What should @Birmo do?

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.

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10 Comments on “What should @Birmo do?”

  1. Tempe says:

    Funding should be tied to the use of explicit instruction but, as mentioned in a previous post, we need to make sure that schools understand that means explicitly teaching content not merely making learning goals clear.

    There seems to be a lot of confusion about what explicit instruction actually means and what it looks like in the class room.

  2. Chester Draws says:

    Kazakh students have surged and overtaken them.

    Sometimes results need to be considered on the basis of their inherent likelihood. Is Kazakhstan likely to be a place which has recently instituted a radical and effective strategy for teaching poor and disaffected students Maths?

    Or is the result 1) a statistical blip, 2) not what it seems to be or 3) fixed by the local government.

    I go for a mix of 2 and 3, where the government arranged for the ‘correct” schools to be tested.

  3. Greg,

    I’ve commented on your posts before, I’m known as Marni and this is my daughter’s blog, ironically, which was started for an assessment in science and technology (for me not her). I’m completing a post grad in education and the situation is direr than you can ever imagine. As a mature student in my 40s, I have a distinct advantage over the younger student teachers. I have life experience and the knowledge that if I used some of the progressive methods with my own children they would be very behind in their schooling.

    Also, I have previously studied BSc psychology (cognitive/memory/attention) and know some of the limitations of memory and how organised, cumulative and sequential learning needs to be. Moreover, it requires effort to learn not a quick gadget (note Birmo). However, whenever I question the methodology of the BLOB, namely: Bono’s hats, inquiry/discovery, PBS, MI, 5Es (in science) and other daft methods which are highly confusing, I’m immediately silenced for daring to question their vast experience and expertise. They have one over me: if I don’t adhere to the criteria for an assessment, I will fail. If I sent you some of the rubbish that I am asked to do for this course, you would be shocked.

    I don’t think Birmingham knows what he’s talking about. I don’t know if he’s just covering the education portfolio until a better spot comes along. I think the progressives have his ear. He needs someone to point him in the direction of Gove. The Australian’s (the government at least) are heavily influenced by what’s going on in the UK. If you look at the previous Australian Curriculum review, the last Ed secretary (Payne) overhauled the whole curriculum. If you consider the dates, I think that he was heavily influenced by Australian PISA results. He was listening to Donnelly and Wiltshire (both traditionalists).

    By the way, I do think that they need higher ATAR scores for new teachers, but the literacy and numeracy test which all new teachers are required to sit is based on that. We are not the problem, we have not even entered the profession. The problem is already in the profession, teachers don’t know that there are better ways to teach children. Most of the PDs are a waste of time. The biggest problem is the training institutes, their camaraderie for each other, and their strong need to keep the status quo. They will not even consider for a moment that there are better ways of doing things. If I dare to question them, I am scorned by most of my teachers and peers, who at times seem to be the academics’ foot soldiers.
    I’ve played the game and I’ve only got one teaching period left before I qualify with very high grades. I only say this because I have mentally suffered, having to completely go against common sense to get some of those grades. I only wanted to prove that I was just as good as a teach first teacher! But the resentment that I have, having had to adhere to what they want me to do is immense.

    You are the only blogger in Australia who voices what some of the Brits are saying (Michaela teachers, Bennett, Didau, Christodoulou, Radice, Old), and you are very knowledgeable. Why don’t you get some of the other Australian teachers with influence behind you and get this information to Birmingham who has the power to change policy? It can be done, just look at the ACARA revew.

    Sorry about my long post. I’d better get on with my assessments on‘Why the 5 Arts should be taught to primary school children’……

    • Greg Ashman says:

      I would love to see your course materials. You can contact me via the Contact page on this blog. I won’t share anything unless you want me to.

      I think you would also make a great guest blogger.

      • Yes, I will contact you, Greg.

        As a guest blogger; yes, maybe it’s time that I added my voice. I’ve been following your blog for a while now and nodding along with what you say. And, I’ve also been inspired by the Michaela teachers; in fact, I have Katherine’s words ringing in my ears – I am one of those neglected coastal children that she talks about.

    • Tempe says:

      It would be great to read a guest blog, superspellergirl. Thanks for your informative discussion above. Interestingly, while participating in discussing on The Conversation recently, I came across another trainee teacher complaining about similar issues in his training. He said if he questioned ideas/methods etc he was shut down and he was sacrificing good marks because he wasn’t simply toing the expected line. I guess he’s a critical thinker, something they mustn’t like in these courses. Also, he lamented the lack of content training etc and all the focus on pedagogy.

      According to The Aust paper Birmingham has been invited to come to Kazakhstan. I found an academic paaper about the Ed. system in Kazakhstan written in 2012. The writer seemed to be a supporter of newer, constructivist methods of teaching but her discussion and research seemed to be suggesting that their was a lot of resistance to changes in ed. and that teachers tended to be traditionalists, sticking with what they knew.

    • Felicity says:

      Hi Marni! Another Australian education blog that might interest you is https://thingsbehindsunblog.wordpress.com/ 😊

  4. Philip Crooks says:

    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

    I had a look at the person running this unit, she has never taught in a school! Imagine teaching a course on how to be a pilot and never having flown an aeroplane. Again theory trumps reality.


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