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Beware Bandwagoners - We Don't Inculcate Panic

Learning is an encompassing exercise. As I write this blog, I am overwhelmed by the sheer scope of what is on offer at Ambrose Treacy. Last week alone, aside from the busyness of class life, the College hosted parent / student / teacher interviews, a Writer in Residence Program and launched a grounded research project exploring the link between direct instruction in argumentation and logic, and improved writing outcomes for high achieving students.

At the moment though, our Year 11 English classes are studying the ‘Crucible’. Arthur Miller’s 1953 play was written at the high point of McCarthyism, a time which saw the House Un-American Activities Committee prosecute individuals on the charge that they were disloyal Americans. Miller’s classic tells the story of an old-fashioned witch hunt, where good people are caught up in the hysteria of the mob. Year 11s are particularly focusing on the ‘inculcation of panic’; the art of creating a mood of heightened anxiety and fear in order to justify the morally outrageous.

Heightened anxiety and fear are often used to bemoan the state of education. At a debate I attended last Wednesday night, a rather ill-informed adjudicator engaged in what could only be described as a rant at the state of modern education. His concern was that students are ‘no longer having knowledge drummed into them’. Some in the audience agreed. What was silenced is that this generation of students are beneficiaries of an education system that goes beyond recitation of knowledge. Some may be unable to quote dates and definitions verbatim, but they will be able to speak with intelligence about causes and consequences and make critical connections. Such is the state of modern education that higher order thinking has become more valuable than drilling.

A recent Queensland government report into NAPLAN conducted by Gabrielle Matters, would suggest that we have much to fear from the ‘inculcation of panic’. NAPLAN was devised originally as a test to give teachers and schools information about the literacy and numeracy skills of students. The aim was to ensure that appropriate intervention was in place for students who had not met minimum standards so that educational gaps could be narrowed. Instead, the publication of school results and the creation of national and state leagues tables has pitted schools against each other and resulted in anxiety, panic and inauthentic practice across the state.

The table below indicates that approximately 40% of parents perceive that their sons and daughters are negatively impacted by the experience of the testing. Incidence of negative reaction is often found in schools which place high emphasis on NAPLAN results and spend significant periods of time drilling students.

The same report found that parents across the state widely agreed that schools spent too much time preparing students for NAPLAN over other important educational endeavours: in short, that the opportunity cost of this moral panic was too high.

Interestingly, the report also found that parents were of the view that the media put too much emphasis on NAPLAN results as seen in the bar graph below.

At Ambrose Treacy College, we do not believe in inculcating panic. We don’t place unnecessary emphasis on NAPLAN over and above other diagnostic and internal tests, but we do see it as a useful test which can help teachers better inform future educational interventions. In other words, at ATC NAPLAN is approached as it was always intended.
- We don’t spend the first two terms drilling students in literacy and numeracy.
- Neither do we place extra-ordinary pressures on students to perform beyond their best.
- We take the view that students are best prepared for literacy and numeracy in the context of their timetabled classes
- We expose students to ‘test strategy’ in a short immersion prior to the test, to optimise student confidence and familiarity.
- We give the message that this is a test and as always, ATC boys are expected to give their best.

When educators are trusted to do their job and freed from the pressure of ‘moral panics’, they can do amazing things to lift the performance of their students. A good example of this has been the writing project at ATC. At the end of 2015, a review of our NAPLAN and internal results suggested our students needed to improve their writing. In response to this we formed a research group around best practice in writing instruction and began the process of developing an evidence informed strategic plan. Implementation was staged. Outcomes were measured authentically. True improvement doesn’t happen immediately, but over time. There is still a way to go, but there has been a pleasing improvement in the writing outcomes of our students, entirely because we responded authentically to the evidence (including the NAPLAN evidence).

What is the lesson in all of this?

Beware extremists and band wagoners in all forms. Beware those schools who shout from the mountain tops about their 100% performance. Beware those who advocate NAPLAN as either a danger or a panacea. Authentic education is more nuanced and longitudinal. Where NAPLAN is used authentically, there is simply no need for alarm. I wish all our boys sitting NAPLAN next week the very best.

Kath Little
Dean of Learning

Watch ATC SchoolTV for tips on supporting your sons to reduce anxieties and normalise the NAPLAN testing period.