This post is a two-parter, sorry, as the daily prompt We Can Be Taught…
In part one I explained New Zealand’s education changes
They Can Be Taught – If … If What?
Since those changes I described happened, I have watched teaching decline in my posts at three of the last four schools at which I taught until I cried to my own needs “Enough with this s**t! Get out now before the stress kills you.”
I’d begun my teaching career in the days of the annual standardised Progressive Achievement Tests, held in the fifth week of every new school year in February (so, testing took place in about the first week of March most years. The four untested weeks were an opportunity for pupils to regather what they could retain from previous years after a six to eight week summer and Christmas break.
In Year Three/Standard Two pupils were tested in Listening Comprehension. This gave teachers an indication of what the child might be able to achieve (given good teaching). The next test the child would be introduced to was Reading Vocabulary, in the following year (Year Four/Standard Two).
A high listening comprehension score with a low vocabulary score told the teacher “this one can be taught to read, given work on building the number of words he/she can read (recognise – no “sounding out” or phonics here, thank you very much). A low listening score with a high reading vocab hinted to the teacher the child’s hearing might have needed testing.
The next English-based PATest was Reading Comprehension, in Year Five/Standard Three.
A teacher who was carrying out the PAT methodology correctly should have been using the provided rubrics to turn Class Percentiles and Age Percentiles to Levels. Sadly, many teachers only looked at the percentile scores, and thus were ever ignorant of exactly where their pupils were along the path of progress. Level One was “matched” to Standard One, and as such up to Level Six matching Standard Six (Form Two/Year Eight). The PATests continued to Year Ten/Form Four. All PATests were multi-choice – one right answer, three misleaders, tick the box.
Mathematics PATests came at Year Six (Standard Four) and were not matched to a class level. But with a deal of time and effort, the teacher who cared would be able to analyse the child’s answers, and discover at what level of understanding the pupil was learning: in order – Recall, Application, Understanding, and Problem Solving.
In Year Seven /Form One pupils were introduced to the Social Studies PATest. Teachers who cared enough could analyse the child’s answers and discover which social science was the child’s forté or which was their downfall. However, none of the Secondary school teachers with whom I worked bothered looking at anything except the Age Percentile and the Class Percentiles. None of them even knew about the conversion to Levels of the English-based tests, and didn’t want to learn or know.
Throughout my career, at all levels, lazy or carefree or ignorant teachers ignored the English levels, the Mathematics skills, the Social Studies sciences skills. I would each year spend hours each evening analysing and converting percentiles to levels to discover what each pupil needed to be taught.
I began visiting the classes of my previous year’s pupils after marking was done, and check on their Levels, Skills and Soc Sci Skills. My major focus was on their Level in the English tests, and the understanding breakdown in Mathematics. All the teachers I would call on could show me only the English tests’ Levels (a compulsory value for records). None would have analysed the Math or Social Studies results.
Could those pupils be taught? Not if they were in those classes.
But I know for a fact that pupils taught in my classes would in a year advance more than the one expected level. Lagging readers would always advance to at least the level expected for the Year they were finishing. How did I do it?
By firstly learning for myself about the pupils’ abilities and needs, by ignoring the record cards passed up from their previous year’s teachers, and by focussing my lesson plans and activities to work with each pupils’ needs and interests, and sheer hard work and dedication.
Was it easy? Yes, at first. Then came the changes I described in Part One, and interference in my class programme.
I used to be able to, for example, in a class History unit covering How People Cope With Disaster by studying the Ballantyne’s Store Fire, allow a child to discover the same understanding by instead following his interest in ships by studying the wreck of the Wahine, and all on a decision made in the instant.
After the changes I had to create individual learning plans for each pupil, defining for each topic of study exactly how my programme would meet the individual learning goals of each pupil.
Now, if I wanted to modify the topic to suit the one kid who was fascinated only by, say, big earth-movers and savage wild cats, I would have to submit a request for permission to deviate from the class plan – three copies, in advance time enough for the Chairman of the BOT and my Senior Teacher and the Principal to consider, seek parental approval, and allow or not.
By the time this process was complete, our class programme would have in most cases moved on to the next pre-scheduled topic, and the individual pupil had given up and lost interest – again.
As a Principal Teacher of a small country school, in my first three months there it received its first ever review visit from the Education Review Office. The team overlooked my planning, my records, my management strategies and policies, and gave them all the big “thumbs up”, and the advice to not get caught in the trap of over-assessing pupils.
After an illness which caused the little red-neck community to be swayed by one parent that I was not fit to be in their classroom, they constructed a dismissal. I then moved on to teach as HOD of the Intermediate department of a private girls’ boarding school of christian character. That’s when the creeping ooze of unreal demands on my time began.
So stressful was that school, so poisonous was the staffroom (‘You’re only a Primary Teacher.”) that my body responded by drawing on body mass to keep me going. I would begin each school year at 50 kg – but finish it at 40kg. I was always tired, but I continued to ensure that each pupil I taught – even the senior students – got my very best in terms of meeting their needs and following their interests. I continued to recalculate Percentiles to Levels, to analyse test papers to learn each pupil’s skills (the only teacher doing it).
So – They Can Be Taught – If they have a teacher who treats each learner as a unique individual with specific levels of English ability, specific needs and abilities in Mathematics and core curriculum areas. If they have a teacher who is observant – who can read a pupil’s expression, recognise bewilderment and instantly give a different style of explanation. If their teacher can socialise with the pupils in out-of-class time, chatting about the lessons. If the teacher can teach the pupil How To Learn for themselves, How To Study by themselves. If the teacher makes “homework” (not compulsory in New Zealand) relevant to the topic of study and not a meaningless work-sheet of meaningless busy work.
(And that’s a topic of itself, is study.)