New report might be good for Australian education

Image produced by Innovation and Science Australia under a Creative Commons license.

Innovation and Science Australia, a Australian government agency, have released a reportAustralia 2030. The report makes proposals intended to maximise Australia’s future success in science and technology. I always read such reports with trepidation because they are usually full of educational platitudes about engagement and jobs that don’t exist yet.

The report’s authors do seem to accept the case for teaching so-called generic, transferable, 21st century skills. And that’s a minus in the ledger because such skills, as far as they exist, cannot really be taught. The authors also seem to think you can motivate students into pursuing STEM careers, whereas it is likely to be the other way around: success in STEM subjects leads to motivation.

However, apart from these mistakes, the authors are refreshingly sensible. They use the graph above to show that simply spending money on education does not improve outcomes. I would suggest that this is because education is infected by too many bad ideas, and if you invest in a bad idea, you are hardly going to make things better.

The report’s authors also realise that they key issue is to recruit high quality teaching candidates and to train them well, with more subject specific training, particularly at secondary level. And they call for better professional development of existing teachers. While suggesting teachers should be trained in delivering a mix of inquiry-based learning and explicit teaching, they recognise the data from PISA that shows a reliance on inquiry is associated with poorer outcomes. This last point seems to have passed by the vast majority of bureaucrats and commentators and so the authors can only be commended for this.

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Come and teach maths with me

My school, Ballarat Clarendon College, is looking for some new maths teachers. If you are interested, complete the contact form at the bottom of this post as soon as you can. A starting date is negotiable. By filling in the contact form, you are not completing a formal application, you are expressing interest. I’ll pass it on and then Clarendon may get back to you with details of how to apply.

Ballarat Clarendon College is an independent school in Victoria with a successful maths department. We have teachers from Australia, the U.K., Ireland and the U.S. on our team.

In Years 3, 5, 7 and 9, all Australian students sit NAPLAN assessments in English and Maths. You can look up our NAPLAN results on the MySchool website  – the best analysis is probably to compare us with ‘similar schools’ or to look at ‘student gain’ compared to schools with similar students. In Year 12, most of our students are entered for VCE examinations. Although a very blunt measure, one statistic that the newspapers report is the percentage of study scores over 40. A student gaining above 40 in any given subject has performed better than about 91% of students who sat that subject. In 2017, 33.6% of our study scores were over 40, placing us fourth in the state.

As a department, we plan collaboratively and our plans are intended to reflect Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction. This means that as a new member of staff, you will be provided with unit and lesson plans for all of the lessons you teach. Our teachers are driven and work hard, but they work hard improving what we already have rather than starting with a blank sheet of paper. If you are into reinventing the wheel or triple marking then this is not the place for you.

There is a lot more to Clarendon than our academic success. We have active sports and performing arts programmes and we prioritise the development of our students as individuals through a variety of activities and through our everyday interactions. You can learn more about our approach on our website.

Ballarat is an old gold-mining town to the North-West of Melbourne. It is just over an hour’s drive to the beach – and the Great Ocean Road – and to Melbourne and there is a regular Melbourne train. It can be quite cold in the winter, with an occasional frost, and it is pretty warm in the Summer. Sovereign Hill is an open-air museum in Ballarat made up of historically recreated buildings from the gold rush and it is popular with tourists. Ballarat also has good access to The Grampians national park and the lots of wine growing regions.

Speaking the truth about The Mighty Oz

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A few times a year, someone will get in touch with me through the contact page of this blog with a very specific problem. Perhaps their district has changed the grading system or their school has decided they must give oral feedback every lesson and record this by rubber-stamping the students’ books. The request is always the same: do I know of any research that has evaluated this idea and found it wanting?

I usually agree that the idea is silly and offer moral support, but it is rare that I can help with the research. Most of these ideas simply have not been subjected to proper testing. And even when they have, the possibility of running a true, fairly designed experiment is small. And even if such an experiment has been run it is hard to remove expectation effects; the effect on teachers and students of participating in something new that is intended to improve learning. And even if experiments have been run and have found the idea doesn’t work, someone else is likely to come along with a slight variation on it, give it a new name and we are back to square one.

Does this sound depressing? Perhaps. When you pull back the curtain and realise that The Mighty Oz is all just lighting and smoke machines, you look for a quick fix. Surely, you think, once others see what you have seen, the whole edifice will fall. All you need is the data that debunks the silly ideas. But I’m suggesting this data is not there. It’s not that simple.

So what can you do?

Ask yourself, why have you changed your beliefs? Did someone produce a killer study that debunked a specific teaching strategy? Probably not. Is it because someone has manipulated you using framing theory or some other psychological sales technique? I doubt it. Is it because you are a uniquely smart and insightful individual? Well, maybe. However, I suspect the main reason that you have changed your mind is that, for you, the facts have changed.

You have probably learnt more about how the human mind learns. Perhaps you have taken a look at the evidence on retrieval practice or you’ve looked up this ‘cognitive load theory‘ stuff that people keep mentioning on Twitter. It is these ideas, this basic psychological evidence and the explanatory power it possesses that causes you take a dim view of the latest fad.

It’s extraordinary, really. One of my favourite things in teaching is to explain to middle school students why the Moon orbits the Earth. I see the light of realisation in their faces and, usually, this is about as good as teaching gets. Yet, in this case, I can go further. I love explaining to them that they now understand something that most people who have ever lived, and most people alive today, don’t really understand. Welcome to the club.

You are also in a pretty exclusive club. World leaders at Davos are being exposed to silly misinformation about learning that you know is bogus. So what does that make you? Someone pretty special, to be honest.

So all I request of you is that, when it is safe to do so, you speak the truth. Gently question. Point people towards the ideas that you have found convincing and let the ideas do their work. You need a strategy when you are trying to sell something that people don’t want or need. But you have something approaching the truth, so all you really need to do is speak it.

A small group of UK obsessives or a giant multinational conspiracy?

I believe that education is about transmitting important cultural knowledge from one generation to the next. This is because I view the civilisation that I treasure as vulnerable. It is vulnerable because it is not the natural state of humans to live in relatively free, democratic societies that tolerate difference. Education is one way that we protect and preserve these societies.

I also believe that we are not doing the best possible job as educators due to the influence of bad ideas. We need a strong curriculum based on foundational knowledge that is taught explicitly. And yet this is not the orthodox view which instead mistakenly sees education as an extension of natural human development.

I am not alone. There are many of us now. And there are plenty who oppose us. The correct way to oppose us is to analyse our arguments for logical flaws or to present evidence that conflicts with our assertions. This is surprisingly rare. Instead, most attacks come from asserting one of two contradictory positions.

1. A small group of UK obsessives

The first line of attack characterises my position as the obsession of a few anorak-clad trainspotters. Outside the UK, it is also observed that this minuscule group exists mainly in England. The discussion is painted as traditionalists arguing against a straw man they have erected; a straw man they have named as ‘progressivism‘.

The argument continues that most teachers have never heard of the debate and when various people on Twitter go out into schools and ask teachers about it, teachers profess bemusement. Instead, the vast majority of teachers are claimed to be pragmatists who want to do the best by their kids by whatever means suits that end. Engagement in the traditionalist / progressive debate is therefore unproductive.

The main problem with this argument is that majority opinion is not necessarily right. Simply demonstrating that a view is held only by a minority does not refute that view. Indeed, we have numerous examples from the past where minorities have turned out to be correct. For example, Ignaz Semmelweis’s pioneering work on germ theory was largely dismissed by other doctors. If this debate played out on twitter today, he would likely be accused of being divisive, with others claiming that he had nothing new to offer and professing their profound boredom at the whole discussion.

An interesting example of the ‘only a small group’ argument was made recently by Laura McInerney in this piece. In the middle of an article she had written that focused on a trivial bit of tittle-tattle about UK ministers, she claimed:

“This is very cute if you’re into masturbatory inter-ministerial argument, about which I’m sure there’s a bigger point to do with progressives and traditionalism and all that stuff that a small group of people like to bang on about.

But let’s get real.”

It’s a bit like someone in a chicken costume telling you that your tie is too garish.

I talk to a lot of teachers and I agree that most have never heard of a debate between traditionalism and progressivism. But they still become interested when I start to explain what the debate is about. They tell me anecdotes about their attempts to implement inquiry learning, or some other fashionable teaching method, and how it didn’t go to plan. They seem relieved to hear the fault may not lie in them.

And I think back to a time before the debate opened up in England. This was a time when Ofsted enforced a style of teaching that incorporated group work and criticised teacher talk, and when a national curriculum was produced, denuded of knowledge. It’s clear whose ends a lack of debate serves.

2. A giant multinational conspiracy

It is obvious that a set of ideas cannot be both the obsession of a small few in the UK and a giant multinational conspiracy, and yet opponents of the explicit teaching of a knowledge based curriculum seem to easily flit between these two positions.

The narrative is that there is some force, neoliberalism or neoconservatism or GERM, that acts as an invisible hand influencing policy. This force is a malevolent manifestation of the political right, far-right or even fascism. Statements made by traditionalists are then associated with these positions and given as proof for a conspiracy that cannot be falsified because it consists of after-the-fact rationalisations. Every new utterance is seen as a sign of complicity, and if that sign is not obvious then that’s because it’s a dog-whistle.

On a personal note, as someone who identifies with the political centre-left, it is deeply upsetting to be associated with the far right. It is also upsetting to see people you respected responding to these attacks with variations on, “What a thoughtful contribution.” It’s not thoughtful, it’s fantasy. If I wanted to cynically make lots of money then I wouldn’t be writing an education blog. But there is an answer for that, of course; I don’t know what I’m doing; I’m a useful idiot.

Despite being disrespectful of the honestly held opinions of teachers like me, this argument makes no sense at all. If I could identify any common features of neoliberal education reform they would include; free/charter schools, standardised testing, a utilitarian view of education as preparation for work, flirting with performance related pay, a view that we need to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet, and a ‘skills’ view of learning more generally. Traditionalists tend to have mixed or ambivalent views about the first two items while explicitly rejecting the rest. It just doesn’t stand up.

Better criticism

If you are involved in education and are not interested in what we teach and how we teach it, then you’re probably in the wrong business. Go and profess your boredom somewhere else. If you really have no interest in the debate then you don’t have to engage. There are plenty of debates that take place on Twitter that I don’t engage in; some because I lack interest and some because I don’t know enough about the issues.

If you are keen on conspiracy theories then you probably should get out more. Put down the tinfoil hat and open the curtains. And before you heap praise on a conspiracist, think about whether the long chains of cause-and-effect that have been invoked are plausible and think about who has been named and who might be hurt by encouraging this kind of hatred.

Nevertheless, it is still reasonable and constructive to challenge ideas about teaching and learning. In fact, it is essential if we are going to move forward. Traditionalists are gaining influence but are unlikely to be right about everything. If they are the only reasonable voice in the room, these errors will not be uncovered and we will be condemned to making avoidable mistakes.

My submission to the Chartered College’s Impact magazine

England’s new Chartered College of Teaching has had a shaky start. Among the missteps, it has been hard to determine exactly what the college is for. However, one clear development that I have been assured is valuable and of high quality, is the college’s Impact magazine. It’s only available to members, which is why I haven’t read it and can only pass on what I have heard.

The summer 2018 edition of Impact is to be guest edited by Jonathan Sharples of the Education Endowment Foundation. I have decided to make a, ‘perspectives on research in curriculum theory and practice,’ submission on the topic of, ‘metacognition, self-regulation’. Here is the title and abstract that I have submitted:

The meta-cognition and self-regulation chimera

One important strand of the Education Endowment Foundation’s (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit is known as ‘meta-cognition and self-regulation’. The Toolkit claims that for very low cost, the implementation of a meta-cognition and self-regulation strategy will deliver 8 months of additional progress for students. How should teachers interpret these claims and what do they imply for the classroom? On examination, the category of meta-cognition and self-regulation seems to have been stitched together from a range of different beasts, much like the mythical chimera. Whereas some of the interventions that have been allocated to this category have a proven record of success, such as explicit writing instruction, others are more speculative, have mysterious mechanisms of action and the EEF’s own research provides little support for their adoption. Of the randomised controlled trials conducted by the EEF, only two out of seven (or perhaps eight) trials present a clearly statistically significant result in favour of the tested intervention. Practitioners should therefore be wary of any simplistic claims made for this category of intervention and, if interested, should explore the underlying research before committing to one of these approaches.

If you want to get a flavour of the article that I will write, if accepted, then take a look at this recent post.

Wish me luck.

The case of the missing teacher

I was interested to see that the Institute of Education in London (IoE), the teacher training college where I completed my own teaching qualification, has started to organise a series of debates on key education issues. The number of such debates seems to have increased in recent years. I have attended panel discussions hosted by researchED events in Australia and I have watched a number of researchED and Michaela debates via YouTube. Although largely centred on the UK at present, such discussions can only be a healthy development.

The IoE debate focused on the possibility of evidence-informed practice. Let me be clear, all of the contributors had something valuable to say on this topic. Even though I disagree with Gert Biesta’s position on the question, his views are valid and worth considering. And I was amused by the contribution of Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), with his swipe at people with large numbers of Twitter followers – who could he possible mean? – and his attempt to insist that the EEF has no agenda (when it clearly has).

However, the whole discussion was encapsulated by a moment when Ann Mroz, a journalist, discussed the way that Christian Bokhove, a researcher, reads academic papers. Mroz wondered whether busy teachers would have the time to do this and what this might look like.

At this point, it would have been good to swing to a busy teacher, or even one of the school research leads who had been the subject of speculation by members of the panel. But there were no teachers on the panel.

Think about that for a minute. It’s extraordinary. Can you imagine a panel discussion about how doctors or lawyers or journalists use evidence that did not include a doctor, lawyer or journalist? It’s not good enough. It is a comment on the status of our profession and, frankly, we should start expressing our unhappiness at this sort of thing. Panelists should ask, when invited to talk about the work of teachers, whether there will be a teacher present on the panel, and organisations should catch themselves before they run teacher-free discussions about the work of teachers.

The Australian state of Victoria’s opposition proposes a reform to the school curriculum

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The Australian is reporting that the Victorian opposition Liberal Party have proposed a reform to the school curriculum. I am uncomfortable about the framing of this reform and I believe it carries potential risks as well as some opportunities.

The politics

I am concerned that the way the report in The Australian is written represents more of an appeal to the base of the Liberal Party* than a reasoned position that could start a conversation across the political divide. The term, ‘back-to-basics,’ is not only politically loaded, it is misleading. There is nothing ‘basic’ about a curriculum that utilises the best research on teaching reading, writing and mathematics, so what is this intended to signal? I also don’t believe that it is the job of schools to, ‘teach students to be proud,’ of anything. As I made clear in a recent post, students should be presented with concepts and allowed to make their own decisions about what to believe and what to internalise.

The risks

Talk of an attempt to ‘de-clutter’ the curriculum is a particular concern. I wish to see a rich curriculum full of powerful knowledge. When the Australian curriculum was last reviewed, the same language was deployed as justification to degrade the humanities content while leaving the airy and pointless general capabilities untouched. These capabilities include things like ‘critical thinking’ which cannot be taught in a vacuum. Either critical thinking is already being taught as a key component of every subject, and so adding it as a general capability is redundant, or the intention is to mistakenly try to teach critical thinking in some general sense.

The opportunities

Nevertheless, it is a good time to start asking questions about the curriculum. Australia in general, and Victoria in particular, would be better served by a clear curriculum document that was specific about the knowledge that children are expected to learn. At present, the Australian curriculum is exceptionally vague, with exhortations that children should pose questions and conduct investigations. Nailing down the substance would be good. Dr Jennifer Buckingham, a past researchED speaker, will be asked to conduct the curriculum review if the Liberals win the November election. Buckingham has campaigned for better reading instruction and has the capacity to see past the political slogans.

Hopefully, this renewed policy focus will prompt a response from the Labor government, placing the quality of curriculum back on the political agenda and offering us a clear choice at the election.

*For those outside Australia, The Liberal Party spans the centre-right to right section of the political spectrum, similar to The Conservative Party in the UK and the Republicans in the US. It often forms a coalition with The National Party, a group that focuses in country issues.