When you’re starting on your Science of Learning journey — or even if you’re mid-stream — it can feel quite lonely. Perhaps your school provides feel-good but ultimately ornamental professional development. Perhaps you’ve discovered the Science of Reading when everyone around you is cueing everything but letter sounds. Every bit of new knowledge comes from your own personal commitment to learning, mixed in with a bit of happenstance. There’s an organisation that arose for people just like you, and it has well outgrown its humble beginnings. I spoke to founder Nathaniel Swain about the growth and need for a group like Think Forward Educators.
For the benefit of those who might not know, can you give me a little bit of background about how the network started? Where was the need?
Think Forward started as a group of teachers and other educational professionals coming together and really just trying to talk about the disconnect between research and practice. We had a big focus on language and literacy to begin with. We were based in Melbourne and it was really just getting people into a room to talk about the frustrations that we were probably all experiencing in our various roles in high schools and primary schools and other sorts of settings.
Back then, our discussion was particularly around the Science of Reading and how it was very difficult to get traction and to change things in schools to reflect the science that we know is the best way to teach children to read and write. But then it's branched out much further than that because the pedagogical issues cut across all curriculum areas.
What's happened is Think Forward's now a national community and somewhat international in some ways too. We have a really broad group of people that come together to discuss matters of practice and share stories of success and frustration. We're really hoping to become a bit of a lighthouse for people to find an entry point to the Science of Learning and the Science of Reading.
Our mission really is to try and use that evidence and that research to improve outcomes for those kids that typically aren't benefiting very much from the status quo — kids who are marginalized in different ways who are experiencing socioeconomic or educational disadvantage and for whom this work is just fundamental for making the connections between their home experiences and what they need to be able to do to succeed in our modern society.
There tends to be a narrative around this type of instruction only being for people who are suffering from disadvantage or students with learning difficulties. What would you say to people who think that Science of Learning is just a saviour mode of instruction?
I think there are a few points there. You get into a trap if you say it's for one group over another. We've tried to push the social equity aspect because we know that it has such a big power to level out the disadvantages that students start their school and career with. I guess when you emphasise that too much or say this is particularly beneficial for students with learning difficulties, there's a big uproar, even though it doesn't make sense to me. People might say, "Oh, but what about the high-achieving kids?” or “What about the kids that would've learned in any way — why should they have to sit through lessons that we're not very happy with or that don't align with our philosophy?” This might be more of a progressive education sort of view.
I think that the term progressive education is a bit loaded because it's really a certain take on what education should be like that has been wrapped up in a progressive education movement. And really a lot of what we're trying to do, which is use education for building equity within the education system and beyond, is actually a really progressive goal. A lot of our members have a range of different political views and are in education for a range of reasons, but many of them actually want to see their students performing and improving their life chances no matter what their background.
Then on the other side, if you say, "Oh, look, this has worked well in this school," if that school doesn't happen to be markedly disadvantaged, the critique from the other side might be, “But that doesn't work for disadvantaged kids,” or “That's only for privileged schools to get a mode of instruction like that working.” So you actually get both critiques on both sides at the same time.
The answer to both, which is convenient for the people who've seen this work in action and can see the potential of it, is that it actually works for everyone. Good instruction, good teaching, good curriculum planning, and good assessment is actually beneficial for all learners because there are some fundamental things about the way learning works, and the way that novices move to intermediates and then to experts, that is true for all learners. When things are explicit and when things are mapped out in a thoughtful way, when the leaps between those steps in terms of novice to mastery become more achievable for students through that really well-thought-out explicit and supported instruction, then everyone benefits.
Ironically, you'd think that doing that instruction would actually make it too easy or boring, or wouldn’t extend those ones at the top. In fact, we've found in our experiences at Brandon Park Primary and stories from other schools that when you have all those steps there, you actually get those students just going further with it. The ones at the top are actually just going further and further, so rather than just having an intuitive sense of their mathematics or an intuitive sense of grammar and how to manipulate it for writing, they actually have a very explicit and astute awareness of those concepts and can manipulate them with even greater creativity and control over their learning, which they wouldn't have had if that wasn't spelled out for them.
So their learning may have been left to chance or their own talent? I see, so it’s more like talent discovery on the part of the teacher.
Well, yeah, talent discovery when in fact they may well be already quite talented and the teacher can't take a lot of credit for that. But they hopefully will be pushed further to challenge themselves and to think, "Why is it like that?" They become more curious about the mathematical system, or the knowledge in science, or literature, or whatever it might be, because it’s good explicit teaching which actually gets expertise flowing from a knowledgeable other, whether that's a peer or a teacher, to a less knowledgeable self.
Then that's the process of learning that we want to see, not endless hours of self-directed learning which in many cases is just floundering around. The self-directed approach reflects the view of trying to do what's natural or what feels better as an educator. But it's actually leaving a lot to chance and it's also leaving a lot of students to probably keep doing the same thing every day without a lot of challenges.
Why do you think secondary's been a bit slower on the uptake of Science of Learning?
I think it's a lot more complicated. The other issue is I think that within secondary there's the sense of faculties and disciplines that teachers are in charge of. They might not see themselves as teachers of particular students, but more as teachers of particular subjects. As a result, they might not want to move outside of that box or think about literacy or numeracy within their subject area unless it's actually mandated or actually prescribed as something that they have to do.
Getting that traction to improve those fundamental educational outcomes that are going to set students up for success in those later years of secondary school and university is a lot harder because you actually have to get teachers to care about it. Whereas in primary school, that's sort of done for you because their wheelhouse is getting literacy and numeracy happening.
I think it's a complicated space. It's easier in primary to see things clearly and to see the enormous potential of getting things right in the first and second years of school. You can see a huge boost and you can also level out those differences really quickly because there is a massive amount of growth between the first to the third year of school.
If you help close those gaps early, you can actually have a cohort that's very cohesive in itself as a group of learners and a group that you can more easily cater to. In secondary school, the chasms can be vast. It's potentially seven years of difference or six years of difference between your highest and lowest-performing students when they're in front of you.
If this is resonating with you, consider taking 4 seconds to complete the poll, and consider joining Think Forward. A discrete secondary stream of guest webinar presenters, network meetings and resource-banks are being created for secondary teachers and leaders with people like you in mind. No matter what your level of experience, there is support and learning available for everyone.
Yes - it is has concerned me that the science of learning/reading conferences and pds I have attended in the last 2 -3 years have been largely attended by primary teachers. Secondary schools are picking up 'high impact strategies' and are beginning to take interest in cognitive load theory and its implications for high school students but it would be fantastic to have a forum that was aimed at secondary school teachers and the complexities of that situation.