“We have a whole rhetoric about discovery learning, constructivism, about learning styles that has got zero evidence for them anywhere.”
Professor John Hattie, now Chair of AITSL, Keynote address to AITSL, November 2011
I feel a certain amount of discomfort in addressing this issue. From time-to-time, The Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) releases a new set of illustrations to demonstrate how teachers can meet the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers; a set of standards that it curates.
These illustrations generally consist of a video where a dedicated and probably quite proud teacher talks about and demonstrates his or her practice. It is not my wish to hold these committed professionals up to criticism and so all I intend to do is link once to the whole body of science and mathematics illustrations. If you wish to track through them then you will find the specific items that I will refer to.
The purpose here is to point out that AITSL is still releasing new illustrations that are totally at odds with the expressed views of its Chair, John Hattie; illustrations that are also at odds with the evidence more broadly on effective teaching methods.
For instance, one exemplar school is described in the following way in the illustrations:
“Through this approach [The School] seeks to develop student skills in collaboration, team-work, compromise, creativity and problem-solving, and to accentuate more activity-based discovery learning, project-based learning, and genuine team-based inquiry which are all important in developing STEM knowledge and skills.” [my emphasis]
The video demonstrates how a teacher uses a range of strategies in an attempt to teach difficult concepts which seem more related to computer science than the maths teaching that the video is supposed to be about. Perhaps this is the ‘computational thinking’ that Labor leader Bill Shorten recently took to Twitter to promote. The teacher also sticks notes under the students’ chairs as a way of allocating them to different groups. It is unfortunate that graduate teachers will see this and think it is what experienced teachers do – we’ve all performed these kinds of tricks when being observed but they are time-consuming to prepare and there are far more efficient ways of arranging students in groups.
In another new video, a physics teacher explains that, “I don’t really want to give them more explicit instruction than that; I would rather hold back a bit of information and then have to come in later and give some more help, than to lay it all out in front of them.” Which is quite in keeping with a discovery learning, constructivist approach. Is this good practice? Is this the standard that all Australian teachers should meet? If so, why?
In the “Learning Context” section of another new maths video we are reliably informed that;
“These innovations are based on or derived from the understanding that students learn best through discovery, research & development processes and realistic applications.” [my emphasis]
And in a new science video, the teacher tells us that the students, “need to explore a little bit so that they can build some of that knowledge themselves before we go into a more detailed explanation.” A statement entirely consistent with constructivist approaches to teaching.
In general, the science and mathematics sections seem to focus on what you might call ‘higher order thinking skills‘ or things that aren’t really skills at all like ‘collaboration’ or ‘creativity’. In fact, simply doing lots of group work in order to encourage ‘collaboration’ is unlikely to be effective due to the problem of social loafing. Yet these illustrations promote group work and don’t explain how this problem can be dealt with (see here for some suggestions if you’re really that committed to group work). Instead, a new teacher is likely to conclude that group work = good.
The science illustrations generally focus on scientific inquiry with lots of hypothesising and experimenting and not much actual science teaching taking place. This confuses epistemology with pedagogy.
And we must bear in mind that all of the illustrations that I have mentioned here have been released since John Hattie took over as Chair.