In January of this year, Australia’s education minister, Simon Birmingham, wrote a breathless press release about committing $6 million to a new app that would encourage students to participate in science and maths.
At the time, TIMSS 2015 had just finished testing the science and maths skills of students across a range of nations including Australia and Kazakhstan. We now know that while the performance of Australian students stagnated and has remained largely unchanged since 1995, Kazakh students have surged and overtaken them.
There are a number of exceptionally daft ways that we could respond. An app is just not going to cut it. In fact, any program that tries to fix things through ‘engagement’ is a red herring. Apps, talks from scientists, funky demos and theatre performances have the potential to create brief situational interest but this won’t necessarily translate to a long term interest in these subjects. The main way you develop long-term interest is by teaching kids in such a way that they learn lots so that they start to feel confident and see how everything fits together.
And much as I am in favour of targeting funding at the students who most need it, do we really suppose that Kazakhstan spends more money on education than we do? Clearly, we could do a much better job with the levels of funding that we already have.
Birmingham yesterday did suggest some good ideas. Requiring higher academic standards from teachers entering the profession is a good step in this time of oversupply. It is also a good plan to develop more specialist teachers in primary school.
However, recruiting smarter people with science and maths background will achieve little if we then train them in ineffective teaching practices.
Right now, for instance, project based learning and ‘makerspaces‘ are all the fashion. These ideas are based upon constructivist theories that have been repeatedly debunked since at least the 1980s and that few serious cognitive scientists now subscribe to in their entirety (see this book for a flavour of the current state of this argument).
If you peruse information about teacher science and maths education courses (here’s a typical example) or review the kind of research that education schools conduct then you will see the dominance of variants of inquiry learning. Again, these are constructivist approaches lacking in a strong evidence base.
The most effective way to teach maths and science – as well as anything else – is deeply unfashionable explicit instruction. This result has been validated many times but, given that it’s the wrong result, it tends to be ignored. For instance, you won’t find it featuring in the recent AARE conference program.
This is where Birmingham could have a real impact. I am not sure exactly what leeway he has with current streams of funding but he could certainly link any future funding for teacher education or professional development to the use of evidence-based approaches such as explicit instruction. He can also ensure that the role of explicit instruction is on the table when Australia’s education ministers meet this month.