One shot vaccine for learning?

International test results and media attention continue to confirm that learning in Australian schools, at least as measured by these tests, is declining. While everyone is concerned, politicians, education academics, educational bureaucrats and even schools keep looking for the magic program that will solve the problems and return Australia to its high position internationally.

The medical model

During the summer break and before the stories about returning to school, newspapers carried a number of stories touching on this theme. The Epidemic Australia is failing to control (SMH 5/1/21) by Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg working in the Gonski Institute, laments that the use of scientific health advice in fighting the Covid 19 pandemic is not being duplicated in education. He claims that evidence-based policies would have terminated NAPLAN at the trial stage by accepting the evidence of curriculum narrowing, teaching to tests and declining motivation. He decries the inspiration for the education reforms (that) are imported from the US and Britain and that come with little or weak evidence of success. As with the medical model he wants to put his trust in science but claims that unlike medicine, education operates on the basis of ideology, politics and consensus. However, the variables in education settings are multiple and not easily controlled to give clear evidence.

The single shot

Imported and home-grown programs and ideologies have often been touted as solutions to teaching and learning problems. Failed national and local initiatives can be recalled: nationally developed statements and profiles and the key competencies programs of the early nineties, the demise of the NSW Quality Assurance audit program and the failure to fire Quality Teaching initiative. We can recall nationally promoted programs in Asian studies, civics and citizenship and values education which failed to penetrate more than the interested school. Yes, some schools benefitted from these programs and their students are better off for being included, but for most schools their resistance based on the knowledge that time would see them disappear proved correct. Systemic change is always difficult and not possible through a single initiative no matter how good it might seem to be by those implementing it.

So with interest, I read Game to help NSW students improve marks, behaviour (SMH 13/1/21). Like any educational initiative, put into the hands of a good teacher and supported by other forms of learning, this initiative can bring about the outcomes claimed. Focussed on primary school students, the game PAX Good Behaviour Game, claims from longitudinal studies in the US to decrease aggression, increase students’ test scores and their chances of going to university, and make them less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs. The description of methodology involves, competitive group work with prizes. Incorporated into teaching, this game can achieve a lot, but it is not a one-shot solution to educational standards. Some of the variables I would like to see data on are the socioeconomic differences for how the game is used and forthcoming results, how it is used within the classroom to address the curriculum, how it caters for individual differences and whether boredom with a predominant methodology sets in.


On the same theme, Schools too influenced by “Kardashian” gurus: research (SMH 17/1/21) reports on research resulting in a light-hearted attempt to highlight the growth of the guru, rock-star researcher and conference circuit speaker by creating an index based on the discrepancy between the social media profile and publications record – a social influence index inspired by Kim Kardashian.

The result listed a number of high scorers amongst well known educationalist raising the question as to whether schools (including education ministers and bureaucrats) are too influenced by gurus whose initiatives may not have the scientific research and implementation evidence to back them up. This may be a very serious matter in Australia where there is pressure to improve. There is also a range of situational and cultural reasons why successful initiatives might work in one country, system or school but not in others. It is these matters that complicate educational success.

Multifaceted issue

As discussed in [Going backwards: 20+ years of a literacy and numeracy focus] ( the issues are complex and involve: curriculum; funding; conflict (in educational theories, innovations and research), teaching quality, resources and on the job training, teacher training and accreditation; political and bureaucratic decision making; expectations of student performance; socio-economic background and preschool education; testing programs; adopting overseas models; and separating standards and rank.

Addressing our educational problems needs to occur in all these areas together in the same time frame as they impact on each other. Neither by a piecemeal approach, nor a one-shot vaccine will deliver the learning wanted for Australian students.

John Gore