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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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Read my articles for the Conversation here:

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Why students make silly mistakes

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Fact-checking Misty Adoniou on the phonics check

Misty Adoniou is a regular columnist for The Conversation in Australia. She is an odd choice for this role because she is more of a campaigner than an impartial communicator of academic findings. And she was in full campaign mode this week as she railed against the proposed phonics check for Year 1 students.

Let me be clear; I am in favour of introducing this check. It has been 12 years since the publication of the results from Australia’s national inquiry into the teaching of reading and the recommendation that teachers use systematic and explicit teaching of phonics. Yet it’s hard to see the impact of this on the ground. One hint as to what is happening can be gleaned from the various advice documents that schools produce for parents. These tend to caution against the ‘sounding out’ of words and instead recommend strategies such as guessing words from context or from pictures. These approaches are associated with whole language teaching rather than phonics – Ken Goodman’s ‘psycho-linguistic guessing game‘ – and have been singled out for criticism by a U.K. review of the evidence

Another worrying piece of evidence comes from one recent study which suggested Australian teachers lack knowledge of the key concepts required for systematic phonics instruction. If this is the case then they have been badly let down by the schools of education that should be teaching this stuff.

However, it is hard to tell exactly what is going on in the classroom. Year 3 NAPLAN reading comprehension tests are too far removed from initial reading instruction and conflate phonics knowledge with vocabulary and general knowledge. That’s why we need a check. Such a check has been in place in England since 2011 and this is where Misty Adoniou’s article enters the picture.

What would a general reader, unacquainted with the research, make of the following statement?

“…so far, the phonics test in England has not improved reading comprehension scores.”

You might assume that reading comprehension scores have been flat. But that would be incorrect. According to a 2015 review, there have been improvements in the key test of reading comprehension that takes place at the end of Year 2 during this time. These improvements began prior to the introduction of the check. However, there was a general awareness that the check was on its way and the review notes that some schools involved in the pilot had already started to change their phonics instruction. Can anyone prove that the improvements are due to the check? No. Is it highly suggestive? I think so.

Adoniou also seems to be a fan of ‘analytic’ phonics. This is a whole-to-part approach where phonics knowledge is taught through the analysis of words rather than discretely as in the ‘synthetic’ approach. The phonics check aligns better with synthetic phonics. Adoniou claims:

“There is no evidence that one phonics approach is better than the other. In England, the US and Australia, there have been major inquiries into reading and all have concluded that systematic and explicit phonics teaching is a crucial part of effective reading instruction. But none have found any evidence that synthetic phonics approaches are better than analytic phonics approaches, or vice versa.”

Here is a quote from the Australian inquiry that she is referring to:

“Notwithstanding these assertions, findings from the seven-year study undertaken by Johnston and Watson (2005a,b) clearly indicate the superior efficacy of synthetic phonics instruction and are worthy of mention here…

Three training programs were conducted with 300 children for 16 weeks, beginning soon after entry to the first year of formal schooling. For 20 minutes per day, children were taught either: (a) by a synthetic phonics program, or (b) by an analytic phonics program, or (c) by an analytic phonics plus phonological-awareness training program.

At the end of these programs, the synthetic phonics taught group were: (a) reading words around seven months ahead of the other two groups, (b) were reading around seven months ahead for their chronological age, (c) were spelling around eight to nine months ahead of the other groups, and (d) were again performing in spelling around seven months ahead of chronological age. The synthetic phonics taught group also read irregular words better than the other groups, and was the only group that could read unfamiliar words by analogy.

So Adoniou must have missed that bit. She also seems to have missed the words at the end of the 2017 U.K. phonics check such as ‘model’ and ‘chapter’ because she thinks it, “only tests single syllable words”.

There is a serious debate to be had about this issue. I think a phonics check would help but it is no panacea. I am particularly concerned about the possibility that we hang too much on phonics and neglect the development of children’s general knowledge; the latter being critical for later reading comprehension. Note that England has a far meatier national curriculum in place than our watery and degraded effort.

However, we need to have this debate in an informed way. Misleading arguments don’t help.


An unnatural act

In a recent researchED presentation, I likened human history to a single 24 hour period. If, very roughly, anatomically modern humans emerged at midnight then reading and writing were invented at 11.24 pm the following evening. However, for much of the 36 minutes of its existence, literacy was the preserve of a few elites. Mass literacy did not emerge in Europe until 11.59 pm.

Reading ability is therefore something that evolution cannot have acted upon. There simply has not been enough time. It is an unnatural act. Yes, it clearly must draw upon natural abilities such as speaking, listening, recognising shapes and so on, but there is nothing natural in reading itself.

This helps explain what would otherwise be a paradox. Children learn their mother tongue largely through immersion with only a very small number experiencing difficulties. Yet attempts to teach reading through immersion – the ‘whole language’ approach – are far less effective than systematic, explicit instruction in letter-sound relationships (see here, here and here). If reading were the same kind of ability as listening then we might expect these abilities to require the same approaches. Once we recognise that they are different, we can account for the need for different methods.

This is now a key idea in Cognitive Load Theory. As development of the theory progressed through a number of experiments, explicit approaches to teaching academic concepts seemed to be far more effective than implicit ones. This is a problem if you assume that learning academic content is like learning to speak. However, once we recognise that these are different kinds of abilities, the findings make more sense.

David Geary coined the term ‘biologically primary’ to describe abilities like speaking and listening, labelling academic abilities such reading as ‘biologically secondary’.

As Geary explains

“Human language in one form or another is found throughout the world, but the ability to read is not (Pinker & Bloom, 1990). Reading should therefore be considered a biologically secondary cognitive domain.”

Despite the evidence, many people are still committed to whole language or its derivative, ‘balanced literacy’. The latter is meant to include some phonics teaching but this has to be embedded in context and immersion in ‘real books’ also forms part of the process, presumably due to ideas about reading being a form of natural development. And this is despite the evidence suggesting that embedding phonics is less effective than systematically teaching it (see p199 onwards here).

That’s why it is important to get the idea of biologically primary and secondary abilities out there. It is also why there is a cottage industry developing in trying to knock it over. I have even heard people claim that John Sweller, the originator of Cognitive Load Theory, had misunderstood Geary. But the quote above could not be clearer.


Eliminating anxiety in schools

There are valid arguments against standardised tests. They have the potential to distort the curriculum by focusing teachers on only those subjects that are tested. And they can be unfair – reading tests and even maths tests often introduce world knowledge as a confound, discriminating against those from less advantaged backgrounds. Despite these worries, I think that standardised tests are a necessary evil. In an educational world full of bad ideas they at least provide parents with reasonably objective data.

Yet little of this plays out in popular discussions of standardised tests. Instead, the argument against them tends to be that they induce anxiety in students. I’m not even convinced that this is true because skilful teachers will prepare kids for such tests and present then in a way that should minimise any anxiety. Nevertheless, let’s take this at face value and let’s assume such tests do cause anxiety. What then?

Firstly, if education is partly preparation for life then it’s worth pointing out that life has its anxious moments. If kids have no anxious situations to overcome at school then how will they overcome them as grown-ups? In the adult world, overcoming anxiety can have positive, life-changing consequences. Think of attending a job interview, asking someone out, giving a speech or buying a car or a house. Imagine having to avoid all of these.

It is also worth noting that tests are not the only source of anxiety in schools. I asked Twitter the following question:

Bear in mind that my followers are often teachers and are perhaps a little more bookish than the general population and so the responses are going to be a little biased.

Anxiety caused by teachers being violent or hostile or racist is certainly something we should eliminate. Violence, intimidation and bullying from other students, sometimes centred around clothing and accessories, are also key sources of anxiety and I would want to eliminate these too. However, I note that teachers and schools that try to turn around such negative cultures open themselves up to public shaming as we saw last week with a school in the U.K. You would have thought that those who are most concerned about kids’ mental health would generally welcome rigorously implemented respectful behaviour policies, whatever issues they have with specific details.

I am more ambivalent about some of the other things my question suggests we would need to eliminate in order to remove all anxiety from schools. It seems that we would need to abandon all sports, from physical education to swimming. We might also want to make schools single sex because the opposite sex causes anxiety. However, girls would then presumably be in contact with more ‘mean’ girls so that wouldn’t help. We would have to get rid of public speaking and somehow remove the need for toilets, or at least surveil or patrol them constantly. Even then, there seems the possibility of anxiety in all human interaction. So perhaps kids should be homeschooled and never leave the house.

Clearly, people look back on their school days with a mix of joy, regret, fondness and shame. Sometimes there is anger. If we were serious about making schools better places to be then it would be faintly absurd to start with the issue of a few infrequent tests. There are more fundamental problems to address, ones that are too often overlooked, and we should be supporting those schools that seek to address them.

Instead, I believe the ‘tests cause anxiety’ trope is calculated to recruit parents to a cause that has deeper ideological motivations. It is far harder for educationalists to make the case that they wish to experiment with curricula and teaching methods that won’t lead to children learning much English and maths and so they want these tests removed in order to hide that fact.


Do students learn more from who their teachers are?

Do students learn more from who their teachers are than from what they actually teach them? This is an appealing idea to many of us and I can see its attractions, particularly if, like me, you constantly question the effectiveness of your teaching. It’s pleasant to think that whatever knowledge and skills students pick up, you will still be delivering on a more fundamental aim of education by modelling respectfulness and integrity.

And it is anecdotally appealing. I do clearly remember specific things that my teachers taught me but many people on Twitter claim not to. Instead, it is the care and warmth of their teachers that they remember. There is no reason to doubt their sincerity so do these claims support the idea that, ultimately, it is who the teacher is that is most important?

No.

Our episodic memory is our memory of events that take place in our life – episodes. Our semantic memory is our memory of ideas and concepts that are organised in relation to each other – think of a concept map rather than a filing cabinet.

Over time, concepts become tightly associated with related concepts and only very loosely associated with the specific episodes in which they were learnt. You may remember studying chemistry with Miss Jenkins, that you found it dull and that your friend Asif kept making surreal jokes. You may also remember the structure of an atom. You probably won’t recall that Miss Jenkins taught you the structure of an atom.

This is compounded by the fact that much of what we learn ends up being latent; sitting just under the surface. In other words, you probably could not stand up and give an impromptu chemistry lesson. However, if you started reading an article that referred to these concepts then it would start coming back to you. This puts you at a great advantage when it comes to understanding what you read compared to someone who never learnt these concepts at all. And yet you are likely to be under the illusion that you have forgotten all of the chemistry you were taught.

And so we have the popular myth that we forget everything that we are taught in school and it is therefore the skills or personal qualities that we develop that are more important.

Clearly, teachers should model respectful, caring, professional behaviour. So should architects, engineers, lawyers, doctors and all manner of other professionals; especially when their work brings them in contact with young people. If nothing else, they are likely to be more fondly remembered when they do. Yet nobody would argue this is the fundamental purpose of being an engineer or architect, and with good reason.

The higher purpose of teaching – its moral purpose – is teaching. Once we come to terms with this, we can get on with the task of ensuring that our teaching is the best it can possibly be.

 


Some thoughts on turning around tough schools

Near the end of December, 2000, I was sat in the staffroom listening to my head of department speak. After he had finished his introduction, he invited me up to the front where he produced a flak jacket which he insisted I wear before handing me a plank of wood with a large nail driven through it. I would need these at my new school, he explained.

I was moving to a school with a bad reputation in order to take up the post of second in science. I wanted to make a difference – I think we all do – but some colleagues had strongly counselled me against the move, suggesting that it was a bridge too far.

A term after I joined my new school, at the age of 25, I found myself head of science following the departure of the previous one. I had to manage a daily draft of science supply teachers because we were never fully staffed; once, I had to send one home because he smelled of alcohol. My school’s reputation meant that it was hard to get good teachers to work there. That was the kind of situation we were dealing with.

Not only was behaviour extremely challenging, at times it was unsafe. I had a lab on the ground floor with a door one side and a fire escape door the other. One student who never seemed to go to lessons would interrupt mine by opening the door and shouting, “Where’s that brer?” On one occasion, I opened the fire escape door, probably to ask some students outside to go to their lesson, when a heavy iron retort stand missed my head by a few centimetres. It had been thrown out of the window of the lab above.

I remember teaching a lesson about the kidneys in which I turned around to indicate to the class where they are located. One student – let’s call him Jack – shouted out, “We don’t want to see your fat arse!” When I reported this to my line manager, he commented, “Oh, Jack will be fine once he gets to know you. And anyway, I wouldn’t describe your arse as fat; I would say it’s quite pert.” – this was clearly a very long time ago. Needless to say, nothing ever came of the incident just as nothing ever came of the time when a child in a balaclava threw a lump of ice at one of my teachers.

In those days, I would have appreciated a reporter writing a piece on the school and how it was failing its students, the vast majority of whom just wanted to learn – were desperate to learn – but who were not being provided with the right environment in which to do so. An article in the local paper might have acted as a circuit breaker, forcing the school to make changes. But there never seems to be any interest in such stories. A school quietly gains a poor reputation and middle class parents figure out that it’s best to send their own kids to the school down the road. That is that.

Nevertheless, over time my school gradually improved. I argued strongly for a tougher and more coherent discipline policy. We gained a new headteacher and the school was rebuilt under the private finance initiative, one result of this being a site that was far easier to manage. We set-up senior staff patrols during lesson times – “Is everything to your satisfaction, Miss Brown?” – and a centralised detention system. Any student who refused to attend detention would be picked-up and escorted to see the headteacher by one of the assistant headteachers. By this stage, I was an assistant headteacher and so I was involved in the process, as I was with the limited number of students who we ultimately excluded for violent or persistently disruptive behaviour.

It was far from a ‘no excuses’ system but it was much improved from when I first started working there. We seemed better able to recruit and retain good staff and this was probably because of the behaviour policy. And improvements showed in a rise in Key Stage Three results – before these tests were abolished – and in GCSE results. I cannot prove it but I am personally convinced that these gains were due to the tightened behaviour policy; teaching methods hardly changed the whole time I was there.

This is not just meaningless data. This is not evidence that you can dismiss as ‘neoliberal performativity’. These were real kids with ambitions and hopes whose prospects were better because of what we had achieved. Those children who were desperate to learn where now receiving more of what they deserved; quality teaching in lessons with far less disruption.

That is why I am wary of hate campaigns against schools that attempt to improve behaviour. You read some pretty lurid stuff on Twitter and I certainly don’t agree with every policy I read about. However, I have learnt to be cautious. On investigating one claim that a school was forcing students to wear signs around their necks to shame them for not having correct uniform, I discovered that the truth was a little different; once a student had been spoken to about uniform, they were given a lanyard to wear in order to prevent every other members of staff from hassling them about it. This is nothing other than a perfectly rational way to manage the situation.

Yet there are plenty of armchair warriors lining up to condemn schools, and headteachers in particular, for strengthening their behaviour policies. Often, these commentators haven’t taught for as much as five minutes in a challenging school or are people who have moved on from teaching. They delight in explaining how personally rebellious they are – oh, please – and, at their very worst, they throw around Nazi jibes.

I have a challenge for these critics. They should get together and try and turn around a tough school themselves. They can deploy their ideologies as they see fit, putting them to the test. And we will all watch from the sidelines and judge their efforts.


Sir Ken Robinson’s talents

Following my recent post on Ontario’s maths curriculum, Tunya Audain left a comment linking to an interview with Sir Ken Robinson. Apparently, Robinson is in Ontario and so he was asked what to do about the decline in maths scores.

I tend to agree with Robinson’s call for curriculum balance. It would be a shame if the response to standardised testing was one that squeezed out the subjects that are not assessed. I don’t think any teachers are arguing for this but it is still a real problem.

E. D. Hirsch has claimed that standardised reading tests cause many schools to endlessly drill children in reading comprehension strategies at the expense of history or science; a myopic approach that leads to the ‘fourth grade slump‘ in reading performance as children lack the general knowledge needed to make inferences at this level.

However, I’m not convinced that Robinson hits the mark by focusing on dance. While dance should have a place in the curriculum, it seems eccentric to suggest that it will have an effect on maths performance.

Yet Robinson seems to be referring to research when he states:

“[There are] a number of schools where kids who were taking dance programs improved in all their other work, including in mathematics. Their math scores went up.”

I’d love to see this research but there is no link or reference. The best candidate seems to be a study that Pedro de Bruyckere wrote about here. It certainly seems to show an impact on maths but a number of different things varied between the two conditions. Factor in a possible placebo effect and it probably doesn’t tell us much.

Nevertheless, dance in the curriculum is valuable in its own right and will not cause harm. Unfortunately, Robinson’s ideas about talent are potentially harmful.

“I know people who succeeded in all sorts of occupations who didn’t do particularly well at school.”

I have no reason to doubt this statement but is it meant to be a serious comment about education? For instance, there are many people who have survived a serious illness and gone on to be successful but that’s hardly a recommendation for serious illnesses. The effect of education is clearly unpredictable at an individual level yet few would doubt that a good education generally improves the odds of a successful life.

And education is not just a means to an economic end, it is worth something in its own right. It is good to know some history and literature, whether you will go on to use this in your career or not. I think the world would be a better place if our captains of industry knew a little more about it.

The reason Robinson makes his statement about successful people is to segue into his talent theory of human potential. It sounds quite benign: everyone has a talent for something and it should be the job of schools to ferret this out. Yet the effects of talent theories are not benign; they are vicious.

If you believe everyone has a talent then you can believe that it is something other than a talent for sport or music or maths or even all academic subjects. It is a talent theory that led my primary school P.E. teachers to split the boys in two for football, coach the talented half and let the rest, including me, play and referee their own game unsupervised. I was interested in football. I played it every break and lunch but I soon learnt that I was not talented at it. I now realise that if I had been taught properly, and if I had practised what I had been taught, then I would have improved. I may never have joined Manchester United but I could have derived some pleasure out of the game.

Take the example of Paul McCartney. Robinson had a chat with him:

“I asked him if he enjoyed music at school. And he said he didn’t like it at all. I said, “Did your music teacher think you had any talent?” He said, “No, not at all.” George Harrison was at the same school, and the music teacher didn’t think George had any talent, either. Well, I think it’s a bit of an oversight. You’ve got half the Beatles in your class and you don’t spot anything.”

Again, this is a case based upon people who have achieved extraordinary things. It’s not clear how well this generalises to everyone else. But let’s put that aside for a minute and take the argument on face value. What would McCartney’s musical talent have sounded like at school, before the Quarrymen and the many hours spent playing in dingy clubs in Hamburg? When we think of McCartney’s talent, we look back though our knowledge of The Beatles, Sgt Pepper, The White Album. But how would this have been apparent in the early 1950s? It’s not even all that obvious by the time of, “Love me Do.”

McCartney certainly had potential but that potential was realised through a lot of hard work. There are millions of students out there with the potential to pursue an unimaginable range of goals. Perhaps some could become great mathematicians. If not, perhaps they could become competent mathematicians in ways that will enrich their lives and enhance their careers. They certainly won’t do this if they assume they have no talent for the subject and heed Robinson’s advice that, “The answer is not always to sit people down and drill them endlessly on the thing they’re failing at.” Because that is precisely the answer, provided that the drill is well designed.

After all, that’s what athletes and guitarists and dancers do; they practise over and over and over again. Endlessly. That’s what The Beatles did. That’s how you improve at something. You don’t improve by giving up and assuming your talents lie elsewhere.

If talent exists then it is largely out of our control. We may not even be able to reliably spot it if Paul McCartney’s teachers are any guide, so it is an odd thing to try to build a school system around. Far better to expose children to a range of experiences; to teach them that hard work leads to improved performance; to ensure they have the necessary baseline knowledge and skills to chase their dream, whatever that turns out to be.

Talent theories take you away from that. Talent theories provide excuses not to act and not to work. Talent theories teach us despair.


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