Fireworks at The Age Schools Summit
Plus some warm, soapy water
It is the question on every conference-goers mind: Will the sessions delivery fireworks, as speakers trade sharp observations and opinions, or a bowl of warm soapy water as they all platitudinously agree with each other? Oh, and what will the lunch be like?
Well, I had a salad with chillies in it so that was more than enough excitement for me for one day.
And the sessions? Well, here’s my account.
I missed the welcome, having got lost on the hauntingly deserted first floor of the Melbourne Convention Centre, so I walked in just as James Merlino, the state education minister, was starting his address.
Merlino was excited about the state government’s ‘reforms’. ‘What reforms?’ I thought. ‘Why did I not know about them?’ But then he listed the new Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership - conceived on a visit to Singapore - and changes to Senior Secondary Pathways. I did know about these, I had just forgotten about them.
The most interesting part of his speech was during the question-and-answer session where he was asked why Victoria had stuck with ‘balanced learning’ (balanced literacy). Merlino expressed frustration at phonics questions, claiming phonics is already embedded in Victoria. He said he was looking at what South Australia and New South Wales are doing and is going to run some pilots — both states have introduced the phonics screening check — but he said balance was appropriate.
It’s clear that Merlino has fallen for the balanced literacy rhetoric — an approach where very rudimentary phonics is taught alongside less effective strategies for decoding such as guessing a word from a picture — and has bought it because ‘balance’ is good. It reminds me of those GPs who will refer patients to alternative medicine.
After Merlino, we heard from Jenny Atta, Secretary of the Victorian Department of Education and Training. Atta gave a classic bureaucrat’s speech about recovering from Covid where she said things like ‘enhanced agility and adaptiveness.’ You get the idea.
After coffee, it was time for Becky Allen to beam in from the UK. Allen gave a fascinating talk where she promoted her peculiar brand of educational nihilism: Nobody knows how to improve schools. Sometimes, principals do things that look quite daft. For seemingly intractable reasons, there is no, and can probably be no, solid research addressing the issues that matter to teachers — such as marking — and outfits like the UKs Education Endowment Foundation and its Toolkit probably don’t help. So, we are subjected to endless waves of fads such as personalised learning, differentiation, data divination and curriculum obsessiveness.
Allen’s solution is for school leaders to be ‘foxes’ on the inside — scrappy, self-critical, cautious, empirical — but ‘hedgehogs’ on the outside — certain, able to tell a story, assuring. I don’t understand why these particular animals represent these qualities but, nevertheless, this was an interesting idea.
Next, a gently uncertain and slightly ruffled David de Carvalho took to the stage to talk about the new Australian Curriculum that hasn’t been approved yet. He was mildly disparaging of ‘headlines’ and ‘endless Twitter debates’ that have raged over the draft document but acknowledged there was some serious commentary too. He claimed that he would have been disappointed if there had been no debate. In terms of the woeful draft mathematics curriculum, he acknowledged that there had been objections to the Year levels at which certain concepts were introduced and that there was a perception that the curriculum advocated certain pedagogical practices (teaching methods). He then demonstrated the new Australian Curriculum website.
Stuart Robert, the federal education minister, spoke next. He covered similar territory to his speech last week — which you can read about here — but said less about mathematics and avoided the comments about ‘dud teachers’ that made everyone so mad. Everyone knew about these comments and it was interesting to see how they had mutated in people’s minds. What Robert said last week had turned into ‘the public school system is full of dud teachers’ and in the subsequent panel discussions, speaker after speaker lined up with their shotguns squarely aimed at this barrel full of week-old fish.
Fireworks? More smoldering embers.
We were then on to the panel discussions. First up was a discussion about ‘content-rich curricula’ that I was looking forward to. I prefer to talk of ‘knowledge rich’ curricula and this is what Adam Bright, Principal of Docklands Primary School did, as well as explaining the link to reading comprehension and making students better thinkers.
Jordana Hunter of the Grattan Institute talked of the challenges of implementation and addressed the question of why knowledge rich curricula are controversial — some people prefer to focus on skills and selection of content is always contentious.
I’m not sure the other two panelists were talking about the same things as Bright and Hunter. One spoke as if content was interchangeable and it was about transferring skills to different contexts. I did not really follow the argument.
The next panel was infuriating. It was titled ‘Adapting Teacher Education to the future needs of Australia’ and yet there was virtually no reflection on the quality of teacher education or how it may need to change. There was lots of criticism of Robert’s ‘dud teachers’ comment. This became conflated with criticism of teacher education. It was as if the panelists wanted to present any potentially valid criticism of teacher education as a criticism of teachers. As I said later in my panel, teachers are not well served by teacher education and so criticism of teacher education is not a criticism of teachers.
During the course of this panel, Mark Grant of AITSL made a weird aside about suicide rates in high performing PISA countries that I would like to see the evidence for. Dr Marcia Devlin of the Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership said she was fed up with teacher-bashing and suggested that when people argue that the issue is not funding — something Robert argued in his speech — then, by implication, it must be about teachers and she finds that insulting. But what if there really was no evidence that funding was the key issue? Are we not allowed to say that?
Similarly, Professor Joanna Barbousas of La Trobe university argued that we need a commitment from the media to stop saying bad things about teachers. Really? We’re going to control the media now?
If this discussion is replicated in faculties of education across Australia, it is easy to understand why we cannot get improvements to teacher education.
The final panel before lunch was meant to be about an ‘evidence-based approach to wellbeing of staff and students’. There was a sparky Year 12 student who spoke about the challenges of Covid, but I think only Dr Ray Swann of Brighton Grammar referred to any evidence. However, I’d stopped taking notes by this point.
After lunch, a catch-up with some friends from other schools and organisations and a quick charge of the phone, we returned for the two ‘war’ panels.
The first was on the reading wars and pitted science of reading supporters of systematic phonics against balanced literacy advocates. After initially wondering if there was anything to debate — ‘I don’t know any school that doesn’t teach phonics,’ said Loretta Piazza a school principal — the fireworks finally started to arc into the sky. There is a genuine debate here: about decodable texts; about using picture cues; even about the existence of dyslexia and whether teachers should author individual books for each of their children based on the children’s interests. Both sides used notably different language and I began to wonder if this is less of a debate than a paradigm shift. Advocates of systematic phonics have simply moved on.
The final panel of the session was on the maths wars and I was one of the panellists alongside Professor Russell Tytler of Deakin University and Dr Karen McMullen of Kilbreda College. Tytler made a case for inquiry learning and deep knowledge while I made a case for explicit teaching and argued this was a whole system that fully explained new concepts to students before gradually handing over control.
Dr McMullen is a maths lead who uses explicit instruction and some inquiry style tasks with her students.
I find it interesting that people often rail against false binaries but then proceed to set these up by contrasting, say, procedural knowledge with ‘deep’ conceptual understanding.
I cannot help thinking that The Age is a little hampered by a journalistic regard for demonstrating balance across and within its talks and panels. Sometimes, it works and there is a lively discussion. At other times, it seems to lead to people talking to topics they don’t know much about. Regardless, I am glad we have this summit and long may it continue.
Update: Madeleine Heffernan of The Age has written a story about the same day.