Featured

Welcome

welcome


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 written two books:

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

Ouroboros – an ebook

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

Advertisements

The value of project work

Embed from Getty Images

I am not a supporter of project-based learning. If the goal is to learn academic content and skills then project-based learning is a poor way of achieving this. When compared to explicit teaching, a less guided and less structured approach is inefficient and leaves too many things to chance. With many items to attend to at once, it overloads working memory.

Moreover, project-based learning has the potential to widen achievement gaps. While some highly able students, often with parental support, will produce truly amazing results, students with fewer internal and external resources will tend to focus on things they know about, such as the quality of presentation or the application of trial and error rather than the relevant science. This is why, when advocates promote project-based learning, they tend to introduce you the two really smart kids who came up with a cure for malaria and not the many who struggled to finish their poster.

Some make the claim that project-based learning enhances generic skills such as critical thinking, creativity and problem-solving. It is a very widely held misconception that such generic skills exist. The evidence suggests that they operate far more like properties of expertise in a particular domain (see e.g. here and here). A student who knows a lot about the Second World War can think critically about it and a student who knows a lot of physics can solve physics problems. Any generic component – like the critical thinking heuristic to ‘look at the issue from multiple perspectives’ – may be useful, but is relatively quick to teach in the context of the relevant domain. You don’t need to spend weeks on a project ‘developing’ it.

However, it would be sad if this logic drove projects out of the school curriculum entirely. The issue is with learning being based in projects. Projects can be used in other ways that genuinely add value.

When learning is not the objective

School is not all about academic learning. It can be deeply satisfying to spend three Thursday afternoons seeing something through from start to finish. Many of us have felt that sense of satisfaction when we successfully complete a project in the home. We can say, ‘I did that’. At the end, students can take home their bird box or replica iron-age brooch or map of Transylvania and show their parents.

A project of this kind can provide a respite from academic learning which, whatever our intentions, will sometimes necessarily be a hard slog. It can also provide opportunities for students to excel and it will be something they remember. So, skilfully structured in a way that all students can successfully complete something, projects may play a motivational role.

Projects as a complex performance

Complex performances are an inherent part of the academic curriculum. Students in upper high school will typically demonstrate their mastery of a liberal arts domain by writing an essay. This essay will be a synthesis of their writing skills and the knowledge they have acquired across the domain.

Projects are an alternative way of synthesising this knowledge. By teaching the relevant domain knowledge in advance, we are less reliant on student prior knowledge and parental input. For instance, at the culmination of a unit on The Romans, students might design their own Roman town or do a research project about a famous Roman.

There will still be differences in the quality of the projects, just as there would be in the quality of essays. When compared to project-based learning, the advantages are clear. We can assess knowledge prior to completing the project component and so, even if the project flops, we can still know that students have learnt a lot about the intended domain. We have also levelled the playing field so that all students have some relevant prior knowledge and are therefore more likely to use it than to resort to focusing on superficial aspects of the task.

I would add a final touch. As students display their final projects, part of the assessment process should involve a brief spoken question-and-answer session. If students know in advance that this will take place, you reduce the risk of them copying and pasting stuff that they cannot talk about.

Pendulum

Projects can be a valuable part of a knowledge-rich curriculum. They can be motivating, they provide an alternative model of a complex performance and their lack of a ceiling allows highly able students to demonstrate exactly what they can do. In expressing scepticism about project-based learning, we should not let the pendulum swing so far that we lose all the benefits that project work can provide.

An Interview with Nick Haslam

Nick Haslam is Professor of Psychology at the University of Melbourne. I recently read his influential paper where he introduces the idea of ‘Concept Creep’ and so I sought an interview with him.

1. In your paper, you discuss concepts undergoing ‘vertical’ and ‘horizontal’ shift. Could you briefly explain what you mean by this?

My argument is that concept meanings can expand or ‘creep’ in two directions. Vertical creep occurs when a concept’s meaning extends downwards to capture less severe phenomena than it did previously. Let’s say psychiatrists decide to relax the criteria for diagnosing a mental disorder so that people with milder variants of the condition, who previously did not meet the criteria, are now diagnosable. Another historical example is the concept of bullying: originally it was only applied when intimidating behaviour was repeated, but now people often identify a single instance of such behaviour as bullying. A third example is the concept of trauma, which once referred to extreme, life-endangering experiences but now extends to much less severe events. The common thread here is that the concepts have come to include milder, less severe phenomena.

Horizontal creep, on the other hand, occurs when the meaning of a concept broadens to include quite different phenomena, even if they are not less severe. For example, psychology researchers who study child abuse increasingly use that concept to refer to child neglect as well. Psychiatry’s concept of mental disorder, as set out in the successive editions of the DSM, has expanded to include whole new domains of mental disorder. For instance, learning disorders were not included in the DSM until 1980. The concept of bullying has expanded outwards to include forms of shunning and exclusion that were not covered by the original definition, which emphasized active forms of intimidation.

In essence, vertical and horizontal creep involve extending concept meanings downwards and outwards.

2. You link concept creep to a possible loss of human agency. Can you explain this link?

There is some interesting work on ‘moral typecasting’ carried out by social psychologist Kurt Gray and colleagues. The basic idea is that when people make judgments about harm they tend to see perpetrators as moral agents (people who have moral responsibility and are capable of doing good or evil) and victims as moral patients (people who are vulnerable to being wronged and capable of suffering). Gray’s key finding is that judgments of moral agency and patiency are inversely related: we tend to see perpetrators of harm as incapable of suffering (moral agents, not patients) and victims as lacking agency and responsibility (moral patients, not agents). In extreme forms, perpetrators are typecast as unfeeling pantomime villains and victims as helpless and passive innocents.

Concept creep is all about expanding the range of people who are seen as being harmed. It essentially defines more people as moral patients and victims. If moral typecasting theory is correct, then concept creep should be reducing their agency at the same time as it increases their patiency. If we broaden the concept of bullying, for example, we define more people as victims and extend our concern and sympathy to them, but we may also be reducing their agency by seeing them – and encouraging them to see themselves – as lacking agency.

3. That’s interesting. In education, there is something of an ongoing debate about the role of punishments such as detentions and exclusions. Some urge the abandonment of ‘punitive’ approaches on the basis that many behaviours are caused by disorders and are not the free choice of the individual. Others are concerned that a lack of negative consequences will harm the development of personal agency. The phenomenon of concept creep would appear to bolster the case for the former by expanding the terrain covered by disorders such as Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Do you think that’s an accurate analysis and what may be the positive and negative consequences?

I think that’s mostly an accurate analysis. The idea that attributing a person’s problematic behaviour to a disorder diminishes the person’s perceived agency is consistent with what I write about concept creep. According to the idea of concept creep, the historical expansion of concepts of harm can diminish the agency of the people who are newly defined as harmed while also increasing the concern people feel for them. So if some people are stretching the definitions of Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder so the diagnoses are being used more loosely than they once were, it is no surprise if they also see more classroom behaviour as caused by the disorders and not by the agency of the children themselves. The idea of concept creep doesn’t take a position on whether the expansion of harm-related concepts is overall a good or bad thing. It just suggests that there may be costs as well as benefits. In theory, benefits might include sparing some children inappropriate or ineffective punishments that are based on an inaccurate belief about their capacity to control their behaviour, and finding more suitable professional interventions for them. Costs might include failing to provide some children with effective means of changing their disruptive behaviour, based on the mistaken idea that they have no control over it, as well as any adverse effects that keeping disruptive students in class might have for other students. In other words, there are pros and cons to underdiagnosis and overdiagnosis, and finding the Goldilocks point – where the costs and benefits are optimised – is best left to educational experts such as yourself.

However, I don’t think this is all about creep. Even if  two people had the same definition of Conduct Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder and agreed that particular students warranted a diagnosis, they might still differ in whether they think ‘punitive’ discipline is desirable or undesirable. In my view, having one of these diagnoses does not mean that a child has no capacity for free choice or self-control, just that these things need strengthening, and one way to do that is to show that disruptive behaviour has adverse consequences. And (call me old-fashioned) I also think the learning environment for other children in a class is a relevant consideration. So I don’t think this issue is entirely about concept creep. It’s also about our beliefs on the best ways to modify behaviour.

4. How has the idea of concept creep be received by your academic peers?

It has been quite well received. The article that introduced the idea has been cited quite a lot in the last two years and has been very widely read. I’ve received a significant research grant to study the phenomenon. Having said that, psychologists often aren’t especially interested in history, and because the idea of concept creep is about historical change in word meanings many of them see the phenomenon as incidental to what they do and what they care about. The critical evaluations I’ve received have generally been politically motivated. Although I took great pains in the article to argue that concept creep has benefits as well as costs – it’s partly a sign of moral progress even if it has a downside – some American critics seem to see concept creep as a reactionary idea. By showing that harm-related concepts have expanded and by proposing that this expansion may have mixed blessings I am somehow taken to be opposing that expansion and resisting social progress. In fact I am quite neutral on creep. I am neither for it or against it: I just want to document it, understand it, explore its consequences and form a balanced assessment of its implications.

A huge thanks to Nick Haslam for agreeing to be interviewed

Is it time to ditch ‘Differentiation’?

The following is based on my recent researchED talk and was written for the CEM Blogsite where you can find the whole article.

I suspect I would struggle to find a teacher who has never heard of ‘differentiation’. Exhortations to differentiate are ubiquitous in schools and from school leaders.

But what do we mean when we use this term, what does the evidence say about it and just why has it taken on such totemic importance?

Continues here

The Cassandra Insight

Embed from Getty Images

Scott Morrison, the new Australian Prime Minister – pay attention – was on the TV news channel. He was not lying. He was saying things he believed to be true, but he was exemplifying a problem.

Standing next to him was Dave Sharma, the newly preselected liberal candidate for Wentworth and someone who thinks that teachers are, “underemployed, working hours closer to three-quarters of a regular full-time job.”

Morrison had pushed for a female candidate in Wentworth – the liberals have a huge problem with gender representation – and the media knew it. So the assorted reporters were asking him about this. In response, Morrison kept repeating two lines. The first was that he wanted to see more women candidates and the second was that he wanted a excellent candidate in Wentworth and Dave was an excellent candidate.

It did not matter what the reporters asked, they got these same repeated lines. No doubt Morrison had constructed these talking points earlier with his media manager in order to, well, manage the media. I don’t know what that is meant to achieve but it certainly had the effect of making me feel frustrated. ‘Answer the question!’ is a polite way of paraphrasing my thoughts.

You know who wouldn’t do this? Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Pauline Hanson, Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Ask them a question and they are likely to answer it. Their answers will not always be coherent or particularly well thought-through, but they will tell you exactly what they think.

I believe that this has been a major factor in the hollowing-out of the centre of politics. I believe that a centrist politician who said what he or she thought in a pretty unfiltered way would be a vote winner. I believe it is time to treat democratic electorates like adults, show them the messiness, admit the complexity and say, “I can’t be sure this is the right solution but I reckon it’s worth a shot.”

When I make this point in the pub or supermarket, or to random passers-by in the street, they don’t get it. Everyone believes that politicians need spin and media management. Everyone thinks it is necessary in order to get elected. But, you know, Donald Trump!

That’s why I call this my ‘Cassandra Insight’. It’s one of the few things I am very certain about and yet nobody believes me.

I think there may be some as yet undiscovered psychological mechanism that makes us dislike attempts to manipulate us and that means we prefer the straight-talking eccentric to the smooth-talking phoney.

Why make this case in an education blog? Well, every so often someone suggests that followers of evidence-informed approaches to education should be a bit more savvy: we should think a little more about the art of persuasion; we should media manage our message.

Wrong. Stick to saying what you think. Build it and they will come.


Update:

https://twitter.com/davesharma/status/1042040296647688192?s=21

We need better experts

Embed from Getty Images

I believe the following:

1. Every child has the right to an education.

2. Every child has the right to be educated with their peers in a regular classroom. This right must be balanced against the rights of the teacher, the student and their peers to be physically safe, and the rights of the student and their peers to be educated.

This seems like a reasonable position to me and one that experts in child development could help teachers with. A child who might not learn in a regular classroom may, with appropriate intervention, be able to do so. A child who might pose a danger in a regular classroom may, with appropriate intervention, cease to pose such a danger. For example, having clear and consistent classroom routines and expectations and clear instructions and guidance will harm no students and help many of the most vulnerable. We should research and apply the best approaches.

Teachers need knowledge and resources to do this. There is no conflict here and teachers and experts should be teaming up to solve these complex problems and jointly push for the resources to do so.

This is not exactly what is happening.

Unfortunately, many experts take a rights-based advocacy approach to inclusion that lacks nuance and asserts absolutes. We are told that all behaviour is communication and is the result of an unmet need. We are told that problem behaviour (it is not clear whether this is all problem behaviour – more later) is caused by disorders (which are sometimes described as disabilities). Any attempt to apply a negative consequence for poor behaviour is therefore discriminatory. Exclusion, both from school or internally from a given classroom setting, is seen as punishment and so is also discriminatory.

Some disorders are of obvious explanatory value and point to treatments, such as developmental language disorders. However, it is worth bearing in mind that the logic of behavioural disorders is sometimes rather circular and lacks explanatory power:

  • This student is persistently defiant and oppositional
  • This is because he has oppositional defiant disorder
  • We know he has this disorder because he is persistently defiant and oppositional
  • I am concerned about the expansive medicalisation of human behaviour in this way. I think people behave in a variety of ways for a variety of different, complex, human reasons.

    Note that it is the experts themselves who have introduced these concepts of disorders and disabilities into the discussion about inclusion. What teachers experience is a variety of presenting behaviours. However, we must be careful in taking on this idea of disorders as a root cause of problem behaviours.

    Firstly, it is clear that the vast majority of children with a disability pose absolutely no threat at all to the safety or learning of other students.

    With this in mind, how would we characterise the situation involving students who commit sexual assaults against other students? This happens a lot more than we may care to think. Recently, some parents were interviewed anonymously for the TES in England. They claimed that their daughters were placed back into a classroom with boys who had abused them, with the explanation that the boys had a right to an education. This strikes me as very wrong, but you can see how teachers might think they are applying inclusive principles.

    When I raise this as an inclusion issue, I am told that I am defaming disabled people. But I am not the party who has decided that inclusion is all about disorders and disabilities. It is the experts who have done that. Whether you want to call it an inclusion issue or not, we have a problem with these behaviours and we need to know what to do about them. As far as I am concerned, sexual abuse may be nothing at all to do with disorders or disabilities.

    It seems that there are two distinct possibilities (accepting the answer might differ for different cases).

    1. Sexual assault sits outside the framework of behaviours that are caused by disabilities and disorders.

    2. Sexual assault sits within the framework and is an example of when we balance the rights of peers against the rights of a student to inclusion in a regular classroom.

    I make the assumption that no child should sit in a classroom with someone who has sexually abused them or who is likely to do so in the future and so I assume that exclusion of the abuser from that classroom is appropriate (although please feel free to make the opposing case in the comments).

    If sexual assault sits outside the framework, then what are the criteria on which this judgement is made? When advocates for inclusion make statements such as ‘all means all’ are they applying this only to the proportion of students who we can identify as having a disability (‘all’ is then misleading)? If so, does that mean there is no obligation to include students whose behaviours are not related to a disability, of which there may be a significant number? How does this then fit with those same advocates seeking to eliminate all exclusions, as many of them appear to do?

    If sexual assault does sit within the framework and is likely to be linked to a disorder or disability of some kind, then is this not an example of where ‘all does not mean all’ and where we relax our commitment to inclusion? If so, what other cases would this apply to? What about a child who repeatedly bites a classroom assistant, or a child who bullies and intimidates their peers? Again, how can this be reconciled with eliminating all exclusions?

    It is as if experts want to make broad, sweeping statements of principle without paying too much regard to the details. Such statements are relatively easy to make and to understand. But classroom teachers live and work in details. We need experts to help us with the details or the experts are frankly not much use to us. A good start would be for experts to acknowledge the reality that internal and external exclusions are sometimes necessary and appropriate, even if they think the overall levels are too high.

    Alternatively, rather than engaging with teachers, experts may seek to impose on the profession by campaigning to mandate reduced exclusions rates or other statutory requirements. Such an approach is likely to be counterproductive because teachers will still be left with all those messy details to address and the same knowledge and resources that they currently possess with which to address them.

    When I’ve lost my sense of humour

    I often wake up early. Sometimes, I notice that I am exactly the same man as always but with one key difference, I have lost my sense of humour.

    That was today.

    I am worrying about Australia and the next steps for the evidence-informed education movement. At other times I might ironically chuckle when I read of yet another attempt to impose 21st century skills on us. I might even take heart that a major newspaper has given voice to critics of this move. But right now, it just feels bleak. I can’t help having this nagging feeling that the people involved don’t even really know or understand the counterarguments: that they think we are just luddites who see it as a matter of taste rather than us having fundamental criticisms of whether these skills can actually be taught at all.

    And I feel I must take some responsibility for that. It’s partly my fault that the message isn’t out there.

    Have we stalled, Australia? Where to next? What’s the plan?

    I could use some ideas here.

    Concept Creep


    I am currently reading The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s book based upon their influential Atlantic essay from 2015. It is a fascinating book, but I want to focus in this post on a reference in the book to a 2016 paper by Nick Haslam of Melbourne University. I wish I had read this paper before now because it would have informed my forays into discussions about psychological conditions.

    Haslam makes the case for ‘concept creep’. He outlines six negative ‘human kinds’ or concepts that may be applied to people: abuse, bullying, trauma, mental disorder, addiction and prejudice. These are necessarily fluid because they are clearly socially constructed (although Haslam does not use this term).

    In each case, Haslam demonstrates how the concept has undergone both a ‘vertical’ and a ‘horizontal’ expansion. A horizontal expansion is when the term comes to apply to new, qualitatively different examples and a vertical expansion is when it comes to apply to milder, less severe examples than was originally the case. For instance, trauma initially involved physical injury before the term expanded to encompass a distressing event outside the range of usual human experience such as being tortured or participating in a war. This definition explicitly excluded events that are distressing but within normal human experience such as suffering bereavement. Later understandings of trauma have now come to encompass these events. So we see a horizontal shift from physical wounding to psychological wounding and then a vertical shift to encompass more classes of psychological distress.

    Bullying used to have to involve children and be repeated. Now it can involved adults in the workplace and can be a single incident. Haslam goes on to demonstrate analogous shifts in the other human kinds. It is also important to note that many of these shifts have involved a movement from objective appraisals or appraisals of intent to subjective ones. Judgements of bullying and prejudice are now based more on the perceptions of those on the receiving end than on objective measures or assessments of the intent of the perpetrator.

    Haslam remarks that others have noticed this concept creep within specific domains and have tended to put forward explanations that sit within those domains. For instance, some have argued that ‘political correctness’ might be the cause of the expanding definition of prejudice. Yet, given that an almost identical process of conceptual creep is occurring across these quite different human kinds, it seems reasonable to seek an overarching explanation.

    After discarding a few possible explanations, Haslam alights on two. The first is a ‘Darwinian’ process that sees successful concepts colonise new territories. Scholars noticing the power of the bullying literature of the 1970s, for instance, may, in a crowded marketplace for ideas, have sought to apply it to new situations in order to make a novel contribution to the field. Given that psychological disciplines tend to focus on negative concepts, this could account for why it is negative concepts that have undergone such as shift. This seems like an attractive model for understanding the phenomenon.

    Haslam also notes Steven Pinker’s argument that there has been a decline in all forms of violence over time and that this has corresponded to an ever increasing sensitivity to harm. All of these human kinds represent forms of harm and so this could explain the expanded definitions.

    Concept creep is not necessarily a good or a bad thing. A greater sensitivity to harm may enable us to enjoy a safer world. We no longer have to tolerate ‘office politics’ because we can identify it as bullying and seek to eradicate it. However, Haslam notes some potential negative effects of concept creep and I am struck by his concerns about human agency:

    “A possible adverse looping effect of concept creep is therefore a tendency for more and more people to see themselves as victims who are defined by their suffering, vulnerability, and innocence, and who have diminished agency to overcome their plight. The flip-side of this expanding sense of victimhood would be a typecast assortment of moral villains: abusers, bullies, bigots, and traumatizers.”

    We also have to be aware of the way that concept creep will lead to increased rates of incidence. For instance, if we note that the number of diagnoses of a specific mental disorder have increased over the last few decades, we should not conclude that this has some external cause. The most obvious explanation is that we have simply applied this diagnosis to cases that it would not have been applied to in the past.

    There are clear implications of Haslam’s analysis for education because we use these human kinds as part of our discussion. If the definitions are not stable then we need to know.