NOU 2016: 14

More to gain — Better learning for students with higher learning potential

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1 The Committee's mandate, main findings and recommendations

Figure 1.1 

Figure 1.1

Pursuant to a Royal Decree dated 18 September 2015, the Government appointed a Committee for high achieving students. The Committee was given the following mandate:

“Pursuant to section 1-3 of the Education Act, the Norwegian school shall undertake to differentiate instruction to the individual student's abilities and potential. Schools do and must continue to pay attention to students who need extra support in their instruction. However, the obligation to provide individual students with differentiated instruction also applies to high achieving students, students with special talents and students with the potential to achieve on the highest level.

The Committee shall assess the conditions necessary and propose concrete measures that can enable more students to achieve on a high and advanced level in basic education (primary and secondary education and training) and so that high achieving students can have a better school programme of studies. The Committee shall assess and propose recommendations relating to how a varied and differentiated teaching programme for high achieving students can be provided within the regular schooling, and shall also assess special educational measures especially tailored to the group or to individual students. The Committee shall assess organisational, educational, didactic, social, legal and funding aspects.

As the underpinning of the assessments and proposals the Committee must prepare a knowledge base founded on national and international research and experiences from other countries that have a high number of high achieving students.

At least one of the Committee's recommendations must be financially viable within today's funding level.

The Committee shall open for representatives of relevant organisations and expertise environments to submit their points of view, discussion points and input to the Committee.

The Committee shall complete its work within 15 September 2016.”

1.1 High achieving students

The mandate uses the term high achieving students. The Committee has chosen the term students with higher learning potential, as this covers the diversity and heterogeneity of this student group, as shown by the report, in a better way. All students have a learning potential, but some students learn more quickly and acquire more complex knowledge compared to their peers.

Students with higher learning potential are not necessarily high achievers, but they have a large potential for learning in one or more subject areas. The category students with higher learning potential (10 to 15 per cent of the student population) includes students with exceptional learning potential (2 to 5 per cent of the student population). Read more about terms and descriptions of the student group in Chapter 2.6.1.

1.2 The Committee's main finding

If the education system had succeeded nationally and locally in providing differentiated instruction for all students, it would have been unnecessary to produce an NOU concentrating on students with higher learning potential. In our committee work we have identified, analysed and assessed what in many ways are overlooked aspects of the education system, which shows that a relatively large proportion of the students experience that the learning environment does not give them the opportunity to realise their higher learning potential. The failure to realise one's abilities may represent a significant loss both for the individual student and society. We risk losing unique competences which first may lead to exceptional achievements in school, and later lead to value creation and social development. Knowledge capital is society's most important resource.

On an overriding level the Committee finds that there are three crucial and systemic acknowledgements that must be focused on if students are to have better learning conditions in primary and secondary education and training:

  1. Primary and secondary education and training does not provide students with higher learning potential the differentiated instruction that would make it possible for them to realise their learning potential. This acknowledgement should lead to the common will to take action to improve. It should also prompt systematic improvement on the national and local levels which will have consequences for the teacher-student relationship and everyone involved in education.

  2. Schools do not exploit the options they have in relation to educational and organisational differentiation. This may be due to insufficient understanding of the rules and regulations, different supervisory practices or a limited interpretation of the options available for providing differentiated instruction to students with higher learning potential.

  3. The national and local education system needs a common knowledge base from which to initiate improvement measures in the short and long term. By formulating a precise picture of the challenges, the ambition of the report is to provide all stakeholders in the Norwegian school with a common knowledge base which will ensure that the students can develop and utilise their potential in an inclusive learning environment.

The knowledge base for this NOU shows that there is a long tradition – also in Norway – for understanding inclusive education as society's special responsibility for taking care of students who are struggling academically and socially. Arguments in favour of providing initiatives for students with higher learning potential have been considered elitist and have also been seen as undermining the equality principle. One commonly held attitude has been that students with high abilities manage on their own.1

The research summary2 which the Norwegian Knowledge Centre for Education has compiled for the Committee shows that as students with higher learning potential are a heterogeneous group, the challenges they may experience also differ widely. Academic and social problems may arise, and these may have major consequences for the students. The research summary points out a number of serious consequences if students are not understood and treated properly in a school context:

  • Non-completion and underachieving

  • Social stigmatisation

  • Bullying

  • Sadness/depression

  • Erroneous diagnoses or late identification3

An inclusive and differentiated instruction must include all students,4 thus we warn against setting different groups of students and their needs against each other. Different needs must be served by an approach to teaching that allows each child to realise his or her potential for learning, regardless of cognitive capacity. Each student's ability to learn is influenced by effort, work and the relationships the student is a part of, and the learning potential also changes over time, and according to age, motivation and experience. The aim of the education system must be that after 13 years of schooling, all students feel they have been encouraged to have ambitions, been treated with trust and respect and been a part of different learning environments which promote well-being, creativity and the desire to learn5.

During its work, the Committee has visited schools that are working well with differentiated instruction for students with higher learning potential, but we have also listened to and been told about children and youths who have experienced that school has little understanding of and acceptance for variation in the need to learn. We see that there is room in the basic education to accomplish this, but the education system has not adequately managed to differentiate the instruction for students with higher learning potential.

Knowledge about the needs of the students, their way of learning and competence in differentiating the instruction may create a better school situation for all students. This means that the inclusive comprehensive school, which should ensure that the students feel they belong socially, must accept that differential treatment may be equal treatment, and that concerns about social belonging should not always be answered by having age-homogeneous groups. This acknowledgment should lead to insightful educational and didactic actions on the part of professional teachers and school leaders as they make use of the options at their disposal in their school.

In all cases involving change, painstaking and systematic efforts over time will yield lasting results. However, the time is more than ripe to initiate national and local measures which can give teachers, school leaders and school owners6 better opportunities to satisfy the needs of students with higher learning potential. All in all, this is about the learning and development of all children and young people. This is about school leadership, learning environments, instruction and professional development – with excellent quality.

On the global scale, Norway is a country which has managed to avoid major social differences in school. Analyses of PISA results show that Norway is doing much better than the average in OECD countries when it comes to ensuring students equal opportunities no matter what their socio-economic background is.7 These results show that the Norwegian education system has an inherent strength which manages to contribute to social levelling. The education system should thus also have an inherent ability to give students with higher learning potential – from all social strata –better and differentiated instruction.

1.3 From acknowledgement to action

The Committee's mandate challenges many aspects of the learning conditions for students with higher learning potential. The Committee has considered and assessed various circumstances that affect the instruction for these students, and it makes clear recommendations in some areas, see Table 1.1. To better understand the challenges and see the responses to the challenges in context, the Committee has chosen to write briefly about this relationship in relation to the structure of the three systemic acknowledgements.

1. The need for varied teaching and differentiated instruction for students with higher learning potential

As formulated in the first systemic acknowledgment, the Committee has found that primary lower and secondary schools are not good enough at providing differentiated instruction for all students, particularly when it comes to students with higher learning potential. Many students are not given instruction and academic challenges that are differentiated to suit their level. The report has shown that there is a complex mix of reasons for this. One of the main reasons is the lack of knowledge about students with the potential to achieve on higher and advanced levels, and the lack of capacity and competence to change practices in the classroom. This is a challenge the Committee wants the teaching profession and school leaders, school owners and national authorities to address, thus making this a systemic challenge. More knowledge is needed, a change in attitudes is needed and all parties must agree on the need for differentiated instruction. It is also important to have the capacity and strength to actually change and improve the teaching practice.

2. The need to clarify the difference between available options and the use of these options

The second systemic acknowledgement refers to the fact that there is a distinction between practised and real use of the options available. Some schools the Committee has been in contact with have exploited the options they have at their disposal in their approach to students with higher learning potential. However, the Committee has found that there is great uncertainty as to how to apply the rules. The reluctance to make use of the available options due to the lack of knowledge and understanding of the rules may create imagined impediments to finding various organisational and pedagogic solutions. Furthermore, misconceptions about students with higher learning potential may be another reason why these students have not received the instruction school is obliged to give them. This refers to the rules governing differentiated instruction, organisation of the students and accelerated schooling.8 The Committee wants to contribute to clarifying the available options and possibilities under today's rules so that schools can find flexible solutions in the everyday school life. Even when schools have understood their options and used them in the best interests of the students, the Committee has observed that there may still be challenges because the County Governors practise supervision and interpret legislation and the available options in different ways. The Committee finds that it is necessary to arrive at a common interpretation and understanding of the school's options to take action within the rules in force.

3. The need for a common knowledge base and systematic approach

The third systemic acknowledgement the Committee has formulated refers to the need for a common national knowledge base to improve differentiated instruction for students with higher learning potential. The Committee believes that a common knowledge base that creates obligations and gives direction to all the stakeholders in the education sector will raise responsibility for resolving challenges to a higher level so that it does not only apply to the individual teacher and the individual school. There is no such common knowledge base today. The Committee has found that little attention is paid to and few plans made for differentiated instruction for students with higher learning potential. Some school owners are in the planning process, but have not come much further. For school owners to succeed in this area, there must be a national focus and clear expectations for school owners as the responsible party for quality in the education. Systematic work toward common goals, where roles and responsibilities have been clarified and the work method is dominated by dialogue, are what we believe will yield sustainable results in the long run.

1.4 Categorising the recommendations

Bearing the formulated systemic acknowledgments in mind, the Committee has discussed, assessed and categorised the recommendations according to how much impact the measures could have in terms of the Committee's mandate. A national knowledge base which supports the goal of differentiated instruction for students with higher learning potential must be the foundation on which to build increased competence for all relevant stakeholders. We believe that this will raise the quality of the schooling for all students. The recommendations the Committee chooses to highlight are concrete examples of how we believe that the goal of a good school programme and better results for students with higher learning potential must be built stone by stone as we move towards the realisation of what we have chosen to called an excellent learning environment. An excellent learning environment motivates and stimulates all students to learn through high-quality teaching, differentiated instruction and high ambitions.

Based on the acknowledgements on the systemic level, the Committee has discussed what must be done for students with higher learning potential. In the mandate, the Committee was challenged to assess six matters: organisational, educational, didactic, social, legal and financial matters. In brief, the Committee defines these as follows:

  • Organisational: refers to how the instruction is structured, led and organised

  • Educational: refers to learning, development and teaching

  • Didactic: refers to teaching methodology within the subjects

  • Social: refers to the students' social environment and their right to social belonging

  • Legal: refers to rules the school is obliged to comply with

  • Financial: refers to funding of operations and development of the school sector

To systematise its work, the Committee has chosen to categorise these six matters into three main groups which point to the system acknowledgements:

  • Framing conditions (within which I must work)

  • Knowledge, research and experiences (which I must be familiar with and understand)

  • Competence and teaching practice (what I must do and develop)

The “I” in this context is all school owners, school leaders and teachers.

This categorisation is not optimal and does not reflect the big picture, nor is that the intention here. For example, legal aspects are also important in the knowledge category, and didactic concerns comprise both knowing about and mastering. The Committee uses the categorisation as a tool in the process of working on the recommendations.

This categorisation is part of the analysis the Committee has undertaken in the extension of the question we asked: Where does the shoe pinch? Where the shoe pinches the most, i.e. where the need for measures is greatest, is also where the greatest effect of the measures may be achieved. We have also assessed the underlying intentions, in other words, what are the success criteria for the measures that focus on where the need is most acute?

Figure 1.2 Categorising the recommendations

Figure 1.2 Categorising the recommendations

All in all, the report, which is based on research, input, study trips, school visits and the Committee's collected experiences, has shown where the most acute need is, which measures will have the greatest effect in solving the challenges presented in the mandate and how the various matters are interconnected.

Figure 1.3 Ranking the recommendations

Figure 1.3 Ranking the recommendations

Within the category Framing conditions, the Committee finds that most things are in place. By framing conditions, the Committee means subject curricula, assessment provisions and legal provisions. The report to the Storting [Parliament] 28 (2015–2016) Fag – Fordypning – Forståelse [Subjects – In-depth studies – Understanding] recommends that the content of the subject curricula, assessment schemes and the quality assessment system must support teaching that places greater emphasis on in-depth learning and systematic progression.9 The Committee wishes to emphasise that renewal of the curricula and the work on assessment schemes must consider the possibility of providing instruction to students on a high and advanced subject level.

When it comes to framing conditions relating to legal matters, the Committee finds it in place to recommend a clarification of the rules and regulations, where examples of good use of the actual available options that are found within the legal, organisational and financial frames are provided. There is also a need for the County Governors to coordinate their interpretation of the Education Act.

Relating to the category Knowledge, research and experiences, the report shows that there is a great need and stated wish from all stakeholders to have more knowledge about and research on students with higher learning potential. Here concrete measures are very important and necessary if we are to increase the level of knowledge that teachers, school leaders, school owners, teacher training staff and the PPS [the pedagogic, psychological counselling service] have. Such research must be published and lead to changes the instruction given by teachers. If the students with higher learning potential are to experience real changes in and improvement of the teaching, the knowledge must be translated into action. Hence, the measures in the category Competence and teaching practice are of primary importance for achieving the goal of a better school programme on a higher and advanced level. The attitude of teachers and school leaders in relation to students with higher learning potential is very important for developing the competence of the students, and attitudes are changed through knowledge. A culture characterised by high ambitions for all students is created in a collective professional community where teachers examine and improve their teaching on an on-going basis.10

1.4.1 The recommendations

The recommendations are presented below in relation to the three above-mentioned categories. The Committee points out the importance of realising that it is in interaction that the measures will have an impact relating to the goal of achieving better quality in the teaching of students with higher learning potential.

It is the Committee's assessment that together, the measures are a satisfactory response to the challenges in the three systemic acknowledgements, but the actual effect of the measures depends on all stakeholders assuming responsibility and developing quality on all stages. All in all, we see that the realisation of effects will stand or fall on whether the schools can realise an excellent learning environment.

All levels in the education sector must assume responsibility, support each other and communicate clear expectations. This will be elaborated on in the chapters below.

Table 1.1 The Committee's Recommendations

Framing conditions

Knowledge, research and experience

Competence and teaching practice

The Committee recommends that the national authorities:

  • Amend section 1-3 of the Education Act to clarify that the provision also includes students with higher learning potential.

  • Clarify what options there are in today's rules and regulations for school leaders, school owners and County Governors to take action, for example through national competence-raising measures, such as Regelverk i praksis [Rules in practice] and RefLex (see Chapter 6.2).

  • Ensure that the progression descriptors in the subject curricula provide examples of competence on a high and advanced level, and provide support for the teachers' work on differentiating the instruction for students with higher learning potential. Development of these descriptors must take place in conjunction with the subject renewal in the main Knowledge Promotion curriculum.

The Committee recommends that research environments:

  • Conduct high-quality research on students with higher learning potential in close contact and cooperation with the teacher-training institutions and schools.

The Committee recommends that the national authorities:

  • Concentrate resources on research dedicated to this student group. Critical success factors are strong research communities, and stronger links between research, teacher training and school to influence classroom practice.

  • Ensure that research is coordinated and communicated to the sector.

  • Ensure that differentiated instruction for students with higher learning potential is included as a topic in:

    • School-leader and teacher training, training in special-needs teaching and training in pedagogic-psychological counselling

    • Further education and continuing professional development (CPD)

  • Every four years systematically map and evaluate the effects of measures for students with higher learning potential.

  • Ensure that competence programmes are developed for the pedagogic-psychological counselling service and special-needs teaching institutions relating to learning difficulties for children and young persons with higher learning potential.

The Committee recommends that the school owners:

  • Improve capacity in schools and between schools to ensure systematic follow-up of students' learning.

  • Assume responsibility to ensure that schools and the pedagogic-psychological counselling service has competence in and the resources for identifying students with higher learning potential, and for differentiating instruction according to their needs.

The Committee recommends that school leaders:

  • Use existing research and facilitate for the flexible organisation of students with higher learning potential.

The Committee recommends that teachers:

  • Use research-based knowledge and vary their teaching methods through such approaches as in-depth learning and enrichment.

The Committee recommends that the national authorities:

  • Assess measures to help them ensure that the school owners cooperate and assume responsibility for programmes that can accelerate learning for the relevant students.

  • Ensure that digital learning resources are developed for students, which can, for example, promote in-depth learning in all subjects.

  • Ensure the development and application of an e-learning module for school and the pedagogic-psychological counselling service to raise its competence when it comes to students with higher learning potential.

  • Assess expansion of the teacher specialist programme to include knowledge about students with higher learning potential.

  • Develop knowledge-based mapping and guidance material for identification and didactic guidance in subjects for the schools, the local authorities and the pedagogic-psychological counselling service.

  • Ensure that differentiated instruction for students with higher learning potential is included as a topic in national programmes and guidance material.

Footnotes

1.

Børte et al. 2016, Hofset 1968, Idsøe and Skogen 2011

2.

Entitled “research summary” in this report

3.

Børte et al. 2016

4.

Section 1-3 of the Education Act.

5.

Cf. section 1 of the Education Act

6.

local school authorities/municipalities/private school owner

7.

OECD 2014

8.

Section 1-3 first paragraph and section 8-2 of the Education Act, as well as section 1-15 of the Regulations relating to the Education Act

9.

Report to the Storting (Meld. St. 28) (2015–2016), p. 57

10.

OECD 2013a, Wiliam 2014

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