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Gonski’s model for schools

Gonski’s model for schools

The recent Gonski report calls for a new model of school education. This is a big call. What is this new model? Professor Geoff Masters AO discusses.

In delivering his recent report David Gonski described the report’s recommendations as a package of reforms to underpin a new model to improve performance in Australian schools.

Since the report’s release, commentators have focused largely on existing and familiar school practices and a selection of the recommendations. Among other things, there has been discussion of personalised student learning plans, phonics teaching, online classroom assessment tools, behaviour management, explicit teaching and the relationship between teaching general capabilities and teaching disciplinary knowledge. None of this is new. Schools do these things every day.

Gonski begins with the obvious: performances in schools will improve if every student learns successfully. This is interpreted as every student making a year’s progress every year, raising the question of what a year’s progress looks like. But the intention is sound. Performances will improve if every student makes excellent and continuing progress – something that certainly is not happening at present.

Gonski also observes that students will learn successfully if they are taught at an appropriate level. There is strong research to support this. People learn successfully when they are given learning opportunities at an appropriate level of challenge. Learning is much less likely when people are taught what they already know or if they lack the prerequisite knowledge and skills for what they are being taught.

Most teachers understand this and attempt to teach every student at an appropriate level. But they work within external constraints. The Australian 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. This may seem sensible until it is realised that the most advanced ten per cent of students in each year of school are about five to six years ahead of the least advanced ten per cent of students. As teachers know, the year-level curriculum seriously misses the mark for many students, either because its expectations are too low or too high.

Gonski proposes to break this nexus and to redefine how we set learning expectations in schools. The heart of Gonski’s model is an alternative way of structuring the curriculum. Instead of packaging the curriculum into year levels, wherever possible the curriculum would be presented as a sequence of increasing proficiency levels in a subject. This approach would recognise that students in the same year of school are at different levels of attainment, and students in different years of school often are at the same level. This concept of proficiency levels unrelated to students’ ages or year levels is familiar in areas such as music and language learning.

Gonski’s model redefines what it means to learn successfully. Rather than being judged only in terms of age-based expectations, successful learning would be measured as the progress individuals make, whatever their starting points.

Some have interpreted Gonski’s proposal as requiring teachers to develop an individual learning plan for every student. This is impossible in practice. But it is possible for teachers to establish students’ current levels of attainment and to ensure that they are taught at an appropriate level.

Other commentators have interpreted Gonski’s proposal as abolishing year levels. This is unnecessary. There are often good social reasons to keep students of the same age together. Within each year level, the teaching challenge is to recognise and address students’ widely varying levels of attainment.

Gonski’s proposed restructuring of the curriculum into ‘learning progressions’ with aligned assessment resources would be a major change in our approach to schooling. But it has the potential to support teachers’ current efforts to establish where individuals are in their learning, to meet students’ differing learning needs and to ensure that every student is appropriately challenged. On balance, it may be the change we need to lift performance in schools.

Ross Phillips 12 May 2018

Great contribution to the discussion. We are slowly moving beyond the idea of an expectation for particular levels for each year level of school, which can miss the challenge level, the ZPD required by individual students completely.

Daniela 13 May 2018

Using learning progressions make sense from a developmental perspective. If teachers had online assessment tools available to them to help identify where students are at on the learning continuum, this approach could be successfully implemented from a system perspective.

John W Madden 13 May 2018

Individualising students learning was the mantra when I started teaching in the 70s. The concept sounds logical but what is the measure we use for progressing the students? Do we accept that when they have achieved a “C” standard, whatever that is, they progress or are we being unfair by not insisting they achieve mastery? In what areas do we expect a “C” or mastery? Do we limit them by insisting on a set course or do we slow them down indefinitely by offering a vast range of materials. By leaving them in the same cohort we lessen the likelihood that students self-esteem will be damaged by seeing someone 6 years younger than them doing the same subjects and, potentially, performing more strongly. But we may then risk it anyway when their best friend, sitting in the same room, is working on levels 6 years ahead of them. Some of this is addressed by them being in the same cohort and doing the same content and by accepting anything from a “C"to full mastery it allows many the dignity of progressing together but at the same time this diversity will disallow some students from exposure to the opportunities that their peers are offered. But again, what are we expecting? All students will be ready by the time they reach a certain stage within adolescence? Surely we must also recognise that some people are simply not ready or mature enough or able to hit the same milestones within a comparable timeframe. That is one of the wonderful things about adult entry to tertiary institutions. Some people are simply not interested, motivated, capable or determined enough to progress the way Gonski appears to be suggesting. And what do we mean by progressing, and progressing in what anyway? Are we going to insist all students achieve university level school achievement or are we happy for students to pursue their interests in trades or the arts? When someone like Gonski draws up a model, saying we will individualise runs the risk of being just another educational platitude.

EJ 14 May 2018

Bureaucrats will be amazed and excited to learn that the wheel does not have to be reinvented!!!
Maria Montessori came up with the exact model being presented by Gonski in 1907!! Boy how I wish I could shout this from the rooftops!
Go and visit a Montessori school and see just how possible this all is!!

DP 15 May 2018

It’s ok to say individualise students’ learning but there still has to be a framework within which to determine ‘where they are at’. The implications are also for smaller class sizes, more teacher aides in the room to support those students who are struggling, as well as those who are excelling and working at a much higher level than their peers. Not every student improves by 12 months within a year. Students with learning difficulties progress at a slower rate. This does not mean they are failing, but it does mean that this expectation needs to be modified. One size certainly does not fit all!

Robert Easterbrook 15 May 2018

We are all individuals, and we all approaching learning in individually different ways. This is supported by research. If you don’t recognise this fact then the status quo on how people learn is maintained; corralling people by age to achieve curriculum goals without reference to individual learning approaches (despite age) produces unequal outcomes. This is a fact. “Some have interpreted Gonski’s proposal as requiring teachers to develop an individual learning plan for every student. This is impossible in practice. But it is possible for teachers to establish students’ current levels of attainment and to ensure that they are taught at an appropriate level.” An individual learning plan for each learner IS what we should be doing, but alas, it is impracticable. Why? Because most people want everyone to achieve at the same rates, at the same age levels, the same curriculum. While this idea is maintained, learners will not meet expectations - not because the expectation is low or high but because it is misguided. The underlying assumption is everyone learns in the same way, at the same rates, at the same age, in the same classrooms, the same curriculum. You are right to mention interest, motivation, and determination, but you miss the point, I think. Individualisation isn’t a platitude; it’s a scientific fact. The question is how to promote learning in a mass education context with learners with individually different approaches to learning? “But it [the Gonski model] has the potential to support teachers’ current efforts to establish where individuals are in their learning, to meet students’ differing learning needs and to ensure that every student is appropriately challenged. On balance, it may be the change we need to lift performance in schools.” I think ‘lift performance in schools’ is a poor choice of words. We can already establish ‘where individuals are in their learning’, but if it is not recognised that individuals are at this place due to teaching not addressing their individual approaches to learning then we maintain the status and quote those statistics about the allegedly advanced 10 percent being 6 years ahead of the less advanced 10 percent as ‘normal’ - the normal distribution curve. This statistical anomaly is created by a system of mass education that believes everyone learns in the same way, compounded by teaching that does not take into consideration individual approaches to learning - pushing learners through like cattle to achieve curriculum goals because someone believes they can do it if sufficiently challenged. Sufficiently challenged is not a very scientific approach to learning if it is something the learner is responsible for and not the teacher. Individualised learning is at the heart of learning anything, and when it is placed there, learners can achieve more equal outcomes.

Chris 15 May 2018

” the curriculum would be presented as a sequence of increasing proficiency levels in a subject. This approach would recognise that students in the same year of school are at different levels of attainment, and students in different years of school often are at the same level”.
There’s a novel idea!  Exactly what we were doing in Tasmania prior to be compelled to assess using A-E ratings!

Ian R Thompson 15 May 2018

Finally, we are looking at students as individual learners rather than one size fits all. The discussion on how impossible this is to achieve is merited by those looking only to move chairs on the Titanic that is the present book based comparative (How do I rate against others?) system. They’re right! It can’t be achieved on paper with our current system. It is only with the use of ICT based learning systems that we can move forward to individual learning. Not much preparation for this inevitable approach/change has progressed since Julia Gillard was ousted and the NBN, an essential piece of infrastructure, downgraded. I’ve been hiding in a closet using 1-1 online courses with students for many years. Enjoying automatically produced analytical reports that guide who I help and how while confident that ever more ingenious algorithms are assisting students, parents and me in the background. Real-time reporting is here. 1-1 curriculum plans. Student ownership of their learning.  Instant marking. Accountability. Next year I retire with light starting to show some hope for future students who fit outside the norm. Whatever that may be. No, it can’t be achieved with paper and don’t accept anyone who tries to do it without mature online integrated systems. Still much to do but encouraging signs.

Sharon Anderson 15 May 2018

I agree with the comment above (DP).  The goal of 12 months progress in 12 months seems too simplistic.  What does that mean?  Alongside Gonski’s emphasis on the needs of the individual there logically should be an understanding that 12 months of progress is not same for everyone. How will we correlate that figurative “12 months”  to each student?

Jamie Simmonds 15 May 2018

Could it be that the process of grading detracts from a student’s learning achievement? Instead of focusing on the learner’s growth, grading appears to be a system that has little correlation to the individual’s learning journey. I also wonder whether grades foster a growth mindset in learners.

Peter Westwood 15 May 2018

To borrow a catchphrase from the Archdeacon in the old TV series All Gas and Gaiters: “Oh, calamity!”
The 2018 report “Through growth to achievement: Report of the review to achieve educational excellence in Australian schools” is certainly not what it claims to be: ‘a package of reforms to improve performance in Australian schools.’ It is actually a recipe for disaster (unless the intention is also to reduce every class size to 6 students per teacher).
Here we go again, just as we are settling in to efficient implementation of a good national curriculum the ‘experts’ are suggesting radical changes to the way that teaching is to be conducted and the curriculum delivered in our schools. It is stated: ‘We need to shift from presenting the Australian Curriculum as a prescriptive set of yearly targets, and instead use the curriculum as a roadmap of long-term learning progress’ (p.27). What on earth does that really mean in practical terms?
It is worth noting that this approach is the absolute opposite of the belief that underpins effective teaching in most Asian countries, where achievement levels are consistently high and failure rates are low. The teachers there begin with the expectation that all students in a class can achieve the lesson objectives if they are taught well. In Asian classrooms interactive whole-class teaching is the norm, with students learning together, and curriculum content is not differentiated. Instead, additional support, re-teaching, corrective feedback and extra time are immediately provided for any students who are having difficulties or are lacking in aptitude for the particular subject. The goal is that almost every student in the class will achieve mastery of the core curriculum. It is believed that too much catering for individual differences and individual progression leads to an ever-widening gap between high- and low-achievers. 
The most obvious error in the Review is the statement that there is a ‘lack of research-based evidence on what works best in education’ (p.ix). This is completely untrue. We have accumulated a large volume of evidence showing ‘what works best’ in terms of teaching approach, starting with the early data provided by Rosenshine in the 1970s, through the ‘teacher effectiveness’ research of Brophy and Good (and others) in the 1980s, to John Hattie’s meta-analyses of research studies in very recent years. These all show convincingly that teacher-led methods are superior to individualized or personalized approaches for raising achievement levels and reducing failure. The problem is that most teachers here are just not using these evidence-based methods, and trainee teachers are not taught the methods in university.
The recommendations in this Review come, as usual, from a panel of ‘experts’ who have either never been classroom teachers at any time or have been away from the classroom long enough to forget what it is actually like to teach an inclusive class of 25 or more children from 9am to 3.30pm for five days a week. A few more currently practising classroom teachers included on these review panels might help keep recommendations to a level that can actually lead to implementation. Is it really realistic to require ‘teachers to embrace changes to their planning, teaching and assessment practices […] create multi-streamed, differentiated lesson plans for each class, adjust their pedagogy to the different needs of individual students […] and identify ‘flight paths’ for where the student needs to be to maximise learning growth each year’ (p.56)?
I can almost hear the dust beginning to fall on this report.

Anthony 16 May 2018

Unfortunately, we seem to have some people who think that teachers will be asked to introduce changes whilst maintaining the older system at the same time. The action of differentiation in a mixed ability classroom is designed to accommodate the wide range of abilities in classrooms mentioned in the Gonski report. Hats off to those heroes who achieve this. G&T educationalists have been achieving this for quite some time because they have the background and experience for the courses offered. Not so with the graduates from regular teacher training who have not delved into this area. (Maybe other areas as well - eg Special Education Teachers etc) The point? Arranging students into manageable groups according to their abilities and experience narrows the focus of the teaching output and allows students to better travel with others who truly share the learning and the “aha” moments because they are experiencing a better match to content and pedagogy for their needs. Unfortunately, many of the studies surrounding this asked the wrong questions. Grouping students doesn’t work if that’s all you do! Teach the same curriculum to the same tests at the same speed with the same pedagogy with teachers who have fixed mindsets about student achievement - no wonder grouping to ability doesn’t save the planet. But, as Hattie explains for gifted students (Google “P18 John Hatties Challenging all Students) acceleration is one of the most powerful things that you can do for brighter students - in other words - put them with other students who have the same level of ability, readiness etc and let them learn what they need in this new environment. Don’t go half baked with it and keep students in age grouping first THEN ability group - just ability group and focus your teaching. The old argument of kids self esteem being affected by age difference is a stereotypical argument that is not validated in studies of gifted education. Hattie talks about this too!
Have a look - it is relevant to this discussion.

Peter Westwood 16 May 2018

In reply to Anthony: The message should be that lower-achievers require acceleration in their learning, just as much as gifted students require it. The notion that all students should (according to the Gonski Review Panel) make one year of progress in one year of teaching means no real progress at all for those already in a lower-ability group and being taught a differentiated (watered-down) curriculum. These students require the kind of effective teaching that will help them make two years of progress in one year.

Anthony Stevens 16 May 2018

In relation to lower-ability versus gifted, the only point to make is that we want a system where all students can achieve at their optimum. This happens when teachers understand the spectrum of needs in front of them and the effective variety of specific pedagogy that works well at the various levels - not a one-size fits all classroom that is based on age. The outcome would not be too different from having composite classes and Year 3/4/5 classes that we run out of necessity. Nobody complains about multi-ages in those settings upsetting a student’s self concept.
Differentiation should not be confused with just watering down. Proper differentiation is the actualisation of the variety of modes employed to allow each student to access and experience the Australian Curriculum. Improbable that a lower ability group would progress at two year’s pace but, regardless of the outcome, providing them the opportunity to achieve their best outcomes should always be what drives our decisions.

Philip Roach 18 May 2018

I am a secondary teacher of many years experience. I have read most of Gonski’s report and like what I read. But I read it as a teacher who knows that it is a report to government. The government needs to be the enabler and funder of education reform in the classroom. Factory, one size fits all education doesn’t fit all, but it has been historically fundable. Schooling does need to be more individualised but, as has been widely recognised, individual learning plans for all are most unrealistic under present structures. My workload is far greater now that when I commenced teaching in 1980. No day or week ever seems long enough to do what needs to be done, and that is whilst working under the factory model. I look forward to curriculum developers and publishing houses continuing to produce materials which will support more individualised learning for students and support teachers who are working with students at their many different levels in our classrooms. Teachers can only do so much!

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