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Why we support teachers to diagnose students’ learning needs

The education profession is learning from the medical profession and it’s a good thing.


When you see a doctor, you are treated as an individual patient. Great care is taken to understand your condition and to work out the best options for treatment. In coming to a professional judgement, the doctor may look at test results, X-rays or a pattern of illness. The doctor wants to use the best possible evidence to see what is happening and how to best help.

New diagnostic tools are available for teachers in classrooms now, too. As the Gonski report indicated, and every good teacher knows, a classroom is full of individual learners – each with a different learning history. Different strengths, but some learning gaps as well.

Good teachers want to provide the right support to ensure a solid learning foundation is laid and make sure every student is making progress.

These new tools will greatly help our teachers diagnose where every student should be focusing next to be successful in learning. They are not designed to replace teachers but to support teachers to do their work well, just as a doctor relies on medical tests and assessments to inform professional judgement.

In about a quarter of our schools in the NSW public education system teachers have started using the new national Literacy and Numeracy Learning Progressions to guide their practice.

The Learning Progressions are not a checklist or a test. They are a national initiative to support and guide teachers, developed with the agreement of all Australian education ministers, based on extensive evidence. They describe common literacy and numeracy learning pathways for students from Kindergarten to Year 10 and are available for use by every Australian school.

I like how the progressions help teachers to focus on identifying learning gaps where, for some reason, a student lacks mastery and understanding. These gaps can inhibit further learning because the foundation is not solid and reliable. For example, if multiplying fractions is not well understood, then success in the next stages of numeracy will be very difficult. No wonder students struggle and disengage from learning.

The progressions help ensure every student is focusing on what they need to be learning next for success – be it making foundations more solid or pressing on to new work.

One of our instructional leaders in Wagga Wagga says, yes, this new framework has required a ‘mindset shift’ but fundamentally ‘core learning for students hasn’t changed’. This teacher and her colleagues are currently using the Learning Progressions to target teaching to individual student need, particularly in the early years. The progressions focus on each child, not on a class as a whole.

As an education system it is crucial we support teachers to get better at diagnosing students’ learning needs so they can then target evidence-based practice to individual students, particularly those most at risk of falling behind in their learning.

Like any profession, education can be jammed full of acronyms but I need to clear up some misconceptions in the Daily Telegraph report ‘Teachers ticked off’ (23 May 2018), which claimed that NSW teachers ‘are being forced to fill in more than 1000 questions about the progress of their students every five weeks as part of a bizarre new tracking system’ introduced by the NSW Department of Education.

The article claimed this was being done via a new program called ALAN (Assessing Literacy and Numeracy). This is not a program; it’s a website portal that directs staff to tools like PLAN2, the software we developed to support the new Literacy and Numeracy Learning Progressions. It’s where teachers can now record their classroom observations and plan for the next steps in their teaching.

Teachers who are using PLAN2 and the Learning Progressions are telling us that it’s useful to be able to monitor students in real time and then dissect the data to gain a more complete profile of each student, including tracking the learning growth. This allows teachers to then plan the next steps for teaching.

The information is far richer, timely and informative than other assessment options such as additional standardised tests.

Teachers are not required to use the Learning Progressions as a checklist or move through an impenetrable list of indicators. They certainly do not have to answer 1000 questions, any more than a doctor in diagnosing a patient needs to read every single page of a medical textbook. They use the Learning Progressions, instead, to help identify what a student needs next.

We will always listen to feedback from teachers to make these diagnostic tools better and we have provided additional resources and professional development to implement the new software and support the introduction of the Learning Progressions.

Parents should be reassured that this approach is designed to ensure schools are paying close attention to the progress made by every child. We want to identify learning gaps early, provide extra support where needed and ensure that every student is consistently improving and successfully engaged with school.

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Mark Scott

About the Secretary

Mark Scott is Secretary of the Department of Education. He has worked as a teacher, in public administration and as a journalist and media executive. He is committed to public education and learning environments where every child can flourish.

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