In Australia, the route to improved performance in schools has seemed obvious: through introducing more rigour into the curriculum, setting higher year-level performance expectations and holding all teachers and students accountable for achieving these higher standards.
And this is what we have done. We have developed a national curriculum and benchmarked it internationally. We have set clearer year-level performance expectations and required teachers to assess and grade all students against these expectations using ‘A to E or equivalent’. We have insisted on all students sitting national literacy and numeracy tests four times during their schooling. We have made schools more accountable.
Despite this, results from the most recent cycle of the Programme for International Student Assessment (in which India is due to participate in 2021) show the literacy and numeracy levels of Australian 15-year-olds have been in steady decline. Australia’s national curriculum ties what a student is expected to learn to their year level. Teachers are expected to deliver the same year-level curriculum to all students and to assess and grade them on how well they perform. Attempting to lift performances by holding all students to the same expectation flies in the face of what we know about learning, and this is the core of the problem.
Australia’s national curriculum ties what a student is expected to learn to their year level. Teachers are expected to deliver the same year-level curriculum to all students and to assess and grade them on how well they perform. Attempting to lift performances by holding all students to the same expectation flies in the face of what we know about learning, and this is the core of the problem. Many students in our schools find the year-level curriculum is either well within their comfort zone or so far ahead of them that they are unable to engage with it meaningfully. Students enter each school year with widely different levels of attainment; the most advanced 10 per cent of students are about five to six years ahead of the least advanced 10 per cent. As a result, less advanced students often are not ready for, and more advanced students often are not adequately challenged by, the year-level curriculum.
Fifty years ago educational psychologist David Ausubel observed that the most significant factor influencing learning is what a learner already knows. Ascertain this, he wrote, then teach the learner accordingly. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky went a step further. Successful learning, Vygotsky concluded, is most likely when a learner is provided with challenges that are beyond their comfort zone, but not so far beyond that they are destined to fail.
Ausubel and Vygotsky understood that learning is unlikely when people are taught what they already know or when they lack the prerequisite knowledge or skills for success. Effective teaching depends on ascertaining where individuals are in their learning (which usually means establishing what they know, understand, and can do) and then providing stretch challenges that are neither too easy nor too difficult.
That is, people learn best when given learning opportunities at an appropriate level of challenge: beyond their comfort zone, but not so far beyond that they become frustrated and give up.
Revolutionising teaching and learning
A recent review of the Australian education system led by businessman David Gonski proposed redefining how we set learning expectations in schools and breaking the nexus between learning benchmarks and year levels.
Some have interpreted his proposal as requiring teachers to develop an individual learning plan for every student (impossible in practice) or as the abolition of year levels, which is unnecessary; there are often good social reasons to keep students of the same age together.
At the heart of the so-called ‘Gonski model’ is an alternative way of structuring the curriculum to focus on the learner. Instead of packaging the curriculum into year levels, wherever possible the curriculumwould be presented as a sequence of increasing proficiency levels in a subject.
The concept of proficiency levels unrelated to age or year levels is familiar in areas such as music and language learning and recognises that there are different levels of attainment within a student cohort.
The best teachers already understand that some students may be two or three years ahead of year-level expectations and others may be two or three years behind. Many currently work to ascertain where individuals are in their learning, and to teach accordingly, to meet students’ differing learning needs and to ensure that every student is appropriately challenged.
Importantly, Gonski recognised that this is also an issue for education systems and curriculum developers. His review heard how high-performing school systems create conditions that make it more likely that students’ differing learning needs are identified and addressed with well-targeted teaching. It also heard how some systems create conditions that make this less likely.
Measuring progress for a fairer education system
In school education, an ‘equitable’ system could be defined as one in which all students are treated equally – for example, a system in which all students are given the same opportunities, exposed to the same school curriculum, taught by teachers with equivalent expertise, held to the same learning expectations and provided with equivalent levels of resourcing and support. Educational policies and discussions of equity sometimes reflect this view of equity as equality.
However, as in other areas of life, equity in school education is likely to be associated with equal treatment in some situations (where there is no obvious basis for differential treatment) and unequal treatment in others. In a system that prioritises fairness over equality, students’ special needs and unequal socioeconomic backgrounds are recognised and resources (for example, teaching expertise) are distributed unequally in an attempt to redress disadvantage due to personal and social circumstances.
A more equitable alternative to the present system would be one in which every student’s current level of attainment was identified and used to provide learning opportunities at an appropriate level of challenge. Rather than teaching, assessing, and grading all students against the same yearlevel expectation, every student’s learning would be stretched and extended by well-targeted, personalised teaching. Success would be defined and judged in terms of the progress an individual made, regardless of their starting point, and every student would be expected to make excellent progress every year.
This is an ideal, but if we could better approximate it, we may see more students learning successfully and overall levels of performance in schools improve.
The term ‘evidence-based’ is now firmly entrenched in the education lexicon, with good reason; improvements in student learning and educational outcomes depend on the wider use of reliable evidence in classroom practice. The concept of evidence-based practice has its origins in medicine, with the essential idea that decisions made by medical practitioners should be based on the best available evidence collected through rigorous research – ideally, through randomised controlled trials.
Evidence-based teaching similarly involves the integration of reliable, local, practitioner-collected evidence with evidence from systematic, external research. Policies and discussions of ‘evidence-based teaching’ sometimes overlook the importance of this broader, more integrated understanding of the role of evidence in teaching and learning.
Evidence-based teaching draws on evidence for three purposes:
To ascertain the points individual learners have reached in their learning.
This usually means establishing what they know, understand and can do as starting points for teaching and to ensure that individuals are provided with well-targeted learning opportunities and appropriately challenging learning goals.
To inform effective teaching strategies and interventions.
Which interventions are likely to improve students’ levels of understanding and skill? What teaching strategies have been shown to work in practice? For which learners? Under what conditions? Answers to questions of this kind are derived from rigorous, systematic research and professional teaching experience.
To evaluate student progress and teaching effectiveness.
Evidence about the progress students make is crucial information for teaching. It provides a basis for establishing whether, and how effectively, individuals are learning. Low levels of progress may indicate lack of student effort and/or ineffective teaching, and so warrant closer investigation. Information about progress provides the most direct indicator of teaching effectiveness, as well as being key to the evaluation of educational policies, programs and teaching methods.
If we are serious about improving learning for all, it’s time we recognised the importance of evidence from research and reconsidered current models of schooling. How appropriate are age-based curricula in a 21st century setting? Is this the best way to support teachers and students? Would success at school be better measured in terms of the progress learners make, regardless of their starting point, rather than the achievement of year-level benchmarks? The research evidence certainly seems to support this.
This is an edited article drawing on original material by Professor Geoff Masters, AO published in Teacher in 2018.
Professor Geoff Masters, AO, is the Chief Executive of the Australian Council for Educational Research.
Masters, G. (2018). Gonski, learning and the case for change. Teacher. Available at https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/ columnists/geoff-masters/gonski-learningand-the-case-for-change Masters, G. (2018). The role of evidence in teaching and learning. Teacher. Available at https://www.teachermagazine.com. au/columnists/geoff-masters/the-role-ofevidence-in-teaching-and-learning
Masters, G. (2018). Gonski’s model for schools.Teacher. Available at https://www. teachermagazine.com.au/columnists/geoffmasters/gonskis-model-for-schools
Masters, G. (2018). What is ‘equity’ in education? Teacher. Available at https:// www.teachermagazine.com.au/columnists/ geoff-masters/what-is-equity-in-education
Masters, G. (2018). Is setting higher standards the answer? Teacher. Available at https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/ columnists/geoff-masters/is-setting-higherstandards-the-answer