The Fabric of this Vision

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Some thoughts on the new NESA literacy and numeracy standards and changes to the New South Wales Higher School Certificate.

If you can look into the seeds of time,
And say which grain will grow and which will not,
Speak then to me, who neither beg nor fear
Your favours nor your hate.

William Shakespeare Macbeth

A few weeks ago, just as the creative madness of Mary Poppins was coming to a climax, additional details of the new English HSC syllabus were released. In reaction, the cage-fight of wombats that is the Sydney tabloid press lumbered to their feet, and like a Shakespearean court fool, danced their usual poorly informed jig of indignation. At the same time, slowly smoking away in the background was the slow-burn introduction of NESA’s new literacy and numeracy standards, and suddenly – for a day or two – the invested contenders in the two issues dragged themselves up of the floor and slugged out a few verbal rounds. Although discourse surrounding changes to the NSW curriculum can sometimes have the pugilistic grace of two sacks of colliding wet sand, in this bout both sides landed enough punches to draw our attention.

As a result, Peggy sent me an email suggesting that as Learning Area Leader I let the school community know how the school was – if not in the ring of this fight –  at least cheering (or jeering) the changes from the front row seats. I’m not sure that what follows is quite what she had in mind –  but it’s been a long term for me, dominated by a flying Edwardian Governess and her impossibly wise soot-stained sidekick – closely followed by the fairground roller-coaster of stage 6 exams and assessments. With only a few days of the term to go I’m seeing the world through blood-shot eyes.

In addition to that, yesterday was the day we handed their most recent English exam papers and assessments back to Years 11 and 12. This experience can be equally as bleak for the teacher as it can for the student, for while there is always a fair spread of students who are pleased with their result, there is also usually a devastated smattering, students who are at that moment seeing the world the wrong way through a telescope. For them this result is a confirming lash of the whip of negative self-talk. They try so hard to keep their faces blank, but their eyes betray the ugly dialogue of self-condemnation playing out in their minds like the devil’s broken record.

As the boss commands, so it shall be. This reflection therefore is about two specific changes to the New South Wales Higher School Certificate. In the first instance it is about the new literacy and numeracy standards the HSC will soon demand. In the second it is about the significant modifications being made to the way the HSC and Year 11 curriculums are being taught. I am going to try to explore these changes, however, in the context of gently questioning, and encouraging rethinking of, exactly what the value and importance of the HSC is.

So here goes…

Firstly, I want to make an unambiguous statement straight to Year 11 and 12 students themselves. The HSC is not a universally agreed spectrum of intellectual capacity against which your identity is shaped and judged – and if you believe this – even just a little bit – then stop it now. This belief is unlikely to be of either benefit or relevance in your life and may very well make you miserable -if it is not doing so already.

In my educational utopia there is nothing that even resembles the HSC. You all get to study what you like in the manner you like, and for your entire school career you never get to see a mark or a grade smeared on any of the learning that you undertake. You realise that your school career is a process of constantly building new ideas and skills on a foundation of experimentation that shapes what you have already learnt…and you live a life of failing regularly, succeeding occasionally and failing better each time you do. And when you do succeed the victory is sweeter for its legacy of persistence. Education is something you mostly enjoy rather than mostly endure, something that leaves you feeling successful because you have regularly failed, rather than something that leaves you feeling a failure because you have not reached some arbitrary marker of success.

But of course, this naïve utopian vision marks me as an idealistic fool. We live in a real world that enslaves us into the bonds of hierarchy and competition, and it is therefore to this cloudy real world master we must turn to make our peace.

My point is this. Yes, there are changes to the HSC, both in what it it represents and how it is done – but in coming to terms with these changes it is critical for students to understand that the HSC is not – and should never be – a judgement on the value of who they are.

And the changes are significant, in intention at least, if not outcome. The first of these is the introduction of literacy and numeracy standards as a condition for the awarding of the HSC. (Please excuse me for a moment as I stoop to the artless aesthetic of dot points).

The facts are these:

  • As of 2020, in order to be awarded an HSC, students in Year 12 will need to attain a standard of literacy and numeracy equivalent to that of a band 8 pass in NAPLAN at Year 9 level.
  • They can achieve this in the first instance by simply attaining this standard in their Year 9 NAPLAN.
  • If they don’t achieve this standard, they can -at specific times over their subsequent three years of schooling – sit NESA devised online tests that will award them this standard. This test will be based on the level 3 literacy and numeracy skills defined by the Australian Core Skills Framework. (ACSF) These skills are broadly similar, but not the same as those required to achieve a band 8 NAPLAN result in Year 9. They can even sit the tests anytime in the five years after they have completed their Year 12 studies and be awarded the HSC when they have successfully passed.

Contemplating these changes raises a plethora of questions, many of which are addressed in the NESA fact sheet available here. But speaking with colleagues both within and outside of the school, many of whom are having their own independent discussions with NESA, there are still many questions to be answered. What happens to students with recognized learning disabilities? What stops students from simply not sitting Year 9 NAPLAN and doing the tests in subsequent Years with more learning under their belt? How does this not become another comparative tool of hierarchical condemnation in the NAPLAN discourse that so confounds and fascinates teachers and parents?

One of the most intriguing side effects of the new minimum standards requirement is that it drags the HSC kicking and screaming toward a reinvented purpose. It will place children on either side of a line in the sand, and define them based on their skills in literacy and numeracy. As it stands now, the HSC is not a test that students ‘pass’ or ‘fail’, but rather a continuum on which their skills are assessed against broadly defined standards. It is awarded for completion regardless of marks. What the new literacy standards will achieve is to make the HSC a much narrower judgement of specific ability.

Common sense (simultaneously an anchor of wisdom and a refuge for fools and bigots) suggests that this is not really such a bad thing…but as I write this I am haunted by the unsettled fear in the eyes and faces of my senior students as I handed back their papers yesterday. They fear so deeply being judged and defined by arbitrary numbers that seek to measure their intelligence.

Yet when we step back and look closely at what really matters in shaping these student’s academic lives, perhaps the oddest element of these new standards is how they draw attention to the fact that the HSC has a significantly overstated relevance to the student’s future. As it stands now, the HSC is not a prerequisite for most tertiary study. Students don’t need – and will continue not to need – an HSC to go to university. These new literacy and numeracy standards will not prevent Year 12 students sitting the HSC exams, they will not prevent them getting HSC marks and will not prevent them receiving an ATAR – which is the most common – but not the only determinant for entry into tertiary studies.

There is something particularly political about all of this. Slowly over time the HSC has become less relevant, and more pandering to a world that seeks always to find new arbitrary ways to categorize success and failure. Perhaps a few years ago we might have seen the sole purpose of our school as a factory for producing HSC success, but if we are really to embrace the philosophy of preparing the whole student for a new world, perhaps we should start to reconsider the importance of the HSC in this preparation. (OK Peggy – perhaps that’s not what you wanted me to write – but I’m about to do a graceless double take of sorts – so stay with me a little while longer.)

All this however, is only half the story. Just as NESA introduces its new literacy and numeracy standards to repurpose the HSC – and give fuel to the very real danger of teaching to the test in the middle years of high school – it is simultaneously fiddling around with the syllabus and structure of the HSC itself…in a somewhat paradoxical effort to confound the inescapable truth that the HSC itself is largely taught to the test.

Scots recently hosted an Australian Independent Schools familiarization day for the New HSC English and History Syllabus’. The strongest knowledge that I came away from the day with was not the details of the changes – NESA is still drip feeding these to us – but of how much we as teachers and students will be confronted by the need to change how we teach and how we learn.

The underlying fundamental change is simple. From 2019 NESA will significantly increase the number of unknowns in the examination, driving us to teach a much wider range of skills around how to answer questions, alongside our teaching of the content that students must use within the answers. In the past students knew fairly specifically what they needed to do for each section of the exam and each prescribed text. They knew that the scope of a response would emerge from a narrow range of possible ideas or concepts. This will no longer be the case. We will still study specific nominated texts in HSC English, but students may be asked to write about any aspect them; themes, structure, context, values…and they may be asked to write in any form, from persuasive and creative, to rhetorical and analytical. They may well be asked to undertake deep analysis of unseen texts – and may be asked to consider a wider understanding of them in their context. We are still waiting on more details of this considerable change, however NESA have made it clear that they will not be providing sample exam papers and sample questions.

This then is the radical change that the English/HSIE faculty is now collectively getting its head around and starting to plan for. I love teaching the HSC, and revel in the growing intellectual interaction I have with with older students who are molding their new selves with adult ideas as they experience the paradoxical bitter-sweet palate of their world. Within this context, however, I admit that I teach too much to the exam. I try not to, but since we now have such a wealth of history about what the students will face on that day in mid-October, the yearning to help them attain the very best result, alongside the simple act of quelling the fear of the elephant in the room – tends to demand it.

And so how we react to both of these changes to the HSC takes on a curious dichotomy. In terms of the literacy and numeracy standards, there is a real possibility that schools and teachers will become more deeply ensnared in the suffocating intellectual maelstrom of ‘teaching to the test’, particularly the NAPLAN tests to Years 7 and 9, and the subsequent online tests (where necessary) to later years. From the pedestrian height of where I stand, it’s hard to see how it can be otherwise.

But at the same time, there is something really exciting about the idea that we might just be able to – if not abandon, then at least diminish – the intense Year 12 focus on narrow preparation for that ignoble test in October, and be able to say to students, “I don’t know how it’s going to look or what exactly you’re going to be asked to do, so let’s spend our time learning how rather than what.”

I don’t know how many times I’ve been told in the last few years that the students of today will be working tomorrow in jobs that don’t yet exist – and that my job is to prepare them for this. I am (I hope) an essentially competent English teacher – so I understand the inference that the skills of how students learn, are becoming more important than what they learn. And besides this, I teach Shakespeare – and love doing so – but even the most spurious of justifying arguments can’t quantify how the students’ experience of the cleverest and wittiest wisdom in the world will serve them in these mystical jobs of tomorrow.

At the end of every Year 12 I tell my departing students that they must remember to do one thing for me as they sally forth on what I hope will be, a full and meaningful post school life. I ask that if at some point in the future they make the the choice without coercion to see a live performance of Shakespeare, then they must email me and tell me what they thought of it. In that last week before Mary Poppins, at just about the same time Peggy asked me to write this piece, I received a lovely email from one of my class of 2012 telling me she had just seen Twelfth Night. These occasional missives have arrived from all over the world, and are always moments of career affirmation.

We prepare our student for the world in the best way we know. Knowledge is infinite and its relevance is always contextual, so the calls for more relevant schooling made by of those who imagine the future, and those who will employ our students in the jobs of tomorrow, needs to be seen in the context of a spectrum of unknowables.

If turning a few of the wonderfully diverse young minds that cross my path onto the wonders of Shakespeare becomes the legacy of my teaching, then I am content. I know in my heart what Shakespeare has to offer the thinkers and neuro-scientists; the accountants and web-entrepreneurs; and even the maths and physics teachers of tomorrow. For, when he was writing deep in the chaos and tyranny of the Elizabethan era, almost all of the jobs that exist today, had never been imagined then either. The logical extension of having to teach to meet the unknown needs of the unknown job market of the future, suddenly gives all learning and all wisdom equal value in the realm of the unknown.

The changes to the HSC are what they are. At Scots we will adapt and shape ourselves as teachers and students to their demands, and as we do we will sometimes fail, and, hopefully more often, get it right. An unknown future is possibly one of the oldest and most familiar historical conundrums in the world. Let us not be frightened by it. Let us face its challenge with the tools of adaptation in our hearts and hands.

In the coming world of new, never before conceived future professions, I suspect the wisdom of Euclid, Epictetus and Einstein will always be relevant – and I’ll put money, on the enduring value of Shakespeare as well.

Learning Area Leader English/HSIE