Approaches to Writing Instruction in Aotearoa: The Influences of Teachers' Beliefs and Practices on Progress
In the educational context, social constructivists are those who view knowledge as constructed through social experiences. In the class-room, these theorists favour student-led and cooperative group work over teacher-directed and individual work and de-emphasize the explicit teaching of technical skills. Literacy teaching in New Zealand has been influenced by constructivism since the 1980s. Whether this influence has been positive is, however, open to doubt. According to current achievement data many students are under-achieving. A very different perspective is offered by social cognitivism, according to which experimental and quantitative methodologies are used to assess the effectiveness of various teaching approaches. While more widespread use of these methods could bring about much-needed change, advocates of constructivism have discouraged their uptake by (i) associating their own approaches with social values and (ii) representing scientific methods as unsuited to the contexts at stake. International research has shown that teachers take a more pragmatic view: Studies have demonstrated that the majority of teachers are comfortable with a range of approaches, and thus that seemingly disparate approaches may co-exist. There has been very little research on the beliefs of New Zealand teachers, although Ministry of Education publications for teachers are essentially constructivist. Study One investigated the ideological context of the New Zealand primary school. A total of 626 teachers completed a survey on their beliefs and practices for teaching writing. Principal components analysis of beliefs isolated three dimensions, which appear to reflect valuation of (i) explicit, (ii) socio-cultural and (iii) process-writing approaches respectively. Principal components analysis of practices isolated six dimensions: (i) explicit and structured approaches; (ii) socio-cultural and process writing approaches; (iii) attention to surface features; (iv) advanced writing practices; (v) basic writing practices, and (vi) teacher goal selection. In the second phase of this study, a sub-sample of 19 survey respondents supplied writing samples from the students in their classes, at two time points, allowing for the measurement of progress over time. Teachers’ scale locations for reported beliefs and practices were compared with their students’ rates of progress. Explicit teaching beliefs and practices emerged as being strongly – although only marginally significantly – correlated with progress and socio-cultural practices were negatively – and significantly – correlated with achievement. In addition, a number of individual survey items were positively, and significantly, correlated with achievement, all belonging to the explicit teaching dimensions. Two items were negatively and significantly correlated with achievement, and these belonged to the process-writing and socio-cultural practices dimension. A sub-sample of eight teachers were interviewed in order to gain a deeper understanding of their beliefs and practices. In general, teachers’ comments reflected their scale locations in the survey data. While those who focused on the explicit teaching of technical skills achieved the greatest gains for student achievement, others used socio-cultural and process approaches thoughtfully to address students’ social and emotional needs. The pedagogical method that is the subject of Study Two, “Fast Feedback”, was developed in line with social cognitivist findings and is thus at odds with the quasi-official view. Fast Feedback centres on individualized goals and regular, focused assessment in order to accelerate student progress. In 2015 nine teachers were engaged to trial this method – in seven classrooms, across three Wellington schools. Achievement data were collected for 136 student participants, and were compared with the equivalent data from students at a control school. Data analysis revealed that the treatment group made significantly more progress than the control group (ES 0.5). It also revealed variability across classrooms. Interestingly, the highest rates of progress were achieved (in all classrooms) during the first half of the intervention. Clearly worded, process-oriented goals were the most effective. The addressing of technical skills – sentence writing, spelling and handwriting – proved to be essential. In interviews, teachers observed that the predictable structure of Fast Feedback lessons was motivating for students, and led to a greater sense of self-responsibility on their (the students’) part. In conclusion, these two empirical studies together indicate that explicit approaches – informed by scientific research – are most likely to raise student achievement. The Ministry should therefore work with urgency to ensure teachers have information about these methods, so that more New Zealand students will experience success in learning to write.