Noel Pearson’s radical teaching plan passes first test
THE AUSTRALIAN, JULY 22, 2015
They are the children who carry the weight of a legacy. With each turn of a page, with each multiplication, the children of a trio of tiny Cape York towns bring the promise of their grandparents just a little closer to fruition.
Land rights were hard-won on the nation’s northernmost peninsula, and these children are the guardians of a prosperous future.
“We’re definitely on the up now,” says parent Dion Creek, whose son Chastyn and daughter El’ija attend the Coen campus of the Cape York Academy. “We are at the stage where we want to start doing something with our land. But nothing will happen unless our kids are educated. We are not going to let the struggle, the fight, for land rights be for nothing.”
Now, hard data that gives the first comprehensive indication of how a radical experiment in remote education is transforming three Cape York schools can be revealed. Five years ago, Direct Instruction was introduced at two Cape York schools: Coen and Aurukun, after Noel Pearson’s Cape York Partnerships was given unprecedented licence to overhaul the educational status quo. A year later, the school at Hope Vale joined the project.
Queensland Education Department analysis, just compiled, of NAPLAN results from Hope Vale’s school between 2008 and 2014 reveals dramatic improvements in outcomes. In 2014, all Year 3 students at Hope Vale — the first cohort to be taught under Direct Instruction for the entirety of their schooling — performed above national minimum standards in numeracy and reading.
More than half of Hope Vale’s students performed at levels within the upper two bands in numeracy, and nearly one in five in reading. Prior to 2014, there had never been a student performing in the upper two bands in numeracy or reading at Hope Vale.
Hope Vale principal Finn Buckley said: “We were really anticipating these results. We’re very proud that two of our Year 3s finished in the top 2 per cent of the country in reading last year.”
One of those students is nine-year-old Skye Ludwick, who plays the trumpet in the school band and devours books at home as well as at school.
“I like stories about dinosaurs,” the beaming student said.
Pioneered in the US, Direct Instruction is based on a comprehensive curriculum, student assessment and highly scripted lessons. With its explicit teaching style and emphasis on phonics in literacy, the method runs counter to trends in education and its implementation was not without controversy. But the transformation in the tiny schools has to be seen to be believed.
Down the cape from Hope Vale, in their corrugated-iron library, Coen’s children are seated at desks, reading The Prince and the Pauper. The archaic fable is full of new words of nuanced meaning: dignity, poverty, torment, patrician, soul.
“What is dignity?” a teacher asks one child. “Manners,” the little girls says. “Where is your soul?” is the next question. “In the bottom of your foot,” comes the reply.
Manners and soul are something these children have in abundance, but in remote schools around the nation, the spirits of Aboriginal children are routinely crushed by school systems that fail youngsters who most critically need lifting up.
Nationally, remote schools lag behind their city school counterparts. Now, the Direct Instruction program, along with that of its closely-aligned sister method, Explicit Direct Instruction, is attracting interest from schools around the nation. Though only the three Cape York schools are using the full Direct Instruction program, countless schools across the nation are using aspects of the method, such as DI’s Spelling Mastery and Reading Mastery programs
This week, West Australian leaders joined Mr Pearson on a tour of Coen and Hope Vale, keen to see Direct Instruction in action. One of those leaders was Miriuwung man Lawford Benning, the chief executive of the East Kimberley’s Gelganyem Trust.
“When I stood in that classroom, I started getting goosebumps,” Mr Benning said. “You know that feeling? The feeling of power within the room, and the feeling of connectedness between teachers and students. It really moved me. And I’ll tell you what, if we don’t seriously take on a model that’s going to really bring about change in education for our kids, and all our education in our region, we’ll be telling the same story in 50 years’ time.”
Despite the promising gains in Hope Vale, results across all three Cape York Academy campuses are more varied, particularly in writing. In 2014, some campuses and year levels recorded their highest results, while others, some of their lowest.
In Coen and Hope Vale, attendance tells a positive story. So far this year, the two schools have recorded the highest attendance of remote-based indigenous Queensland schools. In Coen, there was great celebration recently when the school recorded 100 per cent attendance.
It is a pride that Mr Pearson wishes the grandmothers and grandfathers, who petitioned him 15 years ago for better education in their tiny town, could see. Most of those old people have since died. “I think back on all those elders that worked with me and I think they’d be just so proud to see their children, children and great-grandchildren succeeding in the way they are,” Mr Pearson said.