What does achievement look like to you?

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Sir Peter Medawar was a Brazilian-born English scientist.

In 1960 he was the co-winner of a Nobel Prize with Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet for their pioneering work in tissue grafting which is the basis of organ transplants, and their discovery of acquired immunological tolerance

It’s fair to say that he, unlike me, was something of an academic. Grant me a little poetic license as I use the word scientist and academic interchangeably.

Over to you Sir Peter…

“To be a first-rate scientist it is not necessary (and certainly not sufficient) to be extremely clever. One of the great social revolutions brought about by scientific research has been the democratization of learning. Anyone who combines strong common sense with an ordinary degree of imaginativeness can become a creative scientist, and a happy one besides, in so far as happiness depends upon being able to develop to the limit of one’s abilities.”

 “A scientist is no more a collector and classifier of facts than a historian is a man who complies and classifies a chronology of the dates of great battles and major discoveries.”

“I believe in “intelligence,” and I believe also that there are inherited differences in intellectual ability, but I do not believe that intelligence is a simple scalar endowment that can be quantified by attaching a single figure to it—an I.Q. or the like.”

However in schools, academic excellence is reflected by a single figure – the ATAR in Australia, or the GPA in the US, or Grades in the UK. And these figures can be achieved for the most part by collecting and classifying facts; students often pursue this at the expense of exploring the limits of their ability due to the fear of failing.

Are we really pursuing academic excellence or are we just producing kids who succeed in school?

And while we’re on the subject of succeeding at school, what it is the prize of doing so? A university place?

If that’s the case then 70% of our kids are “failing” school, as only 30% of students in any one cohort go onto an undergraduate course.

This is another excerpt from my manifesto Still Trying to Find X

0 Comments on “What does achievement look like to you?

  1. Hey Dan,

    Definitely agree with your questioning of how achievement is measured. As a past student who focused on maximising my ATAR I know I didn’t truly engage with the material and explore it with a genuine curiosity. Rather it was simply about learning the minimum required to maximise marks for the sake of efficiency. This continued on in university for me – and many of my peers.

    I have also sat on the otherwise of the table coaching and mentoring thousands of students, and interestingly, (and perhaps unfortunately), the ones who have made deep connections with a subject and developed a genuine curiosity to explore it in depth have tended not to do as well academically (in terms of ATAR) despite having a more robust and complex understanding of the subject, highlighting the limitations you raise about the current measures of achievement.

    The challenge is solving the flow on question to this post, which is if the current measure isn’t working, what are the alternatives? I know you raise removing grades for a week (and placing lower emphasis upon them) – although taking this to is full conclusion (if the current measure is so ineffective) would potentially mean completely removing grading (in the current sense of competitive examinations).

    In my opinion for this to occur (shift from mark focus to engagement) – there needs to be a shift from monolithic teaching (1 teacher to 30 students) to more student centric education model (so perhaps flipped classroom where students utilize online/computer based learning).

    In this format, students could work through material at their own pace and therefore rather than competitive examinations based on a one size fits all syllabus, students can work through a wider range of courses (to tailor to the unique intelligences of students) and what is measured instead is depth of engagement/level of understanding for a given topic/course.

    There are some great case studies of the Khan Academy being applied in flipped classrooms in the US which are working towards transitioning the focus of achievement from grades to engagement. Would be fascinating to start seeing this applied in Australian classrooms as well!

    What are your thoughts to the role a flipped classroom can play to transitioning measures of achievement from marks to engagement?

    Keep up the great work,


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