Sunday, October 20, 2013

Direct Instruction criticised by Chris Sarra

DEFYING EXPECTATIONS (Adelaide Festival of Ideas, October 20th)

I attended the presentation by Chris Sarra, Principal Cherbourg State School, 1998-2005 and Andrew Plastow, Principal Alberton Primary School. I knew of Chris Sarra as a successful Principal of Cherbourg School (3 hours drive from Brisbane) as well as an indigenous opponent of Noel Pearson. They have clashed in print a few times.

Chris explained his Strong and Smart philosophy. Be proud to be indigenous. Don't collude with negative stereotypes of what it means to be aboriginal. Reject the flawed notion that being educated means you will lose your identity.
During my time as Principal at Cherbourg State School, from 1998-2005, the attendance improved from 65% to 95%.
He then launched into an attack on Noel Pearson's approach, without naming him.
We didn't cut welfare payments to make that happen. I'll repeat that, we didn't cut welfare payments to make that happen.
(audience applause)
Direct Instruction (DI) was written off 40 years ago by expert educators. It was developed by some old guy in America. The pedagogy takes us back to the 1940s and 50s.
Andrew Plastow intervened:
DI is back to the basics. As someone said to me wise people have now developed robots to do the basics. It's not appropriate for our modern times.
Back to Chris Sarra:
It's claimed that older aboriginal people did achieve literacy (through basic Mission education. And that's true. But it was literacy of the type used by farm hands and domestics. It wasn't powerful literacy.
Chris Sarra was nuanced and articulate on his broader reflections on indigenous identity, NAPLAN and aboriginal culture. By contrast his unprovoked attack on Direct Instruction was ill informed, intemperate and predjudicial ("developed by some old guy in America"). I gained the strong impression that it wasn't something that either speaker had looked into closely. It confirmed my general thesis (DI indigenous memes) that people reject Direct Instruction because of their general world view, not because they have looked at it in any detail. Their general world view prevents them from doing that.

Update (21st October):

Here are some of the memes which were warmly supported by the audience:

Harmonious progress meme ("We didn't cut welfare payments to make that happen"). This appeals to the non punitive, non confrontational method of achieving progress. Tough love without being too tough. I don't believe that Chris Sarra would avert his eyes from the ugliness of alcohol fuelled violence, child neglect and child abuse. In fact, he referred to it towards the end of his presentation. Nevertheless, many in the audience want to avert their eyes from it. To understand the work and problems facing the Noel Pearson inspired Family Responsibility Commission read this wonderful article by Catherine Ford: Great Expectations (The Monthly, November 2012)

White guilt meme. Most of the audience were white "progressives" who like the idea that this issue can be dealt with adequately by competent indigenous people like Chris Sarra in a way that is not disruptive to their own comfortable life style or thinking patterns. There is a below the surface trade off in play here. Chris Sarra gains authority; the progressive white audience has their white guilt assuaged about this national tragedy. For a white person to stand up and critically assess Chris Sarra's contribution in front of this "progressive" audience would be like spitting in church.

Anti American meme (Direct Instruction was ... "developed by some old guy in America"). Progressives respond instinctively and positively to this reflexive anti Americanism.

Progress meme. Direct Instruction was developed by an "old guy" and is "robotic". Something as old as Skinner type behaviourism can't be a progressive thing. In the modern world there must be a more progressive way to educate. Reality check: "DI works", see Direct Instruction: observations at Djarragun college


Three extracts from my delicious Chris Sarra links:
Noel Pearson (2009):
"The problem with Chris' thinking is he thinks it (truancy) is all a question of child choice," he said. ... "Many children want to be in school but their parents haven't fulfilled their part of the bargain, which is a good night's sleep for the kid, a safe house for the kid, breakfast and uniforms for the kid
Chris Sarra stretches the gap on credibility by Janet Albrechtsen (2012)
Chris Sarra: all motherhood but no data, a damning analysis comparing SSI with DI (full article behind a paywall)

Relevant (2011):
"I'm not interested in stories about how well your education plans are going. I want to see your data that shows how effectively you have advanced the children's learning. The first thing you should show at a meeting like this is the evidence that shows the effect of what you're doing. If your effect size is less than 0.4 then you should pack up because you're not having a worthwhile impact on the children's learning."
- John Hattie

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

the elephant in the classroom (Kevin Wheldall)

Fortunately, all of chapter one is available through google books: Developments in Educational Psychology (Second edition published in 2010)
What then is the elephant in the classroom? The unspoken (or rarely admitted) truth is that educational progress is not being delayed because of a shortage of funding for schools. Children's school performance is not being impeded by their being too few teachers. Educational standards are not slipping because parents do not care and students are lazy these days. The elephant in the classroom, that many educationalists claim not to see, is that the quality of teaching in our schools is simply not good enough. It is not good enough because it is largely based on educational theory and methods for which there is little or no empirical supporting evidence for efficacy or which have been discredited. The education provided to children in our schools is largely ineffective because the education system ignores the extant scientific research evidence on what we know to constitute effective instruction and best teaching practice.
- from Chapter 1: When will we ever learn? Or the elephant in the classroom by Kevin Wheldall
Read the whole chapter through the link above. I am so impressed by Kevin Wheldall's writings. I picked up a second hand copy of this book through amazon, here, for $18 plus $18 shipping.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Why Johny Still Can't Read by Rudolf Flesch (1981)

Rudolf Flesch (1911-1986). Interesting guy (wikipedia bio)
Why Johny Can't Read: And What You Can Do about It (1955)
Why Johny Still Can't Read: A New Look at the Scandal of our Schools (1981)

Flesch advocated the use of phonics rather than sight reading, to enable students to sound out unfamiliar words.

So, the "reading wars" have been going on for at least 60 years and some trace it back to the writings of Paulo Freire (1920s), John Dewey (1890s) and the Romantic / Naturalistic thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). My point here is that the longevity of the "reading wars" is explained by deeply held differences in cultural, psychological, philosophical and political world view - not differences in scientific findings as is usually claimed.

Meaning: If you don't like Tony Abbott because you believe he is a closet global warming denier or because he has no sympathy for the boat people then if the same Tony Abbott pushes for back to basics phonics teaching in schools then you don't like that either because how could someone who is so bad get anything right.

But anyway. The reason I have bought Rudolf Flesch's 1981 book is this 2003 review: What Is the Best Way to Teach Reading?:
Flesch listed the “10 favorite alibis” he collected from “the whole stack of letters” he had received from educators, many of which “were full of personal abuse.” He devoted a chapter each to debunking these alibis.
Sadly, these alibis are still highly relevant thirty years later:
“Everything Is Hunky-Dory” was one of them. Of course, this was sheer denial, and Flesch said so. Things were bad then, a fact as demonstrable as anything in educational research. They are worse today.

“We Do Teach Phonics” was another alibi. He pointed out that there had indeed been a change but only to “window-dressing token phonics” tacked onto fundamentally unaltered look-and-say methodology, which was continuing to do major damage.

Some letter-writers claimed that “No One Method Is Best.” Flesch countered that no method could work that did not correspond to the nature of the subject — that learning to read necessarily involves being able to decipher phonetic symbols in the same way that learning how to type involves becoming familiar with the keyboard.

An additional argument from his critics was that “English Isn’t Phonetic.” Flesch demonstrated that English is, in fact, almost entirely “phonetic and decodable.”

Another charge was that “Word Calling Isn’t Reading.” But word guessing isn’t either.

Then there was the blame-the-victim game, which yielded the most alibis: “Your Child Isn’t Ready,” “Your Child Is Disabled,” and “It’s the Parents’ Fault,” all of which are now embodied in school policies today. Next was “Too Much TV.” And the final alibi was “We Must Teach All Children,” as if there are some ineducables among us, “the sons and daughters of lowborn riffraff who are too dumb to learn how to read,” as Flesch characterized the implications of this mindset among educators.

In short, Flesch’s thesis — although wildly popular among parents certain that something was wrong with reading instruction in America — was denied, rationalized, obfuscated and ultimately ignored by America’s education establishment.
And the Australian education establishment, too.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Why Jaydon can't read

Over the past few days there has been another breakout of the "reading wars" in the pages of The Australian. These articles are behind a paywall. Here are some extracts, with original links, from my delicious bookmarks.

Fortunately, the original and far better researched article by Jennifer Buckingham, Kevin Wheldall and Robyn Beaman-Wheldall is available: WHY JAYDON CAN’T READ: THE TRIUMPH OF IDEOLOGY OVER EVIDENCE IN TEACHING READING

The format of this wonderful article is that it asks and answers questions, makes assertions and backs up everything with evidence (72 endnotes to studies and further articles).

I'll just provide the subheadings which comprise the questions and assertions and encourage you to read the original:
  • What is effective reading instruction?
  • Why do so many children still struggle to learn to read?
  • Many teachers are not using the most effective methods for teaching reading
  • The ‘Peter effect’ in language skills—One cannot give what one does not possess
  • Teacher education does not prepare teachers to use effective reading instruction
  • Why are teachers not taught or required to use effective evidence-based reading instruction?
  • What can be done?
When reading this article, I shook my head frequently in amazement at the inability of those in charge to get it right. Then, later, I realised that part of this head shaking also represented admiration of the authors for their erudite explanation of effective reading instruction combined with a detailed analysis of why it's not happening.

Direct Instruction Indigenous Meme Warfare

I've uploaded the outline of this research proposal at the learning evolves wiki: DI_indigenous_memes


CONTEXT: appalling basic literacy and numeracy rates amongst indigenous Australians, especially those who live in remote regions.

PERCEPTION: We literally see the world according to the memes in our minds

The Direct Instruction (DI) approach is a good attempt to solve a number of practical problems that arise for teachers of severely disadvantaged students who have poor skills at reading, writing and comprehending English and Maths.

HYPOTHESIS: Many can't see the value of DI because of the synergistic influence of a plethora of mind memes which act as blinkers and filters to influence their perception. The rejection of DI is not based on research or science as is claimed but results from a deep, internally coherent world view. ie. the rejection of DI is more part of a cultural, psychological, philosophical and political world view and not scientific as is usually claimed.

The memes are grouped under various subheadings: (1) culture, (2) rights, morality, compassion, justice (3) social class, (4) "real learning", (5) creativity, (6) philosophy, (7) institutionalised inertia and (8) computer lib. The identified memes are often associated with a "progressive" world view / education and form a large part of the cultural background of "progressives". It will be argued that some of these memes are refutable, some of them are valid in a more general sense but not in the particular context being discussed (basic education of severely at risk students) and some are more or less correct and should contribute to the educational environment that ought to be developed. However, when combined together synergistically these memes are likely to evoke a critical response to DI in any context and act to block its possible implementation. The critical response is often emotionally charged, that is, part of a culture war.


Try to imagine the process involved in changing from the anti DI mindset to a pro DI mindset, or vice versa for that matter.

Discussion points arising -

Self awareness and self examination of one's own deeply held biases or beliefs is a difficult process

When people argue that science or evidence supports their viewpoint what does this mean? This requires not only looking at the evidence but also looking at the model of science that is being evoked here

In a few of his essays Noel Pearson outlines the dialectical concept of the radical centre where the best elements from both sides of the political divide are combined into a coherent policy. Yet it could be argued that his currently favoured educational policy, Direct Instruction, is going too far to one side of such a centre.

Direct Instruction (full immersion) is an educational framework that can transform a community of poor learners to become fair learners. Naturalist approaches such as unguided constructivism have failed. Nevertheless, there are limits to Direct Instruction and a framework of guided discovery to promote higher learning is outlined (based on the educational ideas Montessori, Bruner and Vygotsky).