Left / Right


It’s a common teaching technique, which I like to reassure myself I didn’t steal from Freedom Writers, but I also don’t remember exactly when or how I started using it. It gets the students up and moving, and most don’t visibly hate it.

First, move the desks to the side of the room, so the students have some space to walk around.

Then, assign one side of the room as “Strongly Agree”, the other, “Strongly Disagree”.

Now, read out some open-ended questions and allow time for students to organise themselves. Ask them further probing questions as required.

When I was in primary school, one of the conundrums my teacher posed to my mostly migrant classmates was: “Should all Australians be required to speak fluent English?”

At the time, my family was hosting an international student who was attending a local university. I didn’t know much about him, except that we were distantly related, his English was not fluent, and suddenly he had fallen into the crosshairs of this question my teacher posed. I found myself to be one of the few who disagreed; thus, I had to face the required probing questions.

I think in that moment I could see what my teacher thought was the correct response. To her, being in a country meant you spoke the language of that country. Otherwise, how could an individual make a contribution to the country? And, because I was eleven and eager to please authority figures, I reconsidered my answer to match my teacher’s. I didn’t want to present a dissenting opinion and have to argue my case, I wanted to be Capital-C Correct.

Ten or so years down the line I stumbled into a position tutoring permanent residents on their IELTS and TOEFL tests. I had by this point resigned to the belief that any test with stakes attached would produce a market for tuition services. If some useful information was gained through the test preparation, then the cramming process and the test itself were not immoral. The only difference was that the test-taker needed to learn not just the content; they needed to also internalise what kinds of answers the examiners were looking for.

Tests are funny like that sometimes. Teachers spend more time than students could imagine trying to make sure the purpose of the test matches its design. Some are formative – in that the process of figuring out the answer is supposed to be the learning experience. Some are summative – in that they’re meant to draw a line between those who meet a certain standard and those who do not. Our citizenship test is the latter.

And the view is markedly different depending on which side of that line a person is on. As an Australian citizen, the question, “What is an Australian value?”, or, “What does Freedom of Speech mean?” is amorphous and up for debate. Every Australian is offered the right to weigh in on these issues, to agree or disagree, to stand in a certain space in the room. But as a person about to be tested, these questions have unmoving, monolithic answers, which are either Capital-C Correct or Capital-W Wrong, outlined on an information sheet better off memorised than engaged with. Once the stakes are raised, the opportunity for debate falls away.

In my classroom practice, when I teach open-ended ideas about civics and cultural values, I try to insist that there are no right and wrong answers. It is more important for the student to articulate their viewpoint and their rationale behind it. If the student gives an answer I personally disagree with, I kindly ask “why?” and same goes if they give an answer I agree with.

I was humbled one day when a student told me, “Sir, we can tell when you think we’ve answered correctly or not.”

“There are no right or wrong answers,” I replied, furrowing my eyebrows. “What makes you think that?”

“You only do that thing with your eyebrows if you think we’re wrong.”

And I imagine them as the student I was, fifteen years ago – afraid to be singled out and forced to argue a case. Except this time, I am the authority figure.

In the same way, migrants who have earned citizenship in the past can quickly lose sight of what our test really entails: the citizenship test is not a problem for people who are already citizens. To a citizen, the questions themselves are not a concern, only that the test performs the function of dividing applicants into the left and right sides of a line.

But maybe we would do better to care. For the ones with the power to examine and critique the system, it makes sense to recognise our responsibility in creating the culture that welcomes those our National Anthem proclaims to welcome. Part of that comes with having an honest, reasoned and realistic opinion about what can be expected from those who would like to call Australia home.

In class nowadays I rarely make the students stand up and walk the line anymore. Thanks to the wonders of technology, I send around a Google Form with the same open-ended questions, and I project the anonymous, aggregated responses on screen before inviting discussion – this way no one has to stand alone, set apart from everyone else, if they happen to disagree with the consensus. I like to reassure myself that this alleviates the anxiety.

But even then, I find that this exercise reveals the difficulty of honest dialogue when there is an imbalance of power, when there are stakes to be met, an authority to appease. Try as much as we might, it comes back to that fearful feeling of not guessing right, of not meeting someone else’s standard. And for as long as we stick with the current methods, I worry this is the implication Australia’s citizenship test will teach to the next generation of migrants.


Harvard Liu

Author: Harvard Liu

Harvard is a prose writer and early-career teacher based in Sydney. He is interested in the restorative power of story-sharing, especially in the digital age. In his spare time, he tweets mostly about pedagogy or video games at @harvardliu.

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