An open letter to Ronald Sackville

Ronald Sackville AO QC is Chair of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. I have submitted the following as an attachment via the Royal Commission website here.

Dear Ronald Sackville

I am a teacher at an independent school in Victoria and, before that, at government high schools in the UK. As far as teachers go, I am pretty well-informed on matters of education policy and research and yet I have struggled to keep up with the volume of information generated by your commission’s hearings and, in particular, those that took place last week (12-16 October). Be aware there is an asymmetry between the resources that academics and campaign groups can devote to responding to your commission and those of most teachers.

I want to discuss three issues: the evidence on classroom teaching and classroom management, what this means for students with a disability and the role of suspensions and exclusions, before concluding with some comments on the role of the law. Mine is just a single teacher’s idiosyncratic perspective but it may act as a counterpoint to the relative uniformity of view expressed so far.

Teaching is a messy business that is hard to research. In the most controlled education research environments, we are still dealing with human beings and are up against all the factors that have led to the replication crisis in psychological research (see e.g. Shrout & Rogers, 2018). In the far less controlled context of real classrooms, further factors compound the difficulty of drawing sound inferences. If anyone tells you with great confidence that the research clearly demonstrates some point or other then I suggest you look askance and ask clarifying questions.

However, if there is one thing that we do know – one signal that may just be discerned above the noise – it is the power of whole-class explicit teaching. We can triangulate evidence from a range of sources. Firstly, there is the largely defunct tradition of process-product research which had a heyday in the 1960s. In this tradition, researchers created various logs of teacher behaviours, entered classrooms and then sought correlations between these behaviours and gains in student performance. The results were clear. Teachers who led the whole class, broke new items down into small steps, explained them clearly, asked lots of questions, guided student practice, returned regularly to review items and held high expectations for independent work were associated with greater gains (Rosenshine, 2012). We cannot be sure of a causal relationship, but it’s highly suggestive.

In subsequent years, this finding has been verified by experimental studies that have sought to train teachers in these behaviours and smaller scale studies in the educational psychology tradition that have experimentally verified aspects of explicit teaching such as the use of worked examples or regular testing (Sweller, Ayres & Kalyuga, 2011; Karpicke, 2012).

We may also add the evidence from the largest education experiment of all time – Project Follow Through – which found an explicit teaching approach to elementary education was more effective than the alternatives (Bereiter & Kurland, 1981), and the intense research focus on early reading which again favours systematic explicit teaching of letter-sound relationships (see e.g. Rowe, 2006).

Such findings can be explained by a simplified model of the mind which consists of a highly constrained working memory – through which all new academic knowledge must pass – and an effectively limitless long-term memory. Explicit teaching avoids overloading working memory (Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, 2006) and practice testing – which can be as simple as asking verbal questions in class – makes it easier to recall knowledge held in long-term memory (Karpicke, 2012). Importantly, working memory capacity can vary between individuals (see e.g. Jarrold & Bayliss, 2007) and so explicit teaching acts as a leveler, allowing wider and deeper access to more knowledge to more people.

In contrast, the ‘differentiation’ you have heard so much about has no strong evidence base (Ashman, 2018). The only logically inevitable consequence of giving students different tasks to complete is differential outcomes. Yes, it is possible to explicitly instruct a subgroup of a class, but what will all the other students be doing? If a class of 30 is divided into six groups of five, that means that, at best, each group can get ten minutes of explicit teaching for every hour of class. And that’s before you subtract time for taking the roll and for redirecting all the other groups who have wandered away from what they are meant to be doing.

A better model is perhaps ‘Response to Intervention’ (see e.g. Fletcher & Vaughn, 2009). In this model, all students receive the same ‘Tier 1’ whole-class instruction. On the basis of screening tests, some are then referred to small group interventions – ‘Tier 2’. Finally, ‘Tier 3’ provides individual support. These interventions can be academic or can be related to behaviour. Such a model requires a pretty substantial commitment of resources but it does not conflict with what we know about explicit teaching.

So I propose a test. If an adjustment is consistent with whole-class explicit teaching, it is reasonable. If it requires differentiation or disrupts the process of whole-class explicit teaching then on the basis of the evidence as it stands, it is unreasonable.

For practical reasons, teachers cannot focus solely on individual children. It should not need stating, but you cannot break off from teaching your class of 25+ students to have an individual conversation with a student about the underlying causes of their behaviour. This may be possible after class – if it is followed by recess and the teacher does not have to rush off to yard duty – but our systems cannot be predicated on it. If this seems cruel and inhuman to politicians then they should spend the money required to give us much smaller classes.

Despite what you have been told, teachers really do need to manage classes. This is not a bad thing. Few, if anyone, goes into teaching because they have a predilection for telling children what to do. As Katharine Birbalsingh, a successful principal in London, said recently on my podcast, people go into teaching because they want to walk the corridors discussing Aristotle with students. It’s only when they arrive in the classroom that the need to manage the class becomes apparent.

Although incomplete and under-researched, there is some evidence on how best to do this, evidence I wrote about in my 2018 book for new teachers, The Truth About Teaching. Much of it comes from the unfashionable behaviourist tradition. Briefly, you focus first on antecedents. Have you set-up your classroom to prevent issues arising (eg arguments over resources)? Can you introduce routines that become habits for students, thus reducing the need for the teacher to issue instructions? Behaviour is often more a product of circumstances than it is a result of internal causes. This is why I believe that schools that focus on building a strong school culture, such as Birbalsingh’s Michaela Community School, are so successful in terms of both behaviour and academic outcomes. Then, how do you teach and positively reinforce appropriate behaviour? – one successful strategy, for instance, is to praise a row of students who have done the right thing and have their books out rather than to criticise a row of students who have not. And finally, what negative consequences are in place for the now much reduced number of incidents where students continue to do the wrong thing?

It’s this last point about negative consequences that makes behaviourism unfashionable and even causes proponents to play down consequences or call them something opaque such as ‘response cost’. The romantic tradition is strong in education. In this tradition, children are prelapsarian, as yet uncorrupted by the adult world. Any negative behaviour must therefore be caused by some other factor such as trauma or adults not meeting the child’s needs. It can never be due to the exercise of free choice on the part of the child and so any punishment, even the mild consequences put in place in schools, is unfair.

I live near Lake Wendouree in Ballarat. It is a beautiful place that attracts visitors and so the lake precinct has a 40 km/h speed limit to reflect this. If I am caught driving through the lake precinct at 60 km/h, I will receive a sanction. The people issuing this sanction will make approximately zero effort to uncover the underlying causes of my antisocial behaviour.

Schools are not wider society and children are not adults. This is obvious and is reflected in the far milder sanctions that schools apply when compared with wider society, the efforts schools go to to look for underlying causes and the interventions they put in place. And yet if schools eradicate sanctions completely, we will not prepare students for the world beyond their walls. Instead, they will fall off a cliff edge at the end of school. One day, they will suddenly become responsible for their actions. That is simply not fair or reasonable. It is not an approach based in love.

Clearly, it is not ethical to sanction a child for something completely beyond their control, such as a child with Tourette’s syndrome who shouts out as a result of this syndrome. If schools are doing this then there is an obvious need for training and maybe even action taken against the school. It is perfectly feasible to accommodate such a difference within a whole class environment. However, such an example is relatively rare in schools. In most cases, students have some agency and one of the key objectives of intervention is to improve this agency. In the messy complexity of the everyday world, behaviour is influenced by inherent traits, experience, circumstance and personal agency and it is this world that teachers work in.

So, is this also an argument for suspension and exclusion? Just as an employee may be fired for verbally or physically assaulting a colleague, should students expect to be excluded for similar behaviours? Not quite.

Schools are, in my experience, much more tolerant of such behaviour than wider society, to the point where they field a lot of complaints from the parents of the children who have been verbally or physically assaulted. Schools, in my experience, see suspension and exclusion as a last resort after many attempts at intervention. I cannot rule out that some schools exclude students frivolously. And I have to accept that people claim some schools try to accelerate the process of exclusion for children with certain disabilities. Such actions are clearly wrong, even if they may point to problems in our systems.

The fundamental error, in my view, is to see suspension and exclusion as a sanction. It is this view that leads to people concluding that it does not work. When someone makes this claim, I ask, ‘for who?’ Do we really expect these measures to fix deep-seated behavioural issues that arise from disadvantage, trauma and other fundamental problems? I don’t think so. We exclude students not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of other students and, sometimes, teachers. Suspension or exclusion works for the child who isn’t being hit or bullied any more, even if only temporarily. Suspensions may not fix a problem, but they may defuse the immediate situation and prevent harmful escalation.

Yes, suspensions and exclusions are an indicator of failure, but this must be tackled much further upstream. Throughout my time in education in England and Australia there have been ongoing campaigns to bear down on schools’ ability to exclude. Sometimes politicians and bureaucrats heed this campaign and tie the hands of school principals. But this doesn’t fix the problem. It just reduces principals’ options for dealing with it and generates headlines such as in those seen in Victoria in 2018 that led to the government announcing an overhaul of the expulsions process to give principals and victims more say (see e.g. Cook, 2018).

Bearing down on exclusions misses the point. It assumes that schools know what to do to reduce the need for exclusions and they just need the right incentives to do it.

Which brings me to my final comment on the role of law. If we choose to make an impossible thing a legal requirement, this does not make it possible. I have noticed that when I discuss these issues on social media, I am often told that my views are at odds with the Disability Standards for Education or the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. I do not believe this is true but even if it were, this does not constitute much of an argument. Presumably, such laws could potentially be misguided or unworkable. It is far better to persuade me with facts and argument. Yet I think campaigners see the goal of attaining a new law as a sledgehammer to drive through the changes they seek in schools.

Even if they are right and the changes they seek are possible and desirable, a law is not enough. Principals and teachers will have to enact any policy and they will need detailed, practical guidance on how to do this – what the researcher and education writer Doug Lemov calls ‘what to do if…’

Unfortunately, too many of those involved in this debate talk in abstract, ideological terms that almost entirely neglect these what-to-do-ifs. It is no coincidence that these people tend not to be practising teachers and, in some cases, have never been teachers. To generate lasting, positive, effective change that benefits the academic and social prospects of all students, including those with a disability, teachers need to be in the room and part of the discussion.

I wish your commission well and I look forward to it being a catalyst for positive change.

Best wishes

Greg Ashman, October 2020

References:

Ashman, G. (2018). Is it time to ditch ‘Differentiation’? CEM Blog. Retrieved from https://www.cem.org/blog/is-it-time-to-ditch-differentiation/

Ashman, G. (2018). The truth about teaching: An evidence-informed guide for new teachers. Sage.

Bereiter, C., & Kurland, M. (1981). A constructive look at Follow Through results. Interchange12(1), 1-22.

Cook, H. (2018) ‘A kid will get stabbed’: government announces expulsion overhaul. The Age. Retrieved from: https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/a-kid-will-get-stabbed-government-announces-expulsion-overhaul-20180302-p4z2ka.html

Fletcher, J. M., & Vaughn, S. (2009). Response to intervention: Preventing and remediating academic difficulties. Child development perspectives3(1), 30-37.

Jarrold, C., & Bayliss, D. M. (2007). Variation in working memory due to typical and atypical development. In A. R. A. Conway, C. Jarrold, M. J. Kane (Eds.) & A. Miyake & J. N. Towse (Ed.), Variation in working memory (p. 134–161). Oxford University Press.

Karpicke, J. D. (2012). Retrieval-based learning: Active retrieval promotes meaningful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science21(3), 157-163.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational psychologist41(2), 75-86.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of instruction: Research-based strategies that all teachers should know. American educator36(1), 12.

Rowe, K. (2006). Teaching reading: Findings from the national inquiry. Research developments15(15), 2.

Shrout, P. E., & Rodgers, J. L. (2018). Psychology, science, and knowledge construction: Broadening perspectives from the replication crisis. Annual review of psychology69, 487-510.

Sweller, J., Ayres, P., & Kalyuga, S. (2011). The worked example and problem completion effects. In Cognitive load theory (pp. 99-109). Springer, New York, NY.

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4 thoughts on “An open letter to Ronald Sackville

  1. Pingback: Some challenges to my letter to Ronald Sackville | Filling the pail

  2. Pingback: Peer Review | Filling the pail

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