They Can Be Taught – If… -If What?
Since those changes I described happened, I have watched teaching in my posts at three of the last four schools at which I taught decline,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.
These PATests continued to Year Ten/Form Four. All PATests were multi-choice – one right answer, three mis-leaders, tick the box.
Sadly, many teachers only looked at the percentile scores, and thus were ignorant of exactly where their pupils were along the path of progress.
In Year Three/Standard Two, pupils were tested in Listening Comprehension.
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.
Level One was “matched” to Standard One, and as such up to Level Six matching Standard Six (Form Two/Year Eight).
This gave teachers an indication of what the child might be able to achieve (given good teaching) in language and reading, based on their oral vocabulary and understanding.
The next test the child would be introduced to was Reading Vocabulary, in year (Year Four/Standard Two).
A high listening comprehension score with a lower reading 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 higher reading vocab, hinted to the teacher the child’s hearing might have needed testing.
The next annual English-based PATest was Reading Comprehension, beginning in Year Five/Standard Three.
A child’s level in comprehension gave the teacher more wide a basis on which to plan that child’s learning.
Mathematics PATests were added in at Year Six (Standard Four), and were not matched to a class level.
But with a deal of time and attention to the task, 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.
Some of them didn’t even know about the conversion to Levels of the English-based tests, and didn’t want to learn or know.
Throughout my career, I met many “sub-par” teachers who ignored the English levels, the Mathematics skills, the Social Studies Sciences skills.
Whereas each year, I spent hours analysing and converting percentiles to levels, or discovering 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.
Most of 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 – 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, ignoring the record cards passed up from their previous year’s teachers and getting to know each child by interaction and observation, and focussing my lesson plans and activities to work with each pupil’s needs and interests.
Was it easy? Yes, before the changes I described in Part One, and interference in my class programme.
Before those changes, I had been able to, for example, in a class History unit covering the How People Cope With Disaster by studying the Ballantyne’s Store Fire (Christchurch, 1947, while allowing a child to discover the same understanding by instead following his interest in ships by studying the wreck of the Wahine Ferry (Wellington, 1968), and all on a decision made in the instance.
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 teacher.
Now, if I wanted to change the topic to suit the 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 – two copies, in advance time enough for 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 review 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 or two which caused the little tight community to be swayed by one parent that I was not fit to be in a 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 staff-room (‘You’re only a Primary Teacher” and other such vibes), my body responded by drawing on body mass to keep me going. I would begin each school year at 50 kg – but finish at 40 kg.
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 is free to treat each learner as a unique individual, with specific levels of English ability, specific needs and abilities in Mathematics and the core curriculum areas.
If they have a teacher …
– who is observant and able to read a pupil’s expression, recognise bewilderment and instantly give a different style of explanation;
– who can socialise with the pupils in out-of-class time, chatting about the lessons;
– who can teach the pupil How To Learn for themselves, How To Study by themselves;
– who makes “homework” (not compulsory in New Zealand) relevant to the topic of study, rather than a meaningless work-sheet of meaningless busy work.
(And that’s a topic of itself, is study. Coming soon)