Teaching Methods Episode 1: Explicit instruction with John Fleming

Hello everyone. Welcome to Teacher magazine’s [podcast series] on effective teaching methods – I’m Danielle Meloney. This month we speak to John Fleming, a leading advocate for education reform and someone whose views are highly sought-after by education professionals throughout Australia. So let’s start today by asking John what, in his opinion, makes a good teacher.

John Fleming: Yeah, that’s a very good question. But I think a good teacher knows what evidence-based research is telling them is good practice; knows what that actually looks like in the classroom, and exactly what activities they are doing in the classroom in terms of all curriculum areas. That they measure how the group as a whole are going, how individual students are going, and they have very clear goals set in their mind about what their high performing students should be achieving in reading, writing, maths. But, also, they know they have very clear goals for the kids who need extra support, they know how to deliver that extra support and basically they’re not teaching and hoping that the kids do well. They actually know that if they deliver the curriculum in this particular way, that they will get good results and every kid will reach their potential – whatever that is. Also, I think good teachers have a really outstanding relationship with their kids, so they make learning fun. They involve their kids in their learning, they contextualise kids' learning so that the kids know ‘this is what I’m learning, this is why I’m learning it, and this is how I use it’. And, also, they understand the importance of teaching kids how to problem solve and use it. Because modern education is not just about giving kids skills here, skills there - it’s about explaining to kids 'This is why you’re learning this skill, this is how you can use this skill, this is how you can use it in problem-solving', developing self-talk amongst kids so they can actually talk their way through problems and issues. And I think if we’re doing that we are genuinely creating life-long learners rather than kids who are learning this now and it’s not actually applicable next year or throughout their lives.

Danielle Meloney: Can you elaborate on how a teacher goes about instructing in an explicit manner?

JF: Look, we have a lot of different pedagogies that have evolved over the last three decades. We went through the whole language approach, we went through learning outcomes. And teachers in teacher training are given a whole different, almost a plethora, of different strategies. But the evidence-based research is crystal clear. You go back to 2000 to the National Reading Panel, 2005 to the National Inquiry of Australia, the Rose Reports of the UK – they’re all saying the same thing, that explicit instruction is the way to go; that it needs to be skills-based and we need to virtually be providing kids with the stepping stones on a continuum for kids to achieve success in reading, writing. What I would advocate is that the research is clear on what we should be doing. We need to teach those strategies to teachers and we need to support them in implementing them in terms of ongoing feedback, coaching. And that’s what I do in schools that I work with across Australia. That’s virtually my role as a consultant. And I think we really need to update some of our approaches in Australia. I think people are using pedagogies that are outdated, outmoded. Not through any fault of their own, but that’s how they're trained, so naturally that’s how they try to implement curriculum in their classrooms. I think we need to move into a phase where we’re actually looking at the research and supporting that.

DM: Tell me about your experience at Bellfield [Primary School in Victoria].

JF: My career prior to Bellfield is probably relevant because I worked in disadvantaged schools when I became a teacher. I used in my own classroom explicit instruction techniques. I found if you broke skills up step by step, that kids actually picked it up and I quickly realised that kids can achieve, in disadvantaged areas, far greater results than I guess what I had suggested to me. When I became a principal I thought ‘we now need to do this school-wide’. So, I implemented explicit instruction at Bellfield. We actually supported our teachers in terms of that. And basically explicit instruction in reading is letter-sound relationships, teaching kids that in a systematic, structured manner; and teaching kids the key skills – blending, tracking and segmenting. Same in spelling, these are the skills that we want to teach kids. So I began coaching the staff at Bellfield, supporting them, and trying to make sure we had a consistent approach in every classroom. Once we did that we established benchmarks for our kids, and year by year we lifted those benchmarks. So we would have started off with, say, [the] Level 5 benchmark in our Preps. The last few years I was there, the minimum benchmark was actually Level 15 – which is a year above, that’s the benchmark for Year 1. But, in 2005, 100 per cent of our Preps actually achieved Level 15. We had Level 30 as our goal for Year 1, and again in 2005, 100 per cent of our Year 1s achieved that goal. So those kids were significantly above what could traditionally be seen as the benchmarks for those kids. Given they were disadvantaged kids and, you know, people know the cohort - 85 per cent of our parents were unemployed, 61 per cent of the kids came from single-parent families, 25 per cent of the kids came from non-[English]-speaking backgrounds, and 10 per cent were Indigenous. I mean, we had all the disadvantaged cohorts at Bellfield.

DM: How does your experience at Haileybury differ to your experience at Bellfield? They’re two very different schools, from completely different sectors. Is it still using the same concepts?

JF: It’s exactly the same concepts, exactly the same - didn’t have to adapt a thing. Good teaching is good teaching, irrespective of the background of the kids. The background of the kids is not the important determinant that a lot of people think it is, and Bellfield proved that. Our kids had very dysfunctional backgrounds. Haileybury – exact opposite. So, you are talking about two different ends of the socio-economic scale. We applied and implemented exactly the same strategies that we used at Bellfield and have had exactly the same success. Haileybury kids in 2005, the year before I got here, were just above national benchmarks. Now they are smashing national benchmarks. So Haileybury has had exactly the same improvement – relative gain – as Bellfield did.

DM: How do you actually measure the success of the teachers and how they’re improving?

JF: Well, you know I encourage schools to get coaching programs going and I think most of the schools I’ve got have got coaching programs going. We also measure the kids every five weeks as part of the program to determine how they’re going. So we set benchmarks and every five weeks we check how we’re going against those benchmarks. So you’re having ongoing review of data to see where you’re going. Often in schools I’ll coach first, then I’ll model coach, then I’ll shadow the coaches. So we have a whole program based around supporting people. The other thing I work with schools [on] is, I say that there are three stages of teachers' growth. Firstly: getting the delivery right. Secondly: lifting the expectations as you’ve now got high performing delivery. And finally: refining delivery so you’re constantly looking at ‘How can I improve the kids?’ So that’s their journey and that probably is similar to a school journey – get the delivery right and then lift the expectations. Don’t just keep teaching what you’ve always taught, lift the expectations and then refine that over time.

DM: Okay, but this is just one of many instruction models isn’t it?

JF: Explicit instruction is the umbrella. Whatever you talk about, if you talk to me about inquiry, it actually falls under explicit instruction. If you talk to me about experiential learning, it actually fits under explicit instruction. If you talk to me about developmental learning, it all fits under because for any learning activity to be effective it has to be taught step by step. So you can have an experience, as long as you are working through that step by step that is a more valuable experience. Developmental learning; if you know exactly what you are trying to achieve and you are doing it step by step with kids, yeah they can be at their own part in the continuum, but in the end it’s explicit instruction that is the pedagogy you are using over the top. So, it’s the umbrella - and that’s what I try to explain to people. It’s not explicit instruction or inquiry, explicit instruction is the overall umbrella. So, at Haileybury we do all those approaches across our school, especially in the junior school, but it all falls under explicit instruction. But inquiry, for example, is very explicit, we know exactly what we want to do with our kids.

You know, this is my fifth year of doing this around Australia, and I work in every mainland state. I guess, I’m really exhilarated by what I see in schools – dedicated, hardworking people. The issue in Australia, is not the quality of teachers, I can tell you that; it’s the quality of support they’re given to be the great teachers that they actually want to be. And, to me, in Australia, we’ve got to decide - What is our pedagogy? Let’s support that in the way in which we go about supporting teachers. The research clearly pointing towards explicit instruction, and I think, you know, that’s a personal goal of mine I guess, to get explicit instruction into as many schools as possible. But when you see the results, it’s not just Bellfield, it’s not just Haileybury, there are many, many schools across Australia getting great results with [this].

DM: Fantastic, well thank you so much for your time John.

JF: Thanks Danielle.

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Interviewee biography: John Fleming began his teaching career at Greenbrook Primary in 1977. During his time as Assistant Principal and Principal at Bellfield Primary in Heidelberg, the school became recognised for its curriculum delivery and improvement in student performance. Fleming became Head of the Berwick Campus of Haileybury in 2006 and then Deputy Principal (Junior School Teaching and Learning) and Director of the Haileybury Institute in 2010. The Institute role involves Fleming consulting with schools across Australia. In 2007, he co-authored, Towards a Moving School: Developing a Professional Learning and Performance Culture, with Dr Elizabeth Kleinhenz. The book explores the theory and practice behind schools with strong learning and performance cultures and can be purchased online at https://shop.acer.edu.au. This year [2014], Fleming has been appointed to the Federal Government's Ministerial Advisory Group to review teacher training in Australia.

To find out more about the research that John Fleming refers to in this podcast, visit:

National Reading Panel: http://www.nichd.nih.gov/research/supported/Pages/nrp.aspx/

The Rose Review: http://www.literacytrust.org.uk/assets/0000/1175/Rose_Review.pdf