By the end of last week, I learned that chutzpah has a silent ‘c’. I read a memoir about the dangers facing a woman born without a sense of time and space (how far away is that car and how long until it gets here?). I saw three people walking backwards around the streets of Balgownie and wondered if it was part a new health trend. I returned Richard, a cold and frightened retired British RAF pilot to his nursing home, patiently listening as he repeatedly claimed to having seen Mussolini hanging upside down in a northern Italian square.
I knew none of that at the beginning of the week and none of this new learning might be celebrated as an achievement.
But my new knowledge sparked further reading about the final days of the Italian war, about which I knew little. I walked backwards the length of Guest Park with my six-year-old. When he insisted that we cross a set of lights in the same fashion, the relevance of time and space to safety was brought sharply into focus. I questioned my life long pronunciation of Coco Pops and the kids had a ball dropping every ‘c’ they came across (‘Just like an ‘hocolate milkshake only ‘runchy’).
I thought about pronunciation and words imported from other lands – schadenfreude, shtick – and felt poorer for not having a second tongue. I reflected what it would be like to have been abandoned by my senses. While Richard’s cognition was failing him, his craving for connection was strong.
I had experienced rich cognitive and affective growth. Isn’t the wonder of learning the point? If we pick a fight with our tendency to retreat into technology, the world is a classroom. My learning had come from the curiosity sparked by the stories I heard and read, the people I observed and the conversations I struck up.
But it also made me think about the centre of gravity in learning – how we do it, what we learn and how we measure it.
To borrow from the work of Geoff Masters, CEO from the Australian Council for Educational Research, the teaching and learning cycle goes roughly like this. There are separate disciplines with curriculum to be taught that prescribe what teachers teach and students learn in a given year. Some students learn that material better than others and at the end there is an assessment from which students are assigned a grade.
That has been the system since education went indoors.
That there is a six-year gap between the top performing and lowest performing 10% in the typical Australian classroom should give us pause. There are students in Year 9 classes who are operating at a Year 6 level and others at a Year 11 or 12 level, yet the push to ‘get through the curriculum’ means that any intent to engage all students is often abandoned to time pressures.
As a result, a student’s place in the cohort becomes entrenched and little recognition is given to year on year progress. Once an ‘A’ always an ‘A’; a ‘D’ always a ‘D’. In the organisation of our schools, age is effectively the most important factor in learning. But how else could we organise our schools?
In 2019, the opening of a state ‘stage not age’ P-12 school at Lindfield might answer that question. There students will be allocated classes according to the progress they make rather than their age.
We attach so much weight to a grade. When the judgement of all that learning is stuffed into a single letter or number twice a year, students, teachers and parents can lose sight of progress. It is discouraging. Worse students internalise a view of their intelligence on a measure that is narrow at best.
Masters, who is currently undertaking a once in a generation review of education in NSW, regards how we measure student achievement as a ‘major flaw’ in the system and he is calling for a significant rethink about the purposes of assessment.
“Underpinning this alternative is a belief that every learner is capable of further progress if they can be engaged, motivated to make the appropriate effort and provided with targeted learning opportunities,” he writes.
“This is a more positive and optimistic view than a belief that there are inherently good and poor learners as confirmed by their performances on year-level expectations.”
This rethink runs far deeper than some education fashion.
Shifting the focus of the conversation to progress does not undermine the achievements of top performing students or schools. In fact, Patrick Griffin of the University of Melbourne found a worrying trend that top students were flat lining in their progress from year to year because of the system of containing curriculum knowledge within a single year. On that measure, top students were one of the most disadvantaged groups in schools.
NESA’s attempt to implement learning progressions in literacy and numeracy is a step in the right direction. But how useable the progressions are for time poor teachers is yet to be established.
Skilled teachers are able to identity and articulate student progress on a continuum of learning across stages and not just in a single year. Yet for all the rhetoric about learning as the pursuit of intellectual growth, curiosity, problem solving, cooperation and innovation, the system might be too rigid.
In a sector that is built on choice and competition, public and private, achievement is a high stakes game. It’s the easiest way to promote one school over another. But is it the best thing for our students?
When I picked up my daughter from school this afternoon, I asked her the same question I ask every day.
What did you learn or what can you do this afternoon that you could not do this morning?
That answer is more important to me than the grade assigned to it. I think we need to start talking about high growth, rather than high achieving, students.