Gonski 2.0: Students mustn’t sink before they can swim
Published by Australian Financial Review, Tuesday 1 May
David Gonski’s new report on school education has one central goal: lift student achievement by maximising student learning. Wherever a student starts from on the first day of the year, he or she deserves to have made at least a year’s worth of progress by the end of it. Any less, and our students will fail to reach their full potential.
Having articulated the right goal, the Gonski 2.0 report makes valuable recommendations about how to deliver this vision of tailored teaching in practice – effectively what I called Targeted Teaching in a 2015 Grattan Institute report.
Let me explain how it works, and why two different Jennifers (Hewett and Buckingham) got it wrong in The Australian Financial Review yesterday when they railed against individualised learning. Targeted teaching does not ignore basic skills, or the importance of standards and high achievement, but expands on them to accelerate individual learning growth.
It may seem obvious that maximising each student’s learning growth is the goal. But it is much easier said than done.
In a typical Year 9 classroom, the top students are five to eight year levels ahead of those who are struggling with reading, writing and mathematics. Meanwhile, decades of educational research confirm that students learn best when they face an appropriate level of challenge. Too easy, and students are bored. Too hard, and they get lost.
Yet faced with this spread of learning, conservative commentators such as Kevin Donnelly continue to argue that the point of assessment is to rank students against each other to see who passed and who failed, with exactly the same expectations from every student based on a strict year-level curriculum.
Think beyond schooling to see how outdated this notion is. Imagine a father taking his 10-year-old to swimming lessons at a new pool, only to be told “Your daughter should jump into the Dolphins group, and warm up with a lap of freestyle. Because that’s what we expect from 10-year-olds.”
This is not just pointless, but dangerous. What if she can’t swim at all? We would never allow a swimming instructor to teach a child without first assessing what they can do now.
It is just as pointless to teach this way, or throw an unprepared child into the learning deep end. Children don’t literally drown in the classroom, but they will disengage from school if they are constantly being labelled a failure. Conversely, our budding Ian Thorpes will never become world-beaters if they aren’t stretched on a daily basis.
Step one in targeted teaching is therefore to assess what each student knows now. This approach, called formative assessment, is one of the most strongly supported approaches in all of education. But it’s time-consuming and hard to do rigorously. Gonski is right to call for new online tools to help teachers in this task.
Step two is to teach in a way that enables every student to learn at the right level. The evidence doesn’t support an “individual learning plan” for every child, or justify the extra resources this would take. But our 2015 report showed that teachers can target their teaching if they are given the time, tools and training, in an environment of teamwork and trust.
Finally, teachers should routinely track their students’ learning progress. This isn’t just to inculcate a growth mindset, as Jennifer Buckingham disparagingly claims. It has two much more important roles. In the short term, tracking progress is the best way to spot students who have stalled in their learning. Longer term, analysing progress data allows teachers to evaluate the impact of their teaching, and improve it.
Effective teaching requires more than just doing what some research paper says. Teachers must deliver the goods, day in and day out, in the specific context of their classroom and their students. This requires continuous improvement, as I described in a 2017 report “Towards an adaptive education system in Australia“.
Many schools say they already target their teaching. But nearly all have a long way to go, and most won’t get there without more support.
That’s why it is so pleasing that Gonski 2.0 identifies the key building blocks that education systems must put in place. Reporting that covers progress and achievement. Learning progressions that describe how students’ skills and understanding develop as they become increasingly proficient. More time for professional learning. Structured career pathways for our most expert teachers, so that they can help train other teachers. Continuous improvement at every level of the system, based on rigorous evaluation. A national evidence body to collate the evidence and document how to deliver it at scale. And so on.
Gonski 2.0 lays out a sophisticated vision for an adaptive education system. It requires more rigour, not less, and won’t be easy to implement. But it will be worthwhile.