Mon | May 30, 2016

Academic excellence: 3 Rs

Published:Sunday | January 13, 2013 | 12:00 AM

Margarett Barnett, Contributor

Closing the achievement gap between groups of students on national exams has become a familiar imperative for many educators and politicians. We are still grappling with moot questions such as: how can students meet high academic standards if they do not believe in their ability to do so?

How can they learn if they are not academically engaged? How can they set and reach academic goals if they do not see the relevance of learning to their lives? Until we answer those questions, we will continue going around the "walls of Jericho".

In my quest for answers, I chose a private institution and observed a teacher in action with his grade-five students during a math class. He seemed oblivious to the blank stares and fidgeting of some students because he was so focused on the select group of students in front rows who were very engaged and absorbed in the subject matter. These students were responding enthusiastically to his every question. This went on for most of the class.

The teacher was one of the school's most successful teachers - knowledgeable about the subject and was clearly only engaged with a small group of students. As for the other students, however, it was as if they were not there, and this should be a major concern for school administrators and policymakers.

I asked about the non-participants and his response was telling: "I am not going to waste time on them. I've got a number of students who come here every day ready to learn, and I will not compromise their eagerness to learn."

Missing the mark on relevance

I observed another class, this time a grade four teacher who knew everyone by name. The class was interrupted by a boy, who was obviously the class clown, this was probably a much-needed distraction as the students and teacher joked and chatted about the boy's topic of choice. This, too, was a math class, but I saw no rigour and little relevance to mathematics. The students were engaged and seemed to enjoy the class. Some, however, seemed concerned about whether they were going to learn something about the subject they were supposed to be doing. This teacher obviously had the art of building relationships with students but did not use this skill to get the most of the students academically.

One class lacked the relationship aspect of the learning process, the other was devoid of rigour, and both classes missed the mark on relevance. Yet these are the elements, rigour, relevance and relationships which, together, provide the hallmark for education today. The three are integrally connected; if one is missing in our teaching practices, we are not doing our best to prepare students for success in school and in life.

The International Center for Educational Leadership created the Rigour/Relevance Framework in the early 1990s for teachers to use to examine curriculum and plan instruction and assessment. The framework consists of four quadrants that reflect these two dimensions of higher standards and student achievement.

First, there is the "knowledge taxonomy," which describes the increasingly complex ways in which we think. It is based on the six levels of Bloom's Taxonomy.

Application model

The second dimension is the Application Model developed by the International Center, which describes five levels of relevant learning. Relevant learning is interdisciplinary and contextual. It requires students to apply core knowledge, concepts or skills to solve real-world problems.

The truth is, students need to know what to do when they do not know what to do. The Rigour/Relevance Framework provides a structure to enable schools to move all students toward that goal. I have no doubt we are making strides in the areas of rigour and relevance, where we are woefully lacking is in the area of the third R for relationships. Relationship is the undergirding upon which rigour and relevance strive. The minister of education was on target when he urged teachers to spend some time at the beginning of the school year (2012-2013) to build relationships with each child, to get to know them before they start with the academics.

In schools where wholesome relationships are deliberately nurtured among students and staff, there is a marked increase in student success. Students believe the staff genuinely cares about them and encourages them to achieve at high levels. If there is not a high level of positive relationships, students will not respond to higher expectations. There are pockets of success in our school system, and we salute those teachers who are making strides in creating a nurturing environment in which children learn.

Interestingly, the exact problem exists at the organisational level, where workers are being asked to increase productivity and go the extra mile in an un-nurturing environment.

Misguided focus

It seems to me that our focus on a new instructional strategy or curriculum maybe misguided, as the work to bring all students to high achievement levels is more complex than that. It involves establishing the right culture to grow the minds of students and to enrich the involvement and innovation of school leaders and staff.

Reaching out to one student at a time makes sense, but it takes time. Time which our teachers do not have, it is going to take a whole new culture, a culture that is asking for an entire re-arrangement of the mental models our teachers, principal and administrators have about academic achievement. The classroom is sometimes a hostile environment. We must rethink education and the environment in which learning takes place. Are our teachers adequately prepared to move the students through the continuum of academic achievement?

We must not underestimate the sheer power of relationships in making our schools more effective. Do the students consider school to be a good place to be? Do they have a sense of belonging? Do they feel at least a few adults are interested in their success and well-being? Do they feel safe? Do they feel recognised as individuals? It seems to me that if we intend to close the achievement gap, concentrating solely on academic coursework will produce short-term success. Thus, there are really two gaps in our education system. In addition to the achievement gap, there is a participation gap, which is characterised by students who feel unwelcome, disconnected and lost in our schools.

It is not enough to strengthen curriculum offerings, test preparation strategies and provide increased incentives for teachers. If students are to enjoy greater academic success, they must believe in themselves, be excited about their learning and see the link between what they learn today and who they want to become tomorrow.

Margarett Barnett, PhD, is an industrial and organisational psychologist. Please send feedback to