Are Schools Attribute or Deficit Focused?


Janine Rees 10th June 2016

Many years ago I tried a tap dance class. I had visions of me Ginger Rogering up the stage. I was committed to being the best tap dancer I could be. The teacher taught, I listened and watched and tried…and tried…and tried. Some picked it up straight away, others possibly practised at home and came to classes knowing the steps. I was in the remedial tap group on the far side of the room. The teacher would show us repeatedly and I would do my best to keep up and not mangle the steps. My brain and my feet just would not work together and please don’t expect me to add arm movements into the mix.  I began to dislike going because I just couldn’t do it.

I gave tap a go, it wasn’t for me. I was lucky, I was an adult and could choose to spend my time on something else (I chose free style dancing because I like to dance to my own beat). I also tried jazz, which I quite liked and enjoyed. I wasn’t very good at it, but it was fun and I could cope with the dance steps without the added tapping part.

There’s a couple of things that I’m very good at and there’s plenty of things that I’m not so good at. Imagine if I were made to go to tap class every day for forty weeks of the year. I would become anxious. I would cry. I would begin to hate myself because everyone else can tap but me. I would be exhausted because I had to concentrate so hard on doing things that don’t come naturally to me. I would possibly need much therapy to deal with my battered self esteem.

Transpose these thoughts to primary school. Some children ‘do’ school really well. It comes easily to them. Others struggle. Mainstream schooling in Australia, at the moment, has a ‘one size fits all’ approach.  Why are we doing this? Why are we forcing everyone to take tap classes? Sure expose everyone to a tap class or two, then they have the choice to continue or try something else.

Reading and having basic numeracy skills, unlike tap dancing, is essential for everyday life. Every child also needs self worth and self esteem to navigate this world. Resilience (the buzz word in many schools at the moment) is also important but you need a strong self esteem first. We need to work from an attributes model rather than from a deficit model. Let the children work from their strengths and their interests. They have an innate drive to learn, we mustn’t extinguish that.

Offering up Year 2 Science topics to a child who already knows all about The Water Cycle and then some, who would be more interested in learning the content of the Year 6 Science syllabus, is a recipe for disaster and a huge waste of time for that child. At the moment in most schools, across each year level, children generally learn the same content and undertake the same assessment. The Australian National Curriculum is organised around year level content and outcomes and is split into subjects as is done in most high schools. It’s well written, it’s robust. The problem is that primary school teachers are tearing their hair out trying to cover the many subject areas and content.

Usually, primary teachers teach most of the subject areas whereas secondary teachers choose two or three subjects. The average primary class has an ability range over five year levels, yet they all have to be ‘exposed’ to the same content. Teaching the same content to 28 children is a recipe for disaster. The ones who already know the subject matter are bored to tears and the ones who are not yet ready for that information are berating themselves for being stupid.

How can we improve? Let primary teachers work to their strengths in much the same way secondary teachers do. If you love teaching English then you teach the English content. If you are the Maths genius, you take on that subject. There’s nothing more wonderful than a teacher who is passionate about their subject area. If the teacher is not interested in Maths, it shows. A teacher who can’t stand teaching Drama will do just about anything to avoid it and those children who love acting and are talented in that area miss out. If a teacher who loves teaching in Prep is moved to a Year 6 class both the teacher and the children miss out.

Design the school around interest areas, why replicate the same materials and resources throughout umpteen classrooms when you can have a STEM Centre where children who are mathematically inspired can spend a large part of their time with teachers and mentors who are equally passionate. Perhaps an ARTS Centre where those who are talented musicians can meet together and create. What about a Garden Centre!

It takes a change in the set up of classes. It takes a huge rethink about our learning areas. Montessori classrooms are multi-aged and a child will have the same two to three teachers in that room for three years. Most children in Australia change teachers and classrooms every year. The first term is a time of setting up routines and getting to know the children in that class. Having the same children for three years saves around twenty weeks of ‘getting to know you time’. Imagine having the same core teachers or mentors for the whole of your primary schooling.

Montessori class spaces are larger than mainstream classrooms and have over twice as many children in them. Children cover the same curriculum but work at their own level and speed. There is choice and personal ownership of learning. There is no comparing children to one another. There is a huge focus on the ambience of the classroom. The rooms are beautiful, comfortable, light filled and practically designed. The teacher is more of a mentor or facilitator of learning than a producer of lessons and tasks. A sort of “mentor in the middle’ rather than a ‘sage on a stage’ approach.

These changes need student, parent and teacher collaboration. Of utmost importance is school leadership. What is needed is leaders who listen. Unfortunately children are at the base end of a large bureaucracy often run by people who haven’t stepped foot in a classroom since their own schooling. A school should be the ultimate democracy with the students having the greatest voice. I wonder what the students would do if asked to design their own school? Now there’s an idea!

Please contact Janine Rees at Sparkt 0416 096 756 if you’d like to discuss implementing changes at your school. 












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