Phonics, Experts and the Warriors for Freedom

It is unnerving to suggest it, and it is still early days, but Ben Carroll might be a very good Minister for Education. Carroll was righteously and rightly angry about the VCE exams screw-ups, on which basis Carroll instigated the excellent Bennett review. Then, a week or so ago, Carroll announced that the Government would be “putting explicit teaching in every classroom”, including that K-2 students in Victoria’s public schools will be taught reading “using a systematic synthetic phonics approach”. This is great news, which of course pissed off some people. Which is also great news.

The Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union responded to Carroll’s mandate with a furious statement:

The Minister’s announcement of this major change to mandate explicit teaching in all classrooms from the beginning of 2025, including systematic synthetic phonics approach for all Prep to Year 2 students, without any consultation, demonstrates his lack of respect for the teaching profession, who must be at the centre of any decisions around teaching and learning. No other profession would be treated with the breathtaking disregard the Minister has shown.

Um, perhaps because no other profession has so much lost the plot?

To fail to understand that explicit teaching is already occurring across classrooms every day and that a range of teaching strategies to teach reading, including phonics are required in the current curriculum, shows that the Minister has an inadequate grasp on work already undertaken by teachers and the complexity of that work. 

Yes, “a range of teaching strategies”, some good and some nuts.

Teachers as professionals have and continue to develop deep pedagogical expertise throughout their careers, based on a detailed knowledge of the context in which they are teaching, the needs of the students in their classes which are increasingly complex, the curriculum and a deep understanding of how students learn in the subject areas they are teaching. 

Maybe ask some secondary school teachers how they regard primary school teachers’ “deep pedagogical expertise”.*

We last heard from the AEU when they were applauding the censoring of school libraries. It is impossible to take these clowns seriously. But the AEU were not alone.

A few days ago, The Age published an op-ed,

What mandated phonics means for Victoria’s haemorrhaging teacher numbers

The piece was written by Tom Mahoney, a mathematics and psychology teacher and an education PhD candidate. As does the AEU, Mahoney resents the Government telling teachers how to do their job:

Like any other profession, teachers value freedom and agency when it comes to doing the jobs they are trained to do. This includes determining the best methods to use when teaching their students core skills like reading. The methods applied change from year to year, class to class, moment by moment. It is one of the most rewarding parts of the job and why I love teaching so much. …

Carroll’s announcement simply further entrenches the existing (and arguably growing) disrespect for teachers’ professionalism and learned expertise, as it implies teachers aren’t doing their job right and that the righteous and mighty hand of the government is now stepping in to save the day.

Mahoney ties the loss of “freedom and agency” to the problem of dwindling teacher numbers and poor retention rates:

But taking away this freedom and introducing a blanket one-size-fits-all approach across the state is more likely to exacerbate the increasing exodus of Victorian teachers, especially those with years of experience behind them, than it is keep us. …

Stripping away even more agency from teachers is likely to make this increasingly bad situation worse. Introducing changes that mean leadership handing down more mandated material that teachers need to familiarise themselves with and incorporate in their practice means more leadership issues. More workload. …

We’d typically ignore such a silly op-ed. We have no desire to whack a teacher, even if a PhD candidate, in the way we would happily whack a big shot, a Sullivan or a Stacey or a Gniel. There are sufficient reasons, however, to make an exception and to address this nonsense.

First, to quickly respond to the premise of Mahoney’s op-ed, it is a straight fact that teachers, particularly primary school teachers, “aren’t doing their job right”. That may not be primarily teachers’ fault and of course teachers are invariably and unfairly the go-to whipping boys for all of education’s many ills. Nothing in Carroll’s mandate, however, needs to be taken as teacher-blaming, and if Carroll is implicitly blaming anyone it seems to me it is the leaders, the education academics and education bureaucrats, who spent decades digging us into this hole. But the end result is teachers teach, or don’t teach, and it is not being done right.

As for Mahoney’s claim that the Government mandating teaching practice is “more likely to exacerbate the increasing exodus of Victorian teachers”, Mahoney provides no supporting evidence and I very very very very much doubt that Mahoney is correct. For better or worse, teachers, like everyone, would prefer that their job were as clear and as straight-forward as possible. Of course it is intrinsic to teaching that there are very regularly detours and bumps in the road, and adapting to these must be accepted as part of the job. But that is not remotely an argument against paving a proper road as the fundamental way ahead. To imagine a significant number of teachers would object to being provided such a straight and solid road is, on its face, absurd.

We’ve been here before. A couple years ago, the Grattan Institute released one of their reports, on the current ad hocness of lesson planning, and calling for “comprehensive, high-quality curriculum materials”. Yes, really contentious, rocket science stuff. To which Mahoney co-authored a “livid” objection in an AARE blog post. Calling for decent textbooks or whatever was supposedly “disenfranchising the teaching profession” and would be “limiting the expertise of teachers”. All thoroughly ridiculous, as Greg Ashman also noted at the time.

There is something uncharmingly naïve, almost American, in Mahoney’s glorification of “freedom”. Sure, there is a definitional sense in which a lack of governmental constraints allows a teacher more freedom to teach how they wish. But, independent of the fact that this freedom also permits teachers to screw it up and that we all have a right to query this, the reality of this “freedom” is that teachers and schools are driving themselves nuts with such freedom, grabbing ideas and materials and programs from here, there and everywhere. It is exhausting for everyone, let alone the absurdity of suggesting such a stew of approaches, plenty of it snake oil, can result in a meaningful educational system.

There is an intrinsic tension between freedom and constraints, between automatism and automaticity. Too rigid a system rules out all but the rigidity, but a system of rules is also required for any properly free thought or action: the system, the structure that one tries to improve upon, is the basis of such thought and action.

No system of rules will be perfect and teachers will always be open to cheating, or at least they should always be open to cheating. If ACARA-VCAA is telling you that your Year 4 kids have to do some “statistics” garbage but the kids don’t yet know their times tables then the only professional and moral path is to tell ACARA and VCAA to go jump. But the existence of a proper structure, of a well planned and well made road, is what permits teachers to cheat in a measured and thoughtful manner. If the majority of time the majority of kids are progressing along the right road, the teacher then is much more likely to have the time and the energy to think properly about the bumps and the detours, and what they require.

Having said all that, I have a little sympathy for Mahoney’s position. I have a couple of concerns.

My first concern is that the government mandating of teaching practice may preclude the possibility of the truly brilliant but heretical teacher. I wrote of one such teacher of mine, in the 70s, and of the spirit of the times that broadly permitted it. Of course this culture also permitted truly awful and heretical teachers, but I think in sum this freedom was a clear plus. There are two things to note, however. The first thing is that the 70s, for all its educational permissiveness, was grounded by a solid sense of the purpose of education and by proper standards. That is no longer true and until it is again true the dangers of permissiveness will be much greater than the dangers of constraint. Secondly, one must keep in mind the aspects of teaching being disputed: it is a very different thing teaching reading to little kids than it is teaching Gerard Manly Hopkins to teenagers. The basics are different, and I’ll have a lot more sympathy with the position of Mahoney and his friends when Carroll begins mandating how to teach the Romantic poets.

My second concern is with Carroll’s, and all, appeals to “best practice” and “evidence based”. It was the “experts” who dug us into this hole, undoubtedly chanting the fashionable sciency terms as they dug. Are the current “experts” any more trustworthy? Is there any solid foundation upon which to make such strong claims to what is best practice and what is or is not based upon evidence?

Perhaps. The reading wars, in particular, have been fought for a long time and perhaps the hard academic work is slowly creating solid ground for the proper evaluation of ideas on education. But I’m sceptical. I’m sceptical, at least for now, that major decision-making on educational policy involves much more than common sense, or the lack of it, and the wielding of intellectual authority and institutional authority. But I also don’t care.

I don’t care whether Carroll has the evidence. I care whether Carroll is right. In this case, he is.


*) Then ask university lecturers about the secondary teachers.**

**) Then ask me about the university lecturers.

22 Replies to “Phonics, Experts and the Warriors for Freedom”

  1. What we are seeing is a power struggle. And a desperate effort to be seen as relevant. Particularly by the Victorian branch of the AEU, which lost all vestige of relevance and credibility after the last EBA.

  2. I was taught how to read in the early 1950s and was reading novels by age 6. Books taught me so much more, including grammar and comprehension. I think they did it better back then.
    Nowadays, not only does the initial teaching of reading leave a lot to be desired, but children are exposed to poor English everywhere, particularly with television. Politicians can’t put two sentences together without committing grammatical sins, and the ABC news is also a bitter disappointment, with barely a single sentence free of errors. We can’t even rely on novels to be written in correct English. Even proof readers do not seem to know how to construct a proper sentence, and rarely do authors use semicolons and colons correctly.
    Maybe I am too pedantic, but I prefer to think that anything I write is unambiguous.
    I gave up teaching in secondary schools when I was told not to mark what students wrote, but to grade them on what we thought they meant!

      1. Hilarious, black and true.

        (Questions without notice: If a student wrote

        …. = x – 2(x + 1) = x^2 – x – 2

        and x^2 – x – 2 is the correct answer, would you give that student full marks or deduct 1 mark? That is, would you mark on what the student obviously meant? Or on what they wrote?
        What about the student who consistently wrote the zero vector as the scalar 0?
        What if the student did these sorts of thing consistently throughout the assessment?)

        1. That depends on whether
          …. = x – 2(x + 1) or
          …. = x^2 – x – 2
          Sometimes students arrive at the right answer by incorrect reasoning
          There is a tendency to forget that equations are mathematical sentences. Should a student’s written solution, perfect in each and every detail, be equated to one with an error, even if that error was a minor slip? Is close enough good enough?
          I remember a spaceship, back in the ‘70s, which exploded seconds after takeoff, because someone forgot a minus sign. Seven astronauts died.

          1. The example I like to use when students get the right answer through incorrect mathematical reasoning but mewl and bleat when I give them zero is the following:

            Simplify 16/64.

            The answer is obviously 1/4 , which you easily get by cancelling the 6’s …

            (Question without answer notice: Find all other fractions of the form ab/cd that have this property).

            1. 19/95… but this will get off-topic very quickly, so…

              Students who cannot read questions properly are also those who cannot read their own answers to check for blatant errors such as NOT ANSWERING THE ACTUAL QUESTION.

              (For the non-teachers here, it is exam season)

        2. Would it matter whether the student made a slip of the pen (i.e. a typographical error?) or a mathematical error or “cooked it” because he knew what the result should be? It seems to be a judgment call by the teacher.

  3. Let’s start with some anecdotal evidence. I started teaching my children to read at a rather young age—my daughter was three, and my son was 1.5. I didn’t teach him; he simply, for his personal fun, repeated everything his sister did. I am an immigrant, and English isn’t my first language. I didn’t know how to teach a child to read in English. As it is in many different cases these days, the internet, specifically YouTube, can provide an answer. I found a video where a teacher was demonstrating all existing English phonics. It looked good to me. My pronunciation isn’t good enough, so this video helped. In over a year, both of my kids were reading even the difficult words.
    I have attached a sound file of my son reading at three and a half years old.
    I wasn’t aware of ‘phonics wars’ at school, but after reading Marty’s post, I went to the internet to learn a tad about it. Apparently, phonics were introduced in the UK in 2012 and not everyone was happy. Some individuals were making exactly the same statements as ‘PhD candidate’ in Marty’s post; however, Ofsted’s report published in 2022 indicates that the ‘[introduction of phonics brought] positive shift towards having all children reading by the end of key stage 1’. Today, at least in schools, nobody questions the ‘method of phonics’. There are, of course, questions in academia, but it is somewhat a different topic.

    1. The last sentence, even though you say it is a different topic, is perhaps right on in this case – there are plenty of academics (the Maths-Ed crowd is one of Marty’s favourites…) who make a life out of showing the rest of us how some new idea produces amazing results. Problem is, it has not been properly tested, the people who are tasked with the rollout are not given enough time to determine whether it works or not and, in the end it is school students who suffer when things do not work out.

      By this time, the academic has usually moved onto something else.

      1. There is a simple solution – school leadership should do mandatory PD in why all that glitters is not gold.

        There should be consequences for school leaders who impose the latest shiny new toy onto their school only for it to be discovered that it’s fools gold. It might make them think twice and interrogate more carefully the so-called evidence for the shiny new toy.

        As for these educational academics, two strikes and you’re out I say. They might think twice as well.

          1. Let’s all be thankful that learning to read by phonics is back. Unfortunately, there is still a whole generation of post students and teachers still stuck in the rut of incompetence

            1. I am very glad to see it back. Good schools never stopped the practice, but I suspect a few had to do it on the quiet.

              The parallels to the learning of times tables are quite remarkable and one can hope a similar decision follows…

                1. Marty, you’re spot on. I also feel that the phonics wars are nowhere near the multiplication tables wars. The most ‘bizarre’ argument against phonics I have seen is that children learn to read without understanding it. This argument is based on the fact that reading has improved dramatically since the introduction of phonics, but reading comprehension hasn’t—a very questionable causality chain.
                  Marty, I tried to attach the small audio file, but it didn’t work.

  4. Good post Marty. I was so cross with the AEU on this last week. How about thinking about what’s in the best interest of the kids?

    I was chatting to my mother about phonics recently. She raised four children and spent a lot of time reading and listening to us read as kids. She was also a textiles teacher. She described how she always felt the way she was taught in the 1950-60s was far superior to the 1980s methods. My seven year old son learns structured phonics from his fantastic state school teachers. He is now teaching me phonics and reading chapter books by himself after 18 months. Amazing how well he deciphers unfamiliar words. I know this is just an anecdote but the careful, structured and methodical phonics approach is working for us. Good to see the captain steering the ship.

    1. Aha ha. That’s funny, Jay 2. The Victorian branch of the AEU can’t even think about what’s in the best interests of teachers (the profession it’s meant to represent) let alone students.

      I greatly doubt whether the Victorian branch of the AEU actually cares about whether phonics is good or bad. I (and many other teachers I’ve talked to) believe it only cares about picking a fight to try and assert power and to try and look relevant. Only a fool or a rube would seriously believe the drivel it’s coming out with.

    2. I honestly reckon “thinking about the kids” is what’s wrong with the AEU. They’ve convinced themselves that they’re an all-purpose stakeholder in improving the education system, rather than an industrial organisation that looks after its members.

      And so they’d better have some expertise in curriculum and pedagogy. Why would they be talking about it all the time if they didn’t know anything?? That would be ridiculous right? Right??

      If they just saw their job as looking after their members – get us more money and less work, basically – and saved us their take on every ancillary issue, we’d all be a lot better off.

        1. Never hurts to not be an idiot.

          But the union folk are on average about as smart as a competent teacher. Probably a bit smarter. But institutions like unions (and schools) need to be robust to the inevitably mediocre people that staff them. And a lot of that comes down to discipline around the mission.

          1. Yes, but apart from being idiots, they are culture warriors. The Fricker censorship business was loathsome.

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