Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Different systems

Mask 1

These masks indicate huge differences between pupils while processing the same task

mask 5

Different views

Two fellow teachers comment on a story in my blog. They seem to appreciate the ruthlessness with which a child is denied promotion to the next year because she fails to meet academic standards. Dutch education tracks students into homogeneous ability streams. Students have to double the year when they fail to pass muster in a minority of the taught subjects. But I consider these idiosyncracies to be backward features of a system, remnants of nineteenth century practice.

A beautiful song

Some ten years ago I attended a rehearsal of a High School Choir in Michigan. I was flabbergasted. Pupils I had met earlier that day in a special needs class and students aiming at university level cooperated in a wonderful aesthetic experience. In Dutch education those children would not meet whatsoever within a school setting.

Count your blessings

Possibly daily frustrations give rise to a tendency to find greener pastures elsewhere, in a different school system where we perceive what we lack at home. That attitude is not very fruitful. School systems are rooted in local history, they express community values. The Dutch experience in particular makes clear that rash major transitions are not possible without jeopardising quality.We used to preen ourselves on our national school system. Recently we had to discover that we are not in the premier league any more. In a state of transition you risk ditching what you were good at before having gained what you need.

Good practice

The Fins are the champions. They offer consistently the best education of the world as measured by the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). But I take it most causes for this success cannot be easily transferred to other school systems. Neither the Fins' national love for reading nor their high esteem of the teaching profession are to be found in The Netherlands nowadays: a paradise lost can't be regained. What could be transferred though is the compulsory master's degree for every teacher, from kindergarten teacher to science teacher in secondary education, for each and everyone. I guess that really would be something.


I'm happy to be a teacher of art. My students have been selected but fortunately not with respect to my field. So I have a motley collection of skills and talents in the class room. I have to allow for these differences and I must cope with them.


James Chipper said...

I've heard similar tales about the holy grail that is the Finnish education system. I would love educationalists in my country to take a long hard look at that system and find out what they are doing right.
Sadly I'm not optimistic that this will happen. I recently attended a seminar from the same educationalists where they outlined their plans for the future. They praised the India and China for turning out more engineers that the UK yet had no interest in analysing their methods. Their actual proposals are both untried, expensive and have already unpopular. The arrogance and self denial is a sight to behold.

Aus Andrew said...

While you raise a concern over our appreciation of tthe "ruthless" policy of denying promotion, you may wish to consider the converse.

As I detailed in my previous comment, the absolute refusal to have any regular mechanism for holding back a student who is not (academically) ready to progress has far worse consequences for the student, the learning community and the wider community as a whole.

Students who have not mastered prior content, and then are presented with sequential advanced content can be dealt with in a number of ways - the two foremost being in-class remediation and what I refer to as "permitted failure".

Option one, remediated learning, requires individual classroom teachers to break the instructional sequence to re-teach material to a small group (sometimes 1) of students that do not understand this content. This is not the same as reviewing previous content. Reviewing assumes the student at some point in their past education did understand/master the content, and the effect is to recollect and reinforce existing skills. Remediation deals with students who never understood in the first place.

This requirement for explicit re-teaching specifically takes time from presentation of on-level content, thus denying the (majority of) other students the appropriate amount of instructional time. When you consider that due to "social promotion" you may have a 6+ year range of abilities in the one classroom (as in my school), you can see that this is patently unfair to students who are on level.

The second option is simply to ignore the problem - give the trailing students worksheets and other remedial make-work so that they do not (theoretically) disrupt the students on level. I won't go into detail about this, suffice to say it is a head-in-the-sand approach that merely exacerbates the problem.

Before any of my colleagues come along and enumerate alternative methods of dealing with this issue, allow me to interject by saying that these are not the only methods, they are the foremost methods, in common usage throughout Australian classrooms as they are in practice, not in theory

Also - a quick rebuttal before streaming is mentioned as a solution: Current euducational policy in Australia holds "streaming" (separation of students into ability levels) as an unmitigated evil; it is not allowed under any circumstances. Even the separation of "gifted" students is looked upon with doubt. This position is driven by and anti-elitist egalitarianism that argues that the best "use" of high ability students is for them to peer-instruct lower ability students, and that this is the best way for them to learn as well.

Given the option of what I experience, and the "ruthless" option that you experience, I would be willing to exchange the problems that your system causes with the problems that the local system inflicts without hesitation.

Joep said...

Dear Andrew,
I appreciate your comments immensely. Let me get some things straight.
I do not object working in selected homogeneous groups at all. When studying an academic field, e.g. languages, mathematics or science, students should not be slowed down by too large a difference within the group. Especially gifted children benefit the most from meeting each other.
But I do object the rigid streaming in Dutch education in which children are grouped according to their academic talents for all their school activities. I would prefer to have the brilliant minds meet others more in social activities.

I have the idea the American high school system is more versatile in this respect and I gave an example of that in my blog.

Another peculiar feature of Dutch school year grouping is that a student will not be promoted if he fails to meet the standard in any of his subjects. So he may excel in mathematics and science, if he fails to produce enough sufficient grades in German, English and French, he will be hold back for a complete year. This stops the development of his scientific skills, at least temporarily. I consider that a devastating waste of talent.

But I realise there is a lot more to say about this. The fear not to be promoted forces a great deal of Dutch students to work their head off at the end of the school year, especially in the fields they are not adept at.

So ruthlessness does pay off. It is needed as our national exams do not allow deficiencies for more than one or two subjects out of eight to ten in the programme. At least this guarantees that a future working force is versed in a fairly wide range of academic subjects.

In my view, school pertains to more than just academic development. Young adolescents can discover their personality best when they meet in heterogeneous groups. Social skills, citizenship and leadership are not to be sneezed at. In Dutch education these goals are not completely absent, but they do not contribute to school success at all. They are not assessed and not developed systematically. Again, the American high school does better in this respect.