Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

The Dynamics of Literacy Lessons an Introduction to in Teachers' Hands: Effective Literacy Teaching Practices in the Early Years of Schooling

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Language and Literacy

The Dynamics of Literacy Lessons an Introduction to in Teachers' Hands: Effective Literacy Teaching Practices in the Early Years of Schooling

Article excerpt

Some decades ago, the daily work of teachers in classrooms was almost the last topic any serious, self-respecting educational researcher would elect to pursue. Effort and resources were channelled largely into curriculum development, demographics, leadership training, and assessment and testing. Input-output studies showed how strongly (or otherwise) these facets of the educational effort were inter-related, and the mundane realities of the classroom remained the black box in the network--either everybody knew about classroom activity so primordially that its documentation was regarded as banal or indulgent, or no theoretical or methodological apparatus available at the time could or would want to do justice to its arcane messiness.

That time has passed and for some years now teachers have become accustomed to requests that they allow themselves to be wired for sound and watched intently from the back of the room, their every move laid open to a fastidious scrutiny that would once have been the stuff of professional nightmare. Some teachers I have worked with over the years who took my advice and taped their lessons to play back in the car on their way home have written to me explaining that they gave this up out of respect for the safety of their fellow motorists.

But the title of this study of teachers' daily work, In Teachers' Hands: Effective Literacy Teaching Practices in the Early Years of Schooling, indicates how centrally the work of teachers has come to be viewed in educational theory and research and how intricate and valuable is its documentation. Louden and colleagues make good on the claim that classroom life, familiar though it may feel, is indeed so rich and consequential that it warrants sophisticated combinations of quantitative and qualitative approaches, and a mix of close attention to detail and to the sweep of statistical patterns.

By way of briefly introducing the piece I highlight points that I believe are central to the significance of the project: the importance of non-cognitive features of early education, and an appreciation of classroom teaching and learning as social-phenomena-in-motion rather than as static blocks of 'good' or 'bad' practice.

Arising from his encyclopaedic overview of the economic aspects of human skills formation, Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman made the following observation:

   Current policies regarding education and job training are based in
   fundamental misconceptions about the way socially useful skills
   embodied in persons are produced ... they exclude the critical
   importance of social skills, social adaptability and motivation
   ... caus[ing] a serious bias in the evaluation of many human
   capital interventions. (Heckman, 2000, p. 2)

Much of Heckman's work (e.g., 2005) has led him to the conclusion that investment in very young children is crucial in large part because of the effects of such educational work on the non-cognitive aspects of human learning. Literacy is a particularly key area of learning for Heckman, being a 'skill that begets many other skills' (an index of 'self-productivity', as he calls it, because it is a key part of our capacity to increase our capacity), and the non-cognitive, social aspects of learning literacy are a point of focus. One notable feature of the study reported here is its attention to non-cognitive aspects of this learning. Teacher variables that inform the research include participation, support, differentiation and respect, a much richer framing of the issue than we have witnessed in more conventional curricular or psychological studies of classrooms. Communication skills, especially those associated with literacy in its varied forms, have been shown to be critical for individuals' long-term life pathways: cultural cohesion, economic productivity, and short- and long-term employment; failure has been directly associated with the acceleration of inter-generational exclusion and alienation (Brine, 2001; Bynner & Parsons, 2001). …

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