Monday, May 22, 2017

School is much more than marks

It came as a surprise earlier this year to see a full-page advertisement by a Canberra private girls high school boasting about the academic success of its high achievers.

Each student was shown with her Australian tertiary admission rank score and the name of the university she was accepted into.

(Private schools don't have the field to themselves. A number of public schools have better results, and at least one parades them on its website.)

I know schools have always been competitive, and I know ATAR scores mean something, but in a month in which thousands of Australian students sat their national literacy and numeracy tests, it's worth asking whether more tests and a greater emphasis on test results actually harms us.

An Australian National University lecturer told me recently about a number of first-year students who were so worried about attaining high marks they were paralysed and unable to start assignments. "This is the time of their lives when everything should be low-stakes," she said.

Year 12 scores are a far from perfect predictor of professional success and an even less perfect predictor of personal contentment. They tell us little about so-called "soft skills", such as getting on with people and developing decent and mutually supportive relationships. They tell us little about the employability of young people and their capacity to take part in and contribute to society.

When students are told that marks are more important than anything else, they can lose perspective. On an SBS Insight program, former high-performing students who left school were asked about their lives. Liesel described the stress she felt because she got up at 7am, rather than 5am as she used to for her HSC.

"I feel so lazy that I'm not doing enough or I'm not changing the world or I'm not doing, I'm not the best in the world at something anymore," Liesel said. "I get fives at uni, which is a credit for statistics, which I'm really proud of, but that's not good enough for me. I want sevens and I want to be the best in the world, so I'm really struggling to come to terms with that sort of not doing enough."

Psychologist Rebekka Tuqiri says pressure is good when it motivates us, but too much of it damages our brains and prevents us from performing well. The answer isn't to avoid stress, but to build resilience.

At a symposium on mental health at the ANU this month, students and staff tried to come up with a definition of resilience. The one they liked best was "the ability to bounce back". The seminar heard of a radical proposal (an idea only) to ditch the usual system of grades for first-year students and instead award only a "pass" or a "fail" so they felt less pressured and able to collaborate, experiment and even play.

Our experiences in homes and offices tell us that openness and cooperation help make things work. Complex cooperation (the kind that is needed in increasingly complex workplaces) requires practice and skill. "Modern society is really, ironically, deskilling people from many of the competences they need to deal with a very complex world," says sociologist Richard Sennett (author of Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation). He wants classrooms to more often arrange themselves into groups of students who study together and talk about what they are learning face to face.

Our headlong rush into isolating technologies makes this more difficult, but Sennett finds that, where collaborative and face-to-face study happens, students are better able to communicate and less accepting of economic inequality. As he puts it: the more unequal a society is, the less social it is.

At a forum on student engagement and success organised by my local Parents & Citizens Association this year, parents were divided into groups and asked three questions about what they wanted for their children by the end of high school:

1. What do we want them to be?
2. What do we want them to have learnt?
3. What do we want them to be able to do?

No one in my group said they wanted top marks.

Instead, we wanted them to be resourceful, to have learned to solve problems and to be able to self-reflect, set goals and engage others with compassion.

In science circles, showing compassion is referred to as being 'prosocial' (in the field of social genomics). It's an area of interest for Steven Cole, a professor of medicine at the University of California. He has studied what he calls "resilience factors" that protect our biology from difficult times.

The key, he says, is pursuing in a sustained way a cause that's greater than one's immediate gratification. "It's the kind of happiness that comes from creating stuff and trying to make the world a better place. The body works better, is more robust when it's attached to a mind with a big focal goal and magnificent purpose."

A magnificent purpose needn't be lofty. It simply involves a project that is self-transcendent; one that takes us out of ourselves.


First published in The Canberra Times, 19 May, 2017. More more information on the importance of soft and life skills for empowering young people to flourish, see this useful guide:

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Friday, May 12, 2017

Booty from an "illegal" war?

In a glass case in the modern conflicts and Middle East galleries at the Australian War Memorial hangs a gold-plated assault rifle, an AK47 issued by Saddam Hussein to one of his personal guards.

It was "discovered" among a cache of gold-plated weapons (the explanatory plaque says) by the United States 101st Airborne Division in Kirkuk, and given to an Australian major-general visiting US headquarters in Northern Iraq.

Patrick O'Hara says it's "war booty". He is a former volunteer guide and before that a long-time education officer at the memorial who has resigned in disgust. "Charles Bean designed the memorial to allow people to try to understand what Australian soldiers went through during war. It was designed to show the ugly reality of war. It wasn't meant to be political, gloating or a trophy cabinet," he tells me.

O'Hara loves and respects the War Memorial "and all that it is meant to represent" but he sees the display of the AK47 as "a betrayal of a willingness of the then Australian character to put suffering and courage above politics".

"It's prostitution of the memorial to sensationalism. Iraq is still a mess. The war is still going. Women and children are still being maimed and killed. The invasion of Iraq was illegal."

The gold-plated AK47 is by no means the only kind of souvenir in the museum labelled a "discovery", what may well be seen as plunder. Would Bean, the war correspondent who helped establish the memorial, care? The memorial's website quotes him as saying Australian soldiers were "devoted collectors of battlefield souvenirs and imagined that a museum featuring these objects might be created".

Michael Piggott is an archivist who has written a new chapter on Bean in The Honest History Book, just published by NewSouth Books. He says the memorial's director, Brendan Nelson, loves quoting Bean as an authority to support or counter an argument. He says Bean features almost every time Nelson gives a speech – to give words gravitas, stories authenticity and opinion authority.

True, Piggott tells me, Bean did celebrate scavenging and "souveniring" but the gold gun takes things to another level. "This isn't of the category of granddad's German Luger kept in the attic. It takes it to a bizarre level.

"Bean spent his entire life trying to see how the Australian people were tested in war. The national character, that's what he was on about. If we were to put words into Bean's mouth, they might be: 'How does the display of this golden gun tell us anything insightful about the Australian people?' "

Whatever Bean's (hypothetical) opinion on it, without needing to invoke his name, the gun appears distasteful. It makes the museum less of a sombre place for reflection and more of a Disney-style tourist attraction. What next? A gem-encrusted weapon issued by Syria's Basha al-Assad?

New workers at the memorial are told it's important it retains its five-star tourist rating.

It's easy to forget the impact of guns in such a polished, visitor-friendly space. As Piggott points out: "Gunshot wounds are dreadful things. Bullets, especially hollow-nosed bullets as used in the Boer War, caused gaping exit wounds. You could spend 24 hours in no-man's land, dying slowly, screaming."

From the trenches in Pozi̬res in northern France, Bean wrote in his diary on July 29, 1916, that each shell brought "a promise to each man Рinstantaneous Р'I will tear you into ghastly wounds РI will rend your flesh and pulp an arm or a leg Рfling you half a gaping quivering man (like those that you see smashed around you one by one) to lie there rotting and blackening.' "

The memorial is comfortable with the display of the gold-plated assault rifle. A spokesman says it helps fulfil the role of telling stories about those who serve Australia in war and on operation. Communications head Chris Wagner says: "The gold-plated Tabuk is displayed alongside other examples of insurgent weapons to demonstrate the threats faced by coalition forces in Iraq. In addition, its display also aims to prompt the visitor to the memorial to consider the extreme nature of a regime that would gold-plate its firearms."

At a time when museums are returning Aboriginal remains to the places from which they were taken, it also prompts us to ask questions about ourselves, the stories we not only remember but but how we choose to tell them.

First published in The Canberra Times, May 4, 2017. Image: Graham Tidy
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