Linda Graham

Australia doesn’t need a ‘Behaviour Curriculum’. We need to implement Social and Emotional Learning now

Last month, the Senate Education and Employment References Committee released an interim report on the Senate Inquiry into increasing disruption in Australian school classrooms – and it looks like we will get the final report today. It used an unsubstantiated decline in Australia’s rank in the OECD’s disciplinary climate index to claim Australian classrooms as among the most disorderly around the world and raised concerns about teacher safety, job satisfaction, and retention, and the impact of classroom disruption on students’ academic learning. Meanwhile, rigorous research has demonstrated no decline in three of four measures of learning.

The interim report’s recommendation for a ‘Behaviour Curriculum’ is similarly flawed. Student behaviour is complex, shaped by a myriad of social, economic, political, and environmental factors. Consistency in the school-wide use of evidence-based classroom management techniques, such as the use of clear routines and coherent reward/consequence systems, provide effective parameters for expected behaviours but they are not enough on their own. There is also significant danger in a simplistic “tips and tricks” approach that implies that all problem behaviours are misbehaviours that can be corrected by teachers who have mastered basic techniques to which they have (allegedly) never been introduced.

It is seductive to imagine that all challenging behaviours can be magically fixed by teachers learning how to “run a room”, but this ignores the reality with which today’s classroom teachers must grapple. Many of the most troubling behaviours for teachers are not deliberate actions of indolent children who could otherwise comply with the help of stricter discipline. Rather, they reflect differences in cognitive processing, underlying stress responses, and/or the outcome of emotional overwhelm by students who have experienced childhood complex trauma or who have a disability.

There is a disturbing current of ableism running through the report and through the submissions of various advocates for the behaviour curriculum. Look, for example, at the definition of disruptive behaviour used in the interim report. The parallels between these five criteria and the diagnostic criteria for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are obvious to anyone with any knowledge or experience of ADHD but, as that is clearly not the case for some, we have placed both in a table to highlight the overlap.

Senate Interim Report Definition of Disruptive Behaviour (p. 3)Diagnostic Criteria for ADHD
1.      talking unnecessarily and calling out without permissionOften talks excessively.Often blurts out an answer before a question has been completed.
2.   being slow to start work or follow instructionsOften avoids, dislikes, or is reluctant to engage in tasks that require sustained mental effort. Often has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks.
3.   showing a lack of respect for each other and staffOften does not listen when spoken to directly.Often interrupts or intrudes on others.Often leaves seat in situations when remaining seated is expected.
4.   not bringing the right equipmentOften loses things necessary for tasks or activities.
5.   using mobile devices inappropriatelyIs often easily distracted by extraneous stimuli.

In fact, all five are consistent with ADHD, a neurodevelopmental disorder which is underrecognised and poorly understood/supported in Australian schools. Education providers are obligated to provide reasonable adjustments to ensure that students with a disability, including those with ADHD, can access and participate in education on the same basis as students without disability. Yet these students are commonly do not receive adjustments and are commonly (but mistakenly) perceived as wilfully non-compliant. Not surprisingly, they are overrepresented in school suspension, exclusion, and early school leaving.

While we acknowledge that challenging behaviours exist in classrooms and that these can be better managed (and that these students can and should be better supported), the real solution extends beyond a reductive curriculum focusing only on ‘behaviour’. What Australia needs is a holistic, forward-thinking approach that prioritises the whole child; one that addresses not just the symptoms but the root causes of disruptive behaviour.

Thankfully this need is being recognised elsewhere in government, judging by various recommendations to implement Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). MTSS is a comprehensive and integrated service delivery framework that systematises the provision of evidence-based prevention and intervention support across all developmental domains (academic, behavioural, and social-emotional) in three tiers (universal, targeted, intensive) that increase in specialisation and intensity.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a key component of MTSS, which recognises that there is more to education and child development and wellbeing than academics and behaviour, and that all three are inextricably linked. SEL involves teaching children to understand and manage their emotions, set goals, show empathy, establish healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions. SEL is both preventative and educative, proactively laying the groundwork for children to gain a deeper understanding of themselves and others, while cultivating the essential skills necessary for positive life outcomes.

(Close, 2023).

SEL is operationalised through evidence-based programs, integration into core academic instruction, and student-centred learning environments. Implementing SEL through a multi-tiered, systematic approach ensures it reaches all students and is integrated into various aspects of their lives, including the classroom, school, family, and community. The aim is to provide students with the skills they need to actively engage and succeed, rather than merely setting up a framework of rules and routines designed to contain and constrain with consequences when some students inevitably transgress.  

Developing students’ social-emotional competencies is already a recognised priority in Australia, as evidenced by the Personal and Social Capability strand of the General Capabilities, which includes four of the five core SEL competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and social management (akin to relationship skills). The fifth competency, responsible decision-making, is integrated within the social management domain. The Personal and Social Capability strand provides an encouraging starting point for SEL, indicating that the curriculum infrastructure already exists.

The critical issue that has so far prevented this approach from achieving its aims in Australian schools is that this aspect of the curriculum is not assessed. And, due to the emphasis on literacy and numeracy—which is assessed—this important area of child and adolescent development does not currently receive the time and attention needed for it to be effective.

The recommendations emerging from the Review to Inform a Better and Fairer Education System and the Review of the National School Reform Agreement before it, are an ideal opportunity to streamline student mental health and wellbeing support across Australia. Traditional approaches, such as defaulting to a behaviour curriculum, the concept of which has been imported from England, is not the answer.

Australia needs to adopt a more intentional approach to address challenging behaviours, transitioning from reactive methods to proactive approaches. This involves laying the groundwork to explore how SEL can be implemented within an Integrated Multi-Tiered System of Support that includes—but is not limited to—evidence-based approaches to positive behaviour intervention and support. Relying on a behaviour curriculum of the type being advocated in submissions will continue to leave students behind who struggle with social-emotional skills, particularly those exhibiting the most challenging behaviours —the very students who stand to benefit most from SEL.

Melissa Close is an Outreach and Engagement Officer with the Centre for Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She has over a decade of experience as an educator in international and domestic settings. She holds a Master of Education (Leadership and Management) and is currently pursuing a Master of Philosophy at QUT focused on the systemic implementation of Social and Emotional Learning in educational settings in Australia and the United States. 

Linda Graham is professor and director of The Centre for Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She has led multiple externally funded research projects and has published more than 100 books, chapters and articles. Her international bestseller, Inclusive Education for the 21st Century, is now in its second edition. In 2020, Linda chaired the Inquiry into Suspension, Exclusion and Expulsion processes in South Australian government schools. She also gave evidence to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability on the use of exclusionary school discipline and its effects.

Distorted: this feeble report misses the boat on classroom behaviour

At an event at Parliament House earlier this year I heard that 2024 is going to be the year of education. That is excellent news given that we haven’t heard much about education from the Albanese government but, to be honest, that has been somewhat of a blessed reprieve given the hyperventilation of the previous Morrison LNP government.

I have mixed feelings about what might be coming but wouldn’t if education policy was informed by evidence rather than politics. It isn’t. The impact of that politicisation is never openly acknowledged and the policy decisions that are made (or not made) by governments are never the focus of inquiries or reviews. Instead, the “problem” is always framed by alleged deficiencies in students, parents, teachers, and/or universities.

Disagreement among panel members

Take, for example, the Senate Inquiry into the issue of increasing disruption in Australian classrooms. The interim report has just landed, and, like the final report of the Disability Royal Commission, there was disagreement among panel members. Labor and Greens senators have made additional comments that acknowledge the complexity of behaviour in schools and the Greens have only one recommendation: to fully fund public schools at the beginning of the next National School Reform Agreement in 2025. 

I was called to give evidence at the senate inquiry. At the time, I expressed concern that the Inquiry based its case for ‘increasing disruption’ on PISA data, noting first, that there are cultural and other differences between countries and second, that there are problems with the rankings. I will have more to say about the report and its recommendations in time but for now I want to take readers through points I made in the new first chapter of Inclusive Education for the 21st Century, which extend my comments from the evidence I gave to the inquiry.

Since that hearing, I have looked more closely at the data on which these claims are based and I’m frankly astonished that the Inquiry team did not do this themselves. Even a cursory glance should have been enough to signal to the Senate that these rankings were not a rigorous enough premise on which to base an Inquiry. 

Let us wade through this numerical sewage together

The claim for ‘increasing disruption in Australian classrooms’ is based on the difference in results from two surveys of 15-year-olds who participated in the OECD’s Program of International Student Assessment (PISA). 

The first survey occurred in 2009 and the second in 2018. The disciplinary climate data is based on five survey items:  

1.       Students don’t listen to what the teacher says. 

2.       There is noise and disorder.  

3.       The teacher has to wait a long time for students to quiet down.  

4.       Students cannot work well.  

5.       Students don’t start working for a long time after the lesson begins. 

Here’s where things get interesting! Here are relevant findings from the two reports.

PISA 2009PISA 2018
Participating countries were ranked on the percentage of 15-year-old students who selected ‘never or hardly ever’ and ‘in some lessons’ for Item 1 ‘Students don’t listen to what the teacher says’, and Item 3 ‘The teacher has to wait a long time for students to quiet down’.79 countries participated and 76 were ranked, however, this time the OECD developed a disciplinary climate index that encompasses all five items with some minor changes in wording.
Australia was ranked 28th for the first item and 25th for the second.Countries were ranked using their respective Index scores.
Differences between PISA 200 and PISA 2009 were calculated.Australia was ranked 69th
Australia deemed to have an average disciplinary climate that had not significantly changed between the two timepoints.
Differences between PISA 2009 and PISA 2018 were calculated 
There was a significant difference between timepoints in the responses of Australian students for only two of the five items: Item 3 ‘The teacher has to wait a long time for students to quiet down’, and Item 4 ‘Students cannot work well’
Item (5) also declined (-1.8%) but not significantly, while Items (1) and (2) improved (both +0.8%), but again not significantly.

What does all this mean?

First, Australia has not fallen from 28th or 25th in the ranking to 69th. Rather, the number of participating countries has changed over time and so therefore have the rankings. To be clear, the number of participating countries has grown from 43 (2000) to 65 (2009) to 79 (2018). And, because comparisons can only be made between countries that participated in each assessment, the number of countries in the rankings has changed from 38 in 2009 to 76 in 2018. This is not to dispute that Australia is ranked lower than anyone would like but there are problems with the rankings which render them meaningless. 

Here’s why

1)    The types of countries participating in PISA 2009 and PISA 2018 substantively changed due to the entrance of Asian countries. Unlike Australia, these jurisdictions/systems are grounded in Confucian culture, which has a profound effect on teacher-student relationships, classroom interactions, and climate. 

2)    There was a significant difference between timepoints in the responses of Australian students for only two of the five items. The case for increasing disruption in Australian classrooms therefore rests on a 3.7% decrease in the number of students saying their teacher ‘never or hardly ever’ has to wait a long time for students to quiet down, and a 2.8% decrease in the number saying students cannot work well ‘never or hardly ever’. Given that there was no difference in students’ responses between PISA 2000 and 2009, that suggests that there has been no change in more than 20 years for at least two of the five items.

3)    Countries with almost identical disciplinary index scores are ranked above and below each other. For example, Australia and Belgium received Index scores of 0.20 and 0.21, respectively yet Australia is ranked 69th and Belgium 70th. There is a snowball’s chance in hell that these scores are statistically different to each other, so why is one being ranked above the other? Doing this simply expands the number of places in the ranking which makes the distance between countries look larger than it really is.

4)    No tests of significance between countries or ranks were conducted, so we do not know whether there is a statistically significant difference in Australian students’ responses to the OECD average or how much of a difference there is between Australia and the countries at the top of the ranking. Similar points have been made numerous times over the years in relation to the rankings for student achievement in reading, mathematics, and science, but at least in those cases, countries with statistically indistinguishable performances are grouped together and given the same rank. 

5)    Recent research by Sally Larsen from the University of New England has indicated no decline in TIMMS, PIRLS or NAPLAN results of Australian students. Any observed correlations between declines in PISA’s disciplinary climate survey and student academic outcomes should not be causally interpreted.

My view

If politicians are going to look at rankings, then look at them all. Let’s consider, for example, that: 

1.     Australia is sitting at the top of ranked countries in terms of the hours that teachers spend in face-to-face teaching. 

2.     Australian teachers spend more hours teaching than the OECD average (838.28 hours/year vs 800.45 hours respectively)

3.     Korea is ranked first in classroom disciplinary climate and Australia is ranked 69th. However, Australian teachers spend 323.30 more hours per year in face-to-face teaching than their Korean counterparts, who teach just 516.98 hours/year.

4.     In disciplinary climate, the difference between advantaged students and disadvantaged students in Australia (0.34) is double that of Korea (0.17). 

These are just some of the gaps and anomalies that arise when the PISA data is subjected to close reading, which is the absolute minimum amount of analysis that should have been conducted (if not, prior, then at least) during an Inquiry that used these data for its rationale.

The questions education ministers must ask

Readers of the Interim Report, especially Education Ministers, should regard it very critically and start asking serious questions:

  • Who stands to benefit from such simple representations of these data?
  • Might there be financial benefits for non-university providers from the ‘deregulation’ of initial teacher education?
  • Are there other data that have been ignored and, if so, what does their omission suggest about rigour and bias?
  • Might Australian students tell a different story if asked by expert researchers using both open and close-ended questions? 

Are we brave enough to ask them?

Linda Graham is professor and director of The Centre for Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She has led multiple externally funded research projects and has published more than 100 books, chapters and articles. Her international bestseller, Inclusive Education for the 21st Century: Theory, Policy and Practice, is now in its second edition. In 2020, Linda chaired the Inquiry into Suspension, Exclusion and Expulsion processes in South Australian government schools. She also gave evidence to the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability on the use of exclusionary school discipline and its effects.

Top of the pops: AARE’s Hottest Ten 2022

Thank you to all our contributors in 2022. We published over 100 blog posts this year from academics all over Australia, from research students to DECRA fellows, to deans and professors. Thank you all for being part of our community and many thanks to the AARE executive, especially newly-minted Professor Nicole Mockler.

Didn’t get to write this year? Want to contribute? Here are notes for contributors. Pitch to me at

The 2022 AARE EduResearch Matters blog of the year, announced at the AARE conference in Adelaide: “Why restoring trust in teaching now could fix the teacher shortage”. La Trobe’s Babak Dadvand wrote a compelling account of one way to address the teacher shortage.

It is genuinely hard to choose the best because every single blog reveals new ideas and new thinking about education but I’ll just list our ten most read for 2022 (and of course, some of our older posts have racked up thousands and thousands of views). So many others were excellent and please look at our comprehensive archive.

Here we go! 2022 top ten.

Babak Dadvand on the teacher shortage.

Inger Mewburn: Is this now the Federal government’s most bone-headed idea ever?

Debra Hayes: Here’s what a brave new minister for education could do right away to fix the horrific teacher shortage

Kate de Bruin, Pamela Snow, Linda Graham, Tanya Serry and Jacinta Conway: There are definitely better ways to teach reading

Marg Rogers: Time, money, exhaustion: why early childhood educators will join the Great Resignation

Rachel Wilson: What do you think we’ve got now? Dud teachers or a dud minister? Here are the facts

Simon Crook: More Amazing Secrets of Band Six (part two ongoing until they fix the wretched thing)

(And part one is now one of our most read posts of all-time)

Alison Bedford and Naomi Barnes: The education minister’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea*

Martina Tassone, Helen Cozmescu, Bree Hurn and Linda Gawne: No. There isn’t one perfect way to teach reading

Thank you to all of you for making this such a lovely community, looking forward to hearing from you and a special thank you to Maralyn Parker who has now been retired from the blog for two years but is still a fantastically supportive human when I need urgent help.

Jenna Price

What we should all know about authentic inclusive classrooms

Kids with learning and behavioural difficulties couldn’t possibly tell us anything about quality teaching… could they?

Anti-inclusion sentiment has reached fever pitch following the most recent Hearing of the Disability Royal Commission; one that aimed to hear both sides of a so-called “binary” debate.

If folks were hoping the hearing would prove that it’s all unicorns and rainbows in special schools, they would have been disappointed. 

Former students and distraught parents enumerated the many ways respective school systems had failed them, both when students were in mainstream schools and when they were in or had moved to a special school.

There have been dark mutterings in various fora since the Hearing. Frustratingly, but as usual, those mutterings have conflated mainstreaming with inclusive education. 

Advocates of the latter are being framed as dangerous ideologues who are arguing for the impossible, especially when it comes to students with challenging behaviour.

So, what is this ‘impossible’?

The goal of inclusive education is to reform schooling, such that all schools are capable of including all students, especially those with a disability. 

The goal is not simply to move students with disability from segregated settings to mainstream schools. That’s integration (or what used to be called mainstreaming). Integration is what is currently happening in most schools, and we learned waaaay back in the 1970s that it doesn’t work.

Inclusive education is different. It is also a human right under Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD). The Australian government ratified the CRPD in 2008, which means that it agrees to be held legally accountable to its terms.

After a decade of relative inaction that the CRPD Committee correctly surmised was influenced by confusion as to what inclusive education really is, inclusion was defined in General Comment No. 4, as:

“…a process of systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies in education to overcome barriers with a vision serving to provide all students of the relevant age range with an equitable and participatory learning experience”.

To make this right a reality, we need to seriously lift the quality of teaching in everyday classrooms. We need to move it from integration (which GC4 also defines) to genuine inclusion.

We can’t do it by using existing pedagogical frameworks and measures because—like the idea of balanced literacy—the approach is skewed towards a perceived majority, ergo “the mainstream”, and is based on what has been shown to work with them. 

Assessing quality teaching 

What happens when you flip from teaching to reach most to teaching to reach all? What does that add to existing conceptions of quality teaching? 

Can teaching even be considered to be quality, if it fails to reach all students? Do students with disability need something different that the average student doesn’t need or do they need something better

We wanted to know, so we went to the students that few people think have anything to offer by way of insight into teaching and learning, and we asked them.

They weren’t hard to find. We were already working in complex secondary schools serving disadvantaged communities; schools with higher than average suspensions, high numbers of teachers on contract, schools where the quality of teaching matters most to kids’ lives. 

We pointed to the Positive Behaviour for Learning triangle and asked the school leadership teams from each school to nominate the kids in the “red pointy end”. The ones with a long record of behaviour incidents, especially involving conflict with teachers. Kids who have familiarised themselves with the principal’s office, who may have been previously suspended or excluded and who, when they weren’t truanting, were generally not engaging and not learning.  

The leadership in these schools had no trouble identifying them.

We ended up with a Brains Trust comprising 50 pointy end kids across Grades 7 to 10. We asked them lots of questions. About school, whether they liked it, what they did and didn’t like about it, when they started disliking it, what they typically get in trouble for, about conflict with teachers, and even what they think they’d be like as a teacher! 

Around the middle of the interview we asked them “What makes an excellent teacher?” 

They were free to say whatever they liked and our job was to make sense of those responses.

The idea for our new paper on the quality of teaching necessary for the inclusion of these students formed when we were conducting the interviews because it became clear very quickly that there was a strong pattern in the responses. 

Kids talked differently in response to this question than they did our questions about teachers they got along with (or didn’t). They did not—in the main, for this specific question—refer to teachers they liked, they talked about teachers who taught well

More than just teaching well, these kids from the pointy end of the behaviour support triangle who some people think have nothing of value to add, described practices that help them to learn.

What did they say about excellence in teaching?

Our 50 participants generated 90 statements that we coded into four categories. Three were based on the domains of teaching quality described in the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, “emotional support”, “classroom organisation”, and “instructional support”. Because there is strong popular belief that these kids want ‘fun’ and ‘funny’ teachers, we added a fourth category, “temperament/personality”.

Only 16.1% of statements related to teachers’ temperament or personality. Importantly, while students said that they appreciate teachers who are bubbly, fun, and good-natured, they clarified that excellent teachers still make sure that students are learning. 

“Just have a bit of fun in the classroom but still on task and that type of stuff” (Grade 10, School A).

A slightly higher percentage of statements (18.3%) related to classroom organisation. Students told us that excellent teachers kept them on the ball but were fair and kind in how they did it. 

“Mr V. He cares for basically the whole school. He gives us reasonable detentions and gives us fitness if we don’t do what he says, and he’s just a very nice teacher” (Grade 8, School A).

Almost one quarter (24.7%) of students’ statements related to emotional support: the positive climate that teachers fostered in their classrooms, teachers’ sensitivity to their students, and their responsiveness to student perspectives. 

“…their understanding and their kindness… if you get a teacher like that, then you automatically you feel safe, so you’re like, “Okay, well I can learn with this teacher. I know that they’re going to help me and understand me” (Grade 9, School D).

The majority of statements (40.9%) fell into the instructional support domain which is sometimes referred to as ‘cognitive activation’. This domain includes practices that scaffold and support and extend intellectual demand, such as feedback, modelling and explicit teaching.

One student talked about how this prevented student-teacher conflict: 

“It’s like he always like stops fights before they happen. He like – so like say that a student doesn’t get it he stops and like he explains it like multiple times until like the person actually gets it and does demonstrations, get the students up there. Like the students that don’t get it and gets them to do it, so they get it” (Grade 9, School A).

Other students said excellent teachers were those who checked in with students to make sure they had understood and who then clarified if they didn’t. 

“They explain everything, they take time out of the lesson to ensure you’re okay and see if you’re on track and always supportive and even if you’re not normal, they support you no matter what” (Grade 9, School D).

A really important finding from our work with these students is that they do not need something that other students don’t need. They just need quality teaching to be accessible.

We also concluded that existing pedagogical frameworks and measures of quality teaching do not emphasise accessibility, and nor do they go to the granularity necessary to help teachers produce a level of quality teaching that is good enough for these students.

So what now?

This work is informing the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage project, now in its second year. 

From the 400-plus Grade 10 students participating in this Linkage, we have identified a subgroup of 63 with identified language and/or attentional difficulties. In student interviews, we are checking their views on teaching excellence.

This time we have provided a matrix describing the four categories above and have asked students to select which element is most important to them.

When presented with the matrix, students have ruminated, “Well, they’re all important but if I had to say most, I’d say…”

Instructional support, which we have described as teachers helping students to learn by explaining things well and providing examples, still came in first (42%). 

The pattern shifted slightly after that with just over a quarter (27%) choosing temperament and personality. Emotional support came in third with 19% of responses, and classroom organisation came in last (13%). 

The schools that we are now working in are not as complex as our previous high schools and this may explain the change in pattern. Overall however, the students we are working with say the same thing: they need accessible quality teaching and they rate the teachers who strive to provide them with it.

Although we are yet to crunch the masses of data being produced in this project, we are already seeing benefits from our work with these students’ teachers.

In an interview last week, both interviewer (Graham) and teacher (who we’ll call “Miss Maudie”) were in tears as Miss Maudie described what the various refinements to her practice, that we proposed during this term’s program of learning, had achieved. 

In doing she talked about “Patrick”, a “solid D” student who had finally made it to a C-. More than the grade though, for Miss Maudie, the positive impact came from the fact that Patrick had for the first time really engaged and that he believed he could achieve the task being set.

We want many more Patricks and Miss Maudies to feel like this, rather than how our original pointy end kids and their teachers did. 

We have a lot more work to do but the revolution has started. And it isn’t going away.

From left to right: Linda J. Graham is Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education and Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her research focuses on responses to students experiencing difficulties in school and with learning. Ms Haley Tancredi is a PhD candidate on the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage project, investigating the impact of accessible teaching practices on the engagement, experiences and outcomes of students with language and/or attentional difficulties. She is also a senior research assistant within C4IE. Dr Jenna Gillett-Swan is an Associate Professor and researcher in the Faculty of CI, Education, and Social Justice at QUT. Her research focuses on wellbeing, rights, voice, inclusion, and participation.

There are definitely better ways to teach reading

Recent blog posts and articles in The Age have yet again stirred debates about the reading wars. We are writing this piece as a call for unity because we agree with the recent blog authors that there is no “perfect way” to teach reading. However, we know from both research and practice that are unequivocally better ways that are both more efficient and more effective for a diverse student cohort, including the most disadvantaged. 

Better ways to teach all students to read

Effective reading instruction involves using the most equitable and efficient teaching practices which result in the highest proportion of children in a class becoming literate. Such practices are informed by the most reliable evidence about the theoretical basis of a reading curriculum, its scope and sequence, and the pedagogies that are most effective. 

To teach reading equitably, teachers must be equipped to use practices that are designed to be beneficial for the most diverse student cohort, not just those in the middle of the curve or better. This is more socially just because it results in fewer children needing access to scarce intervention and support resources. 

To teach reading efficiently, teachers must be equipped to teach using methods known to have the greatest impact and provide the best support for all students to “crack the code” of the most complex writing system in the world, enabling them to move quickly beyond learning to read, into learning through reading. 

The reading wars stem from differences in beliefs as to how this is best achieved.

What are these differences?

Champions of implicit teaching argue that immersing a child in a print-rich environment in conjunction with using incidental instruction creates an environment in which children can learn to love reading. These champions emphasise that extracting meaning from text should always be the highest priority in any teaching moments. Some in this “camp” even argue that explicit and systematic instruction in reading subskills is harmful and can damage students’ potential love of reading while de-professionalising teachers. We have not yet found any empirical evidence to support these claims.

Champions of a structured approach, a group in which we count ourselves, promote the use of a carefully planned scope and sequence of reading instruction using practices supported by strong research evidence. They argue that reading is made of teachable subskills best taught explicitly with some skills being pivotal to the acquisition of subsequent skills and needing to be mastered first. The most common example is phonic decoding or “cracking the code” being a precursor to reading automatically and fluently to aid comprehension, along with developing strong vocabulary skills and background knowledge. This does not mean that decoding is all that is taught at first but is done in an integrated manner using a rich and varied range of books to build children’s background knowledge and vocabulary. These claims are supported by decades of international research and three national inquiries.

Which approach has the most evidence (with a capital “E”)?

There are different types of evidence and each approach above has an abundance of evidence to support it. However, the structured approach is backed by experimental and empirical research best suited to determining the effectiveness of a teaching practice in a classroom. Such research can also be further assessed through systematic reviews and meta-analyses, occupying the highest levels of evidence, meaning that confidence in the findings is higher.

Such research suggests systematic and explicit instruction in the reading subskills of phonemic awareness, decoding, and fluency are efficacious for teaching children to read more accurately and fluently in the early years. Research also indicates that students with learning difficulties and disabilities can master reading when they are provided early with systematic and explicit instruction, as opposed to incidental and implicit instruction, making this a more equitable approach to the teaching of reading. 

What does this evidence suggest?

It is important to support teachers by providing them with knowledge and skills through a framework that  supports teacher autonomy and decision-making to enable personalising of learning for students. However, the Four Resources model promoted in the recent blog is not the most helpful framework for reading instruction, nor does it have the most evidentiary support. 

The Four Resources Model rests on a conceptualisation of reading as a component of critical literacy, being a “mode of second guessing texts, discourses, and social formations”. The architects of the model argue that teaching reading relies on teachers selecting practices based on how they view students’ existing economic, social, cultural and linguistic assets for which the model maps a range of practices to use in response. We have not been able to locate any robust empirical research that affirms the Four Resources model as a theory of reading, or as a framework for teaching reading. 

The Cognitive Foundations Framework on the other hand, is an empirically-grounded and practical model for supporting teachers’ decision-making about instruction and support. It provides teachers with a clear map of students’ areas of strength and weakness in reading subskills. Such mapping provides teachers with a clear path to personalising teaching by identifying what individual students know and what they need to learn next to become skilled readers.

Figure 1: The Cognitive Foundations Network

Source: Graphic from Hoover and Tunmer (2019)

Our research and practice highlights the importance of preparing teachers to use approaches that are systematic and consistent across classes and schools. Teachers and leaders knowledgeable in these are the cornerstone of developing skilled readers and can ensure 95%-plus students achieve foundational skills. 

Many teachers we have worked with speak of their regret when they think of the students in their former classrooms who did not successfully learn to read: children who they now realise could have become successful readers. 

A call for unity 

Every year that we spend debating is another year that many children do not receive the instruction they need to learn to read. This locks them out from all that education has to offer, entrenching deficit perceptions and economic disadvantage. 

We need to focus on what we all share: a strong desire to create skilled readers and find ways to enhance the community standing of teaching by ensuring that knowledge that belongs to teachers is placed in their hands before they arrive in classrooms. 
Let’s give them the full set of professional knowledge and skills they need to truly personalise teaching and ensure every child learns to read and succeed at school.

From left to right (top row) Kate de Bruin, Pamela Snow, (bottom row) Linda Graham, Tanya Serry and Jacinta Conway

Kate de Bruin is a Senior Lecturer in Inclusion and Disability at Monash University. She has taught in secondary school and higher education for over two decades. As a high-school teacher she taught English for years 7-12, ran reading intervention, and provided cross-curriculum support to students with disabilities and learning difficulties. Pamela Snow is a Professor of Cognitive Psychology in the School of Education at the Bendigo campus of La Trobe University, Australia. In addition to experience in teacher education, she has taught a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate health professionals. Pamela is a registered psychologist, having qualified originally in speech-language pathology. Her research has been funded by nationally competitive schemes such as the ARC Discovery Program, ARC Linkage Program, and the Criminology Research Council, and concerns the role of language and literacy skills as academic and mental health protective factors in childhood and adolescence. Linda J. Graham is Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education and Social Justice at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her research focuses on responses to students experiencing difficulties in school and with learning. Tanya Serry is an Associate Professor (Literacy and Reading) in the School of Education and co-director of the SOLAR Lab. Previously, she taught in the Discipline of Speech Pathology. Her research interests centre on the policy and practices of evidence-based reading instruction and intervention practices for students across the educational lifespan. Jacinta Conway is a highly experienced educator who has spent 19 working in classrooms and educational leadership, overseeing and implementing a range of interventions and support for learners, both in primary and secondary settings.  She currently works as a learning intervention specialist and consultant. Jacinta has a Bachelor of Education (Primary) and a Masters in Learning Intervention (Specific Learning Difficulties). She sits on the council for Learning Difficulties Australia.

Do we really have a frightening school to prison pipeline in this country? Only one way to find out

Exclusionary discipline is on the rise in Australian schools, as highlighted by recent research in Queensland and South Australia. This is highly concerning that suspension does not address the reasons underlying behaviour and can instead exacerbate those behaviours. For some students, these experiences devolve into ongoing cycles of repeated suspensions. In the long term, students who experience exclusionary discipline tend to have lower educational outcomes than might have been expected and are far more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system.  

Of even greater concern is the increasing body of research which shows that students from minority and marginalised groups are disproportionately represented. Such research emanates largely from the United States, where there has been decades of research showing that African American students receive suspensions for incidents that White students do not and that they also receive harsher consequences for the same infractions. 

Evidence of the entanglement between racial bias, overrepresentation in exclusionary school discipline, and overrepresentation in prison, prompted significant reforms to education and school discipline policy and practice in the United States. In 2014, the Obama Administration, together with the Office of Civil Rights, acted on the evidence by issuing a set of Guiding Principles. These principles reminded schools of the dangers of direct and indirect racial bias in the use of exclusionary discipline and advocated for the adoption of evidence-based frameworks that aim to improve school climate, student support, and teaching quality.

Despite the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders in our prison population, rigorous investigations of Australia’s “school-to-prison pipeline” are rare. Indigenous Australians represent 3.3% of the total population, but account for 29.6% of the adult prison population.  It has now been 30 years since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody which found that Aboriginal people were “more likely to die in custody” due to their disproportionate representation in the prison system. 

We cannot afford more decades of research to confirm a link between the use of exclusionary school discipline and involvement in the criminal justice system; a link that has already been established internationally. Rather, we need to urgently identify whether Indigenous students are overrepresented in exclusionary school discipline across Australia, why, and, given its many known ill-effects, how to drastically curtail its use.  

Our recent research (with Associate Professor Kristin Laurens, School of Psychology and Counselling, and Centre for Inclusive Education, Queensland University of Technology and Associate professor Naomi Sweller, School of Psychological Science, Macquarie University) aimed to make a foundational contribution by examining trends in suspension, exclusion, and enrolment cancellation incidents in Queensland state schools, using publicly available data from the years 2013 to 2019. We investigated differences among Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in exclusionary discipline incidents proportionate to enrolments, and whether these trends were increasing or decreasing at different rates over time.

What do we know from these analyses?

We found that the use of exclusionary discipline in Queensland state schools has increased significantly for all students between 2013 and 2019. However, when disaggregating by Indigenous status, we found that this rise was significantly steeper for Indigenous students compared to non-Indigenous. There were also significant increases in exclusion rates and short suspensions for Indigenous students, but not for non-Indigenous.

Analysis of trends by year level showed that in 2019, suspension incidents peaked a year earlier (Grade 8) for Indigenous students compared to non-Indigenous (Grade 9). When considering the reasons for suspension, the highest degree of overrepresentation occurred for disruptive/disengaged behaviours, which includes categories such as ‘refusal to participate in the program of instruction’ and ‘absences’. 

We also considered trends by geographic location, finding that Indigenous students were disproportionately represented in all seven regions around Queensland, but most prominently in Darling Downs South West. In 2019, six regions had between 321.8 and 358.3 suspensions per 1000 students, while Darling Downs South West had 487 suspensions per 1000 students. There was no such diversity for non-Indigenous students with rates across the seven regions ranging between 85.4 and 139.4 per 1000 students.

What DON’T we know?

These analyses provide strong evidence that Indigenous students are disproportionately impacted by the use of exclusionary discipline in Queensland state schools. However, there remains much that we don’t know. 

For instance, the QLD Department of Education publishes the number of exclusionary discipline incidents, and not the number of students involved in those incidents. It is therefore impossible to tell how many suspensions went to the same students, and whether Indigenous students are receiving multiple suspensions at a greater rate than non-Indigenous students. 

Nor do we know whether these Indigenous students might also have a disability or be living in out-of-home care due to the absence of data disaggregated by Indigeneity, disability, living in out-of-home care, and gender.  

Our study points to an overrepresentation of Indigenous students in suspensions for infractions involving disruptive/disengaged behaviour, physical misconduct, and verbal or non-verbal misconduct. More research investigating the extent of potential racial bias in the reasons for issuing a suspension is required. 

Moreover, disruptive/disengaged infractions incorporate reasons such as ‘absences’ – i.e., truancy – meaning that there are students who are being excluded from school as a result of not attending school in the first place.    

Further questions include:

  • How much pressure to suspend are principals facing from other parents, teacher factions and the union? 
  • What is the average short suspension length for Indigenous students? Is it closer to the maximum (10 days) than the minimum and is there a significant difference to non-Indigenous students?
  • Why is the suspension rate significantly higher in Darling Downs South West region?
  • Is the peak in suspensions for Indigenous students occurring in Year 8 due to early school leaving?
  • Where do these students go? What relationship is there to juvenile justice involvement?
  • Most importantly, what do Indigenous students say is the reason they are getting suspended and excluded? What do THEY think needs to change?

Why it is critical to have a national inquiry into this problem and a national solution

The 2014 reforms implemented in the United States have had significant impact. One example is Chicago Public School (CPS) which restricted the use of exclusionary discipline by reducing permissible length and banning suspensions for minor infractions. Critically, CPS did not stop at discipline reform, but also undertook systemic inclusive school reform, by adopting Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS). MTSS is an evidence-based framework that aims to enhance students’ social-emotional learning, academic, and behavioural outcomes.

In the very same year, Queensland went the other way. 2014 brought about legislative reforms that permitted greater autonomy in the issuing of suspensions by principals and schools, while simultaneously abolishing students’ rights to appeal short suspensions and reducing the requirement to consult with parents and their children. As well, alterations were made to the length of ‘short’ and ‘long’ suspensions, with short suspensions being increased in length (from 1-5 days to 1-10 days), while long suspensions were reduced (5-20 days became 10-20 days).

The graph below shows suspension rates per 100 students before and after 2014, for Chicago Public Schools and Queensland State Schools. Notably, CPS rates of suspensions per 100 students dropped from 24.6 in 2012 to 5.17 in 2019. Conversely, in Queensland, suspension rates rose from 11.71 per 100 students in 2013 to 13.4 in 2019, with a peak in 2018 at 15.04. 

Evidence shows positive outcomes from: 

  • implementation of system-wide Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS)
  • strict limits on and alternatives to the use of exclusionary discipline through legislative thresholds and safeguards
  • respectful and empathic teacher-student relationships
  • educative responses to discipline enacted within an inclusive school culture
  • systematic implementation of evidence-based practices, programs and interventions to support students’ academic, social-emotional and behavioural development.

Most critically, evidence from the US reforms indicates that the introduction of strict limits on the use of exclusionary discipline, such as banning suspension in the early years (K-3) and for minor reasons, as well as the provision of safeguards for priority equity groups (e.g., Indigenous students, students with disability, children in care) is a necessary first step for effective reform implementation. We cannot wait the decades that the US waited to respond to a problem that was staring them in the face. If some individual states won’t act, then the Australian government must.

Linda J. Graham is Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) and a Professor in the Faculty of Creative Industries, Education and Social Justice at QUT. Her research investigates the role of education policy and schooling practices in the development of disruptive student behaviour and the improvement of responses to children that teachers can find difficult to teach.

Dr Callula Killingly is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) at QUT and a member of the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage Team (LP180100830). Her research interests include learning and memory processes, language and literacy development, and music cognition.

Differentiation is in our schools to stay. What is it? And why are most criticisms of it just plain wrong?

The use of a teaching practice known as ‘differentiation’ has become more common over time as educators have sought to respond to increases in the diversity of students enrolling in their local school. The term is now used widely by Australian teachers and school leaders, as well as policy makers.

For example, according to the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, Australian teachers are expected to “Differentiate teaching to meet the specific learning needs of students across the full range of abilities”. They are also expected to implement “Quality Differentiated Teaching Practice to meet the diversity of learners within their classroom”, as part of the Nationally Consistent Collection of Data on School Students with Disability.

Being able to claim and demonstrate high-quality differentiation in the classroom now informs teacher promotion and school improvement review processes. It is also one way schools can meet their obligations under the Disability Standards for Education, as differentiation is a means through which teachers make reasonable adjustments to curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and the learning environment.

Given the emphasis in Australian legislation, policy and practice, it is important that when we refer to differentiation, we are all talking about the same thing. However, if you were to ask 10 teachers what differentiation means and how they implement it in their classrooms, you could receive 10 different responses.

As education researchers with expertise in inclusive education, we were interested in the spread of differentiation and what it means to teachers and researchers. We are also curious as to the basis for some especially loud criticisms of it.

Criticisms based on inconsistencies and misconceptions

There are a range of criticisms of differentiation including that it:

  • Requires teachers to provide every student with individualised lessons
  • Increases teachers’ workloads
  • Makes teachers’ work complicated
  • Waters down the curriculum
  • Lowers expectations of students and their exposure to the academic curriculum
  • Is too difficult to implement in mainstream classrooms
  • Is inconsistent with evidence-based approaches such as Response to Intervention
  • Lacks evidence of effectiveness.

We began this review because we knew that several of these criticisms are just plain wrong. For example, the goal of differentiation is to stretch students beyond what they can already do but not so much that they experience frustration or failure. It is about “teaching up”, not “watering down” the curriculum, where teachers raise expectations for all students and provide appropriate scaffolds to help students to experience success.

It is also not about “‘individualised instruction’”; rather, it offers “multiple avenues to learning” through proactive design. In fact, its emphasis on proactive planning aims to reduce teacher workload, not add to it. By building in accessibility and flexibility, it has the potential to save teachers time in the long run by teaching more efficiently and effectively from the outset, preventing the need to spend additional time replanning and reteaching the curriculum.

Some of these criticisms stem from a lack of definitional clarity. This problem was highlighted in Australian research as long ago as 2014, and has been recently confirmed by two reviews from the United States, published in 2019 and 2020.

A consistent and clear understanding of what is meant by differentiation is therefore vital in order to examine the validity of these criticisms and consider whether they correctly construe the motivation for its use.

To examine these issues in more depth, we undertook a comprehensive scoping review to synthesise what can be known from existing studies. We found that the research literature on differentiation contains a range of definitional inconsistencies and misconceptions about how differentiation is conceptualised and implemented.

This is a huge problem. How can we talk about, implement or indeed criticise differentiation in our schools if we are talking about and doing different things?

So let’s start with a definition

It is essential for teachers and researchers to work from a common understanding of differentiation and so as part of our research we first provided a clear definition. To construct our definition we drew on the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson, an American educator, author and speaker who is well known for her work with differentiated instruction over the last two decades.

This is what we, and others in inclusive education, mean when we use the term. It is:

the use of proactive planning and inclusive practices to create accessible learning experiences to meet the needs of all learners in heterogeneous classrooms, using flexible within-class grouping, as opposed to fixed ability grouping, year-level streaming or withdrawal to separate programs.

For further clarification, we use the term flexible grouping to refer to varied use of whole class and individual learning, alongside heterogeneous and homogeneous small group learning according to interest, learning profile, and readiness.

Our research

We conducted our scoping review of all peer-reviewed research literature published between 1999, when Carol Tomlinson published her influential book, The differentiated classroom: Responding to the needs of all learners, and 2019, the year we concluded our search. Searches of seven research databases netted 1,235 records, to which we added another six identified through hand-searching.

Our definition was broad and theoretically derived and hinged on practices enacted to meet the needs of all learners in heterogeneous classrooms. We therefore excluded studies that incorporated practices inconsistent with this definition such as ability grouping, year-level streaming or studies in which there was withdrawal of students to separate programs. We also excluded studies informed by misguided practices such as differentiating for learning styles or intelligence strengths, or by ability grouping and segregation as there is either no evidence to support their use or because there is clear evidence against their use.

Multiple screening stages (for those interested in the details of our research process, particularly when it comes to what we excluded and why, please go to our full paper) resulted in a final sample of 34 journal articles. Our review of these 34 articles was guided by two research questions, both of which were exploratory, rather than explanatory:

  1. Are there any discernible patterns in peer-reviewed empirical research conducted on differentiation in school settings between 1999 and 2019 with regard to aim, location, school phase, participant types and methods used?
  2. What are the principal research foci of these studies, how do they conceptualise and research differentiation, and how might research on differentiation be improved?


Our findings on the research evidence on differentiation were variously pleasing, surprising and of great concern to us. We found that while some teachers can find differentiation a challenge to implement or to implement well, echoing the concerns of some critics, this was not ubiquitous. Indeed we found that the range and depth of teachers’ use of differentiated teaching practices was enhanced by strong and committed leadership. It was also supported by quality professional learning, which contributed to staff buy-in and a school-wide culture of teacher collaboration, as well as supporting the quality and frequency of teacher implementation of differentiation.

We also found great diffusion in how differentiation was conceptualised making it difficult to produce clear findings about whether differentiation works. Despite this, the reviewed studies that examined the impact of differentiation consistent with our definition generally indicated that it typically produced improvements in student learning when compared to regular practice, with some suggestion that this may be even greater in more disadvantaged schools. There was little evidence to support criticisms that differentiation waters down the curriculum or lowers expectations and no studies advocating for the creation of individual lesson plans for individual students. Given the number of studies and participants that are represented in our review, this effectively dispels these criticisms as myth.

The diversity of focus and methodological approaches across the 34 studies, however, prevents a structured comparison of findings and therefore weakens the evidential basis to make stronger claims of either differentiation’s effectiveness or indeed its ineffectiveness. In particular, strong claims were hampered by the fact that:

  • Half the 34 studies were conducted in the United States and most in the elementary (primary) school phase with very few studies focusing on secondary schools.
  • Survey and case study designs were dominant, as was research of influences on teacher practice.
  • Only a small group of studies focused on differentiation’s impact on student outcomes and these typically only examined specific elements of differentiation or in specific academic domains, such as science or reading.
  • The majority of studies were undermined by methodological weaknesses—such as a tendency to rely on convenience samples and to use weak forms of survey methodology, as well as to attempt to determine the impact of differentiation using only student achievement scores—validating some concerns about the state of the research on differentiation.
  • Poor design weakened the strength of the overall findings because of the incommensurability between the measures used by participants from different schools and districts, and the incommensurability of practices across cases.
  • Although there were some studies that investigated the impact of differentiation using rigorous procedures, the majority of research was compromised by the use of small sample sizes and researcher-developed instruments with no clear theoretical or empirical foundation.
  • A lack of transparency due to poor reporting and very little cross-referencing between studies led to the majority ‘remaking the wheel’ rather than working together to create a coherent evidence-base.


Our research suggests that research on differentiation can and should improve, if the understanding of the practice is itself to improve.

Far too many studies are conducted without a coherent and theoretically informed definition to guide the development of instruments or to provide an appropriate lens through which to analyse the data collected. Having now read a vast number of articles, each claiming to be about differentiation, we observe that new research on this topic must build from and improve on previous studies. This is important to avoid researchers approaching the topic with the assumption that there is common agreement as to what differentiation is, or proposing their own new definition.

To achieve this, we believe future research on differentiation could:

  • clearly define differentiation as a range of evidence-based practices that teachers can use to meet the needs of all learners in heterogeneous classrooms
  • investigate the planning and enactment of these practices in both primary and secondary general education settings
  • use rigorous mixed-method research designs capable of assessing the adequacy of those practices for meeting the full range of individual learning needs, whilst determining the effect on students’ engagement, educational experiences, and academic outcomes; and
  • monitor implementation fidelity and the impact on teachers’ work.

We see our paper and our considered definition of differentiation grounded in prior research as a starting point to build useful evidence on differentiation for schools and teachers in Australia. If we are to use differentiation to meet the needs of students with and without disabilities in our schools, teachers need to be on the same page and confident in the evidence behind the practices they are using.

For those who want more, here is our full paper: A scoping review of 20 years of research on differentiation: investigating conceptualisation, characteristics, and methods used

Professor Linda Graham is Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Her research investigates the role of education policy and schooling practices in the development of disruptive student behaviour and the improvement of responses to children with language, learning and behavioural difficulties.

Dr Kate de Bruin is a senior lecturer in inclusion and disability in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. She has taught in secondary school and higher education for two decades. Her research focuses on inclusive education in policy and practice, examining system, school and classroom practices that are supported by evidence, and that promote quality and equity for all students, with specific attention to students with a disability.

Dr Carly Lassig is a Lecturer in The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) at QUT with a passion for social justice, equity and inclusion. Her research and teaching interests include: inclusive education, disability, differentiation, Universal Design for Learning, gifted education, and creativity. Carly’s PhD, “Perceiving and pursuing novelty: A grounded theory of adolescent creativity” investigated young people’s experiences of creativity within and beyond the school environment. Carly’s background is as a primary and middle years teacher, having taught nationally and internationally.

Dr Ilektra Spandagou is an Associate Professor of Inclusive Education at The University of Sydney. Ilektra worked as a special education teacher and completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield in the area of inclusive education. She worked as a researcher at the University of Sheffield,and as a lecturer at the University of Athens and the University of Thessaly, Greece before moving to The University of Sydney. Her research interests include disability, classroom diversity, and curriculum differentiation.

Beginner teachers are NOT under prepared and NOT bad at managing behaviour. Here’s the evidence

For years claims have been circulating that newly graduated teachers are under prepared to teach in today’s often challenging classrooms, and that they are bad at classroom management. Thanks to mainstream media interest, and critics within education circles, these claims have led to an increasing array of government interventions in Initial Teacher Education in universities around Australia. What, how and to whom teacher education is delivered has been thoroughly examined and churned in the bid to improve teaching quality and student outcomes.

As teacher educators, intimately involved in teaching our new teachers and supporting them as they embark on their careers, we were deeply concerned about these claims so went looking for evidence of what was going wrong.

This blog post is about our research and what we found.

Be surprised, we found no evidence that beginning teachers in Australia are unprepared for the classroom or that they are bad at behaviour management.  

We believe extensive reforms have been made to Initial Teacher Education in Australia to ‘improve’ teacher quality without any evidence to support the claim that beginning teachers are less competent than experienced teachers.

Our research, carried out in Australian schools, found that most beginning teachers in fact engaged in higher levels of emotional support than their more experienced colleagues, and for most, behaviour management is not a problem.

Background on government ‘reforms’ to make teachers “classroom ready”

Following the now infamous 2014 Teacher Education Ministerial Advisory Group report, which formalised the (we believe false) claim that graduate teachers were unprepared for the classroom, Australian universities have responded to accreditation requirements by

Various state governments have also made changes that impact universities intake criteria and course content: Queensland, for example, has mandated that students entering primary teacher education degrees must have four semesters of sound achievement in English, Maths and Science. New South Wales has signalled that to be eligible for employment in NSW government schools, students commencing a teaching degree from 2019, must:

  • Receive a minimum credit grade point average in their university degree.
  • Prove sound practical knowledge and ability, which will be reflected by an assessment of every single practicum report.
  • Show superior cognitive and emotional intelligence measured via a psychometric assessment.
  • Demonstrate their commitment to the values of public education in a behavioural interview.

Those doing online degrees are out.

None of these measures are bad, in and of themselves, although they have created significant compliance burden for teacher educators and schools of education, as well as increasing the fiscal pressure on schools and faculties of education.

The problem is that these interventions into university teacher education have come without any supporting empirical evidence that beginning teachers are less competent than their more experienced colleagues.

Our research into the teaching quality and classroom management skills of newly graduated teachers

What research method did we use?

There are different ways of measuring the quality of teaching. The two main ways involve using test scores (like NAPLAN for example) or by observing teachers teaching, and measuring the presence or absence of teaching practices known to add positively to students’ social, behavioural, and academic outcomes. The latter method is, of course, much more expensive because it uses direct observation, but it also can’t be manipulated like test scores can.

One method of direct observation is the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) observation measure developed by University of Virginia education specialists Bridget Hamre and Robert Pianta. We used this method in our six-year longitudinal study.

In our paper published in Teaching and Teacher Education this week, we compare the CLASS scores of beginning teachers (0-3 years’ experience) and experienced teachers (more than 3 years’ experience) and found no significant differences between the groups.

We used the CLASS system in our study investigating the development of severely disruptive behaviour of students because we were interested in learning the contribution made by the quality of teaching. In the very first year of this six-year longitudinal study, we noticed three standout teachers who were all in their early 20s and wrote about it in the AARE EduResearch Matters blog.

That’s also when we decided to ask how many years our teacher participants had been teaching in our research interviews because we were interested to see whether the excellent practice we were seeing bore out over time with a much larger number of participants.

Six years later, we can finally reveal: yes, it does and no, those three early career teachers were not an anomaly. Beginning teachers really do cut it.

We then broke our experienced teacher category into two (4-5 years and more than 5 years) and compared the CLASS scores of teachers in these groups with beginning teachers (0-3 years’ experience). This time there were significant differences with the 4-5 year experience group achieving significantly lower quality in three dimensions: Productivity, Instructional Learning Formats, and Negative Climate.

Importantly, there were very few participants in the 4-5 year experience group. While these findings do align with the possibility of a post three-year decline for some teachers, the findings should be interpreted with caution as extreme outliers can have a disproportionate influence on group means.

What’s the upshot?

We followed more than 200 students over six years and very few of their teachers declined participation. Their length of teacher experience ranged from 3 weeks to 38 years.

Basically, beginning teachers performed just as well as, or better than, teachers with more years of experience, regardless of the groups we compared them with. And, while all research is impacted by self-selection to some degree, in this study that was mitigated by our relationship with and presence in seven participating schools and the longitudinal nature of our project.

We found no evidence that beginning teachers were unprepared for the classroom or that they are bad at behaviour management. In fact, we found that most beginning teachers engaged in higher levels of emotional support than their more experienced colleagues. And behaviour management was the second highest scoring dimension of the 10 dimensions measured by the CLASS.

This evidence is good news for beginning teachers who must have been feeling pretty bruised in recent years and good news for preservice teachers who are scaling an increasing number of hurdles to prove their worth. It is also good news for teacher educators who work incredibly hard under enormous pressure to continually revise and refine their content and to support their students to do well.

Rather than implementing any more graduation hurdles designed to “vet” entry to the profession or further destabilising university teacher education, governments need to look at the evidence and turn instead to finding better ways of directing support to all teachers and provide intelligently targeted, quality professional learning to those who need it.

Professor Linda Graham is Director of The Centre for Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology (QUT). Linda is currently Chief Investigator on several externally funded research projects including “Which children develop severely disruptive school behaviour?”, a six-year longitudinal study funded by the Australian Research Council. She has published more than 80 books, chapters, and journal articles, as well as numerous pieces published in The Conversation.

Associate Professor Sonia White is an academic in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education and researcher in The Centre for Inclusive Education (C4IE) at QUT. Sonia is a registered mathematics teacher and her research investigates children’s early learning and development.

Dr Kathy Cologon is a senior lecturer in the Department of Educational Studies at Macquarie University. Kathy has a particular interest in research and practice relating to the development and support of inclusive education, with a view towards greater recognition of the rights of all children.

Professor Robert Pianta is Dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and founding Director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL). He is a leading expert in the field of developmental psychology with much of his research devoted to supporting teachers use of quality teaching practices that best support children’s academic, social-emotional and behavioural development. With his colleagues at CASTL, he has led the development of well-known measures including the Teacher-Student Relationship Scale and the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS).

21 simple design elements that will make any School Assessment Task sheet accessible

If you have a child in secondary school in Australia, you are probably familiar with assessment task sheets. They outline the task a student has to complete and how it will be assessed. The criteria and standards that will be used to evaluate the performance are included. Often the task sheet will also aim to excite and motivate students to engage with a real-world problem or life-like performance that is relevant and meaningful to them.

Assessment task sheets are really invitations for students to create a performance to show others what they know.

Yet for many students these days, the complexity of the invitation can lead them to give up before they even start. It is a growing problem as assessment task sheets become increasingly complicated documents.

They often now contain a lot of information only intended for adult audiences because they can be used to help justify assessment decisions to parents, and can serve accountability purposes by providing evidence that the teacher has complied with the requirements of a syllabus. So they could feature technical terms from the syllabus and more information than is necessary for student understanding.

For students with language and attentional difficulties, these multiple purposes and the complexity of tasks can present barriers that prevent them from successfully participating in the assessment. Complex assessment task sheets can therefore be unfair.

We believe it is possible to design assessment tasks and write up accompanying assessment task sheets that allow more students to participate than is currently the case. Our research shows design techniques that support teachers to do this.

Currently many teachers spend precious time retrospectively adjusting tasks and rewriting task sheets to give access to students experiencing difficulties. It is a practice that is time-consuming for busy teachers and so is typically only done for students with severe disabilities.

In Australia, however, it is a federally legislated requirement for reasonable adjustments to be made to support all students with disability to access their education on the same basis as students without disability, as described in the Disability Standards for Education.

So we see our work in this field as being relevant to all teachers in every subject and at every level, whenever they are designing and writing an assessment task for their students. If the task is designed and written in an accessible way, students with language and attentional difficulties can do the same task using the same task sheet and teachers will no longer need to create other versions, readjust or rewrite for these students.

But… could this give some students an unfair advantage?

A key barrier to accessible assessment is the fear that reasonable adjustments could lead to a ‘dumbing down’ of the assessment or that they provide an unfair advantage to students with a disability. However, this would only be true if the benefit were not universal or if the main aim of the assessment was to test students’ ability to interpret assessment task sheets.

If accessible assessment tasks are proactively planned and provided to all students, then the benefit is universal. And, if the assessment task focuses on the knowledge or skill being assessed (the first order priority of assessment), then it is still a valid and fair assessment.

Importantly, as Joy Cumming and Graham Maxwell have previously pointed out, when second-order priorities (such as the accountability purposes of assessment) complicate assessment purposes to the extent that the assessment task itself creates barriers to student access and participation, then the result is not a true reflection of that student’s response to the (first-order) purpose of the assessment and the assessment is therefore inequitable.

The challenge is to design assessment that is accessible from the outset of planning, so that teachers can maximise opportunities for all learners to have access to assessment tasks.

Challenges of access that students must overcome

We analysed a typical Year 8 English task sheet and considered the visual, procedural and linguistic complexity of the task sheet design to highlight how some assessment practices may inadvertently affect access and therefore equity.

There are three considerable challenges students must face to correctly interpret an assessment task and successfully demonstrate their learning. These are: –

  • Comprehending what the task is about
  • Working out what has to be done
  • Understanding the parameters in which to do it

Access can be made easier or more difficult depending on the way the assessment task is presented; both in terms of visual presentation and in terms of the language used. The number and type of procedures required can also differentially affect students’ successful completion of the task.

This approach to analysis helped us to produce a list of recommended design elements that will be useful to teachers as they plan and write up their assessment tasks.

Design elements that support making assessment tasks accessible

Visual accessibility

The layout of the task sheet helps the students access the important elements of the task

  • The most important information is easy to find
  • White space is used to separate sections
  • Text size aids readability (11 or 12 point font with 1.5 line spacing)
  • Margins are left-justified
  • Visual cues direct student attention
  • Information that is irrelevant to students is not included

Procedural accessibility

Consistency and clarity of instructions

  • Authentic context is relevant
  • Common access barriers have been addressed in the design
  • The task, objectives and criteria align
  • Students are able to respond within the prescribed conditions
  • Enough space and resources are provided for responses
  • The assessment is scheduled to give students the best opportunity for success
  • Processes for evaluating quality are clear
  • Authentication strategies are included
  • Student feedback on the draft task was sought
  • Teacher peer feedback on draft task was sought

Linguistic accessibility

Directions are clear

  • Instructions are clear and direct
  • Sentences are short and simply structured
  • The language is free of bias
  • Specialist language is defined using student-friendly terms
  • Information is stated once only and if it needs to be referenced more than once, consistent terminology is used

Encouraging results from using these recommendations

We used an accessibility checklist based on these recommendations to support teachers in their assessment design work in two secondary schools participating in our research.

Significantly, teachers who participated in this research reported that students who had not previously found success were able to demonstrate their learning with new levels of confidence.

We believe proactive accessible assessment design has the potential to increase the assessment participation and success of all students, especially those with language and attentional difficulties.

An added bonus is that designing for accessibility from the outset promises to reduce teacher workload due to fewer requests for clarification from students and less need for retrospective adjustments.


More in our open access paper Designing out barriers to student access and participation in secondary school assessment


Haley Tancredi is a Master of Philosophy (Education) candidate at QUT. A certified practicing speech pathologist, Haley also presently works for Brisbane Catholic Education. Haley’s research and clinical interests are adolescents with language disorder, student voice and teacher/speech pathologist collaboration in inclusive classrooms. Haley is also an active #WeSpeechie on Twitter @HaleyTanc.




Linda Graham is a Professor in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education in the School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education, Queensland University of Technology (QUT). She coordinates Inclusive Education Theory, Policy and Practice, a core unit in the Faculty of Education’s Master of Inclusive Education. She leads QUT’s Student Engagement, Learning and Behaviour Research Group (@SELB_QUT) and a number of research projects in the area of inclusive education. She can often be found on Twitter: @drlindagraham and at



Jill Willis is an assessment researcher and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. She investigates how educators promote learner agency and equity through their everyday assessment practices. You can reach her via Twitter: @JillWteachEd




Kelli McGraw is a lecturer in secondary English curriculum in the Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. Her current research is on the role of social media technologies in engaging first year university students, and the use of online writing for assessment. Previously she worked as a teacher of high school English in South-western Sydney, NSW. Kelli is the Vice President of the English Teachers Association of Queensland. You can reach her via Twitter: @kmcg2375