Schools Don’t kill the magic: the perils of NAPLAN
Dear Parents & Caregivers,
Thanks for all your emails asking me questions and reminding me that I need to be preparing the students for NAPLAN. Let it be known that I am painfully aware of this testing regime – I haven’t forgotten as some of you suggested and I haven’t neglected it as others have implied.
I am deliberate and strategic in the way I approach NAPLAN.
Preparation actually started last term. We navigated the online testing space and established our logins and so on. We have completed some practice papers both as a group and under test conditions. I’m confident we have covered an acceptable amount of syllabus content up to this point. I have reassured the students that the tests are simply a way of capturing the things they know, and can demonstrate, at a specific point in time.
I have also told the kids that they should try their best, because trying your best – no matter the task – is a basic value I strive to instil in all my learners.
There are two things I no longer tell my students when NAPLAN season rolls around:
1. That government departments are using these tests to collect data. When I gave this explanation to a Year 3 class a few years back, one of my students with high-functioning autism got it into his head that the Prime Minister would be marking the papers. On the day of testing he got himself so worked up that he vomited all over the exams. I was tempted to bundle the entire mess into an envelope and post it directly to the PM, but instead I settled the student and called his mum.
2. That NAPLAN ‘doesn’t matter’, because when I’ve done that in the past I’ve felt like a liar. These tests do matter – they just don’t matter to me. I am not a fan of NAPLAN. I think it’s unnecessary. I think we lose sight of something incredibly valuable with the regime of NAPLAN testing: the value of learning. The value of learning. For me, learning is priceless – too valuable to be measured and weighed and quantified. I wish I could capture ‘learning’ and show it to you the way I experience it in the classroom. But I don’t know if I can do it with words; it’s like trying to explain something divine. Watching children learn is a powerful thing – it’s the elixir of teaching, the phenomenal drug that keeps teachers coming back to the classroom day after day after day, even when they’re overwhelmed, even when they’re exhausted, even when they’re frustrated, even when they think they want to quit…
Learning is a kind of magic.
Many things impact upon this phenomenal exchange, but fundamental to it all is the relationship between the learner and the teacher.
Learning is literally the movement of ideas, and yet it’s even more remarkable than that because when I share my idea or understanding, my own bank of knowledge is not diminished. It’s like I’ve taken a cutting from my own garden of wisdom and transplanted it into my learner’s mind where they can tend to it until it flourishes.
After the new idea has been shared, the learner attempts to engage with it, perhaps through a task or a problem or an activity. At this point, the learner either succeeds and is guided by the teacher to develop mastery, or the learner misses the mark and the teacher sends out further ideas and concepts and understandings. The process continues like an endless, beautiful cycle until, eventually, the learner succeeds and takes ownership of the concept and embeds it deep within their own mind.
At this point, this moment of ‘learning’, the learner will always look to their teacher and their shining eyes will ask: Did you see me do that? And beside them their teacher will smile or nod and their heart will sing: Yes! I saw you do that. I taught you.
This is the magic of learning. This is the Magic Moment! It’s organic, it takes time, and it’s different for every teacher and for every learner. Many things impact upon this phenomenal exchange, but fundamental to it all is the relationship between the learner and the teacher. There needs to be trust, support, encouragement and a space to fail. There needs to be room for feedback and practice. There needs to be praise and direction.
So, what happens to this magic experience of learning when we start asking questions like:
• Who learned that best?
• Who learned that fastest?
• Who learned that in time for the NAPLAN test?
• Who can express that best on an exam paper?
• Who can give the single, correct answer?
• Who can’t be tricked by this question, designed to produce results that will fit a bell curve?
Let me tell you what happens: enemies of learning creep in and the foundations of learning fall away. Teachers become shackled to time-pressured outcomes and learners disengage.
Magic Moments become fewer and fewer until, eventually, the Magic Moment is lost. What you’re left with is a system that survives on competition and data and accountability, and these are things that should play only a small role in education. They should not be the fuel that feeds it.
Thinking about this actually upsets me. I have tears in my eyes as I write this because it truly feels like a tragedy. I know that some of you will say I’m being dramatic, but I want you to understand that I have very real moral and ethical concerns about NAPLAN and the far-reaching impact that it has. I spent the better part of last year contemplating whether I would return to teaching. I do not like the feeling of being complicit in the myth that is NAPLAN.
We’ve got to stop thinking about learning in Australia as winners and losers, and ‘Band 3’ and ‘Band 6’, and ‘schools operating to standards’, and an economically driven business model. This competitive idea of teaching and learning has no place in education.
We need to shift the belief we currently have that testing and standards and measures and accountability somehow equate to learning. They don’t – and, ironically, all the data we’ve accumulated from that business model shows us that it simply isn’t working.
We need to return to the Magic Moment and have faith in that.