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Addressing the learning needs of all students

Year-level curriculum expectations in our schools sometimes impose artificial ceilings on student learning, and many of Australia’s most able students are not achieving their true potential as a result. Geoff Masters explains why.

Many students in our schools are judged to be performing well because they achieve high grades on middling expectations for children of their age. The problem is that, rather than being stretched and extended, many very able students achieve year-level expectations with minimal effort.

Differing learning needs

Schools tend to be organised on an assumption that the vast majority of students of the same age are at broadly similar points in their learning and development. In reality, as I have observed previously, students at the beginning of each school year are spread over a wide range of achievement levels. In subjects such as reading and mathematics, the least advanced 10 per cent of students commence each school year about five to six years behind the most advanced 10 per cent of students.

Because students are at very different points in their learning, they often have very different learning needs. To address these needs, including those of our highest-performing students, quality assessments are required to:

  •   establish the points that individuals have reached in their learning;
  •   identify special strengths and talents; and
  •   assist in meeting unique learning needs.

Differentiating the curriculum

Typically in our schools, we deliver the same year-level curriculum to all students of the same age. The assumption underlying this practice is that individuals’ learning needs generally can be inferred from the group to which they belong – primarily their age and year group, but gender, Indigenous status and socioeconomic background also sometimes shape assumptions about individuals’ capabilities and learning needs. The problem is that very able students can disengage when material is so easy that it fails to challenge them – just as students can become disengaged when given difficult material on which they have little chance of success. The solution is to meet all students at their points of need with personalised, targeted teaching.

High expectations for all

Many students in our schools are judged to be performing well because they achieve high grades on middling expectations for children of their age. The assumption here is that, if students complete set class work and achieve high grades, then there is no reason for concern. The problem is that very able students can complete set work and achieve high grades without being challenged or extended. There is anecdotal evidence that, in some classrooms, students are being rewarded with ‘free time’ when they complete the work set for a lesson, rather than being given more challenging extension activities.

In fact, there sometimes appears to be reluctance to give additional, more difficult material to able students who complete set work early. Some teachers report being less sure about how to challenge and extend more able students. And there is some evidence that rates of learning progress are lowest among Australia’s most able students.

...there is some evidence that rates of learning progress are lowest among Australia’s most able students.

From the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) we know that, in mathematics, the top 10 per cent of Australian Year 4 students perform at the same level as the top 40 per cent of students in Singapore, Korea and Hong Kong. By Year 8, the top 10 per cent perform at the same level as the top 50 per cent of students in Chinese Taipei, Singapore and Korea. 

In Australia, we have seen a decline in reading and mathematics levels at 15 years of age since 2000, with the greatest decline occurring among our higher achieving students. It is worth asking whether we have been so focused on ensuring that all students meet minimum standards that we have neglected the needs of our most able.

The solution, as I’ve observed in ‘Stretching to reach high standards’ in Research Developments, is to expect all students to make excellent year-on-year progress, regardless of their starting points and absolute levels of attainment.

Building teacher capacity

Establishing and understanding where students are in their learning, developing and implementing personalised, targeted teaching to address learning needs and a focus on a growth mindset depend on continually enhancing the capacity of the teacher workforce.

Good teaching involves assessment that identifies the learning needs of all students and the design of learning activities that appropriately challenge and extend them.

This requires teachers who have deep understandings of the material they are teaching and who know how to meet the learning needs of each student, including those who may be several years ahead of the rest of the class. ■

Further information:
This article is an adaptation of a keynote address by Professor Geoff Masters AO to the International Conference on Giftedness and Talent Development in Brisbane in March 2015.

RD

About the author

Professor Geoff Masters AO is the Chief Executive of ACER. 

More [rd] articles by Geoff Masters

View selected works of Geoff Masters

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