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“How to escape education’s Death Valley?” June 17, 2013

Posted by christinefjohnston in Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics.
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by Jane Hunter

The provocation in this post is the title of Ken Robinson’s latest TED talk. When teachers at Coonamble High School in rural NSW viewed this talk recently it was greeted with thunderous applause as it concluded. According to executive principal of the school, Margaret Mulcahy: “enthusiasm for what Robinson describes in the TED talk launched what turned out to be a highly successful school development day that firmly focused on 21st Century pedagogy and the Australian National Curriculum”.

What is really interesting here is that alongside pedagogy for classrooms in more technology-rich contexts, some schools are also seeking to re-examine their focus on standardized measures of students’ performances as key arbiters of what students know in 21st Century contexts. There is disquiet in the teaching ranks and Robinson’s work, among other education scholars (Craft, 2012; Ito et al, 2013; Jukes et al, 2012; Martinez & Stager, 2013; McWilliam & Taylor, 2012), calls on governments, schools and teachers to rethink the focus of learning.

This new TED talk now forms a quartet of my favourite Ken Robinson clips, the others being What is in the school of your dreams ; Creativity, learning and the curriculum and Ken Robinson says schools kill creativity.  Leaving the other clips to one side for the purposes of this post, Robinson’s most recent conversation uses the metaphor of Death Valley – the driest place on earth – to draw our attention to a new metaphor for education. Robinson explains that the possibility seeds are all in place … surviving … just below the surface and they are waiting for the right conditions to germinate and to burst into flower. He says: “Current education policies in many countries are mechanistic. The push for better data from standardised tests to give us better information to fine tune schools …. is just not true … it won’t … and it never did”. His argument is based on the fact that education is a human system and the compulsion of more tests, more conformity, less breadth in curriculum and more emphasis on teaching as task, will not facilitate good learning for students. He describes how levels of disengagement among students in schools in many countries are evidence of the failure and slippage of current ‘testing’ policies in education.

Like Robinson, I agree ‘tests and testing’ have a place in schools and in education more generally, but they are not the whole story.  When governments look to standardised tests as barometers by which to gauge, success or failure, or good or poor teaching in schools, it is ‘thin education measurement’. Rich measurements of schools, teachers and students’ performances comes through using data, for example, to diagnose how students are learning, see how curious they  are, understand how well they engage with the whole curriculum, and how often they are given opportunities to produce and express learning in creative ways.  This type of measurement and this kind of learning takes time and time means students may cover less content but what they know is deeper, plentiful, imaginative and motivating. And, in such classrooms students are given, as Csíkszentmihályi (1996) found: “Time to get into flow in their learning” (p.22).

In new research (Hunter, 2013) exemplary teachers in Stage 1-5 classrooms in some NSW schools spoke about NAPLAN in the context of how they conceptualized their knowledge of technology integration. While the study teachers were not completely critical of NAPLAN they called for it to be re-imagined. For example, one teacher said: “NAPLAN should be telling us about our students’ progress and how I can improve my teaching” and another described its effect as meaning: “The hijacking of learning in schools right now”*. In examination of more than 500 separate references to support research in the doctoral study (Hunter, 2013), a strong case is made in the work of Zhao (2009, 2012) that shows following East Asian models of schooling (characterized by high levels of testing with recall and reproduction seen as important) in countries like China, South Korea, and Singapore will not develop young people’s creativity and entrepreneurship, nor allow opportunities for exploration, experimentation and expression of meaningful learning. Zhao (2013) cites statistics that show less than 1% of the world’s patents (as useful measures of original thought and innovation) are produced annually by China, whereas in countries like the US, patent production for the same period is greater than 34%. Other education literature (Chen, 2010; Pellegrino & Hilton, 2012; Richardson, 2012) details how ‘innovation and individuality’ are being driven out of public schools globally as a direct consequence of ‘testing regimes’. Such evidence aligns with what Robinson repeats in this recent conversation.

And finally, to return to the conclusion of the TED talk, Robinson invites jurisdictions, schools and teachers to shift the ‘testing focus’ and to think about education in a climate of possibility using his Death Valley metaphor. He reminds us of the famous Benjamin Franklin quote about three classes of people in the world: “The immovable, the movable and … those that move”. Perhaps, now is the time for educators to move?

*Submissions to the Senate Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee’s Inquiry and Report on “The effectiveness of the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN)” were received until the 7th June 2013. The list of submissions can be viewed here.


 Chen, M. (2010). Education nation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Craft, A.  (2012). Childhood in a digital age: Creative challenges for educational futures. London Review of Education, 10 (2), 173-190.

Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: Harper Collins.

Hunter, J. (May 2013 – in examination). Exploring technology integration in teachers’ classrooms in NSW public schools. Unpublished PhD dissertation. University of Western Sydney.

Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K., Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., & Craig Watkins, J. (2013). Connected learning: An agenda for research and design. Irvine, CA: The Digital Media and Research Hub.

Jukes, I., McCain, T. & Crockett, L. (2012). Living on the edge: Windows on tomorrow. 21st Century Fluency Series. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

McWilliam, E., & Taylor, P. (2012, April 16). Schooling for personally significant learning: Is it possible? Retrieved from http://www.ericamcwilliam.com.au/personally-significant-learning/

Martinez, S., & Stager, G. (2013). Invent to learn: Making, tinkering and engineering in the classroom. Torrance, CA: Constructing Modern Knowledge Press.

Pellegrino, J. W., & Hilton, M. L. (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Retrieved from http://sites.nationalacademies.org/xpedio/groups/dbassesite/documents/webpage/dbasse_070621.pdf

Richardson, W. (2012). Why school? How education must change when learning and information are everywhere. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

 Zhao, Y. (2009). Catching up or leading the way: American education in the age of globalization. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

 Zhao, Y. (2012). World class learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

 Zhao, Y. (2013). Keynote address at Inspire and Innovate Conference, NSW DEC, April.

 Jane Hunter is a Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. She researches in the field of technology and learning, pedagogy and teacher professional learning.

DisabilityCare Australia: First the euphoria, then the questions to be solved June 4, 2013

Posted by christinefjohnston in Education Policy and Politics, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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1 comment so far

From Assoc. Prof.  Christine Johnston

I am not embarrassed to admit that, like the Prime Minister, I was teary-eyed on seeing the legislation for the establishment of DisabilityCare pass through the parliament with bi-partisan support. I had not expected it would happen so quickly and so decisively. But that very speed brings with it some questions and possible dangers which are worth thinking about as the euphoria settles and the launch begins.

It is a cliché, but nonetheless true, that the introduction of DisabilityCare Australia is a game changer for all those who have a disability (or who will acquire a disability). At its centre is recognition of the life-long impact which a disability has on individuals and those around them; their families, friends and colleagues. But it is more than that. It is a fundamental acknowledgement of the rights of those with disabilities to participate in the community and to have available the supports necessary for them to do so. Most important is that it seeks to place control in the hands of the user. Individualised funding means that services are targeted and chosen by the person with a disability or, where appropriate, by their advocate. It will, then, essentially provide a system where the individual purchases the services they want and need. This will have profound consequences both for the individual and, potentially, for the services that currently exist.

My particular interest is in early childhood intervention and how individualised funding will work for families who have a young child with a disability. Imagine that your child has just been identified as having a disability. You know little about your child’s disability and even less about what interventions might be useful. However, you now have funding available to you to buy services for your child and family. On what basis do you do this? How do you learn about your child’s disability? And, just as importantly, how do you decide what interventions will be most useful at this time in your child’s life?

These questions are not new and they are not ones that arise because of individualised funding: they exist now and are experienced by all families at the time of identification and/or diagnosis. Indeed, it can be argued that the experience of adults learning that they have an acquired disability will be similar. The difference is that families now engaged with early childhood intervention services generally have access to professionals who can enable them to make these decisions.

Early childhood intervention is predicated on the philosophy of family-centred practice (Dunst, 2004; Dunst & Trivette, 2005; Moore, 2010). Rather too simply put its basic tenets are these: parents are the experts on their family and child, services should be coordinated and family-driven, and disability affects not only the child but the family. An individual funding model therefore fits well into this philosophy. However, there are some provisos.

In a family-centred model, the approach to intervention should largely be one that utilises natural learning environments and opportunities (Dunst & Bruder, 2002). Furthermore, the approach to service delivery should ensure that the child and family are not overwhelmed by the number of professionals with whom they have to deal: a transdisciplinary model which utilises a key worker to coordinate services and advocate for the child and family is therefore seen as optimal (Drennan, Wagner, & Rosenbaum, 2005). Families can, of course take on this role if they wish. What is unclear at present is whether case managers skilled in early childhood intervention practice will be available to families who have a young child with a disability under the new model and how their services will be paid for.

This is a crucial consideration. Anecdotal evidence from parents who have been using individualised funding suggests that they may take on this role themselves since to bring the professionals (generally therapists) together will be an additional cost and subtract from the monies available to them for direct intervention for their child. For some families this is an appropriate solution, for others it may be yet another pressure in an already stressful situation.

Moreover, in a model where the family purchases services how do they make decisions about what intervention approach should be taken and who they should engage to do it? The importance of evidence-based practice, not just in early childhood intervention, but in medicine and education is well accepted.  Considerable thought needs to be given to what information and supports families need in order to be able to judge the credibility of claims for various approaches to intervention and the validity of information posted on websites. The provision of a list of approved providers by DisabilityCare will go some considerable way to solving this problem but it will not solve it completely. Families need access to experienced and skilled early childhood intervention professionals who can assist them to make sense of the plethora of information and possibilities.

My conversations so far with families who have a young child with a disability have led me to the conclusion that they, at least, are assuming that individualised funding will occur alongside their access to dedicated, multi-disciplinary early childhood intervention services. They have some justification in this assumption as this is what occurs with the Better Start and Helping Children with Autism funding. Whether this will continue seems far from clear at present. Will these services also be fully dependent on attracting funds directly from families and, if they do, will families be prepared or able to pay for coordination of their services and assistance with choice?

My other concern relates to the early childhood intervention services themselves. In those services we have a wealth of experience, talent and expertise. And, we have a means of inducting new therapists, educators and other allied health staff through their being mentored by expert staff. We cannot afford to lose this. Ways must be found of utilising this knowledge; the role of early childhood services must be guaranteed if we are not to return to earlier approaches which are far from family-centred.

DisabilityCare offers extraordinary opportunities but, as suggested, there are inherent questions that must be addressed. The launch of the program in July will provide the vehicle for robust discussion and evaluation. We must take up that opportunity and work to make DisabilityCare the best it can.


Drennan, A., Wagner, T. & Rosenbaum, P. (2005). The ‘Key Worker’ Model of Service Delivery. Keeping Current #1-2005. Hamilton, Ontario: CanChild Centre for Disability Research.


 Dunst, C.J. (2004). An integrated framework for practicing early childhood intervention and family support. Perspectives in Education, 22 (2) 1-16.

Dunst, C.J. & Bruder, M.B. (2002). Valued outcomes of service coordination, early intervention, and natural environments. Exceptional Children, 68 (3), 361-375.

Dunst, C.J. & Trivette, C.M. (2005). Measuring and evaluating family support program quality. Asheville, North Carolina: Winterberry Press.

Moore, T. (2010). Revised Literature review for the DEECD Early Childhood Intervention Reform Project. Melbourne: CCCH.

Christine Johnston is Director, Engagement and International in the School of Education at the University of Western Sydney

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