Designed Learning & Designing Learning

Optimism & Caution: Potential NSW support for Literacy and Numeracy

by Gail Brown | August 15, 2021
Optimism & Caution: Potential NSW support for Literacy and Numeracy

NSW Department of Education recently released news about new positions for supporting the use of evidence-based research for literacy and numeracy instruction in schools. This is a sign of hope for change – if these support positions are filled by educators or academics, or some combination, who have deep knowledge of both evidence-based research, building relationships and communication skills, particularly active listening.

We can all learn much from Indigenous Australians about learning through yarning and Dadirri. According to Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr-Baumann, 2021 Senior Australian of the Year, Indigenous Australians respect all voices and actively listen to understand where all people are coming from. All educators need to listen to each other, with respect and an open mind, and understand that we all have strengths and weaknesses, and learn to be more effective in their schools.

The key to these new positions is deep knowledge of evidence-based research in literacy and/or numeracy, as well as effective, explicit instruction (Pearson, 2021;Sweller 2021). Teachers are experts at the skills and knowledge they teach their students – so they are often on “automatic pilot” and using shortcuts – which is what we all do every day (Willingham, 2021).

The issue is that student are novices – and need teachers to break down the curriculum into small chunks of information and simple strategies (Kirschner & Hendrick, 2020;Sweller 2021). These new positions of “experts in literacy and numeracy” need this deep knowledge of how we all learn (National Academic of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, 2018).

Teachers need professional learning around these concepts, and as learners they need to reflect on what their strengths and weaknesses are. These new positions are critical for providing that support – they cannot be just “an extra pair of hands” or “a school leader already in a school” or the “school’s most loved casual teacher”, as has happened with some previous educational system initiatives.

We need educators with this deep knowledge of learning, effective explicit instruction and evidence-based research. More than ever in the context of the pandemic and lockdowns, our students and our teachers need this support from those with this deep knowledge.

Caution is needed, that we don’t start another series of “reading wars” or arguments about learning. We need a consensus from all stakeholders in education: teachers, academics, researchers, school leadership, parents and students that the way forward is to provide effective, explicit classroom instruction in literacy and numeracy. Such instruction uses evidence-based research, local data-based decision-making and professional judgements around student needs with ongoing monitoring. Effectiveness will be determined by multiple forms of evidence of student learning – together with teacher professional learning.  

If the system can fill these new positions with effective, informed educators, possibly working with academics, using this deep knowledge about learning and evidence-based research, then we can all be optimistic about potential improvements. Like all learning, this is a long, step by step process, and our students deserve the best instruction and curriculum we can provide. Let’s hope these new “expert” positions are an investment in learning at all levels and a positive way forward.

Kirschner, P.A. & Hendrick, C. (2020). How learning happens: Seminal works in educational psychology and what they mean in practice. Routledge, Taylor & Francis: New York.

New South Wales Department of Education. (2021). New teaching experts to lift literacy and numeracy, News Press Release 13 August, 2021, Accessed on https://education.nsw.gov.au/news/latest-news/new-teaching-experts-to-lift-literacy-and-numeracy

Ungunmerr-Baumann, Miriam-Rose. (2021). Acceptance speech, Senior Australian of the year. Available at: https://www.australianoftheyear.org.au/recipients/miriam-rose-ungunmerr%20baumann/2322/

Willingham, D. (2021). Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom, Second Edition, Jossey-Bass, Wiley: Hoboken, New Jersey.


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