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Ep 27. Using evidence in education with Pamela Snow

This transcript was created with speech-to-text software.  It was reviewed before posting but may contain errors. Credit to Jazmin Boisclair.

You can listen to the episode here: Chalk & Talk Podcast.

Ep 27. Using evidence in education with Pamela Snow


[00:00:00] Anna Stokke: Welcome to Chalk and Talk, a podcast about education and math. I'm Anna Stokke, a math professor, and your host. 


You are listening to episode 27 of Chalk and Talk. My guest in this episode is Dr. Pamela Snow. She is a cognitive psychology professor in the School of Education at La Trobe University in Australia, renowned for her expertise in language and literacy instruction. My podcast generally focuses on math instruction, but as we heard in episode 20, there are some parallels with reading.


Pamela co-established the Science of Language and Reading Lab at La Trobe, which helps schools adopt well-established scientific approaches to improve how they teach children to read. I was really excited to talk to her about that, and I wonder if something similar could be established for math. Pamela demonstrates unwavering integrity.


She sees school as a health intervention and effective language and reading instruction as a social justice issue. I would say the same is true for math. We cover a range of topics, including evidence-based approaches for teaching reading, the golden mean fallacy, foundational skills in reading and math, whether programs like the one at La Trobe might start emerging in other universities, and a whole lot more.


I admire her passion and the amazing work she's doing in Australia and globally, advocating for using evidence in education. I hope you love this episode. Now, without further ado, let's get started.


I am honoured to be joined by Dr. Pamela Snow today, and she is joining me from Australia. She is a professor of cognitive psychology in the School of Education at La Trobe University. She is a registered psychologist and a qualified speech-language pathologist. She has previously worked in public health research, and she holds a Ph.D. on Acquired Brain Injuries from Trobe University. 


She has over 200 research publications, with many on language and literacy instruction. She translates language and literacy instruction and support research for a general audience on her blog, The Snow Report. She has been a vocal critic of pseudoscientific approaches to early reading instruction.


In 2017, she co-authored a book for parents, teachers, and clinicians called Making Sense of Interventions for Children's Developmental Disorders: A Guide for Parents and Professionals. In 2020, she co-established with Professor Tanya Serry the Science of Language and Reading or SOLAR Lab in the School of Education at La Trobe University, which I imagine is pretty unique.


And I'm really excited to hear more about all this today. Welcome Pam, welcome to my podcast.


[00:03:18] Pamela Snow: Thank you so much for having me, Anna. It's a delight to be here.


[00:03:22] Anna Stokke: I understand that your career trajectory has changed over the years. So, you started out in speech pathology and then moved into public health. But how did you end up doing research in language and literacy instruction?


[00:03:36] Pamela Snow: You're right. I started in speech-language pathology. I did my Ph.D. under two neuropsychologists. On acquired brain injury and I worked in acquired brain injury as a clinician for 11 years, which was an incredible experience in itself, but continues to inform my knowledge of cognition and how we think about cognition and information processing retrieval practice.


After my Ph.D., I had to make some decisions about what I wanted to do. And in a nutshell, my decision was that I wanted to broaden my knowledge base and my skills and I was fortunate to be appointed into a research fellow role.


It was a conduit appointment between the School of Psychology at Deakin University and the Australian Drug Foundation. Now, I think they were really courageous in appointing me and maybe I was courageous in taking the position, but that opened doors for me to thinking about public health policy, and I started reconsidering my own discipline of speech pathology, which I felt was way too focused on individuals and didn't think enough at a population level. 


And I started to publish along those lines and tried to refocus, reorient speech pathology to have a position at the policy table at the population health level. But in that role I started reading about risk and protective factors in child and adolescent mental health because I was doing research on drug and alcohol prevention and education in schools.


What really struck me was the literature on adolescent mental health and risk and protective factors. So and I remember being struck by the fact that on a particular table that I was looking at in an article, there was a list of risk factors for adverse mental health problems and a list of protective factors.


And at or near the top of the list of risk factors was academic struggle and poor academic achievement, and at or close to the top of a list of protective factors was academic success, you know, the flip side of that. So that really got me thinking about the role of academic achievement in students' well-being.


And we're in my speech pathology hat that I started to think, well, you know, what, what is it that promotes academic achievement? Well, you can't achieve academically if you're not reading and writing proficiently, if you're not on grade level in those skills. So why aren't we thinking about those things as a public health intervention?


You know, what, why, why are we not thinking about this as something that's beneficial, essential to all children? That, you know, going to school, in a sense, is a public health intervention? Some children start further ahead than others by virtue of their preschool experiences, their home environments, and so forth.


But really school is a lever, or education is a lever that we can pull. There are a lot of levers that we can't pull very effectively, you know, when it comes to what's going on in children's home environments and so forth. But we really can pull this lever, and why are we not pulling it more effectively?


So that led me then to a couple of decades of research on young people in the youth justice system, young people in child protection, out-of-home care, and in alternative flexible education systems. So. In a sense, metaphorically, I parked myself down at the bottom of the cliff within the ambulances to have a better understanding of those children who really are, in multiple systemic ways, casualties. 


You know, in a biopsychosocial sense, and get an understanding of what it might mean if we were building better fences at the top of the cliff. So, through that research, I became more and more interested in the protective effects of high-quality reading instruction in particular, education more broadly, but reading instruction in particular, and just became increasingly disappointed, I suppose, at what I found when I started turning over the rocks in that space, that there was very high variability.


I'm talking about my context here in Australia, but this is of course has applied in other first-world industrialised English-speaking nations. Very high variability with respect to how we prepare teachers. Well, in fact maybe not so much variability, but lots of gaps in, in that space. But high variability in terms of what schools were doing.


So this seemed to me to just be perpetuating social injustice and social inequities. It's hard enough for a lot of children that they're starting from behind in a whole range of ways, but when they're getting to school, they're not on a trajectory away from those origins, that there's just a perpetuating series of events.


And then if you're a boy from a, you know, should we say a chaotic, difficult home environment and it's boys in particular, it's not exclusively boys, you know, that have been covered in this research, and you don't make the transition to literacy in the first three years of school, you're going to be flagged as a kid with a behaviour problem.


And then everything after that is going to have the word behaviour written on it. But there's good evidence to show that when we look at those children who are acting out and disruptive they're in many cases not reading well, and what's the chicken and what's the egg? So I guess that's the sort of short, long story of how I landed where I am.


[00:09:47] Anna Stokke: You've got a lot of knowledge in cognitive science, neuroscience, how the brain processes information, which really, you know, helps you describe and explain and understand how students learn, and you sort of got involved in public health and policy. And so you see school as a public health intervention and children not being given effective instruction, and language and reading is really a social justice issue.


Does that kind of sum it up?


[00:10:23] Pamela Snow: Absolutely. Summed up beautifully.


[00:10:25] Anna Stokke: When children are not being taught effectively in school, that can really put them behind the eight ball then. You know, especially if they don't have someone at home to help them. So it's really the responsibility of society, schools, governments, etc., to make sure that children receive a good education in school because it is a social justice issue. Is that how you see it?


[00:10:49] Pamela Snow: Absolutely. And I really rail against parent blame in the reading space. People sometimes say and you hear this, unfortunately, sometimes from some education academics, “Well, parents need to do more. Parents need to read to their children more.” It's kind of code for “Parents need to love their children to literacy and do our work for us.” 


Well, of course, you know, as a speech-language pathologist by background, as a mother, as a grandmother, I love seeing adults reading to children and I think it's tremendously important. And it's important for a whole range of people that hopefully are fairly self-evident, but we need to remember that: a) that's not teaching children how to read and b) not all parents are in a position to do that for a wide range of reasons.


Some parents don't have very good literacy skills themselves. Some parents have very chaotic, challenging lives and, you know, they're dealing with unstable housing and paying rent and not knowing whether they're going to be able to put food on the table. It's a very sort of middle-class assumption in many ways that parents have the capacity, the resources, the human capital to be doing those things. 


But why are we sending people to university for four years doing education degrees if we're not giving them specialized knowledge and skills that other people don't have? And then saying that it's parents’ job. So, I, I think we deprofessionalise teachers when we say that parents have to do more. And we contribute to the Matthew effect of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. If we think that it's on parents to shoulder that responsibility. 


[00:12:43] Anna Stokke: Sure, and I have a similar pet peeve about math. I have heard this before that the solution is to have parent nights because parents have such negative attitudes about math and they pass that on to their children. And so the solution is to somehow get parents to involving their children in math activities at home and speaking positively about math and that sort of thing.


And I think, well, but it's, it isn't a parent's job to teach a child math, right? That is the job of the schools.The parent blame thing really gets to me as well.


[00:13:16] Pamela Snow: Yes, I'm disappointed to hear that it applies as much in well, we say maths in Australia, but I'm disappointed that it applies just as much in that space.


[00:13:26] Anna Stokke: Let's shift to evidence-based reading instruction, and maybe some of it will apply to math too, because that's what I always love to talk about. So I think the place to start is biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge. So can you say a bit about that and how math and reading fit in?

[00:13:46] Pamela Snow: Absolutely. So, I think this is a really important conceptual framework as a starting point that there are always some caveats around these frameworks. But this is the work of David Geary from I think the University of Missouri, who's written about biologically primary, biologically secondary skills.


So biologically primary skills being those that the human brain has evolved to acquire quite naturally through immersion. I like to say in village life. So, you know, when, when children are around adults and there are some things that have been, you know, wired into the human brain in an evolutionary sense, like turn-taking, reciprocity, recognizing facial expressions, because we have to be able to recognize facial expressions, and the flip side of, of that, you know, in terms of safety in an evolutionary sense. 


So oral language is typically identified as being biologically primary under typical circumstances where children are cared for by adults, they're going to acquire oral language skills. Now, of course, there are circumstances that will compromise that. 


There are all kinds of neurodiversity that will compromise a child's language development. But if we just go with the typical scenario for a moment, children develop language skills. But then there are biologically secondary skills that our brains have the capacity to learn, but we're not just going to pick up through opportunistic exposure.


So, me sitting and watching someone play a Mozart Sonata isn't going to turn me into a pianist. It might turn me into someone who appreciates music, but in order for me to learn how to play a Mozart Sonata, I'm going to need to be sat down at the keyboard, and I'm going to need someone to explain the one to one correspondence between the notation, the simple notation on the page, not in a Mozart sonata, in something like Baa Baa Black Sheep, to start off with, and what's happening on the keyboard.


So that's a biologically secondary skill. It's something I can learn, it's going to take a lot of focus, it's a lot of repetition and practice, if you like retrieval practice and I'm going to go from that novice stage of being very halting and stumbling and making a lot of errors, hesitant and it's going to take me quite a while to get to automaticity in that skill like playing the piano or another musical instrument or learning chess or, anything else that we can learn, but we're not going to just automatically become proficient in. 


And reading, of course, is a prime example of a biologically secondary skill as Steven Pinker the Harvard psychologist, says we have a language brain, we don't have a reading brain. So we can acquire the skills of reading. Most of us need to be explicitly taught. Now, of course, there's a continuum of ability. Some children will pick up biologically secondary skills or some biologically secondary skills more easily than other children will or more easily than they will another skill.


So some children might pick up reading very easily but still need a lot of support and assistance with learning a musical instrument. We need to remember that there's still a continuum. So this is a broad conceptual framework. And I also like to emphasize that when we're talking about oral language, yes, it's biologically primary, but as I said a moment ago, a lot of things can compromise oral language development.


For example, we know that some children are reared in very language rich environments, text rich environments, and they're going to have an advantage of being exposed to more complex, more elaborate language, vocabulary, sentence structure, and so forth, that of course is contributing background knowledge.


And we also know that probably somewhere, Around 7 to 10 percent of children have a language disorder, developmental language disorder a lot of that epidemiological work has been done by people like Tomblin and colleagues, Dorothy Bishop,  Courtenay Norbury. So in fact,  Courtenay Norbury's work has shown that in a class of 30, there will probably be two children who have a diagnosable developmental language disorder.


And of course, other children who maybe don't reach that cutoff, but don't have strong language skills. So, when we talk about oral language skills being biologically primary, I think it's important to not say they're set and forget because we need to be developing all children's language skills way beyond the kind of everyday tier one vocabulary that they acquire through their everyday lives.


And we also need to remember that some children are going to have, be facing struggles when it comes to their language skills, you know, because of a language disorder, maybe children on the autism spectrum. There's a range of reasons that some children struggle with language. So it's not a simple binary of things over here we don't need to worry about and things over here, the biologically secondary, we do need to worry about. 


We need to remember that there is a range of abilities in both, and we need to be thinking about what that means from an instructional perspective.


[00:19:34] Anna Stokke: Okay. So essentially, reading is something that has to be taught?


[00:19:38] Pamela Snow: Yes. 


[00:19:38] Anna Stokke: And same with math?


[00:19:40] Pamela Snow: Yep, absolutely

[00:19:43] Anna Stokke: David Geary, and I think he was on the National Math Advisory Panel, actually. There's a lot written about biologically primary and secondary knowledge in the National Math Advisory Task Reports.


And yeah, so he was on that panel. 


[00:20:01] Pamela Snow: And there's another David whose work I quote in this space too, and that's David Didau, who has written a very nice book blog post for teachers. I can send you the link. And it just explains that idea of biologically primary, biologically secondary for teachers. It distills David Geary's work quite nicely.


[00:20:24] Anna Stokke: Okay. So let's talk a little bit about reading because how could I have you on and not talk about reading? So my understanding, and I talked about this in a previous episode with Matt Burns, there are two main schools of thought about how to teach reading, essentially whole language and phonics.


And it's come to light that research evidence supports systematic explicit and direct phonics instruction for teaching children how to read. So can you remind us how long has that research been around?


[00:20:56] Pamela Snow: Well, the debate's been going on for a very long time. I mean, at least decades. Jeanne Chall was writing about reading instruction and influencing reading instruction policy in the United States when I was at primary school. But I think it actually, depending on, you know, where you choose to put the lens, it arguably goes back much longer than that.


And I think in 2024, we've moved beyond talking about whole language versus phonics. I think, you know, very broadly, that was the division, if you like, in thinking. There's now been in the last 25 years or so, three national inquiries into the teaching of reading. Well, four, I guess, if you include the work that's been done in Canada recently in Ontario, but there was a National Reading Panel in 2000, there was the Australian National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy in 2005, and then the UK Rose Report in 2006. 


And I think it's fair to say, and you know, all of those reports and reviews can be criticized, of course, but there is a strong consensus in those reports that reading needs to be taught systematically and that we need to start at the more granular level of helping students to understand how speech and print map to each other.


So you can call that phonics instruction if you like. Now what happened? Of course, there's often backfire effects out of these things. So we might, I think we're a little naive if we think, “Well, there's a report that says we should do things this way and, and therefore that's how they will be done.”


Maybe that happens in aviation and in some areas of medicine where we see immediate consequences of not applying best evidence straight away and there's an immediate accountability when best evidence is applied. But unfortunately, in education, there's not immediate accountability and we don't immediately see the consequences of our policy and practice decisions.


That's a slow burn. And people get to blame everybody else except for what's happening in the instructional space. So we started to hear this term balanced literacy more and more after those national inquiries. I think it probably had been around before the U. S. National Reading Panel. So there was an acknowledgement, albeit probably reluctant in some respects, that yes the decoding part of reading, of getting the words off the page needed to be given more emphasis.


But what we saw really was a patch on whole language. So there was a reluctant acknowledgement that yes, we'll put decoding in the mix, we'll put phonics instruction in the mix. And there was a preponderance of so called three queuing, you know, this idea of came from the work of Marie Clay and also from Kenneth Goodman, the idea that children use multiple cues in order to get words off the page.


And so we should be teaching them using, you know, encouraging them to look at pictures, use context, but, you know, everything, ironically, except from focusing on the letters in the word and, you know, as Mark Seidenberg says, you know, everything that children need, the information that they need, is in the word in front of them. 


And this perpetuated really business as usual from that was occurring before those inquiries, except teachers, I think, were given a false sense of assurance that, you know, as long as they were doing some phonics that their instruction was okay, but when we talk to teachers who were taught to teach that way, what we hear over and over again is “I knew that there were children who I should have been able to turn into readers who weren't becoming readers,” and a lot of teachers experienced terrible guilt and shame and regret when they look back on those children who in many cases they can still name they're so vividly etched in their memories.


So it allowed business as usual to continue and it allowed a number of conditions that, of course, Emily Hanford has talked about in her Sold a Story podcast, you know, the influence of big publishing houses on education. I think they've arguably had more influence on classroom practice than the body of research that we collectively refer to as the science of reading, unfortunately.


[00:25:56] Anna Stokke: It sort of sounds familiar to me because balance is a word that I hear a lot. So you have one group of people who are saying explicit systematic instruction is important. And this, could be in math or it could be in reading apparently.


And then you have another group of people saying, “No, I think that inquiry based instruction is the way to go.” And so then some people will say, “Well, we should compromise, right? So we should have a balance between these two things.” So what do you think about that?


[00:26:34] Pamela Snow: I think that's an appeal to the golden mean fallacy. The idea that when there's tensions between two different points of view, that if we just meet in the middle, everything will be okay. We don't accept the golden mean fallacy in so many other areas of science and policy.


And in fact, the application of the golden mean fallacy has really failed us because two decades on, we're starting to get some shift in Australia, but no state or territory in Australia adopted the 20 recommendations of our National Inquiry back in 2005. So that's, you know, nearly 20 years ago.


We opted instead for the fallacy of the golden mean that we'll just put everything in the middle and produce a casserole of instruction. And as long as we can take the lid off the pot and see some phonics and see some vocabulary work and see some sentence structure work, then we'll be happy.


And what's more, we'll say, “Well, the teacher is the cook in this kitchen, and it's up to the teacher.” This was very strongly espoused in the writings of Kenneth Goodman, that the teacher is the in front of their children, they should be empowered to make instructional decisions for their children. 


Now yes, to a point, of course, that is correct, but we don't say to pilots, “You just fly this thing the way that you think it should be flown,” you know, “Don't worry about the safety checks that Boeing has produced and that the checklists and, and so forth from the aviation industry.” You know, “You've flown lots of planes. You just fly it the way you think is best.”


We expect people in other professions to, in fact, swim between very narrow flags, and I think this is a paradox, Anna, because sometimes we hear from our teacher unions, for example, that, you know, we need to respect teacher autonomy and everybody else needs to step back and, you know, let teachers teach and do their thing.


But I think that seriously deprofessionalises teachers when we say that what they're doing is so unimportant that they can just choose their own adventure in the classroom. We don't say that to pilots, we don't say that to engineers, we don't say that to medical practitioners, to nurses, to allied health professionals.


And in fact, we hold those professionals to a very high standard of accountability. I mean, sometimes to the point of public exposure and naming and shaming, deregistration, you know, there's all kinds of accountability consequences. So you can't have professional esteem if you're not also going to have professional accountability.


And I think balanced literacy has contributed to a very unfortunate set of circumstances where we've told teachers that they can, you know, as long as they're broadly doing a bit of all of these things that they're teaching is okay and then we're going to have to uncomfortably kind of look the other way and shrug our shoulders when there's a significant proportion of children who don't succeed. 


“Well, you know, their parents should have read to them more when they were babies, there's not enough books in their homes, they're not trying hard enough, they're not ready.” You know, it's awful that teachers are put in that position of not being able to apply the best available evidence in the first place and identifying and supporting students who might be starting to fall behind.


Now we hear a lot about the science of reading and is it capital letters lowercase and you know, the science of reading is simply an evolving body of knowledge in the same way that there's a science of perception, a science of memory, a science of language and language acquisition. People try to diminish its importance and its translational significance because they don't always like the classroom implications and the knowledge that it means that teachers need to have about how language works. 


I often say under the bonnet, but for you, I'm going to have to say under the hood. And that's, that's uncomfortable then for universities to have to ensure that pre-service teachers are given that knowledge. So we've, kind of created a set of circumstances where we've, I'm going to say, dumbed down the reading process because that's kind of convenient for the people who've been preparing teachers for classrooms. 


It works well for the big publishing houses to produce these nice-looking resources that are attractive to teachers and children and parents and it works for some children. Great, but if we go back to thinking at a public health level, it needs to work for the overwhelming majority of children in the same way that road safety policy and laws and principles need to work for the overwhelming majority of road users. 


[00:32:05] Anna Stokke: And it's interesting you mentioned this about it being said that we should just leave it up to teachers to decide what's best for their students. Because you mentioned the Ontario Right to Read Inquiry or Right to Read Report and things are slow going here in my province. 


So, the provincial education department in my province released principles that focus on classroom teachers being best placed to identify evidence-based strategies for instruction that meet the needs of their students, right? So, in other words, there's no mandate or requirement or suggestion here to use evidence-based reading instruction in the province.


And the program that I hear a lot about being used in Manitoba schools is Reading Recovery. So, can you say a few words about that?


[00:32:53] Pamela Snow: So Reading Recovery came out of the work of Dame Marie Clay in New Zealand in many respects, I guess, a highly “successful” export. I put successful in inverted commas there, but it put New Zealand on the map most certainly. And Reading Recovery came out of Marie Clay's Ph.D. research on you know, she was looking at how children learn to read and looking at the so called cues that children utilize when they're learning to read.


And is an intervention for children who are not on track after, it's normally a year of what was would then been described as whole language instruction. Now, it is most typically would align with what we would refer to as balanced literacy instruction. I have a number of difficulties with reading recovery.


I know that it's sincerely well-intentioned and that reading recovery teachers are sincerely well-intentioned. As a first principle, I would say no child should have to recover. From their initial reading instruction. I think the use of the word recovery, I think, is telling and problematic.


I think having an instructional model that assumes a significant level of failure is important. problematic. And we almost need to perpetuate that level of failure to support the ongoing survival of the program. It's a wait to fail approach, but it's more of the same that failed those children in the first place.


So if we're not applying explicit teaching of how speech and print map to each other, you know, what we now would refer to, I think, more accurately, thanks to the work of Linnea Ehri as orthographic mapping. So we're getting those words, it's knitted into children's long-term memories in terms of their pronunciation, their spelling, and their meaning. That's what it means to have a word orthographically mapped. 


So your brain's not straining every time it sees that word, it's got it in its long-term memory. And of course that contributes to automaticity and fluency. But the kind of reading instruction that children are exposed to when reading recovery is the intervention.


They're not instructional practices that are promoting that orthographic mapping process in the first place. So we're, we're providing suboptimal instruction and then following that up with more of the same suboptimal intervention. So I think it is well and truly time for reading recovery to be retired because, you know, as they say at the Reading League, when we know better, we do better.


And we've got we need to think probabilistically, I think, Anna, that's probably a concept that works for a mathematician. You know, we need to say on the balance of probabilities, what are the instructional approaches that are going to get the vast majority, 90 to 95 percent of children across the bridge in the first three years of school from doing something that's biologically primary using oral language to something that's biologically secondary. 


Remembering that English has a relatively more dense orthography, so our writing system is one that is complex for historical reasons because we've borrowed so many words and their spellings from so many languages going, you know, particularly back to Anglo-Saxon invasions, Viking invasions, and there was the Norman invasion.


So we've got a large number of French words, a lot of words came into English from Latin via French. We've got Greek words, we've got words from a number of other languages as well, but we've got a complex orthography. So we need to spend the better part of the first three years of school helping our children to understand our writing system, unlike countries that have a more transparent orthography where they can knock that over in many cases in six to nine months.


So, you know, Anna, if you and I were going to go off next week and start learning modern Greek, I think it's fair to say that one of the first things we would want to do is understand the writing system because it's a different writing system from the one that we're familiar with, and we're not going to get anything off the page.


It doesn't matter how good our spoken Greek vocabulary is. We might be fluent in modern Greek, but if we want to learn to read and write in modern Greek, we're going to have to master that writing system. We're going to have to understand the correspondences between speech and print. And it amazes me that we don't have that same emphasis for the novice reader.


On ensuring that they understand how the code works and we don't appreciate the efficiency of focusing on that early to open doors to reading comprehension, I think it's pretty sad. And I saw this a lot in my youth justice research to be looking at 14-year-olds who are facing a closed door when it comes to reading comprehension because they can't get words off the page.


And I think this is the nub now of the the tension between balanced literacy and what I'm gonna call structured explicit literacy teaching, because it's way more than phonics. But this is the essential tension that this idea that we should be explicitly teaching five-year-olds how their writing system works.


Now, we need to remember that there is this thing called statistical learning and and we want to maximise opportunities for statistical learning that children, once they've mastered enough of the code and are getting enough print exposure, will draw inferences about phoneme-grapheme correspondences that they haven't encountered before.


And they'll have a go at getting words off the page and they'll mispronounce them, and if they've got the word in their oral language vocabulary, they've got a fighting chance of, you know, inferring what that correspondence is. But why wouldn't we be giving children a transferable set of tools to approach their writing system right from the outset?


Why are we going to leave it to chance and hope because that's not going to work for the vast majority of children. 


[00:39:46] Anna Stokke: Okay, so as you were talking, it reminded me a lot of foundational skills in math. It's very important that children know some things automatically. You kind of have to build math up, it's very cumulative. There's been a de-emphasis on some foundational skills like memorizing times tables, some people refer to these types of things, the practice and that type of thing, as drill and kill.


And what happens is it's very hard for children to solve complex problems because they don't have these foundational skills. So it sounds sort of similar. It's probably all from the same school of thought.


[00:40:31] Pamela Snow: Very much so, very much coming from the idea of inquiry-based learning the mantra that children value what they learn for themselves and that, you know, they'll remember better things that they discover for themselves. I've never seen any actual evidence for that. But the problem is if, if we're taking an inquiry-based approach to these foundational skills, we're producing something that looks like Swiss cheese in terms of, you know, classroom data and then also in terms of children's individual skills. 


And we're not taking responsibility as the teachers for what children are learning and we're doing this on their instructional time. This instructional time belongs to children. And I think that's a really important ethical principle in education policy that we have to think really carefully about how we use this valuable, precious window that children can't get back again. It's not for us to be doing experiments on children or applying ideologies that are more pleasant and attractive to us.


Perhaps it would be nice if just reading lots of beautiful books to children turned them into readers. Unfortunately, it doesn't. And that's a reality that we have to grapple with. And it's on teachers and schools and education systems to ensure that that success is provided to all children, not just the ones who by virtue of a range of, if you like, biopsychosocial advantages, we're going to get there anyway, because we know that there's a proportion of children who are going to get there or they're going to do better.


[00:42:22] Anna Stokke: Yeah. And I really like what you said about respecting children's time, that they only have so much time in school, that time should be used effectively. And parents are sending their kids to school and they're, putting their trust in the education system.


I think the same thing happens in math, let's give them complex problems that sound interesting and that will get them excited about math. When, if we would just spend the time on those foundational skills, we'd get them to the point where they could do those problems.


[00:42:55] Pamela Snow: That's right. And children love learning skills. They love the sense of mastery that learning skills give them. And then yes, I imagine in maths in the same way with reading, they can do some self-teaching that they get to generalize some principles from some core knowledge and skills that they have acquired.


[00:43:19] Anna Stokke: But it sort of comes back to another thing you were talking about, and I mean, I've talked to lots of teachers educated in many different provinces, states, countries, and I keep hearing the same thing, that most teacher education programs focus on inquiry or constructivism and very few teach about the science of learning.


So does that ring true to you? Yes.

[00:43:44] Pamela Snow: Very much so, unfortunately. And I think it's it's sad that you know, I sometimes use the example of someone wandering onto a university campus and saying, stopping a stranger and saying, “I'm looking for the building where people study how children learn, I presume that would be the education faculty.”


Sadly, in most cases, it's not. You know, education faculties, I think, have become kind of, in many cases, de facto sociology faculties. Now, of course, there's an important role for sociology in education and the sociological lens over the societies in which children are being educated and social, political, cultural influences on our lives, but sadly, if I'm looking for the people who study how children learn, I'm probably looking for the cognitive psychology department. 


And it's probably on both of those disciplines that there hasn't been perhaps enough discourse and sharing of, of knowledge. I think in some respects there, there has been a mindset in some education faculties that knowledge that hasn't come from education disciplines is out of scope.


And I think that's unfortunate. You know, I taught for 10 years in a medical program, I was responsible for teaching a lot of the psychology and ethics and communication skills part to undergraduate medical students. Now, if we took out the non medical practitioners and the non medical research out of a medical program, it'd be pretty thin in terms of what was left because in medicine, there's an understanding that we draw on knowledge from a very broad range of disciplines, microbiology, pharmacology, biochemistry, physiology, psychology, sociology. 


So I think this thinking that if the research wasn't done by an education academic who had first of all been in the classroom as a teacher, that this research is not worth looking at. I think that kind of closed thinking is very unhelpful and again, it contributes to a deprofessionalizing of education because that's not how other professions operate.


Other professions very much operate in an interdisciplinary space and look at how knowledge from different disciplines and different paradigms can enrich their work. And I'd like to see that happening much more in education.


[00:46:34] Anna Stokke: And you actually co-established, though, a science of learning lab at your university, right? And you're in the Faculty of Education there.


[00:46:46] Pamela Snow: Correct. 

[00:46:48] Anna Stokke: So how did that happen? Can you tell us a bit about that?


[00:46:51] Pamela Snow: So it's the Science of Language and Reading Lab, the SOLAR Lab that my colleague Tanya Serry and I established. It's probably been the result of some fortunate planetary alignments I think, Anna. Our Dean, Professor Joanna Barbousas is very strongly in favour of a learning sciences approach to everything that we do in the School of Education at La Trobe.


Now, we also have a strong social justice lens and a lens looking at impactful pedagogies, which of course is closely related to the science of learning. So our Dean, Joanna Barbousas, is here by background as a secondary art teacher who explains that, you know, she applied the principles of explicit instruction in her work as a secondary art teacher, which might be a little bit unusual, but she appreciated the need for a shift in reading instruction and appointed my colleague Tanya Serry and me to the school. 


We were in other positions at La Trobe prior to 2020 but we were appointed as a result of a restructure of the school into the School of Education in 2020 and we said we want establish a platform for this work, and Joanna has been very supportive of that.


The first thing that we did and, you know, it so happened that Covid again, you know, I guess it was a kind of planetary alignment in a way that there was an appetite for online professional learning during Covid. So we established three online short courses that have been tremendously successful introduction to the science of language and reading.


That's a four-week short course. Then there's a five-week intermediate short course that builds on that knowledge. And then there's a four-week short course for secondary teachers, not secondary English teachers, but for secondary teachers about language, reading, writing, cognitive load, and all the general science of learning principles.


And we've now had close to 11,000 teachers complete those online short courses and they've been very positively received. We've developed a language and literacy specialization in La Trobe’s Master of Education, and we're about to go live with a graduate certificate in language and literacy.


The short courses in particular, we've had quite an international audience for those. You know, when people are enrolling in overseas universities that becomes a bit complicated in terms of additional fees for international students, but there's none of those barriers for our short courses.


So we have had people from around the world do those short courses and the feedback from the teachers has overwhelmingly been that, “This is profoundly helpful knowledge, but why wasn't I taught this in my pre-service education? Why do I have to unlearn a whole lot of things that in good faith, and I paid for my undergraduate degree, in good faith, I took away that knowledge and started using it in my classroom, why do I have to now leave nearly all of that at the door, do a 180 degree U-turn and learn a whole lot of new knowledge and new skills?”


Now, teachers are lifelong learners, they're not pushing back about learning new things, but they are rightly pushing back about having to unlearn and deimplement a whole lot of practices that have not served them well.


[00:50:34] Anna Stokke: How many years of education do you have to take there to become a teacher? 


[00:50:39] Pamela Snow: Four years.


[00:50:41] Anna Stokke: So you can imagine being kind of angry about that if you weren't taught the proper ways to teach children how to read.


And I think that the same thing is likely going on in math. So do you think that a program like this could be created somewhere for teaching teachers how to teach math science of learning strategies? 


[00:51:04] Pamela Snow: It needs to be because we see the science of reading sitting under a broader umbrella of the science of learning. And it goes back to our earlier conversation, Anna, about biologically secondary skills. And are we going to leave those things to chance or are we going to take responsibility for using children's valuable instructional time in the most impactful way that we can, so that we're providing the best out educational and life trajectories that we can for all children, regardless of their starting point.


You know, that's the social justice imperative for me. And I think it's on us, it's on the education community to take that responsibility for what happens in the instructional context. You know, applying that probabilistic thinking of what are the approaches that are likely to produce the best outcomes for the most children.


There will always be children who need additional support. But at the moment, in many cases, it's impossible to provide that support because there's too many. And, and so we provide homeopathic kind of doses of support. And then we say, “Well, that doesn't work.” So we've created all kinds of unnecessary challenges for ourselves in the way that we've taken away explicit teaching and not valued and explicit teaching.


And in fact, it's been disparaged. And some teachers have said to me that when they started of their own accord to teach more explicitly in literacy and numeracy, they felt like they were cheating. They felt like they were cutting corners because their children were meant to be discovering these things for themselves, and here they are standing in the classroom and actually teaching them, and they hoped that no one saw because that was cheating.


[00:53:10] Anna Stokke: Okay, so whose role is it to make sure that this happens? So is this the role of governments? Should governments be mandating that these methods be taught in the schools of education? Should they be mandating that evidence-based practices are used in schools?


[00:53:29] Pamela Snow: And this is complex. I think education jurisdictions need to be mandating what happens in schools in the same way as I wrote in a blog post last year, departments of the education mandate how schools approach child protection. There are requirements that have to be in place in every school to ensure as far as possible the safety of all children.


We mandate what schools do to prevent and manage anaphylaxis. We don't say “Here's some guidelines and some resources. Now, you know, we're sure you've got this, you go off and do your best with that.” In many cases, we don't see that same kind of mandate around something as core and fundamental as reading instruction.


What I wrote in that blog post is that leaders should be asking for less rather than more autonomy when it comes to how reading is taught in their schools. That they should be looking to their jurisdictions for prescriptive, evidence-based, evidence-aligned, whatever you know, where you want to, what terminology you want to use, going back to that probabilistic thinking.


What's the strongest body of evidence at the moment when the evidence evolves? We'll review this. Our approach to anaphylaxis in 2024 isn't the same as it was 20 years ago and nor should it be, the science evolves. So I think policy has a hugely place to play and that's something that I really learned from my time working in public health that policy is not some dry irrelevant piece of bureaucracy. It actually needs to inform thinking and practice. 


When it comes to how universities prepare teachers, that's more complex in some respects because of the arguments that we will hear around academic freedom within universities, but last year in Australia, there was a report released by a panel that was convened by the Federal Education Minister referred to as the TEEP report, T double E P, the Teacher Education Expert panel report.


And that report made some very strong recommendations about what needed to be going on in pre-service teacher education with respect to the science of learning for literacy and numeracy in particular. And we're waiting to see what that's going to mean for accreditation of teacher education programs.


There's certainly a strong implication that there are going to be requirements that universities need to demonstrate to ensure their ongoing accreditation of their education degrees. I say that with an element of reservation in the sense that we've had a number of inquiries into teacher pre-service education in Australia in the last couple of decades, a large number of inquiries.


I don’t think any of them have actually shifted the needle and there is a hope that this one will do that.


[00:56:50] Anna Stokke: Interesting about the academic freedom argument, I'm not so sure it applies. I'm given a calculus curriculum that I have to teach. I can't decide that I'm not going to teach derivatives or something like that. Like that is part of the curriculum and that is my job to teach it, right? 


I mean, I can decide what research I want to do and the university can't tell me that I can't do that research, but certainly when it comes to topics that I have to teach, that's sort of mandated.


[00:57:19] Pamela Snow: It's a tricky one, and I think the academic freedom card is overplayed in this space and some of the pushback against this report last year came from education academics saying, “Well, who is the federal government going to go after next? Are they going to go after engineering degrees? Are they going to go after medical degrees?”


And of course, the answer to that question is no, because those disciplines have honoured their social contract with the community by preparing their undergraduates according to the latest available evidence. We're not hearing public debate about nursing degrees, for example, or about engineering degrees or about medical degrees. 


Now, yes, there will be, at the margins, there will be differences between different university degrees, and some will have relative strengths in some areas and so forth. But we're confident as a community that people in those disciplines are being prepared according to what the community would expect to be evidence based principles.


And the community, unfortunately, can't have that same level of confidence when it comes to teacher initial education.


[00:58:36] Anna Stokke: Here, the government licenses the teachers. So, conceivably, the government could say if the teacher hasn't taken a course on the science of learning that we won't license the teacher. And then that would cause the universities to offer a course on the science of learning.


[00:58:53] Pamela Snow: Yes, yeah, but there's all kinds of ways, as you know, that this can be gamed in a sense and, you know, compliance checks that are not very rigorous and people saying that they're doing one thing, but, you know, they're being drift and fidelity issues in actual practice. So if we're going to get this right, we need to take it very seriously and invest in additional resourcing for universities to meet those requirements.


But we're also going to need to invest in the fidelity aspects over the long term. Because changing human behaviour is probably the most difficult endeavor of all, and I often say the forces of nature favour homeostasis. They favour things being the way they've always been and it's difficult to effect change.


We are very pleased at La Trobe to have been the first mover in Australia when it comes to reading instruction. We don't actually want to be alone, though. You know, we don't want to be the unicorns. We want to be part of a thriving academic community nationally and ideally internationally where we're lifting each other up and challenging each other to be doing better and better in this space.


So we haven't done this just to be different from a marketing perspective, we've done it because we want this to be where all universities are operating.


[01:00:28] Anna Stokke: Yeah, and what you're doing is amazing, and I hope that other Education programs, other universities can follow your lead and do the same thing because teachers don't want to go into schools and not be specialists on how children learn, they want to go into schools and they want to do a good job.


And it is a responsibility of the universities to give them that education, and also for the children. The many children that are impacted by just one teacher.


[01:01:00] Pamela Snow: Exactly. And at the end of the day, it's all about the children. But I think we also need to think about teacher well-being and teacher professional self-esteem and self-efficacy. We have a high attrition rate in Australia after five years in teaching. So why are we burning out, you know, people in their 20s?


You know, and I, I think a lot of that comes down to the fact that they don't feel adequately prepared to be in the classroom. Why are we burning out young people and not ensuring their longevity and their sense of professional well-being and self-efficacy by better preparing them for their workplaces? We're not, we're not doing that in nursing and medicine and engineering. Why is that happening in education?


Some people will say, “Well, you know, schools need more money,” and so forth. Yes. You know, more money is always nice, but there's a fixed cost associated to having a teacher in a classroom in front of a group of students. And we're going to deal with that cost regardless. And we can be doing a better job of preparing teachers for that workplace.

[01:02:12] Anna Stokke: Another thing, I read one of the quotes in the paper here was something about systematic phonics instruction just benefiting children with dyslexia and that perhaps it harms or it doesn't work for higher performing students. Is that true? Does that make sense? 


[01:02:31] Pamela Snow: All children have to master the same writing system in English. There's only one writing system and all children need to master that. Now, if we think again in public health terms, we should be using the most impactful approach to get the vast majority of students across that bridge in the first instance.


Some children, yes, arrive at school with more code knowledge than others. It's easy sometimes to overestimate, in fact, how much code knowledge those children have. They look relatively better than the children with no code knowledge. There's a lovely quote from Catherine Snow and Connie Juel, and it's something like effective teaching of phonics is beneficial to all children, essential for some and harmful to none.


So no children are going to be harmed from having a more detailed explicit understanding about how their writing system works, but if our mainstream teaching approach is balanced literacy, t's not okay to then roll out systematic synthetic phonics for our struggling learners for a whole range of reasons. The principal one being that these are students who are already struggling and confused about how their writing system works.


If we take them out and give them a small group or individual instruction that is completely different from what they're experiencing in the classroom, so in the classroom they're being told to use context, look at pictures, think about what kind of word could work here. 


Can we take them out and give them systematic synthetic phonics and say, “No, no, no, no, no. Focus on the letters and sounds blend through the words,” and then they go back in the classroom and they're being told, “No, no, no, no. Have a look at the picture, think about what, you know, does it sound right? Does it make sense?” So we're more deeply confusing our most vulnerable students when we do that.


And I think Response to Intervention is a very valuable framework for schools and teachers to say, “Okay, what are we doing? If we think in the tiers of instruction, what does tier one look like? How can we optimize tier one so that we're minimizing the number of students?” And again, this is a public health framework. This is - RTI is designed to prevent reading difficulties. 


I actually think you know, some children end up with a label dyslexia officially or unofficially who are in fact instructional casualties. And I think that's really unfortunate. The name just escapes me, but somebody famously said we're all born dyslexic and some of us get over it.


And maybe the same could be said for dyscalculia. We're all born dyscalculic and some of us get over it. So I think it's more helpful to say, “What is our approach to Tier 1 instruction?” Let's make that rigorous and optimal and identify the students who need extra support, but be doing more of the same at a higher dose at Tiers 2 and 3.


Don't bring in the good china for the struggling students, be using your good china every day at Tier 1. The best instruction that you have access to should be what all children are exposed to all day, every day. That doesn't mean explicit instruction all day, every day, but the best instruction available should be what we're offering to all children.


And it's not appropriate to be doing something completely different when students are struggling.


[01:06:16] Anna Stokke: Robin Codding, who I had on previously, she said that a lot of students were getting or are getting referred to her as having a learning disability in math, dyscalculia or something like that. And actually, it's just been a lack of good instruction and a lack of practice.


So the same thing is happening in math.


[01:06:38] Pamela Snow: I hear that from tutors a lot. That, you know, that they're at when they sit down one-to-one that they can in many cases, you know, do a lot of catch-up work, but not all families can afford tutors and we can't be relying on those ambulances at the bottom of the cliff. We need to be building fences at the top of the cliff and those fences are strong instruction.


[01:07:01] Anna Stokke: So final question. So do you think we'll start to see a shift in teacher education programs worldwide at any point? Where pre-service teachers are receiving instruction in the science of learning in their teacher education programs?

[01:07:16] Pamela Snow: I am hopeful, but cautiously hopeful, because I think there is still a lot of resistance. Was it Winston Churchill who said that the price of peace is eternal vigilance? And I think we need to be eternally vigilant in watching what's happening in teacher pre-service education.


Because as I've said before, there's a natural tendency for things to revert back to the way they were before. So I think, you know, This is something that needs to go beyond election cycles and it needs bipartisan political support and we need to be taking, you know, at least a 10 year view and be thinking about what we want to see down the track when we look back.


What are we wanting to be seeing here? I don't think historians will look terribly kindly on this period of educational history in terms of our generally poor and patchy uptake and application of some pretty solidly established principles. You know, it's not that a lot of this knowledge doesn't exist, it's that we've been reluctant in many cases to apply it to translate it into practice. So, I'm optimistic, but I don't think we can in any way take our foot off the, would you say throttle accelerator?


[01:08:49] Anna Stokke: Off the gas.


[01:08:50] Pamela Snow: Off the gas, yeah. Because it's not going to be a natural evolutionary process, I don't think.


[01:08:59] Anna Stokke: And we won't take our foot off the gas, right?


[01:09:01] Pamela Snow: No, no, not one bit. 


[01:09:03] Anna Stokke: Not one bit. Well, I want to thank you so much for coming on today and talking to me about your program and you're doing amazing work there. And I really admire everything you've done and it's been an absolute honour to talk to you.


[01:09:19] Pamela Snow: Well, Anna, it's been my privilege to have this conversation. I've really enjoyed the conversation and I must say I'm really pleased to see the emphasis and focus that mathematics education is receiving. I've wondered for a long time why we weren't hearing more about maths education and that's pleasing through your work and the work of others that that is getting the focus that reading has had for a long time.


[01:09:45] Anna Stokke: You bet. And we'll keep it up, thank you. 


[01:09:48] Pamela Snow: Keep it up. Thanks, Anna.

[01:09:49] Anna Stokke: As always, we've included a resource page for this episode that has links to articles and books mentioned in the episode. 


If you enjoy this podcast, please consider showing your support by leaving a five-star review on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Chalk and Talk is produced by me, Anna Stokke, transcript and resource page by Jazmin Boisclair, social media images by Nicole Maylem Gutierrez.


Subscribe on your favourite podcast app to get new episodes delivered as they become available. You can follow me on X for notifications or check out my website,, for more information. This podcast received funding through a University of Winnipeg Knowledge Mobilization and Community Impact grant funded through the Anthony Swaity Knowledge Impact Fund.

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