Noel Pearson address to the National Boys Education Conference 2023

Written by Louise

November 1, 2023

Good to Great Schools Australia (GGSA) founder Noel Pearson has delivered a powerful address to the National Boys Education Conference 2023 held on 9 October 2023 at The Kings School in Sydney.

See the full transcript below. 

A. Introduction

Greetings to the Dharug First Peoples. I pay respect to our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders and all of your lders, past and present. We are in the last week of the campaign for recognition of Aborigninal and Torres Strait slanders as the First Peoples of Australia. We have 5 days to go before this momentous vote.

B. The meaning of Dharug Native Title and their Constitutional Recognition as a First People of Australia

I wish first to reflect on the Welcome to Country we were privileged with this morning, because as well as education I will speak to the Referendum now only days away. Welcomes to Country are a welcome development in Australia. I think we are still working out this ritual, but Australians have adopted it with the best spirit and with sincerity, notwithstanding one former prime minister’s preference that they be abolished.

I am assuming given this morning’s welcome the Kings School also follows this new Australian tradition. Too many welcomes are rote and some desultory, with audiences little appreciating how the history and presence of an Aboriginal group – often long-dispersed (and indeed, dispossessed) from the relevant lands to which we are being welcomed – might be understood for the purpose of the ceremony.

Let me sketch the meaning of the Dharug Peoples’ association with the lands upon which this Kings School is located. We know from the High Court’s decision in Mabo v Queensland that when sovereignty was claimed on behalf of the British Crown in 1788, two things happened to the Dharug. First they became, without their knowledge or consent, subjects of the Crown – susceptible to its dominion but also entitled to its protections. Secondly, and as a result of the entitlement of citizens under the common law of England which had become the law of the colony, the Dharug became the native title owners of all of their homelands in these parts of the Sydney region. This title was enforceable in the courts responsible for administering the law of the colony. Alas the Dharug received all of the dominion and none of the protections as subjects of their new sovereign.

The Dharug were not just the traditional owners of these lands prior to the coming of the British since time immemorial, they were the owners of the lands by virtue of English law, long after the colony was founded.

They lost their land through a ‘parcel by parcel’ process of extinguishment, as the Colonial authorities made successive grants of land to the colonists. The Dharug lost their lands through the grants that preceded the titles that eventually came to form the campus of this school. As well as the enlarged interpretation of the Crown’s power to extinguish title by inconsistent grant, adopted by the High Court in Mabo, the court also peremptorily ruled that no compensation was payable for the loss of title, a ruling entirely inconsistent with the extant authorities of the common law and precedents from other colonies.

Of course the truth of native title was not understood and respected before 3 June 1992. The lie of terra nullius – a land without owners – prevailed for 204 years before being rejected by the High Court. It was the role of the misapplication of the common law in the dispossession and annihilation of the Dharug and so many other groups

across the Australian colonies that led Justices Deane and Gaudron in Mabo to describe this as leaving the country with a legacy of “unutterable shame”.

The point is The Kings School and all of the splendid properties of this tremendous city come from the dispossession of those who owned this land under English law, which they lost without compensation, in the process of which they often lost their lives

– being reduced to a shadow of what they once were.

The Dharug are but one of many Aboriginal peoples who are sought to be recognised as ‘the First Peoples of Australia’ in this weekend’s referendum.

C. My day job designing curriculum resources for schools

When I am not campaigning for the ‘Constitutional Recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the First Peoples of Australia’ I have a number of day jobs across a wide agenda for my people in Cape York Peninsula, including land, health, justice, housing, economic development, employment and of course education.

I am especially focused on education. Having grown up, as I said in Mr Whitlam’s Eulogy: ‘in the teeth of poverty and discrimination’ I appreciated early the primary education the Lutherans gave me in my home village, and later at St Peters College, Brisbane. I received the education denied my father and his father before him. I discerned no intellectual or aptitudinal barrier to their generations succeeding in education – only the absence of opportunity. My father’s opportunities were limited by virtue of his birth as an inmate of an Aboriginal Reserve, under special laws applicable only to Aboriginal Queenslanders, to a Year 3 education. He taught me and my siblings to read the Bible, as did my godparents, Sunday School teachers and Elders. My father’s injunction was Francis Bacon’s: ‘Reading makes a full man’. Life’s purpose he told me is to serve God and your fellow man.

As a man I became dissatisfied with the public schooling provided by the governmentto the remote communities of Cape York. Reading had collapsed since the explicit instruction of my time under the Lutherans, and children who faithfully attended with the support of their parents – were under-achieving academically and ill-prepared for

secondary school. Parents and students were fulfilling their part, but teaching in the schools was ineffective. But the schools and the system behind it saw failure and under-achievement as deficits of the family and village – rather than a failure of teaching and school provisioning.

To cut a long story short we established the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy – a unique partnership between my organisation (Good to Great Schools Australia) and the Queensland Education Department – where the school remains a public school but we supply the pedagogy, curriculum and teacher training necessary to implement our chosen approaches to effective teaching and school improvement.

Central to our chosen approach is Direct Instruction or DI as it is often known. Its’ founder, Siegfried Engelmann expressed the operating principle of DI as follows: ‘If the student has not learned, the teacher has not taught.’ This is the highest statement of the duty of schools: ‘If the student has not learned, the teacher has not taught’.

Direct Instruction is a successor to traditional education. It is not rote. Rather it is the scientifically designed integration of pedagogy and curriculum. It follows the most effective sequence of spaced practice for students to achieve mastery learning. So much of the instructional design principles of Direct Instruction are confirmed by Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory.

Direct Instruction – beginning from the mid-60s – did not follow the behavioural management practices of traditional education: positive behavioural practices were part of Direct Instruction from the beginning. In the classroom and across the school.

People familiar with traditional education think they are seeing their old model recreated in Direct Instruction classrooms, but it is the same emphasis on teachers teaching. It’s not learning first. It’s teaching first. Teach first and then ask questions.

The point is to teach explicitly and to take students to their learning frontiers as quickly and efficiently as possible. The paradigm first colloquialised by Anita Archer as I Do, We Do, You Do, was in fact first hammered out by Engelmann as Model, Lead and Test many decades earlier. The plethora of explicit instruction approaches practiced today are derivative of DI, unbeknownst to its advocates and practitioners.

I teach first. Then we do it together. Then you do it yourself. There is another instructional design feature of DI which is hidden in the architecture of teaching sequences. The instruction exposes to students to examples: blue sky, blue car, blue smoke, blue water, blue dress. The rule is identified from the examples: the rule is blue. Then the rule is generalised to novel examples: here is a blue alien.

I don’t know what it is, but I know it is blue. Examples, Rule, Generalisation is the sequence based on optimal cognitive learning. John Hattie later wrote about surface, deep and transfer learning. This is what DI called Example, Rule, Generalisation. I won’t go further in explaining the science behind Direct Instruction. They are the flagship programs supported by my organisation Good to Great Schools Australia. They are published by McGraw Hill, but we provide professional development to support teachers through online modules, as well as a comprehensive mapping of the American programs to the Australian Curriculum, and supplementary lessons we have developed to bridge the gap between American and Australian curriculum requirements.

In the time we have operated our Academy and supported remote schools across Australia, we developed our own explicit instruction curriculum resources in primary science, writing, music, indigenous culture and ancestral anguages. We have lessons across P to 6 for every day and every week of the school year: thousands of lessons developed by our in-house teams of lesson developers, ready to teach. Our science program is unique. Unlike the most frequently used Primary Connections program – our Oze-Science is centred on teachers teaching knowledge. Whereas the predominant approach to teaching science is Inquiry Learning our program teaches Scientific Inquiry – which is not the same as Inquiry Learning. One is the core of the scientific method, and the other an unfortunate learning theory. We oppose the conflation of the two. We aim to explicitly teach knowledge and engage students in learning the methods of scientific inquiry.

Our students in Cape York now so frequently cite science as their favourite subject. It is the explicit teaching of knowledge that has made science so exciting for our students.

D. The long discourse between Teaching and Inquiry Learning 

I have witnessed the interminable debates between the proponents of teacher-led direct and explicit instruction and so-called student centred learning, represented by inquiry and discovery learning favoured by progressivist educators. These debates may seem of recent origin, but they go back to the earliest years of formal school education. John Dewey is an ancient forbear but in truth the ideas of Jean-Jaques Rousseau are probably the starting point for the progressive approach. It became highly ideological and infected school education theory and policy throughout the world.

Having followed this debate, I discern a genuine discourse based on two legitimate views on teaching and learning. There is truth on both sides. A synthesis of the two viewpoints is possible in order to understand what happened and is happening.

My insight is the two camps share a basically common view about how human learners learn in their natural social and cultural settings. Lev Vygotsky’s social and cultural constructivism is not dissimilar to how Engelmann and his protégé, Doug Carnine, postulated how learners learn in their 1982 opus Theory of Instruction. Human learners do construct knowledge from their social and cultural environment.

Engelmann and Carnine’s starting point is that humans are logical learners from the get-go, and they discern similarities and differences in all forms of stimuli, and they start classifying natural, social and cultural phenomena by identifying examples, forming a logical rule and generalising. A child learns about blue even before she is

taught the word for it. Engelmann and Carnine posited the learning mechanism human learners would need in order to learn everything. It is an explanation in my view that is consistent with the social and cultural construction of knowledge. Where the DI of Engelmann parts ways with the Constructivism of Vygotsky is in respect of school education. Schools are not places for natural learning. They are not places for the social and cultural construction of knowledge. Rather they are cultural and artificial institutions where societies and civilisations have decided that they want teachers to teach children knowledge which the society or civilisation has deemed important, and to utilise the expertise of expert teachers to transmit their knowledge to novice learners, and to also transmit the accumulated knowledge of the society and civilisation through reading books.

Rather than using the natural learning processes that children use in cultural, social and environmental settings – schools are artificial places where knowledge transmission is deliberately taught by expert teachers to inexpert students. The mistake made by the constructivists is they apply an understanding of natural human learning which applies outside of school, to the school setting where it isinapposite. Rather than discovering or inquiring into knowledge at school, students are taught directly and explicitly by teachers who have the knowledge.

Sweller and other Cognitive Load Theory education researchers have shown there is little learning value to students discovering knowledge as opposed to being taught directly. Indeed there is much evidence of its inefficacy and inefficiency.

The point of my insight is that whilst there is no real disagreement about how learners learn, it is whether the natural learning process is applicable to school learning. I think it is not. Engelmann based his Direct Instruction on how learners learn, but he then designed instruction that aimed to systematically teach knowledge in the most efficient way possible, taking into account the learner’s cognitive load. Those like Engelmann who advocate teacher-led instruction are correct about the purpose of schools: they are primarily for teachers to teach.

E. Three new curriculum programs from Good to Great Schools Australia

The work of my organisation – Good to Great Schools Australia – is focused on developing primary school and early childhood curricula to support effective teaching in schools. Our work was first motivated by the needs of indigenous students from remote schools, but this necessarily overlaps with the needs of all Australian students.

After all, effective teaching is effective teaching. Whilst delivering federal government programs supporting remote schools we have built a significant store of curriculum and professional development resources that are available online on our website:

These resources are constantly revised and reissued based on feedback from teachers and students results. We have curriculum writers working virtually for our Cairns-based organisation, from locations across the country and internationally. Our teams are well-versed in the research on the practices of effective teaching. We have been a leading advocate for Direct and Explicit Instruction for more than 15 years.

When we started there was not much support (and a lot of opposition) to teacher-led direct and explicit instruction. This has changed, both here, in the United Kingdom and North America. More educators are onto the Science of Reading and the Science of Learning. And ever since John Hattie’s Visible Learning in 2009, the evidence in favour of direct instruction and its associated practices, is now clear.

This year my organisation took the decision to offer all of our curriculum resources to Australian schools for free. Teachers, school leaders, instructional coaches and teaching assistants can sign up as members and access resources of their own choosing. When school leaders become members then their school has access to all of our resources.

Since January members from more than 1000 Australian schools have signed up to access our resources. They come from the full gamut of Australian schools: remote, regional and urban; private, Catholic and independent; isadvantaged, middle class and elite; across all states and territories; all faiths – Christian, Islamic, Jewish and

Ecumenical; all denominations – Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist and evangelical schools. Every week members from new schools access our programs. As of this week, we have members from over 10 per cent of Australian schools. And 100 of them are full members who access all of our resources.

For me this is one of the most rewarding things to have happened in my life. To have so many teachers and schools using effective teaching resources and choosing to access professional development in effective teaching practices – and the students in their classrooms who are taking the benefit from their teachers – is just priceless reward for our work.

We are constantly working to fill resources gaps in schools. I am contemplating a primary maths program based on explicit instruction – but I am daunted by the large, multi-year development challenge and the resources needed to do it. I am also contemplating a Bible Literacy program that would equip every child with the comprehensive knowledge of the Judaeo-Christian tradition that will serve them so well in later schooling and life. Again, this too is a multi-year undertaking, requiring us to find the resources to employ the team of developers to write the program.

When I say program, I mean full powerpoint lessons for every day of the week or however many lessons are required in the school timetable for a particular subject, including teacher guides, student workbooks and curriculum mapping of the subjects.

Let me tell you of three smaller projects under development in my organisation:
1. Symbol imaging in learning automaticity in multiplication and division facts: 9

The first is simply the best and most efficient way I have ever come across for teaching the times (and division) tables to primary students. Two years ago I came across Dr David Berg’s Making Math Real Institute based in California. Having spent a lot of time reading and web-surfing math instruction in elementary education, I found Berg’s MMR approach to be the most convincing. I signed up for his online courses, to which he like everyone else, switched with the onset of Covid. Zooming in from Australia it meant I joined about 50 other mostly American teachers, home-schoolers and random individuals like myself, between 1.30 am and 6.30 am Australian Eastern Standard Time, whilst my classmates were enjoying a Californian morning, fully fresh and having had a good night’s sleep.

Dr Berg was an eccentric genius, the one person I’ve encountered who knew the mathematical equivalent to the Alphabetic Code for teaching literacy – the Numeric Code and how to effectively teach maths from manipulatives in kindergarten to Calculus. He had not published his innovations, and had a particular view that his clinical approach to teaching maths could not be reduced to a program (which he strenuously abjured). His business model (involving limited course enrolments spread out over multiple years, and strictly controlled dissemination of course resources) just did not provide any opportunity for scaling up his math teaching innovations. He alone delivered his courses, and other than the students who completed his courses, no one else learned his methods.

I want to tell you about one of his innovations, the course for which I undertook last year. I had completed about a third of the full course load before commence Pre-Algebra in early September this year. The Pre-Algebra course coincided with the campaign for constitutional recognition through September and October – and I tried

valiantly to do it, because the next opportunity I had would be in 2025. I started but it was impossible to continue, because I was so exhausted from my day job. Then after two weeks of the two-month long Pre-Algebra course, we received news Dr Berg had suddenly and unexpectedly died. That was the end of Making Math Real. The website was closed and somewhere in California the repository of this extraordinary man’s life’s work is sitting in a family office or garage – with no future as far as I can tell. If you shared with me awareness of his genius then you would understand the sheer sadness of his death.

My consciousness that you could devote your entire life for the good of children – to learn the literacy of maths with the same certainty that a child can learn the literacy of reading and writing if you teach them properly – and leave no legacy at the end, haunts me as I contemplate this weekend’s referendum. It is my life’s work and that of so many others that is at stake here. Will we have wasted our lives on a forlorn mission?

Let me now briefly outline the 9 Lines. The 9 Lines are the most efficient means of teaching the times and division tables to year 3 students. Unlike the Australian Curriculum students can learn their entire tables by the end of Year 3, and then simply practice and apply them in their remaining primary years. One week should be spent on one of the tables. Between 1 and 6 students can be taught at a time. Introduction to the 2 times table should take place as prescribed by the curriculum in Year 2. 0 and 10 do not need to be taught separately, as they are easily grasped. Division comes

automatically when multiplication is mastered. Division equations are introduced at the end of the multiplication lesson. There is no need for explicit teaching of division when the students have mastered multiplication. Don’t teach beyond 10 when teaching a table. Save 11 and 12 for their own tables. Always organise the equations running down the three columns, not across. The neurological key lies in the 9 Lines.

A specific procedure involving the recital of the factors and products of each equation in order, and then the erasure of particular products in a specific order whilst constantly referring to the spatial location of the equation – so that students can recall the erased image – and then the restoration of the image followed by testing using all permutations of the representation of equations, completes the learning. The student has now got a permanent visual memory of the table which they will be able to draw upon as a symbol image for the rest of their lives. This is not skip counting or calculation, it is drawing on visual memory. 86 per cent of students will master the 9 Lines within a 20 minute lesson, whilst a minority who are poor in symbol imaging will require further intervention and support.

During a MMR course I saw video of Dr Berg teaching a high school student the 13 times tables, something I and most other people did not learn back when. Exhausted and unfocused as the morning sun peeped over the coast at my beachshack in Cape York, I nevertheless found the 13 times table stuck in my head after watching a 20 minute lesson:

13 52 91

26 65 104

39 78 117

Dr Berg continually impressed there were two indispensable things primary students need to succeed in early high school Algebra: multiplication and fractions. The 9 Lines is the simplest and most effective way to master multiplication tables.

2. Phonics then syllables in novel word decoding: Word Attack

A second program I am developing with my team is called Word Attack. I am a firm believer in all of the principles associated with decoding in reading, starting with phonemic awareness and the explicit teaching of phonics. Pronunciation of individual letters and blending is the crucial starting place, and the DI program we use – Reading Mastery – is as good as any in teaching early reading. It is remarkably effective. The Science of Reading should be regarded as settled: the evidence base is large and widespread.

I furiously agree on the crucial importance of phonics – sounding out novel words letter by letter, and then blending. Sound it out: b-l-e-n-d-i-ng. Say it fast: blending. I think teaching students to identify syllables as a bridging step between sounding out letters and syllabic pronunciation is actually the key to novel word attack. When the student has the capacity to sound out and blend letters, and they can break the word into syllables on sight – then they are actually blending syllable chunks rather than individual letters. This is what I am conscious of doing myself ever since I was an early reader.

Take syllable. Having learned phonics, I am now seeing the syllabic chunks: syll-able. My pronunciation follows the syllabic chunking: syll-a-ble, using a prosodic enunciation. Prosodic pronunciation in turn allows for spelling to be immediately integrated. Syll-a-ble: syll/a/ble. Su-per-cal-a-frag-a-lis-tic-ex-pi-al-a-do-cious. In my view there is no need to get hung up on how to precsiely chunk the syllables.

The aim is to be practical so that students can discern the chunks on sight. Where they cut the syllables need not follow the exquisite and consistent rules – it doesn’t matter because the blending of the chunks in pronunciation obviates the rules. By teaching students to attack novel words through identifying, pronouncing and blending syllables – students are able to attack novel words long before they even know what they mean.

3. Symbol imaging sight words by bringing together pronunciation, spelling and

meaning: Word Power

I am so excited by this work, I am not even sure why I am telling you about it. Having said that let me tell you about another program we are developing called Word Power. Once the meaning of the syllable is understood, you then have the three components which the great reading theorist Dr Linnea Ehri explained is needed to have sight word mastery of a word: pronunciation, spelling and meaning.

Our Word Power program brings these three things together in order to help build student vocabulary. It is a strange thing – given Dr Ehri’s point that internalisation of words into the long-term memory of the novice involves the integration of pronunciation, spelling and meaning – that reading is taught separately from spelling from vocabulary – when they should be taught in an integrated way. Pronunciation follows the procedure outlined in our Word Attack program, and spelling follows the syllabic chunking method. By learning meaning the student then has the word in her ,brain, never needing to decode the word again. These sight words I call symbol images, relying on visual memory rather than decoding.

Our intention with the Word Power program is to build a love of words through a growing vocabulary full of beautiful, clever (and yes, smartypants) words. The habits and courage to use sharp and interesting words is what our Word Power program aims to develop in students.

F. A moral question of the First Order

Let me now finally return to the Referendum. I have been much informed by the remarks of Brisbane Catholic Archbishop, Mark Coleridge, and constitutional law professor Greg Craven, former Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University.

They have illuminated for me that this referendum concerns a moral question. Let me paraphrase them:

At the heart of the referendum is a moral question of the first order. It concerns the requirements of justice for peoples who have suffered the injustices of dispossession and chronic disadvantage, peoples who were made refugees in their own country, peoples who for long were invisible, peoples whose voice has never really been heard, largely because the non-Indigenous thought there was nothing worth hearing. Morality means we say yes to an Indigenous voice to parliament and executive government as named in the Uluru Statement.

Morality means we say yes to a new listening to Indigenous voices in the belief non-Indigenous Australians can and must learn from them. The Indigenous peoples are not a nuisance to be ignored, a problem to be solved or a crisis to be managed, but a gift to be received in order to build a better future for all Australians.

Morality means we say yes to bringing a divided nation together. Some have seen the referendum as divisive. But Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia are already divided: the gap, far from closing, continues to grow wider. We must tackle not just the symptoms of chronic disadvantage but the underlying causes, because as long as we treat only the symptoms they will continue to get worse. Morality means we say yes to healing the running sore at the heart of the nation, since without that healing Australia will never be the country it could and should be.

Therefore morality means we say yes to the voice as a circuit-breaker which can take us beyond the failed gradualism of the past. We come to see real and practical support for the voice as a key element of a new engagement with Indigenous peoples. Many of you come from the old Catholic social justice tradition that morally impels us to accept the humanity of every person and to treat them with human dignity. But others are Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists all work on the basis of securing the common good. It’s time to apply that concept to the voice.

So here are the reasons people like you – and me – should vote Yes, and whypeople like you should get off the fence. First of all, the voice is not at heart a political or constitutional question. It’s about morals and ethics, just like euthanasia and refugees. You don’t start with grammatical doubts or operational quibbles. You begin with the moral imperative.

So, we have to understand the challenges and doubts with the voice within the basic moral equation. Every time there is a problem, our job is to understand and try to solve it. We shouldn’t play ideological poker and throw in our hand in the face of any difficulty. Above all, we should not use challenges to stop us having to make a hard decision.

The second thing is that you understand the limits of words. Words are no match for meaning. Constitutional words are important, but they can take you only so far. The real question is always going to be the fundamental direction.

The last thing is for compassionate and clever hesitants. It’s a hard point to make in public. But what happens if this referendum flops? Where are we then? This is not the argument about what other nations will think of us. The real questions are how would we feel about ourselves, and how would Indigenous people feel about us?

The No camp say we can’t think about this in deciding a referendum, but they’re wrong. It’s fair enough to think of moral outcomes as much as anything else. Whatever the real reasons behind a No vote, I’d feel we’d rejected our Indigenous brothers and sisters. I’d feel we’d failed in something big for little reasons. I’d feel we were a little country.

I shudder at what Indigenous Australians would think of us. I got a fair idea when a very dignified Aboriginal friend cried in front of me, not for herself but for her children. Whatever way you look at it, this will be as ugly as sin. I think if I were an Indigenous person, I’d feel utterly rejected. It’d be like a six year- old being turned away from a birthday party when they had an invitation.

The message would be that we don’t want you, we don’t like you, we don’t need you… If I were Indigenous, I just wouldn’t know where to go. Frankly, the voice is a proposal so pathetically understated that I’m amazed most Indigenous people are settling for it. After all, I helped design it as something so modest that no reasonable non-Indigenous Australian could reject it. More fool me.

What I’m saying is that for people of goodwill and intellect, like you, who are worried or unsure about the referendum, this horror of sorrow is something we really need to think about.

It all goes back to the start. For decent people with no taste for propaganda or politics on either side, recognition and the voice are really moral questions, not legal or political ones. When you look at it like that, we’re being asked to make a huge ethical decision on October 14.

My Catholic friends and teachers are correct: this referendum represents a moral question of the highest order. One answer is morally right and the other wrong. One brings us pride and the other shame. One brings us honour and the other dishonour.

That is why the answer to this weekend’s referendum is a moral question of the highest order.

Thank you.

Noel Pearson

Cape York Institute

9 October 2023

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