Beyond Reading, Writing, Arithmetic


Last year, David Gonski released the report on Schools Funding that now forms a key plank of the Federal Government’s remaining legislative aspirations. The reforms promise a fix for our currently inequitable and inefficient school resourcing system, as well as the injection of $6.5 billion in additional funding.

Critics of Gonski are right to point out that the last few decades have seen huge increases in school funding with little educational return. In Australia, government spending per student rose by 24.7 per cent in real terms between 2000 and 2009, yet literacy and numeracy standards fell in both absolute terms and in comparison with other OECD countries.

The odds of the Gonski reforms being successfully negotiated with the states at the upcoming COAG meeting are rapidly diminishing. However, regardless of who takes power come September — and regardless of whether additional Gonski funding is delivered — our dwindling educational standards require governments to commit to something new: experiments in education.

The truth is, we know little about what works best in education. Despite being one of government’s largest recurrent expenses, we have little rigorous evidence on which teaching methods and interventions provide educational ‘bang for buck’. In the words of former ANU economics professor-turned-MP, Andrew Leigh, “in most cases, we simply do not have high-quality evidence about what works”.

If you walk into a classroom today, chances are it looks more or less the same as the classrooms of 100 years ago. A single teacher at the front of the room spurts a stream of wisdom, as 20 or so students sit passively and listen. But this isn’t necessarily the most effective way of doing things.

In his book The One World Schoolhouse, Salman Khan, founder of the online "Khan Academy", advocates an approach to schooling which would see children watching roughly 10-15 minute videos that aim to teach a core concept (able to be re-watched), before testing themselves on the content and moving on to a more complex idea. Khan believes that this approach, coupled with one-on-one tutoring, will ensure no student gets left behind.

Others have different ideas. Noel Pearson argues that "Direct Instruction", in which teachers use highly detailed and scripted lessons, combined with phonics-based reading instruction, is key to tackling Indigenous educational disadvantage.

Would either of these approaches be an improvement on what we do now? Who knows! That’s the problem. The medical world has come to rely on randomised trials over hunches, because good intentions are not enough. As the Harvard economist Roland Fryer, director of the Education Innovation Laboratory, points out, “If a doctor said to you, ‘You have a cold; here are three pills my buddy in Charlotte uses and he says they work’, you would run out and find another doctor. Somehow, in education, that approach is OK.”

We must be willing to try new things, to collect scientifically rigorous data on what works best, and to distribute this research to educators effectively. Experiments in education should be facilitated by bodies with expertise in trial design and implementation so as to ensure reliable results. Both major political parties ought to commit to running “experiments in education” as part of any agenda for school improvement.

In the future, instead of all students taking essentially the same educational path, some may find themselves assigned to classes that aim to test the effectiveness of new approaches or interventions. Without this sort of randomisation, we cannot isolate the factors that bring about success, or know whether improvements may have occurred anyway.

Would this be ethical? Yes — because we don’t currently know what works best. So long as a proposed method has a compelling theoretical rationale (that is, without empirical observation, we think it is likely to be an improvement), and sufficient safeguards exist (e.g. to cut a trial short if the outcomes are particularly deleterious), then experiments in education are no less ethical than what we currently do; that is, run one big experiment on all of our children.

This shift to scientific method in education must be accompanied by efforts to ensure that trial results are effectively communicated, and that teachers and principals are equipped to be discriminating consumers of research. This becomes increasingly important when considered in light of the bipartisan commitment to greater school autonomy.

Ben Goldacre, a British advocate of evidence-based policy making, argues that teacher training in the UK presents evidence as a “completed canon of answers” — rather than instructing teachers in how to interpret and critically appraise evidence. Without training in the basics of research methodology, teachers and principals will be unable to make the informed choices required by school autonomy without deferring to external bodies that possess such knowledge. Fluency in research methodology represents the best chance of putting control over our schools back into the hands of teachers.

A focus on evidence cannot be confined to teacher training alone. According to Goldacre, “In some parts of the world, it is impossible to rise up the career ladder of teaching without understanding how research can improve practice”. As a 2012 Grattan Institute report documented, in Shanghai teachers regularly participate in groups at which they discuss the latest empirical research and whether they should apply it to their own practice. Expecting teachers to pore over academic articles in addition to their existing workloads may be unachievable, so the development of accessible summaries and other resources would be an essential supplement to educational experiments. In the United States, the Department of Education has developed two such resources: the “Doing What Works” and “What Works Clearing House” websites.

There is so much we would benefit from knowing about education policy: Do school-organised exercise programs boost knowledge retention? Would paying low SES students for class attendance work? Is Pearson’s ‘Direct Instruction’ and phonics approach the most effective, or is Salman Khan spot-on about the benefits of self-paced, computer-based learning?

The only way to know the answers to these questions is to spend some money, and time, finding out. 

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