Tailoring To Individual Learner Needs
Gonski 2.0 has landed in Australia and stirred up vigorous debate about the future of education in amongst politicians, educators, and parents. The 140-page report titled “Through Growth to Achievement”, is aimed at improving school performance and student outcomes by addressing three main priorities and recommendations across five key areas. Some of the more contentious solutions include creating a national online formative assessment tool, introducing a Unique Student Identifier to track students across years and schools, and establishing a national research and evidence institute to drive innovation.
As a generalist upper-primary teacher, the second recommendation is of particular interest to me. Equipping every student to grow and succeed in a changing world calls for learning to be “tailored to individual learning needs”. Trying to meet students at their respective point of need is a big part of my M.O. But it seems to many teachers (on my Twitter feed and in the print media at least) that this is a radical and unrealistic idea. There has been a swathe of educators, many who espouse more traditional practices, bemoaning the seemingly unavoidable and unsustainable increase in teacher workload that would accompany individualising student learning.
Tailored To Individual Learning Needs…
According to the Australian Financial Review, even John Hattie, who is quoted and referenced over a dozen times throughout the report, has stated that “no teacher in the world has time for an individualised program” and that scaling up such an idea in Australia is little more than a ‘pipe-dream’.
One problem I’ve had discerning what Gonski means by individualised learning is that terms like differentiation, individualisation and personalisation have been used interchangeably in the media, despite all having distinctively different meaning in the classroom. In her book Students at the Center, Bena Kallick describes personalized learning as requiring four powerful attributes — student voice, co-design, social construction, and self-discovery. Is it really beyond the skill of mainstream teachers to provide opportunities for students to explore these concepts within the context of their own interests, strengths, or dare I even say it, passions?
I’m not sure how far along the personalised learning spectrum Dr Hattie was commenting on, but my own experience suggests that we can, in fact, look to tailor learning to meet the needs of individual students. Do we need to teach on a collective basis? Absolutely. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t also provide opportunities for students to take greater agency over their learning journey. In the book Montessori: The Science Behind The Genius, Angeline Stroll Lillard highlights the fact that children need structure to learn, however:
When adults provide clear limits but set children free within those boundaries, and sensitively respond to children’s needs while mainting high expectations, children show high levels of maturity, achievement, empathy, and desirable characteristics.
This is an important point for me. Shifting towards greater student voice and agency doesn’t mean teachers need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In my opinion, tailoring learning to meet the individual needs of students can be achieved by creating opportunities for learners to achieve required outcomes by following their own curiosities and interests within existing teaching and learning frameworks.
The recommendations in the Gonski report are deliberately vague enough that they are open to interpretation and exploration by schools and teachers. Some educators and academics are critical of the report for lacking definite detail, but I think this is a positive as teachers must be able to remain true to their authentic pedagogy. No teacher should be forced to change an effective teaching style based on the progressive or conservative whims of the day. There is room for all teachers to explore becoming the best versions of themselves.
Encouraging students to be partners in their own learning increases agency (ownership and responsibility) and achievement and creates positive long-term learning habits. It also builds student engagement with schooling, which is associated with positive outcomes in most facets of life.
Personally, reading the Gonski report has affirmed the direction I have taken with my practice over recent years. Creating an environment that values crucial life-long learning behaviours like self-monitoring, self-evaluation, self-assessment, and self-teaching gets a big tick. Learning from mistakes; cultivating a growth mindset; developing a collaborative rather than competitive culture and establishing continuous feedback loops are all noted as positively impacting engagement and achievement. I’m also pleased to see a greater emphasis on the General Capabilities and a shift in focus from comparative achievement against age/grade standards to individual growth against a specified learning progression. Can critical thinking and creativity be taught as progressions or measured? I honestly have no idea. But the use of learning progressions is not a new idea.
My home state of Tasmania introduced a progression based Essential Learnings frame workin the early noughties which was built on this very idea but was abandoned when the Australian Curriculum was introduced soon after. Other states, like WA, had mixed results implementing similar models. Gabrielle Stroud, a former teacher and now a freelance writer with the ABC believes that Gonski 2.0 would overburden already stretched teachers:
“Learning progressions” attempt to monitor and track individual student’s progress over seven competencies every five weeks. Across a class of some 27 students, this becomes a 40-hour working week in and of itself. This is not good teaching or good learning. This is an administrative burden that takes teachers further away from their students and their needs.
I can see how this claim would be true if the teacher assumes all responsibility for collecting evidence, measuring outcomes, and reporting data. But isn’t that the point of student agency? That student learn to set goals, measure progress, and self-assess against outcomes that they themselves have co-designed with teachers? As I explored in a previous post, shifting from a teacher-centred to student-centred classroom isn’t a binary concept. You don’t flick a switch and move from one to the other. Incorporating student voice, co-design and self-discovery into everyday learning exists on a continuum (inform, consult, involve, collaborate, empower) which can range from formative assessments, lesson feedback, exits slips, to full-blown student-led PBL and Units Of Inquiry. Anyone suggesting that personalised learning is beyond the reach of primary teachers has never had the pleasure of witnessing the incredible work of Taryn Bond-Clegg and Suzanne Kitto.
Going a step beyond the recommendations of Gonski, Peter Hutton, former principal of Templestowe College is an advocate of hyper-specialisation in schools from year five onwards. He argues that students who pursue music, the arts, or sports are generally congratulated and supported to chase their talents and passions because these endeavours are more legitimised in today’s society. He argues that all children should be given the opportunity to specialise based on strengths and interests.
Individualising learning doesn’t have to be a pipe-dream and it doesn’t have to mean a greater workload for teachers (if anything, I’ve found it can actually reduce it). But, this style of teaching and learning does require non-instruction and class time to be used differently and comes with its own unique challenges and issues.