SEPTEMBER 5, 2015
Veteran teacher Cath Greene dug in her heels when she was told to use Direct Instruction at Australia’s most remote school.
“I can’t say I was a fan to start with,” the Ntaria School principal tells Inquirer. “I absolutely did not want to do it in my school. But now you could call me a convert. The children are gaining more confidence. I’m seeing them respond well to positive reinforcement, instead of us constantly pulling them up for doing the wrong thing.”
Direct Instruction is a pragmatic and tightly scripted teaching method that gives students step-by-step instruction in the basics of literacy and maths for two to three hours each day. Children are tested weekly to gauge what they have learned, and made to repeat lessons until they “get it”.
Reviled by some education academics as “drill and kill” teaching, Direct Instruction is delivering results for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, who trail mainstream students by 2½ years of schooling.
Most are functionally illiterate when they leave school, destined to life on the dole. In some remote areas, only 14 per cent of Aboriginal kids go to school. Fewer than half will finish Year 12.
Nearly one in four indigenous students failed to read to the minimum national standard for Year 3 last year, compared with 3.5 per cent of other kids. Indigenous students were eight times likelier to fall below the minimum standard in maths. The deplorable results are no better in Year 9. Results have flatlined in the seven years since the start of the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy.
In the Northern Territory, a typical 14-year-old student will be reading at the level expected of an eight-year-old.
Two-thirds of the Territory’s indigenous students cannot read properly, compared with 7 per cent of mainstream students.
Northern Territory Education Minister Peter Chandler has had a gutful of bureaucrats telling him nothing will change.
“You wouldn’t believe the amount of pushback I’ve got from departmental staff and people working within the schools themselves,” he says.
“They said to just accept it is what it is. But how can you do the same thing time and time again and expect different results?”
Chandler says the Education Department has a “scattergun approach” to indigenous education. “We were pushing money out the door but it wasn’t fixing things,” he says. “Schools were full of resources that were never used; some schools in remote areas were so well-resourced they had programs still in plastic bags in cupboards.”
After “searching high and low” for a solution, Chandler began trialling Direct Instruction in 15 of the Northern Territory’s 69 remote schools this year, after observing its success on Queensland’s Cape York.
He plans to expand the program to another 30 schools within two years and to cover all remote schools within four years. One principal, he says, threatened to quit when told to start using Direct Instruction but has since become an enthusiastic supporter.
“We’re all taught to tie shoelaces under a Direct Instruction model,” he says.
“I’m seeing kids going from one community to the next and if Direct Instruction has been involved they just walk in and pick up a book and know where they’re up to.
“I’ve gone to classrooms where kids were jumping off chairs, hanging from the ceiling and running in and out of doors — they were out of control.
“But I walk into a classroom with Direct Instruction and the kids are engaged, the teachers are in control and the children are learning.”
Indigenous leader Noel Pearson has championed Direct Instruction since introducing it five years ago at his Cape York Academy, which operates three public primary schools at Aurukun, Coen and Hope Vale in partnership with Queensland’s Education Department.
NAPLAN data reveals a drastic improvement in the basic skills of the academy’s Year 3 students. Although the children still lag behind the national average for reading, grammar and punctuation and numeracy, they now exceed the average for comparable schools. In Coen, 32 out of 50 students have achieved their grade level in reading.
Pearson describes these children as the “beautiful green shoots” for indigenous communities ground down by generations of unemployment, addiction, ill-health and despair.
“Education is the only viable economic development strategy for remote indigenous communities,” he tells Inquirer.
“Education is the bedrock of everything we have to do. The solutions are really, really hard but you will only see answers emerge when your children are educated.”
Direct Instruction methods, Pearson says, can “turn a very poor school into a fair one” in six months to a year. He says education bureaucrats have asked him, jokingly, “What have you put in the water?”
“The student’s starting to climb for the first time, and the teacher is gratified the student’s starting to get it,” Pearson says. “The students are learning and happy. It’s a beautiful engine.” Many teachers, however, resist Direct Instruction because they feel it “dumbs down” their professional skills through scripted lessons.
“One teacher told me, ‘We don’t do Direct Instruction because we don’t like it,’ ” Pearson says. “It’s all about whether the educator, entrusted with the job of teaching children, thinks it’s right. All our teachers are sceptical at first and get convinced on the job by the performance of the children.”
Pearson blames university education faculties for sneering at Direct Instruction and its derivative, Explicit Instruction, the “I do, we do, you do” teaching method pioneered by John Fleming, deputy chairman of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership.
“It’s the teaching faculties that are sowing the seeds of resistance and doubt in teachers,” Pearson says. “It’s an ideological thing; they think it kills children’s creativity and ability to criticise things. But Karl Marx could read, at least. Direct Instruction is this really radical idea that, before you ask a kid a question, teach them first so they know how to answer it.”
Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne is trialling Direct Instruction in 33 remote indigenous schools. He hopes to expand this “flexible literacy” approach into more schools, based on promising early results from the trial. “Whenever a school uses Direct Instruction or Explicit Instruction or any other explicit teaching approach, student engagement lifts, student learning and student attendance increase, and the quality of teaching improves,” he says.
Primary English Teaching Association president Robyn Cox says it is unclear whether Direct Instruction will turn children into lifelong readers.
“However, if it is a choice of having learners crack the code and learn to enjoy print, then I am all for it,” she says.
The Direct Instruction trial is part of the Northern Territory’s 10-year plan for indigenous education. The government will build boarding schools outside remote communities, to get more high school students to attend school in regional hubs.
In the Families as First Teachers program, parents are encouraged to help out in class. Often, they sit at the back of the room, learning along with their children.
Free breakfast is laid out each morning in most remote Territory schools. “Kids can be educated to a high standard only if they’ve got food in their belly,” says Chandler. He says 90 per cent of indigenous children in remote areas have unemployed parents.
“You’ve got to get indigenous people working, but you’ve got to get an education to get a job. Let’s get their education right. Let’s fix that up before it becomes a welfare mess in this country,” he says.
Western Australia is pouring resources into early intervention. It has set up 21 Child and Parent Centres in schools in vulnerable communities, to combine early learning, maternal health and parenting programs on school grounds.
Next year, it will establish a KindiLink program to provide play-and-learn sessions for two hours, three times a week, for indigenous children and their parents at 37 existing schools or kindergartens.
Perth mother Holly Yates is looking forward to sending her two-year-old daughter Aaniyah to kindy next year. “I think it’s really good to start teaching kids at a young age,” she says. “My daughter is really excited about going to school and learning stuff.”
West Australian Education Minister Peter Collier, a former teacher, is considering making Direct Instruction mandatory, although it is already a “key component” of the state curriculum. He insists education starts at birth.
“The horse has bolted with Aboriginal kids,” Collier says. “By the time they get to primary school, they’ve got embedded social issues that they need to deal with. An Aboriginal child who goes to school and can’t read or write has no inclination to stay at school.”
He says that when he went to school in Kalgoorlie in the 1960s, Aboriginal students were segregated and taught in demountable buildings. “That’s just appalling,” he says. “You don’t need a PhD to work out the way we’ve been dealing with Aboriginal education for generations has been wrong. We live in the 21st century and the original Australians are still living in appalling conditions and a significant proportion cannot read and write before they get to secondary school. Do we continue to hover along in mediocrity and use it as an excuse?”
Collier despairs at the “out of sight, out of mind” attitude in Australia that solving the problems of Aboriginal communities is “just too hard”. “In remote communities there are major issues with alcohol, with physical and verbal abuse of children,” he says. “This is why they’re behind the eight ball, and education is the only way out.
“For Aboriginal children living up in the north, they are just as significant as a child who lives in the leafy western suburbs of Perth.”
Part of the problem, Collier says, is that government departments have poured money into indigenous communities without co-ordinating their efforts. “There’s been no co-ordination between levels of government and departments within government,” he says. “Housing won’t talk to Water, won’t talk to Education, won’t talk to Health. They’ve all got their own pool of funds. That’s going to change significantly.”
Across Australia, the Stronger Smarter Institute, founded by Aboriginal educational leader Chris Sarra, is making a difference by training teachers to help indigenous children in 546 schools.
“We believe the smartest investment in time and energy is in the educators,” chief executive Darren Godwell says. “The teachers are treating the parents and students with a higher degree of respect.”
If a child is wagging school, teachers will make an appointment to see the parents at home.
Greene, who has been teaching in the Northern Territory for 33 years, tries to make every student’s day at school “better than their time at home”. The Ntaria school, with 167 students, lies 130km west of Alice Springs — smack-bang in the centre of Australia. “I want my kids to have the same choices as the kids in Canberra,” Greene says. “I will do this. As teachers we have to believe we can do it, or we have to get out.”
Original article here