What is an Exceptional Learner?

One of the biggest movements in education in the 21st century is to personalise learning for every student.

This supports the move away from an education system that had the central purpose of compliance and conformity, ranking students on their ability to reproduce the selected knowledge successfully, usually in an exam situation. Education now recognises that our current and future graduates need a broader and greater level of skills and abilities, and that diversity of these is critical for our society’s progression.

Sir Ken Robinson, one of my favourite education disrupters who passed away recently, advocated for an education system that promoted creativity. Yong Zhao, an international education thought leader, who has worked closely with St John’s Grammar in the development of our Innovative Agency Framework, has been instrumental in encouraging schools to develop and appreciate the full range of skills and abilities that students bring to education and that can be developed and enhanced. And, on top of these and many other developments, we have experienced a global pandemic which has caused some delightful disruptions to education, forcing change that has seemed years away.

Critically, we have survived the year despite NAPLAN testing being cancelled. Our Year 12s have already won places at universities, proving that there really are other ways for universities to select students, other than relying on the ATAR. Technology has developed quickly to support new ways of learning ensuring that we are better poised than ever to authentically personalise the learning journey for all students. Great choice in electives, a comprehensive co-curricular program and our Innovative Agency Framework are simple examples of the personalisation occurring.

There continues to be a core curriculum that guides education. Literacy and numeracy programs and curriculum are now being supported by progressions that allow each student to move at their pace, with teachers better equipped to assess student progress so that they can plan for individual growth. Many students will continue to progress at the traditional rate of their year level, supported by quality teaching that meets their needs, differentiates, scaffolds and provides choice. Other students need things to be different. At St John’s Grammar, we have been focusing on the development of our Exceptional Learning Framework that provides guidance, processes, policies, systems and programs to better meet the needs of our Exceptional Learners.

What does it mean to be an Exceptional Learner?
Exceptional Learners are a diverse group of students with talents and strengths who need a range of adjustments to ensure they are able to access the curriculum and experience success in their learning. Our Exceptional Learners include (but are not limited to!) neuro diverse students, students with a disability, students with a learning difficulty, gifted and talented students, students with physical needs, students with mental health needs and students for whom English is an additional language. Some students are twice exceptional, and even thrice exceptional, and the adjustments different students need are as diverse as the coffee order for a group of Millennials and adjustments vary in learning areas and over time.

The challenge is developing systems that allow us to recognise, respond and implement the best adjustments to support each student. This is a journey of improvement that St John’s Grammar has been on over a number of years, with a significant focus in the last three years. While change has evolved over this time, there are some bigger changes that we are proud to introduce that will further our ability to personalise and authentically meet diverse needs.

St John’s has made an investment in staff to enable stronger personalised learning.
This investment has included an increase in staffing in our Secondary School learning support area for 2021, an increase in counselling time in 2020 and further into 2021, an increase in staffing for students for whom English is an additional language and an increase in allocation for mentors. The Junior Executive has been reviewed with roles allocated to the leadership of literacy, numeracy and student support a priority. All teachers support our Exceptional Learners and more extensive group of staff support each student’s personalised program, as the diversity of need means that a greater level of expertise is required.

Over the last couple of years, our professional learning has been focused on developing capacity of all staff to ensure they are able to successfully differentiate and apply the growing range of adjustments recommended for individual students. This professional development has included a focus on neuro-diversity, specific learning difficulties, mental health training and differentiation strategies that make a real difference. This year, our focus has been on creating positive learning environments: ensuring that all learning environments are safe, responsive, flexible and provide the appropriate challenge and supports for each student. Developing greater consistency of expectations across classrooms, while celebrating diversity, has encouraged staff to ensure that students can confidently navigate from classroom to classroom, knowing what to expect and feeling safer to be challenged. This is important for all students, but particularly for some of our Exceptional Learners where consistency supports success. In the same way that our students are diverse, so are our staff, and their diversity is appreciated by students, so consistency of expectations allows for individual creativity and difference while ensuring students’ needs are met.

What our observations from 2020 have taught us about the personalisation of learning…
Every day is a learning opportunity for our staff but, in particular, the events of 2020 have provided some valuable learning. During the weeks we were online, St John’s Grammar staff developed their skills and have taken away some key learning that has furthered their ability to personalise learning:
Harnessing technology to elevate learning experiences requires ongoing training, a willingness to try something new and an acceptance of the vulnerability that comes when we are pushed out of our comfort zone. But the power of technology has never been more exposed and it can form the basis of successful adjustments for many students.
Task design, scaffolded learning, choice in learning mode and focus, and alternative forms of assessments improve the learning experience for all students, especially Exceptional Learners. Time spent in providing adjustments for one student actually end up benefiting many students and considering student needs while designing learning tasks and assessments, enables greater success.
Wellbeing, relationships and individual teacher skill are critical. St John’s introduced a Wellbeing Framework two years ago. It is impossible to define our success in personalising learning without recognising the profound affect that our work in Wellbeing has had on our whole school. During our time online, many of us learnt that there is an inherent ability in the way that we teach and work with students that has been honed over many years. Often we personalise the learning experience in the moment, simply by observing a student’s response, listening to their feedback, looking at their body language and adjust accordingly – it is nuanced and individual. The classroom relationship that is developed, is so critical to learning and when I lost my physical classroom to go online, that natural responsiveness to individual student needs, needed to be carefully planned to ensure students were supported.
Mentoring and individual support is critical. A student recently popped by my office for a chat, telling me that they missed our zoom calls during online learning. Personalising learning ensures that every student is connected and being given the opportunity to set their goals (or have individual goals set), review their progress and plan adjustments and supports to ensure their success.

Two of our big areas of focus this year have been in data collection and review, and in the review of policies and procedures to support our Exceptional Learners.
Recently we reviewed our individual Education Plan template and policy and, with the support of an advisor from AISSA, have mapped changes to better enable all Exceptional Learners to have their adjustments reviewed, mapped, articulated and shared so that they can consistently be applied by every teacher for the full diversity of our learners. Our work with Literatu, including a range of professional learning, has allowed us to collect and analyse a greater range of student learning data, not just achievement data, to ensure we can respond to every student’s learning progress. Use of data to inform our personalised action is one of focus areas in the Strategic Plan over the next couple of years.

Refining our processes, improving staff capacity and increasing our shared understanding about each individual learner is fundamental to our quest to authentically personalise learning. Personalising learning is also about embracing diversity. At St John’s Grammar we seek to work with the range of people involved in a student’s learning to gain information to ensure we can put the best adjustments in place to enable them to access their curriculum and to develop the capabilities. We look forward to developing Individual Student Plans (ISPs) with all our Exceptional Learners and their families. This newly developed plan will ensure that the critical individual adjustments for the learner that ensure their success are captured and clearly communicated so that teachers and other school staff are able to consistently apply these.

Our partnership with family and external supports is also critical in our quest to improve.
Critical to our improvement for our Exceptional Learners is developing better, more regular and transparent communication. Throughout the journey from ELC to Junior School to Middle and then Senior School, there are unavoidably many people who will provide support and successful transition requires rigorous communication. Defining clear communication expectations for staff with families, supports and each other, will ensure that our families know what is in place for their child, what adjustments are being used and regular opportunities to review and reconsider these.

Personalising learning requires us to continually adapt and respond. Student’s needs change and so do the available adjustments. I was interrupted during my writing of this article to read my daughter’s draft for her Research Project. She has spent this semester investigating the limitations to the current adjustments allowed by SACE for the support of dyslexic students and is in the process of developing a presentation for the SACE Board to encourage critical changes. Her recommendations, including allowance of voice-to-text software in final SACE exams and the printing of exams in Open Dyslexia font, are, like many of the adjustments that can be made for learners, simple and possible, yet would have a profound impact on her, and many other Exceptional Learners, to demonstrate her understanding and knowledge without her dyslexia being such an inhibiting factor.

There is so much more I could say in this area. This article is just the tip of the iceberg.We have done lots to better meet student needs, and we have lots more to do and remain absolutely committed to continuing to improve. ISP meetings will occur over the next six months as we implement this model.

Leonie Harwood
Deputy Principal & Head of Senior School

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