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!




以方励之、柴玲、刘晓波为代表的89一代的民运人士根本不懂民主。他们只会炫耀概念。更要命的是,经历了文革、上山下乡、反日宣传、儿童团、人肉盾牌人肉炸弹等各种形式的恐怖主义训练和影响后,这帮人的民主实践比起当年宽松政治环境下的孙中山、毛泽东、邓小平相差太远,又缺乏实际的生活体验。作为这伙人的典型代表,唐伯桥一旦落脚真民主的国家,就立马原形毕露,露出了流氓无产者的真面目。跟着他们搞民主,还不如跟90后、00后搞小确幸来的实在。 新一代年轻人虽然无意民主,但却在做实事,恢复让老毛破坏殆尽的市场经济,发展资本主义,张扬个性,拥抱多元化。这些才是真民主的基础,更是所谓民主转型的希望。


在全球化民族融合再造的今天,边巴次仁的观点不仅落后,一旦得逞,比天朝管制下的西藏可能更可怕。要知道,民族不是一个固化概念,它可以成型,也在演化,更可能消失,融入到新的民族中去。这个演化速度有快有慢,但相较于个体生命要漫长的多。回族的出现就是很典型的例子。宗教也一样,佛教传到西藏,和当地自然、人文环境结合,就成了藏传密宗,和内地农耕社会的禅宗大不相同。到了电子化时代,各个教派来往紧密,没人能预料未来藏传佛教会是什么样子。所以西藏当然可以是自己的西藏,但更应该是西藏人的西藏,包括认同自己是藏人的藏族、汉人和其他种族和民族。这样的西藏也应该是各个宗教教派和平竞争和共处的西藏,而不只是藏传佛教的西藏。做不到这些, 结果会依然是残酷的教派斗争, 甚至是种族清洗和屠杀。本来以为这些年达赖喇嘛们流亡在外,已经深刻体会到世界大势。现在看起来不完全如此,骨子里的民族主义种族主义宗教至上的排他思想,和天朝并无二致。


偶然读到威廉学院Ashraf 与 布朗大学Galor 2011年合写的旧作,《文化多元,地理隔绝与国家财富的源起》Cultural diversity, geographical isolation, and the origin of the wealth of nations,大为震撼。作者立足新制度经济学,中间揉合了社会生态和进化观点,虽然数学模型大众亲近不易,但论断极为简单。该理论貌似简单,实则解释力惊人。

简言之,农耕社会技术水平低,资源流动区域小速度慢周期长,文化同化(assimilation)有助聚集社会资源,有效提高社会生产力,现在流行的所谓集中力量办大事就是这种思维的典型体现。农耕时代文化同化的必要性跳出国别对比、文化优劣、种族差异等常规框架,高屋建瓴, 准确解释了朝代更替、君主专制、等级固化、垂直管理、宗族主义、民族主义、集体主义等各种现象。

由此看来,农业时代的东西方,不过五十步笑百步,总体差别不大。 差别只是运气好坏,盛衰早晚而已。去各自老祖宗那寻根,如新儒家、文艺复兴等,不过是浪漫主义的幻觉。最大的用处,是历史学研究,探讨社会转型临界点(critical mass)形成的时间和具体因素。有意义,但不大,因为临界点成形有如预测地震带地震,必有大震,但至于何时发生,无法准确预测。


工业化社会至现今,社会科技水平大幅提高,资源流动全球化,速度快周期短,文化聚合发散(cultural fusion and diffusion) 能加速分工合作,推进科学技术制度创新。社会文化发散型聚合是工业及后工业社会的主要动力。这也解释了文艺复兴、理性启蒙、私有财产、个性自由、民主回归、自由贸易等等现象。


2017年7月13日,是个星期四。悉尼冬日,不冷,寒气还是蛮渗人,和悉大师哥两口子在家火锅小聚,聊到刘晓波。估计快不行了,师哥说。师哥悉大中文系任教,不爱政治话题,但职位特殊,所以内幕花边消息不少,比如某某教授民运成功日有志问鼎总统等等。晚上熬夜看温网比赛,起的晚,早上开车送小孩上学听ABC要闻播报,才知道刘晓波昨日已病故,六十又一岁。心里疙瘩了几下,一天不爽。后来陆续跟踪了几天刘霞、海葬、刘家大哥争遗产的报道, 依然不爽,不过没先前气闷了。





后来读麻省理工Acemoglu与芝大Robinson 2013年合著的新国富论 《国家衰落之谜论国力、繁荣与贫穷的根源》 Why nations failThe origins of power, prosperity, and poverty 作者秉承新制度经济学传统,以典型国家和地区经济发展史为蓝本,讨论解决盛衰因果如墨西哥和美国边境接壤的姐妹小镇、西非津巴布韦等。资料翔实,深入浅出,虽不能比拼当年亚当斯密《国富论》的开创见识,对马克斯韦伯清教徒文化决定论、精英治国、专家治理等各种流行论断的批判却是针针见血,毫不留情。指出同等条件下 ,实施民主制度、法治健全、主权稳定的国家,往往更能充分发挥市场繁荣经济的巨大作用。遗憾的是,全书自始至终,未能建立可复制的模型,给出逻辑解释,有先入为主,套套逻辑的嫌疑。




Pride and prejudice as hidden racism

In the academic circle, Barry Spurr was known as Australia’s first chair professor of poetry serving at the University of Sydney and was well regarded internationally as an established T.S. Eliot scholar before his dramatic suspension. Professor Spurr’s misfortune spiraled on 18 October 2014 when the editor of Newmatilda (, an independent online media, published an email transcript allegedly hacked through Spurr’s university email box.  In those emails, the professor “whimsically” though invariably, played with derogatory, racist terms such as abs and chiken-poohs. He also defamed the indigenous household in his suburb as “tips of rubbish iceberg” and blamed female rape victims for their own irresponsible dress and behaviors.  Newmaltida’s release of some of the emails, sparked swift and intense anger from the public and he was suspended immediately by the University for a thorough investigation.

While looking over the email transcript, I was struck, however, is not by that he is a racist under cover–any one including myself can succumb to some shades of racism at some point of time, wittingly or unwittingly, in a matter of a slip of tongue, mind, or judgment.  Upon reflections on the incident, I became deeply uncomfortable with this accomplished scholar’s pride, of being a member of the white, of being part of the Western civilization, and of being a gatekeeper of the standard to decide on the inclusion and exclusion of people. Without a doubt, he is a sensible person with a sense of social responsibility that is obsessive with a sense of reversed white guilt– a guilt in which white people as his kind must shoulder greater social responsibilities. A super hero complex inbuilt in his sense of whiteness is naturally manifested. It is his responsibility to provide solutions to other inferior people (including white bogans) in the dire of various social problems and to offer rescue.

Identified as a non-white, I am deeply concerned about the literary professor’s deplorable contempt on/ignorance of fundamentals of science and the obliviousness of time and space in his thinking. He is not intentionally anti-intellect but the pride, to a large extent, has led him to such a fate of defeat. He himself is a victim of the whiteness virus by birth or through education and career pursuit and has become a carrier of this virus.  What chilled me even more is that he is not a lone wolf. He has a pack considering his academic ranking and that he is a member of the review panel of Australia’s National Curriculum English. He is the chosen one!

Interestingly on this note is Spurr’s attitude towards the Australian bogan culture.  What at play here elucidates that indeed is not race  or ethnicity that infiltrates Spurr’s conscience but rather than his privilege to be a superior or in other words, to be the powerful, materially or symbolically, a dangerous savior positioning held fast by many members of today’s ivory tower.

Trump Rhetoric: His secret weapon to success (or dictatorship?)

Donald Trump will put an end to "nation building" and instead focus on ... All talks about Donald Trump’s antics are on his shrewd showmanship which is indisputably effective, in retaining attention and drowning criticisms. But critics have taken no note of the power of his language, as well as his way of performing his language in texts such as his campaign speeches and press conference rants. Instead they ridicule it, ruthlessly and stupidly. Media coverage is flooded by the kind of comments such as Year 3 grammar and vocabulary, grammatical mistakes, typos, overtly simple text structure, illogical arguments …The list goes on. All of them certainly make sense if Trump’s language is compared with the style shared by the past US presidents and contemporary world leaders which is polished, grammatical, conspicuously academic, and unmistakably elite like. The kind of questions here I’d like to ask is: is this style really typical of the elite? Or is it simply outdated and out of touch.

Frustrated by Trump’s rusty-belt support, appeal to the lower-income white families, and so-called anti-intellect trend, very few critics and activists have calmed down and reflect on our language practices. For instances. How do we create text in digital times on our phone, blog, Facebook, and Twitter? Do we really use those classic rhetorical devices and the text conventions mediated by the print? Not really. In fact, over the past 20 years, our text practices and training basically have been turned upside down while we are migrating to the digital space. It seems the majority of us are doing well and are ripping all kinds of benefit from this change. To just name a few: speedy communications, easy access, and diverse channels and media.

But surprisingly and unfortunately, the majority of politicians and educators share the same front in language education and are active in condemning the new landscape of literacy education. They are worried about the Generation Y: too much screen time, lack of handwriting, dwindling interest in classic literature, too much video/VR gaming, insatiable texting… The list goes on, as well, and certainly it is an ominous sign of downgrading literacy and constitutes literacy jeopardy . To rescue the new generations, they throw billions of dollars into implementing conceivable sorts of standardized tests to name and shame students, schools, and universities and restore the old, outdated literacy skills. Many mainstream media are trapped in this mentality and have become accomplice in redistributing this discourse, uncritically.

Well this may seem ironic, or even trivial. But triviality is often where rebellion and revolution originate, if we genuinely believe those famous sayings that words are swords and that texts (discourse, narratives, etc.) have power. In retrospect, we must reassess Trump’s language and the texts he and his team are creating. They are not Year 3 level and they are embraced by the Gen Y dearly, wittingly and unwittingly. It really does not matter what type of membership we are holding. As Trump is a successful show business veteran, he understands and uses our language and texts all too well and he has been performing by exactly the same script to grab our eyes and hearts. To sum up with a blunt and bleak statement: we are all Trump fans, subconsciously. And even more troubling is: virtually, Trump has no rivals among his contemporaries in creating and performing our text . It is no secret that Trump will continue instigating controversies and causing serious problems, unless brave leaders of the Gen Y are willing to stand up.