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Building adaptive excellence



Peter Goss, School Education Program Director at Grattan Institute, looks at lessons learned in the classroom to develop a more adaptive system. 

A new Gonski review is examining how to achieve educational excellence for Australia’s 3.8 million school students. The success of the review will ultimately depend on whether its recommendations lead to better practice in the classroom. And the best way to improve classroom practice at scale is to develop a more adaptive education system.

To explain what I mean, let me tell you a story about three primary teachers I met in early 2015, whom I will call Kate, Naomi and Natalie.

Kate, Naomi and Natalie work in a disadvantaged regional New South Wales school I’ll call Bright Vale. Four years earlier, unable to tell which of their methods was really working, they were tearing their hair out. But by 2015 they could identify what was working best to help students learn, by regularly tracking each student’s capabilities in literacy and numeracy.

Now, Kate said, her job was better. Natalie talked about working harder, but being more efficient. Naomi even used the ‘a-word’, saying she felt more accountable than ever now that she knew exactly how much or how little her students were learning. In fact, they all felt accountable to the students and their parents, and to each other – not to some faceless bureaucrat. I was thrilled to hear it: this is the sort of collective accountability to which all professionals should aspire.

One surprise was that Kate’s students consistently made about two months more progress each year. What was she doing differently? Kate settled her kids down more quickly. So Naomi and Natalie focused on better routines at the start of each lesson. That is, they changed their ways based on evidence. And it worked.

This story is not about the virtues of managing classroom behaviour. Nor is it actually about gathering more data. As their principal explained: “It’s the dialogue, not the data.”

The point of the story is the use of data to adapt teaching practices, and continually evaluating what is (and isn’t) working. All teachers should keep doing the things that help students learn more, and stop or change the things that don’t.

But Naomi and Natalie only discovered that Kate was doing something different and better because they had good data about their students’ progress that made them ask the question.

Therein lies the rub. Tracking student progress is hard to do. Teachers need “small data” that they trust, gathered regularly enough to inform the way they teach. The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) doesn’t do that, nor was it designed to.

Schools seem to find it particularly hard to use data to improve teaching. In my 2015 Grattan Institute report Targeted Teaching, I found many schools were trying to use data better, but I did not find a single school that had nailed the process without outside help.


An adaptive education system needs nested feedback loops at multiple levels.

An adaptive education system needs nested feedback loops at multiple levels.

So how had Bright Vale improved so much so quickly? The answer lay in part in the school’s own efforts, but even more in the support it had received from outside. A NSW department program called Early Action for Success had provided better tools to assess learning; more time for teachers to collaborate; and access to an expert instructional leader to show how use of small data could improve teaching.

The other teachers liked what they saw of Kate, Naomi and Natalie’s new, more systematic approach, and the principal rolled the model out across the whole school. Rather than telling Bright Vale exactly what to do, the education system had created an environment where the school would improve by adaptive, local decision making.

Bright Vale is no fluke. Early Action for Success has been implemented in more than 400 NSW primary schools. Principals have broadened the program in more than 70 per cent of schools, and a recent evaluation confirms that teaching practices are changing for the better.

My visit to Bright Vale got me thinking. If rigorous use of data can help teachers in a deeply disadvantaged school decide which practices to keep, which to stop, and which to start, could we embed adaptive improvement across all schools in Australia?

Australia has many bright spots, many Bright Vales. And we have many local examples of continuous improvement. But we do not have an adaptive education system that systematically identifies and spreads excellence, balancing local decision-making with top-down guidance and support.

The goal is not for all teachers to use exactly the same teaching methods. Teachers are responsible for how they teach their students (informed by the research), and for adapting their teaching over time to maximise impact. This is an inherently local process. The point is that it should not be done independently in every classroom. If each teacher or school tried to evolve and improve in isolation, we would never achieve the gains needed, because there would be no systemic learning or adoption of best practice.

To create a more adaptive education system, we must at a minimum bring three pieces together: an explicit focus on inputs (what is done), an equal focus on outcomes (what is measured), and a systematic learning process to decide what to do differently next time. In other words: Act, Evaluate and Adapt. Too many previous reform efforts have prioritised only one step of this feedback loop, not all three, and fallen short.

The Bright Vale story shows feedback being used to improve teaching within a school, but the same logic holds true at higher levels of the education system, as illustrated above right. Networks, dioceses or regions of schools within each state should use feedback to improve the support they offer schools; states should learn what works best at a network level; and so on.

The key to adaptive improvement is not more innovation, but better selection of what to keep. Education guru John Hattie captures this idea in his phrase “know thy impact,” an exhortation for teachers to track how much their students learn, and then use that information to inform their future practice. Making this the norm in classroom practice is no easy task: it will require changes at all levels of the system, including to the evidence base, career pathways, leadership capability, and reporting, accountability and governance.

So let’s cut to the chase. Here are four ways Australia can make its education system more adaptive, thereby improving student outcomes.

First, teachers and schools must be better able to track the progress of their students over time in ways that directly inform their teaching. Naomi and Natalie increased their focus on classroom routines because the data showed that Kate’s students were learning faster.

Second, we need to build better ways to spread and share information and practices, both within schools and across schools. Too often, schools waste time reinventing the wheel, rather than figuring out the best way to use pre-existing approaches in their local context.

Third, Australia should make better use of its most expert teachers, using them to teach other teachers and spread the word about what works best in the classroom. A key to Bright Vale’s success was the quality of its instructional leader. The teacher filling this role at Bright Vale did not have a class herself; instead, her day job was to equip Kate and her colleagues with the skills they needed to be more rigorous and adaptive in their teaching.

Fourth, teachers and school leaders should embrace the benefits that come from standardising elements of teaching practice. When I asked Natalie about being more efficient, she talked about the time and effort saved by using a common language about teaching and assessment. Standardising practice in core academic areas also creates more space to systematically innovate where the evidence isn’t strong, including how to help young Australians develop broader skills for a changing world.

Here’s the bottom line: To make these changes at scale, education policy makers need a new model of system leadership. Australia won’t achieve excellence in school education unless policy makers give practical support to teachers like Kate, Naomi and Natalie to help them rigorously adapt and improve their practices. It would be worth it: an adaptive education system would build professional responsibility, and ultimately transform all our schools.


School Education Program Director Dr Peter Goss joined Grattan in 2014, and has focused on how education systems and data can help schools and teachers adapt and improve their practice. Prior to joining Grattan, he spent more than 10 years as a strategy consultant, most recently with the Boston Consulting Group, and worked with Noel Pearson to improve education outcomes for Cape York primary school students. Pete trained as a biologist, with a focus on understanding complex systems. His discussion paper Towards an Adaptive Education System in Australia is available at and he posts on Twitter @peter_goss