Welcome

This is the homepage of Greg Ashman, a teacher living and working in Australia. Nothing that I write or that I link to necessarily reflects the view of my school.

Read about my ebook, “Ouroboros” here.

ouroboros small

I have written for Spiked magazine

Educationalists: Teaching bad ideas

Teachers have lost their mojo

I have written for The Conversation:

Ignore the fads

Why students make silly mistakes

Some of my writing is also on the researchED website workingoutwhatworks.com

Briefing: Meta-cognition

Your own personal PISA

I used to write articles for the the TES. These now appear to have been paywalled. I will probably make them available on my blog at some point. If you have access then you can find them here:

Create waves of learningMaster the mysterious art of explanationTaking a critical look at praiseBehaviourGreat Scott! Let’s push the brain to its limitsThe science fiction that doing is bestMake them sit up and take noticeFor great rewards, sweat the small stuffWhere the grass is brownerStand-out teaching – minus differentiation

 


Exclusion is neither bad nor good

Ten or so years ago, I was assistant headteacher at a high school in London. As part of my role, I line-managed two heads of year and this meant that I took on some of the most difficult discipline issues in these year groups.

I had worked with one student for some time. He had a challenging home background and was disruptive. I had taken him to see the headteacher more than once. I had liaised with our school’s behaviour improvement workers about a suitable program. I had investigated when he had tracked-down and threatened a peer in the corridor. Then, one day, as the students were lining up outside the hall for an assembly, he took the needle from a set of compasses and stabbed it into the legs of three students. This was directly in front of me and I saw him do it. I had to physically restrain him.

The student had been temporarily excluded before and, with a heavy heart, I suggested to our headteacher that he be permanently excluded. I then went home and stayed up all night preparing the paperwork; one flaw in it and the exclusion would be overturned on appeal. Once a headteacher has made the grave decision to exclude, the worst possible outcome is for that decision to be overturned.

I tell this story to make what, to me, is an obvious point. I did not recommend exclusion because I thought it would be a good thing for the student. It was a decision taken gravely because we knew this student would be likely to fare worse without the support of our community and its resources. The exclusion was in the interests of the other students; the threatened, the stabbed.

I have already mentioned the resources that we had available such as the behaviour improvement workers. These were a team of three or four led by a psychologist. They had their own area of the school where they could withdraw students from classes in order to work with them, typically on issues such as anger management. A limited number of students had a pass that allowed them to leave lessons and come to this area. The behaviour improvement workers could also support students in lessons.

We also had an area of the school set up for ‘inclusions’. Students would arrive and leave at a different time to the rest of the school and work under the supervision of a member of staff. I can already imagine people snorting, ‘but that’s not inclusion!’ I know that. ‘Inclusions’ were given this name because they were used as an alternative to temporary exclusion. For many students, it was a far worse punishment.

These measures were expensive. We were part of a project that attracted additional funds under the then Labour government. Initially, as part of this project, we were effectively banned from excluding any student. This later relaxed but there remained more hurdles to exclusion than in other schools.

I am not a fan of looking at headline exclusion rates and making inferences about whether they are good or bad. A school with poor systems may allow far too many students to spin out of control to the point that they are excluded. However, a new principal turning around a failing school or a school trying to deal with a gang issue may see a similar spike in exclusions. It’s the wrong level of analysis.

Of course, there are hardened ideologues who would assert that there should be no exclusions at all. They might point to the negative effects of exclusion on the excluded. These arguments fail to place exclusion in the context of the interests of the whole school community.

There is no experimental evidence that I am aware of about the effects of different exclusion practices on schools. I don’t think there could be. So all we can do is look at epidemiological studies.

I was therefore interested to find this analysis of suspension practices in New York City via a Robert Pondiscio article.

There have been two recent reforms to suspensions in New York. The first, under mayor Bloomberg, stopped teachers issuing suspensions for first time, low level offences. Quite right too. Overall school climate – as assessed by a survey that New York City regularly issues to teachers and students – seems to have remained stable under this reform.

The second reform under mayor de Blasio led to a similar reduction in suspensions. This reform toughened-up the suspension process by requiring principals to seek permission from district administrators in order to suspend a student. The introduction of this reform correlates with a significant decline in school climate across the district.

We can draw nothing definitive from this data. There might have been another factor that led to a decline in school climate. But I think that this evidence should at least make us pause before we introduce policies aimed at eliminating exclusions.

Exclusion is not a good thing to be applauded as a sign of toughness. It is not a bad thing to be dismissed as a signal that teachers and schools don’t care. It is, instead, a necessary measure to take in order to protect a school community when all else fails.


What can we learn from Ontario?

Since the advent of PISA, Canada and the Canadian province of Ontario in particular have been held up as something of an exemplary education system. This is reasonable enough because Ontario has consistently performed above the average for OECD countries. On the PISA standardised scale that is intended to represent equivalent levels of performance over time, the OECD average hovers at or just below 500. The following chart maps Ontario’s performance since the first PISA assessments in 2000:

It would be easy to conclude that states that are not performing as well as Ontario should try to copy what Ontario is doing. There have certainly been efforts to study the Ontario system and disseminate the knowledge gained through this process. However, I think we need to be careful in making inferences in this way.

Firstly, mean PISA score differences between countries and states do not simply depend upon the quality of the education system. Demographics and levels of wealth will play a large part. So will cultural effects such as the value placed upon certain subjects and the amount of out-of-school tuition that takes place. These vary widely between different states.

Perhaps of more interest than a direct comparison between countries and states is the trend in any one country or state. Although demographics and cultures may change over time, they are likely to be far more static within one region than is the variation between regions. If a state is improving or declining then that might tell us something.

If we look at the Ontario data then it would be hard to conclude that it is improving. Performance seems to have peaked at around 2006. Since 2003 there has been a significant decline in maths performance. There has been a debate in Ontario about its maths curriculum and some have linked its embrace of constructivist teaching approaches to this decline. You cannot prove a cause with a correlation but in this case it strikes me as highly suggestive.

It is also worth noting the long lag between policy changes and an effect on PISA scores. PISA items are highly reading intensive and yet reading is taught in the early years of school whereas PISA assessments take place at age 15. So if we are keen to look at which policies might be most associated with Ontario’s peak year of 2006 then we would certainly need to include an examination of policies enacted in the late 1990s. In contrast, current initiatives and trends would tell us little.


ResearchED Melbourne 2017 sparks witch hunt

I have been loosely involved in researchED Australia over the last couple of years. For the first event in Sydney in 2015, I suggested a couple of speakers. It was me who recommended that Kevin Donnelly be invited to take part in a panel discussion. At that time, he and Ken Wiltshire had just completed a review of the Australian Curriculum commissioned by the federal government and so he seemed like a perfect fit for such a conference. What research evidence had informed their review? Others didn’t see it that way. Donnelly is a noted social conservative and so, rather than come along and challenge his views, a number of people stated that they would boycott the event.

Last year the storm was more muted and it mainly just involved people expressing surprise and annoyance that they had not been invited to speak. This year has seen the temperature rise again with a group of Australian academics fanning a full-scale Twitter witch hunt.

In the promotional material, someone spotted that one of the things researchED looks at is, ‘the lies you may have been told during training’. ‘Lie’ is an emotive word and ‘myth’ would probably have been a better choice in this context. However, it is clear that this statement does not claim that all trainee teachers are told untruths and it does not suggest who might be telling them. In my experience, trainees are just as likely to be told dodgy things by other trainee teachers and by their placement schools as they are at university.

Nevertheless, this clause was seized upon and interpreted as a statement that university lecturers lie to preservice teachers:

The Australian College of Teachers (ACE) was copied in to this tweet – they are partnering with researchED for 2017 and so the intention was presumably to exert some pressure.

This pattern continued with the Australian Council of Deans of Education being tagged in a subsequent tweet:

One academic decided to send the offending clause to her own Dean and tweet about this:

The outrage continued with various people mounting their high horses and demanding an apology while a number of rather bemused bystanders asked what the fuss was about.

Eventually, events took a surreal turn. I wrote a blog post that was totally unrelated to researchED about a new Brookings report on preschool education. This was then called ‘toxic’ and a couple of researchED presenters and a think-tank were copied in with the following statement:

Again, I can only assume that the intention of this was to apply pressure.

So what is this all about? Why all the fuss? Why does researchED present such a threat to this group? After all, it is only a conference and it often hosts discussions that thrash out different opinions. I don’t really know what is at the root of this animosity and could only speculate.

More surprising, perhaps, is that one of the antagonists spoke at last year’s event. Since then, she has expressed concern that neither Tom nor I attended her talk. This can be a difficult issue because researchED events have a number of talks scheduled simultaneously and so it is not possible to see all of them.

Anyway, I suppose this fuss must mean something. ResearchED is an edgy event – an event that some people clearly would prefer you not to attend. So why not come along and find out why? One day of the annual ACE conference is given over to rED – the 3rd July. There is also an event at Brighton Grammar on the 1st July headlined by John Hattie. Read about it here. It would be great to see you there. I’ll be the one with the broomstick and the black cat.


The preschool myth that is holding children back

From time-to-time, someone will claim that any kind of formal instruction in preschool is damaging for children. One such article has been doing the rounds since 2015 and seems to be quite popular on Twitter. The evidence it draws upon comes largely from a set of studies based upon the High/Scope preschool curriculum. Look out for these studies because they are often at the root of such claims and, in my view, they are deeply flawed.

It was therefore interesting to read a sober and authoritative review of the evidence on preschool programs produced by The Brookings Institute in the U.S. (thanks to @AlecMahony for the tip). Chapter 4 of this report compares the different kinds of preschool curricula that students follow in Pre-K and Headstart. Pre-K is the year of preschool directly prior to starting school proper and Headstart is a specific kind of Pre-K that is federally funded and made available to disadvantaged students.

The report groups preschool curricula into three classes; whole-child, skill specific and locally developed / no curriculum. The skill specific curricula allow lots of time for play but they also include sessions in mathematics, literacy or  both. These sessions feature sequenced, explicit instruction but should not be pictured as whole classes completing worksheets. Instead, the academic work takes place in small or large groups and includes elements such as storybook reading, games, art and discovery activities.

In contrast, the whole-child curricula are quite strict about following the child’s own interests and not forcing specific content on them. As the report explains:

“Whole-child (sometimes termed “global” or “developmental constructivist”) curricula emphasize child-centered active learning that is cultivated by strategically arranging the classroom environment. Rather than explicitly targeting developmental domains such as early math skills, whole-child approaches seek to promote learning by encouraging children to interact independently with the equipment, materials and other children in the classroom environment.”

Headstart program standards require centres to use whole-child curricula and the most popular seems to be, “The Creative Curriculum”. Pre-K programs seem to have more flexibility. Nonetheless, 41% still adhere to whole-child curricula.

The authors of the report note that children from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to start school just over one standard deviation behind their more advantaged peers in literacy and numeracy (a standard deviation is simply a standardised way of measuring the difference between two groups). They draw on a meta-analysis* of Pre-K, Headstart and some other programs to work out the effect of different curriculum types on these key skills. Unfortunately, they state that this meta-analysis was conducted by “Nguyen (2017)” but I can find no further reference to this paper in the entire report which seems like some kind of oversight. I also cannot find an obvious reference through Google Scholar. So, with that caveat in mind, it is interesting to look at what “Nguyen” found:

There are a number of points to note. Firstly, the effects of different literacy interventions were highly variable and the headline figure masks that. Presumably, some of these literacy interventions were based upon whole-language principles and so this is not entirely surprising. Secondly, although the authors couldn’t find much consistent evidence for programs that improved students social skills and self-regulation, they noted that there was no significant difference between whole-child and skills specific programs on these measures. So skills specific programs deliver academic gains without causing social harm:

“By devoting time and attention to academic skills, it might be feared that skill-focused curricula would preclude full development of children’s socioemotional capacities. But for the most part, such curricula generate impacts only in the developmental domain they target, such as math curricula affecting math skills, but not literacy or socioemotional skills. Importantly, developmentally appropriate skills-focused curricula do not appear to generate negative impacts on children’s development in socioemotional domains.”

Whole-child curricula are widespread and yet appear to be no more effective than the kinds of curricula that centres are able to develop on their own. This seems like a triumph of ideology over evidence. If we want to better prepare children to start school – particularly children from disadvantaged backgrounds – then we would do well to teach them something.

*On a technical note, some of you might be aware that we are looking at ‘effect sizes’ here and that they can be controversial. In my view, they are far more valid in a meta-analysis of this kind because you are a) comparing apples with applies i.e. curricula with curricula and b) the data for all the studies comes from precisely the same age range.


Inquiry-based learning predicts Charter School failure

American Charter Schools (and Free Schools in the UK) are an interesting concept for those of us who learnt our craft in traditional state education systems. The conventional model for providing state education is one of near uniformity – every school should meet certain standards. However, Charter Schools are intended to be different from each other. They are meant to provide meaningful variation so that parents have a choice about how their children are educated. In reality, choice is often lacking, with more successful schools having waiting lists and choosing students via lottery. Yet the intention of the system is clear: The variation between schools is supposed to generate evolution. Good practices should spread and bad practices should wither without anyone ever consciously laying down what all of these practices are. It is an alternative model for school improvement.

A new report has been released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that casts light on this process. The authors analysed proposals for Charter Schools that were sent to the bodies that authorise the opening of these schools in a number of different U.S. states. They found a set of factors that seemed to predict whether these authorities would approve a Charter School. For instance, if a proposal did not show how the school would have a sound financial foundation then it was more likely to be rejected.

The report authors then tracked the schools that were authorised and how these schools performed over their first few years. This performance is apparently a good predictor of later performance – few school that start badly turn this situation around. They examined a number of factors that research suggested might reasonably affect school performance and they whittled these down to features that were easy to spot in an application. They then looked at the academic progress of students in these schools to see which of these factors were good predictors.

The following factors were found to predict academic failure:

1. Lack of Identified Leadership: Charter applications that propose a self-managed school without naming its initial school leader.

2. High Risk, Low Dose: Charter applications that propose to serve at-risk pupils but plan to employ “low dose” academic programs that do not include sufficient academic supports, such as intensive small-group instruction or individual tutoring.

3. A Child-Centered Curriculum: Charter applications that propose to deploy child-centered, inquiry-based pedagogies, such as Montessori, Waldorf, Paideia, or experiential programs.

These risk factors significantly boosted the probability of low academic progress compared to other schools, with the presence of two or more in an application boosting this probability to 80%.

I am not surprised by these findings. The importance of leadership is often over-emphasised but a new school needs a clear vision and clear lines of authority. If a school is taking on academically at-risk students then it must have a plan for how it is going to turn things around for those students. This plan needs to directly target academic skills rather than engage students in mindfulness or whatever the latest fashion suggests.

The authors seem a little surprised that the use of inquiry learning would predict school failure. I am not. There is plenty of evidence that inquiry learning is less effective than explicit instruction. The difference in effectiveness will be even more pronounced for students who have a history of poor academic performance because inquiry learning relies more on prior knowledge and home resources than explicit instruction.

It seems that Charter School authorisers may be unaware of the negative influence of inquiry-learning because proposals to adopt inquiry-based teaching methods made no difference to whether schools would gain approval. Perhaps we need to raise awareness.

The authors also discuss an interesting ethical point. The judgement they make of schools is based upon academic performance. What if parents are not interested in their children performing well academically? Should they still be given the choice of these failing schools? No. This is taxpayer money and it is meant to serve both the individual and the public good. The public gains nothing from students who cannot read and write.

It reminds me a little of the argument in the U.K. about whether homeopathic remedies should be available on the state-funded National Health Service. I am quite clear that they should not be available. If people want to waste their own money on sugar pills then that is up to them but wasting taxpayers’ money is a different matter. Applying this principle to Charters and Free Schools would raise an interesting discussion: Should we allow the planned variation to include approaches that we already know to be ineffective?


Why progressivism matters

Educational progressivism matters. This is not because the majority of schools subscribe to a progressivist philosophy. Far from it. It matters because it is the dominant ideology within academia and the bureaucracies that run our education systems. And this has real, practical significance to teachers and schools.

What is progressivism?

As an educational philosophy, elements of progressivism have been around for a long time and progressivism has existed in its current form since the advent of romanticism, from which it draws. Progressivism came to prominence at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries.

In 1918, William Heard Kilpatrick penned ‘The Project Method’, an early description of project-based learning. Kilpatrick was a leader of the American Progressive Education Association (PEA). Yet it would be a mistake to see progressivism purely as a label to apply to particular teaching methods. Teaching methods have always been derived from an underlying set of principles.

Two brief, sympathetic texts can give us a better understanding of these deeper principles and the way that they have persisted over time. The first is an extract from John Dewey’s 1938 ‘Experience and Education’. By this time, Dewey had begun to criticise some of the extremes of progressive education and had a complex relationship with the PEA. However, I still think that it is clear where his sympathies lie.

The second text is a more recent article by Alfie Kohn.

One essential principle is that education is a form of natural development. A strong metaphor might be a growing flower – provide the right conditions such as water, compost and light and the flower will grow according to some internal plan. Education is a process of encouraging and drawing-out of children what is already there, innate. This is an individual process where children develop in different ways. As Dewey explains, “To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality.” This metaphor also helps explains the emphasis on intrinsic motivation. If students are endowed to develop in a particular way then we should not force this process. At some fundamental level, they know what is good for them.

Herbert Spencer, a 19th century philosopher and progressive, drew on recapitulation theory to try to explain development. This is the idea that the progression from a child to an adult should go through stages that mirror the development of humans from ‘savages’ to civilised beings. Forcing young children to complete the kinds of academic tasks that are characteristic of members of modern civilisations is therefore unnatural.

Recapitulation theory has no scientific basis but the idea of education as natural development has stayed with us, most notably through Piaget’s stage theories.

The implications of progressivism

These principles lead to progressivism’s troubled relationship with knowledge. The most effective and efficient way of gaining knowledge of the world is through others, either by direct instruction or by use of a proxy such as a book. Yet this is an imposition from the outside – from ‘above’ – and so it does not fit with the idea of education as personal development from within. There are three main ways that progressivism tries to deal with this problem.

Firstly, progressives may suggest that students should acquire knowledge of the world themselves. In recent years, it has become popular to talk of students ‘constructing’ their own understandings, drawing on the psychological theory of constructivism. Unfortunately, self-directed learning of this kind is not supported by experimental evidence. Alternatively, progressives may encourage student collaboration as a means of improving the chances of students making the correct conceptual leaps. This makes use of the direct transmission of knowledge from one individual to another but by trying to avoid imposition ‘from above’, it favours knowledge transmission from novice to novice over knowledge transmission from expert to novice.

An alternative approach is to make knowledge acquisition a secondary aim of education and to prioritise the development of personal qualities over knowledge acquisition. As Kohn Suggests, “Facts and skills do matter, but only in a context and for a purpose.” Instead, the aim is develop students’ problem-solving ability, their critical thinking ‘skills’ or their creativity. Again, the emphasis is on personal growth from within.

There is little evidence that generic capacities to solve problems or think critically or be creative or whatever else can be improved in this way (see here or here). Instead, these qualities seem to be features of expert performance within a specific domain of knowledge: The same person can think critically about an area where she possesses expertise and yet fail to think critically in an area where she lacks expertise.

This leaves progressivism in a bind. For most of the last century, it could argued that progressive ideas aligned with the new science of psychology. This meant that there were both philosophical and empirical reasons to be progressive. The last hurrah for scientific progressivism was probably 1980s constructivism and, as a teaching approach, this has now been largely debunked by carefully conducted studies and epidemiological research. This leaves progressives in a bind. They can change their minds – and many have done so; they can argue that the scientific method does not apply to something as complex as education; or they can define new objectives and argue that progressive methods are best suited to achieve these. This is what has happened with the 21st century skills movement and the idea that progressive methods are superior for preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist.

Practical examples of where progressivism makes a difference

Everyone involved in the debate recognises that there are few schools that can describe themselves as adhering to a 100% progressive philosophy. As Kohn notes:

“It’s not all or nothing, to be sure. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a school — even one with scripted instruction, uniforms, and rows of desks bolted to the floor — that has completely escaped the influence of progressive ideas. Nor have I seen a school that’s progressive in every detail.”

This does not mean that the debate has no practical significance. I don’t think that there is any country on Earth where every enterprise is state owned – even North Korea has farmer markets – but this does not mean that the principle of state ownership is not worth debating: How should we deal with China’s state-owned companies? Should we sell state assets to build infrastructure? What is the best way to organise public transport or electricity generation and supply?

Similarly, the philosophy of progressivism’s grip on our education systems has numerous practical implications:

  1. Systematic Synthetics Phonics (SSP) programs for teaching early reading have two key features: They are highly effective compared to the alternatives and they are completely at odds with progressive principles. It is twelve years since a government report in Australia recommended the wholesale adoption of SSP and yet we still have education departments pursuing alternatives such as L3 that offer a more progressive-friendly outlook: students are taught in small groups of two or three to cater to their individual needs and are offered a range of strategies for decoding text rather than being explicitly taught letter-sound relationships.
  2. Any discussion of behaviour or research into behaviour problems is couched in terms of progressive principles. If students do not behave in class then this is because schools and teachers are not meeting their developmental needs or treating them as individuals. Given that education is a natural process, if it seems to be going wrong for some students then this must be due to the imposition of unnatural conditions or requirements. We should follow the students’ interests and offer them more appealing choices.
  3. The Australian Curriculum requires teachers to teach generic skills such as ‘critical and creative thinking,’ and ‘ethical understanding’, whatever they are. It has also been so denuded of content knowledge such that, for example, history doesn’t exist as a subject prior to Year 7, replaced instead with a Dewey-inspired ‘expanding horizons’ curriculum. In turn, the science curriculum is knowledge-lite with a focus on students posing and answering their own questions.
  4. In his recent book, E D Hirsch Jr. presents evidence that the imposition of such a knowledge-lite curriculum in France in the 1980s led to real and significant declines in the abilities of students.
  5. As with any discussion of behaviour, standardised testing tends to prompt people to reach for progressive arguments. For instance, a delegate at a teaching union conference in the U.K. suggested that teaching, “should be about ‘liberating’ children’s minds, not preparing them to answer tests on things they did not understand.” There are good arguments against such tests but I am broadly in favour. I tend to agree with Eric Kalenze that they represent a failure of our education systems: What other levers do politicians have to pull when schools will not adopt effective practices such as SSP?
  6. The priority placed on individualism has led to inefficient approaches that increase teacher workload for no obvious gain. Teachers are expected to ‘differentiate’ lessons in myriad ways, some of which could actually harm learning. Feedback, rather than being delivered through whole class teaching, has been envisioned as something that is done, as Dylan Wiliam describes it, “…one student at a time, after they have gone away, and in writing…” Probably the worst manifestation of this has been the learning styles theories that simply refuse to die, despite evidence to the contrary and the potential dangers associated with labelling students.

I could go on. The point is that the philosophy of progressivism matters because it has direct, practical consequences, even if people are unaware of its origins or feel that they are above the debate. Decisions made on the basis of these principles are being made on a daily basis and will continue to be made until they are sufficiently challenged and the decision makers are held to public account. These ideas are part of the collective memory of our education systems and, for many, form part of their implicit understanding of what education is. Progressivism won’t go away of its own accord.


The problem of writing 

In Australia, the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) are a series of tests that take place in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. The writing component requires students to write either a narrative or a persuasive piece in response to a prompt. Although there is an Australian Curriculum from which, conceivably, prompts could be drawn, they tend to be banal and assume no specific knowledge. For example, students might be asked to write about whether the city is better than the country.

I think this misses an opportunity to write about topics that are more worthwhile but I do think this kind of assessment is valid. After all, one important outcome of schooling should be that students can develop an idea at some length in writing.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure we know how to prepare students for this kind of assessment. Preparing students for a maths test is relatively straightforward: just teach them how to solve all of the different kinds of problems on the test. But writing is a complex performance that integrates different forms of declarative and procedural knowledge. What do you do?

Rehearse and hope

One obvious strategy is to ask students to rehearse the final performance a lot. You can give them past prompts and ask them to respond.

If we do this then what is the mechanism by which we expect students to improve? It looks a lot like ‘talent spotting’ rather than ‘talent development’. You could spend hours writing feedback at the end of each piece but this is a highly inefficient form of teaching. Students are only likely to be able to take one or two points on board.

This also assumes that any errors draw from a lack of knowledge. A student might make a grammatical error but this might be because her attention is fully occupied in formulating her ideas rather than because she lacks that grammar knowledge. Feedback on grammar would therefore be redundant. As writing expert Ronald Kellogg explains:

“Composing can place severe demands on working memory because the task requires temporarily maintaining numerous mental representations in planning ideas, translating sentences, and reviewing the results. The verbal protocols collected by Flower and Hayes (1980) indicated that: ‘A writer caught in the act looks … like a very busy switchboard operator trying to juggle a number of demands on her attention and constraints on what she can do.'”

Writing Instruction

It is much better to actually teach writing. One of the reasons why we don’t always follow this approach is that it can be hard to see how to break writing down into its components. We have a romantic preference for viewing writing holistically and, in contrast to maths, we also have a great deal of choice in how to break it down.

If we take a superficial approach then we run the risk of teaching writing tips and hacks. For instance, we might teach a, “Firstly, secondly, thirdly,” structure, the elements of a narrative arc or that students should include at least one complex sentence in each piece. There is nothing essentially wrong with these ideas, although repetitive structures can be limiting. The main issue is that we are teaching some of the surface features of good writing. It is then easy to fool ourselves that we have substantially improved students’ writing because the internal rubric we have developed is likely to prioritise these features.

A sophisticated approach will deconstruct writing in a more thorough way, starting with the planning process and working through lots of components skills.

For instance, imagine that we decide to give some explicit instruction on topic sentences. We would need to model the construction of a few topic sentences with the teacher thinking aloud to the class. Then we could give the students a list of sentences and ask them to identify which ones are the best topic sentences and why. Then would could ask them to construct topics sentences themselves. At each stage we can connect the teaching to the student responses and refine it as needed. There is no need to take lots of marking home.

This kind of explicit writing instruction is effective but it is also quite generic. I have seen units developed with the title of ‘narrative writing’ or ‘persuasive writing’. It is as if the contexts are interchangeable and yet we know that they are not.

Purposeful writing

It is vital that we teach the components of writing but we must not neglect what students are writing about. Think about the city versus country prompt. I would imagine that most Australian students would address this prompt in terms of their own town or city. A context that might stand out and be better able to support a sophisticated argument might be about the advent of the first cities in Mesopotamia or the relationships between certain cities and their surrounding areas over time.

What distinguishes these more sophisticated responses is the use of world knowledge. The more sophisticated our world knowledge, the better we may respond to these banal prompts. Writing instruction offers the opportunity to vary the topics and themes that we write about in a systematic way, enabling students to grow their vocabulary and ideas about the world while also gaining experience of using this vocabulary and these ideas in written pieces.

I am going to introduce two definitions that I think may help. They are unlikely to stand up to hostile scrutiny and the terms are used differently in other contexts. Firstly, I am going to define a ‘domain’ as:

A limited body of knowledge that shares a common vocabulary and set of concepts

The idea of it being limited is extremely important because it defines the edges of the domain. We know what is included and what needs to be developed and we know what to exclude. This allows for a deeper analysis of the domain itself. Another way to think of this definition of a domain might be: Something you could draw on a concept map.

A novel would certainly fit this definition. ‘Adaptation in Australian animals’ would potentially work well. You could also describe a domain through a question such as ‘How did Rome come to dominate Europe?’ Admittedly, there is potentially much more to these than could fit on a simple concept map but you could capture key ideas and events in this way and define a limited domain in which students could write.

Topics that would not count as domains under this definition would be examples such as ‘relationships’, ‘narrative’, or ‘apples’. All of these would need to be more tightly defined.

Two problems arise with the idea of writing within these domains. How can we practise narrative writing? Shouldn’t we let students choose their own topics for narrative? I don’t think so; not all of the time. If a student chooses his own topic then he is likely to keep returning to the same concepts and vocabulary; tell the same story over and over again without building a repertoire. It is quite possible to write a narrative within the Roman context. Oddly, this probably happens in a superficial way in many history lessons – “Your homework is to write a diary entry for a Roman centurion” – and yet it is English teachers who have the knowledge to improve narrative writing.

The second problem is that English teachers may themselves not be familiar with the domains. Tough luck. Choose the contexts strategically, choose them well in advance, make a reading list and put in the grunt work.

My second definition takes this idea further. I am going to define a ‘powerful domain’ as:

A domain that feeds forward into future learning by providing knowledge, concepts, idioms or analogies.

The focus is now on domains with leverage; domains that we can return to and reuse. Given the limited curriculum time available, it is better if we can kill two birds with one stone. Think of rich sources of powerful knowledge: The Holocaust is essential to an understanding of post 1945 Europe and the Middle East; The Gospels and Greek Myths are sources of ideas and idioms such as ‘no room at the inn’ and ‘labours of Sisyphus’; and Orwell’s 1984 introduced new vocabulary such as ‘doublethink’ and the idea of ‘Big Brother’.

Such lists will tend to be dominated by the works and doings of white European men and so I believe that we also need to positively discriminate in order to ensure diversity and balance. A particular novel may not fit the definition of a powerful domain but it might be written from an important perspective and address key themes.

Teaching purposeful writing

If we decide to teach writing in the context of domains, whether they are powerful or not, then we need to think about the teaching sequence. A key idea for developing such a structure is something we might call the “Sherlock Holmes” principle of deductive reasoning; eliminate the impossible. At each point of assessment, we want to know exactly what we are assessing.

For instance, if we assess students’ grammar knowledge by asking them to complete a grammar test or correct the grammar in a faulty passage then we can deduce that if they make similar mistakes in their own work then it is not because of a lack of this knowledge. We can rule this out and avoid redundant feedback. It might be better to build in specific proof-reading time into the lesson.

A unit or work needs to start with contextual knowledge: First teach that knowledge and assess it (have students even read the novel?). We can then take this off the table as a cause of any later issues . We also need to teach key themes and concepts; how the ideas connect; different interpretations; and then assess these. Then we can move into the stage of explicitly teaching the component writing skills. If we know that students have a problem using evidence from the text then we might explicitly model that process before giving them practice and assessing what they can do. Finally, we move into the complex task. By this point, teachers should be able to focus on the integration of the different components.

No short cuts

Teaching writing is complex because writing is complex. It requires a systematic approach. There are no short-cuts.