England’s ‘teacher-led’ Chartered College of Teaching to be led by non-teachers

They promised a ‘teacher-led’ College of Teaching:

And they did this on many occasions:

But then they got lots of cash from the government and something funny happened. The Chartered College of Teaching ended-up being led by non-teachers:

Teachers cannot rely on others. Teachers need to take control of their own profession. These bureaucracies have no legitimacy to speak for teachers.

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How an advert for @QandA sums up Australian education and its relationship with the media

I am marking papers at the moment. I took time out to have my lunch and flicked on the TV. Up came an advert for Monday night’s episode of Q and A, a current affairs panel show where members of the public pose questions to the panel.

Monday’s edition has an education focus and the trailer talked about what makes effective teaching. ‘Rockstar’ maths teacher Eddie Woo, will be making an appearance. Good on Woo. He’s made something of a name for himself after launching a hugely popular YouTube channel and now a book. It is great to have an actual teacher on a show like this.

The trailer then cut to Pasi Sahlberg. Sahlberg is currently a professor of education policy at the Gonski Institute for Education, a part of the University of New South Wales. But this is not how he was sold. Instead, the ABC chose to focus on the fact that Sahlberg developed his expertise in Finland where schools are ‘thriving’.

They are not.

Finland has seen a significant and ongoing decline in its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores since the early 2000s. Some might dismiss that on the grounds that they dislike standardised testing, but it is Finland’s early 2000s PISA results that brought it fame and attention in the first place. You cannot have it both ways. Yes, it still performs relatively well, but this could be due to a whole host of factors that systematically vary between countries. Far more telling is the overall direction of travel.

If you really want to understand Finnish education, then Tim Oates Finnish Fairy Stories is a good place to start. Finland is far more traditional and didactic that many seem to think, with Finnish teachers making extensive use of textbooks. Moreover, Finnish education has been highly centralised in the recent past and in the period leading up to the early 2000s when the students responsible for those stratospheric PISA results were in school. Yes, Finland is now looking at developing the kinds of ‘general capabilities’ that have been promoted in Australia by the ‘Gonski 2.0’ report, but these are a relatively new innovation that, barring time-travel, can have had no impact at all on those historic PISA scores.

Yet the narrative is strong with Finland.

It would be good if the media would dig a little deeper rather than simply reproduce these myths. But that is the state of Australian education right now and that is how it is reflected in our media.

Update: Here’s the advert

My submission to the New South Wales Curriculum Review

Embed from Getty Images

Below is my submission to the New South Wales Curriculum Review. You can make your own submission here.

What should the purpose of schooling be in the 21st century?

Despite what many advocates claim, schooling does not need to radically rethink its purpose for the 21st century. Models of human cognitive architecture vary, but virtually all posit the existence of a very limited short-term or working memory and an effectively limitless long-term memory. We can overcome the constraints of working memory by drawing upon webs of interconnected concepts from long-term memory (Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, 2006). The process of education should therefore be about purposefully expanding the knowledge available in long-term memory. This is not, as some would have us believe, about asking students to memorise rote, disconnected facts, but instead about developing a rich and connected knowledge of the world. For instance, instead of focusing entirely on teaching supposedly general-purpose skills such as reading comprehension, we should recognise the role that prior knowledge plays in comprehension (Hirsch, 2003) and actively and purposefully build this prior knowledge through a structured curriculum.

It is important to note that the limitations of working memory can be overcome by knowledge in long-term memory – knowledge that we can think with – and not by knowledge sat inertly on the internet. In this sense, the internet changes little. In a different sense, the students with the greatest amount of knowledge available in long-term memory are the students who will be able to draw upon, and make the most of, knowledge on the internet.

What knowledge, skills and attributes should every student develop at school?

One way to identify the most valuable knowledge for students to learn is to look at the kinds of sources that we expect educated, democratically active citizens to be able to access. For instance, journalists writing a story about conflict in the Middle East for the ABC News website will not start by informing readers of everything they need to know in order to understand the article, such as the geography of the Middle East or the history of the conflict. Instead, they will tend to assume this knowledge. It is this assumed knowledge that we need to teach at school, otherwise students will not grow into critical and active democratic participants.

A useful question to ask is: What knowledge has endured? We do not want to teach knowledge today that will be obsolete in a few years time. Contrary to popular opinion, this is often the knowledge that has been most recently produced. At school, I was taught how to justify text in a word-processor known as ‘View’. This knowledge is of no use in 2018 because that word-processor no longer exists and that knowledge does not carry forward to anything else – it is a terminus rather than a depot. In contrast, my scientific understanding of the cause of the seasons is as true and accurate as when I learnt it in primary school. Similarly, although language changes over time, the rules of grammar and spelling change only slowly.

Teachers should look to teach students about powerful domains of knowledge. These are areas that have formed part of the wider culture and that have formed connections to areas outside of their original context. For instance, when a journalist writes of an entrepreneur ‘flying too close to the Sun’, an educated adult will recognise this as a reference to the Greek Myth of Daedalus and Icarus.

How could the curriculum better support every student’s learning?

The curriculum needs to be rigorous, structured and sequenced. A mistake is to see the curriculum as the accumulation of generic skills that can then be assessed along a continuum. Under this misapprehension, schools and education systems seek to create rubrics to assess students’ progress in these skills. However, this misunderstands the importance of relevant domain knowledge in applying any of these skills. For instance, a teacher will find it much easier to demonstrate that a child can “support ideas with some detail and elaboration” by asking him or her to write about a family trip to the zoo than about Australia’s system of compulsory voting. In general, such generic continuums encourage teachers to dial down the intellectual challenge.

Instead, we should build a bank of benchmarked responses to specific questions and measure progress against these once the relevant domain knowledge has been taught. Ideally, NAPLAN reading and writing would focus more on the content of the previous year’s Australian Curriculum when selecting texts and prompts, but in the absence of this, state systems and individual schools should build these assessments. We can then intervene with those students who are making little progress.

What else needs to change?

We need to recognise that many so-called 21st century skills are not general skills at all (Tricot & Sweller, 2014). Critical thinking is a good example. It does not really exist as a general capability that students become better at across contexts. Instead, it is highly domain dependent. A trained scientist can fail to think critically about an area that he or she knows little about and a young child can succeed in thinking critically about an area that he or she knows a lot about (Willingham, 2008). This is due to the importance of domain specific knowledge in long-term memory. Instead of seeking to teach critical thinking in the abstract, we need to teach standard subject disciplines (characterised by their unique ways of thinking) to the level where students are capable of thinking critically and analytically about that particular domain.

References

Hirsch, E. D. (2003). Reading comprehension requires knowledge—of words and the world. American Educator27(1), 10-13.

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational psychologist41(2), 75-86.

Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2014). Domain-specific knowledge and why teaching generic skills does not work. Educational psychology review26(2), 265-283.

Willingham, D. T. (2008). Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach?. Arts Education Policy Review109(4), 21-32.

Making the case for reason, sometimes loudly and sometimes quietly


In 1996, Alan Sokal, a physicist, submitted a hoax paper to the academic journal, Social Text. To many, the fact that such a silly paper could be published highlighted the absurdity of postmodernist* philosophy, a philosophy that had started to take over the humanities departments of universities. In contrast, postmodernists and their apologists tended to focus on the fact that Sokal had done a Bad Thing by submitting a hoax paper and passing it off as a serious one, which is an interesting position to take for a postmodernist.

Yesterday, we learnt of a new hoax perpetrated by James Lindsay, Helen Pluckrose and Peter Boghossian. This time, the researchers wrote a total of 20 papers and managed to get seven accepted by peer-reviewed journals operating in the postmodernist arena of social theory. The accepted papers are clearly nonsense. I won’t focus on the lurid details except to point out that one paper featured a chapter of Mein Kampf that had been rewritten to reflect postmodernist jargon and tone. The fact that any such papers could be accepted by a peer-reviewed academic journal should cause anyone involved in these fields to reflect.

But it will not. Instead of grappling with the substance, postmodernists will simply highlight the ‘bad faith’ of the authors. Some have complained that the authors’ study is itself an example of bad science because there is no control group of papers submitted to journals in other fields. There is no need for such a control group if all that is to be demonstrated is that these journals accept nonsense papers. That’s bad enough. If anyone thinks that physics or biology journals would be equally as prone to publishing hoaxes then they are free to try submitting some of their own. I think we all know what would happen.

What is apparent is that beneath the theatrically intellectual front, postmodernism’s key ideas are relatively easy to grasp: Reality is socially constructed, the world consists of oppressors and the oppressed and any text can be read in a way that reinforces this. Yes, there is some performative jargon to get to grips with but this is nowhere near as hard as learning a technically complex subject. Postmodernism is revealed to be as disappointing as the Wizard of Oz, hiding behind the flashing lights of polysyllabic nouns and the protective curtain of mutual citation.

Two thoughts arise from this controversy. Firstly, what accounts for the extraordinary proliferation of this kind of scholarship? Secondly, if we accept the criticism of bad faith then exactly what options are open to those who wish to fundamentally criticise these fields?

The proliferation of bad social theory is pretty easy to understand. There are low barriers to entry. You need no specialist equipment and, as I have suggested, it is relatively easy work. You don’t have to master calculus or perform complex statistical analyses, you just have to work out ways to string together multi-purpose quotes from French philosophers and relate these to some mundane situation or other. And the rewards are relatively high. According to a survey of higher education in the U.S., professors in the field of, “Area, Ethnic, Cultural, Gender and Group Studies,” earn more than the average for all professors and more than professors in fields such as the physical sciences.

What is the legitimate way to critique these fields? The most straightforward approach is to write critical papers and submit these to the same journals. This may work if challenging a specific point but is unlikely to be effective if your criticism challenges the very assumptions underpinning these fields, as the criticisms of Sokal, Lindsay, Pluckrose and Boghossian do. You are unlikely to be published.

I have my own experience to draw upon here. A couple of years ago, I took to Twitter to state that I would be highlighting and making fun of the silliest-sounding papers presented at a particular education conference. This resulted in a group of academics lodging a complaint about me to my university, demonstrating the defensiveness, humourlessness and lack of self-awareness of those involved. When you believe that you are fighting injustice and oppression then I suppose it is hard to see your critics as anything other than bad people. There is therefore no room for criticism and certainly no room for humour; an existential problem for an academic field.

Whether or not this legitimises the guerrilla tactic of submitting hoax papers is a question I will leave you to answer for yourself.

The tragedy of social theory is that there is real and overt injustice and oppression in the world. By undermining legitimate scientific tools for inquiry, and by extending these concepts into imaginary domains, we do nothing to address sexism or racism and, if anything, give succour to those who would deny its existence. “I suppose yoghurt is racist now,” smirks the proto-fascist.

For those of us who seek a better way, we need to recognise the utility of social theory – the advantages it gives to its adherents – and understand how this enables it to flourish. It is right to stand-up and argue against bad ideas but we need to understand the purpose of this. You will never convince a professor that he or she is wrong. Instead, by expounding on alternative views and approaches, we allow the possibility for these alternative views and approaches to compete for attention.

This is what has happened in our corner of the education debate. When teachers talk directly to teachers about curriculum and the processes of education then this creates the opportunity to pass on ideas that have their own utility. Why have some teachers developed an interest in cognitive load theory? It is certainly not sexy or high status and so there must be some other aspect of it that makes it useful to teachers. Sometimes, the noise generated by a clash of ideologies will draw attention to these lesser-known ideas. At other times, the simple sharing of ideas between peers – a process enabled by social media – will help them spread. Eventually, if the ideas have enough utility, they may out-compete the bad ideas and replace them. If they don’t have enough utility then they don’t deserve to.

So keep making the case for reason, sometimes loudly and sometimes quietly. That is all that can be done.


*postmodernists rarely describe themselves as postmodernists, but I use this term in the absence of a commonly accepted alternative and in preference to the moniker of ‘Grievance Studies’ used by Lindsay, Boghossian and Pluckrose, which seems to me to be too dismissive of genuine injustices. You can read the Encyclopaedia Brittanica’s discussion of postmodernism here.

Principles of effective analysis


Schools are awash with data, both quantitative and qualitative. Very little of this would meet the standards of a scientific journal, but we can apply some principles derived from scientific analysis to help us draw better inferences.

Rorschach Inkblots

A lot of school data functions like a Rorschach inkblot. You can read all sorts of different things into it. This is similar in some ways to the scientific concept of p-hacking. If you have enough data then, by chance, you are likely to see something that looks like a pattern, but it is not a pattern because it arose by chance. The best approach is to draw such inferences tentatively and then, if you think they are worth exploring, use them to make predictions about future measurements. These can then be tested in a new collection of data.

For instance, if you trawl through your behaviour data and notice a spike on Thursday afternoons, you might predict that this will happen again in the future. You can then test this with a leaner measure and see if you are right. If you see no future spike then this pattern in your original data may have arisen by chance.

Backward mapping

You can avoid the problem of the Rorschach inkblot by stating in advance what it is that you will be looking for and designing your measure or assessment accordingly. You could use a general trawl of the data as described above to help you decide on a hypothesis iteratively, or you can generate hypotheses in other ways. For instance, you might be concerned about the long-term retention of times-table facts. If so, you could design an assessment that takes place at periodic intervals and you could test your hypothesis. However, you need to be careful. Once you have this data, you can start making all sorts of other inferences about groups of students or teachers: It is the Rorschach inkblot problem again. If you did not specify these analyses in advance then your assessment is unlikely to be designed in the best way to investigate them and as before, you run the risk of making inferences based upon chance events. In this case, the best strategy is to again make predictions based upon these hypotheses and then retest them.

Imagine you assess long-term retention of times tables facts and, as an aside, notice that the girls in your cohort seem to outperform the boys. You may then want to investigate this secondary relationship with other cohorts of children.

The key idea is that we should design an assessment with a specific hypothesis in mind. We can then make far stronger inferences about that hypothesis than any that might occur to us once we have the data. These secondary hypotheses serve to raise questions for further investigation.

Scheduling

In my experience, many schools simply harvest data with no specific hypotheses in mind. That’s fine for exploratory work. However, how many schools then go on to test their hypotheses?

A useful trick to force an element of backward mapping is to specify an analysis that you are going to do at a later date. For instance, you may write into your calendar in April that you are going to analyse attendance data by ethnicity in June, making a prediction about what you are likely to find.

The only honest way to live

In their new book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt assert an old idea: That the fault line between good and evil runs through each individual. We cannot simply divide the world into goodies and baddies. If we do so, we will be surprised when good people do bad things and vice versa.

The same holds for truth and falsehood. Imagine your views laid out, fifty years from now. What will people think? Undoubtedly, some of your views will have come to be accepted as truth. However, others are more than likely to be widely considered false, perhaps even among some of the great misconceptions of our age. Some of your views may even be seen as profoundly mistaken in the way that most of us would view the ideas of early 20th century eugenicists. Remember: you are not so different to them.

Here’s my prediction: it has always been wrong to judge individuals on their perceived membership of a group and yet some kinds of orthodox thinking today allow this in specific cases. In time, this will come to be widely acknowledged as wrong.

Which is the point of plurality and debate. I don’t argue about education because I believe myself to be right about everything, I do so because I believe that truth will emerge as a result of the debate. I debate in doubt.

Think of it another way. Let’s group ideas A, B, C and D together and call them ‘circlism’ and let’s group ideas E, F, G and H together and call them ‘squarism’. There is nothing to prevent A being true and B being false. If this is the case, it does not prevent circlism being a real social phenomenon. If you believe in idea A then it is human to identify with circlism and come to accept idea B without question.

How do you know if you are in thrall to an orthodoxy of this kind? Well, what happens when you are challenged? Can you think of a reasoned response? If you cannot, and all you feel is an emotional response and an urge to consider your challenger as a bad person, you are probably unthinkingly subscribing to an orthodoxy. We all do it.

There are two important features to note about the process of challenge. Firstly, it is necessary in order to highlight our own misconceptions and, secondly, challenge will make us feel uncomfortable and maybe even personally threatened. Ultimately, however, challenge has the potential to free us from subscribing to bad ideas that we never really thought through and gives us a better chance of being judged well by history.

Certainty leads us into orthodoxy and certainty is the one thing that history repeatedly and relentlessly refutes.

Living in doubt is the only honest way to live.

Scientists should be disabused of their pseudoscientific beliefs about learning


When I first met the physics professor, it was explained to him that I was a science teacher. This prompted something of a reaction. As an aside to the real purpose of the meeting, he proceeded to tell me how school science teaching should be improved. He explained, as if he was the first person to ever think of the idea, that students should learn through doing experiments and that they would remember concepts much better if they discovered them for themselves. He related an anecdote of a hands-on lesson he taught to secondary school teachers who visited his lab at the university. I couldn’t be bothered to argue back. We had other matters to address, limited time available and anyway, where do you start with such ignorance? But I think I missed an opportunity.

It can be baffling.

Science professors are often at the forefront of campaigns against pseudoscience. They will warn us against alternative medicines, promote vaccination and tirelessly point to the evidence that climate change is real. But when it comes to education itself, they often believe the woolliest load of old bunk. Why?

Firstly, I don’t think many of them realise that there is evidence about the most effective approaches to teaching and learning. I think they assume that it’s all a matter of opinion and, to be fair, hard evidence is the Cinderella of our education faculties.

Secondly, they suffer from a number of biases. The curse of knowledge means that they underestimate the vast amounts of specialist knowledge they possess and therefore downplay the role of education in imparting that knowledge. There is also evidence that people often remember concepts and ideas without remembering how and when they learnt them. Again, this could lead to scientists underestimating the role of schooling in this process. Perhaps they think they just quickly picked-up concepts as and when they needed them or independently from books.

It is also the case that professional scientists are likely to be outliers. They will have a high level of general intelligence and a high level of intrinsic motivation. An investigation that they imagine will be motivating for school children may be nothing of the sort. It is true that students generally like doing experiments, but it is not the case that this is always because of the science – sometimes students are motivated about playing with the equipment or having a break from reading and writing.

If you meet a profsplaining scientist, call them out. I did this with Brian Cox. I copped a bit of flak but I reckon it was worth it. If your scientist waxes lyrical about inquiry learning then point to the negative correlational evidence from PISA. If they show an interest in investigating further then send them to Kirschner, Sweller & Clark (2006), which does a good job of covering a lot of ground. Stay classy but stand your ground.

It would be great if we could persuade scientists to apply the same standards to educational ideas as they do to their own fields of expertise.