The news from Finland

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Finland has become an international education icon. It performed extremely well in the first few rounds of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and that led to a boom in education tourism, with every education bureaucrat with enough cash in the budget making the pilgrimage to Finland in order to find out what was going on. Alas, these fact-seeking missions were not entirely objective and Finland ended up as something of a magic mirror, reflecting people’s views and prejudices back at them.

The truth is that PISA assesses 15-year-olds and therefore if we are looking for inferences, we need to look at the prior ten years of education. For the class of the early 2000s, this was a pretty traditional form of education. Nevertheless, Finland was repeatedly held up as an example of a successful implementation of the tenets of educational progressivism.

Since the early 2000s, Finland has instituted some important changes. For whatever reason, the Finnish education system has sought to become more like the one projected onto it by outsiders. This has coincided with a gradual decline in Finland’s performance on PISA. It has been odd to watch as those who were drawn to Finland due to its standardised test scores now seek to dismiss PISA evidence of a decline on the basis that test scores are not important.

Back in 2015, we learnt of plans in Finland to introduce ‘phenomenon based learning’, a cross discipline approach that appeared to already be underway in some schools. Pundits celebrated this move on the fallacious basis that Finland has an excellent education system and so this untested approach must be excellent too. Other were more critical. Do not worry, we were told, the plans only involve a few periods a week and traditional subjects will not be abandoned altogether.

This weekend, via Pasi Sahlberg’s Twitter account, I became aware of this story about parents filing complaints against a school, ostensibly because of the way it has implemented phenomenon based learning. One account tells of how students have to come together in a ‘market square’ at the start of each day to plan their own work and complains of a lack of teaching. Although such complaints are exactly what you would expect of an approach that overloads students with too much to attend to, the school authorities have framed the complaints as parents and students being resistant to change.

And this is not the first warning we have heard. Last year, a researcher at Helsinki University raised concerns about phenomenon based learning and its effects on PISA scores, particularly in maths and science.

Not only was all of this foreseeable, it was foreseen. In my own small way, I predicted, a month before they were released, that nascent phenomenon based learning would contribute to a decline in Finland’s 2015 PISA scores. I was right about maths and science, although reading remained stable. Such an effect is predictable because a) these ideas have been tried many times before and failed and b) they are at odds with what we now known from cognitive science.

Students and parents are not reacting to change, they are reacting to methods that they can see are ineffective.


What can we learn from the war of Tom’s list?

Tom Rogers is a teacher and columnist for the Times Educational Supplement (TES), an education magazine in the UK. On Monday, he published a list of mainly UK educators to follow on Twitter and all hell broke loose.

Based, it seems, on judgements made by looking at the photographs of the people on the list, self-identified antiracists decided to call Tom out for not having enough BIPOC representation on the list. BIPOC stands for ‘Black, Indigenous and People Of Colour’. It’s an incongruously American term* to use about a UK list of educators, with some questioning what ‘indigenous’ means in that context. I think it is interesting that American terms are applied as a universal in this way.

The British have an irreverent sense of humour and a nose for the absurd, so a number of people started making jokes about the attempts to police Tom’s list. This then became a secondary source of dispute, with many of those involved expressing their hurt at the mockery of those who had attempted to police Tom’s list. After all, these folx were doing important antiracist work.

The antiracists described the actions of those who made fun of them, or who disagreed with them, as ‘racist’ and evidence of ‘white supremacy’. This, in turn, was taken as further evidence of the absurdity of their complaints. The thing snowballed.

Perhaps the most unedifying episode was when it turned out that, funnily enough, judging social constructs such as race simply by looking at pictures of people is not a valid process and had therefore led to an underestimate of the number of BIPOC people on Tom’s list:

Are you feeling queasy?

There are a number of lessons we can learn from this. Firstly, people are starting to fight back against the attempt by a small group of ideologically committed individuals to impose their ideology on everyone else. Some have described this ideology as a religion, but I don’t think that is accurate. Religions require you to have faith and they often leave some questions, such as why we suffer, unanswered. This ideology is more like a cult in that it provides absolute certainty to its adherents.

I have written previously about the ‘unfalsifiability’ of this ideology, but that concept is hard to get across. Essentially, it means that any and all evidence may be interpreted as supporting the ideology. It is perhaps best captured in a tweet by Pran Patel. I don’t think he is intending to be ironic:

So there is no way out. It’s exactly the same logic as claiming that denying you are a witch proves that you must be a witch. If you are white and you challenge this worldview, your challenge can be dismissed on the basis of your race and as a demonstration of ‘white supremacy’ or ‘racism’ of whatever. If you are BIPOC and you challenge this view then you may be treated a little more politely, but you will still be told you don’t understand and you need to read more.

This is dehumanising. It is not to deny the role of race in our perspectives to demand that we are treated as human beings first rather than racial drones. Dismissing someone’s views on the basis of your perception of their race is racism. It is certainly nowhere near the worst form of racism someone can experience, but it’s still wrong. I am aware that the sociological definition of racism means that this term cannot be applied in this way but I don’t accept that definition.

In fact, the concept creep of definitions is a key feature of this discussion. At the same time as excluding some forms of prejudice from the definition, academics have sought to broaden the base of racism to such an extent that it can include lists with some, but not enough, BIPOC people on them. How do we now condemn the rhetoric of Trump if both are described by the same term? This blunts the power of the word and creates a kind of arms race where heavier terms such as ‘white supremacy’ must now be deployed.

To the person in the street, ‘white supremacy’ means the Ku Klux Klan or apartheid or those militias that gather in forests in the U.S. and plot a white ethnostate. However, in this ideology it basically becomes equivalent to white privilege, the concept that white people have an invisible backpack of unearned privileges due to their race. When you look at what many of these privileges are, you could perhaps equally define them as rights and the denial of these rights to non-white people as racism. But this ideology puts things the other way around.

Nevertheless, you may argue, these concepts have been introduced by academics so they must be valid, right? I’m not sure. There are many academic ideas I reject in my own area of expertise and if we value critical thinking then we cannot simply accept the pronouncements of academics as fact.

And there is a larger problem. Who do we think is influenced by these discussions? Will an actual proponent of a white ethnostate be worried about being called out as racist or white supremacist? No. The only people who will be silenced are moderate, centrist and left-of-centre types who care about racism. By calling out Tom’s list, antiracists do nothing to stem the populist political surge. If they do persuade one Trump or Farage supporter of anything, it will be that the traditional left has gone and been replaced by the po-faced absurdity of identity politics.

If you really want to do valuable antiracist work then I have a suggestion. Go and work in a challenging school in London and ensure that you teach students the foundational, academic knowledge that will give them access to wealth and power. Better still, be like Katharine Birbalsingh and set up your own school with the unashamed guiding principle of giving kids a rigorous education, free from the low expectations that plague many challenging schools.

You will not fix racism and your students will still be challenged by racism on a daily basis, but you will do far more to advance equality than you will by calling out a list posted on Twitter.

*Since publication, a number of Americans have suggested they have not heard this term before and wondered if it might Canadian. Some Canadians then said they had not heard of it. It may not therefore be a mainstream term and, instead, one predominantly used by a small community of antiracists

EduTwitter advice

There has been some poor behaviour demonstrated recently on EduTwitter and so I thought I would offer some advice, particularly to those who are new to the platform. Twitter has the potential to take over too much of your time. In particular, arguing on Twitter, although often worthwhile, can be time-consuming and pointless. Here are my views on what and who to avoid:

Nobody has a right to an audience

Some just want to lurk on Twitter, follow links and learn. That’s fine. However, once you start making statements of opinion, such as what you think the evidence demonstrates about a particular teaching method, you are likely to provoke a negative response. That’s also fine. Such discussions can be instructive. However, it is rare for an antagonist in such a debate to admit they are wrong. Instead, the best that can be hoped for is that others who are yet to commit to a view will be better informed by the argument. Such arguments can usually be explored to the fullest extent allowed by Twitter in less than about 20 tweets.

In my experience, people lose sight of this and persist in a debate for far too long. You may think you have completely demolished an argument and that your opponent should acknowledge this, but it takes a big person to do so. People are quite capable of applying a double standard. For instance, they will feign offence at the way you have framed your point, even if they have a track record of expressing strident opinions themselves. However, the most common way of avoiding being wrong is to question someone else’s interpretation of the argument and the definitions of common terms:

“When you suggest that gravity pulls object downwards, what exactly do you mean by ‘gravity’ and ‘downwards’?…. [after 24 hours more of the thread]… OK, so now let’s discuss what you mean by an ‘object’… [after another 24 hours]… You seem to think I said there was no such thing as gravity, but what I actually suggested was that gravity doesn’t exist…”

You are under no obligation to take part in these discussions. If someone insults you then block them. It is fine to block and mute people or mute threads in order to keep your timeline under control. When you do this and people find out, they will always accuse you of blocking or muting them for simply disagreeing with you. Live with that and try not to let it annoy you.

A fair trade

If you are going to express an opinion, then I believe it is important to articulate what you favour and not just what you oppose. Too many people on Twitter are negative actors. There are two basic kinds of negative actor. The first are classic Twitter trolls of varying levels of sophistication. They advance arguments against what you propose without ever proposing anything themselves. It can be hard to discern whether this is genuine or simply an attempt to get a reaction. The other kind of negative actor are the ones who pretend to be entirely above debate. They ask questions in order to help you learn, or so they think. However, they are too insecure to present any kind of platform of their own, aware that this means their own views could then be scrutinised in the same way.

Everyone has an agenda, it’s just that some people hide theirs. Ignore these people and quickly end discussions with them. Again, they will claim you have done this because they disagreed with you.

Avoid identity politics

Since about 2015, a growing subculture on the political left has taken up the cause of identity politics. This is particularly apparent in, but not limited to, EduTwitter in the U.S. Essentially, these folks have convinced themselves that they are dismantling systemic oppression by posting tweets that disapprove of it. If history is a guide, this particular vision of left-wing politics will last until it suffers a sufficient number of electoral defeats.

It is important to understand that, like cults, the power of ideological bubbles lies in the fact that they are unfalsifiable. An unfalsifiable theory is one in which someone who subscribes to that theory can suggest no conceivable evidence that would prove the theory wrong. Once targeted, whatever you say that does not align with the ideology is further evidence in support of the ideology.

For instance, ‘white fragility,’ may be demonstrated by the, “outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation”. In other words, if you are white and your accuser is minded to do so, any reaction to an identity politics argument other than agreement, even if you walk away from the discussion, may be used as evidence of white fragility.

And there is more to it than just white fragility. Proponents of identity politics have all bases covered and people of any background may come under attack. If you are from an ethnic minority and you reject identity politics then the explanation is that you must have internalised your oppression. This is a dehumanising ideology that rejects the role of human agency in forming a viewpoint and instead suggests that viewpoint is the result of external characteristics.

It is something of an indictment that the humanities departments of our universities would let unfalsifiable theories gain so much traction without challenge. However, as far as EduTwitter is concerned, an unfalsifiable view is one that it is pointless engaging with.

Flipping Nick Gibb

My politics are pretty much the same as they were in May 1997. It was the first UK general election that I could vote in and I put my cross next to Anne Campbell, the Labour candidate for Cambridge.

My centre-left views were forged in the recession of the early 1990s and informed by the ram-raid of excessive privatisation and my father’s experience working in manufacturing. Despite all we have learnt in the intervening years, and despite how lonely a place it has become, the centre-left is still where I sit.

And yet I like to think of myself as a grown-up. I do not believe that those I disagree with must be evil. In fact, I believe they are motivated by wishing to make the world a better place. It’s just that reasonable people may disagree on the best way to do this. And when I can make common cause on an issue that is close to my heart with someone from a different part of the political spectrum, I will. Unashamedly.

So I was quite pleased to see Nick Gibb, a UK government minister, tweet a link to my previous blog post:

Others were not so pleased. Much of this was tribal and not worth responding to. However, there was one point, made in two contexts, that it is worth addressing.

The thrust of my post was that some teaching approaches act like a centrifuge and have differential effects on students: the advantaged gain and the disadvantaged lose. Two of the examples I gave were flipped learning and project based learning and I outlined my reasoning. I then suggested that this may be why two randomised controlled trials, one on flipped learning and one on project based learning, had failed and had hinted at increasing the achievement gap.

The flipped learning trial, in particular, gathered a lot of comment. It took place at West Point, a military academy, and so critics argued that it only demonstrated anything about that particular context. Flipped learning may in fact work really well in high school classrooms.

Firstly, why? What are the key differences that would make flipping more effective in high schools? If anything, we might expect students at West Point to be more intrinsically motivated than high school students and so flipped learning, which depends on students watching videos outside of class time, should be more effective in that context.

Secondly, the burden of proof lies with those who wish to promote flipped learning, not me. Imagine a drug company released a new drug to reduce the symptoms of influenza and a study was completed that showed that it actually worsened the symptoms. Imagine the study’s subjects were wealthy students in Switzerland. True, the drug company could claim that this study does not show that the drug fails with disadvantaged elderly US citizens, but would we be satisfied with that? No, we would want positive evidence that it works.

When you look at the wider evidence, there is no overwhelming support for flipped learning. For instance, a systematic review of flipped learning in medical education found no overall effect, although there was no comment on the achievement gap. When you go looking, what is most striking is the need for better quality study designs.

So that’s military students and medical students crossed off the list…

The other study I mentioned was a randomised controlled trial of project based learning in the UK. This found no overall effect and a potentially negative effect on disadvantaged students. Notably, a large number of schools dropped out of the project-based learning arm of the trial, reducing the strength of the findings.

Setting aside the question of why so many schools gave up on project based learning during the trial, we could simply dismiss this evidence on the basis of the attrition rate. If so, we have not proved project based learning works. We need positive evidence in order to do that and one particularly useful aspect of the UK study is the extensive literature review that finds little positive evidence for the approach.

Now picture all those pundits touring schools and conferences, claiming that project based learning is the future and will help students gain ill-defined soft skills. Where is the evidence base for that? Do we even care?

When it comes to teaching methods, the political divide is a distraction. The real divide is between those of us who value evidence and those who are happy to subsist on hot air.

Is your school a centrifuge?

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Ask yourself a series of questions:

You organise a revision class to help struggling students in the weeks before an exam: Who turns up? Who does not?

A university sets up a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC): Who completes this course and who drops out?

You ‘flip’ your classroom by making videos of your teaching and ask students to watch them outside of class time: Which students watch the videos and which do not?

You assign a two week project to be completed in class and at home: Who is ready for presentation day and who has fallen behind?

All four scenarios have the potential to increase the achievement gap between those with resources – prior knowledge, academic self-concept, a supportive home environment – and those who lack resources, and the last two examples are the kinds of things that are recommended by non-teaching pundits when they talk to teachers and school leaders.

Such pundits usually neglect to address an issue that teachers come to implicitly understand. Motivation is not a single thing that you can fix quickly with technical whizzbangery, a stirring exhortation or an engaging topic. Motivation has many aspects and is a constant work in progress.

A student may be keen to study history but find a particular point on a certain day to be a little obtuse and start daydreaming or flicking through social media posts on her phone. For this student, a classroom with rules such as a mobile phone ban and an attentive teacher who is likely to ask a question at any time – particularly if anyone seems a little distracted – is going to be a far better environment for learning than a bedroom.

This is probably why, despite the witless hype, the promise of flipped learning has yet to be realised and why a new randomised controlled trial suggests it exacerbates the achievement gap between students.

This is also why ‘student centred’ approaches such as project-based learning fail to deliver and are likely to be less equitable than explicit teaching.

When I have made this point before, I have come under personal attack and that is probably because nobody wants to think they may be causing harm. In one case, a consultant who spends a lot of time working with independent schools, said he would not take lectures on equity from someone like me who works in an independent school. That’s obviously a fallacious point to make but it does provide a segue into an important observation.

Before I moved to Australia in 2010, I worked for 13 years in government schools in London. There are many differences between those schools and the independent school where I work now, but the most significant one is the difference in behaviour. The children in the London schools where I worked had to tolerate far more disruption to their classes.

It is so obvious that behaviour is a major equity issue that I cannot understand the sheer vitriol with which many left-leaning academics discuss attempts to improve behaviour in schools. Even though it no longer impacts upon my daily work in the way it did in London, I will always campaign for better behaviour and support those schools that seek to achieve it.

But perhaps there is a rationalisation. When the utter failure of your preferred approach becomes so manifest that it can no longer be ignored, you may challenge the need to teach children any of this stuff in the first place. Consider this 2014 piece I was recently reminded of in which an Australian academic raises the question of whether indigenous children really do need to learn to read and write.

The definition of a centrifuge is “a machine with a rapidly rotating container that applies centrifugal force to its contents, typically to separate fluids of different densities (e.g. cream from milk) or liquids from solids.”

Is your school an educational centrifuge or are you pursuing strategies that will help all students learn and achieve?

The Knowledge Gap—A Review

Let me lead you through a portal created in the basement of some secretive and sinister government laboratory and into the Educational Upside Down.

The Educational Upside Down is a parallel dimension where elementary school children are captivated by street signs and bored rigid by myths and tales of heroes. It is a dimension where early readers work out the relationships between the sounds of English and the letters that represent these sounds largely by being immersed in anodyne, specially written story books. Yet, weirdly, it is also a dimension where children have to be explicitly taught ‘comprehension strategies’ to understand what they read, such as activating their prior knowledge or deciding which sentence is the most important, and then must practice these strategies for the greater part of the school day. This is a dimension where knowledge of the world—that same prior knowledge that needs activating—is the last thing that it would occur to anyone to actually teach children in schools.

Continues at Quillette

The implications of schemas

Central to cognitive load theory is a basic understanding of schema theory. Briefly, our long-term memory does not store information in the same way as a library or a computer, it stores it as interrelated webs of ideas. Above is a diagram I created to help explain the idea to colleagues.

The schema in the diagram is for marsupials and knowledge of a new marsupial is in the process of being added. In this case, the new knowledge is being ‘assimilated’. In other words, it is simply being bolted on to the existing schema. The connection with other components of the schema are growing over time – retrieval practice may be one way of strengthening these connections. Schemas are also not isolated units. The components that are shaded with two colours are intended to represent the fact that these element are also part of other schemas. The individual who possesses this particular schema appears to be uncertain of whether the platypus should be in there.

In some cases, new knowledge cannot be added to a schema without deforming it in some way. This may be, perhaps, because it adds a deeper insight or makes a connection that was not previously present. This process is known as ‘accommodation’ rather than assimilation.

One way of thinking about the role of long-term memory in solving problems or dealing with new information is that entire schema can be brought readily into working memory and manipulated as a single element alongside any new elements that we need to process. The normal limits imposed on working memory fall away almost entirely when dealing with schemas retrieved from long-term memory – a key idea of cognitive load theory. This illustrates both the power of having robust schemas in long-term memory and the effortlessness of deploying them; an effortlessness that fools so many of us into neglecting the critical role long-term memory plays in learning.

Some constructivists conclude that, because schemas involve relating new concepts to similar concepts already in long-term memory, we have to ground learning in everyday life or supposedly relevant examples. I don’t think this is implied at all. Instead, we need to build schemas carefully and systematically so that students can learn important ideas regardless of their everyday experience.