Saturday, 28 December 2013

Education – what makes for “good hands”?

In response to the article in "The Age" December 28, 2013: Your schoolkids are in good hands

I find the debate about education practice and standards to be a particularly fraught and frustrating one, and expect to have more to say about this in coming posts. However, given that that this article was published in The Age today, and coincides with my foray into the Blogosphere, I thought some comment was warranted.

I doubt that many in our community would regard teachers as a malevolent lot who want to see our children under-achieve and be sentenced to a lifetime of social and economic marginalisation as a result of poor educational outcomes. I certainly don’t. The teachers who I have come into contact with, both personally and professionally* are almost without exception, enthusiastic and motivated. Some work with particularly challenging and disadvantaged populations and give of themselves in countless ways above and beyond the call of duty.

However, as my late mother used to say (when one of us was arguing for leniency on the grounds that we meant to do better), “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. So – what bothers me most about today’s article? Well firstly, the fact that the author does nothing to address her own opening assertion “Statistics don't lie. There has been a decline in Australia's education results”, and secondly, the common, but flawed, privileging of ideology over science (“I know that each teacher possesses their own beliefs”). In healthcare (preventative and clinical) we rightly have a community expectation that policy makers and practitioners will access, critically appraise, and apply empirical evidence. Further, when there is sufficient evidence that practice should change, clinical guidelines are adapted, and it is expected (by academics, by hospital administrators, by government health departments, and by us, the patients) that practice will change. The same does not apply in education, unfortunately, where scientific evidence has not gained the seat at the head of the table it deserves. Why might this be so?  

In order to ensure that health evidence is translated into practice, we equip undergraduate health professionals with theory and practical skills in research methods. And when these graduates become practitioners, we expect them to carry out their practice in accordance with evidence-based guidelines and principles  - not according to their belief systems. Sure, there are plenty of areas in medicine in which such principles and guidelines are lacking, and that makes for spirited debate. However when it comes to early reading instruction, the jury is no longer out, and the time for ideological debate (if indeed such a time ever existed) has passed. We know what works, given the fundamental role of underlying oral language (psycholinguistic) competencies in phonological and phonemic awareness, vocabulary development, narrative skills, and syntactic use and understanding (see Professor Maggie Snowling’s joint British Academy/British Psychological Society Lecture held at the British Academy in London in September, 2013). What we don’t know (yet) is how to overcome an impasse that sees reading instruction conceptualised not as a topic of scientific enquiry, but as a debate on which stakeholders can position themselves one side or the other of a falsely constructed ideological divide.  

Occasionally medical practitioners assert a right to practice medicine according to their “beliefs” and we have near-riots in the streets. The work of teachers, is, in my opinion, no less important for the health of the nation in which they work, than the work of medical practitioners. So we need to take steps to bring education and evidence-based practice into closer proximity to each other. This of course won’t happen overnight, and will require good will and curriculum re-builds of pre-service education. However if the Industry Skills Council of Australia’s 2011 report “No More Excuses” is any indication, we can’t afford to ignore the evidence confronting us all about declining education standards and the long socio-economic shadow this casts across the life-span. 

Children with poor language and literacy skills grow into adolescents with poor language and literacy skills, who, you guessed it, grow into adults with poor language and literacy skills. By adulthood though, the casualties of poor education outcomes are camouflaged by their engagement with social services, public housing, and mental health services. It’s very difficult (and even more expensive) to back-fill educational foundations in later life, and makes so much more sense just to get it right when the developmental window is open in the early school years.

So - just as in healthcare, "good hands"  are connected not only to good hearts, but to good minds, and are guided by good principles, based on good research, published in good, peer-reviewed journals.

*From 2006-13, I was Course Coordinator of a teaching Graduate Diploma, and so worked with teachers as “students”.

(c) Pamela Snow 2013

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