This article originally appears in Deakin University’s ‘Ringwood Alliance Bulletin’
Somewhere along the line of the last 10 years we managed to live through the biggest technological revolution in human history, without allowing it to have any meaningful impact on our capacity to teach students literacy and numeracy skills.
This year, average device numbers in Victorian government schools rose to better than 1:2 in both Primary and Secondary schools. On average, we have a device for almost every student. We also have more educational resources at our disposal online than we ever have before. How can it be then, that NAPLAN results show our literacy and numeracy levels haven’t shifted?
The recent Grattan Institute report into education, Targeted Teaching: How better use of data can improve student learning, is well worth reading. It quotes from research that shows that in any given year level there is a 5-6 year difference between the most advanced and the least advanced 10% of students. Recent research in Victoria and Tasmania showed that this can extend to as much as 8 year levels by the time students reach early secondary school. So in effect, student abilities in any given subject are only very loosely related to their Grade or Year level.
So why do schools largely still teach content by year level?
My father, teaching in the second half of last century, taught the Year 8 Maths curriculum to every child in Year 8 (and Year 9 to Year 9 and so on). Even if he had wanted to do differently, there was only one teacher, one blackboard, and 30+ students all with the same Year 8 textbook in the room – things were pretty much locked in for him.
Why do we still assume the same limitations that my father’s generation had? As mentioned above, practically every student now has their own device and access to millions of educational resources that could teach them literally anything they could possibly want to know. Yet we still largely teach Year 8 Maths to every Year 8 student.
The Grattan report recommends ‘targeted teaching’ as the only way to meet the diverse learning needs of each grade of students. Targeted teaching involves gaining quality data about where students are at in their learning for each specific unit (for example, a Fractions unit in Maths), and then targeting your planning and teaching to meet these students with what they are ready to learn next.
If we take this to its logical conclusion, we would be planning for up to an 8-year spread of learning needs in each class. A Year 8 teacher planning their Fractions unit for example, would need to cater for students at a Grade 4 level at one end, and a Year 11 or 12 level at the other. How can a teacher possibly do that? My Dad’s generation wouldn’t have been able to, but we can.
The answer is for teachers to get rid of the notion that they are the only teacher in their room. They’re not. They’re not even the best teacher in that room! The teaching challenge in 2015 is to connect each student with the best ‘teacher’ in each moment. Or looked at in another way, to narrow the gap between each student’s readiness and desire to learn a skill or concept and the means by which they can learn it. Remember, we have all the best learning resources in the world at our disposal.
So how can we get to a point of being able to connect each student with the best resources, both digital and otherwise, to teach them what they need to or are ready to learn in each moment? The answer is team collaboration and curation.
Teachers have to work as a team to plan units of work. No teacher can differentiate 6-8 ways in every unit of work. There is simply too much content to properly get their head around. Once your teaching team is working together, they then can begin to curate resources that target where each group of students is at in their learning journey. To curate is to find and bring together all the best and most relevant resources that will help students master a certain skill or learn a certain concept. But curation isn’t just digital filing. When you curate, you add meaning to the things you have collected. A bit like how museum curators use artefacts to communicate a story of a moment in history to the visitors of that museum. You are collecting resources and making clear what they are and why they have been collected there in order to assist students to learn. These resources may be apps, videos, presentations, diagrams, graphs, worksheets, suggestions of experts to interview, or descriptions of physical games, challenges and activities. They are diverse, multi-modal and chosen for your school’s students.
These curated resources replace your old textbooks or year level based work sheets. And once the heavy lifting is done in the first year, the years after that are about refining and improving the learning journeys you are providing your students with. Once trust is adequately built among your team of teachers, you can even begin to organise the flexible grouping of students around what they need to learn, rather than sticking to their traditional grade groups. All students on the learning journey called ‘equivalent fractions’ go to this room with this teacher and so on.
And if this all sounds too hard or too far-fetched, the good news is it is already happening. And you’re welcome to come and see a version of it at Kalinda at any time!