Would you like to try something different
Apparently, a useful counselling technique to deal with a problem is to ask the client: Is what you are doing working? If not, would you like to try something different? Recent data on educational performance in Australia indicates that this may well be an approach that teachers and other educationalists could adopt.
As recently reported (SMH 8/7/21), Maths experts reaffirm support for curriculum changes as leading group sounds alarm, there is a major rift in the approach being taken to the curriculum for, and teaching of, mathematics. With mathematics results in international tests showing decline in Australia, there is every reason to believe a change in curriculum and pedagogy is needed to bring about a performance change. Is this a case for would you like to try something different? However, some of the forces preventing change are the inherently conservative nature of teachers who intrinsically resist change. Also the fear that the recommended change is just a current fad and unproven, and the uncertainty that a change that has worked elsewhere will not translate directly into the Australian context.
It seems that the core of the current divergent opinion centres on problem solving and how the curriculum has been changed to provide this focus. In its statement, the Australian Academy of Science said: In order to help deliver students to society who have knowledge and are able to problem-solve, mathematise (the process of seeing the world using mathematics by recognising, interpreting and representing situations mathematically), hypothesise, and model, this fundamental mathematics knowledge should also be combined with application to problem solving. In response the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute said: the proposed changes over-emphasised problem solving at the expense of teaching students to master basic maths skills. It also objected to changes pushing back the teaching of key concepts to students in later years.
There is a significant number of students who do not like mathematics and who seek to leave it out of their HSC program. The pedagogy to teach and reinforce mathematics learning through homework has long dominated secondary schools leaving students with a belief in the importance of mathematics, but for many a dislike of the subject. Similarly, in primary schools, mathematics is not popular and improvement is elusive as measured through NAPLAN, the setting of school targets and international testing.
As Christian teachers we are concerned for all students that each will reach their potential and come to know more about God through the curriculum, including mathematics. If it’s not working, would you like to try something different?
In 1992, I was asked for a briefing on the Department’s position on the teaching of reading. The Literacy Consultant prepared a draft which started with the sentence, “The Department’s position is eclectic” (deriving ideas, style or taste from a broad and diverse range of sources. Oxford Dictionary). It with greeted with derision. The then Director of Curriculum wanted to support a push directed at the Minister by some academics to implement phonics as the preferred and universal program to teach reading. The debate about the best way to teach students to read has continued with believers in their preferred option advocating its superiority. Each side could produce research that supported the option they recommended. Is it any wonder that many teachers were confused about the best way to teach reading?
While not completely resolved, the K-6 English syllabus of the mid 1990s provided both a variety of methodologies and a new emphasis on phonics to assist any teachers who might have been persuaded to limit their approach. From experience, especially in English medium Indian schools, where learning English was usually a third language after the preferred local state language and national language Hindi, my view is that students don’t all learn in the same way.
In India, the dominant way of teaching English is by spelling. Students recite the name of each letter as the teacher uses a pointer. Students, except the very bright ones where any method would work, don’t learn to read this way. When writing a word on the board and asking a student: What is this word? they will usually name the first letter. They lack any confidence to try and pronounce the whole word or even the first letter. They cannot distinguish between the sound of the letter and the name of the letter. Hence, reading a whole word, especially if previously unseen, is very challenging. When these students reach secondary school, their English reading levels are very low and study in all subjects in an English medium school is very difficult. This disadvantage is compounded by the lack of use of English out of school, including in the playground where the local language dominates. It takes a lot of effort and discipline on the part of students and teachers to speak English only within the school.
But there are always exceptions. In the 100 schools that I was working with, a Canadian group provided a phonics program for the early years of schooling and trained teachers to use this program. In schools that fully implemented the program there was a huge improvement in reading skills and students had both more skills and confidence to tackle new words. But the program became increasingly complex and rule driven, with teachers having little understanding of the more sophisticated aspect of learning using phonics alone. However, this program was a success when compared to the previous teaching of reading.
A second success was to use the Indian teaching style of teaching everything by rote, but to drop the spelling and have students recite small lists of words relevant to each lesson. Many, but not all, students had the capacity to build up a large vocabulary of English using this method of whole word recognition and because they could visualise the word, they could write it when requested.
A third success came from teaching word attack skills. First the students learnt the sound of each letter as opposed to its name. Using these sounds, they were encouraged to combine them with breaking up new words into little words or syllables. A personal highlight was when a 3rd Grade girl came out to the board where the word antidisestablishmentarianism was written, read it and then used the chalk to show how she had broken it up, anti/dis/es/tab/lish/ment/arian/ism. This girl had little difficulty in reading English because of these skills which included knowledge of phonics and attack skills. Unfortunately, English has a lot of words with silent letters or unusual roots, like knee, physics, thumb, etc which were outside this method of learning and needed whole word or more sophisticated phonics.
In summary, exposing students to a variety of methods to teach them reading has merit. Not all students prosper with any one method. To capture all students in the reading process, teachers are well advised to use a variety of approaches and to try and identify how each student best learns and to use that method, but not exclusively, to bring their reading to the appropriate standard for their grade. This is especially important when students identify as having a learning difficulty or just achieve outcomes a bit later then other students do due to maturity or natural ability. Many special education teachers have long advocated phonics for these students but phonics may not be the best focus for all students to learn quickly to read. As Christian teachers we are very concerned about the ability of students to read. Reading opens doors to understanding more about God, the world we live in and how humans act and have acted in relation to God. Reading provides a basis for learning, especially to the reading of the scriptures and consideration about how the Word of God displays all that God has done for us in Christ and how that affects our lives. When it comes to reading: Is it working? If not, would you like to try something different?