Damian Hinds launches another edtech revolution

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Let’s face it, few aspiring politicians take a glass of wine in hand, stare wistfully into the middle distance and, in hushed tones, inform their partners that, “One day, if I work hard and keep my nose clean, I might be education minister.” It’s not why they are in the game. They want to be the big boss and, failing that, they want to be something sexy and important like a finance or foreign minister.

This is pretty obvious when you examine most, but by no means all, of the education ministers who are in post. They invariably reach for The Ladybird Book of Business Management, point to a page at random that says something generic like ‘outsourcing’ or ‘wellbeing’ and try to make it into a policy, demonstrating once and for all that generic capacities of leadership are no substitute for domain knowledge.

In many cases, ministers alight upon technology. After all, we keep hearing about how technology has disrupted and transformed the world of business, or at least how some businesses from Silicon Valley have disrupted some other businesses. So technology must be the answer. And, what’s more, tech solutions can be a relatively cheap way of looking active, as in the case of Simon Birmingham, the Australian education minister, and his fondness for apps.

You can imagine Damian Hinds arriving for the first time at the British education ministry and being mildly baffled by policy about a ‘knowledge rich curriculum’ and the like. To a generalist, this would seem tautological, kooky and perhaps a little retro. Of course, to those of us in the know, it is increasingly clear that a quality curriculum is vital to any successful education reform, as Dylan Wiliam demonstrates at length in his most recent book.

But a new incumbent has to have a big idea and it has to be different in some way. So, Damian Hinds picked up The Ladybird Book of Business Management and decided to develop a policy invoking the white heat of technology or something. This back-to-the-future move was covered in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) alongside some interesting footnotes.

Apparently, an edtech revolution will enable children to explore the rainforest from their desks while also cutting teacher workload. Hurrah! And it won’t be anything like the failed British edtech revolution of the naughties that saw interactive whiteboards installed in every classroom with zero impact. No, it won’t be anything like that. Not at all.

I researched edtech for The Truth about Teaching and others such as Larry Cuban have offered a long and detailed commentary. The history is not encouraging. Edtech invariably over-promises and under-delivers. The gains it produces are usually humble and prosaic and its failures are expensive and conspicuous. But don’t worry, Damian Hinds, you’ll probably be in the foreign ministry by then.

Who is the department of education partnering with in order to deliver its vision? That will be the British Educational Suppliers’ Association alongside that independent voice championing the grassroots of the teaching profession, The Chartered College of Teaching.


Jumping sharks in rocket-propelled cars

When I first logged on to Twitter today, I noticed a link posted by Dylan Wiliam. The link is to an article in npj Science of Learning and it is about dumping ‘outmoded practices and mindsets’ and embracing the ‘4Cs’ of creativity, collaboration, communication and critical reflection:

The ‘npj’ part of the journal’s name stands for ‘Nature Partner Journals‘ and so it implicitly carries the endorsement of probably the most significant scientific journal in the world. And yet the article’s arguments seem to be based mainly on beliefs:

“We believe the foundations of lifelong learning are creativity, collaboration, communication and critical reflection.”

“We believe children adopt different learning dispositions such as curiosity and focus that are critical for them to sustain and apply their learning.”

“We believe schools need to be enabled to fundamentally change.”

Oddly, the article begins with the cautionary tale of stuntman Kenny Power who, in 1979, attempted to jump across the 1.6 kilometre wide St Lawrence river in a rocket powered car, but who sadly only made it 15 metres. No doubt Power believed that he would get across. What he lacked was the right science.

In this case, the rocket-powered car that is going to hurtle us 15 metres into an unknown future is a package of generic ‘capacities’. Apparently, they will, “…help students move beyond just remembering ‘facts’ to help them make connections between ideas and create new ones,” proving beyond any doubt that there are researchers out their who still disparage and dismiss the value of learning knowledge.

This argument is scientifically deeply flawed for two reasons. Firstly, insomuch as these generic capacities are generic, they are largely biologically primary. That means that we have evolved to acquire them and, for typically developing students, explicit instruction in them is redundant. Yes, there are forms of critical reflection, for example, that we can learn in a history lesson that are valuable. However, these are mostly specific to the domain of history (or perhaps even history lessons). There may be a few moderately useful heuristics that will transfer to different domains such as ‘try to look at the situation from different perspectives’, but these are typically quite banal, easily and quickly taught and have limited value if you don’t have the knowledge to enact them.

Similarly, unless a student has a cognitive impairment or is a victim of childhood neglect, he or she will tend to acquire the collaboration habits of the culture they are raised in relatively effortlessly and so will not need to be taught these. Once we start to learn specific collaboration strategies relevant to particular situations, such as a team writing a scientific paper, very little will transfer to other domains.

The kind of learning that we cannot easily acquire for ourselves is biologically secondary, academic knowledge; how to read and write; knowledge of historical events and interpretations, scientific facts and concepts, methods for solving mathematical problems and so on. This is why we created schools in the first place. It is true that you can point to any one of these items of knowledge and dismissively declare that a person may live a fulfilling life without knowing it. But that misses the point. Knowledge is valuable in its accumulation. Not only is it personally enriching, it enables us to comprehend texts that would otherwise be inaccessible. You might claim that certain knowledge will not be required in the future, but if you do then I want to see your crystal ball. The future is fundamentally unpredictable and our best guide to what will be useful in the future is what has been useful in the past. These are the key, slowly changing concepts that form our school curricula: That which has endured.

After I saw Wiliam’s tweet, I was going to let the article pass. After all, Wiliam’s comment was apt and we see ten or fifteen such articles per day, often from the U.S. stables of EducationNext or Mind/Shift. I cannot rebut all of them – the pipe is too wide and the flow too voluminous. But then, to my dismay, I realised that the authors were from the University of Sydney and that they are trialling their ideas in Australian Schools.

And so I decided that a refutation was needed, particularly when the ideas in this article are presented as science. Students deserve better. They deserve an education based on evidence rather than fashionable rhetoric.

Changing times for phonics but what about classroom behaviour?

One frustrating feature of the ongoing phonics debate is how occluded it has become. Everyone seems to have their own definition of what ‘phonics’ means. For instance, to some, there is a key difference between systematic synthetic phonics and systematic phonics, as if we could systematically teach all of the grapheme-phoneme correspondences without ever making words out of them. These arguments make the debate almost impenetrable to the uninitiated and, knowingly or not, that seems to serve a purpose.

For instance, a smearing-out of the meaning of ‘phonics’ enables people to claim that all teachers are doing phonics already, even if what they are actually doing is an occasional bit of onset and rime while still focusing on discredited multi-cuing or ‘searchlight‘ strategies. “Teachers are already doing phonics,” is a familiar refrain in Australia whenever a new newspaper article or report appears:

And did you notice something odd about last week’s phonics debate? Ostensibly, it was meant to be an argument between those who think ‘phonics in context’ is enough and those who think phonics needs to be systematically planned and taught. And yet the side that was supposed to be arguing that phonics in context is enough, hardly mentioned phonics at all. Instead, they came out with a recognisably ‘whole language‘ argument.

What’s going on? In think this is an indication that phonics advocates are winning. Few contemporary academics are comfortable in coming out and simply stating, “I don’t believe in systematically teaching grapheme-phoneme relationships,” because they know that the evidence weighs so heavily against this position. Instead, they attempt to absorb phonics into their own position and therefore remove the grounds for debate.

Contrast phonics sceptics, if you will, with those who are sceptical of robust, evidence-informed approaches to classroom management. The latter group are not so shy, wearing it as a badge of honour.

I started thinking about this after being interviewed last night for Craig Barton’s podcast. He asked me about an issue I touch on in my new book: How can new teachers figure out whether a school will support them with behaviour?

Compared with figuring out a school leader’s take on phonics, establishing their view on behaviour is easy. People who have the worst views about behaviour management are usually quite proud of them. They will tell you that only monsters want to ‘control’ students. They will explain that students will behave if you present them with a well-planned, engaging lesson, with the implication being that if any students misbehave then you did not present them with a well-planned, engaging lesson. They will brag about their own misbehaviour at school and they way that it was a just act of rebellion against boring lessons or teachers who did not understand their genius. They will dismiss questions about a whole-school behaviour policy.

This is exactly where whole language was in its heyday. At that time, phonics advocates were dismissed on similar, moralising grounds. They were written-off as the kind of heartless beasts who just wanted students to ‘bark at print’.

Times change.

The Foundation for Implausible Effects

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I am going to ask you an important question: Do you believe in psychokinesis? If you are unfamiliar with the concept, psychokinesis means the ability for a person to alter physical systems with his or her mind. You know the sort of thing from the movies – moving a pen across a desk by thinking real hard.

Believe it or not, some people investigate concepts like psychokinesis by doing experiments and these experiments then get reported in serious journals. One approach is to see if people are able to influence the operation of a quantum-based random number generator with their minds. Because the effect that would be needed to skew the output of such a number generator in this way is very small, the alleged phenomenon is known as ‘micro-psychokinesis’.

A paper by Maier et al. from March this year attempted to establish, once and for all, if micro-psychokinesis exists. As might perhaps be expected, they found no effect at all on the main measure that they were analysing. However, by reviewing the data once they had it, they claimed the possibility of a non-random oscillation effect that might be evidence of micro-psychokinesis.

Now, Hartmut Grote, a physics professor at Cardiff University, has reanalysed the data and found that if there was no effect of micro-psychokinesis, the probability of obtaining the data that Maier et al. obtained (or data more extreme) is about 33%. In other words, in every three experiments of this kind that we performed, we could expect one to give us a result like this. I can’t follow the maths. It’s all a bit advanced for me and I don’t really understand the argument about oscillations. However, I am quite prepared, on this basis, to accept the micro-psychokinesis does not exist.

Why? Well it seems implausible to me and the data from this experiment, if Grote is correct, is entirely consistent with a world without micro-psychokinesis. I don’t have to believe in extraordinary things to account for it.

The probability that Grote calculated is known as a ‘p-value’ and these are highly controversial in some corners of psychological research. Critics claim that people misinterpret them. They suggest that, instead of viewing that 33% figure as the probability of obtaining data this extreme, or more extreme, if there really is no effect, people interpret it as the probability that there is no effect. These are not the same thing at all and this distinction becomes very important if there is a high probability of an effect.

Interestingly, another argument against p-values is that of ‘p-hacking’. This is the process of reanalysing data until you find something, anything that gives you a suitably small p-value (usually 5% in psychology). This is flawed because in any 20 such analyses we do, we would be likely to find one p-value of less that 5% by chance. So reanalysing in this way is frowned upon. Ideally, researchers should specify at the outset what measure they are going to use to decide whether there has been an effect.

In the Maier et al. case, however, it is they who reanalysed the data, even though they never reported any p-values, and it is Grote’s p-value that casts their conclusions in doubt. Ironic, perhaps. But let’s think about why Grote’s figure is important. I am inclined to think that micro-psychokinesis is unlikely. It is with this in mind that I look at the p-value and draw the conclusion that it is consistent with a world without micro-psychokinesis. If, instead, micro-psychokinesis was a well established fact, the probability of obtaining such data in a world where it did not exist would be irrelevant.

What does this have to do with education research?

Let’s examine the UK Education Endowment Foundation’s trial of “Philosophy for Children”. It is claimed that a series of lessons on such topics as whether it is okay to hit a teddy bear led to improvements in maths and reading (but not writing, for some reason). Have a think about that for a moment. How plausible does that seem? It strikes me as slightly more plausible than micro-psychokinesis, but not much, so a p-value would be really handy here. If the p-value was low, then we might have to reconsider our views on this.

However, in a parallel with the Maier et al. trial, the researchers on the Philosophy for Children trial did not compute p-values. And in another parallel, they found no effect at all of Philosophy for Children on the measures specified at the outset of the trial. Instead, the supposed effect was unearthed by a post-hoc analysis after the data was in.

More broadly, p-values seem uniquely suited to analysing the results of EEF trials because the EEF have a habit of testing implausible things. In their “Word and World Reading” trial, for instance, they tested the hypothesis that gaining knowledge of Subject A would improve reading comprehension on texts about Subject B. I am not aware of anyone who subscribes to such an hypothesis. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found no effect but, if they had, I would want to see a p-value.

Most recently of all, EEF researchers found that an intervention targeted at improving student behaviour did not generally improve their behaviour. This is a reasonable thing to investigate. However, they also found that it did not improve students’ reading ability. Who, exactly, was under the impression that it would? I would suggest that if you want to improve students’ ability to read then the most viable option would be to teach them to read. No?

Phonics advocates have something to sell

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The only people who make any money out of education are phonics advocates. The only people.

Nobody else does.

Not children’s authors like Michael Rosen or Mem Fox. They do not make a red cent from book sales. Sometimes, Rosen can be found, deep into the night, slowly turning the handle of the printing press by candle light: Out pops another Bear Hunt. He gets nothing in return. That’s dedication.

Neither do the publishers of levelled readers. The well known early reader The Boy is Holding a Carrot, The Boy is Holding an Egg, was donated, complete with photographs, entirely free to the school community, as has been every other predictable text ever written.

And no teacher, principal, education bureaucrat or academic has ever drawn a salary. They give their time for the love of the children. As it should be.

And this is particularly the case for Reading Recovery teachers, not one of whom has ever been paid. They see it as a duty. That’s why they spread the word through training events that are free of charge. They just want it out there because they care so much.

So do Fountas and Pinnell and their publisher, Pearson. Despite being a tiny, ramshackle concern, Pearson waives its rights to raise any revenue at all from Fountas & Pinnell Classroom™.

And neither do those little backyard outfits Apple and Google. All those iPads you see in classrooms have been donated out of the goodness of Apple’s heart. All those machines seizing-up due to the latest version of Windows are seizing-up for free.

The education sphere, it can be said with confidence, is entirely altruistic.

Except for one neoliberal fly in the ointment. You know what I am talking about. It is those massive multinational behemoths that seek to profit off the back of children. The swines! Yes, it is the publishers of phonics programmes and decodable books!

Don’t be fooled. Have your eyes wide open.


Stick it to the man!

Note: None of the claims made in the post are true.

Six years on and we are still Googling it

On July 12th, 2012, I published my first ever blog post on my now defunct ‘Webs of Substance’ blog site. It was called ’21st Century Knowledge’. The purpose of the post was to disagree with the following quote by Howard Gardner, a psychology professor, from an interview about his recently published book:

“…when the answers to factual questions are available at the movement of a mouse or the click of a button, there is no point in spending time committing the information to memory… going forward, our focus in schools… should be on understanding the METHODS whereby assertions are made, the way that a question is posed, how relevant data and arguments are marshaled, what kinds of challenges have been considered, how have they been responded to, etc.”

These were the views that were current in 2012. These are the views that are still current in the vast swathes of our education systems that have remained untouched by a motley assemblage of sceptical teachers having a social media moment.

The evidence comes in constantly, but one article that recently caught my eye dwells upon the effects of this kind of thinking. The article is based upon a survey of admissions staff at UK universities, around half of whom do not believe that students arrive at university sufficiently prepared. Digging into the reasons, the survey found, “The majority [of admissions officers] said that student were ‘unable to remember facts’ and had a “a ‘Google-it’ mentality”.”

I won’t use this post to explain why it is important for students to learn facts because I have written about that many times before. Indeed, E. D. Hirsch was writing about this issue and why you can’t rely on looking things up back in 2000. Instead, I just wish to emphasise that this is a real view about education that is out there and that seems to be having an impact on the education of youngsters.

Don’t let people tell you that this is all a false dichotomy and that everyone has always believed in the importance of learning knowledge. It was not true in 2012 and it is not true now.

Science versus slurs: The phonics debate

The footage above is from last night’s phonics debate in Sydney. Every primary teacher should view this and it is worthwhile if you teach secondary.

The proposition for debate was: Phonics in context is not enough. On the affirmative side where Anne Castles, a reading scientist, Jennifer Buckingham of the CIS thinktank and head of its FIVE from FIVE literacy project, and Troy Verey, a public school teacher from New South Wales.

Castles, Buckingham and Verey leaned heavily on scientifically based reading research. Verey contextualised this by discussing his experience teaching in London and NSW. He spoke of how little he had learnt about reading through his training and he specifically mentioned the importance of learning about the five keys to reading, the same five that Buckingham’s programme focuses on: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

These are consistent with The Simple View of Reading, a theory that posits that reading consists of two intertwined components: decoding and comprehension. You need to be able to map the squiggles on the page to a word, but you then need to know what that word means in the given context.

Buckingham highlighted this point when she discussed the word ‘wind’. Yes, its meaning and pronunciation depend on context, but if you can decode it with phonics then you can narrow it down to one of two options. Without phonics, ‘it could be anything’.

The overriding point was that phonics needs to be taught systematically, from simple letter-sound correspondences to more complex ones, rather than being left to chance. If we expect children to infer these relationships for themselves then many will not, including a disproportionate number of the most vulnerable students.

On the negative side of the debate were Robyn Ewing, a professor of education, Kathy Rushton, an education lecturer and Mark Diamond, a school principal.

Their approach to the debate was initially baffling because they seemed to be arguing against the idea of teaching phonics and nothing else. This is despite the fact that the affirmative speakers all stressed the importance of reading stories with children and building comprehension in tandem with teaching phonics.

Rather than focusing on scientific research, the negative speakers focused on the idea that meaning is important. Again, this does not seem to be a point that anyone disagrees with. As I have noted, The Simple View of Reading suggests comprehension – meaning – is one of two critical components.

Ewing spoke at some length about the need to speak to babies so that they develop language skills. The implied connection was that this kind of immersion is also useful for teaching reading. However, there is no good reason to believe that learning to speak and learning to read are the same. Although reading clearly builds upon speaking, reading has only been around for a few thousand years, with mass literacy only about 150 years old. In contrast, speaking has been around for many tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of years and so has potentially been acted on by evolution.

Part of this argument, taken up by the other negative speakers, seemed to be that reading performance was largely determined by home life. Home life is undoubtedly a massive factor, but as educators, there is little we can do about it. We can, however, affect what happens in the classroom.

There were also a couple of puzzling research claims made by the negative speakers. Ewing claimed that British research has shown that the phonics check in England has not been a good thing for young children and has not necessarily improved their reading. I would like to know the source for this because evidence from PIRLS, although very preliminary and correlational, suggests reading has improved since the introduction of the check. Diamond referred to a claim that he attributed to Misty Adoniou that ‘English has a phonological consistency of only 12%’. I would like to see the source.

However, the most extraordinary part of the debate was the following section:

Mark Diamond: Show me the money. Those who have a vested interest in commercial products for sale versus those who pursue complex understanding… Deepening pockets versus deepening understanding.

Audience: [Inaudible heckles]

Diamond: This is a scholarly debate.

Audience: [Laughter]

It’s pretty breathtaking to accuse the other side of the debate, none of whom appear to have any commercial investment in phonics programmes, of being venal, and then call for a scholarly debate. But this was not the only odd juxtaposition. Diamond also accused Verey of relying on a small amount of evidence from Verey’s school – Verey did not do this because he mainly drew on the wider evidence outlined by Castles and Buckingham – before constantly referencing his own school as evidence supporting a ‘balanced’ approach.

The reason I devoted a chapter of my new book to phonics, even though the book is aimed at all new teachers whether they teach early reading or not, is that the phonics debate captures, in microcosm, the education debate more widely. It pits science against semi-mystical invocations of ‘authenticity’ and ‘meaning making’.

We will know that we have finally become a profession when debates like this no longer represent genuine differences in the methods we use.