Floors and ceilings in education; what limits are we placing on students and teachers?

HomeThought LeadershipInsightFloors and ceilings in education; what limits are we placing on students...

Floors and ceilings in education; what limits are we placing on students and teachers?

By Dr Nina Hood

I’ve recently been reflecting on the expectations I had for my students when I was a secondary school teacher. While I believe that I did hold high expectations for my students, I did not always follow this up with the support and insistence on learning that was needed. I wanted to encourage students to build ownership of their learning and to self-regulate their behavior, but I did not establish the necessary conditions or supports to enable all students to build these capabilities. The result was that I unintentionally created what Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine in their recent book In Search of Deeper Learning call a low floor. I let some students slide by.

Mehta and Fine utilise the metaphor of floors and ceilings to explore the constraints and enablers that operate within a school or education system. Essentially, floors are the minimum expectations we have for students (and teachers), while ceilings are the limits imposed on learning and teaching. It’s a clever metaphor, and has made me question, what are the explicit – or more frequently implicit and unintentional – floors that New Zealand schools establish for their students? And, what structural, systemic and behavioural ceilings are placed on students’ learning?

In visits to, admittedly, a very small sample of classrooms around the country, I have been concerned by what I often have observed to be low floors. I have been struck by the seeming acceptance of off-task behavior, the lack of urgency or focus on learning, and at times the limited depth or rigour of the learning tasks.

Floors in an education system are not only driven by teacher behaviours and expectations but also can be established through imposed, top-down initiatives. National standards or the better public service target of 85% of students achieving Level 2 could be considered a form of a floor. Both established a basic standard that schools and their students were expected to meet. However, both initiatives demonstrated the risks associated with imposing basic standards as an accountability measure. They created unanticipated incentives, which drove behavior and actions that were not always aligned to the best interests of the students, including the lowering of ceilings and a narrowing of focus.

External ceilings similarly exist in our education system. Ceilings perhaps are most frequently discussed in relation to the constraining impact of NCEA. There is a constant tension in secondary schools between ensuring that students successfully achieve under NCEA (what can be described as the certification purpose of schooling) without limiting teaching and learning to simply “teaching to the test”.

I have heard plenty of anecdotal evidence of students not doing work if they will not receive credits for it. Given the current workload under NCEA, this is not an unreasonable form of self-preservation on the part of students. It does, however, mean that in many instances work is framed primarily as preparation for external assessments (here referring to a centralised assessment system, which in the case of NCEA encompasses both internal and external standards) rather than as something of intrinsic interest or purpose. Learning in these instances is focused on compliance rather than meaningful engagement. To get to the types of deeper learning that Mehta and Fine discuss in their book, it is necessary to spark intellectual curiosity and joy in students, something that is not always easy to pair with “teaching to the test”.

These issues currently are being explored by several of our Bright Spots Awardees. For example, Bernie Wills is rethinking the way mathematics is taught in secondary schools. While learning continues to be focused on NCEA assessments, Bernie is trying to provide students with greater autonomy over the learning process. He also is clear that he wants to extend his work to a point where students are still able to earn credits but the teaching and learning process moves beyond this to also focus on the utilisation of diverse mathematical knowledge to collaboratively solve complex problems. That is, deeper learning.

Similarly, Chris Waugh and Renee Plunkett in their microcredentialing project are exploring how rethinking the way secondary schools structure assessment can develop greater agency in students. In particular, they are interested in how they can encourage more students to go beyond just the basic requirements of an activity, to voluntarily extend their thinking and engagement. For them, a rethinking and reframing of assessment becomes a way to lift the ceiling and to expand students’ learning.

The connection between assessment and educational ceilings discussed in relation to both Bright Spots projects takes on added significance in light of the recently released changes to NCEA. When I was teaching, I always felt constrained by the NCEA assessments my students would be sitting at the end of the year. I felt a deep obligation to ensure that I prepared them adequately, but I also wanted their learning experiences to go beyond just preparing for an exam. With the changes that are coming to NCEA, it is important that we consider how these may constrain or enable deeper learning in New Zealand secondary schools.


Dr Nina Hood

Nina is responsible for the strategic direction and day-to-day operations of The Education Hub. She is a trained secondary school teacher, and taught at Epsom Girls Grammar and Mt Roskill Grammar in Auckland. She undertook an MSc (with distinction) in learning and technology, and a DPhil in Education at the University of Oxford. Since returning to New Zealand in mid-2015, Nina has been employed as a lecturer at the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, where she specialises in new technologies in education.

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