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Focus on basics leaves schoolkids short in essential deep thinking

Focus on basics leaves schoolkids short in essential deep thinking

Research 7 minute read

The declining performance of Australian school students is in the spotlight again. But is there anything governments can do to arrest the decline? Geoff Masters responds.

According to the latest results from the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the average reading levels of Australian 15-year-olds fell by the equivalent of three-quarters of a year of school since 2000. Mathematics levels fell by one-and-a-quarter years of school since 2003. And science levels fell by almost a year of school since 2006. Very few countries recorded such large falls in performance.

As a result, Australia slipped in international rankings. Some countries we once outperformed now outperform us and the gap in mathematics between Australia and the top-performing country Singapore has widened to the equivalent of three years of school.

Equally concerning are the performances of some Australian states. In New South Wales, falls in reading and science were the largest in the nation, although Victoria saw no significant decline. In South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and New South Wales, falls in mathematics levels since 2003 were among the largest recorded anywhere in the world.

This matters because PISA assesses skills that will be increasingly important in the future. Unlike many tests and examinations, PISA does not assess students’ abilities to recall facts or basic literacy and numeracy skills. Instead, it assesses the ability to transfer and apply learning to new situations and unseen problems. This requires an understanding of fundamental concepts and principles, as well as the ability to think. It is in these areas that Australian 15-year-olds’ performances are declining.

But it is precisely these skills that will be in greater demand as factual information becomes more readily accessible on devices and low-skill tasks are increasingly performed by machines. Future employees will require more than basic skills such as literacy and numeracy. They will need to be able to think, solve problems, create new solutions, draw on deep understandings – in short, to do what machines cannot – or risk long-term unemployment. This is a massive challenge for education systems because it means every student will need levels of knowledge and skill currently achieved by only some.

Governments can address this challenge first by changing the school curriculum. Currently, many areas of the curriculum contain too much material. The future curriculum must be refocused on a smaller range of important knowledge, concepts and principles developed in greater depth. Breadth of learning will continue to be important but the volume of material teachers currently are expected to teach often leaves insufficient time for deep learning of the kind PISA assesses and the future will demand.

This will mean setting priorities for student learning. The future curriculum should prioritise knowledge essential for building further knowledge in a subject and discard other less essential facts and procedures. It also should prioritise core principles and ideas in each subject and develop these in increasing depth across the years of school. And time must be created in the curriculum for students to see how what they are learning can be applied to a range of different contexts and problems and to develop skills in transferring and applying their knowledge.

In parallel, changes are required to how learning is assessed. Existing assessment processes often focus on factual recall and low-level skills. Students sometimes describe memorising taught information for regurgitation in tests and examinations, particularly in the final years of school. Broader approaches to assessment that include opportunities for students to apply their knowledge and skills to meaningful problems and to think critically and creatively are required to align assessments with new curriculum priorities.

Consideration also needs to be given to the role that literacy and numeracy testing is playing in promoting a focus in schools on basic rather than high-level skills. The achievement of minimum standards is no longer adequate. If schools are incentivised to focus their efforts on basic skills to the exclusion of thinking and deep conceptual understanding, then performances on PISA are unlikely to improve and may continue to decline.

Finally, governments can support teachers to implement these new curriculum priorities and changed assessment arrangements through quality teaching and assessment resources and professional development in their use. Reforms depend on changes in teacher practice, but it should not be assumed that all teachers are equipped to make these changes, particularly those teaching out of field.

Ultimately, improvements in performance depend on improved classroom teaching. But teachers work in a context. Curriculum, assessment and teacher support arrangements can either support or hinder the changes Australia now urgently requires.

This article originally appeared in The Age.

Further information:
PISA is managed in Australia by ACER on behalf of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Australia’s participation in PISA is funded by the federal, and state and territory governments. Volume II of the PISA 2018 results, due for release in March 2020, will focus on student and school characteristics. To find out more about Australia's participation in PISA, visit

Read the full reports:
PISA 2018 In Brief I: Student performance by Sue Thomson, Lisa De Bortoli, Catherine Underwood and Marina Schmid, ACER (2019).

PISA 2018: Reporting Australia’s Results. Volume I: Student performance by Sue Thomson, Lisa De Bortoli, Catherine Underwood and Marina Schmid, ACER (2019).

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