Challenging the BMX bike syndrome

As the date approaches for the annual NAPLAN testing (National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy), the discussion around the value of national testing, and indeed international testing, is revisited.

That every child should be both literate and numerate is an absolute basic right. National testing has its place in providing a snapshot on a single day of student attainment of these educational basics. NAPLAN results can provide individual teachers and schools with usable and useful information about student learning. The danger with national tests is not the tests themselves but the use to which they may be put by reducing consideration of teaching and learning to the lowest common denominator.

As a beginning English teacher, I wrestled with finding ways to engage my students in the study of English in all of its remarkable forms. At the core of my practice was the desire to foster a love of language and literature, to connect students with big ideas and equip them to interpret and use the language to enrich their own experience. I was often disappointed by the tendency of those who saw the way of connecting students to learning was by looking for the simplest of texts, or designing units of work around issues deemed to be of popular appeal. At that time, BMX bikes were all the rage with teenage boys (as evidenced by 1983 film BMX Bandits) and so I coined the term “the BMX bike syndrome”, for that approach to education that sets its sights on the basics, rather than the rewards of embracing the challenges of learning.

Dr Paul Brock usefully distinguishes between “the basics”, literacy and numeracy, and “the fundamentals”, the full breadth and depth of learning possible in English and Mathematics. He alerts us to the dangers of an over emphasis on national test results:

…the fundamentals continue to be at risk of being seriously diluted by the necessary, but not sufficient, focus on the basics.

As educators, we want our students to be successful learners so that they can leave school equipped for further study and work that enables them to lead fulfilling lives. The basics are essential, but our students’ learning is impoverished when they are engaged in drill and practice that is motivated by undue emphasis on the outcomes of national tests.

Brock, Paul (2011) towards Schooling in the 21st Century: ‘Back to Basics’ or Forward to Fundamentals ACEL Monograph Series

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