Outside the mainstream

March 2010


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KEREN BROOKING draws lessons from two research projects with two very different groups of difficult-to-teach students

Inclusion is one of the guiding principles of the New Zealand Curriculum. Yet there is no doubt that some students – perhaps those who are the most difficult to teach – are excluded from the mainstream system and are not getting the education they are entitled to receive. So what might need to change to draw these excluded students back onto a successful learning track?

I have drawn on a couple of research projects, ‘The Evaluation of SPELD in New Zealand’ and ‘The Background of Alternative Education Students’, where I have listened to the views of two very different groups of students about their learning – about what works and doesn’t work for them.

Who are these students who have been excluded? The students I encountered in the SPELD evaluation were mostly primary-aged children assessed to have dyslexia. They had reached the point where they were failing to progress in literacy at school and were in fact falling well behind their peers. Their parents had been advised to try SPELD – or had found out about it themselves – and were paying for private tutoring out of school hours. SPELD NZ is a private organisation supporting children with specific learning disabilities.

The alternative education students were all at secondary school level but were among around 3000 across New Zealand excluded from school because of extended truancy or behavioural problems. They attended centres off-site from school, run on contract by private providers.

Both groups of students are among the hardest to teach and it could be argued that as a consequence, both groups have been abandoned by the mainstream system. These two groups of students are not normally considered side-by-side, because in many ways they have little else in common apart from being hard to teach. SPELD students in the study were mainly young, from high decile schools, mainly Pākehā and from families who had been persistent in getting and paying for outside help. The alternative education students were older, from lower decile schools, were mainly Māori and Pasifika, and often with poverty, violence, gang connections and drug and alcohol problems in their families.

Our research showed that the privatised education both groups were receiving was working, at least in terms of the first big step of getting them engaged with learning. All the alternative education students had been totally turned off learning at the point they arrived at the alternative education centres but when we spoke to them, nearly all had re-engaged and reported enjoying learning again. The research didn’t include an analysis of their achievement data but certainly the students felt they were making progress.

Similarly with the SPELD group, almost all reported a severe loss of self-esteem in their first years of education, as they realised they were unable to keep up with their peers. Many had given up. The main finding of our study was that SPELD teachers’ interventions did improve children’s self-esteem and confidence, to the point where they were trying again. The data on actual achievement has yet to be collected and analysed.

So it raises a big question: how is it these individualised forms of teaching are successful in helping these students re-engage, when mainstream education is not?

Three significant factors emerged from the research findings for me.

The first is relationships. The way their SPELD and alternative education teachers understood and respected the students as people and learners, without judging them negatively, seemed to be the key to productive relationships. Alternative education students mostly said they didn’t like their teachers in the mainstream secondary system. The alternative education tutors were often members of the Māori and Pasifika communities, with a deep understanding of their world and the problems the students experienced. However, they didn’t see the problems as a reason why the students could not succeed. They had positive, realistic learning expectations for them and that in turn impacted on the students’ own confidence and sense of self-efficacy.

SPELD students were a little different. Most said they liked their primary classroom teachers on a personal level but felt their teacher didn’t understand their dyslexia. The most important thing their SPELD teacher offered was understanding about their learning disability – indeed it was often the first time the nature of the problem had been spelt out for the students.

The second factor has to do with teaching. SPELD and alternative education teachers were able to re-establish confidence in their students’ ability to learn by using effective pedagogy and learning strategies that were appropriate to their needs. Things like: beginning teaching from what the students already knew and could master successfully, taking time to carefully explain ideas to make sure students understood, allowing them time for practice and success at new learning, clear expectations, close monitoring, making learning fun and being realistic about attention spans.

As well, SPELD students got specific strategies to cope with their dyslexia and alternative education students got help from community agencies for individual needs such as drug and alcohol counselling.

The alternative education students spoke about not being able to keep up with learning when in the mainstream system and with not enough time and attention from the teacher to explain. Most said after three months of trying and constantly failing at secondary school, they lost interest and confidence and gave up. There appeared to be little attempt in the mainstream system to use available information to determine what the students had already learnt and what they needed to learn next.

Thirdly, both SPELD and alternative education teachers used a strength-based approach to capture students’ interest and motivation. Many of the SPELD students were able tell us about strengths they had in other aspects of their lives, such as the arts or sports. Pivotal to the philosophy of a strength-based approach is the concept of assisting students to build resilience, but this approach seems to be missing from the mainstream.

Our research did uncover some examples of the mainstream system trying new approaches. For example, in a number of schools children can be withdrawn from classes and receive SPELD tutoring on-site rather than after school hours. These arrangements had been brokered by parents and still required the parents to pay for the tutoring. However, there was no evidence in the research of shared planning or professional discussions between the SPELD teacher and the classroom teacher, which seemed a wasted opportunity.

Similarly with alternative education, we found one secondary school which had an off-site and on-site centre, which meant students could work at both sites depending on their needs but never felt cut off from their mainstream education specialist subjects.

There will be other examples round New Zealand of creative solutions and a willingness by mainstream teachers to try to help both groups of students. But we need to do much more.

How? Well, it’s like trying to keep rail commuters happy while you modernise Kiwi Rail. We need to keep catering for these students by better resourcing the existing options – but ultimately the system needs fundamental change. These students need expert help within the mainstream system. That will mean drawing on a wide range of expertise from across the community and bringing it into the school, not sending students out to fend for themselves. We are going to need all the help we can get to be responsive and inclusive in the 21st century, and to meet the vision in the curriculum of making “confident, connected, actively involved life-long learners” of everyone.

Dr Keren Brooking is a senior researcher at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER).