Two renowned voices in education warn that a major rethink is needed to save Australian schools from a looming "national problem".
One of them – renowned education academic, professor John Hattie – is director of the Melbourne Educational Research Institute at the University of Melbourne and was appointed as chair of Australian Institute for Teaching and School Learning’s (AITSL) board in 2014.
He told Leading Voices that Australia’s “obsession” with high achievement had caused more harm than good in terms of educational outcomes.
“Unfortunately, our obsession with high achievement and standards has not worked well for us,” he said.
“If you look at our decline in the Program for International Student Assessment [PISA], we’re the Western country that’s systematically gone backwards for the last 12-14 years.”
Hattie cautioned that an attitude whereby success is correlated with high achievement means that complacency can easily take root. He added that this had the potential to “severely compromise” the nation’s future talent.
“Part of our problem is that we’ve conceived success at the school level to be high achievement, and the unfortunate implication of this is if you have high achievement to start with, you don’t have to do as much,” he said.
“However, if you turn that on its side and say our job is to make sure that every student deserves at least a year’s growth for a year’s input, then every student – no matter where they start – will have to show progress.”
Action urged over ‘widespread problem’
Professor Patrick Griffin holds the Chair of Education at the University of Melbourne and is director of the Assessment Research Centre. He agreed with Hattie’s views, telling Leading Voices that the issue was especially pronounced in Victorian schools.
“From our data in Victorian schools, we can see that this is a widespread problem across both primary and secondary schools,” he said.
“The top 25% of students are literally flat-lining and not developing at the same rate as students in the same quartile.
“We’re not realising the potential of our high-capacity students, and if that is replicated around the country across the different sectors, we have a national problem that needs to be dealt with.”
Hattie encouraged deeper examination of teaching methods that were having a real impact on improving students’ learning outcomes.
“Where I would want to start is with some evidence about the impact within the school. For example, what is that distribution of achievement relevant to progress?” he said.
“If we find schools that are doing extremely well, professional learning groups could then come in and try to understand how these teachers are having this impact.”
Griffin said schools are held accountable for the percentage of students who reach or surpass the bottom level of performance.
“What’s happening is that the system is lowering its sights,” he said, adding that this was evident in many of the schools he has visited.
“In many cases, we found that the teacher level of competence was below that of some of the kids they were teaching. This is not a criticism but rather a fact of life.”
Self-regulated teaching and learning model needed
Griffin said the ubiquity of the Internet and the way in which knowledge was changing meant that young people had “a huge range of information”, which could sometimes be difficult for educator’s to keep up with.
“This means we have to find a way of helping teachers work with those kids in self-regulated learning patterns, so we need to shift the current model to a self-regulated one of teaching and learning,” he said.
Griffin added that there were some good examples of school leadership groups who have “come to grips with these issues” in their schools and are trying to get teachers to work in collaborative teams.
“Those professional learning communities have to focus on students and on student performance,” he said.
“They have to examine differences between students on a learning continuum and focus on students and learning – not on administrative matters.”