The irony is just too great and I might explode

I love learning new stuff and I learnt an excellent word recently from a book on sociology that I’m reading. The word is ‘reification’ and I’ve mentioned it before. It sort-of translates as ‘thingification’; an insistent bringing into being; a making concrete. An example from the sociology book was the ‘massification’ of higher education. Apparently, sociologists are wont to talk of this and yet there is no clear, shared definition of what it means. This does not stop them talking about it as a thing that has certain properties.

I think we make the error of reification when we talk of thinking skills. Instead of inventing new words all the time, we tend to lend the same word to quite different things in order to economise a bit. Usually, these things have some superficial similarities that spurs the original word-lending. I think we make the mistake that because we can analyse a play or analyse a rainfall chart that there is some thing called analysis that shares common features across domains. Indeed, advocates of thinking skills suggest that analysis is a way of thinking. This is all a bit of a stretch for me. The act of evaluating a brand of toilet paper is quite different to that of evaluating the written argument of an eminent professor. I am unsure that many mechanisms are common to both.

Dan Willingham makes a more sophisticated argument here. It is a good piece that I highly recommend.

So, when I started to read an article by Peter Ellerton in The Conversation titled, “Teaching how to think is just as important as teaching anything else,” I was sceptical. Bringing my prior knowledge to bear on what was written meant that I was disposed to think critically about the piece.

You will see me make my argument about reification in the comments. I’ve also included a good quote from Carl Bereiter.

However, something else struck me as I was reading the piece. At one point, Ellerton makes the following claim:

“This is why it’s not possible to develop effective thinkers by relying on didactic teaching methods, in which students are seen as passive recipients of the knowledge passed down by the teacher.”

To me, this is obviously a pejorative way of describing explicit instruction although that becomes a cause of some debate in the comments. However, my main concern was that it did not seem to be supported by any evidence. I have written for The Conversation myself and, every time I made a claim like this, I was obliged to link to the evidence to support it. Which seemed perfectly reasonable to me.

When I asked Ellerton for the evidence for this assertion, he suggested that I read a book that I don’t have. He did not refer me to a specific chapter or quote the relevant passage. In fact, on a number of occasions, he suggested that I should read more about critical thinking, generally. When I called him on this he mentioned peer-review and the like but still wouldn’t directly deal with the question.

All I wanted was some evidence to back the claim. You see, quite a lot hinges on it. If we can develop effective thinkers using explicit teaching techniques then we can reject Ellerton’s subsequent argument as to why we should use inquiry learning instead.

I sometimes get patronised a bit by academics. He or she might point out that I’m a PhD student and suggest my supervisors ought to drum my impertinence out of me or something. I find it quite amusing.

However, the delicious irony here is that we have a Professor of Critical Thinking voluntarily making a claim in support of his own argument for which he supplies no evidence and who then reverses the burden of proof on to me.

You couldn’t make it up.

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Primary versus Secondary

There is an important way to think about what we are trying to achieve in education and this involves making a distinction between the types of knowledge and skills that we want children to learn.

The distinction that I have in mind is between biologically primary knowledge and biologically secondary knowledge. In the book, ‘Cognitive Load Theory,’ Sweller, Kalyuga and Ayers draw upon the work of Geary to explain how this distinction underpins their theory.

Biologically Primary

Biologically primary knowledge and skills are things that we have evolved to learn. For instance, few people need instruction in learning to walk. Similarly, children just ‘pick up’ their native language. Clearly, we don’t have the vocabulary coded into our brains because children can grow up to speak any language. Instead, we have a natural way of learning this.

Humans have been around in our current form for about a million years (very roughly) and the immediate precursors to homo sapiens could certainly walk and may well have had some form of language. This gives evolution by natural selection the time to work on these capacities. We have literally evolved to learn them.

Another biologically primary skill is the use of means-end analysis to solve problems. We all have this strategy at our disposal: comparing the current state of a problem with the desired outcome. It is pretty much the only universal problem solving strategy – unlike the sorts of sometimes-useful heuristics such as ‘draw a diagram’ – and we don’t need to be taught it. Similarly, you acquire a personality without being instructed in it.

Biologically Secondary

Biologically secondary knowledge is the stuff that we generally have to be instructed in. These are the kinds of knowledge and skills that came late to the party. For instance, writing was only invented a few thousand years ago and, for much of the time since, only a few members of the elite would learn the skill. This means that we cannot have evolved a capacity to learn how to read or write.

This does not mean, of course, that we cannot learn these things by ourselves. A good textbook can provide a form of instruction. Given the time and inclination, we can even learn through discovery. But because these are not ‘natural’ things to learn, the process is always characterised by hard work and it can be arduous. This is why explicit forms of instruction work. They limit the number of things that a learner might pay attention to and so make the process more efficient.

Implications

Schools have traditionally tried to deliver both kinds of objective. The village school seeks to teach children the biologically secondary skills of reading, writing and reckoning whilst the playing fields of Eton were created to develop young men’s character and leadership; biologically primary mixtures of inclination and personality.

The extent to which we succeed in doing the latter is debatable. It is much harder to measure someone’s character than their ability to read and so it’s hard to find the evidence. However, I think we confuse ourselves in the way that we think about this. Imagine a Swiss finishing school that aims to teach ladies how to walk. The school is clearly not doing this. It is teaching people to modify the way that they walk; a small alteration to something that they can already do in order to meet a questionable aesthetic.

I worry that when maths teachers seek, as a primary goal, to make students resilient so that they ‘never give up’ then we have lost sight of the biologically secondary learning that we are mainly employed to bring about. Such ideas are always deeply flawed when thought about in the abstract. Should we really never give up? Perhaps sometimes giving-up is the most rational course of action. I am sure that we have all seen the wastage caused by the sunk cost fallacy and I am sure that this is rampant throughout society, wherever egos are at risk.

To really explore a child’s individual relationship with failure would require a kind of therapeutic relationship quite unlike anything that maths teachers are capable of providing. I wouldn’t even want them to try. It’s icky.

However, bringing students to a sense of achievement by having mastered difficult concepts and procedures is to implicitly teach them something about the value of hard work. I think it best that we focus on that.

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Inclusion rhetoric

“Inclusion” is something that it is easy to be in favour of. However, inclusion rhetoric often conflates very different kinds of issues, ignores social consequences in order to focus on the individual and, at worst, acts as a front for a dumbed-down pedagogy that works against the interests of the working class.

Conflation

I secured my first teaching position at a time when children with physical disabilities were starting to be encouraged to attend mainstream schools. My school admitted its first child who used a wheelchair. The science labs were on the first and second floor of the building and so a lift was installed. All of this was perfectly reasonable and an example of how to include children with different needs.

However, imagine that a child is particularly badly behaved. Perhaps she comes from a difficult background or perhaps she has psychopathic personality traits that mean that she lacks empathy. Perhaps the former caused the latter. Suppose we then decide to give this child a label for her poor behaviour. Let’s call it ‘antisocial behaviour disorder’. Including this child is now a quite different prospect to including the child with the wheelchair.

I moved on from my first school when I was still quite a young teacher. My second school was in a more deprived area. I remember teaching science to Year 10 one Wednesday afternoon. A boy – let’s call him “Joe” – was misbehaving. He kept shouting out swear-words whilst I was trying to address the class. I had placed him near the front and he repeatedly turned around, saying things to the other students that I couldn’t quite hear but, from their reactions, I could tell were quite insulting.

We had an ‘on call’ system where, in an emergency, a senior member of staff was available to come to a class. I called for help and an Assistant Head turned up. He took Joe outside. I expected him to take Joe away but, after a couple of minutes, the Assistant Head opened the classroom door and Joe came back in. “I have a good relationship with Joe,” He explained to me, “he’s promised to behave now.” And the Assistant Head left. Joe smiled at me and then continued to behave as he had done previously.

Joe should have been excluded from the rest of that lesson. Indeed, when I became an Assistant Head myself, that is what I would do. Once, a child would not leave the room, I noticed an empty classroom along the corridor and so I moved the rest of the class. I then phoned the student’s parents and asked them to come and pick him up.

Social Consequences

If I were to tell this story to a professional who is used to dealing with children’s issues on a one-to-one basis then I might get the following response: How is excluding Joe from the lesson going to teach him anything about how he should behave? What is he going to learn from that?

This is looking at the issue in quite the wrong way. Whether Joe learns something or not, the exclusion is for the benefit of the other members of the class. That Wednesday afternoon, Joe’s classmates did not get a science lesson. And that’s not on.

A similar argument can be made about sanctions such as detentions. What did anyone ever learn by being in detention? I don’t know, but at least it points out to the rest of the school population that there are boundaries and there are consequences for crossing those boundaries. Despite popular perceptions, students generally know right from wrong and they have an acute sense of justice. They expect a school to deal with the bad behaviour of others, particularly if it has an impact upon them. They will lose respect for an institution that appears not to act.

Certainly, society at large has sanctions in place for crossing boundaries, ranging all the way from speeding to murder. We don’t do students any favours at all by preparing them for a different kind of society to the one that actually exists.

I was listening to a segment of BBC Radio 4 earlier this week. Someone from the ‘Give Racism the Red Card’ organisation was speaking following a racist attack in an English school. She simply could not bring herself to condemn students who racially abuse teachers. Instead, she wanted to focus on the way that David Cameron had described migrants in Calais as a ‘swarm’, implying that this was a cause of students’ racism. She also trotted-out constructivist platitudes – it’s not enough to simply tell children that racism is wrong, they need to construct that understanding for themselves. I am sorry, but racism is plainly wrong. I am quite prepared to tell any student at some length exactly why it is so wrong and why it has been such an evil and malign influence throughout our history. And then they can write me an essay on it.

Failing the working class

Of course, there is another answer to the Joe situation. You will have noticed that the Assistant Head subtly shifted a little blame onto me by implying that my relationship with Joe was not as good as his. Blaming teachers in these sorts of situation is quite common.

For instance, you might suggest that my lesson was not engaging enough for Joe. Perhaps I hadn’t planned it with his needs in mind. Maybe I needed to use principles of universal design to ensure that everyone could access the lesson. Perhaps Joe’s behaviour was a consequence of the fact that he could not access the lesson in the way I had presented it. I could have been guilty of micro-exclusion.

Advocates of this sort of thinking will suggest that lessons need to be adapted to the individual needs of the students. Although learning styles might not exist, it is certainly true that students will express a preference for one activity over another. Indeed, I can think of many students who would prefer to be learning football rather than algebra. Allowing children such choices has been tried in many progressive schools in the past and has not been hugely successful. Robert Peal chronicles the approach in his book.

However, most schools would not go this far. They would still have traditional subject disciplines but would perhaps try to allow student choice and differentiation within that. Does a particular student like drawing? Well, perhaps we can get him to work on a poster instead of listening to the teacher. Let’s give the other students options too. This strategy works to manage behaviour. I’ve tried it in the past.

The problem here is that we dumb-down the curriculum by doing this. Given the choice between a bowl of ice-cream and a plate of veggies, it is a strong-willed child who chooses the veggies. And so children in tough, working class schools get this adapted, self-directed colouring-in curriculum while the children of elites attend independent schools and all learn algebra and history, properly. Algebra and history are examples of the kind of ‘powerful knowledge’ that Michael Young talks about; the kind of knowledge that provides access to the elite professions. And so this kind of approach entrenches class division and privilege.

Thankfully, schools are emerging that take a more enlightened approach to educating the disadvantaged. Expect a lot of inclusion rhetoric to be fired in their direction.

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Self-promotion

Self Promotion

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Education is funny

Sometimes, things happen and you can feel yourself growing-up in the moment. Whether adults ask for it or not, I think that as children, we place a lot of faith in our elders; a level of expectation that they cannot possibly meet.

I remember my parents’ divorce when I was fourteen. That was a moment when a part of my innocence died. I remember the anger I felt as an adolescent. “You help the thick get thicker while the poor get poorer and the rich get richer,” I raged at my teachers as the front-man of a punk band.

And I remember a satire called “Brass Eye” where Chris Morris duped a bunch of celebrities that I knew well from the Saturday night TV of my childhood. He duped them into saying ridiculous things like, “Cake is a made-up drug.” He duped Noel Edmonds and Rolf Harris and Phil Collins and some politician.

“These people are just idiots,” I thought. And I began to realise that there were no special ones; no anointed individuals who were destined to be famous or powerful; who knew the answers and could look after the rest of us. As my grandfather used to say, “He’s just a mon in a pair of trousers.” And a stupid one at that.

This is the power of satire. It cuts through in a way that nothing else can. One minute, we are all scratching our chins and nodding sagely, the next we are made to realise just how absurd it all is.

Education is profoundly comic. Is there anything more rampantly silly that Building Learning Power with its absurdly inaccurate image of a brain divided up into ‘learning muscles’ that all just happen to have alliterative names? Try teaching it, as I have tried. “Now class, which learning muscles have we used in today’s lesson?” Watch them groan and parrot back something that they have rote-memorised. Then go back to a prep-room full of science teachers and see if you can avoid mocking the whole thing with sardonic relish.

Then there is the teacher who wants to get rid of his desk. This is because it is a symbol of traditional authority, raising the questions a) why is authority a problem? and b) where’s he going to put his coffee mug and his marking? The whole thing howls to be satirised:

I took the teacher desk away but then I realised that I was standing up and walking around whilst all the children were sitting down and writing. This made me appear like a kind of supervisor and projected a sense of authority. So, I decided to take the children’s desks away too but then they started to write on the floor. Even if I sat down I found that I was up higher than they were which gave me authority over them. And so I decided to lie on the floor. But then one kid said, “Hey! How come we have to write and you get to just lie around?” This was a good question and so I contacted my PLN to see what they recommended…

I am not going to stop seeing the funny side in the silly things that we do. This will of course annoy the people promoting these silly things.

Such is life.

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What should early primary school look like?

Last year, Kevin Donnelly, senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and Ken Wiltshire, University of Queensland professor of public administration were commissioned by the government to review the Australian National Curriculum. I was reasonably happy with the review when it was published. The current curriculum includes eccentric, designed-by-committee ideas such as the general competencies. These consist of literacy, numeracy, information and communication technology (ICT), critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding. They are meant to be embedded across everything in a way that I’m not convinced that anyone really understands and which I suspect just leads to lesson plans with codes on them to indicate which one is being done today. The review included this quote from John Sweller (my PhD supervisor) on critical thinking and problem solving skills:

“It is a waste of students’ time placing these skills in a curriculum because we have evolved to acquire them without tuition. While they are too important for us not to have evolved to acquire them, insufficient domain-specific knowledge will prevent us from using them. We cannot plan a solution to a mathematics problem if we are unfamiliar with the relevant mathematics. Once we know enough mathematics, then we can plan problem solutions. Attempting to teach us how to plan or how to solve generic problems will not teach us mathematics. It will waste our time.”

Donnelly and Wiltshire then went on to modestly recommend that these general capabilities should only be embedded in subjects to which they might be relevant.

Tom Bennett asked me to help with the organisation of researchED Sydney in February and so I made contact with Donnelly and invited him along. He was put on a panel to discuss evidence in education where he made a bit of a misstep – considering the audience – because he played-down the possibility of using evidence to inform what we do, suggesting that teachers have good ‘crap detectors’. This did not go down well with the phonics community – see Pamela Snow’s blog.

However, I was astonished to hear on the grapevine that a number of people had boycotted the conference due to Donnelly’s attendance. It seems that Australian education is in such a state of self-righteousness and sensitivity that it sees fit to no-platform speakers that it doesn’t like, even if those speakers have been commissioned by the government to review the national curriculum. Donnelly has made comments on a whole host of issues that I would disagree with. But, you know, you don’t have to agree with someone in order to listen to what they have to say. We learn from testing our ideas. I think that this fingers-in-ears attitude will serve educators badly in the inevitable disruption of Australian education to come. I suspect that rather than seeking to explain to the community how their tax dollars are used, there will be a lot of ‘how dare you attack teachers!’ stuff like we’ve seen in the U.K.

The Donnelly and Wiltshire review contained a couple of models for primary education. It now seems that the government has decided to implement aspects of the review, according to reports in yesterday’s media. Channel 9 even invited Donnelly onto its morning breakfast show to discuss it (I wonder how many education school professors swore off Channel 9 as a result…). The headline was a push for the use of phonics. Sadly, I don’t think that this will work. Teachers have been told to use a phonics-based approach for some time now and yet they still resist, persisting with practices such as the three cuing system. There is a party line where teachers who use less effective analytic phonics approaches or phonics as a last resort will say, “Of course we use phonics! We use it as part of a balance of approaches.” I see no reason to believe that we have progressed since 2006. I am growing convinced that the only way to ensure that phonics is taught systematically is to institute something like the U.K. phonics check. I hope I’m wrong.

However, the media reports also suggest a thinning of the curriculum in order to favour a ‘back-to-basics’ literacy and numeracy approach. History and geography will be removed as discrete subjects, being replaced by an overarching, “Humanities and Social Sciences”. The idea is that the curriculum needs to be de-cluttered to make space for the important stuff.

We need to be aware just how horrible “Humanities and the Social Sciences,” could be in the wrong hands. We could have Dewey-inspired approaches that start with the child and their place in the world etc. rather than learning about the Romans or the Egyptians or about the countries of the world. The simple view of reading suggests that reading consists of decoding plus comprehension. Comprehension is basically a function of background knowledge. For instance, you might be able to decode the word ‘gladiator’ but if you don’t know what a gladiator is then you won’t comprehend. More subtly, consider the following passage from Chapter 1 of ‘The English Reformation” (which I just happen to had to hand):

“England was a conglomeration of semi-isolated local and regional communities over which royal control diminished with every muddy or dusty mile of the highways and byways leading from London. The people who lived south of Hadrian’s Wall still spoke no common language; travellers from London arriving in Cornwall or Northumberland might as well have found themselves in France or Hungary for all they were able to understand local dialects.”

I suspect that quite a few educated Australians will struggle with that. It helps, for instance, to know that Hadrian’s Wall roughly delineates England from Scotland such that “South of Hadrian’s Wall” is synonymous with England. But you also need to know that Cornwall and Northumberland are regions of England and that the King tended to reside in or near London.

We need to systematically build world knowledge amongst young children if we want them to become skilled readers. We need rich subjects embedded in the curriculum such as history and science – not mentioned in the media reports – in order to do this. You can’t do phonics all day; not even the most ardent proponent would suggest this. There is too great a danger that a focus on ‘literacy’ might lead vacuous guided reading sessions where students are required to deploy three cuing strategies. Hirsch writes well on this.

Our politicians and public servants need to be aware of these arguments and of the deeply-entrenched practices that they are attempting to change.

Indeed, Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority chairman Steven Schwartz is quoted as saying, “There was an attempt to reduce the amount of material in the curriculum to leave room for creativity,’’ in The Australian. This makes me very nervous.

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The reason why poor teaching survives

If you were an engineer who was operating under a misconception about the laws of physics or the properties of different materials then your bridges would fall down. It wouldn’t matter whether you appealed to authenticity, excellence, creativity, inclusivity or anything else for that matter, the fact that your bridges fell down would be a problem. Your failure would be obvious and apparent to all. In the ancient world, you might have suffered a grisly fate and so I think it is no coincidence that columns and arches were understood pretty early in our history.

By Gun Powder Ma (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Hadrian’s Arch, Jordan (By Gun Powder Ma (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Medicine offers a more complex picture. On the one hand, a surgeon who kills his patients is going to run into trouble. However, if the alternative to surgery is certain death then even poor-quality, insanitary surgery might persist until something better comes along. In the case of illness, patients will often recover of their own accord. If this recovery coincides with a physician bleeding the patient or applying a patent medicine then these treatments gain credibility. Couple this with the complexity of the human body compared to the simplicity of a bridge and you can see why the advent of the scientific method was required before we could start to sort fact from fiction in medical research.

Education is also complex. It is hard to predict results at an individual level and so interventions need to be trialled across large numbers of students; a difficult and costly process. And just as patients will often recover of their own accord, students will often learn things on their own. The research question is therefore whether they learn relatively more this way or through some kind of instruction. We might also question whether a self-learning method will enable students to learn all of the things we think it is important for them to learn or only the stuff they find immediately appealing.

Regardless, I suspect most people would agree that children should learn to read. You might therefore think that the teaching of reading, at least, would be a bastion of evidence-based practice. Yet it is not. We know that a systematic, synthetic phonics (SSP) approach is the most effective method for teaching students to read and yet, in practice, phonics is often an incidental. As I have mentioned before, an Australian ‘best practice’ video treats phonics as a little old-fashioned and something of a last resort. You might find this astonishing.

It is not astonishing when you realise that SSP has only a relative advantage over other approaches. If it was the only way that children could learn to read then we would have a situation similar to the engineer and the bridge. Instead, there are lots of less efficient ways of teaching reading that still sort-of work. Many students will discover the alphabetic code for themselves, for instance. Directly teaching phonics does these students no harm and probably ensures that their knowledge is more systematic, whilst students who wouldn’t discover the principles for themselves will also learn. However, if you decide not to directly teach phonics then those students who fail to discover it may end-up labelled as having a learning difficulty. This then shifts the responsibility away from the teacher and his or her instruction. With these conditions and forces at play, a less effective strategy for teaching reading can survive and even thrive.

So mediocre, misconceived teaching persists because the harm it causes is relative and not immediately apparent.

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A reply to Debra Kidd on self-directed learning

Recently, Debra Kidd wrote a post that I said that I would respond to. Twitter is not the medium to analyse this properly – it is too terse. And Debra raises some important points. However, I think that the conclusions that she draws are profoundly wrong.

Debra notes the recent research findings of Sugata Mitra that students can learn things for themselves. There has been much comment about the validity of these findings and I don’t intend to analyse that here. However, there is an important point to make. Were there to be anyone who was arguing that children cannot learn things by themselves, then Debra’s post would be an effective rebuttal of it. She writes of Sam who, after developing an interest in natural disasters, researched geology and Zen Buddhism before alighting on a desire to study Japanese. If the claim is that all children require teacher input in order to learn anything at all then even Debra’s single case would prove this wrong.

However, I am not sure that anyone is making this claim. I think we are confusing the part with the whole.

For instance, I am quite clear that some children can learn to read by simply being exposed to books and a supportive environment, even if this process is not very efficient. If I start to discuss phonics on Twitter then pretty soon someone will point out to me that they learnt to read, or their child learnt to read, without systematic synthetic phonics. I suppose that I am meant to find this surprising or a refutation of my argument. I find it to be neither.

Let us consider, for example, the fact that a proportion of people will recover from the Ebola virus without intervention.  Figures are hard to come by but let us imagine that I were able to present you with a personal testimony from a survivor. Would you conclude from this that patients who are suffering from Ebola should not be given medical intervention? I suspect that you would not. You see, it is not the fact that some people can survive Ebola without medical attention that is important.

This is an issue that also illuminates Mitra’s work. If we take his famous hole-in-the-wall experiment at face value, then we have to accept that some children taught themselves how to use computers. But which children? As @teach_well has discovered, although located near to slums, it is not clear that it is slum children who benefited from Mitra’s machines. Clearly, the presence of Mitra’s computers most benefits those children who are best prepared to take advantage of this opportunity. I would suggest that these are likely to be more middle-class children; they are less likely to be required to spend time earning money and they are more likely to have the relevant foundational knowledge. We have no way of knowing that Mitra’s approach would benefit all students in a particular setting. In my experience, it is relatively easy to get some children learning. The task of education systems is to maximise learning for all. This should be the mission of educators committed to social justice.

Truly, Sam seems like a remarkable boy. And you can’t help nodding in agreement with Debra when she writes about Sam’s RE teacher who can only comment that he talks too much whilst giving him a relatively low grade. The boy has developed a passionate interest in Buddhism, for goodness sake! However, this also illustrates another point about self-directed interest-only learning.

The great benefit of the sort of RE that is taught in U.K. schools – which is not replicated Australia – is that you have to learn about different religions. If Sam is interested in Zen Buddhism then that’s great but should we conclude that he should be able to single-mindedly pursue that interest in RE lessons? If so, he will not find out about other religions. No doubt, Sam has researched these already. However, if accepted as a general principle then how comfortable would we be with Muslim students who only ever learn about Islam or Christian students who only ever learn about Christianity? Yes, it is great for education to develop passions in students. I am quite taken with Kieran Egan’s idea that we should all have a specialist area, even if I worry about the practicalities. But a common core of knowledge builds empathy and enables us to understand the passions of others.

As a boy, I read ‘Doctor Who’ books. My teacher made me read ‘The Hobbit’. I didn’t like it much. In fact, I resented having to read it. However, I now remember much more about The Hobbit than any of those Doctor Who books. I suppose that you could argue that my teacher oppressed me. I tend to think that she helped me gain an education.

My own daughter has recently developed a passion for science. I do not know what sparked Sam’s interest in natural disasters but I am quite clear about what happened to my daughter. Although still in primary school, she started to have science lessons from a specialist science teacher. Ever since, she has come home buzzing with ideas and questions. A rich, knowledge-based curriculum has the potential to provoke passions. It might not always do so. After all, we are individuals and I might enjoy something that you find quite dull. But it is clear that I am never going to develop a passion for something if I don’t know that it exists.

Which is why a rich, knowledge-based curriculum is even more important for children from deprived backgrounds. These are the children who are less likely to visit museums in the holidays or have rich discussions around a middle-class dinner table. I suppose that this is why Michaela Community School replicates that dinner table at lunchtime in school. It is why it is critical that we expose students to ideas that they are unlikely to just happen upon.

The alternative is the sort of vacuous lessons that we can all remember; a lesson in the abstract about ‘writing’ or ‘reading comprehension’ or making some kind of dumb poster. I remember being taught word-processing because of future, paperless offices and the fact that we would not use handwriting any more. I was taught how to name a file so that I would be able to save it and how to set-up WYSIWYG justification in ‘View’; a BBC micro word-processor. It was dull, pointless, ultimately useless and I’d have been far better off learning some Shakespeare. It might not have developed into a lifelong passion but at least it wouldn’t have been a waste of my time.

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On the subject of my irrepressible positivity

I remember the first time that someone suggested that I was a ‘positivist’. I thought that it sounded quite pleasant. I mean, you wouldn’t want to be a ‘negitivist’ now, would you? However, there was something odd about it. The issue had been raised during a discussion about teaching methods and the person who raised it was acting as if he had delivered a killer blow. His look said, “How are you going to get back from that?” I was puzzled.

So I looked it up on the internet. According to Britannica, positivism is, “any system that confines itself to the data of experience and excludes a priori or metaphysical speculations.” Thus, the argument;

1. Positivism is wrong

2. You are a positivist

3. Therefore, you are wrong

would not convince a positivist because is rests upon an a priori assumption, namely that positivism is wrong. It is also not a convincing argument for a number of other reasons.

Firstly, I am not a positivist because I accept a number of a priori assumptions. I believe in objective reality and oppose relativism which I see as prone to absurdity and self-contradiction. I don’t need to count the daisies in my lawn in order to draw this conclusion. I also hold a number of moral convictions. For instance, I think it is wrong for students to swear at their teachers. I don’t even need to involve myself in defining ‘swearing’ in order to readily assent to this idea.

I have quite a few views that are like this. For instance, I don’t believe that states should be in the business of murdering their own citizens, whatever those citizens have done, unless they represent a clear and acute threat to the well-being of others (e.g. suicide bombers). This is not a view based upon empirical data. I also quite like this extract from the American Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Setting the arguments about the existence of a creator to one side, I like the sentiment of this statement because it speaks to the kind of world that I want to live in. I require no statistical correlation to accept the rights of men and women (I would add that bit in) to pursue happiness.

So why does this come about? Why do a get accused of holding a philosophical position that I do not hold? And what of the genuine positivists in all of this? Someone should at least do them the service of explaining why they are a priori wrong.

I think the criticism of me is due to a sleight-of-hand where the part becomes the whole. Whereas I have no problem in accepting the truth of statements that are not based upon experiment or observation, I am also fine with accepting the truth of statements that are. To me, this seems perfectly reasonable. Due to my a priori acceptance of objective reality, I believe that measurements give us insight into this reality. If someone is making truth claims that can potentially be measured against reality then I am interested in measuring them.

Of course, I also accept that things can be complicated. The business of education involves humans, after all. There are three possible truths:

1. Education is predictable – we can derive certain laws from experiment that will enable us to predict the learning of each individual.

2. Education is weakly predictable – we can derive laws that tell us what might happen on average with groups of students under certain conditions but these laws cannot fully predict the learning of each individual.

3. Education is entirely unpredictable.

I am not aware of anyone advocating for the first of these. Even if education really were this deterministic then we would probably need to possess information that no teachers could ever possess; details of the changing moods of all of our students, for instance. So it might be predictable in principle but chaotic in practice.

We can easily decide between the latter two possible truths by experiment and observation. If education is entirely unpredictable then anyone who thinks she has found a rule must be in error. If we repeat her experiment or observations a number of times then the finding will wash-out.

This does not seem to be the case. For instance, the fact that worked examples are better than problem solving for teaching novices the rudiments of algebra seems to be a robust result. But this is an example that I offer from my own home turf.

What is it that you believe? Do you believe that inquiry learning is more motivating for science students than explicit instruction? If so, this is testable. We could run the two conditions against each other and survey the students or perhaps measure the proportion that go on to further study of science. With a large enough group we could uncover even a very weak effect.

Granted, an experiment will never tell you whether it is morally right to shout at a child. I accept that. And yet educationalists are making experimentally testable claims all the time without usually providing much evidence to support them.

Every time you promote a particular teaching practice or curriculum, you are implying its advantages over alternatives in order to meet some objective or other; building creativity, collaborative skills, teaching kids to read. The claims you are making are therefore potentially testable: Presumably, there must be some way of distinguishing between a person with good or bad collaborative skills. If so, we can use it to see if your method produces more people with good skills – on average – than the alternatives [There is a danger here that is common in educational research of defining the desired trait so that it is basically equivalent to participating in the intervention, but that’s a separate issue]. In fact, if you accept that outcomes will vary a lot at an individual level then you have even more of a reason to pursue a larger trial and less of a reason to look at individual case studies where you have no hope of isolating the effect of any teaching from an array of other intra-personal factors. And guess what, some clever people invented statistics to help us try to make sense of it all.

Seen in this light, the cry of ‘positivism’ leveled at those who reference large scale educational trials looks like a defence mechanism. When the boy cried, “But the emperor has no clothes!” perhaps the emperor should have replied, “POSITIVIST!”

You see, education is in a poor state. We teachers desperately want to be seen as a grown-up profession, yet we can’t even agree that what we do should have some sort of measurable effect. How do we expect the public to trust us? Bear in mind that there’s a lot of their tax dollars riding on this. When asked to justify our existence, we must give a clearer account and we must take control of it ourselves. Otherwise, we will see flawed accountability measures imposed upon us by increasingly desperate politicians. Wait, that already happened.

One of the places where the debate is currently taking place is in social media. Recently, I was involved in a discussion with a researcher who wrote, “Well I’ve thrown down a challenge, back your evidence up with theory or admit you have no pedagogy.”

Back your evidence up with theory?

I retweeted this and James Theo commented, “I laughed. And then I realised that this sort of thing is why we struggle to be seen as a profession and was sad.”

Quite so.

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Hoodwinked by flapdoodle

Last week, I wrote a post about the way that reading is taught in Australian schools. As part of that post, I referred to a report written on behalf of the Australian government. This report reviews the evidence on the teaching of reading and endorses the use of phonics. In simple terms, children should be taught how to ‘sound-out’ words (although there is some subtlety around how to do this). At no point does the report mention the ‘three cuing system’, ‘multi-cuing’ or ‘searchlights’.

These terms are used interchangeably to describe a set of strategies that children may use when they approach an unfamiliar word. These strategies act as an alternative to sounding-out. Children might be encouraged to guess what a word might be from a picture or from the context. “Carly put the can in the…” might, for instance, elicit guesses of “cupboard” if there was a picture next to the text that showed a girl placing a can in a cupboard. This is then considered to be ‘reading’ the word.

It seems that this set of strategies originated in a intervention programme called “Reading Recovery” that is targeted at struggling readers. The originator of this programme, Marie Clay, thought that this was how skilled readers decoded words. Reading Recovery (RR) has changed a little in recent years. A number of national reports have been published that demonstrate the importance of phonics and so RR now incorporates a phonics component. However, the three cuing system remains.

In fact, it has been so influential that the three cuing system – under the name of ‘searchlights’ – was incorporated into the National Literacy Strategy in the U.K. Teachers were required to use it in their reading instruction. Searchlights has now been removed from the current version, due to a lack of supporting evidence. The 2006 U.K. Rose Review looked at the evidence around the teaching of reading and included an entire appendix on the searchlights model and why it should be adandoned:

“The searchlights model was founded on a view of what constitutes a ‘skilled reader’ and the processes which support a child moving to such a position. Obviously, that a child should become a skilled reader is an indisputable expectation of all those involved in teaching reading to beginners. However, the searchlights model does not best reflect how a beginner reader progresses to become a skilled reader. 

This is because skilled readers do not rely upon strategies to read words, as they have already developed the skill of word recognition.They may use knowledge of context and grammar, which are conceived within the searchlights model, to assist their understanding of the text but, crucially, they would still be able to decode the words if all contextual and grammatical prompts were removed. Therefore, a model of reading which encourages switching between various searchlight strategies, particularly when phonic work is regarded as only one such strategy, all of equal worth, risks paying insufficient attention to the critical skills of word recognition which must first be secured by beginner readers… 

…if beginner readers, for example, are encouraged to infer from pictures the word they have to decode this may lead to their not realising that they need to focus on the printed word. They may, therefore, not use their developing phonic knowledge. It may also lead to diluting the focused phonics teaching that is necessary for securing accurate word reading.Thus, where beginner readers are taught habitually to infer the word they need from pictures they are far less likely to apply their developing phonic knowledge and skills to print. During the course of the review, several examples were seen of beginners being encouraged to infer from pictures the word they did not immediately recognise from the text. This was often done well before they had sufficient time to decode the word and, if necessary, check, adjust and retry after their first attempt.”

And so the use of the three cuing system certainly does not represent good practice in the teaching of reading.

The Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) is a body with the task of setting standards for teachers in Australia. They illustrate each of these standards with examples, often in the form of videos. I have criticised some of these illustrations before on Twitter: a video and a lesson plan both referred to the widely debunked theory of learning styles. Those illustrations have now been taken down. However, I have not worked my way through all of these illustrations… yet. I suspect I will continue to find more worrying examples because AITSL seem to have a weakness for being fooled into promoting dodgy ideas.

I recently found an illustration that is meant to exemplify the highest level of performance possible under the AITSL standards. It shows a teacher talking to parents about how to help their children with reading. Sounding-out is portrayed as old-fashioned and the three cuing model is demonstrated at some length. The teacher is not totally against phonics but it is clear that he sees the use of phonics as a last resort to be utilised only after three cuing strategies have failed. See for yourself:

http://www.aitsl.edu.au/australian-professional-standards-for-teachers/illustrations-of-practice/detail?id=IOP00111

Most extraordinary.

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