The bad ideas holding Australia back

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.

Creation Myths

The following was originally posted on the websofsubstance blog in October 2014:

The Beautiful Risk of Education by Gert Biesta doesn’t start well but it does detail in its opening chapter an interesting elaboration of one of the central ideas of progressive education. And it details it at length. I therefore think it is worth some discussion.

Firstly, I would like to say that I share some of Biesta’s views. I agree that the OECD and similar organisations see education as something akin to a machine for producing measurable outcomes. Where outcomes such as PISA rankings become the only concern of education, as opposed to being used as an interesting proxy for the true concerns of education, then we have a problem. Where education is seen in purely utilitarian, economic terms then we have a problem. However, it is not necessary to choose here. A good education is likely to give us both high PISA scores and intelligent, creative young people. It is likely to give us both economic gains as well as cultural gains and fulfillment for individuals. Prove me wrong.

Biesta’s key argument is against those who wish to make education ‘risk-free’. I don’t think that the kindly folk at the OECD or the World Bank are attempting to do any such thing and so I think that Biesta’s common sense points against this position are redundant. I doubt whether anyone thinks that education is entirely controllable. A casino owner can predict her profits without being able to predict the result of any specific game of blackjack or spin of the roulette wheel. This is the business of statistics. And leviathans such as the OECD only ever deal in such aggregated measures. The risk is still there but they seek methods to manage and predict it and to improve the odds for those subjected to education’s capriciousness. This is a noble aim even if they are often clearly mistaken about how to achieve it.

“The desire to make education strong, secure, predictable and risk-free is an attempt to forget that at the end of the day education should aim at making itself dispensible – no teacher wants their students to remain eternal students.”

Really? Actually, I do. We have a University of the Third Age in my suburb and it is pretty inspiring to see retirees learning a new skill – it was surveying the other day – from experts who know what they are on about. Biesta must think that there is something ignoble in being a student, which would explain a lot. I happen to find it liberating.

Did I mention that the book doesn’t start well? Unfortunately, in the first sentence of the prologue Biesta says, “The risk is there because, as W. B. Yeats has put it, education is not about filling a bucket but about lighting a fire.” In fact, Yeats never said anything of the sort. The misquote is based upon an out-of-context quote from Plutarch and often falsely attributed to Yeats. Now you might find me pedantic to raise this but it cuts to the heart of Biesta’s argument in the entire first chapter; an argument in which we are invited to contemplate Genesis (the book of the bible rather than the soporific band).

Apparently, we have been reading Genesis all wrong. Now, I’ll admit that I’ve always had a penchant for discussions of the origins of biblical texts and so I was aware of the theory that early Judaism was polytheistic before moving through monolatrism in to monotheism. This accounts for the different names given for God – they were once different gods. However, I wasn’t aware that the Greeks had subsequently monkeyed with everything.

Biesta quotes an analysis of Genesis by John Caputo. Caputo says that a sentence, which in the Hellenised King James bible reads; “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters,” if translated more accurately from the Hebrew becomes; “When God began creation, the earth was unformed and void, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and God’s wind swept over the water.” So that, in the latter translation, “When God began to create, ‘things had already begun’.”

Do you get it? What if I whack you around the head with a sledgehammer again? Would you get it then?

We are being invited to see educating students as more akin to the latter kind of creation; a ‘weak’ form of creation, as Biesta would have it. The students already exist, you see. And at the end of the day Brian, you can’t just go around ignoring that they exist and pretend that you are making them from scratch. That’s what really bad teachers do. It’s not about filling buckets; it’s about lighting fires.

So we’ve basically over-inflated a rather trivial point.

Biesta goes further. The God who tests Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is a jealous and paranoid God (and not the same as the God of creation if you accept the polytheism theory). This God sets traps and has, “little taste for the risk of creation, for the risk of parenting.” The God of creation, “creates adult beings like himself,” whereas the God of Eden, “prefers his creatures to remain children – seen but not heard.” So he’s a bad teacher then. Very bad.

The other problem with all of these attempts at risk-free educating is that, for some reason, this prevents our students being ‘subjects’ and turns them instead into ‘objects’. Biesta goes on to talk about subjects, subjectiveness and subjectivity at length.

Perhaps some teachers really do take no account of their students. Perhaps they ask them nothing or presume complete ignorance of everything. Perhaps some teachers really do see education as a risk-free manufacturing process. Perhaps these teachers may benefit from Biesta’s odd little bible story.

However, the teachers that I know would rather assume something more subtle. They would assume that they are dealing with complex human beings who know some things but not others; beings who are part-way along a path towards expertise. Such teachers would test this by asking questions and then they would teach their students things that they didn’t know or give them exercises to make weak knowledge or skills more secure.

They would have no need of Biesta.


What is explicit instruction?

When I write about ‘explicit instruction’ I mean something quite specific. It is the set of practices that emerged from the process-product research of the 1960s and 1970s. Briefly, researchers visited classrooms, recorded various teacher behaviours and then looked for correlations between those behaviours and students’ academic gains.

Thomas Good and Jere Brophy worked hard to collate these findings but probably the most elegant summary comes from Barak Rosenshine in an article for American Educator that I often link to and that I strongly recommend.

The experimentalists amongst you will note that this model emerged out of epidemiological research – a set of correlations – rather than from experiments. This is true. But, as Rosenshine points out, it has since been verified in a range of different contexts.


Rosenshine has written a separate piece that helps explain why I prefer the term ‘explicit instruction’ to ‘direct instruction’. The latter term is ambiguous, with Rosenshine identifying five different meanings.

One meaning of ‘direct instruction’ is any form of teacher-led instruction, whether it uses the practices identified in the process-product research or not. Another use of ‘direct instruction’ is pejorative where it is portrayed as a harsh, authoritarian system or as lecturing.

Explicit instruction is clearly not lecturing because it is highly interactive. Rosenshine suggests asking lots of questions. This serves two purposes. Firstly, students will pay attention if they think they might be called upon to contribute at any time. Secondly, teachers suffer from the ‘curse of knowledge‘, a cognitive bias that makes us assume that students understand more than they do. By constantly asking questions, we are forced to backtrack and re-explain concepts that they haven’t grasped. It essentially provides real-time feedback on our performance.

I would also add that, in a supportive explicit setting, students are more likely to ask their own questions of the teacher, providing additional, powerful feedback.

Whole system

Explicit instruction, in the way that I have defined it, is a whole system. It follows the ‘I do, we do, you do’ model with the ‘you do’ part ranging from a close replication of what the teacher has just done to tackling ill-defined tasks by selecting and applying the strategies the teacher has taught. The defining feature is that canonical methods are fully explained and modelled to students before they attempt to put them into practice themselves. Yet this doesn’t mean that this is the only phase in the process.

When people assert that a particular model of inquiry learning includes some ‘explicit instruction’, they are not using this term in the same way that I am. They must mean a bit of just-in-time lecturing. It’s worth pointing out that ‘inquiry learning featuring a bit of lecturing’ did not emerge out of the process-product research as a highly effective approach.

This also highlights the vast difference in overall levels of guidance between explicit instruction and inquiry learning. Teaching explicitly forces us to confront the curse of knowledge and break things down even more than we might initially think necessary whereas inquiry requires us to leave out some guidance from the outset. The two approach therefore diverge significantly and this is the reason why inquiry is less effective.

A range of objectives

Despite what some may claim, I am aware of no evidence that explicit instruction is good for the recall of basic facts but that some alternative is needed to reach more highfalutin goals.

I teach VCE physics and maths. Both of these subjects have state-set exams and these exams always include some questions that are different in form to those that have come before. This means that I have to teach for transfer. The way I attempt to do this is to get students to master skills and procedures before exposing them to a range of increasingly varied and complex problems – a classic explicit instruction approach.

I have also worked a little with English teachers. The challenge here is to identify the component parts because everyone is focused on the final complex task; the essay. But those components exist; knowledge and understanding of a text, the construction of topic sentences, analysis as opposed to summary and so on.

Is explicit instruction ‘traditional’?

Traditional approaches to education are teacher-led. This is probably biologically primary; the natural way to teach. Humans have presumably been instructing each other since the advent of language.

However, explicit instruction is a particularly effective form of teacher-led instruction. Left to our own devices, we might not replicate all of its features.

I think this leads to an important conclusion. If teachers want to become more effective then explicit instruction is a way to do this that works with the grain. It is going to be easier to adopt than some revolutionary teaching method that probably isn’t very effective anyway.

Australian government to fund dubious maths teaching programme

One of education’s sardonic ironies occurs when actual scientists somehow find themselves caught-up in programmes to teach science or maths in school. These hard-headed rationalists go all romantic and Dewey-eyed. Learning science and maths should be learning through doing, they proclaim, never once pausing to question what the scientific evidence has to say on the matter.

And so it shouldn’t really surprise anyone to hear that the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers has teamed-up with the Australian Academy of Science to spend Australian taxpayer’s money on a project to push more inquiry learning in the nation’s maths classrooms. 

We have known for some time that inquiry learning is ineffective for teaching maths – and pretty much any academic subject – to school-aged students. This is because they are relative novices and learning through inquiry overloads their working memory. This is why the folk tradition of teaching by breaking things down into small chunks and fully explaining these chunks has been so enduring.

There are numerous sources of evidence that show that explicit forms of teaching are superior to those that require students to solve authentic problems and build their own knowledge from the outset in the way that inquiry learning does. For instance, there are correlational studies that look at the teaching methods of effective teachers. There are experimental studies. There are the effects of state-level policies.

Interestingly, when the OECD surveyed students on the activities they completed in maths class they found a negative correlation between inquiry-style activities and the 2012 PISA maths results in almost all countries. The more ‘student-oriented’ the maths classroom, the worse the maths results.

Which is even odder to contemplate when you realise that this new initiative is being sold as an answer to Australia’s decline in international tests such as PISA.

The debate in the staffroom

Back in the early 2000s, I was the head of science at a government school in London. I didn’t read education research at that time. Instead, it came to us through a series of national strategies that were mediated by local advisors.

From my 2017 perspective, I can see that some of the early stuff was pretty benign. It was focused on assessment for learning and largely consisted of techniques for eliciting evidence of student understanding. This was before assessment for learning had morphed into the monster it later became with lots of marking edicts and grids to fill in.

However, over time this focus shifted. Eventually, a series of guides was produced known as ‘Pedagogy and Practice’ that purported to be a synthesis of the best available evidence. Notoriously, one of these guides promoted the use of learning styles. 

As a science teacher, from my training onwards, I was also made aware of constructivist ideas about teaching science, even if I did not know them by this label. I was simply told that learning through discovery, inducing cognitive conflict and so on where based in the best available research. This was a source of guilt because I couldn’t make these practices work very well and I assumed that the fault lay with me.

I don’t recall any debates about pedagogy in the staffroom. There were varying levels of enthusiasm about new ideas but the harshest criticisms usually came from teachers questioning the practicality of what was being proposed. I don’t recall anyone questioning the validity of these ideas; that this was what we would want to do in an ideal world.

This is because it’s hard to debate a topic you know little about. Think of all those classroom debates throughout the years that have been conducted in the absence of knowledge. They’re not very edifying. Like our students or anybody else, teachers don’t question things that they have no reason to question. Fundamentally, we don’t know what we don’t know.

I’m one of the lucky ones. Firstly, I moved to a school that really valued research evidence. Then I started to connect on Twitter and heard about ideas I had never encountered in schools. It was a serendipitous mix of discovery learning and reading. It was highly inefficient.

That’s why I say we should not leave the fate of other teachers to chance. Let’s make sure that they at least know there is a debate and that there are alternative views about teaching.

Perhaps you could be part of that. If so, why not begin by printing out an article and leaving it on one of the tables in your staffroom? This one would make a good start.

The case for options

I was reading a post about student-centred learning and it occurred to me just how far away from each other the two sides of the education debate often are.

It’s tempting to be taken in by the idea that teachers are pragmatists who all use a range of different approaches. Yet here was Richard Wells, a deputy principal from New Zealand writing a sincere and sophisticated account of a teaching programme that I simply don’t endorse. Not only are the project-based methods at odds with my view that explicit instruction is more effective, Richard and I don’t even share the same aims. 

I want students to develop a deep understanding of important ideas whereas Richard hardly mentions content at all. I’m not sure from his account whether students are intended to discover it all for themselves through research or whether any of it is intentionally taught and this is because content is not Richard’s focus. He sees his aim as developing a set of transferable skills or strategies that students will be able to use in the future to learn and work. His focus is on the steps taken towards producing complex performances. The content of these performances is pretty irrelevant. 

I don’t think generic skills can really be developed in this way, aside from a few useful heuristics and by providing the opportunity for a bit of personality growth (see this paper). This objective certainly does not need a dedicated curriculum. Instead, it is better to focus on teaching powerful content. But I might be wrong.

I am nervous about models of school choice because of my fear that sharp-elbowed middle-class parents will end up with their children dominating the good schools. Yet I wonder whether choice is the way out.

In Australia we have the Australian Curriculum where, supposedly, schools are meant to do everything i.e. teach agreed content and develop these generic skills. The content is not rigorous or powerful enough for me and I suspect that the skills don’t go far enough for the Richard’s of this world. 

So we could offer a choice. We could have different schools pursuing different agendas. What of my fears? Well, it doesn’t seem as if Free Schools in the U.K. have become bastions of privilege although I’m interested in research on this issue. And I think there are just as many switched-on parents who will be convinced by the 21st century skills argument as would be convinced by mine. 

Over time, it’s likely that one model will prove to be better than the others and the centre of gravity will shift. Or perhaps we will end up with a mixed economy where different types of schools serve different needs. Either way, it offers the hope of a resolution that seems pretty distant if we carry on the way we’re going.

Learning-focused education

What’s in a name? 

Imagine you are an advocate for a failed  teaching method. What should you do? Change the name and carry on. 

There are plenty of methods to choose from and they do have their own emphases. Some will prioritise authentic problems, others will focus on cognitive conflict, still others are more subject specific; for instance, the approaches to history teaching that stress source analysis. These interesting facets aside, the main axis along which teaching methods vary is the level of explicitness.

I advocate explicit instruction in which concepts are fully explained to students before they are asked to use or apply them. This is appropriate for school students learning new ideas because it manages cognitive load. However, it is not fashionable and only has two names that I can think of: explicit or direct instruction.

There is a plethora of less explicit teaching methods. At one end of the scale is pure discovery learning. Virtually nobody promotes pure discovery because it so manifestly doesn’t work. Instead, implicit approaches have to add in scaffolds and guidance to manage the load and this tends to make them inefficient.

Now you might be wondering why I’ve started to sound like an accountant: Why should we be concerned with efficiency? Education is about growth and development; it’s about becoming more fully human. What kind of heartless monster bangs on about efficiency?

Well, think of it this way: If you have an inefficient teaching method then you are going to have to spend more time in the superficial and the trivial; you are going to have to attend to lots of irrelevant details. If you have an efficient approach then you can get to the deep structure and conceptual understandings much more directly. You can ask and answer bigger questions.

So it is a really bad idea for an implicit approach such as inquiry learning to crowd out proper subjects in primary schools. It’s a dreadful waste of opportunity.

Explicit teachers know this and they know that the evidence supports their position. Yet we haven’t won the argument yet. Why is that?

One issue is the name game. Whatever evidence you present, people will claim it doesn’t apply to a slightly different approach that they happen to favour. For instance, Tim Taylor has tried to draw a distinction between inquiry learning and discovery learning. No doubt this is because he is a promoter of Mantle of the Expert, an inquiry learning programme where children pretend to be experts. 

And it’s also true that implicit educators have cornered some names that are hard to argue against. Who, for instance, could oppose ‘balanced literacy’? What kind of contrarian is against balance? And what does it make you if you disapprove of ‘child-centred’ education? Do you hate children or something?

So here’s a thought. Let’s rename explicit instruction as ‘learning-focused education’. It’s a pretty accurate description and, well, who could possibly be opposed to learning?