A fair go

We are all different. Some are born into wealth and a network of contacts. Others are born into poverty. Some pick up particular skills and abilities quickly, whereas others struggle more. This leads to inequality.

However, the world’s great liberal democracies are not ruthless Darwinian jungles. The consensus among mainstream politicians is that everyone deserves a fair go and much of politics is about working out what that looks like. What laws do we need to make? How much resource should we target to the disadvantaged?

Now imagine a teacher who sets students in a Year 6 class a project on The Eureka Rebellion – a key event in Australia’s history.

Each student will bring a range of different resources to this project. Some will be better readers than others. Given that reading is a combination of decoding skills and background knowledge, there are two sources of these reading differences.

So let’s back up a little. In order to give these students a fair go, let’s ensure they have all had a high quality systematic synthetic programme in the preceding years and a knowledge rich curriculum that includes effective vocabulary instruction.

What differences now remain?

Some students will pick up new concepts about the rebellion more quickly than others. Some will have supportive parents who know about the content and have time to help work with their child on the project. Perhaps they may proof-read, check spellings and make suggestions. Some may even decide to take a trip to Ballarat to check out Sovereign Hill and the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka.

Other students may have fewer resources to draw upon. Perhaps their parents work long hours or know little about Australian history. Perhaps there is nowhere suitable to work at home. Perhaps they lack motivation and believe history is boring.

In class, the teacher monitors, intervenes and makes suggestions but nonetheless, some students become quite expert in The Eureka Rebellion whereas others don’t learn a great deal about it at all. The former gain a sense of achievement, find the project interesting and start to identify as someone who is good at history. The latter do not – they have not grasped the history or its significance and so it is an unsuccessful and often boring printing and sticking exercise.

I think we have failed to give these students a fair go.

Now imagine a sequence of explicit teaching about The Eureka Rebellion. The teacher assesses background knowledge – do students understand how the colonial system worked or the importance of gold to the economy at that time? The teacher can then fill any gaps, perhaps through some whole class discussion.

The teacher enthusiastically tells the story of the rebellion, with all its intrinsic drama. Students complete a series of tasks of increasing complexity. Perhaps those who advance rapidly can accelerate to more open-ended tasks. At the end of the sequence, students could produce an essay or a poster or perhaps even give a presentation. Whatever the task, the students are given explicit guidance in how to complete it, ideally drawing on previous knowledge and previous tasks.

This gives all students a fair go. Nobody is harmed – the advantaged can still excel. However, those who lacked resources or were demotivated have an opportunity to understand the story and to achieve. They may discover that the topic is more interesting than they had imagined.

So what?

Most of you reading this post probably don’t know about The Eureka Rebellion and yet you are still educated adults. What have we achieved by teaching students about it?

Any single item on the curriculum disappears if you stare too hard at it. You can make a case against anything – see the pundits who appear from time-to-time to denounce quadratic equations or some other arbitrary curriculum dot-point. They are making use of this effect.

But knowledge is what you think with. An educated adult has accumulated a lot of knowledge from many different domains over a long period of time. As this knowledge becomes embedded in schema in long term memory, it becomes effortless to recall and this effortlessness fools us into thinking it is trivial and easy to acquire or that everyone else knows it. It is not and they do not.

As teachers, we can do little about natural endowments or wealth disparities, but we can work to close the knowledge gap.

And closing the knowledge gap gives everyone a fair go.


Welsh students to know less than their English peers

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In 2017, I wrote a post about Scotland’s disastrous ‘Curriculum for Excellence’. Soon afterwards I was contacted by a number of Welsh teachers who asked me whether I was aware of what was happening in Wales. I was not aware and so I looked into it.

Britain is currently involved in a grimly fascinating natural experiment. While England has taken steps to boost early reading instruction and generally enhance the quality of knowledge taught in the curriculum, Scotland and Wales have sought a trendier approach, typified by the advice of people like Andreas Schleicher, head of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

To Schleicher, education for the future is very different to education of the past, as he explains:

Today, the world no longer rewards us just for what we know – Google knows everything – but for what we can do with what we know.

This argument leads to a reduced emphasis on teaching actual content in favour of nonexistent generic skills such as creativity and critical thinking. Subject disciplines are dismantled as a thousand cross-curricular projects bloom. Assessment becomes more vague, subjective and complex as teachers disappear under rubrics and debate the meaning of ‘substantial’.

None of this can end well. Knowledge is not something the mind pulls out of a filing cabinet to manipulate. If it were, then the availability of knowledge via the internet would support the Schleicher argument. In fact, knowledge is what you think with. It’s what your thoughts are made of. If you want to think deeply, critically or creatively then you better make sure you have the right tools for the job and these are schema built up from interconnected webs of knowledge.

It is therefore unsurprising that Welsh teachers are raising the concern that the new curriculum will equip students with less knowledge than before. This is a worrying prospect.

Interestingly, Welsh education academics seem to be in something of an antediluvian state when it comes to the education debate. Some have deliberately chosen to interpret criticism of the new Welsh curriculum as an attack on Welsh teachers.

It is not an attack on teachers. It is a criticism of the people who dream up these schemes.

Three things that are not explicit teaching

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Explicit instruction has a large quantity of supporting evidence. This means that it is ripe for subversion by those who would like to lend its credibility to less effective practices. It is important to appropriately challenge such attempts when we encounter them.

Here are some things that are definitely not supported by the evidence base that supports explicit teaching.

1. A little just-in-time teaching

Explicit teaching is a whole system that is planned and sequenced, progressing through the stages of I-do, we-do and you-do. It can contain open ended tasks and the appropriate time in this sequence. The key defining feature is that new concepts are fully explained when students first meet them – we might even suggest they are ‘over-explained’ in order to prevent the formation of misconceptions.

Barak Rosenshine summarises this process well. I also like Blaise Joseph’s definition in his recent report for the Centre for Independent Studies where he identified explicit teaching as a characteristic of successful schools serving disadvantaged children:

“New content is explicitly taught in sequenced and structured lessons. Includes clear lesson objectives, immediate feedback, reviews of content from previous lessons, unambiguous language, frequent checking of student understanding, demonstration of the knowledge or skill to be learnt, and students practising skills with teacher guidance.”

Providing a mini-lecture, perhaps with some questions, after students have already started to solve a problem or work on a project is not the kind of explicit teaching that is supported by the evidence, particularly if there are still elements that students are required to figure out for themselves.

The closest we have for any evidence supporting this approach is ‘productive failure‘ research. However, the research base for this is far weaker and narrower than for explicit teaching, with some conflicting results (e.g. here).

2. Productive pedagogies / Quality teaching rounds

In response to Joseph’s report, David Zyngier made the following comments:

“What Joseph defines as explicit/direct instruction (as seen in his questions to teachers about their pedagogies) is in fact ‘good or productive pedagogy’ and is not what is commonly understood as ‘direct’ instruction.”

He goes on to suggest that ‘explicit instruction’ means something different to Joseph’s definition. Zyngier is wrong. Joseph’s definition is fine. But what is this reference to ‘good or productive pedagogies’?

Productive pedagogies was an approach pioneered in Queensland with a focus on supposedly ‘higher order’ kinds of thinking. It was then developed by Jenny Gore in the Quality Teaching Rounds model. The discussion around Quality Teaching Rounds is deeply misleading. The New South Wales Department of Education beings its discussion of Quality Teaching Rounds by stating that, ‘Research has found QTR build significant improvements in the quality of teaching…’

You may therefore assume that research shows that Quality Teaching Rounds has a positive effect on student outcomes. Such research has not yet been done. Instead, researchers defined what they thought ‘Quality Teaching’ would look like, trained teachers to perform these behaviours and then concluded that because the trained teachers were better at performing the required behaviours than an untrained control group, the training improved the quality of teaching – a completely circular argument.

3. Lecturing

Explicit teaching is not lecturing, or requiring students to complete endless worksheets or any of the other bad things you can think of throwing at it. Progressivist educators tend to characterise it this way in order to make it seem demotivating or simply uncool.

There is nothing motivating about being frustrated in your learning. In fact, children who fail to learn to read, perhaps because their teachers eschew an explicit approach, are also more likely to develop behavioural problems (e.g. here). This is entirely understandable. Reading is the fulcrum of pretty much any academic pursuit and so being battered about the head every day with the fact that you cannot read is likely to make you rebel against the whole school thing.

Explicit teaching can certainly be made dull and unrewarding, just as pointless projects and boring problem solving sessions can be dull and unrewarding. However, the effectiveness of explicit teaching means that it is more likely to build success over time, leading to a greater sense of achievement and a more positive attitude to academic work.

Explicit teaching for all

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When you think about it for more than thirty seconds, it is pretty obvious that explicitly teaching children how to do something is better than asking them to figure out all or part of it by themselves. This is precisely the approach that we use when safety is at stake such as when we teach kids to swim or cross the road. Indeed, the entire evolution of language and culture blows raspberries at the figuring-it-out-for-yourself hypothesis.

The fact that a turn towards explicit teaching has been linked to improvements in reading for children in Western Australia and for children from indigenous backgrounds is hardly surprising. The only puzzling part is why we ever turned away from it in the first place.

Unfortunately, in education, we have to constantly push this boulder uphill.

At the recent DSF ‘Language, Literacy and Learning’ conference in Perth, I met many like-minded people. It is a rare jewel of an education conference that takes an unashamedly evidence-informed approach. From the delegates, you sense both the relief at being intellectually at home and a sense of frustration that the wider educational currents are pulling in an entirely different direction. We know that schools need to focus on rigorous, structured explicit programmes to teach reading, mathematics and subject knowledge more generally. Unfortunately, they want to waffle vaguely about 21st century skills, mindfulness or whatever the latest fashion happens to be.

I found myself in a few discussions about this conundrum – a kind of Dunning-Kruger effect writ large where direction is set by those who apparently posses the smallest amount of relevant knowledge – and I pointed to a key problem. DSF is short for the ‘Dyslexia-SPELD Foundation’ of Western Australia. SPELD, in turn, is short for ‘SPEcific Learning Difficulties’. Despite our ideological adversaries claims to inclusiveness, this allows a certain amount of othering to go on. Explicit teaching may be appropriate for those other kinds of kids with special educational needs, they may concede, but regular, normal kids don’t need it.

We see this attitude displayed when a school with an unsystematic approach to early reading grabs for a systematic synthetic phonics programme to use with the students it fails. We also see this in universities where, I understand, the education faculty and the special education faculty often have little to do with each other, with the latter sometimes taking in refugees from the former.

In a way, this makes a kind of sense.

It was Snow and Juel who, in 2005, pointed out that ‘Explicit teaching of alphabetic decoding skills is helpful for all children, harmful for none, and crucial for some’. Yes, some children will learn to read without explicit teaching, but there is no advantage to this and it probably takes longer and embeds a few misconceptions along the way. However, without explicit teaching, some children will really struggle. The evidence from education research and educational psychology strongly suggests that you could extend Snow and Juel’s statement to include explicit teaching of all academic content.

However, the fact that the alternatives to explicit teaching are most harmful to those who have learning difficulties has the corollary that advantaged children who have more resources to draw upon are harmed the least. This may explain why implicit teaching methods are often most celebrated by schools who teach advantaged children. Advantage masks the shortcomings.

A university’s education faculty may be able to pursue its obscure sociological agendas because it has cut loose the kids that most clearly demonstrate the inadequacies of its methods.

Explicit teaching is not lecturing. It is not a one-way presentation. When I started teaching, I couldn’t make the alternatives work and so I used a form of explicit teaching that I developed for myself from observations and experience. It was not optimal. I wish I had known then about what the research actually showed and I am going to do everything I can to make sure that this knowledge is available to future generations of teachers.

Join me.

An open letter to Tanya Plibersek, Andrew Giles and Bill Shorten on the contentious issue of NAPLAN

Dear Tanya, Andrew and Bill

If your party wins the federal election this year, as seems increasingly likely, you will come under sustained pressure to scrap or reform out of existence the National Assessment Programme – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN).

This would be a big mistake.

Today, we read the latest report card based on these assessments and learn that there has been little progress in literacy and numeracy since NAPLAN was introduced, with writing perhaps going backwards.

Some blame the assessments for this, but that’s like blaming your bathroom scales for the fact that you’ve gained ten kilograms. NAPLAN is a measure, not a teaching programme. Without it, we simply know much less about our education system.

Into this vacuum will stride all kinds of experts with policies to sell, safe in the knowledge that nobody can hold them to a proper account. Don’t be fooled by professional development programmes that proclaim their own success by measuring whether teachers adopt their recommendations, and not by any effect they have on real outcomes for kids.

And also bear in mind that the data is not all flat. We have seen, for instance, a significant improvement in outcomes for our indigenous peoples. NAPLAN data allows us to investigate that further. Where have these gains occurred? What programmes are these schools using? Would we really be better off not knowing?

NAPLAN is flawed. There is too much of a reliance on calculators in the numeracy assessments and the reading and writing assessments interpret these capabilities as generic skills. They are not – they are intimately entwined with relevant content knowledge. I would set the contexts for the reading and writing assessments in the previous year’s Australian Curriculum if I were able to make this choice. That would level the playing field and give us better data.

Nevertheless, an imperfect NAPLAN is a far better prospect than no NAPLAN at all. When they come and ask you to scrap it, ask them how else we will know if numeracy and literacy standards are improving.

Best wishes

Greg Ashman

100% reading instruction?

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I took part in a Symposium today at the DSF conference in Perth. The Symposium was about discovery learning versus explicit teaching. Kathy Rastle presented some fascinating data from an experiment she had conducted with her colleagues. I spoke about explicit teaching more generally and Mandy Nayton placed it all in the context of students with learning difficulties. At the end, there was a little time for questions.

One member of the audience – and I paraphrase – wondered whether learning to read was so important that it should pretty much displace all other curriculum until the basics of decoding had been mastered and she asked for our views on this. Due to the constraints of time, I didn’t get a chance to respond. However, it is a fascinating question, worthy of a short blog post.

My answer would be a ‘probably no but it depends what you mean’. I subscribe to the simple view of reading that sees the process of reading as consisting of two intertwined strands: decoding words and then attaching meaning to those words. The second process relies on background knowledge generally and vocabulary knowledge specifically.

The first rather obvious comment I would make is that if your method of teaching reading is a poor one that doesn’t adequately address decoding, then filling children’s days with it is perverse.

It is also the case that we can, and I would suggest probably should, build vocabulary and world knowledge at the same time as teaching early decoding. Otherwise, what are students decoding exactly? It seems a missed opportunity. The systematic synthetic phonics lessons I have observed and punchy and full of activity. I’m not sure whether you could sustain that all day, every day and I wonder what the effects of a lack of variety would be on students.

As the process of learning to read progresses, what does reading instruction look like?

Well, it could look like endless reading comprehension drills. This may even be a response to external pressures such as standardised testing – reading comprehension drills but no science, history or any of the other knowledge rich subjects.

This would be an unfortunate response given the importance of such knowledge in later reading comprehension.

So no, on balance, I think a high quality phonics programme should always coexist with rich subjects.

What are trainee teachers being taught about reading?

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So, you begin a Bachelor of Education (P-12) course at Victoria University in Melbourne. As part of your first year course, you complete the unit, Literacy Across the Continuum 1. For this unit, you are assigned the textbook, Literacy in Australia: Pedagogies for Engagement and begin to read it. What will you learn?

In Chapter 1, you will be introduced to three models of learning: The ‘industrial model’, the ‘inquiry model’ and the ‘critical model’. The industrial model is about skill building and it is really bad:

“The ideological perspective in the industrial model is meant to create a workforce that is compliant, punctual and accountable… there is a push to create uniformity across schools… a driving force that keeps many schools attached to an industrial model is the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN)…

The industrial model for education focuses on standardisation and having students in an ‘assembly line’. Therefore, literacy materials are standardised with an emphasis on skills.”

So there is a kind of conspiracy to impose the industrial model on schools using NAPLAN. This approach is illustrated by the fictional Ms Day:

“Ms Day implements a prescriptive literacy program that focuses on discrete skills in the reading process… Ms Day has students read from a decodable text that emphasises the rhyme pattern of -at. Students read such sentences as ‘Up went the cat. The cat saw a rat. The rat sat on the mat.’ Reading and writing instruction from this viewpoint concentrates on sounds, letters and direct comprehension of text in a sequential order.”

Ms Day is teaching this curriculum because she appears to be beholden to a publishing company. And it’s really bad because Ms Day cannot take into account her students’ prior experiences.

By contrast, the inquiry model is much better. Rather than focusing on ‘compliance and accountability’, the inquiry model focuses on real life, is tailored to individual students’ needs and includes things like dioramas and wiki pages. However, before we settle on the inquiry model, we should also be conscious of the critical model which, ‘raises questions about power, gender, social structures and identity’ in a way that has something to do with learning to read.

Following this discussion of the available alternatives, the authors suggest, ‘Six guiding principles for teaching reading and writing in the twenty-first century’ which are: Literacy practices are socially and culturally constructed, Literacy practices are purposeful, Literacy practices contain ideologies and values, Literacy practices are learned through inquiry, Literacy practices invite readers and writers to use their background knowledge and cultural understandings to make sense of texts and Literacy practices expand to include everyday texts and multimodal texts.

The authors do at least acknowledge that there is a debate over the best ways of teaching the decoding element of reading. However, they frame this as a choice between a ‘prescriptive approach’ that often ‘requires a commercially-produced reading program’ and their preferred ‘integrated approach’ with a less ‘systematic and explicit focus’ that uses ‘authentic pieces of literature’.

The textbook does mention the use of phonics a few times (there are two entries in the index) and there is a chart of phonemes. However, this is presented as just one of a number of decoding strategies. Sometimes, phonics is presented as the use of onset and rime and at other times, it is presented as a way of examining the first or last letter of a word. The author’s favoured inquiry model means that letter-sound correspondences cannot be taught in a logical sequence because they need to be taught as they arise in ‘authentic’ text which is often selected based on student interest. The authors also endorse Kenneth Goodman’s view that there are four cueing systems that are used for decoding: graphophonemic (phonics), pragmatic, semantic and syntactic. On the use of semantic cues, the authors write that, “When faced with unfamiliar words, teachers encourage readers to consider the context in which the word is being used”.

This is the kind of strategy used by poor readers to guess words they cannot actually decode. As Professor Timothy Shanahan points out, this is a little like trying to teach golf by teaching people the head movements of bad golfers.

We cannot know how much reference is made to Literacy in Australia in the Literacy Across the Continuum 1 course. Teacher education is something of a black box. All we can easily analyse from a distance is course descriptors and assigned reading (although in many course descriptors the assigned reading isn’t listed). However, it is all highly suggestive.

Promoting multiple-cueing strategies to trainee teachers is not quite the same as promoting blood-letting to trainee doctors, but it’s not far off. We will know we are a profession when we take a more evidence-informed approach to training new entrants.

In the meantime, if you are a trainee teacher, or you have recently trained, then I would be interested in seeing your course materials, particularly if you think they conflict with what you have now learned about the available evidence. You may send them to me anonymously and I doing so, you may help shed further light on the inside of that black box.