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.