NT offers a template for indigenous school reform

Opinion Article

2015 August, 1

The great 17th-century English essayist Samuel Johnson famously told his biographer Boswell, “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.”

I feel the same way when I meet great teachers. I know they are in a far nobler profession than most others. 

I met three great teachers this week across three remote schools in the Northern Territory. They weren’t the only great ones I met, but I tell their stories to illustrate a couple of points about the Direct Instruction teaching in the country’s most disadvantaged schools. 

First, the beach community. The young lady is indigenous and teaching in her own community, where her mother once served as principal. She was already a highly accomplished teacher, recognised as Northern Territory Teacher of the Year. Her teaching and her upper primary, early secondary students’ learning was a tour de force. The new program didn’t make her a great teacher because she already was, but the effectiveness of the program for her students made for a breathtaking display of high-quality teaching.

It was so compelling that I thought you could take this classroom, with its teacher and students, and drop them into the best schools in eastern Australia, and they would not be out of place.

Second, the inland river community. The young lady was non-indigenous and teaching early to middle primary students. The kids had their student workbooks open. She wasn’t using her teacher guide, she was so adept with the DI pedagogy that she was able to deliver the lessons as if she were teaching freestyle. But all of the steps, techniques and methods of DI were seamlessly integrated into her teaching.

She was so attentive to the thought processes of her students that it was as if she and her students were plugged into some mindshare program. She knew how much think-time to give each student, and the group as a whole. Her mantra was: “Remember we are risk-takers: let’s take a risk, Shona!” Again, I thought, there is no daylight between what’s going on in this classroom and the best classrooms in the cities.

Third, the desert community. The young man had quite a number of years in the desert school, and he was taking an upper primary class in a reading comprehension program. Not one of his class was not engaged. They were all keen to have a go and the relationship between the teacher and his charges was warm, the behaviour was exemplary and you could feel the students’ desire to learn was driving the lesson along. This guy would be a great teacher in any situation, but delivering the DI literacy program was a marvel to witness in his classroom. 

After only one semester we are seeing schools where more classrooms are starting to really hum. Some have quite a way to go yet. There is no reason to think the whole school cannot be as good as these classrooms: the proof of what is possible is only 50m away.

There are still big challenges with teacher recruitment, retention, employing and training local teaching aides, lifting school attendance — but these schools are on the move. The thought that struck me was that, despite the big challenges, these three schools had classrooms that were not just good, they were exemplary. 

There are four types of people in the education scene.

First are the teachers: those who know what to teach and how to teach students. Praise be for the teachers of the world. There is no more profoundly important responsibility in society than that placed in the hands of those who teach our young. 

Second are the breakthrough theorists: the intellectuals who have made historic contributions to theories of teaching and learning. There is only a handful but those claiming this status are numerous. The best among them were also the best teachers. Every worthwhile theory of pedagogy and learning is founded on knowledge and experience of how to teach in real classrooms. 

Third are the derivative theorists: the academics whose ideas are secondary interpretations of the genuine breakthrough thinkers. For every Lev Vygotsky there are tens of thousands of would-be constructivists inhabiting the education faculties and institutions, producing mountains of journal articles and other ephemera.

The minute a theorist moves 10m away from classrooms, you start getting scholarship that bears less and less relation to teaching; these are, rather, the personal intellectual preferences of the theorist. Some of this extrusion may be clever and interesting, but mostly they are useless to education.

The driver for all of this wasteful production is the need for every tin-pot university faculty “to publish”. If you tell a feedlot of bovines, here is an endless supply of hay which you must eat in order to have tenure here, then expect to need a vast machine to shovel out the ensuing excrement.

Should not the educational faculties have as their first mandate “to teach how to teach”? If they did then our student teachers would be armed with what they need for their profession as teachers.

Fourth are the policy and political operators who try to determine what happens with education systems. An unholy mix of the powerful but ignorant, powerless but knowledgeable — meaning that the likelihood is that the useless usually prevails over the effective.

These are people inside and outside governments who come up with the plans and strategies and policies that either work or fail. The performance of Australian schools, notwithstanding the increased investment by governments over recent decades, tells us these plans and policies mostly fail.

I’m a marginal activist in this fourth group, claiming no expertise in teaching or theory, but unwilling to stand quietly by while students from remote Australian schools continue to be denied the opportunity of a good education.

There is now much evidence showing many countries have articulated education reforms, invested in them, and succeeded. McKinsey & Company has shown school systems internationally making a step-change within six years. Australia’s inability to get returns on its education plans and investments speaks of failure.

Indigenous education is of course the most notorious aspect of this failure, but it is by no means the isolated problem and is indeed tangled up in the wider failure of Australian schools servicing disadvantaged children from all backgrounds — black, white and migrant.

I visited these schools with Northern Territory Education Minister Peter Chandler. I met Chandler last year when he visited our Cape York Academy schools, just when the Territory government was finalising its review of indigenous education.

I’ve dealt with scores of education ministers at state, territory and commonwealth levels in different parts of the country, and few struck me as combining the powerful with the effective. I think of former federal minister Peter Garrett as the classic example of the default combination: powerful and useless. There were others who were knowledgeable but ineffectual politically and in policy.

Chandler is one of the best I’ve come across. He is humble but thoughtful. His years chairing the council in the Darwin school his children attended, and the fact his wife is a special-education teacher, give him a better grasp of his portfolio than would normally be the case. He is a good combination of knowledge and experience, and an acute awareness of his own limitations makes him an astute discerner of advice.

He knows what is convincing and is not just a mouthpiece for his bureaucracy. Supported by good departmental leadership that is not just serious about school reform but showing methodical policy development and organisation in support of it, he is now leading a reform agenda for indigenous students in the Territory that is the best hope I see anywhere in the country.

Serious planning and the budgetary allocation appears to have been done by Chandler’s departmental leader, Ken Davies. I get a distinct sense that 15 years after the last policy prescription set out by former Labor senator Bob Collins, this time the Territory government is acutely aware of the failures of the past 1½ decades — and the desperate need to take indigenous education seriously.

A strong moral purpose in the social justice of this challenge is palpable. I’ve heard enough platitudes and good intentions expressed many times before, so I have a good idea when I’m downwind from a feedlot. One component of that reform is rolling out with the introduction of DI to 16 Territory schools under federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne’s Flexible Literacy for Remote Primary Schools program.

Chandler has made a good start. But these reforms cannot be done without teachers. Teachers from across Australia who want to join the great moral crusade of remote school reform should seriously think about putting their hands up to make a contribution. From what I’ve seen this week, it will not go waste.

NT offers a template for indigenous school reform