Traditional teaching best helps disadvantaged children

Queen's University, which has a School of Education
Queen's University, which has a School of Education

In the last few days the media hype that has surrounded the Investigating Links in Achievement and Deprivation (ILiAD) project has been remarkable.

Given that the project was funded by OFMDFM using public money, no one seems to have noticed two profound difficulties with the project. The first is that OFMDFM used funds to investigate a question that had already been answered in what has been described as the largest educational experiment ever conducted: ‘Project Follow Through’ in America.

The second is that the principal beneficiaries of the money are “educationalists” from the School of Education at Queens University.

(It is interesting to note that the two lead researchers – Professors Leitch and Hughes – have no teaching experience. This is significant because Schools of Education have strong associations with “progressivist” teaching methods linked to the very underachievement which the ILiAD report seeks to address).

OFMDFM should have consulted David Labaree of Stanford University’s School of Education before investing in QUB’s education school: “There is not enough space here for me to explain the historical roots of the education school’s lowly status in the US but the conclusion is clear: [schools of education] rank at the very bottom. As a result of this, we have zero credibility in making pronouncements about education. We are solidly in the progressive camp ideologically.”

Turning to my claim that the question at the core of the ILiAD project had already been answered when the ILiAD contract was awarded, it is important for the reader to appreciate how Project Follow Through dwarfs the ILiAD project in scope and ambition. Unlike ILiAD, Project Follow Through focused on the classroom and sought to identify the teaching method that would raise the academic standards of the poor to middle class levels. The most successful method? Traditional teaching (so-called “direct instruction” (DI)) stood head and shoulders above all other teaching techniques.

tion of a billion dollars (a lot of money in the 1960/70s), the American academic Ian Ayres said Project Follow Through emerged out of concern that “poor children tend to do poorly in school” and sought to determine the education models could best break the cycle of failure. The project studied 79,000 children in 180 low-income communities for 20 years.

Traditional teaching methods (DI) outperformed all of its rivals in getting disadvantaged children to perform at middle class standards. Traditional teaching methods (DI) outperformed all of its rivals in getting disadvantaged children to perform at middle class standards.

Richard Nadler writes: “When the testing was over, students in DI classrooms had been placed first in reading, first in math, first in spelling, and first in language. No other model came close.” Independent evaluations were subsequently carried out by the American Federation of Teachers and by the American Institutes for Research with the same conclusions.

Curriculum models categorised as “learning-to-learn” models performed very poorly in Project Follow Through. Given that Northern Ireland’s Revised Curriculum has ‘learning how to learn’ principles at its core, the explanation for the underachievement of disadvantaged children (Catholic, Protestant, whatever) isn’t hard to find. The missing link between poverty and underachievement can be identified without spending a penny of public money.

Individuals like Gavin Boyd - who now commands one of the highest salaries in the public sector as head of the new Education Authority – have bequeathed our children a dysfunctional curriculum.

We don’t need to await the publication of the ILiAD project to know how to enhance the achievement of our most vulnerable children: return to traditional approaches to teaching and learning.

• Stephen Elliott is chair of the Parental Alliance for Choice in Education

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