The truth we dare not tell students

There is a formula in many educational jurisdictions. It involves a curriculum pathway that leads to a final exam which determines the individual’s next steps, often involving higher education. In New South Wales, Australia, it feels like even when students enter Kindergarten (the first year of primary/elementary schooling), they have stepped on to a conveyor belt, moving them year by year towards the great big final test: the Higher School Certificate examinations.

The problem with this model is that it very much suits the system, suits data collection processes, suits models of teaching and assessment currently deemed most appropriate, suits reporting methods where A-E is the best we can come up with to indicate students’ growth, understanding or engagement, suits what parents mostly understand and (often with a good dose of historical amnesia) appreciate as a “good” education. In a world where there are standardised tests gaining increased influence over what happens in the classroom whilst at the same time there is increasing promotion of non-linear, personalised learning pathways, what story are we telling students? Differentiation for all, but mainly so they can sit the same test?

The truth is, according to governments and organisations the Mitchell Institute, that completing the HSC and similar levels of study at school is the best way to guarantee a better life and that therefore a student’s attendance for the full duration of “school” is required for their own fulfilment and that of the nation. Putting aside the fact that presentism is an issue for the workplace as well as school, more and more individuals and groups are focusing on ways to create worthwhile, fulfilling pathways for students beyond the ‘mainstream’. The real truth is that it isn’t just about completing the HSC (or similar), it is about being engaged in learning and personal growth for as long as possible, even once we achieve initial employment.

This puts into question the validity and relevance of a system that is built to shuttle students, by age, from one curriculum module to the next until they either fly or fall in high stakes testing. There are mechanisms to help students through of course, especially in tough times. These circumstances may be temporary, such as the loss of a parent, or more deeply ingrained such as extreme poverty and hardship in the local community. However, there are few system-approved and embraced pathways that address the dynamic multiplicity of people we have in our schools and classes.

For a while now, I’ve been saying that all it takes is for the right combination of forces to come together to threaten the ‘mainstream’ education and upend it. My worry is that it would come from tech-based multinational corporations who would take over our learning lives, supplanting state-supported education systems as the power brokers of learning and recognition. This may still happen, but what I’m fascinated by is the following combination:

  • Employers want higher education qualifications to ensure an appropriately qualified workforce (& an easier benchmark to vet applicants than interviewing potentially thousands of inappropriate people)
  • Higher education institutions are the only ones who provide certified qualifications of many kinds still currently recognised by employers.
  • Schools are the only ones (generally) who provide the certified credentials to graduate into higher education.

But what if the following happens?

  • Employers decide to relegate university qualifications to a lower level, basically making them valueless to get a job?
  • Universities decide that school-system-based credentials are not an accurate or valuable indication of an individuals’ ability to engage in higher education?
  • Parents and students begin to question the return on investment of the time, effort, anxiety and resources dedicated to standardised testing of any sort? (Teachers and schools already often do)

The truth is, it’s already happening.

PwC joined several other multinational employers to ditch degrees as the most valuable key to gaining a position. As more employers struggle to keep younger employees (often by not changing how they work at all but expecting new workers to fit the mould), this will accelerate or companies will be forced to change rapidly and with great disruption.

During the annual NAPLAN season of wailing and gnashing of educational teeth, universities were quick to assure students in NSW that new changes to minimum requirements for the HSC would not necessarily affect their entry into university.

Similarly, more universities are offering alternate pathways into university other than an ATAR rank score such as Deakin and pretty much any other higher education institution you search. So, finishing school with an excellent number or rank on their jurisdictions’ scoreboard isn’t necessary to achieve the access to higher education opportunities, nor the workplace. I met someone just recently who never went to university but is simply a brilliant, hardworking, creative individual who has made a significant impact in her organisation already in her mid 20s.

Employers who don’t need degrees…

Universities who don’t need school leaving qualifications…

So… what’s the shelf life of a traditional education system in a world where we honestly don’t know what’s coming around the corner? As far as the next generation of students is concerned: Adapt.. or be ignored. And that’s the truth we can’t tell our students or that process will be accelerated much too fast for our systems to cope. One method is to adopt different approaches such as the Big Picture Project, which is gaining popularity in both schools and universities. But need we wait for external parties to force change? Should we not be working to change the system from within as well?

There are a few brave souls within the school system(s) trying to buck the trend as more and more of their students report the need for a different curriculum, if not a completely different educational experience. In NSW, two examples are Greg Miller at St Luke’s Catholic College and John Goh at Merrylands East Primary School. Please follow them on Twitter to see what they and others are doing to rethink how their students experience learning and education. It’s the future.