Gonski 2.0: The good, bad and very ugly

The much anticipated Gonski 2.0 report has finally dropped and criticism has come in thick and fast. The report comes on the back of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools established by the Federal Government in July 2017 to provide advice on how to improve student achievement and school performance. It’s a big report sure to create waves in all education sectors in Australia and, just to be clear, I am not impressed with its recommendations. Here are the need-to-knows and my take on some of the report’s recommendations.

GONSKI 2.0 – Key Priorities

Commissioned to inform the government on future policy and funding arrangements, the report highlights 3 priority areas and 23 recommendations split into 5 areas of recommendation to support the achievement of the 3 priorities. The 3 priorities are:

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Priority 1 is Hattie’s punch line, which has been part of his push for a more evidence-informed teaching profession for a number of years. For what it is worth, I have no problems with the priority as much as the methods recommended for achieving the priority. What’s more, it strikes me as a rather obvious priority, at least from my perspective as a teacher, anyway.

My impression of priorities 2 and 3 is that they are nothing new, rather vague and definitely of a more progressive educational bent. Creative, connected, engaged, adaptive, innovative – these are all well-known progressive education buzzwords that provide very little direction for hardworking teachers who wish to increase the life-chances of their students. Further, the push to fundamentally change the education system and the education students receive has been a big political talking point amongst those of a more progressive inclination for a number of years now. These priorities seem to favour this view.

GONSKI 2.0 – Recommendations

The 23 recommendations to support achievement of the priorities are organised into 5 fairly predictable recommendation areas:
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The recommendation areas are predictable because they are already well-known areas of importance in discussions around raising student achievement. For example, educationalists have reached a consensus on the importance of recommendation area 3, and the New South Wales Ed Dept has already taken steps towards strengthening recommendation area 1. This is also true of the Australian Government with their push for Year 1 literacy and numeracy checks.

The Good

Recommendations related to better access and provision during the preschool years (recommendation 1) and better induction for preservice teachers (recommendation 14) are steps in the right direction. Many students come to school with poor language skills and are overcome by an irreversibly massive language gap. Providing better access and provision in the early years will help ensure kids are ready to access the school curriculum.

I’ve long been critical of preservice education and its disconnect with reality in the classroom. A structured program for transition into the classroom can only help, so long as teachers are involved. Many teachers will be very keen to involve themselves in helping new teachers become the best they can be. Schools that do this well will find success.

The Bad and The Ugly

Overall, the recommendations sorted into these 5 areas aren’t very informative and favour a progressive shift that is not based on any solid evidence. Most of the recommendations are obvious recommendations and do not include any clear, evidence-based directions systems, schools and teachers should take to enhance the quality of the education they provide. Furthermore, the recommendations are progressive in nature and make very bold, unsubstantiated claims about growth mindset, student choice, the need for extreme forms of differentiation, and personalised learning.

Recommendations 2, 3 and 8 emphasise the need for parent/carer, student and community engagement respectively, but do not provide any clear, evidence-based guidelines on how to improve on what schools are already doing to engage stakeholders in student learning. Bafflingly, the report seems to attribute differences in school-readiness and initial achievement to the work of a parent in instilling a growth mindset in the child, this being written while a very large study on growth mindset highlighted the very small positive effects of growth mindset interventions. The report also recommends the very vague idea of giving students a ‘voice’ and hints at more choice; however, a discussion on some of the evidence in this area is missing, which makes it hard for me to take the recommendation seriously. Teachers have been experimenting with student choice for a long time, and there are solid arguments against this practice. Why weren’t they included?

A renewed focus on general capabilities, including critical and creative thinking, is also recommended, this despite there being zero evidence that critical and creative thinking are at all general. They are, in fact, highly constrained to the domain in which a person must think critically or creatively. Just because you can think critically about the best way to attack the enemy in Call of Duty does not mean you can think critically about the reasons for the French Revolution. It is not a general skill, but the report does not acknowledge that.

Recommendations 9-15 for recommendation area 3 are particularly concerning for me as they relate directly to classroom practice. The report acknowledges the key role teachers play in student achievement, yet fails to realise that the fastest way to ensure a dip in student achievement and/or a mass exodus of teachers out of the profession is to move teachers away from their expertise. That’s what the report recommends here, calling for a shift away from “a 20th-century model” of education to a renewed focus on personalised learning for the 21st century:

“Shifting to an education model focused on attainment through maximising the learning growth of every student every year requires teachers to embrace changes to their planning, teaching and assessment practice. For example, they need to understand individual students’ starting points; create multi-streamed, differentiated lesson plans for each class; adjust their pedagogy to the different needs of individual students based on evidence about the most effective interventions; seek and act upon feedback from students and provide more nuanced reporting on assessments of students’ performance and the next steps in their learning; ensure their growth in learning is appropriate given the student’s potential; and identify ‘flight paths’ for where the student needs to be to maximise learning growth each year.” (my emphasis)

This is not the same as calling for teachers to get better year-on-year. There is a distinct difference between developing expertise and changing expertise altogether. It’s not a good idea to move teachers away from their expertise. How can we expect teachers to get better if we expect them to do that?

Conclusion

Perhaps what is most awful about this report is what is not included. No mention of direct instruction; no mention of the need for better phonics provision; no mention of the fundamental role knowledge plays in reading development and academic success. These are all key areas of debate that have been completely left out of the report in favour of vague, utopian progressive ideas.

Teachers better brace themselves for a rocky few years, it’s about to get weird.

 

 

 

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3 Things Preservice Training Should Focus On

On Sunday, I wrote a post about preservice teachers participating in a trial of flipped learning and my dismay at this news. I suggested that preservice teachers have better things to focus on in their first years of learning how to teach. I made it clear that I do not mind if individual schools wish to implement flipped learning as a pedagogical approach. I believe schools should have the flexibility to implement any approach they think will suit their context and move the results of their students forward. Upon implementation, teachers would then, of course, need to undertake training in this particular type of pedagogy.

Training preservice teachers in the approach is an entirely different matter. Remember, preservice teachers literally do not know a thing about classroom teaching. They haven’t got the first clue how to do it effectively. Preservice training should focus on the most basic knowledge and skills necessary to gain at least a baseline level of competence and hold off on more specialised pedagogical approaches like flipped learning. Teachers can gain specialised training later on. My last post got me thinking about key things preservice training should focus on to give new teachers the best chance of success (hint: not flipped learning).

Focus on universal elements of instruction

Preservice training should focus on teaching preservice teachers the rationale behind and the best way to implement universal elements of instruction. When it comes to instruction, the actual act of delivering a lesson as a classroom teacher, this paper is particularly enlightening. It provides good examples of universal practices preservice teachers should be discussing, critiquing and practising. It’s not at all obvious how to implement these effectively; you actually have to learn how (and why) to implement them.

Consider the first principle:

  1. Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning. Daily review can strengthen previous learning and can lead to fluent recall. 

Daily review is an important aspect of instruction because it combats the forgetting curve and strengthens recall. It, therefore, enables students to think critically and creatively about a topic. It’s not obvious how to implement daily review effectively – and if you are a primary teacher, it’s not at all obvious how daily review might differ across subjects. It’s a complex topic: What should review look like in each subject? Is Maths review different to Science review? Should it be individual or group-based?  What should be included and how do I work this out? Should it include what was covered yesterday/last week/last month and how much of each? How long should it go for? 5 mins/ 10 mins/ 20 mins? What’s the best way for students to do review – pen and paper? Will age of the students impact how it is done?

A lot of new teachers make the mistake of not consistently implementing review in their lessons, and when they do, it might not be as effective as it could be. I think this has a lot to do with preservice teachers: 1) not truly understanding its purpose, and 2) not knowing how to implement it properly (I’m speaking from personal experience here). Daily review is an example of a particular aspect of teaching that is universal; it’s a core, basic aspect of classroom teaching applied across all lessons and all pedagogical approaches. It’s a great example of what teachers should be focussing on during their preservice training.

Focus on building content and pedagogical content knowledge

Preservice training should also focus on strengthening the content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge of preservice teachers. Many studies have highlighted the trouble preservice and in-service primary teachers have with some pretty basic concepts. For example, only 18% of in-service teachers, and 9% of preservice teachers, correctly identified the word box as having 4 speech sounds. Strengthening content knowledge is pretty straightforward: give preservice teachers lectures and stuff to read and then test them (it’s not quite that simple, but you get my point: they need to read).

Building pedagogical content knowledge is just as important. All primary teachers know how to add 6/10 + 3/5, but teaching students how to do this is another thing entirely. Suppose a child adds 6/10 to 3/5 and writes 9/15. What should the teacher do then? It’s not straightforward and knowing how to proceed is key. A teacher needs the pedagogical content knowledge to: 1) anticipate the error and understand why it might occur, 2) choose the correct model(s) to help explain the concept, and 3) have a rough idea of how to approach the error and teach. Stephen Norton, an academic at Griffith University, teaches his preservice teachers to do exactly that. The following is an excerpt from this fascinating paper on the work Norton does to build PCK – it is a response from one of his preservice teachers to the 6/10 + 3/5 = 9/15 example described.  It’s powerful stuff and I believe it should be a focus in preservice training everywhere; not just in mathematics, but in all subjects.

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Importantly, building strong PCK will have a very real impact on the ability of new teachers to teach responsively within a lesson. Teachers do not have time to stop and consider what they are seeing in front of them; they must act quickly. PCK will help new teachers make better decisions for better learning right at the point of feedback, just as AfL always intended.

As far as possible, focus on behaviour management for tough classrooms

Lastly, preservice training should focus on equipping teachers with sound knowledge in how to manage difficult behaviour. I will caveat this point by acknowledging that school leadership has a profound impact on student behaviour, and therefore there is only so much teachers can do within the framework set by school leaders, but nevertheless, training can only help. Australia has a behaviour problem so new teachers are likely to encounter some pretty difficult classes. It’s easy to get lost in the romantic dream of becoming a schoolteacher. It can be quite shocking to discover how tough it can be once you finally begin teaching a class(es) full time. Teachers need to be prepared. Not just because teacher wellbeing depends on it, but also because tough classrooms that lack good behaviour management risk poor progress before instruction even takes place.

Most misbehaviour reported by teachers – low-level disruption, namely talking out of turn and hindering other children –  is amendable by the teacher. Relatively minor behaviour problems may seem trivial, but they are ultimately time-wasting, irritating and exhausting. Preservice training must encourage teachers to avoid explanatory fictions of problems with the child or problems in the home, no matter how valid they could be, in favour of possible causes and solutions within the classroom. After all, it does not matter if Jesse is poor and exhibits trait extroversion, what happens in the class is all the teacher can control. We must help preservice teachers realise that all classroom behaviour of this type is learnt and that changes in classroom behaviours can be manipulated through strong modelling, by providing opportunities for practice,  and by handing out purposeful rewards and judicious consequences (see here and here).

Severe behaviour is an entirely different ball game. This is where strong school leadership really matters. Teachers who work in tough schools will tell you that there are some behaviours that are almost impossible to manage without significant levels of support from school leadership. If they are not managed by strong leaders and consistent teachers, then severe behaviour can cause major learning and social-emotional problems in the classroom. Preservice teachers should have some background in what leaders can and should do to protect classes from constant high-level disruption, emotional stress and possible violence (for teacher, students and perpetrator). After all, they are going to be future school leaders themselves.

My three focus areas are not meant to be exhaustive. I’ve written about them because I believe all three of these areas were overlooked as unimportant, perhaps because they are ‘too obvious’. But they are core to what we do as teachers. Without them, I really struggled (and, naturally, continue to in many ways). I’m only 2.5 years in. I’ve had to do the reading since graduating and man oh man it would have helped if I began reading sooner. I only wish others could have it a little easier (flipped learning ain’t going to cut it).

Flipped learning is the wrong focus for preservice teachers

An article promoting flipped learning was published in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday. It describes flipped learning as a ‘new’ teaching method, which isn’t exactly true; many on Twitter note flipped learning hit the scene a decade ago. Like most Edufads, the concept was taken up with some enthusiasm but inevitably hit the backburner as its promise of great change through innovation did not transpire. Nevertheless, it seems that some wish to persist with the idea because Macquarie University is now trialling the model with 70 preservice teachers. This bothers me. Flipped learning has a lot of problems – valid questions about its reliance on student motivation, accessibility, and underestimation of the teacher’s role in building foundational knowledge, still remain. I feel that there are other things they should focus on. Training teachers in the method will come at the expense of precious teaching time for other, more important, aspects of teacher knowledge and skill development. The news that preservice teacher courses are pursuing things like flipped learning creates cognitive dissonance for me. It’s the latest example of a lack of focus. I feel teachers should have education at university level, but if courses are providing C grade training, maybe other options will be better for everyone – systems, teachers and students.

There are problems with the approach. Accessibility was raised as an issue on Twitter. Accessibility may not seem like a big deal, but it can be if you are poor or from a rural community. Even in 2018, some families do not have laptops or iPads with endless streams of data on which to view videos. Some families may rely solely on smartphones with limited data plans. This isn’t at all sufficient because learning new content will take more than one playthrough, and videos could be rather long if they’re dealing with complex topics. This issue becomes even more complex if you are from a rural community where access to services is quite limited. There are legitimate equity concerns here – introducing technology as a core element of the teaching process is okay for some but tricky for others. Granted, I believe this problem is the easiest to overcome in comparison to some of the other issues, but it is still worth considering.

Let’s assume a student does have access. What then? Flipped learning introduces foundational knowledge through video presentation before class. The idea is that this will then allow for ‘deeper’ learning in class. This places a heavy reliance on student engagement and motivation because the teacher implementing flipped learning needs to rely on all students actually viewing and grappling the material before class. The teacher must assume all students are sufficiently motivated to grapple with new academic content at home. This is pretty unlikely because learning is more analogous to a painful marathon than an adrenaline-fueled sprint. Learning requires a lot of due diligence; a lot of sweat and toil. Humans will often forgo what is best for them in the long-term for what is gratifying in the short-term, and young people are probably even more prone to this lack of self-control. When you are at home faced with new content you know nothing about, have very little initial interest in, and with no one there to keep you accountable (like a teacher), you’re probably going to procrastinate, perhaps forget to do it, and be completely lost in class the next day. Students who have consistently good self-control are the exception, not the rule.

But again, let’s assume a student does have access to a computer, overcomes the urge to procrastinate and decides to watch the video content. There are still significant problems to overcome. Teachers are experts in the content they teach (most of the time) and therefore suffer from the curse of knowledge. Being an expert blinds you to how difficult acquiring basic knowledge in a subject area really is. An introductory video on the causes of the Peloponnesian War might seem pretty straightforward to a history teacher, but it isn’t to the 16yr old who knows very little of the ancient context the war was set in. The student is likely to come away with more questions than answers and suffers without a teacher there to fill in the gaps the video is likely to leave. And in actual fact, the student may not even notice that they do not understand (Dunning-Kruger Effect). Education continually underestimates the importance of knowledge and how tough it is to acquire. The flipped learning concept makes the same mistake.

These problems – accessibility, a naive reliance on motivation, and flawed pedagogy – make me uneasy about training impressionable preservice teachers in its methods. Not only that, but training teachers in a questionable method leaves less time for work on more important foundational knowledge and skills. We know, for example, that teachers have serious problems with basic language concepts, and this isn’t addressed in pre-service training. In one study, just 9% of preservice teachers identified box as having 4 speech sounds. This indicates the preservice teachers’ general knowledge of core language concepts is not adequate. This actually matters. Taking the box example, for… example, if you know box has four speech sounds, you can also explain to students why we do not double x when adding a suffix beginning with a vowel ( box – boxing – boxed; sip – sipped – sipping). Granted, this example relates to primary education, but I am pretty confident in inferring there are similar problems in secondary preservice teaching courses where flipped learning is likely more prevalent. I argue time and teaching resources would be better spent on foundational knowledge and skills like these (as well as evidence-based methods to impart that knowledge) instead of flipped learning. Naturally, if a school wishes to adopt flipped learning as a specialised strategy (ill-advised IMO), then that is, of course, fine, but preservice teaching is for core basic training, not for training specialised strategies.

The news that education courses are flirting with flipped learning has put some doubts in my mind about the validity of pre-service teaching courses and whether they will ever reform to address their flaws. Teacher educators are at least partly to blame for this as it is widely known university education departments tend to turn a blind-eye to impartiality and the scientific method. I am also aware that red-tape riddles education courses and there are, therefore, some restrictions on how much they can truly change. I have argued for universities’ continued role in teacher training in the past, but now I am beginning to have my doubts. Perhaps other arrangements could be explored. I am not exactly sure what that would look like, but perhaps an on-the-job internship program after finishing a 3- or 4- year bachelor’s degree might benefit everybody. Teachers in NSW already have extra time off class in their first 2 years of employment. Maybe new teachers could be placed into part-time internship positions with added study and training requirements? Who knows. All I do know is that they should be required to teach, watch others teach, and read and read a lot (and certainly not about flipped learning). I cannot attest to it being the solution, but it could be better.