David Didau

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-g73ch-f0c811

David Didau is a teacher, blogger and author of seven books about education. In this episode, David talks to Greg Ashman about how he became a teacher and the writing and blogging journey that has resulted in him changing his views about education over time. David and Greg elaborate on the conditions needed for people to change their minds before talking about David’s new book, Intelligent Accountability. David explains the importance of humility and why ‘mimetic isomorphism’ – which David cannot pronounce – prevents us from learning through the wisdom of crowds. Finally, David explains why treating people equally is different to treating them fairly.

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No More Exclusions, even for sexual violence

Last year, I wrote about the emergence of a UK pressure group called No More Exclusions. It appeared to have run an event in conjunction with UK’s National Education Union (NEU). I found the name of the pressure group to be worryingly absolute and asked them this question on Twitter:

They did not respond and blocked me.

One of the clear divides between the average teacher and exclusion campaigners is that campaigners are keen to assert ideals whereas teachers are much more focused on practical realities.

For instance, it is hard for a teacher to comprehend a call for no school exclusions at all, even if we may potentially be persuaded that there are currently too many or that some students are being excluded for the wrong reasons.

That’s why we ask questions such as whether an exclusion campaigner thinks it’s justifiable to exclude a student for sexual assault. We want to know where the line is. If we agree, in principle, that some exclusions are necessary, then it is a discussion over the extent. When we do ask questions of this kind, we rarely get a straight answer and are instead accused of using extreme examples. I don’t think this helps.

Well, No More Exclusions have now given a straight answer in a series of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on their website. Firstly, they clear up any potential ambiguity about their aims:

“No More Exclusions is an abolitionist movement. That means we want to stop exclusions altogether – abolish the whole process of exclusion.

But what if people object and point out reasons why some exclusions may be necessary? No More Exclusions gives as series of answers to these objections, including one on sexual violence:

“Sexual violence is a serious issue. However, punishing people who have caused harm is not shown to actually change their behaviour. It would be more effective to recognise the conditions that produce sexual violence and to work to uproot the culture within a school that enables abuse.

So, the solution to sexual violence is not to exclude the perpetrator but to somehow recognise the conditions that lead to it. This seems like a vague, hand-waving approach.

I think many, but not all, schools are trying their best build more positive school cultures. However, sexual violence may still happen due to reasons beyond the control of the school. A blanket policy of no exclusions would see victims asked to go back in to school, the day after an attack, and be in the same building, or even the same classroom, as their attacker. I cannot see why anyone would support this.

As others have pointed out in this piece for the TES, the victim is then faced with the decision of whether to self-exclude to avoid their attacker. So, we know what such a blanket policy would involve.

The FAQs make a number of points in an attempt to pre-empt arguments in favour of exclusions. An interesting one is the response to the reasonable question: What about the other 29? This question is about highlighting that exclusions may not ‘work’ in the sense that they magically cure the excluded student, but they may work for the students being impacted by their behaviour. No More Exclusions states:

“We argue that witnessing the exclusion and isolation of classmates is damaging to the self- esteem and sense of trust and safety of the other 29 members in the class.”

Really? And we also have the usual line that poor classroom behaviour, rather than being caused by a range of complex factors, many of which are external to the school, is directly caused by lessons that are not engaging enough:

“We should ask why a young person is disrupting a lesson. More often than not, it is because they are not engaged by the content or find it hard to access the learning. If a child is taken out of class and into a period of ‘internal exclusion’, they will miss out on more of their education.

These FAQs came to light after Sam Vimes drew attention to them on Twitter. There followed something of an uproar and the No More Exclusions website was briefly taken down. You may be tempted to conclude that the people behind No More Exclusions initially panicked and took the website offline before deciding to double-down. But no.

According to their own statement, No More Exclusions were subjected to ‘co-ordinated’ attacks that involved a ‘right-wing education blog’. Their website had apparently gone down due to a virus. Perhaps a co-ordinated group of teachers had organised for a hacker to take down the FAQs they were seeking to highlight and condemn? Who knows?

Nevertheless, we learnt some other interesting details from this statement such as this:

“This year, we have called for a moratorium on school exclusions. We also founded the Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators, a Black-led anti-racist abolitionist group working to undo racist harm in our education system. Along with the Black Educators’ Alliance, CARE are currently taking the government to court over its recent Relationships and Sex Education guidance which restricts the use of anti-capitalist and anti-racist materials in school.”

In other words, these are the same people who are trying to overturn UK government guidelines that prevent the teaching of things like anti-capitalism or white privilege as fact in Relationships and Sex Education lessons.

Who would have predicted that?

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A fifth of all public schoolchildren in New South Wales have a disability

The Teachers Federation of New South Wales, a teaching union, is conducting an inquiry into the teaching profession – the Gallop inquiry. As a result of this inquiry, we learnt yesterday that one fifth of children in public schools in New South Wales have a disability.

According to the Teachers Federation, the number of these children who attract funding for support has increased by 500% in mainstream classrooms since 2002.

The one-fifth figure is remarkably similar to the proportion of students – 21 per cent – identified as having Special Education Needs in England in 2010, prior to reforms introduced by then Education Minister Michael Gove which saw this number reduce. It now sits at around 15 per cent, with around 3 percent having an Education, Health and Care plan. And yet there is a significant difference between Special Education Needs, of which disability is just one category, and figures for disabilities alone.

It is strange to consider how a simple bureaucratic reform could somehow reduce the number of students with a Special Educational Need. It is also strange that two societies that are so similar in many ways would have such different rates of prevalence of disability among schoolchildren. One possibility is that there is a systematic difference between England and New South Wales that accounts for this – perhaps there is an environmental or genetic cause. Another possibility is that these two school systems are working to different definitions of disability. Or it could be a combination of both.

Taking the Teachers Federation figure and applying it to an average classroom of say 25-30 students would imply around 5-6 would have a disability. Although I am fairly convinced that there are whole-class and whole-school provisions that support the inclusion of students with a disability in the classroom, the standard approach, and the one that seems to be recognised in law, is to make individual accommodations, or ‘reasonable adjustments’, for each child.

However, 5-6 students with a disability in a class of 25-30 is just an average figure. As anyone versed in statistics will explain, there is likely to be a large variation around that average value and so we should expect to find many examples of classes of 30 children in which ten or more have a disability.

At what point does the sum of lots of individually reasonable accommodations become an unreasonable expectation of teachers?

I’m hoping the Gallop inquiry will address this question.

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Critical Theory escapes from the laboratory


Commentators from across the political divide have been logging their concerns about the influence of Critical Theory for much of the past decade. Until recently, it was possible to dismiss these concerns on the basis that Critical Theory was a parlour game of academics that had no impact on ordinary people. That was starting to change even before a 2020 dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in the U.S. Suddenly, events took over and the language of one branch of Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory (CRT), became part of the language of street protest. Not everyone kneeling for Black Lives Matter was aware of the tenets of CRT or even the broader aims of the Black Lives Matter movement. But CRT was nonetheless present.

Purveyors of diversity training based loosely upon Critical Race Theory saw an uptick in interest as large corporations released statements promising to do better on diversity. More relevant to education has been the affirmation of ‘woke’ teachers and consultants and the effect this may have in the classroom. The Inspiration Trust, an academy chain in the UK that, until recently, was perhaps most notable as an advocate for explicit teaching and a knowledge rich curriculum, has just run a conference focused on the issue of race and diversity in schools.

Race and racism are key issues for schools to address and so how do we know when we are departing from the kind of antiracist work that would draw majority public consent in a democracy like Britain or Australia and instead tipping over the edge into CRT? To answer this question, it is necessary to examine what CRT is.

A while back, Jasmine Lane posted a fascinating 1998 paper on CRT on Twitter. In contrast to the more recent sources I have read on the subject, this piece is more measured, recognising that there are potential problems with the theory, and this stance perhaps reflects a time before CRT escaped from the laboratory of academia and made it on to New York Times bestseller list.

The author of the paper is Gloria Ladson-Billings, an American education professor, and the paper specifically addresses the application of CRT to the field of education.

Billings charts the history of CRT from its origins in legal theory. Briefly, proponents of CRT were frustrated with the slow pace of legal reform and the diminishing returns of public protest and engagement and instead sought a more radical option. Perhaps the most fundamental problem with CRT is its starting point. According to Billings:

“CRT begins with the notion that racism is ‘normal, not aberrant, in American society’ (Delgado, 1995, p. xiv), and, because it is so enmeshed in the fabric of our social order, it appears both normal and natural to people in this culture. Indeed, Bell’ s major premise in Faces at the bottom of the well (1992) is that racism is a permanent fixture of American life. Thus, the strategy becomes one of unmasking and exposing racism in its various permutations.”

Firstly, note the claims about ‘American life’. CRT only makes claims about America*. Given one of the key criticisms CRT makes of ‘whiteness’ – that the specific values of ‘whiteness’ make a claim, through this ideology, to be universal values – there is something odd and contradictory about those who seek to apply it, with little adaptation, to societies other than America. It is not at all clear that CRT maps neatly on to British or Australian society, let alone the complex ethnic, religious and cultural relationships that exist in, say, the Balkans, Rwanda or the ongoing conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Secondly, and perhaps more fundamentally, the concept that we (or Americans) are swimming in a sea of racism that people simply do not notice, is foundational. Critical Theory starts at this point and then seeks to unmask and expose racism. This starting point is not a hypothesis that is up for discussion, it is a premise. Moreover, it appears to be untestable – if you look and find no racism then that’s because it’s become normal and natural and so you must work harder to find it.

CRT twists and flexes in the face of potentially disconfirming evidence. Race is neither a biological category or a purely social construct – for either causes CRT problems. And black people can even be situated as white. As Billings explains, “as an African American female academic, I can be and am sometimes positioned as conceptually White in relation to, perhaps, a Latino, Spanish-speaking gardener.”

It is this bendiness and the resulting unfalsifiability that makes CRT unscientific. And there are many who would be philosophically untroubled by this. They may claim, for instance, that when we are examining the world of human thought and relations, science is not the right approach. And yet the field of psychology, for all its flaws, attempts to be a scientific approach to understanding human nature. In the very least, CRT departs from psychology in a fundamental way. This would not be a problem if CRT was presented for what it actually is – a belief system that people are free to believe or not. Yet it makes broader claims. It sees itself as sufficiently established to be a basis for training everyone from corporate executives to school children in the truth about racism and diversity. It has a proselytizing agenda, scolding those who will not repeat its mantras and painting them as far-right and morally flawed. CRT is not a microscope through which to examine the world, it is a hammer to wield at it. That’s the problem.

An alternative to the antiracism of Critical Race Theory is the antiracism of what we may term Generation X Liberalism (GXL). This is my philosophy and the way that I have dealt with racism throughout my career. GXL is fundamentally respectful of an individual’s inner life. It is essential to educate people, both young people in school and the wider population, and bring them to facts they may be unaware of. And we can certainly agree, as a society, on standards of behaviour. However, what a person ultimately believes is their own business. GXL claims no dominion over your mind.

A good example of the divide between CRT and GXL is in the notion of being ‘colourblind’. If a proponent of CRT happens upon someone unversed in its beliefs who claims, “I don’t see colour – I treat everyone the same,” then this is seen as prima facie evidence of racism, in much the same way that all denial of racism is prima facie evidence of racism. GXL, on the other hand, would see this as evidence of progress because GXL would assign behaviours to such a stance. If you do not see colour, then you should act accordingly.

In Billings’ paper, she explains that personal testimony is a key feature of CRT and then tells a story of about a conference she attended. The conference organisers had arranged her accommodation in the VIP suite of a hotel that had its own VIP lounge. As she was sat unwinding and reading the paper, a man with a southern accent assumed she was a waiter and asked when she would be serving.

This is racism of the overt kind. There is nothing mysterious or hidden about it and it can be accommodated both in theories that posit a sea of unseen, implicit racism and theories that place racism within individuals, their behaviours and perhaps wider cultures. What’s more, a colourblind approach has a practical answer to this problem. It confronts the man with the southern accent with his behaviour and asks him why he has treated this person differently. It is simple and easy to understand.

CRT, on the other hand, takes a more circuitous route. Not only does it posit the sea of racism, it posits the ideology of whiteness. In Billings’ telling, we are again confronted with its specificity and incongruity:

“Conceptual categories like ‘school achievement,’ ‘middle classness,’ ‘maleness,’ ‘beauty,’ ‘intelligence,’ and ‘science’ become normative categories of whiteness, while categories like ‘gangs,’ ‘welfare recipients,’ ‘basketball players,’ and ‘the underclass’ become the marginalized and de-legitimated categories of blackness.”

Coming from the UK, my stereotypical view of the ‘underclass’ would look a lot like the characters on the original British version of the TV show Shameless who live on a council estate in Manchester. There is no obvious association with blackness. Indeed, most of the categories invoked by Billings appear to be more about class than race, as would her discussion of the Latino gardener.

And it is interesting to consider the issue of class in this discussion. Black people in the United States have undoubtedly suffered historic forms of overt, organised oppression that have made it far harder for them to access the middle and upper classes. By today attributing to race disadvantages that may actually be due to class, we divide the working class and reduce class solidarity. I doubt whether anyone has intentionally done this, but it does make it harder for working people to challenge a system where ever more wealth is concentrated in the hands of ever fewer people.

But perhaps the most fascinating part of Billings’ paper is when she reveals what this is all about. Billings explains why story-telling is central to CRT:

“…naming one’ s own reality with stories can affect the oppressor. Most oppression, as was discussed earlier, does not seem like oppression to the perpetrator (Lawrence, 1987). Delgado (1989) argues that the dominant group justifies its power with stories, stock explanations, that construct reality in ways that maintain their privilege. Thus, oppression is rationalized, causing little self-examination by the oppressor. Stories by people of color can catalyze the necessary cognitive conflict to jar dysconscious racism.”

Through generating cognitive conflict, white people will become aware of the sea of racism they are swimming in. When you understand this, everything else falls into place. The stories from diversity training where participants are racially segregated or asked to step forwards or backwards if they have ever experienced this or that form of oppression – these are an attempt to generate cognitive conflict. And what of the curious reframing of the absence of discrimination based on race as ‘white privilege‘? This is intended to jolt white people out of their state of comfort and get them to confront a difficult reality.

As Kemi Badenoch, women and equalities minister in Britain’s Conservative government understands, the concept of ‘white privilege’ has become central to the way that CRT manifests itself in schools:

Advocates of CRT, if they can get past the default response of telling any critic they need to read more, would dispute Badenoch’s interpretation of the concept of white privilege as describing ‘inherited racial guilt’. They would argue that it is far more subtle a concept than that. And yet, on the face of it, it does look much as Badenoch describes it. Once we understand that CRT is about promoting cognitive conflict, we realise this is intentional.

Unfortunately, cognitive conflict does not work. It is a concept that is popular in the constructivist tradition of education but it lacks evidence of effectiveness. This is probably because the mind does not work in the way that theories of cognitive conflict assume. Rather than breaking down and reforming old schemas, the mind develops new, often conflicting ones. For instance, we never lose our old, naïve understandings of physics. Even physics professors still hold onto them. It is just that a physics professor’s training gives them superior schemas that have greater utility for solving problems and therefore outcompete the old schemas.

Rather than breaking down someone’s racism and rebuilding their mind again, in some kind of internalised Year Zero, antiracists would do better to provide alternative cognitive tools for people to use. One such tool might be the colourblind maxim. No, announcing you are colourblind may not rid you of racism, but it may be a step on the path of building a better mental model.

Conversely, exploding little cognitive conflict bombs all over the place is not something we have tried before and will have unpredictable consequences. All we can be reasonably sure of is that it will not achieve the intended aims. And with a little imagination, we can see many possible unintended consequences, such as increased race consciousness among white people and a possible increase in support for overtly racist, far-right movements.

Badenoch makes the further point that teaching concepts such as white privilege ‘as fact’ in UK schools is illegal. I’m not sure law is the way to go, but I do know that a principle of good teaching, long held to be self-evident yet called into question in recent times, is that teachers should not force their opinions on to students. Our job is to show students the world and give them the tools of analysis so that they can formulate their own views.

That’s what I will be doing, long after this experiment has run its course.

*Following feedback online, I should probably make it explicit that this applies specifically to the Billings formulation that I am discussing. Clearly, many people have since tried to apply CRT to other contexts, as I make clear in the rest of the paragraph. You wouldn’t think this needed to be pointed out, but hey.

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Peer Review

Whenever researchers decide to write about peer review, it is customary to reference an anecdote about Einstein. Unlike most quotes attributed to Einstein, this anecdote is genuine and relates to a paper he submitted with a colleague, Nathan Rosen, to the editor of the journal, Physical Review. The editor then sent Einstein’s paper out to an expert for comment. When Einstein found out, he was annoyed that the editor had done such a thing without his permission. It is probably the only paper of Einstein’s that was ever sent for peer review, although, in this case, he perhaps benefited from it.

The purpose of this anecdote is to highlight that peer review is a relatively new idea. Pretty much all of the science we teach in school was developed in the absence of peer review and so to insist that it is a fundamental component of the scientific method is stretching things somewhat. And then there’s the fact that peer-review is also used for things that, well, I probably would not describe as ‘science’ such as the various unfalsifiable theories fashionable in the humanities. Real Peer Review is a Twitter account dedicated to highlighting the silliest and most amusing examples.

I have a number of experiences of peer review and two that stand out for illustrating its highs and lows. A paper I wrote with my PhD supervisors as a result of my PhD work was published in Educational Psychology Review, a well-regarded journal. As a result of the peer review process, we received feedback that ultimately made it a better paper.

In contrast, an opinion piece on metacognition I wrote for Impact, the journal of England’s Chartered College of Teaching, was rejected at peer review, at least partly on the basis of tone and the fact that the reviewers disagreed with some of my opinions. This then gave cover to people to ignore any arguments for or against my article and instead comment to the effect that all neophyte researchers experience disappointment in the peer review process and I would learn to cope. So, peer review can also act as a gatekeeper, guarding access to the sanctified lawns of the intellectual establishment.

As Real Peer Review demonstrates, just because something appears in a peer-reviewed journal, that doesn’t provide a guarantee of quality. Take, for example, the peer-reviewed journal Creative Education published by Scientific Research Publishing (SCIRP). It is the only education journal I can find that is published by Scientific Research Publishing, so if you have a paper you are thinking of submitting then you may be concerned whether your paper will find a home there. Just how creative does your education research need to be? This may be established by looking at the scope of the journal. It covers the following topics:

· Academic Advising and Counseling
· Art Education
· Blog Culture and Its Impact on Education
· Business Education
· Collaborative and Group Learning
· Curriculum Development
· Development of Learning Environment
· Early Childhood Education
· Education Administration
· Education Policy and Leadership
· Educational Psychology
· Educational Technology
· E-Learning and Knowledge Management
· Elementary Education
· Health Education
· Higher Education
· Innovative Pedagogical Models
· Language Education
· Learning Systems Platforms
· Media Education
· Music Education
· Other Areas of Education
· Quality Management of E-Learning
· Reading Skill Education
· Science Education
· Secondary Education
· Special Education
· Tasks and Problem-Solving Processes
· Teaching and Learning Technologies
· Web-Based Learning Platforms
· Youth Studies

So, I think you will be fine.

Creative Education has an unusual model where it publishes all its papers open-access and online. This is, in many ways, commendable. Obviously, Creative Education has to recover its costs in some way and so it asks for $999 in article processing charges. This is not particularly high compared to some publishers, but it is a cost that an author or their institution will need to meet. The Editorial board is multinational, with six members from the U.S., three from Australia and members from a range of others countries such as the UK, Brasil and Israel.

What sort of papers are published in Creative Education? Well, as you may imagine, they are somewhat eclectic. For instance, this paper appears to be a proposal for a research study, a type of paper I’ve not seen published before. On the other hand, this paper, albeit one I would strongly disagree with, seems more typical of education journals.

When you click on the ‘About SCIRP’ link and look for the contact details, there is no postal address listed. Instead, it says, ‘You can also contact us by e-mail, QQ or WeChat.’ QQ and WeChat are social media apps owned by the Chinese conglomerate Tencent.

The Wikipedia page for SCIRP provides a number of links. One is a story about the mass resignation of members of the editorial board of one of its journals. Another is to a list of Retraction Watch stories involving SCIRP, and another is to a 2012 paper by Jeffrey Beall that gives some background on SCIRP and comments on the quality of its operations. This is quite an old article and so perhaps SCIRP has changed since then. Nevertheless, if peer review simply means an article has been published in a journal such as Creative Education, what weight should we place on that?

As ever, the quest for a simple metric leads to complexity and confusion. The fact that a publication has been peer-reviewed means little and, as ever, we must read beyond the headline if we want to know what’s really going on.

Why have I returned to the subject of peer review? After writing my open letter to Ronald Sackville AO QC, Chair of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability, a number of campaigners mocked me for referencing my own non-peer-reviewed article about differentiation. One suggested my article had been published in the ‘International Journal of Ballarat’ – a reference to this blog. So, that caused me to think again about the cultural power of peer review – the myth of peer review, if you like.

The reason I chose to reference that particular article on differentiation is because it is free to access and because there are not that many people making the case against differentiation. Mike Schmoker is someone with a similar view but I cannot imagine an article that was critical of differentiation being published in a regular education journal. So, I think we need to hear more from this side of the argument and, with that said, it would be an omission if I did not point out that I give differentiation a more extended treatment in my new book, The Power of Explicit Teaching and Direct Instruction, which is available to pre-order now from all good online bookstores.

Just like the International Journal of Ballarat, my new book is not peer-reviewed. But, you know, so what?

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Some challenges to my letter to Ronald Sackville

In my last post, I published an open letter I had sent to Ronald Sackville AO QC, Chair of the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability. This letter sparked two reactions: one mainly private and positive that tended to come from teachers (although not exclusively), and another public and critical that tended to come from inclusion campaigners.

The latter reaction wasn’t particularly pleasant and involved some name-calling. One of those involved has a habit of contacting my employer. So, I won’t be linking to their tweets or pasting them into this piece as screenshots. Instead, I will attempt to phrase their arguments in the most charitable way possible before responding to them. Given that I have provided no links, you may dismiss this entire post as me arguing against a series of straw men if you wish. That is your prerogative.

My version of each criticism is in bold followed by my response,

The commission was set-up to hear the voices of the marginalised: people with disabilities who have been severely let down by the system. I am a privileged, able-bodied white male so I shouldn’t have sought to impose myself in this space.

This is a fair point. It’s actually the reason why I have not contributed to the Royal Commission until now. However, I decided to respond because I felt that some of the evidence that was presented was wrong and needed a counterpoint.

Even if I am entirely incorrect, the Royal Commission should benefit from hearing my argument. Its conclusions will be stronger for rejecting my perspective. If my challenge on differentiation – which we will return to below – is flawed, then this will enable the Royal Commission to have a response ready for teachers like me, if and when we question its proposals on this topic.

The Royal Commission may have been created specifically to hear testimonies from disabled people, but it also seeks to make recommendations for a better future. This will involve engaging with schools and so some consideration of the perspectives of teachers and the practicalities of schools is necessary. I do not claim to represent all teachers, only myself. However, the feedback I have received suggests my views at least have some currency among those who will need to implement the findings of the Royal Commission.

And if you look at those making submissions and giving evidence to the Royal Commission, you will see a number of privileged, able-bodied, white males, which leads me to think that these features are not the main issue.

Teachers and principals have already spoken at the Royal Commission and explained how fully inclusive schools can and do work.

Well I guess teachers are not a monolith. Some are passionately committed to the cause of what they would describe as fully inclusive education. And that’s admirable. However, it does not mean they are right any more than my commitment to my own views means I am right. And it depends on exactly what fully inclusive education looks like, which was the main subject of my letter.

Advocates often point to places like the province of New Brunswick in Canada as an example of a fully inclusive system. And yet New Brunswick is not without problems (see e,g, here and here) – problems that may have been avoided with a more wide-ranging and comprehensive debate – including among teachers – prior to the adoption of the policy.

When claiming that there is a lack of evidence for differentiation, I cited my own article – an article that has not been peer-reviewed.

This is true. I haven’t actually tried it, but I wonder what would happen if I submitted an article to Australian Educational Researcher on the lack of evidence for differentiation?

And this illustrates a key point. I am not necessarily opposed to peer-review, having had peer-reviewed research published myself – but it is no panacea and can perpetuate groupthink. Imagine, for instance, that I set-up a journal and asked some of my friends in education – and I have some pretty cool friends – to peer review it. Imagine I then had a piece published on differentiation. Would this suddenly make me right?

But we are missing the far bigger problem here. It really is not up to me to prove a negative. In the section of the letter where I advocate for whole-class explicit teaching, I provide plenty of citations and could provide many more. And this is right and proper because when you advocate for something, the burden of proof lies with you to provide evidence.

It’s therefore up to the advocates of differentiation to provide supporting evidence for it. The burden of proof does not lie with me to prove the reverse. Why not counter my self-citation with a systematic review showing how effective differentiation is?

For instance, I did not watch this session, but I understand one witness promoted Universal Design for Learning or UDL, a particular form of differentiation. I am aware of one peer-reviewed meta-analysis of UDL from 2017 that concluded that, “UDL is an effective teaching methodology for improving the learning process,” but that, “The impact on educational outcomes has not been demonstrated.”

In the context of educational research where, to paraphrase John Hattie, everything works, this is a pretty stunning null result. So, on what basis are we promoting it?

One response has been that UDL doesn’t have to be effective because it’s just a framework. However, transplant that argument to any other area of research and you see the problem: “Our treatment regime for COVID-19 is just a framework. No, there’s no evidence that it is effective but it does improve the process of having the disease. OK?” Is educational palliative care the best that we can do?

And some final words on the nature of this debate.

I understand this is an emotive issue for many people for a variety of reasons. I have a thick skin and I will be fine. However, I think inclusion campaigners have this Royal Commission in the bag. It was set up on their terms and is mostly talking to people who espouse their views – the real challenge will come in persuading state and federal governments to implement its recommendations. My letter is unlikely to make much, if any, difference to the outcome and so I think we have the chance for a more measured discussion. At the moment, if the idea is to convince teachers of the arguments for supposedly fully inclusive schools, the approach is counterproductive.

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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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Before you leave teaching…

A previous school in England used to host a steady stream of new teachers enrolled on something called the Graduate Teacher Programme or GTP. This was a way of training to be a teacher while working in a school and it seemed to most appeal to career changers who did not want the loss of pay associated with a full-time university course. We would be in the staffroom, waiting for them on their first day, ready with the killer question, “So, why did you decide to go into teaching then?”

Some had always thought about it and now was the time. Others figured out that they wanted to do something that really mattered. And then there were those who would tell us, with no sense of irony or self-consciousness, that they were seeking a better quality of life or that they wanted to be able to spend more time with their family. Often these were economics teacher retreating from the business world or English teachers retiring from journalism. It was this group who never worked out.

Because being a teacher is hard. I’ve glimpsed other ways of making a living – tough ways. For instance, I worked as a labourer throughout my time at university. But labouring jobs are quite different to the careers graduates may enter instead of teaching and I’ve never done any of those. Since I first stepped into a classroom in Uganda in the summer of 1997, teaching is all I have wanted to do and it is all that I have done. So, I have often wondered how it compares to other professions and those GTP candidates gave me an insight. So does the literature on teacher burnout and teacher turnover. We burn through a lot of good people.

Is that you? Are you looking for a way out? If so, you probably have your reasons. Let me venture a few.

Maybe you are in a tough school. Maybe you have some students who are preventing you from teaching and who you are struggling to reach and yet, when you use the systems that are supposedly in place to help you do this, you find they don’t work or you are not really supposed to use them. Or perhaps there aren’t any systems and you are trying to figure all of this out for yourself.

Maybe you are just snowed under with stuff. You are staying up late every evening planning, marking and/or doing the bureaucracy associated with your school’s ineffective systems, forever spinning your wheels and getting nowhere. When your partner offers you a glass of wine with your evening meal you say, “I better not, I need to stay alert,” because you will be working afterwards. When your university friends call you up to catch-up you have to pass. Or perhaps you’ve had such a bad day that you drink a whole bottle of wine, only to wake up the next morning with both a hangover and the knowledge that you are even further behind with your work.

Maybe it’s a little more nebulous and hard to pin down. Maybe you went in to teaching to make a difference and you have a few ideas about how to do that – how to improve the profession. But then, when you look around, you see that teachers are absent from this discussion. Professional associations are dominated by ex-teachers and academics. Panel discussions about teaching or education policy feature pundits with little in common except their non-teaching status. Royal commissions and public inquiries delve into the intricacies of what happens in the classroom with barely a thought to call a teacher as a witness.

Well it doesn’t have to be this way. None of it.

Before you go, may I humbly suggest working through the following short checklist:

1. Do you need to change school rather than career? Not all schools are the same. Your school may struggle to manage behaviour but there are schools out there doing an excellent job. They have whole-school systems that actually work and leaders who are helpful and supportive. Similarly, planning and marking doesn’t have to be this way. There is very little evidence that marking has a positive effect on academic outcomes and so the mania for marking every single piece of a child’s work is completely unjustified. Look for schools that do joint planning and talk about strategies such as whole-class feedback. Also consider independent schools. They may not be on your radar for a variety of reasons but they can help you become a more complete teacher by allowing you to hone your craft in a culture of high expectations without the distraction of low-level disruption. You can then take what you have learnt back to the government system at a later date if you wish.

2. Are the alternatives really so great? The two traps I am aware of ex-teachers falling into is either being sat in front of a computer all day – how did you like that during lockdown? – or being constantly on the move delivering training. Do you like office chairs? Do you enjoy motels? Face it, you probably went into teaching at least in part as a rejection of that kind of job. You want the interaction with students who keep you young. Is the alternative as fulfilling?

3. And finally, HELLO WE ARE BUILDING A NEW TEACHER PROFESSIONALISM HERE. I hope you have noticed. We are muscling in on the debate. We are giving our opinions on all matters educational, whether solicited or not. You can be part of that too. There has never been a more exciting time to engage with the wider teaching community. Back in ’97, pretty much the only teachers I knew were the ones I worked with – my little parochial bubble. Now, I can get out of bed and interview a teacher from the U.S. for a podcast that will be listened to by teachers around the globe. We can trade ideas. We can share tactics. We can make a difference. Have you considered going large?

Ultimately, a decision as to whether to leave teaching is an intensely personal one and will be affected by many factors I have not included. It is up to you and I am sure, if you choose to go, you will take what you have learnt in teaching and put it to good use elsewhere.

Just know that we don’t want you to go. And we are here to help.

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Dr David Armstrong and the Disability Royal Commission

Australia is currently conducting a Royal Commission into violence, abuse, neglect and the exploitation of people with disability. As part of this process, the commissioners are examining what happens in schools. One aspect of school life that affects children with a disability is the management of behaviour and so this has been the subject of inquiry.

I have tried to keep up-to-date with this, but the commission generates a lot of material. However, I have managed to review an interesting section where Dr David Armstrong provides evidence. The video is available here*.

One of the issues that immediately strikes you about commissions of this kind is that they are focused on collecting testimony from activists and campaigners. This is not a surprise, given that many teachers are not free to discuss the issue of behaviour in schools and, even if they were, may not be keen to do so. Instead, the discussion is dominated by those who think the current system is unjust and needs fixing.

I find it hard to disagree with much in Armstrong’s opening statement. He paints a picture of teachers underprepared for dealing with challenging student behaviour who then have to work out what to do on the job. He links these difficulties to teachers leaving the profession early. However, he describes the ad hoc systems that teachers build as a ‘manage and discipline’ model which is clearly meant pejoratively. In my view, the most effective systems manage students and inculcate a sense of discipline. The difference is that there is a school-wide approach where appropriate behaviours are taught, where classes are operating to the same principles and where school leaders understand their duty in supporting staff. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking to manage students. The difficulty comes in using broken systems to try to achieve this.

Nevertheless, my major difference with Armstrong comes when he outlines his alternatives to the default every-teacher-for-themselves approach. He describes his alternative as ‘modern’ and ‘evidence-based’, although I am not entirely sure that it is. It is hard to tell because I cannot get hold of the written depositions the witnesses have made but the case Armstrong makes is not entirely convincing, as we shall see. He discusses functional behavioural analysis and gives the example of a child who keeps sharpening his or her pencil. If we look beyond the behaviour to the reasons why a child may be doing this, we may conclude that they are trying to avoid work. Who knew?

Armstrong embeds this discussion in the old trope that, ‘All behaviour is communication’. I have written about this before because it seems to be a favourite platitude of people who like to comment on school behaviour from the outside. Read as, ‘All behaviour is intended to communicate something’ it is clearly false. Read as, ‘All behaviour gives possible indicative information as to the internal state of an individual’ it is trivially true. If the latter is the intended meaning of the trope then I wonder why people feel the need to constantly reiterate it. Teachers know behaviours have causes. That’s not enough. We need to know how to manage those behaviours in classrooms of 25-30 children where the opportunity for a one-to-one discussion is minimal.

Interestingly, Armstrong seems to reinforce the behaviour-as-communication take, insisting that teachers, “don’t actually require special skills, but do require tolerance and empathy and compassion and realism.” Simple. If only we just thought of the children. And apparently, this approach costs nothing. What politician could fail to be impressed?

And as you may expect, vague allusions to differentiation also form part of Armstrong’s preferred solution, despite differentiation stubbornly and persistently refusing to be evidence-based.

Then something interesting happens. The world of the educationalist suddenly collides with the world of the legal profession.

Ronald Sackville, the chair of the commission, asks, “And where is an example where this has been tried and worked”? (4.15:03).

Armstrong is initially lost for words. After a few ‘er’s and ‘erm’s, he asks Sackville, “what would you like, research or…?”

Sackville replies, “I’d be interested to see where it’s actually worked.”

Armstrong collects himself and refers to something he apparently wrote about in his deposition – Project X from South Australia. This is a three-day-per-week withdrawal programme. Students were placed on this program to receive ‘nurture group training’ where they were taught how to have positive relationships with adults. He discusses the case of ‘Adam’ who was allowed to rest on a beanbag because he arrived late after a poor night’s sleep. Apparently, schools would have gone straight to disciplinary measures to deal with Adam. I am not so sure about this.

Nevertheless, how exactly is this evidence of a zero cost approach that consists of simply changing the attitudes of regular teachers? A withdrawal program of this kind would probably have been quite expensive, particularly if class sizes were low. And if class sizes were low, it doesn’t really provide much of a proof of concept for work in regular schools.

I suspect the commission will keep spinning its wheels like this, particularly if they don’t talk to many teachers. They will hear one passionate, well-meaning and deeply ideological take after another, but little of practical significance.

And I would probably leave it there if it weren’t for Quaden Bayles. Quaden is a young man with dwarfism whose mother, Yarraka Bayles, appeared at the commission and who appeared himself in a pre-recorded video. His story is one of appalling bullying.

It is this kind of bullying that schools need the tools to deal with. The issues teachers face are not really about kids who sharpen their pencils too much, they are about the harm students can and will do to each other if we do not assume our responsibilities as adults and prevent it. Some of this is about education, some is about analysing the causes of this behaviour. However, even though Yarraka Bayles generously suggests that, “I don’t want to get kids expelled or suspended because that doesn’t help,” I would respectfully point out that, in my experience, there is a still a need for the option to suspend and exclude students. I cannot see an anti-bullying programme being effective if this last resort is taken away.

It is, I am afraid, magical thinking to suggest that teachers simply need to empathise more. If it were that simple, it would have occurred to us by now and we would be making it work. This is a complex area. It is an emotive area. Rather than platitudes, it deserves serious-minded research into practical solutions.


*I don’t know how to provide a direct link to the relevant section of video. Instead, you will need to click on “Event Posts” in the top right-hand corner of the video embedded on the website and select “Public Hearing 7 Brisbane – Day 1”. From there, you will need to navigate to 4.01:28 to see the start of Armstrong’s testimony.

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Briar Lipson

https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-brpn5-ef7736

Briar Lipson is a research fellow at the New Zealand Initiative. Prior to this, Briar worked in think tanks, became a teacher and assistant principal and was involved in the Free School movement in England. In this episode, Briar talks to Greg Ashman about he newly released book, New Zealand’s Education Delusion, and her thesis that child-centered teaching approaches have led to the decline in performance that New Zealand has suffered on international assessment such as PISA. Along the way, Briar and Greg discuss teacher training, the New Zealand curriculum and John Hattie’s comments on her book. Briar’s book is available for free on this link

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