Sunday, February 21, 2016

This Lent, why not give up speed, live in the present

Australian painter Jeffrey Smart created semi-urban landscapes where huge windowless buildings sat in harsh light. They were props surrounded by small, often puzzled and isolated figures.

The landscape taking shape between Majura and Fyshwick has echoes of a Smart. There's something surreal about towering retail temples ribboned by hills dotted with sheep.

Bold fluorescent signs point to giant warehouses circled by grey car parks, like moats hugging corrugated exteriors. People move in and out of vehicles in an orderly fashion, dwarfed by the primary-coloured Ikea, Costco and Masters hardware store.

Ikea promises a kind of rebirth. Its thick catalogue soothes with new endless possibilities for clean and sunlit interiors. The rooms of our lives can be realigned. Just swipe your card.

So mesmerised are we that we imagine waking up the next morning blonde and living with less clutter, comforted inside one of the world's best welfare states, a Scandinavian country built around equality. Instead, we need a master's degree in orientation to take what feels like an endless air-conditioned tour, supplied with easily torn tape measures and the promise of meatballs.

But the best is yet to come when we are back home to assemble the flat pack, the enamel gloss a little chipped.

Seriously, what drove us to queue for hours at the opening late last year? We welcomed the world's largest furniture retailer like a childless aunt welcoming a baby. It was a gift to us rather than a sink for our wallet.

I think it has something to do with the notion that we can start again. And we don't need to wait. However complicated our lives, Ikea tells us we can have it all, right now and on budget.

The nearby giant warehouses tell us that big is better. "You can only make a saving if you buy 36 of those," a friend and Costco member jokes without a smile. "My husband came home with a bottle of sauce that big," she gesticulates. "I need extra real estate to house it."

I was lured into Costco once to help provide treats for a school fete. Their cakes are good for kids' parties. "They have cakes for Africa," my friend told me. The crazy thing is we don't need to be fed as much as Africa.

Back at Ikea, a beeper has gone off to ask a parent to pick up a child from Little Land. A helpful staff member steers an anxious parent back to her child, held semi-captive, via secret doorways as if entering Narnia.

Ikea gets to little people early with its own doll's house furniture that they can learn to love before they are ready for the big stuff.

It all sits oddly with the other popular social movement: living slowly, living simply and buying locally produced. There's an acronym for that one: LOHAS, or lifestyles of health and sustainability. It's formalised in such organisations as slow food, slow money, slow thinking, slow fitness and slow gardening. It incorporates the concepts of awareness, consciousness and concern for the greater good. Its concern is that modern life is cutting us off from our humanity. As someone once told me, "You can't love anything at speed."

Companion books are everywhere; those that invite mindful slow colouring in. LOHAS practitioners, many of them of faith, are reacting to a culture addicted to speed and convenience. They strive to be present, to make their own food. They more likely to choose cloth over disposable nappies.

"In modern society, once you've tasted convenience, it's hard to go back, but I feel better doing these things, even though it's a pain," one says. While she might save time using commercial products, she feels they rob her of something.

I understand the buzz about Ikea. It's a revolution in organising small spaces. Other companies are customising their goods to fit into Ikea spaces.

But instead of looking for new arrangements to organise our things, why not just get fewer things? We could eat less but eat more slowly, read less but read more slowly.

It's food for thought as Lent rolls around once again in preparation for Easter. Instead of giving up rich foods, a better idea might be to give up speed, to live each day rather than be caught up in it, to be present. It would erase boundaries between our roles as parents, mentors, citizens, workers, spiritual beings and shoppers.

First published in The Canberra Times/Fairfax Media, February 20, 2016.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

For education's sake, we should question NAPLAN

Parents be warned. As school resumes, there's escalating concern that NAPLAN, the annual assessment for students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9, is producing awful consequences.

In a new book sarcastically titled How to Pass a Test, long-time teacher Lynne Edwards begs readers not to pick up the so-called "education kits" now on sale in news agencies and post offices.

She says it's bad enough that NAPLAN and the preparation for it soaks up time that should be spent teaching but it's worse if parents further harass their children at home.

NAPLAN testing is supposed to improve the quality of education by producing data that can be used to redirect resources to areas of need.

But too often it is redirected to well-resourced parents, leaving poorly performing schools even worse off. (We know that the real issue is not the differences between schools but differences within schools as students at the same school struggle to all rise together with the tide.)

The results should never have been published on a website for immediate access like an adult spectator sport.

"Once a narrow testing system is given the high-stakes status attached to the MySchool website and then published in league tables, the distortion becomes detrimental and destructive," Edwards says.

Importantly, the results aren't even current. Delivered up to half a year later, NAPLAN results are practically useless as a feedback tool for students.

And, the testing regime puts unnecessary pressure on students and their teachers. One seasoned primary teacher in Sydney told me of a pupil who just panicked. "Kids feel that if they fail they are failing for life," she said.

The term "NAPLAN belly" has been coined to describe common ailments during the testing period. A survey commissioned by the University of Western Sydney's Whitlam Institute found students vomiting, crying and staying away. It concluded that NAPLAN harms students.

As a parent attending a welcome to high school last week, I was delighted by the school's emphasis on treating the student as a whole person. "School is about bettering yourself and learning about yourself," the year 7 co-ordinator said. "It's about supporting others too."

So it's frustrating to see Australia going down the US path of more and more tests. Edwards quotes Finland's director-general of education as saying the Australia/US approach is "an attempt to simplify a complicated issue and offer a quick fix". By de-emphasising arts and emphasising numeracy and literacy testing, they suck time away from diverse and creative learning, problem solving and risk taking.

Edwards urges Australia to emulate Finland, which has moved from an "old system" of grammar schools and civic schools to a comprehensive, inclusive system driven by co-operation and collaboration, research-based training and intense mentoring for teachers. Education is valued as a public good. Teaching in Finland has become as competitive and prestigious as professions in medicine or the law. The teaching profession attracts and retains talent. By contrast, teachers here lament losing colleagues amid poor working conditions.

It's a myth that NAPLAN and the MySchool website were needed because parents were not well informed. Tests were always a small but important part of student and classroom evaluations.

But one-size-fits all tests are "not the way teachers were trained to teach and it is not the way children learn", according Geoff Hastwell, a retired Adelaide teacher who is now a musician.

"We want our schools to be much more than test-prep paddocks, we want students to be exposed to the arts, and we want them to feel cared for," he says.

He wants teachers to unite to oppose it. "I'd like them to get together and declare: the emperor has no clothes, stop this!," he says, but admits he hopes in vain. "Their union is less strong. They are less courageous and won't speak up for fear of losing a promotion."

In the US, an entire profit-making machine has grown around NAPLAN-style tests. Firms that prepare, administer and provide evaluation of the tests enjoy financial success, despite many shortcomings.

An emeritus professor at the University of Southern California, linguist and educational researcher Stephen Krashen, says non-stop testing in his country is "sucking the blood out of education". There's no money for anything else. What really annoys him is that the testing regime has not been validated. As with mandated computer-use in schools, "there's been no control group".

It has provoked an "opt out" civil disobedience movement across every state of America against state-mandated testing. It includes students themselves deciding to boycott NAPLAN-style tests.

Here in Australia, at a time of rising deficits and reduced Commonwealth income, couldn't we consider spending less on standardised testing and on the things that matter? Yes to more funding for Gonksi. Education is an investment, not a cost. But this election year, let's bring on the debate about NAPLAN, too. Let's not move with the American public and be taken for a ride. In the very least, school principals and teachers owe it to their students to downplay the significance of the tests.

First published in The Canberra Times/Fairfax Media, February 8, 2016.