Privileging Scientific Evidence in Education: the New Zealand context

Yesterday I attended the first Research Ed conference in New Zealand. Together with four of my teaching colleagues I gave a presentation making the argument that we need to privilege scientific evidence if we are to fix our failing education system. Here is the text of my speech.

International and national statistics for NZ’s education system do not make comforting reading. The 2015 PISA results showed the reading scores for our 15 year olds declining and their maths and science scores in a trend of accelerated decline. PIRLS 2016 results (literacy) show that 10% of our 10 year olds cannot read simple instructions compared to 4% internationally. We continue to have an achievement gap for māori despite decades of effort.

What can we do about it? Last year I read an interview with Sir Peter Gluckman, NZ’s Chief Scientific Officer, in which he describes his efforts to convince politicians of the need to privilege scientific evidence over other forms of evidence in government decision making. I believe this approach is long overdue in NZ education – science gives us a set of processes with which we can objectively assess educational interventions and approaches, rather than follow the HIPPO effect (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion).

I will start with reading instruction. How children learn to read is probably the most well evidenced area of education. Since 2000 there have been 3 government level reviews internationally of the evidence around reading instruction – 2000 in the US, 2005 in Australia and 2006 in the UK. All three expert panels agreed that a particular form of phonics teaching called systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) is an essential early step in learning to read. In the UK, this was implemented in primary schools, along with a phonics check, resulting in sustained improvements in reading success for disadvantaged students. In New Zealand, SSP is unheard  of in our primary schools – we are 13 years behind the scientific consensus in reading instruction.

What about Maths? Since 1985 the Numeracy Project in primary schools, in which students are given multiple methods to solve one type of problem in an effort to deepen their understanding, has impaired student achievement in Maths. The importance of cognitive automaticity – memorising processes such as times tables and number bonds so that working memory is freed to think about more complex operations has been overlooked.

21st Century skills is a popular zeitgeist among educationalists in NZ.  The idea behind this is that because technology is changing so fast and we cannot predict what jobs our students might get, along with the fact that knowledge is outsourced to google, we must focus on teaching higher order thinking skills such as critical thinking, creativity and problem solving, instead of teaching subject content. Trouble is that since the 1950’s cognitive science has been showing that skills such as critical thinking and creativity are domain-specific. This means for example, that critical thinking in history is different to critical thinking in biology and each depends on a significant amount of knowledge in that subject.

Creativity also depends on the development of skills and knowledge in a subject. I show my Y11 Music students an interview with Ed Sheeran in which he expresses his annoyance at fans who tell him he is “so talented” when he was writing 5 or 6 original songs a day from the age of 15 to develop his song writing skills. His creativity depends on a huge amount of knowledge – how the elements of rhythm, harmony, timbre blend together with lyrics to make a hit song. The reliance of high order thinking skills on subject knowledge means they cannot be taught as generic skills.

What about the curriculum? Well in NZ we have a knowledge-lite curriculum with only two subjects, science and maths that have content specified for each year of school. There is a significant emphasis on developing generic skills. Trouble is, there are examples internationally of school systems that have gone down this route with damaging consequences for student achievement. In his book ‘Why Knowledge Matters,’ Ed Hirsch describes the rise and fall of the French education system as the result of a set of educational reforms in 1989. Prior to 1989 French primary schools had a prescriptive knowledge-rich curriculum in which every student of the same age was taught the same content. The educational reforms abolished this in favour of schools creating their own local curricula and a requirement to focus on generic skills. For the next 20 years, academic achievement entered a period of decline in which children of the working classes were the most impacted as they did not have educated parents to make up the deficit in knowledge. Interestingly children of more educated parents were also affected, just not as much.

What about teaching approaches, where does the evidence lie? I like to divide teaching approaches into two categories – direct instruction and indirect instruction. Direct instruction is where knowledge is directly communicated to students by the teacher, who carefully sequences and breaks it down into manageable chunks. The teacher uses worked examples, questions for feedback and to deepen understanding and provides fully guided practice. Indirect instruction covers approaches such as inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, independent learning and play-based learning, among others. The key idea is that if only we can set students to learning independently from the teacher in some way, they will be better off.

The weight of evidence lies strongly behind direct forms of instruction. It is supported by the results of the massive US study ‘Project Follow Through’ in the form of Englemann’s Direct Instruction, process-product research of the 70’s, PISA data on correlations between teaching approaches and achievement, and cognitive science in the form of Cognitive Load Theory. Cognitive Load Theory addresses the issue of students limited short term memory and how we need to allow for it in our teaching. It also established the ‘expertise reversal effect’ which shows that while direct instruction is the most effective for novice learners, forms of independent learning are more optimal for experts. Why does the NZ Ministry of Education promote inquiry learning as a best practice method of learning in primary schools?

Finally and perhaps controversially I would like to talk about māori achievement and culturalism. For decades now the NZ Ministry of Educations approach to closing the achievement gap for māori has been informed by culturalism. Culturalism holds that everything important about a person is determined by their culture. By this logic a māori student cannot achieve success academically without being fully located in their culture and any lags in achievement can be attributed to unconscious racial bias in teachers.

The most significant project to promote culturally responsive teaching was the Te Kotahitanga project. The Phase Three report for this project reports outcomes for implementation between 2004-2008. While significant improvements in student retention and affective outcomes occurred there is very limited evidence of improvement in academic outcomes. This suggests culturally responsive teaching is going to be insufficient to close the achievement gap for māori and it may well be that remedying our sub-optimal reading and maths instruction, using best evidenced teaching approaches such as direct instruction, and creating a knowledge rich curriculum will be required as well.


Footnote: Data sources, research referred to in the text provided by request.


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