Helen Cozmescu

International Day of Education: why Jason Clare and Sussan Ley must get to class immediately

Today at school I will learn to read at once; then tomorrow I will begin to write, and the day after tomorrow to figure. Then, with my acquirements, I will earn a great deal of money, and with the first money I have in my pocket I will immediately buy for my papa a beautiful new cloth coat.” said Pinocchio. The goals of Carol Collodi’s famous puppet character expressed in 1883 are no different from the goals set for today’s students across the globe. Become educated so that you can make decisions about your future. But education is more than a pursuit to fulfill personal goals. It is also about responsibility to others and to the community. Pinocchio begins to understand this concept as he contemplates buying Geppetto a new coat.

UNESCO conceptualizes education as a human right, a public good and a public responsibility, key to developing opportunities, creating pathways out of poverty and foundational to global sustainability. Today, January 24 is the UNESCO declared International Day of Education, where all countries are called upon to invest in people by prioritizing education. UNESCO calls for a reduction in global poverty and the removal of the political barricades which prevent inclusive and equitable education. Each country, but especially the richer countries like Australia need to step up to address global educational responsibilities and this can begin by ensuring equity is a priority in our own educational system.

Australians hold interest in education. This can be seen in the political and media attention raised from the latest report on education released by the Productivity Commission. Equity or rather inequity is embedded in the report’s results. These results are presented as something new. However, the report reinforces what has been known for a long time – educational attainment, as measured by standardized testing is linked to parental educational background and certain groups in Australian society, such as rural students or students from Indigenous backgrounds are less likely to meet the set minimum standards. Australian education is not equitable.

Education minister Jason Clare said on breakfast television that he did not wish Australia to be a country where your chances in life depend on who your parents are or where you live or the colour of your skin. If this is the case, then the questions must be asked, are these students who are failing, the same students who do not have access to community facilities, such as libraries, sporting grounds and swimming pools? Are these the same students who live in areas with unreliable public transport? Are these the same students whose families are struggling with mortgage stress or who are unable to get a stable rental property? Are these the same students who are locked out of extra curricula activities? Are these the students who do not have a computer at home? Are these the students who in their first few years of life did not have access to child and maternal health and later to high quality child-care? Are these the same students who come from families who have had no support to maintain their first language or whose cultural practices are not valued? If yes is the answer to any of these questions, then perhaps the focus for educational reform should begin by looking outside of the school gates.

The inevitable catch cry ‘back to basics’ has begun. In the same interview as Jason Clare, Deputy leader of the Liberal party, Sussan Ley called for a ‘back to basics’ solution. This is the backhanded rhetoric that slams teachers. It implies that teachers have veered away from good, relevant teaching and are wasting time in frivolous pursuits. Similarly, Jason Clare’s solution is insulting. He suggests teachers need to spend less time lesson planning and more time in the classroom. Before reducing a vital component of the teaching role, let’s consider less time on bus duty, bin duty, lunch time supervision, endless meetings and paperwork to negotiate the red tape around NDIS requirements. Teachers planning lessons to meet the diverse needs of their students is the real back to basics. In most schools, planning is a collaborative process, which also addresses teachers’ ongoing professional learning. Planning sessions allow teachers to share what is working well for their students and seek advice from their expert colleagues about students who are facing challenges. 

Schools and teachers constantly address professional improvement. Teachers want what is best for the students they teach, not only in literacy and numeracy but across all aspects of academia and wellbeing. That’s why they became teachers! The lens has to shift away from schools and educational reform for a while, to spotlight issues of societal inequity. 

On this International Day of Education, let’s consider human rights, public good and global responsibilities. Let’s also consider out national situation and not be puppets pulled by the strings of rhetoric that call for reform in a so called failing educational system. Rather, let’s look at what is working well in schools, listen to the voices of teachers who respond daily to student diversity and work towards a bipartisan movement that addresses the issues of inequity which create the disparity evident in the Productivity Commission’s report. It’s our global responsibility to do so. Surely, this is not just a fairy tale dream.

Dr Helen Cozmescu is a member of the Teacher Education Group, at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne. She lecturers in pre-service and post-graduate language and literacy subjects and delivers professional learning for in-service teachers. Helen’s research has intersected critical literacy, the early years of schooling and First Nations texts. Her current research involves understanding the role of literacy professional learning for in-service teachers and the nexus created by theoretical perspectives, research and practice. Helen has had significant experience working in schools, as a primary school teacher and leader, and as a literacy consultant.  

Header images from the Facebook pages of Jason Clare and Sussan Ley.

Top of the pops: AARE’s Hottest Ten 2022

Thank you to all our contributors in 2022. We published over 100 blog posts this year from academics all over Australia, from research students to DECRA fellows, to deans and professors. Thank you all for being part of our community and many thanks to the AARE executive, especially newly-minted Professor Nicole Mockler.

Didn’t get to write this year? Want to contribute? Here are notes for contributors. Pitch to me at jenna@aare.edu.au.

The 2022 AARE EduResearch Matters blog of the year, announced at the AARE conference in Adelaide: “Why restoring trust in teaching now could fix the teacher shortage”. La Trobe’s Babak Dadvand wrote a compelling account of one way to address the teacher shortage.

It is genuinely hard to choose the best because every single blog reveals new ideas and new thinking about education but I’ll just list our ten most read for 2022 (and of course, some of our older posts have racked up thousands and thousands of views). So many others were excellent and please look at our comprehensive archive.

Here we go! 2022 top ten.

Babak Dadvand on the teacher shortage.

Inger Mewburn: Is this now the Federal government’s most bone-headed idea ever?

Debra Hayes: Here’s what a brave new minister for education could do right away to fix the horrific teacher shortage

Kate de Bruin, Pamela Snow, Linda Graham, Tanya Serry and Jacinta Conway: There are definitely better ways to teach reading

Marg Rogers: Time, money, exhaustion: why early childhood educators will join the Great Resignation

Rachel Wilson: What do you think we’ve got now? Dud teachers or a dud minister? Here are the facts

Simon Crook: More Amazing Secrets of Band Six (part two ongoing until they fix the wretched thing)

(And part one is now one of our most read posts of all-time)

Alison Bedford and Naomi Barnes: The education minister’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea*

Martina Tassone, Helen Cozmescu, Bree Hurn and Linda Gawne: No. There isn’t one perfect way to teach reading

Thank you to all of you for making this such a lovely community, looking forward to hearing from you and a special thank you to Maralyn Parker who has now been retired from the blog for two years but is still a fantastically supportive human when I need urgent help.

Jenna Price

No. There isn’t one perfect way to teach reading

Learning to read is foundational. The importance of literacy in the first years of schooling is not in question. Students’ oral language interactions in the early years of schooling, their engagement with print and digital texts and experiences recording their ideas in writing are important for their lives in and out of school. The teaching of phonics and phonological awareness are fundamental and essential elements in learning to read and to write. Both elements form an integral part of the Victorian Curriculum: English, which guides Victorian educators in their planning and teaching. 

This post is in response to recent damaging reports that have re-ignited the age-old argument that there is a literacy crisis and the best and only way to attend to it is the use of a ‘phonics first’ approach which prioritises synthetic phonics.The intensity of the argument has increased of late, with blame landing squarely at the feet of early years’ teachers, with the residue reserved too for those who prepare teachers for their role.

Pieces published in The Age and other publications over recent weeks have added fuel to the ‘literacy wars’ fire. On February 16 it began in The Age with Results came really quickly: How one tiny Victorian school turned literacy around’ by Adam Carey. This was quickly followed on February 19 with ‘Follow Science in Teaching Kids to Read’ by Dr Nathaniel Swain and more recently on March 21, Dr. Tina Daniel echoing ideas presented by Swain and Carey, with her opinion piece,Dud teachers? In Victoria, it’s the lack of phonics that’s the problem’. There are commonalities across these articles – the implication that teachers do not know how to teach; the need for commercially-produced programs; and the view that literacy is merely a set of discrete skills. We disagree with each of these points. 

What we know is this – phonics and phonological awareness are integral components of writing, as well as reading and oral langauge. Students in the early stages of literacy learning draw on the reciprocity between reading and writing to assist the identification of sounds in words which can be matched to letters and written down. The teaching of phonics and phonological awareness should be undertaken in an explicit and systematic way. This is not disputed by researchers, or teachers, nor the wider education community. But the way in which phonics and phonological awareness are taught remains a contentious issue. And the loudest voices in the argument are often those who lack the experience of teaching in mainstream early-years classrooms. 

The term ‘science of reading’, based on research positioning reading in the cognitive realm, is increasingly used in these debates. Some states (currently SA and NSW) have aligned themselves to this science of reading approach. They have prioritised the use of decodable texts and commercially-produced phonics programs. Victoria has been criticised for failing to adopt the same prescriptive ‘phonics first’ stance. We feel The Age’s education editor Adam Carey feeds into the Victoria bashing narrative. He cites Fahey, from the Centre for Independent Studies, whose background is in economics and policy. Fahey suggests Victoria needs a ‘wakeup call’ because they have ‘dragged the chain on the national reform agenda around reading instruction.’ As education editor, Carey could have cited numerous experts, from Australia or overseas, who have researched in the field of reading comprehension and would have added value to the discussion. 

NAPLAN is often woven into discussions about phonics. So we point out that  Victoria, without a prescriptive phonics program have enjoyed great success. Victorian teachers should be celebrated. They are given agency to draw upon a range of well-researched strategies to teach literacy and create their own program to address their students’ diverse needs. Recent NAPLAN results have confirmed that Victoria has done exceptionally well in national results for reading. Victoria outperformed New South Wales on NAPLAN, for both the students who require extra support in literacy and for those achieving above the standard. Differentiated teaching is reflected in these NAPLAN results, because good literacy teachers know that every child has different learning needs. We know the variable in education is the child, the teaching of reading is not an exact science.

The approach taken at Melbourne Graduate School of Education in initial teacher education programs and in professional development of continuing teachers is based on a framework initially developed by Freebody and Luke (1990). This framework recognises the place of the systematic and explicit teaching of phonics within a comprehensive view of literacy, one which includes comprehension, knowledge of how different texts are organised and constructed and critical thinking about the content that is being read. It also recognises that the reader does not come to the text as a ‘tabula rasa’. Rather, they bring with them cultural, linguistic and textual knowledge, which help them to read the text.

Australian students are diverse. They bring varied but rich knowledge and skills to their literacy learning. In response, teachers need extensive knowledge of the way language works, they need knowledge of pedagogical practices, and they need to know what each student can do and what they need to do next. Teachers need to be afforded agency to use their knowledge to cater for the diverse learning needs. Teachers are professionals.

Public debates must acknowledge the complexity of early literacy, the successes experienced as well as the challenges encountered. The quest for comprehensive and effective literacy practices, which differentiate to meet the needs of all students, can only be addressed if the complexity of literacy is recognised. Teaching is more than science.  It is also a craft and an art. Fundamentally, it involves teachers’ intellect and criticality to be responsive to students’ needs. We applaud the teachers and the students who engage in these complex practices each day.

From left to right: Dr. Martina Tassone, Dr. Helen Cozmescu, Bree Hurn and Dr. Linda Gawne are part of the Primary Language & Literacy Academic Teaching Team at Melbourne Graduate School of Education at the University of Melbourne.