Greg Whitby’s rear view mirror

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

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

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

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.

Fact-checking Misty Adoniou on the phonics check

Misty Adoniou is a regular columnist for The Conversation in Australia. She is an odd choice for this role because she is more of a campaigner than an impartial communicator of academic findings. And she was in full campaign mode this week as she railed against the proposed phonics check for Year 1 students.

Let me be clear; I am in favour of introducing this check. It has been 12 years since the publication of the results from Australia’s national inquiry into the teaching of reading and the recommendation that teachers use systematic and explicit teaching of phonics. Yet it’s hard to see the impact of this on the ground. One hint as to what is happening can be gleaned from the various advice documents that schools produce for parents. These tend to caution against the ‘sounding out’ of words and instead recommend strategies such as guessing words from context or from pictures. These approaches are associated with whole language teaching rather than phonics – Ken Goodman’s ‘psycho-linguistic guessing game‘ – and have been singled out for criticism by a U.K. review of the evidence

Another worrying piece of evidence comes from one recent study which suggested Australian teachers lack knowledge of the key concepts required for systematic phonics instruction. If this is the case then they have been badly let down by the schools of education that should be teaching this stuff.

However, it is hard to tell exactly what is going on in the classroom. Year 3 NAPLAN reading comprehension tests are too far removed from initial reading instruction and conflate phonics knowledge with vocabulary and general knowledge. That’s why we need a check. Such a check has been in place in England since 2011 and this is where Misty Adoniou’s article enters the picture.

What would a general reader, unacquainted with the research, make of the following statement?

“…so far, the phonics test in England has not improved reading comprehension scores.”

You might assume that reading comprehension scores have been flat. But that would be incorrect. According to a 2015 review, there have been improvements in the key test of reading comprehension that takes place at the end of Year 2 during this time. These improvements began prior to the introduction of the check. However, there was a general awareness that the check was on its way and the review notes that some schools involved in the pilot had already started to change their phonics instruction. Can anyone prove that the improvements are due to the check? No. Is it highly suggestive? I think so.

Adoniou also seems to be a fan of ‘analytic’ phonics. This is a whole-to-part approach where phonics knowledge is taught through the analysis of words rather than discretely as in the ‘synthetic’ approach. The phonics check aligns better with synthetic phonics. Adoniou claims:

“There is no evidence that one phonics approach is better than the other. In England, the US and Australia, there have been major inquiries into reading and all have concluded that systematic and explicit phonics teaching is a crucial part of effective reading instruction. But none have found any evidence that synthetic phonics approaches are better than analytic phonics approaches, or vice versa.”

Here is a quote from the Australian inquiry that she is referring to:

“Notwithstanding these assertions, findings from the seven-year study undertaken by Johnston and Watson (2005a,b) clearly indicate the superior efficacy of synthetic phonics instruction and are worthy of mention here…

Three training programs were conducted with 300 children for 16 weeks, beginning soon after entry to the first year of formal schooling. For 20 minutes per day, children were taught either: (a) by a synthetic phonics program, or (b) by an analytic phonics program, or (c) by an analytic phonics plus phonological-awareness training program.

At the end of these programs, the synthetic phonics taught group were: (a) reading words around seven months ahead of the other two groups, (b) were reading around seven months ahead for their chronological age, (c) were spelling around eight to nine months ahead of the other groups, and (d) were again performing in spelling around seven months ahead of chronological age. The synthetic phonics taught group also read irregular words better than the other groups, and was the only group that could read unfamiliar words by analogy.

So Adoniou must have missed that bit. She also seems to have missed the words at the end of the 2017 U.K. phonics check such as ‘model’ and ‘chapter’ because she thinks it, “only tests single syllable words”.

There is a serious debate to be had about this issue. I think a phonics check would help but it is no panacea. I am particularly concerned about the possibility that we hang too much on phonics and neglect the development of children’s general knowledge; the latter being critical for later reading comprehension. Note that England has a far meatier national curriculum in place than our watery and degraded effort.

However, we need to have this debate in an informed way. Misleading arguments don’t help.

An unnatural act

In a recent researchED presentation, I likened human history to a single 24 hour period. If, very roughly, anatomically modern humans emerged at midnight then reading and writing were invented at 11.24 pm the following evening. However, for much of the 36 minutes of its existence, literacy was the preserve of a few elites. Mass literacy did not emerge in Europe until 11.59 pm.

Reading ability is therefore something that evolution cannot have acted upon. There simply has not been enough time. It is an unnatural act. Yes, it clearly must draw upon natural abilities such as speaking, listening, recognising shapes and so on, but there is nothing natural in reading itself.

This helps explain what would otherwise be a paradox. Children learn their mother tongue largely through immersion with only a very small number experiencing difficulties. Yet attempts to teach reading through immersion – the ‘whole language’ approach – are far less effective than systematic, explicit instruction in letter-sound relationships (see here, here and here). If reading were the same kind of ability as listening then we might expect these abilities to require the same approaches. Once we recognise that they are different, we can account for the need for different methods.

This is now a key idea in Cognitive Load Theory. As development of the theory progressed through a number of experiments, explicit approaches to teaching academic concepts seemed to be far more effective than implicit ones. This is a problem if you assume that learning academic content is like learning to speak. However, once we recognise that these are different kinds of abilities, the findings make more sense.

David Geary coined the term ‘biologically primary’ to describe abilities like speaking and listening, labelling academic abilities such reading as ‘biologically secondary’.

As Geary explains

“Human language in one form or another is found throughout the world, but the ability to read is not (Pinker & Bloom, 1990). Reading should therefore be considered a biologically secondary cognitive domain.”

Despite the evidence, many people are still committed to whole language or its derivative, ‘balanced literacy’. The latter is meant to include some phonics teaching but this has to be embedded in context and immersion in ‘real books’ also forms part of the process, presumably due to ideas about reading being a form of natural development. And this is despite the evidence suggesting that embedding phonics is less effective than systematically teaching it (see p199 onwards here).

That’s why it is important to get the idea of biologically primary and secondary abilities out there. It is also why there is a cottage industry developing in trying to knock it over. I have even heard people claim that John Sweller, the originator of Cognitive Load Theory, had misunderstood Geary. But the quote above could not be clearer.

Eliminating anxiety in schools

There are valid arguments against standardised tests. They have the potential to distort the curriculum by focusing teachers on only those subjects that are tested. And they can be unfair – reading tests and even maths tests often introduce world knowledge as a confound, discriminating against those from less advantaged backgrounds. Despite these worries, I think that standardised tests are a necessary evil. In an educational world full of bad ideas they at least provide parents with reasonably objective data.

Yet little of this plays out in popular discussions of standardised tests. Instead, the argument against them tends to be that they induce anxiety in students. I’m not even convinced that this is true because skilful teachers will prepare kids for such tests and present then in a way that should minimise any anxiety. Nevertheless, let’s take this at face value and let’s assume such tests do cause anxiety. What then?

Firstly, if education is partly preparation for life then it’s worth pointing out that life has its anxious moments. If kids have no anxious situations to overcome at school then how will they overcome them as grown-ups? In the adult world, overcoming anxiety can have positive, life-changing consequences. Think of attending a job interview, asking someone out, giving a speech or buying a car or a house. Imagine having to avoid all of these.

It is also worth noting that tests are not the only source of anxiety in schools. I asked Twitter the following question:

Bear in mind that my followers are often teachers and are perhaps a little more bookish than the general population and so the responses are going to be a little biased.

Anxiety caused by teachers being violent or hostile or racist is certainly something we should eliminate. Violence, intimidation and bullying from other students, sometimes centred around clothing and accessories, are also key sources of anxiety and I would want to eliminate these too. However, I note that teachers and schools that try to turn around such negative cultures open themselves up to public shaming as we saw last week with a school in the U.K. You would have thought that those who are most concerned about kids’ mental health would generally welcome rigorously implemented respectful behaviour policies, whatever issues they have with specific details.

I am more ambivalent about some of the other things my question suggests we would need to eliminate in order to remove all anxiety from schools. It seems that we would need to abandon all sports, from physical education to swimming. We might also want to make schools single sex because the opposite sex causes anxiety. However, girls would then presumably be in contact with more ‘mean’ girls so that wouldn’t help. We would have to get rid of public speaking and somehow remove the need for toilets, or at least surveil or patrol them constantly. Even then, there seems the possibility of anxiety in all human interaction. So perhaps kids should be homeschooled and never leave the house.

Clearly, people look back on their school days with a mix of joy, regret, fondness and shame. Sometimes there is anger. If we were serious about making schools better places to be then it would be faintly absurd to start with the issue of a few infrequent tests. There are more fundamental problems to address, ones that are too often overlooked, and we should be supporting those schools that seek to address them.

Instead, I believe the ‘tests cause anxiety’ trope is calculated to recruit parents to a cause that has deeper ideological motivations. It is far harder for educationalists to make the case that they wish to experiment with curricula and teaching methods that won’t lead to children learning much English and maths and so they want these tests removed in order to hide that fact.