Academic wellbeing

It is a mistake to assume that the pursuit of academic success must come at the expense of wellbeing


A recurring motif in the world of the international education consultant is the diagram that opposes one set of ideas against the other - good versus bad.

I was struck by this when I read a new paper for the Australian Centre for Strategic Education by Michael Fullan, a Canadian educational consultant, and hit upon a diagram listing ‘drivers’ for whole system success. The right drivers are called, ‘the human paradigm’ and include, ‘wellbeing and learning’, ‘social intelligence’, ‘equality investments’ and ‘systemness’. How nice! The wrong drivers are apparently, ‘the bloodless paradiagm’ and include ‘academics obsession’, ‘machine intelligence’, ‘austerity’, and ‘fragmentation’. These wrong, rather pale-looking, drivers sound rather bad.

Such a dichotomy seems a little simplistic and to be fair to Fullan, he goes on to layer in some ambiguity. “In sum, Academics are valuable, and Deep Learning all the more so, but for the majority of students in 2021 stressing academic learning is not the starting point.” This comes after a section complaining at great length about the focus on grades, standardised testing and admissions to elite U.S. colleges that he links, through a criticism of the meritocratic ideal, to Brexit and Trump. And it is important to note that by ‘Deep Learning’, Fullan has something specific in mind:

“Deep Learning is the process of developing, understanding and using the 6 Cs, which we call the global competencies: Character, Citizenship, Collaboration, Communication, Creativity and Critical Thinking. It is worth noting that the so-called 21st century skills (the latter 4 Cs) have been around for at least 30 years; and have failed to go anywhere. Yes, the timing may have been premature, but more tellingly we have found that character and citizenship are ‘foundational skills’ that are catalytic to making a difference in the world – qualities not included in the original four 21st century skills, and characteristics directly related to the intrinsic motivation of contemporary students.”

This model, “includes using and developing further what is known about the neuroscience of learning such as: ‘student as inquirer and knowledge builder’.” Wiliam’s model of formative assessment is invoked but, “My [Fullan’s] only issue is the need to apply this thinking to the global competencies.” And Fullan goes on to note, in a section about machine learning, that his ‘6 C’s’ are difficult to measure, suggesting this is why schools focus on the more easily measured content of academic subjects.

There is a lot to unpack here. Firstly, Fullan has a habit of quoting the opinions of others to support his arguments rather than using direct evidence. This makes it hard to challenge the evidence for these opinions without reading all of these authors. In effect, we have an extended argument from authority.

And Fullan has certainly found some problems worth noting. He draws on a well-established critique of the notion of meritocracy. However, in the face of stressors like the COVID-19 pandemic, it is hard to maintain the argument that the problem with Western democracies is that they are ruled by an overly-credentialed, technocratic elite. Far from it. Indeed, it seems reasonable to argue the case for a little more educated competence.

What Fullan is really pointing to is inequality of opportunity. Good quality education provided in safe and conducive environments is relatively rare and so those with the means, pursue it. That is not a pure meritocracy.

It is strange, perhaps, that Fullan’s argument should take such a political stance. Fullan even invokes the fashionable cause of identity politics, “‘Systems’ of colonial, racial, gender/sexual, class domination, and others, also contribute importantly. In short, there are multiple ‘systems of oppression’ at work.” But what Fullan is advocating is a complete revolution of our education systems, precipitated by the disruption caused by COVID-19, and revolutions are political projects.

Indeed, a revolution would be necessary to see Fullan’s ideas enacted because they are fundamentally flawed.

As far as I am aware, there is no neuroscience that says that students need to be inquirers and knowledge-builders. In fact, it’s hard to imagine how brain-imaging studies could contribute much to such a question. What we do know from educational psychology is that discovery learning of this kind, far from being ‘deep’, is ineffective and inefficient. It confuses the methods used by professionals to create knew knowledge with the best methods for conveying well-established knowledge to novice learners.

And the reason why the ‘6 C’s’ are so hard to measure is that they are reified abstract concepts. Despite Fullan claiming that competencies such as ‘critical thinking’ are skills, there is little evidence to support this. Critical thinking is highly domain specific: If you know a lot about marsupials then you can think critically about marsupials but if you don’t know much about financial markets then you cannot think critically about financial markets. The same person can therefore have a mix of critical thinking abilities. The role of school is to equip students with the content knowledge required to think critically about a range of important issues, not because schools have an ‘academics obsession’ but because this is an intrinsically valuable gift to bestow upon young people.

If you ditch content knowledge and try to teach critical thinking directly then you are likely to achieve the perverse result of lowering students’ capacity to think critically.

Perhaps Fullan’s central point - the one that will land most squarely with the kind of Australian school leader who will read this paper - is the contrast between ‘wellbeing and learning’ and ‘academics obsession’. As we have seen, Fullan’s view of learning is much wider than traditional academic subjects - subjects that he is ambivalent about, at best. And to Fullan, an academics obsession includes a focus on standardised tests such as the NAPLAN suite of assessments in Australia.

Fullan makes the point that NAPLAN has not improved academic outcomes. This is true. However, it is a category error to assume that it should. Just as weighing yourself will not make you lose weight, measuring academic outcomes will not improve them. You need some sort of intervention in order to lose weight or improve academic outcomes. What NAPLAN tells us is that whatever we have been doing over the last ten years in Australian education, it has not improved outcomes. Would we be better off not knowing this? I cannot see how.

NAPLAN is not perfect and could be improved, but it is not a high-stakes assessment for students and it should not be made to be one by teachers or parents. If people are turning it into a high stakes assessment for students then that is not the fault of the assessment.

When it comes to replacing the truly high-stakes ATAR, Australian’s system of aggregating Year 12 results for the purpose of university admission, Fullan’s endorsement of a portfolio system would only make matters less equitable. Yes, wealthy parents can employ tutors to help prepare students for exams, but the student still has to go into the exam room and answer the questions alone. A portfolio would be open to all sorts of manipulation by social elites, particularly if it was intended to also capture non-cognitive skills.

The solution to stagnating academic outcomes is not to close our eyes, put our fingers in our ears and suggest we should focus on vague, abstract competencies instead - competencies that no teacher or school leader has the faintest idea of how to turn into a curriculum. The solution is not to give up, patronisingly assume that students in disadvantaged schools are not capable of academic achievement and seek to level the playing field by some other means.

The solution is to improve our academic standards. There is no magic wand for doing this but there are a few pointers. We need to use the most effective methods to teach all children to read. We need a knowledge-rich curriculum that will help with reading comprehension and wider competencies such as critical thinking. We need to use teaching methods such as interactive explicit teaching rather than inquiry learning. By relying on the evidence, we can make incremental improvements that, over time, add up to substantial gains.

Wellbeing and academic success are not in conflict. We know, for instance, that length of time in education - a crude proxy for academic success - correlates positively with life expectancy. It obviously should, if you think about it, but the mutually reinforcing nature of academic success and personal wellbeing is not something you will hear about often from educational consultants. It doesn’t fit neatly into one of those diagrams.