More of the same will not shift that long tail of underachievement.

Children flourish when they are provided with opportunities to practice and test themselves independently.

It’s an unfortunate reality that Maori and Pacific people make up the bulk of the tail of underachievement within the New Zealand education system. Not all, but the bulk. Teachers, like myself, are implored to address this inequity. And I do believe that there is enormous and genuine desire amongst teachers to address this inequality. That desire seems to be hard wired into people who sign up for teaching. But after all the meetings and reports and hand wringing, nothing changes. The tail remains the same. We look for the elusive solution while continuing down the same well worn path.

This is the state of the education system as I get to witness it everyday. Good intent rarely correlates with effectiveness. To paraphrase Einstein, doing more of the same and expecting different results, is an exercise in futility. Tinkering around the edges is not going to bring about the desired result. When looking for solutions there are two possibilities. Some solutions are hard to find because they are so small and easy to overlook. But in this case, I believe the solution is difficult to see because it is so big. What’s required is an ability and willingness to look beyond the obvious and implement a pedagogy that is based on evidence rather than on what feels right. That would seem so easy and obvious. But apparently not.

I believe that I have seen a different reality. I believe that  I’ve witnessed a learning environment that improves learning outcomes for all students. It’s real. I witness it on a daily basis. This new reality has come about because I have been willing to challenge all the assumptions that I have learned over the years about what I have been told that constitutes effective teaching; the received wisdom. I guess you could say that I’ve been prepared to be a little bit disobedient. It’s a tough gig at times. But I believe the cost of not being willing to venture into that uncomfortable place is too high. And when you see a child making rapid academic and social progress, after months of struggling, you get to enjoy that feeling of it all been worthwhile.

Lifting learning outcomes for all students needs to be the goal. I like John Hattie’s take on the current state of education. He says that, “any child with a pulse will learn.” Ouch. But don’t shoot the messenger, please. I have previously made the observation that in many cases students are learning in spite of or, despite the best endeavours of their teachers. (I was a beginning teacher once). Schools really need to stop taking credit for the learning that they are not responsible for. Fortunately, Hattie has provided us with a list of the essential ingredients for achieving effective learning. A pedagogical check list of the things that have the greatest impact. Unfortunately, that list does not seem widely known or understood by the teaching profession. Which probably goes a long way to explaining why we continue to walk down the same path.

I would also like to argue that this issue of underachievement is one that impacts on more than just our Maori and Pacific students. In the context that students may in fact, as Hattie suggests, be learning in spite of the education on offer, I think it gives weight to my argument that changing the way we teach at the broadest possible level is paramount. Because receiving a sub-par education is not just impacting negatively on Maori and Pacific students. It’s just that the consequences of leaving school with poor education outcomes is going to impact more negatively on those people and communities who are lacking in social and economic capital. Inevitably, a student who “fails” at school but has an abundance of social and economic capital is going to be more successful when transitioning into work or further education. In effect, a student’s access to reserves of economic and social capital acts as a buffer against failure at school.

The solution to this problem of under-achievement is there for us to embrace. It seems that progress will only be achieved when teachers are willing and able to be critical in their analysis of their impact on student learning. A high degree of scientific rigour needs to be embraced. And that scientific rigour needs to coincide with a willingness to embrace learning as a human endeavour. There is magic to be experienced when those two ingredients are combined. We need to bring out the best in our students. The model of teaching that currently prevails does not allow that. It only works for some. Most survive. A few thrive. And then there’s the rest.

In the meanwhile, doing more of the same will not shift that long tail of underachievement. That’s guaranteed.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

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