The 2nd Great Debate: Would abolishing standardised testing improve learning environments?

Published: Thursday 23 May 2019

On 20 April 2019, LEA Victoria hosted the second annual Great Learning Environments Debate, and it featured a hot topic.

The site for the debate was the AIA Award Winning Learning and Monash University Teaching Building by John Wardle Architects. Interestingly, the perforated metal screen on the exterior of the building forms a Faraday Cage that blocks mobile phone reception. What better place for a “Cage Match” of argumentative prowess.

The building also has something that's become a bit of a theme in the Chapter visits this year:

Is that a Hellerup Stair?

The topic for this year’s debate was “Abolishing Standardised Testing Would Improve Learning Environments.” Both teams had strong opinions on standardised tests such as VCE Exams and NAPLAN. Each team included an educator and architect anchored by a member of the Monash Association of Debaters (MAD). Dr Scott Alterator moderated the event. Along with framing the conversation, Scott provided interesting trivia about each debater.

Abolishing Standardised Testing WOULD Improve Learning Environments

Nick Donaldson from Woodleigh School was the first speaker for the affirmative. He provided a zealous argument to abolish standardised testing. Nick began by defining innovative learning environments (ILE’s) as a combination of architecture and 21st Century pedagogy.

Nick believes standardised testing is about finding the average or a one-size fits all solution. Using the metaphor of a World War II fighter plane, he stated there is no one-size fits all solution. “The average is a myth.” Successful learning environments foster collaboration and personalisation. Whereas, standardised testing diminishes opportunities for these by promoting a mythical average.


Sandy "laying down the" Law at the Great Debate

The second speaker for the affirmative was architect Sandy Law. She felt that abolishing standardised testing was a “no brainer.” The improvements would be abundant. Testing requires a lot of architecture and planning. This interrupts the flow of learning. Whether its teachers administering tests or maintenance staff setting up furniture for testing, Sandy believes that their efforts would be better spent doing other things. All standardised testing does is create room for stress.

MAD debater and amateur magician, Alisdair Gurling "pulled a rabbit out of his hat" as the third affirmative speaker. He passionately spoke about how learning environments currently have to conform to standardised testing. This results in depersonalised spaces and competition just for the opportunity to learn. He raised the question of how does this effect the mental health and wellbeing of students? Alisdair concluded by stating, “A world without standardised testing gives students the freedom to explore education at their own speed and time.”

Alisdair Gurling concludes the affirmative team's argument
Abolishing Standardised Testing WOULD NOT Improve Learning Environments

Emma Morgan was the first speaker for the negative team. As a teacher at Hallam Senior College, Emma believes students do not learn without feedback. Standardised testing generates this feedback. Tests like NAPLAN measure skills that are essential for critical thinking.

A common misconception is that NAPLAN only provides feedback for students. It also provides feedback on teachers as well. Testing provides a snapshot of where skills may be lagging for both teachers and students. Emma emphatically concluded that abolishing standardised testing will not lead to improvement. Testing is just a tool for measuring academic achievement. It is not the only tool.

Jenny Cox of Minx Architects for the negative team

The second speaker for the negative team was architect Jenny Cocks of Minx Architects. As a Married at First Sight fan, Jenny knows the importance of experiments. She pointed out that of 5,500 studies of ILE’s, none of them look at their effects on learning outcomes. Standardised testing makes sure that teachers get the basics right first. Jenny also noted that standardised testing doesn’t end in school. It is everywhere. It’s used to get a driver’s license and architectural registration. Unlike Mike and Heidi, our relationship with standardised testing is a lifelong commitment.

Neraj Galagedara from MAD was the third speaker for the negative team. He contended that standardised testing provides valuable information for teachers. This includes assessing students’ fundamental literacy and numeracy skills. These are basic abilities everyone needs to get a job. Neraj pointed out that opponents of standardised testing complain that it’s competitive. However, competition is everywhere. Opponents should not get so fixated on testing. “There is more to school than preparing for NAPLAN and VCE.”

And the Winner is…

At the start of the debate, Scott took an informal poll of the audience. 70% supported the affirmative contention that abolishing standardised testing would improve learning environments. 30% were undecided or supported the negative. His poll after the debate showed a shift.

60% still supported the affirmative while 40% supported the negative. There was only one undecided. But, what did the adjudicators think? Isobel Orford from MAD provided the verdict. In a split decision of two to one, the judges awarded victory to the affirmative team. The prize for master debater was awarded to Alisdair Gurling for his passionate affirmative argument.

At networking drinks afterward, the debate continued amongst the attendees. The crowd was just as split as the adjudicators. The debate about the status of standardised testing will continue long after this debate. How this effects learning environments remains to be seen.

Article: Wayne Hay
Photos: Celina Lee, Wayne Hay