Evidence in education

I am unashamedly in favour of using evidence to inform what we do as teachers. This is the reason why I am completing an empirical PhD in an area that I believe to have great potential to guide our practice: Cognitive Load Theory.

However, I also recognise that no matter how good educational research may be, it is never going to tell us how to deal with the boys in the lunch queue. Some commentators will point to this complexity and declare a plague on all educational research. They might even start mentioning ‘critical realism’ or other such verbose and obscure social theories. But there really is no need. My position is a consistent one.

Where there is strong and consistent evidence then we should really be guided by that evidence. Where no such evidence exists then we should use our craft knowledge, underpinned by our humanistic principles. We can do both of these things.

And this is not about Randomised Controlled Trialls (RCTs). These can be incredibly useful but they are generally quite expensive and so there’s not that many to draw upon. They can also be badly designed to the point where they can only deliver a desired result and can tell us little or nothing about the strategies supposedly being tested. 

And it is not about effect sizes. I have become less convinced of this as some kind of across-study comparison measure the more that I have read. An effect size of 0.3 from a well-designed RCT may be far more significant than an effect size of 1.2 from a badly designed, poorly controlled trial with a dodgy test at the end of it. It simply does not all come out in the wash in the way that is sometimes supposed.

Instead, we should be looking for a volume of replicated studies where the strategies that are tested are well-designed. An example of such evidence is the evidence supporting systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) as an approach to teaching reading. Not all of these studies are RCTs. Yet the findings are so consistent that we now have three national panels from the US, UK and Australia all confirming that the weight of evidence supports SSP.

It really would be perverse to ignore it.


Authentic learning

Originally posted elsewhere:

“An exercise is a question that tests the student’s mastery of a narrowly focused technique, usually one that was recently “covered.” Exercises may be hard or easy, but they are never puzzling, for it is always immediately clear how to proceed. Getting the solution may involve hairy technical work, but the path towards solution is always apparent. In contrast, a problem is a question that cannot be answered immediately. Problems are often open-ended, paradoxical, and sometimes unsolvable, and require investigation before one can come close to a solution. Problems and problem solving are at the heart of mathematics. Research mathematicians do nothing but open-ended problem solving. In industry, being able to solve a poorly defined problem is much more important to an employer than being able to, say, invert a matrix. A computer can do the latter, but not the former.”

Paul Zeitz, The Art and Craft of Problem Solving

Imagine a school for surgery. Gone are classes in anatomy or repetitive drill with models. Instead, surgeons are trained in authentic contexts. They learn anatomy just-in-time such as when they are elbow deep in somebody’s abdomen. If this sounds like a bad idea then it is because we readily recognise the difference between an expert surgeon and a surgical student. Those studying surgery need to master a lot of knowledge and skill before they get anywhere near an authentic problem; a real-life human.

In reality, medical students spend a lot of time cutting-up cadavers. They also spend time in lectures and studying from books. A friend of mine had an anatomy chart on the back of the toilet door. And she would memorise it like a parrot. Was this ‘rote’? She certainly memorised things but she also understood them.

Only when such knowledge is robust do students start to integrate it with other skills in an attempt to solve problems. Even the vogue for ‘problem based learning’ for the training of diagnosis starts a good way up the ladder with a huge amount of biological knowledge already assumed.

Unfortunately, this clear distinction between experts and novices fades when life-and-death issues no longer hold it in stark relief. Many assume that the best way to teach mathematics is to require students to behave like professional mathematicians; solving open-ended problems. The best way to learn science is therefore to conduct scientific investigations just like real-life scientists do and, of course, students of history should be ploughing through primary sources.

However, in these contexts, our budding students are likely to learn less. They may become cognitively overloaded, with too much information to process. They may simply be exposed to a problem sub-type so infrequently that they don’t effectively learn from it or they fail to link it to other examples (If you want to improve your golf drive, you don’t play nine holes of golf; you go to the driving range and hit fifty or sixty drives). If you want to train future experts then you need to isolate the various components of that expertise, train those components and then systematically bring them together through a carefully chosen set of contexts that illustrate the deep structure of the concepts or problems.

But there is a persistent clamour for ever more authentic learning. Is your authentic learning not working? Then it must not be authentic enough. And it is a favorite trope of amateurs with an opinion.

It comes from a kind of romanticism. We look at, for instance, mathematical drill in class, we note that this is not always enjoyable for students and we proclaim, “But that’s not what real research mathematicians do!” We yearn for a shortcut so that students may appreciate the beauty of the subject without the grind.

But no such magical techniques exists. I am sure that expert players of the harp derive enormous pleasure from it. Yet, I am not going to replicate that pleasure by just plinking about on a harp myself. I will know that the sounds I make are inexpert and this is unlikely to be motivating. Instead, if I wish to experience the pleasure then I must defer this and undergo the short-term pain of practise – drill, scales and the like.

Maths, science and anything else worth learning are no different. Expertise does not come from simply copying what experts do.


Surf school revisited

Six weeks had passed and Jane from Head Office decided that it was time to return to The City Surf School to see if any progress had been made. A meeting was convened to discuss the action plan.

“So,” said Jane, “I hope you’ve all had a chance to read the research that I sent you about effective surf schools. What are people thinking at this stage?”

There was a pause. Julius and Brian looked to Marie who spoke for the group. “We are explicitly teaching basic skills,” she reported.

Jane smiled with relief, “Oh, that’s excellent!” she said, “so when when did you start with that?”

Marie looked rather stern. “No,” she clarified, “I meant that we are explicitly teaching basic skills. We always have done.”

Jane was now puzzled. “But when I was last here I got the impression that you weren’t keen on the basics; that you saw surf school as being about higher kinds of objectives; learning how to learn water sports and that sort of thing.”

“Then you must not have been really listening,” suggested Julius. “A true dialogue requires all participants to hear.”

Jane wasn’t quite sure what to do with that. Then she had a thought. “So how do you explicitly teach the basic skills of surfing?” she asked.

Marie stiffened a little in her chair, “It is about unpacking the skills for the students; enabling them to make the right connections.”

“Enabling them to make the right connections?” repeated Jane, “That doesn’t sound very explicit to me.”

No-one responded to this comment.

Julius developed Marie’s point. “We assess all the basic strategies that our students use in order to develop their balance. We provide them with the language to talk about the surfing. We give them supports; making the elements of surfing visible to them. We make complex practice accessible.”

“But I don’t know what that means,” complained Jane. “What does that even mean?”

“It really is very clear.” Stated Brian. Everyone briefly looked at Brian.

“OK,” said Jane, “Do you practice these skills on the sand before going in to the water?”

Julius bristled. Disgust transited his face. There was a pause.

Marie responded, “We unpack the skills for the students.”

“On the sand?” Asked Jane.

“We often engage in instruction on the sand,” Marie suggested.

“Yes,” agreed Jane, “but do you get your students to crouch on a board that is on the sand and then stand up on that board in order to practice the manoeuvre that they will need to do out in the sea?”

Quietly and slowly, Julius hissed, “We teach in an authentic, situated and engaging way.”

Brian nodded. “I have a motivational poster,” he added.

Jane was struggling to hide her frustration. “But successful surf schools directly teach the skills necessary for surfing. All the evidence says that you have to explicitly teach these basic skills and get the students to practice them!”

“I know,” said Marie, “I could have told you that. That’s exactly what we do.”

[The original surf school post may be found here]


Let us be explicit about the explicit

I often write about ‘explicit teaching’ and I have chosen this term with great care. The alternative term, ‘direct instruction’ is problematic due to the fact that it has several, closely-related meanings. Conventionally, ‘direct instruction’ with lower-case first letters tends to have the same meaning as explicit instruction and this approach is summarised well by Barak Rosenshine here (he did much of the initial process-product research that led to a description of this teaching method).

However, ‘Direct Instruction’ with capitalised first letters usually refers to specific programs develop by, or using the methods of, Siegfried Engelmann and his associates. This includes all of the features of explicit teaching but adds a curriculum design element; specifically, lessons and units are planned by specialist planners and the lessons themselves are effectively scripted. It is to avoid confusing these two meanings of ‘direct instruction’ that I choose to use the term ‘explicit teaching’.

It was therefore with horror that I encountered (via @BarryGarelick) a presentation by a highly influential teacher educator – Deborah Loewenberg Ball – to the National Council of Teachers of Maths (NCTM) in the US. In this presentation we are informed that explicit teaching is not direct instruction:

Hmmm.. It seems to me that explicit instruction therefore differs from direct instruction in that it leaves more items implicit. In direct instruction, presentations show students how to complete tasks but, presumably, in explicit teaching, they do not.

I certainly do not agree with the view that all tasks completed through direct instruction are ‘uncomplicated’. The purpose of breaking tasks down into their constituent parts is in order to not overload working memory. This way, in incremental steps we can develop students to the point of completing really very complicated tasks. The idea is that we just don’t dump them in there from the outset and let them fend for themselves, like in the Hunger Games or something.

It also should be made clear that this is a very personal interpretation of what ‘explicit teaching’ means and that it is one that is not widely shared. For instance, the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation in New South Wales (CESE) promotes explicit teaching and gives a definition much more in line with direct instruction:

The key problem here is that there is significant potential for confusion. Teachers could be left unaware of where the evidence lies. Researchers, of course, have the right to promote their views and their research. However, if researchers employ this eccentric definition of ‘explicit teaching’, teachers might mistakenly think that all of the research supporting explicit teaching practices, such as the evidence Rosenshine cites above, supports the practices that Deborah Loewenberg Ball is advocating.

That would be unfortunate. The research supports direct instruction.

Hey Google, what does 'explicit' mean?

Hey Google, what does ‘explicit’ mean?


Mandating Bad Ideas (a persistent problem in education)

Inquiry learning may have a place in the curriculum. It can give students an idea of the processes of a discipline and it can be motivating (it can also be excruciatingly dull). However, it is less effective than explicit instruction for teaching concepts and procedures to subject area novices; the sorts of students who are learning academic subjects in K-12 education.

Not everyone agrees with this position and that’s fine. It is an issue about which reasonable people may disagree. However, I suspect that few of those who disagree with me would be likely to support the idea of mandating inquiry learning in schools across a whole region.

And yet this is what is currently happening in Victoria.

Students in Victoria who wish to go on to university typically study Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE) subjects in Years 11 and 12. Year 11 is entirely school-assessed and all that needs to be reported to the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) is whether students have ‘satisfactorily completed’ particular subjects.

In Year 12, VCE subjects are assessed by coursework and a final exam. I actually like this system because the coursework is moderated against a school’s exam grades, meaning that all that really matters is how the school ranks students from the coursework. For instance, if a school obtains five A+ grades in the final physics exam then the top five ranked students will be given A+ grades for their physics coursework. The beauty of this system is that it prevents some of the dodgy practices that sometimes arise from school-based assessment.

The study designs (syllabuses) for mathematics and science subjects have been revised for the start of 2016 and this seems to have been an opportunity for some to pursue an inquiry learning agenda.

In Mathematical Methods, the coursework for Unit 3 (half of the Year 12 course) currently consists of an ‘application task’ – effectively an extended, contextualised question – and two tests. In the new study design, these have all been replaced by a single ‘application task’ that has been redefined to be:

A function and calculus-based mathematical investigation of a practical or theoretical context involving content from two or more areas of study, with the following three components of increasing complexity:

• introduction of the context through specific cases or examples
• consideration of general features of the context
• variation or further specification of assumption or conditions involved in the context to focus on a particular feature or aspect related to the context.

The application task is to be of 4–6 hours duration over a period of 1–2 weeks.”

So it is an investigation and it has to last at least 4 hours. When I attended a recent briefing, I was told that it should not be run under exam conditions and that we were encouraged to allow students to ‘collaborate’.  Exactly how it is possible to fairly assess each individual under such conditions is unclear. The task should also apparently run in one continuous block – we can’t break it up into separate chunks and run them at different times.

This is uncannily similar to what has happened in the new physics study design. To be fair, the current physics study design requires students to carry out an extended practical investigation but considerable scope is given to schools as to how to organise this. I am not against practical work; I like the model of a practical exam that we used to have in England. The VCE requirement that students have to design the investigation themselves, although completely misguided given their level of knowledge and understanding, is something that I have been able to work with due to the considerable scope schools have for interpreting the guidance.

However, the VCAA must have concluded that schools were using this freedom to not conduct a pure enough kind of investigation. So, we see more prescriptive guidance in the new study design, complete with a burdensome time requirement. Students have to make a scientific poster according to the VCAA’s own template that must not exceed 1000 words and they must also devote at least seven hours to this investigation and its write-up.

These developments are no accident. I was at a couple of the initial ‘consultations’ when these study designs were being revised and a lot of the discourse was framed around how to incorporate more inquiry learning into the physics and chemistry VCEs. The goodness of inquiry learning wasn’t in question, just the mechanics of how to shove more of it in.

I think the time is ripe for disruption of qualifications in Australia. There was a telling moment at the briefing about the new maths study design when one teacher asked the presenter if universities had been consulted. The presenter quickly answered, “No.” Would you design a system of academic exams that did not consult with universities on their content?

I suspect, if asked, the universities would prefer a far more conceptual course, less dependent on expensive calculators where, instead, students focus on really developing their algebra and calculus. I don’t think that the International Baccalaureate is the answer – although I’ve not taught it – and so perhaps there is an argument for a new Australian exam board to compete against the current offerings.

It’s all a bit too cosy at the moment.


Teaching for Understanding

We all want our students to understand what they learn, right? I can’t think of any teacher that does not. However, the idea of teaching for understanding can be problematic and lead us into some serious, and highly popular, misconceptions.

In this post, I will outline what understanding actually is before explaining the best way that we can promote it.

Rote learning

Many teachers are keen to avoid ‘rote’ learning. This is when students memorise facts and procedures without really understanding why they are doing it. It is possible to do this, especially if you practice something a lot like a mathematical procedure. However, memorising facts that have no meaning to you is extraordinarily difficult. This is why memory champions who can memorise the order of a deck of cards, for instance, tend to impose a spurious meaning on it. They may imagine walking through a house and seeing a different card in each room.

We also do this in education. At school, I learnt the order of the colours of the rainbow by memorising, “Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain.” Unfortunately, I wasn’t taught history properly and so the resonances that the writer of this mnemonic intended were rather lost on me.

So, by repetition, you can learn the ‘how to’ of something like a mathematical procedure without learning the ‘why’. And you can also learn key facts this way such as times-tables. However, anyone genuinely attempting to teach an entire curriculum in a rote fashion would find the task impossible. Those who maintain that standardised tests are largely tests of rote learning are likely wrong.

The nature of understanding

I think that one problem arises when we start to see understanding as something qualitatively different to knowledge. Don’t mistake me here, understanding is a useful concept and I am not trying to replace it but we need to recognise that it is the degree of a thing rather than a thing in itself. In their influential book “Understanding by Design,” Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe suggest that pieces of knowledge are like tiles and understanding is like the pattern that the tiles make. This is useful as far as it goes and brings to mind the psychological concept of a ‘schema’ where related ideas are organised in the mind and therefore understanding represents this organisation. However, I suggest that a fractal is a more apt analogy; it’s tiles all the way down.

I have written before of two types of understanding; objective and subjective. Objective understanding is where we perceive that someone else understands a concept. In his book, “Intuition Pumps And Other Tools For Thinking,” the philosopher Daniel Dennett contrasts a small child saying, ‘my daddy is a doctor,’ with a young adult saying, ‘my dad is a doctor’. He draws this comparison for different reasons to me but I would point out that we would perceive the small child to understand this statement less than the young adult. What accounts for the difference? Well the young adult will have a lot more relevant world knowledge; she will know that doctors work in hospitals or clinics, that there are different kinds of doctors, that doctors are relatively well paid and so on. So her deeper understanding actually consists of a larger amount of relevant knowledge.

Subjective understanding is the feeling that you understand something. This can be quite deceptive. However, assuming that the feeling is accurate, what accounts for it? Well, let’s look at the opposite; a feeling of confusion. This can be easily induced by presenting a student with a complex problem with many elements to attend to. However, if the student recognises many of the elements because she already has ideas about them available in long term memory then the confusion will be diminished. Sufficient relevant knowledge will mean that the student feels that she understands the problem. Again, understanding is effectively an accumulation of relevant knowledge.

Further, this can be facilitated by some procedural knowledge. If you can automatically perform the ‘how to’ part of a mathematical problem or immediately recall the answer to “6 times 8” then you don’t have to devote attention to these parts of the problem and will have a better chance at apprehending the ‘why’. As Alfred North Whitehead suggests:

“It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.”

Dangerous Knowledge

Unfortunately, as Whitehead suggests, many people draw precisely the opposite conclusion about understanding. In their famous study, Kamii and Dominick conclude that directly teaching mathematical procedures actually gets in the way of students understanding the maths. These studies are not perfectly controlled experiments and an attempted replication (of sorts) by Stephen Norton in Queensland found the opposite result.

This is also conventional wisdom in science education. Teaching ‘facts’ is harmful to understanding and should be replaced by students engaged in activity and finding things out for themselves.

The logic seems to be:

1. Traditional approaches to teaching leave students with lots of misconceptions

2. ‘Constructivist’ teaching approaches are an alternative to traditional approaches

3. Therefore, we must use constructivist teaching approaches

This is a classic non sequitur. How do we know that the constructivist approaches will work any better? The evidence in favour of them is extremely thin. It follows the logic of the politician’s syllogism:

1. We must do something

2. This is something

3. Therefore, we must do this


Unfortunately, this sort of thing sends us off on a wild-goose chase. Instead, we should be looking at how we can improve conventional teaching approaches so that we can reduce misconceptions and maximise students’ levels of understanding. Interestingly, an important difference between experts and novices appears to be the ability to perceive the ‘deep structure’ of problems and situations. There are two key strategies to consider if we want to develop this appreciation of deep structure.

Woefully neglected in the research, teacher explanations are pretty critical to developing student understanding. I wrote about this for the TES. Unfortunately, it is not clear exactly how we can structure explanations in order to make them optimal. We can perhaps infer a few principles from the second strategy.

Building episodic knowledge seems to be effective – ‘episodic knowledge’ just means students’ memory of encountering similar problems or situations. This involves running students through many examples with the same deep structure. In physics, this might mean teaching a concept or principle, giving an example, asking students to complete similar examples before gradually and progressively diversifying into other problems with the same deep structure but different surface features. Once a number of different principles have been grasped then students can be presented with problems with different deep structures to see if they can identify what this is in each problem.

This suggests also that explanations should not just focus on the principles but also highlight the deep structure in different problems and situations, perhaps comparing these situations. In mathematics, you may wish to move through multiple representations e.g. from a rule to a graph and back again. The point is that the deep structure is retained between these representations whilst the surface features change, again allowing students to better grasp this structure.

We can’t bypass this stage. It appears that it is quite natural for new learning to be locked to surface features initially and it takes a lot of hard work to move past this.

We don’t have to choose between knowledge and understanding

It is both misconceived and potentially harmful to conceive of understanding as a spooky kind of a thing that is qualitatively different to knowledge. It leads us into thinking that gaining knowledge interferes with gaining understanding whereas the reverse is the case; the two are mutually supportive. And it leads us away from more effective approaches for developing understanding.


The false choice at the heart of Freire

Whenever I write about Freire’s book, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, I tend to provoke one of three reactions:

1. That I am reading the wrong Freire book and I should read other ones instead

2. That I don’t really understand what Freire means (this usually comes after I have quoted him)

3. That nobody is really influenced by Freire anyway

I have to admit that it is a very odd book. It is mainly about revolution and is written almost entirely in the abstract about the ‘oppressed’ and the ‘oppressors’. It is hard to even imagine what this means. However, I think that this acts as something of a blank canvas onto which we may can project our own preoccupations. I might imagine peasants versus dictators; you might imagine students versus teachers. If I ask a student to remove his coat in class then perhaps I am the oppressor and he is the oppressed? What would Freire say?

Indeed, something has to account for the book’s extraordinary influence. According to the Pedagogy of the Oppressed website,

“Over one million copies of Pedagogy of the Oppressed have been sold worldwide since the first English translation in 1970. It has been used on courses as varied as Philosophy of Education, Liberation Theology, Introduction to Marxism, Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, Communication Ethics and Education Policy.”

“Pedagogy of the Oppressed is one of the foundational texts in the field of critical pedagogy, which attempts to help students question and challenge domination, and the beliefs and practices that dominate.”

And so it sits at the base of a whole field; critical pedagogy.

At a more trivial level, Pedagogy of the Oppressed is a source of internet memes and it was a recent encounter with a tweeter of such memes that started me thinking again about Freire. The source of these memes is generally chapter 2 where Freire has a go at what he calls the ‘banking concept’ of education where teachers ‘deposit’ knowledge in students and which sounds to me a lot like explicit teaching. I think this is one of the reasons for the book’s huge popularity. People can use it as a source of authority from which to criticise explicit forms of instruction.

The book is laced with ironies. For instance, Freire criticises traditional teaching for setting up dichotomies, as encapsulated by this (misspelt) meme:

banking concept II

There’s a lot of wild assertions there (necrophily? seriously? that’s just weird…) and the book itself does little to substantiate them. However, let’s stick with this idea of dichotomies.

A false dichotomy is when a someone presents us with two options when, in reality, there are more. For example, if I said, “You either oppose standardised testing or you are a neoliberal,” then that would be a false choice. Standardised NAPLAN testing was introduced to Australia by a left-of-centre government. Indeed, the sort of system where the state sets targets and then measures progress against them is perfectly consistent with state socialism. The point is that the choice presented in the statement does not cover all of the options. You can see why this is a bad thing*. Going around dichotomising everything would be problematic because it would risk creating false choices and so risk grossly oversimplifying the world.

Yet here is another Freire meme.

banking concept


So, what is the alternative to the banking model? According to Freire, it is ‘problem-posing’ education. If this sounds familiar, it is because there is a problem-based theme running from at least William Kilpatrick in 1918, through Freire and right up to today’s proponents of inquiry learning, the maker movement and project/problem based learning. Freire’s problem-posing education seemed to consist of showing images to peasants and trying to initiate a dialogue around those images. Yet even then, it’s not supposed to be the teacher who selects these images in isolation – they should draw upon what the peasants wanted to investigate.

So, a teacher must either continue using the banking model where, “by considering [students’] ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence,” or he can engage in some sort of problem-posing education. But this doesn’t cover all of the available options, does it?

When I teach Year 12 physics, I am well aware that my students already know quite a lot of physics. In fact, I hope they do and my starting point is always to find out exactly what. I assume that they know a lot of other things too. Analogies would hold no explanatory value if my students didn’t know about the thing that I was using as an analogy. Yet, I don’t do anything like problem-posing teaching. I stand, usually at the front, explaining things to the students and asking them questions before setting them tasks to complete. This is Freire’s banking concept.

So Freire himself has set up a false choice.

Now, it is possible that we’ve over-extended Freire here. He was writing about a particular form of education – the education of illiterate adult peasants – at a particular time. I happen to think that these peasants might have been better served by being taught to read in a systematic way but let’s set that aside for now.

I would be happy enough to agree that Freire has little of value to say about educating students in the today’s schools. If so, we would probably have to conclude that Critical Pedagogy, at least in its application to schools, is built on a false premise.

*Unfortunately, people tend to be a little too eager and look for false choices in a way that sometimes limits debate. For instance, at the moment that a teacher first teaches a new concept to her students then she can either fully explain that concept or rely on some degree of discovery on the part of the students. There are no other options available and so discussing the relative merits of these approaches is not setting up a false choice.


You say you want a revolution

I originally posted this piece on a now defunct forum. I have reposted because someone has quoted Freire to me following my recent article on labour teachers. I have removed the links in the original.

Recently, I have been reading “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire. It is a hugely influential book. For instance, it is one of the most frequently assigned texts in philosophy of education courses in the US. Over one million copies have been sold, probably as a result of such assignments – an extraordinary number for a book about education. Google Scholar returns nearly 41,000 citations for the 2000 edition. If you are a teacher anywhere in the English-speaking world then I suggest that there is a good chance this book has directly or indirectly influenced your practice, whether you have heard of it or not. And it is the foundational text of a movement called Critical Pedagogy.

I had read previous reviews and felt that I therefore knew some of the basic concepts. Coming from the left of the political spectrum, I expected to feel sympathy towards a concept of education designed to help liberate the poor and disenfranchised. However, given my views on the effectiveness of explicit instruction, I also expected to find the suggested solutions to be misguided. Those were my preconceptions. What I actually discovered really blew me away.

The book is written mainly in the abstract and this makes it quite hard to apprehend. From the start, Freire sets-up a distinction between the ‘oppressors’ and the ‘oppressed’. There are few concrete examples of what this means. Via a quote, we see that the indigenous population of colonial North Africa would be an example of the oppressed. We should also consider South American peasants to be amongst their number. However, when relating this to modern, developed societies, it is hard to see where the dividing line lies. For instance, as a teacher I am a member of the Australian middle classes. What does that make me? Oppressed or oppressor? The phrase ‘middle class’ only appears in one footnote with the implication that the middle classes suffer from a ‘dominated consciousness’. So perhaps I am also oppressed. Or perhaps life is a bit more complicated than such a simple distinction suggests.

According to Freire, individuals have an ontological and historical vocation to become more fully human. A situation of oppression interferes with this. The oppressed become dehumanized and, in oppressing them, the oppressors are also dehumanized. The only ones who can fix this situation are the oppressed – the oppressors themselves are incapable. We are talking about revolution here; a rising-up of the masses (it is interesting to note that Freire is writing in 1968). However, this must not be action for action’s sake. Rather, such a rising needs to be reflective. The synthesis of action with reflection is known as ‘praxis’. Interestingly, although Freire and subsequent critical pedagogues have used the term in this way, the modern rehabilitation of the word ‘praxis’ was by Hannah Arendt as a criticism of philosophers who just think about things without engaging with the world. Arendt certainly does not share Freire’s views on education as is clear from her famous essay of 1954.

One of the big problems that every revolutionary leader finds with the masses, of course, is a disinclination to do all this rising up. This is where the pedagogy comes in. After the revolution, a new type of education will be needed and can be provided by the people, for the people. However, in the meantime, it is necessary to start raising the consciousness of the oppressed; enabling them to think critically about their situation. This is the pedagogy of the ‘first stage’ and it cannot be imposed upon the oppressed didactically but must be done by posing problems – more later. Once they are more fully conscious of their situation and that the limits that they find themselves in – Freire calls these ‘limit-situations’ – can be breached, the oppressed will all come to the correct conclusions and rise up against the oppressors in this action-plus-reflection way. You need to reach about 10 per cent of them in order to get them to do this.

Are you starting to feel a bit uncomfortable yet? Well this is where it gets even darker.

Again, we are mostly dealing with the abstract, but when I try to apply it to the real-world, I come to some unsettling conclusions. Consider this quote, for example:

“Resolution of the oppressor-oppressed contradiction indeed implies the disappearance of the oppressors as a dominant class. However, the restraints imposed by the former oppressed on their oppressors, so that the latter cannot reassume their former position, do not constitute oppression. An act is oppressive only when it prevents people from being more fully human. Accordingly, these necessary restraints do not in themselves signify that yesterday’s oppressed have become today’s oppressors. Acts which prevent the restoration of the oppressive regime cannot be compared with those which create and maintain it, cannot be compared with those by which a few men and women deny the majority their right to be human”

I wonder, are we talking about counter-revolutionary police here? Later, Freire returns to this point.

“Once a popular revolution has come to power, the fact that the new power has the ethical duty to repress any attempt to restore the old oppressive power by no means signifies that the revolution is contradicting its dialogical character. Dialogue between the former oppressors and the oppressed as antagonistic classes was not possible before the revolution; it continues to be impossible afterward.”

Again, this is in the abstract, so we can’t be sure that Freire really means things like the Red Guards or the NKVD or Che Guevara and his firing squad. However, there are some clues. For instance, Freire goes on to discuss ‘stage 2′; the stage after the revolution.

“In the second stage, in which the reality of oppression has already been transformed, this pedagogy ceases to belong to the oppressed and becomes a pedagogy of all people in the process of permanent liberation. In both stages, it is always through action in depth that the culture of domination is culturally confronted.”

In a footnote, he writes that this appears to be a feature of Mao’s cultural revolution.

Now, I don’t know about you but I tend to think of the cultural revolution as being rather a bad thing. It resulted in at least one million violent deaths and probably a great deal more. However, I concede that this is easier to write with the benefit of hindsight and at the time Freire was writing, it may have seemed reasonable enough to quote Chairman Mao as Freire does. But it should give pause for thought about the rest of Freire’s points. I will repeat the Mao quotes in the book because they cut straight to the heart of much of Freire’s argument:

“You know I’ve proclaimed for a long time: we must teach the masses clearly what we have received from them confusedly.” – Mao

“Our cultural workers must serve the people with great enthusiasm and devotion, and they must link themselves with the masses, not divorce themselves from the masses. In order to do so, they must act in accordance with the needs and wishes of the masses. All work done for the masses must start from their needs and not from the desire of any individual, however well-intentioned. It often happens that objectively the masses need a certain change, but subjectively they are not yet conscious of the need, not yet willing or determined to make the change. In such cases, we should wait patiently. We should not make the change until, through our work, most of the masses have become conscious of the need and are willing and determined to carry it out. Otherwise we shall isolate ourselves from the masses. . . . There are two principles here: one is the actual needs of the masses rather than what we fancy they need, and the other is the wishes of the masses, who must make up their own minds instead of our making up their minds for them.” – Mao

Until now, I had found it odd that in attempting to impose a set of revolutionary values upon people, critical pedagogy claims to be serving the ideals of democracy. The thinking involved in such an effort is now clearer: By listening to the people and reflecting back what you have received from them you are a democrat. Certainly, touchstone figures to whom Freire refers approvingly, figures such as Che Guevara or Chairman Mao, are not democrats in the conventional sense of the word – holding elections and the like – but perhaps they are a more ‘authentic’ kind of democrat.

By now, you’re probably a little puzzled as to why this book is assigned by schools of education. And well you might be. However, the key section for educators is probably Chapter 2 where Freire outlines ‘problem-posing’ education and contrasts it with the ‘banking concept of education’ where teachers ‘deposit’ knowledge in their students. I still don’t really understand the ‘problem-posing’ model. From what I can gather, it exists mainly as an antithesis. However, we can catch glimpses: Freire talks of showing peasants photographs and asking them what they think about them. He goes to great lengths to try to explain how themes and topics should be chosen; never by the teacher but in dialogue with the students and always relevant to the direct experience of the students. However, there’s some hand-wringing here because Freire has clear objectives as to where he wants all of this to go. There is also an element of farce about these middle class teachers – ‘teacher-students’ in Freire speak – going into villages of apathetic peasants and launching investigations ‘with’ them. It’s not paternalistic at all. No, not at all. Honest. Really.

However, ‘banking’ education receives a real bashing. “In the banking concept of education,” says Freire, “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.” Is it? Can we not consider our students to know plenty of stuff but just not the stuff that we need to teach them? No, apparently not because, “The teacher presents himself to his students as their necessary opposite; by considering their ignorance absolute, he justifies his own existence.”

So, according to Freire, I can choose between a model of education where I negotiate topics and themes with the students in a continual dialogue, focusing on critical reflection, or I can adopt the banking model in which I assume their absolute ignorance. But are there not other options? I think there are and so Freire is presenting us with a false choice.

He goes on to list some more features of banking education:

(a) the teacher teaches and the students are taught;
(b) the teacher knows everything and the students know nothing;
(c) the teacher thinks and the students are thought about;
(d) the teacher talks and the students listen—meekly;
(e) the teacher disciplines and the students are disciplined;
(f) the teacher chooses and enforces his choice, and the students comply;
(g) the teacher acts and the students have the illusion of acting through the action of the teacher;
(h) the teacher chooses the program content, and the students (who were not consulted) adapt to it;
(i) the teacher confuses the authority of knowledge with his or her own professional authority, which she and he sets in opposition to the freedom of the students;
(j) the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects.

We are presented with non sequiturs here. Many of these points simply do not follow from a banking model. For instance, can the students and the teacher both not think? Can the teacher not, for instance, talk and then ask questions so that the students also talk? Do the students not act? If not, what exactly are they doing?

In my view, a teacher needs to both have and exercise authority, at an intellectual and a disciplinary level. Freire mainly talks about adult education and so maybe the latter is not as pertinent to him. However, a lack of teacher authority poses two main problems. Firstly, misconceptions will develop; concepts that have been demonstrated to be false but which are traps that people fall into e.g. that the Sun orbits the Earth. These have to be corrected from an authority and cannot be co-constructed out of students’ experiences. Secondly, the absence of teacher authority does not lead to egalitarianism. If you have ever experienced a difficult inner-city classroom you will know that whatever authority a teacher relinquishes will be taken by another; perhaps a classroom bully. This does not lead to a safe environment in which to learn.

So, Feire presents us with a false choice between a caricature – the banking model – and his own problem-posing education. Yet, it is Friere who accuses proponents of the banking model of setting up dichotomies.

“Implicit in the banking concept is the assumption of a dichotomy between human beings and the world: a person is merely in the world, not with the world or with others; the individual is spectator, not re-creator. In this view, the person is not a conscious being (corpo consciente); he or she is rather the possessor of a consciousness: an empty “mind” passively open to the reception of deposits of reality from the world outside.”

Again, I don’t see why any of this has to be the case. It is, in fact, another one of Freire’s many assertions. And this leads us to the deep irony that underlies the whole book.

In reading Freire, we are effectively absorbing a one-way communication, full of questionable assertions, from a man who thinks he is an authority. He has a world view. He communicates it in the abstract. True, he cannot make it relevant to my own situation because he does not know me. However, he struggles to make it relevant at all; only occasionally peppering his monologue with real-world contexts. Freire’s book therefore represents the quintessence of what he is opposed to.

Freire’s focus is on developing critical thinking. However, the assumption is that once so developed, everyone will see the world as Freire does. I find this extremely implausible although this kind of thinking is a common fault of revolutionaries. Why else would dissidents in totalitarian regimes so frequently be sent for ‘re-education’?

Moving from the abstract, let’s think about one of Freire’s limit-situations; the situations that keep the oppressed down but that the oppressed may overcome; the ‘untested feasibility’. What might they be? Can we even agree? Is religion, for instance, a limit-situation used by the oppressors to dominate the oppressed or is it a key freedom that the oppressed exercise in ‘becoming more fully human’? Who is to say? Maybe it is neither of these things but rather it is an irrational product of our evolution? Is alcohol a limit-situation? Or is it a right?

I want to live in a world where people are disputatious and where ideas can be discussed and challenged; a world where weak assumptions and prejudices are exposed. Such a world is an educated world, where people learn objective facts, theories, stories and what others have said before; a world in which people are free to speak, write and dispute. Learning about something is the first essential step along the road of critiquing it.

The cultural revolution is quite the wrong model to follow.


Student Motivation

I hate exercise. I do it but I hate it. It find it boring and so I try to find things to distract me. For instance, I might watch a TV show whilst riding on my exercise bike. However, the exercise itself takes up a lot of my attention and so this doesn’t really work. Sometimes, I take a break from it. Over time, I have found that I can cycle faster and at greater resistance. So I do experience the feeling of improvement. In contrast, I have friends and acquaintances who started to exercise seriously in their thirties, began to improve and then felt motivated by this. They now cycle up mountains and talk at length at social gatherings about kilometres and minutes. That’s not me. I know that exercise is good for me and so I do it, but I can’t imagine enjoying the process.

As something of an evangelist for explicit instruction, I usually point to research on its effectiveness. Often people reject this research or tell me how complicated social science is, that we can’t know anything and so we should use their preferred teaching methods. At this point, I am sometimes referred to the rather eccentric world of critical realism. The argument seems to be that I am a “positivist”.

However, the dismissal of explicit instruction also comes in an entirely different form. Sometimes, teachers and academics will accept that explicit instruction is effective but they will state that they are more interested in motivation. Other approaches to education are more motivating, is the claim. As I’ve mentioned before, the proponents of inquiry learning in this news report basically use motivation as their entire argument.

I was involved in a small way this week with a Twitter exchange between Dan Meyer and Robert Craigen. Craigen is promoting a report which recommends explicit maths instruction. Meyer has taken exception to this and has, among other things, wielded the motivation argument. He notes that, “62% of the Algebra teachers surveyed in the NMAP said the biggest problem they face is ‘motivating students’.”

I have no doubt that this is a concern, particularly in America where ‘high-stakes’ tests are high-stakes for the teachers but not generally for the students. But I don’t think that Meyer sees the problem this way. Instead, the implication is that we can teach in a way that students will find more motivating and that explicit instruction is not the way to do this.

Firstly, I think that the premise is flawed. Imagine the ‘real-world’ projects from David Perkins’ new book in which students plan for their town’s future water needs or model its traffic flow. These are meant to be ‘relevant’ and therefore motivating. Really? Many students would find them utterly dull. And what of explicit instruction about how to build an atomic bomb? A lot of students find that pretty interesting – I know this because I’ve taught it myself. Even in this zeitgeisty example where students mess about with robots (and supposedly learn physics, which I doubt), you can imagine that unless this is an elective, some students will be hanging around the edge and talking about what they’re going to do at recess, completely unmotivated by the robots. In fact, the group-work structure makes it easier for these guys to coast.

However, let us assume that the tasks are motivating. Imagine that you said to me that I could get off the exercise bike and go for a walk around the local shopping mall instead. I would certainly enjoy this experience a lot more and you could claim that I was still exercising. This is the character of many ‘motivating’ maths games – there’s still maths in there, somewhere. But I wouldn’t take you up on this offer because I know that the exercise bike is better for me. I’ll stick at that.

You see, the purpose of learning something like maths is similar to the purpose of riding the exercise bike – it’s good for us. As you learn maths, you will improve at it and you might find this motivating just like those folks who are motivated by doing their exercises. You might develop a lifelong passion. In fact, I would hope that all students are exposed to at least one subject at school that they can feel passionate about.

But you might not develop a passion for maths. If not, what are you left with? Well, we know that an academic education correlates to higher pay and we know that this is particularly the case for subjects like maths. So there are financial reasons. It also contributes to your world-knowledge. Studying quadratic equations means that you know what David Perkins is writing about when he argues that students shouldn’t have to study quadratic equations. Without that knowledge, you simply could not access the debate.

But there’s something else. The discipline to work hard at something that you don’t find immediately rewarding in order to achieve a greater goal is a discipline much valued; not just by employers but by your adult self who is trying to make a good life. It is why I can keep getting on that exercise bike and it’s what stops us from being selfish narcissists whose need for constant entertainment prevents us from ever doing anything of consequence.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not the fun police. If you can make the learning more interesting without diluting it then go for it. It is even appropriate to take a break from time-to-time just to have some fun with your students. Not a problem. Just remember what you’re here for; to teach a subject.

You are not a clown.