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

I have a book out for new teachers (which some experienced teachers have also enjoyed):

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

Watch my researchED talks here and here

I have written for The Australian about inquiry learning (paywalled):

Inquiry-learning fashion has us running in wheel

This is my take on the “Gonski 2.0” review of Australian education for Quillette:

The Tragedy of Australian Education

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

Fads aside, the traditional VCE subjects remain the most valuable

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

A teacher tweets

School makes you smarter

Read my articles for the Conversation here:

Ignore the fads

Why students make silly mistakes

My most popular blog post is about Cognitive Load Theory:

Four ways cognitive load theory has changed my teaching

To commission an article, click here


Has a new study just proved that students like explicit teaching but it’s ineffective?

TL:DR – No

A paper was recently published in PNAS authored by Deslauriers, McCarty, Miller, Callahan and Kestin. I wasn’t going to blog about it, because I didn’t initially think it was of much consequence and Blake Harvard has done a pretty good job here. However, the fact that my brother-in-law alerted me to it should have signalled that this would be a paper with a wider reach than most papers of its kind. Sure enough, it’s since been popping up in my Twitter feed as proof of the effectiveness of constructivist teaching.

In short, groups of university students studying a mathematical physics course were randomised into one of two conditions. In the experimental condition, students first attempted to complete problems in groups before the teacher gave instruction in the standard problem solving methods. In the second ‘control’ group, students were given lectures where they filled in worked examples while the teachers completed them, but where they did no problem solving themselves.

This seems like an odd control condition and it appears that the researchers were aware of this:

“Typical class meetings consisted of chalkboard lectures enhanced with frequent physics demonstrations, along with occasional interactive quizzes or conceptual questions. In the instructional taxonomy of Stains this approach would likely be classified as interactive lecture, with lecturing as the primary mode, supplemented by student in-class activities.”

Why did they not use this as the control? It’s not clear.

The researchers found that the non-interactive lectures were less effective than the experimental condition and they also found that students enjoyed the lectures more than the experimental condition.

Neither of these results is surprising and makes the paper strangely ahistorical. For instance, it’s long been known that making lectures more interactive – even by just giving students ‘clickers’ to answer multiple choice questions – makes them more effective. I suspect this is largely due to the fact that interactivity requires students to pay attention.

This is one of the reasons I have been banging on for so many years about the need for explicit teaching to be interactive. This was a key finding of the process-product research of the 1960s that is summarised by Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. Principle three is “Ask a large number of questions and check the responses of all students.”

We should also not be surprised that students learn less from the condition they prefer the most. This has been a commonly replicated finding since at least Richard Clark’s 1982 paper on the subject which strangely does not appear as a reference. Instead, the researchers appear surprised by this finding. In my book, The Truth About Teaching, and elsewhere, I have regularly used this finding to cast doubt on the effectiveness of giving students choices over the learning process. Student choice is constantly advanced as something close to a panacea that will serve everything from tailoring learning to the individual needs of learners to meeting vague social justice aims.

There are two other points to note about the research. The experimental condition looks a lot like ‘productive failure’ ie students are asked to solve problems prior to being instructed in how to solve them. There is no reverse condition in which students are first instructed in how to solve the problems before practising solving problems themselves. For high element interactivity (complex concepts with novice learners) my own research suggests this would be superior.

And of course the other point for teachers to consider is how this result achieved with elite university students would generalise to a typical K-12 classroom.

What can Australia learn from Ofsted’s school behaviour research?

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Ofsted is the body tasked with inspecting schools in England. One of its roles is to report on behaviour in classrooms and around the school and for much of its history, it’s been pretty bad at that.

Ofsted rarely arrive without notice and so there was always a clear game to play during any inspection. Members of senior staff who rarely left their office would suddenly become visible around the school. Litter and uniform now mattered. A concerted effort was made to contain students who were known to be disruptive.

This was a problem for the teaching profession in England because it led to the vast majority of schools being rated as good or outstanding in terms of their behaviour with inspections instead focusing on meeting academic targets. Teachers knew that this was not accurate, but those commentators who, for ideological reasons, wished to avoid any discussion of behaviour would point to this evidence. It is also the case that, over the years, behaviour problems have been constructed by many academics and schools leaders as being the result of teaching that is not engaging enough or that is not suitably differentiated to different students’ needs and so teachers are uncomfortable volunteering that they have problems managing behaviour. Added together, this situation allowed for the kind of denial about school discipline that is still an issue in Australia today.

This began to change in England when Michael Wilshaw was made Chief Inspector of Schools in 2012. Wilshaw had previously been head of Mossbourne Academy, built on the site of the failed Hackney Downs school. We would now probably describe his style as ‘warm strict‘ and Mossbourne was certainly a trailblazing school when its came to taking behaviour seriously. During his time in charge of Ofsted, the organisation published a report on ‘low-level disruption‘ and this seemed to be the first clear indication that Ofsted were becoming dissatisfied with playing their part in the inspection behaviour game.

This month, under Wilshaw’s successor, Amanda Spielman, the UK government have published a summary of all the behaviour research Ofsted have conducted so far. It is an interesting read. A key theme throughout is that teachers frequently feel unsupported by school leaders in managing behaviour. Reading between the lines, it seems that Ofsted have been trying to address this issue through their inspection regime. It is fairly obvious that a school leader who tells their staff, either verbally or in the form of a written policy, that they must all do X but then does not do X himself or herself or who undermines a teacher who does X, will create a poor environment for behaviour management. Yet this continues to be a recurring motif of many schools.

So what does a better approach look like? It’s very simple. It should be school-wide and consistent and bolstered by effective routines that reduce the need for constant direction. Students need to be actively taught the behaviours that are required of them because it is the students who are most likely to present a challenge who are the ones who are least likely to work this out for themselves. Although the vast majority of students will respond positively to a school-wide system, a small proportion will struggle and they need specific support. This is obviously quite different to suspending the rules for these students. It involves a clear intervention. I would suggest Response to Intervention as a model.

Effective schools also embed their approach to behaviour in values and ethos. It is not a bolt-on. In the phrase used by Katharine Birbalsingh and Michaela, it becomes, “Who we are.”

Clearly, this is just one avenue of largely qualitative research. You may dismiss it if you feel the ideological need to do so. However, if you are school leader looking for guidance in an area in which it is difficult to do experimental research, Ofsted’s body of research may give you some leads.

The right to choose your child’s education

I recently learned that the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights has a few things to say about education.

Under Article 26, it states that, “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”

I wonder what implications this has for parents whose local government school has a lax attitude to behaviour or an impoverished curriculum and who cannot afford to send their kids to an independent school?

Perhaps Free Schools and Charter Schools are a human rights issue.

Rousseauian Nonsense

It was recently announced that UK schools minister, Nick Gibb, was taking over responsibility for early childhood education. I welcomed this with a tweet:

For those who don’t know, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an 18th Century philosopher. His main contribution to education was his work of fiction, Emile, that recounts the education of the eponymous young man by a tutor named Jean-Jacques (which is somewhat ironic because Rousseau gave his own children up to a foundling hospital). Emile is educated with the aim of becoming a ‘natural man’. This education involves no formal teaching. Instead, it follows Emile’s interests and passions, with Emile learning key ideas as he encounters them. Jean-Jacques is a puppet master who carefully contrives situations to push the learning in a certain direction and this is something of a tension in the book: while Jean-Jacques is ostensibly following Emile’s interests, he is working away behind the scenes to manipulate those interests. This is the central tension in all of what later became familiar as educational progressivism.

Very few educators would trace their own philosophy back to Rousseau. Many are likely to have never heard of him. Yet he is influential nonetheless. Early years education is particularly Rousseauian in that teachers are often required by guidelines and regulations to largely avoid formal teaching and follow the child’s interests. For instance, although the guidelines in my own state of Victoria allow for the need for some ‘adult-led’ learning, they suggest this requires that, “Children have some control and input when adults lead the learning… Adult-led learning encompasses those play experiences and other opportunities that are deliberate and planned by the adult as a response to their knowledge of the child.”

Other authorities go further down the Rousseauian path. Early Childhood Australia suggest that, “As early childhood educators, we should resist the temptation to provide… ‘formal’ learning experiences…” Others suggest that formal learning is less effective than learning through play or even harmful. When you examine such claims, they are usually built on questionable foundations. If anything, the evidence points to the effectiveness of formal teaching methods when it comes to developing the foundations of academic skills.

I do not think anyone is advocating the removal of play from the early years setting. If we accept Geary’s theory of biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge then play is absolutely essential to the development of primary knowledge – oral language, social skills and so on. However, it is likely to be far less effective than formal teaching for the development of reading, writing and mathematics. We could argue that these domains can wait. However, this seems like a recipe for magnifying the disadvantage of students who are not receiving this kind of input at home. Much is made of the fact that children in Finland do not start school until the age of seven, but we need to bear in mind that the Finnish language is far more regular than English and around a third of Finnish children can already read when they start school.

In my view, a lot of play with a little formal teaching would strike the right balance.

Interestingly, many people on Twitter don’t think I should have a view. Although my tweet was a criticism of ideas rather than people, many responses to it were of a personal nature.

The main theme of these comments is that I am not entitled to an opinion because I am not an early years teacher*. It even seems as if my opinion is offensive to some.

This is an interesting point and brings to mind two pieces by the essayist, Paul Graham. The first is one I have referred to in the past – How to Disagree. Here, Graham suggests:

“Saying that an author lacks the authority to write about a topic is a variant of ad hominem—and a particularly useless sort, because good ideas often come from outsiders. The question is whether the author is correct or not. If his lack of authority caused him to make mistakes, point those out. And if it didn’t, it’s not a problem.”

In this spirit, I would invite anyone to share their opinions on secondary maths teaching. In many cases, you are probably going to be more right than some of our supposed maths teaching experts. If you’re wrong, I will happily point out why you are wrong. Deal?

The other Graham essay is a discussion about how, in every society, there are some things that are true but that it is not acceptable to say. I think this may apply here.

Finally, this is not a new phenomenon. I started blogging and tweeting in 2012 and, at that time, anyone who criticised the progressivist-inspired orthodoxy in the bureaucracies that ran secondary schools or trained teachers would be told that they were attacking teachers, even though teachers were often the ones most unhappy with the orthodoxy. The outrage has subsided over time as people have tried out new ideas. I suspect the same will happen with early education.

*The tweet about what to put in my PhD is from an academic who is, according to his Twitter bio, ‘researching responsible leadership, values-led school development, theory and practice of dialogue’. Comments about my status as a PhD student happen surprisingly often and I can only read them as an attempt at invoking the academic hierarchy in order to put me back in my box.

Using Ashman’s taxonomy

Yesterday, I suggested a slightly frivolous replacement for Bloom’s taxonomy. Today, I am going to take it a little more seriously. Does such a taxonomy have anything to say about how we should approach teaching or the curriculum? Possibly.

The taxonomy is based on Geary’s distinction between biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge. It makes clear that biologically secondary knowledge rests upon and co-opts biologically primary knowledge. In addition, I have tried to incorporate ideas from cognitive science popularised by Dan Willingham and others that suggest that capacities such as critical thinking and problem solving are domain specific and rest upon both domain general primary knowledge and domain specific secondary knowledge.

So what does this mean for teaching? I would suggest that most of the time it means this:

We can typically assume that students have the required biologically primary knowledge because they will usually pick this up as part of normal development. The available evidence suggests that models that start with applications of knowledge and then only cycle back to discovering, looking-up or having mini-lectures on the required knowledge as and when required – models such as inquiry learning, problem-based learning and so on – are less effective than those that explicitly teach required knowledge from the outset. That’s why I suggest that we should usually start with knowledge building.

One exception would be training relative experts to apply knowledge they already possess in slightly different ways. In this case, the knowledge-building is already done. This is equivalent to the later stages of a teaching sequence that starts with knowledge-building.

Another exception would be students who do not reach mastery through initial teaching. I have been keen to promote the Response to Intervention model as an alternative to popular conceptions of differentiation. Response to Intervention involves screens that will identify students who have not mastered the content and a tiered approach that starts with whole-class teaching at Tier 1, proceeds to intensive, small group teaching and Tier 2 and then individual intervention at Tier 3.

There are some aspects of biologically primary knowledge that probably cannot be directly taught, such as means-ends-analysis for problem-solving. However, specialists such as speech pathologists often work on improving skills that bridge the primary/secondary divide and that most young people acquire through typical development.

I am not an expert on such interventions, but I did learn a little about Developmental Language Disorder when I co-authored a piece for American Educator with Pam Snow. Young people with Developmental Language Disorder often misunderstand certain cues or say things that are inappropriate. We give an example:

“Imagine the child who, on being introduced to a distant relative for the first time, asks, “Why have you got hair growing out of your nose?” Most families have amusing, if sometimes excruciating, stories to tell of toddlers whose still coarse pragmatic language abilities meant that an alarming level of candor was used in a social situation. Such blunt honesty can often be laughed off when it comes from a 3-year-old, but it can cause serious social consequences if the speaker is 9 or even only 6 years old.”

Although understanding the social context around speech is a primary ability, presumably it can be explicitly taught to students who lack this understanding. Usually, such an intervention is likely to take place at Tier 3 of the Response to Intervention model, but it could conceivably happen at Tier 2 in a sufficiently disadvantaged school where a significant minority of students present with such difficulties.

The model below attempts to map Response to Intervention to the taxonomy. It assumes that Tier 2 includes more intensive knowledge-building and less application than Tier 1 and that biologically primary deficits are addressed at Tier 3:

Clearly, any attempt to impose a generic model on different subject domains is always going to oversimplify, but is it still useful? I would be interested in your thoughts.

Ashman’s Taxonomy

The cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy was developed in the 1950s as a guide to assessment before many recent advances in cognitive science. It was then revised in 2001.

The intrinsic problems with the taxonomy are that it implies both a order to these different objectives and a commonality between, for example, analysing a graph and analysing a poem. The extrinsic problem is when others have tried to use the order of the taxonomy to imply that some objectives are superior to others:

This is rough because it leads to the kind of professional development sessions where teachers are told that they are asking too many lower order questions and they need to ask more higher order ones.

Let’s squish this down into something that perhaps better aligns with what we now know.

We know, for instance, that applications such as critical thinking and problem solving rest on a foundation of relevant domain knowledge. The schemas held in long-term memory probably do not distinguish between knowledge and its application in any meaningful way. However, it is possible to conceive of teaching approaches that would neglect either sufficient knowledge-building or sufficient application and so it is perhaps a meaningful distinction for teachers. Where knowledge is lacking, we need to cycle back from application and build the relevant knowledge base before returning to application. That’s what the curly arrow is intended to show.

However, this only deals with what David C. Geary would term ‘biologically secondary’ knowledge –  cultural knowledge created recently in our evolutionary history that we have not evolved to acquire such as reading, writing and doing mathematics. All biologically secondary knowledge co-opts what Geary terms ‘biologically primary’ knowledge – knowledge that we have evolved to acquire such as speaking and comprehending our mother tongue or following basic social norms. So let’s add that:

This shows the importance of biologically primary knowledge as a foundation for biologically secondary knowledge. It also implies that if biologically primary knowledge is lacking then we need to fix this.

Bucking the trend – Part II

It would be pretty silly, would it not, to point at a society very different to Australian society and say, “These guys do well in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) so let’s copy what they do.” Unfortunately, that’s about as sophisticated as much of the discussion about Finland has been. We simply cannot know whether anything we identify about Finnish education, or anything that Finnish educators highlight as a cause of their success, is the reason for the relative difference in performance of Finland and Australia.

And while the example of Singapore aligns far better with my own particular biases about what good education looks like, I would fault any similar approach that swapped out Finland as our object of affection and replaced it with Singapore (like that would even happen, but, you know).

Instead, the better comparison is to examine trends and variations within systems (and PISA have worked hard to make such data available, as I have written about before). This is what is so interesting about the graph in Part I of these two posts. Yes, I can see there is a trend and that’s what makes those schools that are bucking that trend so interesting. Perhaps we can learn something from them.

However, in order to learn from outlying schools, there needs to be some variation. If every single school in a state requires teachers to issues learning styles assessments and differentiate according to learning styles, we can draw precisely no inferences about the utility of this approach from a comparison of the performance of these schools. Fortunately, we have other evidence to draw upon in this case. The problem arises when we wish to draw inferences about the kinds of complex real-world approaches that schools tend to adopt – those large, messy policies that bridge research, experience, local conditions and inspiration.

That’s when introducing controlled variation to a system can help. No, it will never prove a cause-and-effect relationship, but it can enable us to make a few more tentative inferences. This is aided when performance information is made publicly available. In Australia we have the MySchool website that is set-up for the very specific purpose of informing parents about local schools. The UK government makes data analysis more easy. For instance, at the ‘compare school performance’ website, you can download spreadsheets full of progress data. This has not yet been updated for 2019.

However, you still need the variation. You need schools to be pursuing different approaches so that you have a chance of learning something about those approaches. In the UK this seems to have been aided by greater school autonomy and the Free Schools movement. In his recent post for the campaigning group Parents and Teachers for Excellence, Mark Lehain notes that a pattern is starting to emerge where those schools that combine a ‘warm-strict’ approach to behaviour with a knowledge-rich curriculum are appearing as outliers in the data. Once the 2019 data is available, we can assess this more systematically.

I would like Australian State and Federal politicians to reflect on how we may introduce more planned variation into our own state education systems and how we might learn from the natural experiment being conducted in England. After all, England and Australia have far more in common with each other than either does with Finland or Singapore, so there is a good chance that promising approaches identified by variation within England will also be promising here.