Schools must now contend with a growing inventory of topics to teach, all competing for space in the curriculum.

While progress is expected and necessary in many ways, it’s clear that something has been lost along the way.

Australia’s education performance globally has been in decline for over a decade, while the most recent NAPLAN revealed that more than 30 per cent of Year 3 students nationwide were not proficient in reading or numeracy.

In secondary school the skill gap is even more troubling, with 35 per cent of students lacking proficiency in reading and 34 per cent in numeracy. 

While there are a multitude of factors that can impact educational attainment – such as language skills, undiagnosed learning disabilities, and socio-economic factors – schools and teachers need to be equipped to meet their students’ challenges.

Unfortunately, most are not.

In a report released last year, the Teacher Education Expert Panel (TEEP), commissioned by Education Minister Jason Clare, identified significant gaps between existing Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programs and the skills and knowledge required to be an effective teacher.

The basis of this gap is the lack of evidence-based content. Most ITE programs have limited evidence-based content (that is supported by a body of empirical research), and where evidence-based concepts are included, they are often offered with insufficient depth to enable the trainee teacher to become competent in applying this knowledge.

Unfortunately, we see this play out in classrooms across the nation.

One of the common mistakes that many educators make is to treat novice and advanced learners as the same.

A capable sports coach would never dream of training an Olympic-level diver and a beginner in the same way, expecting the latter to execute a complicated dive. Yet there are teachers who expect young students to ‘read’ books before being explicitly taught the relationship between the letters and sounds contained within the pages.

This is the byproduct of the whole language-balanced literacy approach to reading that continues to be promoted by university education faculties, despite the empirical evidence suggesting explicit, systematic teaching of core literacy skills, including phonics, is more effective.

The scientific principles that underpin the Science of Reading are applicable to all teaching.

As identified in the TEEP report, an understanding of the cognitive process of learning, including how the brain moves information through working memory into long-term memory, is essential.

All teachers must be taught about cognitive load theory and the limits of working memory, including the common causes of cognitive overload.

Thus, we need to employ the most effective instructional practices to reduce cognitive overload on students, with the evidence coming out in favour of explicit instruction, scaffolding, and formative assessment because they respond to how the brain processes, stores, and retrieves information.

Universities are no stranger to public scrutiny. Between 1979 until 2006, there were over 100 reviews into teacher preparation and numerous additional inquiries in recent years.

What’s to say this latest report will move the dial? Mandatory, evidence-based ‘core content’ has now been added to the ITE accreditation standards but it is questionable whether all ITE providers have education faculty with the expertise to deliver it.

Teachers are starved for the knowledge they know will help them to be better teachers and they are actively seeking it out.

Short courses in the science of reading have been popping up, proving incredibly popular with both practicing and student teachers, while grassroots movements such as the teacher-led Sharing Best Practice, where educators get together and do just that, host sellout conferences right across the country.

It is this growing demand for training in effective, evidence-based teaching that has prompted the launch of a new educational initiative, The Academy for the Science of Instruction, which will offer NESA and TQI accredited courses to upskill already qualified teachers.

Our aim is to provide an understanding of the research that underpins effective teaching as well as the practical knowledge and skill to allow teachers to implement instruction.

While The Academy will initially focus on scientific instruction of literacy and classroom behaviour management – another area where teachers tell us they need additional training – the course offering will be extended to cover other areas of teaching where there is a need for an evidence-based approach, such as the teaching of STEM subjects and understanding the cognitive learning process.

Many university schools of education have considerable work to do to better equip teachers to do the critically important work of educating young Australians.

Should they resist reform, education ministers must ensure robust mechanisms are in place to implement the recommendations of the latest review.

There’s a world of evidence out there about the best approaches to teaching. 

It must be made available to all teachers.

Learn more about The Academy for the Science of Instruction here