This is the homepage of Greg Ashman, a teacher living and working in Australia. Nothing that I write or that I link to necessarily reflects the view of my school.
I have written for Spiked magazine
I have written for The Conversation:
Some of my writing is also on the researchED website workingoutwhatworks.com
I used to write articles for the the TES. These now appear to have been paywalled. I will probably make them available on my blog at some point. If you have access then you can find them here:
Create waves of learning, Master the mysterious art of explanation, Taking a critical look at praise, Behaviour, Great Scott! Let’s push the brain to its limits, The science fiction that doing is best, Make them sit up and take notice, For great rewards, sweat the small stuff, Where the grass is browner, Stand-out teaching – minus differentiation
The citation immediately struck me as odd. Take a look. There are a series of papers listed that seem to show that providing students with choice is a good idea. Then, as Pedro de Bruyckere points out, there is a request for more evidence, “Do you have additional evidence to support this Checkpoint? Tell us!”
This does not represent the standard approach to science which, if anything, should seek disconfirming evidence (here’s a review paper critical of student choice, for instance).
If you look on ERIC for peer reviewed studies of UDL you will find few that test its effectiveness in terms of the learning of students. This entry is fairly typical and describes a trial to see how well teachers who were trained in UDL then implemented its principles.
“Individuals bring a huge variety of skills, needs, and interests to learning. Neuroscience reveals that these differences are as varied and unique as our DNA or fingerprints. Three primary brain networks come into play.”
It then goes on to list these three networks as: ‘recognition networks’, ‘strategic networks’ and ‘affective networks’. Each of these is illustrated by a picture of a brain with a different area coloured-in.
We should be pretty sceptical at this point. I’ve written before about the way that neuroscience is sometimes used to justify particular teaching methods and I recently came across a paper by Jeffrey Bowers that makes this case much better than me.
Bowers explains that neuroscience is often used to support claims that are trivially true, such as that we learn less well under stress, and claims that have already been established through basic psychology research, such as the efficacy of phonics instruction. Neuroscience is also sometimes used to support practices in ways that are unwarranted. To Bowers, neuroscience has so far added nothing of use to teachers and is unlikely to do so in the future.
This seems true of the way that neuroscience is used to support UDL. The claim that we should use multiple representations of material seems either trivially true or known to us via psychology (although there are good and bad ways of doing this). The claim that we need to give students choices of how to act, express themselves and engage with content might be unwarranted.
Accommodate or address?
Bowers discusses the case where we find that a particular learning issue is linked to abnormal responses in a certain part of the brain. He asks what we should do about this: should we work on developing the functions associated with that brain part or should we look to develop workarounds? Neuroscience cannot tell us.
I would characterise this as the fundamental question of differentiation: do we accommodate the difference or do we address it?
Clearly, if a student is blind then we cannot expect him to read visual text. We have no choice but to accommodate the disability and offer an alternative.
But we can fall into error if we extend this logic to a student who has difficulty writing. Do we give her the option of recording her thoughts as an audio file? This would provide her with a different means of expression that she may prefer, given the difficulties she has with writing and particularly if sanctioned and encouraged by teachers. Yet this won’t address her writing difficulty. She will never improve at writing if she avoids writing. And she will fall further behind her peers who are practising more writing than her.
Perhaps this represents the difference between a disability and some other form of difficulty: the former must be accommodated but the latter should probably be addressed.
I have only dipped my toes in the water of UDL. The websites recommend various books. Perhaps these offer clear guidance on how to avoid some of the potential pitfalls. However, the invocation of neuroscience is at best unhelpful. And if teachers who just dip in their toes like me go away with the message that students should be offered lots of choice in how to complete activities then there is potential for harm.
A song came on the radio the other day; a silly and trivial pop song. As the first few clunky bars bounced out of my car speakers, I found myself gripped and confounded by a wave of overwhelming nostalgia. The song was ‘Things can only get better’ by D:Ream.
The Labour Party picked the tune as its theme for the 1997 British election. I hated the choice at the time. Why not something by Oasis? Perhaps, ‘Some might say’? Why choose a chirpy bubblegum pop song instead?
I now know the answer. The song was not for me. I physically ached for a change of government having only ever known The Conservatives in charge. Town centres had be ravaged by recession and public services were decaying. Privatised monopolies raked in cash while refusing to invest. I had signed a Socialist Worker Party petition against the Conservatives’ Criminal Justice Bill which effectively banned outdoor raves, characterised as they were by music containing ‘a series of repetitive beats’. The government obsessed over these kinds of illiberal social laws while the economy stagnated. I was ready for a different lot of politicians.
At the age of 16 I was convinced that Labour would win. But the 1992 election was lost to John Major, his stupid soapbox and a scare campaign about Labour’s tax plans. It was the ordinary people who had been frightened into voting Tory in 1992 that Labour needed to reassure and a silly, optimistic pop song was a small part of that.
“Things can only get better,” went the refrain and people up and down the land nodded their heads and thought, “what have we got to lose?”
In May 1997 I was in my final month of university. We had an election night party. The polls had been looking good but, after 1992, we took nothing for granted. We nervously clutched our beers in a room in College where we had rigged up a TV. And we waited.
By the time Michael Portillo fell, we started to realise just what a big Labour win was in the offing. We cheered and hugged each other. We cried. A guy on the floor below complained to the porters about the noise we were making and they came round and half-heartedly asked us to drop the volume a little, leaving us in no doubt at all about where their sympathies lay.
I started training as a teacher and entered my first classroom in October of 1997.
Back then, education was a Cindarella service. School buildings were run down. Budgets were tight. The new Labour government brought extra funding and schools were rebuilt, even if the Private Finance initiative seemed an odd way to do it, storing up problems for the future.
In time, I grew disillusioned. New Labour could never live up to the promise of that May evening. We had university tuition fees that I thought were wrong and the asymmetric impact of which made me question the devolution settlement between Britain’s constituent countries. Then Iraq came.
Even in education, Labour moved from sensible policies such as the national strategies to encouraging the diobolical energies of a thousand consultants who wanted to sell us learning styles and thinking skills.
But things really did get better. That promise was honoured.
And I suppose I’m sad because I reflect on the Labour Party today and realise that they have learnt nothing. If Jeremy Corbyn were to choose a theme tune then it would be Billy Bragg singing ‘Between the Wars’ whilst sat on a sack of coal.
We’ve probably all heard a colleague say something like, “I did a great activity today. It worked well. The kids were really engaged.” We even have professional development based on this premise: A consultant will come in to a school and promote a drama-based activity or project-based learning and everyone will conclude how effective it is because the students are really engaged.
I think the term ‘engagement’ has two meanings when people use it in this way. The first is that students are motivated by the activity and the second is that they are actively doing something. Perhaps the latter is seen to imply to the former because, in many classrooms, full participation in the activity might be optional.
Professor Robert Coe claims that engagement is a poor proxy for learning.
It is important to understand what ‘poor proxy’ means. It doesn’t mean that engagement is undesirable or in conflict with learning. Rather, learning is invisible. It’s not something that we can directly observe. So if we want to conclude that learning has taken place then we look for a proxy. A good proxy might be something like a delayed test. If students score well then we can infer that learning has taken place. Coe is claiming that engagement is a poor proxy.
This is quite reasonable. We can imagine students busily and enthusiastically doing stuff but learning little; or at least learning little of what is intended. For instance, a Macbeth diorama could engage students for hours without improving their ability to analyse the play.
We can also imagine students staring pretty blankly while a teacher talks and yet learning loads. Certainly, the mind has to be active for learning to take place but this doesn’t mean that the body has to be physically doing something. Richard Mayer calls the conflation of the two the, ‘constructivist teaching fallacy‘.
So why has Coe’s perfectly sensible suggestion provoked so much argument on Twitter recently?
Let’s take another of Coe’s poor proxies: classroom is ordered, calm, under control. I view an orderly classroom as highly desirable. I think that, in many cases, it is a necessary prerequisite for learning to occur. But I would not argue that we can infer from an orderly classroom that learning is taking place. Students could be behaving very well and learning little. Conversely, it is quite possible for students to be learning whilst some members of the class are misbehaving.
In my first year of teaching I had a difficult Year 10 science class for 80 minutes on a Friday afternoon. If we worked hard for the first 40 minutes I let the students research a science topic in the computer room for the last 40 minutes. They learnt little science from this research but many teachers dropped by and commented on how well behaved the students were.
I think that the problem people have with Coe’s analysis is that much of the evaluation of educational innovations never gets past the question of whether students are engaged. If this engagement leads to better learning then we could and should use better proxies to measure this learning. If a consultant comes in to your school and tries to sell you engagement then the professional response should be to ask for something more.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I have written a number of times about Reading Recovery. Reading Recovery research is exemplary in the way that it illustrates the problems with unfair tests.
Reading Recovery is a one-to-one intervention. When compared to doing nothing (or doing something short of one-to-one tuition) it appears to be effective. The problem is that we don’t know whether this is due to the form of the intervention or its nature. Would students make similar progress with a program of any additional one-to-one reading tuition of similar duration or is it the specific Reading Recovery strategies that cause the effect?
Theoretically, Reading Recovery is perhaps unsound. It is based upon the whole language approach to reading prevalent in the 1970s when it was developed. Although it has latterly incorporated an element of phonics, it’s not clear that this is the systematic synthetic phonics supported by research. And it still uses the three-cuing system criticised by Jim Rose in his report for the UK government.
I recently read a review that showed that the size of the effect when Reading Recovery is compared to do nothing/little is smaller than when systematic phonics intervention programs are compared with do nothing/little. This is strongly suggestive of the need to switch away from Reading Recovery to systematic phonics interventions.
A recent review for the New South Wales government took a look at the available evidence, including long term effects, and found a lack of support for Reading Recovery. The New South Wales government have now announced that they will cease to mandate Reading Recovery as the intervention of choice in government schools.
So a victory for evidence-based education. Savour it: they are rare.
About this time in the Northern hemisphere, as teachers settle into a pattern with new classes and norms have been set, there will be many who are struggling to manage behaviour.
There are three statements that I wish to make about classroom management and that I believe to be true.
1. Classroom management exists as a separate set of skills to the other skills involved in teaching, even if there is considerable overlap.
2. Some people are really good at classroom management and others are poor at it. You can get better at it by working hard on it and some people will make progress more rapidly than others. In other words, learning classroom management is exactly the same as learning any other set of skills.
3. Classroom management exists in a school context. You can’t surf if there are no waves and you can’t manage a classroom without support from the whole school community, particularly the leadership.
Unfortunately, student-centred education is to varying degrees the dominant philosophy in our education systems and it struggles to reconcile itself with any of this. Student-centred educators valorise intrinsic motivation. They see classroom management as extrinsic motivation at best and as a form of coercion at worst.
The problem is that, by definition, you can’t intrinsically motivate students. It has to come from within. Even posing an interesting question for students to investigate is, ultimately, a form of external manipulation. If you give students plenty of choice over what to do and how to do it then those students who are already intrinsically motivated about academic work will pursue it and those who are not will not. And what are you going to do about it? This is a pedagogy of privilege where those who already have a lot will gain more and those who are without will gain little. Think of the child who isn’t taught to read because she’s not considered ready and then imagine how that will play out in the long term.
If student-centred educators accepted this logic then they would need to change their philosophy. So they cling to a myth instead. If only the content can be made interesting enough, relevant enough, authentic enough, then all students will want to engage: we can extrinsically intrinsically motivate children. This is also a convenient cover for managers who don’t want to intervene to help teachers deal with behaviour issues – it’s the teacher’s fault for presenting dull lessons. She should perhaps spend a few extra hours a day designing funky activities.
Although a myth, there are aspects of this approach that are plausible. I have written before that I would back myself to engage most middle school science classes by giving them poster work to do, particularly if I didn’t insist on there being much science content on the posters.
But I haven’t actually changed students’ motivation. I’ve change my own objective of teaching science into something else that students are already motivated about: bubble writing and drawing pictures. Similarly, I can change my maths teaching objective from teaching students algebra to getting them to play with piles of sticks and form patterns. Students might be more motivated by this than actual algebra (or they might perhaps start throwing the sticks around).
It is true, of course, that there are more and less interesting ways of presenting a concept. Given the choice, I would pick the more interesting one, provided that it doesn’t reduce the clarity of what I’m trying to teach or subtly shift my objective. But this is still about externally manipulating the situational interest of students rather than changing what intrinsically motivates them.
Ultimately, classroom management reduces to the manipulation of rewards and sanctions coupled with cues and warnings; extrinsic motivation. These can be as subtle as a look or an encouraging word and the can be as radical as exclusion from school. I believe that exclusion has to be available as an ultimate sanction – some students can be a danger to their peers – but I do wonder whether incidents often escalate to the level of exclusion because a systematic approach is not in place prior to this stage.
This issue could present in the form of a new teacher whose relationship deteriorates with her class, gets little support and ends up saying something that prompts a child to push her against a wall, leading to an exclusion. It could look like the student who is never coerced into engaging in academic work, sees the gap between himself and his peers grow ever wider and becomes angry and resentful. These are two examples of the challenges that breed an environment where students are lost to education and teachers decide to quit the profession.
We can avoid this situation and we know how. We need to abandon the student-centred philosophy with its queasiness about classroom management.
I have noticed a trend towards invoking neuroscience to argue for student-centred or progressive forms of education. I won’t point to particular articles here but you’ll find them easily enough if you are interested. They follow a certain pattern:
1. The author argues that neuroscience heralds an imminent revolution in the way we view education.
2. The author highlights unremarkable findings such as the fact that it’s possible for the brain to learn new things or that learning can be affected by emotional states; findings that are either trivial or well known through cognitive science research.
3. The author concludes that these findings imply the need for naturalistic learning through contexts, student choice over what and when to learn, catering to individual student differences and an end to traditional forms of education based upon a 19th century factory model.
Take ‘neuroplasticity’, for instance. This simply means the ability of the brain to effectively rewire itself over time and is a physical mechanism for the way that learning might take place. Its relationship to learning is therefore similar to the relationship of DNA to genetics. We already knew about genetics when the precise means of the transmission of genes – DNA – was discovered, just like we already knew that people can learn new things – that taxi drivers can build up complex mental models of a cityscape – before we knew whether this results in physical changes to the brain.
It seems like the former point is relevant to education i.e. that we can learn lots of new things and that the precise mechanism of this is relatively unimportant. Yet ‘neuroplasticity’ has been touted as a reason why we should encourage a growth mindset or not assume some children are maths people and some are not. All of these conclusions seem reasonable from cognitive science and without reference to brain structure.
I wonder why people might jump on neuroscience in this way. There has been research to show that inserting redundant neuroscience terminology into an argument makes it more believable.
Perhaps student-centred learning advocates are also looking for a new stronghold from which to promote their ideas given the general lack of more mainstream empirical support.
In Australia, children sit standardised NAPLAN tests in years 3, 5, 7 and 9. These tests include writing and students have to construct either a narrative or persuasive response to a banal prompt. The prompt is banal for a reason: every student in Australia needs to be able to access it. A persuasive topic might be to debate if homework should be banned. A narrative prompt might be something like ‘A day out’.
What do you do to prepare students for this? An obvious strategy is to teach a structure for persuasive and for narrative writing, give students lots of banal prompts to respond to and then provide them with feedback. It is probably worth practising the form of the test beforehand but relying too much on this strategy is flawed.
The driving range
Writing is a complex performance and, like any other complex performance, it needs to be broken down into its component parts so that students can practise those components.
If you are a golfer who wants to improve your putting you will go to a putting green. If you want to improve the use of one of your irons you will go to the driving range. You won’t play whole games of golf because you might use that particular iron only once in a entire round.
Similarly, imagine a student who has trouble in punctuating complex sentences. The teacher writes at the bottom of one of her pieces ‘you need to improve your complex sentence punctuation’.
This feedback might be accurate but it doesn’t explain to the student how to punctuate properly. And by the time she gets to the first complex sentence in her next piece of writing her mind will be elsewhere; her attention focused on the topic or paragraphing or myriad other things.
Instead, we need to isolate this skill and practice it. Students could be asked to correct the punctuation in a passage or write a complex sentence to describe what is happening in a picture. This is the writing equivalent of the driving range.
Rising above the banal
Now let’s take a look at the narrative prompt, ‘A day out.’ It invites a banal response but we shouldn’t even take this for granted. I once taught in the London suburb of Hanwell. I remember being surprised to find that most of the kids I taught had never been to London. Days out were not their thing.
Setting this aside, what would a really good response look like. A wide vocabulary will certainly help. And a great response is probably going to be creative and rise above an obvious interpretation of the prompt.
For instance, we could imagine a story about a prisoner on day release. Or perhaps we could write about a teenager from a conservative suburb visiting the city for the day to meet up with his boyfriend. Maybe our protagonist lives in a base on Mars and needs to make the risky move of going outside to fix the communication antennae. Or maybe she is a girl in tenth century Italy who wanders off through the fields when she should have been doing her chores, only to witness her village raided by slavers.
All of these responses involve using knowledge of the world and literature; knowledge that students won’t gain by simply writing to banal prompts.