Benefits of embedding LLN support over deficit testing and special support programs
One of the best things we can do for learners is recognise their specific needs and adjust how we go about providing training. Some learners seem to struggle more than others and that may be an indicator that language, literacy and numeracy skills are not aligned with learning outcomes. The usual way to determine if there is a gap between the level of skill required and what learners possess is to implement a diagnostic test. Learners respond to diagnostic questions and their responses are measured by an assessor against numeric skill indicators defined in the Australian Core Skills Framework (ACSF). Core skills are categorised into functional domains of learning, reading, writing, oral communication and numeracy, each measured on a scale of one through five. Adults are expected to be able to participate in social, employment and educational interactions to at least the minimum level one but are likely to participate comfortably at higher levels. It has been suggested that adults need to be at level three to have a reasonable change of getting through life reasonably well while those who may be measured lower than that may experience difficulties. All of that can feel alarming to a learner who is asked to undertake a diagnostic test. Questions about what the results may reveal about them can be confronting. Learners may be led to believe the resultant number has something to do with their ability to get by in life. And that can create a feeling of unease and victimisation.
I do not think that any educator wants to make learners feel victimised by asking them to participate in a core skills diagnostic. Educators do that because they want to offer targeted learning support aimed at assisting learners to overcome weaknesses that may impede their achievement of learning outcomes. In Vocational Education and Training, providers are required to provide support when they agree to take learners into their programs.
“The RTO determines the support needs of individual learners and provides access to the educational and support services necessary…”Standards for RTOs 2015, Clause 1.7
Diagnostic testing is the method most often used to determine learner abilities. It can, however, be done without endangering learner sense of self-esteem. A major flaw with results from core skills diagnostic testing is they are often limited to conceptual structures based in curriculum. The problem with that is diagnostic results can wrongfully assume weakness in particular areas due to failure to respond to questions based on pre-determined expected methodologies and answers. While that may be true in some cases, people can overcome weaknesses by applying strengths in other areas to provide an alternative correct response. When that happens, it is difficult to accurately measure core skills by a static defined list of parameters. If the measure is incorrect there is risk that subsequent targeted learning support may not truly reflect what is needed.
Notice, in Clause 1.7, it does not define how training providers must determine support needs of individual learners. Only that it needs to be done. Determining support needs can begin with a conversation in which learners have the opportunity to express their attitudes, experiences, motivations and goals for undertaking learning. Educators can ask probing questions during such a conversation to really understand the contextual background and how core skills have been applied in the past. Doing that enables a partnership to form in which the educator aims to understand where the learner is coming from. Learners can feel comfortable that the educator is interested in them and wants to help them learn and achieve their goals. If further diagnostic testing is warranted, questions can be tailored to match the learner’s context ensuring the experience is familiar to them. For example, having a conversation with a learner who comes from a finance background may centre around how they work out interest rate payments. Speaking with a learner from the construction industry may include how Pythagoras’ theorem is used to ensure perfect rectangles. The defined skill for doing those two things meet the same ACSF core skill level for numeracy, however each person may struggle to answer questions that are not related to what they have previously experienced and are familiar with. It would be all too easy to assume an ability deficit if we ask the same questions for every person.
There are two distinct benefits from applying a conversational approach instead of deficit diagnostic testing. First, Learners will feel more comfortable expressing their needs within a contextual frame that relates to their needs and what they are setting out to achieve. We are not asking about ability gaps; we are asking about experiences that relate to core skills. They will share information about attributes, qualities, strategies and concepts they intend to bring forward into their learning. Educators can use that information to ensure learning relevance matching learner motivations and goals. Secondly, educators may continuously improve learning resources that respond to learner cohort backgrounds. That means rather than needing to develop individual learning support for identified deficits, entire programs can be continuously improved based on identified needs for the benefit of all current and future learners.
Note: This article was published inVET Mazagine. Thank you to Insources for valuing my contribution.