60% of state schools in NSW are still using Reading Recovery

I asked New South Wales’ Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) for some data on the proportion of government schools that are still using Reading Recovery. I had seen a figure of around 60% in the press but wondered whether this was up-to-date, especially since a number of reports have recently been released. It looks like it is spot-on:

“As at February 2016, approximately 1000 NSW government schools with primary-aged student enrolments implement Reading Recovery. This represents a percentage of approximately 60% of eligible schools (ie Primary and Central Schools). Please note: This figure does not include Catholic & Independent schools that use Reading Recovery”

Why does this matter?

Reading Recovery is an expensive intervention because it involves one-to-one tuition. It evolved out of a ‘whole language’ approach to teaching reading. We now know that whole language is flawed, with various national reports finding in favour of systematic synthetic phonics and an explicit approach to teaching letter-sound relationships (see here, here and here). The 2006 Rose report from the UK made a specific point of criticising the idea of multi-cuing, a tactic that is employed in Reading Recovery. Rose suggested that it is potentially harmful because it discourages the proper decoding of words.

Yet the evidence seems to support Reading Recovery. A brief search will return randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that find a positive effect in favour of it and RCTs are supposed to be the gold standard of evidence. The problem with many of these trials is that they don’t test Reading Recovery against an alternative plausible intervention such as Multilit. Instead, Reading Recovery tends to be compared with no intervention at all. Small wonder that children who are given an additional one-to-one reading lesson with an adult make more progress than those who are not, whatever the quality of the intervention. And we might expect even more of a boost if the standard classroom instruction is something like whole language which we know to be less effective. The RCTs do indeed show, to a high standard of proof, that a Reading Recovery intervention is better than doing nothing.

Those who have studied Reading Recovery more closely finding it wanting. James Chapman is a professor at Massey University in New Zealand, the country that is the home of Reading Recovery:

“New Zealand research shows that at best, children who make some progress as a result of Reading Recovery tend to lose the gains after a few years. At worst, our longitudinal study at Massey University showed that children who were said to be successful in Reading Recovery were still, on average, one year behind their same age peers 12 months after completing the programme.”

CESE recently completed its own study in New South Wales. The findings are summarised in the CESE newsletter:

“The results showed some evidence that RR has a modest short-term effect on reading skills among the lowest performing students. However, RR does not appear to be an effective intervention for students that begin Year 1 with more proficient literacy skills. In the longer-term, there was no evidence of any positive effects of RR on students’ reading performance in Year 3.”

So it doesn’t work in theory and it doesn’t work particularly well in practice, even in New South Wales. Rational people might conclude that Reading Recovery should be dropped in favour of cheaper, small-group, synthetic phonics instruction of the kind that the various national reports recommend.

But 1000 schools? That’s a pretty big sunk cost. Nobody will want to admit to being wrong on such a large scale and so I predict that Reading Recovery will continue for a little while yet out of sheer stubbornness if nothing else. And giving the glowing results from RCTs in the U.S., we might even see a resurgence there.

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Why the College of Teaching has failed

Teaching is not like other professions. We tend to lack the professional bodies that characterise medicine and the law. And teachers are becoming more conscious of this. Through social media, more teachers are challenging those who claim to speak for us. They are organising conferences and launching teacher-led movements.

So when a proposal was put forward for a College of Teaching in England, a professional organisation to represent teachers, you might think that the timing was right. A crowd funding site went live to raise money to release teachers so that they could contribute to setting up the College. The stakes were high; without reaching the target, it wouldn’t go ahead.

The initial plan was to raise £250,000. When it became clear that this target would not be met the goalposts were moved to 1000 donors. It still failed. The eventual total pledged was around £20,000, with roughly half of this from a single donor. The number of individual pledges was just over 200. What happened? Why was the idea so comprehensively rejected by teachers?

What is it?

From the outset, it was unclear what the College intended to do. We already have teaching unions so it would presumably avoid that territory. What would you get for your subscription?

Perhaps it might just become some bureaucracy that claimed to speak for teachers? Perhaps it would impose standards? If so, would these be ethical standards or teaching standards? Could it end up defining certain teaching styles as meeting or not meeting these standards?

Nobody knew.

Who is it?

The lack of clarity around purpose made the lack of clarity around membership even more worrisome. Most teachers would prefer an organisation for teachers run by teachers. And yet there was equivocation around this. Could teacher educators working in universities become members? What about head teachers? The College started organising events midweek which ordinary teachers could not really attend. So who was meant to show up?

There is nothing intrinsically bad about teacher educators or head teachers but they are not classroom teachers. The suspicion was that they would take over and set the agenda. This is the kind of thing that tends to happen a lot in education and ordinary teachers are used to being patronised by experts who know best.

CPD providers also seemed to be involved with setting up the College: the folks who are likely to bring us the next Building Learning Power and who sell us courses on Lego-based pedagogy and the like.

Sunk cost

Many of us thought that the failure of the crowd funding campaign would see the end of the College. Instead, it looks like those involved are too invested to give up and instead intend to limp on. They could reformulate it as a organisation for teachers and come up with a clear vision. I would suggest outlining a few key objectives and restricting all membership to primary and secondary school teachers who teach more periods per week than they don’t.

This would be the right way forward but I suspect that if those involved were capable of following such a path then they would have done so already.

It will by grimly compelling to watch how this all plays out.


Why state schools fail

This morning, I read two newspaper articles from opposite sides of the world and in papers with conflicting political perspectives. I was struck by what they had in common. Both were describing state schools and both contained elements that I recognised from my own experience both as a student and as a teacher.

Chris Fotinopoulos wrote a piece in The Age where he explained why he had reluctantly decided to move from teaching in the state sector to an independent school. Part of the issue is one of funding. There was a recent review in Australia – the Gonski review – that suggested increasing the amount of money going to state schools. The government at the time agreed with the findings and put a plan in place. It now looks like this barely enacted plan will be axed by a different government due to its cost. It is worth pointing out that Australia has an unusual system where independent schools are subsidised by the federal government and many think this is unfair when state schools are struggling to get by. The suggestion is that some of this money could be redistributed to fund Gonski.

Connected to this, Fotinopoulos raises the issue of poor behaviour. Needy kids come from poorer homes and many middle class parents opt out of the state system to avoid having their children’s education thwarted by the disruption caused by these students. Children from deprived backgrounds require extra funding that is not forthcoming.

And Fotinopoulos makes a pretty strong claim: behaviour is so bad in many state schools that teachers seek promotion in order to escape classrooms that are difficult to manage. It’s an odd thought. You might imagine senior managers would spend more time dealing with the most difficult behaviour. Certainly, the most effective whole-school behavior policies that I have seen and been involved with in state schools require a lot from senior staff.

I then read a piece in The Telegraph by Zoe Brennan. Ostensibly, it is a call for streaming in state schools. I disagree with this conclusion – streaming is too fixed for my liking. I am not against ‘setting’ where groups are set up in different subject areas according to students’ prior knowledge although it is a difficult area in terms of evidence – basically, robust evidence is lacking. I can see the practical advantages of setting provided that less able groups don’t go to new teachers and heads of department get all the more able ones. However, streaming is rigid; students are together in the same band for all of their subjects and there is little prospect of movement from one to another. I’m not keen on that.

When Brennan outlines her case, she draws upon her own experience from a flagship comprehensive in 1980s London. There were low expectations and behaviour problems that impacted on learning. At Pimlico Comprehensive, “teaching was delivered in mixed-ability classes in a permanent atmosphere of chaos. Some pupils were unable to read or write, instead disrupting the class.”

And so, from a distance of 30 years and 17,000 kilometres, we read about exactly the same problem.

Part of this is caused by the fact that our schools have failed on a very basic level. Many students in mixed ability state school classes who are unable to read and write would benefit from expensive intervention that funding such as Gonski might provide. However, I wonder how many needs could have been addressed earlier by giving children good, explicit instruction in the basics. Instead of parking the ambulances at the base of the cliff it might be easier to build a fence at the top of it.

Yet state schools have inflicted airy-fairy notions about maths teaching and whole language reading instruction on these students, the most needy. As the Snow et. al. report for the U.S. department of education makes clear:

“…not all interventions are equal. The amount of improvement in word-reading skill appears to be associated with the degree of explicitness in the instructional method. Furthermore, children with higher phonological processing scores at the beginning of the year demonstrated greater improvement in word-reading skills in all instructional groups. Explicit instruction in the alphabetic principle was more effective with children who began the year doing poorly in phonological processing.”

Flawed teaching methods disproportionately affect the most vulnerable. This directly leads to educational failure and class disruption by frustrated students.

But the elephant in the room is also the inability to effectively manage the poor behaviour that results both from this process and the myriad other factors that impact on students from all backgrounds. Plan A was that if modern, progressive, right-thinking pedagogies and mixed ability teaching were adopted then students would be engaged, enjoy school and the behaviour would sort itself out. There was no Plan B.

Brennan talks of students screaming ‘fight, fight, fight’ and setting fire to bins on unpoliced concourses. I wrote about my own experiences in a state school in my recent ebook but I didn’t go into the details of the behaviour. Suffice it to say that despite the school being in the process of turning itself around, I recognise this scene. There was a gap between two of the blocks at my school that you could not pass through at lunch time for fear of having a cigarette stubbed-out on your hand. In the middle of lunch. In the middle of a school.

As a teacher, I also had the opportunity to help turn around a challenging state school. We relentlessly focused on behaviour. If you want students to learn, first make sure that they are safe. It’s a simple idea.

I will always be in favour of increasing funding to state schools. However, I note that this happened after 1997 in England. It started out well with numeracy and literacy based interventions and a focus on assessment for learning. Over time, it morphed. The money was used to pay for consultants who offered little. The government focus shifted from the prosaic to ‘personal learning and thinking skills’ and ‘social and emotional learning’. Schools adopted strange whole-school initiative such as Building Learning Power. Money was sucked into fads and fashions.

I can see why this happens. But sometimes we need to focus our efforts on fixing the foundations rather than dressing the windows.


Teaching students to grow taller

Imagine that we decided that one of the objectives of school was to make kids grow taller. Let’s set aside any questions about how we might do this. I don’t much mind whether we utilised inquiry learning or explicit instruction; whether students teach themselves or educators take the lead. The key assumption that we have made is that growing taller is somehow susceptible to training, however we go about it: It is trainable.

I think we would all concede that the height of a person may well be affected by outside factors. For instance, a malnourished child might not grow to her full potential. An accident or disease might damage the legs or spine. The medical use of growth hormone might increase height. Yet none of these external factors could be described as ‘training’. They are quite extreme interventions of a positive or negative kind. It is hard to picture how a series of lessons might affect a child’s height. And yet we might also observe, as we teach these notional lessons, that the children do indeed gradually grow. We might falsely attribute this to the training.

The cognitive aims of education are relatively easy to define and measure, despite what some might claim. If we decide that students should be able to solve a certain type of maths problem then I think it’s pretty obvious that this is trainable and we can get some measure of success by seeing if students can solve such problems under test conditions. I also think there is plenty of evidence that we are not yet good enough at meeting many cognitive objectives such as students being able to read, write and do basic maths, so there is plenty to focus on.

When experts come along and instead suggest that we should focus on non-cognitive goals, perhaps by teaching character – whatever that is – or resilience or creativity or collaboration, I think we should do two things. Firstly, we should ask whether these kids can read yet. If not, I think that meeting this much more clearly defined, basic goal of education should be the priority. Secondly, we should question whether this new goal is actually trainable, like the goal of solving maths problems, or whether it is not, like the goal of trying to make kids grow taller.

By MCSN Mark Hays [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By MCSN Mark Hays [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The sweet spot

I am sitting in the airport at Sydney, waiting for my flight back to Geelong. I’ve just taken part in a panel review of my PhD progress and caught up with my supervisors. I also attended a fascinating talk and discussion led by Jan Plass who started his career in cognitive load theory and has now branched out into studying various aspects of adaptive learning.

It’s given me the opportunity to think about a few issues related to cognitive load theory (CLT). It has been bothering me for a while that there are certain contradictory views coming out of cognitive science that seem to be bound up with the issue of germane cognitive load. When CLT was first formulated, two types of working memory load were identified; the intrinsic load related to completing a problem or task and the extrinsic load that is not required for problem solving but that might be generated by distracting information, images and so on. Later, germane load was added.

Germane load is essentially the component of the working memory load that leads to learning. It is a problem for CLT because it makes the theory unfalsifiable: design an experiment that reduces cognitive load and leads to learning and we can say that we have reduced extrinsic load; design one that increases load and is effective and we can say that we have increased germane load. The reverse explanations can also apply; if the reduced load leads to less learning we can say that we eliminated germane load an so on. The results of any experiment can be explained and so CLT ceases to be a scientific theory because it ceases to make predictions that may be proved wrong.

Sweller’s solution is to not explain anything in terms of germane cognitive load. His view is that CLT is not a theory of everything. Even so, CLT provides useful results. Those of you who have been following my Twitter account will no doubt have already clicked on a link to this excellent piece by Sweller that was recently published and that gives an historical background to CLT theory before going on to explain all of the important findings in simple terms. Germane load is not mentioned.

But if CLT is not a theory of everything then what exactly is it a theory of? I am starting to think that CLT findings are best applied to domains with high intrinsic load; domains such as maths and physics problem solving and the more analytical aspects of the humanities. In such domains, it makes sense as an heuristic to generally try to reduce load. There is so much to pay attention to that we might seek to eliminate any extrinsic load for novice learners whilst also breaking the major tasks down into smaller components to be trained independently: We learn to factorise and solve quadratic equations in isolation before we learn to solve word problems that require the use of quadratic equations (and we learn our times tables before we learn to factorise quadratic equations).

And yet there are other areas where precisely the reverse effect is found. The generation effect is the phenomenon where learning is enhanced by students having to generate a piece of information for themselves rather than by simply reading that information. This increases working memory load. Perhaps it is desirable to make learning a little bit harder? Perhaps this makes it more memorable?

The apparent contradiction might be solved if we consider that worked examples seem to be better than problem solving for complex kinds of problems whereas the generation effect seems to work for tasks that involve memorising single words or sequences of words. Sweller would define this as a difference in ‘element interactivity’. In an algebra or physics problem, each move is dependent upon another; the fifth line depends upon the fourth and so on. The elements of the problem interact. However, words and names are discrete items and so the element interactivity is low, even if the words are complicated or technical.

If we have a model of learning that suggests that we must engage but not overload the working memory in order to optimise learning then the worked example effect can be explained due to the fact that it reduces load to manageable proportions. The generation effect occurs because it increases the load of a learning episode that would otherwise possess a very low intrinsic load. If you want students to learn names and dates then generation could be a good strategy.

Similarly, when we become more expert, a series of problem moves becomes ‘chunked’ together as a single item and so this also effectively reduces the element interactivity of a problem, explaining why experts benefit more from problem solving than from worked examples.

There is some experimental evidence for this idea and it’s similar to some of the recent findings regarding the testing effect. A paper by Chen, Kalyuga and Sweller presents a series of experiments that show a worked example effect for high element interactivity and a generation effect for low element interactivity.

This is now falsifiable, provided that we can all accept the concept of element interactivity. If so, a worked example effect for very low element interactivity or a generation effect for high element interactivity would disprove CLT.

Do we therefore need the notion of germane cognitive load at all? I’m not sure. We might be able to make do with something simpler: Fill the working memory without over-filling it. Hit the sweet spot. Vygotsky would approve.

syd air


Victoria University promotes Learning Styles theories

There’s a well defined cycle to internet discussions of learning styles. Someone like me will mention them in passing. I’ll say something like, “We all know learning styles theories are false but…” while making some different kind of point. Others will pick up on this, claiming that they are unaware of anyone who suggests that learning styles are true. Finally, a third party will appear who claims that learning styles perhaps have some legitimacy after all.

I initiated such a discussion with a post ostensibly about teacher education. But this time I decided to disrupt the cycle. Instead of accepting the ‘I see no ships’ argument, I decided to investigate the websites of various Australian universities. I found a few smoking guns.

However, I was unprepared for Victoria University. Its 2016 handbook contains details of many courses for trainee teachers. Learning Styles are mentioned no fewer than 15 times. For instance, for the course, “Literacy and Language,” students are required to, “pass one hurdle task related to an understanding of self-directed learning and learning styles by week three.” In “Development Studies 2”:

“…pre-service teachers undertake a period of teaching in an early childhood setting with children three-eight years of age. As their professional competence develops, they increasingly take responsibility for learning experiences and the program within a team environment. Using a praxis inquiry protocol, pre-service teachers consider a range of strategies and approaches to reflect on and improve personal teaching practice. Pre-service teachers are introduced to major theorists and current research across a range of developmental areas including: cognition, physical, emotional, social development; diversity issues; individual learning styles; and the contribution of play to children’s development. “

Current research?

By the end of “Early Childhood Curriculum and Pedagogy: The Arts” we read that students will be able to, “Articulate a range of strategies for learning which reflect the needs and preferred learning styles of young people and which presents and investigates a range of genre in visual and creative arts.”

In “Performing Pedagogies,” Students, “will address a number of areas as they influence pedagogy and teaching and learning practice. Students will investigate definitions of pedagogy and andragogy; learning styles and approaches; teaching styles and approaches; praxis inquiry about personal pedagogy; multi-literacies and their impact on teaching and learning.”

I could go on.

The problem is that learning styles theories have been comprehensively debunked. Although many people will express a preference to learn in a particular way, the matching hypothesis – adapting teaching to meet these preferences leads to better learning – has zero evidence to support it. Instead, the way that something is learnt should be matched to the content. You can read a meta-analysis of the research here and cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham’s accessible learning styles FAQ here.

A teacher education faculty that promotes learning styles is like a notional medical school that promotes the theory of the four humours or a chemistry department that promotes phlogiston theory. Although once plausible, the lack of any substantiating evidence would see the inclusion of these ideas in a professional curriculum as a source of considerable embarrassment.

It is small wonder that teaching struggles to be taken seriously and it is further evidence that teacher education needs reform.

By Reid Parham (Parhamr) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Reid Parham (Parhamr) (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Book Review: ‘Ouroboros’ by Greg Ashman

A Total Ed Case

I first encountered the work of Australian education thinker/blogger Greg Ashman when he was writing under the pseudonym of Harry Webb at his Webs of Substance blog (closed in the spring of 2015 for reasons explained here). My book had been out just a few months, and I was wading (with no real plan, I should add) into Twitter, the educational blogospere, etc., hoping to find a few like educational minds to share it with.

And though I can’t remember the content of that first experience with Ashman’s ideas/writing, I know it hit me square on the chin. Reading him, I knew right away that Ashman presented a combination I hadn’t seen a lot of previously: he had actual recent experience as a classroom teacher, he had read and been inspired by many of the same writers/researchers I had in my own ed journey, and he took great pleasure…

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