Saturday, May 29, 2010

progress without progressivism

Scripted lessons start a classroom revival

Radical learning program changing Aboriginal kids' lives

Australians are aware that Aurukun in far north Queensland is a social and educational disaster zone. Nearly everyone puts it into the too hard basket.

The articles above provide some hopeful evidence that the method of Direct Instruction designed by American Zig Engelmann and introduced into Aurukun by Noel Pearson is proving to be effective. Aboriginal students are learning to read. This may not sound remarkable for anyone ignorant of the realities of remote aboriginal communities. But it is remarkable.

To establish this progress Pearson has had to break all the rules of what is regarded as being progressive.
- imported a program from the USA
- plans to extend the working and teaching day
- carefully scripted instruction rather than freedom to explore
- classes organised by ability and not by age

The second article points out some of the teething problems:
the workbooks have come under fire for containing American references, while the direct instruction method was cited by five teachers as their reasons for leaving Aurukun earlier this year
If we achieve progress by methods that are not regarded as progressive then it is time to rethink what progressive is.

Further reading:
It's beyond bad in Aurukun
radical hope: education and equality in australia
Some magic bullets for education
Teachers vote with their feet on Cape York curriculum
Bureaucrats take over Pearson's school plan
Jump-start for Aboriginal education at 'tough-love' school


Kev said...

The SMH article you cite was interesting timing for me because I'd just finished reading Paula Shaw's "Seven Seasons in Aurukun".
I wonder how much of the progress in Aurukun now is due to the "direct instruction" (DI) method though? I know the constructivist approach can seem a bit "pie in the sky" and ideological, but the idea of making learning relevant to students is something I hope DI doesn't overlook. Structure and discipline are great (and necessary), but the part in the article where the eight year old boy is quoted: ''Miss, I saw a frog, and I said, 'You are an amphibian. You are born in water and raised on land.''' was a bit eerie for me. Reminded me of the kids who recite the bible or the koran from an early age. It's impressive, but not exactly "learning". The more likely factor in the case of Aurukun's success would seem to be just the efforts and presence of Noel Pearson. Having him nearby and investing his time and money in a school project couldn't do anything but get kids and teachers to work harder.

Bill Kerr said...

hi kev,

Actually, learning to recite the Koran, Bible or facts about frogs is learning, it's just the sort of learning that some creative or free thinking people regard as not real learning, which is true too, it's not "higher order learning", whatever that means.

I like using constructionist methods but found I had to modify them strongly with basic skills material when I ended up teaching in a Disadvantaged school. Then I realised that the reason I was such a good teacher in my previous middle class school was because the kids had learnt so much at home and in primary school that I didn't have to concern myself with. It's possible to be a believer in both behaviourism and constructionism, although I did at one stage think that behaviourism was somehow "bad", ie. destroyed creativity. Behaviourism is just the idea that a response to a stimulus that is rewarded tends to be repeated

For the DI model to scale beyond Aurukun will require kids and teachers to work harder, as you say. That will require material incentives because we know from experience that not enough high quality teachers will commit to remote locations the way things stand at the moment. Performance pay is built into the "Teach for Australia" model that Pearson is promoting, although I don't think that aspect has reached Queensland yet.