The Church of the Stolen Cross

It was a misty winter day on Main Street. Maria had just paid a fine. Her shoulders hung low as she walked slowly past the mattress store. That’s where she met Nick who was handing out leaflets. Normally, she would brush such leaflets aside and not even register people like Nick, but today was different. She took a leaflet and Nick took his chance.

“Hi. I’m with the Church of the Stolen Cross,” Nick explained.

“Really?” Replied Maria, “Can you tell me a little about that?”

“We fight Satan,” explained Nick, “and all his works.”

“Don’t all churches?”

“No. Only us.”

Maria paused. “I’m not sure I believe in Satan.”

“Do you not watch the news?” asked Nick. “Are you not aware of all the evil in the world – the disease, hunger, war?”

“Yes, I am aware of all of those things,” replied Maria indignantly,

“Then why are you trying to minimise them?” Asked Nick.

“I’m not.”

“Then why don’t you want to do something about them?”

“I do want to do something about them”

“Then you need to join us at the Church of the Stolen Cross.” Nick concluded.

“But why? Aren’t there other ways of addressing these issues?” Asked Maria.

“No. You are either a member of the Church of the Stolen Cross or you are a Satanist. Those are the only two options available.” Nick explained.

Maria was aghast. “What?! Are you saying I’m a Satanist? I was actually raised a Catholic although I’ve lost my faith these last few years. I’m certainly not a Satanist!”

“If I may say so,” observed Nick, “that is quite a fragile response. You need to stop centering yourself and your feelings. Satan is everywhere, not least the Catholic Church. And Satan is behind atheism. You don’t have to attend a Satanic mass in order to uphold Satan’s works – that’s just a cliche. Doing nothing supports Satanism. In these dark times – these terrible years – it’s time to pick a side. Fight Satan or be a Satanist.”

Maria pondered this for a moment. “So, Satan is everywhere and the only way to fight him is to join your church. Anything else is Satanism. Am I right?”


Maria hesitated. “I don’t know much about the Church of the Stolen Cross but I have heard you have some strange beliefs about women’s rights, gay rights, vaccines and other aspects of modern medicine. Is that right?”

Nick shook his head. “Our beliefs are not strange. They are all about fighting Satan.”

“Can you explain how?” asked Maria.

“I can do better than that,” Nick suggested, “I can provide you with a list of books to read that explain all of these issues with great clarity. It’s the same list of books I was given when I joined.”

“Did you read them?” asked Maria.

“Bits and pieces but that’s not really the point. When I knew there were a whole lot of books that explained these things then I new these things must have explanations and stopped worrying. The Church of the Stolen Cross aligns with the science – the best science – and it aligns with scholarship – the best scholarship. It’s beautiful.”

“Huh.” Maria processed this explanation. “So, if I did want to join – and I’m not yet saying I do – what would be the first step?”

Nick smiled. “Well, you would need to make a full, public statement expressing remorse for your sins and renouncing Satan and all his works. But you must not centre yourself. The focus must always be on those who are harmed by Satan.”

Maria’s gaze was fixed on the ground. “How can I make a full, public statement expressing remorse and renouncing Satan without centring myself?”

But when she looked up, Nick had moved down the street and was handing a leaflet to an old gentleman with a walking stick,

Maria turned and walked away.


Capital Letters

This week, I spoke to Daisy Christodoulou for my new podcast. Daisy is one of the smartest people I know involved in education and so it’s no surprise that I’ve been left with a few issues to think about as a result of our exchange.

At one point, we discussed the teaching of writing. In her new book, Teachers versus Tech, Daisy argues that we have fallen into the trap of setting up a false choice between teaching students rules for writing and just letting them write. Daisy suggests that these two seemingly opposite methods often go hand in hand – eg in genre-based writing curriculums – and what we actually need to give students to help them progress is carefully sequenced examples and tasks related to those examples.

To illustrate the issue, Daisy noted that when she was teaching, pretty much all students would state, if asked, that sentences should start with a capital letter, and yet many of them did not start sentences with a capital letter in their own writing. It’s as if there is a step missing.

This brought to mind two ideas I’ve been thinking about. The first is what we may call default explicit teaching. This is the kind of teaching I defaulted to early in my career when I realised the methods I was meant to employ simply didn’t work. Briefly, I would explain a concept or two or three, maybe model an example – although I didn’t appreciate their importance at the time – then ask students to complete a task.

Highly effective explicit teaching, as captured well in Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, is different to this. We could summarise it as proceeding in three phases: I do, we do, you do. Default explicit teaching has very little ‘we do’ and I have found that highly controlled micro practice with tight, concurrent feedback is the most challenging aspect of explicit teaching to first appreciate and then implement.

It’s through cycling through ‘I do’ and ‘we do’ that the capital letters issue is addressed. However, you have to get down to the nuts and bolts. You cannot talk in abstract terms. It’s not about exhortation. It has to be doggedly procedural.

Understandings such as this are what drive Filling the Pail. I am angry about the default explicit teaching I used to employ because I was not given a better alternative. Instead of learning about effective explicit teaching I was being encouraged to differentiate or set-up inquiry based learning experiences. And those were the more sensible suggestions. I wasn’t as good a teacher as I could have been and my students deserved better.

But another idea also springs to mind from this discussion – one I hadn’t really considered before. Knowing that sentences begin with capital letters is the kind of thing mathematics education researchers call ‘conceptual knowledge’ or, more broadly, ‘understanding’. And you can see why. A teacher turns up, explains something to their students, they understand it and feel they have learnt something and the teacher feels they have taught something. But none of it really matters if the students cannot put this understanding to use.

We tend to overemphasise conceptual understanding in mathematics when what it actually looks like is a series of rules and declarative statements. We say students don’t understand the principle of equivalence ie they don’t understand that a “=” sign means “the same as” and instead think it means “and the answer is”.

If we merely teach them to give back to us the correct definition of the equals sign, we haven’t achieved anything much. None of it matters until they can put this principle into practice to solve equations. Nothing matters until we get down to the procedural nuts and bolts.

A fuller understanding of the world should always be our goal as educators, but there are no shortcuts and the route is full of hard, detailed work. Be on the lookout for those capital letters.


The Ministry of Inclusion

Rebecca Urban of The Australian has written a story about an article for The Encyclopedia of Teacher Education. The authors are Jennie Duke and and Ben Whitburn. They were not available for comment when contacted by Urban.

It is a bizarre paper ostensibly arguing against instituting a phonics check of the the kind used in England and some Australian states.

Stuart Kitto has published a thread taking the paper apart. Kitto’s thread should be a blogpost and so I am publicising it here. Please take the time to read it:

It is hard for those of us who have not been inducted into the relevant jargon to fathom a paper such as Duke and Whitburn’s. It seems for all the world like it is making the argument that by setting a benchmark for achievement of 28 out of 40 on the screening check, we are dividing children up into able and non-able categories and that this is somehow ableist. Furthermore, the kinds of interventions that we may implement to help struggling students – but as Kitto points out, probably not those who just miss the benchmark by one question – are somehow exclusionary. We should, instead, be keeping all children in the same classroom at all times. The science of reading or, as the authors describe it, the teaching of ‘allegedly scientifically evidenced skills’ [my emphasis] should be secondary to concern about ‘neoliberal-ableism’.

To a public who are, by and large, rightly sceptical of the ‘all must have prizes’ culture that is alive and well in sections of educational research and practice, this confirms their worst suspicions. It is clearly significant that this is an entry for an encyclopedia of Teacher Education. I shudder at the thought of how it may be used with teacher education students. What damaging ideological stances will they bring to their teaching practice as a result?

To be included in society involves access to society’s resources, including intellectual ones. To be able to read a newspaper, access the internet or do your online banking means being a part of society. Yes, a tiny proportion of students are cognitively impaired to a point where they will never learn to read and we must make accommodations for those children. For all other children, we owe them nothing less than the best possible teaching methods based on the best possible evidence available to us right now. Reading is that critical.

There is something Orwellian about this. In the name of ‘inclusion’ we exclude students from a significant section of society and the world. Welcome to the Ministry of Inclusion.


Whatever happened to constructivism?

When I started blogging eight years ago, constructivism was a big deal. Whenever I wrote about it, which was often, plenty of people would appear and tell me that I didn’t understand it. So I even went to the lengths of creating a FAQ post to address the points they made. Yet now, constructivism seems to have faded. It seems to be mentioned less in academic papers and far less in the blogosphere. So what happened, which side, if any, won and what lessons can he take from this?

Constructivism is a theory of learning that comes in a variety of flavours, from radical constructivism to cognitive constructivism. What they all have in common is the idea that learners are not blank slates – that new knowledge does not simply accumulate in the mind but has to slot in to the old knowledge that is already there in some way. One way we may look at this is through schema theory. Knowledge is organised in the mind in the form of schemas – think concept maps – and new knowledge is either added to the relevant schema or, in some circumstances, changes the schema. Although there is debate about exactly what takes place and how, schema theory remains a well-accepted concept within cognitive science and educational psychology. If true, constructivism is the way we learn, whatever teaching method is used.

However, constructivism doesn’t end there, in what Richard Mayer has described as the ‘constructivist teaching fallacy’, many have drawn implications for how we should teach from the theory of constructivism, designing constructivist teaching methods. These are thought to go with the grain of how we learn and therefore be more effective. The idea that knowledge is constructed in the mind is interpreted as a need for learners to construct their own knowledge in the classroom through approaches such as inquiry learning that involve specific kinds of behavioural activity.

If you see a similarity to the methods proposed by late nineteenth and early twentieth century progressivists such as Herbert Spencer, William Heard Kilpatrick and the impenetrable John Dewey, this is, I believe, no coincidence. Those people who are drawn to the older ideas are drawn to constructivism. It’s less a case of people being persuaded by the logic of constructivism and more that constructivism provides a scientific framework and therefore justification for pre-existing preferences.

And that’s its weakness. Ideas are not scientific because they are true – that’s a common misconception. A idea or model is scientific because it is testable. And we can test constructivism, more or less.

Probably the biggest test was the late twentieth century experiment with whole language reading instruction. An analysis of this is beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say that asking small children to construct their own knowledge of letter-sound relationships has been found to be less effective than explicitly teaching them. See, for example, the 2000 U.S. reading panel report.

Nevertheless, like a teenager at a party whose date is kissing someone else, constructivism hung around in the kitchen for far too long. It’s usefulness, it seems, had not yet been spent. So, what happened next?

There was a slow move away from constructivism among cutting-edge educational psychology researchers. I would say this started with the 2006 publication of Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s paper that outlined theoretical problems with, and empirical failings of, the model. This was met with a lot of sound and fury at the time, the echoes of which stretched well into the 2010s. There were three rebuttals published in the same journal followed by a response from the original authors. There was a debate organised at the American Educational Research Association conference in 2007. This was followed by a 2009 book in which both sides of the debate were given the opportunity to air their views. In his concluding comments, Sigmund Tobias, one of the editors, summarised his own thoughts on constructivism:

A careful reading and re-reading of all the chapters in this book, and the related literature, has indicated to me that there is stimulating rhetoric for the constructivist position, but relatively little research supporting it.

From then on, constructivism was living on borrowed time as the gradual shift away from it in the research community worked its way out into the wider educational ecosystem where constructivism probably still survives in some dark corners.

But remember that the teaching practices associated with constructivism preceded their constructivist justification and they will undoubtedly outlive it. At the moment, they are looking for a new host. For instance, the identity politics movement will perhaps be used to label explicit teaching as upholding white supremacy or something. However, the inherent absurdity and deep unpopularity of identity politics, coupled with the damage it does to genuine attempts to tackle intolerance and injustice, lead me to think its days are numbered.

Researchers seem to be rallying around self-regulated learning theory. This is a neat trick. If you define the issue as one about the most effective ways for learners to teach themselves new knowledge then you can draw on a whole lot of valid research. We can teach learners about retrieval practice, spaced practice and so on. The question of why we want learners to teach themselves new knowledge, when we have schools and universities and lots of people within them who are employed to teach knowledge to them, remains unaddressed.

Research interest in self-regulated learning theory is probably what’s behind the UK Education Endowment Foundation’s drive to promote ‘meta-cognition and self-regulated learning’. In that case, we have another motte-and-bailey argument where, under the banner of meta-cognition and self-regulation, all manner of curious agendas are advanced such as Philosophy for Children but, when questioned on this, proponents can retreat into arguments about teaching students how to use retrieval practice.

So, we are not done. Constructivism may have fallen for now and the battle may be won. But the war goes on.


Can age tell us what kind of reading instruction a child needs?

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A while back, I debated Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) with one of its proponents, Jeffrey Bowers. You can see the discussion in the comments on this post. One issue seemed odd to me at the time and I will try to explain it.

The post was about a study by Bowers and his colleagues where SWI was compared to ‘motivated reading’ as an intervention for struggling readers. I found this odd because Bowers has expended a great deal of effort trying to dismantle the evidence base for systematic phonics. You would therefore think he would want to compare SWI to systematic phonics but ‘motivated reading’ is not a systematic phonics program.

The fact that SWI and motivated reading had pretty much the same impact therefore tells us little because we are left wondering what the impact of a systematic phonics intervention may have been.

In the comments, Bowers responded that, “group phonics instruction was not appropriate as the children were in years 3 and 5“. It is as if the age of the children matters even though, as I go on to point out, there are plenty of phonics interventions available for older children.

The inverse of this is the Devonshire study that provides some positive evidence for SWI. Bowers’ contention is that SWI, with its emphasis on morphology and etymology alongside letter-sound relationships, is a suitable alternative to systematic phonics from the very beginning of reading instruction. And yet the students in the Devonshire study were not beginning readers and had already received between one and two years of a form of phonics instruction.

Again, this seems of little importance to Bowers who suggested, “SWI worked for 5-7 year olds. If you are happy with that, me too.

Why does the age of students matter in this way? If an eight-year-old does not understand letter-sound relationships then why would an intervention to address this be inappropriate? If a child is five years old and already knows at least some letter sound relationships then this is not the beginning of reading, right?

If you accept the simple view of reading, as many reading researchers do to a greater or lesser extent, then you see reading as being the product of two factors – oral language comprehension and the ability to turn the squiggles on a page into words familiar from oral language. If you cannot do the latter, it does not matter what age you are.

I was still puzzled by this argument when Debbie Hepplewhite drew attention on Twitter to the phonics guidance produced by England’s Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and this section on older students:

For older readers who are still struggling to develop reading skills, phonics approaches may be less successful than other approaches such as Reading comprehension strategies and Meta-cognition and self-regulation. The difference may indicate that children aged 10 or above who have not succeeded using phonics approaches previously require a different approach, or that these students have other difficulties related to vocabulary and comprehension which phonics does not target.

This seems to assume that older struggling readers have previously been exposed to a high quality systematic phonics program. I don’t think we can assume that at all. At the very least, the EEF should be suggesting some diagnostic tests to figure out whether students know their letter-sound relationships before jumping to conclusions.

As for the suggested interventions, teaching reading comprehension strategies may provide a limited boost to reading comprehension but they are no panacea. In my experience, most children are likely to already have ample instruction in these strategies but I will take my own advice and not assume this. If letter-sound relationships are assessed and are not a problem then reading comprehension strategies are a good bet.

As for ‘meta-cognition and self-regulation’ – what can I say? The EEF seem obsessed with this grab-bag of approaches such as Philosophy for Children – “is it OK to hit a teddy bear?” – and explicit writing interventions that they have arbitrarily grouped together.

However, in sum, these two different sources perhaps demonstrate the emergence of a worrying fallacy that age is a guide to what kind of reading instruction a child needs.

This is false. As ever, the instruction a child needs is determined by an assessment of what they know and can do now.