A pithy quote sets the tone early in Michael Lawrence’s latest book about the state of education in Australia and why it’s so important: Testing 3,2,1: What Australian Education can Learn from Finland.
Penned by English educationalist Sir Ken Robinson, it reads:
“The aims of education are to enable students to understand the world around them and the talents within them so that they can become fulfilled individuals and active, compassionate citizens.”
Lawrence then describes how several trips to Finland prompted a complete re-evaluation of an education system he had been part of for 30 years; there was a definite disconnect between the routines, habits and activities he had practised in his career in Australia and those of the Finnish teachers he observed and worked with during his time in Finland.
As he puts it: “Finnish teachers looked at me as if I were a child molester when I described the NAPLAN tests given to children as young as eight.”
The Finnish teachers reasoned that if such tests must be done, surely the results must be used to provide extra funding to under-performing schools and extra help to struggling students. But as Lawrence recalls, “there was no reasonable answer to this”.
Testing ‘is a good servant but a bad master’ – Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish Lessons 2.0, 2015
A good deal of Lawrence’s book deals with what he sees as the inadequacies of the Australian education system, beginning with standardised tests such as the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), which begins in Year 3 and culminates in Year 9.
In chapter two of the book, aptly titled ‘The Smell of NAPLAN in the Morning’, Lawrence recounts how approximately one-third of one of his Year 8 classes decided in Year 3 they were “no good at mathematics”, based solely on that year’s NAPLAN test. He was aghast and began to wonder how many other students in the class felt the same about other subjects tested in NAPLAN.
Another of Lawrence’s complaints about the test is that it presents "progressively more difficult problems for the child to solve, until they can eventually go no further with that particular activity”. Lawrence’s Finnish counterparts were confounded by the idea that a question would be set that they were doomed to fail.
Originally “bandied around” as a “snapshot” to help identify students’ strengths and weaknesses, NAPLAN has morphed into something that Lawrence argues is damaging students while becoming a boon for the companies that produce the test and practice materials, and the schools that perform well.
Another critical theme of Lawrence’s book is the idea that learning is, in and of itself, valuable and does not require frequent testing for validation. As his Finnish teaching colleagues often asked: “Why are Australian teachers so obsessed with grades?”
This importance placed on learning and not testing is just part of an educational system in Finland that places the student’s enjoyment of education at the centre of all educational activities. It also respects teachers, including their judgements and autonomy, and provides a great work-life balance, including high salaries.
Australian teachers, in contrast, are showing troubling signs. According to Stapleton (2019), over half of Australian teachers suffer anxiety and nearly one-fifth are depressed. The same study disturbingly found that 17 per cent of teachers “screened positive for probably alcohol abuse or dependence”.
For all of our belief in grades, testing and competition, Lawrence points out an embarrassing fact: these things aren’t working. In fact, they are probably making Australia’s education system worse, as evidenced by steady declines in international tests such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) over the years.
On the other hand, the Finnish, who do not even test students until they are in secondary school, have been among the top performers in PISA since the early 2000s. While other countries such as Singapore have rocketed to the top of the PISA rankings, Finland remains a consistent top-10 performer.
In another chapter titled ‘Emotions in the Classroom’ Lawrence begins with an observation by SBS News Reporter Brett Mason, who in 2018 highlighted that “…. in the 2015 PISA Finnish students reported close to the highest levels of life satisfaction out of participating countries, and the lowest level of schoolwork-related anxiety. So, not only are Finnish students among the top academic performers in the world (according to PISA), the evidence is that they enjoy learning profoundly.
But Lawrence’s book is a lot more than just an indictment of Australia’s current education system (including issues relating to standardisation, teacher status, funding – which is given due prominence – and student wellbeing). It is a well-researched “call to arms” for the current system to change and a brief history of how Finland’s education system produced “the world’s most literate citizens”.
Lawrence poses the question of whether a Finnish-style education system could work in Australia, and what such a system would and would not achieve for Australian students. As a practising teacher, he gives an example of how a history unit would be approached in Finland, and what would constitute success. Better grades? Greater participation in subjects? Or student satisfaction?
There is a lot more to this book than can be covered here (including mentoring graduate teachers and the role of principals), but one of its most important features is that it constantly circles back to some of the most pressing questions facing Australian education in the 21st century, with the most obvious one being: What do we do in Australian education and why do we do it?
As Robin Nagy, educational consultant at Effort Tracking, accurately states in the blurb: “This is a must read for all teachers who find themselves blindly having to follow compliance regulations and for those seeking clarity on what is going wrong in our classrooms.”
“This book promises to be an important addition to the growing movement for educational change, the return to more classroom autonomy and reduction in high stakes testing.”Do you have an idea for a story?
Email [email protected]