New Year 1 literacy and numeracy tests for Australia 

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No doubt we will see a flurry of apoplectic articles in the next few days and quite a lot of ranting on Twitter. Simon Birmingham, Australia’s minister for education and training, has announced that he intends to push ahead with new literacy and numeracy assessments for Year 1 students and he has announced a panel who will move this forward.

I cautiously welcome this, albeit with a heavy heart.

The heavy heart comes from the fact that we shouldn’t need such tests. I tend to agree with Eric Kalenze that such accountability regimes are an act of frustration on the part of politicians. They would really like to be able to leave education to the experts but, unfortunately, education suffers under the tyranny of bad ideas. We are simply incapable of improving things ourselves because we believe black is white. So it points to a lack of professionalism and agency; I regret that we are in such a state.

I am also cautious about what these assessments will look like. Hopefully, the literacy assessment will be modelled on the English phonics check, the introduction of which seems to have correlated with a rise in reading standards more generally.

If I were to modify this model, I might suggest focusing on something other than the number of students meeting a certain pass mark which could potentially prompt teachers to prioritise students who are just under that mark. 

I’m a little worried about what the numeracy assessment might look like. There is still a lot of steam behind the constructivist fuzzy maths movement. Year 1 is probably too early to really push that particular agenda but we could easily end up with something a little pointless. Hopefully, the focus will be on maths facts such as number bonds.

I will await the details with interest.


Why @oldandrewuk should win the @tes lifetime achievement award

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Earlier, my attention was drawn to the TES and nominations for the category of lifetime achievement award. The TES explain the criteria:

“This award will reward someone who has made a significant contribution to education. It could be a well-known figure or a local hero.”

Entry requires one nomination and three independent testimonials. As someone who lives in Australia, I am probably not the right person to nominate or testify for a U.K. award and so I thought I would highlight Andrew’s case in this post so that others may choose to take it on.

Firstly, Andrew’s work has had an huge material impact on teachers in England. Andrew was prominent in the campaign that forced Ofsted – the English schools inspectorate – to abandon its prescribed teaching style, giving freedom and flexibility back to teachers and schools. This campaign also changed the terms of debate and when a new issue arose where inspectors appeared to be imposing a particular form of marking, Ofsted soon made it clear that this was not acceptable.

But Andrew has not just used his own voice. He has worked tirelessly to promote education blogging through setting-up @TheEchoChamber2 and @EchoChamberUncu. He organises curry nights where U.K. bloggers can meet and he genuinely reads all education-related blog posts; a surely thankless task.

I remember an early blog of my own about text books which Andrew publicised, bringing it to the attention of a far wider audience. This was the launch of my own blogging journey. I am personally grateful to Andrew for this and I know many other bloggers feel the same way. If you are one of those then please share your story in the comments.

Partly due to Andrew’s efforts and encouragement, blogging has had a major impact on the education landscape in England. When I left the country, the debate was largely handled by traditional newspapers and trade publications written by well-meaning career journalists. These often focused on education structures or teaching gimmicks rather than the issues facing real teachers. If you have forgotten what that was like, or if you are too young to remember it, then come visit Australia.

Finally, I would commend Andrew on his personal qualities. He has limitless patience. He will make his case meticulously without resorting to personal attacks. Recently, SchoolsWeek ran an interview with Alison Peacock where she described meeting with Andrew and having an amicable chat to try and thrash out some of their differences. Andrew had previously expressed some scepticism about Peacock’s College of Teaching project.

In short, Andrew is a promoter of teacher professionalism; a profession of grown-ups; a profession with a voice that debates the issues clearly and articulately. I can think of nobody more deserving of this award.


Teaching in the moment

I’ve not bought into the mindfulness craze but, as I understand it, part of the technique is to live in the moment; to make the most of now.

Teachers, like everyone else, have plans. We have summits that we want to reach. These may be numerical targets, skills that we seek to develop, bodies of knowledge we seek to convey or any of these. But we’re always looking ahead. I know my job. At my school it is to maximise my students skills, competencies and capacities so that when they stand on the threshold of their futures they can choose their heart’s desire. Those futures are always on my mind.

But I think we lose something if we are only ever thinking about where we want to be.

It’s easy to accept the idea that you can either have fun now or delay gratification in the service of some future goal but I don’t believe it works quite like that. This is a false choice. Many fun things grow tiresome fairly quickly. And the supposedly painful tasks that we have to complete in the service of the future are often not so bad.

In fact, there’s a lot of joy in learning something new, in mastering a concept or in being able to do something we couldn’t do before. It can be pretty motivating. And as teachers, it is our privilege to share in this every day.

I teach maths and physics. These are supposed to be painful, hard subjects. And yet I am lucky to work with the most wonderful young men and women. In each lesson, I see the sense of achievement when they learn something new. It is in these moments that teaching happens. I’m going to try to live in them a little more. 

Because life is pretty fragile and the future is uncertain. All we really have is now.


Cognitive Load Theory – “the single most important thing for teachers to know”

Earlier, renowned educationalist Dylan Wiliam tweeted:

I therefore thought that I would take the opportunity to suggest a few articles that teachers can access to find out more.

Firstly, I have written a piece for The Conversation that provides a very basic introduction to Cognitive Load Theory (CLT), demonstrating how it applies to practical teaching problems.

In his tweet, Wiliam provides a link to a paper on the history of CLT written by John Sweller which also outlines some practical issues.

I first became aware of CLT through reading the seminal paper “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching,” by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard Clark. This paper uses CLT as the theoretical underpinning for an argument in favour of explicit teaching methods.

One problem with the paper is that many people read the title and say something like, “but good problem-based learning is not minimally guided!” The argument actually hinges on what the authors mean by ‘minimal guidance’ rather than a reader. To my understanding, asking students to solve a problem – this is a broad definition of ‘problem’ that would include things like writing an essay – without explicitly instructing them on the specific steps required is ‘minimal guidance’.

Perhaps this is why, when the same authors came to write an article on the subject for American Educator, they chose to argue, “the case for fully guided instruction”. This piece is aimed more squarely at teachers than the original one and is perhaps a better starting point.

The original ‘minimal guidance’ piece sparked a number of academic responses (here, here and here). Kirschner, Sweller and Clark then replied to these responses and, to my view, adequately addressed all of the points raised.

CLT has not been without controversy. The concept of ‘germane’ load was introduced and led to the theory becoming potentially unfalsifiable – a major problem. Without rehearsing the full argument here, I will try to summarise: Applications of Cognitive Load Theory generally attempt to reduce cognitive load. However, we also know that too little cognitive load will also lead to little learning. The load can be too low either because something is structurally very simple – such as learning a list of names – or because a student has already stored the solution steps in long term memory and so does not have to consciously think about them. When learning something complex, like how to solve a maths problem or how to interpret a novel, it might be better to try to reduce cognitive load whereas when learning lists of names or dates, we might want to intentionally increase it.

Reducing load for complex tasks is supported by research demonstrating the worked example effect where providing worked examples for students to study is superior to asking them to solve equivalent problems. Increasing load for simple tasks is supported by research demonstrating ‘desirable difficulties’. For instance, if you want a student to learn the capital of Australia then it might be best to first ask them to guess before telling them the correct answer. This will get them thinking about what they know about Australia before you slot in the new information.

Sweller has introduced the idea of ‘element interactivity’ to describe the difference in complexity between tasks but this is also controversial.

Beware a sleight of hand from CLT’s critics. As with any developing field, there will be controversies. Pointing out that element interactivity is a controversial concept does not invalidate the rest of the theory or the conclusions about the best ways to teach complex content, especially since these methods have been replicated a number of times in quite different fields of research.


When sociologists design physics courses

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A couple of years ago, I was attending the Science Teachers Association of Victoria physics conference where there was a discussion of the new VCE physics course that was about to be introduced. This new course – which moves into Year 12 this January – was explicitly designed to force teachers to do more inquiry-based learning. One of the School Assessed Coursework tasks that teachers are required to set has been specified down to the tiniest detail to ensure that students have to design and complete their own experiment.

This idea is obviously flawed. Year 12 students are not PhD students and gain little from designing experiments – they don’t have the appropriate expertise. As Paul Kirschner would explain – it confuses the practice of professional scientists with the best way to learn science.

At the conference, there was then a speculative discussion of where future revisions to the physics VCE may take us. This was the first time I heard about the physics course in New South Wales and how – incredibly – the number of mathematical questions there had been dramatically reduced. This fact was noted favourably and as a possible future direction for Victoria.

Why would anyone butcher a physics course in this way? What replaced the actual physics?

The answer to the first question is that it was a misguided attempt to convince more students – and girls specifically – to study physics. The answer to the second point is that physics questions were removed in favour of more factual recall questions and more questions about the ethics of building nuclear power stations and so on.

This was obviously a disastrous set of ideas but, as with all bad ideas in education, they get a run for a least a few years before people wake up and realise what’s happening. It now looks like New South Wales has had enough of its Sociology of Physics Course and is planning to move back to something more normal.

And what has happened in the interim? Universities have had to start teaching high school physics and everyone, including the girls taking the physics course, have suffered from and complained about its content.

This is a cautionary tale. Educational experts such as subject associations and curriculum authorities cannot be trusted to make the right choices. People tend to complain about political interference in education but if you take politics out of education and leave it to the experts then we are talking about those folks who turned physics into geography. Before you know it, entire states will be teaching elementary maths through interpretive dance and teachers will be assessing children on an ethical skills rubric.


Victoria University is still promoting learning styles 

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I have written before about Victoria University’s 2016 education faculty handbook which promoted learning styles theories. Such theories are widely accepted to lack any evidence of being educationally useful. I also agree with Professor Stephen Dinham that they are potentially harmful in the way that they seek to label students.

So I thought I’d take a look at the 2017 handbook.

In the unit, Development Studies 2, we read that:

“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.”

In the unit, Reforming 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.”

The unit on Developing Professional Practice:

“…will include an exploration of: adult learning theory and individual learning styles, preferences and processes; workplace learning theory and practice; and theories and practices of mentoring and coaching in workplaces.”

One of the intended outcomes of a unit on early childhood development is that students will be able to:

“Identify, interpret, analyse and evaluate specific teaching strategies for a range of individual children’s learning styles and abilities.”

One positive development for those of us who wish to see learning styles consigned to history is that I only counted eight references in the 2017 handbook whereas there were 15 in the 2016 version. So that’s progress.


What are you going to do in 2017?

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As we stand on the doormat of 2017 and wonder whether we are expected to remove our shoes, it’s tempting to conclude that institutions that are meant to look after us – politics, the media, the rule of law – have somehow let us down. Many teachers will be reaching for placards while others will look on with despair. I do not wish to discourage teachers from being political advocates but I would draw your attention to issues closer to home where your activism has the potential to make a material difference.

The institutions that are supposed to look after the teaching profession have also broken down, if they ever worked properly in the first place. There are accountability procedures that require teachers to do things – such as follow onerous marking policies – that are likely to have no effect on the progress of their students. There are schools of education that don’t adequately prepare teachers for the job. There is a wealth of ‘research’ where you could guess the findings before reading the paper: let’s face it, a poststructuralist who researches something he or she labels as ‘neoliberal’ is not going to find anything good, right?

Yet if we examine the first of these issues – teacher accountability – there are signs of hope. A few years ago in England, teachers were judged by Ofsted inspectors who would observe their lessons and grade them. The practices that these inspectors favoured included group work and minimal teacher talk. So a style of teaching was imposed.

The teacher and campaigner, @oldandrewuk, was prominent in the movement that saw these graded lesson observations abolished. And he did this by researching and writing blogs: something that each and every one of us in the profession has the potential to do. Not only that, he also encouraged others – including me – to persist with blogging and he has created a number of Twitter platforms that highlight teachers’ posts.

It is this kind of activism that creates real change in teaching and makes us all more, well, professional; driving the future of teaching from within.

We have also seen the emergence of the grass-roots, teacher-led researchED conferences. These are cut-price events where speakers voluntarily offer their time and that take place on Saturdays so that teachers may attend. I have been privileged to go to the two Australian events and I hope there will be more here in the future. These conferences host speakers who are teachers as well as those who are academics and they address teachers’ concerns. This weekend saw a live stream of the Amsterdam conference, available to view by anyone with an interest.

Again, through researchED, teachers are taking charge of the profession and setting the agenda.

Contrast this with the traditional, top-down approach to organising teachers, best exemplified by the new Chartered College of Teaching in England. This is an organisation that first tried to crowdfund it’s launch by appealing for donations. After this failed – due to general apathy – it somehow managed to secure vast sums of government funding which it currently seems to have little idea what to do with. It will be interesting to see what it promotes when it finally declares its hand.

One initiative that might just save the College it is its promise to provide free access to journal articles for teachers.

I think that all teachers should have such access but I don’t think they should have to pay to join a club for the privilege. It could be argued that a little knowledge can be a bad thing but, as someone who constantly had to duck and dive to source papers prior to starting my PhD, I would be a hypocrite to not back open access. If it leads some teachers into error then we have the corrective force of all the other teachers with the same level of access to put that right and perhaps offer appropriate challenge.

However, challenge is not always welcome. If you decide to add your voice to the growing ranks of professionals who are debating the issues in blogs, on Twitter and on Facebook then you need to be aware that you may attract some unpleasantness.

I tend to avoid mounting personal attacks but I still get accused of being a troll, usually for being abrupt with people on Twitter. Not only is this ridiculous when you consider Twitter’s 140 character limit, it exposes a double-standard that you may have to deal with. The little guy has to be meticulously polite, hedging every comment for fear of causing offence. In contrast, the establishment figure gets the benefit of the doubt.

So what are you going to do in 2017? Perhaps you could start a blog or get involved in researchED? Perhaps you could create your own form of grass-roots activism (but please, no more 90 minute podcasts)? Perhaps you could create new spaces where teacher professionalism can flourish?

But remember: professionalism is not about being obsequious and agreeing with your betters, despite what they might have you believe. It is about rigorously inquiring into our profession with a view to ensuring that it is founded on a robust set of principles that lead to an effective set of practices.

Do you reckon you can help with that?


In education, is poverty destiny?

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Periodically, someone will appear and claim that educational outcomes are not largely due to the quality of teaching. Instead, home circumstances, particularly poverty, play a massive role. 

I understand where this reaction comes from. The No Child Left Behind act in the U.S. seemed to have been based upon the premise that if you provide strong enough carrots and sticks then teachers will somehow figure out how to eliminate educational disadvantage – the ‘motivate the teachers’ hypothesis. 

This approach doesn’t work and socioeconomic reasons are part of the explanation. The other factor is that teacher simply don’t know the best approaches for mitigating disadvantage. It’s not what they are taught at college.

And I use the word ‘mitigate’ deliberately. Neither extreme of this argument represents a rational position. Clearly, teaching cannot eliminate disadvantages caused by social background. Teachers cannot fix poor nutrition or a chaotic family life. Yet teaching does have the potential to reduce disadvantage. Anyone interested in social justice as a practice, rather than a posture, should examine teaching methods in this light. What approaches are best for reducing educational inequality?

I think a key principle is to rely as little as possible on the resources children possess outside the classroom. What does this look like in practice?

At a basic level, we cannot expect all children to know what kinds of behaviours are acceptable and so we will need to directly teach these. Yes, some children will pick up normal behaviours implicitly from being in an environment that models and supports these behaviours but this cannot be assumed.

At an academic level, we should again focus on the agency of the school. An approach to early reading that places heavy emphasis on children taking lists of sight words home to learn is inequitable. So is an approach that hinges on practising reading at home. Instead, children need to be explicitly and systematically taught to read while they are in school

Similarly, the latest Australian craze for Project Based Learning (PBL), which has seen the importation of experts from across the world to advise teachers and schools on the technique, is also inequitable because it relies on the resources that a child can marshal and bring to bear on the project. It is far better to directly teach the key facts and concepts before asking students to conduct open-ended work. 

Those who dismiss the ability of teachers to mitigate social disadvantage are not on the side of social justice. As teachers, we cannot cure poverty and inequality but we can choose the best methods to address their effects.


Deliberately practice what?

A few years ago, while still in the U.K., I completed something called the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) which was intended to prepare me to be the principal of a high school. For this, I had to confect a pressing problem that I was facing in my current work and then an experienced coach asked me lots of Socratic questions over a number of sessions with the intention of drawing the answer out of me. Unlike sports coaching or any other form of coaching I could think of, the coach was barred from providing any advice.

Clearly, this was a bit of a waste of time on everyone’s part and I think it illustrates a key issue: what happens when we value and promote a process without any clear ideas about the objectives of the process.

I was reminded about this when I read a new report by Dean’s for Impact, an American group with the aim of improving teacher education that has previously released an excellent report on the science of learning.

In the new report, Deans for Impact teamed up with Anders Ericsson to make the case for ‘deliberate practice’ in early career teaching. Deliberate practice is something that Ericsson has been researching for a long time and describes practice that is purposeful and designed to maximise improvement. It is based on research into the kind of practice undertaken by individuals who excel in their given field.

Ericsson has worked a lot with sports people. An example of deliberate practice might be improving your golf swing. Many amateur golfers might simply turn up at a driving range and hit a few balls. Deliberate practice would involve knowing your objective – perhaps how far you want to hit the ball – and the specific techniques that you are going to work on today to help reach that objective.

Teaching isn’t golf and this is the problem. What are the objectives? What are the techniques? Both are hotly contested. If I outline a teaching technique that seems to improve student test scores then someone will criticise me for a narrow focus on tests. Some teachers want students to get better at maths whilst others want them to improve their collaborative skills. Some educators think that a skilled teacher should accommodate off-topic conversation. Others do not.

Teaching practices are guided at least as much by ideological concerns about the way we would like teaching to be as they are by concerns about effectiveness. And teacher educators are key in perpetuating these ideals.

I am concerned that a focus on the process – deliberate practice – without a clear shared understanding of the objectives could be a waste of time. Moreover, it could potentially provide a veneer of scientific validity to the status quo. Schools of education can continue to promote teaching practices based upon taste but claim they are being scientific by requiring students to deliberately practice them.

The last few paragraphs of Dan Willingham’s review of Ericsson’s book, ‘Peak’ makes a similar point about the need for agreed objectives and agreement about the teaching skills required to meet those objectives; something that Dylan Wiliam picked up on Twitter:

I am concerned that a focus on deliberate practice places the cart before the horse. I’m sure it can and should be used to improve teacher performance once we have an agreement on what that looks like. However, without such agreement, pursuing it could be a huge diversion and possibly quite harmful.


New evidence on group work

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A paper by Retnowati, Ayers and Sweller has recently been published that casts new light on the value of group work. If you have access then it’s really worth reading the whole thing. The introduction contains cogent explanations of a number of areas such as the worked example effect, the borrowing and reorganising principle and even the research evidence for collaborative learning where the authors note the strong positive evidence for effectiveness when certain conditions – such as group goals and individual accountability – are met.

I am going to focus here on the experiments described in the paper. All involved maths and participants were schoolchildren in Indonesia where, apparently, traditional teaching from the front of the classroom is effectively banned by the national curriculum.

In the first set of experiments, students were randomly allocated to one of two conditions. In the first, they studied worked examples, individually and in the second condition they worked in groups. The groups had been established previously and the students were used to working in them. The tasks involved example-problem pairs: on the left hand side of a piece of paper was a worked example and then on the right-hand side was a similar problem to solve. The students were given the final numerical answer to each problem to check their answers against.

The researchers thought that the level of complexity – or ‘element interactivity‘ – might affect the experiment so they created a further division within the experiment. Some students completed simple then more complex examples and others completed complex then simple ones. The complex examples were essentially the same as the simple ones but were expressed as word problems, which meant they required extra steps to first convert them into mathematical form.

After this, students completed a test to see how much they had learnt. This included similar problems to the ones in the task as well as ‘transfer’ problems that required students to apply the ideas in different situations.

The results showed basically no difference between collaborative learning and working individually for the simple-to-complex condition. Oddly, in the complex-to-simple condition, working individually was superior to working as a group. This seems at odds with the research evidence that suggests group work is an effective strategy.

In the second experiment, the researchers decided to only use the complex-to-simple condition due to the fact that this was the one that showed an effect in the first experiment. However, this time they included a comparison group that were not given worked examples and were instead given two problems to solve in place of each example-problem pair. Again, they were given the numerical answers.

This time, group work was more effective than individual work, but only when the students were solving problems without worked examples. This result also indicates that the groups were not dysfunctional – a possible alternative explanation for the results of the first experiment. However, the worked example group still outperformed the problem solving group overall.

It might be the case that worked examples provide all of the guidance necessary to successfully learn and so adding group work to this is unnecessary and potentially distracting. Collaborative learning might be more effective when guidance is lower because the higher cognitive demands of these low guidance tasks can be shared across group members.

This has interesting implications for the classroom – perhaps providing full guidance is optimal but, if we can’t provide this for some reason, group work may be beneficial.

Which, as an aside, gives me the opportunity to raise another point about group work that has been bothering me. We are often advised to use it to do things that a single student could not complete on their own. For instance, different group members might possess different information that they bring together for a task. The point I wish to make is that completing a task is not the same thing as learning from it (see the ‘multiply by three and add 29‘ experiment’). If your brain is totally occupied with doing something then there is little capacity left for learning – this is why a task can make you think hard yet lead to little learning.