Why can’t we be clearer on what we expect from students?
By Gavin Grift and Colin Sloper
As teachers, we all want to help our students reach or exceed the educational milestones or standards that will allow them to successfully navigate their school years and prepare for life beyond the school gates.
But in our experience, there’s often very little common interpretation on what the standards detailed in curriculum documents actually represent for specific year levels or age groups. This doesn’t bode well for those whose primary goal is to bring about deep sustainable and meaningful learning for all.
Without a common understanding, standards often come down to the individual interpretation of teachers, who develop and implement the learning program based on their own interpretation of what’s required to be ‘at standard’.
In our daily work in schools and educators, we repeatedly see this lack of clarity. Often, it results in the level of proficiency required to demonstrate a specific standard being unintentionally lowered.
The expectations conundrum
Conscientious and well-researched teachers believe in the need to have high expectations of their students, but when quizzed, many teachers cannot actually articulate how they might demonstrate to students that their daily actions are based on this belief.
Many can’t pinpoint exactly what they’re measuring their expectations against, or if they can, these expectations are based on a misinterpretation of the ‘standard/s’. Often their understanding of the proficiency level required will vary wildly between teachers in their own teams or school, or compared with other schools.
While we don’t put the blame on hardworking teachers, who we know are battling constant everyday pressures, this lack of clarity does lead to significant problems that impact on student learning.
Comparing students to one another
One is that teachers wind up assessing achievement levels by simply comparing their students to one another, rather than against the genuine standard required. A flawed approach at best.
However, by having greater clarity and a common interpretation around what being at standard means, educators shift their endeavours to strengthening the focus of learning programs and their professional practice.
Leaving no student behind
We’ve also found there’s a very individualised approach to the interpretation of standards, which is often applied differently even to students within the same class, leading to an ever-increasing variation in learning outcomes.
For example, if a child in Grade 3 is really only operating at a Grade 1 level, there’s often no concrete attempt to close the gap of where that child is, and where they should be.
Teachers (and schools) need to be crystal clear on what the expected standard is for all Year 3 students so they can implement innovative programs and teaching approaches to ensure the child moves closer to the required standard.
If they don’t, the goal becomes more about just progressing the student in their learning, rather than truly trying to close the gap.
Denying the student the chance to catch up
While you might argue that the teacher or school is tailoring their approach (or “meeting their individual learning needs”), this strategy actually denies that student access to the teaching that might get them back on track.
Without some kind of genuine intervention and reference to where the student should be, this approach sets the student on a lower trajectory, which means that, in all probability, they’ll be achieving well below the required standards for their whole school life.
That gap will likely widen each year, leaving the child frustrated and questioning their own intelligence.
In the long run, it’s our approach and interpretation of the standards that can either ultimately compound the child’s lower level of achievement, or alter the status quo so that a more equitable education system is achieved.