Teaching’s Stockholm Syndrome

I have been reflecting further on the way that one academic chose to write about a group of teachers. It’s just one example, I concede, but it’s prompted me to wonder whether there are wider implications.

Perhaps they really don’t like us?

Consider this. In the paper that I linked to in my last post – a paper that should be widely read – the two contrasting types of teaching were referred to as ‘teacher-led’ versus ‘child-centred’. The evidence in this case was clear: principals who subscribed to child-centred approaches tended to run schools with lower attainment and greater inequality of outcome.

This is hardly a new finding. Indeed, the authors referred to previous studies in their discussion. So what keeps child-centred teaching alive? It is, after all, more than 100 years old. By now we should have worked out that it is less effective and that it replicates inequality. The fact that we haven’t represents a challenge to the idea of memetics: that poor ideas will eventually be out competed by better ones.

On this last point, the timescale of education might have something to do with it. The lifecycle of education is a lengthy 12 years. But why else do people cling to child-centred ideas? There is a lot of supporting theory, I suppose, but the evidence falsifies the theory.

Until now, I have tended to think that the theory is the attraction. People have romantic views and child-centred education fits these. No matter that it is worse for inequality: in theory it is more equitable and so academics who are generally of the political left sign up in their droves.

But I’m now wondering if there’s another factor: an actual dislike of teachers. There have certainly been many scandals about how teachers in the recent past have behaved and most of us will be able to point to teachers with whom we still harbour a grievance.

If you dislike and distrust teachers then it seems natural to favour a child-centred approach over a teacher-led one: give those teachers as little power and influence as possible. It also explains why you might feel queasy about instructing teachers in behaviour management techniques. As I’ve noted before, the recent Carter review of teacher education in the UK stated:

“We have identified what appear to be potentially significant gaps in a range of courses in areas such as subject knowledge development, subject-specific pedagogy, behaviour management, assessment and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). We believe there may be a case for a better shared understanding of what the essential elements of good ITT content look like.”

If this is a factor behind the disavowal of teacher-led pedagogy then there seems something of a paradox. Yes, many education academics have never been teachers but we have to acknowledge that many others do come from teaching backgrounds.

Perhaps there’s a kind of Stockholm Syndrome here. We have been captured and we have come to empathise with our captors. And this makes us a guilty profession, a profession of low self-esteem, a profession of self-loathing.

Perhaps it’s time to get up off our knees.


Is ‘no excuses’ an excuse for boring and lazy teaching?

I hadn’t intended to write about ‘no excuses’ behaviour management. This is because I don’t know a great deal about it. I am aware that Michaela Community School in London uses the approach, as well as other UK Academies and a number of Charter Schools in the US. As an Assistant Headteacher in a relatively tough school in London, I was heavily involved in behaviour management. We were lucky. We had a pot of money allocated to improve behaviour which we spent on employing a group of specialists. They would arrange appointments with students but some students were also given a card that they could use to leave a lesson at any time in order to go and see one of these counsellors. The rationale was that this could prevent major escalations and I believe that it worked to an extent, yet this was effectively an excuse that was designed in to the system.

I do, however, believe that you need strong and effective behaviour management in a school. This has to operate on all levels. Teachers must apply the behaviour policy consistently and leaders must support those teachers. I also think it’s essential that teachers are informed of the eventual outcome of anything that they have referred to senior leaders and, in my experience, this is often overlooked. Poor behaviour causes stress for teachers and is clearly a factor in recruitment and retention. However, a lot of people tend to forget the impact of poor behaviour on other students. Bullying can be incredibly debilitating but even low-level misbehaviour damages the chances of other students to learn; a factor that I believe that many parents intuitively consider when they opt for private education.

I have been involved in permanently excluding students. The paperwork to do this was vast and there was an appeals panel that could overturn our decisions. An excluded student was unlikely to gain anything from the process and yet, on each occasion, I was satisfied that it was the right thing to do because the student was always involved in physically harming his or her peers. This wasn’t about giving teachers an easy life, it was about protecting those for whom we had a duty of care.

It was through this lens that I read Linda Graham’s piece on ‘no excuses’. Graham is an academic who does important research on behaviour, amongst other issues. She writes about ‘no excuses’ and the teachers who subscribe to it with something approaching contempt:

“To my mind, the other thing that this “no excuses” discourse masks is the complete and utter refusal to consider that just *maybe* the kid has a point.

In other words, with a “no excuses”, “zero tolerance”, “like it or lump it” approach, systems, schools and teachers – who are that way inclined – can excuse themselves.

Teach badly? No matter.

Curriculum is mind-numbingly boring and irrelevant? So what.

Treat young people like they are indentured servants with no opportunity to exercise or extend their developing identity? S’ok.

It’s okay because our uncompromising standards mean that those young people will have to leave and when they do they will become someone else’s problem. Then we can get on with teaching the kids who like or who can at least endure mind-numbing irrelevant curriculum taught poorly by autocratic teachers who know best.”

This discourse reminded me of an interaction I had with a progressive educator who declared that I had ‘no pedagogy’. I found this puzzling at the time but I am now starting to understand where it comes from. Traditional approaches, including strong discipline, are seen by some as entirely self-serving. No allowance is made for the notion that there might be some thinking behind it. Traditionalists are only interested in themselves; they just want an easy life. The language of education reinforces this perception. What are we to make of teachers who prefer a ‘teacher-led’ approach to a cuddly-sounding ‘child-centred’ one?

There is a clear divide here and, as we can see from the heat that ‘no excuses’ generates, it is not a false dichotomy. There are those who think that we should prepare the child for the world and there are those that think that we should prepare the world for the child. In a recent Twitter discussion about Shakespeare that was sparked by the 400th anniversary of his death, there were those who asked whether children would find his work interesting or engaging and, if not, concluded that perhaps we shouldn’t teach it. Traditionalists might debate which texts should be studied in a curriculum but they would do so on the basis of the properties of those texts rather than their superficial appeal.

It is naive in the extreme to suppose that giving students choice and control over what and how they learn will lead them to choosing pathways that will maximise their educational outcomes and there is plenty of evidence to support this. For instance, a recent study by Danish sociologists took advantage of an incredibly complete ‘big data’ set. They interviewed school principals and asked them how much they agreed with certain statements in order to ascertain how ‘student-centred’ their views were; statements such as ‘teaching processes directed by the students are more important than teaching processes directed by the teacher’. Responses to these questions closely correlated with each other. They then looked at the data from a mathematics test that takes place in Grade 9 across Denmark. 

Students in schools where the principals held more student-centred views performed worse. Moreover, there was a greater inequality in these schools. The student-centred methods had an even worse effect on students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Not so cuddly, after all.

The authors are not in any way surprised by this result – it is what they hypothesised. And this is because the explanation can be traced back to Basil Bernstein, and other empirical studies – such as Schwerdt and Wupperman 2011 – have shown similar outcomes.

As I understand it, ‘no excuses’ is part of a whole-school teacher-led educational philosophy. It is not just about giving teachers an easy time. In fact, it is intended to promote social justice and greater equality. It draws upon the curriculum theory of E D Hirsch and the knowledge agenda of Dan Willingham. It draws on the empirical support for explicit instruction. I am not advocating ‘no excuses’. I would need to know more about how it works in practice. But let’s not demonise dedicated teachers who are genuinely trying to do the best for the students they teach.

One should not forget humanity

Socially Redundant Education

The following is a guest post from an old friend. Whatever your pedagogical outlook, I think you will see the beauty of the prose and humanity of the argument: 

It was St Augustine who observed, “Wisdom and folly both are like meats that are wholesome and unwholesome, and courtly or simple words are like town-made or rustic vessels.” And lo, one will speak plainly with rustic vessels; vessels shaped to caress the simple mystery that has slipped down the back of the sofa of recent times.

Once, to be a educational traditionalist was a romantic kind of a thing. It was to be a maverick, a lonesome traveler with flowing locks, full of heart, wearisome and hungry who alights at an inn, drinks, eats and tells a fireside tale of the mystery at the heart of creation. It was a humanising call. It was poetry and drunkenness. It was beauty and art carousing…

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Maths teaching rhetoric that doesn’t add-up

The progressive tradition in education has had a particularly pernicious effect on maths teaching. It is worth highlighting the fact that this is a tradition and that it stretches at least as far back as John Dewey because proponents of progressive maths have a tendency to dress their ideas in neologisms. Thus we have the – now fading – constructivism of the 1980s and 1990s that paralleled the whole language movement in reading instruction. We can now add Jo Boaler’s latest forays into neuroscience. Whatever the invocation, you can lay a pretty safe bet that none of these developments will lead to calls for more explicit instruction or practice of basic skills.

It’s hard to tell how many teachers actually use an outright progressive teaching method. They don’t work well and so most educators will presumably default to something else, especially when standardised tests are due. The problem is that there is no alternative narrative. You either follow the education school gurus or you’re left in a guilty muddle. This has to change.

The difficulty we face, however, is that maths gurus have developed a set of rhetorical tricks that they frequently use to muddy the waters. Essentially, the divide is between those who want to explain mathematics to children, get them to practice and then test what they have retained versus those who want students to struggle with complex, open-ended problems, often derived from supposedly real-life situations. The latter strategy pretty much doesn’t work, especially for the least able, as one maths teacher explains in the comments on an interesting blog post:

“My experience has been that throwing problem solving-type tasks at students tends to result in strong students being successful and reinforcing positive beliefs, and weaker students getting frustrated and giving up or copying an answer from another student. I think it’s possible but very difficult to facilitate this in a productive way for all students.”

You don’t actually need to invoke Cognitive Load Theory to understand what’s going on. The idea of a limited amount of working memory that is easily overloaded is well accepted across the field of cognitive psychology.

So, what gives? How do people convince others (and probably themselves) that it is worth pursuing problem-based learning, constructivist maths or whatever else progressive maths education is known as these days? Here are some of the tactics I’ve spotted.

The non sequitur

A non sequitur is when a conclusion does not obviously flow from the statement that is intended to support it. You see this a lot with 21st century skills rhetoric. Someone might claim, for instance, that jobs of the future will require skilled problem-solvers (which is trivially true except for the fact that problem-solving is a myriad of different things) and therefore students must learn maths by solving problems. Huh? How did we get there? Is there no need to demonstrate that learning maths this way actually makes students better problem solvers?

And the non sequiturs get worse than this. We have bits of the brain showing electrical activity when a volunteer completes a non-maths related task and – blink and you’ll miss it – we conclude problem-based maths teaching!

Retreat from evidence

When it comes to evidence, we often see a retreat which is logically similar to Russell’s teapot: that celestial infuser that nobody can prove the nonexistence of. Progressive maths educators may well concede that explicit instruction works to an extent, perhaps by loading their concession with pejorative terms and saying something like, ‘Direct instruction is effective for short term recall of rote facts and procedures,’ but they will still hold that problem-based learning is better for long term understanding. This is harder to challenge because longer term studies are more expensive to conduct and so there are fewer to examine (although there have been some good follow-ups to Project Follow Through).

When these avenues are exhausted, the final gap to retreat into is to suggest that problem-based learning is superior for developing ill-defined skills such as resilience or ‘thinking like a mathematician’ or whatever. The benefit of this line of argument is that these things cannot be measured. In fact, proponents of progressive maths education often set their faces against the kind of testing that could validate or invalidate their approaches.


For many progressive educators of all stripes, education is about motivation. They cannot conceive of coercing students into doing something that they may not like. It’s almost a default setting. Why would we teach Shakespeare when teenagers might find it boring! End of argument.

If you have designed a motivating maths activity then I’m afraid that my response is ‘so what?’ I could easily motivate any middle school maths class by asking them to make a poster demonstrating some strategy or other or by getting them to cut out nets for different shapes, colour them in and then stick them together. There’s loads of ideas where those came from but I have to ask; what’s the point? The students won’t learn any maths. Show me a motivating environment where students learn lots of important maths and then I’ll be interested.

If you can lead me to such a classroom then I predict that we’ll be looking at whole-class explicit instruction led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable teacher.

Leaving a hat on the empty chair

This is a tactic used in many areas by educationalists promoting progressive approaches and it has been turned into a semantic art-form by some. ‘Nobody is against teaching phonics,’ the anti-phonics whole-language activists opine, ‘we just want to use a balance of approaches.’ This usually comes about two-thirds of the way through an opinion piece about how the English language is not phonetic and so phonics is next to useless.

We have the same in maths education. For instance, Jo Boaler may explain that we should not be drilling and testing kids on multiplication tables, she may even claim that she never learnt multiplication tables and that it never did her any harm, she may go further to suggest that you don’t need to know what 7 x 8 is because you can find 7 x 10 and then take away 14, but she is not saying that she is against children learning maths facts. Huh? No, Boaler wants them to sort-of absorb their multiplication tables incidentally through completing lots of problems.

That obviously won’t work but I suppose that if you think that problem-based learning is effective then you could probably convince yourself of osmotic multiplication tables. But then, why do we need to believe in osmotic multiplication tables if you don’t actually need multiplication tables at all? Confusing, isn’t it?

The other hat on an empty chair is ‘guidance’. There is much to say on this and it probably warrants an FAQ at some point. Suffice it to say that problem-based learning is designed so that students figure some things out for themselves. It may well have some kind of guidance or scaffolding but it is less guided than explicit instruction where key ideas are fully explained. The maths teacher quoted above seems to have a fairly clear view of what problem-based learning involves and the guidance is minimal. Why does he think that and what is the advantage of the approach?

A meta-analysis by Alfieri et. al. seemingly supports ‘guided discovery’ but the effect size is small given the kinds of studies that are being analysed and, interestingly, the unpublished studies that they sampled found the reverse effect.

Dismissing Cognitive Load Theory

For those who have read about it, Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) presents some fairly obvious challenges to problem-based maths instruction, despite being a theory still very much under development (it’s the subject of my PhD). For a start, the basic experiments underpinning the theory seem to demonstrate the opposite to what proponents of problem-based maths would claim – explicit instruction is better. CLT has been dismissed out-of-hand in the US, seemingly from the very start, and I suspect that the cognitive dissonance it provokes will ensure that this continues for some time.

It was therefore with interest that I read Michael Pershan’s scholarly, if idiosyncratic, take on CLT. Pershan is sworn to the problem-based learning camp and it is clear that he is looking for any inconsistencies he can find in CLT or disagreements between the main researchers, but he takes the theory seriously and that is to his credit. I wonder whether this marks the beginning of more concerted effort to tackle the issue.

Last chance to buy Ouroboros for $10.00 AUD

Edit: Time is up.

A number of people have requested that I place my ebook, Ouroboros, on Amazon so that they can make use of the Kindle features. Now that pdf sales have died down, it seems like the right time to give this a go.

The reason I’ve been reluctant to use Amazon is that they take a very large cut of the sale price. They also have terms and conditions that are quite stringent. One of these is that if the book is available elsewhere at a cheaper price then they can unilaterally cut the price on Amazon.

I’m going to put it on Amazon for $9.99 USD. This means that I’ll take less per book than I do from the current pdf version. However, this list price is higher than $10.00 AUD and so I will be increasing the price of the pdf version to $15.00 AUD.

You are unlikely to care much about any of this but the main implication is that the current pdf version will only be available for $10.00 for a few more hours until I sort out the Amazon version.

You can buy it from the sidebar of this blog or here.

An Aussie parent writes

I have asked an Australian parent to write a guest post for my blog. She describes herself first and then her post follows:

I am a 50 year old stay-at-home mother of two daughters, aged 10 (Year 5) and 12 (Year 7).  I live in the outer southern suburbs of Brisbane in an old Queenslander with my partner, my daughters, two mutts, one moggy, a fish and three, recently acquired, guinea pigs.  I have a keen interest in history and studied a Masters of Public History through Monash University.  I was hoping to one day work in the area of built heritage.  Learning more about educational issues in Australia and overseas has become a strong interest of mine.  As a person who aligns herself with the Left, politically, it is my hope that one day the Left will see the necessity in embracing a traditional education and a knowledge-based curriculum if they wish to address the issues of inequality. 

I like history. It was one of my favourite subjects at school so I chose to study it at university too. I also think it’s an extremely important subject as it helps us make sense of our world and our place in it; it is our cultural heritage. My Year 7 daughter is studying Ancient Roman Civilization at school – well she’s supposed to be.

Yesterday I asked her what she had learnt that day (one of our usual afternoon conversations) and she responded with her usual “nothing much.”

“But what did you learn in history? What did you learn about the Romans?” I retorted.

A shrugging of shoulders and then: “…Well I’ve got some homework”.

Ah, good, I thought. “Right, what is it?”

“I have to write up a Roman menu” she responded.

Her friend added “Yeah, It’ll be fun”.

I’m not sure it is fun but it sure is easy. They are not required to learn anything of substance, anything that pertains to ancient Rome, any really relevant or important content or facts. Instead my daughter spent about 10 minutes Googling websites to find out what Romans liked to eat and designed a pretty menu on her laptop. Is it imperative that she knows what Romans liked to eat when she has no conception of Roman society, no knowledge of how it arose – what came before or what came after- , it’s characteristics or the legacy it left? But I guess that’s not the point. I guess the point is that she put into action some really important 21st century skills – she googled some sites and copied and pasted some words onto a blank page that she decorated using her art skills; Lucky she’s quite good at art!

Meanwhile, at another highly regarded state high school not far away a friend’s daughter did her history assessment for the term. She dressed up as a Tudor Queen (her parents went to the trouble of hiring her a costume) and she spent the evening behind a booth, decorated with some velvet and a few goblets that her parents had gathered together, talking to passing parents while in character. Her parents were pleased because she got an A. I wondered how much of the A was based on her acting ability and her parents’ willingness to pay for the costume and props, how much it was based on what she actually understood about Tudor times – of who the Tudors were, of the power of the monarch, of the connection between politics and religion, of Henry Vlll’s break with Rome, of Shakespeare, Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More. Researching this particular queen may have given her a keyhole glimpse into history but that was all. And what of the student who has a sound grasp of all the above but lacks parents with the means to buy stage props? How does this student demonstrate his/her breadth of knowledge? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have students write an essay on the period or test their knowledge?

I’m not a teacher or an educator – just a parent. When my children first went to school (Prep) I actually believed the current philosophy. I believed that children would learn naturally, I thought learning through play sounded wonderful, I thought a classroom that wasn’t filled with pretty pictures and painted boxes was an indication that the teacher was boring and didn’t understand the students’ creative needs. But I was blind, blinded by the edu-bling. I never stopped to ask what the edu-jargon meant, I never wondered how much my kids where learning when they spent a major part of their time doing craft, painting or having group discussions rather than being taught by the teacher. I thought learning should be fun. As long as they were happy, right? It was only when my eldest started struggling in maths that I began to wonder and ask questions about how she was being taught and what she was being taught. After a while my questions were met with hostility and I was branded “one of those parents”.

The penny finally dropped when I was in my daughter’s Year3 parent/teacher interview and the teacher told me not to worry about her maths ability; – she’s very good at Literacy. She also tried to allay my fears (or distract me and so stop my questions) by taking me over to show me a box my daughter had painted for Geography. Supposedly this box, decorated with a painting of a bushfire, demonstrated my daughter’s ability to understand something – I’m still not sure what – about Geography. She gushed about it while I stood wondering what it was I was looking at. Again, I imagine the only reason she got her A is because of her art skills. Then I was worried because I realised that all her results on her report card were questionable. It was entirely possible that she was graded for bizarre things like computer skills, acting skills and art skills in subjects ranging from English to Science to History and that she actually didn’t have much knowledge at all. And I was right.

Rewind. I went to a VERY progressive primary school in Queensland, The Brisbane Independent School. It was the late 1960’s when my grandparents donated a sizable piece of land so the school could be set up. My parents, both leftist radicals, along with other like-minded parents and teachers, decided that they didn’t want their children treated like sheep, herded into classrooms and told what to do by scary teachers wielding sticks. Their ideas were obviously a backlash against the harshness of the primary schools of the era. So I spent my primary years frolicking around hills, doing lots of craft and writing the odd story or poem if I felt like it. I did learn to read, knit, cook damper bread and feed chickens but when I left seven years later I couldn’t spell or punctuate, do arithmetic, recite my times tables, I knew no Geography ( I wouldn’t have been able to locate any country on a map, bar Australia) and my historical knowledge was non-existent too. In addition, I hadn’t learnt to be resilient or about perseverance, as I gaily flitted from one thing to another with little supervision.

When I got to high school I was in for a shock. I had so much catching up to do that I took the easy option (not surprising since I hadn’t learnt to work hard at anything) and opted to be the class clown and “chuck” academic work. I feel sad now when I think of that child, full of promise, who really was eager to learn and be clever. By some miracle I scraped through and got a mark high enough for entry to University, but my poor education, my lack of strong foundations, has plagued me all my life, destroyed my confidence and closed many doors.

Somehow the ideas that blossomed in the 1970’s, that typified my primary years, became more mainstream and flowed into state-run schools. They became the norm, the unquestionable orthodoxy. I guess it’s little wonder that with its good intentions and seductive rhetoric, progressive education hoodwinked many smart people, including my parents, grandparents and college professors and the like.

I am so worried for kids in our schools. I worry that most of them will end up like me without foundations, without background knowledge. Teachers’ are now facilitators: they don’t teach, they guide. The responsibility of teaching has been handed over to computers, talking heads on white boards, movies (instead of books) and parents. In my experience there appears to be little systematic, sequential or chronological teaching of subject matter. Instead, there is a glad-bag, a chaotic assortment that teachers dip into and which prevents any connections being made. There is little time spent committing knowledge and skills to long term memory. Literature is of dubious quality with popular books such as The Vampire Dairies becoming set texts in English. My year 5 daughter is studying Dr Zeus’s The Lorax this term. Parents are sending their kids to tutoring centres just to learn basic arithmetic. Just this week a friend, who is a single mum, struggling with part-time work, started her daughter at Kumon. She can ill-afford the time or the money yet she is determined her year five daughter will, at the very least, learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide by the end of primary school. That’s how much she cares.

Most worryingly of all, skills have been elevated above knowledge. As a result our children are ignorant and their cultural experience is impoverished. How can our children become critical thinkers when they don’t know anything?

Personally, I’m sending my kids to school to become knowledgeable and informed citizens. I’m not interested in the very narrow agenda set by “skills-based” schooling, or social engineering – preaching instead of teaching. For me education is not necessarily about jobs; its purpose is not so utilitarian – Rather I want them to be exposed and absorb the very best that has been thought and said by the most brilliant minds. Quite simply, I want them to be educated.