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Alchemy, phonics and the future of our children

As alchemist Abbott tries to turn coal into gold and professor Pyne pushes phonics, our children’s future is being placed in jeopardy.

A recent report from chief scientist Ian Chubb stated that 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations required science, technology, engineering or mathematics skills and knowledge yet there has been a continuing decline in the percentage of year 12 science and maths students over the past two decades.

In 2012 there were 30,800 more students in year 12 than in 1992 but 8000 fewer physics students, 4000 fewer chemistry students and 12,000 fewer biology students than two decades previously. The percentage of students studying advanced and intermediate maths also declined over a similar period.

There is also a significant gender imbalance with boys far more likely to choose maths and science subjects than girls. (Male over-representation in Physics: 28%, Advanced maths: 16%, Intermediate maths: 7.3%, Chemistry: 3.8%)

This has very worrying implications for society.

“People who have a background in science beyond year 10 are more likely to persist in trying to understand issues like climate change, GM crops and coal seam gas than someone who thinks, ‘It’s all too hard, I’m just going to go with what someone else says’,” Dr Lyons, an associate professor of science education at Queensland University of Technology, said.

While Christopher Pyne focuses on phonics and rewriting history, more enlightened minds, those with actual expertise in the area of education, are calling for science and maths specialists in primary schools and better teacher training, support and resources.

John Kennedy, the head of science at St Andrew’s Cathedral School in Sydney, said engaging teachers helped spark a child’s interest in science at a young age and helped retain older students in their final school years.

“It’s not that [students] find the sciences or the maths hard,” said Mr Kennedy.

“If the teacher is engaging, wanting to work with the [student], then the [student] wanted to study it the next year,” he said.

Research has found engaging children in science before the age of 11 to 14 was critical to their long-term interest in the subject.

Since 2004, the Australian Academy of Science has run Primary Connections, a primary school science and literacy program that has helped improve teacher quality and been used in 73 per cent of Australian schools.

Primary Connections is based on an inquiry-orientated teaching and learning model. Students use their prior knowledge and literacies to develop explanations for their hands-on experiences of scientific phenomena. Students have opportunities to represent and re-represent their developing understanding. They are engaged actively in the learning process. Students develop investigations skills and an understanding of the nature of science.

Teaching and learning progresses through five phases: Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate and Evaluate.


Each unit begins with a lesson that mentally engages students with an activity or question. It captures their interest, provides an opportunity for them to express what they know about the concept or skill being developed, and helps them to make connections between what they know and the new ideas.


Students carry out hands-on activities in which they can explore the concept or skill. They grapple with the problem or phenomenon and describe it in their own words. This phase allows students to acquire a common set of experiences that they can use to help each other make sense of the new concept or skill.


Only after students have explored the concept or skill does the teacher provide the concepts and terms used by the students to develop explanations for the phenomenon they have experienced. The significant aspect of this phase is that explanation follows experience.


This phase provides opportunities for students to apply what they have learned to new situations and so develop a deeper understanding of the concept or greater use of the skill. It is important for students to discuss and compare their ideas with each other during this phase.


The final phase provides an opportunity for students to review and reflect on their own learning and new understanding and skills. It is also when students provide evidence for changes to their understanding, beliefs and skills.

Unfortunately, our Education Minister prefers the Direct Instruction approach.

  • DI focuses on teacher control of lesson pacing and content and does not encourage the engagement with student cultural resources, background knowledge and community context.
  • It deskills teachers by routinizing their work and downplaying their professional capacity to vary instructional pace and curriculum content depending on the student cohort and context.
  • It works through strict tracking of student progress and ability grouping, which research shows can severely disadvantage some students.
  • Finally, it places the teacher and child in a rigid relationship where the teacher is always the one with the power and knowledge with limited allowance or recognition of individual and cultural difference. This relationship is not conducive to local adaptation of lessons or content to accommodate community, cultural or individual differences, creativity and innovation in teaching and learning.

Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has been given tens of millions in government funding to implement Direct Instruction in Cape York communities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it has not been successful despite all the funding, with only 25 per cent of the Aurukun youth of high school age attending school. Many are sent off to boarding school but leave at the first opportunity.

“The communities of Aurukun and Hope Vale report a significant number of disengaged youth of high school age who have returned to community but have not engaged in an education option. These youth participate in dysfunctional behaviour and feel disengaged from mainstream society and also from their own communities.”

When we combine this didactic approach with the demise of the Gonski reforms, the attack on TAFEs, huge cuts in funding for research and scientific bodies, and the proposed deregulation of university fees, Abbott’s mantra of “Jobs and Growth” is hard to take seriously.

And what sort of an example are they setting when this government ignores all science, all fact-based evidence, to remove a carbon price, put a ban on wind turbines, and advocate more coal-burning.

Instead of anticipating the skills needed for the future, Abbott would rather issue 457 visas than train Australians. Instead of investing in research by the CSIRO and universities, he would rather give money to big pharma. Instead of needs-based funding for education, he would rather fund elite private schools. Instead of funding TAFEs he would rather give accreditation to dubious private colleges.

With a Prime Minister who is a puppet for his donors, an environment minister who measures his success by how many coal mines he can fast track, and an education minister who prefers ‘chalk and talk’, the fate of our children is in the hands of Luddites.


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  1. Florence nee Fedup

    Excellent article.

  2. kerri

    Wel written Kaye Lee!
    Yes “chalk and talk” it can be effective to some of the kids some of the time but nowhere near as good as exploratory learning.
    Pyne has rosy memories of his high school daze and believes he has come out damn near perfect so why not everyone else? The other Luddite exclusion in Pyne’s fantasy is the failure to make use of the internet in teaching. As you rightly pointed out DI puts the teacher on a pedestal of greater knowledge when in fact many of us struggle with some concepts ourselves. The teacher should always be in a position to say “I don’t know! But let’s see if we can find out?” To any question.
    Like this Government, expecting the answers to every question in a fast moving knowledge based world to be known by those in charge, is merely a fantasy of idiots like Pyne. Their solution being to exclude the opportunity to expose their lack of knowledge and expand the knowledge of others.
    Lack of knowledge in an instructor is fine!
    Refusal to make the effort to learn new concepts is completely unacceptable in both teachers and politicians!

  3. guest

    The education debate has been going on for as long as anyone can remember. Remember the Literacy and Culture Wars drummed up in the media during the 1990s? The same culture warriors are still there, coming out with the same old same old – and sometime back-flipping on previous mantras by supporting ‘new’ reforms.The Australian this weekend ‘exclusively’ reveals some aspects of the latest Coalition education reforms. Two aspects ‘revealed are: the teaching of phonics and a ‘new’ integrated subject.

    The phonics debate has been front and centre in the teaching of literacy. There are advocates for phonics and only phonics, whereas teachers are more likely to talk about a number of useful methods, including phonics. Experience tells us that phonics alone is not enough; examiners’ comments on public testing in the 1950s, say, point to literacy deficiencies then when phonics was all the go. The ACARA chairman Steven Schwarz supports phonics. He asks “Why sit a child in front of a book and say, Learn to read’? It’s inefficient and silly…” Is that what he really thinks happens in classrooms?

    There is a new Humanities and Social Science subject. It will merge the existing topics of history, geography, civics and citizenship. Remember the fuss made about the the old Environment and Social Science curriculum which was so vilified and condemned as being too ‘Left’? Sounds awfully similar. It is surprising Messrs Wilshire and Donnelly have not noticed.

    Professor Wiltshire also questions the “deconstruction” of texts. He says: “The worst fad of all was deconstruction, where students are given a piece of literature and told to go out and deconstruct it, instead of enjoying it and appreciating it.” He doe not say where they have to go to do that, nor does he explain what he means by ‘appreciate’ it. He has his own jargon.

    I say all this to demonstrate the to-ing and fro-ing that goes on in the education scene. In the same newspaper is the cry about declining standards and attempts to stop the decline. Some states have apparently improved their test standards by various means, such as having an earlier year of school instruction, or by sending the Yr 7 students to Secondary schools where they have ‘expert’ subject teachers, or by employing Direct Instruction so that they get back to ‘basics’. Other pundits tell us that all we have ever done is the ‘basics’.

    So we come to Science and Mathematics. On the one hand we have ‘basics’ and on the other we have ‘rigor’. Sounds rather sterile. Other countries are cited as being successful high achievers. Some of them employ cram schools after hours to boost results. (Many parents in Oz employ tutors to do the same.) Other countries really treat teachers and education as being very important and not just playing some political game.

    But if the mentality is that males do certain kinds of jobs and females do others, there will always be imbalances in gender in university subjects. And mere emphasis on ‘basics’ will not do much to change that.

    Your article here, Kate, sounds much more progressive and credible in its ideas about teaching than the fossilised notions some MSM has promoted recently and in the past. I like your work.

  4. Kaye Lee

    The problem with Pyne is that he shows no perception of a teacher’s job. The most important thing a teacher can achieve is to instil curiosity, a love of learning, and the skills to research further. Direct instruction not only does nothing to further these goals, it actively kills them. DI dictates what will be taught and how it will be taught, and it proscribes how a student’s progress will be assessed. Teachers teach to an exam. And we wonder why our kids aren’t doing better. Why should they be constrained by my limitations? Where is the recognition of individuals and how we all learn differently? Where is the allowance for difference, be that cultural or prior knowledge? Where is the flexibility to cater for individual need, interest and talent?

  5. Florence nee Fedup

    The best maths teacher for me, was one that was young and inexperience when it come to maths. No great maths master. The one I hated most, was the maths master, who was close to being a genius. I suspect he couldn’t understand why many didn’t understand what he was teaching. I know I always felt in the dark, tried to learnt by rote with no understanding whatever.

    There has to be better ways. Watching those kids on TV the other night, learning coding looked exciting. From early primary up. They were enjoying the lessons, looked like they were having fun. Could explain what it was all about. Personally I have no idea, in spite fact did couple semesters of introductory computers at Uni.

    Pyne is wrong. Kids are taught to read by many different methods, that seem to include phonetics. Whatever the method, they are learning much quicker than I did, and my kids did. What they learn quicker, is computer skills. One does need reading skills for that.

    When one thinks of it, kids should love maths. After all it is about solving puzzles, which all kids love to do.

  6. Florence nee Fedup

    Kaye Pyne has his own perception of whose fault it is, when schools fail. He lays it all at feet teachers, with unions thrown in for good measure. Worse of all, he believes the big stick is all that is needed to bring teachers up to scratch. The man is stupid for proudly announcing, he didn’t bother to read Gonski. They are now again talking about Charter Schools and what has failed in the UK.

  7. guest

    Sorry, Kaye. I pressed the wrong key in haste. There is a lesson.

  8. Kaye Lee

    My dad always called me Kate. I answer to many names 😉

    But back to how kids learn differently….

    I had a boy in my maths class whose family owned a fruit shop that the kids spent all their spare time working in. If I said solve x/2=4.5 he didn’t have a clue. If I said half a kilo of bananas cost $4.50, how much for a kilo, he was the first to answer. Another kid’s dad was a horse trainer (and I suspect an inveterate gambler). If I said 1 5/8 x 4 he couldn’t do it. If I asked how much would you win if you put $4 on a horse at 13 to 8 he could answer immediately.

    These are a couple of examples of how using a student’s context can be beneficial in helping them understand a concept.

    I also sometimes did a ‘magic’ maths trick at the beginning of the week. If, by the end of the week, they could work out how I did it they would get a credit note to spend at the canteen or an early mark so they could make the canteen line before the other kids (food it a great motivator for most kids). All prizes were dependent on ‘doing the housework first’ ie we have to get the boring stuff out of the way before we explore.

    Confidence and self esteem are also crucial when studying maths (and no doubt other subjects). I always said if they didn’t understand it was my explanation that was inadequate, not their ability. When I was forced to give my bottom maths class common tests, when I gave the tests back I would give the top mark (perhaps 20 out of 100) 100% and mark the rest of the class out of their mark. eg if someone got 10 out of 100 they would get 50%. I would hand out most improved awards based on position in class and quietly tell a kid who may have done badly that they were a shoe in for the most improved award next time – something that the kid who came first could never get. They knew it was a con to a degree ( and of course I recorded the actual marks in official records) but it gave them something to strive for.

  9. Florence nee Fedup

    Funny how they say boys always been better at science than girls. Tell me why women are so good at cooking within the home. Putting ingredients together, applying heat or cold is pure science. Women used science to get clothes clean. Science plays important role in running a household and rearing kids. Even use science in the kitchen garden. Then we come to the ability to treat minor ailments in the home. Once again women led the way.

  10. Mark Needham

    I now realise that, I had 3 great teachers, during my primary schooling. ( I did the last Scholarship, Qld in 1962). 2 men and 1 lady, had my attention at all times. Inspirational.
    Small country School, 100 students, life was dreamlike, looking back at those school days.
    Yes, Kaye, it is all in the Teacher, I fear, because being human, some of us really do not have the ability to teach, myself among them.
    I was fortunate, to have 3 of the Good ones, over the 8 years.
    Mark Needham

  11. Matters Not

    There is a new Humanities and Social Science subject. It will merge the existing topics of history, geography, civics and citizenship

    Perhaps they will call it Studies of Society and Environment (SOSE) so the resurrection will be complete? And there will be no need for ‘in-service’. Back to the future. Well remember the arguments advanced by the Geography Teachers’ Association of Queensland, in particular, who argued that the introduction of SOSE would be the end of civilisation as we know it. The Minister at the time was in complete sympathy, or at least his wife was, being a Geography teacher in a past life. How we laughed and laughed.

    Perhaps if they knew a ‘little history’.

    More worrying is the appointment of Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz to head up ACRA and other recent appointments to the Board. Needless to say Schwartz spews the same nonsense as Pyne. You know, if only the teachers were better and ‘funding’ is not (part) of the problem and the like.

    As for Gonski. Now confined to the dustbin of history.

    Worked with both Wiltshire and Donnelly (the failed Fish and Chip proprietor) in a past life and a long time ago. Yes they have done any number of ‘reviews’ but it should be remembered their recommendations have come to nought, at least in the medium and longer terms.

    For that we have to be thankful.

  12. Rosemary (@RosemaryJ36)

    At school, kids are pretty perceptive about how they rate compared with others. In maths, I always found it better for children to progress according to achievement and ability rather than age. Vertical timetabling is a much better – and not so much harder – way for children to tackle their studies since progress is seldom uniform across all disciplines. If there is one subject which cries out tobe a source of enjoyment, it is English (as a first language, please note!) literature, but please make room to include some basic English grammar! After all, Kaye and I both taught maths but this employment was followed by both Kaye and me!

  13. Rosemary (@RosemaryJ36)

    Florence – when I was teaching Year 12 Maths (top level) my best students was almost invariably a girl!

  14. Florence nee Fedup

    Has any thought given to the fact, from when one is born, we are being surround by new information and new things. A tiny baby soon learns, if one pushes a button, one gets results.

    Back in the days of no TV, very limited wireless and daily papers, this was not true.

  15. Florence nee Fedup

    Rosemary. true in my day too. A couple boys, along with a girl or too, maybe at the top. Many girls in between. Rest of the boys at the bottom.

    I don’t know about science. We were not allow to do it. Was hived off to biology. Boys in my case to agriculture, girls to domestic science.

  16. win jeavons

    I loved history and literature, but excellent maths and science teachers turned me to physics then much later to environmental science and climate science. So I spent my working life teaching maths and sciences to secondary students. It is catching.

  17. Kaye Lee

    If done properly it can be win. We need to excite students…interest them in exploring new things….not continually reinforce failure through constant exams which do little to promote ingenuity and creativity.

  18. Matters Not

    reinforce failure through constant exams

    Yep! Constantly weighing the pig doesn’t make it fatter.

  19. Kaye Lee

    Constantly weighing the pig makes it fret when it comes time for weigh-in which makes it lose even more weight. Force-feeding it stuff it doesn’t like just makes it throw up.

  20. Matters Not

    Force-feeding it stuff it doesn’t like just makes it throw up

    Not always. Sometimes it results in ‘foie gras’ but only if it’s ‘force fed’ to particular endothermic vertebrates, namely ducks or geese.

    But ‘force feeding’ isn’t ‘education’ is it? Training it may be, but education it ain’t.

  21. diannaart

    A very necessary article.

    My only disagreement is “the fate of our children is in the hands of Luddites” The Abbottoir do not even qualify as Luddites – a group of people who were only trying to keep their jobs. This current administration is beyond definition or even parody – maybe they are the mistake we have to have to ensure we never trade off our democracy again.

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