Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Guest post: Tiger by the Tail

The parlous state of ‘Aboriginal education’ was highlighted again with the release of the NSW Auditor General’s report on the failure to meet the ‘closing the gap’ targets. The report also makes the point that there are a good many Indigenous students who can read and write as well as their non-Indigenous peers.  This is something to be celebrated. But, as many have said before, the problem is that the ‘tail’ of underachieving students is very long (and muscular).

Why is lifting the literacy (and numeracy) level of the majority of Indigenous students such an intractable problem?  It is clear that there are instructional issues stemming from the fact that education systems are not necessarily committed to mandating that proven approaches to the teaching of reading be used in their classrooms.  Even if they were, the teacher training institutions do not necessarily turn out teachers who know how to teach reading effectively. This is a problem for all young Australians and it seems to be a matter of ‘luck’ whether you will be taught to read effectively or not in one of the nation’s classrooms. But that is an argument for another day. 

We consistently read that the poorest performing students are Indigenous students who live in remote and very remote areas of our country. Here the likely instructional inadequacies are overlaid by the myriad problems that are inherent in these ‘hard to staff’ areas.  High rates of staff turnover, young and inexperienced staff, weather events (like cyclone Larry), fresh food shortages, vast distances to be travelled, road closures, lack of replacement staff, lack of housing for school staff (and the list goes on), play havoc with delivering consistent and adequate teaching.

It does not take long in a remote community to come to grips with the enormous challenges that exist for anyone with a vision and passion for redressing this dreadful social ill; that generations of young Indigenous Australians are being relegated to lives devoid of the opportunities that are afforded by education.  We are presently failing to provide even a basic education to a sizeable minority of Indigenous students. At times this apparently intractable problem can seem quite overwhelming.

There is a solution to the provision of effective literacy instruction to these struggling students, however.  This comes in the form of the marriage of two forms of instructional technology. When one hears this term, most people think of computer hardware and its applications. But the instructional technology that informs how and what to teach predates the emergence of the information technology that most of us now take for granted. This form of ‘instructional technology’ forms the bedrock of the skills and expertise that special educators bring to the field of generic basic skills teaching.

Direct, systematic and explicit instruction that is evidence-based is what these students need to get on the road to learning success.  But how do we put those who know how to use such effective instructional technology in touch with the most needy students in remote and very remote areas?

With the advent of fast broadband technology (often excellent in these remote areas), and indeed the coming of the National Broadband Network, we are now able to by-pass all of the staffing and resourcing issues that have hampered the delivery of even the most basic schooling for so long.  We now have the means by which a struggling low-progress reader in, say, Aurukun, Coen, or Baniyala in East Arhem Land, can be taught to read directly, explicitly, systematically and intensively every day by a trained tutor or a teacher at the other end of a broadband connection.  An individual program may be delivered in this one-to-one mode thereby meeting the idiosyncratic needs of each student.

We have been trialing such an approach in Multilit and are confident that it can deliver the instruction that these students most urgently need.  The cost of providing such a service is a grain of sand compared to the desert of costs that are required to attract, retain and maintain staff in these remote areas.  All that is required at each end is a computer, a camera and a headset (also reducing some of the problems of ‘white noise’ in a classroom for students with hearing impairment) and a student ready to learn. Moreover, the integrity and fidelity of the instruction can be assured as monitoring such instruction from the ‘hub’ is easily done.

When we first started our work on Cape York in 2004, a skeptical local educator of some stature said to me, “So….. you’re going to catch the tiger by the tail, are you ?”.  I took it as a challenge. Our subsequent years of work on the Cape confirmed that we could in fact get students moving and learning to read using scientific evidence-based methods, such as are employed in our MultiLit programs.  The logistics around the human element of the exercise was the really challenging thing – we knew what to teach, and we did it. The students learned.  We got the results.

Some seven or so years later, we can now see a way of delivering effective and intensive instruction to the large numbers of students who need it. As a society, we will be judged, quite rightly, by our failures not our successes in the years to come. It is time to grab this tiger firmly by the tail.

Dr Robyn Wheldall (Beaman) is an Honorary Fellow of Macquarie University and is a director of MultiLit Pty Ltd. Email: robyn.wheldall@multilit.com

[Thanks to http://www.free-predator-pics.com for image.]

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