‘If we can change teachers, we can change the kids’

Professor Patrick Griffin

Professor Patrick GriffinGriffin’s concern, as for so many educators, is with declining student performance as measured by international tests such as PISA and PIRLS. ‘I think we can say we are doing a better job with kids at risk’, Griffin says, ‘and we need to continue to do that. But the new at-risk group are the kids at the top. The best students are not doing as well because teachers don’t know how to work with them. All they are doing with the more academically able students is looking after them. They give them more work instead of giving them more complex work. They just keep them busy’.

Griffin identifies two issues here—education institutions that are unable to develop teachers to the point where they have an appreciation of higher-level performance, and a flow-on effect that leads to a lack of confidence in the classroom. As he says, ‘Some teachers are quite frank about this. They don’t know how to stretch the best, particularly in primary school. In the case of maths teaching, it’s rampant. Some of the brighter kids know more than the teachers’.

The main problem is a system that is still attuned to what Griffin calls ‘deficit teaching’—one that constantly looks at remediation and sees student demographic issues such as language background or SES as ready explanations for a failure to learn. Griffin has spent a lifetime promoting the opposite—a developmental approach that identifies the point at which students are ready to learn and, importantly, ready to soar, and intervenes with appropriate strategies.

His proselytising carries a lot of weight with both pre-service and professional teachers, because it draws on his own early experiences and success in the Victorian high school setting of Sea Lake. He taught there for five years, and when he left, twenty-five students (or 85 per cent of the cohort) were studying Year 12 maths. All passed their exams; there was not a single failure. That was a big deal for a country high school in the 1960s. It contrasted greatly with what Griffin found at the start of his Sea Lake tenure—only three students in Year 11 were studying maths, by correspondence, and none were taking the subject in Year 12. Griffin’s turnaround was based on the twin goals of getting students to enjoy maths and emphasising success. He began by testing Year 7 students and found a wide variance in ability, with some students only able to perform at a lower primary level, while others could manage more challenging work.

‘The prevailing idea was that as a teacher, you taught to the middle and just hoped for the best’, says Griffin. ‘You didn’t really worry about the students because what was important was what the teacher did. We had all been taught about things like lesson plans and a little bit about evaluation, and that’s what you did for everybody. But it was obvious this was not going to work at Sea Lake’.

Applying what he says was just ‘common sense’, Griffin reorganised maths teaching so that instruction was targeted to suit the ability levels of different students. With help from specialists at the University of Melbourne, Griffin wrote sophisticated material for the advanced students and adapted lessons for others. It meant dividing classes into three ability groupings that covered fundamentals, the practice and theory of those fundamentals and, at the highest level, advanced work that involved a research element. Griffin insists there was no stigma attached to this, as the stress was on achievement and the mastery of particular concepts. Students were buddied up with higher-achieving peers. That put a premium on a student being able to demonstrate their understanding of a particular concept. If they couldn’t, work would be repeated. Students worked at their own pace, but tests determined whether particular areas of learning had been thoroughly absorbed. Though a label wasn’t put on it at the time, Griffin was a pioneer in what we now call peer-based learning. The whole approach reached forward decades to what is now considered best practice—a high level of collaboration, information sharing and assessment of data.

Griffin says, ‘It meant that teachers rarely taught a whole class. The only time we undertook specific instruction was when we had a group of students who were stuck on a particular point. But overall, it meant that we developed a broad repertoire of teaching strategies, for the top, the middle and the bottom. It really developed us’.

What was also noted was the change in students, and not just their improved maths grades. Many showed an appreciation of learning in a more independent way, instead of being spoon-fed. Interest in maths was boosted—it came to be regarded as an enjoyable and meaningful subject. And for the high achievers, it meant that the sky was the limit. They could move at a faster pace to higher-order problem-solving. Before long, school inspectors began noticing the consistent improvement in student performance, and they started urging other schools to adopt Sea Lake’s methodology.


This article is an extract from Class Act by Maxine McKew, published by MUP.

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