Reading Comprehension

To mark today’s cricket world cup final, I thought it might be a good idea to quote a section from a BBC report on the semi-final match between Australia and India:

“…Australia failed to fully capitalise on the second-wicket stand of 182 between Smith and Finch, as Michael Clarke’s men were stunted by the off-breaks of Ravichandran Ashwin and a curious collective failure against back-of-a-length bowling.”

If you are reading this then you are probably an educated person. I suspect that you can decode all of the words in that quote with ease. However, I am uncertain as to whether you will have comprehended it. This will depend, I suggest, on how much you know about cricket.

What if you read through it slowly, asking yourself questions about the quote as you go along? If you struggled with the quote then try this. Does it help?

Strategies such as self-questioning do clearly lead to greater comprehension. There is little doubt about this. And interestingly, the most effective way to teach such strategies appears to be with explicit instruction, even if they do seems to resolve down to just two strategies; questioning and summarising. However, if you don’t know what an “off-break” is then you may still struggle with the cricket quote, regardless of how many times you stop to ask yourself questions.

This might not matter a great deal. I am sure that many people pass through life knowing little of cricket and caring even less. But what if the passage was about a political situation; one that affected the reader? Perhaps the reader, if well-informed, would want to use her democratic rights to protest. Yet when she reads the relevant report in the New York Times, on the BBC website or after following a Twitter link, she finds that she cannot comprehend the relevant texts because they are full of the equivalents of ‘off-breaks’ and ‘back-of-a-length’ bowling.

Is there an alternative? Yes. Instead of simply teaching comprehension strategies, we could also ensure that students leave school in possession of the bodies of knowledge that are likely to be needed to understand common sources of information; knowledge that is historical, political, scientific and literary. This is the argument of E D Hirsch. It is difficult to fault scientifically or logically; background knowledge clearly does aid comprehension.

Hirsch goes further. He argues that children from the most deprived backgrounds are the ones who are most likely to move schools frequently. These children will suffer if they end up learning about the Ancient Egyptians three times but never hear of Apartheid. And so this leads to the logic of a common curriculum, shared across schools; not a particularly radical notion in those countries with a national curriculum like the UK or Australia. Unfortunately, the idea has created the opportunity for people to misunderstand Hirsch. The charge is that he is trying to impose his view of a white, middle-class, male, European, Judeo-Christian culture on diverse groups of people.

This is far from Hirsch’s aim. He references the New York Times and asks what knowledge is required in order to comprehend it. So Hirsch takes an empirical line. If you have a beef with anyone for trying to define culture then you need to take it up with the New York Times or BBC journalists. Hirsch is not the guilty party.

But what of relevance?

Is it appropriate to teach children from diverse backgrounds about Shakespeare? He is dead, white, male and European. Perhaps a different playwright might be more contemporary and relevant? Perhaps. But if the newspapers are full of inferences and allusions that require a passing familiarity with Shakespeare then these students will be disadvantaged. And such knowledge may serve the revolutionary and the subversive well. As Sun Tzu advises us; know your enemies and know yourself.

However, I think I can sympathise with Hirsch’s critics. It seems unfair that the inequities of the past would define what we teach our students today. Teachers tend to be idealists, after all. Perhaps we can get around the requirement for background knowledge if we teach transferable comprehensions strategies. This way, when our students don’t understand a text they can apply one of these strategies and thus understand it. We would then be free to reset the clock and select content that best suited our personal views about what is most relevant to our students. We would be free from the tyranny of culture as it actually exists.

And reading comprehension strategies are promising in this regard. They clearly have some effect. There is strong evidence for this.

Although they also seem a bit dull. Would your students rather learn about the Ancient Egyptians or a strategy for asking themselves questions whilst reading prose? And what if reading scores don’t improve much? Then we’ll need more of this strategy instruction and less of other things; music or art or science.

This would be an error. It seems that instruction in reading comprehension strategies provides a boost but it is a limited one. A short course will do as much good as a long one and so these strategies probably shouldn’t be allowed to dominate the curriculum. Rather, they should be perhaps revisited from time-to-time in the context of something else; a unit on government, perhaps.

The reality is that we cannot develop a workaround for background knowledge. Perhaps we need to embrace this reality and start to celebrate the beauty that lies in knowing about our world. This might have the added benefit of raising reading comprehension levels.


A guide for new teachers

In Australia we have pre-service teachers who become graduate teachers when they first start work. In the UK, I trained as a beginning teacher and became a newly qualified teacher or NQT for my first year of actual teaching. Whatever you’re called – and however you got there – starting out in teaching is pretty tough. I am sure that your professors and mentors have done an excellent job in preparing you in the time they have available. However, when I started teaching there were still a few issues that I didn’t know enough about. You might be the same.

Classroom Management

I’m not sure that anyone ever explicitly makes this case but it has certainly been implied to me a number of times that classroom management can be assured by planning engaging lessons. I don’t agree with this. There is also a respected tradition within education that is suspicious of authority and of adults imposing their will on children. I think this is healthy in preventing a return to the cruel, unusual punishments and abuses of the past.

However, I wonder whether this tradition sometimes makes us a little squeamish about discussing behaviour. Perhaps our wish to manage behaviour might be seen as manipulative and controlling; stifling of creativity? I don’t know. Although a great topic for a seminar room, in practice teachers do need techniques for managing the behaviour of the students they teach.

If you are a little worried about this idea then I suggest you ask your students. Most students, if given the opportunity to reflect honestly, will admit to liking well-controlled classrooms. The absence of teacher authority does not lead to peace, love and understanding; it leads to a chaotic competition for attention and it distracts from learning. In my opinion, good teachers are not harsh, unpleasant and sarcastic; they are genuine and friendly. And they set and maintain clear boundaries and expectations.

The good news is that the ability to manage a classroom is not an innate gift that some teachers just have whilst others do not. It might look that way when you observe an experienced professional in full swing in the middle of term. However, you will have missed all of the interactions that have led to this point. The right ways to manage such interactions are largely known and can be learnt.

I would advise you to buy this book by Marzano, Marzano and Pickering if funds allow. It is a great, useable summary of the research. You might also wish to read this piece that I wrote for the TES which draws on Marzano’s research and gives some practical tips. Alternatively, you could get hold of a copy of this pocketbook which I have used to support training sessions in the past. Tom Bennett has also written extensively from a practitioner’s perspective both for the TES and in this book.

Unfortunately, there is little that you can do in a situation where you are not supported by your school. You should therefore try to establish a school’s approach to classroom management before your take up a position.

The value of knowing lots of stuff

There is a bit of a trend in the education world to downplay the value of knowledge of the world. Some claim that students don’t need to know much factual information these days because they can look it up on the internet. For instance, one Twitter meme contains a quote from Eric Jensen that says, “Strong teachers don’t teach content; Google has content. Strong teaching connects learning in ways that inspire kids to learn more and strive for greatness.”

That sounds really nice but, to my understanding, this underplays the role of knowledge in how we think. You can see my argument here. Basically, knowledge is what you think with and you can’t think with stuff that’s sitting on the internet.

Both Daisy Christodoulou and Dan Willingham have written excellent books that tackle this matter in different ways. I highly recommend them.

However, this is where I get to plug possibly my favourite free resource. AFT is an American teaching union and it provides a public service by making all of the articles in its American Educator magazine available online. To my mind, these hit the sweet-spot of being both readable and properly referenced. AE is not a peer-reviewed journal but many of the articles come from contributors who regularly publish journal articles. Some pieces are tasters of education books. For instance, if you want an idea of Daisy’s book then you can read this article. For Dan’s, see this piece.

A broad but not deep knowledge of the world is also essential to reading comprehension. Again, American Educator can help us here with an article by E D Hirsch Jr that explains why. You might also want to read Hirsch’s 2006 book on the same subject. For balance, it’s worth turning to Grant Wiggins who has criticised Hirsch’s position (most recently here). Wiggins places far more emphasis on the acquisition of reading comprehension strategies than on knowledge. Willingham discusses that idea here.

My understanding is that Lisa Hansel played a significant role in making AE what it has become. For this, I am most grateful. She now works for the Core Knowledge Foundation and you can follow her on Twitter (@LisaHansel).

Explicit Instruction

I left training with a number of misconceptions about pedagogy. In particular, I did not know about the research on the effectiveness of explicit instruction. I have discussed it at some length on this blog and so I’ll only summarise it here.

Firstly, effective explicit instruction is not lecturing. It is highly interactive with the teacher constantly throwing questions to the students during any period of exposition. This has implications for how you organise your classroom. For instance, it’s not effective to have students shouting-out the answers to questions or only ever selecting responses from volunteers. This means that other students can tune-out.

Explicit instruction also includes independent practice at using the knowledge that has been transmitted from the teacher to the students. The key feature is that ideas, concepts, problem-solving strategies etc. are fully explained in advance of the students having a go.

The researcher Richard Mayer has identified something that he calls the ‘constructivist teaching fallacy’ that militates against effective explicit instruction. This is where teachers assume that the need for students to actively think about new ideas and concepts means that they have to actively do something like participate in group work or solve problems. This conflation of behavioural activity with mental activity means that those who hold this view think that explicit instruction is too ‘passive’.

There are further fallacies that are described well by Gregory Yates of the University of South Australia. Some commentators suggest that explicit instruction is good for imparting rote knowledge but that other forms of instruction are better for developing higher order objectives. This idea has a truthy ring to it but it doesn’t seem to be supported by the evidence. It also has the effect of making explicit instruction seem like a lesser kind of instruction.

Finally, there is the notion that concepts cannot really be communicated from one person to another; we only learn from direct experience. This means that teachers trying to ‘transmit’ ideas are wasting their time because students can’t possibly understand them. Instead, students need to be conducting an experiment or placing post-it notes on butchers’ paper or discussing their ideas with peers. Although these may all represent valid teaching strategies, the idea that concepts cannot be effectively communicated is falsified by everyday life. If it were true then what are all the books for? Why am I writing this?

Concept transmission devices

Concept transmission devices

Yates goes further, “…it is possible to suggest that information communicated via direct social and verbal transmission can be more durable, more available, and more resilient than knowledge uncovered and constructed through an individual’s onerous inductive processing.”

I have peppered the above with links to support the argument that I am making. However, a good starting point for explicit instruction would be to read two articles that are again from American Educator (here and here). The first of these is based upon an academic paper that sparked responses from other researchers, a conference and then a book on the subject, “Constructivist Instruction: Success or Failure.” This is a great book that I highly recommend. However, it is written with professional researchers in mind. I know of no books on this issue for the general reader although I do hope to publish one!

What I missed

I didn’t write about learning styles because I hope that you are already aware that they don’t really exist. I should probably have added a discussion of phonics but that would have taken a post of its own. Maybe next time. There are also loads of great books and resources that I didn’t list because they weren’t the first that came to mind when expanding on my chosen themes. Please feel free to add questions or list good resources in the comments below.

And best of luck with it all.


On Balance

To be on the side of balance.

I am a little concerned that the discussion about explicit instruction is in danger of being framed as one that pits those in favour of balance against explicit instruction fundamentalism. This would be an error.

In fact, all teachers use a wide range of teaching strategies and so balance will be evident pretty much everywhere. Despite the fact that I have been pointing to the evidence in favour of explicit instruction, I use a range of strategies in the classroom. Let’s take the example of science practical work. I believe that it is not the best basis for learning scientific principles because conducting the practical work requires all of the students’ attention, leaving little left to ponder the science. However, I still use practical work because I believe it is motivating and that it provides a hook on which to hang later learning; “Do you remember when we did the experiment with the pendulum? Well…”

I have noted how the proponents of systematic synthetic phonics – who are just as interested in comprehension as anyone else – have suffered from being portrayed as antagonistic towards balance. This obfuscates a worthwhile discussion.

Instead, we should be discussing the nature of the balance of approaches that different practitioners use.

Do all teachers know, for instance, that there is a great deal of evidence in favour of explicit instruction? Certainly, early in my career, I would often use explicit instruction but feel guilty about it because I thought that I should be facilitating group work or inquiry learning instead. So this was still a balance but of an unsatisfactory kind.

In this article, the kind of balance on offer involves acknowledging explicit instruction as a important part of the basic pedagogical arsenal but then criticising the respected indigenous leader Noel Pearson‘s attempt to introduce an Engelmann-like Direct Instruction programme as, “skilling and drilling students to the point of exhaustion.” I have not seen this program in action but this characterisation sounds a bit far-fetched given its antecedents. And no evidence is presented to support it. Balance?

I have also read blogs where people state that explicit instruction should be part of a balanced approach and yet then call into question the research that supports its use. Like Gregory Yates, I know of people insisting that explicit instruction is only any good for teaching rote knowledge or procedures but other approaches are needed for developing higher order skills. This is not what the evidence shows and it is not the sort of balance that I would agree with. Indeed, I have seen philosophical arguments ventured that suggest that explicit instruction is about authority and control. The theorist Paolo Friere even thinks it prevents people from becoming more human. And he launched a field called ‘critical pedagogy’ that has its adherents in schools of education to this day. It is hard to see why anyone so morally opposed to a practice would wish it to take a significant role within a balance of approaches.

Explicit instruction also seems to suffer from a double standard. Despite there being little evidence suggesting that inquiry learning is effective, it is widely promoted. No-one seeks to think critically about this. And yet people are quick to find fault with any research that shows the effectiveness of explicit instruction; and finding fault with any individual study is easy enough to do in the social sciences. However, the evidence in favour of explicit instruction is unique in the field of education in that multiple studies from different perspectives over many years and using diverse methodologies all converge on the same result: explicit instruction is highly effective, whatever we are trying to teach.

If we had a genuine interest in balance – rather than a rhetorical one – then teachers would leave teacher education institutions with a better understanding of explicit instruction and how to make it effective. And yet it seems to get little time. I have even met teacher educators who have never heard of Project Follow Through – this tells us something of priorities.

Take, for example, the specification for the Graduate Diploma of Education at the University of Southern Queensland. The outgoing primary and middle years routes contain two entire courses in “Inquiry through the curriculum” where “Students will be required to develop short term learning plans which demonstrate knowledge of appropriate curriculum documents and the integration of knowledge and skills across learning areas utilising a pedagogy based on inquiry.” Yet I cannot see any courses on explicit or direct instruction.

That doesn’t seem very balanced.


Those empty vessels

Given the increasing popularity of the blog, I thought it might be a good idea to deal with its title. As I have claimed, William Butler Yeats never said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Neither did Socrates. A thorough search for the origins of the phrase locates it with Plutarch. However, I think that most people miss the sense of it.

Plutarch is writing for the young Nicander. And the title of his essay is, “On listening to lectures.” Clearly, Plutarch is not giving advice to the lecturer but rather to the lectured. There is no sense that Plutarch is commenting on methods of teaching. It seems that Plutarch was urging Nicander to actively think about what was being presented.

I am reminded of the argument of Mayer (2009) that cognitive activity does not necessarily require behavioural activity. The suggestion that it does require behavioural activity represents, to Mayer, the ‘constructivist teaching fallacy’.

I think that Plutarch and Mayer would agree on much. First, here is the section from which the famous quote is extracted:

“For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth. Imagine, then, that a man should need to get fire from a neighbour, and, upon finding a big bright fire there, should stay there continually warming himself; just so it is if a man comes to another to share the benefit of a discourse, and does not think it necessary to kindle from it some illumination for himself and some thinking of his own, but, delighting in the discourse, sits enchanted; he gets, as it were, a bright and ruddy glow in the form of opinion imparted to him by what is said, but the mouldiness and darkness of his inner mind he has not dissipated nor banished by the warm glow of philosophy.”

If you are not yet convinced of Plutarch’s message then I offer these other quotes from the same essay:

“Therefore, since listening to lectures is attended by great benefit, but by no less danger, to the young, I think it is a good thing to discuss the matter continually both with oneself and with another person. The reason for so doing is because we observe that a poor use is made of this by the great majority of persons, who practise speaking before they have acquired the habit of listening.”

“But here is the most ridiculous thing in the world: if [young men] chance upon somebody who is giving an account of a dinner or a procession or a dream or a wordy brawl which he has had with another man, they listen in silence, and importune him to continue; yet if anybody draws them to one side and tries to impart something useful, or to advise them of some duty, or to admonish them when in the wrong, or to mollify them when incensed, they have no patience with him; but, eager to get the better of him if they can, they fight against what he says, or else they beat a hasty retreat in search of other foolish talk, filling their ears like worthless and rotten vessels with anything rather than the things they need.”

“As skilful horse-trainers give us horses with a good mouth for the bit, so too skilful educators give us children with a good ear for speech, by teaching them to hear much and speak little.”

If we are to accept Plutarch as a communicator of wisdom through the ages then it is important that we don’t misrepresent what he actually thought.


Minimal Guidance

This is effectively the second in a series on the forgotten history of educational research; the first being my post on Project Follow Through. I suggest that it is a forgotten history because many teachers and teacher educators are unaware of the debate or think it’s a false debate. I am not convinced by those who claim that there is no debate to be had and I will return to this point later.

I am talking about the publication in 2006 of a paper by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard Clark called, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching”. It led to three rebuttals in the same journal, a response by the authors, a conference and then finally a book, “Constructivist Instruction – Success or Failure.” So it is kind of a big deal.

The paper makes the case for fully guided instruction. In fact, a follow-up piece for American Educator magazine is called ‘The case for fully guided instruction’. The authors argue that information should not be withheld from students. Instead, concepts and procedures should be fully explained to them prior to guided practice. The authors draw on evidence from cognitive science and from educational research that shows that there is nothing to be gained and much to lose by not providing explicit guidance.

Two of the rebuttals, those by Schmidt et. al. and by Hmelo-Silver et. al. basically accept Kirschner et. al.’s points about cognitive load but claim that problem-based learning and inquiry learning do not fit the description of ‘minimal guidance’. This is a little semantic. The purpose of both approaches is for students to try to find out the answers to problems themselves without being explicitly instructed in how to do this. Whatever you call that thing, that’s what Kirschner et. al. are arguing against.

Hmelo-Silver et. al. state that problem-based learning is highly scaffolded. This is what Pea (2004) has to say about scaffolding;

“A theory of scaffolding should successfully predict for any given learner and any given task what forms of support provided by what agent(s) and designed artifacts would suffice for enabling that learner to perform at a desirable level of proficiency on that task, which is known to be unachievable without such scaffolding. Thus, one needs independent evidence that the learner cannot do the task or goal unaided.”

So we are to provide guidance to a learner only when we have evidence that he or she cannot complete the task unaided. That sounds pretty minimal to me, especially when you consider that a learner may be able to complete a task unaided but this may take him or her a long time, might be frustrating and might result in a less that optimal solution.

The third rebuttal is by Deanna Kuhn. She first questions whether knowledge should be taught at all before accepting that, “Of course we want children to acquire some rudimentary understanding of the physical and biological world around them” [my emphasis]. To Kuhn, rapid advances in the sciences mean that we cannot hope to teach all of the science that is out there.

Firstly, as a physics teacher, I wish to impart far more than a rudimentary understanding of the physical world. Secondly, although the frontiers of science are constantly extending, key principles such as Newton’s laws, evolution by natural selection or even the particle theory of matter have changed little in hundreds of years and are certainly worth understanding. Thirdly, Kuhn’s preference for emphasising the teaching of transferable skills  such as ‘argument’ or ‘inquiry’ ignore the fact that such skills are highly dependent on possessing a body of relevant knowledge. Inquiry, for instance, involves formulating a question and an hypothesis. How may we do this in a sophisticated way with only a rudimentary knowledge of the area in question?

People often point me towards these rebuttals. They less often mention Kirschner et. al.’s reply to these rebuttals which deals with the points that I have made above.

There are a few misconceptions that have developed around the case for explicit instruction epitomised by the Kirschner, Sweller, Clark paper. It’s worth clearing these up.

The evidence is broad

The evidence for explicit instruction does not just come from cognitive science and the sorts of experiments conducted by John Sweller on worked examples. It does not just come from Project Follow Through. In fact, the finding that explicit instruction is superior to less explicit forms of instruction has been replicated many times in process-product research and in expert/novice teacher studies.

Barak Rosenshine mentions three types of research from; cognitive science, process-product studies and studies on the use of cognitive supports to learn complex tasks. He states, “Even though these are three very different bodies of research, there is no conflict at all between the instructional suggestions that come from each of these three sources… The most effective teachers ensured that their students efficiently acquired, rehearsed, and connected background knowledge by providing a good deal of instructional support. They provided this support by teaching new material in manageable amounts, modeling, guiding student practice, helping students when they made errors, and providing for sufficient practice and review. Many of these teachers also went on to experiential, hands on activities, but they always did the experiential activities after, not before, the basic material was learned.” [Original Emphasis].

The evidence is not limited to basic rote memorisation

The evidence for explicit instruction is not limited to objectives such as the ‘rote’ memorisation of information. I doubt that it is easy to remember very much by rote – that is, without understanding – because we tend to remember things through their meanings. That’s why memory champions have tricks for assigning meaning to random events – for instance, they might imagine a walk through a house to remember a sequence of cards.

In Project Follow Through, students in the Direct Instruction condition outperformed the other groups in basic skills but also in reading passages full of inferences and in mathematical problem solving. Indeed, the research on complex tasks noted by Rosenshine above shows that explicit instruction in strategies improves performance in these ill-defined areas.

I suspect that if we could state an objective of education and agree that this was trainable i.e. not a fairly stable aspect of personality, and that it wasn’t something we all develop naturally such as walking, then any test we could devise would show that explicit instruction was superior in reaching this objective. There is nothing to be gained by failing to be explicit. As Gregory Yates of the University of South Australia notes, “The following misconception is noted: Knowledge is acquired superficially through direct instruction, but acquired more meaningfully though personal discovery… this idea did not find support in the myriad experiments conducted using Piagetian tasks. Instead, the added burden of attempting to discover or “problem-solve” new knowledge actively can increase cognitive load in such a way as to interfere with learning in novices.”

This is not simply obvious 

Once availed of the facts about explicit instruction, some may claim that this is just obvious; all teachers use it anyway so why go on about it? This is not quite right. Some teacher education texts advise providing explicit guidance only after a period of problem solving. This, in the least, represents a significant disagreement with the conclusions of Rosenshine.

Noted influential writers such as John Dewey and Paolo Freire have argued against explicit instruction; Freire devotes an entire chapter of the influential “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” to criticising the ‘banking’ model of education which closely resembles explicit instruction. And these writers’ works continue to be popular.

In his influential paper on discovery learning, Mayer notes repeated attempts over many decades to introduce discovery approaches despite little evidence that they work. If the effectiveness of explicit instruction is obvious then why would this be?

Yates confirms this:

“It is notable that data from two empirical surveys challenge directly the notion that research into teaching has produced obvious findings. In separate studies, Townsend (1995) and Wong (1995) presented statements derived from process– product studies to teachers and student teachers, and requested them to rate how obvious the statements were. But in both studies, there was a twist. The item statements were presented in either of two ways, specifically either with the correct finding, or with its opposite. For example, Wong’s ninth item was expressed in two ways: Students were found to get better scores on achievement tests in classes with either (a) more teacher control and less student freedom to select learning experiences, or (b) less teacher control and more student freedom to select learning experiences. In both studies, the overall finding was that participants rated the stated propositions (both the correct and incorrect versions) as equally obvious. In fact for Wong’s item above, the correct form (a) was rated as less obvious that the incorrect form (b).”

So not obvious at all then.

Times are changing

However, acceptance of the evidence for explicit instruction does now seem be becoming more mainstream. In recent months, we have had the release of the Sutton Trust report in the UK and just recently the CESE report in New South Wales. Hopefully, the value of explicit instruction will now start to be appreciated.


The Staircase

My grandfather was a joiner. He made window frames, doors, bookshelves and staircases. Of these, the staircases were the most difficult because each represented a unique problem, depending upon how the house had been designed. He would pull out a cigarette, take a few drags on it and the solution would come to him. Not that I am advocating smoking. Even though he quit, smoking eventually killed my grandfather.

I find it interesting that nobody ever taught him how to problem-solve or how to be creative. And yet he managed this nonetheless. In fact, I reckon humans have been solving problems for quite some time. Indeed, we seem to be pre-programmed with a problem-solving strategy known as ‘means-end analysis’. Contrast this with reading. We are not born with a strategy for reading and so we need to be taught how to do it. Indeed, for the major part of human history, most people never learnt how to do it.

The principle of parsimony, otherwise known as Occam’s razor, is often expressed as ‘the simplest solution is the best one.’ You could call it a ‘solution evaluating strategy’ if you like. I prefer a more arcane wording of the principle; entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity. Imagine that I leave a football in the back yard over night. When I wake the next morning, I see that it has moved. Perhaps the wind moved it? Or perhaps elves moved it? The first explanation is better because it does not involve invoking a new entity – elves. Instead, it relies on an entity that is already known – the wind. And yet, like Bertrand Russell’s teapot, orbiting out there between the earth and mars, I cannot prove that the elves don’t exist.

I think that there are potentially many elves and orbital teapots in education. One of these might be the notion of teaching problem-solving as a general kind of skill. Whilst we all possess the means-end analysis strategy, there is little evidence that we can be taught other such strategies that generalise across different kinds of problems. Solving a maths problem may well just be different to designing a staircase. And what of critical thinking and creativity? Do these generalise and can they be taught? There is evidence to suggest that they are more akin to properties of expertise within a specific area rather than generalisable skills.

I often hear or read comments that are something like this: NAPLAN tests only assess a narrow range of skills and if we focus on these then we may lose sight of equally important objectives.

Let’s examine this. NAPLAN tests assess whether children can read, write and do basic maths. I think these things are quite important. You certainly wouldn’t want children going through school and not learning to read, no matter how creative they were. Would you?

And reading definitely does exist and definitely can be taught. So this is a good thing to aim at. Perhaps when we have mastered teaching all children reading, writing and maths then we can worry about assessing these other things. But I don’t think we’ve done that yet and so perhaps these areas should rightly be a bit of a focus.

However, I would wish to make clear what that would look like. For instance, there is now a wealth of evidence that such skills should be explicitly taught. A new study by the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation in NSW is just the latest to review the research and come to this conclusion.

And a focus on reading should not lead to three hours a day spent on reading strategies. Yes, reading is more than just decoding print; it is also about comprehension. However, comprehension is best built by developing a broad knowledge of the world so that when you read something you can bring this knowledge to bear on it and understand what it means. This is more than just learning vocabulary; you need to understand the allusions and analogies in a text; you need to be able to fill in the gaps and make inferences. Reading comprehension strategies have some value but they cannot compensate for weak world knowledge.

Instead, we need a full and vibrant curriculum from the very start of school; a curriculum that includes English, history, science, the arts and a mathematics program; all explicitly taught and appropriately sequenced. The attributes that we tend to think of as critical thinking and problem-solving will gradually grow within these subject areas. We can encourage such growth as we, piece-by-piece and block-by-block, attempt to construct a curriculum with a clear objective; to bridge the space between an inquisitive child and a fulfilled and articulate adult, engaged in the world.

Like building a staircase.



Lenin in Poland

There is an old joke:

Brezhnev is planning a state visit to Poland. He wants to present his hosts with a gift and so he summons the Kremlin artist.

“I want a picture,” he says. “Lenin in Poland.”

The artist is a little concerned. “I’m not sure what there is to go on; photographs and the like. Did Lenin even ever visit Poland?”

Brezhnev waves away these concerns. “You will think of something.”

A couple of weeks later, the artist is back at the Kremlin for the unveiling. Brezhnev pulls back the sheet and sees a picture of Lenin’s wife, Nadya, in bed with Leon Trotsky.

“What’s this?” asks Brezhnev. “Where’s Lenin?”

The artist replies, “In Poland.”

This joke is interesting in that you can probably ‘get’ it without much of an understanding of the people and places that it references. The structure is quite a standard one. However, when I tell it to people I tend to experience one of two reactions; those who laugh or groan and those who sit there stony-faced before asking, “Who’s Brezhnev?” It seems that this latter group can’t get past their need to know the characters and that this interferes with them understanding the joke.

This might not be such a surprise. It seems that we tend to first focus on surface features of a given problem – in this case, a joke – before we can interact with the deeper structure. If those surface features are not familiar then we become a little lost.

I have always had an interest in comedy. I used to hang around a lot in comedy clubs in London because one of my best friends used to run one. I even had a go at it myself. A colleague from work also ran a comedy club out in Ruislip and I did a couple of five minute slots. I found the video file a couple of years back and was pleasantly surprised to see myself introduced by Lee Mack…

When you try to write jokes it becomes immediately apparent that it is all about predicting what knowledge your audience will bring with them. There are lazy approaches; using a swear word that your audience will know but won’t hear often, relying on stereotypes like a 1970s end-of-the-pier comedian or mundane observational stuff like, “You know when someone squeezes the toothpaste from the middle of the tube…” However, clever comedy requires that you go out on a bit of a limb. Even surreal jokes often use the real world as a launch-pad, “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…”

As teachers, we exist in the middle zone. Our analogies and explanations have to relate concepts to what our students will already know. Yet we are using these tactics to help them apprehend the unknown. If all of our teaching just stayed completely within the everyday experience of the students then what exactly would be the point? A good education expands our students’ horizons so that they can see farther then they ever could without it. That’s the point of all that Shakespeare, world history and stuff like that.

We want to educate students who will get the joke.


Holistic Literacy

Sometimes, the language of education can get away from you and leave you with the urge to place all key terms in inverted commas. ‘Constructivism’ is one such term. It is a theory of learning; one that suggests that we relate new knowledge to what we already know. Carl Bereiter rightly cautions us not to see memory as a filing cabinet in to which we may simply slot new information. Instead, I suggest that we should recognise that ideas and concepts are organised in ‘schema’ and that incomplete and possibly inaccurate schema already exist for many of the things that we want students to learn. Students may indeed hold misconceptions and these can be quite resilient.

However, there is a perhaps naïve view that constructivism as a theory of learning implies a particular set of teaching practices; constructivist teaching. Here, it is often assumed that we can only truly understand concepts that we have discovered or directly experienced ourselves. Whilst this may be true for most animals, humans are exceptional for our ability to communicate ideas; ideas that can live-on past the lifetime of any one individual. It is not the case that we must directly experience things in order to understand them. Think of all the books.

This slipperiness of language makes it hard to have clear discussions about teaching approaches. If you wish to comment on constructivist teaching techniques then, no doubt, someone will remind you that constructivism is a theory of learning and not a theory of teaching. You are then left without an alternative, agreed description for the thing that you are trying to comment on.

Similarly, imagine if you wish to raise questions about an approach known as ‘balanced literacy’. What kind of narrow-minded person would want to be critical of balance? Surely, any reasonable commentator would see that balanced literacy represents the best of all worlds, eschewing the false choice that is often presented between whole language and systematic, synthetic phonics (SSP).

Except that there may be reason to question this approach and it is closely related to the discussion of constructivism. The ‘systematic’ part of SSP is an attempt to order and structure the learning of phonics so that it best builds appropriate schema and avoids misconceptions. However, there are other approaches to phonics. For instance, An influential 1998 report by Snow, Burns and Griffin for the National Research Council in the US described two such approaches; embedded phonics and direct code instruction. Direct code instruction is essentially SSP and it is this method that Snow’s panel found to be most effective, particularly for struggling students.

So, the claim that balanced literacy includes a phonics component should perhaps be met with the question; what type of phonics component?

I have some sympathy with the proponents of SSP, given the evidence in favour of the approach. However, there is no denying that they have an image problem, particularly when they attempt to question a ‘balanced’ approach. Conversely, ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ might be an accurate description but it’s not a heart-warming one. I suggest a strategy.

The simple view of reading is that reading involves two components. The first is the decoding of words; turning the letters on the page into their corresponding sounds. The second part is understanding what those words then mean. For instance, you may be able to decode the word ‘trireme’ using your knowledge of letter-sound correspondences but you may have no idea what a trireme is. So you lack comprehension. The solution is to gain knowledge of the world and the words that describe it. This can happen in parallel to learning to decode.

Advocates of SSP are often accused of ignoring comprehension; unfairly, in my view. However, there are now a number of systematic approaches to building knowledge available such as the Core Knowledge Sequence. Perhaps there is a case for creating a scheme in which knowledge is systematically developed in parallel with reading skill. Given that this would deal with both aspects of reading – decoding and comprehension – we could call it ‘holistic literacy’. And who could possibly be against that?


Direct and Explicit

There was no conspiracy against Ignaz Semmelweis. It’s just that the doctors didn’t like what he had to say.

Semmelweis discovered that if obstetricians washed their hands then this dramatically reduced the incidence of puerperal fever. He linked this to the fact that doctors would often move from examining corpses to examining patients and thought that something was being transferred. So Semmelweis foreshadowed the germ theory of disease.

You might think that his success in cutting mortality rates would be universally welcomed. It wasn’t. Some questioned the validity of his data, suggesting that further studies were needed. Others felt the findings were a bit of an insult to the medical profession because doctors were gentleman and gentlemen’s hands were clean.

The main problem was that it didn’t fit with the prevailing orthodoxy that puerperal fever was complicated and developed in different ways in different patients. Doctors took what might be called a ‘patient-centered’ approach; disease was caused by an imbalance of the four humours; blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile. In each patient, the balance would be different. It didn’t seem at all likely that there was one single, simple cause which a prescription such as ‘wash your hands’ would eliminate.

I can’t help seeing parallels between this story and the strange tale of Project Follow Through. Every day it seems as if I come across people with senior roles in education who have not heard of Follow Through or have only heard a brief critique of it.

This little piece of forgotten history is fascinating and I have written about it before. In short, it was a massive experiment in the US based on a horse-race design. Different approaches to teaching early literacy and numeracy were trialled against each other. Due to its size and ambitions, it was impossible to control conditions in the way a conscientious statistician would wish. This has led some to claim that it demonstrates nothing – the critique that I mentioned.

However, I am rather convinced by Carl Bereiter’s argument. Yes, there are problems with analysing the data but we may still discern a significant result. “Direct Instruction” was the most successful intervention. The least effective approaches were those that Bereiter calls ‘child-centered’ such as the “Open Education Model” and “Responsive Education”.

It is important to note what Direct Instruction means in this context. The term ‘direct instruction’ i.e. in lower case is often used to mean any form of explicit teaching that is coupled with deliberate practice in order to meet clear objectives – the sorts of techniques that Barak Rosenshine has written extensively about. However, Direct Instruction i.e. in upper case, refers to specific educational programs originally developed by Siegfried Engelmann and colleagues for the Follow Through experiment. These involve the processes of generic direct instruction but also include a tightly structured approach to the curriculum that means that lessons are effectively scripted. Neither approach is synonymous with lecturing because any form of direct instruction typically involves a large component of teacher-student interaction throughout.

When you read back through the Follow Through literature there are echoes of exactly the debates that are taking place on Twitter today. Critics of Follow Through wonder whether the programs that turned out to be less effective might have performed better if assessed on different outcomes. This is a familiar argument: Direct Instruction might be better for developing basic skills but perhaps ‘child-centered’ or ‘constructivist’ approaches might be better at developing other things?

For a start, this is not what Follow Through showed. Although there were tests of basic skills, there were also tests of mathematical problem solving and reading comprehension. Direct Instruction still outperformed the other models in these measures, although not by as much. And this seems like quite a robust result, replicable in different contexts and at different student ages. It is as if we have unearthed a set of general principles rather than a one-off case. Indeed, these principles arise multiple times in the process-product research of the 1970s and 1980s.

Secondly, if there is robust evidence of other approaches outperforming direct instruction on different measures then it would be very interesting to see it. I have read commentators suggest that direct instruction is not as good as other approaches for tackling scientific misconceptions or developing argumentation or critical thinking and yet I see few trials that support this. The studies that are cited usually come from higher education and show gains for ‘active learning’ over straight lectures. In this context, ‘active learning’ often means lectures where the students have clickers so that they can interact with the lecturer. I am not surprised by the results of such studies but they have little to say about direct instruction.

And we must all be careful not to retreat into unfalsifiable positions. If the claim is being made that certain teaching methods are better for producing certain outcomes but that these outcomes cannot be measured in any way then we can’t test such a claim. If you cannot test a claim then it becomes a belief. And as the Semmelweis example shows, people’s beliefs can be mistaken.