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Who benefits from online marking of NAPLAN writing? October 26, 2017

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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By Susanne Gannon

In 2018 most students in most schools will move to an online environment for NAPLAN. This means that students will complete all test sections on a computer or tablet. Test data that is entirely digital can be turned around more rapidly so that results will be available for schools, systems and families much faster.

The implication is that the results can be put to use to assist students with their learning, and teachers with their planning. While this appears to address one of the persistent criticisms of NAPLAN – the lag between testing and results – other questions still need to be asked about NAPLAN. Continuing concerns include high stakes contexts and perverse effects (Lingard, Thompson & Sellar, 2016), the marketization of schooling (Ragusa & Bousfueld, 2017), the hijacking of curriculum (Polesel, Rice & Dulfer, 2014) and the questionable value of NAPLAN for deep learning (beyond test performance).

Almost ten years after its introduction, NAPLAN has been normalised in Australian schooling. Despite some tweaking around the edges, the original assessment architecture remains intact. However, the move to online delivery and automated marking represents a seismic shift that demands urgent attention.

Most student responses in NAPLAN are closed questions. In the new online format these include multiple choice, checkbox, drag and drop, reordering of lists, hot text, lines that can be drawn with a cursor and short answer text boxes. These types of answers are easily scored by optical recognition software, and have been since NAPLAN was introduced.

However the NAPLAN writing task, requiring students to produce an extended original essay in response to an unseen prompt, has always been marked by trained human markers. Markers apply a detailed 10 point rubric addressing: audience, text structure, ideas, persuasive devices, vocabulary, cohesion, paragraphing, sentence structure, punctuation and spelling. In years when narrative writing is allocated, the first four criteria differ however the remaining six remain the same. Scores are allocated for each criterion, using an analytic marking approach which assumes that writing can be effectively evaluated in terms of its separate components.

It is important to stress that online marking by trained and highly experienced teachers is already a feature of high stakes assessment in Australia. In NSW, for example, HSC exams are marked by teachers via an online secure portal according to HSC rubrics. The professional learning that teachers experience through their involvement in such processes is highly valued, with the capacity to enhance their teaching of HSC writing in their own schools.

Moving to online marking (called AES or Automated Essay Scoring by ACARA, also called machine-marking, computer marking or robo-marking) as NAPLAN proposes is completely different from online marking by teachers. While the rubric will remain the same, judgement of all these criteria will be determined by algorithms, pre-programmed into software developed by Pearson, the vendor who was granted the contract. Algorithms cannot “read” for sense, style, context or overall effectiveness in the ways that human experts can. All they can do is count, match patterns, and apply proxy measures to estimate writing complexity.

ACARA’s in-house research (ACARA NASOP Research Team, 2015) insists on the validity and reliability of the software. However, a recent external evaluation of ACARA’s Report is scathing. The evaluation (Perelman, 2017), commissioned by the NSW Teachers’ Federation from a prominent US expert, argues that ACARA’s research is poorly designed and executed. ACARA would not supply the data or software to Perelman for independent examination. However it is clear that AES cannot assess key aspects of writing including audience, ideas and logic. It is least effective for analytic marking (the NAPLAN approach). It may be biased against some linguistic groups. It can easily be distorted by rewarding “verbose high scoring gibberish” (Perelman, 2017, 6). The quality of data available to teachers is unlikely to improve and may lead to perverse effects as students learn to write for robots. The risk of ‘gaming’ the test is likely to be higher than ever, and ‘teaching to the test’ will take on a whole new dimension.

Human input has been used in ACARA’s testing of AES in order to train and calibrate the software and in the future will be limited to reviewing scripts that are ‘red-flagged’ by the software. In 2018 ACARA plans to use both human and auto-marking, and to eliminate humans almost entirely from the marking process by 2019. In effect, this means that evaluation of writing quality will be hidden in a ‘black box’ which is poorly understood and kept at a distance from educational stakeholders.

The major commercial beneficiary, Pearson, is the largest edu-business in the world. Educational assessment in the UK, US and now Australia is central to its core business. Details of the contract and increased profits that will flow from the Australian government to Pearson from the automated marking of writing are not publicly available. Pearson has already been involved in NAPLAN, as several states contracted Pearson to recruit and train NAPLAN markers. Pearson have been described as a “vector of privatisation” (Hogan, 2016, 96) in Australian education, an example of the blurring of social good and private profit, and the shifting of expertise from educators and researchers to corporations.

Writing is one of the most complex areas of learning in schools. NAPLAN results show that it is the most difficult domain for schools to improve. Despite the data that schools already have, writing results have flatlined through the NAPLAN decade. Negative effects and equity gaps have worsened in the secondary years. The pattern of “negative accelerating change” (Wyatt-Smith & Jackson, 2016, 233) in NAPLAN writing requires a sharper focus on writer standards and greater support for teacher professional learning. What will not be beneficial will be furthering narrowing the scope of what can be recognised as effective writing, artfully designed and shaped for real audiences and purposes in the real world.

NAPLAN writing criteria have been criticised as overly prescriptive, so that student narratives demonstrating creativity and originality (Caldwell & White, 2016) )are penalised, and English classrooms are awash with formulaic repetitions (Spina, 2016) of persuasive writing NAPLAN-style. Automated marking may generate data faster, but the quality and usefulness of the data cannot be assumed. Sustained teacher professional learning and capacity building in the teaching of writing – beyond NAPLAN – will be a better investment in the long term. Until then, the major beneficiaries of online marking may be the commercial interests invested in its delivery.


ACARA NASOP Research Team (2015). An evaluation of automated scoring of NAPLAN Persuasive Writing. Available at: http://nap.edu.au/_resources/20151130_ACARA_research_paper_on_online_automated_scoring.pdf

Caldwell, D. & White, P. (2017). That’s not a narrative; this is a narrative: NAPLAN and pedagogies of storytelling. Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 40(1), 16-27.

Hogan, A. (2016). NAPLAN and the role of edu-business: New governance, new privatisations and new partnerships in Australian education policy. Australian Educational Researcher, 43(1), 93-110.

Lingard, B., Thompson, G. & Sellar, S. (2016). National Testing in schools: An Australian Assessment. London & New York: Routledge.

Polesel, J., Rice, S. & Dulfer, N. (2014). The impact of high-stakes testing on curriculum and pedagogy: a teacher perspective from Australia. Journal of Education Policy, 29(5), 640-657.

Ragusa, A. & Bousfield, K. (2017). ‘It’s not the test, it’s how it’s used!’ Critical analysis of public response to NAPLAN and MySchool Senate Inquiry. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 38(3), 265-286.

Wyatt-Smith, C. & Jackson, C. (2016). NAPLAN data on writing: A picture of accelerating negative change. The Australian Journal of Language and Literacy, 39(3), 233-244.


Associate Professor Susanne Gannon is a senior researcher in the School of Education and Centre for Educational Research at Western Sydney University, Australia.

(Un)necessary teachers’ work? Lessons from England. July 17, 2017

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Primary Education, Secondary Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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by Susanne Gannon

Disembarking at Heathrow a few weeks ago, my first purchase in pounds as always was a copy of The Times to read on the train into the city. The second page headline, “CR (Creative Original): Grades on schoolwork replaced by codes” (Bennett, 2017) caught my eye. Skimming the article in my dazed jetlagged state was not ideal for a critical reading but I snapped a photo with my phone of the final paragraph:

“In 2014 the government asked teachers to tell them what created unnecessary work. Three big areas were marking, planning and data management.”

I recognise the data deluge in schooling is now overwhelming, may be driven by externally imposed system imperatives and is not always put to use to improve student learning. However, I’ve spent my professional life as a secondary English teacher, tertiary teacher educator and researcher. I could not see how “marking” and “planning” are seen as “unnecessary work” for teachers.

Planning is surely at the heart of teachers’ work. Otherwise how do we claim our status as professionals? Ideally we don’t just wing it in the classroom, nor do we follow prescriptive scripts. Systematic, responsive, syllabus-informed planning of purposeful sequences of learning and meaningful resources are what make the difference for individuals and groups of students. Well-selected and fine-grained data about student progress (not necessarily only the numerical data that is favoured by educational systems) should of course inform such planning as skilled teachers identify gaps and opportunities for extension and tailor their planning to their students’ needs and their potential.

Having high expectations and creating the conditions – through careful and ideally collaborative planning – for students to succeed and to excel are hallmarks of quality teachers. These features are characteristic of exemplary teaching in disadvantaged contexts (Lampert & Burnett, 2015; Munns, Sawyer & Cole, 2013). Careful planning need not preclude flexibility, creativity and authenticity in learning and assessment practices, but conversely may enable these qualities (Hayes, Mills & Christie, 2005; Reid, 2013). As many of these authors stress, good planning is often underpinned by a disposition of teachers to become researchers of learning within their own classrooms. Where teachers are provided some agency and capacity to gather and use data then problems are less likely to be at the low level of time consuming and potentially meaningless “data management” that is perceived as “unnecessary work” by teachers in England.

Marking is of course close to my heart as a secondary English teacher and I have spent countless hours of my life providing written feedback on student work. Whilst I have become adept at designing and using outcomes based rubrics / criteria sheets since their introduction in the mid-90s with outcomes based assessment and curriculum, I have always endeavoured to provide tailored and specific feedback to students on their texts.

This for me is “marking” as a process, and I think of it – in ideal circumstances – as sometimes like a sort of dialogue on the page between student, text and teacher, and an opening towards further dialogue. It features in formative as well as summative assessment contexts (apart from exams). Now it features in the texts in progress that are thesis chapters for my current doctoral students. In a perfect world it is diagnostic, supportive, explicit and critical in combination and students will take heed. Portfolios, peer and self-assessment processes and tools can be incorporated. As Munns et al (2013) describe, sharing assessment responsibility is an important component of the insider school. The volume and pressure of marking has always been problematic however, when short timelines for results and sheer numbers of students across multiple classes work against ideal scenarios. My research into creative writing in secondary schools (e.g. Gannon, 2014) suggests how English faculties were able to work collegially to support senior students as they developed major works in English. Marking, at best, can be rewarding, encouraging and useful for students and for teachers.

Where, then, does the aversion to marking come from for teachers in England? The article in The Times does not provide any pointers towards the government survey of 2014, but is rather an announcement of a large randomised control trial to be funded by the UK-based Education Endowment Foundation, based on a Report reviewing written feedback on student work that they commissioned and recently published (Elliot et al., 2016). The opening of the executive summary of the Report provides further detail:

[T]he 2014 Workload Challenge [UK] survey identified the frequency and extent of marking requirements as a key driver of large teaching workloads. The reform of marking policies was the highest workload-related priority for 53% of respondents. More recently, the 2016 report of the Independent Teacher Workload Review Group [UK] noted that written marking had become unnecessarily burdensome for teachers and recommended that all marking should be driven by professional judgement and ‘be meaningful, manageable and motivating’. (2016, 4)

Well, of course! What has gone wrong in England that marking is not driven by these qualities. Are there lessons for us in Australia (yet again from England) of what not to do in educational reform? Although the report acknowledges that there is very little evidence or research into written marking, they nevertheless identify some inefficient and apparently widespread practices: triple-marking, awarding grades for every piece of student work (so that the grades distract students from the feedback), too many texts required from students, marking excessive numbers of student texts, provision of low level corrections rather than requiring students to take some responsibility for corrections/ improvements, and moving on without giving students time to process and respond to feedback.

Despite the caveat in the opening section, the report is worth reading in full (though it has been criticised by local critics e.g. Didau, 2016). Secondary teachers are much more inclined to put a grade on every piece of student work, they say (2016, 9). Unsurprisingly, offering clear advice on how a student may improve their work in a particular dimension seems to be more useful than broad comments (‘Good work!’) or excessively detailed and overwhelming commentary (2016, 13). Targets or personalised and specific “success criteria” may be effective, particularly where students are involved in establishing them (2016, 20; also see Munns et al., 2013).

It is in this part of the Report that the overall logic of the newspaper article becomes apparent. Buried well down into the subsection on “Targets” is the following comment:

Writing targets that are well-matched to each student’s needs could certainly make marking more time-consuming. One strategy that may reduce the time taken to use targets would be to use codes or printed targets on labels. Research suggests that there is no difference between the effectiveness of coded or uncoded feedback, providing that pupils understand what the codes mean. However the use of generic targets may make it harder to provide precise feedback. (2016, 20).

The Times headline is therefore not quite accurate. It seems that “Grades” will not be replaced by “codes” but rather that teachers’ written comments will be replaced by codes. In another article, “Schools wanted to take part in marking without grading trial” (Ward, 2017) this is called “FLASH Marking” and is an initiative developed in house by a secondary school in northwestern England that will be rolled out to 12,500 pupils in 100 schools (EEF, 2017). The school claims that teachers will now be able to mark a class of Yr 11 exam papers in an hour. Students will receive an arrow (at, above or below expected target), and codes such as CR = “creative original ideas”, and V= “ambitious vocabulary needed.”

It seems from these news stories (and presumably EEF will put up the design protocols on their website eventually) that two different factors are being measured – one is holding back grades and the other is using codes instead of written comments. I’m curious but ambivalent, after all at university it is now mandatory to use “Grademark” software for coursework students. This enables teachers to provide generic abbreviated feedback (“codes”) but also gives us the opportunity to personalize responses, and supplement these with an extended written comment, or even an audio-recorded comment. These are highly personalised and appreciated by students.

To turn back to the English example, I wonder whether the randomized control trial design (in this case an efficacy trial that will be evaluated by Durham University) means that participating schools will not be able to improvise around the conditions of the feedback? At least, if the reduction of feedback to codes proves not to improve student results, given the need for the control (or “business as usual”) group, the damage will be limited to only half the participating schools and students. The news articles are unclear about the purpose of the study – which is described as a way to reduce teacher workload more than to improve student learning. However the EEF project description also mentions, reassuringly, that the rationale is focused on student outcomes, as “specific, actionable, skills-based feedback is more useful to students than grades” (2017). The project will follow year 10 students in senior English classes through to the end of secondary school with a report to be published in 2021. Already, I can’t wait.


Bennett, R. (June 17, 2017). CR (Creative original idea): grades on schoolwork replaced with codes. The Times.

Didau, D. (May 18, 2016), The Learning Spy Blog.


Education Endowment Foundation (2017). Flash Marking. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/our-work/projects/flash-marking/

Elliot, V., Baird, J., Hopfenback, T., Ingram, J., Thompson, I., Usher, N., Zantout, M, Richardson, J., & Coleman, R. (2016). A Marked Improvement? A review of the evidence on written marking. Education Endowment Foundation. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/resources/-on-marking/

Gannon, S. (2014). ‘Something mysterious that we don’t understand…the beat of the human heart, the rhythm of language’: Creative writing and imaginative response in English. In B. Doecke, G.Parr & W. Saywer (Eds), Language and creativity in contemporary English classrooms (pp. 131-140). Putney: Phoenix Education.

Hayes, D., Mills, M., & Christie, P. (2005). Teachers & schooling making a difference: productive pedagogies, assessment and performance. Allen and Unwin.

Lampert, J. & Burnett, B. (Eds) (2015) Teacher Education for High Poverty Schools. Springer.

Munns, G., Sawyer, W. & Cole, B. (Eds). (2013). Exemplary Teachers of students in poverty. Routledge

Reid, J. (2013). Why Programming matters: Aporia and teacher learning in classroom practice. English in Australia. 48(3), 40-45.

Ward, H. (June 16, 2017). Schools wanted to take part in marking without grading trial. Times Education Supplement. https://www.tes.com/news/school-news/breaking-news/schools-wanted-take-part-marking-without-grading-trial


Dr Susanne Gannon is an Associate Professor in the School of Education and a senior researcher in the Centre for Educational Research at Western Sydney University, Australia.

What can education do in response to fear of strangers? July 19, 2016

Posted by Editor21C in Education Policy and Politics, Social Justice and Equity through Education, Teacher, Adult and Higher Education.
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By Carol Reid

Today we hear growing anti-Islamic slogans related to dress practices, religion and citizenship. Saying it is wrong to do this is only part of the struggle to resist this simple rhetoric. Examining why it is wrong might be marginally better, but where that leads us is often into a tricky path of us/them and a focus on difference. Better still might be a focus on the values of a civil, cosmopolitan society that we want to sustain.

While we have been a successful multicultural society this is often understood in demographic terms, in simple numbers. For others it means celebrating different ways of being – food, lifestyle, customs, dances, languages and so on. In education in particular, the approach has often failed to respond adequately to a fear of strangers. The approach has been called liberal plural multiculturalism, a celebration of difference, which is much better than assimilation but isn’t helping us deal with the global reach of ideas, instant communication of terror and increasing mobilities of people.

I argue, as do others in Europe, Canada and elsewhere who are thinking about new ways to live in this globalising world, that we need more than a return to the old model of multiculturalism. We need what has been called an ‘agonistic’ approach or cosmopolitan thinking (Todd, 2010), the idea that to deal with difference at a deeper level might mean that we don’t end up with consensus. We see this anyway in our election result, in the politics around Brexit in the UK and Trump in the USA. It is the way of the world, this expression of difference. But how do we live with it?

The model of multiculturalism we have built our success on was about one-way integration, helping people to integrate, recognising their unique languages and cultures while committing to the nation. In practice the mainstream culture did change, and has become what has been called everyday multiculturalism, but just under the surface there are cracks.

Our nation, Australia, like many other nations, is now more open, whether we like it or not, and thus the call for a return to closed borders, a singular national identity on the part of citizens, and backward-looking protectionism is not achievable. Just listen to the fallout of Brexit. Teachers know that young people in our classrooms come and go (Reid and Watson, 2016). They return to countries where relatives still live, and they come back. Connections are global. For Aboriginal students this has always been the case so in many ways they are our first cosmopolitans, transforming their lives through trade and mobility (Forte, 2010). They have done so through what has been called ‘cultural translation’ – comprehending, connecting and evaluating to create new ways of living (Papastergiadis, 2011).

What to do in schools then? The first step is to offer no recipes, no prescriptions about practice that remove the judgement of teachers in often complex situations. This also means that applying universal principles of what constitutes human rights might not be a simple thing to do. Applying and following rules without thinking leads to problems. Hannah Arendt has argued it was one explanation for the rise of fascism in Germany (Arendt, 1994 cited in Todd, 2010). Human rights, for example, can be about listening to all the explanations about why cultural practices are valued while accepting that some will be shared and others not. Appiah has called this being ‘partial cosmopolitans’ (2007).  The point is that we cannot really know our students through a set of cultural attributes that are static because the practice of living is a dynamic process that teachers engage in every second of the day. This cannot be prescribed in professional knowledge lists as a set of competencies to be measured. It is practiced through the development of reflexivity; the idea that all our viewpoints are culturally conditioned, yet keeping an eye on inequality.

A call to a set of rules about how to live, such as those currently being trumpeted across the globe, are a reflection of where we are today. It is a wakeup call for those of us involved in teacher education to engage with how teachers’ judgement is being taken away with increasing lists of competencies. Facing the complexities of the world we live in will require more than rules. It will require a cosmopolitan disposition and thinking.



Appiah, A. (2007). Cosmopolitanism: ethics in a world of strangers. New York London W. W. Norton.

Arendt, H. (1994) Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York. Harcourt.

Forte, M. C. (Ed.). (2010). Indigenous Cosmopolitans: Transnational and Transcultural Indigeneity in the Twenty-First Century (First ed.). New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.

Papastergiadis, N. (2011). Cultural translation and cosmopolitanism. In K. Jacobs & J. Malpas (Eds.), Ocean to outback: cosmopolitanism in contemporary Australia (pp. 68-95). Crawley, W.A.: UWA Pub.

Reid, C. & Watson, K.  (2016).  Compulsory schooling in Australia : perspectives from students, parents, and educators.  Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York, NY:  Palgrave Macmillan.

Todd, S. (2010). Living in a Dissonant World: Toward an Agonistic Cosmopolitics for Education. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 29(2), 213-228.

Professor Carol Reid is a member of the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia, and a senior researcher in the university’s Centre for Educational Research.


NAPLAN is only one measure of achievement May 16, 2016

Posted by Editor21C in Education Policy and Politics, Primary Education, Secondary Education.
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by Katina Zammit

Recently I finished reading a publication from the Grattan Institute entitled Widening gaps: What NAPLAN tells us about student progress (Goss & Chisolm, 2016) and was reminded of the limitations of this Australian-wide test for students in years 3, 5, 7, & 9.

The main purpose of the publication was really to advocate for a new way of analyzing the data to show what they consider a better means of measuring student achievement, i.e. years of progress. It reports that high achieving and low achieving students are not improving their results. Despite this, their starting point in this report for considering a change is still based on certain assumptions about NAPLAN.

Now that NAPLAN testing has concluded for 2016, it is worth examining the assumptions about NAPLAN that pervade this document, as well as the general public and media discourse around NAPLAN. Included in these assumptions are that:

  • NAPLAN tests actually are a good indicator of overall achievement and success at school, in learning and seeing education as a positive. [But that is not conclusive.]
  • the NAPLAN test results are a good predictor of a student achieving or not achieving their potential. [Again not conclusive for all students across the range of abilities]
  • the same or similar test environment occurs across the years and the same or very similar items are included across the years in the tests have been administered.
  • data and results from the test should be used as a major input upon which to base educational decisions by policy makers.

I think it is timely to draw attention to the limitations of NAPLAN and to remind parents, and students, that it provides information about a child’s achievement based on that one day, at that time, completed under stressful test conditions.

NAPLAN does not take account of the development of students’ interests in learning, their passions, or engagement in learning. NAPLAN outcomes should be considered in the context of all the other measures teachers use to assess student achievement of learning outcomes, especially in the other key learning areas of Creative Arts, Health and Physical Education and so on. NAPLAN does not take into account the other value-added dispositions and community involvement provided by schools that are not measurable in a test. Interventions and pedagogical changes in classrooms at a school take time to demonstrate results, and again, many of these may not be measurable by the NAPLAN test.

Data from NAPLAN is still limited, no matter what approach to data analysis and reporting is undertaken – whether data are compared against benchmarks or measured by years of a student’s progress. It is not the results and reporting that is questionable, it is the basis upon which these data are used for system evaluation of schools, a school’s progress, and to drive policy.

Perhaps governments need to look at employment policies and other support mechanisms, not just school education, for students from low socio-economic backgrounds living in poverty. A multi-pronged approach is needed to improve the outcomes for students to break the cycle of inter-generational disadvantage.


Goss, P., and Chisholm, C., 2016, Widening gaps: what NAPLAN tells us about student progress. Technical Report, Grattan Institute.


Dr Katina Zammit is a senior lecturer in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia. She is Director of the Master of Teaching (Primary) teacher education program at the university.

Teaching ‘shared humanity’ and promoting inclusive belonging in schools. Could this be an answer to radicalisation? February 10, 2016

Posted by Editor21C in Directions in Education, Education Policy and Politics, Inclusive Education, Secondary Education, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
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by Sue Roffey

The shooting of a police accountant by a teenage boy in Parramatta last year the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris have led to increasing calls to identify young people who are at risk of radicalisation. Although assessment of those at risk “shows a group of people clearly failing to gain satisfaction or friendship in mainstream Australian life” (Australian Strategy Policy Institute, June 2015) there appears to be no clear appreciation that what happens in schools can either contribute to or help address the problem. There is much that can be done but it needs to be pro-active and start yesterday.

In order to take preventative action we must understand at least some of the psychological motivations behind radicalisation.

Young people often have strong ideals and many need to feel they are important. Giving their all for a ’cause’ can be motivating if it turns you into a hero. A sense of belonging is also critical to psychological wellbeing and many young people look to groups and associations as a means of finding both belonging and meaning in their lives. Many of these hold out the promise of building a better world for future generations. This is an exhortation that has run throughout history – often with devastating results as many wars attest to.

Feeling connected is a major factor for resilience. It is one reason why marginalised young people often end up in gangs. Belonging that is exclusive rather than inclusive promotes rejection of anyone outside the group. We therefore need to do everything we can to promote inclusive belonging in as many contexts as possible. Feeling connected to school means you believe your presence matters, you are valued for who you are, not just how you perform; the learning environment is both positive and safe and you perceive your learning as meaningful.

In March 2009 the New Scientist reported on a study (Wike & Fraser, 2009) with the headline “Teen killers don’t come from schools that foster a sense of belonging”. Incidents of multiple killings in US schools took place in establishments where some students were seen as stars and others rejected as outsiders, even though they might be academically able. It was these marginalised individuals who perpetrated these atrocities, partly in revenge and partly to make themselves feel noticed at last. The killers reportedly showed no empathy for those they gunned down and had no apparent concern for their own safety or future.

Learning to Be and Learning to Live Together were identified as two of the four pillars of education for the 21st Century by UNESCO in 1996. The other two pillars are Learning to Know and Learning to Do. The overwhelming focus in schools on academic content can mean there is no time left for learning about relationships or exploring values. Any time devoted to understanding the self or developing relational skills can be deemed by some as a distraction from the ‘real’ purpose of schooling – educating for an economic future.

We not only have young people being radicalised, we also continue to have bullying in our schools alongside homophobia, racism, and increasing incidents of family violence and abuse in our society.

Much of the conversation appears to focus on reactive strategies. We cannot continue to put our energy into picking up the pieces. We need to actively teach our children and young people ‘shared humanity’ – helping them understand and appreciate how much they have in common with others.

They need to reflect on how every major religion in the world espouses a version of ‘ The Golden Rule’ – treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself. More connects us than divides us, but unless we give young people structured opportunities to think and talk about this they may be at the mercy of those who want to denigrate and dehumanise those ‘not like us’.

Schools can provide activities that connect students with each other – not just their mates but with those they don’t usually associate with. We can teach empathy. In the light of what we share we can value diversity. We can enable young people to understand their emotions and therefore raise awareness of how these might be manipulated.

There are skilled educators doing this all over the Western world and changing perceptions and behaviours as a result. But this is often under the radar where social and emotional learning does not fit with current policy. We are now paying the price for ‘learning to be’ and ‘learning to live together’ being jettisoned in favour of more time spent on formal curriculum goals. We need to revisit the balance in education for all our futures.

Reference:  Wike, T. L., & Fraser, M. W. (2009). School shootings: Making sense of the senseless. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 14(3), 162-169.


Associate Professor Sue Roffey is an adjunct professor in the School of Education at Western Sydney University, Australia. She is a psychologist, academic, author and creator of the Circle Solutions framework for social and emotional learning. sue@sueroffey.com

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