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The Trouble With Education Is That So Few People Get It…

I said something really clever tonight to my wife and I said, “You should probably write that down…”

She did agree that it was clever but she seemed to think that I should be the one to write it down because after all I was the one who said it…

However, now that I’m trying to write it down…

It was something like how we can do all the big picture stuff and all the “this is a successful school because its data says this and I’m feeling like a bit of a failure because the school I spent so much time and effort into making great just went down the shit after I left (not just because I left but...) and I can feel like I didn’t make a difference but that’s just wrong because I made a difference to the people who were there when I was and that’s possibly enough for them and…”

As you can see, it was more succinct when I said it the first time and possibly even had meaning outside my brain…

Which brings me back to the trouble with education. Something that sounds good when someone says it may not make that much sense a bit later on when someone tries to work out what it actually means in practice.

I want to make it clear that I’m one of the first to challenge teachers and suggest that maybe what they’re doing isn’t working all that well and that it might be worth trying something else and seeing if it works better…


It’s always a worry when some politician announces that they have the answer and if only teachers would start doing this or that then all are problems would be solved and the promised land is just around the corner and if we can just get those teachers to stop what they’re doing and do what I tell them then we could fix all those literacy and numeracy problems and teach the lame to walk.

Often stories will be accompanied by a school which “turned things around” and went from being unsuccessful to showing great improvement once they all adopted the same strategy.

Of course the problem with this is that it’s like your average biopic. If you look at a winner then it’s pretty clear that what they did was a winning strategy but it doesn’t alter the fact that fifty thousand other people may have done the same thing and just fallen flat on their face. I mean “Billy Elliot” is a great example of triumphing in spite of everything around you suggesting that you should put your dreams to one side because they’re just ridiculous. Notwithstanding this, nobody is going to make a movie about me attempting to become a great dancer only to give up at the age of fifty after failing to show even a basic sense of rhythm and it just not working…

As for the school where the strategy worked, you need to have a look at what they were doing previously. To use an analogy here, if a football team hadn’t won a game for two years and nobody was turning up to training then adopting a strategy like holding a barbecue with free beer after training may actually lead to greater participation and an on-field improvement. However, even if the team starts a winning streak I doubt that many AFL coaches will be adopting it and throwing their sports science out the window.

The next big thing in education is what’s called “explicit instruction”. In simple terms this is a teaching method that breaks down complex skills into smaller, more manageable steps and provides clear and concise instructions on how to complete each step. It is a teacher-directed approach that involves modelling, guided practice, and feedback.

To put this into some sort of real-world situation. Imagine you’re going to teach someone to drive. I would think that this would involve a lot of explicit instruction before you let them turn on the engine and start driving. At the very least, you’d want to ensure that they knew how to steer and where to find the brake and accelerator and that they clearly knew the difference. I doubt that you’d throw someone the keys and say, “Take off and see what you can learn.” Swimming, on the other hand, may involve a bit of play to get them used to the water. Or, as someone once said, “I learnt to swim by being thrown into the lake… It was quite easy once I escaped the sack with all the rocks in it…”

As you can see there’s absolutely nothing wrong with explicit instruction. There are only two problems with a political push to introduce it into schools: The first is that it’s not appropriate for ALL learning. Learning to be an independent learner or learning to work cooperatively in groups can’t solely be taught by explicit instruction. (Although a good teacher can still offer feedback and guidance.) The second is the suggestion that somehow teachers haven’t been using explicit instruction at all. Of course, they may have been using it ineffectively or poorly but this idea that educators have embraced a whole range of other things and no longer ever explicitly instruct students is just a long way removed from what’s happening in nearly every Australian school.

By the time you read this, I expect that the date for the Voice Referendum will have been announced and it provides a great example about advantages and limits of explicit instruction. The Australian Electoral Commission have reminded us that we should write “YES” or “NO” in the box but if we do something else then it will be at the discretion of the presiding officer to decide if the intention of the voter was clear. A person who had a clear YE followed by an indistinct squiggle almost certainly is voting “YES” while a person who draws a Swastika may have intended to vote No, but it may just be that they’re making a comment on compulsory voting.

When it was announced that ticks may be considered a “YES” but crosses wouldn’t be a “NO”, Peter Dutton was outraged that this longstanding practice would be followed and accused Albanese and the AEC of trying to rig the vote. Apparently he’s concerned that in spite of the explicit instruction, the modelling and the examples many of the people intending to vote “NO” can’t actually follow what’s being said to them and will – in spite of being told in writing – to write their intention in words, that they’ll still put a cross.

It’s almost as if he thinks those voting with him are incapable of listening and understanding…

He may have a point.


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  1. RomeoCharlie

    Good analogy Rossleigh. It would be nice if those apparently offended by the confected outrage over the multiple precedents of ticks vs crosses were the only supporters of the no case because the statistics appear to show that 99.9999% of people can actually understand that they have to write yes or no on the voting paper. If that proposition held true the voice would pass overwhelmingly but the polls tell us that it is line-ball. One is apparently not allowed to say the no-voters are racists with comparisons being made about Hillary Clinton’s reference to Trump voters as deplorables, but really, given the sort of crap that no-voters are either writing, or forwarding on social media, it’s hard to see them as anything other than racists. The slogan ‘if you don’t know, vote no’ is an appeal to ignorance. I like Anne Twomey’s alternative ‘if you don’t know, learn’ but the no-voters I come across are usually content to parrot the ‘need more information’ line and no matter how much you point to the huge volume of factual information from a vast range of intelligent, informed, authoritative voices speaking in support of the voice, still fall back on the lies, misinformation and disinformation promoted by the no-voters, usually leavened with a good dose of racism. I will be voting yes.

  2. Uncletimrob

    Oh yes the pollies know it all.

    I’m an ex High School Maths teacher, and a few years ago some pollie or other said that teachers should get rewarded financially when their students getting better results.
    So at the time I had two year 12 Maths B classes (second level, Queensland curriculum, lots of algebra).
    In one class class most students did Maths C (highest level, complex nos, vectors, matrices etc.) along with Physics and Chemistry, so clearly Maths/Science thinkers.
    In the second class, only one did Physics, and most had their interests in Music, Arts (of various sorts) and Humanities.

    You probably know where this is going, but in the first class the lowest mark was a B- with mostly B+ and A’s. In the second class the highest was a B+, with all passing, and mostly in the C range.

    So according to the educational genius, I should have been paid a bonus for the first class, but not for the second despite the fact that they all passed. I didn’t have a very high opinion of “expert’ pollies commenting about educational matters, and this cemented my opinion.

  3. Rossleigh

    Uncletimrob, at the time that some politicians were arguing for performance pay, I pointed out to another teacher who thought it was a good idea that I’d be the first to get it because- as the timetabler – all the top students would find themselves in my class… just a coincidence of course.

  4. Jack sprat

    If all politicians where obligated to send their children to the local state school in their electorate, the level of education thru out the country would improve dramatically

  5. Stephengb


    Sorry but I object to your maths, 1+1 does not =12 million.
    To extrapolate a conclusion that ‘ALL’, ‘NO’ voters are racist, is an examole of exactly what Rossliegh is talking about.

    I have not decided but my persuasion seems to trend NO at this moment (the campaign has hardlly begun).

    The reason I am trending NO, is because the proposed Constitional amendment (subsection 129 (ii) ) tells me that the YES vote will enshrine in the constitution an institute exclusively for the benefit of a specific group (3%) of the population to the exclusion of the remaining 97%.

    So far I have not seen or heard any information that contradicts my assertion, but I am willing to listen.

    In your view I am automaticalllya racist for hilding my current view – well mate, I have llived and worked along side men and women of many nations, any racism that might have been in me has been purged a long time ago.

  6. Stephengb

    Great article, thanks

    There are many problems that the indiginous people face the biggest being the racist elements in our poulation, I wonder if you have any views on how to improve the level of education of the indiginous communities in remote communities?

    The other problem is poverty (yes poverty afflicts many Australlians, of any cultural background, but very much so for indiginous peoples), do you believe, as I do, that education for those in poverty is a step to irradicate poverty?

  7. Andrew Smith

    Interesting read and on this ‘The next big thing in education is what’s called “explicit instruction”’, one observes several unrelated entities promoting the same (phonics is similarly obsessed about too), as a way to stymie higher level skills via the hidden curriculum of Bloom’s Taxonomy, especially analysis, evaluation and synthesis/creativity; later essential skills in any university study and especially research.

    The first entity has been the Koch-Atlas linked (like IPA, who else?) CIS Sydney promoting their ideas on maths teacher training:

    Failing to teach the teacher: An analysis of mathematics Initial Teacher Education

    Some months ago the ACT Catholic diocese and something called ‘The Knowledge Society’ non teacher types were on ABC RN Saturday Extra promoting new methods for teachers, for the benefit of indigenous communities or vice versa (?), in ‘Has progressive education failed?

    ‘Noel Pearson says our education system is failing disadvantaged students despite changes to funding. He says ‘left wing progressives’ have failed to improved standards and we need to hark back-to-basics and focus on ‘instructional learning’.

    The latter seemed to be the attention grabber but not referred to, the details included student presentation skills (for future preaching &/or politics?)…. down to using preordained external resources and lesson plans, no push back by Doogue, presumably to take agency away from teachers and indirectly youth?

    Another Trojan horse from the Kochs, US evangelicals and RWNJs to both dumb down and own younger people’s minds, in the hope of precluding them as political threat i.e. becoming well educated and empowered centrist voters.

  8. K


    Respect your position, may I draw your attention to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, see link below…

    The proposed change to the Constitution does not in any way imply that 97% of the population will be disadvantaged. It simply points out that the needs of 3% of the original inhabitants is far from being met, for a myriad of complex reasons.

    More equitable outcomes for them does not mean less equitable outcomes for the rest of us.

    It’s not pie…

  9. Keitha Granville

    thanks K, exactly my response to Stephengb.

    The Indigenous people of this country are in the main so far behind the rest of the population, we cannot continue to ignore that. They have asked for this advisory body so that their needs can be addressed more effectively. It will not change ONE IOTA of government for the rest of the electorate – it won’t mean anything for us. But it might mean everything for them.Does it make you a racist if you vote NO? No, it just identifies you as a person who doesn’t care !


  10. New Bruce

    Is it just me, or is there more of a correlation between those who are educated but unable to think in a reasoned pattern and their writing as opposed to those who are just un-educated and theirs?
    Whilst there are many of our species who have missed the opportunity of a “decent” education, and as a consequence cannot write even their own name, many of our more highly educated members of society, even those who claim a rhodes scholarship amongst their achievements, are as incapable of rational argument as your average bowling ball. (Except that bowling balls have only three holes.)
    To have the current referndum degenerate into a discussion on whether or not “X” has been spelt correctly shows just how low the average intelligence of citizens who have been granted the decision making power over Australia’s Constitution has sunk.
    I do understand that people have reservations about it all. I mean, recognising a person as a Citizen of this great country is such a Monumental Decision. And voting YES would mean that Australians, of ALL races, beliefs, origins, and amounts of time spent living here (finally) recognise a whole bunch of people at the same time. This is Earth-Shattering stuff. The First Nations Peoples were here when cook landed. There is a shield with a bullet hole in it, in london, that proves it.
    At the same time as giving them Recognition, We the Voter are being asked to allow the First Nations Peoples of Australia to be able to form their own committee and make their own representations to Parliament about stuff that matters to them. The difference this time is that “The Voice” will be enshrined in the Constitution, and cannot be disbanded. (Like ATSIC was under the lying rodent when it all got too hard.)
    Giving our First Nations Peoples their own channel to Parliament does not give them elite staus. How else are ALL of the different Peoples concerned supposed to give any advice to Parliament? The Wurrundjeri of Melbourne have vastly different concerns from the Martuthunira of the Kimberley, or the Tarkine down in Tasmania. They are not the mining association, or the oil industry, or big coal, or the timber cutters, farmers federation, beef, or salmon farmers. These organistaion each have enormous sums of hard cash, a collective goal or status quo to maintain, and hordes of lobbyists to make sure that the “correct” people make the “correct” decisions. Ultimately, Parliament has no compulsion to heed the advice given.
    “The Voice” Will end up with political overtones. That is the nature of humans. Look at Parliament. What a fucking shambles that is, and that lot cannot even pretend to be polite about things. It is a disgrace, and an embarrassment. To us all.
    Politics itself is not the problem. The bullshit and self interest that comes with it is the problem.

    @ Stephengb. I understand entirely where you are coming from. Especially in thes current times of struggle and stress, and “the reality is I don’t have time for this right now”.
    I am not trying to tell you what to do. Or how to think.
    Please, consider how many different things have been tried, and how much cash has been expended, on concepts that have ultimately been proven to be wrng from the outset.
    “The Voice” is not the Solution. It is the first step along a path towards a better future. For Australia.
    If We the Voter can improve the life of just one single person wihout adversly affecting anything else, then We have done good. On October 14, we can improve the lives of a whole bunch of our fellow Australians.
    By doing so we will help ourselves too.
    And it wont cost anyone anything.

  11. Carina McNaughton

    The education system is broken. My 14 yr old son is a school can’t child.The facebook group for children who are school can’t as opposed to school refusal has 9,000 members and growing.. Our son is neurodiverse. Autistic, ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia are his differences. Schools do not cater for children with different learning needs. Explicit instruction is not the latest thing. It is the way all children can learn neurodiverse and neurotypical. Reading recovery has failed so many children. The research does not support its reading recovery, leveled readers. 1 in 5 children have dyslexia. Yet teachers mostly do not recognize the signs of dyslexia. Even if they do pick it up ot is a very costly process to be assessed. The Dyslexia support group in Victoria has fought long and hard to have a phonetics check for every child in grade one. Then the children need specialist tutors, so families who can even find a tutor and afford one are fortunate.
    So many children are being left behind. There has just been a senate enquiry into school can’t children. Many are neurodiverse. Schools are not given the resources to support them. Class sizes are too big. Parents are told to make home boring shamed its their fault. The underlying reason the child doesn’t want to attend are ignored. Children are further traumatized. It goes on and on. Not enough alternative learning environments. Costs to be assessed for Autism, ADHD, learning difficulties. Taking reports to schools are having them ignored. Unsupported teachers. Workloads ever growing. The system fails everyone children, teachers, parents. Time for change. Ross Greene collaborative and proactive solutions and Stuart shanker have better ideas.
    Time to stop funding leveled literacy and reading recovery as they have failed everyone.

  12. leefe

    “I have llived and worked along side men and women of many nations, any racism that might have been in me has been purged a long time ago.”

    It doesn’t work like that.

  13. Stephengb


    How would you know ?

  14. Stephengb

    It seems that I disagree, so automatically I am labeled a racist, how simpleton of you !

  15. leefe


    I don’t know about you personally, but we do know that living/working with other people does not eliminate prejudice against them. If it did, there would be but the slightest fraction of the racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and bigotry that we have in this world.
    Remember Tony Abbott and his “I have a wife and daughters, I couldn’t possibly be sexist” line? And this is the same bloke who made the “what the women of Australia need to remember, while doing their ironing …” comment and extolled the beauty of the “gift” of virginity he expected those daughters to present their husbands on their wedding night. I could go on for years with examples, with regard to every form of discrimination there is.

    There is no automatic “to know them is to love them” process. People are perfectly capable of working and living closely with all sorts of other people, and even caring for individuals from different groups, while still beiing blindly prejudiced and hateful towards those groups as a whole.

    ps: The word you want is “‘simplistic”.

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