Learning beyond the test zone
Monday February 21, 2011
SOMETIMES I walk away from a class feeling exultant. I can almost touch the invisible, electric connections in the air that weave their way haphazardly between me and my students as we think and act together.This exhilaration occurs when there is flow; when there are rich connections between what we know and have experienced, between what is new and challenging for us, and when we recognise one another as individuals.Learning also happens when we struggle and deal with frustration and fear. As the great educator Dewey suggested, all good learning occurs when there is balance and counterbalance.For this reason, effective learning within school settings is difficult to describe. I work as a teacher educator and have also spent many years teaching in secondary schools. Last year I received an award for teaching excellence in my university, but that gives me neither certainty nor clarity about what I might be doing well.What teachers do to create learning is also difficult to define. Even some of the top educators in China agree. Shanghai recently topped the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test results in reading, maths and science.In December I attended the second East Asian International Conference on Teacher Education in Hong Kong.One of the keynote speakers was Professor Zhong Qiquan, honorary director of the Institute of Curriculum and Instruction at the East China Normal University.The PISA results had just been released when he spoke. You can imagine me almost falling from my chair when Professor Zhong said: "It's not about PISA." Rather than celebrate Shanghai's top scores, Professor Zhong spoke critically about China's curriculum and about the pedagogy of Chinese teachers.He spoke about China's need to move away from the "teacher as mechanic". In China, he said, classroom activity is based around students being groomed to perform well in high-stakes tests, where learning is largely content based, teacher directed and by rote.Instead of gloating about test results, he and other speakers (like Dr Gwang-Jo Kim, director of the UNESCO Regional Bureau for Education in Asia-Pacific), pointed to huge inequities in education in China. The same chasms exist here and the focus on test results shifts our attention dangerously away from the issues that matter.Professor Zhong and Dr Kim argue for major educational reform in China so that thinking competencies, collaborative skills, flexibility, motivation and so on become the focus. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?If there is international agreement in this respect, why doesn't change happen? Why aren't we moving towards more equitable education systems? Why don't we more seriously use what we know about learning, and change what we do in classrooms?In Australia we are increasingly shifting the focus to what can be measured because we want to compete in high-stakes tests and there is political pressure on teachers to do so.In competitive educational and economic environments, scores are a simple way to tell us how well or poorly we are doing. It is more difficult to put a score on the sorts of capacities that Professor Zhong and Dr Kim suggest should be central.While many Australian teachers design thinking-oriented curriculums, explicitly teach learning and thinking strategies and work to build emotional and relational capacities, they do so in a system that is designed to promote traditional pedagogies, individual performance and hierarchies.This means that what we achieve is half-hearted, mediocre and unfairly advantages certain social groups.While in Hong Kong, I visited a local school. I was touched to hear teachers talk about the important role they play in young people's lives. They are honoured to be teachers and believe that there is no better profession.They help each other to reflect on their practice and the younger teachers have great admiration for more experienced teachers who work as powerful mentors. Their goal is to serve their community and the young people who live there.Here in Australia we're forgetting how to talk in authentic ways about learning and teaching. The educational landscape is becoming so murky that we risk losing sight of what is important.