Harvey Weinstein’s apparent behaviour in Hollywood, and so there should be. Of greater concern are claims that this behaviour is the tip of the iceberg, and indicative of men’s behaviour in Western society more generally including Australia. Calls for men to be more proactive to address this matter is problematic however, and instead a more radical response is required.

There are circumstances when men have opportunities to intervene and call out bad behaviour of other men. However, these opportunities present only after society has already let women down, and only provide for shallow responses.  Like giving loose dollars to a homeless beggar, some succour perhaps, but too late and after the damage done.

To intervene on behalf of a woman is itself patriarchal and conservative. Other than in the most extreme circumstances, what right has anyone to interfere with the liberty of another, and to interfere with choices women make on partners. Further, abuse of women is often in private, hidden from others, and beyond imagination. This is the issue that needs to be tackled.

Politics is more private and personal for women than for men. Matters related to reproduction, violence, abuse and childcare, tend to affect women more harshly than men. Pain is often suffered in private, in silence, and impenetrable to communities. Individual men are often not placed or equipped to help in sometimes complex matters, but society can.

I recently read Anne Summers’ Misogyny Factor, and was confronted by how bad things are for many women today. I was also reminded of how the Office of Women’s Affairs was established in 1975, and how much progress it achieved before it was progressively dismantled. It is towards this kind of radical response to which Australia needs to return. An office of competent bureaucrats charged with coordinating public policy on women. An office responsible for developing legislation and policy, for coordinating states, for coordinating agencies, for developing education campaigns, and for reporting statistics and indices. It is only through collective effort in government that lives of marginalised women can be effectively changed.

There will be conservatives who argue against bureaucracy, against red tape, and against larger government. Others will pillory initiatives, and accuse government of social engineering. It is here where true radicalism begins, to argue in favour of building and defending institutions that fight injustice and uphold personal freedoms.

There will be other conservatives who argue that developing new consensus positions is not compatible with freedom. That it is not the role of government to interfere with the private. These need to be argued through, policy by policy, norm by norm, campaign by campaign. It must be clear, matters of rape, violence and poverty are nonnegotiable issues needing real solutions.

Some conservative commentators have sought to gain exposure and media advantage from Weinstein’s behaviour. Using this single case, in a distant land, and predominantly involving glamorous white women, to fan outrage and reproach a whole sex. As if the pain is often not experienced double by women of colour in Australia (Intersectionality? Not while feminists participate in pile-ons). As if the second X chromosome provides for telepathic communication with male HQ.  These white conservative commentaries are opportunistic and simplistic. A competition on who can express injustice most eloquently, most passionately, or with most venom. They do not proffer solutions or analyses, nor engender feasible action.

predominantly white glamorous victims Vanity Fair

My research interest in social science is not feminism, but technology and changes to work. A clear and consistent message from my research is that societies that cannot address inequalities in gender and race, will find it increasingly difficult to participate in technology’s progressive future.

Philosophy of Education – the need for design patterns

I recently saw critique from the UK Push on John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, Jerome Buner, Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori. The critique suggested that these historical figures hinder engagement with more contemporary research.  The critique came from a person not that familiar with research. This points to a broader problem that might be solved using philosophical design patterns that might make it easier for the lay person to engage.

Teaching – like architecture, software development and educational assessment – is a recurring activity.  Pattern language was first made popular in architecture through Alexander et al. (1977) in the book A Pattern Language. Gamma, Helm, Johnson, and Vlissides (1995) directly drew on this work to develop a set of design patterns for software development. The use of a pattern language greatly assisted, for example, in the building of the internet that required working groups of various sorts to develop standards (Leiner et al., 2009).  Mislevy et al. (2003) drew on this earlier work in patterns to develop design patterns for assessing science inquiry. Perhaps it is time to extend the notion of design patterns into teaching to make teaching’s underpinnings more transparent.

Currently, most of education’s recurring patterns are represented using the names of key thinkers. This can become confusing, as often these patterns are explored by different authors from different perspectives. For example, the empirical-rational divide is commonly traced back to Kant (1781/2016), but could equally be discussed in terms of Hume (1739/1985), or a range of other thinkers. This can become confusing, not only for the likes of the UK Push not familiar with research, but also for others actively involved in research.

I here proffer possible design patterns for the key thinkers that the UK Push object to. These are by no means completely thought through, and are highly reductionist as presented here. They are provided by way of suggestion. These are the patterns that these thinkers represent for me, others will have different ideas.

John Dewey – stands for education being a social and interactive process that focuses on socialisation. This is a common theme explored throughout sociology. Key examples include the sociology of Parsons (1937/1968a, 1937/1968b), and the notion of education as initiation of Peters (2007). The dialectic is often described by others, for example Berger (1967/2011) when he declares “that society is the product of man and that man is the product of society” (p. 13).

Lev Vygotsky – stands for teaching students material they are likely to understand, more commonly referred to as the Zone of Proximal Development. This theme is drawn on, for example, by Griffin (2007) and Masters (2013) in relation to Rasch-based assessment.  Vygotsky also stands for the dialectical relationship between technology and learning. Something picked up, for example, by Papert (1993). Similarly PISA makes changes to its assessment constructs to include new elements over PISA cycles to incorporate developments in technology (OECD, 2006; 2016, p. 42). These are two patterns that Vygotsky represents for me.

Jerome Bruner – stands for the teaching of process in education, and that education is not just about memorisation. He talks of scaffolding, that refers to children building on information they have already assimilated. In this sense, Bruner’s patterns overlaps somewhat with that of Vygotsky.

Jean Piaget – stands for cognitive and moral development. Where his approach varies to that of Vygotsky and Bruner, for example, is with its focus on moral development. Themes picked up by Kohlberg (1971) and Gilligan (1977).

Maria Montessori – stands for the feminine aspects of education. Her early work with mentally challenged children shows a focus on unconditional care towards children. Her work also represents an emphasis on the sensorial in addition to the cognitive.

While I’m not expecting agreement on the pattern outlines I have suggested here, they provide a flavour of what we are referring to when we invoke Dewey, Vygotsky, Buner, Piaget and Montessori. When these names are invoked, we are not subscribing to an encompassing approach to education. Instead, we are referring to a pattern of concern. Teachers reconcile demands of these patterns daily.  These are complex decisions that the simple minded of the UK Push deride at their own peril.


Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., Silverstein, M., Jacobson, M., Fiksdahl-King, I., & Angel, S. (1977). A pattern language: Towns, buildings, construction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gamma, E., Helm, R., Johnson, R., & Vlissides, J. (1995). Design patterns: Elements of reusable object-oriented software. Boston: Addison-Wesley.

Gilligan, C. (1977). In a different voice: Women’s conceptions of self and of morality. Harvard Educational Review, 47(4), 481-517.

Griffin, P. (2007). The comfort of competence and the uncertainty of assessment. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 33(1), 87-99.

Hume, D. (1985). Treatise on human nature (A. Selby-Bigge Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.  (Original work published 1739)

Kant, I. (2016). Critique of pure reason (P. Guyer & A. W. Wood, Trans.). New York: Cambridge University Press.  (Original work published 1781)

Kohlberg, L. (1971). Stages of moral development as a basis for moral education. In C. M. Beck, B. S. Crittenden, & Ε. V. Sullivan (Eds.), Moral education (pp. 23-92): University of Toronto Press.

Leiner, B. M., Cerf, V. G., Clark, D. D., Kahn, R. E., Kleinrock, L., Lynch, D. C., . . . Wolff, S. (2009). A brief history of the Internet. ACM SIGCOMM Computer Communication Review, 39(5), 22-31.

Masters, G. N. (2013). Reforming educational assessment: Imperatives, principles and challenges.

Mislevy, R. J., Hamel, L., Fried, R., Gaffney, T., Haertel, G., Hafter, A., . . . Wenk, A. (2003). Design Patterns for Assessing Science Inquiry. Retrieved from Menlo Park: https://www.sri.com/sites/default/files/publications/tr1_design_patterns.pdf

OECD. (2006). Assessing Scientific, Reading and Mathematical Literacy: A Framework for PISA 2006. Paris: OECD Publishing.

OECD. (2016). PISA 2015 assessment and analytical framework: Science, reading, mathematic and financial literacy. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Papert, S. (1993). Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas (2nd ed.). New York: Basic Books, Inc.

Parsons, T. (1968a). The structure of social action: A study in social theory with special reference to a group of recent European writers, voume 1. New York: The Free Press.  (Original work published 1937)

Parsons, T. (1968b). The structure of social action: A study in social theory with special reference to a group of recent European writers, voume 2. New York: The Free Press.  (Original work published 1937)

Peters, R. S. (2007). Education as Initiation. In R. Curren (Ed.), Philosophy of education: An anthology (pp. 55-67). Maldon MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Just gaming – educational assessment and performativity

The use of technology-based games in educational assessment has implications for what is valued in education. The use of games shifts the focus away from seeking common understanding to strategic goal orientation or performativity.

Lyotard’s (1984) work on performativity provides a good basis for critiquing the use of games in educational assessment, for Lyotard, technology provides for

a game pertaining not to the true, the just, or the beautiful, etc., but to efficiency: a technical “move” is “good” when it does better and/or expends less energy than another. (p. 44)

This observation concurs with my own experience when completing a unit on corporate strategy in a university delivered business degree. The corporate strategy unit included the game ‘Ages of Empire’ as part of the coursework and unit assessment. This game did not address truth. For example, the weapons were not true in relation to laws of physics, and the progress in civilisations was not true in relation to understood history. That the game required me to ‘kill’ members of my opponents’ army did not equate to understood justice. Further, while the game used colours in the way that poker machines draws in the vulnerable, the game did not represent beauty.  Instead, the game focused on a strategic orientation towards vanquishing others in the shortest time. In these respects, Lyotard is spot on.

I became very good at the game ‘Ages of Empire’. At the final exam, a guy who I had earlier worked with in group presentations was randomly next to me on the game’s ‘strategic landscape’. As per the rules of the game, I annihilated him out of the game swiftly, and went on to win the game overall. I got a high mark for the course, but a potential friendship was lost. That is the nature of the gaming.

Habermas (1985) considers social action (action involving other people) as either communicative in seeking common understanding, or strategic in being goal oriented. Action can also be instrumental (acting towards objects). Educational assessments are generally communicatively oriented, in that they to try find how much a student’s knowledge is held in common with the teacher or educational system. Educational assessment can also be instrumentally oriented, for example in how well a student can master a technology. When acting strategically, as in a game, an assessment asks a student to act, openly or deceptively, against another student or computer agent. This later scenario is the most troublesome for me.

Educational assessment experts have been playing with game-based assessment for some time. Shute and Torres (2012) argue that game-based assessment support views that consider learning as goal oriented. Mislevy, Behrens, Dicerbo, Frezzo, and West (2012) also find principles of game design as compatible with principles of learning; particularly when it is framed around the structure of reasoning. However, for me, the question remains, what is being assessed.

While game-based learning and simulation environments make it possible to assess students’ interaction with complex systems (Frezzo, Behrens, & Mislevy, 2009), a concern remains that they will drift into performativity. That is, away from truth, justice and beauty, and into a performance maze where what is considered as performance is determined by computer programmers, and what is considered good performance is determined by input/output ratios. Performativity par excellence (Lyotard, 1984; Lyotard & Thébaud, 1985/2008). It evokes the dystopia of the films The Hunger Games and The Matrix (I haven’t seen either though).

The key philosophical thinkers in the latter half of the twenty first century were all profoundly moved by what happened in World War II. When we start to think about game-based assessment, we need to follow their lead and think whether we want students to learn when it is just to kill, or if we want them learn to kill as many as they can in a short time.





Frezzo, D. C., Behrens, J. T., & Mislevy, R. J. (2009). Design Patterns for Learning and Assessment: Facilitating the Introduction of a Complex Simulation-Based Learning Environment into a Community of Instructors. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 19(2), 105-114.  10.1007/s10956-009-9192-0

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

Lyotard, J.-F. (1984). The postmodern condition: A report on knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Lyotard, J.-F., & Thébaud, J.-L. (2008). Just gaming (W. Godzich, Trans.). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.  (Original work published 1985)

Mislevy, R. J., Behrens, J. T., Dicerbo, K. E., Frezzo, D. C., & West, P. (2012). Three Things Game Designers Need to Know About Assessment. 59-81.  10.1007/978-1-4614-3546-4_5

Shute, V. J., & Torres, R. (2012). Where streams converge: Using evidence-centered design to assess Quest to Learn. In M. C. Mayrath, J. Clarke-Midura, & D. H. Robinson (Eds.), Technology-based assessments for 21st century skills: Theoretical and practical implications from modern research (pp. 91-124).