Yesterday was the day that researchED matured in Australia. It is a more difficult proposition down under due to the dispersal of our population and the fact that the main marketing channel – Twitter – does not have the reach with teachers that it enjoys in the UK. Nevertheless, a vanguard of about 180 cool kids made it to Brighton Grammar School in Melbourne for what turned out to be an exceptional day.
It started with an opening address from Tom Bennett and Ross Featherstone, the Principal of Brighton Grammar. Tom explained that researchED does not have a source of funding and survives on sponsorship and the fact that so many people are prepared to talk and help-out for free.
I then went to see Kerry Hempenstall. Kerry is a longtime advocate of Direct Instruction in Australia. He refers to this ‘Big DI’ and it represents the structured, scripted lessons developed according to the model of Siegfried Engelmann. My own, later presentation was about what Kerry would call ‘Little di’ or – using the term that I chose to use – ‘explicit instruction’. This is the wider group of practices to which Big DI belongs and so there was some overlap.
I am not an expert on Big DI and so I learnt a lot from Kerry, particularly about how teaching is structured so as to systematically run through examples and non-examples of a concept. Big DI is often caricatured as the rote memorisation of disconnected facts but Kerry pointed out that connecting concepts and generalising to unfamiliar situations, as well as the currently fashionable idea of spaced practice, are all built in to the Big DI model. The session ended with me wanting more and I resolved to read Engelmann and Carnine’s “Theory of Instruction” at some point in the not-too-distant future (I’ll first need to find a cheaper copy than this one).
I wrote down two Hempenstall quotes. The first was his claim that neuroscience is starting to show that, “Once something is learnt, the method by which it is learnt is largely irrelevant,” and the second quote was Kerry paraphrasing Engelmann on DI: “It’s not magic – it’s just attention to picky, picky detail.”
From here, we all moved on to the Keynote talk given by Geoff Masters of the ACER (amusingly referred to as “asser” by Tom Bennett). Masters started by discussing a recently released ACER report which outlines five challenges to education in Australia. Overriding all of this was concern about an absolute decline in Australian performance on international tests such as PISA since c. 2000. It is important to stress that this is absolute – our ranking hasn’t slipped just because other countries are doing better or because more countries are now participating, it’s slipped because today’s 15-year-olds know less than 15-year-olds did over a decade ago.
Masters was eloquent and possibly peerless in his ability to describe the scale and nature of the problem; everything from rising educational inequality to the declining quality of entrants to the teaching profession. He was also spot-on when he noted that politicians only ever talk about education funding and rarely discuss what this funding should be spent on.
Yet I have to question Masters’s proposed solution to our educational woes. His view is that we need to move away from a ‘traditional’ model of a Year Level curriculum on the quite reasonable grounds that children of the same age have very different needs. But seasoned educators will immediately see the practical problems with such an approach, just as we did when we watched the Ken Robinson TED talk where Robinson makes the same claim. Moreover, if our concern is sparked by international comparisons then I don’t see much evidence of the more successful countries dropping age-related curricula.
For the third session, I thought I’d take a look at Dan Haesler (I also wanted to see Pamela Snow and Gary Jones who were regrettably on at the same time). His area of interest is student engagement in education. You’re probably thinking that this is an odd choice for me and it certainly is not an area where I have any great expertise beyond that of any ordinary teacher.
I’ve read some of Haesler’s stuff before and he is a serious person. He doesn’t push the common shtick about funkifying your lessons. Instead, he presented some data from New South Wales about the connection that children feel to their schools. He suggested that we ask our students if there is someone in school who they feel they could go to with a serious issue and, if so, who. Would these potential lines of communication mirror the pastoral structures that the school has set-up? Probably not. Different students connect with different adults and we all have a role in well-being. I went to Dan’s talk with some of my colleagues and I think his ideas will feed in to an ongoing discussion that we’re having at the moment.
After lunch, I listened to Jen Buckingham talk about the role of think tanks in education policy. She was responding to a recent set of articles in The Australian Education Researcher that criticise the role of think tanks in the policy debate. I’ve been quite forthright in my view that this is a bit of a conspiracy theory. I think we should evaluate ideas on their merits rather than whether they come from think tanks or not. However, I learnt quite a few things about how Australian think tanks work, how they are different to U.S. based think tanks and some of the philosophy underpinning Buckingham’s think tank, The Centre for Independent Studies. Some of the teachers in the audience would probably have liked to hear more about the Five from Five reading project that Buckingham is heading and that she touched on briefly.
I sat out the next presentation slot because I wanted some down time before my own presentation. This was unfortunate because all four concurrent speakers were worth seeing. But I knew that I would not have been able to concentrate properly and do a talk justice at this point.
I spoke in session 7 about explicit instruction (my slides are here). I had to start by spending some time on definitions; semantics bedevil the area. The main idea that I wanted to convey is that successful explicit instruction is highly interactive and it is not just lecturing. I think I managed that. I also discussed the evidence for explicit instruction and its limitations, not least of which is the idea that, no matter how effective it is, you wouldn’t want students to experience five lesson per day, five days per week of whole-class interactive teaching and nothing else.
The final session that I attended was led by Trisha Jha and was about the evidence in favour of free or charter schools and whether we should set these up in Australia. Jha thinks that we should. She presented some positive evidence from around the globe and I thought she was quite honest about its limitations and some of the possible negative effects. I remain unconvinced about this proposal. I have a great deal of admiration for Michaela Community School in London, a school that simply could not exist under the previous school administration arrangements, but I also tend to agree with one of the audience members who questioned whether free schools in Australia would just be a policy distraction from the issues that we should really be focusing on. Jha’s response was to ask whether we can ever deal with those issues under the current arrangements. I’m still processing all of this.
It was great to share this day with my wife, Jo, and some of my work colleagues. The last researchED was in Sydney and so I flew up to that one on my own. This time, there were quite a few familiar faces around. Add to this the people who I had first met in Sydney and there was something approaching a family atmosphere.
After the conference, Jo and I joined some of the speakers for dinner in Brighton. Dylan Wiliam was in the area and so he managed to pop in for a chat. I also got to speak to some of the speakers whose talks I didn’t manage to see, including Corinne Campbell, Maddie Scott-Jones, Linda Graham, John Bush, Deborah Netolicky and Chris Munro. As always, there were those I didn’t get the chance to talk with and so I will hopefully catch them next time. I also bent Kerry’s ear to learn just a little bit more about Big DI. He was remarkably tolerant of my questions.
Let’s do it all again next year. I can’t wait.