In recent news, Finnish education expert Dr Pasi Sahlberg  is moving his family to Australia. He will take up a new position  at the University of New South Wales, in the Gonski Institute for Education. His name might be familiar to those in the education sector – he was one of the architects of the Finnish education model, as a senior member of the Finnish education ministry.

From an education perspective, Pasi is a bit of a rock-star. The Finnish system is the envy of the world, churning out absolutely incredible results by doing the exact opposite that many in traditional systems might think is required.

In the news (The Age), he was critical of NAPLAN, the testing system that our children now go through in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, across primary and secondary education. One of the things he said was:

“There’s a lot of research around the world showing that if student testing is done in a way that it brings high stakes with it, for either the kids or teachers or both, it will almost always lead to teaching to the test.”

Before anyone suggests that teachers don’t teach very well – this is not what I am suggesting. Several of my very close friends are teachers, who are all extraordinarily talented people and all do an absolutely fantastic job with the resources that they are given. However, I am suggesting that if we somehow were able to remove the pressures of teaching to a specific outcome, and allowing these professionals to focus on the children rather than pre-prescribed and mandated outcomes, we might very well become the envy of education systems globally, too.

There has been a recent study (The Age) completed by Rebecca Collie and published in the Journal of Educational Psychology that followed more than 52,000 kindergarten students, from nearly 2800 NSW schools. Interestingly, the study has found that the students who seem to score the best results in NAPLAN testing are the ones that displayed co-operative, socially responsible and helpful behaviours. These behaviours are generally associated with artistic expression, social expression, and emotional expression.

In other words, the children that do the best in the English and maths test categories are the ones that have been learning to play, have fun, be social, artistic, and emotionally expressive. And yet, we teach – and specifically focus on – the three R’s. After all, these are what are tested for. Thanks, NAPLAN.

Additionally, it certainly makes the Liberal National Party’s recent announcement (The Age) about their plans to overhaul the Victorian education system look ill-informed at best, and absolutely disastrous at worst. Turning the screws on ‘the fundamentals’ and throwing out the rest of the system will end up lowering all results, as based on empirical evidence that was gathered and published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

Looking at some of the previous issues that have taken place under the guise of NAPLAN, it’s evident that system is broken. In an example from late last year (The Age), children with disabilities and generally unlikely to take the tests. There’s likely a number of reasons for this: school rankings being affected, so testing is not administered; stress of the study and subsequent testing process affecting disabled students in unforeseen ways; the simple fact that more fundamental education requirements are more important for this category of students, so why bother at all.

Should we ditch NAPLAN? After all, the Finnish system threw out similar testing years ago due to their harmful nature and effect on the fundamental purpose of school in the first place. NAPLAN allows us to compare students against each other, schools against schools. And it tells us absolutely nothing about the experience of each and every student in that experience.

Perhaps this is simply another example of us needing to revisit the purpose – except this time, from the children’s perspective. Much like customers to a corporate journey…

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