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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

Censored by The Conversation

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Earlier, The Conversation published an article on play-based learning. The article, by Kate Noble of The Mitchell Institute, a think tank focused on education and health, makes an enthusiastic case for learning through play.

Play-based learning has a long record. It is often mandated in early years settings to the extent that anything that looks like formal teaching is effectively forbidden. Play clearly has an important role in human development, but we invented formal education for a reason. In Project Follow Through, the largest education experiment ever conducted, different approaches to early education were compared with each other and the more formal Direct Instruction method (which still allowed for a lot of time spent playing) not only led to better basic skills and higher order academic outcomes, it led to higher self-esteem than the alternatives. The less successful models, such as the Bank Street model, are similar to this description by Noble of a play-based approach:

“…a skilled educator can help children discover new ideas when they play with water. The educator might encourage children to playfully experiment with water tubs and toys in a way that allows them to develop their own hypotheses about how water behaves in certain situations and why.

The educator could work with the children to test their hypotheses, questioning and talking to them about what they observe during their play.”

I felt the article did not differentiate between the kinds of knowledge that can be easily learnt through play and the kinds that cannot and so I left the following comment:

“This article misses an important distinction between what David C. Geary describes as ‘biologically primary’ versus ‘biologically secondary’ knowledge.

https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1995-16916-001

Biologically primary knowledge is knowledge that we have evolved to acquire. For example, humans have been talking to each other for many hundreds of thousands of years and so the ability to acquire speaking and listening skills has been acted upon by the process of evolution. In contrast, writing has only been around for about 6000 years and mass literacy has only been with us since the 19th century. Therefore we have not had sufficient time to evolve ways of acquiring the skills of reading and writing.

We can pick-up biologically primary skills with ease through immersion or play. However, this has led to the misconception that we can also pick-up biologically secondary knowledge in this way. However, the evidence suggests that this is not the case:

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1?needAccess=true

Acquiring biologically secondary knowledge is effortful and usually requires explicit teaching. This is because biologically secondary knowledge has to pass through our extremely limited working memories which can only process about four items at any given time. Therefore, expecting children to pick up biologically secondary knowledge such as scientific knowledge of water through play is misconceived. You could argue that the need to acquire biologically secondary knowledge is why we invented schools in the first place.

This does not mean there is no room for play. It is essential in gaining biologically primary knowledge such as social skills. Schools should therefore facilitate play, but they should not expect it to do things it has not evolved to do.”

Shortly afterwards, I received an automated email from The Conversation, informing me that my comment had been deleted:

“Your comment on ‘Children learn through play – it shouldn’t stop at preschool’ has been removed.

There are several reasons why this may have occurred:

  1. Your comment may have breached our community standards. For example it may have been a personal attack, or you might not have used your real name.
  2. Your comment may have been entirely blameless but part of a thread that was removed because another comment had to be removed.
  3. It might have been removed for another editorial reason, for example to avoid repetition or keep the conversation on topic

For practical reasons we reserve the right to remove any comment and all decisions must be final, but please don’t take it personally.

If you’re playing by the rules it’s unlikely to happen again, so feel free to continue to post new comments and engage in polite and respectful discussion.”

This did not seem to add up and so I emailed Sasha Petrova, the education editor of The Conversation to inform her that I would be reposting my comment on my blog and asking for a comment on why it had been removed. Petrova replied:

“Sure. I deleted it as it is off topic. The article doesn’t call for less explicit instruction, nor is there any mention of it. It calls for more integration of play-based learning in early years of school to ease the transition to formal instruction – not that formal instruction (and even here it doesn’t specify that formal means “explicit”) must be abolished.”

So there you are. My comment was apparently off topic. No, it doesn’t make any sense to me either.

Me and the powers that be


Tom Starkey is an erudite gentleman from northern England with a gift for lucid writing. Until recently, he was a teacher, but he now works in the academy. Earlier, Starkey made the mistake of tweeting something positive about me:

The contentious part was the idea that I get stick from ‘the powers that be’. Apparently, as some kind of disciple of Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, I have already had my wicked way. Educational traditionalism rules the land.

I have to point out that this is a rather parochial viewpoint. I live in Australia and Gove and Gibb have virtually no influence here. Whatever has happened to education in England, it has had little impact Down Under beyond the few who follow the discussion on Twitter.

So what is the state of play in Australia?

In the positive column sits Dan Tehan, the federal education minister, and his commitment to implementing a phonics check similar to the one in England. However, this illustrates part of the problem. Education is largely under the control of state governments and so Tehan is reduced to meeting with state education ministers and asking them really nicely to consider the phonics check. So far, only South Australia has given it a go.

There is also David de Carvalho of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) and Australia’s chief scientist who have both pointed out the importance of knowledge in the curriculum (here and here). This is not quite the national commitment to a knowledge-rich curriculum that I would like to see, but it is a start. Then there is the New South Wales Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) and the good work it has done on publicising cognitive load theory.

Apart from that, I cannot think of any top officials or political figures who advance the kind of arguments that I make on this blog. The ‘Gonski 2.0‘ review and the recent Gonski 2.0 inspired review in New South Wales seem to be running in the opposite direction. Gonski 2.0 is all nebulous 21st century skills, ineffective and impractical personalised learning and calls for the introduction of the kind of assessment levels familiar in England about ten years ago but since scrapped due to their lack of validity.

At the same time, we have a behaviour crisis in our schools, but we cannot discuss this without being derailed into a highly ideological argument about disability and inclusion. Pragmatism is not in fashion in the academy, 95% of whom are either in the identity politics and let’s-write-a-play-or-poem-and-call-it-research camp or are committed to failed constructivist views of learning.

This is why I attract criticism for my views. This is why people have complained to my bosses about me. So yes, I do get some stick.

And yet there are signs of hope. This year saw researchED return to Australia and, for the first time, it sold out. We are a ragtag bunch of classroom teachers, speech pathologists and enlightened academics. We do not always agree with each other, but that does not matter. We have not given up on our own thinking in favour of intellectual fashion. We are the misfits. And as Jarvis Cocker and Pulp remind us:

“We won’t use guns, we won’t use bombs
We’ll use the one thing we’ve got more of
That’s our minds”

Join us for the revolution.

David Zyngier and the Perihelion of Mercury

I have finally given up on Dr David Zyngier on Twitter. He has a tendency to want to disagree with what I write, but his disagreements rarely rise above level DH1 on Graham’s hierarchy. Most recently, after my post about phonics reporting in The Conversation, his response was to question my expertise:

As Paul Graham explains:

“Saying that an author lacks the authority to write about a topic is a variant of ad hominem—and a particularly useless sort, because good ideas often come from outsiders. The question is whether the author is correct or not. If his lack of authority caused him to make mistakes, point those out. And if it didn’t, it’s not a problem.

However, as part of this conversation, in response to Sara Peden, Zyngier made something approaching a substantive point. This is worth addressing because it highlights what may be a common misconception held by social scientists about the physical sciences:

The physical sciences make use of a series of models, just like the social sciences, and this can send us down a rabbit hole at times.

For instance, a perfectly serviceable model of the mind sees it as consisting of a working memory plus a long-term memory. This model is able to make predictions about learning and is good as far as those predictions go. However, if you make use of this model, you are bound to encounter those who point out that it is a simplification, which it most certainly is. They may talk to you about sensory memory or the structure of working memory. The key point is this: Does adding these elements to the model change the predictions that are being made in any meaningful way? If they do then they are relevant. If they do not then who cares?

This is because nature is highly complex. All scientific models are simplifications. Wisdom is not achieved by drawing on the most complicated models possible, it is achieved by drawing on the simplest models possible.

How is this relevant to Newton’s laws of gravity? Well, they are not ‘scientific fact’. Newton’s laws are a model that work very well under most circumstances. However, they do not predict the perihelion of Mercury. The perihelion is the closest point to the Sun in Mercury’s orbit and it doesn’t stay in one place – it moves around over time.

Newton’s laws do not predict the extent of this movement. However, Einstein’s general theory of relativity does predict the motion of the perihelion of Mercury and this was seen as a great early success for Einstein’s theory.

Does this mean we cast Newton’s laws aside? No. They remain an excellent approximation of general relativity in most circumstances and they have the advantage of being far simpler to apply.

What has this to do with the simple view of reading? The simple view proposes that reading comprehension is the product of decoding ability and verbal comprehension. As a model, it is valid to the extent that it makes accurate predictions. Adding bells and whistles to it to formulate a ‘complex view of reading’ is not a sign of sophistication, it needs to be justified. Do these extra bells and whistles change the predictions of the model? If they do, let’s test those predictions. If they do not then who cares?

Science is the process of modelling reality and testing those models. In this respect, there is no difference between physical and social science.

False balance at The Conversation

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In September, Misha Ketchell, Editor of The Conversation, published a post in which he outlined the new, tough line that his organisation would take against climate change skeptics:

“Climate change deniers, and those shamelessly peddling pseudoscience and misinformation, are perpetuating ideas that will ultimately destroy the planet. As a publisher, giving them a voice on our site contributes to a stalled public discourse.

That’s why the editorial team in Australia is implementing a zero-tolerance approach to moderating climate change deniers, and sceptics. Not only will we be removing their comments, we’ll be locking their accounts.”

I am not a climate change skeptic but I disagree with this stance. It is one thing for The Conversation to decline to publish articles from climate change deniers, but it is quite another to refuse to accept comments from them and to even lock their accounts, preventing them from commenting on other matters. The stated reason is that authors and other commentators were spending too much time rebutting, “those who are fixated on dodgy ideas in the face of decades of peer-reviewed science,” and who are, “nothing but dangerous.” I can understand the frustration with people who might start redefining terms or selectively quoting data to make their case and the effort this requires to counter. However, this still seems an odd stance for an outlet with a mission to bring academic discourse, with its implied commitment to freedom of expression, to the wider public.

Yet when it comes to the science of reading, The Conversation takes quite a different view. Despite decades of peer-reviewed scientific research, three independent reviews of the research literature conducted for the U.S. government, the U.K. Government and the Australian Government, and continued research demonstrating the effectiveness of a systematic approach to teaching phonics as part of early reading instruction, Ketchell and colleagues introduced false balance by publishing two articles yesterday (here and here), one which argued the scientific case for systematic phonics instruction and the other which argued for the widely discredited ‘whole language’ approach.

You can gain a sense of the difference between the two by mining the references in each article.

Moreover, the whole language article presents whole language as something that it is not widely understood to be and then claims support from the reviews I have linked to above. For instance, a dictionary definition of ‘whole language’ is:

“…a method of teaching reading and writing that emphasizes learning whole words and phrases by encountering them in meaningful contexts rather than by phonics exercises.”

And yet the author of the whole language article, Katina Zammit, claims that whole language involves the explicit teaching of decoding skills. Moreover, Zammit claims it aligns with The U.S. and Australian government reviews. This is not the case. The Australian review states, for example, that:

“The Inquiry found strong evidence that a whole-language approach to the teaching of reading on its own is not in the best interests of children, particularly those experiencing reading difficulties.”

The phrase ‘on its own’ is in there because most understandings of the term ‘whole language’ would exclude the ‘explicit teaching of decoding skills’. Instead, the whole language view is understood to be that children will pick up phonics knowledge implicitly and naturally in the context of reading, in a similar way to how they pick up spoken language. This is the main problem with whole language because research suggests that many children will not pick up these relationships naturally (reading and writing are quite different to speaking and listening because written language is a relatively recent invention and evolution has not had time to work on natural ways for children to acquire it).

An excellent description of whole language instruction is given on pages 199-201 of Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, a consensus study report prepared for the U.S. National Research Council and edited by Catherine E. Snow, M. Susan Burns, and Peg Griffin. They describe whole language as an approach, “in which the emphasis is on connected text, with alphabetic learning assumed to go on implicitly.” This is the opposite of the ‘explicit teaching of decoding skills’. In a vignette, they describe a whole language lesson where the teacher helps children gain phonics knowledge incidentally and implicitly. Consistent with the other national reports I have listed, the authors conclude that whole language is the least effective form of initial reading instruction.

Either Zammit is now claiming that ‘in the 21st century’ whole language means something different to what it used to mean or this is an exercise in smoke and mirrors. Perhaps she has taken the advice of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass that, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”. Either way, this provides a deeply misleading picture of the state of research in this area.

Not content with bending the meaning of ‘whole language’, Zammit also falsely characterises the alternative to whole language as an approach that focuses on decoding alone. Nobody advocates for such an approach. This is a common straw-man argument erected by opponents of phonics instruction. For instance, the pro-phonics Five from Five project emphasises five keys to reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Zammit also reheats the old trope about the way that the pronunciation of ‘wind’ depends on context. Those with phonics knowledge can narrow the pronunciation of ‘wind’ down to two options and then use context to determine which. Those who cannot decode, cannot narrow down the options in this way and so this example actually demonstrates the importance of phonics.

It is time for The Conversation to make its mind up. On the one hand, it bans anyone from even commenting if they are skeptical of climate science. On the other, they put up a misleading article that flies in the face of what we know about reading instruction and suggest it is the equivalent of an article arguing the scientific case.

That’s inconsistent.

Chicken Biryani


The word, ‘liberal’, is both a chameleon and a paradox. In Australia, it is the name given to the major right-of-centre political party, yet in the U.S. it is a term often used to describe those on the political left, which particularly jars when discussing those who promote illiberal speech codes and cancel culture. In the U.K. the word ‘liberal’ is associated with the Liberal Democrats – an eccentric grouping with no obvious stance other than a love for the European Union.

And yet I would describe myself as a liberal. This is because I believe that people should generally be free to do as they wish as long as this does not impinge upon the right of others to do the same. Clearly, this is complex and we have to work out the specifics of applying such a principle. We need to limit the choices of children who have not yet developed a full understanding of the world. Drinking alcohol may be fine if you are an adult, but drinking and driving is a problem because it affects others. What about lighting fireworks in your garden? You might want to consider your neighbours and their pets.

There is always some give and take because it is pretty hard to do anything without affecting others. When I lived in Watford, England, the family a few doors down held a huge wedding that blocked the street and made it hard for the rest of us to park our cars. So they brought us all some chicken biryani and we wished them congratulations and everyone was happy.

A small-l liberal approach may strike some as a quaint, possibly old-fashioned way of organising the social and political world. Instead, arguments are now often framed around rights. Yesterday, I tweeted the following poll, the results of which are perhaps predictable:

Who are these 3% of respondents who do not agree? I suspect they are mostly trying to disrupt the poll. However, it is just possible that some of them hold a more sophisticated view. Perhaps they object to the framing of the question as being about a ‘right’ because rights crash into each other and, when they do, they result in a problem that cannot easily be solved.

Take, for instance, those who sincerely believe that all children have a right to be included in a regular classroom. Do these people also believe that all children have a right to the best possible education? Do they believe that teachers have a right to be safe at work? Do they believe all children have a right to be safe at school? Do they believe that parents have a right to decide what is best for their child?

Any and all of these rights may collide, depending on the situation, and so the simple repetition of them does not really help. That’s where a liberal model may be better. What we need – and what we are distinctly lacking – is a more practical and perhaps less principled discussion. That’s what Rebecca Urban opened up in the detailed and informative article she wrote for yesterday’s edition of The Australian. We need a little less magical thinking.

For instance, let’s examine the claim that, “If inclusive education is not working, it’s not inclusive education.” Where do we go with that? Such a claim allows for no possibility that inclusion may ever fail. It is essentially a profession of faith in inclusion, not an evidence-based position. In fact, due to its unfalsifiability, it can never an evidence-based position.

In New Brunswick, Canada, a highly inclusive approach to inclusion has been adopted. And yet this system is far from perfect, with some schools apparently putting in place informal arrangements where children with particular difficulties are sent home early. It is not good enough to just assert rights in this situation. New Brunswick is being heralded as a model to be followed across the world and so advocates need to focus on practical strategies: what they want teachers and schools to actually do. This is not the same as lecturing them on what not to do.

By instinct, I suspect most teachers are small-l liberal. They are in the job because they want to make a positive change in the world but they are pragmatic about what this involves. If campaigners want to help, they should rely on a little less hectoring and a little more chicken biryani.

What if giving students what they ask for is not the solution?

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A group of academics have written a piece for The Conversation where they have a dig at teachers and schools. This has recently become something of a trope. This time, the argument centres on alternative provision of ‘flexible learning options’. South Australia has embedded a system of flexible learning options into its education system but data on its effectiveness is hard to come by.

The authors argue that there are suggestions that disabled students are over-represented in these alternative forms of schooling and that the outcomes that are available to analyse are not great – just 5 % of students complete Year 12 certification versus 52 % in government schools.

In a style that has become normalised in recent weeks, the authors conclude this is about regular schools dumping kids into the alternative system because schools cannot be bothered with the effort required to educate them.

“Students will continue to experience difficulties in mainstream schools, but flexible learning options seem to be a convenient way for these schools to shirk responsibility for managing these difficulties.

Schools need to be responsive to the most disadvantaged students and not seek to exclude them to a lesser form of education. Mainstream schools should reassert their purpose of being for all students and examine how they can offer more engaging and inclusive schooling practices that enable more hopeful futures.”

Harsh.

Yet track back through the argument and something about it is odd to those of us who are acquainted with the school behaviour debate. Apparently, these alternative schools are paragons of progressivist educational practice:

“Flexible learning options emphasise case management for specific needs, with attention to personalised learning programs and remediation. The removal of structures such as uniforms, age-graded lessons and strict discipline codes are a positive alternative for students disengaged from mainstream schools.”

Huh. So why are they not working?

David Armstrong, one of the authors of the piece in The Conversation, has previously argued that, “The ‘behaviour management’ concept is outdated and requires urgent reform.” Perhaps this is what has blinded him to one possible explanation for his findings: Giving students exactly what they ask for such is not a recipe for educational success. If true, this seems like something of a flaw in the broader plan.

It’s what effective teachers do

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My most popular post of all time is my rough description of what I mean by explicit teaching. This fact bothers me a little because if I had known that it would become so popular, I might have spent a little more time constructing it. Nevertheless, the bones of a definition are there: what it is and what it is not. It is a whole system that moves through ‘I do’ to ‘we do’ to ‘you do’ and it is interactive. By this definition, lecturing is not explicit teaching. By this definition, a little bit of teacher explanation in the middle of an episode of inquiry learning is not ‘explicit teaching’ because it is an episode rather than a process.

In the post, I reference Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction as a source. In pretty much every other article he has written on the subject, Rosenshine calls this approach, ‘direct instruction’. Yet perhaps due to his own misgivings about the number of different interpretations there are of ‘direct instruction’, he leaves the approach unnamed in Principles of Instruction.

It is important to recognise where Rosenshine’s principles come from. He did not make them up. Although aspects of them have been more-or-less confirmed by experimental evidence (such as the use of worked examples), Rosenshine’s principles originate in process-product research conducted largely in the 1950s-1970s. This research was correlational in nature. Researchers observed classrooms, made notes about different aspects of teacher behaviour and then sought to correlate these behaviours with gains in learning made by students. Rosenshine’s principles therefore reflect what it was that the most effective teachers were doing in these classrooms.

Rosenshine is not a lone prophet of explicit teaching. Thomas Good and Jere Brophy reviewed the same body of research and described these teaching behaviours as ‘active teaching’:

“Students achieve more in classes where they spend most of their time being taught or supervised by their teachers rather than working on their own (or not working at all). These classes include frequent lessons (whole class or small group, depending on grade level and subject matter) in which the teacher presents information and develops concepts through lecture and demonstration, elaborates this information in the feedback given following responses to recitation or discussion questions, prepares the students for follow up seatwork activities by giving instructions and going through practice examples, monitors progress on assignments after releasing the students to work independently, and follows up with appropriate feedback and reteaching when necessary. The teacher carries the content to the students personally rather than depending on the curriculum materials to do so, but conveys information mostly in brief presentations followed by recitation or application opportunities. There is a great deal of teacher talk, but most of it is academic rather than procedural or managerial, and much of it involves asking questions and giving feedback rather than extended lecturing.”

Why am I making this point?

I often find that research that supposedly shows the superiority of problem-based learning or inquiry learning over direct instruction compares these approaches to a form of direct instruction that would not meet my definition of explicit teaching. In a recent series of randomised controlled trials, for example, the direct instruction condition was described like this:

“In traditional classrooms, students copy facts about bone tissues and the names of the 206 bones of the human skeleton that teachers have written on the blackboard into notebooks. They are then tested based on the lectures and material that they have read in textbooks.”

There are other problems with this trial. Even with the low quality comparison condition, the effects of problem-based learning are quite low and the authors do a weird thing where they measure the effect after seven months but then extrapolate that to generate an effect size after four years. This seems to neglect the well-known phenomenon of the effects of teaching interventions washing out over time. If problem-based learning is essentially acting as a placebo then we have no reason to believe there will be sustained effects. Nevertheless, Forbes breathlessly reported this trial as, “New, Strong Evidence For Problem-Based Learning.” It’s not. But I digress.

I think some people wonder whether I am changing the rules to suit my argument. When I point out that explicit teaching is interactive or that it is a whole process and then use this to argue that the control condition in a particular trial is not explicit teaching, I wonder whether some people think I am playing a trick and making up the definition of explicit teaching to suit my argument.

It is therefore worth remembering that I did not make it up. It’s what effective teachers have been doing since at least the 1950s.