Sunday, October 20, 2013

Direct Instruction criticised by Chris Sarra

DEFYING EXPECTATIONS (Adelaide Festival of Ideas, October 20th)

I attended the presentation by Chris Sarra, Principal Cherbourg State School, 1998-2005 and Andrew Plastow, Principal Alberton Primary School. I knew of Chris Sarra as a successful Principal of Cherbourg School (3 hours drive from Brisbane) as well as an indigenous opponent of Noel Pearson. They have clashed in print a few times.

Chris explained his Strong and Smart philosophy. Be proud to be indigenous. Don't collude with negative stereotypes of what it means to be aboriginal. Reject the flawed notion that being educated means you will lose your identity.
During my time as Principal at Cherbourg State School, from 1998-2005, the attendance improved from 65% to 95%.
He then launched into an attack on Noel Pearson's approach, without naming him.
We didn't cut welfare payments to make that happen. I'll repeat that, we didn't cut welfare payments to make that happen.
(audience applause)
Direct Instruction (DI) was written off 40 years ago by expert educators. It was developed by some old guy in America. The pedagogy takes us back to the 1940s and 50s.
Andrew Plastow intervened:
DI is back to the basics. As someone said to me wise people have now developed robots to do the basics. It's not appropriate for our modern times.
Back to Chris Sarra:
It's claimed that older aboriginal people did achieve literacy (through basic Mission education. And that's true. But it was literacy of the type used by farm hands and domestics. It wasn't powerful literacy.
Chris Sarra was nuanced and articulate on his broader reflections on indigenous identity, NAPLAN and aboriginal culture. By contrast his unprovoked attack on Direct Instruction was ill informed, intemperate and predjudicial ("developed by some old guy in America"). I gained the strong impression that it wasn't something that either speaker had looked into closely. It confirmed my general thesis (DI indigenous memes) that people reject Direct Instruction because of their general world view, not because they have looked at it in any detail. Their general world view prevents them from doing that.

Update (21st October):

Here are some of the memes which were warmly supported by the audience:

Harmonious progress meme ("We didn't cut welfare payments to make that happen"). This appeals to the non punitive, non confrontational method of achieving progress. Tough love without being too tough. I don't believe that Chris Sarra would avert his eyes from the ugliness of alcohol fuelled violence, child neglect and child abuse. In fact, he referred to it towards the end of his presentation. Nevertheless, many in the audience want to avert their eyes from it. To understand the work and problems facing the Noel Pearson inspired Family Responsibility Commission read this wonderful article by Catherine Ford: Great Expectations (The Monthly, November 2012)

White guilt meme. Most of the audience were white "progressives" who like the idea that this issue can be dealt with adequately by competent indigenous people like Chris Sarra in a way that is not disruptive to their own comfortable life style or thinking patterns. There is a below the surface trade off in play here. Chris Sarra gains authority; the progressive white audience has their white guilt assuaged about this national tragedy. For a white person to stand up and critically assess Chris Sarra's contribution in front of this "progressive" audience would be like spitting in church.

Anti American meme (Direct Instruction was ... "developed by some old guy in America"). Progressives respond instinctively and positively to this reflexive anti Americanism.

Progress meme. Direct Instruction was developed by an "old guy" and is "robotic". Something as old as Skinner type behaviourism can't be a progressive thing. In the modern world there must be a more progressive way to educate. Reality check: "DI works", see Direct Instruction: observations at Djarragun college


Three extracts from my delicious Chris Sarra links:
Noel Pearson (2009):
"The problem with Chris' thinking is he thinks it (truancy) is all a question of child choice," he said. ... "Many children want to be in school but their parents haven't fulfilled their part of the bargain, which is a good night's sleep for the kid, a safe house for the kid, breakfast and uniforms for the kid
Chris Sarra stretches the gap on credibility by Janet Albrechtsen (2012)
Chris Sarra: all motherhood but no data, a damning analysis comparing SSI with DI (full article behind a paywall)

Relevant (2011):
"I'm not interested in stories about how well your education plans are going. I want to see your data that shows how effectively you have advanced the children's learning. The first thing you should show at a meeting like this is the evidence that shows the effect of what you're doing. If your effect size is less than 0.4 then you should pack up because you're not having a worthwhile impact on the children's learning."
- John Hattie

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