To Perth for the Language, Literacy and Learning conference organised by the Dyslexia-SPELD Foundation. I am suspicious of many education conferences because there is a tendency for the sessions to be dominated by sociological theories rather than scientific evidence. But this is not a standard education conference. It is an event where speech pathologists, researchers, policy wonks and teachers all mingle and where the common touchstone is evidence.
The morning keynote was delivered by Professor Kate Nation from Oxford in the U.K. The topic was poor comprehenders. These are the students who show a strong ability to decode – turning written words on a page into the correct sounds – but who struggle to comprehend what they have read. Nation does not set decoding in opposition to comprehension as some whole-language advocates might. She stresses the need for explicit and systematic phonics instruction. Yet she also made the point that nobody thinks this is all there is to reading. She referred to the ‘simple view of reading’ that sees reading as the sum of decoding skills and oral comprehension. With a few caveats – reading is not simple – this model provides a good guide.
So what should we do with the poor comprehenders? Nation discussed an RCT from the U.K. that I had not heard about before. It had a cunning design: Students with poor comprehension were assigned to one of three groups. The first group was a waiting-list control. The other three groups had withdrawal lessons in text comprehension, oral language or a combination of the two. All groups benefited but the greatest, sustained benefits came from oral language training, with this improvement seemingly related to an improvement in oral vocabulary.
This is a variant of an ABC design that pits one intervention against another and I believe that this is the best way forward for large-scale RCTs such as those conducted by the Education Endowment Foundation in the U.K. and Evidence for Learning in Australia.
It is no surprise to me that improved comprehension comes with improved vocabulary growth. It is a relative lack of knowledge that differentiates low achieving students from their peers and our current instructional methods only serve to enhance this gap.
This was a point that came up in the symposium that I contributed to as part of the second session of the day. First, Dr. Jen Buckingham of the Five From Five literacy project showed us domestic and international data to demonstrate the stagnation of Australia’s literacy performance over time, particularly in terms of the long tail of low performance. Then Professor Pamela Snow took to the stage to look at the issue from the perspective of the school-to-prison pipeline. There were a number of issues to reflect on from Snow’s talk but chief amongst these was her coining of the term ‘edugenic academic failure’. This is academic failure caused by education.
This happens, for instance, when schools defy the evidence and use ‘balanced’ approaches to teaching decoding skills rather than explicit synthetic phonics teaching. Almost all of the students in the school-to-prison pipeline have academically underperformed and one of the greatest protective factors against entering the criminal justice system in strong academic performance. Reading is a basis for all academic performance and so literacy is a key ‘bridge’ for students to cross.
Mandy Nayton then placed the discussion in the perspective of school practice and how we might be able to diagnose a learning disability, again making it clear that schools have an impact in the teaching methods they choose.
I spoke about the reasons why explicit instruction leads to more equitable outcomes. Explicit instruction does not require students to bring prior knowledge from home. It doesn’t assume what students know. Instead, it teaches all of the components. I suggested that this is the key difference between explicit teaching and implicit methods. Explicit teaching takes a standard level of explanation – the sort of explanation we might give in everyday life for how to operate a dishwasher or how to make a casserole – and adds to it. For instance, explicit programmes might use non-examples. There is a good discussion of this in a book that I bought at the conference: When teaching the concept of an equilateral triangle, we might show equilateral triangles of different sizes and rotated in different ways but we might also show an isosceles triangle and explain why that is not equilateral.
Implicit approaches generally give less guidance than an everyday explanation because they prioritise students figuring things out for themselves. This then becomes dependent upon the child’s prior knowledge and home experiences and this leads to the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots.
And so we have a potential mechanism for edugenic academic failure which made me think about a few other implications.
Firstly, Kate Nation’s possible solutions to oral language comprehension issues involved explicit teaching. The oral language component of the RCT that she mentioned combined a number of processes but they were all explicitly taught and, as Nation pointed out, they were proximal to the issue: You don’t fix an oral language problem by running a philosophy for children programme, you fix it by explicitly teaching oral language content.
Secondly, as Barak Rosenshine describes in this piece, explicit teaching has been shown to be the most effective way of teaching pretty much anything. Sometimes, there is quite a heated debate about the behaviour problem in Australian schools. There are a number of ways to tackle this, including tackling root causes such as poor literacy. Yet one other obvious way to tackle it – explicitly teaching the behaviours that are socially normative – is attacked on the basis that this is authoritarian or coercive. Instead, we do little other than contain behaviour problems until they escalate to a stage where students are excluded.
Thirdly, it may seem obvious that children need individual, differentiated, small-group intervention. I certainly think we should follow this logic wherever we can, provided that our interventions are based on sound, scientific principles. However, the bulk of the school day will continue to involve teachers interacting with relatively large groups of students. Whole-class, explicit instruction offers a way of organising this teaching that does not disadvantage the struggling students in the class.
A number of people have pointed me towards an article about study on the teaching of critical thinking. The study took place at North Carolina State University and the subjects were undergraduates students.
The test subject were given pre-tests on their knowledge of science and belief in pseudoscience, pseudo-history or pseudo-archaeology. These areas basically encompasses those ideas popular in best-sellers of the 1970s such as that Atlantis really existed or Stonehenge was built by aliens.
Students in the experimental condition were then taught a humanities course in, “Frauds and Mysteries in History”. There were two texts to support the course. The first was a ‘positivist’ text which seems to have dissected fraudulent claims on the basis of evidence and plausibility. The second text was groovier, with a, “post-modern approach to understanding interests in the past in popular culture and the ways people connect with the past in the present.”
The students who participated in the course saw a decrease in their beliefs both in those ideas that had been studied as part of the course as well as in similar ideas. This is taken to suggest that the course taught them critical thinking skills.
I am quite happy to accept that a course like this might have an impact. Far from teaching critical thinking as a set of skills such as “think about why the author might be making this claim”, it teaches relevant content. This is precisely the mechanism by which an increased knowledge of the world leads to better critical thinking; we can reason by analogy. We can say, “this reminds of that idea about Atlantis that we debunked in history class.” This is one key advantage of studying standard subject disciplines in depth.
However, there are a number of pretty fundamental caveats.
Firstly, the students were low in dodgy beliefs to start with. So these are students who are already well along the path of critical thinking. Further, this was not a randomised controlled trial. There were three groups of students. The first group had opted to study psychology. They were the control group and did not receive the humanities course. The two experimental groups both volunteered for the humanities course and one of these groups consisted of many more science students. The three groups differed in other ways such as their gender profile. So we can’t be sure whether any effect was actually due to the different make-up of the groups.
Finally, we have demonstrated only near transfer here. Students can apply what they have learnt about one pseudo-archaeological claim and apply it to another. I think this is worth having and I don’t expect much more from education. That’s why students have to learn so much stuff to be able to function as educated citizens. However, claims about critical thinking tends to be more general than this. We have no evidence, for instance, that this kind of training might make students more sceptical about political claims or the claims of those opposed to vaccination.
Despite being based in Australia, this blog has tended to attract more readers from the U.K. This is perhaps not surprising. I am from the U.K. originally and it is England that has made the greatest efforts to move away from the worldwide educational consensus typified by the views of Andreas Scheicher (21st century skills, critical thinking and so on). It is no coincidence that it was the British minister, Nick Gibb and the London-based education writer and thinker, Daisy Christodoulou who took on Schleicher in a recent debate.
The trend of gaining the most hits from the U.K. continues. However, I have just pushed past my previous record for the number of views in a month. This record is from way back in November 2015 and a comparison between the two months is instructive.
In November 2015, I had 13,317 hits from the U.K., 3,258 from the U.S. and only 2,282 from Australia. So far this month, I have had 11,461 hits from the U.K., 5,136 from Australia and 2,756 from the U.S. So it is Australia that has increased its share and I would like to thank all my Australian readers, as well as my readers more generally, for taking the time to engage with what I have to say.
This trend is important to me. I am an Australian citizen and, more than anything, I would like to have some small influence over education policy in my home country. It is great to be quoted in a speech by a minister from overseas but I would also like to have some impact at home.
I’ve noticed an additional trend. Australians used to rebut my posts a lot more than they do now. Some of this was a little clumsy but it was often present either in blog posts or on Twitter. These days there is not so much rebuttal. Perhaps people have decided to ignore me in an effort to deny me oxygen or perhaps they have run out of arguments.
It is important to note that it is much harder to influence Australian education policy than U.K. policy because of our federal system. I have heard proponents of federalism make the case that having different education systems in different states provides useful variation: States can innovate and we can all learn from the successes and failures. Yet it just doesn’t seem to work like that. It tends to lead to a system where the only real policy discussion is an argument between the states and the federal government about funding. The actual details of what is enacted seems to be left to state level bureaucrats with the result that the same tropes about creativity and critical thinking get replicated in almost identical ways.
I don’t think this is just an Australian issue. I was surprised to find that Wales is embarking on replicating all the aspects of Scotland’s curriculum that seem to have led Scotland into its recent decline.
I think this is because state-level or country-level variation is the wrong level of variation. It incentivises states to copy each other and play it safe. This is why we need more school-level variation. A starting point for Australia would be to allow some schools to opt out of the flabby Australian curriculum with its ‘expanding horizons’ humanities stream, its inquiry orientated science stream and its woolly ‘general capabilities’ in order to focus on teaching academic subjects properly. We could then see whether the students from these schools fared better or worse and whether these schools were more or less popular with parents.
Despite my growing readership, I have become less optimistic about using facts and evidence to convince whole education systems to stop doing silly things. People are just too invested in the status quo and far too few of them think critically about it. It is only through a diversity of provision that we can break the death-grip of bureaucracy and address the problems with Australian education that are so obvious when you look at NAPLAN, PISA or TIMSS data.
“‘You can go out this morning, my dears, with Mr. Spencer,’ said the governess to her pupils, after listening with pursed-up lips to one of the philosopher’s breakfast tirades against discipline… the philosopher found himself presently in a neighbouring beech wood pinned down in a leaf-filled hollow by little demons, all legs, arms, grins and dancing dark eyes, whilst the elder and more discreet tormentors pelted him with decaying beech leaves.” Beatrice Webb reflecting on the philosopher Herbert Spencer in her memoir, ‘My Apprenticeship’.
In a recent blog post, literacy expert and Professor Emeritus, Tim Shanahan, expressed surprise at the popularity of a teaching approach known as ‘Reading Workshop’. Reading Workshop seems to involve students selecting books to read themselves with the teacher largely getting out of the way. Shanahan notes that this idea has been around for a long time and there is very little evidence to suggest that it leads to either improved reading ability or a greater love of reading. Perhaps students enjoy these sessions in comparison to the other subjects they study but Shanahan is sceptical that this will translate into a love of literature.
I recognise this pattern from science teaching. Practical activity is the great panacea of science teaching because it too is thought to be motivating. Children genuinely do love lighting bunsen burners and placing various items in the flames – who wouldn’t? However, this does not seem to translate into a love of balancing chemical equations. It’s actually pretty easy to motivate students. Every teacher knows that asking a class to make a poster will lead to an easy, conflict-free lesson. The difficulty is in motivating students about academic content; motivating them about the thing you actually want them to learn. Academic content is hard. By its very nature, it requires effort. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t need schools.
It is on this issue of motivation, rather than teaching methods, that educational progressives and traditionalists fundamentally divide. Progressives want learning to be natural and joyful. They want students to learn skills in the same way that they learn to walk or talk. They take a lack of motivation on the part of students as a sign that the teaching is not engaging enough or the curriculum is inappropriate. This is because they come from the romantic tradition that sees truth and beauty in all that is natural; that views children as fundamentally good beings who are corrupted by the world of adults.
Left to their own devices, high school students will choose young adult literature over classic works. This is why educational progressives fight hard to argue that young adult fiction is as worthy of attention as Charlotte Bronte, Virginia Woolf or Zadie Smith. The students’ motivations cannot be wrong. Content must therefore be seen as interchangeable. Yet this creates a problem. If there is no specific content worth learning, what is education for? The solution is to insist that the purpose of education is to teach the nebulous ‘skills’ that are characteristic of modern curricula.
In Reading Workshop, students are practicing the skill of reading. It therefore does not matter what they are reading. If someone presents evidence that Reading Workshop is less effective at developing reading than more traditional methods there are two obvious responses: Firstly, it must not have been done properly. Secondly, who cares if a method is slightly more effective if it puts children off reading for life?
By following children’s interests, we can define a number of such generic skills. Have you noticed that children like using the internet? Right, so let’s define a skill called ‘digital literacy’ and prioritise that over content. Have you noticed that children prefer working on a drama project to learning grammar? That’s fine, we can define a skill called ‘learning to learn’ that children can develop in any context. We’re all good here.
Except that we are not. There are a number of threats to this vision. Hardworking teachers inevitably have to be pragmatists and so, guiltily perhaps, they will subvert the theory. And the biggest threat of all lies in puncturing the foundational myth; that we must motivate students and give them veto over what and how they learn.
You can see this in the reaction to Tom Bennett’s behaviour report. Overwhelmingly welcomed by classroom teachers (see the retweets here, for instance), a number of commentators have taken exception on Twitter. Often, this does not take the form of directly criticising actual points made in the report because that is hard to do. So, instead, we have questions about the use of the word, ‘muscular,’ and so on. Why does this report represent such a threat? Because students must be able to maintain their veto in order to advance the progressive agenda. Teaching techniques that help students engage with traditional academic content call the foundational myth into question. It is meant to be impossible for teachers to have good relationships with students whilst pushing them through content that the students would not have chosen to engage with by themselves.
This is also why you see such a visceral reaction to Michaela Community School in London. It unashamedly uses ‘behaviourist’ techniques to manage student behaviour. The latest spate of outrage comes from the seemingly innocuous idea that Michaela requires students to read only those books that are in the school library when they are in school and not bring in other books from home. This kind of academic quality control is anathema, with one earnest critic wondering whether it was even legal.
I think Michaela gives us a hint at the way forward. There is an unhappy marriage at present between Utopian progressive theorists and a pragmatic teaching profession. The theorists don’t get what they want because the pesky teachers keep subverting the vision. The teachers don’t get what they need because the theorists are in charge, writing generic skills into curricula and generally pushing that agenda by any means possible. And this is why I think Australia needs mechanisms through which the equivalent of a Michaela Community School could open. This is why we need our own Free School model. Rather than continuing to talk past each other, traditionalists could open schools and progressives could open schools. Parents could then choose which vision they prefer.
Of course, progressives would need to find and retain teachers who are prepared to work in their schools. That might be tricky. Perhaps they could follow the lead of Herbert Spencer and try a bit of teaching themselves.
Australian schools are suffering a crisis of classroom behaviour. Survey evidence from the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) places us well below the OECD average for in-class disruption. Roughly a third of students in advantaged schools, and half of those in disadvantaged schools, report that in most or every class there is noise and disorder, students don’t listen to what the teacher says, and students find it difficult to learn. Add to this evidence from a different survey that 20% of Year 4 students and 9% of Year 8 students are bullied almost weekly and we have a very worrying picture.
A lot of the research and discussion among academics is not well placed to address these issues. The focus is placed exclusively on those students who misbehave and the educational effects on them of being excluded from classrooms. This is an important question to address but poor behaviour impacts on every student in a class. We need to think at a systems-level. The old trope of blaming and shaming teachers for causing behaviour problems by teaching boring lessons has had its day. Yes, teachers should make efforts to make subjects interesting but we can’t keep students in a high state of excitement all the time. Boredom is part of life. Sometimes you have to do things that you don’t want to do. Get over it.
That’s why I recommend Tom Bennett’s new report to Australian teachers and school leaders. It is written for the British government and its focus is on U.K. schools, yet there is much to transfer to our own system. Politicians should pay attention to the policy recommendations and principals should take heed of the advice on how to intentionally create a positive school culture.
We can’t keep ducking this issue.
After my recent post about ‘Curriculum for Excellence’ in Scotland, a number of Welsh teachers contacted me to make me aware of the new curriculum proposals for Wales. In 2015 the Donaldson report was published, setting out a series of recommendations for changing curriculum and assessment arrangements. These are currently in the process of being implemented by the Welsh government, enjoying cross-party support.
In the report, Professor Graham Donaldson seeks to expand the standard definition of ‘curriculum’. For instance, there is a significant section on pedagogy (teaching methods). The report claims that, “To be clear, the recommendations of this Review do not imply an emphasis on any particular teaching approaches: decisions about teaching and learning are very context and purpose specific, and are best taken by teachers themselves.” However, this wears pretty thin, pretty quickly. For instance, collaborative learning is mandated, with the report stating that, “Good teaching and learning encourages collaboration.” “Authentic contexts” are also important, giving a hint of the constructivist philosophy that underpins Donaldson’s approach.
To be fair, Donaldson accepts that direct teaching has a role. However, he seems a little confused about what direct teaching is, suggesting that it is a ‘caricature’ to think of it as involving a whole class (why?) and suggesting that direct teaching implies the ‘scaffolding’ of learning. Yet scaffolding is usually used to describe the kinds of hints and guidance that constructivist teachers employ in investigative and problem-solving contexts.
Some of the intent behind Donaldson’s statements about good teaching becomes clearer when read in conjunction with the proposed curriculum. For instance, Donaldson wants to get rid of conventional subjects, amalgamating them into ‘Areas of Learning’ such as ‘Health and Wellbeing*’, ‘Humanities’ and ‘Science and Technology’. The ‘Mathematics and Numeracy’ area, “…provides strong support for the development of wider skills, particularly critical thinking and problem solving, planning and organisation, and creativity and innovation.” There is a whole section on these wider skills and the curriculum is designed as a way to deliver them. Yet these skills are not ‘wider’; they are highly domain dependent. So attempts to develop them at a general, transferrable level are doomed to fail.
As ever, science is seen as a thing that people do rather than a body of knowledge. Students, “…learn to generate and test ideas, gather evidence, make observations, carry out practical investigations, and communicate with others.” This is a good example of the fallacy of assuming that they way that professional scientists do science is the best way to learn it.
Donaldson wants to add further complexity by mandating cross-curricular themes of literacy, numeracy and ‘digital competence’. He wants students to have lots of choice over activities and experiences, even though research suggests that the choices students make are not optimal for learning. To Donaldson, knowledge is interchangeable in the service of delivering wider skills: “…the spacing of the steps at three-yearly intervals allows for a measure of choice, for example in topics for research, within these intervals if the school sees that as appropriate.” It really doesn’t matter what bit of history you are messing about with as long as you learn to think critically.
If you are still unsure that the intent is to move decisively away from conventional subjects, then Donaldson offers a number of vignettes. Here is a description of a primary school curriculum sequence under his proposals:
“The study of a local river, for example, may be rooted in the Humanities Area of Learning and Experience. However, it opens up wide-ranging opportunities across other areas. It might connect with the Expressive arts Area of Learning and Experience through listening to music, such as Smetana’s Vltava, and composing music or creating visual interpretations or dance or dramatic performances to express the river’s journey from its source to the sea. It offers opportunities to use factual and creative language purposefully to create brochures or poems and to apply mathematical and scientific skills to observe and investigate natural phenomena and measure depth and speed. It enables children and young people to improve their health and well-being by appreciating the joy of fresh air and walking safely in the hills to seek the source of their local stream and using map skills to follow all or part of its journey.”
In secondary school, he favours project-based learning:
“For example, a school could provide a Year 7 programme for a significant part of the school week that develops a wide range of skills through a themed approach, thereby aiding continuity with primary practice. This approach could involve a series of projects to cover the year, and use the thinking skills methodology of ‘plan, develop and reflect’ as the organising structure. Projects would cover all subjects, although specialist teaching could be provided for literacy, numeracy and areas such as modern foreign languages and PE. The projects could be based on a range of interesting topics that develop different skills and subject areas, for example on topics such as ‘sustainability’ and ‘innovation’. Teams of staff drawn from all subjects would design and deliver the curriculum, while timetabling based on multiple lessons would allow both the flexibility to create larger or smaller teaching groups as well as team teaching.”
This is the approach that failed so dramatically in a recent Education Endowment Foundation trial: Many of the project-based learning schools actually dropped out of the trial and in those schools that were left, project-based learning had a possible negative impact on some groups of students. So it either doesn’t work or it’s hard to do. Regardless, it is not a promising approach.
Alongside these curriculum changes, Donaldson proposes assessment changes. He wants to rely more on unreliable teacher assessment at the same time as making assessment far more complex and reducing the accountability of schools. This means that the negative effects of the new curriculum will take longer to spot. The first clear indications are likely to come from PISA data some way down the track.
My hope is that the Welsh government starts to pay attention to the effects of similar reforms in Scotland and has a rethink before this new curriculum can do too much harm.
*This is going to sound very dated, very quickly
Writing in the Times Educational Supplement in London (the TES), David Boorman questions plans to introduce a timed test of times tables to English schools.
Boorman’s first concern is that of ‘maths anxiety’. He worries that timing tests in this way will lead to more anxious students. I have no doubt that timed tests can make students anxious – although the evidence is hard to pin down – but I also see it as part of a teacher’s job to allay those fears and present such tests as a normal part of school life.
Boorman can’t see the need for a time limit, asking, “How long did Shakespeare take to write his plays? Does anyone care?”. I think this misses a key point: We want to test whether students have retained times tables as facts in their long term memory rather than checking whether they can work them out using working memory. If we ensure that time is limited then we are more likely to test the former than the latter. This is important because in higher level maths, students are rarely asked to simply work out a single multiplication. Instead, such skills will be embedded in a larger problem. Working memory is severely constrained and so it is important to free it up to focus on the problem in hand. If students memorise times tables then they release working memory capacity to focus on other aspects of the problem.
Boorman’s second point is a concern about a ‘times table check mindset’. He points out that many students might be able to find 5 x 7 but then be unsure of the answer to 7 x 5; something I am quite prepared to accept. But he uses this example to set time tables knowledge in opposition to an understanding of multiplication.
We often see this argument in the rhetoric about early mathematics education. And yet I have seen no convincing evidence to suggest that knowing facts somehow gets in the way of understanding. Yes, knowing times tables facts is not sufficient but I don’t think anyone ever claimed that it was. Ideally, students know their facts and also have a deeper appreciation of multiplication. In the case of the 5 x 7 example, the student would need to be taught about the commutative property of multiplication e.g. by considering a rotating rectangle. Why can’t we teach times tables and also teach commutativity?
Finally, Boorman demonstrates quite a limited view of why we want student to learn times tables. He complains that they are not useful in everyday life:
“I’m often told by friends and colleagues that they can help at the shops. However, I’m sceptical at best. Take six times eight, for example. When and why would one purchase 48 of an item? Of course, it could be six items priced at 8p each, but then what items are priced at 8p?”
Boorman’s colleagues have obviously got the wrong end of the stick. What is it about maths that makes people demand that every individual skill needs to have some mundane, everyday use? We don’t do that with other subjects. Nobody goes into a primary school class, observes a session of clay modelling and exclaims, “But when will students need to be able to do this at the supermarket!?” And nobody stops children from writing stories on the basis that they will never need to write stories in real-life; that only professional authors need to be able to write stories. And yet you hear these arguments about maths all the time.
Times tables are not particularly useful on their own and they are not intended to be. Maths is not a flat subject; it’s hierarchical with basic skills feeding into more complex skills. As we have seen, a facility with times tables frees up working memory to solve other aspects of a problem. For instance, an important skill in senior maths is to be able to factorise quadratic equations and this is much easier to do if you know your times tables. If students don’t know their tables then this limits their access to higher level maths. You can do all the investigations, critical thinking activities and genius hours you like but if students can’t do maths then you are effectively shutting the door on most STEM careers.
Perhaps most worrying of all, David Boorman is a lecturer in primary education and so he has the opportunity to promote these views about times tables to the next generation of primary school teachers.