Even as Australia’s Prime Minister, I spent many hours in schools and classrooms because education is the key to our future.
While a frontbencher in the Australian Parliament, I actually spent three weeks as a teacher’s aide in a small school in a remote settlement.
This is how it came about.
Late in 2007, I had become Shadow Minister for Aboriginal Affairs – responsible for those people who were there before the European settlement of Australia.
While I’d been to dozens of Aboriginal communities as a member of parliament, I’d never stayed in any of them longer than overnight.
So I called a friend of mine, perhaps our most significant Aboriginal leader, Noel Pearson, seeking his help to spend some settled time among the original Australians.
He arranged for me to go to Coen, a village of 300 people, an eight hour drive over mostly dirt roads, north of Cairns in Queensland, where I would help in the local school.
I had then been a member of parliament for 14 years, a cabinet minister for six years and the leader of the House of Representatives for five years – yet now I was helping to teach seven year olds to read.
It was, in every sense, one of the most instructive times of my life.
These days, Australians honour Aboriginal people – but despite spending, quite literally, billions of dollars every year to help them, they still have much lower levels of education; much higher levels of unemployment, domestic violence and imprisonment; much lower incomes; and much earlier deaths.
Much of this is due to the welfare system that pays people to do nothing, that Pearson calls the “poison that’s killing our people”.
Much of it is due to different and lower expectations of Aboriginal people due to “culture”.
This is our tragedy: even in one of the most free, fair and prosperous countries on Earth, a very large percentage of our first people are still living a third world existence.
In remote areas, many Aboriginal people are effectively illiterate.
So by teaching in that 50 pupil primary school, I was in the midst of the struggle for Australia’s future.
I wasn’t so much talking it, as living it.
And I have to tell you that the struggle wasn’t going well.
Even though Coen School had one of the highest attendance rates of any remote school, its academic results, judged by standardised tests, were about 50 per cent below the national average.
There were two good teachers there, but the teacher with whom I spent most time was just out of training and her class was anarchy.
Almost every day, this twenty-something was reduced to tears by her six, seven and eight year old tormentors.
The problem was that there was no structure to her lessons: each child was supposed to learn more-or-less independently; inspired, rather than directed by the teacher.
This might have worked if these youngsters were from stable homes, where learning was valued and where books were treated with respect.
But most of Coen’s kids came from homes where no one read books, few parents had jobs, and many adults slept during the day and partied during the night.
It was often a struggle just to keep children awake, let alone to have them learn. And while awake they were often climbing over each other rather than sitting still.
The following year, I spent 10 days in the school at Aurukun, a somewhat larger village further up Cape York, and the classes there were, if anything, even more chaotic.
But…even then, things were starting to change.
Thanks to Pearson and his colleagues at the Cape York Institute, something known as direct instruction was starting to come into remote schools.
I was there, in the classroom at Coen, as a part of the day was given over to a programme called Multilit – making up lost time in literacy – for kids with retarded schooling.
They were taught to focus on letters, not whole words, and to sound out those letters so that what they saw resembled what they heard and could usually understand.
It was very similar to the way I had myself been taught a half century earlier – but it was very different from the educational methodologies that had, in the meantime, become fashionable while western countries were questioning their traditional values and standards.
Essentially, direct instruction involves very structured, very disciplined lessons where the teacher knows in advance exactly what’s to be learned in that class; and is constantly going back to the students – revising – to make sure they’ve grasped it.
It works because the students soon recognise that they are making progress; in every class, they know more at the end than they did at the beginning.
I have seen for myself, quite literally, the thrill of achievement on the faces of children who would previously have been bored and looking for distraction.
I know that direct instruction was holding these youngsters’ attention in a way that nothing else could because they were not distracted from their lessons even by the presence of the Prime Minister in their classroom!
In 2012, as opposition leader, I returned to Aurukun and progress at the school was palpable, largely because the former child-centred classes had mostly reverted to direct instruction.
Last year, as prime minister, I returned to Cape York to see schools where forms of direct instruction had been operating for several years.
The difference that just a decade had made was remarkable.
Coen School, for instance, is now close to matching the national average for literacy and numeracy.
The difference between these schools and most other schools in remote Australia – indeed most schools wherever communities are disengaged from education – is extraordinary.
In Australia, failing schools are not a racial or a cultural phenomenon; they’re common wherever unemployment is high and parents and children see little point in learning.
These schools need teaching methods that programme children to succeed, not to fail; and that give teachers skills and techniques that can work with all children, not just the naturally interested ones.
My government invested $22 million towards a “good to great” schools programme to give dozens of remote schools the kind of structured classroom teaching that disadvantaged children need if they are to master the basics of reading, writing, counting and thinking.
I don’t say that direct instruction is right for all classes, in all subjects, in all schools – but it does provide nearly all pupils with the foundation on which higher learning can be based.
I don’t say that programmes delivering direct instruction are free from criticism – but there’s little service delivery in remote areas that’s always as cost-effective as we’d like.
I don’t say that direct instruction can provide the cultural understandings that young Aboriginal people often crave – but in Cape York schools, this was being provided by local elders after school hours.
But direct instruction is the best way to for struggling students and struggling schools to improve, as experts like Professor John Hattie from Melbourne University now testify.
The 2010 McKinsey international schools study showed that transforming poor schools invariably had these elements: introduce scripted instruction; get students to attend; ensure that children are fed; and train teachers in effective classroom delivery.
This must be our mission: because a school that doesn’t teach effectively is worse than a mere child-minding centre: it betrays our children.
It brings to mind the words of Jesus of Nazareth, who said “it would be better to have a millstone hung around his neck and to be thrown into the sea than to cause any of these little ones to stumble”.
I make two final points.
First, there are too many people, even in positions of authority, who are threatened by success.
Unfortunately, there is a large academic establishment with a vested interest in discrediting teaching that works – hence progress in this area is often two steps forward and one step back.
Second, educational success depends as much on values and on standards as on funding.
Over the past 15 years, Australian school funding has close-to-doubled but our academic performance compared to other countries has fallen and, on some measures, we’re now surpassed by Kazakhstan.
Our education system is suffused with the “soft bigotry of low expectations” – less than 10 per cent of Australian students do top level maths, for instance, compared to more than 50 per cent in Singapore.
We must learn from failure.
Under the current prime minister, no less than in my time, we are determined to get the educational fundamentals right.
That means: a demanding curriculum; involved parents; empowered principals; and excellent teachers – as well as adequate funding.
It’s said that the definition of madness is doing the same thing and expecting a different result.
To improve, we have to change – and the smartest change is to stop doing what’s been proven to fail.
That might be a “penetrating statement of the obvious” but Australia is not the only country and education is not the only field where we might usefully rethink what manifestly doesn’t work.