The report of the Review to Achieve Excellence in Australian Schools has finally been published.
The review was set-up to establish the best way to spend any additional funding that schools were likely to receive under new funding arrangements and the panel that was formed clearly had the best of intentions. Nevertheless, the review has pushed forward some flawed ideas.
1. Personalised learning
Like everyone else who has thought about, or worked in, education, the Gonski panel have realised that children who are in the same year group at school vary greatly in what they know and can do. It seems obvious that the solution is to tailor learning to individual students’ needs. And that is what many teachers do every day. They assess progress in the moment, clarifying, reteaching and refining as they go.
However, the panel have called for something more radical. They want to see personalised learning, with each child working his or her way through an individual programme.
This is not a new idea. It has been around since at least the 1970s. Here is Carol Ann Tomlinson, an advocate of the less ambitious ‘differentiated instruction‘ approach to catering for individual needs, recalling attempts to individualise teaching:
“Decades ago, in an attempt to honor students’ learning differences, educators experimented with what was called “individualized instruction.” The idea was to create a different, customized lesson each day for each of the 30-plus students in a single classroom. Given the expectation that each student needed to have a different reading assignment, for example, it didn’t take long for teachers to become exhausted. A second flaw in this approach was that in order to “match” each student’s precise entry level into the curriculum with each upcoming lesson, instruction needed to be segmented or reduced into skill fragments, thereby making learning largely devoid of meaning and essentially irrelevant to those who were asked to master the curriculum.”
One key problem with personalised learning is that we can insist on multiple simultaneous lessons but we still have only one teacher per 25-30 students; a teacher who rapidly becomes exhausted as he or she disappears under a mountain of rubrics and learning plans. We could attempt to get around this by using technology but do we really want children sat in front of banks of computers all day, reading texts and then completing multiple choice quizzes, like some sort of learning call-centre?
It is also inefficient. Children do not differ greatly in how they learn and often they all need pretty much the same message, whatever their point in a learning progression. For instance, all students may be able to engage in a lively discussion of medicine in medieval Europe, even if their reading and writing abilities differ. But that would require a common, grade-based curriculum and the panel have suggested such a curriculum is old-fashioned, industrial and just not cool.
It is worth noting that whole-class teaching is intrinsic to the East Asian model of schooling. I am wary of inferring too much from international assessments but given that an explicit purpose of the Gonski review was to improve performance in these assessments, why has the East Asian model been completely ignored, especially since the panel pulled ideas about teacher career progression from these systems? Why do we think personalised learning will be a better approach?
2. A year’s worth of progress
One of the panel’s ideas for assessing personalised learning is to create a set of learning progressions which students will be scored against. This assumes that there is a learning progression in each subject area. Such a view vastly oversimplifies what is actually going on in the school curriculum.
Some subjects are rigorously hierarchical or have a hierarchical component. The examples that spring to mind are number and algebra in the maths curriculum and early reading and writing in the English curriculum. However, it’s not even clear that the whole of mathematics is hierarchical. Is calculating the area of a triangle easier or harder than measuring the length of a object with a ruler? If so, which is more difficult than constructing a bar chart, or are they both easier? Aren’t these things just different? The problem with imposing a hierarchy on learning objectives is that we start making assumptions about what children can do and then we limit them through these assumptions. Eight-year-old William might be quite capable of learning how to plot a bar chart but we hold him back because he hasn’t mastered triangles yet.
These problems are part of the reason why England abandoned its national curriculum levels, a rubric describing progression in each area of the curriculum, a few years ago.
By having a year-by-year set of standards, we have something to check progress against. We can also ensure that students are exposed to a knowledge rich curriculum that will improve their ability to comprehend increasingly complex texts. Viewing literacy as a general skill that operates independently of knowledge is deeply flawed and is at odds with cognitive science.
For instance, it is essentially an arbitrary decision as to whether students should study rivers in Year 2 and Volcanoes in Year 3 or vice versa. This is not hierarchical. So we need a curriculum that sets this out in a logical sequence to ensure that all students are exposed to this key knowledge. Otherwise, we risk holes where students didn’t grasp ideas and teachers didn’t pick this up amidst the confusion of the students all studying different things. The predictable outcome of not paying attention to the sequencing of knowledge is that, at some later stage, a child will struggle to comprehend a passage that requires them to have some understanding of volcanoes and we will then assume that this is something to do with their progression along a set of literacy skills.
3. General capabilities are not general
The Gonski panel also seem to think we need more of an emphasis on the ‘general capabilities’ of the Australian Curriculum. We don’t, and these capabilities should be scrapped. We already have enough of a focus on literacy and numeracy and many of the others are ill-defined and vague. The last thing we need is to start trying to assess these capabilities against some kind of rubric.
The panel highlight the general capability of ‘critical and creative thinking’ and the skill of ‘problem-solving’ that sits under it. There are no such things. Critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving are all highly dependent upon possessing sufficient knowledge of the situation being analysed. The same person can be great at writing novels and rubbish at writing symphonies because she lacks the knowledge required for the latter. There is no creativity muscle that you can exercise and become more creative in a general sense.
Problem-solving is the same. Solving an algebra problem requires different strategies to solving a geometry problem. The idea that solving algebra problems has something in common with solving the problem of how to write an email of complaint to your electricity supplier, the problem of fixing a broken toilet or the problem of peace in the Middle East is absurd. Instead, schools should focus on teaching the specific strategies needed to solve specific classes of problems. Schools can do this but they cannot develop some general problem-solving capability.
Is there anything in the Gonski recommendations that is worth adopting?
The Gonski panel have certainly identified a few key issues. We all want students to be making progress and none of us want them to either coast or struggle in a classroom with no idea of what is going on. There are other ways of dealing with these issues that don’t involved personalised learning. For instance, we may be able to reduce the range of abilities in each classroom if we target fundamental skills, teach them using the most effective techniques and intervene early when children are struggling. Children who fail to learn to read should be identified quickly and given a scientifically based reading intervention. Numeracy should be similarly targeted. We have some responsibility for the diverse range of abilities that sit within a classroom.
The panel’s proposed formative assessments could help with this process and could certainly be an improvement on NAPLAN data that is only collected once every two years. Provided that we fully appreciate how literacy interacts with knowledge, they could provide useful information. One way to do this would be to ensure that the contexts of such assessments are set within a well-defined, year-by-year curriculum. Unfortunately, the report argues for the opposite of this.