Friday, 1 September 2023

Balanced literacy and New Zealand’s opportunity to re-write reading instruction history.


This week, I was privileged to speak alongside Emily Hanford (American Public Media; Sold a Story) and Associate Professor Lorraine Hammond, AM (Edith Cowan University)  at the inaugural Cultivating the Literacy Landscape symposia in New Zealand (NZ); one in Christchurch, the other in Auckland. These events were auspiced by the NZ NGO, Learning Matters, under the outstanding leadership of Founder and Managing Director, Carla McNeil. Carla is a former teacher and school principal, as well as being the parent of a young adult who experienced significant learning challenges. She is well-qualified therefore, to comment on the literacy landscape in her homeland.

Readers of this blog and subscribers to the Sold a Story podcast will be well aware that New Zealand has played a key role since the 1970s in ensuring the stronghold of whole language (more latterly, balanced literacy) instruction and support, both in initial teacher education and in school policy and practice, through the influential work, nationally and internationally, of the late Dame Marie Clay.

In an unfortunate but not uncommon case of national cognitive dissonance, NZ’s literacy rates in recent decades do not provide a basis for celebrating Clay’s legacy. To be clear, Australia’s performance with respect to literacy achievement is also nothing to crow about (see also here), with students from disadvantaged backgrounds carrying an unfair burden associated with high-variance teaching. This high-variance, in turn, derives from a stubborn reluctance by higher education providers to end their romantic devotion to balanced literacy and commit to changing the knowledge and skills that undergraduate teaching students receive in exchange for a higher education debt. I have blogged previously about the resistance of higher education providers to engaging with evidence, and the glacial rate of change in that sector as a consequence.

After more than two decades, there’s an inconvenient truth, however, for education faculties and policy makers to face:

Balanced literacy has been an ill-conceived, poorly designed, inadequately monitored, and hence unethical, social experiment.

We would all baulk at revelations of hospitals going rogue in their treatment of child patients, and each taking their own approach to diagnostic assessments and interventions. In rare cases where substandard care does occur, there is community outrage and public naming and shaming of hospitals, if not individual staff. This level of accountability does not apply in education. If education academics want to truly endow education with the status of an esteemed profession, then preparing graduates to be evidence-based and accountable practitioners would be an excellent place to start.

Sadly, in many western, industrialised nations, low respect for the rights and needs of children has enabled vital education protections and checks to be eroded, in favour of the rights of adults to indulge their own ideas and preferences with respect to classroom practice.

Balanced literacy has been the perfect Petrie dish for cultivating eclecticism in reading instruction. It asks next to nothing of education academics in terms of understanding decades of cognitive psychology research on the nature of the reading process and sharing this with the next generation of classroom teachers. Education academics in turn, have exploited this freedom by busying themselves with their own preferred patches of garden, in authentic children’s literature, digital literacy, critical literacy, multi-literacies, and so on.  Teaching reading, however, must be about the time-sensitive needs of children, not the aesthetic preferences and ideologies of adults.

In my keynote presentation at the NZ symposia, I suggested that it’s time for us to have a conversation (some “hard words” perhaps) with balanced literacy and in so doing, engage in some awkward fact-checking.

Here’s a potted summary of what I argued that education academics and policy makers need to come to grips with, as a matter of urgency:

Awkward reality

Implications, fall-out, and discussion points

Putting adjectives in front of the word “literacy” is not an acceptable substitute for teaching children how to read.

Reading is a verb, and literacy is a noun. That means it is something that children need to be able to do. It is not a vague and abstract concept that can have countless adjectives casually placed in front of it (digital, critical, legal, health, maths, etc) to appease the interests of adults. If students can read, write, and spell, there is every chance that they can develop and display multiple forms of literacy. It does not work the other way.

Balanced literacy needs to wipe the Vaseline off its lens and address the fact that children need to be able to read before they can become literate.

Reading is a biologically secondary (“unnatural”) thing for humans to do.

Humans have had oral language skills for approximately 200K years but writing systems for only 3-5K years. Reading and writing are social contrivances that happen to carry much currency in contemporary industrialised nations.

As numerous cognitive psychologists have noted (e.g., Harvard’s Steven Pinker), we have a language brain, not a reading brain. We can acquire a reading brain, but most of us need exposure to high quality instruction in the early years of school in order to do so. Many other biologically secondary skills also need to be developed in the context of school.

Balanced literacy does not have a plan for explicitly and systematically teaching the life-changing skills of reading and writing to all children, regardless of their starting point. The fact that some children get across the bridge from oral language to reading and writing proficiency via balanced literacy does not justify its use as a population-level reading instruction approach.

English has one of the most complex alphabetic writing systems in the world

English has a history of rich borrowings of vocabulary, spellings, and sentence structure from other languages. This reflects centuries of invasions, trade patterns, religious influences, inter-marrying of royal houses, and even the Black Death.

Spelling is not “the problem” in English; the extent to which pronunciation is free to shift around is the culprit. Spelling changes slowly, where pronunciation can differ between two members of the same household. Spellings in turn, reflect their ancestral roots, or etymologies, but teachers rarely learn about this in their pre-service education.

Balanced literacy has dealt with the rich and complex history of English by ignoring it. It’s been a case of “if you don’t understand it, don’t vote for it”.

Teachers need to be knowledgeable about how their writing system works.

This point is related to the one above. When I go into a school, I want to find that the staff who are the most knowledgeable and confident about what reading is, how to teach it, how to monitor progress, how to intervene for struggling students are….you guessed it….. teachers. Sadly, this is often not the case.

There is a raft of international evidence indicating low levels of teacher knowledge of critical language constructs that underpin reading instruction  (see references on this page).

Explicit knowledge about how their writing system works is the precious family china that has been systematically eroded from teachers’ possession in recent decades. Balanced literacy, by definition, is not in a position to reinstate this china; when teachers do re-claim it, however, they are encouraged to use their best china every day, for all students, not just those who are struggling. 

Reading is a language-based task, but strong oral language skills are not enough.

This relates to the fact that oral language is a biologically primary skill-set and reading, writing, and spelling are biologically secondary, and so need to be taught (and taught well).

We want all children to arrive at school with well-developed oral language skills, expressively and receptively, across vocabulary, sentence structure and morphology, discourse, inferential language, and so forth.

Balanced literacy wants to leverage this to create an illusion of early reading fluency through children’s recitation of predictable texts, instead of giving children early code mastery so they can foster their ongoing oral language skills through the endless well of opportunities afforded by timely reading proficiency.

We should be successfully teaching 95% of children to read, not 60-70%.

This is a point made by a number of reading scientists, including Dr Kerry Hempenstall in this 2013 academic paper. When reading is taught effectively and efficiently at Tier 1, achievement levels of the whole class go up, and fewer students need to draw on the precious few intervention resources that can be mobilised to support them if they fall behind. This is what Response to Intervention is all about. RTI, in turn, sits within the broader Multi Tiered Systems of Support framework, as synthesised by Dr Kate de Bruin and colleagues in a recent AERO publication, Supporting students significantly behind in literacy and numeracy.

Nancy Young's Ladder of Reading and Writing is a helpful infographic for illustrating just how few children achieve success with minimally guided reading instruction. 

Balanced literacy is not compatible with RTI and MTSS, as they require evidence-based explicit teaching, with robust progress monitoring (i.e., not Running Records) and intervention (i.e., not Reading Recovery).

No child should ever have to recover from their initial reading instruction.

It takes four times as many resources to resolve a literacy problem by Year 4 than it would have taken in Year 1.

This point has also been made by a number of reading scientists, including by Dr Kerry Hempenstall in the paper linked to above. If by year 4, the multiplier is 4, what does it balloon to in Year 7, or Year 10? How do we choose between psychological supports for the emotional and behavioural sequelae of academic struggle on the one hand, and intervention supports targeting weak reading subskills on the other?

Why would we teach reading in ways that are known to promote high rates of failure? This is unconscionable in 2023.

There is no scientific evidence that supports balanced literacy and its key elements as a preferred reading instruction approach.

This is probably the most extraordinary “achievement” of those who promote balanced literacy. In spite of the fact that balanced literacy has not been shown through rigorous, empirical research to be the optimal way to produce reading success at a population level, it has been assigned and allowed to retain “untouchable” status.

In Australia, the community is protected against rogue health practitioners who want to introduce new medicines and devices through the oversight of the Therapeutic Goods Administration. In the US the Food and Drug Administration fulfils this role.

Where is the regulatory authority that protects children from non-evidence-based approaches to reading instruction? How are universities held to account for perpetuating these, year in, year out, in initial teacher education degrees (and charging for the privilege)?   

It is not the job of parents to teach children to read, write and spell.

This is a pernicious and damaging spin designed to shift responsibility from the education sector to the home. I have blogged in detail about this here. Suffice to say, we want parents to read to their children and support their language and literacy development wherever they can, if they can.

Reading to children doesn't turn them into readers however, any more than playing classical music to them turns them into pianists.

Balanced literacy has de-professionalised teachers by abdicating responsibility for ensuring teachers are classroom-ready as reading teachers, and then playing the parent-blame joker when its efforts fail children in the long tail of under-achievement.

Reading instruction needs to be informed by neuroscience, e.g., the work of Professor Stanislas Dehaene.

Professor Stanislas Dehaene’s work in recent years has been instrumental in reinforcing evidence derived from cognitive psychology research and classroom studies concerning optimal reading instruction. Most notably, it assists us to understand how high-quality initial reading instruction helps to transform our evolutionarily-derived language brains so that they can become reading brains.

Balanced literacy is silent on this.


Balanced literacy epitomises the golden mean fallacy or “argument to moderation”: the idea that when views on a topic are polarised, there must be a logical “sweet spot” in the middle where we all need to meet and strike a compromise. We have tried the sweet spot experiment in reading instruction, and it didn’t work. We can’t unsee the population-level data associated with the failed balanced literacy experiment. Teachers are haunted by the faces of children who they can’t forget; the ones left behind by balanced literacy’s known but brushed-over and forgiven shortcomings.

In response to an audience question about how New Zealand can overhaul its approach to reading instruction and support, given the weighty sentimental attachment to the Clay legacy, Emily Hanford made an incisive observation: New Zealand is about the size of a small US state and has one national government – no states and territories to wrangle to the table, as exist in Australia and the US.

I would add to this that New Zealand has already taken reading policy and practice to scale at a national level, albeit history records that this happened to be based on a then questioned, and now debunked theory of reading and reading support.

There is an opportunity now for New Zealand to re-write its reading instruction history and lead English-speaking countries out of the balanced literacy dark age.  

Now wouldn’t that be a spectacular way for a small nation to truly punch above its weight on the global stage?

(C) Pamela Snow (2023)

Sunday, 23 July 2023

When Loretta met Misty: my response to a recent Talking out of School podcast episode

Image source

Thanks to a share by my colleague Dr Nathaniel Swain, I recently listened to this episode of the Talking out of School podcast, in which Dr Loretta Piazza interviews A/Prof Misty Adoniou. I was frustrated and disappointed about the number of misconceptions and misrepresentations contained in the interview, and will address what I see as the key problems here:

A/Prof Adoniou recalls her own experience of phonics instruction several decades ago and places great store in the fact that she found it boring and wondered as a child why she was not learning letters in the context of words.

There’s a few problems here:

- Anecdotal accounts of our own experiences of learning to read are just that. They’re a bit like noses. We’ve all got one, but we can’t extrapolate too much from their size or shape about noses at a population level.

- A/Prof Adoniou apparently misses the irony of the fact that her early reading instruction was successful. She’s now a PhD-qualified academic, and that would probably not have happened without early reading success and the academic achievement it affords.

- Children are not usually the best judge of what they "need" at a given point in time. That's why they're not in charge of bedtime, the supermarket shopping, or curriculum design and delivery. 

When asked by Dr Piazza why “speech therapists” (sic) work in literacy, A/Prof Adoniou attempts to explain the scope of speech pathology (SLP) practice (to her credit, she uses the correct term) but incorrectly positions this work in schools as “medicalising” literacy.

This is a mischievous distortion. Some SLPs do work in medical contexts, such as hospitals, but those who are in schools obviously do not. The fact that SLPs have knowledge about a range of neurobiological disorders does not make their work in schools “medical” any more than it has this effect on the work of teachers in special education contexts. Worryingly, in a 2021 study of ours at La Trobe University, we found that practitioners who are dual-qualified as teachers and SLPs reported that the substance of what they know about reading came from their SLP degree, not from their teaching degree.

For anyone who is interested, there’s a detailed explanation of why SLPs work in the literacy space in this 2019 blog post of mine. It is not “over-reach” and the professional body, Speech Pathology Australia, provides detailed guidelines for practice in this and a range of other domains. If people genuinely want to know why SLPs work in the literacy space, perhaps it would be wise to pose that question to an SLP, or to the professional body.

While critiquing the term “science of reading (SoR)”, A/Prof Adoniou walks right into the straw man trap of suggesting that some (happily she does not say "all") SoR advocates talk very narrowly about phonics and specifically, systematic synthetic phonics (SSP).

I defy A/Prof Adoniou (or anyone else for that matter) to provide evidence of such narrow advocacy, at the expense of vocabulary, fluency, comprehension etc. To set the record straight, how phonics is taught is a fundamental point of disagreement in reading debates, so it is understandable that this is where much of the nitty-gritty discussion occurs. My position is that children need to have efficient tools for sub-lexical analysis of novel words of increasing length and complexity. Teaching decoding explicitly equips children with a transferable skill-set that in turn promotes automaticity and fluency. These are key ingredients for reading comprehension. I hope this explanation also addresses Dr Piazza’s later question “What’s wrong with predictable texts and getting children to look at pictures?” Predictable texts and reliance on picture cues of course promote an illusion of early fluency and proficiency that for a significant proportion of children results in the pernicious Year 4 slump (which in practice probably becomes evident in Year 3). 

A/Prof Adoniou describes reading as a “social” activity that should not be “medicalised” by health professionals like SLPs.

Reading is not a social activity. Reading relies heavily on individual linguistic and cognitive sub-skills such as knowledge of the alphabetic principle, understanding how phonemes and graphemes map to each other, phonemic awareness, working memory, attentional control, and self-monitoring (among many others). Being read to, and later on, reading to others are activities that have a social element but once again, reading is not fundamentally a social activity. Social activities involve interaction, for example conversation and games that entail sharing and turn-taking. When proficient readers join a book club, that is a social activity, but reading per se is not. Struggling readers do not benefit from "social" interventions. They benefit from support targeting specific sub-skills. Teachers and children alike have been done a great disservice by the positioning of reading as a social activity. This is worthy of delegation to the neuro-myth hall of fame (or perhaps shame).

In the context of discussing the range of abilities that can be expected in a classroom, Dr Piazza provides a fundamentally flawed description of what she calls a “normal distribution curve”.

Rather than re-hashing this here, let me summarise briefly what it does mean to say a distribution of scores fall under a normal (bell-shaped) curve. A normal curve means 50% of scores fall above the central point (where measures of central tendency, the mean, median and mode are all of equal value), and 50% below. Approximately 68% of scores fall immediately either side of this mean (i.e., within 1 standard deviation, which is a measure of distance from the mean). A further 28% fall plus or minus 2 standard deviations from the mean and in total, over 99% fall within 3 standard deviations (either above above or below) the mean. It does not mean (as stated) that “50% of children are in the average range”.

I would also question Dr Piazza's apparent acceptance of the fact that 25% of children in a class will struggle with reading. While there will always be a lower band, that group does not necessarily need to be cast into the wilderness of perpetual struggle. We should be actively working against a normal distribution for reading skill and seek instead to shift the tail of the (peaked) curve to the right. SoR advocates argue that we should be achieving reading proficiency for 95%-plus of students. That seems far more child-friendly than accepting a 25% failure rate.

A/Prof Adoniou argues that teachers operate like “scientists” in the classroom because they are constantly observing their students and making instructional adjustments.

I’m really not sure that this warrants the use of the term “scientist” but if that is the position that A/Prof Adoniou is adopting then we need to talk about the background knowledge that those scientists bring to their work. There is an abundance of published evidence indicating that teachers lack critical linguistics knowledge that supports optimal reading instruction (see reference list on this page). In fact, A/Prof Adoniou has written about low teacher knowledge herself, observing (p.104) that “Numerous accounts of beginning teachers note a lack of content knowledge about how the language works – most particularly, the basic constructs of the English language”. Pleasingly, this is a key focus of the recommendations of the recent (2023) Teacher Education Expert Panel Report.

Dr Piazza expresses exasperation about the decision in Victoria to adopt a phonics screening check (PSC) - or what I would refer to more correctly as a Clayton’s PSC.

There is reference to this as a perplexing decision by a high-performing state to base its practice on a change adopted by a more poorly performing state (South Australia), without acknowledgement of the fact that SA’s NAPLAN data has shown improvement since the PSC and associated pedagogical changes were implemented. Let's not forget too, that following the 2016 trial of the PSC in SA, it was reported that "For many teachers and leaders, the PSC was an eye-opener with some expressing surprise and disappointment about the results - particularly for students they identified as strong readers" (p.18).

Victoria may be the strongest performer at a macro level but that does not mean that there are not children being left behind in the early years as a consequence of not being efficiently and effectively taught how to decode. The widening achievement gap in Victoria was also not mentioned. Further, there’s a growing (but unknown) number of schools in Victoria shifting from balanced literacy to instruction that aligns with the SoR, so those schools will be helping to boost Victorian NAPLAN data as well.

In the context of discussing the PSC, the hoary pseudo words chestnut makes an appearance.

There’s some predictable and unfortunately disingenuous angst about testing 6-year olds on these apparent abominations, with no pause for thought about the extent to which nonsense words turn up in high quality children’s literature (Lewis Carroll, Rudyard Kipling, JK Rowling, Julia Donaldson, Dr Seuss, and so on). I suspect A/Prof Adoniou does actually understand why they are used in the PSC, as she references their use in laboratory research. It’s disappointing that she did not use this opportunity to do some much-needed myth-busting about their importance as part of brief a progress monitoring screening tool. Similarly, no SoR advocates (to the best of my knowledge – always happy to be corrected) suggest that teachers “teach non-words” to the children in their class, as implied by A/Prof Adoniou in this podcast. It’s possible some teachers give children non-words for decoding practice and for having fun with sounds, but that’s not the same as “teaching non-words”. Let’s remember too, that all words were once “non-words” so this is not a robust, binary distinction, as the ever-evolving nature of English reminds us.

Another important point that is conveniently not raised in the context of discussion about the PSC is the fact that England’s performance on the international PIRLS test is improving while Australia’s falls significantly below that of comparable OECD nations and is not trending upwards.

It is not possible of course to attribute England's PIRLS data solely to the introduction of the PSC in 2012, but as a policy and practice centre-piece, it has clearly been pivotal in driving changed practice at instruction and progress monitoring levels in that nation. With 20% of Year 4 students in Australia failing to achieve proficiency by international PIRLS standards, we have, as Jordana Hunter and Anika Stobart observed in May this year, "some work to do". We know that schools in disadvantaged areas can change their student achievement and well-being by changing their instructional practices, so let's not even think about blaming disadvantage for this (though the phenomenon is sadly over-represented in disadvantaged post-codes). It's teachers, not post-codes that produce children's reading achievement and we should be celebrating and learning from the successes in schools such as Churchill Primary in Victoria.


I am a big fan of listening to podcasts to broaden my knowledge and perspectives on all things language and literacy, and education more generally. It’s rare, however, to experience so many jarring moments in which misinformation is presented and stated as fact. I would be very happy to receive an invitation to be interviewed by Dr Piazza on this podcast, as a way of setting the record straight on some matters and presenting alternative views on others.

Talking out of school should not mean being careless with accuracy and completeness in the messages conveyed to teachers.


(C) Pamela Snow (2023)

Sunday, 16 July 2023

There’s a new world somewhere. A response to the release of the Teacher Education Expert Panel (TEEP) Report

                                                                   Image source: Joshua Rawson-Harris, Unsplash


On July 6, the final Report of the (Australian) Teacher Education Expert Panel (TEEP) Strong Beginnings, was released. There have been over 100 reviews of Initial Teacher Education (ITE) in Australia since 2008, yet no substantial reforms have resulted. Let's not forget too, the 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy. Not one university or education jurisdiction in Australia adopted the recommendations of that report. We can only ponder how different our position would be, 18 years on, in 2023, had the response to that report created the disruption that was clearly needed. I have blogged previously about the resistance to change in ITE on reading instruction, likening this to the quirky and painfully slow pitch-drop experiment that has been running at the University of Queensland since 1927.

One might reasonably wonder (a) why we have had so many reviews of the preparation of this critical and large workforce in recent years, and (b) why will this one be any more effective than those that rest in the existing giant ITE reviews graveyard? I’m not sure that I can provide definitive answers here but can hazard some guesses on both.

First up, let’s be clear about the Terms of Reference (ToR), given that much of the criticism of the report by its detractors focuses on the education ills the recommendations do not address (because they were not in scope).

The ToR are located here and can be summarised as:

·       Strengthen the link between performance and funding of ITE;

·       Strengthen initial teacher education (ITE) programs to deliver confident effective, classroom ready graduates;

·       Improve the quality of practical experience in teaching, and

·       Improve postgraduate initial teacher education for mid-career entrants.


In Priority Reform Area 1, there is a strong focus on what might be broadly termed “the science of learning” and “impactful pedagogies”.


Strangers to this debate might be surprised, in 2023, that a government-auspiced report needs to mandate content in ITE that prioritises high-quality knowledge about the brain and learning, and an understanding as to why some instructional approaches are more effective than others.

Sadly, this is the case however, because of the free rein (or reign, if you prefer) that university education faculties have had with respect to what they do and do not include in ITE programs. This has occurred in spite of the regulatory frameworks around ITE, because it has been possible for providers to bring their own interpretative lens to quite elastic criteria. Elasticity works in providers’ interests, as the extent to which individual providers meet AITSL requirements is in reality, dimensional, and not binary. No matter how well-intentioned, I am sure readers of this blog can see the obvious problems with the implementation hither-to of these standards in practice:


It's worth considering some anomalies in the education sector about the brain and its involvement in learning, and the way that pre-service teachers are prepared for making pedagogical decisions in the classroom.

For many education academics, the idea of children’s learning being based on underlying cognitive processes that interact with internal and external stimuli is almost an abhorrence. It’s fine to talk about learning as a social activity and to make vague references to “meaning making” in learning.  Reference to information processing, working memory, and cognitive load, however, are not uncommonly treated dismissively. No doubt these were absent from the ITE programs that most current education academics completed, and that perhaps makes them seem daunting and foreign. If we say we want our children to be life-long learners, however, then it is reasonable to expect our education academics to lead from the front and display curiosity about so-called “new” ideas in education. This openness is typically afforded to ideas that align with current beliefs and ideologies, regardless of their evidence-base, but resistance to evidence that is “out of paradigm” (such as that from cognitive psychology research) ranges in my experience, from passive ignoring to open hostility (of course in the middle, there are academics who are open to this evidence, and they must be given credit for their willingness to consider new paradigms in their work).

     In contrast, learning about trauma-informed teaching has rightly become a popular form of professional development for teachers in recent years. In such sessions, teachers learn about the different evolutionary levels of the human brain, their typical development and specialisation for different regulatory systems, and ways in which they are disrupted by exposure to different forms of childhood trauma (neglect and/or abuse of various forms, including vicarious trauma associated with domestic violence). I personally have delivered such sessions over the years and have attended sessions delivered by others. I have never heard a syllable of objection, anywhere, to teachers learning about the human brain and its functioning in this context. When brain development is positioned in the context of learning science, as a way of discussing everyday pedagogy, however, all hell breaks loose (as we have seen on social media in response to the release of the TEEP Report), and the folkloric memes and neuro-myths about human learning surface thick and fast:

      - All children learn differently
- We have to take account of children's learning styles
- Approaches that work in one setting can't necessarily be applied to classrooms in other settings
- Teacher-led instruction helps students pass tests but kills (select as many as you wish) - creativity / collaboration / communication / problem-solving / co-operation
- And so on.....

This reflects the longstanding absence of neuroscience in pre-service education programs, and the fact that this vacuum has been filled by what are commonly referred to as “neuro-myths”. It can be years before some teachers come to the full and disquieting realisation that these are in fact mere folklore. Once in the education water however, these myths are extremely difficult to disrupt. It is particularly pleasing, therefore, to see specific mention of the eradication of neuromyths from ITE programs in the TEEP Report. Informing teachers about basic brain science should result in two equally important outcomes: it should support them to incorporate evolving scientific findings into their teaching across their careers and should afford them some protection against the next neuromyth that tries to finds its way into their classroom.

We should not be experimenting on children, any more than medical practitioners should be experimenting on patients, or airline pilots should be experimenting on passengers.

In reality however, when responsibility for teaching reading (for example) is devolved to the individual school level (as occurs in many Australian jurisdictions), children are being subjected to unregulated, poorly designed and implemented social experiments. Children are not in a position to give or withhold consent for such experimentation and neither are their parents. This is unethical. Further, there is no community accountability for the outcomes of these experiments and when a significant proportion of children do not succeed, this is mis-attributed to non-school factors, such as parents not reading enough to their children in the pre-school years. This discourse is disempowering for all concerned, not the least of whom are teachers.

There has been a long-held position in education faculties that teachers should be allowed to teach in way(s) in which they are most comfortable and which they believe are the best match for their particular students.

Like many edu-memes, there’s an element of substance here in the sense that we need all human services practitioners (teachers, health professionals, social workers, lawyers, psychologists and so on) to adjust their practice sensitively and respectfully according to key characteristics of their end-users. Here we might consider factors such as levels of disadvantage, English-language status, disability, and trauma-exposure. It might be fair to say “one size doesn’t fit all” if by "high-quality, evidence-based instruction", we meant conducting ourselves in exactly the same way with every different class, regardless of geographical location, socio-cultural, and individual factors. But no-one does mean that. The sustained muddying of these waters has allowed many education academics and policy makers to persist with their “there’s no better ways to teach, just different choices that teachers need to make” hooey.

This is problematic because

(a)   It ignores the fact that there is a hierarchy of evidence in the learning sciences, that indicates the greater effectiveness of some pedagogical practices over others. The very idea of a “hierarchy of evidence” is anathema to some education academics, who take a relativist approach to evidence, based on the notion that there are “different ways of knowing” derived from different epistemologies. Some even go so far as to position this as a tension between science and democracy in education, seeking to steer the discourse away from classroom instruction and management to sociological and philosophical interpretations of the purpose of education. I recall hearing the now 95-year-old E.D. (Don) Hirsch in a podcast interview a couple of years ago, in which he expressed the view that education faculties in the US have been allowed to operate more like schools of theology than empirically-driven disciplines, as would be expected by taxpayers when they think of university departments. We would do well to consider this assessment in relation to Australian universities also. There is no disrespect intended here for theological schools; they are up-front about the fact that they are peddling belief systems. Students who enrol know this. However, I am not so sure that students enrolling in ITE programs in western industrialised nations know that in many cases they are entering ideology-infused echo-chambers, in which ideas, let alone evidence, from other disciplines are often unwelcome. This sounds more like religion than scholarly empiricism to me.

I would venture to suggest that most classroom teachers have only a passing interest in postmodern sociological theorising about education, but a major investment in promoting the best possible outcomes (short and long-term) for the students in their classrooms. Readers can decide for themselves (as the TEEP Panel appears to have done) whether sociological theory or learning science will be the strongest tool in the classroom teacher’s toolkit, at a population level, in these respects. I am not suggesting that an either-or choice should be made, but it is time for ITE providers to remove the milky film from their bathroom mirrors and appraise what is really staring back at them.

(b)   It ignores the hypocrisy of recent decades in which teachers have been presented with an (ironically) unbalanced diet of pre-service preparation to teach literacy. How can teachers "choose their own pedagogy", if they have only been presented with instructional models derived from discredited whole language ideas about the reading process and reading instruction? This is reminiscent of the probably apocryphal story about Henry Ford telling customers they could choose whatever colour they liked, as long as it was black. It seems that teachers are expected to do their own discovery-based learning, often self-funded, after years of watching children being failed by their classroom instruction and feeling increasingly uneasy about the likelihood that with a different instructional approach, most if not all of these children would have succeeded. Sue Knight, a Victorian school principal, has blogged about that phenomenon and the associated teacher anger and guilt here. Bear in mind too, that teachers (and tax-payers) have already paid for a degree. They should not have to then pay again to unlearn a significant amount of what was presented as fact, but was in reality, not embedded in a strong foundation of evidence. Reading instruction is an obvious case-in-point here. 

Practitioners in professions that are held in high esteem in the community have less rather than more autonomy with respect to their everyday decisions and practices. The consequences of these decisions are highly visible and accountability mechanisms apply when mistakes are made. So, it’s an own-goal when education academics pose faux questions about whether it will be the turn of medicine and engineering programs next, to be subjected to review by a “politically appointed panel” (as an aside, panels for government reviews of anything are “politically appointed” – this is just rhetoric). My response to this question is “no” – because academics in those (and other professions) have long displayed appropriate understanding of evidence and accountability and have exercised care and responsibility in the precious license granted them by the community to prepare future practitioners.

It is often argued (especially on social media) that the community should trust teachers and afford them professional autonomy with respect to how they deliver the curriculum to their students. This is problematic because

(a)   It promotes high variability, and high variability in any system is the essential ingredient for compromised quality.

(b)   It overlooks the fact that being a professional means accepting a highly constrained form of accountability – to end users, to registration bodies and to the community. This is how things roll for health professionals. As noted above, they are not permitted to “do their own thing” and face the heavy weight of accountability if they do so and adverse outcomes occur. This does not mean that such professionals exercise no autonomy. But they do need to swim between the proverbial flags with respect to applying evidence and making appropriate adjustments for the end-user in front of them. What is deemed as “appropriate” depends on a range of regulatory, cultural, and personal factors. Individual practitioners are expected to seek and gain informed consent if recommending significant deviations from evidence-based practice. No-one suggests that these are easy decisions, which is one of the reasons that such professionals are generally held in high esteem in the community. We know that they have a specialised body of knowledge, and we expect them to apply it to the highest possible standards. It will be in education’s interests in the long run, to be held to the same standards of accountability.

It's 2023 and time to find the circuit breaker on regular reviews of ITE that are not only expensive, but futile when they lead nowhere other than to an even more demoralised workforce, and no uplift in student performance.

The reality, unfortunately, is that universities have strayed a long way in recent decades from valuing and delivering knowledge-rich curricula in the science of learning more generally and the science of reading specifically (noting that how reading is conceptualised is generally a bellwether for how learning more broadly is understood). This content has been devalued alongside an elevation of sociology, critical theory and other forms of social philosophy that encourage a challenge to traditional power structures. Ironically, this has been disempowering to classroom teachers. As I have noted previously, this shift has created a Chesterton's Fence problem for ITE. Education academics removed something whose value and importance they did not appreciate, and now they are going to have difficulty re-instating this knowledge in their programs, to fulfil regulatory requirements in a short turn-around. Dr Jennifer Buckingham has written about this core challenge here.

The recommendations of the TEEP Report offer a roadmap for reforming ITE to make it fit for the vital role education plays in the social, civic, and economic fabric of Australian society. It is an opportunity for a major refresh and re-orientation of ITE, such that graduates can assume genuine expert status in their field and be ready to deal with instructional and psychosocial challenges in the classroom. It’s an opportunity to lift the status of the teaching profession, by promoting accountability in everyday instructional decisions and practices. This in turn will make education an attractive career-path for high-performing school leavers and those in other professions seeking career-transitions.

The panel has provided recommendations and a roadmap. Faculties and Schools of Education now need to bring humility and goodwill to the table. This might just be the review that tips the balance and leads us into a new world. Let’s see if we can make change happen before the next drop of pitch falls at the University of Queensland

Time will tell and history will judge.


Postscript: The title of this post is a nod to 1960s Australian folk group, The Seekers. Readers outside Australia (and younger Australian readers) might like to listen to this recording of them singing their popular hit There's a new world somewhere, they call the promised land. 

Additional commentaries on the TEEP Report can be found at these links:

Greg Ashman: Times are changing in teacher training 

Rebecca Birch: On Standards (capital S)

Jennifer Buckingham: Teacher education reform: Where will all the experts come from?

Elena Douglas: Time that teachers were taught properly too

Glenn Fahey: Education overhaul for teachers a long time coming

Ross Fox: How to help children learn: The evidence is in

Julie Hare: Schools crisis: Why a revolution might be under way

Jennifer Hewett: At last, urgent change for education seems possible

Paul Kelly: Education agenda takes aim at ‘long betrayal’

Ollie Lovell: Strong Beginnings. Reforming initial teacher education.

© Pamela Snow (2023)