‘No credible evidence’: Academics hit out at Gonski report

‘No credible evidence’: Academics hit out at Gonski report
Earlier this month a leading policy think tank, the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), released its report on how schools should make the best use of the Federal Government’s $23.5bn funding splash.

The report – titled: Getting the most out of Gonski 2.0: The evidence base for school investments – tapped into an ongoing debate over phonics, literacy, and behaviour management.

However, with submissions for David Gonski’s review on funding for education initiatives closing in two days, some leading researchers question the validity of the report.

Professor Linda Graham, leader of the Student Engagement, Learning & Behaviour (SELB) Research Group at the Queensland University of Technology, said the CIS report provided no credible evidence to support the claim that Australia has high levels of classroom misbehaviour.

“Their comments contradict recent research from UniSA which provides a more nuanced account from teachers at the chalkface,” she said.

According to this research, says Graham, Australian students are generally cooperative and only a small percentage of them engage in deliberately disruptive behaviour.

Dr David Armstrong of Flinders University disputed the report’s claim that teachers need more training in behaviour management and techniques for teaching reading, such as phonics, pointing to research from Australia, the UK and the US.

“The research suggests that attempts to improve children’s academic performance through managing their behaviour can backfire,” he said.

“They often lead to a punitive cycle of intervention and teacher frustration until the situation escalates to exclusion. Children who have a disability, who are from disadvantaged backgrounds of have a mental health difficulty often suffer most in these circumstances.”

Armstrong says that during a recent study on mental health, many academics expressed concern that child mental health was being “crowded out” of the curriculum by instruction on how to control children’s behaviour so that they performed academically, or by a focus on literacy or numeracy.

“The ‘behaviour management’ concept is outdated and requires urgent reform in favour of modern research-informed perspectives from developmental psychology and behavioural science,” he said.

“Framing children as mini-performers in a competitive academic environment is also counterproductive for the academic performance of many typically-developing children and adverse for their psychological welfare.”

However, Professor Pamela Snow of La Trobe University says the CIS report makes some important points.

“The ongoing debate concerning uneven and in some cases, disappointing reading skills of Australian children typically comes back, in large part, to the way children are taught to read in the early years.

“The extent to which children arrive at school with a well-developed language ‘toolkit’ is extremely variable – hence it is critical that teachers are knowledgeable about these aspects of language and how to promote them as the basis for the transition to literacy.”

Snow said, consistent with the CIS report, evidence from Australia and overseas consistently shows that teachers as a group have inadequate explicit knowledge of the structural aspects of language.

“Approaches such as ‘balanced literacy’ are eclectic rather than systematic and so leave much to chance and individual interpretation in early years classrooms,” Snow said.

“My experience working with teachers at a postgraduate level is that they do not feel well-prepared to understand and respond to the challenging behaviours displayed by students with complex underlying emotional / mental health needs.”

Snow pointed out that emotional self-regulation, attention, and academic achievement are closely inter-connected in the early years.

“We do teachers and their students a great disservice when we do not provide explicit pedagogy, coaching, and support in evidence-based ways to address these fundamentals in the early years’ classroom,” she said.

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