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

 


What are you going to do in 2017?

As we stand on the doormat of 2017 and wonder whether we are expected to remove our shoes, it’s tempting to conclude that institutions that are meant to look after us – politics, the media, the rule of law – have somehow let us down. Many teachers will be reaching for placards while others will look on with despair. I do not wish to discourage teachers from being political advocates but I would draw your attention to issues closer to home where your activism has the potential to make a material difference.

The institutions that are supposed to look after the teaching profession have also broken down, if they ever worked properly in the first place. There are accountability procedures that require teachers to do things – such as follow onerous marking policies – that are likely to have no effect on the progress of their students. There are schools of education that don’t adequately prepare teachers for the job. There is a wealth of ‘research’ where you could guess the findings before reading the paper: let’s face it, a poststructuralist who researches something he or she labels as ‘neoliberal’ is not going to find anything good, right?

Yet if we examine the first of these issues – teacher accountability – there are signs of hope. A few years ago in England, teachers were judged by Ofsted inspectors who would observe their lessons and grade them. The practices that these inspectors favoured included group work and minimal teacher talk. So a style of teaching was imposed.

The teacher and campaigner, @oldandrewuk, was prominent in the movement that saw these graded lesson observations abolished. And he did this by researching and writing blogs: something that each and every one of us in the profession has the potential to do. Not only that, he also encouraged others – including me – to persist with blogging and he has created a number of Twitter platforms that highlight teachers’ posts.

It is this kind of activism that creates real change in teaching and makes us all more, well, professional; driving the future of teaching from within.

We have also seen the emergence of the grass-roots, teacher-led researchED conferences. These are cut-price events where speakers voluntarily offer their time and that take place on Saturdays so that teachers may attend. I have been privileged to go to the two Australian events and I hope there will be more here in the future. These conferences host speakers who are teachers as well as those who are academics and they address teachers’ concerns. This weekend saw a live stream of the Amsterdam conference, available to view by anyone with an interest.

Again, through researchED, teachers are taking charge of the profession and setting the agenda.

Contrast this with the traditional, top-down approach to organising teachers, best exemplified by the new Chartered College of Teaching in England. This is an organisation that first tried to crowdfund it’s launch by appealing for donations. After this failed – due to general apathy – it somehow managed to secure vast sums of government funding which it currently seems to have little idea what to do with. It will be interesting to see what it promotes when it finally declares its hand.

One initiative that might just save the College it is its promise to provide free access to journal articles for teachers.

I think that all teachers should have such access but I don’t think they should have to pay to join a club for the privilege. It could be argued that a little knowledge can be a bad thing but, as someone who constantly had to duck and dive to source papers prior to starting my PhD, I would be a hypocrite to not back open access. If it leads some teachers into error then we have the corrective force of all the other teachers with the same level of access to put that right and perhaps offer appropriate challenge.

However, challenge is not always welcome. If you decide to add your voice to the growing ranks of professionals who are debating the issues in blogs, on Twitter and on Facebook then you need to be aware that you may attract some unpleasantness.

I tend to avoid mounting personal attacks but I still get accused of being a troll, usually for being abrupt with people on Twitter. Not only is this ridiculous when you consider Twitter’s 140 character limit, it exposes a double-standard that you may have to deal with. The little guy has to be meticulously polite, hedging every comment for fear of causing offence. In contrast, the establishment figure gets the benefit of the doubt.

So what are you going to do in 2017? Perhaps you could start a blog or get involved in researchED? Perhaps you could create your own form of grass-roots activism (but please, no more 90 minute podcasts)? Perhaps you could create new spaces where teacher professionalism can flourish?

But remember: professionalism is not about being obsequious and agreeing with your betters, despite what they might have you believe. It is about rigorously inquiring into our profession with a view to ensuring that it is founded on a robust set of principles that lead to an effective set of practices.

Do you reckon you can help with that?


In education, is poverty destiny?

Periodically, someone will appear and claim that educational outcomes are not largely due to the quality of teaching. Instead, home circumstances, particularly poverty, play a massive role. 

I understand where this reaction comes from. The No Child Left Behind act in the U.S. seemed to have been based upon the premise that if you provide strong enough carrots and sticks then teachers will somehow figure out how to eliminate educational disadvantage – the ‘motivate the teachers’ hypothesis. 

This approach doesn’t work and socioeconomic reasons are part of the explanation. The other factor is that teacher simply don’t know the best approaches for mitigating disadvantage. It’s not what they are taught at college.

And I use the word ‘mitigate’ deliberately. Neither extreme of this argument represents a rational position. Clearly, teaching cannot eliminate disadvantages caused by social background. Teachers cannot fix poor nutrition or a chaotic family life. Yet teaching does have the potential to reduce disadvantage. Anyone interested in social justice as a practice, rather than a posture, should examine teaching methods in this light. What approaches are best for reducing educational inequality?

I think a key principle is to rely as little as possible on the resources children possess outside the classroom. What does this look like in practice?

At a basic level, we cannot expect all children to know what kinds of behaviours are acceptable and so we will need to directly teach these. Yes, some children will pick up normal behaviours implicitly from being in an environment that models and supports these behaviours but this cannot be assumed.

At an academic level, we should again focus on the agency of the school. An approach to early reading that places heavy emphasis on children taking lists of sight words home to learn is inequitable. So is an approach that hinges on practising reading at home. Instead, children need to be explicitly and systematically taught to read while they are in school

Similarly, the latest Australian craze for Project Based Learning (PBL), which has seen the importation of experts from across the world to advise teachers and schools on the technique, is also inequitable because it relies on the resources that a child can marshal and bring to bear on the project. It is far better to directly teach the key facts and concepts before asking students to conduct open-ended work. 

Those who dismiss the ability of teachers to mitigate social disadvantage are not on the side of social justice. As teachers, we cannot cure poverty and inequality but we can choose the best methods to address their effects.


Deliberately practice what?

A few years ago, while still in the U.K., I completed something called the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) which was intended to prepare me to be the principal of a high school. For this, I had to confect a pressing problem that I was facing in my current work and then an experienced coach asked me lots of Socratic questions over a number of sessions with the intention of drawing the answer out of me. Unlike sports coaching or any other form of coaching I could think of, the coach was barred from providing any advice.

Clearly, this was a bit of a waste of time on everyone’s part and I think it illustrates a key issue: what happens when we value and promote a process without any clear ideas about the objectives of the process.

I was reminded about this when I read a new report by Dean’s for Impact, an American group with the aim of improving teacher education that has previously released an excellent report on the science of learning.

In the new report, Deans for Impact teamed up with Anders Ericsson to make the case for ‘deliberate practice’ in early career teaching. Deliberate practice is something that Ericsson has been researching for a long time and describes practice that is purposeful and designed to maximise improvement. It is based on research into the kind of practice undertaken by individuals who excel in their given field.

Ericsson has worked a lot with sports people. An example of deliberate practice might be improving your golf swing. Many amateur golfers might simply turn up at a driving range and hit a few balls. Deliberate practice would involve knowing your objective – perhaps how far you want to hit the ball – and the specific techniques that you are going to work on today to help reach that objective.

Teaching isn’t golf and this is the problem. What are the objectives? What are the techniques? Both are hotly contested. If I outline a teaching technique that seems to improve student test scores then someone will criticise me for a narrow focus on tests. Some teachers want students to get better at maths whilst others want them to improve their collaborative skills. Some educators think that a skilled teacher should accommodate off-topic conversation. Others do not.

Teaching practices are guided at least as much by ideological concerns about the way we would like teaching to be as they are by concerns about effectiveness. And teacher educators are key in perpetuating these ideals.

I am concerned that a focus on the process – deliberate practice – without a clear shared understanding of the objectives could be a waste of time. Moreover, it could potentially provide a veneer if scientific validity to the status quo. Schools of education can continue to promote teaching practices based upon taste but claim they are being scientific by requiring students to deliberately practice them.

The last few paragraphs of Dan Willingham’s review of Ericsson’s book, ‘Peak’ makes a similar point about the need for agreed objectives and agreement about the teaching skills required to meet those objectives; something that Dylan Wiliam picked up on Twitter:

I am concerned that a focus on deliberate practice places the cart before the horse. I’m sure it can and should be used to improve teacher performance once we have an agreement on what that looks like. However, without such agreement, pursuing it could be a huge diversion and possibly quite harmful.


New evidence on group work

A paper by Retnowati, Ayers and Sweller has recently been published that casts new light on the value of group work. If you have access then it’s really worth reading the whole thing. The introduction contains cogent explanations of a number of areas such as the worked example effect, the borrowing and reorganising principle and even the research evidence for collaborative learning where the authors note the strong positive evidence for effectiveness when certain conditions – such as group goals and individual accountability – are met.

I am going to focus here on the experiments described in the paper. All involved maths and participants were schoolchildren in Indonesia where, apparently, traditional teaching from the front of the classroom is effectively banned by the national curriculum.

In the first set of experiments, students were randomly allocated to one of two conditions. In the first, they studied worked examples, individually and in the second condition they worked in groups. The groups had been established previously and the students were used to working in them. The tasks involved example-problem pairs: on the left hand side of a piece of paper was a worked example and then on the right-hand side was a similar problem to solve. The students were given the final numerical answer to each problem to check their answers against.

The researchers thought that the level of complexity – or ‘element interactivity‘ – might affect the experiment so they created a further division within the experiment. Some students completed simple then more complex examples and others completed complex then simple ones. The complex examples were essentially the same as the simple ones but were expressed as word problems, which meant they required extra steps to first convert them into mathematical form.

After this, students completed a test to see how much they had learnt. This included similar problems to the ones in the task as well as ‘transfer’ problems that required students to apply the ideas in different situations.

The results showed basically no difference between collaborative learning and working individually for the simple-to-complex condition. Oddly, in the complex-to-simple condition, working individually was superior to working as a group. This seems at odds with the research evidence that suggests group work is an effective strategy.

In the second experiment, the researchers decided to only use the complex-to-simple condition due to the fact that this was the one that showed an effect in the first experiment. However, this time they included a comparison group that were not given worked examples and were instead given two problems to solve in place of each example-problem pair. Again, they were given the numerical answers.

This time, group work was more effective than individual work, but only when the students were solving problems without worked examples. This result also indicates that the groups were not dysfunctional – a possible alternative explanation for the results of the first experiment. However, the worked example group still outperformed the problem solving group overall.

It might be the case that worked examples provide all of the guidance necessary to successfully learn and so adding group work to this is unnecessary and potentially distracting. Collaborative learning might be more effective when guidance is lower because the higher cognitive demands of these low guidance tasks can be shared across group members.

This has interesting implications for the classroom – perhaps providing full guidance is optimal but, if we can’t provide this for some reason, group work may be beneficial.

Which, as an aside, gives me the opportunity to raise another point about group work that has been bothering me. We are often advised to use it to do things that a single student could not complete on their own. For instance, different group members might possess different information that they bring together for a task. The point I wish to make is that completing a task is not the same thing as learning from it (see the ‘multiply by three and add 29‘ experiment’). If your brain is totally occupied with doing something then there is little capacity left for learning – this is why a task can make you think hard yet lead to little learning.


Is too much choice stressing you out?

How much professional freedom do you want?

In my first year of teaching science in a high school, I lived with two French teachers. They worked late most nights making card-sorts and various other kinds of activities. It was clear to me that they were having a tough time. And yet I was not doing the same. Why? Because the science department had a lesson-by-lesson scheme of work which set out all of the activities and had resources to match.

Some science schemes of work were better than others. In time, I was expected to contribute to their development as part of my professional responsibilities and I was given one of the sketchier schemes to work on. I also had a little freedom within the constraints of the program. For instance, I developed a ‘two hamsters carrying a ladder’ analogy for refraction that made its way into future department plans.

One weakness of the schemes that I worked with was a lack of an overarching set of design principles. The only imperative was that the students should somehow be physically active in every lesson. If there was no experiment to conduct then they had to do a ‘pseudo-experiment’ where perhaps different written resources were placed around the room for the students to visit and interact with. I’m not sure why we did this.

I was reflecting on this when I read a post on the AARE blog site by Dr Nicole Mockler of the University of Sydney. It makes the case for the teacher as ‘curriculum worker’ and argues that government agendas – such as the national curriculum – have worked against this. The piece is light on research evidence – apart from a passing reference to Finland – and instead focuses on how the wording of the Australian Curriculum has changed:

“The differences are subtle but the shift from teachers deciding how best to organise learning for students to schools being able to decide how best to deliver the curriculum is not just a semantic one.”

Instead, Mockler’s vision places teachers at the centre of making curriculum decisions:

“The role I am thinking of is where teachers understand curriculum work as a complex process involving prioritisation, translation, and transformation of knowledge into appropriate conditions for learning. It is about understanding curriculum work as a deeply creative and productive process that relies on confidence with and command of content; deep pedagogical expertise; and a good understanding of the learners in question. It is understanding teaching as scholarly work, as intellectual work, as knowledge work.”

I frequently see variations of this argument. Many teachers seem to share this view through a process of enculturation and schools of education are probably a part of this. I remember having discussions with my housemates all those years ago and they were simply incredulous about the way the science department worked. For many teachers, the freedom to choose between a card-sort and a role-play, or to choose to teach concept y before concept x, is fundamental to their professionalism.

Yet this kind of freedom of choice doesn’t seem to define professionalism in any other domain. We don’t hear of surgeons staying up late into the evening in order to make-up new and innovative ways of performing the next day’s surgery. Instead, in surgery, professionalism is seen as being up-to-date with the best methods.

You can see why this difference has occurred. The threat of a patient dying is more immediate than the threat of a lesson going badly. Research into surgery is not simple, but it operates on a shorter time-scale and everyone can agree on the objectives. Education isn’t like that. If I conduct a maths activity that doesn’t appear to lead to the students learning much maths then I can always argue that I have developed their collaborative skills or their resilience or perhaps their problem-solving skills. Who’s to argue?

However, I think teachers pay a huge cost for this sort of autonomy. Yes, we tend to feel stressed when we have no control but we can also be stressed by too much choice. Not only do current practices – where teachers often have to plan all of their own lessons – lead to an unmanageable workload as tired teachers constantly reinvent the wheel but we also have to ask how teachers are making all of these curriculum and pedagogical choices. It’s all very well to argue that different students will have different needs but precisely what strategies do each of these needs imply? After all, students have much more in common in the way that they learn than they have differences.

We also know that humans don’t respond well to unfettered choice. This is why some supermarkets have reduced the number of options available on their shelves after noting the success of Aldi with its famously limited range. It turns out that having too many alternatives available can stress you out. We work better under constrained choices. Presented with lesson planning freedom coupled with too little time, it seems likely that many teachers are able to do little more than choose strategies that ‘satisfice‘ i.e. strategies that meet the minimum requirements rather than those that are optimal.

This situation, backed by the culture in schools and universities, is crazy. It burns-out teachers to little gain. I have written before that education needs to be more like a ratchet – where one professional builds and extends upon the work of another – rather than a constantly spinning wheel.

So, should we adopt the policy of my old science department? Not quite. I think we can do better than that. If you look at the research base then there are a few principles of effective instruction that we can work from. Rosenshine provides a good enough summary to use as a starting-point but schools and departments might select their own set of principles.

We then need a system of review, ideally against assessment data, to ensure that we really are improving the plans over time, as well as opportunities for everyone in the department to feed into the planning; a practical and achievable way to utilise professional expertise.

If schools are not doing this then they are letting their teachers down and are contributing to the teacher workload problem.


Why education is like smoking

During my lifetime, attitudes to smoking have changed. 

It was always known to be bad for you. But when I first started to go to pubs, I would come back stinking of cigarettes and would have to wash my clothes. On the dancefloors of clubs, strangers would share smokes in the same way they might share their bottled water. 

Most of my school friends started smoking. We even had a smoking room at my sixth form college (for ages 16-18) where students could have a cigarette. Naturally, this was a much more fun place than the non-smoking common room and it heaved at every break time. 

Why did smoking have such a long, slow death? Why wasn’t it banned from bars and clubs – and schools – earlier? The epidemiological evidence was available throughout this time.

One reason is that we have very poor intuition when it comes to probability. I won’t try to examine the reasons for this but any maths teacher will be aware of how counterintuitive students find the subject. 

One argument that you frequently heard about smoking back in the 1990s – for example, from my smoking school friends – went something like this: “My grandfather smoked 20 a day and lived to 85.”

It confuses the possible with the probable. Smoking is essentially probabilistic. By smoking, you increase the probability of a whole host of nasty things happening to you but you don’t make any of them certain. Some smokers will get lucky. Many won’t.

You don’t hear this argument about smoking so much these days and I think that this is because the public has finally made a shift from pre-scientific thinking to scientific thinking about the subject. I’m not sure what finally did it but it’s taken a long time. The changes in law that we have seen are based upon this new understanding, even if we might argue that bans and restrictions do not necessarily flow from it. These are political decisions rather than scientific ones but they do seem to be underpinned by a better public understanding of the science.

However, the equivalent argument is alive and well in education. 

Education is also probabilistic. You can’t say for certain that a particular bit of teaching will lead to a certain consequence and so you play the probabilities. This happens at every scale from small to large and it is why I argue for a curriculum based upon what has proved useful in the past: that which has endured. This gives us our best chance of equipping students for their futures – in the broadest sense.

Yet we often hear stories about business people who did very well without much of a formal education. I was reminded to of this by a rant that was highlighted on twitter:

I wasn’t aware of who Jack Monroe is but they* appear to be some kind of famous cook. They make a point about practice testing for SATs that may be valid – there are plenty of schools where children are asked to do too many practice tests rather than focus on developing the underlying knowledge and skills that are being assessed (Daisy Christodoulou’s new book is good on this topic).

However, Monroe’s argument is something more than that. They have been successful with little formal education (although perhaps more than they give credit for when we consider that previous generations left school at age 12 or 14).

They are like the 85-year-old smoker. Yes, it is possible to do what they did but it’s not the best way of optimising your chances. For a start, Monroe’s path rules out all of the professions and so anyone following it can forget about being a surgeon or a lawyer. It rules out all those paths that require a university degree. For every captain of industry who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps, I suspect there are far more who went to college.

To me, this kind of thinking suggests that, in the public realm at least, education is still in a pre-scientific stage. This is important because it implies that individuals are not yet empowered to make the best decisions about how education can work for them.

*I understand that this is Monroe’s preferred pronoun 


Slighting knowledge


The image above is of ‘Labradorite’; a rock on display at the British museum. The card above it states that:

“The large polished slab below was presented in 1777 by Reverend Benjamin Latrobe from the Moravian mission in Labrador. According to Inuit legend, the Northern Lights were once trapped in the rocks of Labrador. They were freed by the blow of a warrior’s spear, but some remained – they are actually layers within the rock’s crystal.”

Now let us visit Skipton Castle in Yorkshire. This was the last stronghold in The North for the royalists during the English civil war. They held out impressively before eventually negotiating a surrender, after which the victorious parliamentarian forces ‘slighted’ the castle – they reduced the thickness of its walls so that it could never again withstand the onslaught of cannon.

I think the concept of knowledge has been slighted.

For instance, we often hear of knowledge being obsolete. Pluto is no longer a planet but older textbooks say that it is. To some, this proves the futility of trying to teach knowledge. Instead we should teach students reified soft skills and critical thinking. These will stay current whilst knowledge decays.

But what of labradorite? What is the status of the beautiful idea that it contains The Northern lights? This idea is not true; at least not according to modern science. It has been superseded and yet it is certainly an interesting and perhaps even useful thing to know.

Knowledge is also slighted when it is reduced to a set of disconnected facts or when it is conflated with mere information in such a way that the profusion of cat pictures on Facebook may be used to support the argument that nobody can possibly absorb knowledge at the rate it is now accumulating.

Knowledge is also slighted when automatised knowledge is called a ‘skill’. Think of learning to drive a car. You may or may not have been told why you should make certain actions but, at one time, you were certainly conscious of the need to make them. That is knowledge. The fact that this knowledge had now passed to your long term memory such that you are no longer consciously aware of processing these decisions does not stop them being made out of knowledge.

Slighting knowledge leads us into error. It leads us to assume that certain things cannot or should not be taught or that they cannot be explicitly declared. For academic objectives, these ideas are damaging fallacies.