Death of NAPLAN, or death by standardisation

Albeit incessantly controversial debates around NAPLAN since its introduction in 2008 by the then Education Minister Julia Galliard, its damage has run deep, to both education and society. Since NAPLAN can be easily gamed, academic coaching schools have been mushrooming in migrant, and/or lower SES suburbs, causing traffic delays on weekends and luring many full time school teachers to earn handsome spare cash. Property price near higher-ranked schools on sites like Myschool has skyrocketed, rapidly transforming many such schools and their communities into ethnic enclaves. Coupled with the so-called international educational benchmarking frenzy like the PISA, NAPLAN has been fast retracting Australian education, with such plausible advice as learning from one of the world’s most hideous educational systems like China as its mega city Shanghai tops the PISA consistently.

China as our role model:(

In the eyes of Shanghai students and teachers, NAPLAN is not even a child’s play. Yet, China’s original contributions to knowledge after schools and universities were reopened in 1977 are pathetically piecemeal compared with its population size and in the past decade have been dwindling in quality. Why so? The autocratic regime that suffocates democratisation (of speech, ideas, motives, mobility, etc.) is one to blame and its rigid, nationwide standardised testing system is another. Both favour singularity, homogeneity, solidarity, and certainty, which are like performance enhancement drugs in a short term but are innovation killers in the long run. Many middle-class above Shanghai parents are in such as a despair that they deperately seek overseas education refugee for their children in countries like Australia, unaware of the dire social and emotional toll those children may have to endure. So, is Australia like China and should Australia become China-like? Absolutely not! Then, why should we copy China’s system?

Experts behind NAPLAN!

It is fascinating that among all NAPLAN debates, rarely has anyone questioned credibility of the experts developing and administrating the test behind the scene. Since NAPLAN is mainly about literacy (of words and numbers), we might ask a very simple question on top of the experts’ test designing skills: how literate are these experts themselves?  Our dear readers may immediately dismiss this question as ridiculous or people who dare ask it as laughable. But after we ponder for a second or two on what literacy really is and what it means today, it may come to light that it is not so laughable after all.

In fact, it is legitimate and deadly serious.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t be shocked by a recent debate among  university academics in the Conversation on the pertinence of cursive handwriting. We may wonder who would need to learn cursive handwriting (or even handwriting) these days while we can type, touch, talk to, eyeball, or even will smart devices to act and there are myriad ways to improve student motor skills. In 2015, we witnessed the downfall of a former chair professor of poetry at the University of Sydney who was caught red-handed using the university email service to play racial slurs with friends. The professor should at least know that workplace emails are corporate property and are retrievable with technical ease. He should also have been adequately versed to know that poetry is intercultural remix by nature.  These people are literacy experts but their literacy skills are either of diminishing value, are outdated, or are becoming hindrances. Yet, some of them are experts devising NAPLAN, advising on it, or teaching into it. How ironic!

Literacy today…

Literacy relates to language and other sign systems that humans use to transact goods (ideas, emotions, values, information, etc.) and services. Sign systems evolve over time in tune with social and technological dynamics, so does literacy. It was mediated in the past by rocks, bamboo, scroll, or paper; these days we are accustomed to fidgeting in digits. Rocks are heavy, bamboo spiky, and scrolls too pricy, which made literacy exercises physically and financially challenging, appropriated only by a small group of elites.  No wonder intensity and reach of literacy in our pre-digital past was a paucity. Just think how many snail mails we sent each year in the past and how many emails and text messages we are sending and receiving each day today. Or compare how many people in the past were functionally literate to write letters and how many messages we can email and text instantly today?

The contrast from a sporadic challenge to an immersive, nearly ubiquitous daily activity is jaw-dropping and the transition from the elite to the mass is close to a completion. And yet we are whining that our literacy performance is going downhill. It seems we have no confidence in the wisdom that practice makes perfect; instead, we believe that practice makes permanent bad. Facebooking and snapchatting, littered with outrageous GIFs, emoticons, and others enigmatic symbols, often read like alien gibberish.  Sadly, audacious as they are, there is no sign these sorts of gibberish are going away any time sooner. Alas, they are here to stay and are infiltrating our beloved literacy world, chanting “practice makes permanent”. Standardised tests like NAPLAN could be our last straw for salvation!

What is literacy, anyhow?

Humans possess multiple senses but our means to relay information across time and space have been technologically restricted for quite a long while. Until the digital revolution, written words were the most cost effective while other means like images, voices, and videos were simply too expensive. It was no wonder that literacy then was largely synonymous with reading and writing. Alongside, proud traditions and discourses had been fortified to maintain this literacy authority. Today this authority is being shattered to the core by the computer, the internet, smart, wearable devices, and the AI, to name a few. Every second, hundreds of millions of people across the globe are involved in inconceivable sorts of literacy activities on top of reading and writing: twittering, Instagraming, Facebooking, livestreaming, animating, and trolling. None of these were availed to the mass thirty years ago. Oddly, none of these are assessed in NAPLAN, considering that it was commissioned more than twenty years later after the first major offence of the Internet.  And yet, experts, journalist, and politicians are condemning literacy deterioration, pointing fingers at schools, teachers, and students. If this is not a sign of sleep walking, then it must be motivated by sheer contempt.

Above all, it is a contempt of the scientific truth that literacy evolves. Standardised literacy tests like NAPLAN impose explicit rules rather than accommodating real life, authentic literacy practices. Even worse, they mob dissidents with many dying rules. This authoritative practice might have some grounds in the past when change was relatively slow, but is becoming increasingly archaic in digital times.  Just ask how many 80 years old are able to decipher 16 years old teenagers’ snapchats!

Of course, it is a contempt of people, irrespective of their age, class, gender, or ethnicity. It is a fact the younger generations are more literate overall than the older ones.  They have been extensively exposed to numerous varieties of text and have immersed in numerous literacy practices. Such is beyond the wildest imagination of the generations before  the 1970s.  And yet, in NAPLAN-like standardised tests, their innovative literacy practices are not honoured, let alone studied and promoted. How arrogant! And why would it be a surprise that NAPLAN results have been stagnate for ten years and decline sharply from Year 7 onwards? Year 7 is a time when students are attaining more learning autonomy and confidence to embark on extensive, novel, daring literacy journeys. And NAPLAN is trying to hold them back!  What a sham/e!

NAPLAN’s demise.

Contemporary literacy falls largely into three interrelated types. The first type is everyday or functional literacy. It enables us to go about daily life such as shopping, travel, and socialising. This type of literacy is usually immersive, ubiquitous, and improves alongside real life participation and use.  What have been discussed above are of this type. Can/should this type of literacy be standardised, tested, and benchmarked? Highly unlikely, unless we freeze time, change, and evolution. Physically situated, constantly evolving, and inconceivably diverse, everday literacy can only be cultivated and assessed through ongoing, authentic instructions and practices, inside and outside classrooms.

The second type is critical literacy. It empowers us to see through text; whether a text is racially biased or whether it is evidence based or just hearsay. This type of literacy is essential to a healthy democracy, its freedoms, and civic participation. Yet, attaining this type of literacy is knowingly complex and is usually subject to age and experience. Applying NAPLAN-like standardised tests will only reduce critical literacy to a cold robot or a faceless regime that crusades social dissent, as is happening in such countries as mainland China and the North Korea.

The third type is disciplinary or professonal literacy, which is knotted in specific disciplines or professions. This type of literacy can hardly be obtained without significant dedication of time, energy, passion, talent, and without a doubt, some degree of maturity. Some part of it might be automated to ensure a good command of terminologies. That might be exploited by NAPLAN-like standardisation.

But even this will not last long, when the AI is expected to reach tipping point of mass application in the near future!



Multimodal textuality

​New literacy is built upon change of text. Understanding what a text is is essential in this sense to our understanding of new literacy as well as the pedagogy. However, the kind of research including theorisation so far has only touched upon the surface of this shift regardless of whether we are talking about semiotic texts or social texts or whether pragmatics can be applied to the study on multimodal text. The latter is in fact quite useful, if we could extend its definition from language in use to modality/mode in use. But again, first of all, we have to rethink at a micro-level of text rather than reiterating the now commonsensical perception that multiple modes can be put together to formulate a text.  In other words, we need to understand how textual elements are organised to redefine many macro-level representations such as genre and discourse, specifically.  In fact, through the lens of multimodality, we should and can rethink many  textual conventions.  For example, recount in school setting is commonly taught as a written  text type that usually involves certain textual features such as orientation, development, and coda. But with multimodality,  it is possible for student to simply record a recount or compose  a doc in which hyperlinks, images, and videos are embedded. In this sense, the text type is still recount and the generic structure may stay the same. However, many textual  features can be very different. In the case of a recorded audio or video text, it may be possible to notice many new features such as repetition, pause, missing words/links, and more complex clause patterns. In the case of multimodal composition, it is  possible to notice dilalogues that used to be inserted with double quotation marks are now replaced by short, edited audios or videos. 

Such a change of text type has challenged us to think even further and question the definition of many terms. For example, when a teacher is preparing a  lesson to teach connectives between clauses or between paragraphs, traditionally what comes to his/her mind are such words and collocations such as and, but, however, yet, consequently, insofar, and nevertheless.  But in a multimodal text, first, the functions of such connections may be replaced, say, by images, sound, beats, or emoticons; and second, there might be much greater flexibility in terms of using connectives since they are no longer limited to the written forms. Similarly,  we may have to rethink rhetoric or stylistic devices such as simile, metaphor, hyperbole, personification, and ominopohs. We may want to know if an image can perform the function of metaphor in the expression that he is as strong as horse by juxtaposing images of a man’s muscle and a horse. In the case of ominopheolged, probably we can do much better. For example, even though we would write something like: the dog barks, but in reality, we know that dogs never talk that way; and in fact, very few discursive imitations of natural sounds are accurate. However, since it is now feasible to capture and locate such sound from database, it would be much desirable to embed authentic sounds.