NAPLAN is under fire again. “Outdated” and “inappropriate” are words used to describe the aims of NAPLAN in a recent UNSW study. Many of us parents can relate to the many “negative outcomes” kids experience – like stress and anxiety!
It’s tempting to think “here we go again”, but let me explain what I think is the biggest problem with NAPLAN, and why countries like Finland, Canada, Scotland and Singapore are moving in the opposite direction.
NAPLAN doesn’t help kids prepare for the real world. We need our next generation to be thinkers, to be problem solvers with the ability to learn new skills.
Why? Because real-world problems don’t come with a predetermined strategy. No formula given, no examples already completed for us. And definitely no nice, neat answer in the back of the book.
Real-life problems demand flexibility and strategy. They require critical thinking to decide what method and tools might work. They call for a strong dose of collaboration and communication. They need reflection and iteration. Kids are expected to take skills and knowledge from one scenario and transfer them to another.
And these are the exact skills society is demanding right now: soft skills. Teachers have known it for years. Other countries around the globe are also starting to catch on and are streaking ahead.
These soft skills (or higher-order skills) include a wide range of transferable skills. Some I’ve already mentioned; others might be interpersonal skills, creativity and resilience, to name a few.
In fact, the recruitment industry has seen a huge recent shift in focus for employers, from hiring based on experience to hiring based on soft skills. According to Human Resources Director magazine, soft skills are the “currency of the future”. And that’s something we want our children to be invested in!
So, does NAPLAN focus on these skills? In short, no. But surely, if these skills are so important, shouldn’t the country’s main standardised test value them? Well, the problem is that these skills are difficult to measure. And with the current system’s obsession with grades and ranks, anything that can’t be easily graded or ranked gets thrown in the too-hard basket. The result: we end up focusing only on what we can easily measure.
Standardised tests like NAPLAN are great for capturing what kids know. But they aren’t designed to measure these higher-order skills or student thinking. That’s why teachers are desperately calling for changes in NAPLAN and in the curriculum. Einstein’s old adage comes to mind: “Not everything that counts can be counted.”
Despite the calls to action by teachers, NAPLAN is back in 2021. But the maths teacher and parent in me feels NAPLAN still doesn’t measure the skills most important for true student success.
I’m hopeful that change is coming. There are big conversations happening right now driving reform. But while we wait for change, here are a few ideas you could use at home or in the classroom to foster soft skills.
When it comes to real-life problem solving, start with less information. It forces kids to strategise. What information will they need? How will they find it?
Example: Rather than a worksheet on calculating areas, announce “we’re painting the room and we need to know how much paint to buy”. Then watch the magic!
Encourage kids to collaborate with others, discussing their ideas and working together.
Strategic questions can really help those critical thinking aspects of any problem. “Yes” or “no” to whether an answer is correct halts the thinking on the spot.
Example: Try asking questions like:
* How did you get to that answer?
* Can you think of a place you’d need to use this in the real world?
Communication and reasoning:
Find ways to make student thinking visible.
Example: Ask them to communicate their reasoning in words.
Ask problems in context. It makes the learning real to kids. It stops them asking: “When will I need this?” It encourages adaptability as they take familiar skills and apply them in unfamiliar, real-world contexts.
Try open-ended problems with more than one correct answer.
Example: Rather than “Find the area of this rectangle”, try “A rectangle has an area of 20 square centimetres. Find 3 possible dimensions – see if you can surprise yourself!”
Encourage students to reflect on their learning. What went well? What could they do differently?
Building these soft skills makes learning more real, relevant and much more fun. It also leads to more proficient learners, equipping them for the challenging journey ahead. Let’s invest in the currency that will count as our kids grow and find their way in the world.