When the 2018 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) data was released late in 2019, a nation-wide media frenzy broke out —ridiculing the incompetence of students and the education sector with bold headlines stretching as far as, ‘dumbed down under’ and ‘kids in a fail-storm’.
Rather than scrutinising the merit of the PISA data, which is only gathered from a sample of schools and a sample of students within them, or questioning the impact of motivation to complete such tests— which has already been highlighted as a contributing factor to Year 9 NAPLAN results across the country— the media instead chose to run harmful headlines that had impacts on the reputation of our young people, educators and schools throughout Australia.
The mass hysteria over the PISA data is harmful to our students, educators, and schools who are coerced into believing they are simply not good enough and should be ashamed of themselves. When students are bombarded with criticism of their capacity as learners, and teachers are displayed as failing professionals, it becomes clear why there are challenges towards morale and attitude within the Australian education sector. If for once, the media would instead champion Australian education, rather than bash it, this could have renewed positive impacts for students, educators, parents, and school communities.
If we could wish for a new year’s resolution, it would be for the media to commend Australian education and observe what benefits emerge within schooling thereafter.
About PISA data
Beginning in 2000, the OECD (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) conducts PISA research every three years with participating nations and collects data on the performance of 15-year-olds applying knowledge in literacy, science, mathematics and other areas such as wellbeing. Of the 79 countries involved in 2018, Australia ranked 29th in mathematical literacy, falling 18 places since the data of 2003. This declining trend was evident across all subjects, to which the media labelled Australia as a ‘failing nation’.
Although this was “disheartening” for Australian Minister of Education, Dan Tehan, Finland, who are praised and widely recognised as having the best educational system around the globe, also saw declines in performance. The socio-cultural, demographic and political influences differ across participating nations and this must be considered when comparing Australia to other countries. Despite the media’s focus on these declining trends, Australia's results still sit above the OECD average. Furthermore, the performance of students within the independent school sector are indeed operating at a very high level according to PISA data.
Media negatively impacting education
From Tehan’s statement suggesting Australia's results in the PISA testing should be cause for “alarm bells” to the headline for the Daily Telegraph’s editorial quoting, “We’re the best at letting down our children”, we challenge the media to think more critically on the broader impacts their headlines have on students, educators, schools and data outcomes.
Beth Blackwood, CEO of AHISA (Association of Heads of Independent Schools of Australia), wrote in her e-bulletin that it was the prosperous efforts of teachers going ignored that “makes glib and extreme forms of criticism of Australian schools so difficult to stomach”. The teaching profession is one of the most rewarding careers and sees an extraordinary amount of intellectual and highly dedicated teachers invest time into their students to enable them to thrive.
The media's relentless torment, no doubt, reinforces the mockery that, “those who can’t do, teach”. This negatively impacts the perception our teachers have of themselves and their professional training. It is, therefore, no wonder teacher shortages have increased and teaching is the highest recorded profession for the incidence of stress and burnout. Teachers teach by over 150 methods at varying paces for each student, with different forms of encouragement and feedback to engage all unique interests, needs, skill sets, and learning styles of every student in the classroom… all at once! It is an incredibly difficult job that should be praised.
It is with confidence we passionately argue, that our teachers— who tirelessly prepare engaging experiences, evaluate and create resources, give hours of individualised feedback and ambitiously strategise on how to enhance the academic outcomes and wellbeing of all students— are the backbone of Australian education which is far from being a “Third-rate school system unfit for First World nation”, as read The Australian headline.
Similarly, for our students, the searing blow torch of blame on Australian schools is cause for much concern. To be consumed with headlines of their own ‘failure’ only adds to the poor outlook they may have towards schooling and themselves.
The importance of championing students and their failure
Carol Dweck, a renowned Psychologist for her work on Growth Mindset, specialises in academic development counselling and developmental psychology. She emphasises the importance of “how something as simple as wording can have a powerful impact on our ability to improve”. Therefore, if students and teachers are faced with continuing scrutiny from the media, it should be no surprise why data suggests downward trends in performance.
While academic excellence remains important, having the opportunity to fail is essential for a student's growth and development. It is through failure that students learn how to self-regulate, build self-assurance and practice an ‘I can do it’ attitude towards themselves, their approach to schooling and life beyond. Students who believe in themselves and their capacity are empowered and motivated to achieve high results for themselves.
Our students are the leaders of tomorrow, so it is of uttermost importance that we are encouraging, empowering and inspiring them to achieve great things in spite of failure— not teaching them to be afraid, ashamed and taunted by it.
Are we measuring the right thing?
Toorak College witnesses first-hand, the benefits of dynamic curriculums and programs empowering students to thrive in all areas. Whether it be personal or academic growth, Toorak College recognises that the achievements of every student is largely to do with innovative, and progressive initiatives that cultivate critical thinking, self-confidence and focus holistically on a student’s development.
So how does Australia define success? Do we wish for our children to simply be the highest ranked in global academic testing, or do we wish for them to have meaningful careers, purposeful lives and a positive outlook on their talents and skills?
A recent Forbes article discusses what is most important as an outcome of schooling, stating, “Education leads something out of you. Education, ultimately, is transformative.” The article reiterates that what many educators wish for, is for students to enjoy engaging careers, thriving lives and emerge as individuals with confidence and character beyond their school or university. Thus, we need to celebrate diversity in skill, passion, and endeavour. We must continue to inspire aspirations in our students, and equip them with a drive to believe in themselves to affect positive change in our world. This is fundamentally important to us at Toorak as highlighted by the recent Herald Sun article, “Toorak College’s most outstanding students of all time” who are celebrated for the varying passions they have pursued.
Our world is desperate for innovative and divergent thinkers who can think outside the square to address the challenges of future generations. To reduce education to a production line solely comprising of high achieving students will benefit no-one.
So, behind the hysteria and shotgun assault on Australian Education, is a story of success where the combination of professional teachers, hard-working students and a holistic focus on their educational experience does indeed lead to the formation of not only great learners, but young adults of the highest quality who are equipped to thrive in the future that awaits them.
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