Luck, uncertainty, teaching and NAPLAN

Teaching is pretty much an act of building a plan for success in the most uncertain of environments – roughly twenty-five young people with unfinished brains – and hoping for the best.

I know this because I’ve run lessons where I’ve been good.  Really good.  I’m talking educational Michael Jordan good here.  My assessment, reflection, curriculum, learning activities and even some jokes in my instruction to keep the masses engaged have been artfully assembled into a Machiavellian plan where immense student learning has been almost inevitable.

And then the kids wrecked the whole thing on me.

Conversely, I’ve taught poorly and gotten away with it.  Let’s not discuss further the day that I arrived with a mild hangover after an outrageous decision to hold the staff Christmas Party on a Tuesday night, other than to say my students assumed I had a cold and kept the din down for me, just for that day.  Lucky me.

You learn pretty quickly in schools that the best you can do is tilt the odds in your favour as far as you can and hope for the best.

These two concepts, uncertainty and luck, aren’t spoken about enough when it comes to schools and education.  But they should be.

How else do we explain the state with the longest and most severe lockdown induced educational interruption, Victoria, topping the nation in this year’s NAPLAN results?

Are we arrogant enough to think that our teachers are doing something profoundly different or impressive than our compatriots in New South Wales?  Because, and I speak from experience, we aren’t.

On this occasion, we just got lucky.

This isn’t to say that our Victorian teachers aren’t marvelous, stoic and worthy of praise.  They most certainly are.  They just didn’t need NAPLAN results to validate their worth.

The politician in Victorian Education Minister, James Merlino, most certainly needed to lash a little mayonnaise on the NAPLAN results when the preliminary results were released this week.

But Victorian teachers and principals know full well that the most important messages that our education minister can decry on their behalf are a respect for teachers, despite the NAPLAN results of the day, and to reflect a mission to support and resource schools where a quality education is most needed.

To Merlino’s eternal credit, these are the hallmarks of his tenure as minister for our schools.  Our educators, especially those in our most disadvantaged government schools, have long been grateful for his leadership.  The NAPLAN ruffle of the hair this week was nice, but not necessary.

At a policy level, Merlino’s tilting of the odds in the favour of our most needy students is appreciated.

New South Wales’ educators, the failures they are now being made out to be, are not our competitors.  They are our colleagues, our comrades.  If there indeed is something useful that we’ve done to mitigate the risk of remote learning on our students’ progress and growth, we should be sharing it with them.

For they’re nothing more than unlucky, this time around.  And as is the case with school bullying and the group that ostracises and ridicules a student because they tripped walking onto the stage at assembly, it’s worth remembering right now that we could be the next who trips.

Would we like the same response from our peers then?

All of this said, there are two absolutes that we can take from the publishing of this year’s NAPLAN results.

Firstly, it’s a frightfully inadequate tool.  If your tool determines that, with almost all the same practices in place, that the state with worst conditions for success is somehow suddenly full of superchildren, then your tool is broken.

And NAPLAN is so broken.  We’re now using a thermometer to count the stars in the sky and bragging that we’ve got more stars in Victoria.  It’s absurd.

The second absolute is that our teachers have got this.  For all the prophecies of disaster and for all the wildly exaggerated predictions that our children are doomed to a future of car crashes for being unable to read basic street signs our kids continue to thrive under their tutelage.

It’s quite remarkable really.

Knowing this, our next steps should not be about bagging any of our nation’s educators, but supporting them.  We’re going to need them at their best and cruel suggestions of having them work through the summer holiday break to help students “catch up” are an insult.

Our students are, as a collective, not permanently scarred by remote learning.  They’re just a bit out educationally pudgy.  Getting a little out of shape is something that resonates with many of us enduring lockdown.

We can whip them back into shape.  In the company of refreshed, dedicated teachers we’ll put them on a diet of rapid learning and a regime of reconnecting with others.

And the kids will be alright.


See other articles written by Adam here.