skip to main content

Leading thinkers in conversation

Long reads
Leading thinkers in conversation

Three leading thinkers in education - Professor Geoff Masters AO, Dr Michele Bruniges AM and Sir Michael Barber - gathered in Sydney last month to discuss assessment reform and innovation.

This special event was part of the Australian Council for Education Research (ACER) Rolling Summit. The conversation covered a range of topics, including the role of technology in authentic assessment, changing pedagogy and what it means to learn and make progress.

Here's a taste of what the panel had to say.

What will assessment systems look like in 10 years time?

Sir Michael Barber, a former adviser to the Blair Government in the UK, predicts a future in which new technology, virtual learning environments and digital platforms will allow educators to combine authentic assessment and testing. 'I think schools and teachers will use that digital technology to monitor student learning, indeed students increasingly will use it to monitor their own learning and they will be getting feedback pretty much instantly.

'The schools will have the data they need to drive student performance up, to monitor progress, to tailor learning programs, to create collaborative learning environments where collaborative problem solving can be assessed … and from that, the system will be able to get the data it needs to monitor performance without asking for anything extra.

‘If you think of the best computer games where you can collaborate, you can find more than one route to the right answer, often there’s more than one answer that’s right and there are several ways of getting there, and you get instant feedback – that’s what assessment might turn out to be like and I think that would be really pretty exciting.'

However, he went on to say that data and technology alone will not be enough to transform learning. 'The data plus the technology, plus a teacher [or group of teachers] teaching in a new way, will be quite powerful. And the characteristics of that teacher will be what [John Hattie] talks about: the teacher as activator, inspiring, challenging mediocrity, pushing people over the hump when learning looks too difficult … constantly providing a challenge, bringing together ideas and being an inspiring person as well as sometimes a subject content expert or a problem solver.

‘In these new assessment environments [we’re imagining] I think it’s going to be perfectly plausible to assess a much wider range of outcomes that are important, including positive attitudes, collaboration, leadership, resilience – all of those are part of growth, beyond just growth in your mathematics or literacy. … Hopefully the assessment paradigm can become a much broader thing than what we’ve been used to in the past.’

Relevance and feedback, for students and teachers

Dr Michele Bruniges AM, Secretary of the New South Wales Department of Education, told the audience that one of the biggest issues is the rate of reform. 'I think we really have to turn our attention to the rate of reform that’s required today to ensure that we do have engaged students [around learning and assessment].

Dr Michele Bruniges AM

Dr Michele Bruniges AM, Secretary of the New South Wales Department of Education.

'Technology provides a wonderful pathway to get the relevance and immediate feedback for both teachers and students to ensure that they are self-monitoring and pacing what’s actually happening. … Why aren’t we, in systems, thinking about great calibrated tasks that have relevance using virtual worlds so that students can self-select, engage, [receive] information, feedback? [So], there's that notion of assessment reform.'

She said educators who reflect back in their teaching practice about good assessment tasks and the purpose of assessment understand that it is not an end point of teaching and learning, rather it informs the next steps.  'And then there’s another issue there that [for a teacher] goes to: What teaching decisions do I need to make, based on the information that I have? And, for students it’s the same thing: How do I select what to do next to enhance [my learning]?'

The purpose of assessment

Professor Geoff Masters AO, Chief Executive Officer of ACER, says the purpose of assessment is to establish and understand where learners are in their learning at the time of assessment.

'That information then can be used as a starting point to make decisions about the next steps in the learning process [and] what kinds of learning opportunities [educators] need to provide. And all of this is so important, because we know that students in the same year of school or students at the same age are very, very different in their levels of achievement. The most advanced 10 per cent of students in any given year of school are something like five to six years ahead of the least advanced students in that same year of school.

‘I sometimes find when I talk to people about assessment that they see it in a particular way – they understand assessment as the process of judging how well students have learnt what they’ve been taught. And so, under that view, the role of the curriculum is to specify what needs to be learnt, the role of teachers is to teach that specified curriculum, the role of students is to learn what teachers teach and the role of assessment is to judge and grade students.

‘The way that I think about assessment is that it’s a much more professional activity – in professional work … people go to the trouble of understanding what they’re dealing with: What’s the situation here? What’s the problem? And, how do I use my professional knowledge to address the problem in front of me?

'And that’s the way that I think about teaching. It’s not just a matter of delivering some pre-specified, one-size-fits-all curriculum, it’s a much more difficult job than that. It’s a matter of working to understand where individuals are in their learning - and that can be done at different degrees of diagnostic detail.'

The theme of ACER Research Conference 2015 is Learning assessments: Designing the future. The 16-18 August event features keynote presentations from Professor Val Shute (Florida State University), Professor Geoff Masters AO (ACER) and Dr Rukmini Banerji (Director of the ASER Centre, India), and recorded contributions from Emeritus Professor Dylan Wiliam (Institute of Education, University of London).

Visit ACER's Centre for Assessment Reform and Innovation to find out more about initiatives to lead new thinking, metrics, technologies and assessment resources and how to get involved in the Rolling Summit.

Shelley 01 July 2015

These views on assessment sound exciting and make sense to me, however; there is not enough breathing space in the current curriculum to actually implement this assessment. Will teachers be given ample PD and human resources to enable them to use these assessment techniques effectively?


Hi,This is UMAPATI HIREMATH from India. I read your article on assessment. It’s very relevant thinking about assessment in present schooling system. I have been serving as a Social Science teacher for the last 10 years ... I had found assessment is not as organised as teaching in schools..which results in students making dimple mistakes in writing, speaking and thinking. I mean when a student of standard VI is not corrected and assessed in VI he tends to repeat his VI class mistakes in next class also…Its a scenario in India.Please think how correction and assessment can made as organised as teaching!

Thomas 07 July 2015

Very interesting reading, however from my perspective all the if’s and when’s say that someone haven’t noticed this is already happening outside the traditional school systems controlled and governed by the state one happen to live in.

“‘The schools will have the data they need to drive student performance up, to monitor progress, to tailor learning programs, to create collaborative learning environments where collaborative problem solving can be assessed … and from that, the system will be able to get the data it needs to monitor performance without asking for anything extra.”

This paragraph describes something that “will happen”.

It is already here and is just one shining example of how far this is already taken and how well it in reality actually works.

On Khan every account is both a student and teacher. That choice by the developers was, in my opinion, a master stroke as it means anyone signing up can become a teacher for others.

The site also promotes tools for families to study together. Just imagine how the kids in the family can, at home, become the teachers to help their parents, from their pre-internet schoolings, to smoothly get up to speed not only only the learning available, but also on all things digital.

This mashing of technology and knowledge is that the future school should be all about. Forget about grouping learning from the traditional one-dimensional “age”. Today school need to be inspirational and attractive for each possible students immediately needs of solving his or hers current situation.

That is how I use MOOCs today, as a smorgasboard of easily accessible banks of knowledge I can learn from and collaborate with when problems and challenges local and dear to gets stuck.

The learnability change I have experienced re-learning learning from my own time in school, starting 40 years ago, to the almost endless possibilities to explore, tickle and quickly emerge myself into subjects of choice was near mind blowing to experience.

It is no longer a matter of when this is happening!

Juliana 15 July 2015

I agree with all the concepts and pro and cons in the article.  I would like to see these eminent experts embed themselves in schools for just one terms in areas of social economic disadvantage to see if they think their ideas could work.  You are assuming the kids will cooperate with the ‘new’ way, the schools have the budget to implement these admirable ideas.  I know of cases where a child was asked why they were not doing homework and it transpired there was no electricity for light at home, no computer at all and the single parent was working night shifts.  This is in suburban Australia.  The ideas are wonderful and I can see them engaging the learners.  My worry is it will also exacerbate the growing divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ at a time when it is starting to affect employment options also.

Ian Thompson 20 July 2015

Do we in education always have to look for the hardest possible way to get a job done? Are we so lacking in self-esteem that unless we have lots of trendy words and elaborate steps it can’t possibly work?

Are these responses aimed at calming teachers who just want to know what their role will be in all this technology fuelled paradigm of education. My experience is that technology will create jobs in education. The more we know, the more we want to know. It’s just not meant to be hard. Taking the ‘hard’ out of work is the role of technology. The difficult part for teachers is learning how to relax and do the things that count for their students.

If my investment portfolio took the same approach to assessment and reporting as happens in education, or even perhaps as described above, I’d be broke! I want real-time access to data, anywhere and in whatever form I prefer. Deconstructing, by discarding unwanted reports, what I wish to know from an overabundance of supply.

I can only echo what Thomas has said regarding Khan Academy. With intuitive algorithms guided by well-researched learning processes, rather than electronic mock-ups of out-of-date textbook approaches; much of what ‘is imagined’ is happening in classrooms today. Oh and it’s FREE! Sign up today.

We need to isolate and define roles in education. I would not ask Gina to build my car no matter how good her companies are at mining iron ore. I would not ask my account to audit his company. Why do we continue to think teachers should do all aspects of education? Khan is a big step ahead of most software I’ve seen. When curriculum development and delivery catches up by using some of what technology enables with the analytics Khan provides then we will be back to having some fun in education.

It just isn’t that hard. 😊

Leave a comment

Skip to the top of the content.