Phonics and the Voynich manuscript

Some consider it to be a hoax. Despite sustained attention, the Voynich manuscript has so far defied all attempts at deciphering. Some passages resemble a medieval herbal, except that they reference fantastical plants. Others, such as the balneological section, defy obvious interpretation. There are bathing nymphs and there is water, often being pumped around through a series of strange water works.

The manuscript is named after Wilfred Voynich, who purchased it in 1912. However, it was mentioned in correspondence in the seventeenth century, radiocarbon dating places the parchment in the late medieval period and analysis of the inks used show them to be consistent with that time. Statistical analysis of the characters in the text throws up some weird patterns that seem distinct from extant languages.

If it is not elaborate gibberish, then what we really need is for someone to work out the script – what the squiggles on the page mean. At that point, we may have a hope of understanding the text. Looking at the pictures only gets us so far.

An example such as the Voynich manuscript, alongside other undeciphered texts such as Minoan Linear A, demonstrates conclusively that an understanding of a language’s script is not in opposition to an understanding of the meaning of a text. In the case of the Voynich manuscript, contextual clues such as the illustrations, only deepen the mystery.

This is a useful example to bear in mind when considering the arguments in a story by Jordan Baker in the Sydney Morning Herald this week about the new voluntary phonics check for early readers in New South Wales.

When education academic Robyn Ewing dismisses the idea because reading, “…boils down to meaning – understanding that it’s about meaning-making first.” they are offering us a false choice. Attempts at understanding the meaning of a text are only enhanced by an understanding of the relationships between letters and the sounds they represent. True, knowledge of phonics may allow a child to pronounce a word that is not in their oral vocabulary and therefore a word they do not understand, but this hardly seems to be harmful to understanding. How could they access the meaning of such a word in the absence of phonics? It may even prompt a question that will lead to the child learning the new word.

Fortunately, teachers are starting to see through the false choices and are taking over the conversation for themselves. This is right and proper as teaching emerges, blinking, into the light of being a profession with a professional body of knowledge. Despite the warnings of academics such as Ewing, David Hornsby – “Absolute bloody silliness” – and Pasi Sahlberg, a third of public primary schools in New South Wales have opted in to the new phonics check. Why? Because the teachers working in those schools see the value of it.


The Ministry of Silly Hats

Edutopia is promoting the use of Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. I have therefore reposted the following 2013 article from my old blog:

When I was a young pup, during my first year of teaching, I had to attend a special training session each week with the other young pups and our professional tutor. One week, this session was led by a drama teacher and the subject was the proper projection of the voice. We were all stood in a line and asked to say the word, “Now,” in turn. Apparently, we were to do this from our stomachs – which oddly seemed to be located in our intestines – and not from our throats. I failed. So, the instructor asked me to jog on the spot and say, “Now.” Begrudgingly, I did this but it seems that this exertion was in vain because I was still utilising my throat in the process.

Not to be discouraged, the instructor had another idea. I should run from one end of the room to another saying, “Now,” repeatedly as I did so.

“No,” I said throatily, “I won’t be doing that,” and I sat down.

My professional tutor was embarrassed and  there was something of a flap before we all agreed that it was perfectly fine for me to sit out the rest of the activity.

This highlights the importance of seeing things from multiple perspectives. What the instructor perceived to be playful and constructive, I perceived to be pointless and demeaning.

Imagine, therefore, that someone were to ask me  – literally or metaphorically – to don Edward de Bono’s red thinking hat and declare my emotional reaction to a proposal to alter the end-of-term reporting criteria. On a good day, I may confect something trite in order to move the discussion on to the next step. On a bad day, I might just refuse to play.

Further, imagine it is 2006 and the boss of a big bank is conducting a thinking hats session around the proposal to take-over a profitable sub-prime mortgage provider. Imagine an underling is given the job of performing some ‘black hat’ thinking in a meeting and divine the potential problems. Which of the following scenarios do you think would be most likely?

1. The underling plays “It’s the end of the world,” by REM on the boardroom sound-system whilst swaying rhythmically and issuing dire prognostications about the death of the bank, a global financial crisis and huge sovereign debts accrued in bailing-out a banking system deemed too big to fail.

2. The underling notes some branding differences between the two banks that will need to be overcome.

One of the largest risks we face is hubris. Just in the last decade, we have had the Iraq war and the banking collapse. Whatever you think about the moral case for the Iraq war, there is no denying that it was badly thought through, largely due to hubris. The banking crisis is a monument to hubris. Could it have been avoided with thinking hats? Probably not. What is worse, such strategies have the potential to provide a veneer of proper analysis where no such analysis exists. They replicate the form of different types of thinking without necessarily replicating their substance. The confusion of form with substance, the idea that by adopting a form you can short-cut the need to engage in the substance, is a significant error of reason.

Simply donning a white hat does not give you the knowledge – known as ‘information’ in the thinking hats schema – that you need to make a good decision. Yet, this is where the majority of the work is to be done in the majority of cases; the collation, evaluation and comprehension of sufficient domain knowledge.

I first came across thinking hats when I picked-up de Bono’s book as a Penguin Classic a few years ago. It was a cheap, impulse buy. I assumed that it would contain psychological insights based upon, well, the science of psychology. What I found was a sequence of assertions and a description of a method, plus lots of testimonials. I soon tired of this, declaring the whole thing ‘silly’ and not paying it further attention.

My next encounter was quite recently, in the book “How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World,’ by Francis Wheen. To my astonishment, I found that the Blair government had actually been a big fan of de Bono and his thinking hats. Wheen explains;

“When Blair entered Downing Street, several executives from Andersen – and McKinseys, the other leading management consultancy – were seconded to Whitehall with a brief to practise ‘blue skies thinking’. Soon afterwards, in perhaps the most remarkable manifestation of New Labour’s guru-worship, they were joined by Dr Edward de Bono, whose task was ‘to develop bright ideas on schools and jobs.’

In the autumn of 1998 more than 200 officials from the Department of Education were treated to a lecture from de Bono on his ‘Six Thinking Hats system’ of decision making… ‘Without wishing to boast,’ he added, ‘this is the first new way of thinking to be developed for 2,400 years since the days of Plato, Socrates and Aristotle.’”


Francis Wheen’s book was a real eye-opener and I recommend it. He goes on to explain that the warning signs around de Bono’s judgement were already there for the Blair government to see;

“In his 1985 book… Edward de Bono offered the lessons that might be learned from a number of people… The millionaires he extolled included US hotelier Harry Helmsley, later convicted of massive tax evasion, and Robert Maxwell, subsequently exposed as one of the most outrageous fraudsters in British history.”

So I knew a little about Edward de Bono and his thinking hats but I hadn’t been aware that this approach had made it into schools until I read Tom Bennett’s excellent book, ‘Teacher Proof’ – another recommended read. It seems that some teachers are using the six thinking hats in class to develop thinking amongst their students.

I sometimes offend people when I criticise forms of pedagogy. Let me be clear; it is perfectly valid to criticise or even mock a teaching approach. This is not a personal attack. However, some people choose to see it as such: I am attacking something that they do and so they see is as an attack on them personally. It’s as if claiming that the England team’s tactics are unsound is a personal attack on the integrity of the manager. It is not. Such claims are fair in a free society. But this convenient line of reasoning is often effective at shutting down legitimate debate in education.

So here are my reservations about the thinking hats:

1. As I have mentioned, adopting the form of certain type of thinking is not a short-cut to the substance. Many responses are likely to be lazy, platitudinous and uninformed. Pretending to be a wizard doesn’t make you a wizard.

2. The role of knowledge is diminished. The white hat (information) is just one of a total of five active hats who are shepherded by the blue managerial hat. In real decisions, knowledge plays a much more central role and is critical to any success or failure.

3. It relies on a proposition; something open-ended to be discussed. This is not necessarily bad in of itself, but open-endedness is fetishised in some quarters in education at the expense of the transmission of knowledge. Such strategies fit this agenda.

4. It is silly.

Does this mean that you should never touch the hats? Actually, no, it does not. I don’t care for them but I can see that they could break-up a lesson in an interesting way. They could represent a fun way of having a classroom discussion. Even if we discovered the most efficient, optimal form of teaching then you wouldn’t want to do it all of the time; students would become tired because thinking is hard and then the strategy would be suboptimal. There is something to be said for mixing things up a bit. I just don’t think that thinking hats should be taken too seriously.

There’s another reason why I wouldn’t ban the hats. I find Debra Kidd’s defence of thinking hats to be lucid, detailed and convincing, although not convincing enough to change my mind just yet. I believe that if and when Debra uses this approach then she and her students find it to be effective. This may be because of a placebo effect. It may be because Debra integrates a lot of her experience and wisdom into its application – like the man who made soup from a stone. Or, it may well be that I am completely wrong. I’m not sure that there is enough evidence to decide it one way or the other.

What I would be dead against is a whole school ‘thinking hats’ policy where begrudging, rueful teachers are forced to apply thinking hats in a tokenistic way. I’ve been there with Building Learning Power and its a bad place.

Can you imagine; all those forlorn faces sitting underneath those brightly coloured hats…


Dan Willingham

Professor Dan Willingham is a psychologist at the University of Virginia. Dan started out as a cognitive psychology and neuroscience researcher, but an encounter with E. D. Hirsch Jr. led him to take an interest in the application of cognitive psychology to education. In this episode, Dan talks to Greg Ashman about his interest in education, his book, Why Don’t Students Like School?, a new edition of which is in the pipeline, reading instruction and critical thinking.


On ditching exams

There is a persistent idea in Australia and beyond that Year 12 exams are incredibly stressful and need to be ditched. You see this seam run though government reports and commentary.

Today, The Conversation, has published a piece arguing that Year 12 exam results can be pretty accurately predicted from Year 9 NAPLAN scores (a standardised assessment taken by Australian students in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 – although not this year) and so we can use the Year 9 scores and get rid of the Year 12 exams.


This argument is very similar to one I criticised earlier in the year so I will be brief. Year 9 exams work as a good predictor now because they are a low stakes measure. If you make university entrance dependent upon Year 9 exams then instead of stressed 18-year-olds, you will have a bunch of stressed 15-year-olds. What’s more, they will have no incentive to do anything much for their last three years of schooling, despite the author’s rather optimistic hopes of what will happen as a result:

“Our proposal is to allow flexibility for each student to get ready for the next phase of their learning during Year 12. This includes opportunities to use Year 12 to engage in real-world projects, formal apprenticeships, TAFE or university certificates, study abroad (when that can occur again safely), going deeper into advanced courses of interest and providing new supports to promote success without dumbing things down.”

This is before mentioning how unfair such a system would be on those students who work hard during these final three years but are still imprinted with an unshiftable Year 9 score.

I am sceptical about the notion that Year 12 exams are unbearably stressful – certainly not for most students. Previous generations of 18-year-olds have gone to war. And this generation will face job interviews, marriage proposals, unwanted diagnoses, redundancies and a whole range of other pressures as they go through life. An experience of coping with such pressure in a situation that offers no threat to young people’s physical safety is probably a good thing.

The piece in The Conversation also alludes to the concept of learning portfolios, an idea that also features in recent review of Year 12 pathways in Australia.

“Students will leave school with a Learner Profile, identifying the range of their skills, knowledge and experiences. It will include learning and experiences gained inside and outside of school. Students will be guided to recognise the attributes they have acquired through study in the classroom as well as from work experience, volunteering and personal achievement.”

The idea is that this would sit alongside, and enhance, academic measures.

Again, as I have mentioned before, such a plan would benefit the most privileged students – those with an uncle in a particular industry, connections at the local church and time on their hands. It would not benefit the student who catches two buses to school and who works evenings and weekends to supplement the family income. Yes, we can point to the positive use of learner profiles in some case studies at present, but that’s because they are low stakes. Once those with privilege realise that university entrance is linked to them, the gaming will start.

In fact, this already seems to be an issue with entry to elite American colleges. Recently, a case was brought against Harvard on the grounds they were using subjective ratings of personal qualities known as ‘personal ratings’ to discriminate against students from Asian backgrounds. What is fairer, entry based upon a clearly stated and objective standard of an exam or entry based upon a judgement an individual has formed about how personable you are?

In all these situations, it is not enough to focus on the flaws of exams, you also need to coolly consider the proposed alternatives. Yes, students can buy advantage on an exam through access to tuition, but they still have to go alone into the exam room and perform. This acts as something of a leveler.

We could, of course, improve the system in Australia. We need decent alternatives for students who do not wish to go to university. We probably need to go back to more closely aligning Year 12 subjects to university courses – it seems odd that a student who want to study Engineering in Victoria does not need to study physics at Year 11 or Year 12. Australia’s ATAR system is just one way of aggregating exam scores and we could seriously consider alternatives.

But these alternatives still need to be based upon exams if we want to have anything approaching a fair system.


BERA should retract Steve Watson’s paper

Steve Watson of Cambridge University has had a paper published about education debate on Twitter. It has been enthusiastically welcomed by members of the UK’s education establishment who see it as proving what they have thought all along. However, the paper contains serious flaws.

One example is the partial and unevidenced way in which Watson characterises the differences between what he describes as ‘progs’ and ‘trads’;

“A Twitter thread in 2012 featured an argument about the nature of children’s motivation in the classroom. The question revolves around teacher authority and the nature of learning, but after a few exchanges, the debate turns into a dispute. On the one side Progs argue that teachers should motivate children through engaging and inspiring them; and on the other side, Trads argue that children should be pressed into learning a series of facts.”

I find the characterisation of ‘trads’ extremely implausible. I don’t see anyone arguing for pressing children into learning a series of facts. I see arguments for a knowledge rich curriculum. However, we cannot test Watson’s claims about this Twitter exchange because there is no reference to it, despite the citation of Tweets being commonplace in academic literature for some time.

Perhaps even worse is what Watson does choose to cite. ResearchED is an extremely popular grass-roots movement among teachers and has therefore put a few noses out of joint in the education establishment. This has led to a campaign of misinformation from some and to a number of conspiracy theories. Watson sides with the tinfoil hat wearers on this issue:

“ResearchED grew in popularity after 500 teachers attended its inaugural conference in 2013. There have been over 50 conferences in the UK and abroad. However, Ulam argues that researchED is an ‘astroturfed’ movement; that it is an artificial grassroots movement established as an ‘outrider’ for Gove’s education reforms (Ulam, 2017).”

To understand this conspiracy theory, things unfortunately get a little arcane. As I understand it, researchED was formed in 2013 as the result of a Twitter conversation. Someone suggested that teachers needed their own research organisation, Tom Bennett was suggested as the person to set it up and he agreed.

However, critics want to see it as a creation of the UK’s Conservative government. The source Watson cites suggests that a few days before the Twitter conversation, one of the people involved, Ben Goldacre, had suggested in a government report that teachers needed a research organisation.

To me, this is hardly surprising. If Goldacre thought teachers needed a research organisation then he would have been likely to say this to whoever he was talking to, be it the government or folks on Twitter. But, you know, that’s far too simple an explanation.

And what is Watson’s source for this conspiracy theory? A blog post by Vince Ulam. I am not necessarily against blogging, but this is a deeply eccentric source for an academic paper. I am pretty sure Ulam is a pseudonym. And his online presence is quite bizarre (full disclosure – Ulam has previously written a strange blog post about me).

Ulam has a presence on Twitter and likes to discuss trans issues. Whatever you think about that, I’m sure we can all agree that comments such as the following are appalling:

Watson’s paper was published in the British Educational Research Journal, the journal of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) and yet it wouldn’t get past the most jaded PhD supervisor without demands for a complete rewrite and much better referencing.

For the sake of its reputation, BERA should retract this paper.


The enemies of Charter Schools

I am currently reading an interesting book by Thomas Sowell, Charter Schools and their Enemies. For the uninitiated, Charter Schools are a form of government funded school in the U.S. that operate as an alternative to traditional public schools. Providers make a bid to an authorising authority and, if successful, they gain a charter which can later be taken away if the school fails to fulfil certain conditions. Regulations vary across states, but teachers in Charter Schools tend to be less unionised and often do not require the same credentials as teachers in traditional public schools.

The accepted line on Charter Schools is that, considered as a whole, they are no more effective than traditional public schools. However, this masks a lot of variation and cannot explain the popularity of many Charter Schools among parents and their consequently large waiting lists. According to Sowell, it is also an unfair comparison because Charter Schools tend to serve the most disadvantaged and marginalised students whereas public schools serve an entire cross-section of the population. When we bear that in mind, it indicates that Charter Schools perform relatively well.

There is no way of settling this to everyone’s satisfaction. Although entry to popular Charter Schools is often conferred via a lottery, it would be extremely difficult to run a proper randomised controlled trial. Nevertheless, Sowell has completed an interesting analysis that is highly suggestive.

In New York, many Charter Schools, such as the Success Academy and Uncommon Schools chains, actually share the same buildings as traditional public schools. Not only do they share buildings, they share very similar student populations drawn from equivalent catchments. Sowell therefore identified individual classrooms in these Charter Schools and matched them to similar classrooms in the public school in the same building. Then he ran a comparison.

In New York, students sit tests every year in English and maths. According to Sowell’s analysis, the Charter classrooms overwhelmingly outperform the traditional ones. We are not talking about a proficiency rate that is two or three percent higher, we are taking about a proficiency rate that is often two or three times higher.

And yet Charter Schools are under attack in America right now. One vignette Sowell draws is of an elementary Charter School operating out of a church basement in Detroit. Detroit has suffered from depopulation in recent years and this led to a traditional elementary school closing. The Charter School was outgrowing its basement and was interested in acquiring the closed school’s building. However, the authorities sold the buildings to a developer with a stipulation in the deeds that the building must not be used for education. Thankfully, lawyers managed to overturn that requirement and the school has now bought the building, but it just goes to show the strength of opposition.

Sowell puts this opposition down to a confluence of factors. Charter Schools could be ignored when they were few in number, but they are now representing significant competition to the public system. This threatens the vested interests of unions, due to the lower rates of unionisation in Charters, and teacher education faculties, due to the lesser accreditation requirements. If he is right, places like Australia that have no current equivalent of Charter Schools should expect strong resistance from these sectors if any such reforms were proposed.

As I was reading Charter Schools and their Enemies, I tweeted a couple of excerpts from the chapter comparing data in New York schools:

This prompted the following response from Doug Little, a retired teacher and writer who has ‘OSSTF staff political action’ in his Twitter bio (OSSTF is a Canadian teaching union):

Yes, you read that correctly, Little is describing Sowell, a black man, as ‘Uncle Thomas’, invoking the racist Uncle Tom trope.

It is as if Black people are not allowed to be conservatives or to hold any other opinion that people like Little disapprove of without being labelled as some kind of race traitor.

It is one of the oddities of 2020 – an oddity that will no doubt be remarked upon in future years – that a moral panic about unconscious racism can coexist with significant pressure on people to stay in rigidly defined lanes based on their race.

It also illustrates Sowell’s point about the enemies of Charter Schools.


To whom Oak may concern

I have written before about Oak National Academy in the UK, a virtual school proposed by teachers as a response to COVID-19 and remote learning and then given government funding. In short, it has infuriated all the right people. Tin foil hats have been donned to ask why the government did not put this out to competitive tender – ignoring the fact that it wasn’t the government’s idea and that such a procurement process would have resulted in a product just in time for the next global pandemic. However, it is not hard to see what is at the root of this. Oak use the wrong kind of teaching methods, relying on lecture and quizzing.

While such methods are about as good as you can hope for in the absence of live teaching, they are the antithesis of progressivist educational ideology and the ideologues don’t like it.

The latest example of a broadside fired at Oak comes from a Dr Pam Jarvis, a UK academic. It follows predictable lines. Quizzing is apparently inappropriate and instead, students unable to attend school should be engaged in project-based learning because, “Children’s work would be more flexible and a topic could be continued at home with parental support.” I am aware of little evidence for the effectiveness of project-based learning in regular classrooms – it is likely to overload working memory – and the idea that parents will be on tap to support projects from home strikes me as unconstrained by the realities facing many families. Jarvis also criticises the lesson completion rate, even though the source she points to for this suggests the 60% completion rates are ‘seriously impressive’ compared to other online resources.

Perhaps the best evidence that there is an impulse to find fault with Oak comes from a section where Jarvis criticises one of the questions posed in an Oak quiz. I have had a look at the Oak site but cannot find the source and Jarvis provides no link, so it is hard to appreciate the context. The question presents students with four rulers of England and asks them to choose which was the earliest ruler of the four.


I am not a history teacher and so I will take the advice of those more expert than me on whether this is a good question or not. I am inclined favourably towards it because it seems to be assessing chronology, something largely absent from my own school history lessons in which we jumped around from one period to the next, ‘analysing sources’ and were left completely baffled as to how one series of events sat in relation to another. However, maybe there are better ways of assessing this. I don’t know.

An important point to note is that these questions are used by the Oak website as a form of interaction that can take place prior to, or after, a lesson. They are not weighty summative assessments, but a trigger to recall or engagement with prior knowledge. Nevertheless, Jarvis suggests this question demonstrates an issue with the ‘accuracy of the content’. Having consulted the authoritative GCSE BBC Bitesize website, Jarvis declares that Athelstan was the very first King of all England.

Well, that may be true, but it’s not what the question is asking. Athelstan was not on the list and the question is asking which of the people on the list was the earliest ruler of England. Of the four, William I was the earliest ruler. There is no accuracy problem here.

Let’s set aside the idea that it is impolite, to say the least, to pick on an individual teacher’s question in this way – we all make mistakes when writing curriculum material and I am no exception.  If I had put hours into producing an online resource for use by students in lockdown and someone then ungraciously scoured my work to find and highlight one of my inevitable errors, I would feel somewhat indignant. Even so, there is no mistake here. In her eagerness to find a smoking gun, Jarvis has confused herself.

And confusion multiplied.


Tim Taylor, also keen to condemn the Oak enemy, issued his own critique of this single question, but he managed to criticise it for using the word ‘whom’ incorrectly. The question does not use the word ‘whom’ incorrectly. It is Jarvis who uses ‘whom’ incorrectly when discussing the question – something that has now been corrected in the original article.

So why am I bothering to highlight all of this absurdity?

Educationalists and academics have lately taken to denying there is any real divide in education. Everyone uses a range of teaching methods, they claim. We should avoid false dichotomies, they urge. Yet put together something that uses an explicit teaching approach and they will rush headlong to condemn you without pausing long enough to figure out if their criticisms are valid.


The meaning of chains

When my father came to visit at Christmas, he brought with him a sheaf of papers. These were compiled by my aunt and detail her attempts to research my father’s side of the family and therefore my ancestors. There is a family tree that extends back as far as the early 1800s. It is tricky to research any further than this because there was no census in Britain prior to 1801.

Along with the family tree are details that my aunt has managed to collate about different members of the family. Various occupations are listed. in 1891, for instance, Annie Williams is recorded as being a seamstress while her husband, Isaac Dimmock, was listed as residing in Worcester jail. However, in subsequent censuses, Isaac is listed as a chainmaker. This occupation predominates among those mentioned on the family tree, including many of the women. For instance, husband and wife, Isaac Yarnold and Eliza Heath were both making chain as far back as 1841. And the tradition continued – my grandfather was a chainmaker and a bricklayer.

It was in Isaac and Eliza’s time that The Black Country, the region of England west of Birmingham where I was born, acquired its name, either as a comment on the thick seam of coal just below the surface or the soot produced by the proliferation of furnaces. Elihu Burritt, American Consul to Birmingham in 1862, described the area as ‘Black by day and red by night’.

My ancestors were not alone in the chainmaking trade. Although the area had been known for coal mining and iron work for centuries, it was in the 19th century that chainmaking became a significant industry. I grew up in Quarry Bank, which expanded rapidly in the nineteenth century, gaining parish status in 1844 with a population of 6732. The church was built in 1847. Along with the neighboring towns of Cradley, Cradley Heath, Old Hill and Netherton, Quarry Bank became the centre of chainmaking in The Black Country and, for a time, the world.

Nevertheless, the economic success of chainmaking was not passed on to the workers. Chainmaking did not generally take place in large factories but, instead, many chainmakers worked on furnaces in a back yard ‘brew house’ and were paid by the amount of chain they produced, rather than via an hourly wage. If you walk the streets of Quarry Bank, you will see houses thrown up in seemingly incoherent orientations. The occupants often needed to supplement their meagre incomes by keeping smallholdings of pigs and chickens and growing vegetables. The conditions in which chainmakers lived prompted Robert Sherard in 1897 to describe them, along with a number of other industrial workers, as the ‘white slaves of England’. In the chapter on chainmakers, Sherard describes the following scene:

“The vision is of such a girl at work in this very factory. She was fourteen by the Factory Act, by paternity she was ten. I never saw such little arms, and her hands were made to cradle dolls. She was making links for chain-harrows, and as she worked the heavy Oliver she sang a song. And I also saw her owner approach with a clenched fist, and heard him say: “I’ll give you some golden hair was hanging down her back! Why don’t you get on with your work”

Next to her was a female wisp who was forging dog-chains, for which, with swivel and ring complete, she received 3/4 d (three farthings) apiece [three quarters of a penny]. It was the chain which sells currently for eighteenpence. She worked ten hours a day, and could “manage six chains in the day.” And from the conversation which 1 had with her, I do not think that she was at all the girl who would haunt playhouses and taverns, or squander her earnings at dice-tables, cards, or any such unlawful games.”

This account is corroborated by evidence presented to the Office of Trade Boards in 1910 by Mary MacArthur.

MacArthur, originally from Scotland, was a formidable trade-unionist. She was simply not going to accept the conditions that the chainmakers toiled under and she intended to do something about it. The liberal government established the trades boards in 1909 as a result of a campaign against ‘sweated’ labour. The boards established minimum hourly pay rates for a range of industries, including chainmaking. In August 1910, when the employers failed to comply with these rates, the National Federation of Women Workers, founded by MacArthur, called a strike. MacArthur ran a faultless PR campaign and by October, all the employers had agreed to pay the full rate.

So chainmaking is a key part of the industrial history of The Black Country. It is therefore unsurprising that the image of a chain made it on to the Black Country flag, designed by a school girl in 2012. The flag also contains the shape of a glass furnace – the area is also famous for its glass industry – and the colours red and black, as described by Elihu Burritt.

And yet now, in 2020, when history must be viewed monomaniacally through a single lens, the Fire Service have banned the flying of the flag until is has a ‘clear meaning of the chains’ depicted on it.

Never has an understanding of history been more important.


Differentiating, decluttering and other easy mantras

The New South Wales (NSW) parliament are conducting an inquiry into the NSW curriculum, prompted by a recent curriculum review within that state. You can read the terms of reference here. In a way, this is slightly odd. We have an overarching Australian Curriculum which recently featured in the “Gonski 2.0” review and the contents of which are currently undergoing a further review by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA). So we have reviews coming out of our ears. The NSW review is perhaps justified by the fact that there is some flexibility in how individual states apply the Australian curriculum. And the abundance of reviews is perhaps moot anyway because they all seem to say pretty much the same thing – we must declutter content and personalise learning.

So I thought I would make a submission to the NSW parliamentary inquiry. If you want to do so, you have until 9 August. I have reproduced my submission below, minus the biographical details that I included.

I wish to comment on two topics raised by the terms of reference of the committee – individualised or differentiated instruction and the nature and content of the school curriculum.

Individualised or differentiated instruction

It is a trivial observation that in any class of 20-30 students, there will be a variation in the level of preparedness of students to tackle new content. Some of this is created by schools e.g. by not properly teaching a proportion of students to read. However, even if we were to iron out these school effects, there would still be natural variation due to environmental and other factors, such as individual working memory capacity.

The popular solution to this problem is to exhort teachers to ‘differentiate’ i.e. modify the lesson in some way for different students or groups of students. To an extent, pretty much all teachers do this. They may circulate the room offering additional help to some individuals, they may re-explain concepts to some students or they may assign extension work to students who are more advanced. They may also, for example, make use of assistive devices to help hearing impaired students – an example of a ‘reasonable adjustment’ for students with a disability. However, educationalists tend to have something grander in mind when they talk about differentiation.

One model that is extremely popular with Australian education academics is Universal Design for Learning or UDL. UDL proposes a number of principles on which we could vary lesson content to suit different students. The idea is to provide equal access to the curriculum for all. The UDL website presents a range of guidelines such as ‘optimize individual choice and autonomy’ and ‘offer ways of customising the display of information’.

However, despite its popularity, there is little evidence of the educational effectiveness of UDL. A 2017 review of the available evidence concluded, “The impact on educational outcomes has not been demonstrated.” In fact, it is not entirely clear that some of the suggestions align with research. For instance, there is evidence that, given the option, students tend to choose ways of learning that are the least effective for them.

The failure to find a positive effect for UDL is perhaps not surprising in the international context. We have to be extremely careful when comparing countries on measures such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) because we are often not comparing like with like. Different countries and states vary on a vast range of factors, including economic activity and demographics, attributes that are likely to affect educational outcomes. And there are additional factors relevant to education. For instance, the relationship in Finnish between letters and the spoken sounds they represent is far more straightforward than in English – researchers say that Finnish has a ‘transparent orthography’. Given the facilitating role of literacy in all academic learning, we should expect this to be important. Nevertheless, if we set these concerns aside and look at those countries that are traditionally considered to be doing well on PISA measures, differentiation does not arise as a major theme.

For instance, my own crude research actually shows a negative relationship between differentiation and a country’s performance on PISA maths. As part of the PISA process, teachers are asked a variety of survey questions, one of which is how often they, “give different work to the students who have difficulties learning and/or those who can advance faster”. The greater the proportion of teachers in a country who answer ‘frequently’ or ‘in almost all lessons’, the worse the PISA maths performance. This is clearly not definitive. It could be the case that a greater use of differentiation causes worse performance, but it could just as well be true that poor performance causes teachers to use more differentiation as a mitigation strategy. Or there may be some other factor at play. Regardless, there is no strong signal that differentiation is a practice associated with the best performing countries.

Why might this be the case, given the fairly obvious logic that tailoring teaching to meet the needs of individual students should be better than a one-size-fits-all approach? A clue may be found in a research project conducted in the United States. Carol Ann Tomlinson is probably the world’s best-known proponent of differentiated instruction and she was part of a team of researchers who developed and implemented a staff development program on differentiation in six schools across three states, with three additional schools acting as a control. Unusually for an education research program, the intervention did not generate positive effects. One suggested reason was that it was not implemented properly by teachers.

When considering differentiation, we need to consider the fact that there is a trade-off between the advantages of more targeted teaching and the practical realities of delivering it. Imagine, for instance, a teacher splits a class into five groups which work on five different activities tailored to their perceived needs. In a 60 minute lesson, this would allow a maximum of 12 minutes of direct teacher input with each group and that obviously excludes any time used for marking the roll, general class organisation, organising the groups and redirecting groups that are not currently under direct teacher supervision. Research strongly suggests the efficacy of direct teacher instruction and yet, in one stroke, we have reduced the potential for such instruction from 1 hour to 12 minutes.

So, either differentiation does not work in theory or it does not work in practice. Either way, it seems like a poor bet. Yet it gets worse.

How do we know that the work we select for different students is pitched at the appropriate level? We would need extremely robust assessment instruments that ensured that teacher biases did not end up limiting the potential of students by giving them low-level content.

And differentiation can mean completely opposite things. Imagine, for instance, a child who experiences extreme difficulty with writing. One approach in the English classroom may be to allow them to record a video or podcast instead of writing an essay. A different approach may be to give the child intensive writing support. In other words, we may either accommodate or address the underlying issue. Either approach may be appropriate at different times or in different contexts. However, both could be described as ‘differentiation’ even though they represent opposites of each other. It is therefore very difficult to understand exactly what anyone means by the term.

The proposals of the NSW curriculum review, like those of the “Gonski 2.0” review before it, go much further than current models of differentiation in suggesting each child should be on a separate learning pathway. Rather than have students in a class work on different versions of the same content, the radical idea seems to be to allow students in the same class to be working on entirely different content. A recent example of attempting fully personalised learning of this kind involves schools in the U.S. that have taken the rather dystopian approach of sitting students in front of banks of computer screens all day, with each computer supposedly delivering personalised content. These schools have met with little success so far.

In short, I cannot see how a proposal for individual learning pathways could be made to work and I do not see any research evidence to support such a proposal.

The content of the school curriculum

A consistent narrative of all curriculum reviews is that the content needs to be ‘decluttered’. This has become a mantra, along with the notion of going ‘back to basics’, and so it is easy to imagine pundits mouthing these words without ever considering what they actually mean. So, let’s consider precisely that.

At first viewing, the Australian Curriculum, on which all state curriculums are meant to be based, does not appear to be brimming over with knowledge. Examine, for instance, the science curriculum. One third of this is what we might traditionally call ‘science’. Another third is about the methods scientists use for testing their ideas – the scientific method. This has some value and students should learn about it, but should it really occupy a third of the curriculum focus? The final third is waffly stuff on, ‘Science as a human endeavour’ which includes such platitudinous truisms as, “Scientific knowledge has changed peoples’ understanding of the world” and that seems to have been inserted in a misguided attempt to make science more like the humanities.

We could ‘declutter’ the science curriculum by getting rid of the vacuous and meaningless stuff, but I would then want to re-clutter it with rich scientific knowledge. However, I fear that those who want to ‘declutter’ want to cut the amount of scientific knowledge that is present now and leave all the vacuous stuff intact.

In addition to actual subjects, the Australian Curriculum has a number of ‘general capabilities’ that are intended to cut across subject areas. These include literacy, numeracy and ‘critical and creative thinking’ among other constructs. Why do we need a subject of English and a general capability of literacy? Why do we need a subject of mathematics and a general capability of numeracy? It’s not clear.

However, perhaps the most egregious example is critical and creative thinking. These are simply not general capabilities, as professor of cognitive psychology, Dan Willingham cogently argues in a publication for the NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation. If you want to think critically about science, you need to know a lot of science and if you want to think critically about history, you need to know a lot of history. In a previous paper, Willingham has argued that trained scientists can fail to think critically about things they know little about whereas small children can demonstrate critical thinking about areas they are familiar with.

A more technical version of this argument may be found in a paper by Emeritus Professor John Sweller of UNSW and Dr. Andre Tricot. They point out that, to the extent to which abilities such as problem solving are general, we have evolved to acquire these abilities as a normal part of development and therefore do not need to be taught them. The purpose of schools is to teach the bits we have not evolved to acquire naturally i.e. subject specific knowledge.

This leads to two conclusions. Firstly, it is pointless to parachute critical and creative thinking in as a general capability. Secondly, knowledge is absolutely vital to critical thinking. If we want to develop the problem-solvers, creatives and critical thinkers of the future, then we first need a knowledge-rich curriculum. Yes, there are methods within each subject area that we can deploy to encourage these capacities, but these methods – such as the argumentative essay – have traditionally been part of these subjects anyway.

So, if by decluttering, we mean stripping away fluff, returning to well-defined subjects and ensuring a rich well of knowledge within each subject, then this would be a good thing. If we mean further degrading the already degraded knowledge component of the curriculum, then we will only make matters worse.


Imprisonment versus school exclusions

I enjoyed chatting to Professor Pam Snow last night for the latest Filling The Pail podcast. At one point, Pam spoke about the youth justice system in Victoria – an issue I am not overly familiar with – and she prompted some tangential thinking on my part about aims and measures.

Imagine, for instance, that a politician promised to reduce crime. Once elected, the politician changed the law or guidance to judges in such a way as to significantly decrease the number of convicted criminals given custodial sentences. The politician then pointed to the reduced number of people sent to prison as evidence that they had fulfilled their campaign promise and reduced crime.

Would you be convinced? Probably not.

It may strike you as transparently circular, but even it it did not, you may have other reasons for scepticism. For a start, you would have developed your own impression of the level of crime from your membership of the community. This impression may be right, wrong or exaggerated and it may be influenced by media reports. However, you would still have a perspective from within the issue and would be likely to have an opinion on it. Perhaps more critically, you would, if so inclined, be able to draw on independent statistics to confirm or refute the politician’s claims. This could be raw reported crime, or it could be something more stable and less affected by changes in reporting procedures. In the UK, for instance, you could look to the Crime Survey for England and Wales to see how the prevalence of various crimes had changed since the politician took office.

Now consider the position of school exclusions. I think everyone would like to see fewer school exclusions for similar reasons to why we would like to see fewer people sent to prison. However, there are differences about how this could be achieved. Some people argue that we need top-down pressure to reduce the number of school exclusions whereas others argue we need to work harder to improve students’ behaviour at an earlier stage in order for fewer school exclusions to be necessary. Perhaps there are those who would argue you need both. There is a lot of room for debate and few people would sit on either extreme.

Whatever your view, an important question arises as to exactly how you improve school behaviour and whether it is even possible. I would argue highly structured models that actively teach pro-social behaviour, similar to the Michaela Community School approach, coupled with interventions to address deficits in e.g. literacy, are likely to be more effective than more laissez faire approaches, but this is open to debate.

Regardless, we repeatedly see initiatives that are schematically similar to the politician thought experiment. School systems go through repeated cycles where top-down pressure is imposed to reduce exclusions and then the resulting reduction in exclusions is heralded as evidence of improved behaviour. It is a bureaucratic self-delusion that maintains until some scandal occurs that draws people’s attention to the fact that school behaviour is as bad, if not worse, than ever.

So how do the bureaucrats get away with it? I think there are two reasons. Firstly, people are not all situated in schools in the same way that we are in the wider community. If you are not a teacher and don’t have children, or you have children at a school where behaviour is not a significant issue, then it is relatively easy to be in the dark. Teachers do sometimes make the public aware of issues around behaviour, but there is pressure not to do so. In many schools, the culture is such that poor behaviour reflects badly on the teacher – the teacher is not engaging enough or they are not able to form good enough relationships. And school management are likely to take a dim view of a teacher going on-the-record to complain about behaviour in the school where they work.

What we really need is an independent check, similar to the Crime Survey of England and Wales. If teachers, students and parents were systematically surveyed on a yearly basis about a range of school behaviours then we would have an independent measure of the effects of any policy changes. This could be reported at a system level or, if we want to be pretty radical, it could be reported at a school level, alongside statistics on exclusions and academic achievement. That way, we may be able to identify schools that perform better than the rest and we could test my hypothesis about schools like Michaela.