This is the homepage of Greg Ashman, a teacher, blogger and PhD candidate living and working in Australia. Everything that I write reflects my own personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of my employer or any other organisation.

I have a book out for new teachers (which some experienced teachers have also enjoyed):

The Truth about Teaching: An evidence informed guide for new teachers

Watch my researchED talks here and here

I have written for The Australian about inquiry learning (paywalled):

Inquiry-learning fashion has us running in wheel

This is my take on the “Gonski 2.0” review of Australian education for Quillette:

The Tragedy of Australian Education

Here is a piece I wrote for The Age, a Melbourne newspaper:

Fads aside, the traditional VCE subjects remain the most valuable

Read a couple of articles I have written for The Spectator here:

A teacher tweets

School makes you smarter

Read my articles for the Conversation here:

Ignore the fads

Why students make silly mistakes

My most popular blog post is about Cognitive Load Theory:

Four ways cognitive load theory has changed my teaching

To commission an article, click here



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I was born seven years after the Apollo 11 Moon landing. As a child growing up, I was obsessed with space and wanted to be an astronaut. It seemed then that the Space Shuttle programme was not a step backward, but a chance to regroup and create the infrastructure to push on to ever greater goals; a moon base, a trip to mars. Even in 1980s Britain, where the government had long abandoned its own serious pursuit of a space programme, developments were under way to build a spaceplane.

On from this time, I have grown through the inevitable disillusionment that adulthood brings. Space programmes did not flourish. Instead, there were notable accidents. Nobody went back to The Moon. The technological revolution we did have was not one that I was expecting; a networked supercomputer in every pocket.

I also became aware of other takes on the space programme. As British ideas about spaceplanes encountered problems with something called ‘cost effectiveness’ – as they inevitably would in Thatcher’s monetarist Britain – I also encountered the moral case against space exploration: How can you possibly justify spending billions on sending people into space when there are people who are starving?

I now think arguments about cost effectiveness or about other things that money could be spent on are misguided. There is no guarantee that if you stop spending money in one place you can ensure that it is spent wisely in another place. I am no economist, but I believe that wealth is not a zero sum game. Wealth can be created and sometimes you create wealth by building Ziggurats.

Moonshots are our Ziggurats. They inspire awe. They inspire purpose. They demonstrate what humanity can achieve, together.

This is analogous, I believe, to arguments about education. Education is not just about preparing young people for the workplace. It is not to be judged solely on its cost effectiveness. Education inspires awe. It inspire purpose. It demonstrates what humanity can achieve, together.

Education is our Moonshot.

Surface structure, deep structure and pseudo-deep structure

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A moment of realisation occurred when I first read Dan Willingham’s 2002 article inĀ American Educator on the topic of inflexible knowledge. Willingham presented the useful distinction between surface structure and deep structure. As with all models, it is probably something of an oversimplification but, as with all good models, it offers explanatory power and in this case, practical implications for teaching.

Willingham contends that initial learning tends to become locked to the surface structure of a domain and this contention is supported by considerable experimental evidence. For instance, Willingham describes how a strategy for solving the problem of defeating an evil dictator who is holed-up in a fortress is structurally identical to a strategy for solving the problem of giving a brain tumour the correct dose of radiation. However, subjects who had successfully solved one of the problems generally failed to apply the same strategy to the other one.

We may have a bias for attending to surface structure. After all, deep structure is a layer of abstraction. Such a bias may account for the stories people tell about how they were only ever taught procedures in maths or names and dates in history when at school. Once we are aware of this as teachers, we can build programmes that carefully cycle students through surface structure and deep structure, perhaps by presenting different examples that have the same deep structure and drawing attention to this.

However, there is a danger in this discussion that we start to see surface structure as bad and deep structure as good or, alternatively, that we see surface structure as straightforward and deep structure as more complex or profound.

Deep structure often encompasses a simple principle or set of principles that it would be quite straightforward to memorise and reproduce. For instance, the principle of the conservation of momentum in physics can be stated as something like, “The total momentum before any collision or explosion is always equal to the total momentum afterwards.” Stick that on a knowledge organiser and pretty soon kids will be able to repeat it back to you. The sophistication is in recognising when this principle applies and then applying this principle to different examples with different surface structure. And this surface structure can become really complicated. That’s why it is effective to use worked examples to minimise cognitive load when first trying to apply such principles.

So expert performance requires expert manipulation of both deep structure and surface structure, rather than one or the other.

This is similar to the issues that arise from the dichotomy between conceptual and procedural knowledge in mathematics. In many ways, we can consider conceptual knowledge to map onto deep structure and procedural knowledge to surface structure. It is certainly a good thing if a student can give some accurate definition of what the equals sign in an equation represents (i.e. that the two sides have the same value rather than ‘write your answer here’), but if the student cannot actually make use of this to solve 4 + 7 = ? +2, either because they do not recognise that it applies or because they lack the ability to apply it, then it has little value on its own.

Mathematics also gives us an example where the ideas of deep structure and surface structure perhaps become iterative. Once internalised, the principle of equivalence as embodied by the equals sign is central to all algebra. Yet different algebraic worked examples could in turn represent the surface structure of some other deep structure such as the fact that circular functions are periodic.

The distinction between surface and deep structure can also be applied to educational concepts. Consider Response to Intervention, for instance. This was developed as a means to systematically address literacy and numeracy difficulties, but it has spread to other domains such as behaviour management – School-Wide Positive Behaviour Support (SWPBS) is a Response to Intervention model that applies to social, emotional and behavioural development.

The deep structure of Response to Intervention consists of three tiers. The first tier applies to all students and manifests as high quality explicit teaching coupled with systematic screening. The second tier represents targeted interventions aimed at those who have not made sufficient progress as identified through screening. The third tier involves intensive, individualised intervention for those who make insufficient progress in tier 2. If you are unfamiliar with Response to Intervention then your first question is likely to be, “Can you give me an example of exactly what this looks like?” In other words, to increase your understanding, you would request a description of some surface structure. Without these worked examples, the concept remains in the abstract and far less useful.

I have started to wonder whether we have a problem in education with pseudo-deep structure. I am going to define this as abstract principles and ideas that are uncoupled from surface structure. The utility of pseudo-deep structure is that it allows a person to adopt the abstract language of the expert without having to test these ideas against messy reality. The concepts of ‘rich tasks’ and ‘deep learning’ seem like good candidates to me. I admit that there may be people out there who can clearly define each of these terms and link them to specific, concrete examples, but this has not been my experience.

Once we view pseudo-deep structure in this way, it implies an approach to identify and battle it. The next time someone presents some principle that raises your suspicions, you may ask, “Can you give me an example of exactly what that looks like, please?”

When project-based learning works

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We all know the story of project-based learning. It has been around since at least 1918 when William Heard Kilpatrick wrote The Project Method: The use of the Purposeful Act in the Educative Process and yet, over all this time, it has accrued very little evidence of effectiveness. Perhaps the most significant recent development was a randomised controlled trial run by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) in the UK. This was necessary because, as the EEF state in their literature review, “The existing evidence for a causal link between PBL and attainment outcomes seems to be weak. Most of the reviewed studies did not involve random allocation of participants to control and experimental groups and, as a result, a causal link between project based learning instruction and positive student outcomes has not been established.” It is quite extraordinary to reflect that we are in this position given the long history of project-based learning and its current popularity, but there we are.

In their trial, the EEF found, “Adopting PBL had no clear impact on either literacy (as measured by the Progress in English assessment) or student engagement with school and learning.” They also found a possible negative impact on the literacy of students eligible for free school meals. However both findings have to be treated with caution because so many schools dropped-out of implementing project-based learning during the study. It is due to this background that I predict that project-based learning will soon reappear under a new name – watch this space.

However, I did recently come across a study that demonstrates a positive effect of project-based learning on scientific understanding which I thought was worth investigating. Tara Craig and Jill Marshall, the authors of the new study, agree with the EEF that, “…there is a lack of studies randomly assigning students to receive PBL,” and so set-out to design a study of their own. This sounds promising – random assignment is the best way of determining a cause-and-effect relationship between a teaching approach and its effects on learning.

Once I read the body of the paper, however, my optimism faded. Students were not randomly assigned to project-based learning or some other approach within once school or a group of schools. Instead, entry to Manor New Technology High School, a school using project-based learning, was determined on a lottery basis, with the losers going to the more conventional Manor High School and not receiving project-based learning. These formed the intervention and control groups.

Lotteries are often used for entry into Charter schools in the US and this approach has been used to attempt to determine the effects of Charter schools. It is therefore clear that project-based learning is not the only factor that varies between the groups and the effectiveness of the school would also contribute. It is possible, perhaps likely, that Manor New Technology School attracts better or more motivated teachers and there is also likely to be an effect on the students of gaining entry. I suggest this is likely because Manor High School does not sound great. It had a lower school performance ranking and teacher recruitment and retention issues. For this reason, professional development was focused on classroom management rather than project-based learning.

Despite these clear differences, when ethnicity and economic disadvantage are controlled, there was no significant difference between the intervention and control group on four out of five measures involving maths and science performance. However, there was a significant difference favouring the intervention in Year 10 Science.

This is hardly encouraging evidence in support of project-based learning.


Who won the paradigm wars?

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A new paper has been published in the American Educational Research Journal that may go some way to explaining the state we are in.

The authors analysed the text of 137,024 education PhD dissertations from the United States from 1980 to 2010. They used text-level computational techniques to identify ‘topics’ within the text i.e. groups of word stems that occur together. Selected theses were then reviewed by experts as to their content so that the experts could come-up with a name for that topic. For example, one topic contained the stems, “environment, intrins, visitor, motiv, intent,” and the experts labelled it, “Motivation.”

The authors then analysed how these topics changed over time and, crucially, how these were connected to career prospects. The pattern was very clear. Quantitative studies that use randomised controlled trials, quasi-experiments or other data analysis to try to tease out cause-and-effect relationships gradually declined over this time and became less valuable in terms of career prospects. Qualitative studies aimed more at description and teasing out differences between groups and contexts increased in proportion and potential career value over this time. Membership of a more prestigious university tended to magnify these effects. There was a period in the late 1980s where these two effects crossed-over and, apparently, authors at the time were aware of the conflict between the two: the paradigm wars.

These wars have long been lost by the quantitative side. That explains why it make sense to go on about French philosophers while contributing nothing useful to advancing education if you want to get ahead. And that explains why so many people are doing this.

New review suggests education schools are failing to train new teachers to teach reading effectively

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Jennifer Buckingham and Linda Meeks have conducted a new review of Australian initial teacher education for Multilit and Five from Five. They reviewed all of publicly available material published by universities on their websites that related to core literacy units, including prescribed texts and lecturer background.

The findings are pretty grim. Only 4% of courses had a specific focus on early reading instruction, with a further 26% mentioning it but lumping it in with other phases. The rest didn’t mention it at all.

This is not surprising given that only 15% of lecturers and unit coordinators could be identified as having expertise in early literacy. 55% had expertise in other aspects of literacy such as ‘multi-modal’ literacy (which I think is something to do with computers). 30% had expertise in areas other than literacy.

Strikingly, not one course outline mentioned The Simple View of Reading. This is a leading theoretical framework, with further empirical validation published recently. We might speculate that if reading ability can be largely explained as the product of decoding knowledge and oral comprehension, as the simple view implies, this leaves little space for conceptions about comprehension that are popular in education faculties.

Phonics denialists will use ad hominem to dismiss this report. Multilit offers reading programmes that schools can purchase. However, these programmes are largely about correcting the failure of initial reading instruction so it is presumably in their commercial interests to maintain the status quo. This argument will not satisfy phonics denialists who are not well-known for their proficiency with logic.

Do schools cause the well-documented difficulties of adolescence?

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There was a minor furore on social media following the publication of an article on The Conversation. The article reported the results of a study on secondary school students in Ireland that found, “…a small but steady decrease in well-being from junior, through to the middle and senior groups.”

To her credit, the author allowed that, “Hormonal changes during puberty also play a significant role.” However, she then went on to speculate about the role of social media and exams, finishing with recommendations about therapy dogs, muscle relaxation and students deploying their ‘top strengths’.

Those on Twitter who are sympathetic to claims that schools and exams are evil – i.e. those with a progressivist education philosophy – committed the statistical sin of assuming correlation was causation and speculated on just why secondary school is such a bad thing. To be fair, The Conversation encouraged this kind of speculation by framing the article with the headline: “Well-being of students starts to decline from the moment they enter secondary school.”

Note that the author is highly unlikely to have chosen this headline.

Going back to those hormonal changes, a comprehensive review article identifies three stages of the changes that adolescents go through. In early adolescence, “Puberty heightens emotional arousability, sensation-seeking, reward orientation.” Middle adolescence is associated with, “…heightened vulnerability to risk-taking and problems in regulation of affect and behavior.” Finally, things start to improve in late adolescence as the brain’s frontal lobes mature.

Schools are likely to have very little to do with any of this.

No, a ban on mobile phones is not a form of collective punishment

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In my first year of teaching, I took a Year 9 science class. They were a really great bunch of kids but they were also very sociable. When students are carrying out a science practical, particularly if you are a new teacher, it’s sometimes necessary to quickly stop the class and give an additional instruction. I found it hard to get their attention.

So I brought a stopclock to class to measure the time between my first request and gaining the attention of the class. If the class took place before break, lunch or the end of the day, I would keep the whole class back for an equivalent amount of time.

I think an experienced teacher had suggested it but it never sat well with me because it was a form of collective punishment. Students who had stopped and listened as soon as I asked were being kept back with the ones who ignored me to keep chatting. And that was unfair.

Soon, my school introduced a new, whole-school behaviour policy. For the first time, I was given training in basic classroom management techniques. The training combined with the policy meant that I never had to use collective punishment again and I didn’t look back. In The Truth about Teaching, my book for new teachers, I describe effective classroom management strategies and advise against collective punishment.

So I am inclined to agree with a call in today’s The Age for a ban on collective punishment and would add that schools also need consistent policies on behaviour and teachers need training in effective classroom management techniques.

However, there is a revealing aside in the article. Jonathon Sargeant, a senior lecturer in inclusive education and classroom management at the Australian Catholic University, uses it as a vehicle to both criticise sanctions more generally and to describe Victoria’s upcoming mobile phone ban as collective punishment.

The fact that education lecturers tend to be against any kind of sanction, no matter how fair or mild, coupled with the almost universal use of sanctions in the real-world of schools illustrates the ideology-practice gap between university education departments and schools. This prevents effective training in classroom management and better research into how schools can effectively manage behaviour.

The idea that a mobile phone ban is a form of collective punishment is absurd. It’s like suggesting that a suburban speed limit of 50 kph is a form of collective punishment or a ban on drinking alcohol in a public space is a form of collective punishment.

Yet it is precisely this kind of concept creep that we see again and again in education discussions. It takes legitimate concern over one issue and attempts to channel this against a quite different issue in order to further some ideological agenda.