WHO would have thought? Based on research detailed in a recent report entitled What Works Best, the NSW Education Department and Education Minister Adrian Piccoli have identified what constitutes effective classroom teaching and learning.
Apparently, teachers need to teach, students need a clear understanding of what is expected, classrooms need a disciplined, focused environment and there needs to be a rigorous curriculum embodying high standards.
The NSW report concludes “some of the clearest findings indicate the value of refocusing on the basics” and notes that “students who experience explicit teaching practices perform better than students who do not”.
In addition to explicit teaching the report lists effective feedback, high expectations, use of data and classroom management as some of the key factors that lead to improved outcomes.
After years of often fruitless controversy and debate about the impact of education fads such as open classrooms, discovery learning and constructivism, where children take control of their own learning, it appears the tide has finally turned.
Take the example of open planned classrooms, increasingly popular in primary schools, where children are free to move around and teachers “facilitate” instead of direct the class from the front of the room.
Such classrooms are based on the mistaken belief that more traditional forms of teaching treat students as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge.
After evaluating several schools in Sydney, Kiri Mealings, a PhD candidate at Macquarie University, in a comment piece published on the Conversation website, concluded “most children were annoyed by the noise, and 50-70 per cent of children surveyed said they could not hear their teacher very well or at all”.
Teachers also suffer because of open classrooms. “Teachers we visited reported being more distracted by noise, found speech communication difficult and thought children had more difficulty hearing them, compared to teachers of the enclosed classrooms,” Mealings wrote.
The NSW report and research follows last year’s commonwealth-commissioned national curriculum review that also recommends a greater focus on explicit teaching, sometimes known as direct instruction, and more formal approaches to the early years of reading.
The review also highlights the need for memorisation, mental arithmetic and rote learning, which have been out of fashion for years and condemned as “drill and kill”. Developments in cognitive psychology prove, to be creative and able to master higher-order skills, students need to be able to recall the basics automatically.
As noted by John Sweller, from the University of NSW, in his submission to the national curriculum review, “Once knowledge has been stored in long-term memory, we are transformed. The limitations of working memory disappear and we can do things that we otherwise could not dream of doing.”
Boys, in particular, who have never been taught to read pause and stumble over every letter and word whereas accomplished readers are able to focus on meaning as the reading process is automatic.
This year’s commonwealth-commissioned report on teacher education, Action Now: Classroom Ready Teachers, also represents a significant turning point when it argues that what happens in the classroom should be based on sound evidence.
Instead of following the latest fashion or overseas experiment, the report recommends that teacher education faculties embrace “teaching practices or strategies that are based on research and data that is considered reliable and valid”.
The report on teacher education also recommends that teacher education faculties be held more accountable by evaluating how effective graduates are once they have entered the classroom.
The Australian research arguing for more balanced and evidence-based approaches to teaching and learning are supported by overseas developments. British education minister Nick Gibb, sparked a controversy late last year when he argued more traditional teaching methods were the most effective.
Following a visit to Shanghai by 70 mathematics teachers to observe Asian classrooms, Gibb said, “I would like to see schools across the country adopt whole class teaching methods, particularly in maths and science. Research shows it is significantly more effective than other methods that concentrate more on personalised learning.”
A British review of current classroom research reinforces the argument that the reason many English-speaking education systems fail to improve is because of ineffective fads.
The study, What Makes Great Teaching? Review of Underpinning Research, dispels several classroom orthodoxies that have bedevilled Australian classrooms. Overly praising students, especially when they are wrong, is counterproductive as it creates the impression that near enough is good enough.
So-called discovery learning, where students are self-directed, is not supported by the research as students, especially when undertaking a new activity or being presented with new subject matter, need clear, explicit and teacher-directed instruction.
The assumption that if students are sitting quietly and listening they are not learning anything (as real learning has to be active) is also misguided.
The belief that there are multiple learning styles and that teachers must individually fashion lessons to suit the needs of individual students is also mistaken.
The British study concludes: “The psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits for learning from trying to present information to learners in their preferred learning style.”
Of course, to say that the tide has turned and that there will be a greater focus on explicit teaching and a back-to-basics approach does not mean that progressive fads will disappear.
Unlike NSW, where the more traditional approach is being championed, the Victorian Education Department is investing in a new program.
Employing new-age cliches much loved by progressive, 21st-century educators, the program is designed to enable “students across the globe to develop skills to be lifelong learners; creative, connected and collaborative problem-solvers who can successfully participate and innovate in an increasingly connected world”.
Such jargon not only demonstrates a failure to communicate clearly, it also disguises an approach to teaching and learning that is far from evidence-based.
Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of "Dumbing Down". He co-chaired the Australian national curriculum review.