‘Education is the best weapon you can use to change the world’ – Nelson Mandela.
It’s a bit hard to believe that Spectrum Tuition is heading into its 15th year. Over the years, we have been helping both students who struggle to keep up with their classmates as well as students who are so bright that their mainstream schools struggle to keep up with them. As a result, I have been given a unique insight into how to best cater to students from these two extremes as well as gain a wider understanding of how the education system works from the inside.
With the school year fast approaching and as a parent to a child who is about to start school this year, I thought it’d be a good time to share the most significant learnings I’ve developed over the time I’ve been running Spectrum Tuition. This is so that you too are equipped with the knowledge to make more informed decisions for your children.
Here are 7 of the most important lessons I have learnt about educating mainstream students from my experience running Spectrum Tuition.
1. Students should be grouped based on ability, rather than age.
Most topics at school are based on a series of skills that if learnt in the correct sequence will lead to success.
If your child is finding a specific topic difficult, it is rare that this is the only topic they are having problems with at school. A student who is having problems with fractions or algebra is most likely also having problems with multiplication or division. If a child is struggling with spelling or reading, it’s because they don’t have a strong enough handle on phonics. Most topics at school build on from earlier topics. So if your child is struggling with a language for example (they could be struggling with something like English, as sometimes the English grammar can be quite difficult), then you should ask yourself how long does it take to speak fluently in that language? Sometimes the timings will vary but it doesn’t matter if it takes one person longer then the other. People need to take their education at their own pace as this is the fairest way to do it.
We do not recommend placing children into classes that may be beyond their ability level before they have built a strong enough foundation in earlier topics because they will constantly feel like they need to catch up. Children develop and mature differently and to ensure that they achieve high results at school, they need to be taught at a level where they can engage with the material as well as provide enough of a challenge to give them the best opportunity to shine.
This is why at Spectrum Tuition, our number one priority when new parents enquire about classes is to book in for a free, no obligation assessment where we thoroughly assess students’ existing abilities in writing, grammar/ punctuation, reading comprehension and mathematics across several year levels in order to pin-point exactly what your child’s level is in order to tailor a plan to best meet their specific needs.
2. Students learn in different ways
Often, when students struggle with new concepts, the problem lies, not with their ability to learn, but with the style in which the material is being taught. Every child has a different style that works best for them, and figuring out what kind of learner your child is will put you at a great advantage when it comes to helping with their education. While most students blame themselves for their inability to learn, the focus instead should be “how can I adapt this concept to fit my preferred learning style?” Most concepts are delivered linguistically and verbally (through reading, writing, speaking and listening), but in fact, there are 7 different learning styles: musical, visual, linguistic (verbal), logical/ mathematical, kinaesthetic, social and reflective.
To demonstrate each learning style, I will outline strategies relating to multiplication tables. Multiplication tables are an area where many children struggle. It is also the gateway to learning many new concepts. If your child is struggling with their times tables, here are some different approaches based on the 7 different learning styles:
Musical learners respond well to sounds, melodies and rhythms. The things that they remember and appreciate the most are those things that they can chant, sing or put into a rhythm.
Musical learners can learn their times tables through rhymes, songs and patterns.
Visual learners prefer to see what they are learning. They respond extremely well to pictures, diagrams, colour codes and mind maps. Often, they have trouble organising their ideas unless they can sketch them out on a page.
Visual learners can learn their times tables by drawing diagrams or through coloured posters that correspond to a different times table.
Verbal learners love language. They respond well to written or spoken explanations and work best when they can put their ideas into words.
Verbal learners can learn their times tables simply through writing their times tables out multiple times and reciting them aloud.
Logical/ Mathematical Learners
Logical learners prefer clear, consistent rules. They don’t like ambiguity or uncertainty, but prefer to know the exact steps that they have to follow to solve a particular problem.
Logical/ mathematical learners can learn their times tables by working out times tables through reference times tables and also by associating multiplication with other operations such as addition and subtraction.
Kinaesthetic learners are physical people. They feel most confident when they are moving or engaging in physical activity. Whilst most people associate learning with sitting still and reading a book, kinaesthetic learners like to get up and prefer a hands on approach. If your child is good at a physical sport or if you’ve ever wondered why your child can’t sit still while they are learning, they are most likely a kinaesthetic learner and teaching methods should be adapted to suit your child’s preferred learning style.
Kinaesthetic learners can learn their times tables by competing in times table races and through coloured flash cards where the sum is written on one side and the answer is written on the reverse. Your child should flip the cards as they work their way through them.
Social learners are those people who like to talk things out with another person. They love sharing their ideas and coming to conclusions through discussions, debates and questions. Social learners don’t enjoy having to learn alone.
Social learners could learn their times tables through competitions with peers or by working through flashcards with a friend.
Reflective learners are the opposite of social learners. They prefer to get inside their own head and have the time and space to reflect upon information by themselves.
Reflective learners could learn their times tables by doing lots of lots of drill sheets independently and improving upon their score each time.
Do you recognise yourself in any of these descriptions? It is important to note that none of these learning styles exist independently. Though your child might be more or less inclined to one or more of the styles above, very few children learn in just the one way. The important thing is to expose your child to as many different ways of learning about the world as possible, and engage them on as many levels as you can, so they have the chance to show their strengths!
3. There is too much experimentation happening at schools.
In recent years, many schools have opted to move beyond traditional methods and experiment with alternative methods in order to improve educational outcomes. One such method is the ‘open learning’ model where multiple classes of students of mixed ability (usually composite) all learn in one large open classroom.
There are many problems with this model:
- It can get very noisy and distracting. Children who are set to a quiet activity cannot do so effectively because the other class might be doing a loud group activity and vice versa.
- Children cannot hear their teachers’ instructions clearly and may become frustrated. This could impact a child’s learning and affect their attitudes towards their education overall.
- Children with auditory processing disorder (the most common learning disability) or other special needs may not be catered for as classroom management of mainstream children will already be challenged.
- Teachers themselves become very anxious and stressed due to the high level of classroom management required, with many high quality and experienced professionals leaving the profession altogether due to the added pressure.
- While schools should always be finding new ways to innovate and engage students to adapt to the changing educational landscape, rushing into alternative models that may not be fully thought through prior to implementation can only lead to disastrous outcomes.
Additionally, while some students may thrive in ‘self-directed learning environments’, where they can choose how they spend their time at school, many other students will simply fall further and further behind. Most students need structure and discipline to learn new concepts efficiently and effectively.
We believe that in most cases and with many new concepts, students should be explicitly taught the actual steps to achieve specific skills and then be given opportunities to practise and demonstrate this knowledge through targeted work and assessments. Students should be streamed based on their ability and the curriculum should be carefully sequenced so topics are delivered in a logical order so students are given the best opportunity to achieve success.
At Spectrum Tuition, we start each class with a quiz based on the previous week’s material to see whether any work needs to be clarified. We have very carefully structured materials mapped very closely to the current Victorian curriculum to ensure that our work is relevant to what students are learning at school. We go through worked examples in class and follow this with a ‘Have a go’ question, a question very similar to the worked example, that students need to complete independently. Once the tutor is satisfied that students have understood the concept, they are given time to complete additional practice questions to reinforce the skill and build confidence. Homework, which will only cover these new skills covered in class are set to further reinforce the concept before students are again tested on this the following week.
We have gone through painstaking effort to develop our materials and work very closely with our tutors to guide them through our systems to ensure that our classes cover all the relevant concepts in a consistent manner. With skills being built incrementally, students discover the true joys of learning as they can feel themselves getting better and better with each passing week. Additionally, goals that they thought were previously beyond reach are suddenly achievable.
“Attending Spectrum helped me a lot. The classes were very organised and enjoyable in a way that helped me learn easily as well as having fun. The teachers were kind and easy going, but strict on the amount of work we had to do. Spectrum also helped me achieve my dream of getting a Scholarship and I would like to use this opportunity to thank all my teachers, especially Thuy who helped me go from someone who had never written a narrative before to a person who loves and enjoys writing. ” – Ana Gakovic, Grade 6 Student.
4. Schools that have a “no homework” policy will hinder your child’s long term achievement.
There has been an ongoing debate about the importance of homework and its impact on a child’s development. Some argue that homework cuts into family time and that children should use the time to explore extracurricular pursuits without feeling stressed and overscheduled.
While its crucial to give students down time to prevent burnout and keep energy levels up, our experience has been that homework, if done correctly, provides much needed practice and reinforcement of concepts that would not be fully developed if concepts were only covered in class. A school program and curriculum can be quite crowded, which could prevent adequate time from being spent on building up essential skills in literacy and numeracy. If concepts aren’t fully reinforced through additional homework practice, gaps in knowledge tend to form leading to issues developing, which could affect your child’s long term achievement.
A good analogy I often use is learning a musical instrument. Would you be able to master the instrument just from attending a one hour lesson per week? The same goes for developing skills in literacy, numeracy and even a sport. Mastery of a skill is achieved through hard work and hours and hours of dedication and practice.
Aside from reinforcement of concepts, homework also teaches children essential life-long skills such as time management, organisation, persistence, work ethic and self motivation and it’s alarming to know that there has been a significant shift for a growing number of primary schools (and even a handful of secondary schools) to adopt a no homework policy.
If your child attends a school with a no homework policy and you are worried that they will miss out on essential practice, there is no need to panic! Never before in our history have we been able to gain access to a wealth of resources to nurture your child’s curiosity to expand and extend their knowledge. The latest curriculum documents are freely available for you to access so you can keep track of what your child needs to learn in each year and take steps to fill any gaps through books, online resources, videos or programs that are directly mapped to the latest curriculum documents, such as what Spectrum Tuition provides.
5. Not all schools are created equally.
After speaking to thousands of students and parents over the years, there appears to be a significant variation in the standard and quality between one school and another – and this does not necessarily relate to public vs. private schools. (There are many public schools that in fact outperform some of the prominent private schools).
What one school considers important is disregarded by another school and vice versa. While the teachers at some schools work closely as a team, others are left to their own devices so your child may have a truly inspiring teacher one year and a teacher who would rather be (and should be!) somewhere else another year. Some schools have a strong academic focus, while others are more focused on sport and performing arts. Some schools align their curriculum closely with AUSVELS and deliver a carefully sequenced program, while others use it more as a guide and the content can, at times, feel quite random.
The educational standards also vary significantly from one school to the next. Some schools take standardised tests such as NAPLAN very seriously, while others disregard its significance (even though most high schools will use the results as part of the application process). A top performing student at one school may be a below average student at another school.
The problem with such conflicting information is that parents and students are often left in the dark about their child’s true performance and how they will compare to the wider cohort of students – the same group they will be competing with for all future NAPLAN, scholarship, selective exams and the remainder of their schooling up to VCE, where they will ultimately be ranked to gain coveted university places.
Several years ago, I met a student, Julia*, who was told by her teachers that she had the potential to win a scholarship and so her father contacted me to book in some private tutoring sessions 2 weeks before her examination.
Julia was a very talented writer. Her ideas were well developed, she wrote with a sophistication that was well beyond her years and her expression was flawless.
However at Grade 6, Julia did not know her multiplication tables confidently beyond the 2 times tables. While she could eventually get to the answer, this was not enough to perform to an acceptable level in a scholarship exam as you are often only given 30 seconds to one minute to answer each question. When I questioned why this was the case, she stated that her teacher didn’t really focus on maths in class. Unfortunately, without knowing her times tables confidently, Julia could not answer division, fractions, decimals, percentages, area, probability and calculate the mean confidently – which are all common topics on any scholarship exam.
For Julia, not knowing her times tables two weeks before her scholarship exam meant that she was missing years of mathematical knowledge and had to work incredibly hard to try and make up for lost time. While she successfully learnt her times tables and simultaneously learnt her fractions, decimals, percentages and algebra (a tremendous effort for a 12 year old!), her knowledge of these concepts was not as developed as a student who was already proficient in these areas. On a scholarship exam, questions often ask you to apply these concepts in multi-step questions and Julia, despite putting in two solid weeks of hard work and effort, missed out on a scholarship.
Given that there is so much variation, it is very important to take standardised tests such as the NAPLAN seriously. NAPLAN gives parents the opportunity to be more informed about their child’s performance. To guide your decision making, it is important to understand what standard your child is at in a wider sense, rather than the standard that is accepted by individual schools and individual teachers.
At Spectrum Tuition, I’ve learnt that developing and relying on strong, consistent systems will lead to more successful outcomes than relying on any one individual teacher or tutor. With only three hours each week to deliver a quality and complete educational program based on the current Victorian curriculum or topics likely to appear on a competitive exam, relying on systems means that nothing is left to chance when it comes to finding the most efficient teaching method to deliver a concept.
While your child’s teacher will be a great resource in supporting your child and helping them attain their educational goals, it is also important to not always place blind faith in everything they do and say. Rather, we encourage parents make every effort to be in control of their child’s education, to do their research, be active and to question if something doesn’t feel or sound right for the sake of your child’s future.
6. Test taking is a skill that needs to be explicitly taught and practised.
There is a very common misconception that if a child can understand a concept well enough in class, they should be able to demonstrate this knowledge on a test or exam. While this may be the case for some students, many others often fall short in an exam because content knowledge is only one part of the equation. Demonstrating knowledge effectively in a test requires specific skills that do not come naturally to many people, namely:
- Time management: a test needs to be completed within a very limited amount of time. In a test, children do not have the luxury to think infinitely about a problem. They must be able to read and think quickly about each question or problem and answer it using the most efficient method possible before the time runs out. The more items you answer correctly, the better your result.
- Decision making: on a test, students must decide which items they can answer effectively and which items they should come back to later if they have the time. Making a decision to move on and answer questions that you can quickly to maximise results is something many students fail to do under the time constraints.
- Managing anxiety and nerves: Building up mental strength and stamina in high pressure situations is a skill that is developed only by doing lots of practice tests. Providing opportunities for children to manage their nerves in practice situations will help them overcome anxieties in situations where the stakes are a lot higher.
Additionally, we have found that despite a lot of common belief, you can prepare for all types of exams and tests, even the ones that a lot of educational professionals say that you ‘cannot study for’. Spelling tests, classroom mathematics tests, NAPLAN, scholarship, select entry and VCE exams all require specific skills that if mastered will help students feel more confident and comfortable answering questions in the time allocated.
This was the main reason why we developed our exam packs. Students were able to demonstrate that they knew how to answer questions in class but with the added pressure of a strict time limit, many students simply fell apart. Like anything else, test taking is merely a skill that needs to be practised.
7. Believe in your child and they will achieve
Students perform in ways in which teachers and parents expect so believe in your child and expect that they can achieve great things and they will surprise you!
In a classic study conducted by Rosenthal and Jacobson in 1968, several classes of children were given an intelligence test which researchers claimed would measure the students’ “potential for intellectual growth”. Twenty percent of the students were randomly selected by the researchers as “intellectual bloomers,” and their names were given to the teachers. Although their test scores had nothing at all to do with their potential, the teachers were told to be on the alert for signs of intellectual growth among these particular children. Overall these children, particularly in the lower grades, showed considerably greater gains in IQ during the school year than did the other students. They were also rated by their teachers as being more interesting, curious, and happy, and thought to be more likely to succeed later in life
Because the teachers THOUGHT the students would be successful, the students WERE successful and this is one of the most powerful things that I have learnt.
Over the years, I have met numerous students who have all but given up on themselves as they have internalised the fact that they ‘are not good at maths’ or ‘have never learnt how to write an essay’. You can easily tell a child to ‘write your essay‘ but it doesn’t mean that it’ll be any good if they do it by themselves, sometimes they need help. The mind is a powerful thing and if we can teach students to overcome these mental barriers, we start to see real progress. One of the most notable cases was Carly* a Grade 2 student who I wrote about here.
At Spectrum, here are some ways we have helped our students break through their mental barriers and how you can do the same:
1. Provide an encouraging and secure classroom environment
Failure is often part of the learning process. We let our students know that it is valuable for us to know where they are going wrong so we can help them overcome challenges. Kids who are not afraid to fail are more willing to work through problems, and are less likely to sabotage their own academic efforts. We make time in class to let our students know that we are there with them as they work through their problems, by circulating the class checking for errors, grouping students with similar difficulties together and providing support where needed.
2. Set clear expectations and follow up
We let students in our classes know what is expected of them and what they need to do to do well in our class and hold each student to a high standard. To do well, students need to bring the right tools to class and we specify what these tools are. We follow up specifically with students to let them know that we are noticing and praise them for their efforts through class incentive systems and class progress charts. When students attempt their homework, we praise their efforts and encourage them to redo questions answered incorrectly. We tell students that we’re proud of them for trying and set bigger and bigger goals for them to achieve.
3. Build on strengths
We make an effort to find an area in which our students excel in and focus on it. If students are discouraged about a poor mark, we help them remember back to a time where they did particularly well and point out the links between different topics e.g. if a student is struggling with fractions, point out that the questions are related to multiplication, an area in which they are currently excelling.
By building on strengths, students will build confidence in themselves and this is when your child will be in a position to use their weapon to change the world.
If you would like to understand what level your child is currently at, Spectrum Tuition offers a free assessment of your child’s abilities across several year levels in English and mathematics every weekend. Call 1800 668 177 to speak to me about your child’s current performance or to book in for a free assessment simply complete the form below.
Which lesson surprised you? If you’re a parent of a school aged child, I’d love to know what your most important lessons are.