What the racism directed at Ellen van Neervan teaches us.

Mununjali writer, Ellen van Neervan has been the target of some pretty horrific displays of white supremacy since the HSC English exam.

I should acknowledge that I am not Aboriginal or a Torres Strait Islander and that I am about to dive in to this topic with a more than substantial amount of privilege. I welcome your comments and relish any chance you may be inclined to give me to learn and improve. Because I'm a lifelong learner. Because we all need to be.

As to be expected with this kind of story, there are those asking for these students to be punished, those who are supportive of the students, and those who are indifferent. Educators have been oddly silent. Other than being "appalled" or offering "thoughts and prayers", the professionals in the field in which this kind of thing is fairly commonplace are deafeningly silent.

Problem 1: We don't want to have another debate around standardised testing. 

Almost every year there seems to be some sort of scandal born of a faux pas in the writing, assessment or presentation of end-of-year exams. Very few of us have terribly fond memories of sitting these exams. VCE teachers spend a good chunk of the year preparing students for the inevitable decline in their mental wellbeing as a result of their looming presence. I am not an educator who doesn't see the value in standardised testing. Gathering data on students an benchmarking them is an incredibly useful tool, both for the students themselves and for their teachers. However, I would argue that the pressure of these exams and the ramifications of doing poorly on them is a substantially contributing factor of these students' outbursts.

The solution: Assessment For Learning

Formative assessment is the idea that assessment doesn't have to take place at the end of a bunch of learning. In fact, the idea that there is an "end" to learning is fundamentally broken. Formative assessment is the idea that you can test for the things that a student can already do and also get a picture of that student's next steps. Rather than end-of-year exams, which tend to be pregnant with a sense of finality, shouldn't students have multiple opportunities to demonstrate what they can do? Rather than a rank, percentage or letter-grade, shouldn't students be told what they are good at, and what their next goal should be? Shouldn't tertiary institutions be selecting students based on aptitudes, rather than a dehumanising digit that really says nothing about the strengths or weaknesses of a student? It is a sound idea. It is backed by a whole bunch of solid research. And it makes the lives of teachers and students a whole lot easier. 

Problem 2: We don't want to have to think about a more holistic approach to personal development and curriculum against racism.

Every school in Australia does something to combat racism. Some do it better than others. It's not as though these students, engaging in an online hate crime, were not told what racism is and why it is horrible. However, they probably were unaware of the broader picture of disadvantage and its impact. More to the point, their parents/care givers were possibly even more unaware.

The solution: Lifelong Learners

Once again, it is my feeling that this issue stems from the idea that learning ends. It comes from the thought that, at a certain point in your life (after Year 12 or University for most people), you will be finished with formal education.

Many of the parents and people who students look to for moral guidance stopped receiving a formal education in the 70s, 80s or 90s. It scarcely matters how much a student is told that racism is terrible at school if they have parents at home reinforcing the politics of the White Australia policy at home. School leaders can be completely on board with Safe Schools, but it doesn't matter so much when the people who make decisions about funding have never been educated on sex positivity or intersectional feminism.

We have made progress in the last thirty years. This is progress that is filtering through the cracks of our education system and in to some of the sensitivity training received in many institutions. There's a substantial amount of it in current OH&S training, but not enough. Intersectional sensitivity training should be as commonplace as hardhats in construction sites and ergonomic chairs in public offices. 

Should the students who targeted Ellen van Neervan be punished? It's my feeling that their twelve or more years in a school system that has failed them and their parents is probably punishment enough. These students need to be given further opportunities to be educated on Aboriginal history, literature and the horrible effects of continued white supremacy. Moreover, so do their parents. Punishment will only cement their racism.

We never stop learning. Our institutions need to start operating on that assumption.

Daniel Yacoub