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Somewhere over the rainbow

The tension between quantifying learning and quality learning

I WAS BENT over my desk transcribing quotes, trying to turn words into temporary tattoos that I could use once in an exam and then erase from my memory. Unhelpful questions sprinted around my head. What if I can’t write enough in an hour? What if I don’t get a ‘good’ ATAR? What if I fail? They circled and amplified until, on the eve of my final exams, a letter stopped them in their tracks.

It was from Mrs White, my kindergarten teacher – a handwritten note wishing me success in whatever sense that meant to me. Beneath the note was an extract from All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a collection of essays by American minister and writer Robert Fulghum, as well as some drawings and sentences I’d created in that special first year of school in her class.

It made for a stark contrast. On one side of my desk was my five-year-old self’s early handwriting – ‘When I grow up I want to be a cheyer [cheerleader]’ – and bright texta colouring that didn’t stay inside the lines. On the other side were neat study notes about Shakespeare and an HSC survival guide. I read my five-year-old self’s answer to the question ‘What would you like to get better at?’ – ‘Make more friends’ – and knew that on the eve of the HSC my answer would have been ‘Memorise more quotes’. After twelve years, I felt immensely cared for by my long-ago kindergarten teacher and distinctly uncared for by a system of assessment intent on quantifying what was deemed my ‘intelligence’, ranking what was deemed my ‘potential’.

Mrs White’s letter also made me realise that I had lost what I’d now call intrinsic motivation. I had forgotten the first word we learnt: look. Instead, I was motivated by fear of failing to meet standards defined by others rather than those I defined for myself. I saw a child’s unapologetic curiosity in my kindergarten work; I saw my HSC work as that of a jaded, sleep-deprived stranger.

 

OUTSIDE THE EXAM hall, some students were whispering quotes to themselves; some were joking around. Some had come early; some were running late. But we were all tired and we were all looking forward to that sweet sense of relief after we’d cleared this final hurdle.

You are all in the same boat, we were told – and told each other. Maybe a more accurate (though less comforting) analogy would see us acknowledge that while we were not all in the same boat, we were all in the same storm. Some of us had seafaring parents; some of us grew up sailing; some had superyachts and some had dinghies. Think about the money a student can spend on breakfast, on materials to create a major work or on printing. What about the money a school spends on carpets or air-conditioners, on accessible facilities or laptops? Or the money parents spend on tutoring and the amount of time students have available to practise memorisation and speed for tests?

Standardised testing environments are not as standardised as we’d like to believe. Not all students have the time or space to do past papers and condition their brains (and hand muscles) into performing for tests that reward thinking fast and silently to yourself. And yet for many students, exposure to the maximum number of past papers before the real test provides the best chance of avoiding the shock of unseen questions. Perhaps this explains why, somewhere, motivation shifts from how we can learn best to how we can learn most. The sentiment of sharing the same boat is optimistic, but it glosses over the impact of inequalities in the amount of money and time spent on learning – such as those between rural and urban and between public and private schools – as well as the influence that parents’ levels of education have on children’s outcomes.

Inside the exam hall was silent. Time passes differently in those places. We had learnt to translate seconds into words and minutes into sentences. Five minutes left really means one more short paragraph. Every second, every word counts. Scribble down mnemonics, jot down quotes, remember the TEEL, PETAL, STEEL and PEEL writing formulas. Ignore the ache in your hand, sit still, don’t let your eyes or mind wander. Put your outside world on mute. Whatever the subject, this is a test in the fluency of formulaic language and the mindset of examination.

As my hand started to cramp I took a moment to stop, look and listen. I felt like I was in a science experiment: quality of teaching and student work ethic were the independent variables, intelligence of students was the dependent variable and controlled variables were the consistent rules across schools, such as time constraints, layout of desks, no electronic devices and no talking. No wonder I felt like a test subject identified by a number.

Mrs White knew learning was more than that. And she was right. All I really needed to know I had learnt in kindergarten. I’d been working my own way back towards the feeling of that time.

 

IMAGINE A GIRL named Mary who lives in a black-and-white room. She knows everything about colour from the research she does using a computer and books that can only display information in black and white. She knows how light travels in wavelengths, how cones in the retina react and how nerves transmit signals to the brain, but she has never seen colour until, one day, the door to the outside world is unlocked.

For the first time, Mary steps outside.

Does Mary learn anything new from this experience? Yes, she learns how it feels to perceive colour through her own eyes, which suggests that her previous knowledge – based on second-hand research of objective, physical information – was incomplete.

This is Australian philosopher Frank Jackson’s ‘Mary’s room’ thought experiment, first proposed in 1982. And while there’s ongoing debate surrounding its assumptions – is it possible for Mary to imagine colour vividly before actually perceiving it? –  I see parallels between this analogy and the conditions needed for real learning.

By the end of high school, I felt like Mary. Some classrooms – and all exam rooms – were as black and white as Mary’s room. It was my job to absorb as much second-hand information as I could to ensure that in the exam room, I would know everything that could be assessed.

But the assessments I learnt most – no, best – from were the most colourful, the ones that allowed me to experience what I was learning in a natural rather than artificial environment. The ones that allowed me to explore firsthand.

One such assessment was the Personal Interest Project, a 5,000-word research paper that contributes 40 per cent of a student’s final mark for the elective HSC subject Society and Culture. It was exciting to understand that I could get as much out of this assessment as I learnt through it, and that in itself was a big factor in my choice to investigate how Australian society – teachers, students, politicians and researchers – define the very purpose of schooling, and whether the New South Wales secondary school system is fit for that purpose.

I’d been drawn to these questions, too, thanks to an exchange with a French school at the end of Year 10. In France, teachers instructed while standing atop wooden decks at the front of each classroom – and I wondered if this was indicative of the positions of authority and respect they occupy in French society. There was compulsory civic education as well as an emphasis on oral exams and philosophy – and I wondered if this reflected the French intellectual tradition and democratic values rooted in the French Revolution. There were no school uniforms. Four-course lunches were provided. The use of electronic devices, whether for classroom learning or at lunchtime, was tightly controlled. Students addressed teachers using a formal register, saying ‘you’ in the vous form, not the informal tu. It was a long way from my Australian classrooms – and these observations made me wonder how the Australian education system might both stem from and perpetuate its own particular cultural beliefs and values.

A country’s education system can be understood using Edward T Hall’s iceberg analogy, which suggests just a small amount of a culture is readily observable. For much of my schooling I had sailed on the surface, only able to see the visible expressions of culture: school uniforms, classroom layout, the kind of history I was being taught. In France, I got a sense that education is culturally relative. Then my Personal Interest Project – and my own supportive teachers – empowered me to dive beneath the surface of our education system and explore less visible values and beliefs.

My Personal Interest Project collected and shared stories of demoralised teachers who spoke about a culture that distrusts their professional judgement. It told stories of students who wanted to learn more about Australia’s political system, of a public education advocate calling for fair funding, of policy advisors’ concerns that without systematic protocols there would be no accountability. And it uncovered a consensus that technology is only as useful as the teaching that accompanies it.

Through all of this, my Personal Interest Project let me build and then experience every colour of the rainbow. It repositioned me as an agent who could ask questions rather than as a test subject tasked only with responding. My theoretical understanding of quantitative and qualitative data was transformed as I conducted and synthesised my own firsthand research. I could transfer my growing knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of different research methods into designing, conducting and interpreting interviews and surveys. I could actually embody an understanding of the importance of intercultural knowledge as I spoke with these educators and policy advisors. The most colourful learning felt like an expansion from learning about to learning how, from knowing something to doing something. Fulfilment, rather than a rank, was at the end of that rainbow.

Major works like this demonstrate the power of assessment as learning rather than assessment of learning, with the learning process itself being rewarded – not just the product. These are gifts a student can make by and for themselves, and they’re more permanent and tangible than a test to be forgotten or a rank used once to get into a degree.

 

EVERYONE SEEMS TO have an opinion on the school system, and perhaps this underscores the inescapable and significant way schooling defines personal and national identity. Through my conversations, I sensed that many teachers also wanted assessments to be more caring and colourful – more fulfilling – but were constrained by a system that prioritises bureaucratic efficiency. Some of the constraints on colourful learning include teachers’ overwhelming workloads, increasing administrative demands, job precarity, a crowded curriculum and the lack of funding. But this creates a shared sense of disillusion among teachers and students about the good teaching and learning that is happening in spite – not because – of the system.

The most conclusive finding of my research was that the Personal Interest Project itself epitomises exactly the kind of assessment experience that the Australian education system should normalise: one that cultivates civic skills and knowledge and an intercultural worldview; one that fosters lifelong curiosity.

One that places care and colour at its core.

 

IN RECENT YEARS, Australian students have had other chances to participate in learning for life rather than just learning for assessment. At the end of 2018, and again in 2019, we marched with a mosaic of colourful placards and school uniforms, only to be met by black-and-white remarks from the country’s leaders.

‘What we want is more learning in schools and less activism in schools,’ said Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

‘The best thing you’ll learn about going to a protest is how to join the dole queue,’ said Queensland Senator and then-Minister for Resources Matt Canavan, ‘because that’s what your future life will look like: up in a line asking for a handout, not actually taking charge for your life and getting a real job.’

These reactions to the school strikes for climate betrayed a cultural subordination of youth as well as politicians’ failure to see students as citizens demonstrating exactly the kinds of attributes that democracy needs and employers want. Through these strikes we showed what learning for life looks like, not just learning for a life of tests. We were active rather than passive learners as we demonstrated our understanding of science and our civic duty to demand better policies.

Senator Canavan’s language in particular underscores an outdated and narrow understanding of schooling as a means to a vocational end – an inference based on the belief that schools are single-purpose institutions aiming to produce employable workers and define somebody’s worth in terms of their output in the economy. In this context, the ideal student is one that fits the ‘norm’ and becomes the ideal worker – and they certainly have higher aspirations than becoming a cheerleader.

When education is framed in such narrow terms, there’s a risk that young people learn that a job defines their worth in society and that their work takes precedence over other meaningful parts of their lives. And even if going to school is primarily about getting a job, the reality is that the world of work is centred more on collaboration than the competitive individualism encouraged by standardised testing environments. While employment is undoubtedly important, Mrs White’s letter challenges this reductive thinking. As a teacher, Mrs White recognised that schools provide so much more than career pathways; they are also prime environments for the kind of care and socialisation that encourages anyone to make positive contributions to society, regardless of the occupation they end up in.

 

AFTER MY LAST exam I went to the beach to celebrate with friends. The landscape was a shock after so many hours in a static, silent exam hall. Bushfire smoke, carried by a southerly change, painted blue swirls over the sea and a golden glow over the clouds. It felt almost psychedelic. The contrast between testing conditions – Mary’s room – and this world saturated by accessible information and stimulus made me more certain that what I really needed to know for an increasingly uncertain future was not what was assessed by high-stakes standardised tests. Just as my project had shown, these tests could not assess our ability to decipher fact from misinformation online, or lead a group, or communicate ideas to an audience, or solve a real-world problem. They might provide data for policy-making and tertiary entry, but what is the value of this data if it is derived from environments that reward redundant skills and degrade students’ sense of self? We were like battery hens who’d progressed along production lines in batches year by year. In graduating we’d been stamped by year of manufacture: 2019, pre-Covid. We’d made it out the other side.

At the same time, rejoicing about never again having to study something for school rang alarm bells. Why were we graduating as disillusioned learners? Shouldn’t we have an insatiable appetite for learning, not a desire to burn our study notes? Even that book on my desk – the HSC survival guide – spoke of a system that didn’t prioritise care. Why wasn’t thriving in the final years of school normalised, instead of merely surviving?

Whenever I talk about my sense that artificial testing environments reduce students to test subjects, adults sympathise and say they felt the same stress at my age. If the standard approach to testing fails to assess what really matters and has now put generations of people under unnecessary pressure, why does it remain some unavoidable rite of passage? Perhaps we believe that the fairest, most rational way of comparing students is to assess them in a space insulated from any ‘outside’ or ‘real’ world. But schools are not those places – they are microcosms of the different and diverse features of that ‘real’ society.

I am not an expert, and education is highly contextual. Perhaps my insights reflect my own context as someone who went to a public school in pre-Covid Sydney rather than the entire, highly diverse school system. But listening to students’ voices is a good step towards a more inclusive discussion about what education feels like and how that might change.

My project’s guiding question was ‘How and what do we teach students to prepare them for an increasingly uncertain future?’ Given students like me are entering a world that has never been so uncertain, that question is more pressing than ever – and we need to update our answers. I graduated and turned eighteen, but it was the pandemic that began, not the ‘adult’ life I had expected. We need to leave our outdated, inequitable system of education in the past, prioritise colourful learning and escape Mary’s room for good.

 

INSIDE MRS WHITE’S letter, a much younger, more curious me travelled through time to share what was important to her. I knew I had grown a lot in those thirteen years, but that night before my final exams I saw the distance between my five-year-old self’s values and the stressful, competitive exercise I found myself involved in. When did I start seeing learning as something to be quantified instead of something to be enjoyed? At what point did learning become a competition? And how did memorising quotes ever become more important to me than making friends?

I listened as my kindergarten voice echoed from the past and I realised – or perhaps remembered – something I now know to be true. We wake up every morning as humans linked by our common curiosity, not as competitors to be placed in a hierarchy of potential. Gloria Steinem said it best: ‘We are linked, not ranked.’

I wonder what Mrs White’s other students heard from their younger selves.

I wonder what you would hear from your younger self.

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