Not the only way to teach Indigenous students

* From the National Indigenous Times

A key challenge in Indigenous leadership is to lead honourably in a way that sees us rise to be considered among the best, rather than engage in dishonourable processes attempting to pull others down. The educational futures of Indigenous children are much too precious to be sullied by dishonourable behaviour and processes.

Recently Noel Pearson became excited by the work of John Hattie, a noted statistician and education researcher who analysed and provided a statistical value to the effectiveness of a broad range of facets existing in a teaching and learning environment. What excited Pearson about Hattie’s analyses was the statistically low value effect afforded to the facet of ‘positive view of own ethnicity’ and its impact on learning. For Pearson, Hattie had administered an “intellectual slapping”, and like the good lawyer he is, he thought this was the smoking gun that refuted all the work of the Stronger Smarter philosophy.

Such thinking exposes the flaws of legal type thinking in an education type space. Legal type thinking decides what the solution is and cherry picks evidence to support this assertion, while at the same time doing the same to shoot down alternative and potentially much better points of view. It also exposes an exceptionally limited understanding of the Stronger Smarter philosophy which is shared and applied by many of Australia’s leading educators in schools today. Stronger Smarter is also an emancipatory philosophy appeasing many Indigenous Australians at a time when they are actively seeking more honourable alternatives to draconian school, welfare and Indigenous policy reform.

To point out the obvious here, the Stronger Smarter philosophy cannot be disingenuously reduced to just one facet of learning – that of a positive view of one’s ethnicity. It is an approach about entire school cultures and community engagement processes in which we set out to embrace a positive sense of identity, positive community leadership and ensure high expectations leadership with high expectations teacher-student relationships. Hattie’s work places the impact of high expectations at number 1 in terms of the most effective facets of teaching and learning and it is pleasing to have the most fundamental aspect of the stronger smarter philosophy endorsed empirically by such an eminent education researcher.

If Pearson is serious about having his views seen as worthy in reputable education dialogue, his energies are best spent on highlighting what is good about Engelmann’s Direct Instruction as this will require some effort. Hattie gives a dramatically negative rating to the impact of welfare reform, a fundamental aspect of Pearson’s reform agenda. To be fair, and not wanting to cherry pick the data, Hattie does rate positively the effectiveness of Direct Instruction.

It is vital for everyone to understand the difference between what I call conventional Direct Instruction, and Siegfried Engelmann’s Direct Instruction. Engelmann’s DI claims to be scientific as it rests upon the outmoded behaviourism of B.F. Skinner, an approach buried by Chomsky in his review of verbal behaviour in way back in 1967.

Pearson is a zealous promoter of Engelmann’s exclusive commercial product. This is a highly restricted and scripted teaching program. With Engelmann’s DI, what is important is not the role of the teacher but the designing and packaging of the material that the teacher is expected to deliver in a prescribed order. It stifles every teacher’s professional autonomy, and the teaching and learning relationship, when the McKinsey 2011report on quality schooling shows that great education systems require teachers who are autonomous professionals who enjoy a life of the mind.

Counter to this, Engelmann’s DI can see the teacher running to the prescribed script in which they must say something like “This is a wolf. What is it?’ Forget for a moment the fact that there are very few wolves in Cape York. If a child says ‘Miss can we write a story about a wolf?’ the teacher is likely to ignore them because that dialogue is not in the script they are required to follow.

Englemann’s work is highly controversial but Pearson is adamant that it is the ‘magic bullet’. Indeed in his 2009 Quarterly essay, Radical Hope: Education and Equality in Australia, Pearson, on page 102, goes as far as to claim that Engelmann’s DI is the solution to problems such as the crime and imprisonment rates of Afro Americans and even the problem of children born out of wedlock to teenage black mothers. For Pearson the magical qualities of this commercial version of DI are such that it is the one true method. On page 44 he asserts that any alternative methods are not only ineffective, simply to advocate them is somehow to betray the poor and condemn them to a life of disadvantage.

On page 45 Pearson bizarrely tries to convince us that Engelmann DI is the only scientific theory of instruction in the entire history of education. Readers might be forgiven for thinking that if DI is the magic bullet, and only one true and scientific method, why then weren’t they exposed to it? How come they survived and learned to read? Are their teenage daughters in danger of becoming pregnant? If it is so good then why is it not applied in quality schools where parents are empowered enough to demand it as the magic bullet, or reject it as a pedagogical approach that can only ever produce education outcomes that enable its students to emerge as domestics or farmhands?

For an honourable dialogue here we must step back from the controversy and smoke and mirrors of this DI. The data will of course show some improvement and this should not surprise us. In any circumstance where there is substantial financial investment and interest in a particular area the data will always shift. The challenge here will be to explain why we should continue with such financially exorbitant approaches like Engelmann’s DI, while other stronger smarter Indigenous schools are returning comparable or better academic and attendance data at an absolute fraction of the cost, and a much more substantial investment in more honourable high expectations relationships with students and communities.

Clearly this will be difficult as Engelmann DI advocates are not like most quality educators. They are zealots convinced they have the one true faith and the rest of us are heretics. That is why throughout his Quarterly essay, Pearson tells us his “viscera are churning” at the thought of those who will not see the light and who thus oppose him. For effective and innovative policy reform we must all be inspired and influenced to believe and think differently, not intimidated or bullied to believe my way ‘or else!’. It is impossible to reason with zealots, as Obama will find despite the release of his birth certificate. “Birthers” will simply denounce it as forgery and go right on believing he is not American. Similarly all the evidence in the world will not convince the Engelmann DI folk there is no such thing as one true method.

Most reputable educators are in very firm agreement that conventional DI with explicit teacher directed learning, does indeed have a vital place in reputable classrooms. Most reputable educators also readily dismiss Engelmann’s DI in any high expectations teaching and learning environment. Indeed, it is often regarded as an approach offensive to students as it assumes they can only learn from a script, and offensive to educators, as it assumes they can only teach using a script; all of which are prescribed by some old guy in the US. This denies teachers and learners of the true magic that can exist in quality teacher/student relationships.

The wider Australian public should be reminded that before Pearson had heard of Engelmann, he was persuaded to believe the magic bullet was the Israeli Literacy Scheme (YACHAD Accelerated Leaning Project). It too was inflicted on the children of Aurukun. Millions of dollars later the scheme which had been developed to improve the literacy of Ethiopian children in Israel was found to be unsuitable for Aurukun. Pearson then was persuaded to believe in MultiLit as the magic bullet. He also believed Djarragun College, currently under investigation, was an exceptionally run school.
Against my better judgement I felt coerced into offering my perspectives on Engelmann’s DI. It is not how I work conventionally, however on this occasion, passive disengagement and failure to challenge such unfounded criticism would be collusion with mediocrity. Having articulated my views here I have no intention of diminishing the efforts of hundreds of stronger smarter educators in schools and communities throughout Australia by pretending both approaches should somehow exist in the same conversation.

As I said earlier, the educational future of Indigenous children is far too precious to be influenced by spurious claims with dishonourable and disingenuous behaviour. It must be led by the best educators, receptive to alternative perspectives, with an absolute commitment to the pursuit of nothing but excellence for Indigenous children and the promise of a stronger smarter future.

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12 Responses

  1. Great piece Chris, one of your absolute best!

  2. I like the Stronger Smarter philosophy. In addition to all that has been said above, it gets at the heart of the matter – that Indigenous Australians get a really bad turn in this country and there always seems to be some reason as to why it is ok or acceptable. The Stronger Smarter philosophy challenges me therefore to keep a check on the deep-seated cultural programming that encourages me to expect less of Indigenous students. It also gives me a reference point to use when explaining to nay sayer educators that I am not prepared to expect less either. It takes courage, as you have said elsewhere, but I can only see positive outcomes for Indigenous students with this formula.

  3. Hey thanks Heidi.. and thanks.. Natalie.. I really appreciate your positive response.

    The one thing I try to get through to a lot of people.. is we can do this!

    When you consider the number of Indigenous children in Australia.. It is not actually a big number. This really is a bite size chunk that we as teachers can rip into. Sometimes the data can make it seem far more complex than it is.. but with lots of hard work; a belief in Indigenous children and disadvantaged children as potential high calibre learners; and finally a belief in ourselves as teachers with the capacity to really ‘connect’ with students… We can do this!!

    Thanks again… cs

  4. Hi Chris – I would have thought it obvious to most people by now that no one-size fits all idea will ever by itself work. I say this having used the DI books myself (with considerable creative adaption suing digital voice recorders etc) with great success with learning support and indigenous students at Tullawong. The scaffolding and support the approach can provide can work if there is also local adaption allowed and good relationships/ respect with students. But no, its far from the only answer.

  5. Hey Jonathon.. thanks for weighing into the discussion.. great to hear from you again and hope all is going well with your work in schools. As you pointed out, there certainly is a place for conventional direct instruction, which is about teacher teaching directly, checking for learning and understanding, then reteaching if necessary, or moving on to the next increment of learning if there is mastery.. If we only stick to direct instruction then we inhibit our ability to be excellent and exciting in the teaching and learning space. DI will always deiliver some small change.. but only in an environment where we are content with mediocrity. As educators we must be in the pursuit of excellence for all children, regardless of where they are located. Thanks again mate… all the best…cs

  6. Hi Chris, just wanted to share that it is a fantastic article and so refreshing and encouraging to know that we can produce long term sustainable outcomes through believing in ourselves and learning in a way where we can explore subjects and draw our own conclusions through our own thinking and not through things being forced onto us.

  7. You really don’t know what you are talking about. I have used these engelmann programs for years. they work when nothing else will. you do at risk students such a disservice. find another career. judy hintz, director of educational resource associates in des moines iowa USA

  8. Thanks for your response to my entry some time ago, Dr Sarra. I use this site, along with other interactive technologies, as a means for students to engage actively in conversations that are underway in class and also Australia. One of the questions raised by students this week in class, basically, was ‘why does he bother?’. We were working through the difference between emphathy and sympathy when relating to peoples of different cultures in relation to a DVD about crossing lines. Not wanting to dictate the course of the discussion, and allowing time for thinking, one of my students thoughtfully started up conversation by saying that they really liked this blog because they wanted to learn more about relating to Aboriginal people and that they didn’t feel afraid to want that. We talked about what the blog entry might mean for non-Indigenous people (given you are an Aboriginal man), and they thought you seemed like a very kind man – for not making them feel guilty about what happened in the past and therefore giving them a space to sort out how they felt about things. So I say thanks – and I am sure my class will do so in time. We are all at risk of missing chances to talk, thouhgtfully, about our fears of doing things differently.

  9. Hey Heidi .. I really enjoyed reading about the very rich conversations going on in your classrooms. It would be great to skype in and say g’day to your students sometime. Very happy to do this if you think it might be of some use… cs

  10. W.O.W. That would be fantastic! Let me have a think about how to achieve the most from your offer in the teaching plan. Many thanks. Heidi

  11. Thanks for your response.. when this approach is considered good enough in the best private schools, then I might be prepared to look at it a bit more closely. I am not into a two tiered view of quality education.

  12. I think your views are very typical of those who don’t fully understand the notion of what DI does. It teaches kids to READ when nothing else HAS. You use the word ‘limiting’ – how limiting is it to go through life being unable to READ?? And the ‘stifle creativity’ bit..spare me puhlease….I’ve watched creative teachers who’ve taught the kids zilch…but they all had a lovely creative time indeed….
    Not a great article at all sorry.

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