Welcome

This is the homepage of Greg Ashman, a teacher, blogger and PhD candidate 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.

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Watch my researchED talks here and here

Read my articles for the Conversation here:

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Why students make silly mistakes

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A key flaw in the idea of comparing effect sizes

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I was alerted* to a new paper by Hans Luyten, Christine Merrell and Peter Tymms about effect sizes. Effect sizes get bandied around a lot in education and many will have heard of John Hattie’s figure of d=.40 (0.4 of a standard deviation) as an effect size worth having. However, this is pretty blunt. We know, for instance, that effect sizes may be impacted by a number of factors, including the age of children.

Luyten and colleagues decided to try measuring some baseline effect sizes. In other words, they decided to determine the effect for normal teaching in different subject areas and for different groups of students. The students they chose were primary students in England who primarily attended independent schools and effect sizes were calculated for reading, mental arithmetic, general mathematics and a construct called ‘developed ability’ that included picture vocabulary and pattern recognition. They used a regression-discontinuity approach where very similar students in two different year groups are compared i.e. children falling either side of an arbitrary cut-off date for entry into a particular year group.

The good news is that schooling seems to have an effect. However, the effect sizes varied. They generally became smaller as children grew older. For reading, the effect size shrank from d=.55 when comparing Year 1 and Year 2 to d=.08 when comparing Years 5 and 6. Is this an indication that, once children can decode, reading cannot really be taught? See this Hirsch article for a discussion relevant to this idea.

It is therefore tempting to suggest that, if this is representative of students more generally, a reading intervention in Year 5 with an effect size of d=.30 would be worth having. However, we tend to intervene with struggling students who may in fact look more like the younger students in this study. So what effect size should we be seeking?

I think that it is impossible to say.

The changes in effect size for general maths are less severe but still significant, ranging from d=.47 to d=.27. And this only goes as far ad the end of primary school. What would these look like at secondary?

The evidence is now building. We need to move away from tables of effects such as those produced by Hattie and the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit. Effect sizes will depend on student age and level of advancement in their learning. Claiming that amorphous intervention X will deliver 4 months extra progress is invalid and unhelpful. Instead of comparing effect sizes and hoping they cross an arbitrary threshold, we need to do more studies that compare Intervention A with Intervention B and a control. In the long term, this is the only way we will remove the junk from our data; by comparing like with like.

*Best Evidence in Brief is an excellent email sent out by the Institute for Effective Education in York, England. It’s well worth subscribing to.


Are teachers’ stories believable?

I’m an advocate for teacher voice. I worry about teachers being excluded from the education debate and so I encourage new bloggers and argue against policies that restrict the expression of professional opinions. As a profession, we seem to have little say, with plenty of outsiders wanting to speak on our behalf. My own hypothesis is that this goes back over a century and relates to teaching being a female-dominated profession. Back then, men in authority would not take the voices of women seriously and so worthy male college professors took the floor instead. We’ve never recovered.

And so I was interested in a thread started by Old Andrew on Twitter where he asked about the worst behaviour teachers had experienced that had not led to an exclusion.

Let me make this clear: I see exclusion as a failure. I don’t view it as a punishment – even if it may be experienced that way – but as a protection for the community. Children and teachers need to feel safe in school as a prerequisite for any learning to take place. An anxious child, worrying about what will happen at lunch time, won’t be able to focus on quadratic equations. And I think exclusion is more likely in the absence of firm behaviour policies because more problems will inevitably escalate to this level.

What I’m pretty sure about is that teachers are generally not to blame for exclusion.

Some people objected to Andrew’s tweet. They pointed out that this was not a scientific method of collecting objective data. But I don’t think anyone ever claimed it was. Social media is often used to collect testimonies and hear voices in this way. For instance, the #metoo hashtag has been giving voice to victims of sexual harassment and assault. This is the power of social media. This is what it does.

Others suggested that Twitter simply is not the right place to air such stories. I have some sympathy for this view. Andrew’s thread is certainly confronting. Yet no schools or students are identified and this is clearly an issue of concern to teachers. I’m not sure there are other, more appropriate forums where this could be taken up.

Some remarks saddened me. Among the thread were those making facetious comments. I don’t find anything funny about the events teachers were relating of violence and shame; of teachers being spat at or racially abused; of rape threats.

One critic was Linda Graham. Graham is an Australian academic with an interest in school exclusions whose work has been popularised in the U.K. by the TES. It is interesting to view some of her responses, particularly in a context where the behaviour in Australian schools is a matter of public concern.

Graham commented on the believability of the stories:


And again:


And also made a joke:


I have to admit to being surprised by this. I am used to teachers struggling to make their voices heard but I don’t think I’ve seen an educationalist make these kinds of claims before.


Think tank calls for teachers to be given more free periods

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The Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) has released a report foreshadowing the “Gonksi 2.0” review of how school may best spend any additional money available through new funding arrangements.

As you might imagine, the author, Blaise Joseph, recommends that there be greater support for systematic synthetic phonics. He notes that teachers don’t seem to be properly prepared for teaching phonics by their training institutions and makes the well-known point that phonics in general – and systematic synthetic phonics in particular – is backed by a wealth of evidence spanning English speaking countries across the world.

However, Joseph has two more suggestions. He points to the high level of classrooms disruption in Australian schools and suggests that we need to invest in better training. The educational establishment in Australia certainly have a fingers-in-ears approach to this subject, preferring to focus on the plight of students excluded from schools rather than on making schools safer environments in which to learn, something that might actually reduce exclusions in the long term. Behaviour is a topic that brings out the ideologues, as I was reminded by the U.K. reaction to a recent blog post by Old Andrew where teachers shared stories of some of the worst behaviour they had encountered. These testimonies made a few people ‘angry‘, such is the strength of feeling against anyone who suggests we might have a bit of a problem. We have the same constituency in Australia and so it is going to be hard to move things forward. Insistence on engage-them-into-behaving is probably why we have such an issue with discipline in the first place.

Joseph’s other suggestion is that teachers should spend less time teaching. We have a lot of contact time compared to other countries and this means that we have less time for planning and collaboration. If there is money available then I would suggest that this would be a great use of it, particularly for teachers who are working in a tough context. However, as Joseph cautions, “It is important teachers are not burdened with extra administrative work in lieu of more teaching hours. For example, expecting teachers to prepare lesson plans using templates that are not evidence-based would be time consuming and ineffective.” It would all be for nought if it becomes a box-filling exercise.

Finally, Joseph mentions that investing in ed-tech and smaller class sizes are not supported by the evidence at present.

You might notice that I am credited with reviewing Joseph’s report. I am keen to work collaboratively with anyone who wishes to see a more evidence-informed approach to education. No doubt this will lead some to feverishly conclude something about ‘neoliberal imaginaries’ and all that malarkey. So be it.


Twitter is not like real life and that’s what makes it so important

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You know me from Twitter and blogging but I exist in the real world too. And I existed in the real world, earning a living as a teacher, long before I discovered Twitter.

So I have the necessary perspective to confidently claim that Twitter is unrepresentative of the real world of teaching. In the real world, teachers go to the staffroom and chat about the weekend while drinking instant coffee, before hurtling back to their classrooms to teach. Occasionally an education guru will come down from the mountain and offer sage advice before disappearing in a cloud of croissants.

There is little space within this for debate or discussion. It is generally accepted that training will either be technical or what we might term ‘student centered’, although few will recognise the term or be able to see it as a distinctive school of thought. School leaders and consultants don’t spend much time substantiating their arguments because they generally don’t see the need. Most teachers think, ‘that sounds nice but I’m not sure how I could get it to work’.

Twitter is different. For starters, you have to be a bit eccentric to want to discuss education in your free time. It’s for teachers whose hobby is teaching rather than tending an allotment or collecting porcelain owls. So there’s that.

Then there is the apparent flatness of the forum. Yes, some people might have blue ticks but, apart from this, there is no clear hierarchy. An anonymous Tweeter with 12 followers can ask Dylan Wiliam a question and may indeed get an answer. Anonymity is both a blessing and a curse; it shields trolls but it also allows people to engage in debate even if to do so openly would risk their career.

And it’s all electric. If a consultant, familiar with uncritical acceptance, expresses a view that seems at odds with reality then you can quickly Google it or check other sources. If you wish, you may then tweet back with what you find. You can’t really do this in a staff meeting.

This breaks down the cosy, student centered consensus that exists in schools. Teachers hear about different views and ideologies. They can compare and contrast. Some become mini-celebrities by espousing unconventional views. Which is, in my view, great.

But it causes some cognitive dissonance for those invested in the old consensus. And the way they deal with this is to try to diminish Twitter. “It’s not like the real world of the staffroom,” they claim. “Most teachers are not on Twitter,” they state, betraying their longing for a simpler time.

That’s right. Twitter is not like real life. And that’s what makes it so important.


Education and progress

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I’m not keen on the idea of social mobility. It rests on two assumptions; a stratification of society into superior and inferior layers and a zero sum game where some move up and others move down. I don’t see things that way. Society is not pickled in aspic. Political progressives like me believe that it can be improved in absolute terms. And these beliefs are justified. Diseases that once wrought havoc, even in the most privileged classes, have been defeated in the developed world. Where my ancestors had the choice between shattering physical toil or starvation, their descendants sit in offices, on sales desks, cut lawns, stock warehouses or get by on unemployment benefit. We haven’t reached the promised land but I wouldn’t go back.

So my vision of education is that it should move us all forward, collectively.

Like any other human attribute, intelligence, the raw processing power needed to solve problems and sort information, is unevenly distributed. Maybe some roles do need the outliers. Maybe becoming a Professor of Quantum Mechanics is not obtainable for many of us. And, yes, there will be those of us with cognitive impairments that limit our options. But I don’t buy the idea that the broad mass of kids can be divided into the academic and the non-academic. Virtually everyone can learn to read and grow their vocabulary and so, potentially, there is nothing written that is out of reach. With the right teaching and motivation, I’m also convinced that everyone can achieve quite a high level of competence in mathematics.

The arts give lie to this false distinction between the academic and the non-academic. Supposedly, the liberal arts are academic but the performing arts are not. So what of an actor performing Shakespeare? What’s that? If we take the child who is passionate about drama and assume that she is not academic then we place limits on her appreciation of drama. That cannot be right. If something is worth doing, its worth doing well. And doing something well is always going to be an academic pursuit.

I understand that there are teenagers who are disengaged. I accept that, for some, it might even be better that they go out and work or follow work-related courses rather than stay in school to 18, studying traditional subjects. But I see this as a sign of societal failure rather than of something innate in those children. They may have been let down by a vicious mix of circumstance and schooling. If a child fails to read and write proficiently by the end of primary school then I can fully understand why he might disengage at secondary school. It’s human. If you can’t read and you’re given a geography textbook then you will feel the futility and wish to be somewhere else.

What if we were able to do better? What if we could get more kids reading and writing proficiently? What if we could systematically grow their knowledge of the world far past the horizons of their own experience? What if we had more students competent in basic mathematics? Would they become disillusioned then? I’m not certain, but I think we would see a decrease in the number of those children we think are just not academic.

And yes, I understand that we still need plumbers. But why shouldn’t plumbers be able to appreciate the arts and sciences? You may say that you know a lot of plumbers and none of them have ever expressed an interest in Socrates or Shakespeare or Paleontology. But that’s the point. When you know nothing of something then how can it possibly be your passion? Schools are there to teach children stuff. Some of this stuff is useful, some of it is interesting, some is needed for later learning and some might just spark a lifelong love affair. How can children follow their interests when they don’t even know what they are?

For me, education is preparation for life in its fullest sense. It is not just training for a job. The economy changes all the time, we don’t know where it will lead and we can’t predict that. But if we have more people around who understand fundamental principles of science and art then that has to be a good thing, whether it pays in the economy or in the rich private lives of people. In reality, it is likely to pay in both.

One day, we will stop making assumptions about people based on their skin colour or their accent or their gender and, one day, we will stop making assumptions about whether children are academic or not. This world is for everyone and I believe in progress.


Conjuring motivation, just like that

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I used to do an act when teaching air resistance. I would write ‘A’ on one piece of A4 paper and ‘B’ on another. I’d then say that I was going to drop them from the same height and ask the class to vote for which one they thought would hit the floor first. Whichever one they chose, I’d say I was backing the other. Then I’d screw that one up into a ball and let them both go. I always won.

I’ve never considered if this was motivating. It was intended as a bit of fun. I would only do it with a class I knew well because, otherwise, it’s a risk. You risk implying that you think the students are stupid and some may take offence.

I thought about this when reading Dan Meyer’s latest post. He’s been touring maths conferences, asking maths teachers to take a bet: he thinks of a number between 1 and 100 and they get ten guesses. Each time they get it wrong he tells them if the real answer is higher or lower. The catch is that it’s not a whole number and so Meyer always wins.

I’d groan if someone played this trick on me. But there are many other ways it could go down if a teacher did it in class. Students might conclude that their maths teacher is an otherworldly geek; a definitional pedant. They may be annoyed by the trick because, again, it potentially implies that they are stupid.

According to Meyer, it is intended to build motivation by giving a reason to students for why we might have different categories of number such as natural numbers and rational numbers. This fits with Meyer’s pet theory about maths motivation which is the idea that maths is an aspirin and students need to experience the headache to appreciate it.

If we think about the specifics, what are we trying to motivate these kids to do here? Do we want them to learn the names of different classes of numbers? If so, that’s pretty low level and at best incidental to the maths I’m keen for students to learn. It’s also not hard to convince kids of the need for labels because categorising things is human. And for interest I tend to go with a schtick about infinities of different sizes; the infinity of natural numbers is smaller than the infinity of real numbers and so on.

Do we perhaps think that the trick will motivate students about maths more generally? If so, they’re going to be disappointed when they get to quadratic functions.

Ironically, Meyer’s game seems like a solution in search of a problem.

This is a reflection of a much bigger issue in maths education. Some folks are holding on to motivation for dear life. If you believe in constructivist maths teaching, for instance, then that can be hard to maintain when the evidence stacks up against its effectiveness. So you can rationalise your position by claiming it’s motivating.

But the theories of motivation that these claims rest upon tend to be homespun. They fail to distinguish between a passing or ‘situational’ interest in a specific activity and a long term or ‘personal’ interest in mathematics. You also have to swallow that solving problems is inherently more fun than listening to people explain things. But problems can be frustrating and explanations can be interesting.

To really sort this out we would need to run robust trials. That’s a problem because the literature is full of research where students are asked if they found the new thing interesting. And that’s not robust.

So anyone can grow their own unproven theory of motivation. For what it’s worth, I’m not convinced that you can ensure students develop a personal interest in any subject. That’s because we are humans with independent tastes and desires. However, I believe that the greatest threat to developing a personal interest is a lack of success. I reckon that constantly being hit with the fact that you can’t do something would bum you out. In that case, we need to avoid gratuitous struggle and instead teach maths really well so that our students experience success. That, if anywhere, is the place instructional theories and motivational theories intersect.


The man from Opposite Land

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My daughters have a game. One of them will declare, “Opposite Land!” and from then on, everything that either of them says must be the opposite of what is true. I used to think this was just a child’s game but I am now starting to wonder whether Opposite Land actually exists. I think I’ve spotted one of their citizens doing the rounds of education conferences and he is Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, the organisation that runs the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Today, Mr Scheicher is quoted as claiming, “Actually in China you will find more emphasis on conceptual understanding, on creativity, on those kinds of non-routine skills, than in Australia.” And he suggests that Australia suffers from a ‘crowded curriculum’ with ‘lots of content’.

Really?

I would like to see the evidence to support these claims. I have previously looked at claims about memorisation based on  PISA. The construct that was used to measure memorisation was flawed and seemed to have virtually no relationship to PISA results. Moreover, the idea that Australia’s denuded, knowledge-lite curriculum is somehow ‘overcrowded’ beggars belief.

From his comments, Schleicher’s claims about memorisation seem to be based upon the fact that Australian students do better on the easier PISA questions than they do on the harder ones. If the reverse was true in East Asia then this would be a striking finding but I suspect that East Asian students simply do better on all of the questions.

This is not the first instance of strange pronouncements from PISA. The overwhelming finding from PISA 2012 was that their measure of ‘student-orientation’ correlated negatively with PISA maths results in every country. And the story from PISA 2015 was that the more ‘enquiry-based’ science students were exposed to, the worse their results.

What has Schleicher had to say about this?

Nothing. Nada. Crickets.

It’s almost as if there is some kind of ideological bias that affects the way the OECD report their findings.