Ask them what they stand for

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I am one of education’s debunkers. I challenge arguments and research. I don’t just restrict myself to obvious targets such as learning styles, I question a whole range of claims, observations and experimental designs.

Yet I don’t sit aloof. Everyone has an agenda and it’s transparent what my agenda is.

I advocate for access to a rich, unashamedly academic curriculum for all students. I advocate for explicit teaching. And let me be clear about this; I don’t mean that all of every lesson should involve a teacher stood at the front of the room explaining and asking questions. I do mean that new concepts are fully explained to novice learners from the outset and that there is then a gradual release from teacher-directed to independent work. I value students being able to tackle complex problems on their own. The subjects I teach, mathematical methods and physics, have VCE exams which always involve novel questions of a form that students will not have experienced before and so the ability to tackle such problems is the goal of my teaching.

I see a pivot point about which explicit teaching and alternatives such as inquiry learning turn in different directions. That pivot point is roughly the first, everyday explanation of a phenomenon that a teacher can articulate. Alternatives to explicit teaching will deliberately miss out some or all of this explanation. Explicit teaching will add to it, breaking it down further; including the why and addressing the common misconceptions and errors.

I don’t have such strong views on schools structures. I want more schools that give ordinary kids access to a rich academic curriculum and explicit teaching but I can’t honestly say I am certain of the best way of achieving this. Recently, I have become more convinced that models like Charter Schools in the U.S. and Free Schools in the U.K. are the best chance because they relax the control of central bureaucracies that tend to disapprove of the schools I want to see. Only a small number of schools of this type emerge under these structures, but this does give them the chance to prove the principle and so influence other schools in the system.

More broadly, I am socially liberal and politically left-of-centre. I would be inclined to nationalise monopolies such as water and electricity utilities. But I won’t go toe-to-toe in an argument with you about this because I don’t know as much about the issue as I know about education.

So that’s where I stand. It should be familiar to anyone who regularly reads my blog because I’ve written all of this before.

Yet there are some debunkers, some critics, who won’t make it clear where they stand. It’s not transparent what they are advocating. We see this whenever the term ‘progressive education’ comes up. People try to deny it is a thing, despite its long, well-documented history. Why?

I think there are a number of reasons why people try to obscure their agendas. Firstly, it is human to think that other people are ideological and doctrinaire whereas you are balanced and can see all sides of the argument. However, if I can name the ideology that you subscribe to then this undermines that view. It’s the power held in a name, if you will.

Secondly, I think some people believe that it is a sign of intelligence to be nuanced and to point to the incomplete nature of any models that others propose. But models are models. By nature they are incomplete abstractions. So although at best this kind of critique can shed new light on a subject, at worst it is an irrelevant parlour game.

Thirdly, obscuring your own view is a good strategy for winning arguments. The socratic questioner does not have a position that can be refuted, creating a power imbalance. After all, you can keep asking, ‘why,’ until it’s just turtles all the way down.

Finally, some people may have a view, but it might not be based on much or it might not be very well supported with evidence. So they hold back, like I would with an argument about nationalisation. However, I can’t imagine myself then becoming involved in the minutiae of a debate about the subject. If anything, I would watch and learn.

I am not convinced that anyone is entirely neutral. Even in ignorance we have a preference. This is why we have science and the scientific method. It doesn’t stop scientists from having human biases; you can’t. But the scientific process is bigger than any scientist and, when it is working properly, involves checks and balances that should mean we edge ever closer to the truth. We should treat debate in a similar way. The teaching community is not generally made-up of scientists but we should see our debates as having a similar aim. I am probably wrong in many of the positions that I take but in order to refute them you need a better argument. That moves us all forward, if slowly.

Here is what I suggest. When you next find yourself arguing with someone whose own position is obscure then ask them outright what they advocate. They can put it in their own words and don’t have to accept someone else’s labels. Let them define what they believe. If the terms are very general then ask for specifics; ‘So what precisely do you mean when you say you are in favour of inclusion? How is an inclusive school different to one that is not?’ Establishing people’s positions serves the wider discussion. It aids clarity, letting us know which options are being compared.

And if you can’t get a straight answer then that’s probably a sign that genuine discussion is not going to happen.

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Three tips for the Education Endowment Foundation

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Kevan Collins of the U.K.’s Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is in Australia to offer some advice. I thought it would therefore be a good idea to return the favour. It is friendly advice because I believe that the EEF’s balance sheet ultimately comes out positive – it’s done more good than harm – but there are clearly some glaring issues to address.

1. Sort out the Toolkit

The EEF toolkit is an excellent resource presented in a simplistic way. It attempts to summarise the evidence for 34 popular interventions – ‘toolkit strands’ – and if you go and look at the actual text summaries then it’s pretty good. For instance, on Learning Styles, the summary states, “There is very limited evidence for any consistent set of learning ‘styles’ that can be used reliably to identify genuine differences in the learning needs of young people, and evidence suggests that it is unhelpful to assign learners to groups or categories on the basis of a supposed learning style.” Fair enough. Job done. Unfortunately, the EEF have decided to assign all of these interventions an effect size based on the additional months of progress you should expect from students if you implement the intervention. For Learning Styles this figure is +2 months.

Such aggregate effect size calculations are misleading. They can have a value but only if you are comparing kids with similar ages undergoing similar interventions with similarly designed studies. This is because these factors can change effect sizes (see Chapter 3 of Wiliam’s ‘Leadership for Teacher Learning’ for a discussion of this).

The other major problem is that some of the toolkit strands are not coherent or identifiable. It makes you want to misquote Andrew Davis and say, “There is no such thing as this method of teaching”. The “Meta-cognition and self-regulation” strand absurdly groups together strategies for teaching kids how to plan and draft writing with a course in philosophy for primary children and something called, “Thinking, Doing, Talking Science” which, “aims to make science lessons in primary schools more practical, creative and challenging.” It’s worth pointing out that in the individual studies cited, it is the writing interventions that have by far the largest effect sizes, again drawing into question the logic of mushing them in with all this other stuff.

Oddly, Meta-cognition and self-regulation does not include “Let’s Think Secondary Science”; a programme that didn’t work. Which makes you think when you consider the positive spin the EEF have put on this particular strand.

2. Quote standard measures of statistical significance

There is a debate raging in education research about the validity of p-values. These are a pretty standard statistic that researchers generate from the data from randomised controlled trials (RCTs) such as the ones the EEF conducts in addition to its role in summarising evidence from elsewhere. The p-value is a probability. Specifically, it is the probability of obtaining the results you have obtained if there really was no effect at all i.e. just from chance. There are two arguments against p-values, one based on the idea that people misinterpret this statistic and the other that the common threshold of p<.05 is too high. In addition, we should expect that if we repeated an experiment 20 times, then we should get one with a p-value less than .05 just by chance, leading to concern about ‘p-hacking’: conducting lots of experiments or making lots of measurements and only reporting the few that generate a result.

It’s pretty arcane stuff but some of the people asked to evaluate EEF RCTs are opposed to p-values and so won’t quote them. The key point is that the criticisms of p-values are mainly concerned with false positives; times when p<.05 does not imply an effect. However, if we don’t report p-values at all then we won’t know which ones were potentially above the threshold.

This is a key issue with the controversial ‘Philosophy for Children’ trial. By refusing to quote p-values, we cannot know whether the positive effect that has been trumpeted around the world is statistically significant by the most widely used conventional measure. The EEF need to take control of this, insist on p-values on reports and go back and publish the p-values for any RCTs that lack them.

3. Have a think about what you are testing and how it might work

The ‘Philosophy for Children’ trial may also have benefited from someone sitting down and asking, “How is this supposed to work?” This is certainly true of the Core Knowledge intervention known as ‘Word and World Reading’; an intervention based upon the idea that reading comprehension is improved by having background knowledge of the content that you are reading about. E. D. Hirsch set up the Core Knowledge Foundation in the U.S. to try to develop a curriculum that would improve students’ general background knowledge. We cannot predict exactly what children will need to read in the future so the curriculum was designed to contain knowledge of areas that are particularly powerful; cultural and social touchstones that writers will often refer to.

In the short EEF trial, some students were taught part of a core knowledge curriculum and some were not. All students were then set a reading comprehension test on a topic entirely unrelated to the content the core knowledge students had been studying. So this means that it couldn’t possibly work. The evaluators argued that to use reading comprehension tests based in the core knowledge content would be unfair, presumably because they thought it would aid comprehension. So what exactly were we testing then? I’ve no idea.


Democracy and Education

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Education provides a problem for politicians. The best articulation of this problem that I have read is in Eric Kalenze’s book, “Education is Upside Down”. He presents the rise of standardised testing in the U.S. almost as a kind of last resort. It’s what politicians do when they run out of options and the system continues to fail to deliver.

This runs counter to the narrative absorbed by most of us who are involved in education. This suggests that politicians just want to interfere; that they subscribe to an ideology that sees markets and testing as articles of faith. If only we could be freed from political interference and given better resources then the education sector, and its experts, could transform education ourselves.

I think evidence and logic are against this latter view. With a few notable exceptions such as the U.K.’s Nick Gibb, politicians only have a surface understanding of education. It’s not that they lack interest, but it can be like trying to explain cricket to an American who is enthusiastically watching it for the first time.

This is due to the fact that politicians are generalists. They have to be because they can expect a number of different briefs in a successful ministerial career. They master the art of grasping just enough detail to push through. Politicians also have to have a fair amount of ego in order to put themselves up there in the first place, and this means that, for many of them, the education brief is a stepping stone to bigger and brighter roles.

In this context, a politician would love nothing more than to be able to listen to the experts, do what they say then take credit for the improvements that flow. Add in a little extra funding and you have the perfect recipe for career advancement.

In fact, a number of politicians have tried this approach. Under the Labour government in the U.K. in the early 2000s, expert advice was sought and implemented and funding for education grew enormously. This seemed to pay off in an increase in G.C.S.E. results but this turned out to be illusory; the result of grade inflation. When a range of international assessments were taken into account there was, if anything, a decline in performance.

Educationalists explain this away. The tests don’t measure the right things; the important outcomes of education cannot be measured and so on. But politicians are skilled at spotting hogwash and they are attuned to public opinion, clear about what they can and cannot sell on the doorstep.

So there are only two options open to them. Firstly, embrace the education sector and hope either that it will be different this time or that you will be in a different job by the time the wheels fall off. It’s easy enough to convince yourself of the former because we can always point to the past and rationalise that reforms failed because they didn’t go far enough. The benefit of this approach is an easy life. The education sector won’t fight you. Instead, their energy will be spent vying for appointments to head committees and reviews.

The other option is to stand and fight. But for what? What tools does a generalist politician have at his or her disposal in order to shift an entire sector? Well, unless you’re Michael Gove you won’t consider getting into the nitty gritty of the curriculum, so you reach into your ideological toolbag and pull out standardised testing or free schools.

The education systems we now have in the U.K., U.S., and Australia have arisen from politicians choosing a mixture of these two options. My sense is that Australian politicians are a little more inclined to hug an educationalist than U.K. politicians. Nevertheless, over time, successive ministers in both countries switch from one broad option to the other. The resulting policy mashup is what academics feverishly refer to as ‘neoliberalism’.

It would be good if we, as a profession, had an evidence-informed alternative to offer them.


Greg Whitby’s rear view mirror

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Greg Whitby has probably been to some of the same kind of conferences I have, only more of them. These are the events where the same people trot out the same derivative quotes, ironically displaying an overwhelming lack of creativity and critical thinking in the process.

Whitby has been speaking to The Australian about his vision for education in New South Wales. Whitby is the executive director of Catholic Education in the Parramatta diocese in Sydney and has a significant social media reach in Australia, including his role in conducting interviews for the Australian Council for Educational Research’s (ACER) ‘Teacher’ magazine. In many ways, he represents the state of education discussion and thinking in Australia right now.

I’m inclined to agree with some of Whitby’s concerns about NAPLAN, the national programme of standardised literacy and numeracy assessments that take place in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. They encourage teachers to teach to the test and this is not always helpful. The reading test prompts schools to drill kids in reading comprehension strategies and the writing test suggests teaching narrative or argumentative writing in the abstract. 

However, I doubt my solution would meet with Whitby’s approval: I would base the reading and writing tasks in Australian curriculum content in order to ensure students learn rich background knowledge which will aid future learning. The Australian curriculum is certainly not perfect but I doubt that many students master even its denuded form at present.

The reason why I think Whitby would disagree with my solution is because he seems to have a generic skills understanding of what education is for; one where content is interchangeable. He somewhat confusingly suggests that learning is about being, “able to express your point and it doesn’t matter whether that point is about indigenous culture or European invasion — that’s not the point.”

The ability to express your point – to construct an argument – depends greatly on relevant background knowledge. Much of this is interlinked and hierarchical – you can’t simply look it up on the internet because you won’t know what to look for or how to interpret the results. This is why higher order skills like critical thinking are so context dependent. As Dan Willingham points out, young children can think critically about things they know plenty about whereas trained scientists can fail to think critically in areas where they lack expertise.

The one thing that is certain about the future is that it is unpredictable. Yet Whitby prioritises the production of ‘future ready’ students, deploying the old trope about schools being based on factories. Instead, schools should be more contemporary. Amusingly, this is justified on the basis that it will make schools more like banks. Just think about that for a moment.

In order to be groovy and contemporary, schools should use the new Gonski 2.0 funding to focus on the ‘engine’ of education. “This engine needs to be what I call an inquiry model driven by ­actual inquiry, deep thought, deep research, collaboration, co-operation — all the things we know work for learning.”

I’m not sure what evidence Whitby is referring to but there is plenty of evidence for the proposition that explicit teaching works better for learning than inquiry; from international assessments such as PISA and a vast body of process-product research to small-scale randomised controlled trials. Fundamentally, this is the problem with Whitby’s vision: it is an ideology with little to no empirical evidence to support it, no matter how appealing it appears to many people.

Whitby implies that we should no longer expect kids to be able to sit down and do as they are told and so we should accommodate this. The paradox of assuming this will prepare them for future work is never explored. And he has an issue with the exams system in New South Wales. If you propose methods that will not lead to improved learning then I suppose it is inevitable that you will find yourself in conflict with processes that measure it.

Although masked as modern and contemporary, Whitby makes an argument that is, in essence, more than 100 years old. It is the classical argument of ‘progressive’ or ‘child centred’ education that has been tried many times and has failed many times. Whitby is not a prophet of the future. Whether he knows it or not, his arguments are a relic of the past.


The factory model of schooling

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I have given a couple of talks where I refer to the ORACLE studies in Britain in the 1970s (eg here). One finding was that teachers labelled as ‘class enquirers’ who engaged in more whole class teaching tended to be more effective. I found this out from reading ‘Effective Teaching‘ by Muijs and Reynolds so that’s the reference I included in my talks. However, I wanted to include this point in a book I am writing so I decided to look for the original source. Unfortunately, I could not gain access to the key Muijs and Reynolds references and so I went for a little wander through the Oracle literature that I was able to access.

I didn’t find what I was looking for but I did enter a world that felt strangely familiar. The ORACLE researchers conducted observations in primary classrooms roughly five or so years before I started school and approximately ten years after Britain’s influential Plowden report.

In the ORACLE classrooms, the primary activity seemed to be the independent completion of work: A factory model, if you will. Students typically worked this way for two thirds of the day. This is despite being sat in groups, presumably as a legacy of Plowden. The ORACLE researchers attributed the predominance of individual work to the teachers’ perceived need to individualise instruction. We would call this ‘differentiation’ today.

Sometimes the teacher sat at the front and students periodically visited him or her with their work. Sometimes the teacher circulated, talking to individuals or small groups. Even the ‘class inquirers’ devoted much of the time to individual instruction. 

When teachers did talk to students, much of the discussion was task related and managerial rather than conceptual. Everything centred on production. For instance, teachers might assign missing-gap worksheets with the missing words printed at the end so that students wouldn’t need to ask for spellings.

Students had, in turn, developed a number of coping strategies. They would often only work when the teacher was nearby. Some students might deliberately break the top of a pencil so as to go and sharpen it or they might spend an inordinate amount of time measuring out a margin. Up to 50% of the students in some classes were ‘intermittent workers’, the proportion increasing with the amount of individualised work. It seems that this kind of student behaviour was not a fixed feature of the student but responded strongly to teaching style. By moving away from whole class teaching in an attempt to better match work to student need, teachers had inadvertently created motivational and managerial issues. 

It is not hard to see how a ‘Matthew Effect‘ might operate in these classrooms. Those students dubbed the ‘hard grinders’ who, either through conscientiousness or a sense of self-efficacy, were motivated to work hard would likely have learnt the most, whereas their pencil breaking peers would have learnt the least, with the gap continuing to widen. Yet without much direct input from the teacher, even the hard grinders would have been likely to rehearse many errors and venture down plenty of blind alleys.

I mentioned that this world was strangely familiar and this is because it reminds me of my own primary school experience. I don’t remember teachers standing at the front of the class and, well, teaching. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen but I certainly recall plenty of individual work with a focus on production.

And I remember the line at the bin as children waited to sharpen a pencil.


First fix poverty

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I remember listening to a Labour politician speak during the massive expansion of higher education that took place in England in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Oddly, he admitted that some of this expansion was due to students taking ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses of no great academic or industrial worth. Nonetheless, he was in favour of the expansion and of these courses because it would ‘make more people middle class’. It was about cultural change. I’d never thought of it like that before.

The idea is that being middle class tends to lead to better life experiences for people and their children. Middle class families tend to be well fed and secure and they also have cognitive benefits for children because middle class parents will take them to museums and discuss big issues at the dinner table.

We can all think of exceptions; dysfunctional middle class families or those that have fallen into poverty, and wealthy and secure artisan families that highly value learning. But let’s assume the general trend is accurate and ask how being middle class works.

There are clearly two key variables. The first is wealth and the ability to provide food and shelter. The second is cultural, such as the value placed on education or learning middle class manners. Sometimes the two conflate as in the ability to take your kids to visit Rome.

I think both are important. But there is a vocal contingent that emphasises wealth only. They see education as largely deterministic; you won’t fix inequality of educational outcomes until you first fix poverty. 

It’s hard to figure out who is right because we don’t often see the variables separated out. Highly academic schools with cultures that expect academic success tend to have wealthier kids. What happens if you send large numbers of economically deprived kids to highly academic schools? We don’t really know, yet.

I am deeply concerned about the state of the world in 2017. I am worried about the concentration of more of the world’s resources in the hands of fewer and fewer people whose political influence then grows. I am concerned about selling off state assets to private companies who then run them for private gain, wringing their (semi) monopoly status for all it’s worth and paying themselves vast salaries. There is no highly developed skill involved in running – as opposed to building – a huge company; it is the domain of good-enough generalists. So what exactly are we paying for? And there is something wrong with a society that siphons off its high achievers into the business of moving money around, potentially catastrophically.

But most of all I am concerned about grinding, intergenerational poverty. I understand the right wing arguments about welfare dependency and the populist push to crack down on those who refuse to work. But nobody ever solved a vicious problem of this kind by sucking resources out of it. Instead, to solve problems we need to invest. 

But we need to invest in the right things. We need to invest in ways that have an impact on the problem. 

One of the things we can invest in is education. I’m not convinced that pointless degrees are the solution because I think we should start earlier. Wealthier kids may arrive at school with larger vocabularies than poorer kids but, once in school, we have the chance to mitigate that by expanding the vocabularies of poorer kids. We also have the chance to teach the general knowledge that they may not pick up at the dinner table and to introduce them to the books that are not lying around at home. In order for this to have an impact, we need to teach them to read and we should look for methods of doing this that are the most equitable, leading to the greatest number of kids picking up this critical, life changing skill. 

What will be the impact of such a concerted effort? I don’t honestly know. Let’s try it and see. It won’t fix poverty on its own but it’s a practical step that schools can take right now and I think that makes it a good investment.

By all means join a political party and campaign for the issues that matter to you but why stop at that? In education, the mantra to ‘first fix poverty’ is a mantra of hopelessness and despair. It says ‘don’t look over here, look over there!’ It is a call to blame and do nothing at a time when we should be doing something.


The Australian Curriculum is not enough

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There are a number of voices I respect in Australian education. There are passionate advocates for explicit teaching of phonics and explicit teaching more generally. However, there is one argument that you hardly ever hear. 

Let me paint you a picture. Let’s assume that everything phonics advocates are calling for comes true. Let’s assume we have a phonics check and that this causes schools to seriously reappraise their approaches and commit to systematic synthetic phonics. What then?

I predict that we would see gains in reading at Grade 3 NAPLAN but that these would almost completely wash-out for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds by Grade 5. Why? Because of the poverty of our curriculum.

Once students can translate letters into sounds, the next limit placed on their reading comprehension is that of vocabulary and background knowledge. Instead of seeking to systematically build knowledge through the course of schooling, the most recent version of the Australian Curriculum actually threw a load out. In a tragic compromise, a greater emphasis was placed on phonics at the expense of content. It is as if we think kids need more time for literacy – reading and writing – but this somehow has to come at the expense of content worth reading and writing about.

We now have the HASS curriculum instead of proper humanities subjects in primary. This follows the long debunked ‘expanding horizons’ model based on the writings of John Dewey. Kids couldn’t possibly find Ancient Egypt interesting, the thinking goes, so they must instead make family trees and find out about the local community. This idea is so obviously and manifestly false that it is an endictment of the field of education that it has persisted so long.

We have the science curriculum, only a third of which seems to involve actual science content. Do students learn about the poles of a magnet, chemical and physical changes or the digestive system? Not straight away, no, but by Year 2 they do learn that, “Different materials can be combined for a particular purpose.” I suspect they already knew this. To elaborate on what this means we read that students could engage in, “exploring the local environment to observe a variety of materials, and describing ways in which materials are used.” So an expanding horizons model of science, too; one that sounds really boring.

As you might expect, both HASS and science are obsessed with nonexistent inquiry ‘skills’ such as the skill of ‘Questioning and Predicting’ where kids, ‘Pose and respond to questions, and make predictions about familiar objects and events’. It’s as if we think that children need to be taught to ask questions about how the world works. Have the writers of this curriculum ever met a child? We might do better to provide our young people with a few answers.

All the time, teachers are supposed to be developing ‘general capabilities‘ that, of course, are not general at all.

We have this all wrong. We don’t need to make space for literacy by removing content. We don’t need to endlessly drill kids in soulless reading comprehension strategies or in the writing of generic and banal arguments and narratives. Let’s give them something worthwhile to read and to write about.

And this is where it becomes vicious. All children will benefit from a rich curriculum at school but where this is not present, middle class families will supplement it with dinner table discussions and trips to museums. It is the disadvantaged who will suffer most.

Teachers in Australia have a moral responsibility to supplement our sardonic joke of a curriculum with rich content knowledge. And we should argue – where safe to do so – for something better for our kids and our future. Let’s hear more discussion of the quality of our curriculum.