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.
I have written for Spiked magazine
I have written for The Conversation:
Some of my writing is also on the researchED website workingoutwhatworks.com
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 learning, Master the mysterious art of explanation, Taking a critical look at praise, Behaviour, Great Scott! Let’s push the brain to its limits, The science fiction that doing is best, Make them sit up and take notice, For great rewards, sweat the small stuff, Where the grass is browner, Stand-out teaching – minus differentiation
On the face of it, what’s not to love? England’s new College of Teaching offers an opportunity for the profession to find its own feet. Instead of being buffeted by political whims, the College can be a strong voice for teachers, offering stability. If it can wrangle some powers away from government – such as the power to sets teaching standards – then the profession can look forward to more stability.
I think that there are three reasons why this argument doesn’t quite work.
The educational establishment
It looks like the College will become a part of the educational establishment. I would define this establishment as being made up of unelected officials with power over some aspect of education policy. I do not include politicians in this and I see fixed term appointments made by politicians – such as the head of OFSTED – as slightly different because they are potentially susceptible to political pressures.
The new College CEO is indicating on Twitter that the College will be a broad church that allows non-teachers to join. The past phrase has been ‘anyone with an interest in education’. We can be pretty certain from experience, and from the scheduling of College events during weekdays in term-time, that these non-teachers – CPD Providers, executive heads, university academics and so on – will end-up directing the organisation.
You might think it is good for power in the profession to be in the hands of such experts and not influenced by politics. Politics is bad for education, right? And isn’t this how other professions are run? Sadly, this does not bode well for teaching and this is because of the following points.
A highly contested space
Teaching standards are not like engineering standards. This is a highly contested space. For instance, I am convinced by the evidence for explicit instruction but others are equally convinced that direct instruction is a form of child abuse. Some support zero-tolerance discipline policies but others think these are… a form of child abuse. What are the aims that teachers are trying to achieve? I think it is imperative that children learn to read in early primary school and that standardised tests or the phonics check provide some useful information about this. Others would prioritise happiness over reading and would see tests of any sort of young children as, er, a form of child abuse.
This post is not about who is right or wrong. I am merely pointing out that there are huge divisions in education and you can’t set these aside.
A tendency towards progressive education
Members of the educational establishment have consistently shown that they favour positions that could be broadly described as ‘progressive‘. This is an international phenomenon. In Australia, for instance, our teaching standards emphasise differentiation yet you would struggle to define this as an evidence-based practice. The evidence is simply not there. Across the world, education schools prioritise projects such as ensuring teachers use ‘ambitious instruction‘ – another set of progressive education practices that appear to be pursued for mainly ideological reasons. And perhaps teachers in the UK have started to forget what happened when OFSTED was last run by the establishment. There was mandated group-work which your lesson observation grade depended upon. Progressive education does not shy away from coercion when it comes to teachers.
We need another way
Due to this history, teaching is not going to make progress in this way. The future instead belongs to grass-roots movements that allow teachers to discuss their ideas without holding official power over them. Facilitated by social media, these teacher-shaped movements have started to form and have opened up a world of new possibilities for teachers to reflect upon their work and represent themselves.
The question is: how far are teachers in England prepared to let themselves be led down the College cul de sac before they give it the boot?
The following is a guest post from Joost Hulshof, A Professor in the Department of Mathematics at VU University Amsterdam. You can read his bio here and he tweets under the handle @joost_hulshof. I have asked him to explain maths teaching reform in The Netherlands.
The Dutch word for mathematics is ‘wiskunde’. We owe the name to Simon Stevin. Wiskunde is what you get in Dutch secondary education. The supposedly highest level of Dutch secondary education is VWO, which loosely translates as PSE, Preparing for Scientific Education. Essentially VWO is the only form of secondary education (high school) that allows you to enter university in the Low Lands. VWO takes 6 years, after 6 years in primary education (following 2 years in Kindergarten). In primary education you don’t get wiskunde but ‘rekenen’, which I would translate as ‘arithmetic’, in accordance with the language switch in Wikipedia (here and here).
Many things have changed since I had arithmetic (rekenen) and mathematics (wiskunde) in school. A first omen of changes to come was when one of my high school teachers, having returned from Utrecht where Hans Freudenthal had delivered his farewell lecture, reported that Freudenthal had predicted that wiskunde as we knew it then was bound to disappear from high school. A worrying statement that I had happily forgotten when I enrolled for mathematics at Leiden University a year later.
Why did I choose mathematics after high school? Because I enjoyed it. What had really struck me in high school mathematics were complex numbers and the first steps in complex analysis from a book co-authored by Freudenthal. This was a special topic in Wiskunde II which was mainly linear algebra and 3D-geometry. There were only 8 pupils (all boys unfortunately) in that Wiskunde II class. Most of them later chose mathematics or physics at university.
The mainstream Wiskunde I was a combination of differential and integral calculus, probability, statistics, and some geometry, especially the study of functions and their graphical representations, I liked it a lot and the calculus required to sketch the graphs was also fun. I did not have a calculator in high school. You learned mathematical techniques and how to apply them. Nowadays we don’t have Wiskunde I and II, but Wiskunde A,B,C,D. It’s a long and complicated story to explain what those stand for.
I don’t remember a lot of applications to real life problems from the calculus part, but Wiskunde I gave you a solid basis for university study in any of the exact sciences, in the same way that rekenen (arithmetic) in elementary school had given you a solid basis for wiskunde (mathematics) in high school. This was thanks to a systematic treatment of calculating with numbers such as integers, fractions and decimal representations, and applications in which physical units were required.
Forty years have passed since I came to hear of Freudenthal’s prophecy. I now know that Freudenthal’s prophecies were plans, and that these plans were not restricted to wiskunde in high school, as rekenen in elementary school was in for a complete makeover as well. Since then rekenen and wiskunde have been redefined and merged into what I and others now call ‘Dutch Reform Math’, with devastating consequences that are systematically denied by the group of school of reformers who were founded and positioned at the center of educational power by Freudenthal. Why Freudenthal did so is for others to discuss. But he did.
Unlike Freudenthal himself, these reformers are mostly not mathematicians and therefore lack the capability of responding to critical observations on the lack of mathematics, be it rekenen or wiskunde, in Dutch Reform Math. What’s worse is that whereas Freudenthal, towards the end of his life, eventually came to face his educational failures, his school perceives a quite different reality, exemplified in a plenary lecture at one of these conferences by Marja van den Heuvel-Panhuizen titled ‘Reform under attack – Forty Years of Working on Better Mathematics Education thrown on the Scrapheap? No Way!‘ It’s still on the webpages of the Freudenthal Institute.
The first thing of MvdHP I read was an article in one of our quality newspapers, coauthored by Adri Treffers, one of the other Dutch professors of arithmetic.
Just like the conference paper it flatly denies the problems created by Dutch Reform Math, but it does offer an opening for a discussion in that it describes a realistic treatment of an exercise (not a problem) that we probably all agree young pupils should learn how to do. The bald problem is 62 − 57 = 5 and it is discussed in a so-called ‘realistic’ context deemed suitable by the professors: a guy stands on a weighing machine with his cat and reads off 62 kg, while without the cat he read off 57 kg (now that’s a realistic context these days). What’s the weight of the cat?
I understand this is an exercise for pupils in Year 5, in which 5 is 5 = 2 + 3, as we start counting the years from Kindergarten these days. So what would one expect from children of age 9 as far as simple subtractions are concerned? Hopefully something that goes beyond what you can do by counting upwards (from 57 in this case). The professors however had something else in their realistic minds and suggested a group discussion about the possibility of 6 or 4 kg as a possible outcome. I’m not joking.
At the time I did not know of the TAL project. I wrote about the books that resulted from this project in Dutch here, submitted to Euclides, the journal of and for the Dutch Society of high school teachers, but it was rejected because of the very topic. TAL is an acronym that refers to intermediate goals (Tussendoelen) and Leerlijnen (‘learning lines’, which translates as educational curricula). I read the TAL-books because I became interested in what had happened to elementary math school curricula, many of which now no longer contain standard topics like long division and calculating fractions with numerators and denominators. These books turned out to be part of the curricula at the academies for elementary schoolteachers. I started reading them under the false assumption that they were just using a different didactical method for teaching the same topics and I was curious to see how they did it. To make a long story short: I then found out they didn’t.
Staff development is a responsibility that should not be taken lightly. Schools have limited time and money available and so there is a moral duty to try to ensure we don’t waste it. Even with the best of intentions, this can be tricky and so I offer a few factors that you might want to consider.
Does the speaker have a relevant academic qualification in the area that she intends to speak about? I wouldn’t suggest this is essential but it is worth considering. I am often critical of education academics but at least they generally recognise the complexity of schools and are less likely to make bold, unsupported pronouncements.
Does the speaker have teaching experience? This is not necessary if she is there to merely inform teachers about psychological principles or what the research shows in a particular area. But if the intention is to promote an initiative that impacts on teaching then it’s helpful to have someone with experience of classrooms.
I would be extremely cautious about a presenter who perhaps has a business background, lacks both teaching experience and research credentials and yet is prepared to make strong statements about teaching methods. The fact that she has worked with other schools in the past is, I’m afraid, no recommendation. Which brings me to my next point.
Where is the evidence?
You should always ask your speaker for the evidence that supports the ideas she intends to discuss. If you are referred to a list of testimonials – “We were delighted at the learning that took place when WhizzBang Solutions visited our school…” – then I would avoid.
Similarly, I would be wary of what we might call ‘argument from success’. Just because someone has run a successful school, it doesn’t mean that she knows why it was successful. Many factors vary from school to school and the ones that a successful leader might point to aren’t necessarily the ones that made the difference.
Ideally, you want evidence that is independent of the speaker but is directly related to the ideas being proposed. That’s a lot to ask for but it can be achieved. Think of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) programmes. These have been thoroughly researched many times and so you can draw on supporting evidence from outside any particular program.
Why do I stress the need for a direct relation between the evidence and the ideas? Isn’t this need obvious?
Unfortunately, education is full of non-sequiturs. Advocates extrapolate conclusions that aren’t supported by the evidence. For instance, research showing that children remember discussions of controversial issues in a social studies program does not support the idea that we need to promote more discussion of open ended maths problems. Instead, you would need studies of maths classrooms; studies that demonstrated improved outcomes for this approach. Even then, we should be cautious – any educational intervention tends to produce a positive outcome because it raises teachers’ and students’ expectations.
The worst kind of evidence that is routinely used to promote teaching methods is evidence relating to the job market of the future. Firstly, any such predictions are highly uncertain – nobody has a crystal ball. Secondly, even if we could identify that a particular attribute will be more sought after in the future, we still need direct evidence that the teaching methods that the presenter proposes will improve our students’ acquisition of it.
It is important that we get the right people into schools to talk to teachers. We probably need to reimagine the process a little. Rather than picturing the guru on the mountain passing wisdom to the masses, a better metaphor might be the senate committee hearing where experts are brought in to provide their evidence for us to consider.
[I suppose it’s worth preempting a possible criticism of this post. Yes, I have stated that we should look at a speaker’s background and yes, elsewhere, I have stated that ideas are more important than background. This is because making a decision on who to invite into your school is an entirely different question to deciding upon the best way to refute somebody’s argument]
There has been a lot of huffing and puffing on Twitter about think tanks, the funding of think tanks and whether this is transparent enough. Policy Exchange has come in for particular scrutiny.
I maintain my broad position that such discussions are largely pointless. It matters far more whether a position is right and can be supported with evidence than it matters who funded the research behind the idea. If you disagree with Policy Exchange’s views on Grammar schools, for instance, it is far better to explain why you disagree than it is to rave on about their sources of revenue.
Firstly, ad hominem attacks of this kind are highly polarising. If you are part of the leftish Twitter subculture that fills my timeline then it can seem extremely damning to suggest that a think tank might be funded by shadowy business people. But this is because you already have a prejudice against shadowy business people. It plays to the gallery. Suggest to an ordinary member of the public that a piece of research has been funded by big business and they are likely to declare, “So what?”
To imagine why, flip it around. Picture someone criticising a think tank for being funded by… the unions! You probably find this to be an unconvincing line of attack because, to you, unions are the good guys who stand up for workers’ rights. Their mission is entirely benign. Yet if you went to a conference full of right-wing political activists then the anti-union argument would play well. They see unions as bureaucracies that milk workers of their hard-earned cash in order to run pet projects or, worse, fund lavish perks for union officials.
And that same conference would probably look quite favorably on big business, with delegates viewing it as a creator of jobs and wealth. Nothing sinister at all.
It’s not that political positioning doesn’t matter. It clearly affects what think tanks choose to research and publicise. But if it leads them into error then it is far better to point out the error because that way you might just convince somebody who doesn’t already agree with you.
But perhaps I’ve missed the point. Perhaps the issue is not that Policy Exchange is probably funded by wealthy business people who have an interest in education and politics. Perhaps the issue is transparency of funding. Can’t we all at least agree that think tanks should be transparent?
Not really, no.
People can donate money to whatever legal organisation they like. Think tanks have no actual power, only influence. If a politician decides to follow a policy formulated in a think tank then we can still vote that politician out of office. The politician is accountable. Yes, politicians are at risk of being corrupted and so we should know their financial interests. They have put themselves in the public space. But why should we know that a particular individual has contributed to funding a think tank? Wouldn’t this just result in the funds drying up as those individuals and companies are subjected to wide-scale tinfoil-hattery from their political opponents?
Sadly, there are a lot of crackpots out there. Even humble bloggers like me have been subjected to abuse – the worst dirt that could be found was that I work in an independent school; something I had already written about on this blog. But I digress.
And maybe that’s the point. By forcing everyone out into the public sphere we will shut down those think tanks funded by large donations from private individuals – the ones we don’t like – and that will leave only those funded by mass movements like the unions – the ones we do like.
I am not arguing that funding positions or lack of openness shouldn’t be mentioned. I’m not calling for censorship. A little context is useful and can help you orientate yourself to the debate. I just don’t think it makes a good basis for an argument. If all you can criticise about an organisation is that it doesn’t publish a list of donors on its website then you have a pretty thin case.
The ideas are far more interesting. And it is in discussion of these ideas that the future direction of education will be won or lost.
Finland is fashionable among educationalists because it is seen as proof that you can have a great education system without neoliberal high-stakes testing and accountability. Finland gained this status on the back of its PISA results and even though these results have significantly declined since the start of the century, Finland remains as popular as ever. Pundits laud its progressiveness.
So if anywhere has avoided exams, it’s Finland, right? Wrong. It’s true that Finland doesn’t have the number of standardised tests that characterise Australia, England or the U.S. but it’s worth noting that students in the academic stream at the end of High School sit a set of six-hour exams. Tim Oates explains:
“As for “no tests” – all Finns understand the importance of doing well in the Finnish Abitur –the university-oriented ‘finishing’ examination taken by 19-year-olds. The academic pathway (upper secondary to university) is considered of higher esteem than the vocational pathway at 16, into which over 40% of pupils go. On scrutiny, the Abitur examinations are just like English A Levels, although pupils may study seven or eight subjects, they only take four subjects – one of these in native language. The other subjects are just like A Levels – six hour, nationally-moderated tests in individual subjects. And these exams have been in place, and relatively unchanged in form, since the end of the 19th century.”
So if Finland can’t have an education system without traditional exams, where can? Is it even possible? What would it look like?
I had an interesting discussion on Twitter about this. Chris Woldhuis was at a conference where Eric Mazur was speaking. It appears as if Mazur made a claim, consistent with previous comments on the topic, that, “Cheating in an assessment is not a problem with the students, it is a problem with the assessment.” I disputed this and Chris and I had a discussion. Chris’s view was that if it is possible to cheat then the form of assessment is not right – we’re not asking students to solve real problems. My view was that any form of assessment is vulnerable to cheating and so I asked Chris for an example of the sort of problem he had in mind. He suggested, “Students run a cafe, make a profit.”
If we moved away from exams in favour of assessing projects of this kind then this would cause a number of practical problems. How can every student do something like run a cafe? Would the cafe be run as a team? If so, how can we be sure that everyone is playing an equal role? Perhaps we don’t really mind whether they are playing equal roles but, if so, how can we form any sort of assessment of the learning of individuals?
You might respond by asking me why I want to judge the students. And that’s a fair call. As a teacher I’m mainly interested in formative assessment – where is this student right now and what is needed for improvement? This doesn’t require us ranking the students relative to each other.
But I’m not the reason that we have formal exams. The Finnish Abitur does not exist to provide formative evidence for teachers. It’s not the teachers that want a summary of individual performance, it’s universities and employers.
If we abandoned examinations, universities would be left with problems such as how to select students for prestigious and challenging courses. In Australia, we have already moved away from Year 12 exams as the basis of entry into medicine. Presumably, these tests don’t give enough information to medical schools and so students have to study for something called the ‘Undergraduate Medicine and Health Sciences Admission Test’ (UMAT) in addition to their other exams.
If we moved to the use of projects to assess high school students then one consequence might be a mushrooming of such parallel tests. How much time would students then invest in running their cafes?
Suppose we took a Stalinist stance and forbade universities from asking students to sit such tests. Instead, we required universities to use the authentic projects completed in school. Would we then have a fair system based upon real and authentic assessment?
If something important like university entrance depends upon your ability to run a cafe and make a profit then the possibilities for gaming this system are endless. Wealthy parents could, for instance, buy a lot of coffee. The authentic nature of the project means that it is not sealed-off from the outside world and so our rich kids could perhaps pay for advice from successful cafe owners, accountants, advertising creatives and so on.
We can extend this to arguments made by Mazur himself:
“Let’s mimic more real life in our assessment practice. If you look at students taking an assessment, they’re set out in rows, separated by a gap and isolated from any source of information. Once you get your diploma, you never face that situation again. At work you can call whoever you want, you can google anything, yet this is how we assess students. So we should let people talk to each other, we should let people work together. We consider it cheating in that setting but not cheating when they are doing their jobs. So why create this artificial environment?”
Why not create an artificial environment? What’s so great about real-life?
It is true that, at work, you can call whoever you want, but if you call someone for advice then you are going to have to pay them. Googling the way to solve a mathematics problem might be of some benefit but it would be far more advantageous to have an expert instructor on the other end of Skype who you can work through the problem for you. So if you can afford it then that’s what you will do. Which is certainly an authentic replication of the inequalities of the real world, if that’s what you want.
Traditional exams are, in fact, far more equitable. Students sit these tests naked of their privilege and have to solve problems on their own rather than have this done for them. No, I’m not arguing that this takes away the advantages of the rich completely. They still have access to learning resources that poorer students don’t have. But I can’t think of a better way of minimising these advantages than with a traditional test.
When you also take account of the fact that exams are subject to less bias than the kind of teacher assessment you would need for a project, the equity case is overwhelming.
Here are some tips for those new to teaching this September
Set clear rules and boundaries
Your first lesson is critical. It is also something that you are unlikely to ever observe an experienced teacher deliver and so it can be hard to gauge. It is worth making your expectations explicit from the start. Take a little time to go through classroom rules and what will happen if they are broken then be sure to follow-through. Everyone will be watching for the first infraction to see whether you mean what you say.
The exact nature of the rules and consequences will depend upon the culture of your school so you must work this out. You need to know both the official policy and what is expected. For instance, there might be a detention system in place that you are not supposed to use. You may choose to use it regardless but you need to know what you’re getting yourself into. Ask some of the old-hands in the staffroom.
Preempt behaviour problems
You may have stated the rules and consequences but it is far better to prevent poor behaviour than have to deal with it. Have a seating plan. Alternate genders if possible because this disrupts social chatter. If you have a row or table of fidgety boys at the back of your class then you’re doing it wrong. Similarly, it took me far to long to figure out that I should spread the equipment around the room at the start of a science experiment in order to avoid a crush around the trolley. Think through logistics.
Have a task that students begin to work on as soon as they enter the room. I am not a fan of lining students up in corridors – get them inside and working. This should be one of the expectations you outline in your first lesson. It works like pickled ginger in sushi – it cleanses the palette, particularly after recess or lunch and signals: ‘now we work’.
One of your rules should be that nobody else talks when someone is addressing the class. If you are talking to the class and a student is chatting then try slowly walking towards that student. Often this will be enough to signal to them to stop. Also try positive reinforcement. Say things like, “Excellent to see everyone on the back row has begun the starter activity.” Praise has had a bad press in recent years – specifically the idea of praising students for their academic performance rather than effort – and yet this kind of positive reinforcement works well. It leads to better teacher-student relationships, subtly cues the right behaviours in other students and adds to teacher authority by pointing out that plenty of students are doing as asked.
Choose who answers the questions
You should ask for responses to your questions from students whether their hands are raised or not. This operates on two levels: it manages attention and it provides useful feedback to the teacher. Students need to anticipate that they may be called upon at any time to answer a question in a class discussion. You can use a randomiser if you like but the key point is that students should not be able to predict who will be asked a question. This makes them pay more attention and avoids window-drift. By forcing yourself to ask a range of students you also get a much better impression of the understanding of the whole class than by talking to volunteers.
Break it down – teaching
Teachers suffer from the ‘curse of knowledge’. We already know or understand the thing we want our students to learn and so it is very hard to imagine not knowing or understanding that thing. This manifests as systematically underestimating the level to which we need to break things down for novices. Even textbooks do this. One exercise you might want to try if you’re a maths teacher is to write out a worked example from a textbook with a space between each line and then write an intermediate step in each space. Once you have done this, ask yourself ‘why?’ as you move from one line to the next. You need to be able to explain the procedure and why it works and there is a good chance that you were never taught the why or, if you were, you have forgotten it. So you need to think this all through in advance.
In subjects like English there is a tendency to ask students to launch straight into complex tasks such as writing. You might try instructing students to write the first sentence of a paragraph on a mini whiteboard. You could perhaps discuss the best responses and collectively write a paragraph on the board. This is likely to surface more about the students’ approach to writing than trying to divine it later from essays when the students are no longer around to talk to.
If you want students to check their writing then you need to model how to do that and then get them to practice this skill in isolation, perhaps with made-up texts. Then, with their own work, build in a specific time for checking. “Right, you need to stop writing now – you have ten minutes to check for spellings, grammar and poor sentences.” Eventually, this process will become automatic but, until it does, students can only really do one thing at a time.
The principle of training one thing at a time flows into subjects such as history: do students need knowledge to write the essay? Then train (and assess – see next point) the knowledge component separately before bringing it together.
Break it down – assessment
When you want to create assessment tasks then the obvious models to follow are standardised tests. However, these are not really designed with teaching in mind. They often consist of complex tasks which are fine for forming judgements of overall performance but are quite poor at diagnosing specific difficulties. If a student is struggling with balancing chemical equations then they need to do 20+ chemical equations questions of increasingly difficulty, not the two or three that you might find on an exam paper. In fact, you might not even identify this problem from a whole exam paper. So don’t be afraid of using ‘inauthentic’ assessments as part of the learning process. These don’t have to look like the finished product. Ignore anyone who tries to pejoratively cast this as ‘drill’.
Plan any group work
Group work raises management problems and is therefore best avoided if you are new to teaching. However, it might be inescapable – you may have to conduct science practicals or your head of teaching and learning might be a big Vygotsky fan who has signaled that she is coming to observe you in the first few weeks. And group work can be highly effective if done well because you leverage peer instruction.
The main enemy of successful group work is social loafing: the tendency of some group members to sit back and let others do the work. This is harder to do in pairs so pairs are a good starting point. If you have to use larger groups then you need to be explicit about what you expect each group to achieve. You also need individual accountability so that everyone plays their part. For instance, you might set-up a jigsaw task where different groups research different subtopics. Let them know that one of the group will be called upon to feed back but don’t tell them who it will be in advance.
Choose tasks that cause students to think about the thing you want them to learn
This may sound obvious. It really is obvious. But this rule is violated repeatedly by even the most experienced teachers. Do a task analysis – what does the student need to do to complete this task? Wordsearches are poor because they can often be completed by analysing letters in the grid rather than by thinking about any academic content. Similarly, cloze tasks – fill-in-the-gaps – can often be solved by simply choosing the only word that makes sense in a particular position. To avoid this, ensure that your list of options contains plausible but incorrect words. This will cause students to think about their differing meanings.
Needless to say, spending 45 minutes writing the title of a poster might keep students quiet but they’re not going to learn chemistry that way. Really.
This advice is partly based on my own experiences but I haven’t just made it all up. There are a number of places to go to read the research that sits behind many of these points. Firstly, I’d recommend my own book which is a snip at a mere $10.00 AUD. These are my recommendations for other readings that cover the research underpinning some of my points above:
I have also written more specifically on classroom management here.
I read an interesting piece by Ben Riley about the decline in enrolments to traditional university-based teacher education courses. Riley’s piece had been prompted by an interaction with Maths Education Professor Ilana Horn and that reminded me of a paper by Horn that I had intended to write about.
Try entering the term ‘ambitious instruction’ into Google Scholar and see what comes back. You will find a whole load of articles with a similar format: A university-based teacher educator makes some adjustment to a teacher education program with the aim of ensuring that new teachers adopt ‘ambitious’ forms of pedagogy. The kind of teaching that this term describes is often not well-defined and no evidence is presented to convince us that it is effective. It is as if these papers are written for a reader who already knows what ambitious instruction is and already believes it to be superior.
Why is all of this left unsaid?
Horn’s paper with co-author Sara Campbell is a classic of this genre. In a wonderfully iterative touch, they have noticed that teacher education programs lack something in the learning-by-doing department and so they’ve tried to re-engineer their mathematics teacher preparation course to make it more experiential, all with the aim of promoting ‘ambitious instruction’.
They are aware that there is a conflict inherent in teaching education students to disdain traditional approaches to instruction and then sending these students to learn their craft in placement schools that use fairly traditional methods. Horn and Campbell suggest a new way of looking at things that values some of what the traditional teachers know:
“…taking the larger view on the cultural context of teaching, we can reframe the misalignment between university methods and the field. Instead of positioning traditional practices as a deficit of the teachers themselves, we contextualize their ubiquity, in part, as a consequence of how schooling is organized. Additionally, we as teacher educators value what practicing teachers do have to offer, even if their instructional methods do not align to the ideal of ambitious practice. For instance, they often have deep knowledge of their students, parents, community setting and time management on the job.”
As you wade through the case-studies in the paper, you catch a glimpse of what ambitious instruction might look like. It has to involve ‘rich’ problems, whatever they are. It seems to require group-work because there is an emphasis on the education students learning how to manage this. Lessons also need to be ‘discussion-centered’ and the notion of ‘engagement’ needs to be redefined to allow for non-academic chat:
“Teachers working in discussion-centred classrooms need to reconceptualize what student engagement looks like in this different setting. For instance, if students are given a modelling problem to calculate which fast food chains’ French fries are a better deal, they will most likely talk about French fries, fast food chains and other related topics in addition to linear equations if they are engaged in the problem. When we broaden the terrain of student learning and give students opportunities for sensemaking, the scope of their talk will change accordingly, leading to different images of “engagement”.”
An education student has an epiphany:
“I noticed that the students talked almost non-stop during the groupwork session. Their discourse switched seamlessly and rapidly between math talk and social talk – even some quiet singing/chanting. I was using the task, social/personal, and behavior identifiers we discussed in our Adolescent Development class to track interactions. After a few minutes, I noticed that the boys continued to make steady progress on their worksheet even as they bantered back and forth. Math talk seemed to break out whenever one of the students had a question or was stuck on the problem. Then other group members would explain their solution or offer suggestions. Just as quickly, the conversation returned to non-math related topics. This pattern repeated continuously. At the end of the hour, the group had stayed together and completed the front of the worksheet. During the Teacher Checkout [a class- room routine], each boy was able to successfully explain his reasoning in problem #3. This made me wonder about the way I code student discourse.”
Again, it is not entirely clear why this is desirable. We might have good reason to at least question this approach. For instance, evidence from process-project research suggests that a teacher orientation towards whole-class teaching and academic time on task correlates positively with student performance:
“Effective maths teachers emphasise academic instruction, and see learning as the main classroom goal. This means that they spend most of their time on curriculum-based learning activities, and create a task-oriented, businesslike, but also supportive, environment. They spend time on academic activities rather than on personal matters, group dynamics, socialising or free time…
Research has found that classrooms where more time is spent teaching the whole class, rather than on letting individual pupils work by themselves (e.g. with worksheets), show higher pupil achievement gains. This is mainly because teachers in these classrooms provide more thoughtful and thorough presentations, spend less time on classroom management, enhance time-on-task and can make more child contacts.”
I think the Horn and Campbell paper is representative of a key area where education schools fail. Researchers working in these schools talk to those already inducted in to the same norms and assumptions while going right over the heads of teachers and others involved in education.
Schools of education must make more of an effort to fully explain themselves and their practices to a wider audience.