Secondary schooling in Australia needs to change: throw out the tests and bring in deep learning

By Jane Hunter

There is a problem in some Australian secondary schools right now.  ‘Endgame’ assessments such as the Higher School Certificate (HSC) in NSW and the requirements of an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) to gain entrance to university, place restrictions on the kinds of teaching and learning that goes on in classrooms. Some teachers are frustrated that this ‘current game’ of secondary school is the only one that can be played.

So, alternative models of secondary schooling are becoming regular topics of conversation, debate and disquiet in the world of education. Just look at an education discussion on Twitter or go to an education conference or TeachMeet and you will hear the lament: there has to be a better way.

The desire for something else

At a few education forums in past months both here and overseas I have invited audiences of principals, system leaders, teachers, students and in one case, parents, to consider reimagining high school.

I tell them I believe teachers and students might be better served by teaching that is not ‘high stakes’ focused.  Could we dare to move away from the rigid systems we currently impose?

When I deliver such ideas people gasp and clap. But no rotten tomatoes are thrown. Afterwards, delegates email me to share: “high schools are not serving many adolescents well” or “we could focus on learning” type messages. I believe there is gathering momentum and a mood for change. There is unrest in the education ranks.

How could secondary schooling change?

Educators are talking a lot more about the type of skills mentioned in the Australian Curriculum general capabilities, such as critical and creative thinking, ICT capability, personal and social capability, and ethical and intercultural understanding as well as literacy and numeracy across subject areas. As I see it, these are quite a few of the ‘necessary skills’; the ‘grit skills’, the ‘growth skills’, the ‘public good skills’ = making ‘a good life skills’ for young people.

In the early years at some high schools, teachers and whole year groups are doing week-long interdisciplinary assessments. These are not just brief end-of year tasks but deep learning opportunities that include real-world projects, significant design challenges and creative exercises to enrich and create a vision of schooling that is able to better to inform, critique and question a ‘post truth’ society.

Let’s agree, what we are doing is not working

We saw it with the most recent announcement of international maths and science comparisons. Now the 2016 PISA results are out and Australia has fallen further down ‘the global assessment gradient’. All the usual ‘click bait’, ministerial cries, glib talk-back radio, hand wringing and finger pointing radiated out across the country. It is because we have a problem with schools/principals/teachers/parents/teacher educators … we will need more checks, frequent tests, new assessments. And now a commercial business is to develop the PISA 2018 Student Assessment 21st Century Frameworks for the OECD.

However, as Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel says, “… do I take these findings seriously? Yes, I do.”

Well folks, guess what, the current model in Australian secondary schools is not working.

Yes there are whole industries who support same old same old (government policies, think-tank reports, the current political climate, boards of study, coaching schools, instruction makers, publishing houses and education research). Changing things would not be easy. Also the altruistic nature of teaching means that as long as final ‘high stakes’ assessments are valued in secondary schooling, teachers won’t compromise their students by considering more student-centred pedagogies. There is a lot more talk needed about all of that.

But, just maybe, as another education year draws to a close, it is time to #rethinkhighschool. Seriously.

Dr Jane Hunter is an education researcher in the School of Education, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. She is conducting a series of STEM studies in Australian schools; in this work she leads teachers, school principals, students and communities to better understand and support education change. Her book ”Technology Integration and High Possibility Classrooms: Building from TPACK” is advancing new ways of enacting pedagogy in K-12 schools. Jane was a classroom teacher, and she has received national and international teaching awards for outstanding contributions to student learning. She enjoys writing and her research-based presentations at national and international conferences challenge audiences to consider alternate education possibilities. You can follow her on Twitter @janehunter01


18 thoughts on “Secondary schooling in Australia needs to change: throw out the tests and bring in deep learning

  1. Brian Cambourne says:

    A thought provoking piece. Thanks.
    I think secondary education is a prisoner of the dominant professional discourse which frames learning as the acquisition of skills and knowledge. I think we need to switch to a discourse which frames (i) knowledge as ‘meaning-making using symbols’, (ii)’ learning’ as opportunities to engage in inquiries that promote such meaning- making, and (iii) ‘assessment’ as opportunities for learners to share and demonstrate the meanings they’ve constructed.

  2. Jane Hunter says:

    Thank you for your comments Brian – agree with each of those points.
    I think we have reached a crossroads – more of the same is a not an answer – trying to retro-fit education old frames to what is required now and into the future is not equipping young people well in this country.

  3. Cliff Hemple says:

    How about universities kill the ATAR problem at the source, by dropping the ATAR as an entrance filter?

  4. Jane Hunter says:

    Hi Cliff – thank you for your observation – and many universities are offering alternate pathways into university/courses that are not ATAR dependent – interestingly the VC of Macquarie University here in Sydney was again on radio over the weekend raising this as a critical step to be enacted more broadly – it will require a lot more resourcing to do it equitably.

  5. Jan Turbill says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Our secondary education in NSW may prepare students for an ATAR that entitles them entrance to a university course (something that both the High School and University measure their successes), but they do not prepare to think critically (including read critally), reflect deeply nor problem solve in teams or as an individual. And when asked to be innovative in their thinking and writing, they are completely lost. We indeed need to focus on those capabilities. But yes change will be difficult and impact on the financial pockets of many.

  6. Jane Hunter says:

    Jan – always been a fan of your work BTW!
    Thank you for your comments. Parents and young people have to be taken on the ‘change ride’ too – their voices are an important part of the conversation.

  7. David Zyngier says:

    Many teachers and education academics have for years been decrying the need to uncouple year 12 results from University entrance – as it is done is many successful education systems. Universities use the ATAR as a proxy for their own tests and interviews thereby saving $$M each year while favouring the bias towards elite private school entry and keeping out the working class.

  8. Jane Hunter says:

    David – indeed the uncoupling is necessary – when you see the stats (and there are many sources/papers/ABS or otherwise on how many young people in Australia are disengaged from high school – it’s a concern – classroom learning has not shifted from the heavily didactic approaches and the 37 minute period … just like when I was a student at high school #nothelpfulin2016+

  9. Greg Miller says:

    Hello Dr Hunter,

    Thanks for taking the time to write and share your thinking. Now is the time for all involved in education, not just secondary education, to reimagine what might be. To do this well, we need politicians and bureaucrats to start measuring what students need for a successful life of happiness and vocation, rather than measuring what they value.

    It is time to start recalibrating the balance between high stakes testing and the more rigorous, more difficult art of evaluating the development of social skills and enterprise skills required for a changing world. The Australian Curriculum General Capabilities does indeed bring these to the fore; however, they are often pushed to the background in the A to E reporting climate in NSW.

    A few weeks back, I raised similar ideas. You are welcome to have a read.

    Kind Regards

  10. Jane Hunter says:

    Hi Greg – I would love you to post a link to those ideas here – thank you – please do – Darcy Moore has also blogged about this over the past year.

  11. Maralyn Parker says:

    Greg’s link is up in his post now. Check it out.

  12. Darcy Moore says:

    Hi Jane,

    It is very late in the year and most of us are exhausted, tired, emotional even but not so much that we are not thinking about what is best for students and our communities into the future. More of the current vogue for faux change is not needed and #rethinkhighschool would be a sound idea rather than more of the same thinking that has been espoused for the best part of two decades now.

    Personally, with children currently in primary and high school, and professionally, as an educator, I hunger for real change. At the same time, some of the traditional ideas about school being places where, regardless of background, young Australians get to mingle and learn together, seem increasingly important. We have one of the most highly segregated schooling systems in the OECD and that is not good for the long term health of our civil society. Here are three recent posts (that you allude to above) with my thoughts about some of the issues you raise: One Two Three

    Civics and citizenship should not be neglected at any time and if we think about how important an engaged populace is to the health of our civil society authentic programs are needed

    …and everyone (I mean everyone) should read this book


  13. jane hunter says:

    Thank you for taking the time to add your voice to this conversation Darcy. I read each of your posts when they were first out – they echoed many conversations that I was having with principals and teachers in high schools in various places across this past year. Great to have the links available on this post. Let’s think about some actions in 2017.
    Your ‘authentic program’ at Dapto looks extraordinary – like to know more. And, I will read THAT book this holiday season. Yes!
    Thank you too for the work you do in your local high school and for all of the extra bits in teacher professional associations and so on – for leading the way on so many fronts. It’s inspiring.

  14. Margaret Gleeson says:

    Most of my teaching has been in the areas of creative and performing arts where each year we lose kids to what is perceived as more serious subjects that will deliver. TIme and again I meet previous students who thank me for allowing them to develop problem solving skills in open ended assessments, allowed them to work in groups and valued their emotional and intellectual growth. There is enormous potential in the A in STEAM. We often forget we are dealing with kids.
    Interesting reading.

  15. Michele Cooper says:

    I enjoyed reading your post and the thinking it has provoked in your numerous respondents. I think there is an additional problem – the inability of some teachers to uncouple their own thinking from external
    Exams. It is easy to teach to a test, it is far more challenging to develop lessons built around critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration. It is also harder to ‘assess’. However, no syllabus I have ever read in 25 years of teacher told me to teach students to simply regurgitate useless information for an exam – and I’m an English teacher! Teaching more thoughtfully requires a deep understanding of the syllabus and a willingness to experiment to see how lessons can bridge the ‘gap’ between the syllabus and a single examination on one day. I agree there needs to be change, but not all of it has to be only on the part of the bureaucrats. Vibe la revolution!

  16. jane hunter says:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment on this post Margaret – the ARTS are essential in the STEM agenda.

  17. alison roberts says:

    Finally there is shift. I am from outside the system so the cracks are more obvious and alternatives more clear. When I suggest doing away with the HSC many teachers, principals and parents are utterly confused as they don’t see alternatives ways of assessing students. This is the problem with the system. Tests like NAPLAN and HSC create closed thinking. Educators need to look out to wider world of education – innovation won’t happen when we teach to and for a test that doesn’t encourage or reward risk taking, problem solving, originality, or team work.

  18. Alison Burns says:

    Thanks Jane, a thought provoking piece. I have long felt the gaps in our secondary curriculum. A more cogent, higher learning approach for all students in Australia is overdue. As your former tute group student for M Teach Sydney ’98 I enjoyed hearing from you!

Comments are closed.