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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

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Accessing academic papers

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I believe that teachers should have access to academic papers about education. If not, what exactly are these papers for? I understand that most teachers will never read them, but for those who do it can be transformational and this can have an additional impact through their influence on other teachers.

If you are not fortunate enough to live in a jurisdiction that provides free access to teachers then there are a number of ways to gain access:

1. Embark upon a university course such as a masters or PhD

This sounds like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, but there is probably a great deal of overlap between the teachers who would make use of access to scientific papers and those who would benefit from and be interested in further study. Try and stay away from ephemeral courses about French philosophers and instead chase down supervisors who you really want to work with. I still cannot get access to some things – some old papers and books – but this is the method that gives by far the greatest access.

2. Write to the authors

Before I had access to a university library, I used to write to the authors and ask them to send me papers I was interested in. A surprisingly large proportion did.

3. Websites such as Research Gate

Many authors publish articles on servers such as Research Gate. It is only since I have started submitting academic papers to journals myself that I have understood how this works. For relatively new papers, academics are usually allowed to publish ‘pre-prints’ – these are versions of the paper written before the journal has added any value so they will not be in the format of the journal and they will not contain revisions suggested by reviewers. For older papers, authors may be able to publish the finished paper.

Of course, everyone knows that there are militant open-access campaigners who have set-up websites such as sci-hub. However, these are illegal, breach copyright and you should not use them.

Engagement, behaviour and the things in life that are worth doing

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In an article in today’s edition of The Australian, Tania Apsland, president of the Australian Council of Deans of Education, the peak body representing university education faculties, makes the comment that, “If you can get students engaged in learning and they love learning, then discipline problems tend to be minimised.”

I did not know that Apsland was going to make this comment when I offered my own comment in the same piece: “This idea that if you provide an engaging lesson that kids will be ­engaged and behave, it’s complete nonsense.”

At least it proves that I was not erecting a straw man.

So what is this disagreement about?

In a literal sense, if students are ‘engaged in learning’ then they are unlikely to be misbehaving because it is difficult to do both of these things at the same time. However, I think most would take an additional implication from Aplsand’s comment. It seems to be implying that a teacher’s job is to ‘engage’ students. This is a vague term, but it is often operationalised as providing interesting or fun lessons or drawing kids in with an exciting hook.

Such an approach will not fix behaviour problems. For a start, teachers are not the only agents who affect behaviour. Students are often influenced by a range of factors outside the classroom. By placing all of the responsibility on teachers and their planning, we risk burning out teachers, particularly new ones.

And students will not know how engaging the work is until they’ve started working on it. You may have the potential to really enjoy swimming, but you may refuse to get into the water. This is why schools need robust behaviour systems that include strong strategies, routines and policies that make it the norm for students to listen to the teacher and attempt the tasks they are set. The ability for students to defer gratification in this way with an eye to a greater, long term goal, is one that will set them up well for life in the adult world and they need our help to do this.

Finally, the idea of engagement first might put the cart before the horse. It is likely that motivation and achievement have a reciprocal relationship with a sense of achievement also leading to future motivation. And this ‘intrinsic interest’ may have a longer term impact than the ephemeral ‘situational interest’ produced by a fun game used to hook students into a lesson.

This is not an argument for intentionally boring lessons. We should make them as interesting as we can. However, we need to acknowledge that the kind of deliberate practice that is likely to be needed to gain expertise in an academic subject includes an element of hard-work and drudgery, as does everything else worth doing in life.

One idea that teachers probably need to know about

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There is a muscular form of the learning sciences that will be familiar to those on Twitter. Emanating from undergraduate seminar rooms, particularly in the United States, this is the strand that promotes retrieval practice, distributed practice, interleaving and dual coding while dismissing the folly of learning styles. I broadly approve, but I don’t think this is a complete agenda. Think about the big, controversial issues we have to face in schools – managing behaviour, the teaching of reading, the teaching of maths. How are these addressed? And while we are discussing maths, I think we need to point to an issue with maths textbooks.

The textbooks my students use follow a formula. A chapter will introduce a new concept and related procedures. At the end of the chapter will be a number of questions related to the concept for students to answer. Drank neat, this is not interleaving.

Interleaving is often confused with distributed practice, but the two are different. Interleaving involves completing one type of problem followed by a different type of problem then a further type before circling back to the first. The idea is that this presents ‘desirable difficulties’ that impair performance in the short-term but enhance it in the long-term. If my students’ textbooks incorporated interleaving then they would look very different. The implications of research on interleaving are therefore quite profound and could lead teachers to ripping up their textbooks.

Yet I am not so sure that the textbooks have this wrong. The reason is related to a concept from Cognitive Load Theory that has clear, practical implications for teachers and that should be a lens through which teachers interpret all such advice about desirable difficulties. It is that important.

This is the concept of element interactivity, a concept that I have known some scientists to mock. It is certainly misunderstood. For instance, in a recent paper published in the Journal of Educational Psychology, element interactivity is conflated with the complexity of the learning materials. This leads the authors to suggest that learning to solve a problem from a worked example and recalling details of that worked example are tasks with equivalent levels of complexity because the learning materials are the same.

I can understand why we might want to view complexity in this way – it seems an objective measure – but clearly, these tasks are not equivalent in complexity. Complexity does not just relate to the materials, but the task. Recalling details of a worked example seems to be a less complex task that having to remember and apply the steps in a particular order.

Complexity also, inevitably, depends on the student. For instance, imagine I asked you to learn two words. You have a minute to study each of them and then, after five minutes, I will ask you to recall them. Here they are:

автомобиль puzzlement

Both words contain the same number of letters and so, by any objective measure, the materials represent the same level of complexity. However, the second word is written in the Roman alphabet used by English. Given that you can read this blog, you will be able to read the word and automatically associate it with meaning retrieved from your long-term memory.

If you know Russian then you can probably also read the first word. If you do not, then you will have to try and hold on to all those symbols in working memory and you will not have access to the word’s meaning, closing down one easy route for remembering it. Clearly, this would be a more complex task with far more for you to attend to.

So, although it would be good to be able measure complexity entirely objectively, we cannot. If you do not like element interactivity then that is fine, but you will need to find some other way of capturing the complexity of a learning task and this cannot be done without reference to the human being doing the learning and what they already know.

However, you might ask: why do we need a measure of complexity at all?

There is growing evidence that the effectiveness of retrieval practice, distributed practice and all those other ways of introducing desirable difficulties depend on element interactivity.

The initial experiments in many of these areas were conducted using relatively simple tasks such as learning lists of words. However, when we move to more complex tasks, we start to see a difference emerge between relative novices and relative experts. In a recent experiment, variation of task was found to be beneficial for relative experts but not for novices.

It may be the case that the textbooks have it right after all. When first meeting a complex concept, there may be enough difficulties for students to attend to without introducing supposedly desirable ones.

If so, the concept of element interactivity, far from being a rarefied, theoretical pursuit, is critical to the practical decisions that teachers make every day.

Death of a dogma?

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In the late 1960s, David P. Weikart embarked upon a study. He and his team randomly assigned preschool students from poor backgrounds to one of three different curriculum models – a standard nursery school, a preschool programme based upon the Direct Instruction approach developed by Carl Bereiter and Siegfried Engelmann and a child-centred preschool programme developed by Weikart and his team known as “High/Scope”.

Weikart and colleagues then followed up the original participants at age 15, found little difference in academic outcomes but claimed to have found that children who participated in the Direct Instruction model were significantly more likely to be involved in criminal behaviour. These findings have been strongly challenged by Bereiter and Martin Kozloff. The main criticisms centre on the implausibility of such a long-term effect based on a limited preschool programme, the small sample sizes, the high rate of attrition, the fact that the High/Scope group had a significantly greater proportion of females and a lack of information in the way that the criminal activity self-reports were presented.

Nevertheless, as others have documented, the influence of this study is hard to overstate. It has become ‘best practice’ to avoid any direct teaching in preschool, with many jurisdictions mandating play-based, student-led learning. When you peel back the layers, you often find the High/Scope study lying inside.

It was with this in mind that I read a new study by Le, Schaack, Neishi, Hernandez and Blank, that examines the connections between ‘advanced content’ in the kindergarten curriculum and other outcomes. The researchers made use of the fact that the amount of this content has been increasing in recent years due to policy decisions.

Firstly, it is important to make it clear that this study took place in the U.S. where kindergarten involves five-year-old students – it can mean younger children in other parts of the world. It is therefore not directly comparable with the High/Scope study that involved three- and four-year-olds and so it is possible that something happens at the four/five age transition that causes different curricula to have different effects (for those who are interested, Project Follow Through involved children in kindergarten to grade three).

It is also important to notice that throughout this discussion, curriculum and teaching methods have been conflated. In theory, you could ask students to discover advanced concepts through play or you could directly teach social skills such as empathy. However, in practice, I don’t think this happens very much. The kind of ‘advanced content’ we are talking about is reading multisyllable words, recognising fractions, telling the time etc. and so I suspect this is a good proxy for some use of direct teaching methods.

Le et al. found that greater exposure to advanced content was associated with improved maths and English skills, as well as with improved social-emotional outcomes such as interpersonal skills, approaches to learning, attention and behaviour.

Le et al. make it clear that they are familiar with the arguments made against teaching advanced content early i.e. that it is developmentally inappropriate and they make efforts to investigate this. Perhaps, for instance, children entering kindergarten with lower levels of academic skills or social-emotional skills may become frustrated by advanced content and be harmed relative to their peers. However, no such association was found. Lower skilled children followed the same general pattern as their peers. Strikingly, “…advanced maths showed significant associations to selected social outcomes for children who entered kindergarten with low scores on approaches to learning, interpersonal skills, or self-control, or with high scores on externalising behaviors.”

This evidence is necessarily based upon correlations. I don’t think you could realistically do an experiment to test these relationships, as the debacle around the High/Scope study seems to show. So we must always be alive to the possibility that some other factor is at play. Perhaps students with the potential to make the greatest progress somehow get selected into schools that teach more advanced content. I’m not sure how that would work but it remains a possibility.

However, I think it puts to bed the idea that directly teaching academic content to young children is somehow harmful. As more evidence accumulates, it is time to ditch the rules restricting what teachers of young children are allowed to teach them and how they are allowed to teach. The dubious concept of developmental appropriateness has had its day.

Labor have a new education policy, it’s not about funding and it’s quite good

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Tanya Plibersek, deputy leader of the Australian Labor Party, has warned universities that they need to toughen their entry requirements for teacher education courses or face a cap on the number of places. This is a partial reversal of the Labor government’s 2009 decision to uncap university places.

Much of the discussion centres on the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank or ATAR. Students who wish to attend university sit a series of exams in Year 12 in different subjects – in Victoria, these are the Victorian Certificate of Education exams. These are all cohort-referenced, with the same proportion of students getting the same proportion of scores each year. From these exams, the ATAR is calculated.

The ATAR is intended to be the percentile of performance relative to all students who started high school in that cohort, not just those who sat the exams in Year 12. So an ATAR of 90 places you in the top 10%, an ATAR of 80 places you in the top 20% and so on.

The number of teacher education students with an ATAR below 70 has increased to 40% in recent years and some stories have been published highlighting trainee teachers with extremely low ATARs. There has also been concern about the use of alternative routes into teaching that bypass ATAR cutoffs that some states have implemented.

There is a suspicion that teacher education courses cost less to run than they collect in fees and so universities are motivated to recruit too many students. Although these are shortage subjects, there appears to be an overall oversupply of teachers, with new teachers struggling to find permanent work.

Teacher education courses also employ education academics and so, somewhat predictably, they have come out to fight Labor on this. The basic argument is that we should not be looking at entry requirements, we should be looking at outcomes. I don’t find this convincing given that teacher education courses don’t even appear to be equipping primary teachers in effective methods for teaching reading.

Some will also argue that teachers’ academic achievements don’t really matter. I disagree and would question the evidence base for such a claim. However, I suppose it comes down to what you want teachers and teaching to be.

Do you see education as the process of organising activities with the intention of imparting vacuous skills such as creativity, empathy and resilience? Such a dumbed-down approach does not actually require teachers to know anything. If, however, you would like children to experience a knowledge-rich curriculum then teacher knowledge becomes crucial.

Labor currently seem likely to form the next government later this year. This is a good policy. Let’s have more of the same.

Stop chasing unicorns, Mark Scott

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In a bitterly disappointing turn of events, Mark Scott, secretary of the New South Wales department of education, has expressed scepticism about imparting knowledge to students and has instead focused his attention on the nonexistent general skills of critical thinking and creativity.

This comes at a time when New South Wales is reviewing its curriculum and so I now have little hope that my submission, and the submissions of others who are familiar with the relevant cognitive science, will be heeded.

What I cannot understand is that Scott’s comments are completely at odds with recent arguments made by Alan Finkel, Australia’s chief scientist, about the importance of disciplinary knowledge. Surely, Scott must be aware of Finkel’s views and yet he has made no attempt to counter or rebut them. Instead, Scott simply seems to be rehashing the kinds of platitudes you hear at the worst education conferences.

Scott frames his comments in terms of assessment. Assessing knowledge is easy, he claims, but assessing critical thinking is hard and still a few years away (it’s always a few years away). He worries that this shifts the focus too much on knowledge.

But assessing critical thinking skills is really easy. Simply ask a student what caused the First World War or why it is that the world took prompt action on reducing CFC emissions but not on climate change.

And that’s where the problem becomes apparent. You cannot divorce critical thinking from disciplinary knowledge. You need to know a lot of stuff in order think critically about it. It is daft to set these up in opposition. As cognitive scientist Dan Willingham suggests, a child can think critically about something she knows about and a trained scientist can fail to think critically about something she does not know about.

The same is true for creativity. You cannot write a new symphony without a little familiarisation with musical notation, old symphonies and so on. Well, maybe you could give it a go, but if we define creativity in the way Sir Ken Robinson does as, “the process of having original ideas that have value,” then we might be sceptical of the value of a symphony written without such knowledge.

There is simply no generic skill of critical thinking or creativity that you can unplug from one context and plug into a different one. Instead, both are better seen as elements of expert performance in a given field.

Any generic test of critical thinking skills will therefore either be invalid or it will end up testing general knowledge. We have seen this before when the OECD developed a test of ‘collaborative problem solving’ and, surprise surprise, the countries that did better on the reading, maths and science PISA tests also did better on this one.

I think one reason that the myth of generic skills still exists is that it flatters a certain class of people into thinking they possess them. A politician who has never worked in the electricity industry feels confident to make pronouncements on energy policy by deploying critical thinking skills. Yet time and again we have seen that when people transfer from one area of expertise to another, they are capable of making horrible decisions and the most basic errors.

A New South Wales curriculum based upon a fundamental misunderstanding of cognitive science is not a good outcome for anyone involved. Please stop chasing unicorns, Mark Scott.