And now, that’s a wrap for #AARE2023. Thanks for the memories

By Ellen Larsen

UNE’s Sally Larsen on the conference

At the conclusion of AARE 2023, the esteemed editor of this blog 😉 has asked me for my thoughts on two things. First to give a bit of context for the paper that was awarded the Early Career Researcher Award; second to make some links to the position of early career researchers at this critical juncture for education research.

I would like to reiterate how honoured I was to receive the Early Career Researcher Conference Paper Award for 2023. Like many early career researchers, I am still finding my place in the education research community in Australia and it is reassuring to know that the research I am doing resonates with people. Thank you again to the committee.

The title of the paper poses a question: Are Australian students’ academic skills declining? (you can read the preprint of the paper here – currently under review). I became interested in exploring this question during my PhD and working with NAPLAN data. I knew that average NAPLAN results did not necessarily show downward trends. Nonetheless, everywhere we turn we see stories of crisis and decline.

For the paper I compiled publicly available data from the four major standardised assessments undertaken by Australian students. These assessments included the Program for International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), and of course, the ubiquitous NAPLAN.

Looking at average score trends across all these assessments from the inception of each up to the present shows that average scores in most assessments have improved or remained stable. The only assessment to show persistent declines is PISA, which assesses the reading, mathematics and scientific literacy of 15-year-old students every 3 years. When I explain these results to people both outside of universities and in other faculties the common reaction is one of surprise. The narrative about declining standards, students’ achievement going backwards, and universities not teaching preservice teachers ‘correctly’ is relentless.

In his keynote on day 3 of the conference, Professor Neil Selwyn noted that expert opinion on education is increasingly being sought from voices outside the academy. And we can see this in the proliferation of public-facing commentary and opinion pieces about standardised test results from think-tanks and experts outside the field of education research. But its very easy to cherry pick the data that supports your prior opinions. To me this selective reporting is a flag that quantitative methods are being misapplied or misunderstood.

It’s probably an apocryphal anecdote, but Mark Twain is supposed to have coined the phrase “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Whether or not he said this, I think this phrase encapsulates what is going on with the interpretation of educational data in the public domain. It doesn’t seem to matter what the truth is, the statistics are used to support a preconceived position.

But what do we do about poor interpretation of educational data? My contention is that if we want to take back the narrative about education in Australia we have to play at the same game. After all, governments do love numbers, and despite their limitations and potential harms, standardised testing is here to stay. As a field I think it’s time for us to increase the amount of work we do with assessment data. We can train research students to use existing assessment data in principled ways to answer pressing research questions; we can a bring methodological rigour to this work that non-academic research struggles to do; and we can show where the public narrative has got it wrong.

Obviously, this strategy may not work. After all, if academic researchers have already been positioned as those without the necessary expertise, opinion will always be sought from others.

Early career researchers will play a pivotal role in this work into the future. It is challenging to do so, but for ECRs who are passionate about their field, and feel their research should be shared widely, the only way to help shift the narrative about education in Australia is through promotion. Newspaper journalists love expert commentary for their stories. But they’ll never find you if you don’t promote the work that you do. I would encourage ECRs if they have a positive story to tell from their research, to find ways to tell it in the public domain.

Kevin Lowe, in his acceptance speech for the AER Best Paper Award 2023 spoke about how kids can internalise deficit discourses about their potential and ability. This extends to teachers too, and their perceptions of the capability of kids in their classrooms. Pushing back against the relentless disaster stories about education in a variety of ways is important, and could have wider reaching effects than simply putting the record straight.

Until next year 😊

USQ’s Ellen Larsen on the conference

“Wrapping up” the highlights of a conference such as this is an almost impossible task as there were just so many incredibly powerful and significant moments throughout the week. Such efforts to capture the totality of such an event are further complicated by the fact that we all take away our own very personal ‘moments of magnitude’- meeting ‘that’ researcher for whom you have overwhelming respect, connecting with colleagues you have only seen through a screen over the past 12 months, learning something that will change the way you think or go about your work or knowing that you got through your first ever AARE presentation and others were really interested in what you had to say and share! 

Following a busy and productive preconference and a celebratory evening of welcome at the Science Centre, the conference commenced with a palpable air of excitement as everyone arrived, with umbrellas in hand, at Melbourne University. But not even the rain could dampen the mood of anticipation. In a hushed room, the passing of the Coolamon at the opening plenary by Melitta Hogarth on behalf of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research Special Interest Group into the care of the AARE for this event encapsulated the energy that pervaded each day of the Conference- -one in which solid and enduring relationships were nurtured through care, respect, and acknowledgment of voice, truth, and place. 

At each and every turn, conference delegates were challenged to examine their own ontological and epistemological beliefs about the world and their work in ways that were concurrently unsettling and reassuring. Our 2023 Radford lecture presenter, Mary Lou Rasmussen, asked us to consider how we, as researchers, might shape conflicting public pedagogies for educating about gender, sex, and sexualities, drawing our attention to the ‘Matilda phenomenon’. Later in the week, the 2022 Radford Lecture presenter, Susan Danby, foregrounded the agentic language use of children and asked us to consider the new possibilities for research with children that leverage disciplinary junctures.  

Keynote presenter Marcia Langton challenged us to consider Indigenous knowledge, ontologies, and curriculum and find ways to unsettle ‘what is’ by thinking about ‘what could and should be’.  Neil Selwyn continued in his keynote to dare us to get uncomfortable in our research and to ask ourselves how we might reassess what we think and believe in ways that may assist us to better connect to broader global issues rather than tinkering at the edges. Our thoughts were swimming from the privilege of hearing from these generous academics who have the ability to make us question, productively doubt, and connect ideas; while at the same time making sure that our hearts are full from the enviable experience of being inspired.  

Presentations, symposiums, and featured symposiums throughout the week continued to underscore the depth and breadth of education research in Australia and beyond, making it impossible to identify specific presentations or presenters that should be mentioned over others. Every presentation, every presenter across all days, sessions, and Special Interest Groups contributed to what could only be described as a rich tapestry of knowledge, as Jess Holloway described it on Sunday, knowing, and knowing in becoming. In other words, we have left the conference changed, different, enriched by our experiences and interactions. 

Congratulations to the AARE award winners! Hearing about their work was both inspiring and exciting. The awarding of Martin Mills and Fazil Rizvi as honorary life members was enthusiastically celebrated. Our early career and post-graduate researchers showed an impressive address of both local and global issues in education. As a group, the postgraduates and early career researchers showed throughout the conference that they were the educational leaders of tomorrow with ideas and ways of researching that are innovative, transformative, and driven by a passion to make a difference. 

Putting a conference together for over 1000 researchers is no mean feat- and it is without a doubt that many of us would shrink from such a formidable task.  So, it is with absolute gratitude that we thank all of those concerned, including Julie McLeod (President AARE) and Catherine Smith (AARE Conference Chair) for leading the way. Thank you to the AARE executive, Conference Committee, and all academics, professional staff, and volunteers from the University of Melbourne who gave their time and energy to make this conference the amazing success it has been.  And so, this morning, the Coolamon was passed back into the care of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research SIG through Tracey Bunda, as the conference drew to a close. 

Thank you for your attendance and see you at the University of Sydney in 2024. 

And that’s a wrap for the 2023 AARE Conference in Melbourne!

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