I recently had a terrific conversation with a university academic about the schooling model in Australia. Her view was very much that schools followed the “sausage factory” model, where student differences are overlooked and students are prepared for university (ATAR) or work (VET). The students’ personality, experiences, maturity, preferred modes of learning, etc are not effectively catered for. Even more so, the sheer number of students in most schools means that the sausage meat being fed into the factory is seen as one amorphous, homogenous blob, rather than the unique, wonderful, individual lives each one represents.
The feedback from teachers on classroom structure, the behavior, and engagement of students and resulting teacher efficacy is extensive. Student connectedness to the school, the teacher, and the students around them has a measurable impact on student learning and success, both in the academic sense and also with respect to the ‘soft skills such as teamwork, resilience, well-being, and decision making.
Some schools have made the change to open-plan learning spaces and larger groups with multiple teachers. The research on the effectiveness of this approach is varied. However, most agree that for this approach to be successful, the teachers need to be knowledgeable, enthusiastic, energetic, able to form strong relationships with many students, undertake extensive training and have a positive mindset. Even then, the restrictions of three teachers in a space with 80-90 students means many of the students will not have direct teacher-to-student interactions, and those students motivated to avoid accountability are able to do so with relative ease (those able to slip through the cracks).
A strong educational program provides a variety of pedagogical approaches that both cater to the preferred needs of student learning whilst also teaching them to extract benefits from structures that they are not comfortable with. Direct instruction, feedback, individual investigation, experiential learning, and small group work are all valuable elements and all require guidance from a competent and well-trained teacher in order to be successful.
When the focus is on one mode only, then some students thrive and others don’t. If the teaching space is a large open-plan area, the ability to succeed with direct instruction is marginalized. If students are always learning in teams on student-centered, project-based learning, then what of developing their ability to learn in different structured environments? A large campus with extensive spaces allows students to move out of their classrooms and experiential learning to flourish, particularly with respect to our environment, in addition to visits off-campus to different environments and, of course, outstanding outdoor education opportunities that grow character.
It is important to find the right balance between pedagogies so that students experience a number of different modes of learning and become effective learners in each.