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There was an article in The Advertiser this week that should make all people invested in education sit up and take notice. Adelaide University is running a trial where they will be offering students who have completed Year 11, provisional admission in to engineering courses. This move is an attempt to encourage those students to stick with harder maths courses rather than pursue an easier option to maximise their ATAR. Similarly, Flinders University is developing a range of assessment methods to identify students at Year 11 who will be successful at university. These methods preference the ‘process’ of student learning over the ‘product’ or end result. I can only applaud these developments and believe they are the precursors to a radical shift in education in this country. I believe that in the next few years we will rapidly move away from the ATAR being the sole arbiter of whether a student gets into a particular course or not. In fact, this is already happening a great deal more than you might think.

The reason I am advocate for the move away from ATAR only entry is because of the negative effect that the primacy of the ATAR can have on students, teachers and parents, particularly as the end of secondary school approaches. Understandably, students and parents are tempted to choose subjects that they know will maximise their ATAR at this time, rather than choosing the subjects that they love. I think this is a great pity. Learning should be full of passion and fun, not a utilitarian process to achieve entry into a course. Students are also disinclined to choose those subjects that would provide more of an intellectual and academic challenge for fear that these choices would negatively affect their ATAR. This is despite the fact that the learning gained from studying these subjects might actually benefit their understanding of the field that they want to move into.

Teachers are also faced with a dilemma and I know because I’ve been there. As teachers we have an obligation to deliver the entire syllabus in our subject in a limited period of time, as well as help to maximise our students’ scores. As a result, there is a constant tension between wanting to create meaningful and deep learning activities on the one hand, and an impetus to simply tell our students what to write, or how to answer a particular question on the other. Sadly, deeper learning takes time that Year 12 teachers and students often do not have! The focus then shifts from the ‘process’ of learning to the ‘product’ or mark, study score, grade or ATAR. All of us in education know that ultimately prioritising product over process is a search for fools’ gold. There may be some immediate gratification, but ultimately there will be significant damage done to a student’s capacity to develop higher order thinking skills. Specifically, the focus on result over process means that we are not developing higher order skills such as critical and creative thinking, (skills that have been identified as essential for the 21st Century), as well as we might.

In an era where artificial intelligence and rapid change will be major features, our last Lipman Fellow Louka Parry argues that the ability to be an independent, life-long, flexible learner will be essential. This will only happen if we focus on the process of learning and not the end result. I encourage parents and students, then, to think deeply about their subject choices and why they are making the choices they are. Are you thinking about the learning or the mark? At the same time, I ask teachers to pause and reflect on the higher purpose to which I believe we have all been called. We have a moral obligation in my view, to pursue the Socratic goal of ‘lighting the flame’ for our students and their learning rather than ‘filling up the vessel’. While at times this can be difficult, given all the demands I wrote of earlier, ultimately the lighting of the flame, (or developing independent thinkers and learners), will lead to the results that we want for them and our future world.

Pro Deo et Patria.

Ben Hanisch
Deputy Headmaster/Head of Senior School