Targeted Stage-based Learning Model that Fosters Growth for Individual Students

The focus is on stage, not age, at Suncoast Christian College
Focusing on the individual's learning stage.

All teachers want their students to become more confident, to operate better as part of a group, to be more assertive, independent learners and better problem-solvers. These are the benefits we see emerging in our school as we move towards a stage-based approach, one where every child will be taught at their point of need.

The fundamental difference between traditional year levels and a stage-based approach, is in the way the curriculum is planned and delivered. Our integrated curriculum is planned to reflect the developmental stages of the children. By placing the focus on stage, not age, we are finding that children also make friends outside of their standard age-groups, develop tolerance, role modelling and cooperation.

Since 2018, our Primary School has been making incremental changes to the way we deliver learning as we transition towards this stage-based approach. The change has been slow and methodical, and has involved us bringing on board key teachers in each year level and gradually evolving our pedagogy.

Changes in our pedagogical approach were needed to reflect this. It required teachers to move away from the traditional siloed classroom, where it was challenging for a solo teacher to achieve differentiation and targeted teaching for individual students.

Research, and our insights indicate that children in multi-age learning groups appear to be more caring and cooperative with each other. Diverse social groups provide opportunities for the older children to reflect on the needs of the younger ones and they are more likely to see the younger children to be in need of their care and help. Older children provide valuable role models for the younger children both socially and academically.

Purpose-built classrooms
Our desire to bring about innovation in teaching and learning coincided beautifully with the plan to design and begin construction on a new, purpose-built Primary Precinct.

The journey towards a stage-based approach informed our understanding of what we would require from a new purpose-built facility, as we had started to play with spaces and movement of students across classrooms, with the purpose of delivering targeted small-group lessons by different teachers within the stage. We established a close working relationship with the design team and workshopped with our teaching teams to identify the most significant needs of a new learning space, one that would accommodate our pedagogy and vision.

The new campus will feature some of the most advanced school buildings on the Sunshine Coast. The new building has been designed specifically for a collaborative ‘team-teaching’ model that replaces traditional classrooms with flexible learning spaces. The building will accommodate years 1 through 6, with the students split into three cohorts, each taught by a team of six teachers and teachers’ assistants in spaces with dedicated and adaptable learning areas over two levels.

Outside of modifying the learning space, our experience has shown that the journey towards a stage-based model should be based on some key considerations:

1 The need for targeted teaching and learning in order to see maximum growth in each of our students
Our reason for adopting a stage-based approach is to be able to plan for and deliver more targeted lessons through small ability groups. This means teachers can work in teams to each target one group of students, who are roughly at the same level (determined through a topic-specific pre-test) and move them a greater distance in their learning.

Over the years, our collection of data has indicated we are seeing more growth in individual students when their learning is targeted in this way. This model also caters for a far greater differentiation spread than a single teacher in one classroom could ever achieve for students. And it gives students two years of exposure to stage content that results in far better consolidation of skills and understanding than a single year level approach might achieve.

The spatial flexibility of the new facility reflects and enhances the school’s pedagogical adaptability, with the school teaching more by stage than age, with learning based on a child’s level in each subject.

2 Collaborative teaching teams that strive for collective efficacy
This refers to the shared belief that through their collective action, teachers can “positively influence student outcomes, including those who are disengaged or disadvantaged (Hattie, 2016)”. Bringing the teams together and building trust and efficacy has been the greatest challenge for us over the past four years.

Teachers have had to change their mindset and let go of intrinsic control and personal philosophies in order to produce a greater benefit for students.

Combining team-based teaching, with flexible and collaborative learning spaces, will be the ideal environment for our teachers to thrive in providing inquiry-based teaching, imbuing students with the creativity, communication and critical thinking skills essential for tomorrow’s world.

3  Students who demonstrate agency as learners
One of our big focuses in moving to a stage-based approach has been the development of learning identity and character in our students. This has included a lot of work around positive mindset and the work of Carol Dweck, the learning pit as a visual analogy of what learning looks like (adopted from James Nottingham’s idea) and why failure is important.

We have seen our students build greater learning independence, working alongside a greater variety of teachers, taking ownership of their learning, and prioritising their learning tasks through a model we developed and refer to as ‘Learning Priorities’. This gives our students time each week to reflect on their learning and decide independently where they need to invest more time for revision, finishing and submitting tasks, or to be ready for any upcoming assessment.

Flexible learning spaces
As we started our journey in a traditional building with single classrooms, we needed to be creative in making our learning spaces more flexible to accommodate a stage-based approach. The learning spaces in our primary school have been transformed over the past four years by knocking out adjoining walls and replacing old traditional desks and chairs with flexible furniture that compliments the programs and pedagogy of small group movement across our spaces.

The design of our new Primary Precinct will enable a wonderful execution of all these adaptations, including much needed tailored acoustics. The flexible nature of the facility means that spaces can be made to host intimate, specialist sessions with five pupils, up to dynamic, inclusive sessions with a hundred.

Developmental stages
Teachers who have the opportunity to progressively implement and refine a stage-based integrated curriculum that reflects the developmental stages of children, will see that the results greatly outweigh the challenges. For our students, the outcome has been a community of more confident learners who have agency in their growth.

Liana Simpson is Head of Teaching and Learning for prep to Year 6 at Suncoast Christian College, located on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. Established in 1979, the College is known for its sense of community and true commitment to excellent Christian education for Sunshine Coast families.