Literacy in Remote Schools Launch, Perth

Good to Great Schools Australia

2015 January, 15

Literacy in Remote Schools Launch, Perth

Thank you very much. I want to pay my respects to the Noongar people of Southwest Western Australia. I bring greetings from Cape York.

I'm very pleased to be here particularly at the launch of our remote literacy project. I want to acknowledge Minister Peter and Alana who've had to go off to other appointments and Sue, Ben, and Ken as our parliamentary representatives. I'm so pleased we have bipartisan support for school reform particularly for our indigenous communities and children.

Western Australia has been really at the leading edge of policy discussion about explicit instruction and direct instruction. Labor and the government have both been very much attuned to the debate about direct and explicit instruction. I think one of the most politically and policy-wise and most literate of all of our jurisdictions really. I'm so pleased at the very good turnout we have in Western Australia for this project.

I come from a small community called Hope Vale. It was a mission that commenced in the latter quarter of the 19th century, and I speak my father's and mother's languages. I'm literate in my father's and mother's language. But that is not remarkable. My grandfather was literate in his own language, and English. He could read the bible. He could read the bible as translated by the missionary. It's completely unremarkable for people at Hope Vale to be both bilingual, sometimes trilingual, and literate in their own language, as well as English.

A protector who commenced his career in Africa and came to Western Australia in the late 1900s who then ended up in Queensland, Walter Roth, actually corresponded with the young ladies at the mission at Cape Bedford in their own language at the end of the 19th century. The letters between him and the young girls at the dormitory in Guugu Yimithirr. The German missionaries were able to teach these kids who were brought in very imminently from the bush to be literate in English as well as their own language, very early on in the mission's history.

So my distress towards our educational underperformance concerns the latest generations, the post-mission generations. These are the ones who can't read and write in their own language and in English. And I wondered why it was that there had been this collapse. How come all these old people, 75, 85 years old, can read the bible in their own language as well as English, and yet their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are completely illiterate? That was kind of my big quandary. What had happened to our education when these grandchildren and great-grandchildren were attending schools flush with better facilities - overhead projectors, computers, white boards, more money than it had ever been spent during the mission era on schooling.

And so we got involved in the early 2000s in this whole debate about the teaching of reading. It was a raging war, as you know. It is a war that still remains kind of unconcluded. And I figured that I did not have a view on which side of that conflagration was right, but I read the debates and I became convinced that the people on the phonics and direct instruction part of the debates sounded like they had the persuasive argument. And we did a lot of research in Cape York Peninsula and we invited a program called MultiLit to come to our schools. And we trialed MultiLit for about two years and we were very keen about the results, but it was a tutorial program at the side of the school. We used to have to take the kids out of this classroom and take them to the tutorial room and return them back into the main classroom at the end.

And I said to Professor Kevin Wheldall from Macquarie University Special Education Center; ‘mate, what about the main classroom? Why don't we change what's going on so we don't have to remediate? If we're teaching them properly in the classroom surely we won't need a tutorial room on the side?’.

So we had an attempt at trying to change the teaching practice in the classroom proper and I think we tried that for a year, and it really didn't work. Two cooks in the kitchen. One mob wanting to do whole language, another one trying to do MultiLit, and there was no consensus about what should happen.

That is why we were so keen and we eventually bit the bullet with Julia Gillard and Jenny Macklin when they supported us to take over two schools in Cape York at Aurukun and Coen and then we could pursue our own lights. With the community leaders, we could make our own decisions about the curriculum and the pedagogy. And we went to the United States and met with the developers of the Direct Instruction program in Oregon and they agreed to partner with us with what we call the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy.

I want to share some of my thinking about this whole debate between whole language and direct or explicit instruction. But let me first say that Good to Great Schools is about the idea that we came up with very early on in our thinking that it's the instruction stupid. The whole Bill Clinton line, that it's the economy stupid. But it seems to me that schools - we've got to get the instruction right.

And so our letterhead with Good to Great Schools has that keystone in the middle. And the two stones on the left and right of that keystone, we think they're the three critical elements of schools. The archway of schooling and educational success. On one side is the teacher, the great teacher who is committed to delivering for the student, and then you have the student who's ready to learn. But there's got to be something between them, that relationship between the teacher and the student. It seems to me that it was the critical keystone that you need to get right. What is it that lies between the great teacher and the ready student? It seems to me it's instruction. Effective instruction.

Of course, there's a lot more to that relationship than effective instruction. There is commitment. There is friendship. There is love. There is dedication. There are all those elements to the relationship between the teacher and the student. But my argument is that if effective instruction is not there then all of the love and dedication amount to nothing. That relationship between the teacher and the student, if there is not between them the element of effective instruction, then it seems to me that the crucial keystone is missing and there will not be educational success.

Like everybody, I can count and I can recall several teachers in all of my primary, secondary, and tertiary education whom I loved. Who transformed my life. Whom I had a great relationship with. Whose names I will never forget. With whom I had experiences that were burned into my breast. But I came to reflect on that handful of teachers that I was so fortunate to have, that there were other teachers whose names I could not recall. And I had a very real sense that one of those teachers in my primary school years boosted my reading so much, and yet she was so anonymous. I can't recall her name. But I had a distinct sense in year four that I really took the step change with my English under her tutelage.

When we think about extraordinary teachers, we tend to think of the first kind of teacher that I spoke about; the Mr Sellick’s of my own education, and Mrs Greenwood's of my own education. They're the obvious people that I recall as great teachers. But my year four teacher who taught me to crash through on reading, who never had any kind of spectacular personal relationship with me, I know gave me effective instruction.

There are more teachers who contribute through much more modest ways because they deliver effective instruction, than we want to give credit to in our recollections about our own education. It was that insight, my reflection on that, that got me determined to highlight the fact that the keystone of success is to get the instruction right. The instruction has got to work. It's got to be effective. You can't just have a good guy, or a good caring and committed teacher, if they're not going to deliver you effective instruction.

Our idea with Good to Great Schools is that we've got to get three elements right to make schools work. Great teachers, effective instruction for every child. We were struck when we read the McKinsey and Companies analysis of the twenty most high performing systems in the world. They ask the question: what is it that makes these high-performing systems work? And McKinsey said, those systems picked the right people to become teachers. They make sure those teachers are delivering effective instruction, and they make sure that every child in the system receives the benefit of that instruction. Again, a complete correspondence with our idea. Great teachers, effective instruction, every child.

And I want to say that we've adopted in our thinking McKinsey's framework for thinking about school improvement. I think it's a completely brilliant report they did in 2010 when they looked at school systems across the world. And they said these systems go through stages; from poor to fair, to good, to great, to excellent. And they plotted the best systems around the world. Singapore, Long Island, Hong Kong. Systems right across the world. Ontario and so on. And of course, they also explained the great insight that Singapore used to be poor. If you go back in time there was a stage when Singapore went from poor to fair and then they went sometime in the 70s from fair to good. And then they moved from good to great. And now they're kind of knocking on the door of excellent.

So all of these systems have undertaken a transformation journey and what they've done at different stages of the journey has been particular. When Singapore went from poor to fair, they had scripted instruction. They had a priority on getting children in the seats. School attendance. They had a priority on basic needs: food, shelter, money, and children's welfare.

So all of these systems that we look at today that are said to be great, that are said to be excellent, like Finland and Singapore. When you look back at how they got to where they're at, they undertook a set of interventions along the way that were particular to their performance level.

So when we reflected on the McKinsey report we thought, well actually, doesn't this analysis apply within a system? Doesn't the Western Australian system actually cover that whole range? Isn't there within Western Australia excellent schools? And great schools? And good schools? And fair schools? And poor schools? Western Australian schools traverse that whole performance spectrum. The center of gravity might be around good, but Western Australia does have excellent schools. And Western Australia does have poor schools. Failing schools. And there's a whole lot of schools in the middle that are alright, they're good. Geez, I wish they were better. And every year we're trying to get it over the line from good to great, but we always languish around the middle. What do we need to do to kind of step up to the next stage? How do we shift the performance from poor to fair to good to great?

In Cape York we've used that metric in our thinking from day one in 2010. And we've developed with McKinsey a way of measuring that performance. I have to say I think we did the poor to fair journey in the first year, in 2010. We run fair schools. And we started running them in our first year, but they were poor. If there were a national competition for the worst school in Australia, we would have had a candidate. But I would say that that school is a fair school today. And it was a fair school in a very short order. We turned the ship around.

In some of the photographs there you'll see some white kids - usually the child of a mechanic, or a council clerk, or some service provider, who lives in the community. Those kids, they might come from working class families but because they attend every day and they've got a whole lot of things in place, they do really well at our schools. They're better off going to an Aurukun school than going to a school in Cairns because they've got everything else sorted out and Arukun school gives them effective instruction. So it's just extraordinary when I see these Vietnamese kids whose father happens to be working for the local council or something, they do really well at our schools.

The thing that struck us about the Mckinsey work was that we're on a journey. The first journey, first part is to go from poor to fair. Now we're trying to get to good but we're not there yet. I think our partners from the National Institute for Direct Instruction will agree with us that we are still fair. I was hoping that we were knocking on the door of good but I think we're still two years away from being able to say we're good. And we're going to have to solve some heroic challenges in respect of attendance. It's a big impediment. If the kids are not there then the effective instruction can't work. And in one of our schools, we still have a massive attendance challenge. In another one of them, 100% yesterday.

And so that's our thinking about school reform; it's a journey. We're five years into it now. We've gone from poor to fair, we're not yet good. But at some stage soon we are going to be good, and then when we get to good, we're going to start thinking about heading to great. One of the things exercising our minds which is going to be an issue for you guys, it's an issue that I just want to plant in your heads at this stage, not to burden you with it, but just to have in the back of your minds, that when you start to feel the real business of tectonic shift under the foundations of your school. When you feel that real tectonic shift that effective instruction can give you, the kind of big challenge you have to have at the back of your mind is how do we sustain this? And how do we keep this? How do you turn a three-year literacy intervention into a long-term sustainable embedding of good teaching? Because you're going to develop within your faculties in this school highly effective teaching by highly effective teachers. But you're not going to be there forever.

You're going to be there for the next two, three, four years. You're going to have to hand the baton over to another crop. Another crew. And they're not trained like you are. And so the issue will be how do we hand the baton on, and how do we get a bit of sandstone into the school? How do we create an institution?

I mean that's the thing about schools. If you get a bit of sandstone into the place, if you turn it from just a mere school into an institution, the sandstone kind of carries the reform. The culture, the good teaching practice. And it maintains the achievement. So I just want to introduce that idea. It's not something that we need to solve tonight or tomorrow. But the whole business of how do we turn these places from schools into institutions? Because we're going to have to. Otherwise, another government's going to have to come along and find another 22 million dollars for an intervention and we can't do that in cycles. We can't just have another literacy and numeracy push. We're going to have to think about how what we do over these next three years is sustained and how you guys hand over a culture to those who will come after you.

I'm really pleased that we have a relationship with the National Institute for Direct Instruction in Oregon, but I'm also very pleased that we happened to come across DataWorks, and John Hollingsworth and Sylvia Ybarra. I read their book by chance. It was completely galvanized by explicit direct instruction. It is a related program to direct instruction. It is not scripted, but in our flexible literacy project we have developed an Australian first curriculum with a comprehensive set of literacy lessons that can be utilised by teachers and schools knowing that those lessons are consistent with the Australian curriculum. I've dealt with enough educators around the country to know that their appraisal of John and Sylvia's expertise in relation to curriculum standards and how to translate those standards into lessons is unparalleled. The capacity of DataWorks to translate curriculum standards down to what the teacher has to teach at the classroom level is an extraordinary aspect of the value that DataWorks is giving us. I'm particularly taken with the work they've done on getting us to understand the importance of each lesson. John and Sylvia say it's about school reform at the lesson level, get the lesson right and we'll eventually get the whole school right. And their book is subtitled with the very message that I think is so powerful about their approach; it’s about well-crafted lessons that are powerfully delivered. It's just been a complete advantage and boon for us that John and Sylvia have partnered with Good to Great Schools Australia. We are the preferred partner of their organisation here in Australia. They are well known beyond our work and I think the schools in Western Australia that are going to use EDI, you've really got a front row seat in this opportunity. And I want to thank Sylvia and John for partnering with us.

That original debate that we were concerned with between the phonics and the whole language crowd; the way I think about that debate and why it has become so ideological and so therefore destructive for children. I actually think, and even friends amongst us might vigorously dispute my way of thinking about that debate, but I actually think that there's a kind of dialectical relationship between those two sides of the debate. There's a kind of unity of opposites is one way to understand the relationship between direct instruction and inquiry. They're not kind of one's right and one's wrong, they're kind of unified.

And so that unity of the opposites, the kind of yin and yang between explicit learning or explicit teaching and implicit learning. Between direct instruction and indirect learning. Between teaching and inquiry and discovery. Between school education and kind of natural social construction. There's a kind of unity in the opposites. Humans do learn through social construction. We do learn implicitly.

Siegfried Engelmann in his theory of instruction, his starting point for understanding how humans learn is that children are logical beings. Babies are logical. The way humans learn is completely logical. Cognitive scientists once called it ‘the computational baby’. It is in the nature of humans that we start making logical calculations. We drop the glass and we learn about gravity. We learn the rule in relation to the blue sea and the blue smoke, and the blue car, and the blue pen, even before we know the word blue, we learned the rule blue. Children are logically learning a whole lot of rules through life from the very beginning. That's the way Siegfried explains it in Theory of Instruction. The nature of human beings is to identify similarities between qualities and then at some stage identifying differences between all of those things that are the same. All of the blues, and the line that separates the blue from green.

I had a meeting before Christmas with some executives from Apple Australia in Sydney and I'm doing a big pitch to them, and of course they're into creativity and inquiry and discovery, as you would be. But I caused them to stall in their assumptions about that when I said, ‘you know, it's like if you had a glass apple in a big block of ice’. We know that there is an apple in the middle of this block of ice. Now, how do we go about teaching the child about the apple? Do we give them a chisel to work it out themselves and to discover the apple? Do we give them a Bunsen burner to melt the ice? How is it that they learn about the apple? Learn the knowledge of the apple that's trapped in this block of ice? And they can't see it well. As I understand it, direct instruction is about explicitly teaching the child about the shape of that apple at the core of that block of ice and going straight to the business of telling them what it looks like, what size it is, and where you will find it, rather than arming them with a chisel to work it out themselves. And to discover the shape of it.

And I see that school education is about teaching because we know that if we expose kids to a whole lot of examples, they're going to learn the rule. Siegfried's construction of his direct instruction program is about exposing children to examples so that they learn the rule. The blue car, the blue smoke, the blue pen, the blue carpet, the rule is blue. And then when the blue alien comes out of nowhere completely unconceived, the child might not know anything about that unknown example but he knows the rule blue. And, of course, direct instruction is a very carefully scientifically worked out progression of exposing children to examples, getting them to learn the rules, and then getting them to apply the schools to further generalisations. It is not rote learning. If it was rote learning you'd have to learn all examples. Rather, it's about exposing kids to examples so they learn the rule and then they can generalise to completely novel examples. Completely unknown examples. And that logical process at its higher levels includes patterns and other forms of higher-level logic. And the children's capacity to do that is developed from the very beginning through a logical process.

So what I have to say to the whole language people is that school education is about imparting to the kids the rules that we actually know so that we can get to the frontiers of what they're capable of doing as quickly and efficiently as possible. There's a lot of creativity and critique and further generalisation beyond the frontiers of our direct instruction programs and elementary schooling and secondary schooling. There’s a lot of frontiers out there and why we should bog the process down in getting kids to undertake discovery learning and so on, and inquiry-based learning, when explicit and direct instruction can teach you very straight up what those rules are and enable you to then generalise them is confounding.

And rather than seeing the explicit and implicit learning as kind of a unified whole and understanding why is it that school education deliberate formal school education is about direct teaching. It is in the nature of teaching that the teacher is versed in the examples that she wants to provide to the child and the learning that she wants to ensue when she does that.

So, unfortunately this whole debate is across the western world, not just in Australia, a highly ideological debate that ultimately the most disadvantaged kids suffer from. Because this ideological debate doesn't really damage advantaged kids. It most damages the prospects of those kids who desperately need to be able to read and succeed. It distresses me that the people who are most concerned for the welfare of disadvantaged children unfortunately tend to champion the educational approaches that could not be more kind of deleterious to their prospects than whole language.

The final thing I want to say is that the teachers here tonight, I salute you for your profession. The great Samuel Johnson once said that he was embarrassed that he'd never been a soldier. And most people he said feel a sense of embarrassment that - this is the 17th century by the way - but I kind of understand very well when Samuel Johnson says that there's a certain sense of embarrassment for those of us who are not soldiers.

But my sense of embarrassment is that I'm not a teacher. I just think it's the most noble profession. It's people who dedicate their lives to teaching. You're engaged in the most precious business, I think. I'm a great admirer of teachers. I've never had more service and love in my life than I have had from my teachers. I just want to say to the teachers here tonight that I'm a great supporter of teachers and teaching. Yours is an extremely noble profession. Too undervalued here in our country. Not sufficiently honored. And I really want to express my gratitude for your schools and your own involvement in this project.

You are engaged, I think, not just in helping each individual indigenous child and non-indigenous children as well who are involved in our project, you're not just helping them, I think you're going to help these communities and these peoples. A big debate here as there is in our end of the country about the future viability of our communities, and our culture, and our languages. And I’ve got to tell you that if we don't get this education thing right it is going to be about the viability of our future. Particularly in remote Australia. If we don't give this schooling thing right soon, we're going to lose our communities in remote Australia. We've got to get it right. If there's one thing that's got to work, in the smallest community, the remotest community, the one thing that has to work is the school. It is that desperately important. If you're worried about the future of remote communities and you want to do something about it, the most important thing you can do is help them to get their schools rolling. Get their children educated. Because it is the ultimate underpinning for the future of those people, their languages, their culture.

I really apologise for going on at length here this evening but I just want to say in closing that I salute all of you for your involvement in our program. Can I say that at this stage of the game even before we've conducted our first class, you're all entitled to be skeptical. You're all entitled to be skeptical. But you're not entitled to be cynical. No one is entitled to be cynical. It is the performance of the children that will swing you around. You're entitled to be skeptical and when you see the performance of the children that is what will bring you on board. It has ever been thus in our schools.

Many of the teachers here are teachers who say to me all the time, I was skeptical at first but after a while I realised, and it was the kids' performance that got me to change my skepticism.

But of course, I just want to underline that none of us have the right to be cynical. There's a difference between skepticism and cynicism. Skepticism is healthy and is our right. You don't need to believe me. Be persuaded by the kids' performance. You have a right to be skeptical but none of us has a right to be cynical. We've got to give this our best shot. We can't blame our lack of proper dedication to the implementation of this project and this teaching. We can't blame our failure to be properly dedicated to this exercise on the performance of the children.

Thank you very much. Again, I want to say to Ken and our parliamentary representatives, Ben and Commonwealth and State, for their magnificent support for this initiative and thank you all for being here this week.