Linda Graham

Differentiation is in our schools to stay. What is it? And why are most criticisms of it just plain wrong?

The use of a teaching practice known as ‘differentiation’ has become more common over time as educators have sought to respond to increases in the diversity of students enrolling in their local school. The term is now used widely by Australian teachers and school leaders, as well as policy makers.

For example, according to the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, Australian teachers are expected to “Differentiate teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities”. They are also expected to implement “Quality Differentiated Teaching Practice to meet the diversity of learners within their classroom”, as part of the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability.

Being able to claim and demonstrate high-quality differentiation in the classroom now informs teacher promotion and school improvement review processes. It is also one way schools can meet their obligations under the Disability Standards for Education, as differentiation is a means through which teachers make reasonable adjustments to curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and the learning environment.

Given the emphasis in Australian legislation, policy and practice, it is important that when we refer to differentiation, we are all talking about the same thing. However, if you were to ask 10 teachers what differentiation means and how they implement it in their classrooms, you could receive 10 different responses.

As education researchers with expertise in inclusive education, we were interested in the spread of differentiation and what it means to teachers and researchers. We are also curious as to the basis for some especially loud criticisms of it.

Criticisms based on inconsistencies and misconceptions

There are a range of criticisms of differentiation including that it:

  • Requires teachers to provide every student with individualised lessons
  • Increases teachers’ workloads
  • Makes teachers’ work complicated
  • Waters down the curriculum
  • Lowers expectations of students and their exposure to the academic curriculum
  • Is too difficult to implement in mainstream classrooms
  • Is inconsistent with evidence-based approaches such as Response to Intervention
  • Lacks evidence of effectiveness.

We began this review because we knew that several of these criticisms are just plain wrong. For example, the goal of differentiation is to stretch students beyond what they can already do but not so much that they experience frustration or failure. It is about “teaching up”, not “watering down” the curriculum, where teachers raise expectations for all students and provide appropriate scaffolds to help students to experience success.

It is also not about “‘individualised instruction’”; rather, it offers “multiple avenues to learning” through proactive design. In fact, its emphasis on proactive planning aims to reduce teacher workload, not add to it. By building in accessibility and flexibility, it has the potential to save teachers time in the long run by teaching more efficiently and effectively from the outset, preventing the need to spend additional time replanning and reteaching the curriculum.

Some of these criticisms stem from a lack of definitional clarity. This problem was highlighted in Australian research as long ago as 2014, and has been recently confirmed by two reviews from the United States, published in 2019 and 2020.

A consistent and clear understanding of what is meant by differentiation is therefore vital in order to examine the validity of these criticisms and consider whether they correctly construe the motivation for its use.

To examine these issues in more depth, we undertook a comprehensive scoping review to synthesise what can be known from existing studies. We found that the research literature on differentiation contains a range of definitional inconsistencies and misconceptions about how differentiation is conceptualised and implemented.

This is a huge problem. How can we talk about, implement or indeed criticise differentiation in our schools if we are talking about and doing different things?

So let’s start with a definition

It is essential for teachers and researchers to work from a common understanding of differentiation and so as part of our research we first provided a clear definition. To construct our definition we drew on the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson, an American educator, author and speaker who is well known for her work with differentiated instruction over the last two decades.

This is what we, and others in inclusive education, mean when we use the term. It is:

the use of proactive planning and inclusive practices to create accessible learning experiences to meet the needs of all learners in heterogeneous classrooms, using flexible within-class grouping, as opposed to fixed ability grouping, year-level streaming or withdrawal to separate programs.

For further clarification, we use the term flexible grouping to refer to varied use of whole class and individual learning, alongside heterogeneous and homogeneous small group learning according to interest, learning profile, and readiness.

Our research

We conducted our scoping review of all peer-reviewed research literature published between 1999, when Carol Tomlinson published her influential book, The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners, and 2019, the year we concluded our search. Searches of seven research databases netted 1,235 records, to which we added another six identified through hand-searching.

Our definition was broad and theoretically derived and hinged on practices enacted to meet the needs of all learners in heterogeneous classrooms. We therefore excluded studies that incorporated practices inconsistent with this definition such as ability grouping, year-level streaming or studies in which there was withdrawal of students to separate programs. We also excluded studies informed by misguided practices such as differentiating for learning styles or intelligence strengths, or by ability grouping and segregation as there is either no evidence to support their use or because there is clear evidence against their use.

Multiple screening stages (for those interested in the details of our research process, particularly when it comes to what we excluded and why, please go to our full paper) resulted in a final sample of 34 journal articles. Our review of these 34 articles was guided by two research questions, both of which were exploratory, rather than explanatory:

  1. Are there any discernible patterns in peer-reviewed empirical research conducted on differentiation in school settings between 1999 and 2019 with regard to aim, location, school phase, participant types and methods used?
  2. What are the principal research foci of these studies, how do they conceptualise and research differentiation, and how might research on differentiation be improved?

Findings

Our findings on the research evidence on differentiation were variously pleasing, surprising and of great concern to us. We found that while some teachers can find differentiation a challenge to implement or to implement well, echoing the concerns of some critics, this was not ubiquitous. Indeed we found that the range and depth of teachers’ use of differentiated teaching practices was enhanced by strong and committed leadership. It was also supported by quality professional learning, which contributed to staff buy-in and a school-wide culture of teacher collaboration, as well as supporting the quality and frequency of teacher implementation of differentiation.

We also found great diffusion in how differentiation was conceptualised making it difficult to produce clear findings about whether differentiation works. Despite this, the reviewed studies that examined the impact of differentiation consistent with our definition generally indicated that it typically produced improvements in student learning when compared to regular practice, with some suggestion that this may be even greater in more disadvantaged schools. There was little evidence to support criticisms that differentiation waters down the curriculum or lowers expectations and no studies advocating for the creation of individual lesson plans for individual students. Given the number of studies and participants that are represented in our review, this effectively dispels these criticisms as myth.

The diversity of focus and methodological approaches across the 34 studies, however, prevents a structured comparison of findings and therefore weakens the evidential basis to make stronger claims of either differentiation’s effectiveness or indeed its ineffectiveness. In particular, strong claims were hampered by the fact that:

  • Half the 34 studies were conducted in the United States and most in the elementary (primary) school phase with very few studies focusing on secondary schools.
  • Survey and case study designs were dominant, as was research of influences on teacher practice.
  • Only a small group of studies focused on differentiation’s impact on student outcomes and these typically only examined specific elements of differentiation or in specific academic domains, such as science or reading.
  • The majority of studies were undermined by methodological weaknesses—such as a tendency to rely on convenience samples and to use weak forms of survey methodology, as well as to attempt to determine the impact of differentiation using only student achievement scores—validating some concerns about the state of the research on differentiation.
  • Poor design weakened the strength of the overall findings because of the incommensurability between the measures used by participants from different schools and districts, and the incommensurability of practices across cases.
  • Although there were some studies that investigated the impact of differentiation using rigorous procedures, the majority of research was compromised by the use of small sample sizes and researcher-developed instruments with no clear theoretical or empirical foundation.
  • A lack of transparency due to poor reporting and very little cross-referencing between studies led to the majority ‘remaking the wheel’ rather than working together to create a coherent evidence-base.

Recommendations

Our research suggests that research on differentiation can and should improve, if the understanding of the practice is itself to improve.

Far too many studies are conducted without a coherent and theoretically informed definition to guide the development of instruments or to provide an appropriate lens through which to analyse the data collected. Having now read a vast number of articles, each claiming to be about differentiation, we observe that new research on this topic must build from and improve on previous studies. This is important to avoid researchers approaching the topic with the assumption that there is common agreement as to what differentiation is, or proposing their own new definition.

To achieve this, we believe future research on differentiation could:

  • clearly define differentiation as a range of evidence-based practices that teachers can use to meet the needs of all learners in heterogeneous classrooms
  • investigate the planning and enactment of these practices in both primary and secondary general education settings
  • use rigorous mixed-method research designs capable of assessing the adequacy of those practices for meeting the full range of individual learning needs, whilst determining the effect on students’ engagement, educational experiences, and academic outcomes; and
  • monitor implementation fidelity and the impact on teachers’ work.

We see our paper and our considered definition of differentiation grounded in prior research as a starting point to build useful evidence on differentiation for schools and teachers in Australia. If we are to use differentiation to meet the needs of students with and without disabilities in our schools, teachers need to be on the same page and confident in the evidence behind the practices they are using.

For those who want more, here is our full paper: A scoping review of 20 years of research on differentiation: investigating conceptualisation, characteristics, and methods used

Professor Linda Graham is Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her research investigates the role of education policy and schooling practices in the development of disruptive student behaviour and the improvement of responses to children with language, learning and behavioural difficulties.

Dr Kate de Bruin is a senior lecturer in inclusion and disability in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. She has taught in secondary school and higher education for two decades. Her research focuses on inclusive education in policy and practice, examining system, school and classroom practices that are supported by evidence, and that promote quality and equity for all students, with specific attention to students with a disability.

Dr Carly Lassig is a Lecturer in The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) at QUT with a passion for social justice, equity and inclusion. Her research and teaching interests include: inclusive education, disability, differentiation, Universal Design for Learning, gifted education, and creativity. Carly’s PhD, “Perceiving and pursuing novelty: A grounded theory of adolescent creativity” investigated young people’s experiences of creativity within and beyond the school environment. Carly’s background is as a primary and middle years teacher, having taught nationally and internationally.

Dr Ilektra Spandagou is an Associate Professor of Inclusive Education at The University of Sydney. Ilektra worked as a special education teacher and completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield in the area of inclusive education. She worked as a researcher at the University of Sheffield,and as a lecturer at the University of Athens and the University of Thessaly, Greece before moving to The University of Sydney. Her research interests include disability, classroom diversity, and curriculum differentiation.

Beginner teachers are NOT under prepared and NOT bad at managing behaviour. Here’s the evidence

For years claims have been circulating that newly graduated teachers are under prepared to teach in today’s often challenging classrooms, and that they are bad at classroom management. Thanks to mainstream media interest, and critics within education circles, these claims have led to an increasing array of government interventions in Initial Teacher Education in universities around Australia. What, how and to whom teacher education is delivered has been thoroughly examined and churned in the bid to improve teaching quality and student outcomes.

As teacher educators, intimately involved in teaching our new teachers and supporting them as they embark on their careers, we were deeply concerned about these claims so went looking for evidence of what was going wrong.

This blog post is about our research and what we found.

Be surprised, we found no evidence that beginning teachers in Australia are unprepared for the classroom or that they are bad at behaviour management.  

We believe extensive reforms have been made to Initial Teacher Education in Australia to ‘improve’ teacher quality without any evidence to support the claim that beginning teachers are less competent than experienced teachers.

Our research, carried out in Australian schools, found that most beginning teachers in fact engaged in higher levels of emotional support than their more experienced colleagues, and for most, behaviour management is not a problem.

Background on government ‘reforms’ to make teachers “classroom ready”

Following the now infamous 2014 Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report, which formalised the (we believe false) claim that graduate teachers were unprepared for the classroom, Australian universities have responded to accreditation requirements by

Various state governments have also made changes that impact universities intake criteria and course content: Queensland, for example, has mandated that students entering primary teacher education degrees must have four semesters of sound achievement in English, Maths and Science. New South Wales has signalled that to be eligible for employment in NSW government schools, students commencing a teaching degree from 2019, must:

  • Receive a minimum credit grade point average in their university degree.
  • Prove sound practical knowledge and ability, which will be reflected by an assessment of every single practicum report.
  • Show superior cognitive and emotional intelligence measured via a psychometric assessment.
  • Demonstrate their commitment to the values of public education in a behavioural interview.

Those doing online degrees are out.

None of these measures are bad, in and of themselves, although they have created significant compliance burden for teacher educators and schools of education, as well as increasing the fiscal pressure on schools and faculties of education.

The problem is that these interventions into university teacher education have come without any supporting empirical evidence that beginning teachers are less competent than their more experienced colleagues.

Our research into the teaching quality and classroom management skills of newly graduated teachers

What research method did we use?

There are different ways of measuring the quality of teaching. The two main ways involve using test scores (like NAPLAN for example) or by observing teachers teaching, and measuring the presence or absence of teaching practices known to add positively to students’ social, behavioural, and academic outcomes. The latter method is, of course, much more expensive because it uses direct observation, but it also can’t be manipulated like test scores can.

One method of direct observation is the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) observation measure developed by University of Virginia education specialists Bridget Hamre and Robert Pianta. We used this method in our six-year longitudinal study.

In our paper published in Teaching and Teacher Education this week, we compare the CLASS scores of beginning teachers (0-3 years’ experience) and experienced teachers (more than 3 years’ experience) and found no significant differences between the groups.

We used the CLASS system in our study investigating the development of severely disruptive behaviour of students because we were interested in learning the contribution made by the quality of teaching. In the very first year of this six-year longitudinal study, we noticed three standout teachers who were all in their early 20s and wrote about it in the AARE EduResearch Matters blog.

That’s also when we decided to ask how many years our teacher participants had been teaching in our research interviews because we were interested to see whether the excellent practice we were seeing bore out over time with a much larger number of participants.

Six years later, we can finally reveal: yes, it does and no, those three early career teachers were not an anomaly. Beginning teachers really do cut it.

We then broke our experienced teacher category into two (4-5 years and more than 5 years) and compared the CLASS scores of teachers in these groups with beginning teachers (0-3 years’ experience). This time there were significant differences with the 4-5 year experience group achieving significantly lower quality in three dimensions: Productivity, Instructional Learning Formats, and Negative Climate.

Importantly, there were very few participants in the 4-5 year experience group. While these findings do align with the possibility of a post three-year decline for some teachers, the findings should be interpreted with caution as extreme outliers can have a disproportionate influence on group means.

What’s the upshot?

We followed more than 200 students over six years and very few of their teachers declined participation. Their length of teacher experience ranged from 3 weeks to 38 years.

Basically, beginning teachers performed just as well as, or better than, teachers with more years of experience, regardless of the groups we compared them with. And, while all research is impacted by self-selection to some degree, in this study that was mitigated by our relationship with and presence in seven participating schools and the longitudinal nature of our project.

We found no evidence that beginning teachers were unprepared for the classroom or that they are bad at behaviour management. In fact, we found that most beginning teachers engaged in higher levels of emotional support than their more experienced colleagues. And behaviour management was the second highest scoring dimension of the 10 dimensions measured by the CLASS.

This evidence is good news for beginning teachers who must have been feeling pretty bruised in recent years and good news for preservice teachers who are scaling an increasing number of hurdles to prove their worth. It is also good news for teacher educators who work incredibly hard under enormous pressure to continually revise and refine their content and to support their students to do well.

Rather than implementing any more graduation hurdles designed to “vet” entry to the profession or further destabilising university teacher education, governments need to look at the evidence and turn instead to finding better ways of directing support to all teachers and provide intelligently targeted, quality professional learning to those who need it.

Professor Linda Graham is Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Linda is currently Chief Investigator on several externally funded research projects including “Which children develop severely disruptive school behaviour?”, a six-year longitudinal study funded by the Australian Research Council. She has published more than 80 books, chapters, and journal articles, as well as numerous pieces published in The Conversation.

Associate Professor Sonia White is an academic in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education and researcher in The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) at QUT. Sonia is a registered mathematics teacher and her research investigates children’s early learning and development.

Dr Kathy Cologon is a senior lecturer in the Department of Educational Studies at Macquarie University. Kathy has a particular interest in research and practice relating to the development and support of inclusive education, with a view towards greater recognition of the rights of all children.

Professor Robert Pianta is Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and founding Director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL). He is a leading expert in the field of developmental psychology with much of his research devoted to supporting teachers use of quality teaching practices that best support children’s academic, social-emotional and behavioural development. With his colleagues at CASTL, he has led the development of well-known measures including the Teacher-Student Relationship Scale and the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS).

21 simple design elements that will make any School Assessment Task sheet accessible

If you have a child in secondary school in Australia, you are probably familiar with assessment task sheets. They outline the task a student has to complete and how it will be assessed. The criteria and standards that will be used to evaluate the performance are included. Often the task sheet will also aim to excite and motivate students to engage with a real-world problem or life-like performance that is relevant and meaningful to them.

Assessment task sheets are really invitations for students to create a performance to show others what they know.

Yet for many students these days, the complexity of the invitation can lead them to give up before they even start. It is a growing problem as assessment task sheets become increasingly complicated documents.

They often now contain a lot of information only intended for adult audiences because they can be used to help justify assessment decisions to parents, and can serve accountability purposes by providing evidence that the teacher has complied with the requirements of a syllabus. So they could feature technical terms from the syllabus and more information than is necessary for student understanding.

For students with language and attentional difficulties, these multiple purposes and the complexity of tasks can present barriers that prevent them from successfully participating in the assessment. Complex assessment task sheets can therefore be unfair.

We believe it is possible to design assessment tasks and write up accompanying assessment task sheets that allow more students to participate than is currently the case. Our research shows design techniques that support teachers to do this.

Currently many teachers spend precious time retrospectively adjusting tasks and rewriting task sheets to give access to students experiencing difficulties. It is a practice that is time-consuming for busy teachers and so is typically only done for students with severe disabilities.

In Australia, however, it is a federally legislated requirement for reasonable adjustments to be made to support all students with disability to access their education on the same basis as students without disability, as described in the Disability Standards for Education.

So we see our work in this field as being relevant to all teachers in every subject and at every level, whenever they are designing and writing an assessment task for their students. If the task is designed and written in an accessible way, students with language and attentional difficulties can do the same task using the same task sheet and teachers will no longer need to create other versions, readjust or rewrite for these students.

But… could this give some students an unfair advantage?

A key barrier to accessible assessment is the fear that reasonable adjustments could lead to a ‘dumbing down’ of the assessment or that they provide an unfair advantage to students with a disability. However, this would only be true if the benefit were not universal or if the main aim of the assessment was to test students’ ability to interpret assessment task sheets.

If accessible assessment tasks are proactively planned and provided to all students, then the benefit is universal. And, if the assessment task focuses on the knowledge or skill being assessed (the first order priority of assessment), then it is still a valid and fair assessment.

Importantly, as Joy Cumming and Graham Maxwell have previously pointed out, when second-order priorities (such as the accountability purposes of assessment) complicate assessment purposes to the extent that the assessment task itself creates barriers to student access and participation, then the result is not a true reflection of that student’s response to the (first-order) purpose of the assessment and the assessment is therefore inequitable.

The challenge is to design assessment that is accessible from the outset of planning, so that teachers can maximise opportunities for all learners to have access to assessment tasks.

Challenges of access that students must overcome

We analysed a typical Year 8 English task sheet and considered the visual, procedural and linguistic complexity of the task sheet design to highlight how some assessment practices may inadvertently affect access and therefore equity.

There are three considerable challenges students must face to correctly interpret an assessment task and successfully demonstrate their learning. These are: –

  • Comprehending what the task is about
  • Working out what has to be done
  • Understanding the parameters in which to do it

Access can be made easier or more difficult depending on the way the assessment task is presented; both in terms of visual presentation and in terms of the language used. The number and type of procedures required can also differentially affect students’ successful completion of the task.

This approach to analysis helped us to produce a list of recommended design elements that will be useful to teachers as they plan and write up their assessment tasks.

Design elements that support making assessment tasks accessible

Visual accessibility

The layout of the task sheet helps the students access the important elements of the task

  • The most important information is easy to find
  • White space is used to separate sections
  • Text size aids readability (11 or 12 point font with 1.5 line spacing)
  • Margins are left-justified
  • Visual cues direct student attention
  • Information that is irrelevant to students is not included

Procedural accessibility

Consistency and clarity of instructions

  • Authentic context is relevant
  • Common access barriers have been addressed in the design
  • The task, objectives and criteria align
  • Students are able to respond within the prescribed conditions
  • Enough space and resources are provided for responses
  • The assessment is scheduled to give students the best opportunity for success
  • Processes for evaluating quality are clear
  • Authentication strategies are included
  • Student feedback on the draft task was sought
  • Teacher peer feedback on draft task was sought

Linguistic accessibility

Directions are clear

  • Instructions are clear and direct
  • Sentences are short and simply structured
  • The language is free of bias
  • Specialist language is defined using student-friendly terms
  • Information is stated once only and if it needs to be referenced more than once, consistent terminology is used

Encouraging results from using these recommendations

We used an accessibility checklist based on these recommendations to support teachers in their assessment design work in two secondary schools participating in our research.

Significantly, teachers who participated in this research reported that students who had not previously found success were able to demonstrate their learning with new levels of confidence.

We believe proactive accessible assessment design has the potential to increase the assessment participation and success of all students, especially those with language and attentional difficulties.

An added bonus is that designing for accessibility from the outset promises to reduce teacher workload due to fewer requests for clarification from students and less need for retrospective adjustments.

 

More in our open access paper Designing out barriers to student access and participation in secondary school assessment

 

Haley Tancredi is a Master of Philosophy (Education) candidate at QUT. A certified practicing speech pathologist, Haley also presently works for Brisbane Catholic Education. Haley’s research and clinical interests are adolescents with language disorder, student voice and teacher/speech pathologist collaboration in inclusive classrooms. Haley is also an active #WeSpeechie on Twitter @HaleyTanc.

 

 

 

Linda Graham is a Professor in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She coordinates Inclusive Education Theory, Policy and Practice, a core unit in the Faculty of Education’s Master of Inclusive Education. She leads QUT’s Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour Research Group (@SELB_QUT) and a number of research projects in the area of inclusive education. She can often be found on Twitter: @drlindagraham and at linda.graham@qut.edu.au

 

 

Jill Willis is an assessment researcher and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She investigates how educators promote learner agency and equity through their everyday assessment practices. You can reach her via Twitter: @JillWteachEd

 

 

 

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

 

Are regular classroom teachers really not qualified to teach students with special needs?

Sure enough, representatives of parent and teacher groups have emerged to back Senator Pauline Hanson’s claims that children with ‘autism and disabilities’ should be removed from mainstream classroom.

Primary principals in south western Sydney were reported as saying a shortage of places in special schools and classes is leading to the placement of students with disability or special needs into regular classes with a teacher who is “not sufficiently qualified”.

No description of the necessary qualifications was provided in the article but the implication was clear: special qualifications are needed to teach special students. In other words, a regular teacher education qualification just doesn’t cut it.

At about the same time Dr James Morton, who is Chairman of the AEIOU Foundation and parent of a child with autism, in an interview on ABC radio criticised universities for failing to prepare teachers to teach students with disability. His chief complaint was that units specialising in autism are not mandatory in undergraduate teacher education programs and accused universities of not investing in Australia’s future.

Then we had Professor Kenneth Wiltshire of the UQ Business School who argued via an opinion piece that the states had pulled a “con job… late last century” by promising “disabled students could become mainstream in every way by being included in conventional schools”. He then claims the states only supported inclusion because they were “cost-cutting by closing many special schools”.

While confused and lacking any supporting evidence, Wiltshire’s article echoes points made in the other two examples:

  1. special students need to be educated by special teachers in special places,
  2. regular classroom teachers are not qualified to teach students with disability and/or universities are failing to adequately prepare them
  3. there are not enough special teachers and special places (because of inclusion and the closure of special schools).

Is there truth to any these claims?

In short, no.

Firstly, research consistently shows that educating students with disability in special places does not guarantee better academic or social outcomes, better employment prospects or post-school options and social inclusion. Quite the opposite, in fact.

This does not mean that they will do well in mainstream schools built for a narrow range of students. It means that local schools must evolve to cater to the full range of students. And this means teachers and teacher preparation must also evolve.

The 2016 Australian Senate Report made recommendations for teaching skills that would improve workforce capacity for inclusion: universal design for learning, differentiated teaching, and cooperative learning.

With this knowledge, teachers can identify what support students need to access the curriculum, engage in classroom activities, and achieve at school. These skills are emphasised in the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, which since 2012 have underpinned the accreditation of university teacher education courses.

The Standards make clear that all classroom teachers are qualified to teach students with disability and/or additional needs. To be accredited, university teacher education courses must also cover four key focus areas that directly relate to students with disability: (i) differentiating teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities, (ii) supporting learning of students with disability, (iii) supporting student participation and engagement, and (iv) managing challenging behaviour.

Every graduating teacher must provide evidence that they meet each Standard to achieve registration to teach. To maintain their annual registration, existing teachers must provide evidence that they have engaged in professional learning relating to the Standards.

Clearly, there is a framework to ensure that registered classroom teachers are qualified to teach students with disabilities and/or additional needs, and for universities to prepare their graduates to do so. The benefits are seen in numerous schools and classrooms across the country, but there is scope for both teacher preparation programs and schools to embrace inclusive teaching practices.

Finally, the claim that places in special schools and classes have declined because of inclusion and the subsequent closure of special schools is completely false.

This is clear from a range of data sources.

 Research from New South Wales has shown that proportion of enrolments in separate special educational settings in Australia’s largest education system has been increasing since the 1990s. In other words, the “mainstream” is shrinking.

These findings are supported by national data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC) which shows that there was a 35% increase in the number of students with disability attending special schools between 2003 and 2015.

But most telling is this: Prior to the 1992 Disability Discrimination Act, before we signed the 1994 Salamanca Statement, and before “inclusion” was really a thing, there were 444 special schools accounting for 4.4% of all schools in Australia.

Almost three decades later — after the 2005 Disability Standards for Education, the 2008 Melbourne Declaration, and a multitude of reviews and inquiries nationally – there are now 461 special schools, accounting for 4.9% of Australian schools.

That represents an 11% increase in the number of special schools and this has occurred despite evidence that inclusion leads to more positive outcomes for students with disability.

We may well be living in a post-truth world but none of the empirical evidence supports the claims being made by Hanson’s backers.

 

Professor Linda Graham works in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Linda coordinates Inclusive Education Theory, Policy and Practice, a core unit in the Faculty of Education’s Master of Inclusive Education and leads QUT’s Student Engagement, Learning & Behaviour Research Group (@SELB_QUT), and is a member of the Board for All Means All – Australian Alliance for Inclusive Education. She has published more than 80 books, chapters and journal articles, and is leading two current large scale projects investigating educational responses to students with learning and behavioural difficulties. Linda blogs at drlindagraham.wordpress.com.au and can often be found on Twitter: @drlindagraham

Dr Kate de Bruin works in the Faculty of Education at Monash University Her current research investigates evidence-informed practice and policy in inclusive education, with a focus developing teacher capacity for using inclusive pedagogies in ways that improve equity and quality schooling for all students, and she regularly provides professional learning to school teachers in these areas. She has worked with government departments on projects such as the Victorian Inclusion Support Programme, and the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data for Students with Disabilities.

Dr Ilektra Spandagou is a senior lecturer at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She worked as a special teacher in mainstream settings before she completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield, UK, in inclusive education. She has worked in inclusive education in three countries: as a researcher at the University of Sheffield, UK, and as a lecturer at the University of Athens and the University of Thessaly, Greece, before moving to The University of Sydney. Her research interests include inclusion, disability, comparative education and classroom diversity. Her current research projects focus on inclusive policy and practice within a rights perspective. A common thread of this work is a conceptual understanding of inclusive education as a transformation project requiring a paradigmatic shift in perceptions of both ability and education. Her publications include the book ‘Inclusive Education: International Policy & Practice’ (co-authored with A.C. Armstrong and D. Armstrong) published by Sage in 2010.

Expensive new government funded website for schools fails to deliver

Students with disabilities often struggle in Australian schools. There have been many inquiries and reports over the years that tell us this. Of course, students with disability struggle for a range of reasons but a major one is the lack of funding for support materials that can be used by teachers with the responsibility of educating them. So when funds do become available it is very important for them to be spent carefully and wisely.

Our post is about a new resource, the Leading Learning 4 all website, which was commissioned by the Australian government in response to the latest review of the Disability Standards for Education in 2015. The resource aims to promote inclusive school practices but we believe it makes some fundamental mistakes.

We decided to air our concerns here because it might help raise awareness of the issues involved and hopefully improve future support and resources for teachers involved in educating children with disability.

What is “Leading Learning 4 all”?

Leading Learning 4 all is a website developed by the Australian Special Education Principals Association and built by Schoolzine Pty Ltd.  The idea for the website is it that it will be a place where teachers and schools can go for ideas and to learn strategies that will help them with the education of children with disability. The website aims to develop a repository of inclusive teaching practices across Australia, which will be added to over time.

It claims to be organised around the Disability Standards for Education for Australian schools and is aimed at school leaders. It cost taxpayers $622,000.

We believe this was money poorly spent and a great opportunity wasted.

The bulk of the resources available on this site are in the form of videos and schools are invited to upload their own.

The website states that these videos “are not intended to be crafted, professionally directed pieces”. The idea is if teachers and schools upload their own videos of what they are doing with their students with disabilities, this will help develop a repository of practice that will be useful to others looking for help.

Although this signals respect for the teaching profession, it also assumes that school practitioners have the means and technical know-how to generate videos that are appropriate for broader use.

One fundamental problem with this site is poor modelling

Teachers and school leaders will look towards the existing videos on the site as a guide. We should expect they would be good models of the things teachers and schools might aim for.

For starters, the videos are both low-tech and low quality, so on a production level alone they do not provide a good model for amateur video producers to work towards.

But we have identified far more serious problems with the videos on this site.

For now, we will highlight just three: poor accessibility, flawed representation of students with disability, and incorrect interpretation of the Disability Standards for Education.

Poor accessibility

The provision of accessibility, such as text captioning—to enable access to information and equitable participation—is basic to any resource intended for students with a disability.

At the time of our investigation of the website, there was a video with the captions presented in the Dutch language and two videos with no captioning at all. The remaining videos only had auto-generated captioning by YouTube.

This practice does not comply with international accessibility expectations and organisations have been asked to lift their game. For example, the US Ministry of Justice last year ruled that the automatically generated captions on Berkeley University’s YouTube channel “were inaccurate and incomplete, making the content inaccessible to individuals with hearing disabilities”.

This is not the only accessibility problem with the videos and we have listed others below:

  • no pre-recorded sign language, or available scripts of the videos
  • continual background music in the videos that could distort what viewers hear
  • many resources are in PDF format, which means they need to be downloaded and filled-in, presumably using a pen or pencil. No other formats are provided
  • no glossary or plain English information
  • no contacts for translation or interpreting services. While the website can be translated using Google Translate, this service lacks accuracy in translating policy and legislation. In a multilingual society like Australia providing support to families from non-English speaking background to access information in their language is an essential advocacy practice
  • The information provided for sensory disability (as a handout) makes no reference to digital accessibility. In our fast-changing technological world, teachers need to be aware of how technology can be both a facilitator and a barrier to students with disability

Flawed representations of students with disability

Students are present in just 7 of the 17 videos available on the website in the Interpreting the Disability Standards for Education section. In these 7 videos, 11 of the 12 students featured have an obvious disability.

One indicative video in the section Reasonable Adjustments with the title ‘Adjustments in the Curriculum’, has the credit “Sue and Students, Teacher [school name]”. The teacher, Sue, is sitting between two girls and starts talking to the camera:

“The two girls are from grade 3/4. One is a hearing-impaired girl and the other girl is not hearing impaired. They both work on Maths on money recognition and simple addition and equivalency. And they are working with me together in the deaf facility because they are at a similar level and it gives them some focus with me in a smaller group situation. So girls, let’s have a look…”

Sue keeps talking to the girls for another two seconds and the video ends. The ‘girls’, who have no names and no voice and who have been introduced by their impairment (or lack thereof), are treated more like props than thinking, feeling humans.

This is a huge concern because a central feature of inclusive education is the use of person-first language. While there are exceptions with some communities or individuals electing to be known as ‘Deaf’ or ‘Autistic’, this is a personal choice and should not be assumed.

School children should therefore never be referred to as a ‘hearing impaired girl’ or a ‘Down syndrome boy’ because of the risk that they will be defined by their disability. Disability is only ever an aspect of humanity and not the sum of who a person is. The respectful use of language should be a basic consideration in any resource relating to inclusive education.

It is also not at all clear what adjustment is being made in this video example, what relevance this adjustment has to hearing impairment, or why the lesson needs to occur in the deaf facility, especially when the second girl is not hearing impaired.

Rather than an exemplar of inclusive practice, this video example appears to be about reverse integration—a concept that is deeply entrenched in special education traditions.

Interpretation of the Disability Standards for Education

Both the 2012 and the 2015 reviews of the Disability Standards for Education have commented on the lack of confidence that schools and teachers feel in interpreting the key terms of the Standards. Despite the emphasis on training, schools still struggle with the concepts of ‘on the same basis as’, ‘consultation’ and ‘reasonable adjustments’, which are all examples of the key terms of the Standards.

The examples provided in the Leading Learning 4 all website do not assist in clarifying these terms. They instead provide a poor model to guide practice. This is exemplified in a video on ‘consulting with students’ where collaboration between teachers and a physiotherapist to develop a fitness program to enable a student’s participation in sport is discussed, without once mentioning whether or how the student was consulted in the process.

Why the problems with this site need to be fixed

Everyone involved in the education of students with disability should understand the fundamental concepts and practices underpinning inclusive education; concepts as simple as ‘consultation’ and practices as important as using person-first language.

We strongly support the development of quality resources for teachers and schools to enhance their inclusive practices. Unfortunately, the Australian government’s Leading Learning 4 all website falls short of this aim and may lead well-meaning educators to unknowingly engage in practices that are both discriminatory toward, and stigmatising of, students with disability.

Rather than addressing poor practice, this website risks perpetuating it. And, if the Australian Government’s own inclusion website does not model inclusive practice, who will?

An example of videos that DO model expectations and good practice

We thought you might like to see what we do consider to be a great example of modelling and expectations.

The Reasonable Adjustments Project developed in England produced a manual and DVDs in 2005. The DVDs are now available on YouTube. They are of high quality and consistently use sign language interpretation and embedded subtitles.

The Leading Learning 4 all website represents a costly, missed opportunity for the Australian Government to do the same for the Australian school context.

 

Ilektra Spandagou is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She has been involved in teacher education in special and inclusive education both in Greece and Australia. She has experience working with general and special education teachers in the area of theories of inclusive education, and the nexus of policy and school practice. Ilektra’s research interests include inclusion, disability, comparative education and classroom diversity. Her publications include the book Inclusive Education: International Policy & Practice.

Linda Graham is an Associate Professor in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She coordinates Inclusive Education Theory, Policy and Practice, a core unit in the Faculty of Education’s Master of Inclusive Education. She leads QUT’s Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour Research Group (@SELB_QUT) and a number of research projects in the area of inclusive education. She can often be found on Twitter: @drlindagraham

 

Ben Whitburn is a Lecturer of Inclusive Education in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University. Ben draws on critical disability studies, policy sociology, and insider perspectives to research and teach principles of inclusive schooling in theory, policy and teacher practice. He tweets @BenWhitburn

 

Parent-teacher partnerships: poisoned by ‘bad parent’ click bait

onnecThe late January back-to-school ritual has turned ugly. Among the cute little stories about multiple sets of twins beginning school together and the healthy snacks parents can concoct for their child’s lunchbox, is a new form of click-bait that blames parents for coddling their child and turning them into monsters that harried teachers then have to deal with.

One particular piece would have us believe parents feed their children nothing but junk, allow them to stay up to all hours then pass their “already tired” offspring to beleaguered teachers at the end of six weeks of holiday chaos. Mums and dads (but typically mums) then lie in wait for about the first two weeks, at which point they begin to “whinge” about their child’s teacher.

Have you noticed how opinion pieces like this follow a predictable pattern? First come the generalisations, then incitement to outrage, followed by the taking of sides (always the right one) and self-righteous advice gained from the perfect personal experience.

Another example of this type of ‘bad parent’ click bait features a series of rants by anonymous teachers about the horrors of teaching today’s school students. Seriously.

These articles may well do what they have been created to do, act as click-bait, but they are just plain awful when it comes to nurturing parent-teacher relationships in Australia.

They also have a nostalgic air; they present as a short-form journalistic ode to the ‘good ‘ole days’ when children were seen and not heard. Are we supposed to believe that no one parents well these days, even though a large proportion of teachers are also parents?

Evidence shows that today’s parents are probably working harder at parenting than at any time previously. Whilst it is always possible to find examples of neglectful or ineffective parenting (both now and in mythical golden-ages), those parents aren’t helped by contempt directed at them by the media.

And here I will add that teacher staff room gossip about parents should be included in things that are not helpful. Staffroom gossip can also breed an unhealthy feedback cycle that works to build reputations around particular kids and families. The result is that some students never get a fair go.

What’s worse is that it can set up a vicious triangle that works to keep teachers, students and parents at odds. The teacher generally ends up being at the long end of the triangle and it is very difficult to get a positive outcome from there.

What my research tells me

One thing that has come across very loud and clear in the many student interviews I have conducted is that no matter how dysfunctional their family background, children still feel love for their main caregivers.

When asked if there was anything they would change about themselves if they could, one boy replied that he wished that he could turn back time. He wanted to go back to the time before he was taken away from his mum, before she became addicted to drugs and alcohol, before she would lie on the floor in her own blood and vomit.

Children often know when teachers speak and think ill of their families. The resentment towards teachers felt by some of the young people in my research was palpable and many indicated that they reserve their worst behaviour for the teachers they perceive as judging them and their families.

Many teachers will know that one sure-fire method kids use to start a fight in the playground is to call another kid’s mum a “slut”.

But, what doesn’t seem to be as well understood is that the disapproving glances, dismissive air, imperious tone, and short shrift that some teachers give when interacting with parents is picked up by their children.

And it makes those childen angry. It makes them both defensive and protective. It makes them feel inferior. What it doesn’t do is help.

The strongest message that came through these student interviews is that, if forced, kids will back the people they love.

We need to reject the parent versus teacher positioning

That’s what worries me about click-bait that positions parents as inept and teachers as victims. Such articles exacerbate an “us v them” mentality.

It gives licence to hostile teacher behaviours that can affect a whole school’s culture. Over time, the more positive teachers may leave, taking with them the possibility of seeing and doing things differently.

The end result can be a war-zone with rampant bullying and physical aggression between students, complete disrespect for teachers, high absenteeism and very little learning.

Places much like the schools described in one of those articles. But rather than question how these schools became like that or what we can do to fix them, it seems easier or perhaps more entertaining to just blame parents and the ‘monsters’ they’ve produced.

Schools need involved parents

Parents are great advocates and many (mothers in particular) contribute a significant portion of their time to fund-raising for their local school, sitting on P&C committees, and/or supporting teachers in reading groups, going on excursions and donating class supplies.

This occurs much more now than in the good ‘ole days because many schools are critically under-resourced.

Children who have parents who are involved in their schooling, even on a very simple level, can have a much more positive experience. Teachers who get to know parents can find new ways to connect with their students.

For this to occur, we need to acknowledge that productive parent-teacher partnerships benefit all involved: students, parents and teachers.

So, as tempting as it might be, we have to resist the click bait because it won’t help any of us form those partnerships.

GrahambigLinda Graham is Principal Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She is the Lead Chief Investigator of two longitudinal research projects focusing on disruptive behaviour. One examines the experiences of students enrolled in NSW government “behaviour” schools (Australian Research Council DP110103093), and another is tracking the language, learning, experiences, relationships, attitudes and behaviour of 250 QLD prep children through the early years of school (Financial Markets Foundation for Children FMF4C-2013). In 2014, she was elected Editor of the Australian Educational Researcher (AER) and serves as a member of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Executive Committee.

Our obsession with school achievement data is misplaced: we’re measuring the wrong things.

In 2008 Australia began a national assessment program that tests school children in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in reading, writing, spelling and numeracy (NAPLAN). These assessments only really entered the national consciousness in 2010 when the Rudd Government launched the My School website, after assuring concerned stakeholders that it would not be possible to directly compare schools and that we would not go down the path of English league tables.

Tell that to The Australian, which has since launched its own website called Your School. The site promises us that we can use it to compare our “own list of schools” online and provides every other media outlet in Australia with the resources to produce its own set of league tables.

Since 2008 and particularly since 2010 we’ve seen a major change in school practice and the national conversation. We’re all familiar with the story of Queensland where Premier Anna Bligh, shocked by her state’s performance in the first NAPLAN, wrote to parents stating that their children would sit practice tests in the lead up to the 2009 assessment.

I was Sydney at the time and blithely unaware of what was happening in QLD but I remembered it as a bold and progressive state: the home of Productive Pedagogies, New Basics, the Inclusive Education Task Force, and a play-based preparatory year firmly grounded in early childhood philosophy.

Upon returning to Brisbane in 2013, I was stunned by how much had changed. My first indication was when my daughter, who was in Year 9, began coming home every week saying “I @#!& hate Thursdays!”

Thursdayitis was a new one for me, but it didn’t take long for me to discover that Thursday, in Term 1 of Year 9 at her school, is “NAPLAN Turbo Day”, where everyone practised NAPLAN type exercises. Not long after that, you might be interested to know I received a form requesting that I sign off on disability support provisions. This was something I refused to do (not sure how much help another 5 minutes would be when the problem is not knowing the answer). Once NAPLAN was over, normal teaching returned and my daughter celebrated never having to do NAPLAN ever again.

But, nothing has surprised me as much as how NAPLAN and our obsession with student/school performance has changed school for school beginners. Being involved in research that looks at the relationships between school practice and disruptive behaviour, I see daily how an intensive focus on literacy and numeracy actually exacerbates the problems of children who start school with early learning and behavioural difficulties.

Researching the behavioural “Tipping Point”

Before returning to QLD, I had developed a longitudinal project based on what boys in special “behaviour” schools had told me about their formative school experiences. I wanted to understand the process of “hard-baking” that they and their principals described: how early learning and behavioural difficulties develop into severe acting out and full-blown hatred of school.

I wanted to learn how that happened and what contributions were made by school practices. By their own accounts, these 33 boys didn’t come to school already hating it. It was a process of attrition and one to which they say schools contribute.

The fact that the majority of these teenage boys nominated the early years (K-2) as the time when they began disliking school, that they received very little support, and that many had received their first suspension during this period told me that the very beginning of school was where the research needed to start.

The project, which has been seed-funded by the Financial Markets Foundation for Children, commenced in 2014 with 250 QLD prep children. As I was a research fellow and we didn’t have a huge amount of funding, I began spending a lot of time in prep classrooms.

Our research aimed to establish a baseline of what children bring to school so that we could track school liking, learning, language, relationships, attitudes and behaviour over time. This battery of assessments immediately highlighted that there is a very wide range between children, even within the same class.

Whilst we chose similar schools (all in disadvantaged areas of south eastern QLD and all with ICSEA scores one standard deviation below the mean) we had some children scoring well above age equivalence and others well below.

It was also very clear that the children who came to school well behind others were in real danger of remaining that way because their teachers either did not have the time to address the needs across their classroom or because the teacher did not have the skills to correctly identify those needs.

And, from my vantage point, NAPLAN definitely exacerbates this. The pressure to have children up to speed by Year 3 reaches down through the early years of school (even to Kindergarten or Prep) where the focus is heavily skewed towards literacy and numeracy. Of course reading, writing and numeracy are vitally important but our research is finding that some other very important things are being crowded out in the process.

What could be more important than the “3 R’s”?

The most important component of quality learning that is now under threat is time to establish warm and positive teacher-student relationships. The more frantic the classroom, the more focused teachers are on the business of “learning”, the more superficial and fraught the relationships. And this is a problem, particularly for children with early learning and behavioural difficulties for whom those relationships might actually make the difference between engagement and disengagement.

My behaviour school research has taught me that the process of “hard-baking”  is fuelled by resentment. There comes a point where pissed off young people decide that they’re going to get a bit of their own back, regardless of what it might cost them in the long run. Once they reach that stage, it is very hard to turn them around.

Building warm and positive relationships costs nothing in the scheme of things and little actions – regular conversation, a pat on the back, a smile, some extra help and a bit of recognition – could very well save connection to schooling for our most vulnerable students.

As my research teams prepare for the National Summit on Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour being hosted at QUT this week, I have had much cause to think about the central message that I want the Summit to impart.

It’s this: if we have to measure things in order for them to matter, measure student-teacher relationships, school liking and school avoidance.

Find out how students feel about the place where they spend such a large part of their day and the strength of the relationships they have with the second most important adults in their lives.

This is something worth working on but it will never happen if all we measure and if all that counts are ABCs and 123s.

 

GrahambigLinda Graham is Principal Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She is the Lead Chief Investigator of two longitudinal research projects focusing on disruptive behaviour. One examines the experiences of students enrolled in NSW government “behaviour” schools (Australian Research Council DP110103093), and another is tracking the language, learning, experiences, relationships, attitudes and behaviour of 250 QLD prep children through the early years of school (Financial Markets Foundation for Children FMF4C-2013). In 2014, she was elected Editor of the Australian Educational Researcher (AER) and serves as a member of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Executive Committee. The 2 day National Summit on Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour  begins Wednesday 8th of July.

The hit and miss of dealing with disruptive behaviour in schools

Disruptive student behaviour is a major source of stress for Australian teachers and one of the most common reasons teachers cite for leaving the profession. Less discussed, however, is the role that schools play in driving misbehaviour. Whilst there are undoubtedly differences between children in terms of their temperament, ability and willingness to learn, the ways in which teachers choose to respond to those differences has a big impact. That impact can be positive or negative, affecting the child, their teacher and their future teachers.

Negative relationships and the ‘snowball effect’

Research has shown severely disruptive behaviour is affected by a process of “cumulative continuity”, where children’s early characteristics (self-regulation, temperament, academic and verbal ability) interact with their school/classroom environment, resulting in a “snowball effect”. Difficulties adjusting to the demands of school can result in poorer quality teacher-child interactions and mutually reinforcing negative relationships, which in turn compound learning and behavioural difficulties.

Over time, these interactions frame children’s perceptions, expectations and behaviours. Their subsequent teachers however often don’t know what that child’s school experience has been and/or what might be driving their classroom behaviour.

In the pressure cooker that is modern education, that teacher’s guide to action is often the behaviour that has drawn their attention in the first place. With large classes, heavy workloads and diverse classrooms, there is often little time to identify and reflect on deeper causes (called antecedents) in a more holistic way. In many cases, lack of time forces teachers to rely on their perceptions, which may or may not be accurate.

Perceptions about behaviour may be misleading

A common perception is that children’s behaviour affects their learning. This may well be true for some children, but it is equally possible that underlying learning difficulties are manifesting behaviourally. A belief that a child’s behaviour is affecting their learning will lead to an increased focus on behaviour management or perhaps a referral for behaviour support. But if the antecedent is the other way around, or if it is bidirectional (that is, going both ways), then behaviour management won’t address the underlying problem.

Common perceptions about misbehaviour affect how it is addressed in schools. Poor parenting is often blamed for a student’s disruption and non-compliance, a view which obscures factors that are outside parent control. These include (but are not limited to) the appropriateness of curriculum, the pace and level of instruction, peer relationships, teacher-student interactions, classroom climates, learning environments, school culture, and the provision of appropriate and timely supports.

A common consequence of these beliefs is an attempt to manage children’s behaviour by removing them from the classroom. Increasingly, this involves the child being moved into a separate support class or special “behaviour” school, rather than addressing the underlying issues within the setting.

What the kids have to say

According to students enrolled in NSW behaviour schools, their misbehaviour is a reaction to school work that they perceive as too hard, boring and/or irrelevant to their lives. These students – typically boys – are described in the media as  ‘dangerous menaces ‘ who need to be locked up for the safety of themselves and others.

But, when asked what they got in trouble for most at school, the teenage boys in our research named behaviours often classified as ‘persistent disobedience’ rather than physical aggression, such as talking out of turn, backchatting, not doing their work, not raising their hands, and swearing.

These findings resonate with the Behaviour at School Study (BASS) which has found that low-level disruptive and disengaged student behaviours occur frequently, and that aggressive behaviours occur infrequently.

The problem is that teachers find these low-level behaviours extremely draining. While most school students engage in such behaviours at some point, some students – like those in our research – do so more frequently. This tends not to be deliberate, not in the early years at least.

But, if these children are left unsupported and then punished when they fail, these behaviours can become very deliberate indeed. The trick is to correctly identify the source of the behaviour and to respond in a way that neutralises the antecedent, rather than seeking only to neutralise the behaviour. So, what is one of the most common causes of disruptive behaviour?

Misbehaviour as compensation for academic success

The boys in our research reported much greater academic difficulties than their age peers and would resort to misbehaviour to compensate or conceal these difficulties. For example, many said they would “walk out of class” or not turn up in the first place because they found the work too boring or too hard. In some cases, frustration with schoolwork would precipitate swearing, followed by an altercation with the teacher and the student leaving the room or refusing to do their work. Twelve-year-old Owen, for example, explained that he mainly got in trouble for swearing but then went on to explain when and why he swore:

I just didn’t want to do my work, so I swore: “F–K this! I’m leaving the classroom.”

Stories such as these seldom receive an empathetic response in the public comments that are made about school behaviour. This is because the challenges facing these students are typically oversimplified and often misunderstood.

It is important to note here that the students in this study had a history of severe language and learning difficulties that had remained unaddressed for much of their school lives. For example, there were three brothers in our study; one 14 year old and 11 year old twins. Their receptive vocabulary was equivalent to that of children aged 10, 8 and 7 years respectively. They scored even lower in expressive vocabulary with age equivalent scores of 8, 7 and 7 years. Imagine trying to engage with the Year 9 or Year 6 academic school curriculum under those circumstances?

The boys’ mother – who was actively engaged in trying to help her sons and who had a good relationship with their school – reported that they had not received any speech/language therapy or other targeted academic support since Reading Recovery in Grade 1. The resourcing simply isn’t available.

Many of the boys in our study faced similar challenges and reported feeling immense frustration because they felt they were being forced to do work that they couldn’t do. One boy reported that he was sent to the behaviour school in Year 6 when his primary school finally figured out that he couldn’t read and that he wasn’t just going to “get used to it”. Another stated that he was hoping that he could be a truck driver when he left the behaviour school because he could now read street signs. He was 15.

Many of these boys felt misunderstood by their teachers. Rightly or wrongly, these students felt that their teachers just didn’t like them. Most could recall at least one teacher who was kind, who they felt understood them and who could help them learn, but for these boys those teachers were an exception.

The good news is that the cracks in the system through which these students have fallen can be addressed. But, to achieve this, teachers need time and support to trial new strategies, modify curriculum and adjust their practice. And it’s not all about behaviour management.

Relationships & quality teaching

In another study that has been designed to longitudinally observe factors contributing to “cumulative continuity” in a sample of 250 Queensland prep year children, we found that teachers are generally well organised and have strong behaviour management skills. We also found that they are generally emotionally supportive. However, not all were equipped in the area of instructional support.

This is important, because classrooms that were lower in instructional support were also associated with higher teacher-ratings of child behaviour problems and with higher child-ratings of school avoidance. Alternatively, classrooms with high emotional support were associated with closer teacher-child relationships (as rated by both teachers and children) and lower teacher-student conflict. Interestingly, behaviour management did not predict student outcomes in any of our models.

These findings suggest that the common “go-to” response of more and better behaviour management may not be what is needed: perhaps because the majority of teachers are already quite competent in this area. Rather than more professional development on proximity techniques, seating plans, or gimmicks like Class Dojo (an electronic equivalent of reward charts), we need to start looking at ways to address the emotional and learning needs of students who are acting out.

Only techniques which address the underlying issues that are causing behaviour problems will be successful.

Band-aid solutions which attempt to remove children or “fix” only the symptoms will simply create a generation of disengaged students who will leave school early with few of the skills they need in a modern economy.

These children aren’t hard to spot, even when they are very young. But, for some reason, they seem very easy to miss.

 

Linda GrahamLinda Graham is Principal Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She is the Lead Chief Investigator of two longitudinal research projects focusing on disruptive behaviour. One examines the experiences of students enrolled in NSW government “behaviour” schools (Australian Research Council DP110103093), and another is tracking the language, learning, experiences, relationships, attitudes and behaviour of 250 QLD prep children through the early years of school (Financial Markets Foundation for Children FMF4C-2013). In 2014, she was elected Editor of the Australian Educational Researcher (AER) and serves as a member of the Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) Executive Committee.

Cologon copyKathy Cologon is a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Early Childhood, Macquarie University. Her research focuses on the development of effective approaches to supporting inclusive education and social inclusion with a view towards greater recognition of the rights of all children. Kathy’s book “Inclusive education in the early years: Right from the start” was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.

 

 

Sweller copyNaomi Sweller is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology, Macquarie University. Her research interests focus on cognitive development, primarily with children in the prior to school and early primary school years. Her main areas of research involve the use of gesture as an instructional and communicative tool, as well as concept learning by preschool-aged children.

 

 

Van Bergen copyPenny Van Bergen is a Senior Lecturer in Educational Psychology in the School of Education, Macquarie University. Her research focuses on the development of children’s autobiographical memories and on the implications of these memories for emotion and self development. Her projects include examinations of: (i) school children’s recall of salient emotional events, such as schoolyard conflicts; (ii) the ways in which children’s socio-emotional skills, such as emotion understanding and perspective-taking ability, interact with memory systems; and (iii) the ways in which parent- and teacher-talk foster specific styles of remembering the past.

 

Walker copySue Walker is a Professor in the School of Early Childhood, Faculty of Education, QUT and a Researcher within the Children and Youth Research Centre at the Queensland University of Technology. Dr Walker is also a senior researcher with the Excellence in Research in Early Years Education Collaborative Research Network (EREYE CRN) with Charles Sturt University and Monash University and a key researcher in the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Living with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Her teaching and research interests include epistemic beliefs and teachers’ practice; early childhood social development; child outcomes in relation to inclusive early childhood education programs; early intervention and the transition to school.

 

2015 National Summit on Student Engagement, Learning & Behaviour.

Keynote speakers are Maxine McKew, Dr Andrew Martin (student motivation & achievement), Prof John Smyth (pedagogy & engagement in disadvantaged schools), and Dave Burgess (popular TEDx speaker from the US & teacher magician). 

Early bird registration of $145 ends June 15. Standard registration is $195.  Registration is all inclusive.

Lay off blaming new teachers for ‘falling’ standards

Public discussion on teacher education has reached a depressing new low. A casual flick through current commentary gives the impression that teacher education is stuffed. Faculties of education in universities are populated by leftist oldies who haven’t been near a classroom in decades, teacher education courses are too easy to get into, many students who do get in are doing it as a last choice course, student teachers don’t get enough experience in schools before they graduate, and not enough schools have partnerships with universities. I could go on.

If you listen to the pundits you would believe universities have taken no notice of the many and varied changes in teacher education requirements in recent years. As an education researcher, who observes her hard-working colleagues in teacher education jumping multiple accreditation hoops, I have to tell you it is patently untrue.

Whilst I am not a teacher educator, I’m entering this debate to challenge these myths, point to the political function that I think they serve, as well as to say something in defence of early career teachers.

The focus on teacher quality is a political distraction

Following years of hand-wringing over the association between social disadvantage and student performance in national and international assessments, Australia finally seemed ready to give all children the support they need to excel at school. The Gillard government’s focus on equity led to the, now ailing, Gonski model of needs-based school funding and focused attention on the quality of teaching in our schools.

However, even before the change of federal government, ‘quality teaching’ morphed into the odious mantra of ‘teacher quality’. When the Liberal National Coalition gained government, rather than implementing initiatives to support and develop existing teachers so they could continue to improve the quality of their teaching, it concentrated on blaming universities for the perceived ‘problems’ with literacy and numeracy standards in schools.

Preservice and early career teachers became framed as an amorphous group characterised by low ATARs, poor literacy, and hapless classroom management. They are all probably infected by an unhealthy level of left-leaning bias as well, but I may be reading too much into the general rubbish that is written about education by people who don’t teach and who aren’t experts in education research.

Where is the evidence that new teachers are responsible for a decline in student achievement?

The fevered commentariat don’t seem to need much evidence to spruik their views these days but surely you must have wondered. I have not read anywhere, or heard anyone refer to hard evidence for such an outrageous, but apparently so easily believable, claim.

And very little is being said in defence of new teachers, despite this lack of evidence. Media articles such as “Bad teachers to go under huge changes to teaching degrees” fuel the perception that all the ‘bad’ teachers are new entrants and that all the existing ones are great. The silence around this reeks of complicity. Practising teachers should be loudly speaking out in defence of new teachers.

There is also an assumption that time on the job results in proficiency. I’m not so sure about that.

The less attractive teaching becomes as a career choice the bigger the problem we will have

Thankfully some stakeholders are starting to think about this. Greg Craven, Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, one of the biggest producers of teaching graduates, recently pointed to a 12% drop in teacher education applications as evidence of students being scared away by “teacher bashing”. Craven warns of a looming teacher shortage as a result of “talking down the teaching profession”.

Putting aside potential conflicts of interest, Craven has a point. According to recent projections from the Australian Council for Educational Research, “demand for teachers is currently strong and trending upwards, and is forecast to remain high in most states for at least the next ten years”. Should university fee deregulation become a reality, we may see teaching applications plummet as prospective students weigh the costs, both financial and professional.

Juxtaposing conjecture with observed reality

I felt compelled to write this piece after conducting classroom observations as part of a longitudinal study that is tracking the language, learning, attitudes, relationships and behaviour of 250 prep children in southwest Brisbane through the early years of school. The project has been seed-funded by the Financial Markets Foundation for Children and is now in its second year.

During these observations, we visit classrooms and record interactions between teachers and students. Whilst training two of our research assistants to use the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (or CLASS), I was blown away by one of the teachers we were observing. In the first 20 minute cycle we saw not one but two seamless transitions (changing from one activity to another) in a highly-diverse, low-SES prep classroom. This was not an easy class judging by the data collected via our child measures, but this teacher made it look easy.

There were no disruptions and children were falling over themselves to be involved in the activities their teacher was presenting. She seemed to know where every child was in that space and what they were doing; what’s more she seemed to understand that some children needed to move in and out of the activity and would gently but firmly guide them back in once they’d had a few seconds to chill.

This teacher was so engaged in her teaching she was oblivious to us even being there. Every time that we passed through her class, whether we were formally observing or whether we were collecting children for assessment, this teacher was always ‘on’. Her concentration never wavered; there was no down time. She was always prepared, moving from one learning activity to the next quickly enough to prevent the experience from going stale, but slowly enough to ensure that each child benefitted from it.

When I got the chance I asked her how long she’d been teaching and she told me this was her third year out. I was impressed. After much reflection I included the question “How long have you been teaching?” in our teacher interview schedule. Whilst our results are preliminary and based on only 18 prep teachers, I was fascinated to discover an interesting pattern during our preliminary analyses. When we ranked mean scores on the CLASS measure (by three certified observers, all trained to reliability) and matched these against years of teaching experience, we found that the three highest mean scores (in each of the 3 CLASS domains: Emotional Support, Classroom Organisation, and Instructional Support) were achieved by three early career teachers (1-3 years out).

The next two highest-scoring teachers had each been teaching for more than 30 years, however, the differences between the mean scores of these five teachers and others were not insubstantial. The early career teachers, in particular, consistently scored in the high or high-mid range (4.75 to 7.0) across all three CLASS domains, whilst the mean for the full sample was low to high-mid range (3.90-5.80).

This is important because regression analyses using the full dataset show that higher CLASS scores are associated with higher teacher ratings of relationship closeness, whereas lower CLASS scores are associated with higher teacher-student conflict, higher teacher-ratings of child behaviour problems, and with higher child-rated school avoidance.

By the end of this year we will have data from another 18 (Grade 1) teachers and I will be interested to see if this pattern bears out. Even if it doesn’t, in our first year of observations and despite a small sample, we’ve come across three outstanding early career teachers who are teaching in disadvantaged primary schools and who are doing it exceptionally well.

The Grattan Institute’s Ben Jensen joined the chorus recently by claiming that high-performing early career teachers “are excellent in spite of their teacher training, not because of it”, and that the failure of teacher education programs to prepare graduates for the classroom is largely responsible for teacher attrition and student failure.

Again, a claim with no evidence. I found myself thinking about the schools where our brilliant early career teachers teach. Perhaps their schools have exceptional induction and mentoring programs that ameliorate the “failures” of teacher education programs. That is definitely something that we’ll consider as we go forward with our research but, judging by research with early career teachers, exceptional induction and mentoring programs are not readily available.

Incidentally, the highest scoring teacher in our study is a young man in his first year out of teaching, which doesn’t provide a lot of time to benefit from such programs should they exist in his school. To be honest, I can’t imagine what he thinks or how he feels or indeed how any of our early career teachers feel when they hear what is being said in the current debate. No wonder new teachers become jaded and leave.

My point is don’t believe everything you read about how universities today are failing to produce high performing teachers, or be distracted by political spin from the real issue of equitable school funding. Dumping on our early career teachers, our student teachers and, in turn, their university teachers will solve nothing.

 

 Linda GrahamAssociate Professor Linda J. Graham is Principal Research Fellow in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology, Editor of the Australian Educational Researcher (AER), and a member of the AARE Executive Committee. She is grateful to have received funding for this research from the Financial Markets Foundation for Children (2013-030) with Dr Kathy Cologon (MQ) and Professor Sue Walker (QUT). This research will be presented at the upcoming National Summit on Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour which will be hosted by QUT on the 8th and 9th of July, 2015.