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.
“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.