Where’s the evidence?

This week I have found myself in situations faced with dramatically different visions for the future of education. One was a vision of increased engagement, developing a system and practices that engaged learners, that was responsive, that identified the challenges inherent in education today and suggested ways of meeting those challenges to ensure Australian learners were prepared for whatever the future might look like. The other presented a vision for education that looks to the past, frowns upon innovation and cuts funding at a time when surely education is of utmost importance.

There has been a lot (really quite a ridiculous amount) of talk by politicians, by ‘research’ organisations and by some sectors of the media about phonics. Not just about phonics but that teachers aren’t teaching phonics and if only everyone taught phonics then the world would be a better place. Our esteemed Federal Education Minister said this “We are very determined and I am personally very determined to drive an agenda in literacy that focuses on phonics. It’s far too important to turn a blind eye to what is failing our students in Australia and I am not prepared to do it.” on the weekend in an article you can read here. His reasons for demanding a ‘return’ to phonics is because he believes that: “While it might have been pursued with all the goodwill in the world, there’s no doubt that literacy standards for Australian students have declined measurably,”

I have a few difficulties with these statements. Well, I have a few that I have space to explore here, to go into all of them would take far too long. Firstly, where is the evidence that Australian literacy standards have “declined measurably”? To believe this statement we need to ask a few questions; against what measure have standards declined, is the decline a decline within Australia, that is; are students today reading at lower levels than they were 10 years ago or is this a decline against other countries? If the latter then we could argue that this is not a decline in standards but in ranking and could be attributed to any number of external factors. A decline in standards is a serious thing, my question is: where is the evidence? The problem with this sort of statement is that it appears as fact, it implies evidence, and therefore evidence is very rarely explicitly asked for. What are the standards Mr Pyne is using and how big is the decline? Is there an actual, measurable decline in standards? Where is the evidence?

My second concern is this perception that teachers don’t teach phonics. I don’t know who started this nasty rumour but again, I’d like to ask the question, where is the evidence? I’ve done a little of my own asking around and I am yet to find a teacher who does not teach phonics and recognise the importance of such skills and knowledge. Here is a link to the Australian Curriculum for English. A quick glance through it should show Mr Pyne that phonics is indeed part of our curriculum content. Who is it that isn’t teaching phonics and who is it that keeps telling everyone it’s not being taught? Where’s the evidence? I’m tempted to do a quick twitter poll to find out if schools are teaching phonics. If you’re interested in joining in use the hashtag #phonicstruths and tweet what your school teaches. I am fairly certain that we would be hard pushed to find a school that is not teaching phonics or a teacher who cannot explain how and why they teach it.

Enough with the mudslinging and the half(un)-truths. Enough with the accusations and the belittling of educators. Enough, Mr Pyne, enough. Where’s your evidence?

I’m going to keep hold of the positive vision of an education that inspires, engages and equips learners. The vision that I see shared by those educators on twitter and in our schools going above and beyond the hours, the expectations and the already high demands placed upon them. A vision that sees education as a community responsibility, that seeks to unite not divide. I’m going to keep asking ‘Where’s the evidence?’ every time someone accuses teachers of doing anything other than the very best for our students. I encourage you to do the same.

Visual literacy isn’t an excuse for lazy teaching.

Yesterday an opinion piece written by a teacher was published in a national newspaper. You can find the link to the article here. The basic premise of the article was that new Australian Curriculum places too much evidence on the study of visual literacy and went on to say that this just gave an excuse for ‘lazy teachers’ to “…sit at the back of the classroom, send emails, answer texts, pay their bills or surf the Internet; sleep even.” The author gave many examples of what this might look like and how it might happen. Unfortunately for the reader, and the teaching profession, none of these examples were based on evidence.

I’ve just written a paper for a university course, no one will read this apart from the marker, yet I was bound to provide evidence to support my views and analysis, I had to support this evidence by referring to existing research and documents. Why then, in an article that is published online and in print, available to anyone and everyone to read is there no such standard imposed? Oh that’s right, it’s because it’s his ‘opinion’. I wonder though how many people will identify that this is merely the opinion of one person and how many will unconsciously afford it the status of fact merely based on its publication in a national paper. This is what worries me; how opinions, no matter how unfounded, become facts. How many people had conversations yesterday about those lazy teachers sitting students in front of movies so they could catch up on their emails?

Just in case that is what happened, let me provide some counter evidence to the views expressed in the article. The Australian Curriculum is available for everyone to access online. You can find the English curriculum here in all its detail. A quick scroll through should assuage the authors concerns about the ‘skewing’ of the curriculum in favour of visual literacy at the expense of ‘language-based literacy skills’. Out of 33 content descriptions, references to screen, film, image or visual understandings are found in only 3 in the Foundation content (the first year of school). At the other end of the spectrum, the Yr 10 content, out of 31 content descriptions 7 refer to media or visual elements. Hopefully this goes some way to reassuring the author.

If he still feels concerned about even these references to media and visual knowledge let me pose this question: what sort of texts are our students exposed to most? What sort of texts are they required to make meaning from, interpret and analyse. What texts must they deconstruct critically if they are to stand a chance of engaging actively in society, of making responsible decisions or of reading without being influenced by the maker’s choice of images, colour, words, size, music. Books? Shockingly, no. Our students need to be able to interpret the myriad of messages presented to them in advertisements, television shows, movies, magazines and online. They need to read visually, they need to understand the power of a choice of image, of position, of camera angle, of colour, of actors and all the other aspects that are used to sway opinion, to create emotions and convey messages. Even if the author thinks there’s an emphasis on visual knowledge in the English curriculum, why doesn’t he see that as a strength, as a response to a changing textual landscape that students today need to navigate? And if he’s not teaching this to his students then he’s the one doing his students a disservice.

Finally, the aspect of the article that saddened me the most was the author’s willingness to throw his colleagues under the mainstream media bus. I wonder how many classrooms he’s been into where he’s seen a teacher sitting at the back of the room checking emails or asleep while students watch a movie. I can honestly say I’ve never seen that happen. Where teachers are showing students a film they are actively engaged in the analysis of this as a text, students are asking questions, interrogating choices and developing an understanding of the elements used to create an effective text. This is empowering learning, learning that provides students with skills relevant to their lived experience, learning that enables students to engage actively in the world around them as critical and discerning citizens. Perhaps some teachers in Melbourne might like to invite the author to their school to show him what visual literacy is all about. He’s welcome to visit my Year 1/2 class any time to hear them analyse all manner of texts. Or perhaps he just needs a hug and some reassurance that really it will all be okay, that teachers are working hard for the best of their students and the Australian curriculum is not the latest in evil government strategies to dumb down the population. Perhaps he needs to spend some time on twitter to see all the amazing things educators are doing. Let’s send a little educator love his way.