Going Back To Basics Is Still Going Backwards

chris-pyneI’m not a big fan of Christopher Pyne. As far as I’m concerned, our new federal education minister has shown himself to be inept and completely out of his depth in his current portfolio. He continually implies that Australia’s teachers are less competent than they should be and that our students are not receiving a proper education.

The amount of political mudslinging every time he opens his mouth is just an embarrassment to any thinking person. In his interviews with that other redneck extremist lunatic, Alan Jones on 2GB, the two of them make complete asses of themselves as they bask in idiotic, inflammatory statements about Australian teachers.

The thing that really ticks me off about Pyne is this phrase he continually uses… “back to basics”.  In adopting this phrase he poo-poos “modern teaching methods” which he considers airy-fairy, and talks about how we need to get back to a direct instruction model where students listen to a teacher talk at them. He dismisses the idea of child-centred learning, and wants a return to a more didactic teacher-centric model.  And don’t even get me started on his ignorant judeo-Christian-centric view of history.

Christopher Pyne is a fool who knows nothing about teaching or learning.

When I hear a politician say they want to go “back to basics”, It usually means one of three things…

1. They actually have no idea how to move forward.  By going back to a previously known state, something that used to work in the past, they attempt to absolve themselves of the responsibility to move forward. If it worked for your parents, it must work for you too, right? By going “back to the basics”, whatever the hell that actually means, they don’t need to think of what a better future might look like. They don’t tackle the hard task of building a better tomorrow, they just hope that whatever we did yesterday will still work tomorrow.

2. They have no idea that the world has changed. Anyone who claims that going back to the way something worked in the past is a sustainable solution, simply does not understand how much the world has changed. By going “back to basics”, we go back to a pre-Internet, pre-hyperconnected, pre-Google, pre-Globalised world that looks very little like the world our children are actually growing up in today.

3. They have no idea what our kids actually need. Yes, literacy and numeracy are important, but it would be foolish to assume that the concept of “literacy” as it existed in the 1960s is sufficient in the 2010s. Of course we should produce students who can read and write and know their times tables (and we do, although to hear the way these politicians belittle educators you would think that not a single student can read).  There are other forms of literacy that matter as well, and I don’t want to see Australia go down the same path as our American friends who seem to have a school system which values the Three Rs and not much else, and in fact the insane focus on “the basics” has come at the detriment of so much else about learning that makes us human.

Pyne wants to quote PISA figures and all sorts of other statistics that are supposed to “prove” that Australian kids are going backwards. Continually improving our students ability to read, write and add up is important, but so is their ability to sing and dance and play and paint and draw. We need well rounded students who enjoy learning, who  discover what it means to be truly literate, not just with words and numbers but in all senses of the word.

Make no mistake, no matter how you look at it, going “back to basics” is still going backwards. Any fool can see that. Any fool except Christopher Pyne it seems.

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15 thoughts on “Going Back To Basics Is Still Going Backwards

  1. Well said Chris…reviewing a Curriculum again…while we are working together on it….implementing the National Curriculum that has been written with consultation and collaboration….hmmm…pay some experts to review it and….wait again for another review….fund a few more ‘important’ people rather than funding the students who need the resources….sounds familiar…I have little faith in the guy and the current state of politics with regard to education….Keep up the terrific blogging Chris.

  2. Spot on Chris, We need a forward thinking progressive government not these jokers.

    It makes me Angry that these people play with our kids (my kids) future. Education is already too far behind the real world. Schools should be at the cutting edge of educational theory and practise, not going backwards.

    Schools are also too far behind as it is. Just look at many classrooms today compared with classrooms in the 1960′s or 1920′s, they are exactly the same: teacher up the front in front of a board of some type (blackboard, whiteboard or smartboard) and the students sitting in desks facing the front (or if they are lucky in a group or with a computer) waiting for the learning to happen.

    We don’t need people like Christopher Pyne or Kevin Donnelly taking us even further backwards.

    keep up the good work

  3. Couldn’t disagree more! As a maths teacher, I see everyday many kids who do not have a grasp of the basic concepts. The problem as Pyne correctly points out is we are not focusing on basics AT ALL. I am constantly discouraged from having kids route learn things like tables because it’s “old-fashioned” and I would be ok with this if it were replaced with something that works. All that has happened in the past 6 years of Labour was that we neglected basic skills in favour of “general capabilities” which included sustainability in the maths classroom !?!? Please put your politics aside: kids need to learn certain facts/skills/knowledge but they have not done so satisfactorily for a long time. Why not go back to how it was when kids DID learn?

    I and Pyne are not advocating a reactionary model we are merely pleading that we don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater and don’t totally neglect direct instruction methods which work. I can tell you they do often work- at least for me, at least in maths but the problem (no matter who is in Government) is that teachers are afforded no freedom for the running of their class and are instead subjected to the Progessive agenda whether or not it works. Case and point my new school which claims “As long as we are trying something new, it’s ok if we fail as teachers”.

    1. Hi Andrew. Thanks for the comment, it’s good to have an alternative opinion, so I thank you for that.

      I agree with you that there is still a place for direct instruction, and particularly in the mathematics area. I have no issue with that. But you already have that… direct, didactic instruction – the clichéd “sage on the stage” is STILL the predominant way that most class are taught by most teachers. Go for a walk around your school some time and peer into the classrooms as classes are happening. Rare is the class where the students are not just sitting in rows listening to a teacher who stands at the front talking to them.

      Does direct instruction work? Of course it does. Is it the best way to teach? That depends. You and I have probably had teachers who CAN teach this way and make it work… they are engaging, funny, they tell good stories, they can read the mood of class and they they are masters at teaching using this method. When direct instruction is done right, it can be magical. If you look at John Hattie’s work in ranking the factors that make a difference to student learning using an Effect Size score, direct instruction ranks highly, no argument there.

      But many (many!) teachers are not masters at it. They can be dull, uninteresting, uninspiring, and they often plough through the work regardless of the class’s reaction to it. Direct instruction done badly is a waste of everyone’s time.

      My mother was a teacher and she often lamented the many educational fashions that came and went over the lifetime she spent teaching. Literacy and the way it was taught went through so many changes over the years – remember when we stopped worrying about whether words were spelled right, as long as the general idea was communicated? What a load of rubbish that was, and consequently we ended up with kids who couldn’t spell. Except if they were in my mother’s class because she never lost sight of teaching the important things no matter what the latest fashion in teaching might have been.

      I suggest you do the same. If you feel that basics are not being focussed on in the curriculum, you can still put all the focus on them you want in your own classroom. To say that teachers are afforded no freedom to teach what they believe is important is poppycock. You ALWAYS have control over what happens in your own classroom. If YOU believe it’s important, then YOU should teach it.

      While you say that kids learned better back in the day, there could be many many factors as to why that is the case. I could argue that one of the reasons that our students might not have the same level of literacy and numeracy that they did “back in the good old days” is that the world around them has changed and our education system essentially hasn’t. Is that a valid argument? Maybe not, but I’m just pointing out that there could any number of factors that contribute to what you see as a decline in standards. Personally, I don’t think think kids of today are any less literate or numerate than they were when I was younger… but we like to think that’s the case so we can pine for the good old days.

      The point of the post was not whether we should have direct instruction or not. It was about moving our education system forwards, not backwards. If something from the past worked, then work out what that was and push it forwards… find out what about it worked and amplify that. It’s not that teaching styles in the past were no good – clearly they were as you and I both turned out ok – but let’s figure out what the good things were and base our progress on doing those things better, improving on the past, not going back to it.

      My problem with Pyne is that he spouts mindless policy sound bytes. He stays “on message” at the expense of listening to others. There are new directions taking place in education systems in every country around the world at the moment, and they can’t all be wrong about it. Learning does need to be centered on the child, I don’t know how anyone could argue against that idea. And while teacher focused direct instruction might work for some things, it is not the solution to everything. And yet, we still (over)use it as though it is. Let’s bring some balance into the education of our students. Let’s figure out when we need to teach, and when we need to allow them to learn. Let’s figure out when we should “push” the information to them, and when we should allow them to “pull” the information to themselves. I know that the act of teaching is important, but I just want some balance put back into the way we help our kids learn.

      We could start by uncluttering the curriculum, and helping kids learn more deeply about fewer things. We could help them more by teaching them to be metacognitive about their own learning, so that they “learn to learn” for themselves.. We’re not going to make that happen as long as we continue this ridiculous search for the “right” spin on history and other nonsensical red herrings.

  4. PS: Your point about going back to a time when kids DID learn is quite subjective. I never learned my times tables (and am still not great with some of them) I seem to manage to survive ok. ;-)

  5. I’ll try and be brief…

    Firstly, I very much do not have control over what or how I teach. I am constantly told by higher ups at my school how I must teach- and the instructions are always that I abandon direct instruction in favour of games and “activities” which frankly do not teach the kids anything. Furthermore, Universities are full of biased academics who indoctrinate rather than train teachers. I was marked down in essays for critiquing “student-centred” education. This may be because I am an early career education but make no mistake, many teachers out there are not afforded freedom and this applies to everyone at my school on a daily basis.

    Secondly, here is a report from ACER http://www.acer.edu.au/media/new-report-confirms-decline-in-student-achievement/. This, together with commonsense and seeing how poorly are the numeracy skills of my students leads me to believe that in fact kids are becoming less literate and numerate. Are there many reasons for this? Sure…but we are not addressing the problem as we are constantly implementing methods that are not proven to achieve results. Nothing implemented in schools have arrested this decline nor have any policies of the previous Government.

    Thirdly, are some teachers boring? Sure. It is most important, however, that kids learn. We are not entertainers. As professionals should we attempt to be more engaging? Again, this is true but too much focus from University and the general community is to be entertainers first and foremost and educators second.

    Fourthly, I know you are not attacking Pyne merely for his stance on direct instruction. My whole point is that his review seeks to cut through the crap of education. The problem is simple: we constantly strive not for outcomes but for political correctness. That’s why I teach Aboriginal issues in Mathematics- it doesn’t improve their maths but its very politically correct. We need someone who cuts this bullshit and is prepared to implement proven strategies. The response to Pyne’s review from the Greens and Labor was laughable- they focused on spending. Splashing cash hasn’t helped the problem…ever. You said Pyne was poo-pooing modern teaching theories and dismisses the idea of Child-centred learning and I am pointing out that he does this because they’re crap and the direct instruction method works.

    I think we fundamentally agree on the idea that teachers should be free to teach how they want if they get results. Unfortunately, I see everyday teachers considered “good” because they are innovative with their lesson but don’t actually teach kids anything. I won’t even get started on the lack of content knowledge of many teachers (though Hattie didn’t this as a huge link in his meta-analysis, I can tell from experience that teaching a subject you know little about only harms students).

    1. Hi Andrew, thanks for your reply. I appreciate your perspective.

      When I talk about making lessons more student centred, I don’t necessarily mean that each lesson should start by doing something airy fairy, giving them butchers paper and coloured textas to brainstorm what they had dreams about last night.

      Making a highly teacher directed lesson more student centred can be as simple as ensuring that you ask more questions and allow time for the answers. This post has some good thoughts on that idea…


  6. Really interesting debate. I think Andrew is coming at the issue from a mathematical standpoint where direct instruction has a distinct role to play. I totally agree that elements of the maths curriculum must be rote learnt and mastered through repetition (number facts, times tables, algorithms etc.) but even within Maths I believe there exists significant benefits to inquiry-based, real world investigations. If students are learning Maths purely through direct instruction and because there teacher is telling them to, without context and the links to their own worlds, the motivation and interest will surely be lacking. As Andrew correctly states, we are not paid to be entertainers, but I strongly believe that if students are not engaged and interested (and occasionally entertained!), we will continue to disillusion this generation of learners by going back to what what worked in the good ‘ol days. I dare anyone to argue that direct instruction alone motivates students to learn. My standpoint comes from teaching upper primary and would welcome secondary school teachers’ thoughts.

    As for not having control over your own classroom and the way that your subject is taught, I feel lucky because the schools (primary) I have taught at, allow a significant amount of the “way” in which we teach to be personalised to suit each individual teacher. I know that my teaching style will always differ from those around me and believe that it is essential that school’s allow this freedom (within reason!) to ensure teachers are utilising their strengths and not teaching in a style and method that is mandated by “higher powers”.

    As for the “Asian perspectives” and “Indigenous perspectives” that the National Curriculum infuses across all subject areas. This is where you can “cut the crap”, for lack of a better phrase.

  7. A few things..
    It’s the Australian Curriculum to be recommended by ACARA to each State education authority who has responsibility for setting the assessment of the curriculum.

    ATAR scores are highest in maths and languages, both suffer the most direct instruction.

    Maths ‘teaching’ for the exam is most effective in the limited time available by direct instruction(telling).

    -IMO- While telling is not teaching, it has the side benefit of encouraging self selection by students to study something else…eg. The ATAR scores in your class will be higher if there are less low scores.

    Also Victoria has already decided aspects of the Australian curriculum will not be implemented. The entire senior physics course will be a Victorian design, not ACARA. By attempting to satisfy so many disparate interests the ACARA senior physics course is a mess!..too much like NSW which has no mathematics, does have special relativity(difficult theory) and no thermodynamics(heating and cooling)

    There is plenty of room for improvement but Chris Pyne seems to be placing a ‘conservatives-Tory’ overlay across the proposed curriculum rather than having a pedagogy agenda.

    The states will determine the curriculum, Victoria has had Australia-Vels in place for three years, NSW is still scrambling to adjust to the idea of study design standards instead of a syllabus which centrally dictates what/when/how…Victoria dropped that 15 years ago!

  8. I think Andrew has it more right. I have become highly suspicious of curriculum reviews in Canada. I took an after-degree in Education, and no I am not in the classroom. Not sure what’s happening with teacher training in Australia, but my sense–and please note, I did encounter very competent, intelligent individuals among faculty–is that the field is bloated with needless jargon, irrelevant theories, and a taste for fashion. I wonder if the shift in educational theory at least partly reflects leveraging by a professional body to ‘prove their worth’ in the market, so to speak. The bad old days when vicious brutes could thrash kids for any transgression, real or perceived, are thankfully gone. But the good old days when students don’t seem to observe boundaries and learning in the classroom is just something else that gets in the way of their ‘individuality’ surely can’t be much of an improvement? I believe students average a bare minimum of 5 hours screen time per day in Canada. That’s personal screen time, whether it be on a mobile device, desktop, what have you. Incidentally, obesity rates are sky-rocketing. What it comes down to is, ‘back to basics’ or whatever you call it, I think anyone who challenges what’s going on deserves our attention. Let’s not forget these are manners of speech. We are all talking, I hope, about identifying what is worth learning and how it will get learned (taught, or discovered if you buy into that). A friend is developing basic mathematics apps for smartphones/tablets, so you might identify that as progressive? It very much involves rote learning, and it appears to work. I don’t at all care for this movement into total screen culture, but if that’s what students are doing with their brains and eyeballs then I suppose that’s where they’ll be learning. Until the grid fails.

    Incidentally, and to be a troll, I think the opening line in response to Andrew (both times, Chris) comes across like someone who knows the protocol for being gracious and respectful of others’ views. But protocol and sincerity are hardly synonyms. And as fun as the little creatures are (gravatars or whatever), the result is, the author ‘appears’ as a dynamic human while the rest of us are cartoons. Not a great strategy, in my opinion.

    I greatly appreciate the opportunity you’ve provided to express these views :>

    1. Emik,

      My apologies for attempting to be respectful of others opinions. I suppose I could begin each reply by telling people how foolish they are to disagree with me and how wrong it is that they have an alternate view. Except a) they are not foolish to disagree, and b) alternative views are important. I’m not sure why you see a respectful approach to dialog with others as lacking sincerity… unless of course you really are just trying to be a troll.

      As far as the little creature Gravatars are, it’s just how WordPress works. If you don’t want to be a cartoon gravatar, go to WordPress.com and set up an account with a photo and then sign in to my site with your WordPress account when you leave comments. If your implication was that I’m trying use a “strategy” to make other commenters seem somehow less like “dynamic humans”… that’s just stupid.

      You’re absolutely entitled to your opinions, but perhaps you’ll have a different perspective once you’ve spent some time in an actual classroom.

      1. Chris, the sarcastic apology nicely illustrates my point. I came across this blog entry and I’m calling you on it. Read your own post and tell me how respectful you are of, for example, a government you clearly disagree with. Nice image you’ve posted there. And that’s fine, I just don’t see the point in duplicity. I am reading a combative tone and I’m game for that evidently. I do not have a privileged perspective, but when I said I am not a classroom teacher I did not say I have not spent time in the classroom. In fact, I continue to spend time in a K-3 classroom each and every week.

        I also see what’s going on once these students are ‘released’ to post-secondary. They often cannot express themselves in intelligible sentences. They often cannot formulate coherent arguments. I am seeing their emails and I am reading their assignments.

        What I see is a public system in Canada that is ill-positioned to face the next century, and I’d wager Australia’s circumstances are not entirely dissimilar. Leaving aside my disagreeable tone for a moment, here is a question for you: 100 years ago in Canada, as I suspect was the case in Australia, many children would gather in a single-room schoolhouse for daily lessons. Typically, grades 1-8 would assemble under the care of a single school teacher, often with the assistance of the older students. Would it be fair to say that the value of these lessons were fairly clear to many of the students, and if not the students, to many of their parents? I wonder about the perceived value of education now. Do people even know what they have? Because if something is not valued, I don’t see how any strategies can accommodate. These indicators are prominent in many other areas, and voter turn-out would be another perspective to examine. So what are students learning now, what have they been learning over the past 20 to 30 years, and to what extent can we see the results in society?

        I also have some familiarity with Word Press. In my opinion, if your blog is about pop culture observations then the gravatars are perfectly appropriate. But you are writing opinions about significant issues relating to education, and I assume you welcome readers and those who’d respond to your views. This is one opinion and not a hill to die on, but I don’t care for the psychology where the author is the ‘real’ voice and those who respond are weird cartoon monsters. Perhaps not a single person besides me would even care, it’s just an observation. You can toggle that setting in Word Press.

        It’s good to be challenged. Everything I’ve posted may well be asinine and sheerly contrarian. The only thing worse would be total agreement on everything, no? Best wishes from Canada.

        1. That depends Emik. Being contrarian is useful if it helps further a discussion and force both sides to evaluate their own views and further refine them. But being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian is just a waste of everyone’s time. ( and to be honest, your nitpicking about perceived sarcasm or the way WordPress avatars work seems to me to be in that category)

          That said, you’ve raised some really interesting issues about your perspective on what you feel is an wrong-headed approach to education, and you’re perfectly entitled to those views, many of which I agree with about. I think whatever differences of opinion we hold on this topic are more minor that you might believe.

          The way you describe it, it sounds like your interpretation of child centered learning is an education without any rigour, without any explicit teaching, without any adult supervision… nothing could be further from the truth, at least not the way I see it. Making an education child centric is about offering choices, providing options, allowing exploration, etc, but all the while being very clear about expectations and learning outcomes. Moving away from didicatic learning is not about lowering standards, it’s about entering into a more equal relationship with your learners so that they have more skin in the game. I have high expectations of my students, but I want to convey those expectations with questions, not statements. I want them to learn for themselves, and I also want to teach them as needed, but I want to be wise enough to know when each approach is the right one. Making education less didactic does not mean we stand around holding hands and singing kumbaya and hoping that knowledge just seeps into their heads through some unknowable osmotic process. It just means we approach our learners on an equal footing and try to make the learning process fit them, not the other way around.

          The argument over teacher focused vs student focused learning is not an either/or proposition. You CAN have both.

          My problems with Christopher Pyne is that his “solution” to fixing education is about moving backwards. There is much about traditional learning that works, and I’m not proposing that we dump it all. But we need to make progress by keeping those things that work and extending them with approaches that make sense for today’s learners. Simply declaring the whole system to be broken and thinking that a move back to the way we used to do things is not a good answer. And that’s what he is proposing.

          There is also a significant cultural aspect to this that would be mostly overlooked to anyone outside of the Australian political landscape. The people he has enlisted to review the process are cronies of his. He is stacking the deck so that he gets the answers he wants. It also overlooks the massive investments of time and energy spent in getting to the point we are currently at with curriculum reform. It overlooks the infighting between the right and the left of Australian politics. Just like I might not understand the nuances of how Canadian politics and personalities might influence decisions made in your country, I think it’s fair to assume that you probably don’t understand those same things here. There is a history of decisions here that are playing out on both sides of the Australian political spectrum that make my comments on this issue perhaps a little more nuanced than might be obvious to an outsider. I mean, I think Rob Ford is an idiot, but clearly there are people in Toronto who keep voting him in.

          It’s not that I’m worried about you having a dissenting view, far from it. It’s just that you’ve managed to be such a pratt about expressing it.

That's all well and good, but what do YOU think?