This week saw more evidence of Australia falling behind its international peers. A new study found that Year 6 students’ aptitude for science has not improved in a decade. In my view, there are a number of bad ideas that are entrenched within the education sector and that prevent us making progress. Chief among these are ideas about teaching methods and behaviour management.
Over and over again, inquiry learning is pushed as a modern, revolutionary teaching method that will better prepare students for the future. We have the celebrity educational consultants promoting inquiry learning as a replacement for conventional subjects in primary schools. Incredibly, there are those who suggest it as a solution to our poor showing in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) science even though PISA itself provides evidence against the use of inquiry methods: in the last round of PISA testing, students were asked about the teaching methods that they experienced and a greater use of inquiry was associated with lower performance.
These kinds of reports are not the strongest form of evidence but the finding does fit with a much wider body of research suggesting that inquiry learning doesn’t work very well. For instance, process-product research from the 1960s and 1970s demonstrated that the most effective teachers use explicit teaching during which they fully explain concepts and ideas to students rather than asking them to investigate issues for themselves. Furthermore, research on problem solving demonstrates that novices become quickly overloaded when tackling problems and large-scale correlational studies tend to show the superiority of direct teaching methods over the alternatives. These are just a few examples of an overwhelming evidence base that is so clear that some have questioned why anyone would continue to champion inquiry methods. It seems to be more of an ideological position than one that is based in evidence.
We also learnt this week that student behaviour is particular bad in Australian schools when compared to other countries. This is not surprising at all. We currently have an educational culture that assumes that students have no responsibility to behave respectfully. Instead, bad behaviour is seen either as a sign that the teaching is not engaging enough or that the student has a learning disability. The discourse is all about forcing teachers to be more inclusive rather than being about practical strategies to make classrooms places that are conducive to learning.
If we are urged to accommodate behaviour problems then we cannot address them, children will have no opportunity to learn better behaviours and these problems will only become worse over time. If a teacher believes that the only way of dealing with an incident where Child A has stolen Child B’s pen is to hold a restorative conference where the teacher is under as much scrutiny as the students then the teacher has an incentive to ignore such behaviour. This suits nobody because relatively minor issues will escalate to major ones that schools will be forced to deal with by exclusion. And yet it is low-level disruption that does the most damage to learning over time and it is here where the focus needs to be.
I am not yet convinced that we need to adopt controversial ‘no excuses’ models although, to give them credit, they at least are an attempt to address problem behaviour rather than ignore it. Instead, there are well-researched, systematic approaches to behaviour management that we could put into place if there wasn’t so much ideological opposition to dealing with the problem.
The reign of bad ideas
The reason why we find it so hard to address these issues is because too many people involved in education and education research take a political or ideological stance rather than adopting a pragmatic, problem-solving approach. I am not sure how you fix this, other than by increasing the amount of transparency in the system and the level of scrutiny of those who make key decisions. Journalists have a key role to play. They need to move on from the, ‘Gee whizz, what a cool idea!’ school of education journalism and adopt a more critical stance.