Decluttering the Australian Curriculum

The Australian Curriculum has never been particularly good. For example, Science is divided into three strands – science understanding, science as a human endeavour and science inquiry skills. In Year 6, the science understanding strand includes things like, ‘Changes to materials can be reversible or irreversible,’. That’s an extremely vague statement and not particularly helpful, but it is at least recognisable as science. Science as a human endeavour, on the other hand, includes completely meaningless and banal statements such as, ‘Scientific knowledge is used to solve problems and inform personal and community decisions’. And science inquiry skills, appears to be an attempt to hard-wire inquiry learning teaching methods into the curriculum, with its requirement for students to, ‘Identify, plan and apply the elements of scientific investigations to answer questions and solve problems using equipment and materials safely and identifying potential risks.’ It is as if Year 6 students are professional scientists, fully equipped with the necessary background knowledge to successfully plan and conduct experiments. Clearly, they are not.

And it gets much worse than this. In addition to the learning areas (subjects) of English, mathematics, science, humanities and social sciences, ‘the arts’, ‘technologies’, health and physical education, and languages, there are the ‘general capabilities’ of literacy, numeracy, ICT capability, critical and creative thinking, personal and social capability, ethical understanding and intercultural understanding. Now, you might be thinking, “Why do we need a learning area of English as well as a literacy general capability? Why do we need a learning area of mathematics as well as a numeracy general capability? Why do we need a learning area of ‘technologies’ as well as an ICT general capability?”

Well, the answer is obvious, right? The general capabilities are general. Without them, students would only be able to apply their knowledge of English to the subject of English or their knowledge of maths to the subject of maths. They would not be capable of reading anything or doing any calculations in a science class.

Such logic is obviously bogus. To the extent that the general capabilities are general, they may be fostered through a standard subject-based approach. And many of the general capabilities, such as critical and creative thinking, lack evidence of being general.

And it gets much worse than this. In addition to the learning areas and the general capabilities, there are the three cross-curriculum priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and culture, Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia, and sustainability.

So it is pretty clear to me what we would need to do to fix it:

  • Be more explicit and detailed in the content listed in the learning areas in order to ensure that the curriculum is knowledge-rich
  • Strip back superfluous and waffly aspects of the learning areas or those that imply particular teaching methods e.g. cut science as a human endeavour and science inquiry skills from science
  • Remove the redundant general capabilities of literacy, numeracy and ICT
  • Acknowledge that critical and creative thinking look different in different learning areas, audit the learning areas to ensure these capacities are developed then cut them as general capabilities
  • Determine what, if anything, is of worth from personal and social capability and ethical understanding general capabilities and ensure these are placed in the relevant learning areas
  • Integrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories into an expanded humanities and social sciences learning area, integrate sustainability into science and ditch the weird cross curriculum priority about engagement with Asia

The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) have announced a review of the Australian Curriculum and it looks like this this is not what they have in mind.

The press-release talks of ‘decluttering’ the curriculum, but this is not about removing redundant general capabilities. Implausibly, ACARA want to double-down on the general capabilities and, “…reduce the amount of content across all eight learning areas of the Australian Curriculum F-10, with a priority on the primary years, to focus on essential content or core concepts.”

A theme that emerges across the review and the preliminary research is the mystical concept, popular in the UK in about 2006, of ‘deep understandings’ and curricular depth.

You may find it odd that ACARA has already determined the outcomes of a review that it has not yet conducted, but that appears to be down to the preliminary research, the methodology of which is puzzling. Researchers decided to benchmark the Australian Curriculum against the high performing states of Finland, British Columbia, Singapore and New Zealand.

This is a deeply flawed approach. Different states perform differently on assessments such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for a wide variety of reasons. Some states are small and relatively homogeneous, others are large and diverse. Some states are wealthier than others. Finland has a particularly ‘transparent orthography’ – the relationship between letters and their corresponding sounds in Finnish is far more straightforward than in English, making it easier to learn to read. It is therefore flawed to assume that Finland’s position above us in the PISA rankings must be down to their curriculum.

Of more relevance than positions in a league table is the question of the direction of travel. Which countries are improving relative to their own past performance? Which countries are declining? This may enable us to draw stronger inferences about any curriculum effects because we can assume factors such as the language of instruction and demographics stay relatively stable over time. Such an analysis would warn us off Finland which has been in significant decline on PISA since around 2006. Given PISA assesses 15-year-olds, education in Finland has probably been heading in the wrong direction since about the turn of the century. Perhaps the Finnish curriculum is a cause of this.

And the researchers also appear to believe in time travel.:

“…British Columbia’s new curriculum design privileges depth over breadth… Singapore’s revised curriculum includes a greater focus on 21st century skills such as collaboration.”

By exactly what mechanism can British Columbia’s ‘new curriculum design’ or Singapore’s ‘revised curriculum’ be a cause of past successes? For all we know, these innovations could be leading British Columbia and Singapore towards future declines in performance.

Oh well, ‘decluttering,’ probably sounded good. Who wouldn’t want to declutter? Who is in favour of clutter? So, ACARA decided to go with that.


Decolonising maths and science degrees at Oxford

I studied physics at Cambridge University. Technically, I followed the ‘Natural Sciences’ course that saw me take maths, physics, chemistry and cell biology in my first year, maths and physics in my second year and finally specialise in physics alone in my final year. So, I have experience of a number of university level maths and science courses.

Most of the time involved discussing concepts and then solving problems or performing experiments. We completed titrations and synthesised aspirin in chemistry and studied Fresnel diffraction and radioactive decay in physics. I learned about the role of mitochondria in cells and how to etherise fruit flies. And I did a lot – and I mean a real lot – of sums. Pages and pages of them.

What I did not spend a great deal of time doing was discussing people and places. Occasionally, a lecturer would try and add a little human interest by relating an anecdote about a scientist. But this was rare and never the main point. We were not expected to remember these. The only time people became an object of study was when I took a short, optional unit in the history and philosophy of science, my main memory of which was writing an essay arguing against Richard Dawkins.

I sometimes wonder what people with a background in the humanities think science and maths degrees are all about. Do they imagine something like that history and philosophy of science unit? Do they think we have seminars discussing great scientists and their work?

Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, has a background in political science. The Times is reporting that she has written to Oxford’s student union in response to the killing of George Floyd in the U.S. and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. In this letter, Richardson apparently informs students of a grant that has been made available to develop resources to ‘decolonise’ Oxford’s maths and science courses, “an area that is frequently overlooked”. The Times quotes Richardson as stating:

“Many departments in social sciences have begun work on making their curriculum more inclusive and adding diverse voices to it. This includes steps such as integrating race and gender questions into topics, embedding teaching on colonialism and empire into courses, changing reading lists to ensure substantial representation of a diverse range of voices, and ensuring better coverage of issues concerning the global South in syllabuses.”

The reading lists given to science students typically consist of textbooks that explain how to do particular calculations and the like, so what would it mean to ensure a ‘diverse range of voices’? I wonder how you would integrate race and gender questions into topics such as Fresnel diffraction. I have never looked into who Mr Fresnel was or what he did, but perhaps, if he is found out to be morally compromised by today’s standards, we could rename that particular form of diffraction after someone else. Is that the sort of thing we are talking about? If so, such a move would be both confusing and incidental – because the main focus will still be on doing the actual physics.

Unless, of course, we try to turn maths and science into humanities subjects – less technical stuff and more history and philosophy of science. Since the start of my career, I have been aware of people arguing for this shift in school science teaching, so perhaps this is a natural development.

If so, I wonder where future generations of people who can actually do science will come from? Presumably, not Oxford University.


On not playing the game

In yesterday’s post, I argued against US college professor Ilana Horn’s call for her followers to give Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion negative reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I hit a nerve – my Twitter mentions were flooded with teachers saying just how good Teach Like a Champion is.

However, as might be expected, a couple of other college professors appeared and challenged me. Mike Steele asked why I had not addressed Horn’s criticisms of Lemov’s book:

The answer is longer than a tweet. The reason I did not address Horn’s criticisms is the same reason a person may hesitate at a fairground before playing that game where you have to throw the hoop over a prize. The game is rigged.

I’m not sure I like the word ‘epistemology’ but it is relevant here. An epistemology is the agreed set of methods with which a field of inquiry establishes truths about the world. I am not convinced that there a lots of different, yet valid, epistemologies and I am not even sure it is right to call the kind of critical theory lens used by Horn an ‘epistemology’ because it is hard to see how it could be used to establish truths. In order to establish truths, there must be some mechanism for testing arguments and I don’t think there is.

For instance, how could I demonstrate to Steele’s satisfaction that a book is not, “steeped in colonizing viewpoints.” I don’t think I could. I suspect any attempt would be met with the response that I needed to do more reading and with references to my gender and perceptions of my race.

Could someone with different personal characteristics challenge this claim? No, that possibility is also excluded because in the critical theory paradigm, racism can be internalised:

The fact that something cannot be refuted superficially seems like a strength. It must be true! And it certainly has great rhetorical power. However, when you remove the possibility of refutation, you remove the possibility of testing ideas and seeing how strong they are. You remove the possibility of dissent. You enter a totalitarian world where the powerful can assert what they wish and everyone else can just shut up.

So I am not going to play that game. It is better to deconstruct it so that others become aware of how it is rigged.


No, you are not cancelling Teach Like a Champion

Despite having understandable qualms about mob rule, I suspect few people shed a tear when a statue of Edward Colston, slave trader, was toppled from its plinth and unceremoniously dumped in the harbour in Bristol. But then, Winston Churchill’s statue in London was defaced and there are now suggestions that, among others, statues of Baden Powell and Sir Francis Drake are living on borrowed time.

And then it started with old British comedy shows. Few shed a tear, I suspect, over Little Britain and Come Fly With Me, with their overtly racist tropes. But eyebrows were raised at The Mighty Boosh and The League of Gentlemen.

I am not sure where this will end and I suspect a backlash is coming of some sort. All of which, sadly, will likely play into the hands of right-wing political parties and candidates.

Nevertheless, we are currently at the high watermark and as with all frenzies of this kind, some people have spotted the opportunity to settle a few scores.

Teach Like a Champion, and its expanded second edition, are books that many teachers have found extremely useful. Doug Lemov, the author, has spent a great deal of time observing effective teachers and, from this, has distilled and refined a number of highly effective strategies. This is not a randomised-controlled-trial (RCT) approach to research, it is more a mix of process-product research and ethnography. In other words, its the kind of research that university faculties of education probably should spend more time doing.

Lemov’s methodology has been particularly helpful lately. When my school made the shift to remote learning as a result of a COVID-19 lockdown in my state, it was Lemov’s blog that we visited to help figure out our program. There were no remote learning RCTs to draw on and really Lemov, and his detailed observations of remote teaching across his network, were all we had. Lemov had our backs and for that, I would like to take the opportunity to express my heartfelt gratitude.

Anyone who’s been to a teacher education college and who picks up a copy of Teach Like a Champion, will immediately notice a contrast between Lemov’s specific and detailed observations and advice, and the kind of nonspecific ideological navel-gazing that constitutes much of the content of education courses. Lemov’s is a practical guide, written for teachers. It is not interested in condemning neoliberalism or quoting French philosophers, which often appear to be the means for advancement in the academy, it is interested in helping teachers to become more effective.

You can just imagine the resentment this generates among a subset of education professors. In years gone by, the only information trainee teachers would have access to about education would be carefully filtered by their institution. Now, through social media connections, teachers from opposite sides of the globe can communicate and recommend articles and books to each other – books such as Teach Like a Champion. I imagine a professor bristling as a student mentions Lemov’s name.

And so Ilana Horn, a maths education professor, decided that the time was right to attempt to cancel Teach Like a Champion:

Apparently, it is somehow racist:

Tell that to the teachers at Michaela Community School who have used Lemov’s techniques with extraordinary success, opening up exciting opportunities for Michaela’s diverse student population:

I am calling this behaviour out. I am not accepting this attempt to cancel Teach Like a Champion. I do not know how much attention people pay to negative reviews on Amazon and Goodreads – I suspect books like Teach Like a Champion achieve success via teachers recommending them to each other – but I am not going to stand by and watch someone instigate a petty campaign against a book they don’t like under the cover of activism. This is not activism.

If you have read Teach Like a Champion then please do as I have done and log on to Amazon or Goodreads and leave a review explaining your thoughts. If you screenshot your review and send it to me on Twitter, I will retweet it to my followers. If you haven’t read it yet then please consider ordering a copy.

Let’s turn this cynical attack into raised awareness of Teach Like a Champion and a sales boon for Doug Lemov.

Update: It looks like Amazon may have suspended reviews. If so, head over to Goodreads and put a note in your diary to go back to Amazon in a week or so to post your review.


Being wrong is a strategy

Michael Fullan, a Canadian educational consultant and prolific writer, has a saying: “Being right is not a strategy”. I take it to mean that even if you have the correct solutions or are relying on the proper reading of the available research, that will not necessarily persuade others to your cause. You need more than that.

Of course, the saying presupposes that whoever it is who is in need of a strategy is right. I’m not sure exactly how we would know we were right. That’s the kind of thing ideologues and religious fundamentalists know. Those of us working in the messy space of education and seeking ways to improve are far more likely to be riddled with doubt.

Therefore, I would like to propose a corollary to Fullan’s saying that may help us solve some practical problems: Being wrong is a strategy. What do I mean?

A key principle of science is falsifiability. This means that scientists have to stick their necks out and make statements that could potentially be proven wrong. We can then test those statements. If they pass the test, we can integrate them into a theory – and theories are always provisional. If they fail the test, we have to review our theory.

A topical example might be Professor Neil Ferguson’s COVID-19 model. Contrary to popular perception, his model was not, and is not, ‘the science’. Science is the process of testing the predictions of Ferguson’s model against reality, a process that is now underway.

However, you might be wondering what is so special and scientific about this. Are not all statements falsifiable? Well, no.

Books on leadership have turned unfalsifiability into an art form. They tell you that you must give your team clear direction but that you must be prepared to listen to you team and change tack accordingly. If you provide clear direction and everything goes wrong then it’s because you didn’t listen enough to your team. If you listen to your team and it goes wrong then it’s because you didn’t provide clear enough direction. When you start looking for unfalsifiable statements, they are everywhere.

This kind of hedging is ubiquitous. Nobody has to be acting in bad faith – it can seep unnoticed into any field of endeavour. We can always explain, after the fact, why something happened. It is protective, enabling us to avoid the loss of status we may feel if proven wrong. However, unfalsifiable theories just lead us around in circles. We learn nothing.

We can see the power of falsifiability in the development of Cognitive Load Theory. In the early days, when Sweller and his colleagues first switched from algebra examples to geometry problems, they predicted that, as with algebra, students would learn more from worked examples than problem solving. They did not. This led to the understanding that the geometry worked examples had an issue with them – they caused students to split attention between the diagram and a key at the side of the diagram that explained its contents. The solution was to integrate the explanations into the diagram itself. Use of these improved diagrams was now shown to be superior to problem-solving. This is known as the ‘split attention effect’ and researchers discovered it by first making a prediction that was wrong*.

So, when we make predictions that could be tested and found to be wrong, we learn more than if we make unfalsifiable predictions.

Which leads to a proposal. Ditch the leadership books and instead commit, as a team, to making falsifiable predictions. These have to involve hard measures that are not easily gamed and a good test for this is to ask if there is an easier way of making this prediction come true than by the proposed mechanism. At the start of an initiative, we should say, “When we implement x, y will happen and will know y has happened because of z,.” We should write it down and keep it safe. If ego is an issue, the prediction can be owned by the team. At this point, simply trying to formulate a prediction may make it obvious that the initiative is flawed.

Months or years down the track, when reviewing the initiative, rather than rationalising away the results, we should start by reviewing the original prediction. Was it correct? If so, what have we learnt? If not, what have we learnt?

*I am tempted here to preempt the inevitable criticism that Cognitive Load Theory is unfalsifiable due to germane load, but I have dealt with that elsewhere.


Explicit teaching – what’s in a name?

Educational terms are slippery things. They always apply to some level of abstraction and so cannot be given technical definitions. Some have used this quality to overreach and argue that specifiable teaching methods do not exist. Clearly, they do. Any teacher is aware that there are different ways they could approach teaching a particular class. However, we can always point to the presence in Teaching Approach A, however minor, of a key quality of Teaching Approach B. It’s often a matter of emphasis.

And you may be surprised to learn that I am not in charge of all of these definitions. My word is neither definitive nor final. You can describe a teaching method however you like. Nevertheless, this may perhaps generate some confusion and even unintentionally mislead.

Take, for instance, the definition of ‘explicit teaching’ used by Denyse Ritchie in this Twitter thread:

Explicit teaching appears to be something that happens ‘at point of need’ and is definitely not part of a ‘linear’ process:

Sure. Go with that definition if you wish, but you need to know that all of the evidence people usually draw upon for explicit teaching, such as the evidence summarised in Rosenshine’s Principles, cannot now be used to support the effectiveness of explicit teaching according to this alternative definition.

No, the form of explicit teaching that is supported by evidence is not provided just in time within some other context, it is a well-planned, linear sequence. This does not mean that it is unresponsive to student need. Quite the reverse. Checking for student understanding and reteaching when necessary is integral to it.

I am just finishing work on my new book, The Power of Explicit Teaching and Direct Instruction, where I will expand on these themes.


The Church of the Stolen Cross

It was a misty winter day on Main Street. Maria had just paid a fine. Her shoulders hung low as she walked slowly past the mattress store. That’s where she met Nick who was handing out leaflets. Normally, she would brush such leaflets aside and not even register people like Nick, but today was different. She took a leaflet and Nick took his chance.

“Hi. I’m with the Church of the Stolen Cross,” Nick explained.

“Really?” Replied Maria, “Can you tell me a little about that?”

“We fight Satan,” explained Nick, “and all his works.”

“Don’t all churches?”

“No. Only us.”

Maria paused. “I’m not sure I believe in Satan.”

“Do you not watch the news?” asked Nick. “Are you not aware of all the evil in the world – the disease, hunger, war?”

“Yes, I am aware of all of those things,” replied Maria indignantly,

“Then why are you trying to minimise them?” Asked Nick.

“I’m not.”

“Then why don’t you want to do something about them?”

“I do want to do something about them”

“Then you need to join us at the Church of the Stolen Cross.” Nick concluded.

“But why? Aren’t there other ways of addressing these issues?” Asked Maria.

“No. You are either a member of the Church of the Stolen Cross or you are a Satanist. Those are the only two options available.” Nick explained.

Maria was aghast. “What?! Are you saying I’m a Satanist? I was actually raised a Catholic although I’ve lost my faith these last few years. I’m certainly not a Satanist!”

“If I may say so,” observed Nick, “that is quite a fragile response. You need to stop centering yourself and your feelings. Satan is everywhere, not least the Catholic Church. And Satan is behind atheism. You don’t have to attend a Satanic mass in order to uphold Satan’s works – that’s just a cliche. Doing nothing supports Satanism. In these dark times – these terrible years – it’s time to pick a side. Fight Satan or be a Satanist.”

Maria pondered this for a moment. “So, Satan is everywhere and the only way to fight him is to join your church. Anything else is Satanism. Am I right?”


Maria hesitated. “I don’t know much about the Church of the Stolen Cross but I have heard you have some strange beliefs about women’s rights, gay rights, vaccines and other aspects of modern medicine. Is that right?”

Nick shook his head. “Our beliefs are not strange. They are all about fighting Satan.”

“Can you explain how?” asked Maria.

“I can do better than that,” Nick suggested, “I can provide you with a list of books to read that explain all of these issues with great clarity. It’s the same list of books I was given when I joined.”

“Did you read them?” asked Maria.

“Bits and pieces but that’s not really the point. When I knew there were a whole lot of books that explained these things then I new these things must have explanations and stopped worrying. The Church of the Stolen Cross aligns with the science – the best science – and it aligns with scholarship – the best scholarship. It’s beautiful.”

“Huh.” Maria processed this explanation. “So, if I did want to join – and I’m not yet saying I do – what would be the first step?”

Nick smiled. “Well, you would need to make a full, public statement expressing remorse for your sins and renouncing Satan and all his works. But you must not centre yourself. The focus must always be on those who are harmed by Satan.”

Maria’s gaze was fixed on the ground. “How can I make a full, public statement expressing remorse and renouncing Satan without centring myself?”

But when she looked up, Nick had moved down the street and was handing a leaflet to an old gentleman with a walking stick,

Maria turned and walked away.


Capital Letters

This week, I spoke to Daisy Christodoulou for my new podcast. Daisy is one of the smartest people I know involved in education and so it’s no surprise that I’ve been left with a few issues to think about as a result of our exchange.

At one point, we discussed the teaching of writing. In her new book, Teachers versus Tech, Daisy argues that we have fallen into the trap of setting up a false choice between teaching students rules for writing and just letting them write. Daisy suggests that these two seemingly opposite methods often go hand in hand – eg in genre-based writing curriculums – and what we actually need to give students to help them progress is carefully sequenced examples and tasks related to those examples.

To illustrate the issue, Daisy noted that when she was teaching, pretty much all students would state, if asked, that sentences should start with a capital letter, and yet many of them did not start sentences with a capital letter in their own writing. It’s as if there is a step missing.

This brought to mind two ideas I’ve been thinking about. The first is what we may call default explicit teaching. This is the kind of teaching I defaulted to early in my career when I realised the methods I was meant to employ simply didn’t work. Briefly, I would explain a concept or two or three, maybe model an example – although I didn’t appreciate their importance at the time – then ask students to complete a task.

Highly effective explicit teaching, as captured well in Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction, is different to this. We could summarise it as proceeding in three phases: I do, we do, you do. Default explicit teaching has very little ‘we do’ and I have found that highly controlled micro practice with tight, concurrent feedback is the most challenging aspect of explicit teaching to first appreciate and then implement.

It’s through cycling through ‘I do’ and ‘we do’ that the capital letters issue is addressed. However, you have to get down to the nuts and bolts. You cannot talk in abstract terms. It’s not about exhortation. It has to be doggedly procedural.

Understandings such as this are what drive Filling the Pail. I am angry about the default explicit teaching I used to employ because I was not given a better alternative. Instead of learning about effective explicit teaching I was being encouraged to differentiate or set-up inquiry based learning experiences. And those were the more sensible suggestions. I wasn’t as good a teacher as I could have been and my students deserved better.

But another idea also springs to mind from this discussion – one I hadn’t really considered before. Knowing that sentences begin with capital letters is the kind of thing mathematics education researchers call ‘conceptual knowledge’ or, more broadly, ‘understanding’. And you can see why. A teacher turns up, explains something to their students, they understand it and feel they have learnt something and the teacher feels they have taught something. But none of it really matters if the students cannot put this understanding to use.

We tend to overemphasise conceptual understanding in mathematics when what it actually looks like is a series of rules and declarative statements. We say students don’t understand the principle of equivalence ie they don’t understand that a “=” sign means “the same as” and instead think it means “and the answer is”.

If we merely teach them to give back to us the correct definition of the equals sign, we haven’t achieved anything much. None of it matters until they can put this principle into practice to solve equations. Nothing matters until we get down to the procedural nuts and bolts.

A fuller understanding of the world should always be our goal as educators, but there are no shortcuts and the route is full of hard, detailed work. Be on the lookout for those capital letters.