How progressivism increases your workload

The principles of progressive education lead to practices that increase your workload as a teacher without making you more effective.

It is the progressive focus on children as individuals with different needs and the principle that learning should be natural that cause most of these inefficient practices. Individualism and naturalism derive in part from the romantic view that children are inherently good.

Individualism is the principle behind many forms of differentiation. Children clearly have differences and similarities but progressivism emphasises the former. It is the likely driving force behind the invention of learning styles and it makes me skeptical about the number of children that we currently classify as having special educational needs.

Individualism leads to lesson plans that are complicated and onerous, consisting of multiple sets of activities deemed suitable for different arbitrary groupings of students. Student choice is emphasised (because children are inherently good and their natural choices are privileged). Children who struggle with writing may choose to make an audio recording or create a role-play instead. Or they may be assigned to group poster projects where they draw the pictures while other students do the writing. Not only are these strategies hard for teachers to plan and resource, they do nothing to tackle writing difficulties. Over time, this kind of differentiation will lead to a growing gap between those who possess a particular academic skill and those who do not (I am making a reasoned claim here rather than a empirical one – differentiation is pretty hard to test experimentally).

Individualism and naturalism also lie at the root of our problems with marking. Typically, students are asked to complete complex performances such as writing essays, creating posters, designing and conducting scientific investigations and so on. After this, teachers are expected to provide feedback in the form of a brief letter written to each child. Why?

Well, complex performances are important because they are natural (look for the term ‘authentic’ as a synonym for natural). Nobody ever sets out to write a paragraph but they do set out to write a story. So this is what we must ask students to do; over and over again; the entire thing from start to finish. Students will then create a range of different products so we need to provide individual feedback on those. Even maths teachers who have managed to avoid the pressure to teach through complex performances may still feel the need to write letters to all of their students (because of individualism).

This is not an efficient way to gather or provide feedback. Feedback both to the teacher and to students will be far more effective if targeted at some well-defined component skill or item of knowledge rather than a great big mass of interacting things. And the most efficient way of providing it to students is through teaching, not writing them individual letters: Find out the kinds of mistakes students made or next steps they need to take and then teach them these in the next lesson or a later lesson. Any teacher who has ever written the same statement in 24 out of 30 exercise books will be aware that students tend to make the same kinds of mistakes.

This is because, educationally, children are more similar than they are different. Which is why the strategies that are often suggested for children with special educational needs (e.g. explicit instruction) tend to be the strategies that are the most effective with all children.

When it comes to behaviour, the romantic view of childhood insists that poor behaviour is a result of children being placed in artificial situations. Maybe we made them sit in rows or we asked them to do something boring or to keep quiet or perhaps we instructed them to read Shakespeare when their natural inclination is to read Diary of a Wimpy Kid. What did we expect? Of course they would react to that! (Incidentally, this is why progressivism leads to the dilution of academic content).

The first instinct of progressivism is therefore to blame teachers or The System for behaviour problems. Teachers take on a great deal of guilt. Some who possess charisma and are adept at subtle manipulation, thrive. Others struggle. Discussions with students about their behaviour centre around accommodations that the teacher could make to better suit the student.

The alternative approach to behaviour does not have to be arbitrary or harsh. It is simply a recognition that poor behaviour is mostly a choice made by the student. This understanding may sit within a system of rewards and sanctions but it may also involve discussions with students about their choices or some explicit teaching.

Schools that have poor behaviour management systems create a lot of work for teachers. If teachers are even allowed to keep students behind or apply other sanctions for poor behaviour then they will have to do this themselves. They may be called to lots of meetings with students. They may be asked to plan additional accommodations. They may have to re-plan tomorrow’s lesson because student behaviour prevented them from properly teaching today’s.

A school with a good behaviour system is a more predictable place and predictability allows us to work efficiently.

So there we are. When you find yourself exhausted at the end of a lesson you spent hours planning only for it to be ruined by poor behaviour and with a huge pile of stuff to take home and mark, in detail, you can blame the principles of progressivism.

Four ways cognitive load theory has changed my teaching

I am going to describe some ways that knowledge of cognitive load theory (CLT) has changed how I teach. Prior to learning about CLT, I used what I have previously termed ‘default teacher led instruction’. I stood at the front and explained things but it was not an optimal form of explicit instruction. On the positive side, I had developed good classroom management over time and, since the mid 2000s, I had implemented some of Dylan Wiliam’s formative assessment techniques. This was, on reflection, an excellent basis for learning about CLT.

I am going to write in the context of my maths teaching because this provides the clearest examples. Maths is also an area that has been heavily targeted in CLT research. However, I have been involved in transferring these ideas to other subjects and have always found such transfer to be complicated but possible – again this mirrors the research. But that discussion is for another day.

1. I don’t read out my slides

I have a PowerPoint for every lesson that acts as my lesson plan. It has a starter activity, lists the homework, states the learning intention, reminds me to take the register, displays any notes and contains all class examples and questions, along with the solutions on subsequent slides.

I print a selection of these slides and hand them to my students. They glue the slides in to their exercise books, annotate them and then answer any questions in their books.

When we get to a slide that presents some theory such as the origin of Euler’s number, I ask the students to read it and I give them ample time to do this before I start talking about the content of the slide.

I do this because of the ‘redundancy effect’ found in CLT: a simultaneous oral and text presentation leads to less comprehension than the text alone. This is probably best understood in terms of dual channel processing and is also a feature of Mayer’s cognitive theory of multimedia learning which is closely related to CLT.

Our working memories effectively have two ‘channels’. One processes visual information and the other processes spoken language. Reading starts off in the first channel with the letters being observed visually. These are then decoded into virtual sounds that are processed in the spoken language channel. If a student is required to process spoken language at the same time as reading then this jams up the spoken language channel. Some students may be able to select either the spoken or the written and pay attention to just one of the sources but this redundant information is of benefit to nobody so I avoid it.

2. Break it down, further

New learning can be fairly transient. Information will quickly disappear from students’ minds without the opportunity to process it.

I used to present a series of examples before I asked students to complete a task. For instance, I might show them how to sketch an exponential curve before reminding them of how to apply index laws. They would then complete an exercise on these problems.

These days, I pause for practice between each individual problem type. So after the graph example, students will complete a graph question and after an index law example, students complete an index law question and so on. Which leads to the next technique.

3. Example-problem pairs

In research into the use of worked examples, the use of example-problem pairs was found to be optimal for learning. A worked example is written on one side of a page with an almost identical question posed on the other side. This way, students can apply the method of the example directly to the question. This minimises extraneous cognitive load and focuses attention on the key features.

I replicate this with my slides: one side has an example and the other has a question.

If we step back a little from CLT then I think example-problem pairs serve a wider purpose. In his review of process-product research, Barak Rosenshine suggests that effective teachers aim for an 80% success rate. This is one way to achieve success and I suspect it is motivating for students.

In the past I think I have gone for transfer too early. After demonstrating a worked example, I have tended to ask slightly different questions, thinking that this will lead to more flexible learning but I probably just caused frustration in students who were struggling.

4. Stop after five minutes

And I’ve come to a much more nuanced understanding of cognitive struggle. If you know little else about CLT then you probably are aware of the idea that too much struggle can overload working memory. However, it’s not just the total amount of cognitive load that matters but the type of load.

Dan Willingham tells an anecdote in ‘Why don’t students like school‘ that has been referenced on many blogs. He writes of a teacher who wants students to learn about the Underground Railroad, the historical system of safe-houses and routes that were used to smuggle slaves out of the south of the U.S. The teacher asks the students to bake biscuits of the kind that the freed slaves would have eaten. Willingham points out this would have caused the student to think about measuring butter and flour rather than the Underground Railroad. Teaching should cause students to think about the right things because ‘memory is the residue of thought’.

Now let me outline a much more subtle example. Students given a maths problem to solve and with no immediate solution strategies to use will engage in means-end analysis. This is a generic problem-solving strategy that we all possess and it involves measuring your current state, evaluating how far you are from the solution state and then deciding which moves may get you closer. This is cognitively demanding to the extent that even if you manage to solve the problem, you might not recall the solution method. You might not actually learn anything from the process; one reason why worked examples beat solving problems in classic worked example studies.

So my advice to students is, “Never spend more than five minutes trying to solve a homework problem.” Five minutes is actually quite a long time. If students don’t recognise a solution pathway quickly then they are likely to start applying means-end analysis. Rather than engaging in worthwhile practice they will learn little and would be better served by moving on to other questions.

“Put a circle around the question,” I explain, “and raise it with me in class or come and see me. I am your teacher and it’s my job to explain how to do it.” I always ask for homework issues at the start of each lesson and spend some time going over them.

Yes, students will have to persist with some non-obvious exam questions but the best way to prepare them for this is to practise lots of different strategies and not to ask them to practise persisting.


No doubt some of you will be thinking that this is all just obvious; that you don’t need cognitive load theory to work this out; that good teachers have always known about these strategies. Maybe they have. I did not.

The activity school

In the 1930s, progressive education started to gain traction in American public schools. One manifestation of this was the “activity movement”. There was much debate around the definition of the activity movement and “activity schools”, with some seeing no need to differentiate between activity schools and progressive schools. For others, activity schools were a specific application of important principles of progressivism; activity schools were one example of progressivism more generally.

According to Diane Ravitch, a survey of experts managed to produce forty-two different definitions of the activity movement. William Heard Kilpatrick, the popular progressive educationalist and Columbia’s University’s ‘million dollar’ professor, defined an activity school as one where activities were ‘natural’ rather than one where a curriculum was set out in advance. Kilpatrick was famous for his essay “The Project Method” that he wrote in 1918 and which explained his ideas on project-based learning. According to James Lynch, the idea of the activity school traces back to Kilpatrick’s project-based curriculum.

Writing in The Elementary School Journal in 1936 Lynch defines an activity school as, “a progressive school in which the learning process is directed through the spontaneous, creative activities of children.”

Lynch expands on his theme:

“The school… becomes a place where children carry on – explore; converse; play games; build boats, kites, electric bells, aeroplane models; draw; paint; and form groups in order to produce a play – as they would in a world of their own. In other words, the school is a continuation of preschool life. The function of the teacher is to guide children to do better those things in which they engage naturally. Reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, and history are learned just as talking is learned, as means to the realisation of desired ends; they are modes of procedure into which everyday experiences develop because of their value in satisfying needs.” [my emphasis]

Clyde Hissong, another leading light in the activity movement, saw such projects as leading to improvements in what we might today describe as 21st century skills. After outlining an episode where children visit a Native American reservation and then return to school with the plan of constructing a tepee, Hissong suggests that:

“Certain social values inevitably grow out of the activity of building; pupils learn to apportion work so that the tasks of various individuals when completed will present a unity; they learn to lead and to follow; and they learn the value of group enterprise.”

It is fascinating that people make virtually the same arguments today, eighty years on, and it is instructive to understand why these ideas failed then and will fail now.

Learning to read is not the same as learning to talk. Talking is biologically primary; we have evolved to learn it. Reading is not – it was only invented a few thousand years ago and so it is too young to have influenced evolution. This is why you can’t learn to read as easily as you can learn to talk and why formal methods of reading instruction tend to be more effective than naturalistic ones.

Similarly, Hissong’s useful ‘by-products’ of project work are not really skills that may be transferred to to many different situations. Instead, they tend to be learned in context. An individual may collaborate brilliantly on building a tepee but shrink into the corner during a maths project. So the context is not interchangeable; it is critical. We cannot leave it to chance, following the interests of students. Instead, we must consciously construct a curriculum that cycles them through powerful content.

Today, the ideas that drove activity schools find expression in discussions about 21st century skills and jobs that don’t yet exist. They are pushed by slick consultants with flashy videos and cool TED talks. Nevertheless, these ideas are not new discoveries based on the science of learning. They contain no novel insights. Instead, they are rooted in a debunked ideology that was considered revolutionary in the 1930s.

Oliver Caviglioli’s Cognitive Load Theory Resources


Cognitive Load Theory, developed by John Sweller and colleagues, is an increasingly influential learning theory among teachers who are engaging with educational research. It is the area that I am studying as part of my postgraduate research.

At present, there are few easily accessible guides to the theory. I wrote a piece for The Conversation that acts as something of an introduction. However, the best summary is probably an article by John Sweller himself that describes the evolution of the theory from the first few experiments.

As a student, I have access to an excellent textbook written by Sweller, Kalyuga and Ayers. I don’t actually have a copy because it is quite expensive but I am able to download a DRM protected pdf that expires after a few days. The fact that it expires, and that I therefore need to keep downloading it, is a little frustrating but I am aware that I am in a better position than most of you who have no access and can’t splash out that kind of money on a book.

I think it would be good if Springer released a paperback version. Although it is an academic text, it is written plainly and I guess that many teachers would be able to follow the arguments. Better still would be a popular text that covers the same ground.

In the meantime, we can thank the excellent Oliver Caviglioli for producing a set of visual chapter summaries. These give concise access to the ideas in the book.

Gonski 2.0

Australia has quite a complicated school funding model that sits across both state and federal governments. A few years ago, the then Labor government appointed David Gonski to chair a committee to make recommendations on funding reform. Gonski suggested a needs-based funding system to replace the series of different deals that existed at the time. However, Labor immediately committed to ensuring that no individual school would lose money under the subsequent plans, a move that both increased costs and confounded the needs-based principle.

Since the election of a (centre-right) Coalition federal government in 2013, there have been suggestions that Gonski would be abandoned. Last week, the government surprised many by announcing “Gonski 2.0” – a model that some would argue is closer to the original aims of Gonski, complete with a real-terms increase in funding and a new review by the man himself that will look into how additional funding should be spent.

This is not my area of expertise but, helpfully, Glenn Savage has written a clear article for The Conversation that goes some way to answering questions on the implications.

I am particularly interested in the review into how new money will be spent. As I suggested last week, increases in funding have the potential to be wasted on fads and gimmicks.

The federal government have suggested that this won’t happen because Gonski 2.0 funding will come with strings attached:

“The Government has established the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools, to be chaired by Mr David Gonski AC, to provide advice on how the extra Commonwealth funding provided in the 2017 Budget should be invested to improve Australian schools’ performance and grow student achievement…

Delivery of reforms will be a condition of funding for states.”

This could be a positive step. However, the government have previously hinted at ideas such as rating teachers against the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers. These standards are pretty woolly and, to my mind, do not reflect the best evidence available on quality teaching.

So we will have to see what the review produces.

It’s also not clear at this stage whether this plan will survive political wrangling. By adopting a pretty centrist policy, the government may have succeeded in wedging the Labor party at the expense of alienating its own right wing.

Former Prime Minister and all-round sore loser Tony Abbott is already shouting from the attic.

The solution to a post-truth world

I’m not a fan of the term ‘fake news’, mostly because the American president keeps using it to refer to… er… news. But I do recognise the broader post-truth phenomenon.

And I have to ask all those academics who are now wringing their hands about it: what exactly did you think would happen?

Because the best cure for post-truth is truth; objective knowledge of the world. Yes, it is hard to find. Concepts get overturned. New research expands the boundaries of what is known and provides new insights. But I don’t think the Earth will stop going around the Sun any time soon or that Julia Gillard will, at some point, stop being the first ever female Prime Minister of Australia.

Yet academia has spent the past fifty years rubbishing the concept of truth; of knowledge. It is as if butchers had decided to devalue the concept of meat or sailors to deny water.

Here is Michel Foucault expressing his own ambivalent attitude towards truth:

“There is a battle ‘for truth,’ or at least ‘around truth’-it being understood once again that by truth I do not mean ‘the ensemble of truths which are to be discovered and accepted,’ but rather ‘the ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and specific effects of power attached to the true,’ it being understood also that it’s a matter not of a battle ‘on behalf’ of the truth, but of a battle about the status of truth and the economic and political role it plays…

‘Truth’ is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation, and operation of statements.

‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extends it. A ‘regime’ of truth.”

So there is no battle on behalf of truth. Truth is produced by systems of power. If you accept this concept then it’s not hard to swallow the idea that Russia produces it’s own truth. Or North Korea. Or Donald Trump.

Foucault notes the tendency for ‘societies like ours’ to centre truth on scientific discourse but there is something contingent in the way that he states this. Is our choice of science arbitrary? Does our society clothe itself in science in the way that I might choose a blue suit over a grey one?

Of course, I am not complex and deep enough to possibly understand what Foucault truly means but I do see his shadow looming over the current crisis.

As I mentioned, knowledge of the truth is the best antidote to falsehoods. And this is easy to demonstrate. In one of my earliest blog posts, I linked to the website Conservapedia and asked what we could teach a student to prepare her to think critically about it. Conservapedia contains plenty of logical fallacies but possibly the quickest way to evaluate the site is to note the part-word ‘conserv’ in the title, the American flag and link it to knowledge of American conservatives and their views.

Yet the teaching of knowledge has been degraded. Under the ideology of educational progressivism, curricula have been denuded of dry facts in favour of supposedly transferable skills. Rather than teach students the vast knowledge of the world that they need in order to think critically on a range of topics, we have chosen to go hunting the unicorn that is a generic skill of ‘critical thinking’; a skill which is supposed to emerge, fully formed and with no great teacher involvement when students do projects and chat to each other about stuff.

So this should be a call to arms. Now is the moment to reflect upon the folly of our dumbed-down curricula and choose another path where we teach children true things about this world, thus arming them against the social media tsunami of lies.

But we can’t do that because truth is ambivalent and suspect and possibly oppressive or abusive. Powerful people produce truth and we’re too rebellious for that. Stick it to the man! Yeah!

Perhaps we can fix the post-truth thing by talking about values instead?

How to improve teaching

You might be wondering about the following question: Why do I expend so much effort evangelising about explicit instruction and criticising the ideology of progressive education when most teachers use explicit forms of teaching most of the time? I’m not sure I entirely accept the premise. In some schools and sectors, implicit teaching (e.g. ‘balanced’ literacy) plays a large role. However, I would concede that there is an awful lot of explicit teaching out there and this is for a good reason – the alternatives are unwieldy, impractical and lead to worse results.

So what’s my problem?

Progressive education ideology is about more than just teaching methods

I am currently in the process of completing physics coursework with my Year 12 students. The Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA) is our exam board and they have made it compulsory for my students to design and complete an investigation themselves which they must then present as a poster. As relative novices, this is an educationally vacuous task. Where does it originate? Progressive ideology.

And that is just one example of how bad ideas hamper effective teaching. In my recent blog post on progressivism, I listed many more; the Australian Curriculum, L3 in New South Wales, the framing of discussions about student behaviour and so on.

Default explicit teaching is not research-informed explicit instruction

It is wrong to assume that any kind of teacher-led instruction is what I mean by ‘explicit instruction’. In my experience, default teaching can suffer from a number of problems. For instance, the teacher might be engaging with only a few of the students in the class, allowing others to effectively opt out. This will be related to the teacher not collecting information about what students know and can do. This ‘formative assessment’ is vital to teacher decision making – does a concept need to be reexplained? Without this feedback, teachers are biased to assume that students understand more than they do.

Effective explicit instruction breaks ideas into small, digestible components. One component is presented and the students practice this before moving to the next one. Gradually, components are brought together into larger units. Teachers with little experience of the process may find it hard to identify these components and so their presentation will tend to range over a number of components at the same time before students move into a practice phase. Important points will be left unsaid and students will be required to make inferences which some will fail to do.

There are teaching schemes that are specially designed to apply these principles and avoid student misunderstanding but they are unpopular and so are not widely used. Instead, most teachers are improvising their own programmes and so these ideas are critical.

Up the garden path

Plenty of teachers are aware of the shortcomings of their own teaching but when they look for advice on how to improve they are led into fantasy lands of constructivism or ‘deeper’ learning or pedagogies based upon political ideologies rather than science. This is the greatest concern. The fact that progressivism is the dominant ideology in our schools of education makes it hard for them to pass on knowledge of how to make explicit instruction more effective.

That’s why it is up to us. Teachers need to take charge themselves. Let’s professionalise. Let’s pass on the knowledge that has been hidden from us. Let us learn from each other.

Together, we can improve teaching.