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How leading school systems meet student needs

How leading school systems meet student needs

Thursday, 18 Apr 2024

Professor Geoff Masters AO says high-performing school systems go to ‘quite considerable lengths’ to ensure every student makes ongoing progress in their learning.

Speaking in the third and final episode of his Teacher podcast series on world-class learning systems, the Chief Executive of ACER says system leaders and policymakers need to think about ‘how we introduce more flexibility into our learning arrangements so that we can better target the needs of individual learners’.

The podcast explores Professor Masters’ latest book, Building a world class learning system: insights from some top performing school systems. The book is the result of a multi-year study of 5 jurisdictions that have long performed well on the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – British Columbia, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong and South Korea.

‘Across these 5 school systems, what I see is that they take seriously the question of catching students who are starting to struggle and trying to get them back on track as quickly as they can,’ Professor Masters says.

‘If you don't have something in place to catch students and to try to get them back on track; if you have a system that just sorts students out over time, as each curriculum becomes harder and harder for them, increasingly out of their reach, then you've designed a system that almost guarantees a percentage of students are going to fail.’

Professor Masters says Finland holds multidisciplinary meetings to talk about individual students and has specially trained teachers that work with student who need additional support. He notes that around 30% of all students in Finland might work with one of these special teachers at some point in their schooling.

‘Estonia doesn't have the resources to do what Finland does in terms of specially trained teachers, but what they do is to withdraw students and teach them in small groups, about 8 students for example,’ Professor Masters says.

Professor Masters believes transformational change to existing learning systems is required to ensure all learners achieve high standards. This includes loosening institutional constraints of when and where learning occurs.

In the Teacher podcast, he says the high-performing systems he has studied have a ‘supporting ecosystem’ that comes in behind the work of schools.

‘Teachers require support of various kinds. Often, dealing with the variability in a particular classroom is beyond the capacity of one teacher. It often requires teachers to collaborate in that, or other kinds of support for teachers,’ he says.

One of the ways this is occurring is Hong Kong’s ‘lifelong and life-wide learning’ approach that draws on a range of community organisations and associations to provide career-related and community service activities. Similarly, Estonia reinforces the intended outcomes of its curriculum through programs at museums, nature centres and other organisations, while Korea provides out-of-school learning clinics to address student needs.

‘And then there are really radical things that people are attempting as well,’ Professor Masters says.

‘If you look at places like Wales and Scotland and – to some extent – New Zealand, they are radically rethinking how they organise learning at school. So, they're trying to find ways of breaking out of the rigid, time-based, assembly line model. How can we move to ways of structuring, organising learning so that we can better identify where students are up to and better meet their needs?’

Find out more:

Visit Teacher magazine for the full podcast and transcript for episode 1, episode 2 and episode 3.