In December, the PISA 2019 report found that Australia’s 15-year-olds have fallen to meet the OECD average in mathematics skills – for the first time in the assessment’s history.
Maths performance was down in all states and territories, with significant declines observed in South Australia, NSW, Tasmania, Western Australia and the ACT in particular. The smallest decline was recorded in Victoria.
The findings have led to calls for urgent change from experts and school leaders, some of whom have called for a ‘back to basics’ approach to address the nation’s dismal performance in the core subjects.
However, others say a big part of the solution lies in rethinking the role of the modern teacher.
Over the past decade, Incept Labs’ researchers have sat in roughly 1,000 classrooms and observed the reality of teaching practice.
Chris Goldspink, research director and Chief Scientist at Incept Labs, said there are “fundamental changes” required to Australia’s education system in order to settle PISA concerns and remain globally competitive.
“PISA is increasingly building the assessment of ‘future skills’ – like problem solving, collaboration, and communication – into its tests,” Goldspink told The Educator.
“To impart these skills, the teacher’s role must change from 'delivering' disconnected factoids to designing rich tasks that require conceptual mastery of the curriculum”.
Goldspink said students need more exposure to meaningful real-world challenges sourced from within their communities, “rather than abstract problems from a textbook”.
“These challenges help develop future skills through application, while also driving deeper student engagement,” he said.
“A decade of focusing on NAPLAN has achieved nothing – besides falling PISA scores – because NAPLAN only measures surface understanding and recall, not deep understanding and the application of concepts”.
Goldspink said Incept Labs’ classroom observations have consistently shown a pattern where the practices necessary to support future skill development are either weak or missing.
“From this evidence, the PISA results are absolutely no surprise. Until this changes, no progress will be made,” he said.
“One factor is that school leaders are increasingly burdened with accountability processes that see them participating in a multitude of improvement initiatives, often at the same time”.
Goldspink said many of these initiatives pull leaders in different directions, making it difficult to focus effort and resources where they’re needed most.
“Leaders need to be empowered to identify local challenges and focus on them, finding local strategies to really shift the dial on their most critical indicators,” he said.