AARE blog

How to stop racism in class: burn it off

“You’re like the token black kid in the class”: the continued need for Indigenisation of curriculum to support Indigenous student university completion rates and stop racism

It is our hope that in 2023 The Voice referendum will bring change. We hope change will include adopting the many recommendations of national reports to improve higher education access, participation and completions for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Many Indigenous scholars and their non-Indigenous allies feel enormous frustration. Their voices are not heard. They are rendered silent by inaction to implement national recommendations. For example, the Universities Australia Indigenous Strategy outlined what universities should do. They should commit to having “processes that ensure all students will encounter and engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural content as integral parts of their course of study, by 2020”. Important work is occurring in universities to embed Indigenous content within university courses but it has yet to be implemented strongly across all universities.


Indigenous Studies and Courageous Conversations

Symposium co-hosted by UQ and the Australia Academy of the Humanities. September 28 and 29, 2023.

What the Accord Interim Report says

The recent Accord Interim Report notes Indigenous students continue to be marginalised in universities and there is an urgent need to increase the numbers of Indigenous students undertaking university study. The Accord Interim Report also reported that Go8 universities were lagging behind in terms of Indigenous student enrolments. But high enrolment numbers of Indigenous students do not necessarily equate to completion of university studies. The national data indicates that, the nine-year completion rates for Indigenous students are 50 per cent — significantly below the 71 per cent for non-Indigenous students.

Stop racism in university classrooms

The impact of racism on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander student university experiences and completion rates can not be underestimated. 

Our research has found that racism and the lack of Indigenous perspectives in the curriculum are key barriers to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students completing their degrees.

Many of the Indigenous graduates from five universities interviewed in our study reflected on their experiences in classrooms and their experiences of being asked by academics to speak on behalf of Indigenous people:

“It was mostly experiences like being called out in class as to speak to a universal Indigenous experience or being called out to act as a representative of a cultural ideal” (Bachelor of Arts graduate)

Graduates also spoke about experiences of racism from peers and staff:

“There is racism in classes … I had students go, ‘Oh, you must have got scholarships for coming here’ when they worked out that I was Indigenous, or ‘Oh, did you take a bridging pathway?’ ‘No, I actually got here the same way that a lot of people in this room got here’…” (Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts graduate)

“I guess the racism at a university like [this one] that is full of people with white fragility and white privilege, has always hung over my thinking around what I actually received from [this university]… People being blatantly racist and really showing their white fragility in the way they operated towards me” (Bachelor of International Relations graduate).

Why there is a need for further Indigenisation of curriculum to stop racism

Indigenisation of curriculum is one way to address racism. The Universities Australia Indigenous Strategy 2017–2020 acknowledged the inherent value of Aboriginal peoples’ unique knowledge systems. Important work has been undertaken by universities to develop frameworks and design principles to guide Indigenisation of curriculum (e.g., Al-Natour and Fredericks, 2016; Bunda, 2022; Howlett et al., 2013). 

The process of Indigenising curriculum is complex, and numerous researchers have noted the institutional support required, the challenges of poorly taught curriculum that can reinforce stereotypes and resistance from students particularly from mandatory curriculum.

Many of the graduates we interviewed noted that much more work needs to be done within the universities they studied at to focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content and knowledges and draw further on Indigenous perspectives within the curriculum and content.

Where to from here?

Universities are still not necessarily a safe places for Indigenous students. Danger and a lack of cultural safety can be found in classrooms when Indigenous students are called out as “experts”, when peers question their identity and ask culturally insensitive questions, and when lecturers do not include “meaningful, appropriately developed and appropriately resourced” Indigenous content in curricula so that Indigenous students can see themselves in the curriculum.

Universities must continue to focus efforts towards educating academic staff and students to be more culturally competent through the inclusion of Indigenous perspectives within curriculum. Indigenisation of curriculum requires institutional support, and it also requires critical self-reflection by non-Indigenous educators. This is the only way to stop racism


As part of our larger research project, recommendations were developed for universities and include:

  • University academic staff should ensure their classrooms are strongly anti-racist and address any issues of racism within the classroom.
  • University leadership needs to ensure more cultural competency training opportunities for academic staff, professional staff, and students.
  • University faculties and academics should work collaboratively with Indigenous centre/unit staff and Indigenous academics to ensure Indigenous perspectives are strongly embedded in course curricula.

It is important to note that these recommendations are not particularly new and they echo previous recommendations. There is enormous frustration felt by many Indigenous scholars and their non-Indigenous allies whose voices are not heard. They are rendered silent by this inaction to implement national recommendations.

Collins-Gearing and Smith use the metaphor of the need to “burn off” the disciplines to Indigenise curriculum in order to “clean up the landscape so that new, transformative possibilities may grow”. Burning off continues to need to occur in universities to stamp out racism and clear the smoke to allow Indigenous students to see themselves within the curriculum.

From left to right: Bronwyn Fredericks is a professor and DVC Indigenous Engagement, University of Queensland. She tweets at @bronfredericks. Katelyn Barney, PhD, is a senior lecturer in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit and the School of Music, University of Queensland. She tweets at @drkatelynbarney. Tracey Bunda is Professor of Indigenous Education, University of Queensland. Kirsten Hausia is Strategic Project and Engagement Coordinator, Murrup Barak, Melbourne Institute for Indigenous Development, University of Melbourne. Anne Martin is Director of Tjabal Centre, Australian National University. She tweets at @MartinAnne139. Jacinta Elston is affiliated with Monash University. She tweets at @JacintaElston. Brenna Bernardino is a research associate at LPC Consulting Associates and was a Research Assistant on the project. She tweets at @brennabernardino.

Patience, persistence and persuasion: the how-to of Indigenous curriculum practice by Susan Page

Be brave: how to Indigenise the curriculum by Alanna Kamp

Digital learning: how to manage a very tricky balance

The way we navigate the fast-changing digital landscape is crucial for the academic and social experiences for students of all ages. The digital age presents opportunities and challenges for all learners, whether it be a student in an early childhood setting or an adult engaging in vocational education. We know that for all students to be successful, we need to think carefully about what we are doing with technology and why we are doing it. While understandable given the nature of the crisis, the rapid shift to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic exposed many unintended consequences of engaging with digital pedagogies in a haphazard way.

The ‘remoteness’ of remote learning also revealed how crucial connection is in education. Everyone loses when digital education – digital learning – fails to meet the needs and interests of learners, educators, and other human beings in educational contexts. So how do we make sure that online teaching prioritises the human?

Our new industry report delves into human-centred digital design in online learning, emphasising the crucial role of learners, educators, and stakeholders in shaping the educational experience. Learners are placed at the core of the learning experience in a human-centred digital design model. By offering flexibility and personalization, educators create a real-world learning environment that empowers students to take control of their learning journey. 

No quick fix

However, this is not a quick fix. While human-centred digital design offers numerous benefits, it also presents challenges. Transitioning to online learning can be isolating for some, and educators may struggle with new tools and methods. This approach demands significant resources, collaboration, time, and dedication. But these challenges can be overcome by adopting thoughtful strategies that prioritize the needs of learners. These strategies focus on creating a dynamic and inclusive learning environment that empowers students and fosters meaningful engagement. In our report we focus on a range of dimensions. These intersections intersect to make digital learning and teaching structured and flexible, active and engaging, and inclusive.

Striking the right balance between structure and flexibility is essential in catering to the diverse needs and interests of learners. By offering a well-organized curriculum that outlines clear learning objectives and milestones, educators provide a roadmap for students to follow. Allowing room for individual exploration and personalization enables learners to engage with the material at their pace. This makes the learning experience more meaningful and relevant. Understanding the ecology in which digital learning and teaching takes place is essential to good and holistic practice.

Where to give priority

Priority can be given to universal accessibility to ensure all learners, regardless of abilities, can fully participate in learning processes. These include ranging from multimedia formats for curriculum sharing and opportunities to demonstrate learning through different forms of media. Valuing diverse perspectives, strengths and forms of communication, educators can foster an enriching and inclusive learning community. Effective digital learning and teaching—like any learning and teaching—is differentiated to learners’ needs, preferences and contexts.

Encouraging active learning and inquiry-based approaches empowers learners to take an active role in their education. Rather than passively consuming information, students become engaged participants in the learning process. Through hands-on activities, problem-solving exercises, and group discussions, students develop critical thinking skills. They also gain a deeper understanding of the subject matter.

A sense of community and connection

In the online learning environment, fostering a sense of community and connection is crucial. Ensuring both teachers and students have a visible presence in virtual learning spaces through real-time interactions enhances engagement and support. Virtual office hours, online discussions, and video conferences provide opportunities for students to seek assistance and collaborate with their peers. This fostering a strong sense of belonging. Community and belonging in digital teaching and learning are supported by practice that prioritises accessibility, diversity, and inclusion. Building social connections through play is also important for all students. Digital spaces can help facilitate these connections as illustrated through the below footage of YellowCraft, an online Minecraft server established for autistic girls and women that first began in 2020.


Collaboration enriches online learning. Group discussions, teamwork, and project-based learning allow students to share perspectives, exchange ideas, and construct knowledge collectively.
Through collaborative online activities, learners can share their unique perspectives, exchange ideas, and collectively construct knowledge. This leads to a deeper understanding of the subject matter and each other, developing higher level communication skills in multiple mediums. Effective digital learning is student-centred, fosters collaboration, and enables communication and connection.

What happens when you take a wrong turn

When it comes to online learning, assessment and feedback play a crucial role in helping students succeed. Assessment tasks guide educators and learners towards their educational destination and should guide the learning journey. Just as Navigation apps (such as Google maps) provide us with a choice from multiple routes leading to the same destination, offering a choice of assessments gives students the flexibility to showcase their understanding in ways that suit them best. Whether it’s through a quiz, a project, or a presentation, diverse assessment options make learning more engaging and personalized. Formative assessments act as pit stops along the way. This helps learners gauge their understanding and providing valuable insights that can guide adjustments in learning strategies. And just like when the app recalibrates when you take a wrong turn, assessments should be responsive, guiding educators and students when learning needs adjustment. 

In our report we explore some of the challenges involved in digital design through six dimensions of practice which we believe will help us as we consider new challenges, new technologies, and changing contexts. By embracing new technology, flexibility, inclusion, and active learning strategies, educators create engaging and meaningful online learning environments. For this to be possible and successful, educational institutions need to be contexts where teachers can experiment and take risks with innovative practices. Resourcing teaching and learning informed by human-centred design involves the risk-taking, time, collaboration, resourcing and the reciprocal identification of needs and goals, with agency and control in the hands of the student and educator. 

Nicky Dulfer is a Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Education, University of Melbourne. Her research agenda is driven by a social justice imperative and seeks to make a significant change to the ways in which marginalised people access and experience education.  Catherine Smith is lecturer in education at the Faculty of Education at the University of Melbourne with specialisation in technology, wellbeing, equity, policy and community development. Matthew Harrison is a Senior Lecturer based at the University of Melbourne, Faculty of Education His research is interested in digital inclusion for children with disabilities and neurological differences, and he is the co-founder of Next Level Collaboration. Mark Selkrig is an Associate Professor in Education. His research and scholarly work focus on the changing nature of educators’ work and how they navigate the ecologies of their respective learning environments.

How universities have become big business

Australian public universities have undergone extensive policy reforms since the 1980s, driven by neoliberal ideologies that emphasise free markets, competition, efficiency, and reduced state intervention. These reforms have redefined universities’ identity as corporatised organisations with commercial agendas, prioritising revenue generation over knowledge generation (Parker et al., 2023).  Traditional values of inclusivity, social cohesion, and social mobility have been challenged, with excellence redefined in terms of research output, innovative teaching approaches, world rankings, business partnerships, and attracting fee-paying students.

The impact was felt when the COVID-19 pandemic exposed these risks to public universities, as they experienced a drop in international student enrollments and funding challenges. Staffing was significantly affected, with limited government support (Guthrie et al., 2022).  This has prompted questions about the future strategies of university managements. We highlight the vulnerability of Australian universities to crises and emphasise the need for reimagining them as democratic and purposeful institutions (Martin-Sardesai et al., 2021).  We call for a reevaluation of the relationship between a university’s mission, its stakeholders, and those responsible for its administration, emphasising the importance of public consultation and engagement in shaping the future of higher education (Guthrie et al., 2022).

A shift in culture

Governments around the world have implemented policies aligned with New Public Management (NPM) in public service delivery, such as privatisation, contracting out, selling public assets, and reducing income taxes. They argue that these policies align with market principles and improve efficiency. This has led to a shift in university culture towards accounting, economising, and marketisation, prioritising skills over theoretical knowledge. NPM has also influenced the organisational structure of universities, with corporate practices and entities being favored.

In Australia, public universities have adopted a user-pays philosophy, market-driven pricing, and cost minimisation.  The Australian higher education system (AHES) follows a centralised policy, with public universities receiving funding from the Federal Government. The Minister of Education and Training regulates the number of universities and controls the number of students in each undergraduate course. Local students pay a higher education contribution fee, while universities can set fees for international students. International student fees play a crucial role in the funding strategy of Australian public universities, subsidising operations, teaching, and research expenses. 

Financial gains over resilience

Funding for higher education as a percentage of GDP has been declining, and the government grants only a portion of the sector’s total expenditures. Despite financial challenges, the number of students studying in Australia has been increasing, particularly international students from countries like China and India. Australia has a high proportion of international students compared to other countries. The management of Australian public universities has focused on short-term profit optimisation, prioritising financial gains over long-term adaptability and resilience. This has left the sector vulnerable to external shocks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and strained relations with China. The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on Australia’s higher education system (AHES). The government implemented border closures and universities transitioned to online teaching, leading to the postponement or cancellation of campus events. The Federal Government did not provide additional financial support to universities during the pandemic.

The literature suggests that universities have willingly embraced the commodification of education and the adoption of accounting practices to align with government policies and VC’s business ambitions (Martin-Sardesai et al., 2017; Martin-Sardesai, 2016).  The proliferation of quantified metrics has become an end in itself, overshadowing broader societal values and objectives (Martin-Sardesai et al., 2021).  Overall, numbers and quantified metrics have become influential in shaping university processes and outcomes, emphasising commercialisation and performance over broader societal goals. In investigating the mechanisms behind this shift, identify that Australian public universities have undergone extensive policy reforms since the 1980s, driven by neoliberal ideologies that emphasise free markets, competition, efficiency, and reduced state intervention.

The emphasis is on the numbers

These reforms aim to transform universities into autonomous and entrepreneurial knowledge organisations, aligning them with the global knowledge economy. The implementation of these policies is supported by accountingisation, which emphasises performance measures and accountability.

These reforms have led to the privatisation, marketisation, and internationalisation of universities, following the principles of neoliberal economics. Traditional values of inclusivity, social cohesion, and social mobility have been challenged, with excellence redefined in terms of research output, innovative teaching approaches, world rankings, business partnerships, and attracting fee-paying students. The neoliberal agenda prioritises skills, applied knowledge, and productivity, dismissing humanistic, critical, and theoretical knowledge as irrelevant. Universities are seen as tools for training productive workers to support the knowledge economy and generate research impacts.

Traditional values challenged

While universities are public institutions, they are increasingly required to adopt accounting practices and performance measures, influenced by New Public Management (NPM) principles. NPM has shifted power relations within universities and introduced numerical forms of power, leading to changes in academics’ practices and thinking.  However, these reforms pose risks to the higher education sector, potentially eroding its critical voice, legitimacy, and transparency. The focus on improvement, efficiency, and standards needs to be balanced with a language of education rooted in ethics, moral obligations, and values. Overall, the reforms in Australian public universities reflect a larger global trend towards corporatisation and commercialisation, impacting the core values and purpose of higher education (Parker et al., 2023).

We are a warning to others

Our research has examined the changes in the higher education system of a country over four decades, focusing on its commercialisation and internationalisation. It discussed the influence of neoliberal philosophies and New Public Management (NPM) practices on universities. We identify the central role of accountingisation and marketisation in this transformation, suggesting it has occurred gradually and covertly. Governments have implemented policies to position higher education as a source of intellectual property and skills to enhance global competitiveness. We highlight the impact of external pressures on universities, including government regulations, professional norms, and market mechanisms. Universities have redefined their identity as corporatised organisations with commercial agendas, prioritising revenue generation over knowledge generation.

While acknowledging the risk associated with the commercialisation of universities, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we criticise the reliance on international student revenues and call for a reconsideration of university strategies and government support. The Australian case serves as a warning for other countries facing similar challenges. We also suggest the need for a shift away from performance-based metrics and a focus on ethics, values, and societal impact in education. We raise questions about alternative strategies, the role of stakeholders, and the responsibility for university reform. Ultimately, we call for a reevaluation of the relationship between a university’s mission, its stakeholders, and those responsible for its administration, emphasising the importance of public consultation and engagement in shaping the future of higher education.

Ann Sardesai has recently taken up the position of an associate professor of accounting at Prince Sultan University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Lee D. Parker is a research professor in accounting, the University of Glasgow, Scotland, UK. James Guthrie, AM, FCPA, is an emeritus professor in the Accounting and Corporate Governance Department at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.

What private school boys risk when they hit university

Through a combination of wealth, influence, and polished marketing campaigns, elite schools project an image of superiority, which can instil a sense of confidence that these are the best possible environments for cultivating future success. But studies reveal educational background is not always a reliable predictor of academic achievement, with government school students often performing just as well, if not better, than their non-government counterparts.

Despite this evidence, elite schools continue to produce a disproportionate number of university-bound students.

My research investigated the life trajectories of former elite boys’ school students in Australia and has shed some light on how their educational background shaped emotions and feelings surrounding the transition to university.

Elite schools have long been associated with cultural, economic, and social privilege, paving the way for prestigious university admissions and esteemed careers. While the predictable pathway from elite school to top university, and eventually lucrative professions is well-known, little attention has been given to how elite school alumni might perceive and navigate the transition to university.

Access to higher education and future employment opportunities are heavily influenced by factors such as parental income, place of residence, and secondary schooling. The significant resources available to elite schools provide academic advantages and opportunities to a selective and exclusive group who can afford the high tuition fees.

So, what happens when graduates of these schools hit university?

Extensive research has been conducted on the transition to university, delving into the processes of adaptation, navigation, and transformation. While studies have focussed on the narratives of graduates, other research explores the complex and contradictory nature of transitioning into university, framing it as a process of self-development.

Emotions can play a significant role in university transition as students construct new identities in response to the unfamiliar learning environment. For example, the process of becoming an undergraduate student can be particularly complex for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds or culturally and linguistically diverse communities. However, there is a scarcity of research on the emotions and feelings of students from privileged backgrounds. In listening to the stories of university transition, as told to me by men who attended elite boys’ schools, it became clear that the narratives and transitions of these students were less coherent and confident than expected. Specifically, these transitions were marked by experiences that challenged their beliefs about academic excellence and privilege.

The study

My research was informed by three case studies from a larger project, which investigated how old boys negotiated their masculine identities in relation to elitism and privilege, with a particular emphasis on examining how they have reconciled outdated attitudes and values that were endorsed by their schooling. The wider study included nine men who were primarily recruited through a combination of my pre-existing relationships and insider status as an old boy. Most participants identified as heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, middle-class, and White. In listening to their stories of schooling, higher education, and trajectories into adulthood, the importance of narrative in conceptualising their schooling experience, and its impact on self-reflection and re-evaluation, became a key focus.

Old boys on campus

The findings revealed three themes that shed light on how the participants experienced the transition from an elite boys’ school to university. I elaborate on these themes below to illuminate the emotions and feelings that were entangled with this experience.

Preparing for university

Theme one highlights the challenges and constraints that were imposed on the participants by their schools, and how this was implicated in feelings of uncertainty and indifference towards their preparations for enrolling in a university program. All participants felt an inherent expectation to attend prestigious universities, considering it a natural step in their educational trajectory. While all but one enrolled at a Group of Eight university, their journeys were far from straightforward. Within these environments, there was a tension between prioritising personal values and pursuing expected trajectories, as well as feelings of doubt and indecision surrounding program and course selection.

The feeling of uncertainty not only affected decision-making but also shaped undergraduate identities. The pressure to conform to an expected trajectory limited opportunities for imagining alternative pathways. As such, there was a distinct lack of any plan for their university education.

As John explained to me, ‘I walked out of the school gates with no plan for what I was going to be doing, but just the expectation it was going to be great.’

This casual and indifferent approach to university preparation has been recognised elsewhere. As Musa Okwonga noted of his time at Eton College, elite boys’ schools are a safe environment, reassuring students that even if they have trouble in life, ‘everything will be okay’ and ultimately, ‘everybody makes it in the end.’ Despite emerging from this environment, the participants revealed that the lack of preparation for university compounded feelings of doubt and unease, while also presenting a sense of disappointment about unexplored study possibilities and careers.

Restricting pathways

Theme two focuses on the experience of arriving at university and the bias and entitlement that was carried by the participants from their elite boys’ school. All discussed the pressure they had experienced surrounding enrolment at a prestigious university, regardless of its alignment to desired study options and imagined futures. This resulted in a snobbish attitude towards those universities that were perceived as having lower academic standards and expectations. Such biases were also directed towards students from government schools who were met at university. In particular, the participants revealed dominant assumptions that students from government schools would not perform as well academically and should be avoided to keep a social network of the best and brightest. As such, the participants recognised how the bias transported from their schooling influenced their beliefs and interactions with students at university who were outside the elite school network.

Bursting bubbles

The final theme examined how university became a site where preconceived notions of excellence and intelligence were challenged through what the participants referred to as ‘bubble burst’ moments. The participants shared stories of encountering students from government schools who excelled academically, challenging their beliefs about their own educational background, and preconceived notions of its superiority. This rupture in their understanding led to a reconfiguration of their identities and a realisation of the sheltered environment from which they had emerged.

Understanding old boys

While students who attend elite boys’ schools continue to enter prestigious universities, and pursue pathways into esteemed and financially rewarding industries, the accounts about transitioning to university, as provided to me, suggest that this process may not always be straight forward, planned, nor easy.

Despite an often emotionless and rational exterior, some old boys might arrive at university with a sensitive and troubled set of feelings that are implicated in their identity formation as undergraduates.

It is also possible that the expectation to attend prestigious institutions, combined with biases embodied while secondary school students, can hinder the exploration of alternative pathways and limit interactions with a diverse student body. However, the ‘bubble burst’ moments shared with me suggest that university can constructively challenge preconceived notions of excellence and intelligence, forcing elite school alumni to reassess their values and beliefs.

By delving into the complex experiences of these students, this research serves as a small contribution to understanding the impact of elite schooling on university transitions and the durability of privilege.

Cameron Meiklejohn is a PhD Graduate from the School of Education at the University of Southern Queensland. His research interest focuses on the feelings and life trajectories of men who attended elite boys’ schools in Australia and the meanings they attach to their schooling experience.

What happens when we cut corners: Suffer the little children

Jack Swindells is why regulations for early childhood care matter.

The early childhood sector is regulated by standards and laws for a reason. One of those reasons is to ensure the quality of care for children: a quality of care that provides children with the opportunity to develop in an environment that is safe.

These regulations protect children from harm, harm such as the shocking incident concerning Jack Swindells, reported by the ABC this week in their investigation into the number of early childhood centres that do not meet national standards (17 per cent). This investigation speaks to the crisis in the sector and one that our research at the University of Sydney has been hearing about from educators.

Their greatest concerns included the child to teacher ratios and the lack of supervision:

Educator to child ratios – we do not have enough time in the day to support each child to their full potential and respond to challenges in adequate and effective ways. This makes it difficult to assist the development of children and to spend equal time with each child.

Educators are underpaid, badly treated by some centres and families, deal with the very best and worst of caring for large groups of children, put themselves at risk of illness, injury and mental illness, and still many maintain such a love of being an educator. I can’t think of a better word than resilient.

Leadership at my service is in crisis due to the demands of the job; I work with a minimum ratio of 1:11 in my preschool, making it very difficult to cater for all children and do anything “extra”; we have no or very little time out of the classroom to plan, reflect and do admin.

An article in the Australian Financial Review in July suggested “Staffing and education rules at childcare centres contribute to costs that make it harder for mothers to return to the workforce”.

Would loosening the regulations in the early childhood sector make childcare more affordable? Is this the answer to the crisis in the field?

We asked educators what they thought about their profession. Remember these aren’t the people who own the childcare centres, they are the glue holding these centres together. They are already one of the lowest paid professions in the country. These propositions are hardly new – the idea to reduce the ratios has been raised in the media in the UK and the US

And why haven’t these ideas been warmly embraced? There is  overwhelming evidence which supports the benefits of quality early childhood education and care for children. The professional knowledge and experience of educators is essential for this quality.

The article lacks awareness of the physical, relational work, not to mention the professional knowledge required for “quality” education and care of infants and young children. 

It is this lack of appreciation that impacts the profession and resonates with how educators see themselves portrayed in the media and viewed by society overall. Early childhood education is not just a place for children that allows their mothers to go to work. 

The educators I work with are highly effective and always have the best interests at heart. They are paid a pittance and their work as professionals is constantly undermined by policy, media etc. As a degree qualified ECT, I am not paid equal pay for the same work my government employed teachers are paid.

We are STILL seen as babysitters no matter how much the sector wants to push that we aren’t.

After listening to the educators in our research, of their resilience and dedication to the care of young children, the suggestion to reduce ratios is one guaranteed to add further pressure to one of the lowest paid professions in the country. It will only contribute to the number of staff departing the workforce, and the loss of significant experience and knowledge. Lowering the numbers of educators diminishes the quality and quantity of time adults have with children.

One participant in the research wrote: “I believe that we can shape the lives of young people and their families. We can help to shape their views about children’s lifelong education and influence their Iives and the way they grow into young people.”

The role of our educators is far beyond the actions involved with babysitting and includes every breathing moment that professionals are with young children, from the moment the infant is transferred from their primary caregivers’ arms into their own, for every diaper change, feeding time, in soothing, singing, playing and response to the child. It requires a complete physical and social investment by adults.

This is what quality care looks like. The difference between holding a baby and holding a baby in the position that is comfortable to them, the difference between singing a song to them and singing the song they are  sung to at home, in the language they hear at home. It is this difference that explains why infants indicate a preference for one educator at a preschool over another.  I was reminded of this when visiting Lily * (a second-year student on her professional experience). She was attempting to console a 9-month-old infant, tears running down her cheeks. As I approached them, sitting on the floor in a large play area, I asked if I was the cause, as sometimes children will be afraid of unfamiliar people. No, Lily shook her head, this baby was crying for her favorite caregiver, she could see her in the toddler room next door as she had been moved to cover staff shortages, an unavoidable change in the daily routine that is upsetting to children, families and staff and limits the opportunities for:

Enjoying simple everyday pleasures together such as engaging in and admiring nature and weather, sharing stories and ideas.

The simple pleasures that build the relationships essential for infants to transition from being dependent to independent and to become trusting in their own ability and to trust in others. This happens when educators create play-based learning experiences that evolve from the children’s curiosity and expand their abilities. To do this, educators need to know the children. 

The suggestion to reduce ratios also ignores the views of educators, as does the idea of reducing qualifications. In both phases of our study, educators described the value of professional knowledge for the children and themselves, of their desire to further their professional learning and the learning of colleagues. One teacher highlighted the need for more:  

Time to adequately support and mentor other educators and feeling like they need more education to lift standards.

Another teacher taking her master’s degree in special education said:

I believe that the best educators are the ones who invest themselves physically and emotionally in their work. We can’t teach children to establish strong relationships without modelling/feeling strong relationships.

Reducing ratios means educators, like so many in our study are constantly doing two things at once, cleaning or changing nappies and supervising:

Managing the room safely during times when staff are still “in ratio” but not actively caring for most of the children in the room (think nappy changes, doing journals/charts, managing children who need one-on-one care etc), transitioning the under 2s up and down stairs during family grouping, and being out of ratio in the mornings.

It is scenarios like this that lead to children like Jack getting hurt.

Educators know what is needed to support their work and their working environment. Policy is needed that creates time and space for professionals to be with children. We will not arrive at that by reducing the qualifications or the staff. Our professionals are telling us what they need. We should listen.

Olivia Karaolis teaches across the School of Education and Social Work at Sydney University. She completed her research at USYD after working in the United States in the field of Early Childhood Education and Special Education. Her focus has been on creating inclusive communities through the framework of the creative arts.

What is the moral work of teachers?

Ethics is a luxury good, in the public imagination. But some researchers project that by 2050, educational ethicists will be as common in schools as bioethicists are in healthcare.

Ethics in the classroom are time sensitive. Teachers may not have time for thoughtful decision-making on the spot and there are many missed opportunities to pause. Perhaps during policy making and report card writing there is time for thoughtful decision-making. Ethical decision-making requires us to slow down, consider stakeholder feedback, school goals, important relationships and the foundations on which we rest our educational purposes. 

It asks us to think about: what are our values, as a school? And how should we live these values? When we make a line in the sand about serving the most vulnerable students, it can inform the other 5000 micro decisions made later in the classroom. But values can be ‘fuzzy’- think of the value of ‘inclusion’, ‘equity’ or ‘meritocracy’. These values remain obstinately ambiguous unless time is taken in conversation and thoughtful dialogue, to create a sense of mutual intelligibility. And if some shared understanding is possible, we next need to ask – where does the responsibility for collective, values-driven action sit.  How should the plan of action, aligned with core values, be established and sustained in a schooling environment? 

Educational ethics offers us ways of guiding the ethical core of teaching and education. As a field, educational ethics seeks to build collectivity across foundational disciplines including sociology, policy, history, philosophy, psychology, pedagogy, curriculum and technologies, and views as essential practitioner insights into the ethical dimensions of schooling and child care. It is not only the domain of philosophers, each discipline brings important perspectives to the table. But we cannot underestimate philosophy’s influence, given its long history and tradition.One could be mistaken for thinking that educational ethics is a new field.  There are established areas of educational research and practice in the ‘moral work of teachers and teaching’ , new work in ‘professional ethics and the law’ as well as in ‘moral education’ , the humanising practice of philosophy with teachers and a multi-faceted approach of the normative case study.  Many may not be aware that there is an arm of UNESCO called the International Institute of Educational Planning (IIEP)whose substantive work has been to stamp out corruption in educational systems all over the world. IIEP provides support for the grounded development, establishment and sustenance of teacher codes of ethics and conduct. It has shone a light on cheating in Australian education

So what is educational ethics, if not in the “moral work of teaching”, “professional ethics and the law” and “moral education”? Some have proposed that educational ethics can be a canopy under which these and other areas of inquiry about the ethical dimensions of schools, as well as child care, tertiary and educational policy more broadly – not just the work of teachers- can be housed. Despite the fact that teaching is ‘all over the map’, there are some ethical issues which bring educators closer to one another than to other professions, and real concern to address the demoralisation in the profession. Attention to these shared, but complex and multidimensional ethical features of teaching and ‘dilemmatic spaces’ can be raised more systematically and collectively if the field itself comes together, recognising that there have been specialised sub-fields already with histories and learning to share. This shared interest doesn’t presume homogeneity or natural agreement, except, perhaps, that education in all its forms, is inescapably, normatively loaded. 

The immediate challenge is that educational ethics has a big backyard to grow in across Australia. Growing educational ethics could allow us to explore moral issues and dilemmas specifically within the Australian education field such as researchers found in assessment practices, those critical ethical tensions which emerged during the pandemic and the lack of perceived respect for the profession of teaching. Some have recognised how Australian teachers are doing principled ethical work in the form of ‘counter conduct’ to resist demoralising pressures placed upon them. What is needed are high quality resources that enable our teachers, educational policy makers and school leaders to engage productively with these and other issues. We have broad ranging ethical concerns which need new theoretical and pedagogical tools for clarifying values, supporting ethical dialogue and leadership, as well as recognised challenges in our pre-service teacher programs for ethics education and the cultivation of morality, ‘ethical noticing’ and the ‘moral imagination‘. Proposed ethical decision-making models, the thoughtful use of our teacher codes of ethics in teacher education and normative case studies drawn from Australian researchers may be particularly useful to augment professional learning in the field here. 

The normative case study is different from other versions of short dilemmas and case studies used in introductory texts. Using normative case studies creates opportunities for thoughtful dialogue about polarising issues and dilemmas. It brings diverse viewpoints into contact and facilitates civil disagreement about what matters, what ought to be done and why whilst building understanding between differing viewpoints.  Examples of Australian-based normative case studies deal with dilemmas about teaching climate change and the influence of fossil fuel sponsorship in underfunded public schools,  and the role of religion and ethics in Australian public schools. There are many issues needing attention of educational ethics, like rethinking the idea of teacher responsibility or how to get the educational benefits of ‘controversy’ in the curriculum without causing moral panic. Other urgent issues have special resonance in Australian education such as how to ethically honour our First Nations and tell difficult truths; how to navigate our cultural diversity alongside nationalism in Australian democracy; how to triage diverse needs in our classrooms; and other big questions of the role of education in Australian society. 

Educational ethics offers opportunities for us to engage with different value-laden perspectives that challenge our biases and preferences. There are better and worse options to step forward, as ethical relativism is not a viable option for making pragmatic change. We need to better distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable ethical compromises and build understanding about how to act on shared values once we find the grounding of a reflective equilibrium. We have codes of conduct in public and independent schools as well as the early childhood sector, standards, curriculum mandates, and school cultures with questionable policies. What is the ‘norm’ in one setting might look quite different in another, even if commonalities, like the curriculum or uniform policy remain. This post hasn’t been able to point comprehensively to Australian research which could be included under the canopy of educational ethics, but it is important that we continue to develop new research in educational ethics to draw attention to both emerging and perennial normative dimensions of our educational practices and policies. For the educational ethicist it is to consult and open dialogue for professional learning in education communities that inches towards a more just system and its practices. This builds understanding of educators’ legal, social and ethical responsibilities, and provides insight into how to establish more ethical policies in education.


Daniella Forster is a senior lecturer in the School of Education, University of Newcastle and was a visiting scholar at Harvard Graduate School of Education in May this year. She is an educational ethicist, researcher and teacher educator with qualifications in philosophy and as a secondary teacher. Daniella is interested in dialogic pedagogies, ethics and epistemology, educational policy and the normative case study methodology.

Why you can’t identify gifted students using NAPLAN

Some schools rely on NAPLAN results to identify gifted students, a trend that is leading to many high-potential learners being overlooked and neglected. New research outlines the mistake of using this standardised assessment as the only identification tool for giftedness when it was never designed or intended for this purpose.

There are over 400,000 gifted students in Australia’s schools (approximately 10% of school students), but there are no national identification practices or national means of collecting information about Australian school students who are gifted.It has been over 20 years since the last national inquiry into the education of gifted and talented children in Australia. Despite two senate inquiries (one in 1988 and one in 2001), there are no national initiatives aimed at reducing the impact of ongoing problems in identifying and supporting the needs of gifted learners. It is a national disgrace that gifted students are among some of the most underserved and neglected students in our schools.

The Contentious Belief in NAPLAN for Identifying Giftedness

In education, we constantly strive to uncover and nurture the gifts of our students and develop these into talents, hoping to unleash the full extent of their potential across their lifespan. In Australia, the National Assessment Program–Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) plays a controversial role in evaluating student performance and guiding educational policies and practices. However, there exists a contentious belief that NAPLAN data alone can accurately identify high-potential gifted students. In this blog post, I delve into the fallacy of exclusively using NAPLAN data to identify gifted students. 

A Snapshot of NAPLAN

NAPLAN is a nationwide standardised assessment, conducted annually in Australia, designed to assess the proficiency of students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, in key learning areas, specifically reading, writing, language conventions, and numeracy. Its main goal is to gauge the effectiveness of the education system and pinpoint areas that may require improvement. NAPLAN was never designed, intended, or validated as a tool to identify giftedness. It was also never designed to make leagues tables for comparing schools.

What is giftedness?

Gifted students typically exhibit advanced cognitive abilities, exceptional problem-solving skills, and have a high capacity for critical thinking. They often demonstrate creativity, strong motivation to learn (in areas of interest), and an insatiable curiosity. In Australia, the terms gifted and talented are often used as synonyms where in fact they have separate meanings. Giftedness is defined using Gagné’s Differentiating Model of Giftedness and Talent (DMGT). In this Model, gifted individuals are understood to have (sometimes as yet unidentified) potential to excel across various domains, including intellectual, (e.g., general intelligence); creative (e.g., problem-solving); social (e.g., leadership); and motor control (e.g., agility).

On the other hand, the Model associates the term talent with performance, accomplishment or achievement, which is outstanding mastery of competencies in a particular field. The term talented is used to only describe individuals who are among the top 10 percent of peers (e.g., leading experts in their field) in any of nine competencies, including academic (e.g., mathematics); technical (e.g., engineering); science and technology (e.g., medical); the arts (e.g., performing); or sports (e.g., athletic talents).

Giftedness seems to be a misunderstood word in Australia. It is often incorrectly construed as referring to people who apparently ‘have it all’, whatever the elusive ‘it’ might be! Anyone who has any experience with giftedness would know that this is an elitist and unrealistic view of gifted learners and indeed, gifted education. In Australian education systems that are based on Gagné’s Model, giftedness focuses on an individual’s potential and ways to foster that potential through programs and practices that support the development of giftedness into talent.

Identifying Giftedness

The quest to identify gifted students has been a long-standing objective for education systems that seek to be genuinely inclusive. Research recommends that we should aim to identify exceptional potential as early as possible, providing tailored education to further nurture abilities. Naturally, the notion of using standardised test data, such as NAPLAN results, can be appealing because of its relative ease of implementation and data generated. But giftedness is not always demonstrated through achievement or performance. Rather, what NAPLAN may identify is some form of talent if we are using Gagné’s definitions.

Giftedness can coexist with other exceptionalities, such as disabilities, where a student is said to be twice-exceptional (or a gifted learner with disability). The twice-exceptionality stems from the two exceptionalities—individuals who are gifted (exceptional potential ) and have coexisting disabilities (e.g., learning, physical, or emotional), and therefore, require unique educational support that addresses both exceptionalities.

Why is Identification Important?

Many students can have their educational needs addressed in a typical classroom, but gifted learners often need specific interventions (e.g., extension, acceleration), or something different (e.g., specific curriculum differentiation), that engages their potential, in areas such as creativity, problem-solving, and curiosity, to develop these natural abilities into competencies and mastery.

There remains a persistent myth that gifted students are so clever that they will always do just fine on their own, without specific support. Yet, we would never expect a gifted tennis player, or a gifted violinist to do “just fine” on their own—the expectation would be for expert, tailored coaching along with extensive opportunities for practice and rehearsal to develop the student’s potential. Coaches focus on the individual needs of the student, rather than a standardised teaching program designed to suit most, but not all. Still, in Australia many claim to have misgivings about introducing anything ‘special’ for gifted students, while not having the same reservations with respect to athletically gifted or musically gifted students.

What Happens if Gifted Learners are Not Supported?

Failing to support the unique needs of gifted students at school can have significant and detrimental consequences on the students and on education systems and societies. Gifted students who are not appropriately challenged and supported may become disengaged and underachieve academically. Some researchers have estimated that 60%-75% of gifted students may be underachieving.

Becoming bored in the classroom can cause disruptive behaviour and a lack of interest in school, leading to problems such as school ‘refusal’ or ‘school can’t’, disengagement and school ‘drop out’ (estimated at up to 40% of gifted students). This perpetuates a cycle of missed opportunities and undeveloped potential. Furthermore, without appropriate support, gifted students may struggle with social and emotional challenges, feeling isolated from their peers because of their unique interests and abilities. This can lead to anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues.

When gifted students are not recognised and supported so that their giftedness can be transformed into talents, they may develop feelings of inadequacy or imposter syndrome. This can lead to decreased self-efficacy and self-confidence. Failing to identify and support gifted students means missing out on nurturing exceptional gifts that deprives the world of potential future leaders, innovators, medical researchers, and change-makers.

Gifted students from diverse backgrounds, including those from underrepresented or disadvantaged groups, may face additional barriers to identification and support. NAPLAN can be particularly problematic as a misused identification tool for underrepresented populations. Neglecting identification, and subsequently neglecting to address gifted students’ unique needs perpetuates inequity.

Societies and education systems that do not embrace inclusion and equity to the full extent risk continuing cycles of exclusion and inadequate support for giftedness. The OECD makes it clear that equity and quality are interconnected, and that improving equity in education should be a high priority. In Australia, priority equity groups never include giftedness or twice-exceptionality, and fail to recognise intersectionality of equity cohorts (e.g., gifted Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students), further compounding disadvantage. When schools fail to support gifted students, these learners can become disengaged and leave school prematurely, impacting social wellbeing and economic growth, and representing a missed opportunity for education environments to be truly inclusive. Inclusive education must mean that everyone is included, not everyone except gifted learners.

The Fallacy Unveiled: Limitations of NAPLAN Data to Identify Giftedness

While NAPLAN may have some merits as a standardised assessment tool, problems have been identified and there have even been calls to scrap the tests altogether. So, it is vital to recognise NAPLAN’s limitations, especially concerning the identification of high-potential gifted students. Some key factors that contribute to the fallacy are the narrow assessment scope, because NAPLAN primarily focuses on literacy and numeracy skills. While these are undoubtedly critical foundational skills, they do not encapsulate the full spectrum of giftedness. Moreover, the momentary snapshot provided by NAPLAN of a student’s performance on a particular day may not accurately represent their true capabilities. Factors such as test anxiety, external distractions, or personal issues can significantly impact test outcomes, masking a student’s actual potential.

Giftedness often entails the capacity to handle complexity and to think critically across various domains. Standardised tests like NAPLAN do not effectively measure the multidimensionality of giftedness (from academic precocity, or potential to achieve academically, to creative thinking and problem solving). Relying solely on NAPLAN data to identify gifted students overlooks those who have potential to excel in non-traditional fields or those who possess such unique gifts.

Embracing Comprehensive Identification Practices

To accurately identify and cultivate giftedness, we must embrace a comprehensive and holistic approach for the purpose of promoting inclusive and supportive educational environments, and for developing talent. Using data from multiple sources in identifying giftedness, including both objective and subjective measures (i.e., comprehensive identification) is the gold standard.  

Comprehensive identification practices involve using multiple measures to identify giftedness, with the expectation that appropriate educational support follows. These identification practices should be accessible, equitable, and comprehensive to make sure identification methods are as broad as possible. Comprehensive identification may consist of student portfolios showcasing their projects, psychometric assessment, artwork, essays, or innovative solutions students have devised. This allows educators to gain a deeper understanding of a gifted student’s interests, passions, abilities, and potential.

Additionally, engaging parents, peers, and the student in the identification process can yield valuable perspectives on a student’s unique strengths and gifts, activities and accomplishments, which they may be involved in outside school. This may offer a more well-rounded evaluation. Experienced educators who have completed professional learning in gifted education could play a crucial role in recognising gifted traits in their students. 

By appropriately identifying, recognising, and addressing the needs of gifted students, we can create inclusive and enriched educational settings that foster the development of gifted potential in education environments that are genuinely inclusive.


Michelle Ronksley-Pavia is a Special Education and Inclusive Education lecturer in the School of Education and Professional Studies, and a researcher with the Griffith Institute for Educational Research (GIER), Griffith University. She is an internationally recognised award-winning researcher working in the areas of gifted education, twice-exceptionality (gifted students with disability), inclusive education, learner diversity, and initial teacher education. Her work centres on disability, inclusive educational practices, and gifted and talented educational practices and provisions. 

NAPLAN: Where have we come from – where to from here?

With the shift to a new reporting system and the advice from ACARA that the NAPLAN measurement scale and time series have been reset, now is as good a time as any to rethink what useful insights can be gleaned from a national assessment program.

The 2023 national NAPLAN results were released last week, accompanied by more than the usual fanfare, and an overabundance of misleading news stories. Altering the NAPLAN reporting from ten bands to four proficiency levels, thereby reducing the number of categories students’ results fall into, has caused a reasonable amount of confusion amongst public commentators, and many excuses to again proclaim the demise of the Australian education system. 

Moving NAPLAN to Term 1, with all tests online (except Year 3 writing) seems to have had only minimal impact on the turnaround of results.

The delay between the assessments and the results has been a limitation to the usefulness of the data for schools since NAPLAN began. Added to this, there are compelling arguments that NAPLAN is not a good individual student assessment, shouldn’t be used as an individual diagnostic test, and is probably too far removed from classroom learning to be used as a reliable indicator of which specific teaching methods should be preferred. 

But if NAPLAN isn’t good for identifying individual students’ strengths and weaknesses, thereby informing teacher practices, what is it good for?

My view is that NAPLAN is uniquely powerful in its capacity to track population achievement patterns over time, and can provide good insights into how basic skills develop from childhood through to adolescence. However, it’s important that the methods used to analyse longitudinal data are evaluated and interrogated to ensure that conclusions drawn from these types of analyses are robust and defensible.

Australian governments are increasingly interested in students’ progress at school, rather than just their performance at any one time-point. The second Gonski review (2018) was titled Through Growth to Achievement. In a similar vein, the Alice Springs (Mparntwe) Education Declaration (2019) signed by all state, territory and federal education ministers, argued,

“Literacy and numeracy remain critical and must also be assessed to ensure learning growth is understood, tracked and further supported” (p.13, my italics)

Tracking progress over time should provide information about where students start and how fast they progress, and ideally, allow  insights into whether policy changes at the system or state level have any influence on students’ growth.

However, mandating a population assessment designed to track student growth, does not always translate to consistent information or clear policy directions – particularly when there are so many stakeholders determined to interpret NAPLAN results via their own lens.

One recent example of contradictory information arising from NAPLAN, relates to whether students who start with poor literacy and numeracy results in Year 3 fall further behind as they progress through school. This phenomenon is known as the Matthew Effect. Notwithstanding widespread perceptions that underachieving students make less progress on their literacy and numeracy over their school years compared with higher achieving students, our new research found no evidence of Matthew Effects in NAPLAN data from NSW and Victoria.

In fact, we found the opposite pattern. Students who started with the poorest NAPLAN reading comprehension and numeracy test results in Year 3 had the fastest growth to Year 9. Students who started with the highest achievement largely maintained their position but made less progress.

Our results are opposite to those of an influential Grattan Institute Report published in 2016. This report used NAPLAN data from Victoria and showed that the gap in ‘years of learning’ widened over time. Importantly, this report applied a transformation to NAPLAN data before mapping growth overall, and comparing the achievement of different groups of students.

After the data transformation the Grattan Report found,  

“Low achieving students fall ever further back. Low achievers in Year 3 are an extra year behind high achievers by Year 9. They are two years eight months behind in Year 3, and three years eight months behind by Year 9.” (p.2)

How do we reconcile this finding with our research? My conclusion is that these opposing findings are essentially due to different data analysis decisions.

Without the transformation of data applied in the Grattan Report, the variance in NAPLAN scale scores at the population level decreases between Year 3 and Year 9. This means that there’s less difference between the lowest and highest achieving students in NAPLAN scores by Year 9. Reducing variance over time can be a feature of horizontally-equated Rasch-scaled assessments – and it is a limitation of our research, noted in the paper.

There are other limitations of NAPLAN scores outlined in the Grattan Technical report. These were appropriately acknowledged in the analytic strategy of our paper and include, modelling the decelerating growth curves, accounting for problems with missing data, allowing for heterogeneity in starting point and rate of progress, modelling measurement error, and so on. The latent growth model analytic design that we used is very suited to examining research questions about development, and the type of data generated by NAPLAN assessments.

In my view, the nature of the Rasch scores generated by the NAPLAN testing process does not require a score transformation to model growth in population samples. Rasch scaled scores do not need to be transformed into ‘years of progress’ – and indeed doing so may only muddy the waters.

For example, I don’t think it makes sense to say that a child is at a Year 1 level in reading comprehension based on NAPLAN because the skills that comprise literacy are theoretically different at Year 1 compared with Year 3. We already make a pretty strong assumption with NAPLAN that the tests measure the same theoretical construct from Year 3 to Year 9. Extrapolating outside these boundaries is not something I would recommend.

Nonetheless, the key takeaway from the Grattan report, that “Low achieving students fall ever further back” (p.2) has had far reaching implications. Governments rely on this information when defining the scope of educational reviews (of which there are many), and making recommendations about such things as teacher training (which they do periodically). Indeed, the method proposed by the Grattan report was that used by a recent Productivity Commission report, which subsequently influenced several Federal government education reviews. Other researchers use the data transformation in their own research, when they could use the original scores and interpret standard deviations for group-based comparisons.

Recommendations that are so important at a policy level should really be underpinned by robustly defended data analysis choices. Unfortunately the limitations of an analytic strategy can often be lost because stakeholders want takeaway points not statistical debates. What this example shows is that data analysis decisions can (annoyingly) lead to opposing conclusions about important topics.

Where to from here

Regardless of which interpretation is closer to the reality, NAPLAN 2023 represents something of a new beginning for national assessments in Australia. The key change is that from 2023 the time series for NAPLAN will be reset. This means that schools and states technically should not be comparing this year’s results with previous years. 

The transformation to computer adaptive assessments is also now complete. Ideally this should ensure more precision in assessing the achievement of students at the both ends of the distribution – a limitation of the original paper-based tests. 

Whether the growth patterns observed in the old NAPLAN will remain in the new iteration is not clear: we’ll have to wait until 2029 to replicate our research, when the 2023 Year 3s are in Year 9.  

Sally Larsen is a Lecturer in Learning, Teaching and Inclusive Education at the University of New England. Her research is in the area of reading and maths development across the primary and early secondary school years in Australia, including investigating patterns of growth in NAPLAN assessment data. She is interested in educational measurement and quantitative methods in social and educational research. You can find her on Twitter @SallyLars_27




What happens when the science of reading fails

Yes! There’s the science of reading but there’s also the art of reading, here’s why we need both. 

Reading is a complex task and one necessary for success in life. It involves an understanding of how printed texts include letters that make certain sounds and combinations of letters to join these sounds to make words. The ultimate goal of reading is to comprehend the meaning of a string of words so that you can learn about different topics and/or enjoy stories. 

But many students find learning to read difficult. And reasons for this vary greatly. Some research says certain incidents such as trauma might affect brain development. Also, some brains may be atypical and therefore need different ways to help them work. But it may not just be cognitive impairments that impact on children’s reading ability

Understandably, a number of opinions and approaches are offered in the research literature regarding the most effective approach to teaching reading, some controversial. Many note different competencies needed for fluent reading including constrained and unconstrained skills. In addition, many commercial programs that are not evidence-based have been developed to address student learning needs in reading. 

Given reading is so vital to success in life it is critical we support students who find reading hard. Such a concern is a focus for many governments and it often becomes personal because people want what is best for children. I hope that this blog can help people understand there are two (if not more) ways of thinking about supporting readers. That is from both a science of reading approach AND an art of reading philosophy.

The science of reading

The science of reading (SoR) represents “best practices for reading instruction” identified through scientific methods. SoR explores what the brain does when we read. Known as neuroscience, evidence suggests that several cognitive processes are required for competent readers. When these processes go wrong researchers in the science of reading offer different strategies that teachers can use to help their students.

In my research with expert speech pathologists, we offered a manualised approach involving intense intervention for students based on the Simple View of Reading or SVR. The SVR involves two parts to being able to read fluently. These are word recognition and language comprehension. Word recognition involves being able to decode printed words on the page and language comprehension is how we make meaning from a group of words.

Another approach is to use decodable readers. Decodable readers are books that slowly introduce specific letters and sounds, that is, each book covers a grapheme-phoneme combination such as at, ow or ai. They are often repetitive, ensuring the child can learn these combinations in early reading programs.

But what happens when even these approaches fail children? I believe some interventions that stem from cognitive science do help struggling readers but we also need to inject special care, compassion and perhaps more emotive approaches to support what might be impacting students’ ability to read. This is why the art of reading is equally important.  

The art of reading

Do you remember your favourite book as a child? It may have been one you read yourself or one read to you. What was it about the book that attracted you? The art of reading refers to the pleasure you feel when reading books or “celebrating your power to turn shapes on a page into a lifelong adventure”.

According to the OECD, reading for pleasure or enjoyment is “an important prerequisite to becoming an effective learner” and continues to influence adult motivation and skill. Many authors skillfully write books using literary devices that can also spark our imagination. In fact, books can take us to many places, help us become better citizens, and extend our knowledge across different topics.

If reading is difficult, there are still many ways that we can help children ‘access’ books and stories such as being read to. Mem Fox, a world renowned Australian Children’s book author has a wonderful website explaining how to read aloud to children. She notes that reading aloud can foster an “essential enchanting engagement with books, stories, rhymes and songs”. 

Storytelling is also an important part of learning to read. For many cultures, learning comes first through oral language and much research has explored the connection between oral language and early reading success. Stories enable cultural continuity and heritage and are a powerful way to share knowledge. Therefore, the art of reading acknowledges that the reading process can be both social and cultural.

The art of reading is a philosophy that sees the beauty in texts. It is a process that should be enjoyed. It relates to the literary prowess of the written word and how they engage and inspire us to be better people. Certainly, the Australian Curriculum espouses that learning English “ helps create confident communicators, imaginative thinkers and informed citizens. It is through the study of English that individuals learn to analyse, understand, communicate and build relationships with others and with the world around them”.

If our own curriculum and others around the world acknowledge the beauty and power in being able to read, then why are we still saying one approach is better over others?

Perhaps it comes down to people’s own personal philosophies in life and how we view success. Yes, reading is critical to post-schooling success, without adequate reading skills we limit the ways in which we can communicate with others. We also limit our capacity to be employed. But being successful is not just about earning potential but also how we relate to others and what we can contribute back to society.

It is ok to agree to disagree. Ultimately, we all want the best for every child so for me, it’s like tacos – why don’t we have both! “Porque no los dos?” Because if we don’t we might have fluent readers but we won’t have readers who see the beauty and joy in life.

Georgina Barton is a professor in the School of Education at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. At USQ, She is the discipline lead for literacy and pedagogy.

Site outage

Hello readers,

You may have noticed the AARE site has been inconsistent lately. We are having some issues with the site and also with distribution through email of our blog. We apologise. The blog will be taking a short break while we try to fix the issues. We have some fantastic posts coming up and will send an email when we are up and running again.

Thanks for your patience.

Jenna on behalf of AARE