Is student-led learning leaving some behind?

Ian Bushnell 1 February 2021 13
School systems

Some school systems are switching to high-impact teaching to lift standards. Photo: File.

As thousands of school children return to the classroom this week and others start their educational journey, it’s worth remembering just how important teachers are to their success.

Despite the internet, devices and electronic whiteboards, it is still the teacher who is key to your child’s education.

Just about everyone has memories of, or heard about, a teacher who made a difference, who changed the course of someone’s life for the better.

The modern classroom has come a long way since the ‘chalk and talk’, rote learning ways of the past. In fact, in some ways it has developed in reaction to methods that had little time for curiosity or creativity, where the relationship could be one-way and in the worst instances tyrannical.

These days it’s all about learning to learn, instilling curiosity and encouraging autonomy. Student-led inquiry – designed to provide deep learning, promote self-discovery, and give children agency and a say in their own education – is fundamental to modern classrooms.

Yet as admirable as this may sound, a reappraisal of the approach is taking place in Australia and overseas, particularly when children are not from well-resourced, middle-class families who already feel confident in themselves and their ability to achieve.

READ ALSO: Students at centre of brave new world for ACT schools with 10-year plan launched

In some areas, literacy levels are falling away, with some children progressing into high school struggling to read or write.

Lacking in motivation, growing up with little language spoken at home or books on the shelves, not to mention the resources required to feed the project-based learning they may encounter at school, these children, more often than not in disadvantaged regional areas or neglected city suburbs, are falling through the cracks.

In a mainly well-off, well-educated Canberra, the drawbacks of the student-led inquiry approach are more likely to be hidden, but even in households where education is valued children are flailing.

How many parents are exacerbated by the demands of so-called integrated class projects and assignments that rely on research skills that seem beyond their years and family resources?

Or how, despite the growing emphasis on STEM, mathematics continues to mystify many children who opt for softer subjects by college years.

Unless identified early, and some students can be clever enough to cover up the fact that they are all at sea, it’s a problem that can compound as years go by, as essential learning milestones are missed.

This is where the cry of ‘back to basics’ is usually raised, but that is based more on nostalgia than anything else.

Some prefer to call an alternative approach to better engage students ”high-impact teaching” in which the teacher takes a more interventionist role, with more structured learning, explicit teaching, worked examples, collaborative learning, practice, questioning and feedback.

What also has to be questioned about student-led inquiry is whether it is being applied in line with the stages of childhood and a genuine understanding of children’s actual capacities.

Are the basic foundations of learning being laid so all students can undertake appropriate research confidently?

Where should responsibility lie, and what may we be burdening children with?

What biases are inherent in student-led inquiry and whom does it favour?

It is not as if all teaching approaches are mutually exclusive or that there is only one way to learn, or all children are the same.

There is no one size fits all, but the families for whom education is a ticket to another life for their children may be most disadvantaged by a reliance on student-led inquiry.

Most education departments, including the ACT Directorate, will argue their schools are already delivering a multi-pronged approach but look through the ACT Future of Education document and while it stresses literacy and numeracy and personalised learning, it also promises project-based learning to develop inquiry skills and children having a greater voice in their learning.

It may come down to what weight is given to what.

The bottom line is that we send our kids off to school to be taught, not to run their own education, and for some, the stakes are higher than others. We should not fail them.

What's Your Opinion?

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13 Responses to Is student-led learning leaving some behind?
jorie1 jorie1 12:27 am 18 Jun 21

Schooling need to go back to a very basic agenda, nothing new age and not all the philosophical and political nonsense that is currently filling the school system. Students need to be taught how to read and write. If they cannot read and do maths, they will not be able to understand and complete forms and documents or know if they are being taken advantage of in life (e.g. understand lease agreement or bank documents). They should know how to cook basic things. Students should at least leave Year 12 being able to do the basics in life.

Rahnee Mcdonald Rahnee Mcdonald 7:33 am 03 Feb 21

It has worked overseas they have student centred for some it's good they get to choose what they want not told too. Or some subjects have no use in this day and age like shakespeare or algebra etc. But also some kids get bored from teacher talking all day and getting kids to type info down. Plus some teachers pull kids down saying their hopeless u r bad at stuff and are u disabled

Jenny Lawrence Jenny Lawrence 8:47 am 02 Feb 21

I'm constantly surprised by the extent to which many people overestimate how much we actually know about how people learn, and project their own schooling experience onto 'how schools should run'.

Pari Gilmour Pari Gilmour 7:26 pm 01 Feb 21

Student centred learning is what most of this is about. But imagine you are in a room with 30 plus bright and lively beings who all want to operate a little differently. In High School you have them for maybe an hour before the move on to the next lesson. Doomed to failure in my opinion. I long for project based learning that integrates every subject, is inspired by the interests each student has, supports them to realise the vision the want to release and always extends and excites, acknowledging the many difficulties of individuals and inhibiting factors that we all deal with but have a better idea how to as adults. A space with small groups of students and teachers working together. We would all learn from each other. I live in hope ...

Jasper Roo Jasper Roo 6:14 pm 01 Feb 21

Oh look- it’s the first day back at school! Must be time for the teacher-bashing to begin 🙄🙄🙄🙄

    Anissa Jones Anissa Jones 9:29 pm 01 Feb 21

    Jasper Roo guess they forgot how we all went back so “the economy” could keep going at risk to our health....

JeeKay Dee JeeKay Dee 11:48 am 01 Feb 21

If public schools are supposed to be supporting student led learning, might be time to check on that. My son was an interested and engaged student until he got to high school. Now he's completely opted out because it's so mind-numbingly boring and he gets zero control or input into what he's learning. I wish schools who say they're onboard with SLL actually put it into practice. He's just so disenfranchised and I don't know what to do. Being a parent is hard. I'm sure being a teacher is hard too.

    Toni Edmonds Toni Edmonds 12:27 pm 01 Feb 21

    JeeKay Dee have you tried John Paul college in casey? Supposed to be very forward thinking...they use the Finnish way to educate..

    JeeKay Dee JeeKay Dee 12:31 pm 01 Feb 21

    Toni Edmonds if only I could afford private schooling and if only private schooling did not come with Catholicism.

    Lin Van Oevelen Lin Van Oevelen 2:54 pm 01 Feb 21

    JeeKay Dee They don't even have any strategy to let students have a say in the pace at which they learn subjects. This is a big problem both for those who grasp things faster than most and those who might need a bit more time and repetition.

    When my child started highschool (she started college today), they had levels for all their major subjects. Then they just got rid of that system for reasons unknown to me. All of a sudden my child who was in the highest level for maths for example, was in a class with kids who were borderline innumerate. That did not go well...

    JeeKay Dee JeeKay Dee 3:31 pm 01 Feb 21

    Lin Van Oevelen I'm genuinely terrified about my son's learning outcomes. He says the same; that they spend weeks on stuff that only takes him a few hours to understand. The result being that he's totally given up because he's bored. It's devastating.

Bekah Glaz Bekah Glaz 10:17 am 01 Feb 21

Student led learning is how kids naturally learn, the same way they learnt to walk and talk. So it is not a failed approach. That said - with an overloaded curriculum that is far too prescriptive and not really in line with needs, it is true that we can't rely on this method alone.

Glacy Teves Burgess Glacy Teves Burgess 8:48 am 01 Feb 21

I believe both teachers and students are still learning about this approach and it will be a long time to see real results. Student led learning has been successful in a lot of Scandinavian countries so there is data to support this. We don't want to raise children who just sit on chairs and listen to the teachers as every individual has different learning styles.

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