I recently read an article in the media that, in essence, stated that the use of personal devices (laptops and iPads) was responsible for Australia’s drop in the global rankings in the Programme for International Student Achievement (PISA) tests from 2000 to 2012. PISA is a triennial international survey test of around 500,000 15 year olds at randomly selected schools, with some similarities to NAPLAN, though it is unique in that the tests are not directly linked to any particular school curriculum. It purportedly has a focus on mathematics in the most recent tests, but includes science and reading.

While it is true that Australia has consistently dropped slightly down these rankings from 2000 (6th) to 2012 (19th), I don’t agree that the reason for this is the rollout of personal laptop and iPad devices in classrooms, as the article suggested. In my view, comparatively few schools in Australia actually had student 1:1 personal device programs throughout this period. The majority had students still visiting the computer lab once or twice a week, or only a little more than that. Personal device programs, commonly known as ‘Bring Your Own Device’ programs, or BYOD for short, have increased rapidly only in the last couple of years across all education sectors in secondary schools, but with far fewer in primary schools. While Australia is one country at the forefront of digital learning access, many other countries are also there with us too, which does not explain a drop in those results.

Currently the top seven PISA-ranked countries are all Asian, which was not the case consistently from 2000 to 2012. Over this period, more Asian countries than non-Asian have increased their rankings. Every country has its own culture and, in many Asian countries, education is highly valued and well respected as a commodity and as a profession. There is prestige in doing well, over and above the practical benefits afforded through increased opportunities to access more tertiary courses, locally and internationally. Many Asian countries have a different approach to learning than many other nations, including Australia. There are extensive differences, not only in approaches to education and learning, but in living culture and within schooling and many other aspects too, making comparisons very difficult, if not impossible. It is not uncommon for many students to attend cram schools in the evenings or on weekends, with an intensive focus on knowledge acquisition learning, nor is it uncommon for school to extend to a sixth day each week. There are also differences between countries in terms of focus on direct instruction, inquiry learning, problem-based learning, rote learning, higher order thinking, complex problem-solving, lateral thinking and applied knowledge. The most recent tests included thirty-four OECD countries and thirty-one ‘Partner’ countries.

The style of learning is typically different in many countries. I attended a function at the University of Canberra a while ago, where a professor pointed out some of these differences via the types of questions at which some countries are typically very good and others not so good, in mathematics. For instance, Australian students do very well in graphic-based questions and those with diagrams, but less well in worded problems, while a particular other country, by comparison, was the opposite to us in that sense. This was already established, as the actual tests given to students are not exactly the same; the questions are contextualised for each country’s cultural differences as much as possible, without interfering in the tests’ integrity. On the one hand, one can admire the rigour that those countries at the top clearly have embedded into their approach in order to do so well on the global tests, but on the other hand, one line of thought proposed by the professor at the presentation I attended, was to question whether we would want our Australian students to attain that level of rigour, because it occurred at the expense of many other life experiences and involvement in a broad range of interests, including sport and exercise, in particular.

I have two key points to make here. Firstly, I don’t believe that technology in classrooms in Australia has caused the demise in global test scores, especially in the period specified, where few schools were using technology to any significant level. With new figures forecasting that 40% of all current jobs in the marketplace will become obsolete in ten to fifteen years’ time, I don’t see how any responsible school can ignore the effective implementation of technology into the learning process. We know that our current student generation are digital natives, but we have also learned that this does not automatically mean they know how to use the specific software programs or how to organise their learning on devices, and both of these aspects must be taught, where relevant, in addition to the content. The whole school system worldwide is lagging behind other areas of the 21st century learning paradigm, whereby we are still testing students in the same manner that we tested prior to the advent of the internet. While we do still need to carry a certain amount of knowledge in our heads, a great deal is now sitting in our pocket 24/7. We therefore need to blend the two, providing greater capacity for students to think practically and laterally and to identify problems, create solutions and remain current with global employment trends, including preparing students for a future that has not yet arrived. At SMGS we are working towards achieving this delicate balance of maintaining a rigorous and challenging curriculum as well as blending technology into learning and we have taken a considerable leap towards this in 2015, thanks to our staff working together to achieve this for our students’ benefit.

The second point I would like to make is that SMGS is able to achieve this while still providing the opportunity for our students to engage in a balanced approach to life that enhances overall wellbeing. We are strengthening our sports programs next year and this is a step towards enabling students to choose to pursue other interests in addition to academic excellence. Again, our staff are working together to provide these opportunities for students and I am grateful to the staff for the hard work occurring behind the scenes. Next year promises to offer students at SMGS unprecedented opportunities with high quality programs for a small school, and we remain committed to ensuring that this occurs for all students.