Direct Instruction Event

Centre for Independent Studies

2016 November, 4

Direct Instruction Event

I'm here with old friends, the CIS. Thank you very much Greg Lindsay and Jennifer for giving us the opportunity to speak here this evening.

I'm reminded by James Boswell's Life of Johnson. He said people feel mean about themselves for never having been a soldier. And I've always had this sense of feeling mean about myself for never having been a teacher, because it is such a noble profession. And I'm extremely humbled when I see educators like we've had tonight, and on the video talk about this glorious business of what I think is society's most pressing and important calling.

On this night I have to remember the late Professor Helen Hughes. I spent a year in 2012 in the trenches of cancer treatment. I was kind of out of action for 12 months in this dormitory dark suburb of amazing great privilege actually; Sunshine Beach. But it was all dark and the waves were whistling off the coast, and the wind was pounding the beach, and I was reading papers from Mark and Helen Hughes about education. And these were my drawings from that dark period when I was starting to think about what we were going to do to expand the cause of direct and explicit instruction.

I was under the hammer from The Sydney Morning Herald 12 months out of circulation, but they were determined to paint Saint Noel as the devil incarnate, notwithstanding my withdrawal from public life by no choice of my own. This is a hard business. And this is not exactly a popular cause. I said last night in Brisbane that it's now 60 years since Rudolf Flesch wrote a famous book called Why Johnny Can't Read in the United States.

The solution to education and particularly the teaching of reading, but not just reading, mathematics, teaching generally, was apparent to us over 60 years ago and yet we still have ongoing reluctance to embrace what Rudolf Flesch had identified back in 1955 and the work of Siegfried Engelmann on direct instruction since 1964. And of course, our own national reading inquiry in 2005 that told us what we need to do to get Australian children enjoying perhaps the most basic entitlement. The entitlement to be able to read not just the most basic, the most powerful entitlement.

I said last night also, I'm just constantly, as I get older, and the distance between my late father and myself grows, I'm ever thankful to his childhood advice. I don't know where he got it from, maybe from the missionary, maybe from some book, but he told me from the earliest childhood that ‘reading makes a full man’. It was a quotation from Francis Bacon and he constantly drilled that into me and my brothers that reading makes a full man. And that invocation never departed from me, and has always sat on my shoulders. It was the best advice he ever gave me. And it’s one of the reasons why I'm so passionate about ensuring that our children, and Australian children generally, get the advantage of being able to read.

I want to make one point about how we improve Australian schools and the performance of Australian classrooms and make the point that there's a lot of talk about teacher quality. And I think what's lost in the debate about teacher quality is teaching quality. We can in fact lift Australian schools without a massive change in the noun. We can lift Australian schools if we get the verb going and in fact the noun will follow the verb. If we get the pedagogy right. If we get the teaching right, the teacher will develop. And that has been the story of our own academy. There needn't be a magical transformation in the quality of teachers. We need to focus on the importance of pedagogy and teaching. We will get the largest return and the quickest return once we understand that we've got to get the teaching right.

The inventor of direct instructions Siegfried Engelmann developed in the very early days an operating principle of direct instruction when he said; ‘if the student has not learned, the teacher has not taught’. And you think about that phrase. It is the ultimate accountability. We can talk all we like about school accountability and the accountability of educators, and education systems. But Engelmann’s starting point was that if the student has not learned the teacher has not taught.

And there's a further point that I want to make about direct instruction, and this is often not at all well understood in relation to the direct instruction program - this is the big DI program - is that at the macro level, of pedagogical practice, it can seem as if there's a lot of practice, a lot of repetition, a lot of embedding, and memorisation and embedding in long term memory. But when you take the zoom lens out and you look at the program in the macro, there is in fact a sophisticated instructional design. And this is not a program about rote learning everything, the instructional design is actually all about exposing children to examples, getting them to learn the logical rules and make the deductions, and inferences, and then extrapolating them to new examples. Generalising those rules.

So, one of the misconceptions when you observe a direct instruction classroom in progress - when you're looking at the macro of pedagogical practice - you lose the overall picture that as the lessons proceed throughout the program, a very sophisticated instructional design is at work. Where children are being exposed to examples, and then they're able to generalise, to completely novel examples. And it's the most basic. You learn the rule blue. Blue smoke, blue car, blue pen, blue cup, blue water. And all of a sudden, the novel alien comes through the door: blue alien. And of course, the program in its latter year starts to get extremely sophisticated. All of the pieces start to come together and children are able to logically discern higher order patterns.

So, at first blush it might seem like a rote learning program, there's a lot of practice and returning to the material that's been taught in previous lessons. But in the macro design of the instructional programs, this is a very sophisticated and extremely well-designed program that is about equipping children with the logical rules so that they can eventually discern very complex patterns and generalise from the rules that they've learned.

I want to say something about higher expectations. And I'm in a very combative discourse with my colleague Dr Chris Sarra in relation to this whole question of direct instruction. I don't know that he's ever been in a classroom where direct instruction has ever been taught. But I'm in furious agreement with his call for higher expectations in indigenous education in particular. Furious agreement. Complete alignment. There's been too many decades of low expectations. And if Sarra has done anything it has been to underscore the critical importance of holding high expectations, for disadvantaged kids and indigenous kids in particular. Where I part ways with Chris, is that it is one thing to have high expectations of a student, but it is the teacher's duty to furnish that student with the means to meet those expectations. To my mind it is completely cruel to have high expectations of a child and then not give them the means to meet those expectations. If you don't give them the means to read successfully and to perform mathematics successfully then you've set up a cruel expectation. You said; ‘these Aboriginal kids, you'd be able to perform the same as the kids at Blue Haven or Broadbeach State School’, but you haven't furnished them with the means to meet those expectations.

And meeting those expectations is a question of pedagogy. It is not a question of self-esteem or racial pride. No amount of racial pride and exhortation to that effect will furnish a kid with the means to be able to read. In fact, pride will come when you read successfully. It is achievement and hard work that is the wellspring of pride and esteem. It can't just come simply on the basis of the colour of your skin, and some self-consciousness about that. This is where I part ways with Chris. Fundamentally I'm on the same page in relation to the expectations, but you've got to go further than that. You then have a moral duty to give the child the means to meet those expectations. And this is a question of pedagogy.

In fact, Siegfried Engelmann hammered out those pedagogical principles since 1964, and Barak Rosenshine actually compiled the taxonomy, the actual principles - of I do, we do, you do =  model, lead, test - were hammered out by Engelmann following his commencement in this area in 1964.

Finally, I do want to give an opportunity to Phyllis Yunkaporta, my colleague from Cape York Peninsula, who came with me to the United States in 2009. When we were guided by Professor Kevin Wheldall from the MultiLit program here in Sydney. We had very promising success with MultiLit, remediating students at Coen. We had a little tutorial room on the edge of the school. We weren't allowed in the main classroom, but at least the department allowed us to run a remedial program on the side of the school in the mid-2000s. And we were so impressed with how the kids were responding to the MultiLit program. The kind of question occurred to us - well if the teaching in this tutorial room is so good, why isn't it happening down in the main classroom? We had a time of it trying to break into that classroom. It took us a couple of years, and finally Kevin told us that in fact the ancestral program of MultiLit was Direct Instruction.

So, we went to the United States with the support of the Vincent Fairfax foundation and we saw Direct Instruction in African-American classrooms in Atlanta and in Oregon. We were completely persuaded, Phyllis, myself, and the late mayor of Aurukun, and representatives from Coen and we said we're going to bring the program back to Australia. We put a business case together with the support of the Vincent Fairfax Foundation and we put it to the Queensland Government and we finally got our Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy established. I think the point has been made by Glen and Kiriana that we have a full curriculum, not the least of which is our music program. We have a fantastic instrumental music program. Coen is one of these schools where almost every child is an instrumentalist. Saxophone, trombone, you name it. Then James Morrison joined us as a partner. We made sure we recruited a music teacher. And that music teacher was put through a crash course to go from knowing two instruments to knowing ten. And she then had to teach the kids. And Siegfried Engelmann was actually the one who said to me when we visited him in Eugene, Oregon. Siegfried said: ‘make sure you have a good music program’.

So, we have a fully rounded curriculum, but we are unapologetic about the foundational importance of our Direct Instruction program. The model of school that we've proposed and that we have is what we call a partnership school. It is the closest thing to a kind of a charter school that we have in Australia. It's not as hardcore as a charter school in the United States, but essentially, it's a public school that is not entirely the responsibility of the public school system. We have a delineation in relation to responsibilities in operating the school. The department's responsibility is to do all of the school operations - they hire all the staff, they are all Education Department employees, and all of the policies and procedures of running a state school apply to our Academy. The teachers remain employees of the system, and all of the finances for operating the school come under the jurisdiction of the Department.

Moreover, the facilities continue to belong to the state and are the responsibility of the department. We didn't want to get into the industrial operation of the school, and neither did we want to get into the facilities management of the school. What we were concerned about was our side of the partnership. Being the curriculum and the pedagogy. That is the part that our Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy through Good to Great Schools determines.

And we determined that Direct Instruction and Explicit Direct Instruction were the prescribed curricula for our schools and where the Direct Instruction program wasn't available off the shelf, we developed our own curriculum materials for our culture and club programs. And those are constantly under development and refinement. That is the nature of the partnership. The department employs the teachers, and runs the schools, and administers the budget, and we take care of the curriculum and the pedagogy.

It seems to me that this is the optimal model for us to spread school reform without going back to the old story, when prior to us being involved, the whole scene abjured any kind of effective instruction in relation to reading, mathematics, anything. Coen had a very high rate of attendance. We had worked with that community through the 2000s. So, the problem of underachievement at Coen wasn't a result of the children not turning up. The great injustice that was going on was the kids were turning up and they were not being taught. We had to get in there and change the teaching supply. We had strong and developing learning demand, but a completely unjust teaching supply. And the situation did not change until we changed the governance of the school.

The constructivist and whole language approaches were completely entrenched in remote education, as they are largely throughout systems across the country. A strong objective of our academy was to say; ‘this is not about ideology, this is about the evidence’. Fortuitously, John Hattie's Visible Learning came out about the same time that we started the academy, and plainly the evidence was there in favour of Direct Instruction.

We've been very pleased with the journey that we've had at Coen and Hope Vale.

I want to acknowledge before I bring Phyllis up here – I want to acknowledge Kon Kalos who was the principal at Aurukun last year. What has gone on at Aurukun is a complete travesty; where the actions of the Queensland Government have really destroyed five years of work. The actions of the Queensland Government have destroyed five years of work. And they're not even aware of it. They know not what they have done.

What Kon did last year was, the data shows, that we finally hit our straps in Aurukun. Those children were achieving at reading and mathematics rates, they were getting through those DI programs one program per year. Which is what we want, the children to complete the program within the allotted time. Getting mastery and progress. They’re the two wings of the plane. You want to lift the rate, but you've got to keep the wings on an even keel of mastering the material, and progressing through the program. And Aurukun's best year was in 2015, when our lesson progress was over one year’s progress in 12 months of schooling.

And we're in a state of real flux about what the future of Aurukun is going to be. We've gone a term without the program. We're still in negotiations with the Queensland Government about the future of the school there. And all of this because of incidents that took place outside of the school. It had to do with law and order, juvenile delinquency, and lack of policing. And yet the Queensland Government turned it into a question about pedagogy. And we went through three months of hell about Direct Instruction. They know not what they have done, in relation to the complete unravelling that's taken place, particularly in relation to the work that a succession of principals like Kon Kalos were achieving with the kids from that community.

I want to let Phyllis speak in relation to her experience at Aurukun.