Public discourse about schooling generally assumes that it’s in crisis. The script goes something like this: There’s a problem and it’s big – really big! Test results show us Australia is going downhill and teachers need to be accountable. There are ‘evidence-based’ solutions but teachers are not using them. If they did, literacy standards would improve, test results would improve, and Australia would be among the best in the world again.
Well we have some good news and bad news for you.
The good news is our research, a long-term study of schools in communities in Australia experiencing high-levels of disadvantage, funded by the Australian Research Council, shows that teachers are indeed now implementing the ‘evidence-based’ local literacy agreements that they have been asked to implement and that their work includes a diverse range of research-informed approaches to literacy learning.
The bad news is despite the highly professional and caring use of evidence based methods by the teachers in the four schools in our study, the literacy levels for children from the most disadvantaged families remain persistently low.
The majority of teachers in our study were implementing their schools’ well-developed literacy agreements. They were not loyal to methods of the past or inadequately trained. They adopted recommended methods of evaluation and regularly assessed their students’ progress.
We used ‘fly on the wall’ type of research, which included regular and constant visits to the classrooms of the teachers involved, to study what was happening and try to work out why it was happening. I want to share with you some of our findings.
Use of common pedagogies
Teachers used what we call common pedagogical approaches. These often took the form of tightly scripted lessons, in which teachers, operating in good faith, implemented a range of literacy programs.
The cost of such cooperation is well documented in the research literature: teachers’ pedagogical choices (choice of teaching methods) are narrowed, and their professional autonomy is weakened. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as curriculum narrowing, and in the case of literacy, ‘fickle literacies’.
We observed numerous missed opportunities for learning due to:
• too much emphasis on only the kinds of skills that can be easily tested;
• narrow views of literacy constraining the purpose of literacy teaching and learning;
• a prevalence of models of teaching that assume students need to have mastered particular basic skills, or sets of skills, before they can move on to other more demanding tasks (which is not the case for many children). These models, called normative developmental models, can be rigid, repetitive and disengaging, however highly qualified, experienced teachers were expected to adopt them because they were part of the school literacy plan or agreement.
• deficit views about the capabilities of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. These are views that lead teachers to expect less of some children and make it less likely those children will be offered more intellectually challenging literacy learning activities.
These missed opportunities were an unintended effect of teachers trying to do what they believed was expected of them.
Use of uncommon pedagogies
We also encountered a smaller number of teachers who adopted uncommon pedagogical approaches. Their practices stood out from the more common practices of their peers because they were palpably different. These teachers incorporated the requirements of their school’s literacy agreements into an already rich repertoire of teaching practice.
We observed numerous ways in which these teachers supported literacy learning by:
• recognising the knowledge and experiences that students have, and connecting these to school learning;
• actively and positively connecting classroom practice to families and communities;
• designing learning tasks that were open ended and that demanded complex thinking and language;
• providing opportunities for students to think about significant personal and social issues, such as loneliness, hope and relationships, by engaging with relevant texts.
These uncommon pedagogical approaches led to much higher levels of engagement and success by students. They built on relationships, especially with families and helped to develop trust that in turn can contribute to learning at home and at school.
The importance of a teacher’s body of work
Barbara Comber, one of Australia’s foremost literacy researchers, has argued that we do not usually think of teachers’ practices as demonstrating a body of work, perhaps because it is so ephemeral and of the moment. Instead, teachers are assumed to translate theory into practice or implement policy. However, the uncommon pedagogies of the teachers we observed illustrated complex designs, that demonstrated their intention to keep learning about how to improve their work. These rich banks of knowledge and experience could well be considered their ‘oeuvre’ or body of work, in the sense of what they create across a career.
How might we support teachers to develop their oeuvre? What might the public discourse of schooling look like if it were to be based upon a deep respect for teachers, their knowledge and their understanding of the local conditions of teaching and learning?
Peter Freebody and Allan Luke, two other highly respected Australian literacy researchers, reminded us some time ago that:
‘it is not that some literacy teaching methods work and others do not. They all work to shape and construct different literate repertoires in classrooms…What do particular combinations and blends of families of practices work to produce? In which combinations and emphases do they work with specific communities of students? For what practices, places, times, and occasions do they prepare students? And for what political and ideological configurations?’
Understanding teachers’ work is vital to improving literacy in Australia
We need to change the script that blames teachers for low literacy levels by telling them how to do their job. Our observation of uncommon pedagogies is an indication of how doing a teacher’s job can’t be simplified into a set of ‘evidence-based’ methods.
Well-intentioned efforts to improve literacy in Australia should be built upon the understanding that the work of teachers is complex, situated in particular classroom with particular children, and dependent upon a range of factors including a teacher’s own body of work, relationships with students and their families, the local context, and the availability of opportunities for sustained professional development and dialogue.
The prevalence of common pedagogies is a sign that educational policy is working, it’s just not working in ways that address the problem it is intended to solve.
Deb Hayes is Professor of Equity and Education at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She is co-author of the book, Literacy, Leading and Learning (Routledge, 2017) with Robert Hattam, Barbara Comber, Lyn Kerkham, Ruth Lupton and Pat Thomson. Follow Deb on Twitter @DrDebHayes