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Student wellbeing most vital, says expert

Professor Thomas Lowrie
Professor Thomas Lowrie 

Maths performance in NAPLAN is important but should not come at the cost of student wellbeing, according to an international maths education expert who has condemned top-performing maths countries for placing undue stress on young people.

As Australian students across years three, five, seven and nine prepare to do the National Assessment Program in Literacy and Numeracy next week, University of Canberra Centenary Research Professor Thomas Lowrie has briefed more than 30 high school and college principals from Canberra and the surrounding region on the need to keep maths and literacy testing in perspective.

Professor Lowrie, who received the 2011 Janet Duffin award from the British Society for Research into Learning Mathematics, said that students in some top-performing maths countries across Asia, were under too much pressure to perform. "Students in countries like Singapore and South Korea do very well in these international measurement tests, but they are some of the most pressured children in the world," Professor Lowrie said.

"They are at school from 7am to 5pm, often staying behind to practise for these tests, continually being pushed by parents and teachers, sometimes to breaking point."

Breaking point included students suffering acute stress, self-esteem problems and chronic anxiety - with the problems flowing into wider family life.

Professor Lowrie said that, in contrast, Australian students were generally more well-rounded and relaxed.

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While NAPLAN has been under considerable criticism in recent years for leading to increasing anxiety among some Australian students, Professor Lowrie said the tests were actually well-considered and prepared students to apply maths creatively, and in other contexts.

Preparing students to get good marks in rigid set tests - as was often the case in Asia - did little to stretch their learning potential.

"We could do that in Australia and be high performers in tests, but do we really want to change the fabric of who we are and the innovative way in which we teach?" he asked.

Professor Lowrie noted that the top-performing nations in international testing had one thing in common - they were predominantly mono-cultural societies.

"In comparison, Scandinavian countries which led the rankings for many years have become more multicultural as they have opened their borders.

''Yes, countries like Norway have slipped in the rankings, but they still have a wonderful education system."

He said this was also the case with Australia, where multiculturalism brought social and learning differences to the table.

"We should celebrate our culture instead of just 'train' our students to perform well on rigid tests that don't allow for creative thinking."

"We should stop comparing apples with oranges and consider critical indicators such as social and wellbeing factors when evaluating education," Professor Lowrie said.

In preparation for next week's tests, Professor Lowrie suggested parents encourage their children to try hard but not to assume they could cram for the tests.

"Parents should allow the process to take its place, to find out what children know, rather than to find out what they don't know.

"There is no point worrying about the results, and there are going to be many more tests along the way."

He warned that students should not feel branded in terms of their performance and to watch that children who felt they were not good at either maths or literacy-based activities did not switch off from participating in them.

He urged school leaders and teachers to also keep the tests in perspective and not to feel pressure for schools to perform in order to achieve better ratings on the My School website.