Aspa Baroutsis

Three school spaces where children feel they can belong and learn

Schooling is not always a pleasant experience for children and young people. School experiences can be alienating for some and can lead to marginalisation, disengagement and risk of dropping out of school completely. Almost one in five young people are affected this way.

For disenfranchised children such as these, alternative schooling can offer a second chance at meaningful learning. Alternative schooling, according to the Australian Association for Flexible and Inclusive Education, supports the learning of around 70,000 young people across Australia each year.

In this post, I’ll tell you about some young people’s perspectives at an alternative school and spaces that foster and support belonging, acceptance, and the desire to learn.

Spaces in school where disenfranchised children feel they can belong

There are three spaces I want to tell you about. While they would not be exclusive to this particular school, or to alternative schooling generally, I believe it is important to recognise them, and to look at how they work from the perspective of the children experiencing them.

 The three spaces are:

  • Relational spaces, that focus school relationships and interactions,
  • Material spaces, predominantly focusing on the learning environment, and
  • Pedagogical spaces, that focus on approaches to teaching.

These spaces that are associated with belonging tend to incorporate schooling practices based on choice, mutual respect and support.

Relational spaces

Relational spaces support and encourage social (and at times emotional) interactions between young people and their teachers and workers, and young people and their peers. In particular, those interactions that are inclusive and acknowledge the complexities of a young person’s life.

For example, one student recollects her experiences:

I was in a relationship, and my boyfriend moved away. So, he stopped going to school, so I kind of lost it a bit there. That same year, my parents divorced and that was a bit confusing. And then my friends stopped talking to me, and then I started going down into the hole of depression. It’s really hard to get out of there. You try talking to someone … so you talk to your friends about it … [but] they were ignoring me and then I lost motivation to keep going to school. … I searched for a job.  I couldn’t get a job. So, I actually just sat on the couch at my mum’s place and did nothing for six months. And that didn’t help anything at all.

She went on to say that her life was turned around when she enrolled in a school, in this case an alternative school, where she felt that she belonged.

For other students, their disengagement resulted because of their classroom interactions. For example, this student shared that:

At my other school, I always seemed to do the wrong thing. I’d always get detentions and I started to get a bad reputation with the teachers.  My first school that I went to, I ended up getting expelled, then I went to another school but I didn’t end up going. I just stayed home and made excuses. I just didn’t enjoy it. I don’t know why I got into trouble a lot. I just got in trouble. At the start, I used to listen to the teachers, and then after a while, I don’t know, I didn’t really care anymore so I just stopped listening and gave up.

For some students, disengagement can culminate in expulsion from schooling:

I’m not allowed back to any schools in Queensland because I’ve been kicked out and this is a second chance for me. I respect that they have given me this second chance. I’m quite grateful to be a student.

While suspension and expulsion rates vary across Australian states and territories, research suggests these are increasing.

Relational spaces are often characterised by inclusion and acceptance, as suggested by these students:

To be a student at this school means being accepted by a group of people that actually like you and don’t judge you.

When I come to school each day, I feel accepted. I feel absolutely no stress to come here. It is so free-flowing and easy to do the [school] work.

Young people often cited their relationships with teachers and other school workers as being central to their feelings of belonging and acceptance.

The teaching is just really nurturing. They pay attention to you. They get deep into what is really troubling you, and they help you out. It’s really cool.

Practices within relational spaces promote caring, tolerance and understanding:

It is a lot easier to understand everyone. We normally sit down and have group discussions. If something is not right, we try to help each other.

As with all social units, there are parameters that regulate spaces and the behaviours within these spaces which students indicated developed a sense of commitment to the group:

To have a sense of belonging, equality, and that someone is just there to care about you.   It’s pretty chill, like casual, but still strict in the areas it needs to be. Yeah, it has good guidelines like family does.

The social and emotional supports offered within relational spaces enable productive learning and relationships.

Material spaces

When school learning spaces are configured in ‘non-traditional’ ways, the possibilities are endless and can potentially shift the composition and function of school spaces. Some alternative schools describe their learning spaces as ‘studios’ rather than classrooms. This is more than an exercise in nomenclature. The studios are not filled with front-facing desks lined up in rows, nor other traditional layouts. Instead, they are spacious multi-purpose environments with kitchens and lounges and other comfortable furniture that could be found in a home. These material spaces often prompted students to refer to their studios as being ‘not like school’:

Our learning space is like my home environment. We’ve got couches, we’ve got TV, we’ve got computers surrounding us, we’ve got a kitchen that we go cook food, so I like that – no desks or a whiteboard and chalkboard. 

When I visited this school, it was clear that the kitchen was the hub of the school. This alternative school, like many others by virtue of their smaller population, embraced the opportunities associated with the practice of preparing and eating meals. This student recollects:

We have the convenience of lounges in our classroom instead of hard chairs and desks. When we have breakfast and lunch, we sit around the table to make it a kind of family feel because some of us don’t sit at the table with our family at home for dinner.

While families vary in composition, and not all experiences of family are positive for all students, the young people at this alternative school would often refer to the material learning spaces as creating a sense of belonging akin to a ‘family’.

Pedagogical spaces

This alternative school often disrupted traditional pedagogic practices for those that better suited the young people, rather than the systems that devise them. Additionally, the school individualised the learning of each of its students through a ‘project-based learning’ approach. Students acknowledged this approach as a means of enabling choice.

We get a lot of choices at my school, which I love. … You get all of your maths and English through the semester, but you don’t have to sit in the class. It’s good because you don’t just go from class to class. It’s more up to the students. You have to push yourself to do it every day. It’s a great motivational skill.

Ensuring that work is connected to young people’s lives and is meaningful to them, draws on integrated approaches to curriculum delivery and facilitates student input into decision making. Teachers were considered to be a key part of this learning process:

The style of teaching is more interactive, and it just gets you involved more. It actually makes you want to learn.

The pedagogic spaces also motivated students because they enabled the students to work at their own pace, make decisions about their learning, and gain support from staff when required:

When I got to this school, I settled down and started putting effort into schoolwork. It made me feel good. I don’t need to stress anymore with work and stuff like that; I can just do it at my own pace and how I like it. I enjoy having a team leader and advisor as part of my studio because they help me with what I need help. I can ask them anything I want, if it’s personal or to do with work, and they’ll help me with that.

For some students at this school, their newfound ‘success’ improved their lives and relationships beyond the school:

Previously, I didn’t really do well at school.  I just sat around. Done nothing. But here, I’ve passed subjects and got ‘B’s and ‘A’s. That’s motivated me to do better and see how far I can push myself. It feels amazing.  My mum is proud of me. I haven’t seen that look of pride on her face for a while and I was kind of ashamed of being a ‘drop-kick’ because I got kicked out of school and didn’t get good grades and now I’m getting ‘B’s.  I’m happy with that.

These spaces can work in any school

When listening to the voices of the young people at this alternative school, they shared experiences of increased satisfaction with their schooling, re-engagement with learning, and a desire to plan and work towards future careers goals; as well as feelings of safety, acceptance and belonging.

While addressed separately, these spaces intertwine and intersect to form the school space, enabling young people to be active participants in their learning. These relational, material and pedagogic spaces support belonging and operate to include disengaged and marginalised young people in their education and schooling.

The spaces described in this blog are not unique to this alternative school, or to alternative schooling in particular. They are spaces that can, and do, operate in any school or learning community.

This research on relational, material, and pedagogic practices could be useful to educators, school leaders and policy makers interested in how spaces where children and young people feel they belong and are valued member of their school community, can work. The principles described here can be effective within all modes of schooling and school communities.

For those who want more Exploring spaces of belonging through analogies of ‘family’: Perspectives and experiences of disengaged young people at an alternative school

Aspa Baroutsis is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Griffith Institute of Education Research, Griffith University. Her background is in secondary school teaching. She completed her doctorate at The University of Queensland. Currently, Aspa holds an elected position on the executive of the Australian Association for Research in Education. Her research interests include the mediatisation of teachers and teaching; teachers’ work and identity; learning spaces, student engagement and agentic voice. Twitter: @aspa25

Aspa Baroutsis is presenting with Annette Woods on Geographies of learning to write: Mapping literacy learning through draw and talk at the AARE 2019 Conference.

Hundreds of educational researchers are reporting on their latest educational research at the AARE 2019 Conference 2nd  Dec to 5th Dec. Check out the full program here.

How digital technologies can change teaching practices (in a good way)

Teachers in Australian schools today are facing increasing pressures to move to more didactic, teacher-centred approaches to teaching. However, these traditional ‘top-down’ pedagogies (teaching methods), where a teacher is often at the front of the classroom ‘transmitting’ knowledge, are increasingly being supplemented by other teaching methods including approaches based on digital technologies as teachers continue to find ways to foreground 21st century skills.

The UNESCO report, The futures of learning 3: What kind of pedagogies for the 21st century? suggests that children need to develop new technological competencies compared to previous decades. Therefore ideally, when learning to write, young children should be producing and editing texts using digital technologies and developing their critical thinking and problem-solving skills at the same time. Introducing digital technologies into classroom curriculum and pedagogical practice could provide such a range of learning opportunities.

In the analysis outlined here, I was interested in what happens in a classroom when a teacher uses digital technologies to teach writing in the early years. I wanted to closely map and analyse the teaching practices, movements and activities of the teacher and children during the course of a lesson using digital technologies.

Mapping pedagogies during a writing lesson where children used digital technologies 

Drawing on data collected as part of a project with Annette Woods, Barbara Comber and Lisa Kervin, I investigated the use of time-lapse photography in a classroom of twenty-two Year 2 students participating in an 80-minute lesson. The teacher was engaged in a Design-based Research (DBR) project where teachers identified, and worked on, an aspect of pedagogy that they wanted to change as part of their work with university researchers.

In this case the classroom teacher wanted to improve children’s engagement with writing using digital technologies, as this was a significant issue in the school. Children were often required to share as few as three iPads per class at school, and their access to the internet and digital devices at home could also be limited or non-existent. Technological marginalisation can occur when schools are not able to provide access to the tools and technologies of digital ways of working and this has a particular impact when children are growing up in contexts where access to the same is limited outside of the school as well.

In order to look closely at what the children and teacher were doing as they worked to create text using iPads, time lapse video was recorded using the Lapse It application on an iPad.

What was the lesson about?

The teacher designed a lesson where the children developed a digital game using the Sketch Nation application on iPads as part of a literacy lesson. The application provided the tool for children to design, create, share and evaluate their own digital games.

The children worked collaboratively to develop the game and then wrote text explaining how to play the game. This was followed by the children playing each other’s games and then writing a review of the game that they had played.

How did the teacher teach the lesson?

The teacher used a wide range of pedagogies to enable children’s learning including teacher-centred and student-centred approaches, depending on the stage of the lesson and the lesson goals. These included:

  • teacher-centred pedagogies such as exposition and giving instructions; demonstrations and providing explanations about the task; and discussion and questioning; and
  • student-centred pedagogies that enabled children to make decisions about their learning, and engage in inquiry or problem solving.

An Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) report suggests that student-centred approaches can make a positive difference to children’s learning outcomes.

In this lesson, the teacher spent 68% of the time drawing on pedagogies that were student-centred and therefore focused on the learner and their learning.

Student-centred pedagogies involved and focused on children to a greater degree than teacher-centred pedagogies. During these parts of the lesson, children were engaged in broader and more diverse learning options; they were encouraged to develop and share ideas with their partners; and were able to make decisions about the pace at which they undertook the activity.

Interactions and student-centred pedagogies

The teacher’s and students’ interactions throughout the lesson varied, and included the teacher interacting with individuals, small groups or the whole class. The teacher spent:

  • 50% of the time engaging with individuals or small groups of children (most of the time with individual children),
  • 40% interacting with the whole class, and
  • 10% of the time monitoring the class.

Teacher’s interactions with children during the lesson

Throughout this time, many of the children were able to collaborate and interact with other children in the class, without the teacher, as well as working with the teacher at other times. Many of the children chose to work in groups.

The teacher favoured teaching methods that enabled the students to move freely within the classroom. This was particularly the case when children were engaged in problem solving and undertaking inquiry learning. For example, the teacher would frequently go to where the child was located rather than expecting the child to come to the teacher. As such, the teacher spent 84% of her time in areas of the classroom other than the traditional ‘front’ of the room.

How using digital technologies can change teaching practices

The teacher incorporated the production and evaluation of a game; drawing on multimodal and real-world situations for literacy learning. This example demonstrates some of the practices associated with literacies, particularly text production and learning to write using digital technologies.

The pedagogies described show that there is a great flexibility associated with the teaching and learning of writing literacies. Learning can be collaborative or co-constructed in one instance and an individual undertaking the next. Children can learn through teacher-centred approaches, but also through student-centred opportunities that encourage greater independence and incorporate student choice about their learning.

When student-centred pedagogies were used, children enacted elements of their own learning and the classroom took on a less defined form. Movement was not restricted and the children had a greater degree of control over their learning.

The teacher was able to balance whole class activities with individual tasks, and student-centred and teacher-centred pedagogic experiences thereby incorporate digital literacies and technologies that engaged children in broader literacy learning outcomes.


More in my paper Sociomaterial assemblages, entanglements, and text production: Mapping pedagogic practices using time lapse photography


This research was supported by the Australian Research Council under grant number DP150101240 awarded to Annette Woods, Barbara Comber and Lisa Kervin.


Aspa Baroutsis is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Griffith Institute of Education Research, Griffith University. She was a research fellow on the Australian Research Council funded project, Learning to write in the early years, at the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology. She researches in the areas of sociology of education and education policy with a focus on social justice. Her research interests include digital technologies and literacy learning; mediatisation and media constructions, and representations of identity. Twitter: @aspa25



PISA-shock: how we are sold the idea our PISA rankings are shocking and the damage it is doing to schooling in Australia

When the first PISA results were released in 2001, there was a reaction in Germany that is now referred to as ‘PISA-shock’. It was likened to a tsunami-like impact where the perceived poor performance of German children compared with those in other countries participating in the international rankings dominated the news in Germany for weeks. Germans had believed they had one of the best schooling systems in the world and this first round of PISA results seriously challenged their perception. The shock led to major changes in education policy that Germany is still dealing with today.

Part of Germany’s PISA-shock was also precipitated by the fact that Finland was the outstanding performer in all the PISA tests in 2000. Historically, Finland had looked to other nations, including Germany, to learn about how schooling might be improved.

The term PISA-shock is now used widely within education circles. We would define PISA-shock as the impact of PISA results when those results are disjunctive with a nation’s self-perception of the quality of the schooling system.

We believe Australia also experienced PISA-shock in 2009 and this was subsequently compounded in 2012. Education policy changed here too as a result of PISA-shock. As with Germany, Australia is still dealing with the fallout of those changes.

In this blog post we want to look at what happened with that PISA-shock. Specifically we want to look how it played politically and educationally in Australia, the role the Australian media played and most importantly what Australia should be doing about its PISA-shock.

What is PISA?

The OECD’s PISA was first administered in 2000 and then every three years. PISA tests a sample of 15 year-olds in all participating nations on measures of reading, mathematical and scientific literacies. The number of nations participating has increased substantially since 2000 with 71 nations participating in 2015, including the 35 OECD member countries. The PISA results are reported in December of the year after the test is administered.

The test reports results on two dimensions, namely quality and equity. Quality refers to a nation’s performance on each of the tests, which usually have a mean score of 500, and documents the comparative performance against all other participating nations. Equity refers to the strength of the correlation between students’ socio-economic backgrounds and performance. Interestingly and importantly in policy terms, PISA results have shown that high performing nations tend to have more equitable schooling systems.

PISA-shock around the world

This PISA shock had real policy impact in Germany, leading to a large number of reform measures, both at national and Länder (states) levels, aimed at improving Germany’s subsequent PISA performance. We note here that Germany, like Australia, has a federal political structure and that some of the states did well on PISA 2000, but others did poorly. However, the aggregated German results demonstrated overall poor comparative performance.

We believe the German PISA shock in 2001 and its significant policy impact were important factors in insuring the legitimacy and significance of the PISA testing regime.

From the time of the first PISA, more nations have participated giving even greater significance to PISA in national policy reforms. As more nations have participated and as PISA has continued to provoke PISA-shocks, there has been enhanced media coverage in national and metropolitan newspapers of a nation’s comparative performance.

In 2009, several cities and provinces in China participated in PISA for the first time. Yet the Chinese government intervened and only allowed the public publication of Shanghai’s results. We stress here that Shanghai is not representative of China and that indeed access to the results of all participating systems suggest that at an aggregated level, China did much worse than Australia in 2009. However, it was Shanghai’s stellar performance on all the test measures that precipitated a PISA-shock in Australia.

PISA-shock in Australia

Political context

There is a specific context to Australia’s PISA-shock. Since the time of the Hawke/Keating governments, Australia has been seeking to reorient its economic policies towards Asia. There has been much talk as well of the 21st century being the Asian Century with the socio-political and economic rise of China. Australia’s response to Shanghai’s results must be seen in this context. The federal Labor government had commissioned the Henry Review on Asia and Australia’s economic future.

2009 and the beginning of our PISA-shock

There was a great deal of media coverage in 2010 in Australia of Australia’s poor and declining comparative performance on PISA 2009. We had our own ‘tsunami-like impact’ of media coverage. All major news services covered our ‘declining’ rankings and broadcasters and media commentators offered much advice as to why Australian schooling was ‘failing’.

Also contributing to this PISA shock was the fact that four of the top performing nations in PISA 2009 were located in East Asia (Shanghai, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore).

2012 and our PISA-shock deepens

Contributing further to Australia’s PISA shock was the extensive media coverage given in January 2012 to a report produced by an independent think tank, the Grattan Institute, Catching Up: Learning from the best school systems in East Asia.

The Prime Minister at the time, Julia Gillard, along with Australian and East Asian education system leaders, Andreas Schliecher from the OECD, and a number of academics had all attended a seminar convened by the Grattan Institute in late 2011 focusing on the nature of East Asian schooling systems that had performed so well in PISA 2009. The media coverage of the Grattan report and of this meeting caused another spike in media coverage. This occurred in January 2012 and it could be described as a media ‘frenzy’ about Australia’s PISA performance.

We note that ‘research reports’ produced by think tanks like the Grattan Institute are written with a media audience in mind. They are purposefully produced to impact on politicians and policy makers, and the broader public through media. They utilise the genre of a high-quality media story rather than an academic research report. Think Tank usage of publicly available PISA data has real media effects.

In the front-page story in The Australian on the 24th January 2012 the headline read: We risk losing education race, PM warns. In this story the then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was quoted as saying:

Four of the top five performing school systems in the world are in our region and they are getting better and better … On average, kids at 15 in those nations are six months ahead of Australian kids at 15 and they are a year in front of the OECD mean … If we are talking about today’s children – tomorrow’s workers – I want them to be workers in a high-skill, high-wage economy where we are still leading the world. I don’t want them to be workers in an economy where we are kind of the runt of the litter in our region.

Flawed use of mean scores

When framing counts and comparisons, the press frequently utlilised mean scores to rank participating countries as a mode of evidence regarding performance. In reading, Australia went from a mean score of 528 in 2000 to 512 in 2012, a drop of sixteen points, with a drop of seven points in science literacy, from 528 in 2000 to 521 in 2012. The worst change was in mathematics literacy where the country fell 29 points from a mean score of 533 in 2000 to 504 in 2012. This enabled dramatisation-style media coverage (with visuals such as graphs) as a downward trend and provided greater opportunity for sensationalism. For example, using mean scores and country ranks, Australia’s performance in mathematics shows a downward trend, with a significant decline starting in 2003, and subsequently out of the top 10 by 2006.

We would suggest that discussions about a country’s performance, based solely on mean scores and averages, are flawed. Focusing on Australia’s mean scores hides the substantial disparities between the performance of the States and Territories. The ACT, for example, always does well, while Tasmania and the Northern Territory always do poorly. All of the subsequent league tables and visual representations that continue relentlessly from the media in Australia are therefore flawed.

There is limited coverage of the equity measure, which shows a strengthening correlation between socio-economic background and performance and a substantial Socio Economic Status (SES) impact on performance. Furthermore, the number of 15 year old Australians from the bottom quartile of socio-economic background who perform in the top categories on each of the tests has declined sharply since the first test was administered in 2000.

The education fallout from PISA-shock in Australia

An upshot of this Australian PISA shock was the Gillard government legislating amendments to the Education Act that Australia would be back in the top 5 in PISA by 2025.

We see this as classic ‘goal displacement’.   We believe what is required is better quality and more equitable outcomes for all young Australians. That needs to be the target; it needs to be the goal of policy. Improved performance on PISA would flow from policy interventions aimed at achieving that goal. What we need is redistributive and targeted funding, along with research-informed interventions for classroom and school change.

Following Shanghai’s stellar performance on PISA 2009 and the extensive media coverage of Australia’s declining comparative performance, Australia joined the nations that have responded very seriously in political and policy terms to PISA-shocks

Very different results if we go back to the original set of countries

However we point out that there would be very different results if we go back to the original set of countries that participated in PISA in 2000 and compare Australia’s results to this particular set of countries.

Only 43 nations participated in the 2000 PISA, however the number of participating countries has grown substantially since that time with 65 nations participating in 2012, with a further 40% increase in participation rates in 2015 to 71 participating countries. Many of the additional countries are East Asian with Confucian traditions. Four countries in the top five ranks in 2009 were Australia’s East Asian neighbours.

These increases in the number of participating countries are rarely acknowledged in the press when discussing Australia’s position in global rankings. But this is a fundamental piece of information. Simple mathematics would suggest that ranks are more likely to change and decrease when the number of participants changes, irrespective of changes in performance.

Furthermore, it is probably only statistically reliable to compare longitudinal changes in performance across the years when one of the test domains was the major focus (e.g. science in 2006 and 2015). This is neglected in media coverage.

We conducted a subsequent analysis of Australia’s PISA rank using only participating countries that were represented in all five test years (2000-2012). Only 32 countries participated in PISA each year with data being available across the three literacies. Our analysis illustrates the arbitrary nature of using mean scores to rank countries and not taking into account the increases in numbers of countries participating over the years.

For example, in each of the literacies, Australia is ranked higher in 2009 and 2012 when analysed against the 32 countries, than when compared with the participating countries of a particular year, making the changes in position less dramatic. For example, in mathematics, Australia is placed 12th rather than 19th; in reading, 9th rather than 13th; and in science, 10th rather than 16th.

Our comparisons like those of the newspapers were conducted longitudinally across independent data-sets (year of test). However, the difference was that the number of participating countries was consistent, thereby eliminating this variance and producing a very different result in the rankings.

Importance of sociocultural and socio-political differences

Except for Finland, all other countries in the top five on the 2009 and 2012 PISA are Asian. Each of these nations is significantly different from Australia in sociocultural and socio-political terms, but they are still identified as reference societies for Australian educational reforms. Subsequently, a nation’s referential position is no longer conditioned and legitimated by similarities with a society and a schooling system (for example in the past, the UK), but on the basis of their placement in the global rankings on PISA.

Media constructions also emphasise policy, rather than structural inequality explanations of national performance. While the Australian press did not stop referencing Finland, coverage also included Asian nations, especially Shanghai in 2009. The Australian reported, ‘Shanghai, which joined the international testing movement in 2009 and ousted Finland from the top spot it had occupied for almost 10 years’ with the Sydney Morning Herald adding, ‘Australian policy makers could learn much from China’. The Grattan Institute Report (mentioned above) sought to draw on the high performing East Asian nations to make policy suggestions for Australia.

Despite major cultural, demographic and political differences between Finland and Australia, and Shanghai and Australia, and Shanghai being erroneously seen as all of China, this did not prevent media constructions of Shanghai as a suitable reference system for Australian schooling.

Talking about ‘Australian’ performance hides the large disparities within Australia

The media speak of Australia’s performance more than they speak of say New South Wales’ performance or Western Australia’s performance on PISA. This approach hides quite large disparities in performance across the various state schooling systems in Australia. Yet Australia oversamples on PISA (we have more children sit the tests than required) so that the results can be disaggregated to school system levels (other countries, such as the US, do not do this). The media rarely acknowledge these disparities in their PISA reporting.

On the analyses for 2012 PISA, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory did very well, while the Northern Territory and Tasmania performed comparatively poorly. This went largely unreported and what we saw instead was the media’s fixation on national average scores and international comparisons within league tables.

What we should be doing with PISA results

As suggested above, PISA provides important data for policy makers on the quality and equity of schooling systems. As we have already noted, the media fail to report the increasing inequities in Australian schooling. There is a deafening media silence about this situation; indeed, almost no media coverage of equity in respect of PISA.

The PISA test is administered every three years (beginning in 2000). The results for each PISA are released in December of the year following. In the subsequent year after the publication of the results, the OECD releases very detailed secondary analyses of the PISA data, with these reports usually running to about 1200 pages.

While there is always huge media frenzy over the initial release of results of international rankings there is seldom any media coverage of the subsequent detailed reports. In our view, it is these analyses that should inform policy makers and indeed the Australian people.

The PISA-shock type media coverage has huge policy effects. Governments make decisions that have lasting fallout on our education systems as a result of this coverage. However the deep inequities of performance based on socio-economic background that show up in detailed PISA results and the differences between the jurisdictional schooling systems is where the media should be shining the spotlight. This is where the real story of what is happening in school education in Australia can be uncovered. This is where policy makers should be searching for policy changing data.

There is a pressing policy need for the inequities uncovered by PISA testing to be addressed by federal and state governments, in both funding and policy ways. We think these inequities are symbiotic with broader structural inequalities and historical legacies, which also need to be addressed by a range of new social policies.

As with all tests, PISA should be used for the purposes for which it was constructed, that is, to help policy makers to make informed decisions about schooling to ensure we have a high quality and equitable schooling systems.

Full report Counting and comparing school performance: an analysis of media coverage of PISA in Australia, 2000–2014


Aspa Baroutsis is a senior research fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She is currently working on the Learning to write in the early years project (ARC DP150101240). Her research interests include media, policy, social justice, science education, digital technologies and literacies.



Bob Lingard is a Professorial Research Fellow in the School of Education at The University of Queensland, where he researches in the sociology of education. His most recent books include: Globalizing Educational Accountabilities (Routledge, 2016), co-authored with Wayne Martino, Goli Rezai-Rashti and Sam Sellar,  National Testing in Schools (Routledge, 2016) (The first book in the AARE series Local/Global Issues in Education),co-edited with Greg Thompson and Sam Sellar, and The Handbook of Global Education Policy (Wiley, 2016), co-edited with Karen Mundy, Andy Green and Antonio Verger. Bob is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Social Sciences and Co- Editor of the journal, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education.  You can follow him on Twitter  @boblingard86

Learning to write should not be hijacked by NAPLAN: New research shows what is really going on

You couldn’t miss the headlines and page one stories across Australia recently about the decline of Australian children’s writing skills. The release of results of national tests in literacy and numeracy meant we were treated to a range of colour-coded tables and various info graphics that highlighted ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ and that dire, downward trend. A few reports were quite positive about improved reading scores and an improvement in writing in the early years of schooling. However, most media stories delivered the same grim message that Australian students have a ‘major problem’ with writing.

Of course politicians and media commentators got on board, keen to add their comments about it all. The release of NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy) every year in Australia offers a great media opportunity for many pundits. Unfortunately the solutions suggested were predictable to educators: more testing, more data-based evidence, more accountability, more direct instruction, more ‘accountability’.

These solutions seem to have become part of ‘common sense’ assumptions around what to do about any perceived problem we have with literacy and numeracy. However, as a group of educators involved in literacy learning, especially writing, we know any ‘problem’ the testing uncovers will be complex. There are no simple solutions. Certainly more testing or more drilling of anything will not help.

What worries us in particular about the media driven responses to the test results is the negative way in which teachers, some school communities and even some students are portrayed. Teachers recognise it as ‘teacher bashing’, with the added ‘bashing’ of certain regions and groups of schools or school students.  This is what we call ‘deficit talk’ and it is incredibly damaging to teachers and school communities, and to the achievement of a quality education for all children and young people.

Providing strong teaching of literacy is an important component of achieving quality outcomes for all students in our schools. There’s little doubt that such outcomes are what all politicians, educators, students and their families want to achieve.

As we are in the process of conducting a large research project into learning to write in the early years of schooling in Australia we decided to have a say. We have a deep understanding of the complexities involved in learning to write. Especially, our research is significant in that it shows teachers should be seen as partners in any solution to a writing ‘problem’ and not as the problem.

Our project is looking at how young children are learning to write as they participate in producing both print and digital texts with a range of tools and technologies. While the project is not complete, our work is already providing a fresh understanding of how the teaching of writing is enacted across schools at this time. We thought we should tell you about it.

What we did

Our research was carried out in two schools situated in low socio-economic communities across two states. The schools were purposefully selected from communities of high poverty that service children from diverse cultural and/or linguistic backgrounds in Australia.  Schools like these often achieve substantially below the national average in writing as measured by NAPLAN. These two schools are beginning to demonstrate that this does not need to be the case.

We looked at how, when, where, with what, and with whom children are learning to write in early childhood classrooms. We want to know what happens when writing, and other text production, is understood to be a collaborative, shared practice rather than an individual task; and when teaching and learning has a focus on print and digital tools, texts resources and devices. We worked collectively with the schools to think about the implications for teaching and learning.

Spending time in these schools has giving us a deeper understanding of how poverty and access to resources impact on student outcomes. We found many positive things, for example the way the teachers, researchers, children, their families and communities work together enthusiastically to plan and implement high quality literacy curriculum and teaching to all students.

As part of our study, we audited the current practices of teaching and learning writing. We interviewed teachers and children to gather their perspectives on what learning to write involves, asking them about when they write, where they write, who they write with and the resources they use when writing. By combining teacher and children’s perspectives, we aim to understand how children learn to write from a variety of perspectives.

What we found (so far)

This is just the first step in sharing the results of our research (there is much more to come) but we thought this was a good time to start telling you about it. It might help with an understanding of what is happening in schools with writing and where NAPLAN results might fit in.

We identified four vital areas. Each is important. This is just an overview, but we think you’ll get the idea.

Teaching skills and time to write

Teachers are indeed teaching basic print-based skills to their students. This is despite what you might be told by the media. What teachers and children have told us is that they need more time to practise writing texts. Our observations and discussions with teachers and children suggest that the current crowded curriculum and the way schools now expect to use a range of bought systems, tools, kits and programs to teach the various syllabuses, is providing less time for children to actually write and produce texts. We believe this has significant implications for how well children write texts.

Technology and writing

We captured the close and networked relationship between texts, technologies, resources and people as young children learn to write. In summary, we believe print-based and digital resources need to come together in writing classrooms rather than be taught and used separately.

Another important point is that there is a problem with equity related to access to technology and digital texts. Children in certain communities and schools have access while those in other communities do not. This is not something teachers can solve. It is a funding issue and only our governments can address it.

Writing as a relational activity

We know that teachers and children understand that learning to write is a relational process. It needs to be a practice that people do together – including in classrooms when the learners and the teacher and other adults work on this together. When asked, children represented themselves as active participants in the writing process. This is a positive outlook to have. They talked about being able to bring their ideas, preferences, and emotions, not just their knowledge of basic skills, to the mix. They represented writing as an enjoyable activity, particularly when they were able to experience success.

Who is helping children to learn to write?

Children saw other children and family members, as well as their teachers, as key human resources they could call upon when learning to write. Children perceived these people as being knowledgeable about writing and as being able to help them. Again this is a positive finding and has many implications for the way we teach writing in our schools, and the way we engage with parents.

We know that learning to write should not be considered an individual pursuit where the goal is to learn sets of composite skills, even if these skills are easy to test. Rather, it is a process where the goal should always be to learn how to produce texts that communicate meaning.

We hope our work can help you to see that learning to write is not a simple process and that any problems encountered won’t have simple solutions.

For schools in communities of poverty, the aim to achieve improvements in how well students write will be impacted upon by a variety of complex social, economic, political and material issues. Teachers do play an important role. However, while teachers are held accountable for student outcomes, so too should systems be held accountable for balancing the policy levers to enable teachers to do their job.

If the latest NAPLAN results mean that standards in writing in Australia are declining (and we won’t go into how that could be contestable) it is unlikely that any of the simple solutions recently offered by media commentary or politicians will help. More testing leading to more box ticking means less time to learn to write and less time to write.

We will have more to tell you about our research into young children learning to write in the future. Watch out for our posts.


**The blog is drawn from the ARC funded project, Learning to write: A socio-material analysis of text production (DP150101240 Woods, Comber, & Kervin). In the context of increased calls for improved literacy outcomes, intense curriculum change and the rapidly increasing digitisation of communication, this project explores the changing practices associated with learning to write in contemporary Early Childhood classrooms. We acknowledge the support of the Australian Research Council and our research partners who are the leaders, teachers, children and their families who research with us on this project.


Annette Woods is a professor in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She researches and teaches in school reform, literacies, curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. She leads the Learning to write in the early years project (ARC DP150101240).



Aspa Baroutsis is a senior research fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She is currently working on the Learning to write in the early years project (ARC DP150101240). Her research interests include media, policy, social justice, science education, digital technologies and literacies.



Lisa Kervin is an associate professor in language and literacy in the Faculty of Social Sciences and a researcher at the Early Start Research Institute at the University of Wollongong. Lisa’s current research interests are focused on young children and how they engage with literate practices. She is a chief investigator on the Learning to write in the early years project (ARC DP150101240).



Barbara Comber is a professor in education at the University of South Australia. Barbara researches and teaches in literacies, pedagogy and socioeconomic disadvantage. She is a chief investigator on the Learning to write in the early years project (ARC DP150101240).


Newspapers are Bad News for Teachers

Newspapers are able to influence public opinion through specific portrayals of teachers that in turn work to construct particular knowledge and perceptions about teachers and their work.

So what are newspapers saying about teachers and who is saying it in the Australian press?

My current research project explores discourses about teachers and their work in the Australian print media. I identified four media constructs of teachers following a review of newspaper texts over 18 months. These media perceptions are:-

  • the need for more regulated accountable teachers,
  • teaching practices should be transparent and audited,
  • teachers are failing our young people, and they are often incompetent and reckless, and
  • teachers reap many benefits and privileges throughout their teaching careers .

These media discourses were often critical, negative, oppressive and reductionist regarding teachers and their work, with very few ‘good’ news stories being published during the timeframe of this study.

Texts that are available in the public domain can work toward influencing public opinion and political agendas. For example, campaigning newspapers consciously and systematically promote particular issues, often setting these agendas. As such, an accumulation of negative and critical media reportage about teachers is likely to erode public trust for teachers and the teaching profession. This is an unacceptable situation where a teacher’s role is made more difficult with the gaze of non-educationist onlookers ‘second-guessing’ teachers’ every move; and the status of teaching become less attractive for those contemplating their career opportunities.

The teachers I interviewed were critical of the editorials, opinion writers and commentators, rather than investigative journalists, with the teachers labelling these writings as ‘offensive and appalling in their anti-teacher messages’. It was suggested by the teachers that such news texts focused on the author’s opinions rather than ‘facts’, and that those authors who were hired by newspapers to provide the commentary aligned with the newspaper’s socio-political points of view.

Below is a brief outline of what the newspaper editorials, opinion writers and commentators had to say about each of the constructs.

The regulated accountable teacher is positioned within discourses of accountability and control, with an editorial text stating that Accountability is essential (headline) and another calling for ‘public review’ of teachers and schools (opinion writer), citing the outcomes as ‘the public’s right to know’ (editorial). An opinion writer heralded that teacher accountability ‘will root out incompetence’ in the teacher population. According to another opinion writer, achieving this requires ‘real accountability [that] depends on real consequences. Real change requires incentives and penalties’. Consequently, the notion of teacher professional accountability was often rejected in these news texts, instead, focusing on the external and regulatory elements of market, public and performative accountabilities.

Often, non-investigative media reportage focused on business-derived mechanisms such as improved ‘productivity’, educational ‘outputs’ and teacher ‘bonuses’, suggesting, as do the various levels of government, that such rigid and regulatory performative controls are more likely to produce compliant teachers, improve student learning outcomes, and consequently gauge the ‘effectiveness’ of education systems.

The media construct of the transparent audited teacher, closely linked to the regulated accountable teacher, focuses on teacher performativity and accountability. These media discourses encouraged the use of audit and measurement data to monitor and control teacher performativity. Reportage in this area emphasised school and government practices, for example, standardised national tests, that draw on student data but are extended to critique teacher practices and performance.

A number of editorials and opinion pieces suggested national testing was ‘transparent reporting’ that provided extra ‘scrutiny’ for schools and teachers and was identified as ‘revealing and useful’ for parents in the community and a ‘long-overdue mechanism of transparency’. This construct is situated within the discourses of improved transparency and teacher quality, supporting the use of ‘evidence-based’ measurement data such as NAPLAN tests, MySchool, and league tables, to attain this ‘improved’ transparency and teacher quality. Any alternative points of view regarding the above practices were often derided or discredited with the suggestions that they were ‘irrational fears’ and ‘arrant nonsense’ (opinion writer).

Opinion-style reportage focusing on the failing incompetent teacher positioned teachers within discourses that suggested a lack of teacher professionalism and teaching failure. Often, these media texts positioned teacher quality as the main cause for poor student learning outcomes, suggesting there is ‘chronic incompetency’ and ‘poor quality teaching’ in schools (opinion writers), with teachers lacking ‘commitment and talent’ (editorial) to effectively teach their students. Consequently, reportage focused on policies and practices that were perceived to improve teacher quality, for example, raising university entry standards. Often, however, this media reportage tended towards simplistic understandings of teachers and teaching, reducing educational practices to somewhat uncritical and unsophisticated representations of teachers.

The final media construct is that of the privileged reckless teacher which also positioned teachers within discourses that questioned teacher professionalism, in particular notions of ‘benefit’ and ‘misconduct’. News texts constructed teachers as privileged in relation to their short working hours, many holidays, and good pay while teachers associated the benefits of their career as relating to working with children. An opinion writer suggested, ‘Teachers, as much as they moan, are on a nice litter earner … they do have a cushy job. Teachers are already well paid.’ Consequently, such media understandings of the benefits of teaching, work towards perceptions of teacher recklessness in relation to teacher unionism and industrial action, with it often being suggested that unions ‘protect poor performers’ (editorial) and ‘mask tenured incompetence’ (opinion writer) within their membership. One opinion writer suggested, ‘Cynical, lazy, incompetent teachers [are] keeping chairs warm in common rooms, who are effectively unsackable because of the union membership’. The other element of teacher ‘recklessness’ related to stories of teacher misconduct. These stories explored media reportage involving parental opinions about teachers’ practices and school systems, teachers and physical contact with children and young people, and teachers engaging in sexual contact with children and young people.

While newspapers hold an important role in our society, there is also an obligation on their part to present balanced and equitable reportage of the issues and events surrounding teachers and their work. Consequently, newspaper practices that ignore the complexities of the teaching profession are potentially harmful to teachers, young people, schools and their communities.



Aspa Baroutsis is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The University of Queensland.