NEWSFLASH! In September I will join The Conversation as its Business and Economy Editor. I have been honoured to work at The Age for the past ten years, originally alongside the legendry Tim Colebatch, and for the past four years as economics editor in my own right.

At The Conversation, my job will be to make the best thinking from Australia's 40 univerisites accessible to the widest possible audience. That means you. From the new year I will also write a weekly column.

On this site are most of the important things I have written for Fairfax and the ABC over the past few decades. I recommend the Search function. The site is a record for you, as well as me.

I'll continue to post great things from The Conversation and other places here, and also on Twitter and Facebook. Enjoy.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

NAPLAN prepares us for neither the real world nor Trump

Google NAPLAN and you'll get an advertisement taking you to a website that will help you cram for it.

Of course that's not the idea. The standardised National Assessment Program for Literacy and Numeracy introduced by Julia Gillard as education minister is meant to be impossible to prepare for.

But teachers do. The next one is in May, two weeks into term two. The reputation of their students, the reputation of the school and their own reputations depend on it. Time that would have been spent encouraging year 3, 5, 7 and 9 students to ask questions and gain knowledge will instead be spent drilling them in how to pass the test.

That the two aren't the same ought to be apparent from the writing test. It's a hangover from an earlier era, before Donald Trump stood for president.

The persuasive writing test requires the student to introduce a topic, seek to persuade the reader by "for example, listing and describing parts, comparing and contrasting and showing cause and effect" and then to "synthesise" the ideas in order to draw a conclusion".

It might have been an effective technique in the 1960s, but since then decades of research have established what Trump instinctively knew – that clearly set-out arguments don't persuade. If they did, his greatest successes wouldn't have been in town hall rallies and on Twitter.

Fact checkers say 70 per cent of his campaign claims were false, but the method of argument required for students to succeed at NAPLAN couldn't defeat them. It's as if Clinton had on her team Australians who'd aced NAPLAN, and Trump had Americans who knew about people.

They key to convincing people appears to be repetition, something frowned on by those who mark NAPLAN. Study after study has found that the more often something is said the more likely it is to be regarded as true, all the more so if it is said by your side of politics.

In one, voters who were told about a policy assessed it in accordance with its merits and their ideological leanings. Another identically matched group, given the same information but also told that their side of politics supported it, backed it overwhelmingly. The political party effect "overwhelmed the impact of both the policy's objective content and participants' ideological beliefs".

In another, voters were given false information, given a "correction" telling them that it was false and in large numbers continued believed it. It happens because we are lazy. Processing a correction takes effort. Continually evaluating things to determine whether they are false takes effort. Using whatever our party thinks as a rough guide saves time.

And corrections can backfire. By repeating the original claim (as a correction or a fact check has to) they cement it in memory.

We're going to need new techniques of telling the truth from here on. They needn't be manipulative, but they'll have to move beyond the straightforward, beyond what's taught by time-stressed teachers teaching for the test.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald