This is the homepage of Greg Ashman, a teacher, blogger and PhD candidate living and working in Australia. Everything that I write reflects my own personal opinion and does not necessarily represent the views of my employer or any other organisation.

Read about my ebook, “Ouroboros” here.

Watch my researchED talks here and here

Here is a piece I wrote for The Age, a Melbourne newspaper:

Fads aside, the traditional VCE subjects remain the most valuable

Read a couple of articles I have written for The Spectator here:

A teacher tweets

School makes you smarter

Read my articles for the Conversation here:

Ignore the fads

Why students make silly mistakes


Taking account of context

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In many subject areas, a learning objective can be distinguished from the context in which it is learnt. For instance, if I want to teach students how to start a sentence with a prepositional phrase, I have an almost infinite set of contexts to select from. Students could be engaged in writing a letter to their local political representative, analysing a text, constructing a narrative etc.

Maths and English teachers will be familiar with calls to teach their subject through real-world or authentic contexts. There is a popular view that many of the contexts we conventionally use are somehow fake or artificial and if we focused on students’ everyday experience then they would be more motivated to learn. There are a number of difficulties with such an idea. Firstly, real-world contexts tend to be highly complex and therefore not ideal for learning the first principles of a subject. Secondly, the concepts of real-world and authentic start to dissolve under examination. The late Grant Wiggins devoted some effort to attempting to differentiate authentic from real-world and defining the former.

When it comes to the idea of real-world contexts being motivating, I usually point to an example from David Perkin’s book, Future Wise, where he suggest students could plan, ‘for their town’s future water needs or model its traffic flow.’ This doesn’t sound motivating at all. It sounds really dull.

But real-world versus fake (or authentic versus inauthentic) are not the only axes along which contexts may differ. So, I still think it is worth thinking carefully about the contexts we select. For instance, when we first teach a complex academic idea, we should probably keep the context as familiar to students as possible. That’s not the same as claiming it should be real-world or authentic because it is quite possible to be familiar with a fairy story or with set theory. Familiarity is not a property of the context alone, it is defined by an interaction between the context and the student.

The reason for seeking a familiar context is to minimise cognitive load. This is only going to be useful when the complexity of the new academic idea threatens to overwhelm working memory. It’s not going to be as essential for learning lists of names or labels. By using a familiar context, we minimise the load generated by the context, freeing-up load for the new idea. This also suggests a way forward. If students have mastered prepositional phrases in the context of writing responses to The Wind in the Willows then we are not done with prepositional phrases. Off we go to a new context.

This last point hints at the essentially arbitrary nature of what constitutes a context. For example, if students have mastered prepositional sentence starters, then a teacher could potentially ask students to write sentences of this kind as part of a sequence where they are intended to learn the causes of the first world war. In this case, the prepositional phrases effectively act in the same way as a familiar context and the causes of the first world war are the new idea to be learnt. This may sound like an odd teaching approach but similar methods are deployed in writing programmes such as The Writing Revolution. By mastering the sentence expansion routine, ‘because, but, so,’ students can then use it as an aid to learning new content.

Varying the contexts is an important step in learning a new concept because we know that learning can become locked to a specific context. Students are not clear where the idea ends and the context starts. The context represents the ‘surface structure’ and the idea represents the ‘deep structure’. So, moving from context to context helps students tell the difference because it places the edges of the concept in relief. Craig Barton has developed a maths site that tackles this problem the other way around; cycling students through problems involving the same surface structure but different deep structure.

A recent paper by Florence Lespiau and Andre Tricot explores another way in which contexts may differ. They draw upon the distinction made by David Geary between biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge. Briefly, the former is the kind of knowledge we have evolved to acquire, such as how to speak, and the latter is the kind that has arrived relatively recently in human history; things like learning how to read and write or solve abstract maths problems. We can broadly identify biologically secondary knowledge with the academic content of school curricula – in a sense, schools were invented to impart this knowledge.

Lespiau and Tricot asked volunteers (126 university students in one study and 101 high school students in the second study) to solve logic problems. These follow familiar patterns of deduction such as:

All hipsters have beards.

Jay has a beard.

Is Jay a hipster?

Lespiau and Tricot did not teach participants how to solve the problems so this was not a study of learning, it was a study of performance only. Lespiau and Tricot suggest that logic problems are biologically secondary because humans don’t naturally reason using logic (or ‘system 2’ thinking), instead we tend to make use of various heuristics (‘system 1’ thinking).

They then manipulated the context so that it either involved a biologically primary context or a biologically secondary context. Yet in both cases, the actual content was new to the students. So, for instance, one biologically primary context was dealing with food. Participants were presented with the following logic problem:

‘In a community in Jamaica, if an ugli is picked up red, then it is peeled entirely to be eaten.

In a community in Jamaica, an ugli is picked up red. Is this ugli peeled entirely to be eaten?’

Note that the participants did not have previous knowledge about uglis.

Participants also had to answer similar logic problems about grammar rules that they did not know; a biologically secondary context. For instance, a grammar rule might be, ‘In Quenya, if a strong verb is conjugated to the perfect, then this strong verb ends with -ie’. The authors also manipulated cognitive load by writing some of the problems backwards or asking participants to memorise arrangements of dots.

Despite knowing equally little about the specifics of either context, the participants tended to perform better in the food based contexts. They also found them more motivating. This suggests that biologically primary domains are privileged. Perhaps we have mental modules that are primed for learning biologically primary material. if so, biologically primary content would not load working memory in the same way as biologically secondary content, making for a more pleasant experience and allowing participants to focus on the underlying logic. As part of the study, Lespiau and Tricot asked participants to self-report their cognitive load and, as might be predicted, found it to be lower in the food-based problems.

This may be worth thinking about when designing contexts for learning challenging academic concepts and it adds further weight to the biologically primary versus biologically secondary distinction.

The truth about teaching – chapter list and pre-ordering

In August / September, my new book, The Truth About Teaching: an evidence-informed guide for new teachers, will be published.

As a taster, I thought you might be interested in the chapter list. There’s a Preface and then:

  1. A short history of education
  2. Classroom management
  3. The science of learning
  4. Motivating students
  5. Explicit teaching
  6. Alternatives to explicit teaching
  7. Planning lessons
  8. Assessment and feedback
  9. Using technology
  10. The phonics debate
  11. To be a teacher

There are some sites where you can already pre-order (although there is no photo up as yet and I’m not sure the blurb is quite right):

Australians can pre-order the paperback here

If you’re in the UK then you can pre-order here

Americans and others can pre-order a Kindle version here

I discovered these links by searching myself so I’m not sure when other versions will be up on different sites.


If we wait long enough, they might become self-aware

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The Washington Post have published a piece by Ted Dintersmith, a venture capitalist who has visited schools across America in order to write a book.

There are valid criticisms to make about the American education system and its accountability regime, but Dintersmith largely avoids these in favour of rolling out progressivist tropes with a twist of jobs-that-don’t-exist-yet. As ever, it is presented as if Dintersmith has come up with these ideas himself, rather than having borrowed them from a centuries-old tradition.

Immediately after he talks about the hollowing out of jobs due to technology, he claims to have no axe to grind and no bias to uphold. He then goes on to favour, without much in the way of explanation, hands-on learning and project work and he criticises curricula for having too much content and tests for assessing low-level procedures (I’m imagining things like adding two two-digit numbers together here).

To Dintersmith, innovation in education means embracing the approaches that he likes. By his definition, he is surprised that so many schools are not innovative:

“Free of regulation, you might think private schools would lead the way in innovation, but most are focused on the college application process…”

Fancy that. What a shock. The whole American private school system must be letting down its customers, which seems like a market failure to me. Extraordinary stuff.

Nevertheless, Dintersmith makes one excellent point that was brought to my attention by Mike Salter on Twitter:

It is a good sign that Dintersmith recognises non-experts as a problem for education. If we wait long enough for the gears to grind, Dintersmith and the many others like him might also start to realise that they are non-experts. It’s only a matter of time, I hope.

Inquiry learning

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It is time to return to one of the themes of this blog. Inquiry learning is popular around the world, featuring heavily at education conferences and yet I am a skeptic. I will explain my skepticism and raise some questions that need to be addressed by those advancing a case for inquiry learning.

What is inquiry learning?

Inquiry learning is a process where students are asked to create, find out or discover something when new knowledge, concepts or procedures are first introduced and in the absence of explicit teaching of that knowledge, those concepts or those procedures. It may be scaffolded and so not a ‘pure discovery‘ form of learning. In my experience, the term ‘inquiry learning’ is most often used in science, the humanities and sometimes maths. Problem based learning and project based learning have similar features.

Some of the activities that students engage in under an inquiry learning programme may be identical to those used by teachers following an explicit approach. The difference is that explicit teaching involves fully explaining concepts at the outset, so such activities would come into an explicit programme of study later, as students are beginning to develop some expertise. The key difference is what happens at the beginning.

What’s wrong with inquiry learning?

Inquiry learning gives students too many things to pay attention to at any one time, overwhelming them and leading to less learning than an explicit approach. There is, however, limited evidence that an explicit-inquiry hybrid process known as ‘productive failure‘ can be effective. In this approach, students are asked to solve problems and are then given explicit instruction. I don’t think the evidence is overwhelming for productive failure at present and I am investigating it as part of my PhD research.

Note that I am making claims about the effect on learning of inquiry versus an explicit approach. If we are interested in different effects or are comparing inquiry learning with other alternatives then my claims do not necessarily stand.

For instance, if circumstances are such that the choice is between inquiry learning and no learning at all then inquiry learning is going to lead to better academic outcomes. An example of this might be an online game that tries to engage children in an educational activity at home. Inquiry may also be more motivating than explicit teaching. I’m not convinced that in the long-term, inquiry learning is more motivating than explicit teaching, but I can certainly accept that students may prefer to spend their Friday afternoon conducting a science investigation rather than engaging in explicit instruction on how to balance chemical equations.

A default

If I want to let my wife know that the drains are blocked and we need a plumber then I am likely to directly communicate this fact to her. It is for these kinds of purposes that we have evolved language. There would be no advantage, and considerable disadvantage, to letting her figure-out this fact for herself. True, if I scaffold her learning by dropping hints that the drains are blocked then she might be more likely to figure this out than if I say nothing at all, but it is still not clear why I would do that in preference to directly explaining this fact.

The direct communication of information is a default for humans. If you have ever observed a person attempt to teach for the first time then you will notice that they reach for a form of explicit teaching. What’s interesting about this is that they tend to approach it as if they were explaining that the drains are blocked. And yet the kinds of academic concepts that teachers find themselves explaining are usually more complex and hard to grasp than this. Effective explicit teaching therefore layers in additional levels of explanation and modelling and this is why inquiry learning versus explicit teaching represents a genuine pivot point. On one side we have an approach that gives less guidance – at least to some degree – than a straightforward explanation, and on the other side we have an approach that seeks to add additional layers of guidance, over and above that of a straightforward explanation.

Short circuit

Given the obviousness of the case for explicit teaching, why is inquiry learning popular? Firstly, there is a long history of educational ideas that seek to make learning a more natural process. Nobody teaches us how to move our mouths in order to talk because we figure this out for ourselves. Why can’t academic learning be the same? The answer is that academic learning is unnatural. We have been speaking and listening for perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, giving evolution enough time to help us develop mental modules for naturally picking up language. By contrast, writing, upon which all academic work rests, has been around for only a few thousand years and for much of that time, it has been the preserve of an elite. Evolution hasn’t had time to act and so it is an effort to learn to read and write.

Another motivator is perhaps a wish to short-circuit the learning process. Real scientists conduct experiments, so why don’t we get students conducting experiments? Real historians analyse sources, so why don’t we get students to analyse sources? This ignores the differences between experts, who have vast stores of relevant knowledge to draw upon from long term memory, and novices, who don’t. When a scientist constructs an hypothesis, she is bearing in mind everything that is currently known that is relevant to that hypothesis, what similar experiments have shown, what theory might relate to this experiment and so on. A novice is just making a guess.

Burden of proof

Advocates for inquiry learning therefore need to provide evidence to support their case. It is not simply enough to question the evidence for explicit teaching, given that it is both obvious and a default. If we need to shift to a different form of teaching then we need to know why.

Some will point to the literature on ‘active learning‘. This often involves studies of university students where one group is given straight lectures and the other group is required to interact with the material in some way, perhaps by having periodic discussions with a partner or by answering multiple choice questions. The latter group is not involved in inquiry learning. Rather, this group is being subjected to strategies that will help ensure they pay attention to the material to be learnt.

It may be true, as some argue, that inquiry learning assists in the development of skills that are not captured by typical tests. That’s entirely possible but I don’t think this possibility alone is enough to cause us to abandon explicit teaching, given its effectiveness for achieving academic outcomes. We would need evidence. Where is it? If you reject randomised controlled trials or the PISA data on enquiry and student-oriented learning, then where is your alternative set of evidence that convinces you of the case for inquiry?

That is the challenge for any advocate of inquiry learning. Can you advance your case based on evidence? Otherwise, as Christopher Hitchens said, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

The truth about teaching

A couple of years ago, I wrote an ebook, Ouroboros, about my experience of teaching, some of the things I had learnt and the patterns I had observed. A publisher read a copy of this book and we entered a discussion about writing a real-life, tangible, physically extant, made-of-actual-paper-and-everything book.

That book is The Truth About Teaching: An evidence-informed guide for new teachers. It is slowly emerging into the light and a couple of days ago I received the artwork for the front cover (above) along with a set of proofs.

The book is slated for release in August. I will let you know when pre-ordering on Amazon (or wherever else) becomes available and I will probably write a series of related blog posts. As the title suggests, the book is aimed a new teachers and is basically all the stuff I wish I had known when I started teaching. More experienced teachers may also find it useful and/or interesting because it summarises research into a number of key areas including classroom management and the science of learning. I’ll include a list of chapters in a later post.

School subjected to public shaming given boost by inspectors

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In September 2017, Great Yarmouth High School in England became Great Yarmouth Charter Academy (GYCA) under the leadership of Barry Smith, as part of the Inspiration Trust chain of academies. I have never met Barry, but I have known him for some time through Twitter and blogging. He is a powerful voice arguing for explicit teaching and strong behaviour policies.

Almost immediately, Barry and GYCA were subjected to an online shaming campaign (I won’t provide links to Twitter trolls). School documents were published on Twitter and the minutiae of school policies were pored over by commentators who took little account of context. On the other side of the world, an Australian behaviour expert took the time to blog an attack on the school and on Barry.

No doubt, this is linked to the fact that Barry Smith previously worked at Michaela Community School, another school subjected to an online shaming campaign for its refusal to conform to the expectations of educationalists.

It is now clear that innovative schools like GYCA face constant pressure to water down their approach, even if it is working. Prompted by the online campaign against the school, Ofsted, the English schools’ inspectorate, initiated an unannounced visit.

The results of Ofsted’s visit have now been published and they are a credit to Barry and his team. Some quotes:

“A large number of pupils told inspectors that, prior to the introduction of the school’s revised behaviour policy at the beginning of the current academic year, they often felt unsafe at school. They described ‘dangerous’ behaviour in corridors and during breaks from lessons, including regular fights, and said that abusive language was very common. Pupils explained that, very often, serious disruption during lessons prevented them from learning anything at all. Some said that in the past, they had ‘dreaded’, and in consequence sometimes avoided, coming to school because of these fears. Teachers and other staff told inspectors that they often found it difficult to teach because behaviour was so poor, that they were frequently the target of verbal, and occasionally of physical abuse, and that at times they too felt unsafe.

During this unannounced inspection, all of the large number of pupils who spoke with inspectors said that they now feel safe at school. Pupils moved around the school site in an orderly manner and behaved very politely and respectfully to their peers and to adults. They wore their uniform with pride, arrived at lessons promptly, and settled down to learning quickly. In all lessons visited, learning took place in a calm and orderly environment. Relationships between pupils and teachers were positive, and consequently pupils had the confidence to ask and to answer questions. Pupils behaved well, both when interacting with their teachers and when working on their own. As a result, they worked hard, completing tasks in a focused manner. During break periods, pupils socialised with each other amicably.”

I would suggest that keeping staff and students safe is the first priority of any school.

The report goes on to discuss the falling number of incidents of repeated disruption and severe misconduct. It says that exclusions, although still high, are falling. Apparently, ‘Staff and pupils attribute the improvements to leaders’ introduction of a new behaviour policy at the start of the current academic year.’ This is the same policy that drew such ire from armchair critics. In particular, it seems that GYCA had, and still has to some extent, a problem with attendance, both with students coming to school and with students skipping lessons. In this light, it is understandable that the school sought to keep students in lessons as much as possible as part of the new behaviour policy.

It would be good to think that this will quieten the critics. I doubt that. If being proved resoundingly wrong had ever had an effect on the proponents of flawed educational ideas then we wouldn’t be in the mess we find ourselves in today. No doubt Ofsted will be an enemy now that it has found the wrong things.

For its part, GYCA will need to stay alert. Critics will be looking out for any lever they can pull to exert pressure on this heretic school. But, for now at least, staff and students can congratulate themselves on the end of the beginning and on a job well done.

End note: The report also states, ‘Teachers and pupils told inspectors that in their view, the behaviour policy is applied with due regard to individual needs. Such an approach was evident during the inspection.’ This is why I think it is mistaken for proponents and critics to refer to these schools as ‘no excuses’.


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I remember well the day at the Cavendish Laboratory when the truth sunk in; the enormity of it. As a first year undergraduate, for every single calculation I would make, I would be expected to perform a parallel, often longer, calculation to estimate the uncertainty in the figure I had just produced. Uncertainty is that fundamental to science. Given that all but the most basic treatment of uncertainty is often left out of the school curriculum – probably for motivational reasons – we might even use an understanding of uncertainty as a proxy for a scientific training.

Uncertainty stalks scientists like a black dog on the moors.

The early twentieth century saw uncertainty woven into the very fabric of nature. Rather than uncertainty representing our imperfect knowledge, the new field of quantum physics was intrinsically probabilistic. If we knew everything that there was to know about the universe and we crunched that data on a reasonably large computer, we would still not be able to predict the future.

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle neatly captures this. If we know exactly where an electron is then we can know nothing about its speed and the direction it is moving. If we know exactly an electron’s speed and the direction it is moving, we can know nothing about where it is. In practice we deal in trade-offs; a fuzzy speed, direction and position. This hasn’t stopped quantum physics and its descendants from predicting experimental results extremely accurately and it hasn’t stopped quantum physics from having important practical applications.

If nature is uncertain at this fundamental level then if remains uncertain all the way up. We may not be able to predict the exact movement of individual ink molecules in a droplet, but if we add this droplet to a tank of water then we know that the molecules are likely to spread out and that we would need to wait many times the age of the universe in order for them to happen to clump back together again. This is an example of the second law of thermodynamics and it demonstrates that, without being able to predict the behaviour of individual members of a group, it is possible to make predictions about the group as a whole.

We also see uncertainty everywhere in medicine. There are genes that can increase your probability of developing cancer. And most medical treatments are probabilistic. A randomised controlled trial (RCT) for an antiviral might reveal that taking the drug reduces, on average, the duration of flu or the chance of hospitalisation, but it will never guarantee any outcome in an individual case. A flu vaccine, on the other hand, may reduce your chance of contracting the virus this season by, say, 40-60%.

Education interventions are also assumed to be probabilistic. For instance, Response To Intervention (RTI) is a method for teaching early reading. It posits the use of high quality programs to initially teach children to read with tiered interventions then kicking-in for students for whom the initial approach did not work. This is consistent with the approach of a medical intervention even if, for now, we don’t have the same number and quality of RCTs to draw upon in education.

And all of the above is why I don’t buy the idea that medicine and education have a different ‘ontology’. Consider the following audio comments by Professor Trevor Gale about his book chapter ‘What’s not to like about RCTs in education?’, a paper I discovered via this AARE blog that was the subject of my previous post (I have transcribed the audio myself so apologies for any errors):

“Because in medical science they have a particular view of the world – what is true, what is reality – they draw on a very physical world… the world of education is dealing with the social world… This world operates and can operate differently to the physical world… If we are looking at RCTs, there’s a claim that there is a cause-effect relationship between things, so… if you do xy will happen, and that’s really the test. So, if I inject you with this serum, you’ll lose your chickenpox or whatever you have or it will protect you from getting some strange virus when you are in Africa. So, there’s like that element of certainty that I think, in the social world, there are some things that look like they are certain, but they’re not always and they can change in different contexts… It would be wonderful if we could just say, ‘you teach this, students will learn that,’ and that there is this direct line that goes between the two, but having been a teacher… they know that that’s not always the case.”

There are many valid arguments about randomised controlled trials, even within the field of medicine. But this is not one of them. It is basically a misconception about science and about the role of uncertainty in science and in fields such as medicine. The fact that RCTs cannot predict exactly what will happen to each individual does not invalidate their usefulness in education any more than it does in medicine.

I’ve noticed this misconception before, chiefly in the writing of Gert Biesta, but I am now concerned that it has grown legs and started to wander about the place. It is therefore important that those of us with a scientific background communicate the fact that uncertainty is fundamental to science and that a wholly deterministic relationship is not required in order for an experiment such as an RCT to provide valid and useful results.