Why do we educate our children? Is why being lost in the how (all the testing and measurement) in Australia?

By Michael Anderson

How do we measure success in education? At the moment, and for a fair while, we have measured success through a benchmark score, standardised testing and a system that often pits individuals against one another and schools against schools. The result is less like comparing apples with oranges, and more like a system to rank the relative worth of a fingerprint. While fingerprints are useful they don’t tell us all there is to know about ourselves. And our modern testing regimes certainly don’t tell us all we need to know about student progression and what’s working in schools, universities and other organizations.

As an education researcher and university teacher I often find myself in discussions with teachers and school leaders about how we might reimagine our schools to embed deeper learning. A few weeks ago, I found myself in a school talking about the capacity for the 4Cs – creativity, collaboration, communication and critical reflection – to fundamentally transform not only schools, but the way we view learning in many contexts.

I had a receptive audience and they engaged deeply with the discussion, yet there was a lingering objection from quite a few leaders and teachers from the principal down which was what about the ATAR? What about the HSC?

This story, which is common across education, reveals what kind of dichotomy that we encounter in many schools. Put brutally the objection is ‘We don’t have time to learn deeply because we have to maximise our ATAR’. We spend so much time thinking about the ‘what’ we fail to consider the ‘why’ of schooling. As Friedrich Nietzche once argued, people ‘…who have a why to live can bear almost any how’. So how is it that we have strayed so far from the why?

I think the disconnection from the ‘why’ is part of the reason that some schools are resistant to transformation. Until we get the ‘why of schooling’ straight, the how is not particularly meaningful. The confusion is understandable. For instance, high-stakes testing, often imposed from above, creates great stresses on schools, students and teachers to ‘win’ the NAPLAN or the ATAR ‘game’.

The problem is, while schools and students are focussed on how our NAPLAN scores look as opposed to the school down the road, we miss the opportunity to make deep learning central to what our schools do. We miss the opportunity to focus on non-NAPLAN or ATAR learning. Learning that incidentally we keep hearing is going to be critical and is critical now in our ever-evolving society replete with complex, contradictory and chaotic problems.  

Theologian, James P Carse uses the metaphor of finite and infinite games to explain how he thinks the world (including education) works. A finite game has a winner and a loser. An infinite game has no ending, no beginning, no winner and no loser-the aim of the game is to keep the game going. Corporate leadership expert Simon Sinek, who recently popularised the discussion of infinite and finite games in the corporate sector, claims that there are examples everywhere of finite mindsets distorting infinite games. 

Examples of infinite games include health, education, international diplomacy and so on. Finite games include cricket, soccer and perhaps in an educational context the HSC, NAPLAN and the ATAR. Of course, infinite games have finite games within them and these finite games sometimes have great value. But the damage is done in education when we don’t realise how finite games detract rather than strengthen the infinite game. What happens when a finite game takes over the infinite game and all our energy is taken by NAPLAN rather than learning? Fundamentally, schools should be about learning. If we agree that this is the case it has deep implications for the way we do school.

On one level, that seems like a completely uncontroversial argument. However, ask any leader or teacher what takes precedence, learning or the endless pursuit of finite game outcomes. If we are truly to understand that learning is an infinite game, we need to rethink and re-imagine our schools.

For transformation to be a reality in our school communities and not just a buzzword we need first to understand our ‘why’. We must then turn our innate and inborn human capacities of creativity, critical reflection, collaboration and communication into foundational capacities that drive deep learning in schools and organizations.

For schools and school leaders this means interrogating everything through the prism of deep learning. Is the curriculum, leadership and organization focused on learning or is it focused on extrinsic forces such as logistics and bus timetables? For instance the division of ‘curricula’ and ‘co-curricula’ activities makes no sense from a learning perspective. There is deep learning in netball, AFL and the dance ensemble about collaboration and communication but often schools partition these off from the curriculum.

Surely it’s not beyond schools to imagine the valuable learning in these places as central and integrated across the curriculum.

The infinite game also has implications for parents and policy makers. We need to consider if the finite games we currently play are actually damaging learning. There is currently some political appetite for change in Australia but it will take the parent community to shift as well.

If parents insist on schooling as they experienced it we will be left with an outmoded and increasingly irrelevant system. Again there are signs of movement here with parents seeking more contemporary approaches to schooling offered by public schooling systems.

For this to succeed systems will need to provide support for these fledgling offerings and seek to embed the innovations across the system generally.

There are some who argue these new approaches that embed the 4Cs will lead to the disintegration of the disciplines (such as English, History, Mathematics and so on). This is a false dichotomy. Without deep discipline understanding creativity, collaboration, communication and critical reflection have no anchor and context. We can, and for the sake of our students must engage with both to create deep learning that supports students in their own infinite games (relationships, work, and so on)

The 21st century challenges faced by our schools, our organizations and our society aren’t uncomplicated or insignificant, neither are most of them finite. To respond to them we need to support students as they develop deep learning where deep discipline understanding and the development of creativity, collaboration, communication and critical reflection go hand in hand to ready us for the infinite challenges of today and tomorrow.

Professor Michael Anderson is Professor of Education in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at The University of Sydney. He is an internationally recognised educational leader. Michael has taught, researched and published in education and transformation for over 20 years including 15 books and 55 book chapters and journal articles. His international research and practice focus on how the 4Cs can be integrated using coherent frameworks to support schools and organizations transform.

Those interested in the 4Cs might like to check out our books Transforming Schools and Transforming Organizations and the 4C website

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

3 thoughts on “Why do we educate our children? Is why being lost in the how (all the testing and measurement) in Australia?

  1. Des Griffin says:

    Go the talk by Viv Grant Integrity Consulting on ABC RN Big Ideas 20 Feb discussion on mental illness issues in children. One of the most outstanding talks on the subject I have ever heard. She starts w quote f Masai as they greet each other: “How are the children”. If the children are ok then the community is ok.

  2. Heather Hobbs says:

    Maybe we actually need to go a step further back. As a student in the late 70’s I was blown away by reading ‘Deschooling Society’ by Ivan Illich. I recently dusted of my copy of this slim volume and started re-reading it. I’m simultaneously still blown away and very disheartened about how much further we’ve moved down the ‘schooling’ path in the last 50 years.

  3. Bill Blaikie says:

    Along with Illich there was Freire who wrote of ‘housing the oppressor within’. This explains settler treatment of indigenous peoples especially when the frontiers were purposefully peopled by disenfranchised Scots and Irish who too often simply repeated what had been done to them with the disastrous consequences we are beginning to understand. It also explains how teachers perpetuate an outdated system because that is what they have internalised. Freire also wrote about a dialogic approach based on a cycle of thought, reflection and action whereby contradictions in our lives such as the why/how one Michael explains can be explored, analysed, critiqued and improved on. As Freire so aptly noted, at the point of educational encounter we are all learners endeavouring to improve ourselves. If we as teachers see ourselves as the masters of the ATAR achievement we are poor models of ongoing learning and we are intent only on perpetuating yesterday through today into tomorrow. Not a sound approach given impending species extinction, peak oil, population explosion and global warming.

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