Reflections: A matter of wisdom, virtue and skills (not scaling)

Dr Rashna Taraporewalla, Head of Department—Ancient History

The ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) Report for the cohort of 2023 was released in February (QTAC, 2024). Ostensibly, it reports the calculation of ATAR, along with the outcomes of the inter-subject scaling process for Year 12 students who graduated in 2023. As educators are witnessing, however, the ATAR has had a transformative effect on senior secondary schooling, with increasing numbers of students pursuing a ‘quest for a higher score’ (Geelan, 2020), rather than selecting subjects about which they are passionate. This subject scaling, in turn, can influence students’ and families’ subject choices and their evaluation of the worth of a subject.

This was not the intent of the scaling process, which aims only ‘to express subject results on the same scale, so that raw results achieved in two different subjects can be compared fairly’, and applies only to the results of a specific cohort in a given year (QTAC, 2022). To value subjects based upon ‘how they scale’ is problematic for a multitude of reasons, especially given that it is not the same from year to year, or across all percentiles—that is, a subject will scale differently for a student who receives a result of, say, 58, than it does for a student who receives a result of 98. To use scaling as an index of the worth of a subject can be equally damaging for both subjects that are perceived to ‘scale up’ and those that are perceived to ‘scale down’. Those that ‘scale up’ begin to attract students without an aptitude or an interest in the subject. Those that ‘scale down’ are diminished by the tyranny of metrics, undervalued with fewer and fewer students in their classrooms. Research indicates that fixation on academic scores can profoundly impact the mental health of students (Wallace, 2023). According to a US study, fixating on scores competitively can result in a marked increase in student levels of anxiety (Wallace, 2023). What is more, these mindsets, behaviours and coping skills can stay with them into their twenties and thirties; results that hold an ephemeral value as a means by which to access a tertiary education, can potentially cast a long shadow.

In a school such as ours, which strives to prepare girls for full, rewarding lives beyond graduation—not merely academic success—we know there are other, more appropriate ways, by which to value a subject.

We could, instead, value subjects in terms of the level of personal enjoyment and fulfillment they provide students when engaging with their content and mode of thinking. According to this method, each individual would have a different metric for each subject. Quite rightly. One of the tragedies of applying the utilitarian calculus of scaling to gauge the worth of a subject is the funnelling effect this has, such that the majority of students all take a very similar suite of a limited six (perhaps 7) subjects. As a result, is our educational ecosystem increasingly producing deeply unhappy, identical copies of a highly circumscribed learning profile? And yet, we know that the loves and loathes of each individual are unique. Norse mythology held that each individual had their own personal destiny, their wyrd, from which our modern word ‘weird’ is derived. Neuroscientists confirm that each of us has a unique network of 100 trillion synaptic connections, in which the 100 billion neurons in our brain each make at least 1000 connections with other neurons (Zimmer, 2011). To try to comprehend this number, consider that 400 billion stars exist in the Milky Way galaxy—a human brain contains more connections than 5000 Milky Ways.

There has never been anybody else in the world like you, with the same constellation of connections, nor will there likely be anyone like you again; your galaxy of connections spiral in entirely unique rotations. What delights you, excites you, stimulates you, animates you, places you into a calm state of flow, is yours and yours alone. Young people should thus be urged to use their secondary school years to find their own unique pattern of loves, and to pursue them through their own combination of subjects in which they personally find value, for these will surely lead them to their own distinct, meaningful contribution during the infinitesimal time they have upon this planet. Anything less is a recipe for an unhappy life, one in which they will find themselves busily occupied by things approved of by others, but with an attendant vague anxiety that their life has not achieved its ultimate meaning and significance. Education thus becomes an exercise in survival, an effort to complete the exams and assignments necessary to secure a precious passport out of this world—an ATAR—in a gloomy procession from primary school to secondary school, to university to work. Students become passengers in their own lives, lived at the mercy of a fickle algorithm that changes from year to year.

Further, the focus on such results reflects a utilitarian and economic logic, narrowly aimed at acquiring what David Brooks (2015) refers to as ‘resume virtues’, the skills an individual brings to the job market. The increasingly competitive consumer marketplace encourages us to value subjects according to their ability to confer these resume virtues. And yet, we are aware that education is now outpaced by the speed of change in today’s world, that the skills and facts taught at school cannot equip young people to excel in their chosen field. It is impossible to prepare learners for jobs we cannot conceive of yet, and reskilling the workers of today in even perennial occupations such as medicine, teaching and auto construction is a constant challenge. Moreover, it is doubtable that most learners in science classrooms are there to become physicists, chemists or biologists, just as it is questionable that a history classroom will produce professional historians, or a mathematics classroom, mathematicians (Pennay, 2024). More importantly, to spend time only cultivating professional skills is to remain ignorant of the sources of meaning in life, and where our skills are best devoted.

Brooks identifies a second set of higher virtues, the ‘eulogy virtues’, those that a person might hope are attributed to them at their funeral… such as kindness, wisdom, empathy, a strong sense of social justice, an appreciation of beauty. Most people, if asked, would agree that the eulogy virtues are, ultimately, most important. Does it not make sense, then, to particularly esteem subjects that nurture such virtues? Our contemporary culture devotes more time to the acquisition of the resume virtues, yet many subjects, undervalued according to the metrics of the ATAR, nurture these eulogy virtues. Indeed, while subjects within the Humanities and Arts do build transferrable skills in critical thinking, creativity and argumentation, it could be argued that their inherent value lies instead in their ability to cultivate the eulogy virtues.

School should be a place where learners are encouraged to foster their uniqueness, where they are guided in understanding it, honouring it and applying it towards their own learning. It should be a place where wisdom and virtue are acquired alongside skills. To value subjects based only on ‘how they scale’ is to devalue the learning experience as a whole.



Brooks, D. (2015). The Road to Character. Penguin.

Geelan, D. (2020, July 31). Students are more than a number: Why a learner profile makes more sense than the ATAR. The Conversation.

Pennay, A. (2024, February 24). It’s time to descale the arts machine. [Article]. LinkedIn.

QTAC. (2022, August). Calculating the ATAR in Queensland – Technical Document. chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/

Wallace, J.B. (2023). Never Enough: When Achievement Culture becomes Toxic – and What We Can Do About It. Penguin.

Zimmer, C. (2011, January 1). 100 Trillion Connections: New Efforts Probe and Map the Brian’s Detailed Architecture. Scientific American Magazine Vol. 304 (No. 1).

Dr Rashna Taraporewalla
Head of Department—Ancient History