We're on track
Some while ago I wrote about our school vision of “Every child experiencing what it means to be fully human and continually fulfilling his or her potential.” For me, this is not something that just rolls off my tongue really easily, neither is it simply wishful thinking – where if I wish hard enough it might actually happen. This vision keeps me awake at night thinking about how to actually do it and keep momentum going. By their very nature, institutions are places where it is really easy for everything to reduce to the lowest common denominator. To manage big groups of people, it becomes easier to treat people as though they are the same. Our challenge is to fight against this “institutional force” and create a school where every student receives just the right learning programmes to ensure they are continually challenged, continually learning, continually growing, and, at the same time, continually experiencing what it means to be fully human. Given the industrial nature of schooling over the past century, which has largely treated students as though they are the same and it was not only expected, but accepted, that some children simply would not be successful in the schooling system (for example, the acceptance of the Bell Curve), we have many forces to stand against that would take us back to that way of schooling. This is new territory and, as a school committed to this vision; we are having to find our own way. There are no models for us to follow.
A recent report from an independent think-tank focused on Australian public policy suggested that targeting learning to meet each student’s needs has long been talked about but is not being done effectively except in very small pockets. The report says, “Teachers and schools can lift all students’ performances if they are equipped to collect and use evidence of individual student achievement and progress. Working together, teachers should assess what each student knows now, target their teaching to what they are ready to learn next, and track each student’s progress over time. Teachers should then analyse their own impact, keep what works and change what does not.”
The challenge they say is to embed targeted (we call it personalised) teaching and learning in every classroom, but, they acknowledge that supporting every child is hard. They argue, “Schools and governments must step up.” I think we have stepped up as a school. We have good systems in place to collect evidence of students’ learning, to determine next steps for each child and to deliver programmes that meet individual needs. But are we there yet? No. However, we are well on the journey – a journey that we have travelled almost completely on our own. There is little support for it from the Ministry, not because they don’t want it to happen – they do - but because they are focusing support elsewhere.
When you look at what is required to provide a targeted, personalised programme that continually meets the needs of students, it is not rocket science. It makes perfectly good sense. Yet it IS hard to do - particularly to get it happening across a whole school system. Why? Firstly, the tools to help with this have not been available. We have, at considerable effort and cost, created our own – ALF. Secondly, as I have already mentioned, there are no models to follow – we are forging our own pathway. Thirdly, whole class teaching with some group work has been the norm for a long time. What we are asking of teachers is very different from what they have been used to. We are asking teachers to work more intensively with data and evidence and to deal with much greater complexity of information and planning and to be self-critical about their effectiveness. The cognitive load is greater than teachers are traditionally used to. Our teachers sometimes say, “My head hurts.” Even now, teacher training is not preparing teachers for this way of working because though students might hear about it in theory, they don’t get to experience it on practicum. We are asking teachers to deliver learning programmes to meet the individual needs of students. This creates a much greater workload.
The problem is that in spite of all the barriers, once you know there is a better way, there is no turning back. Teachers enjoy the real empowerment they feel when their practice is evidence-based and they know they are hitting the mark for the children in their care. However, though workload remains an issue, it is comforting to think that a think tank that no doubt put in hundreds, even thousands of hours of work into a report, came to the same conclusion that we came to some years ago. Though we have a way to go to be delivering this kind of learning consistently across the whole school, WE ARE ON THE RIGHT TRACK. That’s worth celebrating! And HUGE kudos to our teachers for taking the plunge and going on this journey with us.
Here is a link to the whole article Targeted Teaching