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Meeting Victorian students at their learning point of need – an interview with Karen Money

4 Feb 2021, by Amy Sarcevic

Working with 26 Victorian schools during last year’s forced closures, award-winning educator, Karen Money, made one clear observation about remote learning: that some students thrived with the added autonomy, whilst others lagged without in-person teacher support.

“The polarity really struck me,” she said ahead of The Age Schools Summit. “Some students flourished when they were able to adapt their day and when given a personalised program. Others didn’t cope at all – they were screen shy and wouldn’t engage. I’m conscious not to make any blanket statements, but all I can say is the results were very differentiated, depending on the students’ needs.”

The data collected so far tells a similar story. Of 1032 Victorian students surveyed, 41 percent found remote learning stressful. Since school closures began, literacy and numeracy scores have fallen on average two-three months behind; and an estimated 200,000 (one in five) students will need help getting back up to speed.

The statistics also shed light on what may be behind the disparity.

“We know that it’s primarily low socio-economic status (SES) students that have struggled with remote learning,” Ms. Money said. “This is mainly a resourcing and, sometimes, home environment issue. Kids that don’t have as much space or access to technology at home, or with communities that don’t have the wherewithal to help, have not fared as well throughout remote learning.”

Long term effects

Psychology tells us that a two to three month lag in scores is a big deal. ‘Synaptic pruning’ – the culling of neural circuits that aren’t put to good use – can create lasting changes in the developing brain. ‘Use it or lose it’ may be a frivolous expression, but with a scientific grounding it’s a serious cause for concern in the context of childhood education, experts say.

This neural process has both academic and psychosocial repercussions, research highlights. Lack of engagement with teachers and the wider school community has been linked to a host of knock-on effects. In the short term, students that haven’t been flexing their social muscle can expect adverse learning outcomes and poor reintegration in 2021.

“The quality of the student-teacher relationship is one of the most influential factors in a child’s learning success, but cultivating these relationships has, for some, proven difficult via the virtual medium,” said Ms. Money.

Reversing the trend

In October last year Ms. Money was appointed by the Victorian Department of Education and Training to lead the Tutor Learning Initiative that would help lift the state from its unfolding education crisis. On-boarding an estimated 4000 tutors throughout the state, Ms. Money has been instrumental in bringing this nation-first, $250 million initiative to life.

So how does she plan to make it a success?

Honouring the student voice

“The reality is that some aspects of remote learning have proven to be quite effective for some students,” Ms. Money said. “For example, some pupils really value autonomy. They’ve tailored their learning day for example, focusing on maths one day and biology the next – depending on their current priority.

“It’s important we don’t rob students of any aspects of remote learning that were working for them. We cannot assume that anyone whose performance lagged during school closures works better with rigidity and routine. It might be that they loved the autonomy of remote learning, but hated the lack of peer interaction. Or perhaps they simply didn’t relate to learning via a screen.”

To this end, Ms. Money says a key ingredient of the program’s success will be asking students how they want to work, and meeting their point of need.

“It’s a personalised strategy, rather than the more traditional or prescriptive approach. Thanks to COVID-19 there is a reinforcement of just how important the student’s agency for their own learning is. Educators will consider this when designing learning programs in 2021 and hopefully beyond,” she said.

Appropriately skilling tutors

Getting staff with the exact skillset and right level of expertise is another key ingredient, Ms. Money said.

“To help with this, we’re doing a lot of work with professional learning. We’re aware that tutors will range from pre-service to very experienced teachers, so we’ve had to ensure supports are bespoke to their level of experience,” said Ms. Money.

“We’re trying to make professional learning as targeted as possible. There is nothing worse than sitting through professional development if you already know all of the material,” she added.

Ms. Money anticipates that skills like trust building and collaboration will be particularly important in turbocharging the education of identified students.

“Learning is compromised when a student is fearful of asking questions, making mistakes and feeling secure. Hence, a teacher’s ability to build trust in the small group tutoring space is crucial,” she said.

“Equally, the skill of collaboration between tutor-teacher and classroom teacher on planning, developing and sharing understanding of the students’ knowledge, skills and capabilities is central to the initiative’s success.”

Letting schools decide what’s best

“Nobody knows their students quite like the schools themselves and, with that in mind, it’s important we don’t enforce a one-size-fits-all approach,” Ms. Money said.

“Victoria is a vast and varied state with a mix of cosmopolitan and rural schools – each with very different points of need.

“In the same way we don’t want to over-prescribe when it comes to individual students, we don’t want to tell schools what’s best for their pupils. It’s all about highlighting the evidence and then letting tutors apply that in a way which works best for their students,” she added.

An uphill climb

Whilst on track to deliver desired results on time and within budget, Ms. Money admits the project has not been without challenges.

“The state of Victoria is very diverse,” she said. “Naturally, some schools have needed extra support, so we’ve had to discover who they are and provide assistance early – putting scaffolds in place as required.

“On top of that it’s an innovative, state-wide initiative with a high amount of accountability. It’s never been done before and there’s a lot at stake – all to be achieved within a very tight timeframe.

“That said, I’m delighted to take on this challenge and believe it’s one of the most important education initiatives of our time.”

Hear more from Karen Money at The Age Schools Summit, due to take place 27 April 2021 in Sydney.

Karen Money is an award-winning educator and Principal of Melbourne Girls’ College. She is currently on secondment to Victoria’s Department of Education where she will lead the state-first Tutor Learning Initiative.


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