On unchanging truths
When context does and doesn't matter
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of meeting Elena Douglas, CEO of Knowledge Society, at the inaugural Science of Learning Leadership Accelerator. She’s recently received a lot of positive press for being the design partner with Catholic Education Canberra Goulburn, developing and curating Australia’s first whole-system program of professional learning that is now transforming 56 schools into a Science of Learning network. As well as this, Elena runs Primary Focus, advocating for the kinds of changes in practice that will have the greatest impact on primary education, with huge knock-on effects for the broader economy. Elena is not an educator, but you would be hard-pressed to find someone who had a deeper understanding of the links between human cognition, school improvement and student outcomes. We spoke about everything from inquiry learning to the reading wars and her perspective is a fresh take on old debates.
After having designed the multi-year, multi-school program that Catholic Education Canberra Goulburn has used to turn its schools on to the Science of Reading, I thought Elena would be perfectly placed to comment on why the reading wars still rage. I recently heard someone claim that because results have not significantly shifted, phonics doesn’t work. People hold fast to their beliefs and unfortunately, the data – when cherry-picked – back their views.
Elena conceded, “We have a really complicated picture with reading because every state is at a different point in what it's implementing and what it's requiring of its schools and teachers.” She warned that it takes a couple of years of consistent systematic synthetic phonics delivery to see strong improvement. “Reading instruction and phonics instruction in particular need the pace and repetition – you can have very good programs very poorly delivered. The program has to be well delivered by someone who's actually had an instructional coach build up their capacity for high-impact teaching practice or explicit teaching. In the Canberra Goulburn project, we have been lucky to have the best literacy instructors and teacher educators you can find like Dr Lorraine Hammond complementing high-quality programs like InitiaLit.”
She talked about something I have coined as the ‘instructional soup,’ where legacy methods are intermixed with evidence-based structured literacy. It’s certainly a problem: “There are many schools where they haven't required that the teachers stop three cueing and stop the leveled readers and stop the practices for which there's no evidence base. Then you have the issue of schools continuing to measure the wrong thing. So, if you're measuring using running records, you're not assessing the right things.” Ticking the phonics box, it seems, is not enough to see results, and schools have a way to go before seeing real progress.
We turned to the myths of inquiry learning, an area I have written about often. I can be a bit strident at times, and I have been accused of being a little binary in my thinking. But Elena’s reflections on the values and attitudes driving inquiry learning gave me pause.
I seek to understand those who resist the role of explicit instruction and insist on inquiry learning. I think those of us who have succeeded in education get this amazing experience toward the back end of our school journey, where we’re really into the inquiry mode. Because you get the chance to build up knowledge over time, once you do that you can then move forward for yourself and it’s so delicious that I suspect it’s literally the memory of this feeling that sticks with people in education. And I think they just want to share what they have so enjoyed. So, it comes from a generous place, I think. But it ends up denying children the very delight they’ve enjoyed because if you don’t have enough background knowledge, you can’t elaborate and then inquire.
I know that feeling well, and I recognise myself as one of the lucky ones – someone who survived 13 years of fairly mediocre instruction, but with the support of a house full of books and a family who read and talked politics. Elena pointed this out as a real blind spot with many teachers, who often don’t see the origins of their capability as self-directed learners.
What they’re failing to appreciate is that we get to this stage by Year 10, 11, or 12. Our success as learners could be the product of good quality instruction that’s landed for us. The error comes from mistaking ends for means. This idea that the way you get to that delicious experience that we want for every child is to start with that experience is wrong-headed. It's kind of like saying a student can just write a better play than Shakespeare because someone says, ‘Just write something dramatic!’
We talked as well about Dylan Wiliam’s adage, ‘Everything works somewhere, nothing works everywhere.’ I’ve heard this phrase used to justify an almost limitless variety of approaches. Teachers can be reluctant to call out one approach as empirically better than another, but this polite relativism can be unhelpful and circular. I was curious to hear whether Elena believed that statement was still broadly applicable, or whether she felt that some approaches were bound to be more effective for most students.
Elena talked about cognitive load theory as being of “profound” importance, saying that the fundamentals of how students learn simply don’t change in individuals. She said that cognitive load theory “has to be at the center of every single thing. You have to come back to that. There's no context to change the need for designing instruction around the architecture of human cognition and memory.” She did note the changing skill and knowledge levels of the learner themselves, something that we all want to see in our students, saying, “I guess the context is the novice to expert progression. So, if your context is expert learners, you do things differently to what you would with novices. But that's another unchanging truth.”
Elena is driven to spread awareness of these ‘unchanging truths’ as far and wide as she can. Through Knowledge Society, she is running a second Science of Learning Leadership Accelerator, this time in Sydney. Speakers include a stellar line-up of leaders in their fields: Professor Anne Castles, Macquarie University Centre for Reading; Toni Hatten-Roberts, Director and Lead Consultant of COGlearn; Ross Fox, Director of Catholic Education Canberra and Goulburn; Professor Joanna Barbousas, Dean of La Trobe University Faculty of Education; and of course Elena and Simmone Pogorzelski of Knowledge Society. Renowned cognitive scientist Professor John Sweller whose research work has been central to the development of Cognitive Load Theory will be honoured at the conference dinner.
Very few professional development opportunities exist for leaders – from the titled to just the influential, or even the lone wolves – to develop a roadmap to the Science of Learning in their school. I highly recommend that you find your SOL tribe by applying.