What level should my child be at right now?
The question that parents ask the most – quite understandably – is ‘How is my child doing at school?’ Related to this question, parents want to know what level their child ‘should’ be at and how they compare to the rest of the class.
When we hear comments like ‘my child is failing’, particularly in the early years of education, it is a cause for concern, but only because children’s development varies so much that any attempt to rank them is problematic. While standardised tests exist and serve a purpose, most good teachers will tell you that they would like to do less ‘teaching to the test’ and more ‘developing the knowledge and abilities of the children in my class’.
At any age, there should be a strong focus on social and emotional markers of development as well as cognitive, because these set the conditions for optimised learning in the early years and continue to strongly influence a child’s ability to learn as they grow.
What are the ‘stages’ in learning?
As described in the WA Curriculum, students develop layers of skills and understandings in particular areas as they move through their schooling, and this may look different for different children, depending on a variety of factors including the context (location, cultural framework, physical and learning abilities) in which they are growing up. The curriculum describes the aim to layer learning: children move from familiar to unfamiliar experiences, from literal to figurative language, from concrete to inferential reading of texts, as some examples.
A read of the curriculum’s building blocks will likely tell you little about where your child is right now. Of course feedback from the classroom teacher and the tutor is much more helpful, but it also may be useful to think of your child’s learning in terms of the ‘4 Stages of Learning’, describing what’s going on inside our brains as we acquire new knowledge. Observing and talking with a child about their learning process will tell you where they are at in the stages of acquiring knowledge in an area they are currently studying.
For example, in Stage 1 of learning a new skill or concept, we are likely to feel confident because we ‘don’t know how much we don’t know’. In Stage 2 our confidence dips as we start to realise what we don’t yet have a handle on. In Stage 3 we start to gain confidence founded in increased ability/knowledge, and in Stage 4 our confidence peaks as we achieve ‘mastery’ and the activity becomes second-nature to us.
Conditions for optimal learning development
In considering how well your child is learning, a consideration of what makes for optimal learning is important. Here are 3 factors widely accepted as important to development.
A variety of ways to interact with the same concept or practise a skill matters in learning. For example: the WA curriculum for English addresses three interrelated strands across schooling: Language, Literature and Literacy. The aim is for students to engage in a variety of learning experiences including reading, writing, spoken language and viewing of visual information, and to do so using a variety of texts, in order to develop fundamental skills across broad areas and to prepare them for accessing the variety of texts they will encounter in the outside world.
There are developmental stages in acquiring mastery in particular subjects, that have to do with fundamental understandings. For example: in mathematics – ‘number sense’ describes the innate comprehension of how numbers work in the context of real life, and the development of number sense comes in stages, including abilities like counting a collection and understanding that the final number represents the whole group. In another example, many children struggle with learning fractions because they’ve missed the fundamental understanding that a fraction means ‘part of a whole’; if they’ve missed this understanding, then fractions remain an arbitrary, intangible concept.
(For more on how mathematical understanding is built, you may wish to read the book How Children Learn Mathematics: A guide for parents and teachers, a comprehensive, classic text on the subject matter.)
In order to learn well, we need to feel good about learning and we ideally need to share the experience with others. Environments, experiences and teaching styles that are collaborative, reflective, goal-oriented, and encourage the development of a ‘growth mindset’ where process and effort are praised are some of the factors essential for a learner to confidently flourish and to love lifelong learning.
Liebeck, Pamela 1984, How Children Learn Mathematics: A guide for parents and teachers, Penguin Books, London.