Disciplined approach will improve school results

by Julie Sonnemann

Published by the Australian Financial Review, Monday 6 May

Contrary to public perceptions of chalk-laden blackboards and change-resistant teachers, our schools are awash with innovation. If anything, we have too much of a good thing. What Australia needs now is more disciplined innovation – greater investment in small-scale trials and rigorous evaluations to help inform teaching practice across the nation.

Two key forces have led schools to where they are today. First, increased school autonomy with less system support means there is now large variation in teaching practice, with many teachers doing their own thing behind closed doors. Many scattered, small, and original practices are being implemented, but they’re not being systematically evaluated. Some of these innovations could provide the seed to future improvement, but many may not.

Second, schools are shifting from a narrow focus on teaching academic knowledge and skills to more general capabilities, such as creativity, the ability to interact positively with peers or persevere in the face of difficulty. These non-cognitive skills are vital for success in work and later life, but we still know little about how to measure or even teach them. A lot of teachers’ time is spent on well-intentioned by unproven approaches in this area.

Some innovations show promise, but only when implemented carefully. One American digital maths program is proven to help students learn maths faster, but only by integrating computer software with individualised help for struggling students. Many other computer assisted maths programs have been shown to have no effect on student learning.

Other innovations, such as peer tutoring programs in primary schools, show mixed results. And many popular ideas, such as ‘aspiration interventions’ that aim to lift students’ ambitions without actually improving their skill levels, have struggled to pass heavy scrutiny.

If every teacher or school is acting as ‘the inventing scientist’, the pace of innovation slows and resources are diverted from other more meaningful activities. We need a school system that stops poor practices and spreads proven ones, as discussed in Grattan Institute’s 2017 report, Towards an adaptive education system in Australia.

The important part of innovation is to select what works best, not just to try something new. Governments need to invest more in small-scale trials and rigorous evaluations, rather than expecting all schools to figure it out themselves.

Of course, teachers are not technicians who implement one-size-fits-all educational ideas, but professionals required to look for solutions to complex student needs. The latest research tells us that very different teaching models can work, depending on context. But this means teachers need more, not less, access to the best evidence on the range of options available.

To help, governments should do three things.

First, spend more on small-scale research and experimentation, where innovations are rigorously evaluated in a small number of schools before being rolled out more broadly. This means more randomised controlled trials, quasi-experimental research and longitudinal studies. The health sector does it. Schools should be no different.

Second, invest in research trials that not only examine the innovation, but the conditions that help teachers use and tailor the innovation to their context. Governments need to know much more about the how to spread good practices – for example, whether teachers need more detailed guidelines or more intensive face-to-face instructions to customize new approaches to different classrooms and students.  Governments should use these ‘implementation’ research findings to ensure teachers across the system have the right materials, support and incentives.

Third, governments need to do more to inform teachers and schools about the evidence on what works best in the classroom. The What Works Clearing House in the US shows what can be done. It makes research very accessible, and rates innovations on their impact, cost-effectiveness and results.

The Morrison Government and the Shorten Opposition are both committed to a new independent National Evidence Institute for schools. It’s a welcome advance, but the Commonwealth government and the states need to invest much more in research if we are to improve teaching practice.

Innovation can boost the education of our children, or it can be a waste a time and money. The challenge for governments is to stop the scatter-gun approach and provide the right structures for more systematic innovation in Australian schools.