#Gonski2 pushes the idea of individual learning plans, but where is the evidence?


It seems obvious to anyone unaccustomed to the realities of the classroom that responding to individual students’ needs is an unqualified good thing. Why would any teacher not want to target their teaching? In fact, to an extent at least, I would argue that most decent teachers do this already. When I teach maths, I often ask students to complete questions on mini-whiteboards and then clarify or reteach concepts for those who are struggling. Sometimes, I allow groups of students to pass more quickly through the controlled process of a gradual release of responsibility from teacher to student. In other words, I allow them to start tackling problems while I am still addressing the majority of the class.

However, for enthusiasts, this is not enough. The new “Gonski 2.0” report calls for something much more radical and extreme; personalised learning:

“The Review Panel heard from a range of stakeholders that the fundamentals for supporting all students do not change. Personalised learning and teaching—based on each child’s learning needs, and informed by iterative evaluation of the impact of those strategies—are effective at improving education outcomes for all students.”

Yet they provide no evidence to support this assertion.

The report calls for highly personalised learning plans. However, this is not to be achieved through ‘streaming by ability’ which has, ‘little effect in improving student outcomes’. In this case, there is a footnote to support this claim. It references a 2015 blog post Geoff Masters of the Australian Council for Educational Research in which Masters states, ‘there is little evidence that either streaming by ability or having students repeat years of school is effective in improving educational outcomes’. QED.

So one obvious way of catering to different abilities is ruled out. This is not surprising. The evidence on ability grouping is ambiguous but it is crystal clear that educationalists dislike the idea. One UK research group that was set-up to objectively evaluate the relative merits of ability grouping and mixed ability teaching, recently released a paper calling ability grouping ‘symbolic violence’. So that is off the table.

Instead, the onus is on teachers to somehow deliver highly personalised learning in a classroom containing a wide range of abilities. No doubt, this will involve the bureaucratic production and maintenance of detailed individual learning plans. Not only will take teachers away from the task of more general lesson planning and assessment, it will be a positively herculean task at secondary school level where each teacher is responsible for multiple classes.

But this is not the only problem.

Those who are in favour of personalised learning see only the upside, but classroom teachers are aware of the practical limitations. If there are thirty students in a class for a one hour lesson and if time is shared equally between the students, then each student will get two minutes of teacher input. Although Gonski 2.0 calls for an individualised approach, we may perhaps do better if we place the students in groups of, say, five – this is what most teachers would think of as ‘differentiation’. Even then, each group would only get ten minutes of teaching, even if we take no account of the time needed for admin and setting up the groups. What we gain in targeting, we lose in total amount of teacher input. This may push teachers to a range of alternative options. For instance, if students are working on research projects or are making posters then they won’t need as much teacher input. However, they are also likely to learn less than through explicit instruction. Alternatively, students could have individualised worksheets or they could sit at computers all day, watching videos and completing slightly different multiple choice assessments. That’s sounds pretty dystopian and, again, it is unlikely that they will learn as much as with direct teacher input.

Individualisation, as opposed to group-based differentiation, also means that we lose the possibility of peer support. When students are working to grasp the same curriculum objectives then students who have mastered them are able to support those who have not. It is likely that both parties gain from this process. If students are all working on an individual plan then that cannot happen.

So far, I have simply voiced the practical concerns of a teacher. I may be wrong and, if I am, there should be plenty of evidence to demonstrate that I am wrong. Yet such evidence is conspicuously lacking. Although I am wary of comparing different countries’ performance on international assessments, I think it is telling that East Asian jurisdictions tend to perform well and yet mainly utilise a whole-class explicit teaching model.

When it comes to evidence from experimental and quasi-experimental studies, the radical personalised learning suggested by the Gonski panel doesn’t seem to have been tested a great deal. Writing in The Conversation, a group of Gonski 2.0 apologists instead referred to evidence supporting differentiation. Even then, all they could produce was a study that lacked any control group and a promising randomised controlled trial testing differentiation in middle school science. The form of differentiation used in the science trial was far from the Gonski recommendations because all students were working to a common set of objectives. The differentiation came in terms of the level of scaffolding they received.

And this evidence should be weighed against other evidence showing that differentiation has little impact upon educational outcomes, including the results from a large-scale study in the U.S.

Peter Goss of the Grattan Institute is another researcher to come out in favour of Gonski 2.0, blasting critics as outdated conservatives. This support is presumably related to the Grattan Institute’s wish to see more ‘targeted teaching’ as outlined in one of their reports. Again, this argument is heavy on the commonsense idea that students will benefit from having teaching that is aimed at their particular needs, but does little to address the practical issues and fails to support its recommendations with evidence from controlled studies (unless I have somehow missed it).

The fact is that Gonski 2.0 wants to fundamentally change the way we deliver education in Australia. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but big claims of this sort should be supported by big evidence, otherwise it’s just a leap into the dark. It is reasonable for those of us who are aware of the potential unintended consequences to raise questions about the lack of this evidence. That doesn’t mean we are outdated or conservative; it makes us champions of evidence and advocates for the children who will experience the effects of Gonski’s revolution.

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6 thoughts on “#Gonski2 pushes the idea of individual learning plans, but where is the evidence?

  1. When people start using terms like ‘symbolic violence’, you know that they’re post-modern thugs who fail utterly to perceive that they have become the new oppressors in their idyllic Animal Farm. Either that or they’re shills for firms selling hardware or software.

  2. I feel like Goss and Graham et al. are both advocating opposite things and using the report to support their beliefs.
    Goss does seem to be advocating ability streaming in a sort of Templestowe model but maybe I am misinterpreting him and as you said Graham et. al. were strong on quoting the section that was anti-ability streaming.
    Personally, I don’t see how you can divorce differentiation and Year-based achievement standards, OR streaming and progressions to end up with the compromise of differentiation and progressions. It certainly feels to me to be an unworkable mess.
    But as you point out – this may only be a problem if you are wanting to use whole class instruction, discussion and activity and want to devote your energies to making that as powerful and rewarding as possible. If the kids are learning all by themselves with occasional monitoring it very well could work but I thought we had moved past that sort of teaching 150 years ago.

    1. I remember my then partner teaching maths using differentiated progressive work books. He hardly ever taught any actual maths – it was all done through the work books (which the teachers wrote themselves). This was mid 70s UK, where I had learnt to teach through the discovery method (and found actually teaching the class worked better). In the 80s -90s I saw the same model of work book based maths teaching in another secondary school and came across teachers who got quite cross when something went wrong with the system and they actually had to teach the class (which slightly amazed me). I worked as an ESL teacher so saw a lot of different styles of teaching (and worked out that if you want someone to learn English and learn to read it in-class support is not your best bet). I saw other schools and teachers teaching maths without the work book model in the 80s and 90s so guess it was a system going out by then (one can but hope).

  3. I see lots of computers with individualised programs while teachers trawl through mountains of data. No thanks.

    1. I am a cynic of the first order but there is room for technology to help here eventually. At some point technology should help and be cost effective. A E-workbook that is cheap but allows a teacher to see a consolidated view of a groups progress – who is getting through it, who is struggling, what common issues there are would be great.
      The problem with an E-workbook today is that there are unsolved problems – authenticating a students work as their own, equity in access and cost. There is also the need for a solution to manage distraction with any electronic device. I suspect with social media authenticating homework for topics like math is impossible these days. The only check would be in class testing where an e-workbook would be a help.

  4. This is timely- Digital Inking is being pushed by Microsoft as a major part of their advance into education. If you don’t know what that is, it is using a stylus with a tablet or laptop device, like the Surface Pro to do what you would ordinarily do on paper. But the big attraction (for aficionados) is that you can convert your hand written equations into easy to read text and numbers, and solve them automatically. It actually doesn’t work that well, because the software can’t read people’s hand writing properly, so you have to go in and fix errors in the conversion. For many reasons that any maths teacher here can think of, it is no substitute for a proper teacher, and as always there is no evidence presented in the promotional material that it actually help students learn better than with squared paper and a pencil. Very few developers of E learning products seem to be up to speed with cognitve load, split attention, even distraction; it’s all about collaboration, creativity, unknown jobs, digital literacy etc.
    I learned maths with Schools Maths Project in the 1980s: textbooks and bloody good maths teachers. Thanks Mr Bill Rome if you’re out there!

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