The discourse and debate, if not controversy, about the relevance of educational ATAR scores for positive outcomes in life, has dominated attention and divided educationalists, parents, young people and even government ministers and bureaucrats.

Over several years, on-going discussion and arguments about ATAR scores and academia have focused on whether the scores are too narrow a measure of students’ abilities and intelligence. Student achievements, as defined by the ATAR, do not apparently encompass skills and qualities of students’ character, with skills such as critical and creative thinking, the ability to think big and solve problems, and traits such as adaptability, empathy, persistence and resilience not accorded due recognition, according to Jon Charlton, Principal of Kilvington Grammar, as written in the Herald Sun in October 2018.

He wrote that in a commissioned, independent survey of 1000 parents and teachers the overwhelming majority placed a “much higher value on key ‘life skills’” than they did their children’s ATAR. Most agreed these skills should be taught explicitly by schools in conjunction with core academic skills. The parents’ and teachers’ responses were about preparation for the workforce, with Charlton himself “surprised” that academic achievement was considered “to be of least importance in preparing children for the future job market”.

My contention is that these supposed life skills do not demand explicit education but can be, and should be, absorbed into all academic learning, be it in the humanities, sciences, maths or arts. The problem is the way these subjects are usually taught, with the focus still sadly on rote learning without any genuine understanding of what underpins these disciplines. Charlton asserts that core skills, such as “reading, writing and mathematics are specific, teachable abilities that can be defined and measured, but life skills such as adaptability, problem solving, creativity, collaboration and communication are less tangible and measurable.” I beg to differ as how people read, write and do maths is as relevant as to whether they can read and write at all.

During my school years in English, we were not just tested on read adequately. Comprehension of the texts as well as having to précis texts in our own words was basic in our English exams through primary and secondary school. Spelling, grammar and the use of appropriate words among other things were examined, not just our ability to read. These tests incorporated being able to think critically and even creatively and solving problems ascertaining how the language conveyed meaning and  how the language itself was used. Furthermore, some of the texts we studied were explored and discussed in terms of characters’ adaptability, resilience, creativity and communication with others, providing me with valuable insights and instruction about skills I could aim to emulate and develop, depending on my own interests.. Certainly, I was made aware of these skills as well as the core ones.

As a qualified teacher and with several friends and family as teachers, these tests no longer apply, too often now rote learning, without understanding, is the name of the game. Qualities of character are not explored in the early years of high school and maths particularly seems bereft of any need of comprehension. But doing maths, even basic arithmetic, should incorporate basic understanding as to how and why it works when taught. These subjects clearly involve problem solving but how many students just learn formulas off by heart without any comprehension as to how the formulas were created or why they work. I know my sister who was a doctor told me she never understood physics, instead learning how to solve the problems by rote without any knowledge of the whys and hows. Furthermore, great scientists needed, and still need to be persistent, resilient and patient in testing their theories for successful outcomes which is seldom, if at all, mentioned when studying science. Scientists’ personal traits of character go missing in the curriculum. It’s no different in the humanities and even the arts. Most great historical figures and artists of all kinds have endured lots of setbacks, hardships, even violence, poverty and suffering, so learning about their personal psychology in context of wars, battles, discovery and achievement can be great lessons for young minds.

The problem, as I perceive it, is not the ATAR vs life skills but that academia, as it exists, is far too limited in its teaching. My education at school, which was more than 50 years ago, helped teach me valuable skills for life, in conjunction with both my parents who were involved in discussing and encouraging me to think for myself, read more widely than just school texts and helping me understand things I couldn’t get my head around. My mother left school at 14 and my father went to a technical college studying engineering, so neither of them had outstanding academic experience. Yet, they both evinced a thirst for knowledge and learning, and I believe the education I received at home was as significant, if not more so, than what I learned at school.

While comprehension and precis were still examined in Year 12 at my school, there was scant discussion about more profound and pertinent psychological traits of various scientists, historical figures, musicians and mathematicians. Mostly, the men and women involved were not even mentioned except to memorise that Madam Curie discovered radium with no information at all about how or why or what led to the discovery. The exam just asked who discovered it. Likewise when I studied physics in Year 11, I couldn’t understand some of the reasons for how things worked, seeking help both from my teacher and father who had studied it and was very good at it. Disappointingly, both could not explain or answer the questions I asked. The teacher told me they weren’t important, knowing various laws was sufficient without needing to understand how these laws were devised; the why irrelevant. I was appalled.

Furthermore, many of my other questions went unanswered too, the teachers themselves not interested in understanding either. I think they too were limited in what they could teach, despite having university degrees in their disciplines. Nowadays, about 40 per cent of teachers teach subjects outside their particular areas, according to the Education Teachers’ Union reports I’ve read.

The headline on Charlton’s article “We must find new ways to measure students’ growth” misses the point that academia as measured by the ATAR, does not embody a holistic education. Charlton asserts that most schools address the education and development of students “academically, emotionally, socially and physically” and what’s needed are new ways to measure that. The answer seems really obvious: just introduce tests and exams that are still academic but include questions that can reveal the growth of students on a year to year basis. It’s hardly rocket science but it demands that classroom teaching incorporates understanding the whys and how of maths, science, English, humanities and the arts et al to enhance life skills as well as academic knowledge. The two are indivisible and should be embraced as one. Sadly it seems, they’re mutually exclusive and the ATAR is seemingly superfluous for many parents, teachers and probably, students too. Being able to add 2 and 2 does not demand great intelligence just a good memory. So does knowing the alphabet and how to spell. So much of what’s taught relies on having a good memory rather than understanding, real knowledge and insights into how the big world works. If young kids can work smartphones, iPads and so much technological wizardry, it’s not too much of a stretch to think they could also understand more than what they’re taught, thus expanding their horizons beyond what the ATAR demands.

What’s needed is to change the exams to include more probing and profound questions that test insights and understanding, not just the ability to remember and regurgitate facts, formulas or fiction. Test comprehension in depth, re-introduce précis’ and require students to learn about the how and why not just the basics. This demands teachers understand what, how and why of the subjects they are teaching. The core skills must be appreciated first and foremost and students need to learn that without them, no other learning can occur with any real meaning. Kids have to know not just how to read the abc, but what and why they’re actually reading. Maybe that is the first lesson that should incorporate life skills.

Moreover, the examiners must also be adept at appreciating the understanding and insights, or lack of them, of young people in subjects beyond memorising salient words and texts. Maybe the whole system needs an overhaul to recognise academia and intelligence are not separate to make the former more apposite in life. Critical and creative thinking, problem solving, collaboration and communication, and after all, isn’t that what students are doing in an exam, trying to communicate to the examiner what they know and understand, can all be measured if the examiners are attuned as to what to look for. Too often apparently it’s just about 2 + 2 = 4 and rudimentary knowledge of abc, however seemingly sophisticated and complicated.

Education in schools must encompass new exams with a new, broader curriculum to measure students’ growth. It’s not a hard ask.