Thursday, January 04, 2007

Gripes about Australian Education - 1

Note to readers: This is the first of two posts setting out some of my gripes with the current Australian education system. While I was writing the first part, one of youngest's friends and her mum called in. Like Clare, the friend will do the New South Wales Higher School Certificate this year. The friend's mum was not aware of some of the things I had found out re student choice. So it may be that this post will actually be helpful to some, not just a gripe.

Yesterday I talked among other things about our visit to the Sydney University Open Day.

Perhaps I am getting too old fashioned, but since then I have found my concerns about the way our education system is evolving niggling away at my mind like an annoying mental itch. I just feel so sad for many of our kids. I now feel the need to scratch that itch, looking especially at the NSW system since this is the one I know best.

I think that the core of my concern lies in the combination of two things.

The first is the growing confusion between training and education.

I have done a lot of training and I think that I am pretty good at it. Training is about competence, the capacity to do. When I train, my objective is to give people the knowledge and skills they need to do particular things as defined in the course objectives.

I see education as very different. Here the core focus is or should be on teaching people to think, to learn, to analyse, to understand, to see new connections and to create new knowledge. Yes, education does involve the acquisition of both specific knowledge and skills, but this is only part of the process.

Today, this distinction between the two has become very confused. One effect at university level is that the training focus on the capacity to do has come to dominate the education focus on the capacity to think. This flows through into every aspect of university education.

This confusion links to the second element in my core concern, the way in which we have created institutional straight jackets that narrow what is acceptable and reduce options while also taking the fun out of education. In turn, these link to the current obsession with quantification and measurement, an obsession whose development I traced in previous posts (here and here).

The straight jacket starts with the University Admission Index.

While some universities do have alternative admission systems (half of the lucky 2006 HSC class at Barraba Central School had university admission in advance of the HSC), the UAI remains the main mechanism determining admission to particular universities and particular courses within those universities in NSW and the ACT. Given the importance of the UAI, ways of maximising the value of that index are an important concern for schools, students and parents from the start of year 11.

The UAI results are based on the Higher School Certificate results. In turn, these results are based on a 50:50 split between school based continuous assessment and exam results, with a scaling system applied to the assessment results to ensure uniform application across the state.

At student level, HSC subject selection for those wishing to go to university is a complex process designed to maximise UAI. Get it wrong, and you may not be able to enter the university or do the subjects of choice. Student interest in particular subjects is there, but it is a secondary issue to the main game.

The continuous assessment process itself introduces another complexity. Whatever the arguments about the old exam based system and the pressures it created, those pressures are nothing compared to continuous assessment pressures.

To ensure a good UAI, students must maintain the required level in the on-going assessment tasks. Get a few of the early tasks wrong and your target UAI may go out the window well in advance of the final exams themselves. There is a further problem. The assessment tasks themselves take time for both students and teachers, reducing the time available for teaching and learning.

In all these circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that there should be so many students, my own daughters included, who feel the need for special tutoring outside school to build their strength in weaker subjects.

The HSC and UAI results themselves create new pressures.

I think that it is still generally accepted that education is more than narrowly defined academic results. I think, too, that there is a degree of acceptance that the HSC and following UAI outcomes are a far from perfect predictor of university results, even less so of longer term success. Yet the reality is that none of this matters.

At school level, the HSC results provide the base for the creation of league tables comparing school performance. Schools talk about broader education, but they boast about or put the best spin they can on HSC outcomes.

Parents are just as bad. We read the published HSC results avidly. When, as happened in my eldest's year, an apparently good class fails to get a single band six (the top band) with this outcome adversely affecting subsequent UAIs, the outcome becomes a matter of agitated debate.

At university level, the publication of UAI cut-offs - a simple measure of demand for individual courses at individual universities - creates another league table. Students and parents use these to guide their choices for the next year, with a bias towards higher UAI universities.

The fact that a University like New England gets consistently good student outcomes but has lower entry UAIs because of the smaller student pool available to it as compared to, say, Sydney University gets lost in the static.

In all this, the real problem lies at the student level. Now this is where life gets a bit complicated because I am expressing opinions. However, all my views can be refuted with evidence.

I will deal with this in my next post.


Lexcen said...

Jim, I think your concerns regarding the education system are well justified. Of course I am not as qualified as ninglun for example to assess the current education system.
Of course that shouldn't stop us from expressing our concern or indeed the observation that "education" is giving way to "training".

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Lexcen. The thing that is really getting up my nose is that I think that it's all just so unfair on our young.

Selva said...
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