Today I went on the ACARA, ‘My School’ website and viewed our school results for NAPLAN over the past few years. As I looked at the results I made sense of them by visualising the cohorts that were participating each year and recalled those students who stood out at the top end and the lower end of the scale.
When looking at one particularly poor set of results I recalled a student who had been in my class for two years. He was on the receiving end of every new intervention and learning scheme that came our way and by the time he left our school in Year 6 he could read and write as well as an average seven year old. He loved coming to school to be with people but he struggled to learn independently or at the level of his peers.
This week I was asked by a colleague what to do about students who have difficulty learning to speak and listen, let alone read and write. My answer – “there is no silver bullet”.
What has become clearer to me over time, is that learning is a different journey for everyone. It is the job of the teacher to patiently and creatively try to help students who are having difficulties to keep on persevering and to find a way to experience success no matter how small in what they are achieving.
A visiting expert to our school told us recently that children realise within the few few weeks of school whether they are successful at ‘doing school’ or not. I’m not sure how true this is, but I can see its plausibility. A Kindergarten teacher has to train a class in the culture of school; sitting, taking turns to speak, listening to others speaking, moving in an orderly fashion. This is so hard for a child who does not cope with boundaries, has difficulty following instructions and in many cases, doesn’t understand what people are saying. The tragedy is that these students and others who don’t ‘get’ learning, feel like failures and begin to disengage.
The implementation of formative assessment (assessment for learning) has been the best thing that has happened in our school. It has helped us to individualise our learning programs. Students are still fulfilling the learning outcomes, but at their own levels in their own time. Once we would program for the whole term, teach the concepts and tick them off whether the students had fully grasped them or not. Now, we systematically use the continuums for numeracy and literacy to help us to assess where the students are at with their learning. These are not perfect, but they help us all, students and teachers, to see what students can do and what they need to learn to do next. The students are able to talk about their own personal learning goals and are taking ownership of their learning. Even young children and students with little English can be shown how far they have come with their learning using simple charts. Everyone can experience some degree of success.
Learning by ‘doing’ seems to help my students to understand and remember what we are learning. They practise their language when they are collaborating. They use books, pictures and films to find information and refine their ideas. There is trial and error involved which brings in feelings to be discussed and problems to be worked through. Then there are presentations to the rest of the students’ peers, which means more language and the lesson of learning to speak in public. There is a purpose, engagement and end product and a feeling of accomplishment – success!
There will always be some students who virtually learn by themselves and others who need varying degrees of assistance. The main thing is that we never give up on any of them and that we don’t let them give up on themselves.