International College Hong Kong
Jan 10, 2017

Individual Differences and the Learning Environment

Perhaps the most effective way of exploring how ICHK aligns with the fourth of OECD's transversal conclusions is to step outside of the South East Asian educational environment for a moment and to invoke the principles that have catapulted a European nation, Finland, to the forefront of the global education agenda.

Over the last several years, Finland, and its many innovations, have come to dominate the international conversation about education to the point where to extol the Finnish system has become almost a cliché, yet an unavoidable one given the dearth of systemic alternatives. So, at the risk of becoming just another cheerleader, taking this approach makes good sense because, in many ways, our 5+1 model is a customised iteration of the Finnish principles, maps against them perfectly, and provides for our model’s strengths to be assessed as part of a more wide-ranging debate about education in general.

As hinted at above, however, let me start by noting that, for many experienced educators, it does feel a little odd to see Finland's approach to schooling given such prominence; to see it celebrated as if it were the mysterious solution to an otherwise intractable problem. For, on examination, Finland's superstar status lies in some pretty common-sense assumptions about what is likely to make schools successful sites of learning. That these assumptions are so widely conceived by experts and authorities in other countries as groundbreaking or radical, tells us as much about the ways in which the educational project has been perverted in other parts of the world as it does about Finland’s claims to genius!

In short, Finland’s rise to pre-eminence on the global scene is viewed by many professionals in education with equal parts enthusiasm, bewilderment and frustration.

Central to the Finnish approach are three equally weighted precepts. First, that the quality of teachers is critical to the educational project, not just in their grasp of the knowledge and skills that undergird their subject expertise, but, equally, in the aptness and coherence of their understanding of the psychology of the students with whom they work. This gives rise to a highly professional workforce, competitive in its make-up and demanding to join, with good collective self-esteem, and widely respected in Finnish society.

Second, that the school curriculum should properly reflect the complexity of the world to which it claims to offer an introduction and of which it claims to be a representation. Increasingly, this means that the Finns are breaking away from and transcending the ‘disciplines’ that form the traditional curriculum (narrowly conceived areas labelled ‘Mathematics’, ‘History’, ‘Science’ and so on), and adopting a more interdisciplinary, collaborative and project-based approach to organising learning for their children. This, after all, is how we encounter knowledge in the world.

And, third, and arguably most important, that every single student is genuinely unique, genuinely capable of learning to good advantage and, therefore, is genuinely worthy of the best schools’ interest, attention and support. A corollary of this, and a vital one, is that every child, whatever their attainment profile, has individual needs. Far from being something unusual or “special”, having individual needs is a straightforward and unexceptional dimension of being an individual learner. There is no shame or stigma in “having needs”, because having needs is an ineluctable part of being human.

Once again, I would say: to educators of any appreciable experience, this comes as no surprise, or, at least, not if they have had their ears, eyes and minds open while working with young people. For these professionals, the only mystery is why such a plain and evident set of truths seems to have been systematically ignored by mainstream schooling in pretty much every nation on earth, other than, apparently, Finland.

By which I mean, all around the world, experienced educators wonder how and why it is that teachers have come to be thought of primarily as technicians of content, not as midwives of understanding? How and why it is that the ambition of schooling extends not much further than imparting an often trivial (or, at least, trivialised), pointless and obsolescent content-based curriculum, whose sell-by date is increasingly obvious to all, and not least, the students who must follow it? And how and why, in school systems set up to resemble battery farms, where children travel in batches along a year-based conveyor belt of ‘one size fits all’ ‘programmes of study’, students are labelled as having “special needs” as soon as they deviate from the norms which the system assumes? With the label of ‘having needs’, in this context, suffering a distinctly pejorative flavour?

These are all good and valid questions. In answering them honestly, we might begin to unravel some of more deep-seated problems faced by educational reform; an overdue initiative at a time when governments, higher education and employers are all united in demanding that ‘school must change’. Worthwhile answers, however, would take more time and space than is allowed here.

Suffice to say then, at this juncture, that we do not ignore these truths at ICHK. And, to explain how we administer the “Finnish solution” at our school, let us turn in part, once again, to the 5+1 model, and its insistence that our teachers should be familiar with and sympathetic to the contextual challenges that face the teenage learner, so as to guide and support his or her efforts to the very best possible advantage.

As discussed in previous posts, at ICHK we assume that there is a series of necessary understandings that should scaffold any and all engagements with secondary school students, if they are likely to be more rather than less successful.

Stated in brief, the school experience should actively foster a growth mindset by:

  • couching learning within the right terminology and language;

  • scaffolding learning with the right assessment and feedback framework;

  • offering students the appropriate degree of stretch, challenge and recuperation;

  • designing a curriculum that is diverse, compelling and relevant to the learner;

  • having teachers who are sensitive and alive to the likely preoccupations and concerns of the students for whom this experience is intended.

Satisfying these criteria is the bedrock of successful education, at any level, but, as the OECD's conclusion indicates, it is only the bedrock or the foundation. The subsequent move – the move to personalisation – is what builds on and takes advantage of these essential favourable conditions.

For us, this move to personalisation is the +1 of 5+1, and is achieved in a number of ways.

First, as the OECD insists, we ensure that we know our students well and that an appreciation of their prior knowledge and experience informs how our lessons are conceived, planned and delivered. This commitment to knowing our students is supported firstly by our close links with our primary partners, from whom the majority of our students are drawn, and, secondly, by the size of the school and the class sizes within it, both of which are the result of conscious, intentional decisions.

In addition to gathering valuable contextual and background information from their primary schools, we also induct our students thoroughly to ICHK in their first weeks of joining. An initial four-day programme introduces them to some of the important features of our school – the Human Technologies perspective and the emphasis on collaborative, team thinking. These early insights are subsequently built on through the students’ immersion in our Human Technologies (HT) and Big History (BH) courses.

The cumulative effect of HT and BH is to provide our youngest students with an emergent story and point of view by virtue of which they can organise their understanding of the wider curriculum. This is consciously a more trans-disciplinary and synoptic engagement than is typical in secondary schools, and leads, we believe, to greater confidence and independence of thought when students are required to discern the complex patterns of contemporary life and learn how to innovate within these patterns.

Second, we ensure that feedback to students about their learning is constant, formative, accessible and "SMART". We use our digital learning platform, Gibbon, as a conduit between teacher and student and parent to provide timely and targeted advice and guidance. Students can expect to receive upwards of 20 items of written feedback across the curriculum each term, with each item providing not just a reflection on current performance but practical advice on setting and meeting targets so as to improve performance going forward.

Feedback via Gibbon is tied to a range of learning experiences: some individual, some collaborative; some classroom-based, some staged outside the classroom; some focused on content and subject knowledge, some concentrating more on attitude and approaches to learning. In this way, students are given an ongoing, real-time picture of how the are progressing as learners, which is shared with parents contemporaneously so that conversations at home can be properly informed by up to date and comprehensive information.

Third, we are working hard to innovate significantly around the provision of curriculum and learning opportunities to students in ways that enable them to exercise more choice and volition over their studies. Beyond the choice built into the curriculum at IGCSE and IB Diploma, which is a common feature of most schools, we are concerned to offer students a strand of self-determination throughout their learning careers at ICHK. Our primary vehicle for this is Free Learning, which is a dimension of our curriculum that, once again, takes advantage of the functionality of Gibbon, our personalised learning platform.

Free Learning is a form of self-administered study, with units designed by ICHK teaching staff and available for students to follow at their own pace and inclination. Units have been developed across a number of discrete subject areas – Mathematics, Human Technologies, ICT – but, perhaps more significantly, are being designed too as interdisciplinary and esoteric opportunities that escape the limitations of the traditional curriculum.

The means by which Free Learning is made available to learners makes units available for study either as a stand-alone or as a part of an interrelated series or programme. In this latter guise, more advanced elements are withheld until foundational units have been successfully completed. This follows the same tried and tested pattern of delivery as used by the Khan Academy, whose excellent tutorials our students are also encouraged to take advantage of, in order to push on their understanding of mathematics and science.

Unlike the Khan Academy, however, units are designed to draw on a range of different skills and aptitudes proper to a more holistic approach to personal development. Free Learning invites students to collaborate in teams, to undertake projects in and out of the classroom, to decide who will assess and evaluate their work, and, in the belief that the best way to learn is to be ready to teach, to design units themselves for other students to follow.

In these ways, Free Learning has the potential to meet the interests of all our students and not just those who find themselves engaged by the traditional range of subjects covered in school. And, just as importantly, in following the units, our students rehearse the skills of self-direction, self-governance and self-motivation that will come to serve them most actively in their subsequent college and university studies and in their lives of work and leisure as adults.

Meanwhile, the students’ choices and the progress that they make, which are carefully monitored by teachers via feedback from the Gibbon software, act as a useful diagnostic to their interests, strengths and areas for development as learners. In coaching students through moments of impasse or in helping them locate resources to overcome hurdles, teachers are able to expand and advance students’ repertoire of non-cognitive skills and strategies, which will buttress all subsequent learning.

And fourth, we deploy our resources as thoughtfully as possible to ensure that all students’ needs are recognised and addressed. Above and beyond an experienced and sympathetic teaching staff, this involves the specialised input of our Individual Needs department, who draw on their expertise to offer support where it is required, especially in bolstering learners’ language deficiencies in ways that help them to access the curriculum more easily, form and develop more sophisticated concepts, and communicate with one another to better advantage.

The ICHK community’s core understanding, the “Finnish understanding”, that all learners have individual needs to some extent or another, in one area or another, at some point or another, means that support of this kind is experienced as a normal part of the education project, so that it has no deleterious effects on students’ self-esteem or self-image, which is exactly how it should be.

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