Australian education is not keeping up

New Centre for Independent Studies research shows why the educational science must be more readily followed.

Authored by UNSW’s John Sweller, the research methodologically explains how we learn new information.

It shows that popular teaching approaches – including those endorsed in Australia’s proposed new curriculum – are based on outdated and debunked understanding of the learning process.

Rather than currently popular “student-directed” and “inquiry-based” approaches, the science shows teacher-directed, explicit approaches are decisively more effective for teaching new information.

And since schools spend much of their time introducing students to unfamiliar concepts, it follows that educators should mostly use a teacher-directed approach.

But despite this foundation in educational science, many Australian classrooms aren’t benefitting from effective, evidence-based teaching practices.

This is not a trivial matter, given the educational malaise faced in Australian schools.

Student achievement in the OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has declined more steeply and consistently than in any other country, bar Finland – where the curriculum also moved away from teacher-directed learning.

It’s difficult to dispute this may be a direct result of the increased popularity of student-directed approaches in schools, both there and in Australia.

Sweller is no intellectual lightweight. Over recent decades, he’s arguably done more than any person in the world to advance the science of how we learn.

The research he pioneered – especially what’s called “cognitive load theory” – provides key instruction for how to teach.

Put simply, since we’re limited in how much we can successfully digest when confronted with new information, we need to be stepped through it via more manageable chunks.

The teaching practice of explicit instruction is among the direct applications of this, seemingly abstract, principle.

Sweller’s findings are validated by wider studies, including PISA data.

This shows students do best when they receive mostly teacher-directed instruction, with a secondary role for inquiry-based approaches.

The evidence is not just reflected in research, but also increasingly in real-world practice.

For a growing number of educators, Sweller’s work has been a revelation – dramatically improving outcomes in classrooms of all shapes and sizes.

Relatively small, but active and expanding, communities of educators evangelically share evidence and practical lessons from applying Sweller’s insights to the classroom.

Influential British educationalist Dylan William offered a now famous endorsement in a 2017 tweet: “I’ve come to the conclusion that Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory is the single most important thing for teachers to know.”

However, many teachers sadly don’t understand cognitive load theory and its implications for teaching – or have suffered from misinformation about it.

Virtually no policymakers are aware of it. And many education academics dismiss it.

Lifting Australia’s educational outcomes depends on more educators and policymakers becoming Sweller-literate.

But perhaps the most fundamental challenge is that many education academics and teacher educators find themselves on the wrong side of the evidence tracks.

Many education academics remain dismissive of the science of learning – instead favouring a more “constructivist” approach.

Because they see learning as a primarily social and contextual experience, they’re ideologically predisposed to believe all students learn differently.

But Sweller’s research proves the opposite; making it clear that students ultimately learn more or less the same, since we all share a common cognitive architecture.

Moreover, the upshot of this is that there’s little need for all teachers to teach differently either – despite the too widely held view that each teacher should develop their craft in whatever way they think works for them.

Again, that’s because Sweller’s research proves there are clear implications for effective practice and sequencing of instruction that can be adopted by any teacher and replicated in any subject.

The more Australian teachers who heed Sweller’s implications for how to teach, the greater the improvements to student outcomes will be – across all age groups, subject areas, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Sweller’s gift to education – and to all students, parents and teachers – is the translation of a complex and abstract understanding of how we learn into a framework for how to effectively teach.

It remains, as William advocates, the single most important thing for, not only educators, but every stakeholder in education to know.

The test is now for educators and policymakers to see that the evidence is put into practice.