Welcome

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.

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Watch my researchED talks here and here

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

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What does the evidence say about banning exclusions?

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School exclusions are a topic of impassioned debate. There is no doubt that students who are excluded from school will go on to have worse outcomes but it is not clear whether this is because they have been excluded. Clearly, the same factors that caused these children to be excluded, whatever they are, could be the cause of these negative outcomes.

Commenting on what he perceives to be a high rate of exclusion in the U.K., Andrew Adonis caused something of a storm on Twitter when he suggested that, “Schools should be forbidden from expelling pupils, unless they have broken the law.” This immediately raises the interesting question of whether, if we followed this line, exclusions would actually reduce. Exclusions are often related to assault, vandalism, possession of weapons or drugs or verbal abuse, much of which is unlawful. It is possible that a school might even be able to increase its exclusions while applying this caveat. However, if Adonis means that a child must be convicted of a crime in order to be excluded then this would dramatically reduce exclusions because very few of these incidents are ever taken up by the police.

I have my own views on this. I believe that exclusion should always be a last resort but I also believe that it is necessary for schools to have this option. Teachers and students alike have the right to work and study in safety. Students have a right to an education that is not derailed by the behaviour of others. Ultimately, I would prioritise these more than keeping a specific child in school at all costs. I do think that there could be more investment, both in alternative provision and support within schools, as well as to support those students who have been excluded.

However, I wish to go beyond my own opinions here and look at some of the evidence. Adonis is not the first person to suggest banning exclusions. It has been tried before.

New York has undergone two reforms to school suspensions. First, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, schools were prevented from issuing suspensions for first time, low level offenses. Then, under Bill de Blasio, principals were required to seek permission from district administrators before suspending. The Manhattan Institute ran the numbers from surveys of school climate and found that the first reform made very little difference but the second reform was associated with a rapid deterioration in school climate, including more violence, drug and alcohol use and gang activity. The deteriorating climate of New York schools was brought to public attention by the sad case of the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation where a child was killed by a peer amidst claims of bullying and a failure to act on the part of the school administration.

Add to this evidence from a Thomas B. Fordham foundation report on a similar initiative in Philadelphia. Specifically, the district, “instituted a new ban on out-of-school suspensions (OSS) for low-level “conduct” offenses—such as profanity or failure to follow classroom rules—and reduced the length of OSS for more serious infractions.” Analysis of data from before and after this change suggested that most schools didn’t actually follow the ban, that the ban led to better attendance for previously suspended students but that their achievement did not improve and that those students who were never suspended achieved worse outcomes than before in the district’s most disadvantaged schools.

Taken together, this evidence suggests that it is naive to think that banning exclusions will achieve anything much and may well lead to a decline in school climate. Rather than being tough on exclusions, perhaps we need to be tough on the causes of exclusions.


Are you a British teacher who would like to work in Australia?

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Australia is great. The main thing that hit me when I moved here was the sense of space. I live in Ballarat in country Victoria where mountains and forests and the beach are all a short drive away. Often, the roads are dead straight so that you can literally see for miles ahead and miles behind in the rear-view mirror. And yet you might not see another car.

What else is there to love? The coffee is great. The people are generally positive, friendly and helpful. Where I live, the housing is affordable. And you always have a summer. Culturally, Australia is similar to the U.K. but there is cultural richness due to the indigenous population as well as immigration from across the globe.

If you’re a teacher who is thinking of making the move then let me try to answer a few questions that I am often asked.

Firstly, education is largely a state responsibility rather than a federal one. So when I make the point that there is no equivalent of Ofsted, I am making a claim about what the states do. An individual state could introduce something like Ofsted and there are suggestions that this is part of the agenda in New South Wales. However, the idea of inspectors turning up for a couple of days and judging a school is, as yet, unknown.

To teach in Australia, you need to be registered with the state teaching body. In Victoria, this is the Victorian Institute of Teaching. The process is bureaucratic and you will need items such as transcripts of your university degrees. I’d never heard of these before and had to apply to my university to get them. Once registered, you have to pay an annual fee to stay registered of about $100 and you have to complete a set amount of professional development (PD).

The need to register with a state teaching body means that it’s not trivial to move from state to state. I’ve had friends left in limbo as they wait for their registration to come through. I would therefore recommend completing the application in the U.K. before you arrive. You need it even if you intend to work in an independent school.

Which leads to another feature of education in Australia. Compared to the U.K., the independent sector is massive, educating around 35% of students. This is due to the way that state education has evolved. There are no state-run religious schools like in the U.K., so all Catholic schools, Anglican schools etc. have to be independent. They also attract a grant from federal, rather than state, government which keeps the fees lower than they otherwise would be. These funding arrangements are controversial and are the main education issue that’s discussed at a national level.

When I moved to Australia, I applied to a range of state and independent schools. The state process was bureaucratic; I had to use a particular website and rewrite my C.V. and covering letter in order to fit a number of set criteria. I was able to apply to specific schools but, in some states, you essentially apply to the education department. I found myself in the position of being offered several jobs in independent schools before any state jobs were even advertised.

Australia has a set of national tests introduced by the last Labor federal government; the National Assessment Programme – Literacy And Numeracy (NAPLAN). This represents something of a departure from the state-based education system.

NAPLAN is a battery of assessments in reading, writing, grammar, spelling and numeracy and is sat by students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. To convert to U.K. school years you add 1 i.e. Australian Y9 is U.K. Y10. NAPLAN assessments are high stakes because the results are published on the MySchool website which is accessible by patents and prospective parents. The tests are not particularly well-designed and perhaps drive schools to drill students in reading comprehension strategies or persuasive writing formulas (think ‘firstly, secondly’ etc.) rather than teaching challenging content.

Challenging content is not a feature of the Australian Curriculum. Compared to the U.K. national curriculum, it is pretty thin gruel, prioritising things like students ‘posing questions’ over teaching them knowledge. There are also a bunch of ‘general capabilities’ such critical thinking that are supposed to waft through everything. There is very little linkage between the Australian Curriculum and NAPLAN, which is part of the problem.

Project based learning, inquiry learning and constructivism are still very popular here and they are usually argued on the basis of jobs that don’t exist yet, that you can Google information so you don’t need knowledge and all that guff. I’m pretty sure that the majority of teachers have never heard the contrary view.

There is no equivalent of GCSE, with state based qualifications hitting at Year 12 only. In Victoria, this is the VCE and the vocational alternatives of VET and VCAL. VCE is exam based and consists of four units. Units 1 and 2 are assessed entirely within school using school-designed assessment. All schools need to do is report whether students have satisfactorily completed them. Units 3 and 4 are usually sat in Year 12, although some Year 11 students accelerate. These are assessed by an exam set at the state level.

If you don’t teach English or maths and you don’t teach Year 12, then your students will never sit a high stakes exam.

VCE results come in the form of a ‘study score’. For those applying to university, these are statistically adjusted and then combined to generate an ‘ATAR’. In principle, this is a percentile ranking relative to all the other students who started secondary school in that cohort (many of whom will not have studied VCE). So an ATAR of 80 means that a student is in the top 20% of students his or her age in terms of academic performance.

ATARs are disliked by many and there is constant talk of their imminent demise. It does seem like an odd system because, for many university courses, you could choose all sorts of combinations of subjects to make up your ATAR, although English is mandated as one of them. Some university courses specify VCE subjects as prerequisites but there is little requirement to do well in those specific subjects.

If you are thinking about moving here then you need to check your teaching qualifications. If you qualified in England via the GTP then you might get a short term ‘permission to teach’ but you are likely to need to take a bridging course to continue teaching in Australia. You should discuss this with a prospective school. Similarly, there are restrictions around early learning, so look into this beforehand.

And if you do decide to make a move, get in touch. You can use the contact form on this blog. I enjoy living and working in Ballarat and I am sure that you could also enjoy your time in Australia.


School makes you smarter – New piece for The Spectator

I have an article in this week’s Aussie version of The Spectator. It argues that school makes you smarter. The online link is here:

https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/12/teachers-notes/

In the piece. I refer to this article by Stuart Ritchie and Elliot Tucker-Drob as well as this paper (summarised here).

Also, you may have missed my previous piece for The Spectator on the importance of the teacher social media movement:

https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/11/a-teacher-tweets/


A defence of teacher education?

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Teacher education is a ongoing theme of this blog. Put simply, I don’t believe that is a good as it should be and this is to the disservice of education. For example, it is possible to point to specific areas of knowledge that are critical to the teaching of reading but that teacher education does not seem to address. It is also possible to point to more general concerns expressed by teachers about their own education. The Carter review in the U.K. and the TEMAG report in Australia pick up on a number of issues, including the relative neglect of classroom management.

One defence of teacher education is that the time available to universities is limited and that the provision of practical teaching knowledge has to take place during school placements. We cannot expect teachers to walk out of a lecture hall and know how to teach.

False choice

If school placements provide practical know-how then, presumably, university departments are delivering the theoretical stuff. I am not convinced of this idea for two reasons. Firstly, I strongly doubt that many teacher education faculties are delivering theory drawn from, for example, cognitive science. If you scour the course descriptions of university courses you will see a lot about inquiry learning or critical theory but not much on explicit instruction.

More fundamentally, a division between theoretical and practical knowledge does not seem viable when we are talking about a vocational subject like teaching. What educational theories are there that have no practical implications for the classroom? If, for instance, critical literacy implies certain practices then what are they? A robust course in the subject would start with a discussion of Freire but would need to move into an examination of what these principles look like when applied. Perhaps there would be modelling. Perhaps students would have a go at applying these ideas in a seminar room.

In my view, this last point is critical. Education students should be spending time at university with a board marker in hand, explaining to their peers a method for solving quadratic equations or coordinating some other kind of learning activity. Clearly, this is not the same as teaching this stuff to a Year 9 class on a Thursday afternoon but that’s the point. If teachers can hone some of their teaching skills in the absence of the need to manage behaviour then they will be better able to focus on behaviour management when they do step into a real classroom.

Schools are not the answer

The idea that teachers can learn practical knowledge wholly in schools is also inherently dangerous. Whatever the shortcomings of university departments, at least the academic stance that they adopt allows room for scepticism and critical thinking. Teachers who pick up all their knowledge from schools are likely to be sold on a number of myths. After all, there are still schools out there that promote learning styles on their websites. And there is currently a headlong rush in Australia towards project-based learning, at least if you pay attention to conference discussions and media articles. These always follow the same format: the benefits are assumed and never questioned, and the discussion is about how one school or teacher designed their approach.

The ideology gap

I don’t think we are in the current situation by accident. There are strong forces that have shaped teacher education and that will resist change. I believe that we need alternative routes into teaching in Australia but only because this will apply pressure for university based courses to reform. Universities have the greatest potential to deliver a balanced and meaningful education that offers the best preparation for teaching but they will need to be pushed towards this agenda because they are committed to the status quo.

For instance, there is clear evidence that classroom management is an issue in Australian schools but this is dismissed out-of-hand by a number of education academics. As the Carter Review in the U.K. noted, “In our discussions with ITT providers, we have found some reluctance towards practical approaches to training in behaviour management.” There is no reason to believe attitudes are different in Australia. Academics seem to be drawn to a romantic view of childhood in which children are inherently good and so any misbehaviour must be due to adults failing them in some way.

And there is an ideology that questions even the concept of being more or less effective as a teacher. Overwhelmingly, teacher education students want to learn how to teach well, something they are likely to interpret in terms of their students obtaining good results, but this may be perceived as naive, ‘positivist’ or even part of the grand neoliberal conspiracy to take over the world. Instead, teachers should focus on being democratic or something. I have sympathy for these more abstract goals but I don’t believe that any of them are served by failing to teach children to read or write or gain some competence in the basics of all academic subjects.

We need to dismiss the compartmentalisation of theoretical and practical knowledge. Instead, we should see the professional knowledge of teachers as more of a continuum and, starting with that proposition, we should ask what new teachers most need to know.


What have we learnt from PIRLS 2016?

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PIRLS is an international test of reading involving fifty countries. I am cautious of drawing conclusions based simply upon rankings in these kids of assessments. Nevertheless, PIRLS has some interesting thing to tell us.

Good news for Australia and England

Australia took part in PIRLS for only the second time in 2016. Compared to its previous performance in 2011, Australia’s score has improved from 527 to 544; a statistically significant improvement.

England has also improved from 552 to 559; its highest ever score. This is the first group of English students to pass through the phonics check and take the PIRLS assessment, although we should bear in mind that they are the very first phonics check cohort.

England’s performance is significantly better than Australia’s.

Bad news for Australia

Although Australia’s overall score has improved, the proportion of students performing below the low benchmark of 400 has not changed significantly. Instead, the gains in the overall score are associated with a significant increase in the number of students performing at or above the advanced benchmark of 625. This is worrying because we would probably prefer to see gains associated with the most vulnerable readers.

Good news for England

The opposite is true for England, with significantly fewer students performing below the low benchmark and no real change in the number performing above the advanced benchmark.

Worrying relationships

PIRLS surveyed Australian principals and this data throws up a number of worrying relationships. For instance, in disadvantaged schools, reading performance may be affected by a lack of resources. Principals and teachers also indicated that disadvantaged schools had less of a focus on academic success and a focus on academic success is associated with higher scores. Students who attended more disadvantaged schools were also far more likely than those in more affluent schools to face moderate to severe problems regarding school discipline.

Students were also surveyed. Shockingly, 19% of Australian students reported being bullied ‘about weekly’ compared to an average of 14 across all PIRLS 2016 countries.

The phonics check?

Although it is pleasing that both England and Australia have improved, the lack of progress at the low benchmark in Australia compared with the progress in England suggests the relative effect of implementing the phonics screening check.


Reduce maths anxiety with explicit teaching

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A colleague is teaching Year 12 maths methods next year for the first time since the introduction of the new course. As part of the process, I sent her through the materials that we had created for the 2017 course. She spotted a potential flaw. “There needs to be more examples with literal terms in them. The sooner students see these, the better, because they find them hard.” She was right and we have added in examples of this kind.

In discussing this issue, my colleague and I both implicitly grasped an important point; early exposure to these examples would ultimately lead to a more positive emotional response to these kinds of questions. I don’t think anyone has ever articulated this reasoning to me and so I’ve probably picked it up through experience, both as a teacher and a student. It seems obvious to me that being left to struggle with a new kind of problem could lead to anxiety.

This matters because those who promote the use of inquiry-learning and problem-based learning in maths lessons, methods that leave students to struggle with new kinds of problems, have latched onto a concept known as ‘maths anxiety’; a form of stress that is so consuming that it can even harm maths performance.

Jo Boaler, advocate of problem-based maths teaching and the closest maths education has to a rock star, has suggested that maths anxiety is induced when teachers use timed tests. This certainly seems plausible and you may intuitively agree with the idea of eliminating time limits. However, timed tests also have some advantages. For instance, we really want students to just know many maths facts, rather than have to work them out, because this will then free working memory resources to focus on higher level aspects of a maths problem. By timing students’ retrieval of maths facts, we can ensure they have reached this level of automaticity. So this is a great question to test with research; where does the balance of cost and benefit lie?

In her book, Mathematical Mindsets, Boaler alludes to research that demonstrates the harm of timed tests. And yet, when reviewer Victoria Simms of Ulster University attempted to trace this claim to its source, she drew a blank.

Which brings us back to those examples. In a new Canadian study, a group of university students were surveyed on their levels of maths anxiety and their school maths experiences. They found that a greater perceived level of support from teachers was associated with lower maths anxiety and they also found that, “…there was a significant decrease in [maths anxiety] when participants reported that their teachers provided plenty of examples and practice items, and this remained after controlling for general and test anxiety.”

This is, of course, a correlation. However, in this area, correlations could be the best kind of evidence we are likely to get because, in order to do experiments, we would need to manipulate the anxiety levels of test subjects and that might be hard to get past an ethics panel.

Given that the finding is supported by common sense and a plausible mechanism – familiarity with example types reduces anxiety – then I think it perhaps provides yet more evidence for the superiority of explicit teaching.


Teaching writing backwards

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Over the last couple of years, I have had cause to work with English teachers and to read some of the literature on English teaching. I have become convinced that writing is mostly taught backwards.

Typically, students are asked to write something. Once they have written it, they hand it in to a teacher to mark. This eats teacher time because there are so many things to comment upon in the piece of writing. Teachers have discussions about how to handle this. They may create a coding system for spelling and grammar and restrict comments to other features of the piece. Nevertheless, it is still unmanageable and virtually all of these comments are never fully understood by the students. Partly, this is because the comments themselves are unhelpful and vague; the equivalent of telling a sprinter that, in order to improve, she must try to run faster. Partly, this is because written comments are a poor way of teaching. Interactive explanations are far better because the teacher can ask questions to check understanding and can pick up on subtle cues from the facial expressions of students. If it was easy to learn from written comments then we could replace schools with books (I now have visions of a 15th century Tedde Talke where some guru explains that schools will soon be replaced by printed material).

So typically, we ask students to do something that we haven’t taught them how to do and then, when they fail to do it, we spend hours writing to them about this. Which is all backwards.

Instead, it might be better to teach a skill first, to all of the students, in class. Students can then practise the skill. Once we are sure that they can do the skill in isolation, we can ask them to demonstrate it in a more complex task where they need to synthesise a number of skills, again focusing on the application of the one we have taught them. Once we have had a look at their responses, rather than writing to our students, we could use what we have learnt to design a plan for a new lesson where we correct misconceptions or further develop the skill. This would be teaching writing forwards.

That would seem sensible, right?

So why don’t we do this? The answer is that most people know good writing when they see it but few of us have spent time analysing it in order to break it down into component skills. So we don’t really know where to start. Instead, we ask students to write and then sort-of see what happens; the backwards approach.

If you are interested in teaching writing forwards then I can recommend “The Writing Revolution” by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler. Alternatively, you can check out the Direct Instruction “Expressive Writing” courses. I am sure there are other approaches out there but these are the two I know. You can adopt one of these models wholesale, adapt it or draw on its principles to develop your own approach. If you are currently teaching writing backwards then this may be the best thing you ever do.