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!




同行评议,尤其是双盲审(作者不知审稿人,审稿人不知作者),一般要求去掉作者信息,力求公正,大牌教授被拒,很正常。而况学术是以质量衡量,不是看作者头衔和资历,这才是同行评议的本意。该事件中审稿人能顶住杨振宁诺奖光环,公正客观地评价其论文,作为学者素养和勇气,着实可敬,值得大陆同行和期刊编辑学习。顺便提一下,杨振宁时代科研人员从质量到数量都比较低,论文数量比较少,杨作为其中的佼佼者,自然很轻易就可脱颖而出,所以可以长期享受特殊待遇,久而久之,把特权当成了常规。现在稍一遭拒,就认为是遭到了冒犯,是典型的学霸思想在做怪。他未征求期刊和审稿人授权同意,就把评议意见公开发表,更表现出对当前学术界科研伦理常规的无知或藐视。难怪他要到大陆去走秀找感觉,大约就是想继续享受自己famous paper 的惠泽!

The National Curriculum, the cane, and Kevin Donnley

Professor Barry Spurr’s downfall was not considered incidental but the result of a political conspiracy against the then freshly released National curriculum review. Spurr and a few other supporters believed that New Maltida had targeted at them in order to attack the government.  Spurr, as one of the 15 experts appointed by the Education Minister’s two men review panel, reviewed the English curriculum.  His view on the newly minted national curriculum English is surprisingly similar to Dr Kevin Donneley’s, a full professor of education at Australia Catholic University who is the chair of an one-men not for profit educational consultancy and on the two-men review panel that led the review.

Spurr’s report in this regard may conjure up allegations of academic cronyism as his conclusion echoes neatly with Donneley’s early advocacy that the Australia curriculum has sidelined the Western, Judio-Crhistrian tradition for being too pro-Asian and -aboriginal. He even stressed a lack of biblical references in the new curriculum. Many would see their view as criticism against multiculturalism but few would question their passion for continuing the so-called universal value imbued in the western civilization, even though their insistence on the biblical references is seemingly ridiculous.

However, under the context of anti-immigration campaigns in Australia and several European countries such as Germany and France, such an insistence is not surprising. The New-Nazi xenophobia is disguised in the veil of so-called Judeo-Christian value system and any other ethnic purification campaigns. At its extreme would be purge of the aliens or any exotic, assimilation/integration-resistant living beings.  Strangely, compassion and acquiescence towards such purge-prone sentiment are often pervasive in that their view is staunchly conservative, speaking to the traditions, truths, and classics, as has been captured by the bleak movie trilogy The Purge.  Conservatives seen in this haze is an honorable term that has no connotations for the left or the right wing but a symbol for acting on principles.

Being conservative is nevertheless equivalent to being careful with, and or nostalgic of, values, beliefs and principles. However, without delimiting its scope with certain conditions, it has little or no credibility in offering credible interpretations or can stand fast as a principle. In fact, it can be discredited quickly in their followers’/advocates’ own practices. Dr Donnelly, for instance, has made himself headlines again lately while claiming the benefit of reintroducing the cane to school, one of the many tools for conducting corporeal punishment. It is not surprising that as a school principal himself in the 70s and 80s, he was candid in equating disciplining to (the pathway to) education. With regard to his advocacy for the Judo-Christian value in education, the cane unmistakably embodies power to domesticate its participants, for conformist good manners regardless of their group or individual identifications. Again, Donnelly is not a lone wolf. Similar zombie ideas, proposals, and policies have resurrected and started to remerge lately in education, politics, and many other pockets of our contemporary society. Some UK schools, for instance, have boasted about plans for recruiting former militants to discipline their pupils to ensure effective education delivery.

The cane is neither dead, repackaged as a preservation-worthy tradition, nor will it depart as an embodiment of power. The Nazis are never buried to vanish their returns in the name of preserving traditions, heritage, characters, and strengths. The conservatives will never give in when they send missionaries to preach traditional values: nostalgic, displaced, but romanticized. The argument both Spurr and Donneley have tried to market resonates with their conservative stance and the so-called tradition, value, and ideologies without the white being ostentatiously flagged as the referent. In many ways, they deflect criticisms as a safe haven for the Donneleys and Spurrs to continue their amusement at others’ bewilderment. The problem is: when the cane is conveniently and systemically manipulated by the state to abuse its non-mainstream/conformist citizens, be it discursive, symbolic, or physical, the abused may resort to various possible means including violence or barbarian actions to avenge. Terror is the last and easiest means for the repressed to feel empowered at all cost. Even worse, it can be inevitably manipulated by those who are thirsty for power and control, as history has repeatedly been producing instances, from Lenin, Starlin, Hitler, to Mao Zedong. The recent tragedy at Paris in which twelve people at a satirical magazine was murdered by a three armed ISIS terrorists may serve a footnote. However admirable the 44 world leaders are when joining the post-massacre protest, the problem persists, as was captured aphoristically in Foucault’s argument:

“…the State is no longer an instrument that one race uses against another: the State is, and must be, the protector of the integrity, the superiority, and the purity of the race…racism is born at the point when the theme of racial purity replaces that of race struggle, and when counterhistory begins to be converted into biological racism” (Foucault, 2003, p. 81).

The terror will continue globally as long as the cane of the Judeo-Christian continues in operation.