Loose ends from #MSH2018


Yesterday, I spoke at Making Shift Happen in Amsterdam. It was a wonderful event. I’m not aware of anything like Academica Business College, the group that pulled it all together, in Australia or the U.K. and it was clear that all the speakers were impressed with just how professional and energetic an organisation they are.

A couple of issues arose on social media that I would like to clarify.

While E D Hirsch Jr was speaking, I tweeted a summary of one of his points that has proved provocative:

It’s worth expanding on.

Imagine you started reading to a group of students about a fictional character and you said, “Mr Jones was a wealthy merchant. His property covered the space of two football fields in the centre of town.”

In order to fully appreciate that statement, students need to create a ‘situation model’. They need to be able to picture what two football fields looks like. They need to know that a merchant is an occupation. They need to realise that the second sentence is connected to the first, that property in the centre of town is often expensive and so the fact that Mr Jones has a large property demonstrates his wealth. None of these are obvious things that students will just know.

If all the students possess this knowledge, they would form what Hirsch termed a ‘speech community’ of shared understandings. If we do nothing with students except allow them to grow and flourish at their own pace, we do nothing to intervene in the development of speech communities. What is more, students from privileged backgrounds will be receiving a lot of this knowledge from home whereas their less advantaged peers will not and so the gap will grow ever wider. This will then exacerbate the differential effects of later teaching because the more advantaged children will be able to build situation models and learn more from texts than those who cannot build them.

Hirsch suggested dealing with this both in the moment, e.g. by providing relevant knowledge before reading a passage with students, and by ensuring that earlier stages of education expose children to rich webs of ideas in a planned way. To my mind, this is not necessarily a plea for formal learning in kindergarten because much of this would be achieved through discussion and the selection of stories and materials.

The second point is about my own talk. While I was speaking, one member of the audience tweeted some of his thoughts and a lot of people responded. This is unfortunate because in some instances he tweeted the direct opposite of what I actually said:

The main point I made about differentiation, and one I have made before, is that it is poorly defined. Differentiation can mean a wide variety of practices, some of which are wholly contradictory, as I illustrated with a slide about whether we accommodate or address a specific need.

Student choice is a central part of some approaches to differentiation such as Universal Design for Learning, but not a part of others. Complaining that I had not defined differentiation adequately therefore misses the sense of what I was suggesting by a very long way and yet this comment was seized upon by others who were not present:

It could be my fault for not communicating well enough and this may have been a factor given that there was a language barrier to overcome. However, a number of people came to ask me questions after the talk and none of them seemed to be confused by this point. I therefore cannot help wondering if there was some kind of pre-existing Netherlands agenda playing out.

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11 thoughts on “Loose ends from #MSH2018

  1. I was at MHS2018 yesterday, and, as likely the only native English (and non-Dutch) speaker attendee, I thought you were very clear in your definitions and arguments. However, as a follower of your blog, I am familiar with your perspective and positions. Others, for whom your ideas are new may have had a harder time, regardless of language. I also thought your talk was the most direct and on-point of all of them, which may be contributing to a knee-jerk reaction.

    Given the number and magnitude of all the speakers (including yourself), digesting everything that was said will take me considerable time. Nevertheless, I want to thank you for coming half way around the globe to speak. Even if your message has gotten garbled in translation or hijacked by local politics, at least people are talking. I find in the United States (my home country), the Establishment tries to squash any kind of debate, discussion, or opposing view as soon as it appears. Which is both sad, and an incredibly difficult environment to work in. Being able to hear you, and the others speak in person, is incredibly motivating!

  2. Hi Greg, first of all thanks for the talk.

    Since my tweet features in this post and you tagged me in on twitter about it, I guess it might be appropriate for me to reply.

    About your point being clear: I’m quite fluent in English so that was no problem for me. I did have a problem following parts of your presentation because of redundancy principle – sometimes lots of written text with talking over it. Participants at my table indicated the same – but that was one table. Then again, as a teacher you know that learners don’t tend to volunteer their miscomprehesion, so people who came to you will be a self-selection. But you have the MC hinge questions used during the session to perhaps flesh some of that out if you would want to.

    But maybe my tweet was not clear either, or I misconstrued.

    If you don’t see student choice as central to differentation, we simply agree on that point.

    About possible sources of this unclarity for me: for me the notion of differentiation and the notion of inquiry/student led approaches began to blur in your presentation, confounding things for me. I sincerely did not get a clear impression of your definition of differentation during the talk. Other than ‘there is none’. If your main point was ‘there is none’, then I probably expected more and missed that. Searching for it, what struck me was that you argued that it is often seen as giving learners choice. A misconception many of my student teachers often have also, so I get that it is often seen that way. So the term ‘core’ element in my tweet was then my mistake on your argument. However, in the talk you seemed to be associating it mostly with inquiry learning, progressivism etc. Following your main argument (as I got it, and know you to make – which I partly share) about explicit/teacher-led versus inquiry/student-led approaches, and how there is more evidence for the former versus the latter. So that, and the redundancy, might be a post-hoc explanation why I got this impression.

    With respect to the point of lumping it in with inquiry, student-led, progressive etc. I don’t think differentiation is limited to either/or – I think well summed up by the tweeted response by @Debdus – https://twitter.com/Debdus/status/1068034577065742336. You seem to agree on that then also, retweeting it.

    I’m tempted to provide a rebuttal of your attribution error of a pre-existing agenda (and to the ‘knee-jerk’ term of the first poster which I think also attributes erroneously) but I don’t think it is my job (or usefull) to do that, other than point out that I consider that an attribution error.

    I’ll be reading your book (autographed and well!) with interest.

    1. I don’t really recall discussing inquiry learning in the talk, although I may have done as a contrast to explicit teaching.

      My presentation was obviously was obviously not clear to you and I can understand how reading slides in Dutch and then listening to me talk in English could be difficult. This is why I tried to give people time to read the slides before I spoke. Yours is really the only feedback that suggests that you could not understand my presentation and the fact that the audience mainly got the multiple choice questions correct suggests that at least a majority of them understood some of the key points. That’s why I wondered if there was a wider agenda at play, particularly since the arguments you attributed to me were the opposite of what I said.

      You still seem to want me to define differentiation. I actually provided a definition by Carol Ann Tomlinson, but I then went on to say that differentiation is poorly defined because it can mean so many different things, some of which are opposites, such as whether to accommodate or address a need. This is one of the reasons why finding evidence for differentiation is hard. Given that I have now clarified that this is my perspective, it seems eccentric to keep asking me to define differentiation.

      1. Hi Greg,

        Thanks for clarifying. I think it’s overstating to say I didn’t understand your presentation – apart from my confusion about differentiation and choice. I think I understood most, and think others at my table too. At certain points some at my table indicated slides went by too fast to follow elements, and, again, my misunderstanding was whether you saw choice as central to differentiation. I think I’ve cleared that up now.

        I don’t recall attributing arguments to you, and I can’t tell how you read that in my tweet. Maybe other people’s tweets. So you’ll have indicate where I did that for me to clarify. I simply stated ‘I don’t think greg gave a clear definition’ and I think I have clarified possible sources for that thinking (and tweeting that thought) at the time.

        For the rest, I’m not still asking for a definition, so there also, I don’t know how you think I am. I think you’ve clarified your point.

        With respect to that point (differentiation being unclear), I do agree that differentiation is (or can be & is often used as) a container concept, which makes it unclear often (although I think this is an easy argument to make about many concepts in edu reaearch – partly because of researchers coining their own terms & models, and in some ways that’s also good I think, but really frustrating for connections to practice). Tomlinson’s definition is very broad. We have a colleague doing a PhD on differentiated instruction with teachers and she clearly runs into the problem of conceptualising it well – as well as the concept of ‘learning needs’.

        There has been (in my view) some good work on differentiated instruction, mainly emphasizing the need for convergent differentiation, so it remains ‘fair’ and does not exacerbate inequalities due to background etc. A colleague of ours who gave his inuagural adress recently is embarking upon a research program concering this issue. https://www.universiteitleiden.nl/nieuws/2017/06/oratie-denessen-gedifferentieerd-onderwijs-vergroot-juist-ongelijke-kansen

        In that sense, I did miss the conceptual distinction between convergent and divergent differentiation which I gather as quite essential in discussions about differentiated instruction, and especially if trying to make the argument that it tends to be unfair/lead to unfair outcomes. https://www.onderwijsmaakjesamen.nl/actueel/omgaan-met-verschillen-nader-bekeken-wat-werkt/?output=pdf (sorry for the Dutch, I don’t have an English version). Which was also part of your argument? I seem to recall it was. Also, I think there the distinction between internal/external differentiation (in-class vs tracking – I don’t know how this relates to ‘setting’ and ‘sets’ that I see used in British education) is important. So even if there are broad definitions, I do think there are conceptual distinctions that help to decompose it more in useful ways.

        But again, not asking for a further definition. So I’ll also leave the label ‘eccentric’ to your perception. Which is of course completely your prerogative to have of me or of my response.

      2. When you say, “I sincerely did not get a clear impression of your definition of differentation during the talk”, I interpret that as a call for me to give a clear definition and therefore as a misunderstanding of my point, particularly given that you made similar statements in a number of tweets. But perhaps I, in turn, misunderstand what you are trying to say.

        From my perspective, there were a number of tweets about my talk that were quite hostile from Jelmer and Amber. They seemed to be drawing on what you wrote and I understand that you are a colleague of Amber. I am sure you can imagine what impression that gives.

        However, I am willing to accept that this may just be my perception and that there was no agenda being played out. Hopefully, we now all understand each other and can move on.

  3. If Greg’s point was that differentiation has a wide range of interpretations (his main point “that there is none”) then discussing these differences is only really important if that was the main focus of the presentation or if a misrepresentation seriously undercut a later argument. I agree that Greg’s last comment (conspiracy theory) was unnecessary but your reply seems (while detailed) to have somewhat missed the point. It would have been better to ask a clarifying question (do you believe all inquiry based learning involves student choice?) before tweeting.

    Your reply did remind me of the following https://thingofthings.wordpress.com/2016/08/09/against-steelmanning/
    were it discusses providing a superior version of your opponents point which is simply your opponents actual point.

    1. Hi Michael,
      If the point is ‘there is no evidence for it because it is unclearly defined’ – which I think was an argument in Greg’s talk, then I do have some troubles with that argument because I think there are conceptual distinctions that help to disentangle it more. See my reply to Greg’s reply above.

      My question was not about inquiry teaching, but about his notion of differentiation. Sure I could have asked a question (though the format at MSH2018 did not really allow that during the presentation, and doing so on twitter would have been quite useless during the talk. Someone simply asked me on twitter whether a definition was given and I simply tweeted that I didn’t think so. I don’t think that’s something to make a big point of, misconstruals happen and – again – I think I’ve clarified possible sources for it. I also think I’m allowed to tweet my personal confusions about a presentation. As Greg is to question me on that and clarify. I don’t see anything inappropriate in that or something that should have been better done otherwise. Greg can read into it what he wants and I can clarify what I intended. As I think we are doing or trying to do here.

      As to what my response reminds you of, well we could of course go very meta-(meta)-communication about what you think I might at some other level actually be communicating to greg (and what you in turn might actually be communicating to me by saying that it reminds you of that), but I don’t see much merit in that.

      1. He did define differentiation. He said it was poorly defined. You can argue against that if you want (by providing a definition) or you can tangentially misrepresent which is what you did. You keep redirecting rather than clarifying and while twitting your opinions was hardly a crime it was bad sportsmanship as was Greg’s conspiracy theory comment. Just because you can use a line of argument didn’t mean that it is appropriate or more important useful.

        Incidentally if you really think Greg’s main point was the definition of differentiation then debating that is important. That argument would look different to the one you made

  4. “I’m not aware of anything like Academica Business College, the group that pulled it all together, in Australia or the U.K”

    I was not aware of this group at all, and I teach in Amsterdam.

  5. Dutch agenda playing out? Good question. Why is that people frame their opponents as Hirsch knowledge crowds or Dutch version of the Govean hyaena pack that is after the progressives? Beats me but they do.

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