Thursday, May 9, 2013

Numbers, NAPLAN and value

Teachers across Australia are spending their days fixated on a numbers centred and government directed national testing exercise, called NAPLAN that measures students’ achievements in some parts of the curriculum. At least one teacher I know is also awake thinking about this in middle of the night as I learned via a ‘tweet’ from her as I woke up to bottle feed my baby daughter at 3 am.  Another teacher referred to NAPLAN thus “If you’re Australian you’ll recognize and curse this particular acronym![i]“ This post also relates to the Torah reading that begins with the book of “Numbers” which begins with a census clarifying the number of men[ii]. What do we think about numbers and what they mean in terms of the value of that which they count?

In the Australian school context, while the tests are used to identify schools in need of increased resources to address needs, at least one consequence of the testing and quantifying achievement is an increased focus on one aspect of teaching that can be “counted” at the expense of other teaching. As Jarvis, a teacher in a remote Northern Territory Aboriginal school, tweeted, “Doing some #NAPLAN prep with my Year 9s. Makes me feel like a fraud.. But want them to do best - requires support[iii]. Today, a cross-cultural day that was planned for bringing together students from an almost exclusively “white” background with students from Non-English speaking backgrounds will not go ahead as planned due to pressures relating to NAPLAN.
Krishe, a student who, on her graduation from a Sydney high school in 1996, had her class photograph on the front page of a Sydney newspaper under the heading 'The class we failed', talks very movingly about the negative impact on her of being judged based on a set of numbers and ultimately just on her  post code[iv]
The matter of counting and recording numbers is a massive part of the functioning of the modern state. Statistics is etymologically related to the word ‘state’[v], because numbers “made the nation ‘legible’ for governing[vi]”. Yet counting, even in ancient times, was already a controversial act. According to some commentary, whenever Moses set out to count the Jews he would only do so indirectly. The people gave coins and only the coins were counted rather than the people[vii]; or only the names were counted rather than the people[viii], to prevent a plague[ix] which could result from the “evil eye” that dominates during counting[x]

This fear was not unfounded, in fact a later census initiated by King David which presumably did not take these precautions[xi] results in the death of seventy seven thousand people[xii]. Even before these deaths, there is recognition that there is a problem with the counting. Joab, the man tasked with the counting, resists, pleading with David “why does my master seek this? Why should this be a sin against Israel?[xiii]”. When Joab is pressured to proceed, he leaves out two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, from the count because the king’s word had become loathsome to Joab[xiv] and he wanted to protect as least those tribes[xv].  

Despite these issues, the book of numbers begins with a census commanded by God. It would appear that counting can be good and bad. Counting can be a means for displaying God's love[xvi], showing concern about each individual, showing His interest in knowing the number who survived the last tragedy. That which is counted is seen as having additional importance in Jewish law[xvii], yet counting can also stand in the way of the “blessing that is only found in that which is hidden from eye[xviii]”. I think there would be additional blessings for students if their teachers could focus on engaging students without worrying about measurement, although some accountability is needed.

Perhaps counting indirectly serves as a reminder that the number is only a limited representation, never the reality of that which is counted – a multifaceted full human being, with beauty and ugliness, virtue and weakness, attachments, loss and dreams, achieving a broad range of learnings including social, artistic and academic insights - that has inestimable value that can never be captured in a number.  

Best wishes to all Australian students and teachers doing NAPLAN. 

[i] McKenzie S., (2013) The Curse of Competence. The connected Teacher Blog. Retrieved from  9/05/2013

[ii]   Numbers 1:2

[iii] Ryan, J, (2013), retrieved from 9/5/2013 he also points out that “My students would do a lot better if NAPLAN was translated into their 1st language. It's not about understanding, it's a language barrier.”


[v] Lingard, B, (2011), Policy as numbers: ac/counting for educational research

[vi] Scott, J. C. cited in Lingard (2011)

[vii] Rashi to Numbers 1:2, this view is disputed by Abarbanel, who states that coins were only used in an earlier census

[viii] Mincha Belulah

[ix] Exodus 30:12

[x] Rashi commentary on Exodus 30:12

[xi] Metzudat David commentary on Samuel II, 24:10

[xii] Samuel II, 24:15

[xiii] Chronichles I 21:3

[xiv] Chronichles I 21:6

[xv] Rashi commentary on Chronichles I 21:6

[xvi] Rashi Numbers 1:2

[xvii] The Lubavitcher Rebbe, cited in Weisberg, C, Don’t Women count?

[xviii] Talmud Bava Metzia 42a, cited in Metzudat David commentary on Chronichles I 21:3

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