The Coming Apocolypse

(I was asked to write (for free) an Op-Ed piece for a National education magazine in November of last year. It wasn’t published & I didn’t even receive the courtesy of a “thanks, but no thanks.”

So here it is.

It just confirmed my belief of the irrelevance of publications in this day and age – so I won’t be writing for any of them again. If I ever have any half-baked ideas or things that are vaguely interesting they will appear here. For free.)

*Note: If you are reading this you survived the apocalypse of the Mayan Calendar…

Everyday I look at the time when it is 11:11. Sometimes in the AM. Sometimes in the PM. I’m not sure why, it just happens.

Listening to a numerologist explain this 11:11 clock phenomenon, you would of heard of a select few, who have a positive mission to accomplish in life because Isaac Newton has 11 letters in his name, combined with the fact that 11=3 in binary arithmetic, and because 3 is the cornerstone of the trinity this means that 11:11 is really a bridge to a higher plane that has different spirals of energy…. 

You get the drift.

Data-driven metrics and obsession with numbers can equate to little more than numerology, the study of the purported divine or mystical relationship between a number and some coinciding observed or perceived event. 

Philosophers use numerology as a stock example of thought gone hopelessly wrong – and whilst it can be fun to indulge in some conspiracy theorizing from time to time it can be counter-productive when numerology is applied in contexts like education.

Whilst politicians and journalists would have you believe that our education system is a “disaster” because of the latest comparative results in international tests where Australia children were beaten by students from 26 countries, this ignores contextual and cultural considerations and is really a misuse of student performance data. It neglects the humanistic side of education and does nothing more than turn children into a number – what the data doesn’t tell you is that high scores can often signify relatively superficial thinking and the ‘hidden’ reality of the fact that the measure affects that which is measured.

The proliferation of standardized testing and the publishing of results has radically altered the kind of instruction that is offered in some schools to the point that teaching to the test has become a prominent part of the educational landscape. Teachers often feel obliged or are indeed mandated to set aside other subjects, for weeks or (particularly in schools serving low-socio economic status students) even months at a time to ‘prepare’ for these tests. The test essentially becomes the curriculum. 

Like esoteric cult members gathered around the great numerologist Pythagoras in Ancient Greece, we worship these results like gospel when in fact they tell us very little and can be misleading. Are the comparative results due to random fluctuations or real differences? Is the data statistically significant? What are the confidence levels of the data? What size is the school? What are the cultural influencers? 

Earlier this year I saw a Grade 3 child, who has a love for learning and life, retreat into a shell of his former self. This child had missed the entire last week of term, and since the year began, missed almost 19 days of school, due to very significant home issues.

It broke my heart.

Think of the impact that a difficult home environment has on the development of a child, and then compare this with the pettiness and insignificance of data driven approaches.

The reported test comparisons (NAPLAN, TIMMS, PISA) have almost the same effect on quality curriculum and teaching that climate change has on the eskimos. Comparative data reporting that is tied to funding has grown in emphasis like a malignant tumor on the face of a monster from a rom-zom-com and threatens our schools with the parasite of irrelevance.

Our desire to quantify everything is the wrong message. It’s based on a deficit model where it says to kids, “you suck at x”. This desire to quantify wrongly dismisses the human element and the implied rigidity doesn’t permit time and space to play.

It’s not always about the metrics – the idea that learning should be a regulated process and that we learn best when learning is ‘work’ flies in the face of a hundred years of research that suggests otherwise. Play is the highest form of intellectual curiosity and together with games and game thinking is a key medium in promoting positive social outcomes that move us away from our numerologist obsession.

We can learn a lot from play and games if we give them the chance.

DSC_0061

Today I spent the day with Grade 3&4 students playing & designing in Little Big Planet (a Playstation game) and learnt more about them in 4 hours than some teachers would in six months – and yet, people would scoff at this picture and say that it isn’t rigorous and nothing of value could possibly be going on here. Play is for home. Play is for ‘free-time.’ Play is for children and only after the ‘hard work’ has been done.

At its most basic level, play fosters creativity and imagination and connects pleasurable emotions to learning. This is what ‘back to basics’ should be all about. Forget the tests, ‘back to basics’ is about connecting pleasurable emotions to learning. Card games, board games, outside games, digital games are one possible avenue to driving this new ‘back to basics’ movement.

If you don’t already, I challenge you to put aside some time to play with your students. Get down on their level. Learn with them.

It’s empowering.

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