I meet a lot of new teachers from a range of Australian universities. When I talk to them, they are full of enthusiasm for inquiry learning, project-based learning and other progressive teaching methods. When I ask them about explicit teaching, they look at me strangely and sometimes I have to clarify what I mean. I ask if explicit instruction was taught on their teacher education courses. They usually suggest that it has been mentioned but in a negative light. New teachers understand that this is not the way they are meant to teach.
This situation is quite extraordinary. It is the equivalent of medical students being taught to be sceptical of immunisation. After all, the evidence for the effectiveness of explicit teaching has been around since at least the 1970s.
Whereas new teachers bear the brunt of training in inadequate and impractical teaching methods, the perhaps even more unjust effect of progressive ideology is the degradation of what is taught. This can be seen in the Australian Curriculum with its imposition of ‘general capabilities’ such as ‘critical and creative thinking‘. Such capabilities simply do not exist in any general sense. It is also the Australian Curriculum that follows a model of humanities teaching debunked by Kieran Egan back in 1980 and that subscribes to a model of science teaching where actual scientific content knowledge is only considered to be a third of the subject.
The degradation of curriculum is reflected in high school leaving examinations such as the New South Wales physics HSC that found itself so denuded of mathematical content that quantum physicist Michelle Simmons saw fit to address the issue last Australia Day.
It’s worth considering why we are in this situation. Why do bad ideas persist and even flourish in the field of education when they would have been superseded in medicine or engineering?
The tragedy of education is that it takes a very long time. If a doctor botches your treatment then you are likely to know about it pretty soon and so you can hold that doctor to account. However, if a child fails to learn to read due to poor teaching then we might declare they have reading difficulties and place them in an intervention group. By the time this starts to have life-changing impacts, 15 years later, we can no longer trace the cause back to the individual teacher. Indeed, the teacher is likely to never know their role.
You would think we could fix this with regular testing. But it seems as if we can’t; at least if NAPLAN and other standardised tests are anything to go by. Perhaps we have already gone too far down the rabbit hole. Everything can be explained away. And nobody knows what to do to improve their results because when they ask the experts they are given the wrong answers.
Then layer in the political, just to cloud the matter further. You can be a doctor and a strong proponent of social justice without that advocacy requiring you to follow any particular treatment method. You are free to do whatever you think is best supported by the evidence. However, teaching methods and curriculum have become politicised. We have pedagogical theories based in Marxism. We have postmodernism urging us to throw away the oppressive strictures of an old-fashioned curriculum.
Is this a counsel of despair? Not quite.
I used to think that education was a problem that could be fixed by strong, practical leadership from politicians. I now realise that most of them simply don’t know enough about it. So when the politicians want teaching standards, they get people to write them who are already invested in the status quo. Nothing changes. For every dip in NAPLAN, PISA or TIMSS, there is an academic with an excuse and a call for more funding.
Instead, we need to fix this. This one is on us. We are the ones who want to be treated as professionals and so it is time to take control of our profession. We won’t change everything overnight but we can all do our little bit. We can use the evidence in our own classrooms and promote it in our schools, with due attention to the politics (getting assassinated won’t help the cause). We can organise conferences to share experiences and listen to researchers. We can opt for further study and gradually start to see ourselves represented in academia.
It’s out there folks; your profession; the thing you love. We can do this. Take it back.