Mandating Bad Ideas (a persistent problem in education)

Inquiry learning may have a place in the curriculum. It can give students an idea of the processes of a discipline and it can be motivating (it can also be excruciatingly dull). However, it is less effective than explicit instruction for teaching concepts and procedures to subject area novices; the sorts of students who are learning academic subjects in K-12 education.

Not everyone agrees with this position and that’s fine. It is an issue about which reasonable people may disagree. However, I suspect that few of those who disagree with me would be likely to support the idea of mandating inquiry learning in schools across a whole region.

And yet this is what is currently happening in Victoria.

Students in Victoria who wish to go on to university typically study Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) subjects in Years 11 and 12. Year 11 is entirely school-assessed and all that needs to be reported to the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) is whether students have ‘satisfactorily completed’ particular subjects.

In Year 12, VCE subjects are assessed by coursework and a final exam. I actually like this system because the coursework is moderated against a school’s exam grades, meaning that all that really matters is how the school ranks students from the coursework. For instance, if a school obtains five A+ grades in the final physics exam then the top five ranked students will be given A+ grades for their physics coursework. The beauty of this system is that it prevents some of the dodgy practices that sometimes arise from school-based assessment.

The study designs (syllabuses) for mathematics and science subjects have been revised for the start of 2016 and this seems to have been an opportunity for some to pursue an inquiry learning agenda.

In Mathematical Methods, the coursework for Unit 3 (half of the Year 12 course) currently consists of an ‘application task’ – effectively an extended, contextualised question – and two tests. In the new study design, these have all been replaced by a single ‘application task’ that has been redefined to be:

A function and calculus-based mathematical investigation of a practical or theoretical context involving content from two or more areas of study, with the following three components of increasing complexity:

• introduction of the context through specific cases or examples
• consideration of general features of the context
• variation or further specification of assumption or conditions involved in the context to focus on a particular feature or aspect related to the context.

The application task is to be of 4–6 hours duration over a period of 1–2 weeks.”

So it is an investigation and it has to last at least 4 hours. When I attended a recent briefing, I was told that it should not be run under exam conditions and that we were encouraged to allow students to ‘collaborate’.  Exactly how it is possible to fairly assess each individual under such conditions is unclear. The task should also apparently run in one continuous block – we can’t break it up into separate chunks and run them at different times.

This is uncannily similar to what has happened in the new physics study design. To be fair, the current physics study design requires students to carry out an extended practical investigation but considerable scope is given to schools as to how to organise this. I am not against practical work; I like the model of a practical exam that we used to have in England. The VCE requirement that students have to design the investigation themselves, although completely misguided given their level of knowledge and understanding, is something that I have been able to work with due to the considerable scope schools have for interpreting the guidance.

However, the VCAA must have concluded that schools were using this freedom to not conduct a pure enough kind of investigation. So, we see more prescriptive guidance in the new study design, complete with a burdensome time requirement. Students have to make a scientific poster according to the VCAA’s own template that must not exceed 1000 words and they must also devote at least seven hours to this investigation and its write-up.

These developments are no accident. I was at a couple of the initial ‘consultations’ when these study designs were being revised and a lot of the discourse was framed around how to incorporate more inquiry learning into the physics and chemistry VCEs. The goodness of inquiry learning wasn’t in question, just the mechanics of how to shove more of it in.

I think the time is ripe for disruption of qualifications in Australia. There was a telling moment at the briefing about the new maths study design when one teacher asked the presenter if universities had been consulted. The presenter quickly answered, “No.” Would you design a system of academic exams that did not consult with universities on their content?

I suspect, if asked, the universities would prefer a far more conceptual course, less dependent on expensive calculators where, instead, students focus on really developing their algebra and calculus. I don’t think that the International Baccalaureate is the answer – although I’ve not taught it – and so perhaps there is an argument for a new Australian exam board to compete against the current offerings.

It’s all a bit too cosy at the moment.

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