For everyone Play school

Despite all the well-meaning talk of catching up on lost time, it’s clear that working harder isn’t working for us, or for our students. Maybe it’s long COVID, maybe it’s the realisation that what we were chasing isn’t worth catching, but something needs to change before any more teachers quit or any more students go unscored.

Recent figures show the number of students completing secondary school with an unscored VCE is soaring, with more than one in 10 graduating without an ATAR last year. Going unscored was gaining popularity even before the pandemic made it the go-to choice for students feeling overwhelmed with Year 12. There was some hope that the return to reality would see this trend reverse – but, as Semester One came to a close, it was clear that more students than ever before had decided to pull the plug. 

I used to blame this on their lack of resilience or, if I was trying to be more positive, the many new pathways that didn’t require an ATAR score. But when a student of mine told me he had decided to go unscored just as he was about to submit his Unit 3 Studio Art folio, I realised there might be something else at play. 

I had a meeting with his parents and tried to change their minds, telling them how well his folio was going and that going unscored now would be like learning how to drive only to not take the test. Worse, an unscored VCE meant he could never take the test if he changed his mind later. 

They listened to my arguments, then explained that the main reason he was going unscored was to enjoy art the way he used to. Being ranked with all the other students in the state had taken the fun out of his learning. He wasn’t going unscored because he was giving up, he was going unscored to keep going.

 

Education is only a game if we say it is.

I wrote about the importance of having fun during lockdown #5 – or maybe it was #6 (the last few years are a little hazy) – but in my struggle to get my students back up to speed, I had forgotten my own advice. Humans, like most animals, are born to play. It isn’t something we have to learn; it is how we learn.

But our metaphorical language uses ‘game’ as a synonym for ‘play’, and this is where it all goes wrong. A game has rules that define success and failure. Games demand there be winners and losers – and while they might be fun to learn, when the stakes are high, games can be utter misery.

My game plan this year had been to work harder, focus on the outcome criteria, and push my students to succeed. It took a student going unscored in a subject I thought was inherently fun to remind me that the high-stakes game of VCE can take the fun out of anything. The Greeks would call this dramatic irony.

So, what can we do? Unscored VCE is a brute force response to a complex situation made worse by our current fast-food menu of options. Students either choose the VCE super-size combo with extra exams, or the VCAL and VET ‘happy meals’ with hands-on assessment. Perhaps it is time for an à la carte approach?

For once, there is a plan in place to tackle this part of the problem. From next year, all government schools will offer the Victorian Pathway Certificate in place of foundational VCAL, and there will be a new VCE Vocational Major option too. Students who choose this will still complete a core curriculum of literacy, numeracy and personal and work-related skills, but will also do a minimum of three other Unit 3/4 sequences as part of their program. For students like mine, this could be a way to keep doing the subjects they love while minimising the number of exams they have to do at the end.

There is so much more we can do, though, and it all starts with the way we talk. Metaphors are powerful, but they can be dangerous too. Education is only a game if we say it is. Maybe if we called our workplaces ‘play schools’ instead of ‘high schools’ we would remember the point isn’t to win but to keep going. That’s what children seek when they play – to keep coming up with new possibilities so the fun doesn’t stop. Games end. Learning shouldn’t.

Funnily enough, research shows that play-based learning might be the best way to lift exam scores too. Now that is irony.

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