The bad ideas holding Australia back

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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.


8 thoughts on “The bad ideas holding Australia back

  1. Such a helpful post, thank you. Can you point me towards any research papers evaluating SWPBIS in practice?

  2. Think your argument for problems with inquiry approaches has been well developed over a number of posts.

    However, the behaviour argument needs a lot of work. Linking to a puff piece by the ABC (let’s ring teachers and see if they have disaster stories, what a surprise they do) and your “well-researched, systematic approach” sounds like a nice advert for a company to come in do a little observing setup some well meaning comments and then tell teachers how to suck eggs, and I know you have rallied against such companies when they promote constructive pedagogues.

    Behaviour is a problem but authoritarian approaches have been shown to be disastrous for the community as a whole. We no longer live in an age of fear where respect was beaten into people if they didn’t conform to the standard. That brings with it difficulties but has to be better for the minorities (including those that enjoy learning). Perhaps some research into restorative justice and its long term impact on reoffending, the impacts of mindfulness on classroom environments and the benefits of direct instruction by caring knowledgeable teachers on behaviour would be better.

    Finally silence can’t be the measure of a learning classroom yet it’s one of the measures used by behaviour surveys. Seems behaviour equals compliance rather than learning, I know which one I want in my classroom. How about you?

    1. Behaviour is a problem but authoritarian approaches have been shown to be disastrous for the community as a whole.

      No, they have been asserted to be bad. I’d like to see any proof of this assertion that wasn’t question-begging.

      But anyway, who said anything about authoritarian? Strong teachers don’t need to use fear as a tool, and don’t try to.

      What teachers need, and often don’t get, is support from their bosses, students’ families and politicians. If they are struggling with a student or students, the assumption is not automatically that the teacher is the cause of the problem.

      What teachers need, and often don’t get, is a strong sense among their colleagues that those that let discipline slip are moving the burden onto those that do keep discipline, and that it is therefore unacceptable to be a teacher who does not maintain discipline. So primary school teachers do not, for example, describe fidgety boys as “kinasthetic learners” as a cop out for making them learn to sit still. And high school teachers crack down on using cell phones, headphones and other distractions in class, even if the student says it helps them learn.

      Finally silence can’t be the measure of a learning classroom

      When was the last time you said to yourself “I’ve got to get this difficult task done, I will move to a noisy and distracting environment to do it”?

      Classrooms don’t need to be silent all the time for learning to take place. But if a classroom is always noisy, then you can be pretty sure that concentration levels will be low.

  3. Well said, Greg. Having heard Simon Birmingham and Ron Nairn give the usual ‘we’ve got to improve the teachers’ responses to one of the problems, behaviour, I know we are not going to get much sense on this issue. In fact, I was just thinking that it’s been ‘put to bed’ and forgotten about. The inquiry issue is also problematic, as you say because it’s ideological. In my teacher ed class yesterday, my students were shocked to hear me encourage direct (whole-class interactive) teaching. They were happy about it – just shocked that I should not support the ‘Guide-on-the-side’ view they were led to believe was the name of the game. As you say, we’re not going to solve this soon. As ever, you say it so well too.

  4. Just checking in from the USA, where these arguments and either/or thoughts have been debated for a decade. Inquiry is not a bad idea; it’s just often implemented poorly. Here’s what can help: Stop thinking of inquiry as discovery learning in which no direct instruction takes place. The best inquiry methods always include instruction, but also marry questioning, application of skills such as collaborative intellectual work, and focus on authentic issues. In this environment, behavior issues virtually disappear as engagement rises. The fact is, we will never light the fire in 21st Century children if we insist on filling the pail 6 hours a day. Life is just not about content and recall any longer.

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