Crunching the Number, Part II

Continuing with the analysis of the Mitchell Institute report into the ATAR, we reach Section 4.2. Here the “soft skills” rhetoric goes into complete overdrive:

The evidence is clear that to cultivate these broader skillsets and capabilities in young people, we need dynamic learning experiences that include opportunities for deep learning, project-based learning, and opportunities to apply learning to real-life contexts (Leadbeater, 2016; Zhao, 2012).

Fitting so many poorly-defined terms and so many begged questions into the one paragraph is quite an achievement. But even more telling is the reference to “Zhao, 2012”. An academic paper? No, as the references make clear, this is a book from one of the very worst of the new-age education gurus, whose style can best be described as classic hallmark-card drivel. To invoke someone like Yong Zhao in what purports to be a scholarly, objective “report” is, let us put it mildly, a dubious practice.

The mention of “deeper learning” is also significant. Those of us who have attended inservices at which the latest on-the-make education academic has attempted to provide an example of “deeper learning” which is actually either trivial or hopelessly subjective will have good reason to look askance at this. As always, ambiguous terms must be properly defined if they are to carry any weight.

There is the predictable hang-wringing about “stress” (based on a Mission Australia survey, of all things – again, the likelihood of objectivity here is minimal), and sundry other comments about the evils of the ATAR to round off Section 4. Then, we get onto the alternatives. In detailing these, the authors come across as, well, somewhat naïve.

They may be unaware, for instance, that the supposedly “general-ability” UMAT test is now the target of a burgeoning tutoring industry in itself, and that ambitious students “study” for it with probably more zeal and anxiety than they devote to their academic examinations. It will be interesting to watch developments with the more recent LAT, but my money would be on it going the same way very quickly.

Then comes what is, in my view, the most revealing part of the whole report. In giving some information about the alternative entry schemes available, an inset box contains details of a scheme that has been undertaken by Templestowe College.

A bit of background information is in order here. Templestowe College is currently a darling of the progressive avatars, singled out for praise by (you guessed it) Pasi Sahlberg, and featured frequently in the modish media as a beacon of progressive ideas, a sort of antipodean Summerhill without the nudity. So what’s the story?

Templestowe College in Melbourne currently has an agreement with Swinburne University and is seeking similar arrangements with other institutions.

Under the agreement Templestowe students are required to achieve a minimum Study Score in English and either complete a significant personal project or successfully complete two first year university subjects by distance learning.

The school does not see this as a mechanism for low performing students to gain access to university, but rather as an alternative pathway for capable students seeking to pursue a more personalised pathway in the final years of school. Under the agreement students are given guaranteed entry 12 months before graduation, pending successful completion of their prearranged program.

“Alternative pathway” is certainly one way to describe this scheme, but “likely scam” would be my choice.

Who is going to ascertain that the “personal project” is really the work of the student? With distance learning for a university course, this caveat applies even more forcefully. And the guaranteed prior entry strikes me as grossly unfair to all the other students, who will be dealing with all the usual uncertainties about tertiary opportunities in their final year, in addition to everything else.

At a time when essay factories and their variants have become an unwelcome fixture of the education landscape, proper written exams should be becoming more common, not less. And a scheme such as that described above should be viewed not with thinly-veiled admiration, but with abiding scepticism.

In Part III, an examination of the “bonus points” issue, and a look at the recommendations of the report.

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