Join me in Amsterdam

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I will be presenting at the Make Shift Happen conference in Amsterdam on the 28th November this year. Other speakers include Daisy Christodoulou, Katherine Birbalsingh and E. D. Hirsch Jr. Which is pretty cool.

I might see you there.

The event is being run by Academica Business College and there is a link here to their website.


All the small things

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I have a job for you.

Recent years have seen the advent of organisations like the U.K.’s Education Endowment Foundation (EEF). Spurred by a mission to make education more evidence-based, they have gone about conducting large-scale randomised controlled trials (RCTs). This has been largely positive, although the most striking results have often been when trials have failed, and there is a reason for this. If we take a number of schools and randomise them into two groups, the first group receiving a packaged intervention and associated training and the second group sitting on a waiting list, what can we conclude if we see an improvement for the first group? Not a lot. The effect could have been anything from that of a placebo, to an effect of simply completing lots of subject-specific training, to an effect of any or all elements of the package that make-up the intervention.

For instance, in these conditions, Reading Recovery often shows-up as being effective, but Reading Recovery involves one-to-one tuition and this is Benjamin Bloom’s archetype of the perfect teaching method. If the conditions it is being compared with do not involve one-to-one tuition than any effect could be as a result of the form of teaching rather than the content. Moreover, there is some evidence that alternatives to Reading Recovery do even better in such trials.

Unfortunately, we rarely see Reading Recovery compared in a single trial to one of the most viable alternatives. This is why I have called for the use of ABC designs where two competing interventions are compared with a control group. We can then see which one has the largest effect. So far, this call has gone unheeded.

And this might be due to the expense. Large trials are expensive. Adding in an additional trial condition while preserving the statistical power of the study would involve recruiting more schools, training more teachers and so on.

So why don’t we look at this the other way around?

The two main problems with these large RCTs is the scale and the fact that they tend to vary more than one thing at a time i.e. a whole package of things versus none of those things. Randomising students rather than schools can alleviate the first problem while retaining statistical power. The second problem can be mitigated by being less ambitious in what we seek to investigate. Let’s focus on really small changes that we can make one at a time.

This is what I am doing with my PhD research. I am manipulating the order that instructional events happen. The only thing that changes between the two groups is the order of events. It’s not even clear to the students, or me for that matter, which group is the control and which is the intervention.

Cognitive scientists have been doing work like this for decades, usually with undergraduate psychology students. It’s this kind of research that has led to our understanding of the value of retrieval practice and the merits of interleaving and spaced practice. One criticism that has be leveled against such research is that we now know an awful lot about undergraduate psychology students but can we really extrapolate all of that to school children?

That’s where you come in. Think of something small, really small. Think of how you could vary that one thing and nothing else, then contact a decent university about pursuing an experimental Masters or PhD programme involving school-age children. These small things may seem inconsequential, but they can help build our understanding of learning from the ground up. And that’s really big.

Kindness in the classroom

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Whenever I take a class for the first time, I give them a talk. One of the points I make goes something like this:

Asking questions is important. It allows me to figure out what you know and what you don’t know, and it reveals misconceptions that I need to address. So asking questions makes my teaching better. However, to make use of this, I need to target these questions. So I usually won’t ask you to raise your hands because I’ll select who answers. And it also means that everyone must feel comfortable and relaxed when they answer. So I will never make fun of an answer and I will not tolerate any one mocking someone else’s answer.

There is certainly a place for humour in my classroom, but never at the expense of a student. The reasons are partly pragmatic: If students fear the reception their answers may receive, they will shut down and I won’t get the information I need to do my job properly. But it is also a moral position. Mocking the responses of students is unkind. There is enough unkindness in the world without it taking residence in my classroom.

Children are not naturally kind to each other all of the time. They can be quite cruel. They can make fun of each others’ appearance or mock each other over quite trivial things like not having the right brand of school bag. They have to learn socially acceptable adult behaviours and these seem to come with age and experience. One of the experiences that may lead to a more mature approach is the modelling provided by productive classroom interactions. I suspect there is often more unkindness when students work on group assignments than when the teacher is leading the class, and this is one of the reasons why I don’t buy into the notion of Utopian student-centred classrooms.

I am able to create a kind classroom environment because I ‘will not tolerate’ the alternative. And that requires me to have authority. It means that students need to be concerned about the potential consequences of challenging me on this principle. This is not arbitrary authoritarianism. It is the assertion of a benevolent authority in the pursuit of a clear, morally defensible objective.

It is therefore a slur to suggest that teachers who lead their classrooms and use whole-class, explicit teaching are in some way harsh and uncaring. Just like those unkind words in class, I am not going to tolerate it any more and I invite you to do the same.

This post was inspired by reading this article and then responding to this tweet.

Why does it matter what teenagers choose to read?

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Researchers are expressing concerns about the quality of material teenagers choose to read. Many young people would sooner pick-up a quintessential inanity by David Walliams than a book that is complex, challenging and educative.

Are you shocked? Are you stunned? Are you gathering your bottom jaw off the floor as your brain struggles to compute this unfathomable finding?

No, I suspect that you are not. Because adults do this all the time. Many of us would rather watch The Bachelor Meets Masterchef In A Funny House What Someone Has Battled to Build than a documentary on anything worthy and improving, or even in preference to a serious drama: “Honey, the new BBC adaptation of The Tempest is on in five minutes… but we can always watch that on catch-up. Sometime.”

So why the concern? Why does it matter what teenagers choose to read? The problem arises because we have a broken understanding of how education works.

It should not matter that teenagers choose dumb books because, through school, they should be required to read good ones. As part of the English curriculum, they should be made to study texts that they would not have discovered for themselves. Unfortunately, we are currently in the grip of a educational philosophy that privileges the idea of students making their own choices. Where we don’t give complete free-reign to kids, we dumb-down content and dress it in teenage clothing in the hope that we make it more appealing. “Please like this!” we plead. When students are not reading Walliams, they are undertaking a supposedly serious analysis of a young adult novel or they are making up raps about Shakespeare. I mean, they’re all texts, right?

It is as if teenagers’ uninformed opinions on the merits of Dickens or Austen somehow matter.

This is partly due to a simplistic theory of motivation. You don’t need to conduct a large-scale study to figure out that reading ability, reading enjoyment and the selection of more complex texts are all correlated. This leads some people to assume that if we motivate students to read more – maybe by having reading campaigns involving sports stars and the like, or perhaps by asking teachers to cast aside their dignity and wear fancy dress for world book day – they will select better books and become better readers as a result.

I have argued before that this seems unlikely. The various factors probably influence each other in a number of directions but it is likely that reading ability is something of a prerequisite for motivation. If we teach children to read then they will gain a sense of accomplishment and will be more motivated about reading in the future. This doesn’t stop at decoding. If we make teenagers read more difficult books and help them through this process by teaching key vocabulary, explaining important concepts and by asking them to write about what they have read, then they are likely to feel a sense of accomplishment too. And this may increase motivation to tackle more complex texts in future.

But what if they refuse? “My son says he will not read 1984; it’s boring.” There are a number of points to make here. Firstly, why does the child get a veto? Does this child also refuse to clean his room? What do you do about that? Secondly – and this may sound shocking – schools exist, in part, to coerce children into doing things that they are not particularly keen to do. And they have lots of mechanisms for doing this. I guess there is a point where we give up, but I would want to work pretty hard at exhausting the other options first.

As the adults, it is our job to make certain choices on behalf of children when we know these choices serve their best interests. That is what parents do, and it is the role that teachers assume when parents leave children in their care. Trivialising the curriculum is an abrogation of that responsibility. There is no problem with kids reading inconsequential books provided we make sure that they also read some proper ones.

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.

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.