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 written two books:

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

Ouroboros – an ebook

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


Alan Finkel, Australia’s chief scientist, is starting to get it

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I have written before about reports and articles published by the office of Australia’s chief scientist (most recently here). They tend to be of the motivate-kids-with-cool-stuff variety alongside a mouthing of tropes about 21st century skills.

No more.

Alan Finkel, the incumbent, seems to have seen the light. I don’t know who he’s been talking to but they have done a great job. The evidence is in a recently published speech he gave to science teachers.

It starts rather oddly, with a suggestion that when he has previously repeated 21st century learning platitudes, he has been misunderstood.

However, it then becomes a full-throated endorsement of the need to teach knowledge through subject disciplines. You should read the whole thing but here are a few quotes:

“…I want to talk about why, in 2018, there is still a fundamental duty to teach students content: concepts, facts and principles. Taught by teachers trained as experts in that content, with all the status and resources and professional development that we would demand in any other expert occupation.”

“In all my meetings with people actually hiring graduates, no-one has ever said to me: “gosh, we don’t have enough people who know how to collaborate”.

No, what they say to me is: we don’t have enough specialists in software engineering. We can’t find graduates who are fluent in maths. We have meetings where three quarters of the people in the room can’t critique a set of numbers without pulling out a calculator and slowing us down.”

Three cheers for that.

This leaves advocates of 21st century learning, or progressivism in disguise, with a choice to make. They can either disown Finkel’s comments or they can suggest that his views are precisely what they have been claiming all along, only with different words, in a different order and with a different meaning.

Kindergarten careers advice

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Henrietta Cook in The Age is reporting that the Victorian government intends to introduce careers advice from the age of twelve.

I am not opposed to such an idea. Often, many students have little idea of what is out there and available for them. However, the ensuing discussion demonstrates just what a muddle we have managed to find ourselves in when discussing the relationship between the education system and work.

In Year 9, students will be psychometrically tested, presumably to figure out something about the kind of career that will suit them. Hopefully this will be more valid than the dreaded Myers-Briggs test. A student in the article suggests that her peers, unsure of what their future holds, are aiming at breadth rather than depth of study.

But, why wouldn’t they? Especially when we have Jan Owen AM, CEO of the Foundation for Young Australians, suggesting that primary school children should receive career advice because, “A 15 year-old will have 17 jobs in five different industries. When it comes to being exposed to the world of work, the earlier the better.” If so, breadth is exactly what is required?

Owen’s statement is the quintessence of the kind of fashionable crystal-ball gazing that education commentators indulge in. It is impossible to know how many careers an 15 year-old will have. At least its incongruous precision has the benefit of highlighting the absurdity of such remarks.

However, there is also a contradiction there. If we accept Owen’s figures at face value, what exactly are we going to be saying to these primary school children when we give them careers advice?

“What do you want to do when you grow up? Never mind, you’re six, right? That means that, according to my calculations, you’ll have 21 jobs in six-and-a-half different industries. Don’t suggest which ones. They don’t exist yet. Here, do a psychometric test. It doesn’t matter what it says.”

The only thing that is certain about the future is that it is unpredictable. That’s why I have previously suggested that the best preparation for young people is to equip them with the knowledge that has been useful in the past; that which has endured. Not all of this knowledge will be economically valuable to them, but education is about more that simply preparation for work. It is also about living a fulfilling life. Regardless, I can’t think of a way of deciding on a better curriculum to teach without already knowing the future. If we build a curriculum on wrong predictions, there is a much greater risk of leaving students without knowledge they later find out that they need.

God is dead and you have no soul

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In their 2011 book, John Sweller, Slava Kalyuga and Paul Ayres argue that the brain does not require a central executive to coordinate cognitive processes. This places them at odds with Baddeley’s model of working memory in an intriguing and curious way.

In part, they argue by analogy. They compare the model of the brain as an information processing system with the process of biological evolution which is also an information processing system. In evolution, information is encoded in genes. This information can be borrowed and reorganised from one organism to the next. This process of reorganisation may lead to novel applications and this is one element in the creativity exhibited by evolution.

However, this does not explain all of the creativity of evolution. At some point in the fossil record, there were no backbones and then, at a later point, there were backbones. That information must have come from somewhere. The theory of evolution by natural selection suggests a process of random mutation. Most of these mutations have either no effect or a damaging effect on the organism that possesses them, but some provide partial solutions to unsolved problems. Due to the advantage they bestow upon their host, these mutations are passed on and built upon through time and become part of the information that is borrowed and reorganised between individuals.

There is no need for a separate system directing the process of evolution and coming up with the new information. As Sweller, Kalyuga and Ayres put it, ‘randomness is genesis,’ and, ‘evolution does not require a central executive to function.’

This is what upsets people about evolution. It does not require an intelligence directing it. It does not require a God.

Sweller, Kalyuga and Ayres argue that we may think of the mind as a similar information processing system. We may borrow and reorganise information from other people. In fact, we are primed to do this and the process of reorganisation is partly responsible for our creativity, just as it is in evolution.

In the widest sense, all human experience can be thought of as problem-solving, from cooking a steak to making a new friend to creating a work or art. When we are faced with a new problem to solve for which we possess no relevant knowledge, we are faced with generating random solution steps and then testing them to see if they move us closer to a solution. Most steps do not move us closer and this makes the process slow. However, the solution steps we generate that really are helpful represent new information and this is the other component of creativity.

As Sir Ken Robinson suggests, creativity is, “…the process of having original ideas that have value.”

Knowledge is critical to this process. Firstly, it transports you to the edge of what is already known and, secondly, it enables you to recognise the value of the new information. If you are inexpert, you are likely to use guesswork to generate solutions to problems that have already been solved. Which is pointless. If you are inexpert and you do manage to come up with something truly unique and valuable, you will have nothing to measure it against to confirm that this is the case.

I have struggled with the idea of randomness as genesis. Surely, when faced with a novel problem, we can do better than generate random solution steps? However, I cannot think of a way of doing this which does not rely on having relevant knowledge to enable us to narrow down the number of possible moves. Even heuristics like, ‘look for the simplest solution,’ break down because you cannot know how simple or complicated a solution is when you are still at the stage of generating steps in that solution. Once you reach the limit of your knowledge, you really do have to just guess-and-check. Perhaps this seems counter-intuitive because we are not conscious of when we are using our knowledge and when we are guessing. Perhaps we all have an inner Trump.

Sweller, Kalyuga and Ayres address the idea of reasoning by analogy (which is, of course, exactly what they are doing). Is this not a way of looking for solutions without generating random steps? No. “When we try to solve the target problem by analogy to a source problem, there is an inevitable random generate and test aspect. The analogy may be perfect but it also may be totally useless – a dead end.”

In the model proposed by cognitive load theory, the model that Sweller, Kalyuga and Ayres are writing about, it is knowledge held in long-term memory that is acting to direct and select solutions. There is no need for a separate central executive. In fact, such an executive is worse than redundant. As Sweller, Kalyuga and Ayres point out, “An independent central executive dissociated from knowledge held in long-term memory results in an infinite regress of central executives.” How does the central executive know what to do? Oh, there must be another central executive telling it what to do… It is similar to imagining a little person in your head, sat behind a dashboard and controlling your movements: Who or what is controlling the little person?

If evolution has killed God then has cognitive load theory managed to kill our souls? Maybe. Then again, these are just useful models. I have written before about God’s helicopter and the idea that, if you believe in God, then evolution may just be the way that God acts. Maybe this is also true of our minds.

But it is interesting.

The voices of teachers

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At the age of 25, I became Head of Science at a challenging school in West London. It had not been my intention. Just two terms earlier, I had joined the school as second in science, expecting this to be my role for the next few years. However, once on deck, I learnt that the Head of Science was leaving; something that everyone had somehow forgotten to mention at my interview. After a brief period during which a senior leader took charge, I got the job.

Those were my clubbing days and I probably wasn’t ready. I looked around and searched my experiences for examples to follow. The school had no overarching behaviour policy at that time, which made life difficult and resulted in the science department having to pursue its own approach.

I decided that I needed to take some tough classes and I took on one of the most challenging groups in the school. Challenging classes are difficult in a variety of different ways. For this group of students, the issue was that they just could not seem to get along. There were constant arguments which threatened to turn physical and which often derailed my plan for the lesson.

I tested what I had learnt about classroom management against the reality of this group. I deployed a wide range of strategies. Yes, I warned students and set detentions, but the technique that had the greatest overall impact was positive reinforcement. “I can see everyone on the back row has written the date and title and started the task. Well done guys, that’s just what I want to see,” I would say and then the students on the middle row would get the hint and pick up their pens.

Teaching in a school is the point where theory crashes into the hard reality of a classroom full of students. It is not the same as teaching a group of young adults who have chosen to be there. It is definitely not the same as working one-to-one with a child in a therapeutic role. This is why many teachers are wary of the next big idea and why they are wary of absolutes.

I have remarked before that the statement, “All behaviour is communication,” is a ‘deepity’, but it is worth considering what it is that motivates people to make such statements. Do they assume that teachers do not understand that children often have challenging family circumstances or suffer from trauma? Do they think we haven’t realised this? One of the most challenging students I have taught was a refugee from the war in Kosovo who had endured terrible circumstances that I will not detail. I knew his background. I understood it as well as anyone who has not had that experience can understand it and I could see why this led to him acting in the way that he did. Unfortunately, understanding was not enough because he still behaved in the classroom in ways that disrupted the learning of others and sometimes threatened their safety. I needed practical strategies. I needed to know what to actually do in that situation.

The voices of non-teachers which, frankly, are the voices that have been telling teachers what to do for much of the past century, are unconstrained by classroom realities. This is why they can call for ever more differentiation without feeling the need to detail how this can practically be achieved. This is why they can afford to have ideological, principled objections to things such as school exclusions or ability grouping or testing or anything that is ‘punitive’ or, latterly, ‘neoliberal’. They don’t have to trouble themselves as to why these things may exist in the first place, what purposes they might serve and what practical alternatives may be developed. They don’t need any alternatives because they don’t have to deal with the consequences.

When teachers voice concern about England’s Chartered College of Teaching being run by people who are not practising classroom teachers, it is not from a position of disrespect. If nothing else, the huge popularity of researchED demonstrates that teachers are crying out for evidence from expert voices, many of whom are professors of psychology or other researchers who are not teachers. Instead, the concern is that these bodies will be seen by the wider community as representing the authentic voice of teachers when they do not.

Teachers have no general enmity towards educationalists and bureaucrats. This is not a zero sum game. For teachers to gain a voice in their own profession it does not require others to lose theirs. The only way it could be seen as a loss is if people fear what teachers might say.

At the moment, we have no such professional voice. England’s Chartered College looks like it will not be able to provide one and I see no organisation that is capable of doing so in Australia. This social media moment is all we have, for now.

So let’s grow it from here. Let’s talk to each other and let’s make our voices heard in the community. Let’s make it less and less acceptable to exclude teachers from debates about education. Let’s write and publish and meet and organise.

Nobody will do it for us. It is our profession and it is up to us to make our voices heard.

Mental health crisis or moral panic?

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Ann John is Professor of Public Health and Psychiatry at Swansea University in Wales. She has recorded a talk for Four Thought, a BBC radio programme and podcast, on the issue of young people and mental health. Much of the current discussion reminds Ann of the panic about the MMR vaccine that was a hot topic back in the days when she was a family doctor.

John has three children and has been a primary school parent for the last 21 years. Over that time, she has noticed a growing awareness of mental health issues among young people. This is a good thing because, as she explains, “Children and young people’s mental health has been overlooked and under-diagnosed for years.”

John notes that this has led to a discussion about causes. “You must have seen all those headlines about the epidemic of young people’s mental health. All those stigmatising photographs of teenagers with their heads held in their hands… everyone should just be kind or be mindful or stop taking exams and it would all be sorted.”

However, John asks whether aspects of growing-up that we previously just considered, well, aspects of growing-up have become medicalised. “We may have lost the collective memory of the normal human experience of adolescence, its discomfort and heightened sensitivity to peer exclusion and with that, the ability to judge the difference between the ups and downs of life and poor mental health.”

John voices the concern that the apparent rise in mental health issues may be a result of greater awareness and reporting. However, she does note a connection with increased poverty. The problem is that resources tend to accrue to the more affluent parts of society – university mental health services, for instance – rather than benefiting youngsters in areas of severe deprivation where needs are greatest. There is a chance that the ‘worried well’ are cornering limited resources.

And John has some interesting points to make about the positive influence of social media. I certainly remember the visceral, tribal enmity between my comprehensive school and the neighbouring one but, according to John, social media networks are acting to break down those kinds of divisions. And whereas we are now deeply concerned about online bullying, we should not forget the real pain and distress caused by old-fashioned, face-to-face bullying.

There is a broad issue here that I believe also connects to student behaviour. Through mechanisms such as Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), we have seen behaviours and experiences that may once have been classified as part of the spectrum of normal life, even if they are destructive or antisocial, become classified as a disorder. Proponents then push these definitions to the level of a disability with all of the attendant legislative implications. I believe that we need to think through the consequences of young people being labelled with mental disorders, not least the internalisation of these labels and the potential loss of personal agency that may go with it.

Imagine your mind is made of Christmas trees

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Imagine that your mind is a bunch of Christmas trees. Note that I wrote, ‘imagine’. I am not claiming your mind is literally a bunch of Christmas trees, which may seem obvious but is nonetheless important, as we shall see later.

Anyway, go with it for now.

Every time you learn something new, you hang it on one of those Christmas trees. Most of the time this is not a problem. One of the trees might be something like, ‘People desire power’, and the thing you hang on it is a specific instance from history of someone seeking power. You are adding specific details to a broad idea you already hold.

This is how most learning proceeds and that is that.

However, some ideas end up on the wrong tree. You may have the right tree available but still hang it on the wrong one, or you may not even possess the right tree.

Possibly the most well-researched examples of this kind involve physics (although the idea extends to any conceptual change). For instance, our intuitive views of motion tend to be wrong. We have a tree that represents, ‘Things move because they feel a force,’ and then we hang observations onto this; observations like the motion of a football. Physics teachers instead want their students to think of moving footballs in terms of Newton’s first and second laws of motion.

Empirical data suggests that we can go to quite heroic efforts to hang things on the wrong tree. We will rationalise new observations. Even attempts to induce ‘cognitive conflict’ by demonstrating that a particular observation is inconsistent with a particular tree tend to be twisted into compatibility. If I point out that nothing is pushing a football through the air, you might decide there is some residual force still left over from the kicking foot.

And yet we do, rarely, manage to change our understandings of concepts and so there must be some mechanism by which this is possible.

Stellan Ohlsson has developed a theory to explain what is going on and I’ve already been using it in this post. In his view, we collect specific bits of knowledge, observations, beliefs and so on under different theories – my Christmas trees. The theories do not have to agree with each other and the specific bits of knowledge are not logical consequences of the theory. Instead, when we encounter something new, we look for the best theory to hang it under. These need to be locally coherent, but nothing more. We simply lack a system for going through each item and checking its logical consistency.

Ohlsson suggests that each of these bits of knowledge are subsumed under different theories. If you want to move them then you need to resubsume them under a different theory.

This is hard but not impossible. Once you have both theories available in your mind, you can start to try to hang each piece of knowledge under each theory. A process of competition begins between the two theories until with most useful one wins through. This is how conceptual change occurs: Resubsumption Theory.

Ohlsson is coy about suggesting implications for teaching, noting that other factors could be far more important in conceptual change than any implications of Resubsumption. However, he does note a few things that should give us pause for thought.

The idea of developing new ideas in supposedly ‘relevant’ contexts may be misconceived because it may lead to students hanging the new knowledge under the theories they already associate with those contexts. Instead, it may be better to first make the new theory available to the students in an abstract form such as a computer generated microworld. Instead of familiar footballs and rockets, we could develop Newton’s laws in a virtual world. Once the new theory is available in the minds of students, the process of competition and resubsumption can begin.

This is an interesting idea.

Like Cognitive Load Theory, Resubsumption derives from information processing theories that model the mind as a computer. This has led to some criticism on the basis that minds are not computers.

I do not believe that minds are computers any more than I believe that they are made of Christmas trees. But I think it’s a pretty good theory to subsume some of our findings under, for now.

Preview pages from my new book are now available

It currently looks like my new book, The Truth about Teaching: An evidence-informed guide for new teachers, will be released on the 11th August in the UK and Australia, although the US Amazon site is stating September. Amazon have a feature where you can ‘look inside’ a book and Tunya Audain left a comment on yesterday’s post, pointing out that this is now up and running for The Truth. You can view it on either the UK or US Amazon sites. For some reason, the Australian Amazon site is not listing my book.

The preview captures the preface, acknowledgements and the first section of the first chapter, which is a brief history of education. Hopefully, this will give you a feel for the book and whether you think it is worth purchasing.

I had been worrying a little about what people would think about The Truth, but this has faded in the last few weeks. Without doubt, there are some people who will not like it on principle and there’s not much I can do about that. The real test is whether new teachers, and perhaps parents or others who want a way in to understanding education, find it useful. If they do, then it has been a success.