By Maurie Mulheron, President NSW Teachers Federation
Many years ago, as a young teacher in the late 1970s, I read an article about Japan and mathematics teaching in relation to what was then new technology – the overhead projector. It may have been apocryphal, but I still found the story to be thought-provoking.
The article told of a local school district in Japan that had decided to replace, with unforeseen consequences, all the blackboards with overhead projectors complete with scrolling plastic film on which teachers were to write.
As the story goes, after some time, there was a noticeable decline in students’ results in mathematics across all schools. A team of experts was brought in. After observing mathematics classes over a sustained period, the experts reached their conclusion. The new technology, the overhead projector, was the cause of the decline.
Apparently, the scrolling film meant that students, who had lost concentration or had been slower to pick up a concept, quickly became lost because the teacher kept scrolling through while explaining the solution to the mathematics problem. Yet, with the old blackboard the complete narrative to the solution remained visible so that students could look back and catch up.
When the blackboards were screwed back up onto the walls, the maths results started to go up again.
Pedagogy must drive technology
So, I always am cautious when deciding how we should use new technology in our classrooms. The test for me is this: we should always determine, firstly, the pedagogy when we develop curriculum then we see what, if any, technology could enhance and support the teaching and learning process.
But huge technology companies are now eyeing off schooling as the last untapped market place, so we need to be wary.
What I am concerned about is that teachers are in danger of losing control of who teaches, what is taught and how we teach, as ‘education businesses’ move to directly influence politicians, advisers and policy makers.
In recent years, there were concerns raised that the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), which has responsibility for the standardised test program NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy), was working closely with large education businesses to promote their commercial products to government.
This could explain ACARA’s push, in defiance of the wishes of the teaching profession and largely ignoring the evidence from trials, to move the national tests online so as to force all students to write using keyboards only. It is certainly what the software manufacturers were seeking.
Teachers were suspicious: why is ACARA pushing so hard to move the tests online? Many would answer that it had much to do with removing teachers from the marking process and replacing them with computerised marking software.
This led, in Australia, to the teaching profession fighting back, as it became increasingly concerned at what ACARA was promoting in the interests of the corporate players.
The idea of robo-marking
In 2015 ACARA, in an attempt to convince policy makers and politicians of the efficacy of computer-marking, had published An Evaluation of Automated Scoring of NAPLAN Persuasive Writing. As it turned out, it was a seriously flawed, biased and highly inaccurate report as revealed in a subsequent study in 2017 by Dr Les Perelman a US-based academic specialising in the assessment of writing.
Dr Perelman’s study was commissioned by the NSW Teachers Federation. Soon after, he wrote a significant paper on the inadequacies of the actual test itself, Towards a New NAPLAN: Testing to the Teaching (2018).
By late 2017 there was enough momentum, sparked by significant community concern, for politicians to scrap the idea of robo-marking, a term that had become widely used in the media.
Indeed, one of Australia’s most significant daily papers, the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH), argued in an editorial titled, NAPLAN robo-marking plan does not compute:
“We already know that with NAPLAN, schools have started, unfortunately, to teach to the test. As both Perelman, and Robyn Cox of the Primary English Teaching Association warned, it will not be long before schools and coaches have worked out what the computer marker rates highly, and are teaching children to write what it wants to read. What sort of education is that?
But even if these criticisms of the technology are wrong, there is a broader issue. As clever as the technology may be, missing from the process is an essential element: respect.
Education is fundamentally a social transaction between humans. It may use computers and other digital wizardry, but they are subordinate to the cultivation and nurturing of one mind by another. Assessment is a necessary step in that process. Teachers need to know if a child has learnt what it has been taught.
A system that removes assessment from human agency and hands it over to a machine shows disrespect to both teacher and pupil. Both are diminished by it, and with them the assessment, and education itself.”
As teachers, we have a duty of care to our students and surely this also involves protecting them from powerful technology companies whose first and last motivation is to sell their software and hardware products.
As commercial interests encroach on schools and education departments and seek to influence government policy there has never been a more critical time than now for teachers to reclaim the primacy of their role in policy development.
Too many of our agencies have been compromised. Too much is at stake.
Large education businesses like Pearson, so well-connected to politicians and well-placed to purchase influence, will only ever see education as a market and have much larger plans. And they are moving fast.
Recent reports from the UK that expose the push by global education companies to have teachers replaced by technology should be of serious concern. As was reported in TES on 6 April 2018, corporations are quite candid that their business plan is to remove teachers from the classroom, “A British team is working to develop a method of teaching children without using teachers that could win it a $10 million global education prize.”
Further, TES reported that existing players, like Bridge International Academies, see that the experiment with untrained ‘teachers’ they are conducting in poor communities in the global south could be used in wealthy countries like England, and presumably exported globally,
“You have to take some lessons from what Bridge do and say ‘can we take lesser trained people and use them effectively’, and then it comes down to that big conversation about what does technology do better than humans, and what do we have to have with humans? I suspect what you are going to end up with is teachers taking a much more emotional role and leaving the content delivery to the computers.”
To borrow the language of the SMH editorial, there is not much respect there for teacher or student, and education itself will be diminished.
Indeed, these wealthy players are now attempting to create an educational dystopia, in which the essential humanity at the core of teaching and learning will be destroyed.