This week in classrooms across NSW, students are being given a slip of paper that tells them their rank in class, relative to their peers. First out of 28, 5th out of 28, even 28th out of 28. These numbers are handed out to remind students that when it comes to their education, they are in a heated contest. Through this repeated process, our schools are teaching our children that learning is a competitive process, success in education means to outrank their peers, and failure equates to being outranked.
This culture of competition has not limited itself to the classroom. It has come to shape all our discussions around education. NAPLAN testing, the MySchoolwebsite, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and university rankings all serve to underscore that the most effective way to gauge the success of our education system is to rank. And yet, nowhere in this process do we ask whether this system of ranking best serves the needs of each individual student.
What does ranking look like in today’s schools? To begin with, the child who scores top of the class need not be told they’re the smartest. This only serves to isolate them and leaves the rest of the class feeling disheartened. Then there are the next three children in the pecking order, questioning why they weren’t top of the class. “What if I’d tried harder? Why wasn’t I in 1st place?” In this egoistic age, considering the social anxiety that develops when children strive to be accepted, this quest for fame and glory should be something we try to avoid in our schools.
Next, there’s the bulk of the class; the 80% in the middle, stuck in no-man’s land. Neither top, nor bottom. Offering these children a ranking provides them no insight into their own progress. Last but not least are the students whom the system has failed. Those who find it almost impossible to sit standardised tests. The layout, the structure and the anxiety is all too much. As the teacher announces each student’s rank, their motivation is at rock bottom. In fact, everyone’s is. When thousands of Australian students were surveyed for a 2016 headspace report, 59% of them described experiencing feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness.
As we look towards curriculums from the Nordic states, there has been a real shift in the way we plan and deliver our lessons, and assess what has been taught. The Finnish national curriculum is built around individual improvement and advancement, deliberately avoiding the process of competition in assessment. Rather than asking teachers to focus on the ‘facts’, we too must focus on essential skills such as empathy, collaboration and communication. Essentially, mental wellbeing and 21st century skills must be at the forefront of the planning process. This is what will develop the leaders of tomorrow whilst cultivating a school culture that promotes these skills from the day a child enters the school system. Mental wellbeing cannot be taught, butmust be part of every school philosophy and culture.
At our schools, we need only be ranking our children against the child they were yesterday. Ranking our children against each other serves no purpose other than teaching our children that learning is a competitive process. It simply allows time-poor parents to get a snapshot of where their child sits in the classroom, with no consideration for essential intangible skills such as confidence, resilience or compassion; real-world skills that will enable students to thrive in the 21st century workforce.
As Pasi Sahlberg, the Finnish educator, stated in his recent interview with the Guardian, “Maybe the key for Australia is loosening up a little bit, less top-down control and a bit more professional autonomy for teachers.” As a nation, it is time we put trust in our teachers and understand that education is more than the achievement of conventional learning outcomes set out in syllabus documents. In essence, education is a process of empowerment, offering students the tools they need to succeed in society as empathic innovators, entrepreneurs and change-makers. To deliver on this promise, our educators must forego comparing our students against one another, and instead embrace the unique capability of each individual student.
By; Gavin McCormack, Principal at Farmhouse Montessori School, and Jack Butler, Secondary School Teacher.