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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.
Tags: , , ,

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.


1. Robert Tillsley - July 2, 2013

A very interesting article. The ted speech referenced is great as well. To provide a creative environment I see four things as being necessary:
* A supportive school administration
* A worldly teacher
* Access to resources
* A supportive social structure for students

A supportive school administration helps connect staff with each other to facilitate cooperation and sharing of expertise/strength. They help teachers meet legal/syllabus requirements without stifling them.

As teachers, we need to have a broad set of experiences that we can draw on to open students to possibilities, in the same way that science fiction opens the minds of scientists. A worldly teacher is at home with change, with the unknown and is eager for new experiences.

Materials, equipment and outside expertise should be readily available to take advantage of both planned and unplanned interest. Something interesting is noted in the grass whilst outside doing PE, then send some kids over to the resource library and get a few digital microscopes right away. Looking at light, glass prisms should be readily available. Schools should have ovens ready for experimentation with bread. Art store rooms should be filled with paint, paper, brushes, foam, paddle pop sticks and the like. Teachers should not need to fund basic material out of their own wages.

Broader government policies and social initiatives need to help families in situations of stress or entrenched poverty. Daycare, preschool and other socialising and educational opportunities need to be on offer to make the biggest different to children when it is needed. We need to stop seeing the poor or culturally isolated as whipping boys covering up the lack of support for those born outside of privilege. If the family situation is not good, children begin hamstrung and then we test to see just how much we can blame them. A hungry child is worry about food is not considering geography. An isolated child doesn’t have the peer support to freely explore possibilities.

Australia can’t hope to compete with countries that focus on didactic learning unless we want massive wage drops. Unless our population grows into the hundreds of millions, we won’t have a local base for such low skill levels to operate in. We have to be able to value add, especially in ways that don’t require the physical transport of high weight items. Which means we must have our children taking a creative, entrepreneurial path. Anything less dooms us to being an economic backwater.

Jane, I find it amazing that we limit, defund and deride public schools and then blame them for any failing.

2. lee whitfort - July 9, 2013

Robert has hit the nail on the head, we- as a community need to decide what minimum education and life experiences we want to provide for all our population. Education is for life.The idea that education stops at the school gate is a myth which overlooks the role that media and other forms of social interaction have in the “education” of our children. We should also acknowledge that kids have different educational needs at different stages of their development and a rigid curriculum will fail most kids at some time in their 12 years of education.

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