Sunday, 20 March 2016

Teaching and assessing creative capabilities

So, Victoria is now the 'Education State'. Well and good. But aside from a new set of number plates, what is being the Education State actually going to mean for students, parents, and teachers?

For a start, the Labor government is promising "$747 million in extra funds to deliver great schools for every community and great teaching in every classroom". Wonderful.

They also want to see "significant improvements in what and how our kids are learning. Not just in their academic pursuits, but in their resilience, in their creativity and in their health and wellbeing." Admirable indeed. But how is this going to happen? Well, that's where it gets a little complicated. 

If you're not a teacher or policymaker in Victorian education, you'd be forgiven if the new Victorian curriculum isn't high on your reading list. In many ways it's quite an unremarkable curriculum. There are the details of the learning areas you'd expect to see, such as English, maths, science and humanities, and the skills and knowledge that every student should expect to gain in these subjects as they progress through their education.

What's interesting about this curriculum, however, is the inclusion of four 'Cross-curriculum priorities' for student learning across all subjects. All subjects will include critical and creative thinking, ethical capability, intercultural capability, and personal and social capability. What's more, from 2017 Victorian teachers will apparently be assessing students in these four capabilities and reporting back to parents. 

The issue here is not that these capabilities are being targeted. Are these capabilities important? Yes. Should they form a central role in the educational experience of all Victorian students? Yes. But should teachers grade students on these capabilities? Absolutely not. 

The current reporting guidelines state that an "on-balance judgment" can be made as to how students perform across their different subjects. The only problem is, in order to arrive at that judgment, eight teachers would need to meet to discuss little Johnny's progress in ethical understanding:

"How's Johnny's sense of ethics for you? For me, it's an 'A'."

"Hmm, well I was thinking he is probably at a 'B' standard."

In a school like mine, 1200 separate meetings would need to take place. It's unthinkable. 

Clearly, some sort of 'capture-all' test would need to take place so that teachers could clearly and quantifiably measure these skills. Let's take the 'personal and social capability' as an example. This capability is to do with students' resilience in dealing with difficult situations and their empathy towards others. But how to assess such a capability? What measurable ways do we have of assessing a student's resilience and assigning them a grade?

Perhaps we could bring back the primary school game of 'pony express'. In this game, students form two lines and are each armed with a ball. Each student then takes a turn at running through the middle of the pack while the other students pelt balls at them.

Teachers could easily designate increments of distance in the line the student runs along, and the point at which the student gives up, falls to the ground and assumes foetal position could then determine their grade. For example, a student who manages to make it to five to eight metres before crumbling might be assigned a 'D' in resilience.

The remaining students could then be graded on how badly they felt about pelting balls at their classmates. Worried facial expressions could be graded on a continuum from low to high, with an 'A+' in empathy for anyone who sheds a tear. Measurable? Yes. A clear system of grading? You bet. Problematic? Incredibly. 

I'm only half in jest in questioning whether 'pony express' is the sort of measurable tool the government had in mind when deciding to insist that we grade students on their resilience. Apart from anything else, if a student receives a 'D' in resilience, what does the government expect that will do to their resilience? 

The reality is that the government has set themselves the task of having Victorian students be 20 per cent more resilient over the next 10 years. And in order for them to be able to say they've met that goal, they'll need numerical data from schools to 'prove' it. The problem is that not all data is best measured numerically.

If you want to measure a student's creative, ethical and social skills, it should be measured through what's known as qualitative data: through talking to them, working with them and observing them. What's more, a lot of the time, these skills aren't fostered through the curriculum; they're fostered through the school camps, the leadership and community programs, and the arts and sports programs that the school offers. 

These new priorities in education are an admirable goal, and serious discussion needs to take place in schools about how each subject can best foster these skills in all students. But the idea that we should start assessing students on their creative capabilities? That's the most uncreative approach I've heard in a long time. 

From the Age
Emily Frawley is a Victorian high school teacher.

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