While schools and parents analyse the recent NAPLAN results, this teacher reveals the challenges he faces when trying to accommodate the needs of every single student, and what he feels would be a better solution.
The need to change my teaching techniques to suit the individual needs of my students is one of the greatest challenges I face. Over my career I have seen a dramatic increase in the expectation that teachers have a thorough understanding of the ways in which individual students learn, and the challenges they may face. While this is an admirable aim for any education system, the lack of resources, minimal contact with many students, and increasing pressure on already time-poor teachers, means that this is often poorly done.
The reality in my experience is that students who have some kind of diagnosis (hearing and vision impairment, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, etc) are likely to have a support teacher accompanying them to some or all of their classes. These students will also have a Personal Learning and Support (PLaS) Plan that outlines any modifications that are needed. These might be practical, such as changing the colour of paper or fonts used for worksheets, or where they sit in the classroom; or they might be more behavioural, for instance not drawing attention to low-level misbehaviour. Some students have mental health conditions, such as anxiety, that means they may have a time-out card that enables them to leave the room if they are struggling.
...stop judging schools, students, and teachers based on their achievement...
Undoubtedly these modifications are a good thing. They recognise that individual students may need specialised support to reach their potential. However, as a high school teacher, I teach a total of over 150 different students, some for just five hours per fortnight. It is hard enough to remember which student has a PLaS, let alone the specific details of what that entails. Add to the mix, the issue of privacy, with some parents being very reluctant to share information about their children, fearing that they may be judged. Then there are the countless students who struggle in school, but don't have a PLaS, or don't have funding for individual support.
At the other end of the spectrum, the system is not designed to extend the students who find the work too easy. Often these students simply coast by, never being extended, and often never even being identified as "gifted-and-talented". In the classroom I am acutely aware of the students whose behaviour will become a problem if they find the work impossible to engage with. But for the advanced students who can complete the work quickly and not create behaviour issues, their educational needs are often ignored, simply because they are not a problem.
Standardised testing such as NAPLAN is supposed to help identify the students who require extra support, along with broad patterns that show shortcomings in the delivery of individual topics in the curriculum. When analysing the results, schools inevitably focus on the students at the "bottom" of the spectrum. Programs are developed in order to support those students who are considered to be performing below the average. However, if a student is in the second-top band, but is capable of being in the top, then this is never seen as a "problem" and schools are not spending money and time trying to extend them. Schools, like sporting teams, are most often judged on their worst performing members.
I think the problem is the model we are teaching in, and the resources and training we are provided with. The very nature of our education system encourages teachers to pitch to the lowest-common-denominator, and in a classroom of 30 students in a one-hour period, it is impossible to individualise the educational experience they are receiving.
So what's the solution?
There's a couple of relatively simple things that could be done to help advance those poorly performing students, as well as extending those who are well beyond the average. Firstly reducing class sizes - the less students in my class, the better I know them and their needs. Changing the construction of the curriculum, enabling students to advance in specific subjects once they have shown achievement, and conversely remaining in a lower level until they have demonstrated the necessary skills and knowledge. Allow teachers more autonomy in what they teach and how they teach it, let them follow their own, and the students' passions and interest areas rather than blindly marching along the demands of an ever-increasing curriculum. Finally, stop judging schools, students, and teachers based on their achievement compared to "the average". If the learning of every student is to be individualised, then it must be acknowledged that they are different. Measure the success of schools on how happy their students and staff are, how much students have grown - academically, socially, and personally.