This one weird trick improves the use of assessment data

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Picture this scenario: It is near the start of the school year and a group of Year 10 maths teachers gives their cohort a quiz to complete. After the data is in, it becomes clear that a large number of students cannot solve linear equations.

A discussion ensues. It turns out that nobody has actually taught linear equations to the Year 10s. Considerable time is then spent generating hypotheses and subtly blaming last year’s Year 9 teachers.

This is all a waste of time.

If you want to generate useful inferences from assessment data then it needs to be on something the students have actually been taught. That way, you can attempt to evaluate the effect of that teaching, the one factor we ultimately control.

The only useful conclusion that can be drawn from data on something that we haven’t taught the students is ‘we need to (re)teach that’ or ‘we don’t need to (re)teach that’. Which is a very brief discussion.

This does not mean that we should avoid asking questions based on previous content. There’s a lot of solid research to support the idea of repeatedly returning to material and quizzing it. What we shouldn’t do is overanalyse this data because kids forget stuff and that’s quite normal.

Focusing on the content you have taught seems like a simple idea in the context of maths, but one that becomes murkier when we consider something like writing.

As I’ve argued before, we often teach writing backwards by asking students to do it and only afterwards telling them what we wanted them to do. There is no point spending hours pondering why students use connectives incorrectly if the answer is that you haven’t taught them how to use connectives correctly, or that you haven’t taught them this within the last six months.

If we want to learn lessons about how to improve our teaching – and I’m sure we all do – then the trick is to analyse students’ capacity to do the things we’ve taught them and not other stuff.

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Why are Finnish principals struggling?

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Finland is the subject of much myth-making. It’s performance in the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) in the early 2000s made Finland the preeminent destination for education tourists. Unlike the East Asian countries that also perform well in PISA, Finland gives the impression of having achieved its success with a more progressive approach. These arguments were revisited recently when Pasi Sahlberg, a former director of the Finnish education system, was appointed to a post at the University of New South Wales.

However, all is not quite as it seems. The 15-year-olds who sat PISA tests in 2006 began their schooling in the 1990s and Finland’s approach has gradually changed over time. It is an error to look at what Finland is doing now and conclude that this is responsible for past gains. That would involve time travel. Moreover, when education tourists visit Finland, they have often been surprised to find teaching that is relatively didactic and traditional. Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment in the U.K. has written about these issues.

In recent years, Finland’s performance in PISA has significantly declined, a fact that is often overlooked by its cheerleaders in academia and the press. This may be due to Finland’s adoption of new approaches to teaching and learning.

Now there are signs that these new approaches are also taking their toll on Finland’s school principals. According to a piece in The Educator Australia, Finnish principals are facing burn-out. One of the reasons, according to Antti Ikonen, the head of the Finnish Association of Principals, is new practices:

“Ikonen said that increasing digitalization, the need to find more ‘active’ ways of learning and recognising individual student needs are tasks that demand more from the country’s school leaders.”

This is not a surprise. The adoption of methods based upon the educational philosophy of progressivism are always likely to increase workloads.


I see no behaviour crisis

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In a recent paper, Linda Graham, an academic at the Queensland University of Technology, speculated on what motivates commentators to declare a behaviour ‘crisis’ in Australian schools. Apparently, talk of a crisis is part of an attempt by ‘neo-traditional’ teachers to gain control of the agenda. This should be resisted because:

“Despite claims of a crisis in student behaviour – particularly in disadvantaged communities – my research team saw little evidence of student-driven disruption. Much more common were lower-level issues… where teachers themselves derailed the teaching and learning process; often by micro-managing their students or by being unprepared.”

Perhaps Graham has been looking in the wrong places because there is plenty of evidence of student-driven disruption in Australian schools. I have already written about data collected by PISA and TIMSS on disruption and bullying and how this compares poorly with international norms. This data has been dismissed in some quarters as relying on self-reports, i.e. students reporting their own experiences in surveys. I’m not sure why we should discount such evidence.

We can now add the powerful voice of principals to the powerful voice of students. A new report by researchers at the Australian Catholic University finds that principals in government schools are operating under extremely challenging conditions. A significant factor is the level of violence and threats of violence that they face. Over a third of principals report being the victims of violence, primarily at the hands of students. When analysed by sector, more than 40% of principals in government schools experienced physical violence in their workplace and roughly 53% experienced threats of violence from parents and students. These strike me as extraordinary figures.

Principals in other sectors, such as independent schools, fare better. And this signals the growing stratification of our education system; a stratification that is exacerbated by calls to make schools more inclusive. I will explain.

A class of thirty

When it comes to classroom disruption, it is essential to gain the perspectives of active classroom teachers. This is because teachers understand the problem of teaching classrooms full of thirty students at a time in a way that academics and other education professionals often do not. When you work one-on-one with a student, you can adapt to their specific needs, in real time. You can try a variety of ways of engaging them and you can spend time listening to them. Dealing with a challenging student in a one-on-one situation is poles apart from dealing with that same student in a classroom of thirty.

In a classroom of thirty students, you simply cannot spend large amounts of time with an individual. If you want to talk to a student privately, you may ask them to stay behind at the end of the lesson, but even that is fraught because it is often going to be seen as a punishment, whether intended or not.

Most of the children in a large classroom will have developed the biologically primary skills of negotiating relationships and following routines and norms without significant amounts of explicit instruction. They will have picked up these skills through the normal processes of socialisation. However, a minority will not possess these skills, either because of a cognitive impairment, because of the environment they have been exposed to, or perhaps both. This is not to blame these students, but to recognise, as everyone in education does, that different students have different needs.

A regular classroom teacher is therefore presented with a large class, with some students who are ready and able to learn maths or history or whatever academic objectives the teacher has planned, and some who should be working on social and behavioural objectives, either primarily, or in parallel to learning academic content. The trite response – that a teacher should ‘differentiate’ in order to paper over these chasms – is not sufficient because there is very little evidence that this kind of differentiation works.

An alternative may be to separate out students who need to work on social and behavioural objectives, for some of the available class time. There are costs and resources associated with doing this. And yet even if a school can overcome these obstacles, it risks being accused of not being inclusive because it is not including all of its students in all of its lessons. This is because, for some, ‘inclusion’ is a dogmatic position based on perceived rights, rather than a pragmatic stance.

Finally, by making behaviour expectations explicit, developing routines and seating plans, and by reinforcing these through positive and negative contingencies – by essentially removing a lot of student choice over behaviour – it may be possible to help many students to overcome challenging behaviour, remain in class with their peers and focus on academic content.

Are inclusive schools actually inclusive?

One of the reasons that Graham objects to talk of a behaviour ‘crisis’ is that she sees it as part of the argument for adopting ‘no excuses’ approaches to behaviour management. I don’t like the term ‘no excuses’. The original meaning of the phrase was to describe schools serving students in deprived communities: schools that would not accept those circumstances as an ‘excuse’ for academic failure. More recently, it has become conflated with the notion of ‘zero tolerance’ behaviour management and, roughly speaking, stands for schools with strong and explicit behaviour expectations. The reason I object to the terms is because I don’t think such schools allow literally ‘no’ excuses or have literally ‘zero’ tolerance.

From our current understanding of cognitive science, it does seem clear that students who exhibit challenging behaviours are more likely than their peers to benefit from strong and explicit approaches to behaviour management. These are the students who, due to background, did not learn pro-social behaviours implicitly. Moreover, middle class teachers, who learnt such rules implicitly themselves, are likely to assume that everyone knows these rules and judge a lack of adherence to them as a sign of defiance or perhaps a behavioural disorder. By making the rules absolutely clear, we level the playing field. Of course, in some circumstances, a cognitive impairment may mean a student is incapable of understanding or following agreed norms, but I suspect this applies to far fewer students than the number who currently exhibit challenging behaviours.

We have a lot of evidence that rules and routines, supported by positive reinforcement and less frequent negative consequences, have a positive impact on classroom climate. Depending on exactly how the schools involved manage their approach, it may be that the so-called ‘no excuses’ model provides the greatest chance of success for students who exhibit challenging behaviours. These schools may therefore be more inclusive than their counterparts.

Yet some argue that ‘no excuses’ schools are inherently selective. They may not create explicit barriers to entry, the thinking goes, but their uncompromising position may discourage parents who have challenging children from sending them to a ‘no excuses’ school in the first place.

Such a notion of covert selection is an interesting one which, if accepted, could be widely applied. For instance, those schools that allow poor behaviour to persist are covertly selecting against students whose parents prefer an orderly classroom climate. What are we going to do about that? What should we do about that? This effect probably explains the increasing stratification of our education system.

If I am right, one of the best ways of making schools more representative of society at large would be to support them in developing strong and clear approaches to managing behaviour.

Common sense

It may seem like common sense but it is important to understand the vastness of the forces arrayed against any such development. Education is still largely informed by a progressivist philosophy in which children are viewed as inherently good and therefore all challenging behaviour communicates an unmet need. If only teachers met these needs, the behaviour would stop. This makes the mistake of assuming that such behaviour does not need to be taught.

Educationalists are also inclined to map ideas about power and oppression onto classrooms. In this view, telling students the rules and making them follow these rules is oppressive and is analogous to a country ruled by an authoritarian government. Often, such sentiments will be accompanied by a vignette about how rebellious the (middle-class and with plenty of resources to draw upon) educationalist was at school. Instead, we should let the kids run free. No more bricks in the wall, man.

I am up for this discussion. I think we should take it out to wider society and see who wins the debate. Which better serves the ends of social justice? Is it to teach challenging students how to relate to each other and what the commonly accepted norms of society are so that they can hold down jobs, maintain positive and healthy relationships and stay on the right side of the law? Or is it to allow them to do as they choose; as a matter of principle; as a matter of their human rights?

Our education system would benefit from such a public discussion. We might even open a few eyes.


Who are the experts?

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Over the past few days, a conversation has been progressing in my timeline about the exact definition of an ‘expert’. Sure enough, it quickly evolved into a vehicle for the usual suspects to take potshots at Cognitive Load Theory (CLT). I thought it might, which is why I decided not to get involved. Instead, I am responding with this post.

I don’t much care what the definition of a expert is. When people start arguing about definitions, I tend to switch off. Apparently, Anders Ericsson has suggested some parameters to do with hours of practice. Yet this seems essentially arbitrary. For example, if you know all of your times tables up to 12, are you an ‘expert’ in times tables? In a sense, perhaps you are, but the word doesn’t seem appropriate because it connotes a wider body of knowledge and/or skills developed over a longer time.

We may also make a mistake when we assume people are experts in vicious domains like financial markets. They may talk-the-talk but their predictions could be no better than anyone else’s or the roll of a dice.

What has all this got to do with Cognitive Load Theory? Not much. There is a CLT effect known as the ‘expertise reversal effect’ but ‘expertise’ and ‘expert’ are not synonyms. Expertise is relative and it seems far better to describe someone has having expertise in times tables than it is to talk about them in absolute terms as being a times tables expert. And it is relative expertise that is important in CLT.

For instance, I teach projectile motion as part of a physics course. In order to solve problems involving projectile motion, students need to be able to rearrange equations, but I don’t tend to teach this technique because they generally tend to have this expertise. If anything, I remind them and I point to a few potential pitfalls. Instead, I explicitly teach them key principles, such as the independence of vertical and horizontal motion, and I model solutions by working through examples of problems while explaining my thinking. Later, as student expertise increases, I expect them to solve problems themselves. I don’t simply keep demonstrating solutions. I only do that if students get stuck on a particular problem, or as a reminder.

It is possible that there are teachers out there who continue to explicitly teach something after students have gained sufficient expertise that they would benefit more from practice. However, this is unlikely to stem from a philosophical position and more likely to arise from some kind of misunderstanding. The key axis on which educators differ in this regard is what we might describe as constructivist versus instructivist and it effects how we teach students new content i.e. when they lack any expertise. Constructivists would argue for withholding some guidance whereas instructivists would seek to fully explain concepts from the outset. The evidence from the research related to Cognitive Load Theory suggests that the instructivists have this right.


It’s fine to be on the fence, but it’s not a virtue

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You are a teacher who has realised that there is a great debate going on about education, what it is for, what we should value and what this looks like. It used to seem fuzzy, but you can now clearly see alternative positions. We might characterise one axis along which educators differ as progressive versus traditionalist. Neither label is entirely satisfactory but you have moved beyond debating these definitions or denying differences exist.

Welcome to the discussion.

However, you’re also not sure where you stand. You’ve tried a range of approaches over time and you can see strong arguments coming from both camps.

That’s fine. Nobody expects you to have all the answers. Nobody requires you to take a view. Sitting on the fence is okay.

Unfortunately, some people start to identify with this position; it becomes them. They make a virtue of not taking a side and they sometimes even write blog posts about how virtuous they are for not taking a side.

There’s nothing virtuous about it. It’s a position and that is all. You don’t own history because you sat on the fence. Obviously, I could illustrate this point with some pretty extreme examples but let’s just look at Ignaz Semmelweis and his battle with the medical profession. Those who saw the value in both sides of the argument were basically wrong. They did nothing to advance human knowledge, comfort and health. I don’t condemn them for it. How were they to know? But it was not a virtue.

So don’t condemn those who take a position. We’re all doing our best. Nobody is a better or a worse person for it.


Labor’s proposed ‘Evidence Institute for Schools’ is good news for Australian education

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It’s easy to be a cynic.

For instance, it’s pretty easy to look at the Australian Labor Party’s new proposal for an education research institute and dismiss it. We could, for instance, question what a new bureaucracy will achieve. We might wonder whether the aspiration to ‘take politics out of the classroom’ and stop schools being an ‘ideological battleground’ are naive. We may also look at similar institutions across the world, such as the Education Endowment Foundation in the U.K. and it’s agenda to promote ‘metacognition and self-regulation‘, and wonder what agendas might capture this new institute.

Yet dwelling on these issues misses a major point.

The postmodernists – who don’t call themselves postmodernists – see Labor as their natural ally. They reject the kind of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that Labor’s deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek, was promoting on TV this morning. In fact, they reject all efforts to make education research more scientific and more like the kind of medical research that Plibersek also pointed towards as an example for education to follow. Postmodernists believe that scientific approaches to answering questions in the social sphere are invalid. They call this ‘positivism’ or ‘scientism’ and instead prefer subjective approaches that are riddled with ideology and bias, where contested positions that could be tested by experimental research, such as the superiority of inquiry-based learning, are assumed from the outset.

So a kind of cultural battle has been won. Labor could have jumped into the sea with the postmodernists but it has not. This is not a huge surprise, given that Labor gave us the ‘neoliberal’ bogeyman of NAPLAN testing. Nevertheless, for some time now, the only education agenda they would speak about was funding. So it comes as something of a relief that Labor would make research evidence a priority.

Of course, all the concerns about capture remain. As soon as any such institute is formed, there will be a battle to control it and the kinds of research it pursues and highlights. It will not avoid ideological wars. But that is for another day. Today, we should be pleased that both major Australian political parties have signaled pro-evidence stances. That’s a good thing.


People are saying daft things about times tables

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Nick Gibb, the U.K. schools’ minister, has announced that a times tables check will be trialed in 290 primary schools before being rolled out across the whole of England.

There is a logic to assessing the automatic recall of multiplication tables. We know, for instance, that working memory is limited. If students can automatically recall number facts such as times tables then they won’t have to devote working memory resources to figuring these out and will therefore be able to attend to other aspects of a mathematics problem. This will be particularly useful for the most disadvantaged students.

Nevertheless, there are some good reasons to be skeptical of the need for such a check. One of these is that teachers may already be teaching and assessing times tables and so an additional check is bureaucratic and unnecessary. Another justifiable concern is that it might end up distorting the curriculum, with schools pursuing times tables at the expense of other areas.

However, these are not the concerns we read about on Twitter. Some people claim that a five minute times table check of this kind would induce stress in students. Although I don’t agree that a professionally managed check would do this, this argument at least has a grain of plausibility. In contrast, Michael Rosen, author of We’re Going On A Bear Hunt, weighed in with the insight that times tables are unnecessary because he can work out percentages on a calculator:

It’s a good question as to why maths gets this treatment; why people view it as entirely functional. It’s like claiming that children don’t need to be able to draw because they can take pictures with their phones.

As well as children’s authors, we had politicians jump in and say silly things too:

The ‘logic of maths’ is much easier to focus on if you know your tables. And this is from someone whose party champions social justice.

Journalists fared little better. Rather than focusing on the logic of instituting such as test, some of them tried to set-up a ‘gotcha’ moment by asking Gibb to answer times tables questions on TV. To his credit, Gibb wouldn’t play along, despite the fury this provoked.

Sometimes, the quality of debate doesn’t do justice to the importance of education.