What we want to say right now to Sahlberg and Goldfeld

By Nathaniel Swain, Pamela Snow, Tanya Serry, Tessa Weadman and Eamon Charles

Schools are places for all kinds of success, including academic achievement.

In their recent article, “If not now, then when is the right time to re-envisage what schools could be?” Professors Sahlberg and Goldfeld rightly shine a light on falling academic achievements among Australian students according to both national and international measures. 

Importantly, they note that these trends, seen across literacy, numeracy, and science, have stubbornly persisted in the face of increased per capita education spending. What is surprising to us though, is that Professors Sahlberg and Goldfeld seek solutions to academic struggles not in improved classroom instruction, but in extra funding and focus on wellbeing, without considering the contribution to wellbeing made via academic success. 

We agree with Sahlberg and Goldfeld’s assertion that many policy initiatives have overlooked the “interconnection between health, wellbeing, and learning”. There seems to be an assumption, however, that an uplift in educational outcomes and equity can be achieved without the discomfort and upheaval of focusing on low-impact instructional practices (reading being a key case in point). One cannot ignore that the relationship between wellbeing, engagement and academic success is complex. We hold that strategic investment and accountability for health in schools—without investment and accountability for improving instruction—will fail to shift the dial upwards on Australian students’ falling educational outcomes and growing inequities (see here). 

Perhaps what is missing from Sahlberg and Goldfeld’s position is the notion that responsive, effective and evidence-informed teaching plays a pivotal role in fostering students’ academic achievement, self-efficacy and thus wellbeing. Longstanding research into the health outcomes for individuals without key educational capacities reveals the protection that success in reading confers on wellbeing across the lifespan, not merely during the school years. There are also examples in our own backyard of schools in disadvantaged communities turning around wellbeing and behavioural challenges via the vehicle of improved instructional practices. Without policy support and investment in teacher professional learning however, such transformations are difficult to take to scale. These initiatives into professional practice also entail three to five years of solid investment of time and instructional coaching, which is far less attention-grabbing in brief news cycles and political campaigns, than bids for a wholesale priority shift from instruction to wellbeing.  

The vision presented in Sahlberg and Goldberg’s article highlights the importance of responsive and effective teaching to enhance children’s sense of success and confidence while meeting their wellbeing needs. We argue that, somewhat ironically, one of the best ways to meet children’s wellbeing needs is for schools to remain focussed on their primary purposes: ensuring all children learn to read, write, do maths, and gain the other capacities they need to succeed in life. Our nation’s performance in these key learning areas create a stark picture of haves and have nots with regards to this primary goals of education.

Promoting the health and wellbeing of students is undeniably important, but it is crucial that the core purposes of education are not diluted or compromised in these endeavours. We already have ambitious goals to deliver a world-class education to all students, with significant work still to do to realise these aspirations.  

Blurring the boundaries between the roles of educators and health professionals could potentially lead to attenuation of efforts to strengthen instructional capacity of our teaching workforce. Teachers are already under immense pressure with a wide range of pedagogical and administrative responsibilities. If the expectations placed on teachers expand to encompass mental health supports beyond their training and expertise, this creates a further risk of diverting their attention and resources away from effective teaching and learning.

We cannot see a case for a focus on health and wellbeing without considering the impact of the ways in which precious instructional time is used. Students have long been subjects of social and pedagogical experiments in education systems, typically without ethical or empirical oversight. Neither children nor their parents are given opportunities to give or withhold consent to many policy change experiments and taxpayers are asked to believe that as the problem grows, so too the financial investment for its downstream “fix” must grow.  

We do not agree that “bold new ways of thinking about children, their schooling and what it takes to secure healthier and happier futures for all of them” are needed. This is an invitation to a populist “re-imagining” rather than a commitment to translating into practice solid scientific evidence about human learning and self-regulation, and ways in which such knowledge can be utilised in all classrooms. Insights from such research have been missing from teacher pre-service education in Australia and may well be contributing to high rates of teacher burn-out and attrition from the profession.

It is a given that schools need to be places of physical, social, and mental health promotion. Against this backdrop, they then need to be meeting children’s human and legislative rights to an education. This means students emerging at least proficient in core areas of the curriculum, as a gateway to a lifetime of learning and social, cultural, economic, and civic engagement. 

Our biggest concern is the potential for well-meaning schools and systems to be wrapped up in ambitious health goals for their students, while tragically under-responding to the learning needs of the children in their care—given that success in learning can make its own independent contribution to wellbeing. 

From left to right: Nathaniel Swain is a senior lecturer in La Trobe University’s School of Education. He founded the national community of teachers and registered charity calledThink Forward Educators, and produces a regular blog for teachers known as the Cognitorium.  Follow him on LinkedIn or on Twitter@NathanielRSwain. Pamela Snow is professor of cognitive psychology in the School of Education at the Bendigo campus of La Trobe University, Australia and co-director of the SOLAR Lab (Science of Language and Reading). Her research has been funded by nationally competitive schemes and concerns the role of language and literacy skills as academic and mental health protective factors in childhood and adolescence. Tanya Serry is associate professor (Literacy and Reading) in the School of Education and co-director of the SOLAR Lab. She has 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. Tessa Weadman is a Lecturer in English, Literacy and Pedagogy in the School of Education at La Trobe University. She is a member of La Trobe University’s SOLAR Lab. Tessa’s research interests span across preschool and school-age language and literacy development. Eamon Charles is the academic intern in the La Trobe SOLAR Lab. He is an experienced school-based speech-language pathologist with special interest in the role of literacy as a protective factor in the context of childhood adversity.

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13 thoughts on “What we want to say right now to Sahlberg and Goldfeld

  1. Dr. Rosie Thrupp says:

    In considering the issues outlined in both papers, there appears an academic opinion that these views are relevant to all schools. I hold the belief that greater depth of consideration be given to one-teacher schools and smaller remote schools in which communities hold varying values from those of larger urban schools.

    Pressures on teachers in smaller country schools focus on administrative issues e.g. annual safety reports etc. This side of schooling promotes a less than fulfilling proposition for teachers, thereby, suggesting that positions in country and remote schools remain unstaffed.

    Constantly changing teachers in these communities regardless of opinions expressed in these opinions, translates to minimised learning.

  2. Nathaniel Swain says:

    Thank you also for your comments. It does appear to be a great challenge to ensure that statewide or national initiatives are relevant and effective for the wide range of schools and educational settings we have. Ways that such schools that you have mentioned can put a stronger focus on learning and teaching, whilst reducing administrative burden would be ideal. Example of Churchill Primary in regional Victoria is a good one here.

  3. Dr Anne Kennedy says:

    We would never ask childhood health professionals to reimagine their sector to include a focus on’ ambitious children’s learning goals’ for children in the hope that this will improve children’s health outcomes.

    Let educators focus on their professional knowledge, roles and responsibilities concerned with pedagogy and curriculum, and support them to do that well as Swain et al suggest.

  4. Nathaniel Swain says:

    Thank you for your perspectives on this.

  5. Susan Mahar says:

    As an experienced early literacy classroom teacher I am tired of hearing from speech pathologists who believe they are literacy experts. They are not. They are far too dogmatic to have any credibility at all in educational circles yet they continue to undermine teachers and unsettle parents as well as kids by insisting a mandated one-size-fits-all programmed approach to phonics will guarantee reading success for all kids. It won”t.

    Reading is getting meaning from print. Children bring a range of very different experiences and understandings to the printed word. Experienced literacy teachers know how and when to support individual readers to apply their knowledge as well as a range of strategies (which may include phonics) to develop the predictive skills they need to make sense of print and monitor understandings as they read. A meaningful writing program is an integral part of the process.

    There is no one size fits all whereby all kids will (or must) follow the same path to reading. I know this to be true from 30 years of classroom experience. Teachers I know valued speech pathologists who worked in in schools during the 80’s. Unfortunately there is no assistance for kids who have problems articulating sounds these days without running the gauntlet of whole language learning abuse. Sadly I would be reluctant to refer any child to a speech pathologist for all of the reasons above.

  6. Pamela Snow says:

    First up Susan, I’m sorry, you don’t seem to have had positive, interdisciplinary experiences of working with allied health professionals such as speech pathologists. Modern education, like modern healthcare, is an interdisciplinary phenomenon and many schools and sectors have staffing profiles that reflect this. While this was not fundamentally a post about reading, we agree with you that the purpose of reading is to derive meaning from text. No one can derive meaning from print that they cannot decode, however, which is why there is an increasing shift towards up-skilling teachers about the nature of the English writing system and how to take young children from novice to proficient as efficiently as possible in the first three years of school. There is abundant evidence to indicate that this knowledge has been missing from teacher pre-service education, so it is perhaps not surprising that some 7500 teachers have engaged with our online SOLAR Lab short courses in the last three years to become familiar with this knowledge in a collegial and collaborative way. Between us, we have qualifications in speech-language pathology, psychology, classroom teaching, and linguistics. We enjoy sharing our knowledge and experiences, as well as learning from the knowledge and experiences of the teachers we engage with through our online platforms and our other professional activities.

  7. I’ve taught in Govt Schools near La Trobe uni for over 40 years. There has always been a focus on achievement. For many years the Vic & NSW DOE have focused on Hattie’s works as the basis for “evidence-informed teaching”. Vic has focused on its High Impact Teach Strategies & NSW on “what Works Best”. For the last 5 years Vic DOE has allocated nearly $200 Million to focus on Literacy & Numeracy. The MySchool web site focuses on Achievement via NAPLAN & Y12 results. I’ve been part of many school reviews where Regional Directors all focus on Achievement & closely monitor schools. Under performing schools & Prins are held to account. It’s rare to see any money money spent on Welfare Strategies: Psychologists, Social & Welfare Workers, breakfast or lunch provision, subsidies for books, etc. (at my previous school in West Heidelberg we had a big problem providing Y11&12 students with mandatory expensive Graphic Calculator’s.) There is a component of achieving Wellbeing via Academic success. However, the way Y12 Academic performance is measured via standardized rankings, means 50% of students will always be below the median score no matter whether the whole system improves its teaching or not. So the way we measure achievement, is a huge problem.

  8. Thank you for your comment, George.

    While we agree that, rightly so, academic achievement has been (and continues to be) the primary focus for schools and systems, some distinct changes in recent years have seen moves towards wellbeing as an equal (or sometimes) prerequisite priority in some schools. This shift, where schools might devote less time or resources to instructional and curriculum improvement—instead diverting attention to student and staff wellbeing—is what we are concerned about.

    For example, in Victoria, the school improvement model (FISO 2.0) places learning and wellbeing as the two primary outcomes/focus-areas, whereas previously wellbeing had a facilitative role in the Department of Education’s conceptualisation. We are concerned mainly because of the arguments we hear along the lines of “children cannot begin to learn until their wellbeing is attended to”. As we’ve explained above, this argument is problematic because academic success and engagement have a reciprocal relationship, and it’s hard to address wellbeing or mental health concerns of students if their difficulties with school are a key source of anguish or low self-efficacy.

    To address your second point, when we talk about academic success, we are mainly referring to the ability for schools to support students to attain the basic capacities and skills to proceed into the next stage of their life; so we are less concerned about how many students complete VCE and with what score, and more to with the numbers of young people leaving school without strong foundations in language, literacy, and numeracy. At the moment, we think this figure is far too high, and the opportunity cost for children, families and the community is also too high.

  9. Thanks for taking the time to respond Nathaniel. Wellbeing was listed as a major aim in FISO 1 along with Engagement and Achievement. FISO2 removed Engagement and kept Achievement and Wellbeing. So Wellbeing is not a new addition. My perspective is from Y7-12, I’ve realized Primary schools will probably be very different. & perhaps that is where you are coming from. The issue i tried to outline, at least for Y7-12, is that there is no accountability for improving Wellbeing, there is only accountability for achievement, as such the focus has always been and continues to be on Achievement.

  10. Matthew White says:

    As we near closer to the re-signing of the national school reform agreement I feel we need to have more of these debates. I’ve been privileged to have worked as an inclusive education system leader highly focused on academic supports and as a wellbeing leader working with children and families in crisis desperately dealing with school refusal. From this perspective I can see the validity in both articles. I agree with Professors Sahlberg and Goldfeld we do need to be bold in what we do. We do need to support the wellbeing of young people. Young people can’t engage in learning if they are not at school or if they are not well. Yes, school does not work for many young people. However, the present article hits on a key point. We need to support the wellbeing of young people broadly as a society and community and not place this responsibility squarely on schools and teachers. Schools should not be the one stop shop to solve all societies woes. Instead we need multi-dimensional multi-tiered systems of support that extend beyond the school gate. Within these systems educators and allied health professionals work collaboratively. Multi- dimensions means educators can focus on effective evidence based pedagogy with the knowledge that right next to them is a counsellor, social worker, speech pathologist, OT ready to support.

  11. Nathaniel Swain says:

    Hi Matthew, I think you have articulated the nuance here really well. It’s not that health and wellbeing shouldn’t be a priority in schools- it’s more that schools have ultimate responsibility for the EDUCATIONAL outcomes of students, and should work in collaboration with additional health and other services to best support the additional needs of their school community. I agree it is a lot to expect for schools to become more than just educational institutions, and that external and multidisciplinary supports are critical.

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