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

Read about my ebook, “Ouroboros” here.

Watch my researchED talks here and here

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

Fads aside, the traditional VCE subjects remain the most valuable

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

A teacher tweets

School makes you smarter

Read my articles for the Conversation here:

Ignore the fads

Why students make silly mistakes


Back to the future with Ken Boston and Michael Roberts

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If I had the chance to buy both Ken Boston and Michael Roberts a book, it would be Dylan Wiliam’s new offering, Creating the Schools Our Children NeedWiliam’s tome is written with an American audience in mind, but it is highly relevant to the controversy stirred-up by the Gonski 2.0 report in Australia. After dealing with a number of ideas for improving educational performance that will not work, Wiliam alights on two that he believes will; instituting a knowledge-rich curriculum and ensuring that teachers continually improve by constantly collecting and analysing evidence of learning.

The Gonski 2.0 review appears to have completely neglected the importance of a knowledge-rich curriculum, instead emphasising development along a series of ‘learning progressions’ that lack context. To the review panel, literacy, numeracy and even critical thinking are cumulative skills that can be mapped onto linear pathways.

This is not a new idea. England used to have the kind of levels that Ken Boston advocates for in today’s Sydney Morning Herald. And this is no coincidence because Boston was a key figure in the UK’s 2007 reform of its national curriculum which, like Gonski 2.0, involved emphasising a more skills-based approach and downplaying the importance of subject knowledge. Suffice it to say that this reform did not lead to an improvement in the performance of English students on international assessments. The shortcomings in the curriculum were addressed with a sense of urgency after the 2010 election of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and the kind of learning progression ‘levels’ that Boston is proposing for the future of Australian education were unceremoniously dumped in England in 2014.

There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, parents couldn’t really understand them. Secondly, there is simply no linear pathway to expertise in a domain such as writing. Writing is heavily context dependent. If we look, for instance, at the new Australian National Literacy Learning Progressions, we read that at Level CrT8, a student, ‘writes for a range of learning area purposes’, whereas at CrT9 he or she, ‘writes informative texts for a broad range of learning area purposes that describe, explain and document’. This is not a clear, objective way of distinguishing between degrees of performance. Instead, it is highly subjective and arguable. Moreover, any given child may easily demonstrate a higher level in an area that he or she knows a lot about, but struggle to demonstrate a much lower level in an unfamiliar area. Assessment driven by levels of this kind therefore drives teachers to select easier and more accessible content for students to write about – the opposite of the logic of a knowledge-rich curriculum.

Where the literacy learning progressions are more specific, there is an even worse problem to confront. For instance, if we believe that a student at CrT6, ‘writes simple and compound sentences related to a topic using conjunctions (and, but, so, because, when),’ then all we have to do is train the student to do this a few times and we can tick that level off. A measure that may once have been a good indicator of a particular quality of performance is now a hurdle to be minimally cleared:

The thought of extending this already flawed process to the creation of a ‘learning progression’ for the ‘general capability’ of critical thinking represents a paradigm shift of fallacious thinking. As Wiliam explains:

“Critical thinking in mathematics requires learning, in mathematics class, what it means to thinking critically in math, and this ability does not transfer from one school subject to another. No amount of training students to think critically in history makes them any better at critical thinking in math.”

If we follow Gonski panel member Michael Robert’s advice and remove most subject content from the early primary curriculum then we will be missing many opportunities to build the kind of vocabulary knowledge and world knowledge that are needed for later reading comprehension and that more advantaged children can mitigate to some extent at home. Again, the mistake is the recurrent one of seeing domains like literacy and numeracy as cumulative skills that can be developed completely independently of content. What are these students reading and writing about? What are the maths word problems about?

It is almost as if the Gonski panel were entirely unaware of these arguments. But they cannot have been, because they were present in the public submissions.

According to Ken Boston, it seems like the panel were strongly influence by Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, the organisation that runs the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), one of the sets of international comparison tests that many countries participate in.

I am sure that Schleicher is a very nice man. However, it is worth pointing out that his proposals are not often supported by his own data. He talks a lot about the woes of ‘memorisation’ but the data on this is patchy at best. More significantly, perhaps, the OECD define effective teaching as being student-oriented and yet PISA reveals that the more student-oriented the teaching, the worse the maths scores (a similar find to science and the use of inquiry learning).

The Gonski 2.0 panel members should have taken heed of all of the submissions. The panel members should have reviewed robust evidence and made conclusions based upon this evidence; conclusions that included an analysis of cost and benefit. It is a shame for Australia that they did not.

Note: when I first published this piece I confused Michael Roberts’s name with the journalist who wrote the story. That’s fixed now but it’s still reflected in the URL and Twitter and email previews.

Teachers and students want the same things, so what’s the problem?

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Many early career teachers struggle with managing the behaviour of students. As I claimed in my previous post, good classroom management requires high quality training for teachers and a supportive school environment with clear structures and procedures. According to 2013 survey data from New South Wales, many of the new teachers who participated in the survey felt unprepared by their university courses and teaching placements for dealing with behaviour issues. Once they took posts in schools, they often lacked support.

One participant recalled:

“Two boys were taken away from class (for punching me) today and then brought back. However, there was no explanation given to me. I find there is no support from the Principal. I have spoken to him a couple of times but he has a very softly-softly approach and nothing gets done. Communication is lacking. Also, as a principal, he needs to show students that he means business and must have a more disciplined and strict approach rather than merely talking to them. I have also asked him to come to my class but he hasn’t done so till now. “

I learnt the importance of communication during my own experience of school leadership in a challenging school in London. When I first started picking-up significant behaviour issues, I would take action with a student, but because I did not go back to the teacher who had reported the behaviour and explain what I had done, he or she assumed that nothing had happened. It is critical to both act, and communicate this action, to teachers. Good schools have robust systems for doing this.

Other participants in the New South Wales survey talked of rumours that the education authorities had, ‘tied the hands of schools in regard to expulsion of students,’ that the students knew this and that this hampered efforts to challenge poor behaviour. Some talked of behaviour being far worse than they expected. There was also evidence of what Tom Bennett refers to as ‘two schools’, where more senior teachers experience one set of behaviours, while casual and part-time teachers bear the brunt of poor behaviour.

It’s worth realising that poor behaviour and a lack of teacher control is definitely not what the vast majority of students want. A recent survey from Western Australia found that 82% of students agreed that it is ‘mostly’ or ‘totally’ true that in the class of an effective teacher, ‘Student behaviour… is under control.’ By contrast, only 29% mostly or totally agreed that, ‘Students get to decide how activities are done in this class’.

To be clear, students are not asking for angry or sarcastic teachers, but I don’t hear anyone arguing a case for angry or sarcastic teachers. Advocates of better classroom management want teachers who are friendly and in control. The classroom management training that had the most impact on me as a young teacher drew a distinction between three types of teacher; passive, assertive and hostile, with an emphasis on developing an assertive approach. I believe that it is often frustration at a lack of systems and support that drives teachers to react poorly.

So given that teachers and students want the same thing, what is the problem? The problem lies in a strongly ideological and unreasonable position held by many in education that children should not be coerced or controlled; a position with its roots in romanticism, framed through the repetition of mantras and, ironically, enforced through appeals to authority. These conditions hamper access to training and to the flow of ideas about how best to manage classrooms and schools.

Australia’s secret crisis

We are not supposed to talk about it. Certainly, many education academics would rather we didn’t. If we must talk about it, heaven forbid we label it a ‘crisis’ because that would then signal that we are part of some dark, right-wing plot.

The topic, of course, is the poor behaviour that many teachers and students are confronted with in Australian schools. I was quoted in a news item in yesterday’s edition of The Australian, commenting on the matter. The reporter, Rebecca Urban, makes the point that according to survey data from the OECD, classroom climate is very poor by international standards with, ‘one-third of the students in advantaged schools, and about half of those in disadvantaged schools, reported noise and disorder in most or every class’.

Calm and orderly classrooms are a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for learning to take place and Australian schools often lack them.

The news report drew attention to a recently published longitudinal study showing that responsible students who payed attention in school went on to have higher levels of education, higher incomes and more prestigious careers. It is hardly a shock finding, but it does give the lie to the romantic notion that schools somehow get in the way of creativity and innovation and that today’s badly behaved teenager is tomorrow’s entrepreneur.

Fixing the situation in Australian schools would be relatively simple. It requires two key steps. Firstly, teachers need to be trained in evidence-based approaches to classroom management. These exist. The research mainly comes from behaviourist psychology and it’s pretty robust as far as education research goes. As I made clear in The Australian, it is necessary to have negative consequences to draw upon, but the majority of classroom management is actually about setting conditions that anticipate and militate against poor behaviour occurring; systems such as the use of seating plans and positive reinforcement. I certainly became a better teacher once I learnt some of these strategies and that is why they form a key chapter in my soon-to-be-published book for new teachers.

However, none of these strategies are of any use unless teachers are supported by a robust whole-school behaviour policy with active leadership and graduated levels of intervention. A school culture is no different to the culture of any other organisation in that it is defined by what it is prepared to tolerate.

Unfortunately, reasonable people who have run challenging schools and who understand these issues have allowed the debate to be defined for too long by anti-discipline fundamentalists. The choice is not one between punishing and excluding students with relish and a more humane approach. The choice is actually between a position based on a reasonable and moderate application of evidence-based strategies and a position that sees all behaviour as a form of communication; if only we would listen to what is being communicated there would be no need for ‘punitive’ approaches. It is based upon the romantic view that children are inherently good and corrupted only by adults. What kind of monster are you if you want to ‘manage’ the behaviour of these little forces of nature? Of course, this dogma defies both evidence and common sense.

It is time for seasoned teachers to talk a little more about the issue of classroom behaviour. It is a subject that needs to be wrested from the hands of ideologues and given light and air if we ever wish to address it.

The Education Endowment Foundation contradicts itself (and we’re not supposed to notice)

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For a few years now, the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has been hawking its big idea of metacognition and self-regulation. It is currently the second most effective ‘strand’ of their Teaching and Learning Toolkit, with implementation giving seven months of spurious extra progress, after recently being demoted from a spurious eight months.

I wrote a critique of this strand for The Chartered College of Teaching’s summer edition of their Impact magazine, which was edited by Jonathan Sharples of the EEF. Having accepted my abstract, they declined to print my article, even after I suggested that they should print it alongside a rebuttal. I have still had no response to my points from anyone at the EEF and I don’t expect I ever will.

One of the many issues I raised was that of Philosophy for Children (P4C). This is a generic thinking skills programme that is included in the evidence base for the metacognition and self-regulation strand. Fantastically, the idea is that by asking children to, for example, argue about whether it is OK to hit a teddy bear, their standardised reading and maths scores will improve.

When the EEF ran a randomised controlled trial (RCT) of P4C they found no effect, as you might expect. However, once the researchers had seen the data, they reanalysed it in a way they had not specified at the outset and claimed to show a positive effect, a tactic considered bad research practice. On the basis of this, and probably a good serving of confirmation bias, the EEF decided to throw lots of the money endowed to them by UK taxpayers at a larger trial.

The issue of Impact that omits my article has now been published. Most of the online versions of the articles are paywalled, but one interesting piece is open access. It is by two of the authors of a recent EEF report on metacognition and self-regulation and it repeats points made in that report. Some of these are framed as ‘misconceptions’, although it’s not clear who holds these misconceptions. And one of these misconceptions is:

“Misconception 1: Metacognition is a general skill that should be taught separately from subject knowledge”

The authors go on to expand on this point and it is one well supported by the research they draw upon. Generic thinking skills programmes are less successful than developing metacognition within subject-based lessons.

However, there is an element of, ‘So what?’ about it. If we are really saying that teaching metacognition involves, for example, English teachers teaching students how to plan essays, then are we actually saying much at all? Perhaps there are some English teachers out there who say to their students, ‘Write! Write! I just want you to write! Cast off your shackles, free your minds, pick up you pens and write, goddammit!’ but I don’t know any.

And what is strange is that this misconception, identified in an EEF guidance report, seems to be a misconception that the EEF hold themselves about P4C. Is anyone at the EEF able to square this for us? I’d offer to write about it for Impact magazine but I suspect it wouldn’t get published.

A curriculum in tension

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I have been clear that the choice of teaching methods should not be a political one. The ideologies underpinning different approaches do not line up easily with the political left and the political right. In fact, we should be choosing the objectives we want to reach and simply asking ‘what’s the most reliable way to get there?’.

Similarly, I do not see the choice between a knowledge-lite, skills-based curriculum and a knowledge-rich curriculum as a political issue. The choice arises from the same sets of ideologies as the choice about teaching methods and broadly the same set of arguments apply. If we can agree, for instance, that we want to educate students who are able to economically and critically engage in the life of a democracy, then we can evaluate these two types of curriculum on that basis; which one best delivers the goods? From my reading of cognitive science, abilities such as critical thinking are not general skills but instead largely emerge from possessing relevant knowledge. Even if there is an additional, perhaps dispositional, layer to critical thinking, this can only be developed once the knowledge is there. You cannot think critically about something you don’t know much about or, at least, your critical thinking will be superficial.

Yet, once we agree with the need to pursue a knowledge-rich curriculum, we do enter political territory.

We may, for instance, address one of E. D. Hirsch’s questions and ask, ‘what knowledge is needed to understand The New York Times?’. The logic is clear: In order to critically engage in the life of a democracy such as that of the United States, you need to be able to understand such sources. This does not mean instinctively agreeing with those sources, but it does mean that you can engage with the information and arguments that they present. If you decide to challenge and dissent then you can do so from an informed perspective and with a greater prospect of your view being heard, respected and acted upon. This is perhaps even more important in an age of fake news and social media bubbles and represents a renewed mission for educators.

However, for historical reasons, the answer to the question, ‘what knowledge is need to understand The New York Times?’ Is likely to be, ‘Lots of stuff that was done, discovered and written by dead European males’.

To some extent, this is not a problem. There is a distinction between learning about and being indoctrinated into the values of people, their work and their times. An obvious example is the large amount of curriculum time that British schools spend studying the rise of the Nazis and the holocaust. Nobody would suggest that this is about turning children into Nazis – the function is clearly a warning from history. Perhaps less obviously, learning more about important historical figures such as Churchill even acts to distance us from him. The uninformed know only of Churchill the war-hero; a Hollywood Hagiography. The informed know about his role in Gallipoli, the black-and-tans militia in Ireland and his racist views.

Nevertheless, we should often sacrifice the principle of teaching the most widely applicable knowledge in order to make room in the curriculum for other priorities and voices. These include the voices of women and historically marginalised people. The Australian curriculum should include the story of Eddie Koiki Mabo. Not only is it important to an understanding of modern Australia, the inclusion of a diversity of voices signals that this is everyone’s curriculum. By contrast, the progressivist idea of allowing students choice over their own learning and pursuing themes only if they are of personal relevance to the students, could see Mabo’s story overlooked in large parts of Australia.

We are now at a turning point. The case for a knowledge-rich curriculum is strong. Despite setbacks such as the recent Gonski 2.0 review in Australia, with its apparent preference for decontextualised ‘learning progressions’, as more schools across the world demonstrate the effectiveness of prioritising knowledge, the momentum will become irresistible and Australian schools will start to seriously examine such a model. If left alone, this will lead to just one more axis on which schools will vary; another basis for the exercise of parental choice. A number of supplemented Australian Curriculums will develop, reflecting the idiosyncrasies and priorities of their designers; a market, if you will.

Alternatively, we could embark upon this project together, reforming the existing Australian Curriculum and ensuring it reflects our values as a nation. This would rightly be debated as we throw around what should and should not be included. It would be a political discussion, drawing on voices from left and right. That is why I have suggested a national panel that would take submissions and undertake five-yearly reviews.

No group or set of interests should win the curriculum. It should always be in tension.

Get your staplers out

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As the new edition of Impact magazine, the Chartered College of Teaching’s trade journal, arrives in UK staffrooms, it’s time to get out your staplers. Please print out the article below and staple it to the back of Impact. Cheers.

Link to article

The education hype cycle

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Differentiation is a blancmange. Its squishy and amorphous. To some extent, I use differentiation every day by varying my teaching to the needs of different students, but I don’t subscribe to schemes such as Universal Design for Learning or Carol Tomlinson’s widely publicised approaches to differentiation. This is because they lack evidence substantiating their effectiveness.

When I learnt that a group of Australian researchers were conducting a systematic review of differentiation research, I made the following prediction on Twitter:

The amorphous nature of differentiation means that it is repeatedly involved in the education hype cycle:

Differentiation and its hype cycle are going to be a growing problem in Australia because the recent Gonski 2.0 review recommended a form of individualised learning, without specifying the details. All we know about the Gonski panel’s proposals is that students will be learning different content (because imposing a common, age-based curriculum is ‘industrial’), that different students are likely to be learning different content in the same classroom (because the Gonski panel is against ability grouping) and that there will be a set of tests developed to measure what stage individual students are at on various ‘learning progressions’ (which sound similar to England’s axed national curriculum levels).

The Gonski panel’s proposals read a lot like they are promoting some form of differentiation and so some evidence to support these recommendations would be good. And yet, supportive academics writing in The Conversation could only cite one Randomised Controlled Trial showing promising results for a form of differentiation is middle school science. Importantly, in this trial, all students were working to the same set of objectives and yet, according to the Gonski panel’s plan, different students would be working towards different objectives.

I think this highlights some key unresolved tensions hiding inside the differentiation blancmange and we need to sort these out before we can properly test the concept.

Think about a model of differentiation that you are familiar with. Presumably, it is not ability grouping, even if, technically, this is a form of differentiation, because people don’t usually refer to ability grouping in this way. If that is the case, see if you can answer the following questions about your model:

  1. Are students working to the same learning objectives or different ones?
  2. If the learning objective is different to the mode of expressing that it has been met – for example, if children are learning about digestion and are showing this through writing – is the mode of expression varied for different students or are they supported to express their learning through the same mode?
  3. Are students working individually or in groups?
  4. How is the decision made on how to differentiate the content? Is a standardised test, a teacher-created test or another form of teacher assessment used or do students decide based upon their preferences and interests?
  5. Is the entire content differentiated or are there common elements that can be taught to the whole class?

This is only a start, but already we can see that the possible interpretations of differentiation are vast. Ideally, we should manipulate each of these possibilities in small-scale experiments and determine the effect of each. In many cases, this has already been done. For instance, there is research available showing that when students make choices on how to learn, they often do not make the most effective choices.

Perhaps the Gonski panel’s proposed new research institute could start to remove some of the custard around differentiation and give teachers a specific set of concepts to work with. That way, we might break the hype cycle.