As Australia’s education sector gears up for major reform, the age-old question of how to best teach students persists.
Recently, a number of educators and experts pushed for more play-based learning to encourage better academic and non-academic skills development.
The Gonski Institute of Education in particular has been promoting play-based learning as a way to keep children off electronic devices – another key issue being fiercely debated. More recently, however, play-based learning has been encouraged as a potential way to solve Australia’s student achievement crisis.
While there has been a push for children to explore and learn with minimal intervention, there may still be a space needed in schools to implement explicit instruction.
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said the government will now be including phonics in the national accreditation standards for initial teacher education in a bid to boost literacy levels among K12 students. Also being pushed is an “explicit, synthetic phonics instruction”.
Rinse and repeat
In an article published in The Conversation, John Sweller, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), pointed out how teachers providing explicit instruction – which uses highly-structured and sequenced steps to teach a skill – and feedback can be beneficial for students.
Emeritus Professor Sweller is one of the early pioneers of the cognitive load theory, which states that children can acquire “natural” skills such as their native language without need for schools or instruction while “biologically secondary knowledge” needs to be taught through explicit instruction.
The theory also supports the cognitive system that acquiring secondary information needs to be processed in a shorter-term, working memory before it gets stored in a long-term memory in order to reduce cognitive load.
To accomplish this, students may need to be shown how to solve a problem or see examples instead of being made to create a solution themselves to reduce their cognitive load.
“When solving a problem, you will inevitably consider a large number of possible moves, many of which do not assist in reaching the solution,” Emeritus Professor Sweller wrote.
“But when the solution is provided by a worked example, you are shown exactly which moves are relevant and you don’t have to consider a large number of alternative moves that lead to dead ends.”
Minimal supervision needed
Another expert points out that teachers need not hold their students’ hands all the time when it comes to learning, but only provide the opportunity for them to conduct experiments so they can learn by themselves.
In a separate article published in The Conversation, Luke Zaphir, a researcher for the University of Queensland’s Critical Thinking Project, wrote that constructivist pedagogy – wherein students are made to form their own hypotheses instead of teachers showing them what to do – is also being widely used for decades.
Zaphir also pointed out that the teaching style is being used to teach various subjects such as maths, humanities and sciences in various year levels, and even in universities and post-grad.
“Learning methods based on constructivism primarily use group work. The emphasis is on students building their understanding of a topic or issue collaboratively,” Zaphir wrote.
What works best
While endorsing the good points of the constructivist pedagogy, Zephir said explicit instruction can still be more appropriate in various scenarios, such as when it comes to teaching students with learning disabilities.
However, he cautioned that “the basic teaching standard includes a recognition of students’ unique circumstances and capabilities.”
But with the Federal Government and education sector being more focused on the outcomes of assessments and tests like NAPLAN, ATAR and even PISA, this may pose as a hindrance for teachers to adopt this type of pedagogy.
“Explicit instruction is more directly useful for teaching to the test, which can be an unfortunate reality in many educational contexts,” Zephir wrote.
“As an education philosophy, constructivism has a lot of potential. But getting teachers to contextualise and personalise lessons when there are standardised tests, playground duty, health and safety drills, and their personal lives, is a big ask.”