Every Student Podcast: Ben Jensen
Education researcher Ben Jensen talks to Mark Scott about how we can improve Australian students’ international report card.
Education researcher Ben Jensen talks to Mark Scott about how we can improve Australian students’ international report card.
Hi, I'm Mark Scott, Secretary of the NSW Department of Education. Welcome to Every Student the podcast where I get to introduce you to some of our great leaders in education. Today I'm in conversation with Dr Ben Jensen. Ben is the founder of an education consultancy, Learning First. Previously he was Director of the Grattan Institute School Education Program and before that with the OECD where he conducted international research on education policy and school and teacher effectiveness. Welcome Ben.
Thanks very much Mark.
Tell us about Learning First, what does that work involve?
We work with a number of systems, most states actually across the country and a number of systems around the world. We normally have long term engagements rather than short and sharp consultancies trying to what we call in a very broad term we are trying to connect policy to the classroom. Looking at school improvement agendas, leadership development, curriculum implementation issues and these sorts of things. We have been going for about six years now and it's going really well.
I made comment at the time of the PISA results and the saturation media coverage that ensued from all of that, that I thought the smartest article or the best thing that I read was written by you. PISA lands every couple of years, we have this great national conversation, everyone's an expert on education of course so we don't suffer from lack of views when those PISA results landed last year and they were challenging for Australian schools and Australian systems talk a little bit about how you interpreted those results.
They were disappointing results for everyone. Having worked at the OECD I know the PISA test really well.
Do you trust it? People are sceptical of it.
Yes, I think people are sceptical of all tests and I definitely trust PISA, I know the amount of work that goes into making it consistent and making it a quality test. It's also given the thing with testing is it's always expensive and it's always expensive to run and the most expensive part of a test is actually how it's marked and the PISA test is a very comprehensive test of basically problem solving abilities in mathematics, science and reading and it's incredibly comprehensive and the test development, the assessment and also the sampling design. I know there's a lot of talk about the sampling design how countries get to choose which schools but having been on the other side of this and see it happen it's completely random and it works. I really do trust the test, I think it's a very good consistent measure of performance.
Before we get to your analysis of Australia's results we have these testing regimes nationally NAPLAN and PISA, just talk a little bit about the differences between the two of them because in a sense I've had it explained to me that NAPLAN assesses the fundamentals, the building blocks of learning but you want to be doing well in PISA because it's taking how that learning is applied and particularly the deeper thinking skills that we want to be a product of education.
Yes and I think there is a key element of that that is very true in terms of because the PISA test is larger and has the ability to do so it actually gets into those deeper problem solving skills that requires students to apply their knowledge to real world problems whereas NAPLAN has a mix of both foundational and higher order skills. In terms of how long students sit it's a shorter test, the marking is much more automated than with PISA and these sorts of things so it has the foundational skills but it also has a real mix. We often hop into PISA's higher order and NAPLAN's foundational, PISA does the whole range and it's also one of those things where it gets back to my analysis of this as well we are really quick to say there are foundational skills and we separate them from higher order thinking skills where really NAPLAN has a big focus on reading comprehension, that's critical thinking. Reading, comprehension from about Grade 2 up is critical thinking skills which people normally associate with higher order but we very quickly basket NAPLAN into the "oh it is just the foundational and then it is higher order" where really the PISA results show we have problems across the board.
To summarise attention must be paid we should look carefully at the PISA results. You look carefully at the PISA results that came out at the end of last year. What did you think the lessons were for Australian education?
There's a few things. I think we as you said we jump very quickly to a lot of big policy conclusions and a lot of big policy implications and the big takeaway from me is that we have to change the way we develop and we talk about education.
We had a lot of ideas about how PISA was the product of maybe it was the Australian Curriculum's fault or some people have said technology even though there is no evidence around that. We talked about this agenda or that agenda and for me and the work we do I go back to well PISA focuses on mathematics, reading and science so what is actually happening in mathematics, reading and science classrooms and that is what we talked about in that article of going "we actually don't have great information about what is happening in those classrooms" and part of the reason why we work on such long term relationships with systems is I fundamentally believe that part of our problem is we always operate and discuss and debate at the higher level and that makes it much harder for teachers in the classroom because they get bombarded with all these requirements and all these things that they should and shouldn't do that are very very high level and policy and debate never says what does that mean for a classroom or rarely says that. That means it's all left to teachers who had to muddle their way through this, some do it really well, some struggle, most are incredibly overworked so how do we move this forward? What PISA said to me was we need to better understand what's happening in those classrooms.
Taking from that does that mean we need to be in a sense more prescriptive or provide more detailed support for teachers not just "this is the ground you should cover" but "this is how you should be teaching those subjects in a more detailed way?"
I think we definitely need to be more precise about what we do and provide more advice on a) what needs to be taught and then advice on how we teach that and what I think the big difference between where we have got to now as opposed to more prescriptive or a more precise approach is when we talk about teaching practice we normally talk about in a very general sense.
We've had a big push around teacher quality and a big push on evidence based practice over ten or fifteen years and what's been interesting when you sit back and look at that is the evidence around effective teaching practices are nearly all general pedagogy they are not subject specific and our focus on teacher quality and building the teaching profession has really become divorced from the curriculum. When we used to talk a lot about the different teaching practices that are differences in how we teach reading or differences in how we teach science and mathematics now we try and make it very general and for me getting back to there are real differences in how we teach science to how we need to teach mathematics and what needs to be covered so we just need to be more precise about that and offer that to teachers.
When you look at curriculum as it's developed and articulated into schools around the world is there a level of precision around that advice and a level of precision around good pedagogy in different subjects that is not in evidence in the way we construct Australian curriculum?
Yes I think that is a really good point and it's really interesting. If you look at the systems that are above us on those international assessments so if you look at Finland, Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong and so on they provide much more support to teachers around the precise nature of what needs to be taught and how it needs to be taught. Teachers don't have to follow that and they can adapt, adopt, they can ignore if they want in some cases although that depends on the country but we keep it at a very high level. We demand a lot more of teachers in terms of choosing, developing instructional materials. We provide a lot more of teachers in prioritising the curriculum, what needs to be fit in. Since the Australian Curriculum came out over almost a decade ago we hear a lot from teachers how do I fit all this content, how do I fit the breadth of the curriculum into my school year?
Why do we do that? Why is that a hallmark of Australian curriculum that lack of in a sense there has been a debate here in New South Wales that the curriculum is very crowded and you have got to cover a lot of ground but that lack of support or prescriptiveness around how to teach it why has that not been a hallmark of Australian curriculum?
It is a really interesting point and we have been trying to work this out for a while now and it has been a slow evolution because we used to be. If you go back twenty or thirty years we used to be a lot more specific about these things. I think it's a few things, one we had the big autonomy agenda in Australia, it started in Victoria in the 90s under the Kennett government and that really pushed school autonomy.
So states going off on their own?
Not just states but schools and teachers but we were very imprecise about autonomous over what and mixed in with that became this notion of I think this notion of you are a true professional if you do it all yourself. Teacher professional status got conflated with autonomy and those two things actually meant that when we go into discussion about supporting teachers if you provide more precision around support to teachers then you're actually impinging on their autonomy.
Which is kind of perverse when you think of other professions as well. You can imagine someone putting up one of these towers around Sydney that the engineers unilaterally decide that the stress levels or the load base that they are putting into that building are going to be different to set industry standards. There was a famous case over at St. Vincent's Hospital where a doctor unilaterally changed the doses of chemotherapy because he thought they were a bit high which got that doctor into significant trouble because there are clearly agreed industry standards or professional standards of what works which everyone is expected to follow but that hasn't been a hallmark of education.
No and I think what is interesting is I think it is more so in some countries. No one has done a great study of measuring status of the profession when we normally think of places like Finland, Singapore, some parts of Canada as having much higher professional status for teachers than it is in Australia and they all provide much more support to teachers around what should be taught, what should be prioritised in the curriculum and how to do it. They will provide much more resources. It doesn't mean teachers are forced to do it, no one is standing there saying you must do this but as you say given an example of some other professions we somehow have this notion that you are only a professional if you do it all yourself, if you not only take the blood test but design the blood test as well.
And then analyse it under the microscope yourself.
Whereas other professions and other countries provide much more support and then I think build the teacher. What I find really interesting about that is when you leave it all to teachers the only way you think that is actually building the profession is if you believe that teaching is a whole lot easier than it actually is. If you believe teaching is just general pedagogy, if you believe teaching is pretty straightforward and it's really about classroom management and just caring about kids if that's all teaching is then yes then you can leave it all to teachers. If you believe that it's a true profession that requires incredible expertise then of course you provide support and that's what other systems do.
One of the interesting things that I see in this debate coming from our position in New South Wales is I get into a lot of conversations where people talk about different contexts that a school is not a school is not a school depending on the environment of the community that it is serving, the background of the kids, the prior levels of attainment of the kids, the complexity that they're bringing from home that schools are pretty different places and so you need to be tailoring in a sense to meet the needs of kids in local context. There is a bit of reluctance to come in from a corporate office and be quite prescriptive about it is this way not that way and in a sense to be seen to be overrunning the expertise of the locals. There is this scepticism about the centre telling if you like. How do good systems deal with providing that material and providing that expertise but also recognising that you want there to be strong engagement locally around adapting that?
That is a real issue for systems and how to manage that.
I wonder if it's a hallmark of Australian systems because Australian systems are so big. If you look at our system here in New South Wales if you dropped it into the US a bit smaller than New York City system, bigger than any other system in the US but of course our geography is absolutely vast and so there is such a big system and such diversity within it is even harder to codify or recommend.
That is definitely true and when you look at most of North America with all those school districts and so on but I think it is really important and this goes back to the autonomy agenda so what needs to be adapted? When you actually start to pull that apart you go well actually kids need to learn pretty much the same things, it is not like mathematics is different in a poor regional town as opposed to a wealthy suburb. Effective pedagogy is generally effective pedagogy and then we start to pull it apart actually what is different and school culture is different, you will have different requirements with kids coming in, health, local issues and so on and they require adaptation there is no doubt about that.
When you get down to the nuts and bolts of teaching and learning you will find that most classes have a range of students with different ability levels, you will find that some classes of course have a whole lot of students from non-English speaking background to a particular need and so on but that is a large number of schools face that.
You actually start to pull it apart and once you get into the weeds you find it you say well actually there is a whole lot of teaching and learning that is common across the system and if we provide more resources and precise support for teachers in those areas you will create a base that enables greater adaptation. In actual fact by not being prescriptive we say actually you go and work this out so while you are dealing with all that adaptation you have got to go and spend about fifteen hours a week developing curriculum instructional materials because we don't do that for you or you have got to choose it from somewhere.
If we provide that we enable greater adaptation rather than standardisation.
You are saying really that systems around the world that provide in a sense more detailed and more structured curriculum support that is not seen as an attack on the status of teachers or a lack of trust of teachers but it is almost liberating teachers to what they can do best in the local context.
In the teachers that you talk to do you feel that they are crying out for a better more detailed level of support for systems around curriculum?
So yes, there is always variation amongst a system, there is always some people that say we don't need it but in general teachers we work with are dying for more support. There is a few aspects through this one is "why do we have to reinvent the wheel", "why are you asking us to rewrite a curriculum and also the school down the road and the school after that and the school after that surely there is a best in the world that we can use because we have all this other stuff to deal with". Another one is new teachers just out asking in disbelief "why are you asking me to write a curriculum on my first year of teaching", "how on earth do you think is the best way to run a system?" The other one is teachers teaching other subjects, teacher overloaded with everything.
I often think the debate being very general, very high level is that we forget with our primary schools we are asking teachers have expertise across a large number of subjects and that requires so much expertise in curriculum, subject knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge and so on. The ask on primary school teachers in particular is just so huge that they just often throw their hands up and say "what do you want me to do?"
Going into that a bit more. PISA looks at fifteen year-olds, often focuses the debates on high school and there is a lot of debate and conversation on high schools and even policies like HSC minimum standard, if you look at the decline in the number of students reaching minimum standards is they progress through NAPLAN through to Year 9. Do you think we are letting primary schools off the hook? Do you think there should be more of a focus on the outcomes that we are seeing and what our expectations should be around primary schools?
Totally and I think that feeds into a number of things a) that curriculum issue that we were just discussing but I think there is also an issue around the status and attention we pay primary education. Historically secondary school teachers always had much higher professional status than primary school teachers. It was only a couple of decades ago that it paid quite a bit more. Also we just I think it's very easy to assume that we get primary school right and it is just in secondary school that we have problems because they are more manifest and more tangible once we get to secondary school.
The international testing shows PISA, TIMMS and PIRLS, PIRLS looking at Grade 4, TIMMS is going through from primary through to secondary we have got a large number of students not meeting minimum standards all the way through. We know the pay offs are in early education in terms of return on investment but I think we just throw so much at primary schools to do rather than actually realise it is very very difficult, we ask so much of primary school teachers.
Go back to the kind of support that we give to schools because I have a pet hypothesis that not everybody may agree with is that schools and teachers are getting support from somewhere it is either being provided by the department or it is being provided by somewhere else. I must say I do go into schools and say why this reading program, why this writing program, why this maths program and usually they will have seen it somewhere, they knew somewhere where someone said it worked, it is very much kind of anecdotal but you don't always get a sense that it has been a highly discerning selection tailored for the context rather than word of mouth recommendation almost like read this book I enjoyed it.
Are you saying that departments like the Department of Education, organisations like NESA really should be doing that analysis of what works best and presenting out to schools in a sense of well we think from where you are this is what you need to be thinking about and looking about and this is in a sense a range of tools and resources that we think would work best for you but putting some guiderails around that?
Yes and no. I definitely the feedback that we get from schools and I see the same thing of people choosing programs. It's not necessarily based on evidence because the evidence just isn't available to schools to do that and it is also time when we ask them to do so much or I have got Sunday afternoon I'm choosing my materials so what do you really expect me to do? I can't do a massive literature review. I think that gets back to, whether or not it is providing support to each individual school in terms of here are our recommendations for you or just saying at Grade 4 here are the resources available that we think are high quality.
I think in terms of providing that support or that detailed resources for teachers it doesn't necessarily have to be the department or NESA developing the resource and providing it but it is actually understanding there is a big marketplace out there that people go to so provide guidance to schools on what is considered high quality or not. There are organisations in other countries that evaluate the marketplace. If this is a commonly used program or textbook then we are going to have a look at it and say it says it is Grade 4 but actually those texts aren't at grade level or that reading approach actually doesn't suit the evidence and it is up to you but we are going to make it clear to you what is good and bad about that program.
The nation's education ministers have agreed to establish a National Evidence Institute. What would be your priority work for a National Evidence Institute?
Exactly that, basically going through the instructional materials, the commonly used instructional materials in schools and evaluating them and then providing that information to schools. When it is Sunday afternoon and teachers are trying to work out what to teach in the next unit they can go to the National Evidence Institute website and see what has been evaluated and what are the strengths and weaknesses.
At the moment when you go and look at all the programs, resources and so on that are available there is no real indicator of quality and if we can provide that evidence to teachers about what they will be teaching next week I think that will be a massive step forward.
As we wrap up I just want to loop back to PISA. It shows a twenty year decline, it shows significant challenges in every state and territory and government and non-government schools. One of the questions is a particular fall at the top quartile any thoughts on what is happening there? We have had a big focus on equity in disadvantaged students and I want to speak about that in a minute but why the top quartile what is that saying to us?
There are a few hypothesis around. There is obviously a big discussion in that high order and critical thinking but I think there are a few things that happen one is in the transition from primary school to secondary school, I speak to a lot of primary schools that have really advanced students in Grades 5 and 6 but they are struggling with well what do we teach these students? What are the appropriate text, materials to teach these students rather than just hold them back? Get in that early secondary space schools are confronted particularly Year 7 and 8 with a very large range of ability students and so they concentrate on the middle and it's just really hard to extend those.
I should just add to that I think this is a question that Geoff Masters has been wrestling with the NSW Curriculum Review and there were some anecdotes that came back to him about students who are ready to press on and just how hard it was for teachers in a context to be able to extend some kids whilst dealing with the majority of students in the class and also our new policy around highly talented students is really an attempt to make sure we are putting material at the classroom teachers to support that.
Finally the PISA challenge does show the gap, the equity challenge, we are putting more money into needs based funding, I don't think there is a system in the country that doesn't want to lift the performance of students particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds but it is still a pretty sobering report card in what we are seeing in PISA.
Yes I found it really difficult when PISA was released that there wasn't more discussion about equity. The equity angle or the equity issues in Australian education are pretty frightening, not that they exist but also that they are just increasing so much and that has been part of our focus on trying to get really high quality instructional materials available to teachers because the evidence shows that actually has a big equity impact, that is really helpful for those students at either end of the spectrum. If you provide the instruction materials it really does address that question of I have this ability range what do I teach these students at either end of the ability range? I think there is something there.
This also gets back to our issue arounds primary school of disadvantaged or lower achievement starts very early and our equity problem manifests itself in secondary school but it begins in primary school. I know we talk a lot about early childhood and we should but we are actually not talking enough about how we support teachers, primary school teachers, to provide the level of teaching and learning required of the NSW curriculum in this case or the Australian curriculum more broadly.
I think it goes to what Andreas Schleicher said to me after the last PISA rounds "you think you have a needs based system here in Australia but you are yet to be able to demonstrate you can get your very best teachers and your very best principals in front of the students in greatest need". If you put a map over the PISA results or the NAPLAN results we know it's children in rural areas, remote areas and the most disadvantaged areas of our big cities that are in greatest needs but anyone who runs a big system will say that those schools are often the hardest schools to get staff to particularly experienced staff to. Often you have very new teachers in front of very challenging kids who need a lot of support and your hypothesis is that the support is not being provided in the most useful form for them.
Ben thanks so much for your time today, thanks for the work that you are doing with Learning First and your continued advice to me and a number of other leaders across Australian education. We have enjoyed chatting with you today.
We are going to put up a link to your Australian article that you published at the time of the PISA results which I am sure listeners today will enjoy exploring. Thanks for joining us Ben Jensen.
Thanks a lot Mark.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Every Student. Never miss an episode by subscribing on your podcast platform of choice or by heading to our website at education.nsw.gov.au/every-student-podcast or if you know someone who is a remarkable innovative educator who we could all learn from you can get in touch with us via Twitter at NSW Education on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks again and I will catch you next time.
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