The Hirsch Paradox

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Educational academics should really love E. D. Hirsch Jr. His writing supplies powerful arguments in favour of a broad and balanced curriculum, against some forms of standardised testing and against the idea of school as preparation for work; subjects that have been of concern to academics for many years and especially since the advent of ‘neoliberalism’ in education. What is more, Hirsch’s arguments are easy to grasp by the layperson, requiring little jargon to explain, and they treat his opponents generously. To Hirsch, mistakes in education reform arise out of well-intentioned idealism; a prospect that is far easier to sell than belief in a conspiracy.

The arguments

Hirsch essentially asserts the complexity and uncertainty of education. Reading, for instance, is not a discrete skill. Beyond decoding, reading comprehension is dependent upon students’ knowledge of the world. If you know something about Israel and Palestine then you will better comprehend a newspaper article about a new set of talks on a future settlement than if you don’t know anything about the issue. This is because writers always have to assume some knowledge on the part of their readers otherwise writing would become clunky, pedantic and tedious. Writers are constantly making judgements about what their readers know. In the case of a journalist writing for a quality newspaper, these judgments will be implicit assumptions about the knowledge held by an educated reader.

We have, in effect, a virtuous circle; a baseline of knowledge on the part of the reader enables them to learn knew knowledge from the text.

The argument runs right into Gert Biesta because it demonstrates why the teaching of reading will always be probabilistic and never certain. A given educational input can never lead to a certain output because we cannot predict all of the possible permutations of reader knowledge with writer assumptions. Yet we tend to conceive of reading as a discrete skill that can be linearly developed. If students don’t understand a text then we teach them reading comprehension strategies. Although these may help, Hirsch demonstrates why they are ultimately limited.

And yet this goes far beyond reading itself. All academic learning involves reading and writing. Writing is reading in reverse. We can teach the technical skills of sentence and paragraph construction and we can teach essay planning strategies. Absurdly, we sometimes attempt to teach students how to ‘generate ideas’ but what are these in the absence of knowledge? Writing has to be about something and the knowledgeable writer will produce better text than the merely technically competent one. After all, writing is a formal expression of thought and thought consists of knowledge. We can conceive of writing as a complex and uncertain balance of technical skill and semantic knowledge with vocabulary perched on the pivot point.

Accepting Hirsch’s argument inevitably leads to a number of conclusions. Firstly, if we want students to be able to fruitfully participate in a democratic society then they need to be able to access and understand sources of information. They therefore need the knowledge that is commonly assumed by the writers of these sources and so we need to design a broad and balanced curriculum that includes history, science, geography, literature, music and all the rest of it. Two hours a day of endless reading comprehension drills simply won’t do.

Secondly, if we place a random piece of writing in front of a child and then ask comprehension questions – as we do in standardised tests – the result will be a conflation of skill and knowledge. it won’t tell us a great deal. Neither will asking students to write to a banal prompt. If you really want to assess the skill component of reading or writing then you need to take knowledge off the table by ensuring that students have learnt the knowledge domain in which the reading or writing task is set.

Currently, standardised tests are premised on the idea that there are functional skills of numeracy and literacy that are important economically and that we can train students to perform, much as we can train young people to drive cars. In this model, the humanities and arts are nice to have, but we must be hard-nosed and deliver on these functional skills as a priority. Hirsch shatters all that. He shows it to be a nonsense.

Why has Hirsch been neglected?

Hirsch has been overlooked due to the way that educational theory has developed. Education reformers at the end of the nineteenth century reacted to what they perceived to be harsh, authoritarian schools where students were required to memorise facts by rote, often under threats of violence. In order to disrupt this form of education, it was necessary to promote the perspective of the child and diminish the value of memorising factual knowledge. As Kieran Egan writes, “Consider Spencer’s, Dewey’s, and so many others’ claim that rote learning is ‘vicious.’ This was paradigmatic of the traditional practices that progressivism has been trying to displace – in this case with some success. Students today, in my experience, are rarely asked to learn anything substantial by rote…”

In 1916, Ellwood P. Cubberley published the text, “Public School Administration.” Here, he contrasted a clearly inadequate ‘knowledge curriculum’ with ‘the development type of course’ where facts have, “…no real importance until they have been put to use.” To Cubberley, knowledge curricula are built on the ideas of, “…[passing on] the accumulated knowledge of the past to the next generation, that the mere process of acquiring such knowledge gives good mental discipline, and that knowledge is synonymous with power. Facts, often of no particular importance in themselves, are taught, memorised, and tested for, to be forgotten as soon as the school-grade need for them has passed.”

Already present as a thread in early education reform, relativism took a greater role towards the end of the 20th century. Writers such as Paolo Freire were concerned that imposition of knowledge from an authority was oppressive and disrespectful. The teacher assumes that the student knows nothing. He wanted to start with his students’ – in his case illiterate South American peasants – own knowledge. This appeals to the idea that there is no one perspective on the world and asks us to accept that canonical knowledge is only canonical because it is the knowledge of the privileged. We have a duty to uncover and honour the knowledge of the oppressed.

Hirsch’s focus on knowledge building is therefore seen as traditionalist, reactionary and, at worst, oppressive or even racist.

Lost in the process

Criticisms of Hirsch often rest on an elision. Imagine teaching students about Daedalus and Icarus or apartheid. It is inconceivable that, in so doing, a teacher would imply that Daedalus and Icarus is a true story or that apartheid was a good thing. Yet we seem to have confused knowledge with truth and value. You can know about an idea and you can believe it to be wrong. That’s still knowledge. We can teach the stories of history as fact or we can teach them as interpretations. We have that choice.

And we can democratically monkey with the curriculum. If we did write a programme based solely on an analysis of what the writers of quality newspaper articles assume their readers know then it would, no doubt, be dominated by European men. But we don’t have to stop there. We still have a choice. we can add figures and ideas that we think should be more important and we can drop off some of the others. Over time, this would then causally effect what writers assume as the new generation matures. Of course, this cannot be the task of one person, faction or party. Instead, we need a forum for vigorous, perhaps even rancorous, public scrutiny and debate. I think such a forum would only enhance our democracy.

I believe that academics should give Hirsch another look. Before dismissing his ideas, throw them around a little; give them some air. Maybe they can be improved upon. Maybe they can be extended. I just think they are worth examining.

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Computer marking of writing probably won’t work

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There has been something of a storm in Australia about a proposal to have computers mark the NAPLAN writing assessment. Initially, scripts will all be marked by both a teacher and a computer but, in time, the hope is that teachers will no longer be needed.

If it works, it will be an advance. We know, for instance, that teachers can be unreliable at assessing complex tasks such as writing. Computers could potentially be more reliable. Unfortunately, it is possible for them to be reliable – consistently awarding the same mark for the same piece – without being valid. In other words, the mark may not reflect the actual quality of the writing. This is what I think will happen.

Unfortunately, Steven Schwartz has decided to frame this issue as one of fearful teachers worrying about the loss of a source of revenue:

“Traditionally, teachers have done much of the marking of writing. If computers prove capable of doing the job, some teachers will still be needed to train them, but others may find themselves redundant. Like so many workers before them, they fear being replaced by machines.”

The money-grabbing swines!

This is unfortunate because there are legitimate reasons to be sceptical of introducing new technology to education. And there are some very good reasons to be sceptical of this new technology in particular.

Presumably, Schwartz thinks of writing as a skill, albeit a complex one. But it really doesn’t work like that. The skill of writing is intimately intertwined with the content that is being written about. As Schwartz makes clear, computers will learn to mark by mimicking the performance of teachers. However, computers don’t know much about the content and so they will have to rely on proxies such as word length, complexity of grammar, text length and so on.

These may be good indicators of the quality of an essay at the moment. However, once people realise what the computer values, they will cease to function as good indicators. Once a measure becomes a target it ceases to function well as a measure. I am pretty sure that I could write a long piece of contradictory gibberish that could fool a computer into giving it a good mark. It would be unfortunate if we start giving schools an incentive to train students to perform a series of tricks in this way.

I am concerned that the distillation of writing into a pure skill takes us in completely the wrong direction. Instead of putting our faith in genericism, we should be tying NAPLAN writing tasks to the content of the Australian Curriculum (AC). The AC might be content-lite but at least this process would level the playing field and draw attention to the right things i.e. the stuff that the writer is writing about. We then really would be assessing writing skills because we would be able to control for content, rather than the luck associated with how a student responds to a banal and generic prompt.

However, as Schwartz points out, this is only a trial and I don’t generally have a problem with trying something out. Unfortunately, it will take a few years to figure out if the assessment can be gamed. By then we might be committed to robot marking and generations of Australian children may be churning out essays about nothing, full of complex sentences and long words.


A key flaw in the idea of comparing effect sizes

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I was alerted* to a new paper by Hans Luyten, Christine Merrell and Peter Tymms about effect sizes. Effect sizes get bandied around a lot in education and many will have heard of John Hattie’s figure of d=.40 (0.4 of a standard deviation) as an effect size worth having. However, this is pretty blunt. We know, for instance, that effect sizes may be impacted by a number of factors, including the age of children.

Luyten and colleagues decided to try measuring some baseline effect sizes. In other words, they decided to determine the effect for normal teaching in different subject areas and for different groups of students. The students they chose were primary students in England who primarily attended independent schools and effect sizes were calculated for reading, mental arithmetic, general mathematics and a construct called ‘developed ability’ that included picture vocabulary and pattern recognition. They used a regression-discontinuity approach where very similar students in two different year groups are compared i.e. children falling either side of an arbitrary cut-off date for entry into a particular year group.

The good news is that schooling seems to have an effect. However, the effect sizes varied. They generally became smaller as children grew older. For reading, the effect size shrank from d=.55 when comparing Year 1 and Year 2 to d=.08 when comparing Years 5 and 6. Is this an indication that, once children can decode, reading cannot really be taught? See this Hirsch article for a discussion relevant to this idea.

It is therefore tempting to suggest that, if this is representative of students more generally, a reading intervention in Year 5 with an effect size of d=.30 would be worth having. However, we tend to intervene with struggling students who may in fact look more like the younger students in this study. So what effect size should we be seeking?

I think that it is impossible to say.

The changes in effect size for general maths are less severe but still significant, ranging from d=.47 to d=.27. And this only goes as far ad the end of primary school. What would these look like at secondary?

The evidence is now building. We need to move away from tables of effects such as those produced by Hattie and the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit. Effect sizes will depend on student age and level of advancement in their learning. Claiming that amorphous intervention X will deliver 4 months extra progress is invalid and unhelpful. Instead of comparing effect sizes and hoping they cross an arbitrary threshold, we need to do more studies that compare Intervention A with Intervention B and a control. In the long term, this is the only way we will remove the junk from our data; by comparing like with like.

*Best Evidence in Brief is an excellent email sent out by the Institute for Effective Education in York, England. It’s well worth subscribing to.


Are teachers’ stories believable?

I’m an advocate for teacher voice. I worry about teachers being excluded from the education debate and so I encourage new bloggers and argue against policies that restrict the expression of professional opinions. As a profession, we seem to have little say, with plenty of outsiders wanting to speak on our behalf. My own hypothesis is that this goes back over a century and relates to teaching being a female-dominated profession. Back then, men in authority would not take the voices of women seriously and so worthy male college professors took the floor instead. We’ve never recovered.

And so I was interested in a thread started by Old Andrew on Twitter where he asked about the worst behaviour teachers had experienced that had not led to an exclusion.

Let me make this clear: I see exclusion as a failure. I don’t view it as a punishment – even if it may be experienced that way – but as a protection for the community. Children and teachers need to feel safe in school as a prerequisite for any learning to take place. An anxious child, worrying about what will happen at lunch time, won’t be able to focus on quadratic equations. And I think exclusion is more likely in the absence of firm behaviour policies because more problems will inevitably escalate to this level.

What I’m pretty sure about is that teachers are generally not to blame for exclusion.

Some people objected to Andrew’s tweet. They pointed out that this was not a scientific method of collecting objective data. But I don’t think anyone ever claimed it was. Social media is often used to collect testimonies and hear voices in this way. For instance, the #metoo hashtag has been giving voice to victims of sexual harassment and assault. This is the power of social media. This is what it does.

Others suggested that Twitter simply is not the right place to air such stories. I have some sympathy for this view. Andrew’s thread is certainly confronting. Yet no schools or students are identified and this is clearly an issue of concern to teachers. I’m not sure there are other, more appropriate forums where this could be taken up.

Some remarks saddened me. Among the thread were those making facetious comments. I don’t find anything funny about the events teachers were relating of violence and shame; of teachers being spat at or racially abused; of rape threats.

One critic was Linda Graham. Graham is an Australian academic with an interest in school exclusions whose work has been popularised in the U.K. by the TES. It is interesting to view some of her responses, particularly in a context where the behaviour in Australian schools is a matter of public concern.

Graham commented on the believability of the stories:


And again:


And also made a joke:


I have to admit to being surprised by this. I am used to teachers struggling to make their voices heard but I don’t think I’ve seen an educationalist make these kinds of claims before.


Think tank calls for teachers to be given more free periods

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The Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) has released a report foreshadowing the “Gonksi 2.0” review of how school may best spend any additional money available through new funding arrangements.

As you might imagine, the author, Blaise Joseph, recommends that there be greater support for systematic synthetic phonics. He notes that teachers don’t seem to be properly prepared for teaching phonics by their training institutions and makes the well-known point that phonics in general – and systematic synthetic phonics in particular – is backed by a wealth of evidence spanning English speaking countries across the world.

However, Joseph has two more suggestions. He points to the high level of classrooms disruption in Australian schools and suggests that we need to invest in better training. The educational establishment in Australia certainly have a fingers-in-ears approach to this subject, preferring to focus on the plight of students excluded from schools rather than on making schools safer environments in which to learn, something that might actually reduce exclusions in the long term. Behaviour is a topic that brings out the ideologues, as I was reminded by the U.K. reaction to a recent blog post by Old Andrew where teachers shared stories of some of the worst behaviour they had encountered. These testimonies made a few people ‘angry‘, such is the strength of feeling against anyone who suggests we might have a bit of a problem. We have the same constituency in Australia and so it is going to be hard to move things forward. Insistence on engage-them-into-behaving is probably why we have such an issue with discipline in the first place.

Joseph’s other suggestion is that teachers should spend less time teaching. We have a lot of contact time compared to other countries and this means that we have less time for planning and collaboration. If there is money available then I would suggest that this would be a great use of it, particularly for teachers who are working in a tough context. However, as Joseph cautions, “It is important teachers are not burdened with extra administrative work in lieu of more teaching hours. For example, expecting teachers to prepare lesson plans using templates that are not evidence-based would be time consuming and ineffective.” It would all be for nought if it becomes a box-filling exercise.

Finally, Joseph mentions that investing in ed-tech and smaller class sizes are not supported by the evidence at present.

You might notice that I am credited with reviewing Joseph’s report. I am keen to work collaboratively with anyone who wishes to see a more evidence-informed approach to education. No doubt this will lead some to feverishly conclude something about ‘neoliberal imaginaries’ and all that malarkey. So be it.


Twitter is not like real life and that’s what makes it so important

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You know me from Twitter and blogging but I exist in the real world too. And I existed in the real world, earning a living as a teacher, long before I discovered Twitter.

So I have the necessary perspective to confidently claim that Twitter is unrepresentative of the real world of teaching. In the real world, teachers go to the staffroom and chat about the weekend while drinking instant coffee, before hurtling back to their classrooms to teach. Occasionally an education guru will come down from the mountain and offer sage advice before disappearing in a cloud of croissants.

There is little space within this for debate or discussion. It is generally accepted that training will either be technical or what we might term ‘student centered’, although few will recognise the term or be able to see it as a distinctive school of thought. School leaders and consultants don’t spend much time substantiating their arguments because they generally don’t see the need. Most teachers think, ‘that sounds nice but I’m not sure how I could get it to work’.

Twitter is different. For starters, you have to be a bit eccentric to want to discuss education in your free time. It’s for teachers whose hobby is teaching rather than tending an allotment or collecting porcelain owls. So there’s that.

Then there is the apparent flatness of the forum. Yes, some people might have blue ticks but, apart from this, there is no clear hierarchy. An anonymous Tweeter with 12 followers can ask Dylan Wiliam a question and may indeed get an answer. Anonymity is both a blessing and a curse; it shields trolls but it also allows people to engage in debate even if to do so openly would risk their career.

And it’s all electric. If a consultant, familiar with uncritical acceptance, expresses a view that seems at odds with reality then you can quickly Google it or check other sources. If you wish, you may then tweet back with what you find. You can’t really do this in a staff meeting.

This breaks down the cosy, student centered consensus that exists in schools. Teachers hear about different views and ideologies. They can compare and contrast. Some become mini-celebrities by espousing unconventional views. Which is, in my view, great.

But it causes some cognitive dissonance for those invested in the old consensus. And the way they deal with this is to try to diminish Twitter. “It’s not like the real world of the staffroom,” they claim. “Most teachers are not on Twitter,” they state, betraying their longing for a simpler time.

That’s right. Twitter is not like real life. And that’s what makes it so important.


Education and progress

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I’m not keen on the idea of social mobility. It rests on two assumptions; a stratification of society into superior and inferior layers and a zero sum game where some move up and others move down. I don’t see things that way. Society is not pickled in aspic. Political progressives like me believe that it can be improved in absolute terms. And these beliefs are justified. Diseases that once wrought havoc, even in the most privileged classes, have been defeated in the developed world. Where my ancestors had the choice between shattering physical toil or starvation, their descendants sit in offices, on sales desks, cut lawns, stock warehouses or get by on unemployment benefit. We haven’t reached the promised land but I wouldn’t go back.

So my vision of education is that it should move us all forward, collectively.

Like any other human attribute, intelligence, the raw processing power needed to solve problems and sort information, is unevenly distributed. Maybe some roles do need the outliers. Maybe becoming a Professor of Quantum Mechanics is not obtainable for many of us. And, yes, there will be those of us with cognitive impairments that limit our options. But I don’t buy the idea that the broad mass of kids can be divided into the academic and the non-academic. Virtually everyone can learn to read and grow their vocabulary and so, potentially, there is nothing written that is out of reach. With the right teaching and motivation, I’m also convinced that everyone can achieve quite a high level of competence in mathematics.

The arts give lie to this false distinction between the academic and the non-academic. Supposedly, the liberal arts are academic but the performing arts are not. So what of an actor performing Shakespeare? What’s that? If we take the child who is passionate about drama and assume that she is not academic then we place limits on her appreciation of drama. That cannot be right. If something is worth doing, its worth doing well. And doing something well is always going to be an academic pursuit.

I understand that there are teenagers who are disengaged. I accept that, for some, it might even be better that they go out and work or follow work-related courses rather than stay in school to 18, studying traditional subjects. But I see this as a sign of societal failure rather than of something innate in those children. They may have been let down by a vicious mix of circumstance and schooling. If a child fails to read and write proficiently by the end of primary school then I can fully understand why he might disengage at secondary school. It’s human. If you can’t read and you’re given a geography textbook then you will feel the futility and wish to be somewhere else.

What if we were able to do better? What if we could get more kids reading and writing proficiently? What if we could systematically grow their knowledge of the world far past the horizons of their own experience? What if we had more students competent in basic mathematics? Would they become disillusioned then? I’m not certain, but I think we would see a decrease in the number of those children we think are just not academic.

And yes, I understand that we still need plumbers. But why shouldn’t plumbers be able to appreciate the arts and sciences? You may say that you know a lot of plumbers and none of them have ever expressed an interest in Socrates or Shakespeare or Paleontology. But that’s the point. When you know nothing of something then how can it possibly be your passion? Schools are there to teach children stuff. Some of this stuff is useful, some of it is interesting, some is needed for later learning and some might just spark a lifelong love affair. How can children follow their interests when they don’t even know what they are?

For me, education is preparation for life in its fullest sense. It is not just training for a job. The economy changes all the time, we don’t know where it will lead and we can’t predict that. But if we have more people around who understand fundamental principles of science and art then that has to be a good thing, whether it pays in the economy or in the rich private lives of people. In reality, it is likely to pay in both.

One day, we will stop making assumptions about people based on their skin colour or their accent or their gender and, one day, we will stop making assumptions about whether children are academic or not. This world is for everyone and I believe in progress.