AARE blog

Arts-based approaches to teaching literacy: stop all the testing and do this

Millions of dollars have been spent on targeted programs to improve literacy and numeracy learning outcomes around Australia. However this year’s NAPLAN data shows stagnation in terms of data improvement, with a downward shift in performance levels for writing.

We don’t believe this lack of movement in data is matched by a lack of impact in the classroom. On the contrary, we believe the current focus on formal, regulated programs in reading and writing, including in early childhood education, is having an enormous negative impact. As we see it, there has been a narrowing of focus and a preoccupation with test results. The unfortunate flow on effect is increased anxiety and behavioural issues as children are labeled as ‘difficult’ or ‘slow learners’ and disenfranchised from their learning. There are huge increases in exclusions of children from the earliest ages. According to media reports more than 1,000 prep year students in Queensland were suspended for bad behaviour last year.

Adding to narrowing of what happens in the classroom is the current obsession with certain types of ‘evidence-based’ practice such as targeted programs in direct instruction, phonics, and atomised, decontextualized approaches to teaching writing as lists of grammatical features and structure. Schools are spending thousands of dollars on literacy and writing programs as well as systems to measure and monitor children weekly, even daily. However, these programs rarely translate to children becoming more confident communicators and ‘meaning makers’ who feel in control of the forms and means of their expression.

We are not claiming there are no literacy and writing programs out there making a difference. There would be many. But we are blogging to tell you about some we call arts-based approaches.

What is an arts-based approach?

Within education, the arts incorporate the five areas of Dance, Drama, Media, Music and Visual Arts. Each have specific processes, skill bases and disciplines that they draw on. These different arts areas have some similar elements and approaches, including knowing through doing and creating, with children learning to express ideas and emotions through voice, movement, actions and different expressive forms. The arts can be taught as discrete single discipline areas, or in combination with other learning areas or arts areas. So we can talk about arts learning but also ‘learning through the arts’. In primary schools, teachers may use arts processes and strategies to teach content in other learning areas and this often helps create more engaged and experiential learning.

Examples of arts-based approaches we have implemented include using drama to support learning in English, History, Geography and Science. In one example Sue Davis created a program where year 5 students were enrolled as ‘spacetroopers’ who have to research various planets to locate one where water might be found. They then had to prepare for a space trip to that chosen planet. Throughout the unit children were involved in writing in a diverse range of forms including written reports, letters and diary entries. At the end of drama sessions when children had ‘experienced’ the content and learning, they were sometimes running to their desks to pull out their books to write.

Positive impacts of working with an arts-based approach

There is a range of research that consistently demonstrates the positive impact of arts-based approaches for improved academic and social outcomes for students in schools. The international research includes Critical Links, an important compendium of findings from numerous studies on student academic and social learning through the arts. There are consistent positive associations between dramatic enactment with reading comprehension, oral story understanding and written story understanding.

More recent research from the US includes meta-analysis work that found Drama and arts-based learning programs can have a significant impact on improving language arts and academic learning programs. Another study with students who had learning difficulties indicated the use of drama strategies improved student motivation, narrative cohesion and language acquisition. A growing body of Australian research supports the international work ranging from the impact of arts programs, including research for the Songroom through to classroom based work with a focus on literacy development in the early years. This and other work in secondary schools by University of Sydney researchers shows the impact of arts-based programs can be substantial.

Sydney Theatre Company’s work with an arts-based approach in Australian schools

An example of an arts-based approach with positive results for student literacy and writing is the Sydney Theatre Company’s School Drama™ project. This program was pioneered by Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, who were Co-artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company at the time, with Professor Robyn Ewing from the University of Sydney. School Drama™ teams teaching artists (with performance and/or applied theatre background with an acting background) with a classroom teacher. They work together with primary school classes to use drama strategies and children’s literature to make English and literacy learning come alive.

A key feature of the program is to help build the participating primary school teacher’s capacity to use arts-based strategies. Each school and teacher begins the program with a particular literacy area they want to improve and they engage in careful benchmarking of pre and post literacy data.

John Saunders, Education Manager at Sydney Theatre Company, was an experienced secondary drama teacher when he then took on managing the School Drama program. He believes something very special happens when children are having so much fun with drama they forget they are learning. As they are busy enjoying themselves they are increasing their ability to visualise, comprehend and write. He tells a story about how, after working with the children’s book about the Stolen Generation called The Burnt Stick by Anthony Hill, children said they felt like they didn’t do any writing at all because they had had been ‘learning in our way, a fun way’. In fact they had been writing every lesson, but it hadn’t felt like ‘work’. Such programs are successful across whatever area of literacy is in focus, however children who are behind usually show the biggest improvement.

In his research John found that while the program leads to improvements in academic areas including literacy it also impacts on so-called ‘soft skills’ or ‘non-academic’ areas such as empathy building, confidence, motivation and engagement. Research by independent evaluator Robyn Gibson supports these findings.

When learning approaches such as these focus on experience and active learning, children become confident in using language and literacies within real and imagined contexts. Data on impact is growing and is providing insight into more innovative, transferrable approaches to teaching literacy.

Unfortunately politicians and policy makers rarely recognise our projects, including professional learning models we have piloted and researched, or any other arts-based approach. Arts-based programs are simply not acknowledged as vehicles for improving valued academic outcomes.

We believe if governments invested just some of the millions they invest in improving NAPLAN scores into arts-based programs, such as School Drama and related professional learning, the results would be astounding.


John Nicholas Saunders is a former secondary school teacher and the current Education Manager at Sydney Theatre Company.  He holds a Bachelor of Creative Industries (Drama), Bachelor of Education (Secondary), Masters of Research and is currently studying for a PhD.  John’s classroom work together with his research has focused on Drama as pedagogy and its benefits for student literacy, engagement, motivation and empathy.  John has extensive experience in Arts Education and has held positions as a senior curriculum writer, head of department; Board member of Playlab Press, President of Drama NSW and Drama QLD.  He currently holds positions as: President, Drama Australia; Honorary Associate, The University of Sydney; Chair, Australian Major Performing Arts Group (AMPAG) Education Network; and Drama representative, National Advocates for Arts Education.  In 2014 he was awarded the Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Science (CHASS)  prize for future leader  in the field and in 2016 he published ‘The School Drama Book: Drama, Literature & Literacy In The Creative Classroom’ with is colleague, Professor Robyn Ewing. 


Susan Davis is Deputy Dean Research for the School of Education & the Arts at CQ University, Australia. Her research has focused on drama, arts-education, engagement and  digital technologies. She is one of the Co-Convenors of the Arts Education Research SIG of AARE and a Board member for Drama Australia and the Sunshine Coast Creative Alliance. Sue was previously a drama teacher and performing arts Head of Department and has created and managed many arts-based projects in collaboration with various education, arts industry and community groups. Susan was one of the convenors of a Creative Education Summit held at ACMI in 2016, with summit outcomes contributing to an Arts Education, Practice and Research group submission to the “The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training Inquiry into innovation and creativity: workforce for the new economy”. She was also invited to present further evidence at a roundtable for the inquiry. 

(Featured photo by Grant Sparkes-Carroll)

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Creativity in Australian schools suppressed by onerous testing regime and crushing teacher restrictions

Once upon a time early childhood teachers used to learn singing and playing the piano, primary school teachers could study electives (and even majors) in areas such as drama and art, and universities could add new courses (such as ones in teacher as entrepreneur or global citizenship) through putting in a course variation form to a university committee.

Teaching was seen by many as a truly creative profession.

Not anymore. You would be hard pressed to find examples of any of the above anymore.

As a teacher educator this is distressing to me, not because I am longing for some ‘golden age’ past but because I am deeply worried about our future.

If we want creative futures, we need creative teachers, and we need systems that enable them to thrive and not be crushed by mountains of paper work and regulation.

Teacher education is a field which is absent from innovation discourses. However teachers are the ones working with children and young adults and helping to shape their perspectives and capacities. So I argue it is imperative that creativity and innovation be taught and supported as part of teacher preparation. This includes both creative teaching, but also teaching for creativity and cultivating critical and creative thinking for our students.

However teacher education, like schooling itself has been taken over by regulation and standardization requirements and instrumentalities, much of this through the rhetoric of raising teaching standards.

Teacher education standards have become a crushing set of regulations

 The increased levels of regulation and requirements for teacher education programs means there has been a reduction in the scope for approaches that cultivate creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation for pre-service teachers. Opportunities for elective studies or minors in areas such as the arts have also been reduced, with more mandated units having to be included in generalist teacher education programs, and new specialisations for primary teachers being targeted in Math/numeracy and Science.

Furthermore, there is no mention of creativity and innovation in our teaching standards, not teaching for it, or teachers themselves demonstrating it.

Teacher education standards were developed to articulate the key features of the profession. Their development and first phase of implementation proved useful for providing a common language for talking about teaching and to student teachers about what the profession entailed and how to get there.

However their initial conceptualization has now been turned into sets of regulations and checklists that are in danger of killing off rather than nurturing creativity and innovation.

While in the current version of national standards developed by AITLS (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership) used in Australia there are 7 professional standards, underneath that are 37 focus areas and teacher education students must demonstrate evidence collected across all of these.

To be able to offer teacher education courses, teacher education providers must likewise provide evidence across a set of similarly numbered program standards.

In fact the instructions of what needs to be included takes up 42 pages in a guidelines document, which also emphasises that once a program is accredited no changes can be made to that progam. This type of approach encourages a compliance and tick box mentality.

It also means enormous energies and person power are devoted towards generating mountains of paperwork and which other poor reviewers must then wade their way through. While a so-called ‘light touch’ regulatory model was to be used for the re-accreditation of programs, one university education faculty recently reported that their accreditation submission amounted to over 1000 pages of documentation.

While consistency and regulation are important it does tend to stifle the ability for educators to respond to changes in industry and the economy. Systems that are being built around certification and compliance make it impossible to be nimble and flexible and reduces the capacity of course designers and teachers to be creative and responsive.

Where is creativity, improvisation, flexibility, risk-taking, productive failure in such models and approaches?

Of further concern to me are some of the comments emerging from a senior member of the AITSL staff, who when asked at a forum about how she saw creativity and educating for the future being promoted through the professional standards, the audience was somewhat surprised to hear her say she did not believe in a futures oriented curriculum, that she has no problem with the existing curriculum but with how it is taught.

Furthermore when discussing projects on their horizon for assisting teachers, mention was made of more psychometrically calibrated assessment instruments developed to use across the curriculum. Audible gasps of horror could not be contained from teacher educators around the room. AITSL staff have since assured me that the intention is to create banks of formative assessment tools and the intention is that that teachers will find them helpful. This proves the point that terminology and language really matter, and psychometrically calibrated assessment instruments does not say formative assessment to most teachers.

I can understand that much of what AITSL may be tasked to do is driven by political agendas (with AITSL being entirely owned by the Australian government with the federal Education Minister its only member) but what teachers want is not more psychometrically calibrated assessments. What they want is to be trusted to make professional judgements and design learning and assessment strategies that support their students. As I see it, our current interest in certain types of ‘evidence’ is becoming an obsession, at great cost to the students we teach.

If we believe our future requires creative and critical thinkers, we need to cultivate the conditions where creativity can be nurtured by teachers and teacher educators. We need to make sure this is not drowned in regulation, distrust of teachers and lack of belief in their capacity to be professional as well as creative.


Susan Davis is Deputy Dean Research for the School of Education & the Arts at CQ University, Australia. Her research has focused on drama, arts-education, engagement and  digital technologies. She is one of the Co-Convenors of the Arts Education Research SIG of AARE and a Board member for Drama Australia and the Sunshine Coast Creative Alliance. Sue was previously a drama teacher and performing arts Head of Department and has created and managed many arts-based projects in collaboration with various education, arts industry and community groups. Susan was one of the convenors of a Creative Education Summit held at ACMI in 2016, with summit outcomes contributing to an Arts Education, Practice and Research group submission to the “The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training Inquiry into innovation and creativity: workforce for the new economy”. She was also invited to present further evidence at a roundtable for the inquiry. 

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A new phonics test for Australian six year olds is a BAD idea

The recent announcement by Education Minister, Simon Birmingham, of a nation-wide phonics assessment for six year olds is of great concern to me. I believe, as do many of my fellow literacy expert colleagues, this new test will not help improve our literacy levels.

Australian children have been “marking time” or “falling behind” when compared on international benchmarks like PISA since high-stakes testing has been introduced and ramped up in this country. This latest mandate is part of the political cycle associated with testing regimes. Continuing this kind of assessment will not improve student literacy outcomes.

Evidence from the UK and USA, where similar tests have been used, may show improvement in performance on the phonics test over time but do not correlate with an improvement in children’s literacy levels. In fact what can happen is a narrowing of the literacy curriculum.

No evidence that phonics training preceding meaning making helps

 As renowned English author Michael Rosen explains, the difference between a phonics test and learning to read is that a phonics test merely requires children to pronounce a list of words, while learning to read is about making meaning of a text.  Phonics is only one part of the literacy story. And there is no evidence that phonics training should precede meaning making in literacy learning. It is much more productive to address decoding skills in meaningful contexts.

Absolutely the drilling of phonics will help some children do better in phonics tests, but there is no correlation with ultimately learning to be literate.

What the evidence says

We do know that six year olds should not be subjected to this kind of assessment. There is emerging evidence that teachers and students are finding the test-driven approach to education in Australia is anxiety producing.

Early childhood contexts and the first years of schooling should be centred on engaging in creative play with language including poetry, songs and rhymes, developing children’s confidence in talking about and responding to story, building a rich vocabulary and developing an understanding and love of literature.

One of the best predictors of literacy success is access to books in the home, as well known research tells us. In addition, shared reading, storytelling, talking about books from an early age and the opportunity for children to read widely are all important in learning to be literate.  Many children living in poverty do not have access to a wide range of books and shared reading experiences from an early age. If we want to spend more money in Australia to develop literacy we should be investing in the provision of quality literature for all Australian children and better resources for teachers who teach disadvantaged children. We need more teacher librarians in our schools. At the moment, however, we are seeing a reduction in teacher librarians in public schools.

A new research brief from Save our Schools supports the argument that the continuing gap in access to education resources between advantaged and disadvantaged schools in Australia are among the largest in the world and the OECD. Disadvantaged students in Australia continue to be denied equal opportunities to learn because they have less access to qualified teachers and resources than their more advantaged counterparts.

Data from PISA 2015 published in a supplementary report by the OECD show that disadvantaged schools in Australia experience more teacher shortages, higher teacher-student ratios and more shortages or inadequacy of material educational resources than advantaged schools.

If we are serious about improving literacy levels in Australia we should be investing our money more wisely than in another useless test. Widening socioeconomic inequality will be a much larger determiner of children’s literacy achievement than performance on a phonics test.


Robyn Ewing is Professor of Teacher Education and the Arts at the University of Sydney. She teaches in the areas of curriculum, English and drama, language and early literacy development. She works with both undergraduate and postgraduate pre-service and inservice teachers. Robyn’s research has particularly focused on the use of educational or process drama with authentic literary texts to develop students’ imaginations and critical literacies. She has been published widely in this area. Her current research interests also include teacher education, especially the experiences of early-career teachers and the role of mentoring; sustaining curriculum innovation; and evaluation, inquiry and case-based learning.

 Robyn was president of the Primary English Teachers Association from 2001-2006 and is immediate past president of the Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA) and former vice president of Sydney Story Factory.  She is also a council member of the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS), an Honorary Associate with Sydney Theatre Company, Board member of West Words and Visiting Scholar at Barking Gecko Children’s Theatre. She enjoys working collaboratively with classroom teachers interested in innovative curriculum practices. 

Teacher selection and education set to be worst hit by Pyne’s uni fee deregulation

I believe it is of great importance that we preserve the public charter of our tertiary sector and that it is sufficiently supported by public funding. Current proposals to deregulate university fees would reduce federal commitment to supporting universities financially and thereby diminish universities as public institutions.

Most importantly, if fees are deregulated, there are major issues of concern for the education faculties within our universities. These are the faculties that train our nation’s teachers. I want to air these issues and would love to see some public debate around them.

Education is an essential public work, clearly designed to benefit community and nation rather than just directed towards the increased prosperity and status of individual graduates.

The federal propaganda describing its rationale for fee increases misrepresents the case of individual benefit from university degrees. Supposedly students should pay higher fees because they are the ones who benefit.

So it is important to set the record straight about the personal, and in particular the financial, benefits of getting a degree, especially a degree in education. Some decades ago when University was the privilege of less than 5% of the population it was true that graduates were able to attract greater incomes than non-graduates.  However this was hardly ever true for education degrees.

In current times the situation of graduates receiving higher incomes is even less clear.  With a significantly larger proportion of young people attending, university income differentials are more closely related to what you studied, where you studied and when you graduated.

Education graduates, the majority of whom find jobs as schoolteachers, are rarely among the high earners.

We already have evidence to support the claim that students are not coming to careers in education for the financial rewards. These students are not recognized in the current politicised representation of why you go to university.

In addition, in the current cash strapped university, education faculties have been required to accept increasingly large numbers of students as the whole university funding depends on filling quotas and it is relatively cheap to educate future teachers.

So any negativity directed at education faculties for accepting low entry scores should really be aimed at the current funding system. I believe this will only get worse if fees are deregulated.

Education faculties are frequently pushed to take in the maximum number of students by university management. Somehow education continues as the poor relation within the university as the faculty functions as ‘the cash cow’ with constantly large enrolments requiring relatively low cost resources, but so often with little representation in senior management.

And yet the work the university teachers of teachers do is so evidently in the public interest.  Not only do they undertake the essential role of preparing the nation’s teachers, they are also responsible for the development of future citizens. Schooling has a unique capacity for community building at all social levels.

Schools Australia-wide have been recognized for their achievements in working with multicultural students to build a sense of belonging and common purpose along with responsible community membership. And yet, despite this ongoing essential work, education becomes the whipping post for public criticism far more often than other university courses.

The life of an education graduate contrasts fundamentally with the current government’s adherence to the depiction of university as the training ground for a life of social and economic privilege. The fact that students continue to want to teach is one indication of the value they place in contributing to the public good and following their dream of leading a meaningful and productive life.

Like many others who are working, or have worked, in our universities preparing students to undertake a career in teaching, I am worried about the future for all Australians if fees increase for education degrees and if universities need to rely even more on their education faculties to bring in the cash.

I believe that eroding the public charter of our universities will have a great and negative effect, most particularly on the education of our nation’s teachers.


JudithGillJudith Gill PhD is currently an  Adjunct A/Professor in the  School of Education at the  University of South Australia where she worked for 25 years in teacher education. She has a longstanding interest in gender, work and education, particularly in terms of  gender contexts of learning, which has involved investigating the experience of students in single sex school compared with coeducation, leading to the book Beyond the Great Divide: Single sex schooling or coeducation? (Sydney, UNSW Press 2004).  Another line of enquiry is citizenship education  as in the 2009 book Knowing Our Place: Children talking about identity, power and citizenship. (Routledge NY). More recently she has investigated engineering education, as seen in Gender Inclusive Engineering Education (NY Routledge 2009) and Challenging Knowledge, Sex and Power: Gender, work and engineering (NY Routledge 2014)

Class size DOES make a difference: latest research shows smaller classes have lasting effect

Money spent on reducing class sizes has not been wasted as Education Minister Christopher Pyne believes. The advice he has been given is wrong.

Reducing class size does make a difference, and the biggest difference it makes is to the schooling outcomes of our most vulnerable children.

I have just completed a comprehensive review of 112 research papers on class sizes written between 1979 and 2014 by researchers in Australia and similar education systems in England, Canada, New Zealand and non-English speaking countries of Europe.

I found that reducing class size in the first four years of school can have an important and lasting effect on student achievement. The more years students spend in small classes during grades K-3, the longer the benefits for achievement last during grades 4-8.

Smaller class sizes are especially important for children who come from disadvantaged families. I need not point out these children are overwhelming the responsibility of public schools in Australia.

The policy advice and commentary that says class size doesn’t matter, or is a waste of money, relies heavily on a Grattan Institute  report by Ben Jensen’s on Australian education and teacher quality.

Jensen suggests that the majority of studies around the world have shown that class size reductions do not significantly improve student outcomes, and that the funds should have been redirected toward enhancing teacher quality. The results of individual studies are always questionable.

But most significantly a range of newer peer reviewed studies on the effects of small classes have now emerged and they paint a very different picture.

I have used these in my review.

Notably, of the 112 papers I reviewed, only three authors supported the notion that smaller class sizes did not produce better outcomes to justify the expenditure.

Reducing class size to increase student achievement is an approach that has been tried, debated, and analysed for many decades. The premise seems logical: with fewer students to teach, teachers should achieve better academic outcomes for all students.

For those who choose private education for their children in Australia, it is often cited as a major consideration.

So it is important that politicians and educational decision makers get the right advice and the right information about class size.

For example it is commonly assumed that class sizes in Australia are smaller than they have ever been. This is not the case. While older members of our society may recall being in classes of 40 or more students in the 1950s and early 1960s, by 1981 class sizes in Australia were generally capped at 25 in high schools and 22 in technical schools. These caps have increased since their low point in 1981, even in primary schools; while the early years in many jurisdictions are capped below 26, grades 3-6 are treated like secondary classes and capped between 28 and 30.

In Australia commentators and politicians alike point to high performing systems such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, where large class sizes are the norm, as evidence that reducing class sizes is a futile exercise. But research indicates that students from Confucian heritage cultures are socialised in ways that make them amenable to work in large classes, so that management problems are minimal and teachers can focus on meaningful learning using whole-class methods.

An educational system forms a working whole, each component interacting with all other components. Isolating any one component (such as class size) and transplanting it into a different system shows a deep misunderstanding of how educational systems work.

However let’s look at how our class size compares. In 2010 Australia’s average public primary class size was 23.2 – above the OECD average of 21.3 and EU average of 20. This compares to 15 in Korea; 17 in Germany and the Russian Federation; 19 in Finland; 20 in the UK, Poland and Luxembourg; and 26 in India (OECD 2013).

Class sizes are smaller in both the Independent and Catholic sectors in Australia. As far back as 1979 there has been evidence that smaller class sizes make a difference.

Class size can make an even bigger difference when teachers change their teaching methods to suit smaller groups.  Read my paper for more.

You might be interested in this list of things that happen in smaller classes:-

  • Teachers were more able not only to complete their lessons in smaller classes, but to develop their lessons in more depth;
  • Teachers moved through curricula more quickly and were able to provide additional enrichment activities;
  • Teachers reported that they managed their classes better, and classes functioned more smoothly as less time was spent on discipline and more on learning;
  • Students received more individualised attention, including more encouragement, counselling, and monitoring;
  • Students were more attentive to their classwork;
  • Students had to wait less time to receive help or have their papers checked, and they had more opportunities to participate in group lessons.

Go to my paper for more lists of beneficial outcomes of smaller class sizes.

Policy makers, politicians and media too often discuss data about class sizes and impact on student learning without an evidence base, relying largely on second-hand research or anecdotes. Too frequently, advocates for particular positions select their evidence, conveniently ignoring research that raises questions about their favoured position.

Class size reduction is about equity – any policy debate must start with the basic inequality of schooling, and aim to ameliorate the damage that poverty, violence, inadequate child care and other factors do to our children’s learning outcomes.

I suggest we should have a policy to reduce class size in Australia’s most disadvantaged schools during  the first four years of education specifically when children are developing literacy and numeracy skills. This is more cost effective than an across the board approach.

While lower class size has a demonstrable cost, it may prove the more cost-effective policy overall in closing the widening gap between the lowest and highest achievers.

Anyone looking at the bottom line of future costs to Australia needs to urgently and seriously consider further policies to reduce class size.

Dr David Zyngier works in the Faculty of Education at Monash University as a Senior Lecturer in the areas of Curriculum and Pedagogy. He was previously a teacher and school principal. His research focuses on teacher pedagogies that engage all students but in particular how can these improve outcomes for students from communities of disadvantage focusing on issues of social justice and social inclusion. He works within a critical and post-structural orientation to pedagogy that is distinguishable by its commitment to social justice (with interests in who benefits and who does not by particular social arrangements) and its dialectic critical method investigating how school education can improve student outcomes for all but in particular for at risk students.

I am a teacher of English teachers and I never want to hear the term “basic skills” ever again

Lecturer in secondary English curriculum in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology

One cohort at a time, I am doing my bit to erase the misleading, poorly defined, and often destructive term ‘basic skills’ from educational discourse.

I ask my second year student teachers in their first assignment in English Curriculum Studies to explain their philosophy on English teaching and tell me which teaching methods they think are important in 2014.

I warn them, ” If you tell me that you advocate a ‘basic skills’ approach to teaching I will fail your paper.”

I won’t. (I only tell them this afterwards.)

What I am trying to do is make them think deeply about their work as future English teachers. I want them to better articulate what kinds of skills they consider fundamental to living a healthy, happy, literate life.

I believe the discussion and debate this produces is invaluable to their understanding as aspiring teachers in the 21st century.

Why do I bother with this?

The term ‘basic skills’ is an affront to educators like me on many levels.

Firstly, there are the negative connotations of the term ‘basic’. If these skills are so basic, as in ‘boring’ or ‘unintriguing’, we should not be surprised that students don’t flock to master them. Nor should we be surprised when teachers opt not to employ teaching methods that drill students on them, lest they run the risk of boring everyone to death.

Secondly, it belies the complex task of engaging students with learning in areas such as literacy or numeracy. To non-teachers who insist on using the term basic skills I say: if  the job of teaching reading (for example) is so basic, then how about you try it?

I can tell you it involves a lot more than putting sight words up on the wall and setting spelling tests each Friday.

Thirdly, I find when most people talk about basic skills, they do so with very little knowledge of what is currently covered in the Australian Curriculum. ‘Literacy’ and ‘numeracy’ are very clearly listed as two of seven General Capabilities , alongside fields such as ‘critical and creative thinking’ and ‘ICT capability’. This reflects current ideas in education – that the ‘Three-Rs’ alone are not enough to provide a foundation for a productive and meaningful adult life.

Am I just being pedantic?

No, I don’t think so. The terms we use to describe ideas MATTER.

As an English teacher, I know this. I want so desperately for all my students to know this too.

By taking the term “basic skills” away, my students are forced to articulate what it is they actually believe in. If it is indeed literacy and numeracy I wanted them to be able to explain their definition of such terms.

Is it literacy? If so, they can use the wealth of available theory on literate practices and multiliteracies to argue their case.

Is it life skills? If so, the General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum identify a 21st century set of ‘skills’. These currently underpin Australian schooling and should be explored and debated.

Is it the need for increased rates of adult literacy to promote social justice? If so, then it is time to explore  issues of Indigenous literacy  and global trends .

So what should you do, as one student recently asked, when people insist on using the term “basic skills”?

You could suggest they make a list of basic skills. Most people have no such list in mind (which begs the question – if the skills are so basic, why can’t most people articulate what they are?).

Good bye basic skills!

I know I can’t change the world overnight. But I do hope that by banning the term basic skills from assignments in my own class I can get 100+ students each semester to think deeply about what they might do in their classrooms as qualified Australian English teachers.

And I can tell you there is nothing basic about that.



Dr Kelli McGraw is a lecturer in secondary English curriculum in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. Her current research is on the role of social media technologies in engaging first year university students, and the use of online writing for assessment. Previously she worked as a teacher of high school English in South-western Sydney, NSW. Kelli is the Vice President of the English Teachers Association of Queensland. You can reach her via twitter: @kmcg2375

We need to value and properly fund research in education to ensure Australia’s future

Our future economic growth, prosperity and wellbeing depend on what we do now as a nation. And anything we do should be based on research-evidence.

For those reasons alone, investment in educational research should be at the top of our agenda. Someone please tell me why it isn’t.

Let’s look at school education in particular.

Hardly a day goes by without some collective wringing of hands over literacy and numeracy performance, teacher quality, student absenteeism, year 12 completion rates, teacher quality, school preparedness, university preparedness, what should and shouldn’t be in the curriculum, teacher quality, student distaste for mathematics, high youth unemployment, teacher quality, Indigenous student performance, teacher attitude. And did I say teacher quality?

Yet funding for educational research, one of the few ways we have to better understand and tackle these issues ( including teacher quality)  is scarce and becoming scarcer.

You may be used to hearing researchers in general complain about the lack of funding for research. And I know that we have a so-called “budget emergency”, but some of us are doing it tougher than others.

In a paper to be published in a 2014 issue of Australian Educational Researcher, I investigated what has happened to funding for Education research over time by examining outcomes for the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Projects grant scheme between the years 2002 and 2014, comparing allocations to education against those allocated to psychology and cognitive Science.

I did this because I was interested to learn if other disciplines were suffering a similar drop in funding to educational research.

I found that between 2002 and 2014 there has been a decline in the percentage of ARC Discovery funding  (the major source of Australian research funding) being received by educational researchers.

However, this downward trend was not shared by our peers in psychology and cognitive science.

In fact ARC Discovery funding to psychology and cognitive science more than doubled in the 2002-2014 period with an increase of more than $7 million, whereas education received only $309,199 more in 2014 than in 2002 (see Table 1 below).

And remember the real cost of research would have grown during this period. In other words, you get a lot less bang for $3 million now than you did a decade ago.

Table 1. Real and percentage change in funding for Discovery, comparing Divisions 13 and 17




Percentage change

Total Discovery funding pool




13 Education




17 Psychology & Cognitive Science




Given the complexities and cost of conducting research in schools, these differences have had a serious dampening effect on research relating to education.

It is also important to bear in mind that education research is almost exclusively funded by the ARC but that psychology and cognitive science also gets a significant share of funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) as well. The funding gap between these important disciplines is therefore much larger than indicated by an analysis of Discovery alone.

There are a number of implications that flow from both the shortage in funding and its concentration, but the one we have to urgently address is that Australia risks strangling the development of future educational researchers – in particular those who have the ability to conduct high quality research in the complex and poorly understood field of school education.

Research in schools is a messy business. Schools are often chaotic places with agendas and timelines that do not gel well with academic research designs (the type of submission that is likely to be successful in an ARC application). Students, particularly the types I work with, can be even less accommodating than their schools.

Unfortunately, these factors are not well understood by our peers and there remains a common perception that education research lacks rigor, particularly qualitative approaches.

It is well known that scientists have worked hard over the last few decades to communicate the value of research in the clinical and natural sciences and that they have been successful in raising the profile and prestige of scientific research.

Given the contraction in education research funding in recent years, it is now critical that researchers in education speak up.

We need to speak up about  the value of the work we do.

We need to speak up about the beauty and complexity of research in this field and  the critical role that qualitative approaches to data collection, and analysis, play in ensuring quality.

We need to point out the invaluable insights and powerful connections  that this type of research can produce.

Bottom line is Australia is spending less and less on quality research in education.

We risk getting what we pay for. No one will win in that future.

Linda GrahamAssociate Professor Linda J. Graham is a Vice Chancellor’s Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She is grateful to have received funding for her research into educational responses to children who are difficult to teach from the Australian Research Council (DP110103093; DP1093020) and the Financial Markets Foundation for Children (2013-030). This research has been published as: Graham, L. J., & Buckley, L. Ghost hunting with lollies, chess and Lego: appreciating the ‘messy’ complexity (and costs) of doing difficult research in education. The Australian Educational Researcher, 1-21.

Online courses,fee hikes won’t improve quality of higher education

We need debate around much needed change in higher education. So the prediction by Peter Hartcher in The Sydney Morning Herald recently that the Abbott Government is “about to announce the most dramatic changes to the higher education in decades” is welcome.

Australia needs a big plan for achieving massive educational reform so we can create a workforce skilled for the future.

We cannot continue to educate students for a world that no longer exists. Jobs are moving off shore, others are disappearing. Clearly, Australia can no longer compete on the cost of labour.

So we need to ask big questions:

  • What is our plan to compete on the quality of labour?
  • What kinds of graduates should we be producing for Australia to be competitive on the world stage?
  • What capabilities do we need for the modern economy?
  • Where is the true innovation in education that is needed to support Australia’s future?

New technologies have the potential to change the way we think about education, especially when it comes to 21st century skills.

We should focus on creativity and innovation; on fostering higher levels of critical thinking, problem solving, decision making; collaboration and communication; technological literacy; on being a local and global citizen; and on personal and social responsibility. We also need greater levels of literacy and numeracy.

Presumably fee deregulation is to be part of the so-called dramatic changes, and with that comes more stark competition than we presently experience in higher education.

But what will this type of ‘competition’ do for Australia, its taxpayers, the students and their families? Will it drive the kinds of educational reforms we need to produce graduates equipped with 21st skills?

As I see it private providers (especially those publicly listed) are likely to find the cheapest ways possible to offer Australian Qualification Framework (AQF) compliant courses in order to make the profits their share-holders demand. Their students are therefore likely to encounter mass lectures with smaller group tutorials involving little or no focus on 21st Century skills.  It’s not the ‘mass education’ that’s the problem, it’s the lack of innovation and reform in what, and therefore how, students will learn.

Online lectures, books, websites, open education resources (and from peer-reviewed journals for those enrolled in a formal education system licensed to access them) are already easily accessed, right now, from the Internet, including massive open online courses (MOOCs).

As I’ve said before, any university that can be replaced by a MOOC, should be.

Universities should no longer be primarily about acquiring and disseminating information, but should be focused on the “what you can do with what you know’.

For example:

  • Can you solve problems and propose creative solutions?
  • Can you work in teams across cultures?

There are well established facts about learning via MOOCs in their current form: firstly, the experience of learning in this way is so unattractive that only around 5% of those who enrol actually complete the courses, and secondly, by far the greatest proportion of those who do complete, already have a formal university qualification. Thus it is difficult to see that MOOC providers will get far by “kicking down the doors of local universities and offering high-quality courses at very low cost over the Internet.”

Apart from these dire statistics, the most common approach to learning is via videos of lectures, readings and online tutorials. In other words, using the technology to automate existing approaches to learning and teaching. Hardly the kind of educational innovation we need.

Undoubtedly some universities will double or triple student fees if deregulation of fees is introduced. Will that extra funding result in innovation and educational reform? Highly unlikely. The extra funding probably will be quietly directed towards more research so those institutions can achieve a higher ranking in the international rankings system.

Other higher education institutions will not be in a position to raise fees and hence will struggle to innovate as they compete for already scarce funds.

These universities are highly likely to resort to mass information dissemination teaching methods, attractive because they are inexpensive to run.

So what will competition do for the Australian taxpayers’ $6 billion annual outlay on higher education?

Students attending the universities who increase their fees will get pretty much the same education as students do today, but pay double or triple the cost.  The extra fees might mean their university rises a couple of places in the ranking systems.

Surely, as a nation with a strong higher education industry, we can do better than that.


Shirley smallShirley Alexander is Professor of Learning Technologies at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) where she is Deputy Vice-Chancellor & Vice President (Teaching, Learning & Equity).

Shirley’s long term research agenda has been on the effective use of information and communication technologies in learning in higher education.

Australian schooling’s dirty little secret

In 1990 it was called “education’s dirty little secret”. Today it is becoming a worldwide phenomenon, but it often has no name, and is accepted as part of “what we do” in schools.

It is teachers teaching out of their field of qualification.

Many secondary teachers today are expected to teach subjects they are not qualified to teach. It is so prevalent that is has become almost normal, and a subject area that tends to suffer in silence is mathematics.

In Australia, studies have shown that 39% of years 7-10 Australian mathematics classes were taught by out-of-field teachers, with 23% taught by teachers with no tertiary mathematics qualifications at all.

There are programs around that are designed to try to address the problem of out-of-field teaching. The trouble is they are ad hoc and mostly limited to local initiatives at the school, network or regional level.

A Rural Retraining scheme was a Victorian Government initiative designed to help registered teachers gain an extra teaching qualification in a “subject in need”. Initially it was geared towards a range of subject areas, including mathematics and science. However, support for mathematics retraining was the first to be removed because so few teachers applied for places.

We can infer from this disparity between the proportion of out-of-field teachers and lack of willingness to retrain that schools appear to be accepting the status quo of out-of-field teachers, in mathematics especially compared with some other subject areas.

The other trend to note is the high degree of funding currently being allocated to attracting newly qualified science teachers to rural, regional and hard to staff schools. While this is an important and much-needed policy, there are still no funding initiatives to retrain current out-of-field teachers of mathematics or science.

In 1999, the Australian Secondary Principals Association (ASPA) raised the issue of teacher supply and demand and enduring inequities this created in schooling. They called for coordinated policy and action:

The teacher supply issue is a state and territory government responsibility which must be addressed at that level, rather than by an individual school’s creativity and curriculum compromise… Schools where these shortages exist, are deeply concerned by the lack of action of governments and the threat to quality learning of their students. The staffing allocation rules used by various authorities do not adequately address inequities and variations in schools… Differential staffing and teacher supply models are needed to address the inequities in the various schooling systems across Australia.

Fifteen years on, this issue remains an major concern.

We have entered an era of national accreditation of teachers and national curriculum, increased school accountability and movement toward greater school autonomy. There is a need to examine how such policy directions exacerbate the problem.

As I see it there are three ways we can address out-of-field teaching:

  • Reduce the need for out-of-field teaching.
  • Improve the quality of out-of-field teaching.
  • Increase the readiness of teacher graduates to teach out-of-field.

Increasing the supply of science and mathematics teachers is imperative.  We can do this by providing Government assistance to mathematics and science professionals and recent graduates to move into teaching.

School leaders should aim to get the right people to teach science and mathematics in their schools, and make sure the ones they have are properly supported and resourced.

At both the school and policy levels, there needs to be greater support for the re-training of out-of-field teachers. They need funding, time and space to adapt and understand new and emerging teaching approaches. Losing teachers due to stress from teaching out-of-field can be avoided by sympathetic and supportive school governance and leadership regimes.

Some responsibility must fall on teacher education programs to prepare adaptable and flexible teachers. Pre-service teachers should be exposed to the likelihood of teaching out-of-field. They should learn the skills, knowledge and attitudes needed to be adaptable and flexible. They should be exposed to the variety of support mechanisms that can be provided, sought out or constructed by them if they are asked to teach out-of-field.

It is also vital to focus on the development of resilience in pre-service teachers. We need to help them accommodate new and different ways of thinking, challenge their own beliefs, assumptions, values and practices when they are faced with the dilemmas and tensions of teaching, especially when they are faced with teaching out-of-field.

Unless we start to do something about teachers teaching out-of-field, the problems we are already experiencing will only compound.

It is time for us to get “education’s dirty little secret” out into the open and deal with it.

(Dr Colleen Vale from Deakin University contributed to this blog entry.)

DSC_0368 copyLinda Hobbs is a Senior Lecturer in Science Education at Deakin University. For the past seven years she has been interrogating issues relating to teaching out-of-field, such as teacher experiences, the role of teacher education in preparing out-of-field teachers, and policy contexts impacting on teachers and schools . In addition, she is currently Project leader for an Office for Learning and Teaching grant focusing on school-based approaches to preparing primary science teachers.

Pyne’s curriculum review misses the big picture

Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of South Australia


Commissioning a review of the national curriculum and then installing a known critic of that curriculum, Kevin Donnelly, as one of the lead reviewers is like putting Dracula in charge of the Blood Bank – the results are entirely predictable.

It is a self-referential exercise limited by the narrow views of those driving it, judging by the tone of the debate so far.  It could have been so much more.

I have been reading Alain de Botton’s new book, The News, in which he critiques the narrow boundaries of what gets reported in the mainstream press:

In the field of education, it seems ‘normal’ to run stories about class sizes, teachers’ pay, the country’s performance in international league tables and the right balance between the roles of the private and state sectors. But we would risk seeming distinctly odd, even demented, if we asked whether the curriculum actually made sense; whether it really equipped students with the emotional and psychological resources that are central to the pursuit of good lives. 

In Australia, everyone has been to school so everyone has an opinion on education, based on their own experiences. Unfortunately, some people are given the opportunity to express these opinions in the media, where they become reified and elevated in importance.

Kevin Donnelly, for example, is ‘one of Australia’s leading education commentators’ (according to his bio), and gets published in the national press. So he must know what he is talking about, right?

Yet his focus on ‘back to basics’ teaching and sterner disciplinary methods in the classroom diverts the readers’ attention away from the bigger questions:

What is education for?

What do we want for our children?

Is it more important to teach them calculus than how to be a good parent for example?

Christopher Pyne has been to school so also has an opinion, based on what he experienced at St Ignatius College 30 years ago. As Alan Reid pointed out in this blog on April 10, the fact that Pyne is now Education Minister and feels qualified to drive government policy based on his personal opinion is alarmingly interventionist, compared with policy decisions in other areas such as health.

In obsessing about teacher quality, school funding and student performance I suggest that we seem to be missing the point – forgetting that schooling is part of the bigger picture of education. We should recognise that schooling is just one aspect of how our society chooses to guide and shape its children and young people for growing up and participating in society. Family, friends, homelife, environment, industry, media, social media, sport, music, religion – all contribute to shaping young lives.

De Botton’s invitation for us to consider taking a step back to question the whole system of education might be a radical way of seeing the forest instead of just the trees. For example, is it really sensible to institutionalise our children for 12 of the best years of their lives? To make them spend 5 days a week for 40 weeks of the year in a classroom setting? To spend all that time with a cohort of children of the same age but with different backgrounds, learning needs, behavioural styles, parental values? To expect teachers to be able to deliver standardised curriculum in exactly the same way for exactly the same year level in every school in the country?

And comparing the Australian education system with that of Finland, which is fashionable given their successful PISA results, is like comparing apples with oranges. The countries are fundamentally different in the way they educate and employ teachers, fund and govern schools, and embed education in the national psyche.

I have been to Finland and spoken to teachers and principals, who say that while they may be pleased with the outcomes of their schooling system against world comparisons, they are actually more concerned that their children should be happy.

Why don’t we start with this challenging premise:

 an effective curriculum should produce happy children

as we engage in these ongoing debates about education?


TOMDr Tom Stehlik is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Education at the University of South Australia. His research interests include adult learning, student engagement, school governance and communities of practice. He has had a long association with Steiner Education as a parent, educator, researcher, consultant and board member of a Waldorf School. In July 2014 Dr Stehlik will take up an Endeavour Executive Fellowship to study teacher education and schooling in Finland.