The reluctant traditionalist

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When Daniel Andrews won last weekend’s Victorian election, he claimed that Victoria was the most progressive state in the (Australian) nation. He meant this to be a good thing. The word ‘progressive’ has become associated with the political left and connotes positive change; a move forward.

However, I suppose we are all in favour of positive change. The trouble lies in working out exactly what that would look like. When I examine my own political beliefs, I wonder whether progressive is the right word to describe them. I supported gay marriage in the recent Australian postal referendum and you could perhaps describe that as socially progressive. I also favour the re-nationalisation of utility companies on the basis that where monopolies exist, and genuine competition cannot be introduced, they are better in the hands of a democratically accountable state. Is that progressive? The fact that my lifetime has seen a flow from state ownership of utility companies to private ownership means that I am actually calling for a return to a previous time.

Old Andrew has been blogging about whether ‘progressive’ and ‘traditional’ are the right words to describe the two main educational philosophies. He thinks they are. One of the reasons he cites is that any other word than ‘traditional’ tends to be hijacked by progressivists. He gives examples such as ‘knowledge led’ and ‘phonics’. Indeed, it has been a successful strategy by proponents of progressive whole language reading instruction to re-badge it as ‘balanced literacy’ and claim offence when anyone calls for explicit phonics teaching on the basis that all teachers supposedly teach phonics already. I would add the term ‘explicit teaching’ as another example. As awareness of the value of explicit teaching has spread in Australia, I am seeing more statements along the lines that inquiry learning contains a lot of explicit teaching.

Yet it is hard to imagine progressivists ever trying to co-opt the term ‘traditional’.

Still, I don’t really like it. It implies that traditionalists hold the views they hold because it is a traditional view, not because it aligns with evidence about how we learn and the value of knowledge. Horrors such as eugenics were once thought of as progressive, but hardly anyone remembers this now and progress has come to be linked in many people’s minds with science. “Questions of science, science and progress do not speak as loud as my heart,” sang turgid trust-fund rockers, Coldplay. In the case of educational progressivism, this link with science is entirely wrong, but you have to have gained quite a lot of knowledge to grasp this point. Politicians, journalists, parents and others who happen to venture into one corner of the debate cannot be expected to have such knowledge.

‘Traditional’ also connotes ‘old-fashioned’ and this does not play well against the alternative of ‘progressive’. However, there are instances when the label ‘traditional’ is seen as a positive and I think one such example is instructive. Food producers who use traditional methods and ingredients are likely to trumpet this on their labelling. Why? In this case, tradition signals quality; that the process has not been rushed or substandard techniques and ingredients substituted.

This is true for education. Progressive approaches promise shortcuts to expertise. Rather than having to spend years mastering knowledge from a range of domains, students can learn critical thinking skills. Rather than going through a long apprenticeship, students can think like mathematicians and scientists from day one. Attempts to implement such shortcuts lead inevitably to lower quality. Traditionalists reject any such shortcuts and are therefore guardians of high quality, slow education.

Nevertheless, the label of ‘traditionalist’ is hard to wear. It requires constant re-explanation to every new audience and to every new teacher who enters our world. From a public relations point of view, it is a poor choice.

But this is not public relations. Higher than matters of spin lie matters of truth. I believe that many become traditionalists because they value the pursuit of truth, both in the curriculum itself and in discussions about teaching. The most accurate labels are the ones that have been used for over a hundred years to describe the debate.

I don’t have to like it.

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Sneaky fuzzy maths

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Dan Meyer, one of the foremost proponents of fuzzy maths*, has written a couple of blog posts (here and here) where he argues against calling a mathematical mistake a ‘mistake’. He illustrates it with an example where a student makes an error filling in a tedious linear function table. The student has assumed that the interval in the first column is constant and has filled in the second column accordingly.

That’s a mistake, right? However, Meyer would prefer us to see it as the right answer but to a different question:

“If I label it a mistake, even if I attach a growth mindset message to that label, I damage the student, myself, mathematics, and the relationships between us.”

This doesn’t make any sense. The idea of encouraging students to adopt a ‘growth mindset’, an idea based upon the work of Carol Dweck, is not without challenge. Recent systematic reviews of growth mindset interventions have shown little positive effect, but the basic idea of encouraging students to view mistakes as a normal part of the learning process seems reasonable enough.

Yet the students of a teacher following Meyer’s advice will not be able to do this because their mistakes will be covered-up by the teacher. Meyer seems to recognise this later in the post but can’t quite extract himself from his own quicksand.

As a student, I would have hated to be patronisingly informed that my answer would be correct if the question were different, but I have a deeper objection than just this. I think we should be honest with students. There is something manipulative and sneaky about this kind of approach.

So what is going on? It makes more sense when you see fuzzy maths as part of the progressivist tradition. One broad element of this tradition is the tendency to see education as the process of drawing something out of a child rather than putting something in. It is as if the correct maths lies within the child in the manner of a set of tangled-up Christmas tree lights. The teachers’s role is to help the child unwind them.

Of course, this is absurd and that is why fuzzy maths has such a poor track record.

But what if those who go about promoting fuzzy maths do not themselves recognise it as a product of progressivism? Does that invalidate the argument? Not really. Curiously, given the preoccupation of progressivism on students figuring things out for themselves, the cultural transmission of ideas is powerful and ideas thus transmitted may persist long after everyone has forgotten their origin. Peter Ackroyd describes this effect in medieval England in his The History of England Voume I:

“Customs could be an inexplicable mystery. If the king passed over Shrivenham Bridge, then in Wiltshire, the owner of the land was supposed to bring to him two white domestic cocks with the words ‘Behold, my lord, these two white capons which you shall have another time but not now’.”

We are all unaware of the origin of many of the ideas and practices that we hold to and assume are just common sense.


*Fuzzy maths goes by many names such as Reform, Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based and Inquiry-Based Teaching. I use “fuzzy maths” as a catch-all

Loose ends from #MSH2018


Yesterday, I spoke at Making Shift Happen in Amsterdam. It was a wonderful event. I’m not aware of anything like Academica Business College, the group that pulled it all together, in Australia or the U.K. and it was clear that all the speakers were impressed with just how professional and energetic an organisation they are.

A couple of issues arose on social media that I would like to clarify.

While E D Hirsch Jr was speaking, I tweeted a summary of one of his points that has proved provocative:

It’s worth expanding on.

Imagine you started reading to a group of students about a fictional character and you said, “Mr Jones was a wealthy merchant. His property covered the space of two football fields in the centre of town.”

In order to fully appreciate that statement, students need to create a ‘situation model’. They need to be able to picture what two football fields looks like. They need to know that a merchant is an occupation. They need to realise that the second sentence is connected to the first, that property in the centre of town is often expensive and so the fact that Mr Jones has a large property demonstrates his wealth. None of these are obvious things that students will just know.

If all the students possess this knowledge, they would form what Hirsch termed a ‘speech community’ of shared understandings. If we do nothing with students except allow them to grow and flourish at their own pace, we do nothing to intervene in the development of speech communities. What is more, students from privileged backgrounds will be receiving a lot of this knowledge from home whereas their less advantaged peers will not and so the gap will grow ever wider. This will then exacerbate the differential effects of later teaching because the more advantaged children will be able to build situation models and learn more from texts than those who cannot build them.

Hirsch suggested dealing with this both in the moment, e.g. by providing relevant knowledge before reading a passage with students, and by ensuring that earlier stages of education expose children to rich webs of ideas in a planned way. To my mind, this is not necessarily a plea for formal learning in kindergarten because much of this would be achieved through discussion and the selection of stories and materials.

The second point is about my own talk. While I was speaking, one member of the audience tweeted some of his thoughts and a lot of people responded. This is unfortunate because in some instances he tweeted the direct opposite of what I actually said:

The main point I made about differentiation, and one I have made before, is that it is poorly defined. Differentiation can mean a wide variety of practices, some of which are wholly contradictory, as I illustrated with a slide about whether we accommodate or address a specific need.

Student choice is a central part of some approaches to differentiation such as Universal Design for Learning, but not a part of others. Complaining that I had not defined differentiation adequately therefore misses the sense of what I was suggesting by a very long way and yet this comment was seized upon by others who were not present:

It could be my fault for not communicating well enough and this may have been a factor given that there was a language barrier to overcome. However, a number of people came to ask me questions after the talk and none of them seemed to be confused by this point. I therefore cannot help wondering if there was some kind of pre-existing Netherlands agenda playing out.

The top three education priorities, in order


Yesterday morning, I arrived in Amsterdam. I was very pleased to find that my hotel room was ready. After a long flight, I had that swooshy jet-lag feeling.

After resting and catching up with an old friend for some apple pie, I headed to the offices of Academica Business College. Pim Pollen had invited me to speak at their Making Shift Happen conference held later today and so yesterday afternoon was a time to meet and go through the details of the conference.

I was reacquainted with Paul Kirschner and met Ben Wilbrink for the first time. I reconnected with Erik Meester who I had chatted to at researchED in London and I was introduced to Alex Koks, Michel Freriks and Margareth de Wit, the CEO of Academica Business College.

Later, other speakers arrived. I had met Daisy Christodoulou before, but not Katherine Birbalsingh or E D Hirsch Jr. There was much discussion of education and a lot to take in for a jet-lagged introvert like me, but it was a real honour to meet people I had known for so long through their work.

At one point, I was asked something like ‘what is the most important thing to get right in a school?’ With a clarity obtained only after the consumption of three cups of black coffee, I articulated something that I don’t think I’ve ever quite said before.

The point at which you start improving a school really depends on where you are. If behaviour is poor, classrooms are disorderly and students don’t follow instructions, then this is the priority. You can make quite a dramatic change just by improving the school climate. I know because I’ve been through such an experience.

Once behaviour is appropriate, the next priority is the curriculum. We need to be clear about what we want students to learn.

At dinner, it was interesting to chat about these two points with Daisy and Katherine. The absence of teacher decisions about behaviour and curriculum is not neutral. There is no egalitarian utopia that can be established by teachers relinquishing control. A curriculum that follows students’ interests is one shaped by the market and a classroom that is not under the control of the teacher is under the control of the forces of peer pressure or is the fiefdom of a class bully. Teacher authority is the least worst option.

Once behaviour and curriculum are right, we can begin to look at teaching methods. It’s not really viable to ask ‘what is the most effective way to teach’ until we know what we are trying to achieve.

However, I would add that in the real world, the division between curriculum and teaching methods is often an artificial one. Although theoretically possible, I know of few people advocating that children should systematically learn all the common grapheme-phoneme correspondences in written English, the role of the schwa and so on, but that they should do this through inquiry learning. The alternatives to systematic synthetic phonics tend to have a different emphasis altogether – a focus on meaning. Although letter-sound relationships are meant to be picked up implicitly, there is no appetite for assessing this learning. The curriculum is clearly different in practice.

I suppose one place where the division between curriculum and teaching methods makes sense is in the acquisition of the kind of declarative knowledge that proponents of a knowledge rich curriculum prioritise. A child could be explicitly taught about life in Ancient Rome or she could research it. Provided that she can do the latter successfully and not focus on form over content, I think both have a role in a living, breathing school. It might be the case that explicit instruction is more effective for learning the declarative knowledge, but we may have other objectives in mind such as varying the diet of the school day or practising a certain kind of writing.

To me, this illustrates the importance of the relationship between curriculum and teaching. The system of explicit teaching, with its gradual release of control from teacher and student, is always likely to be the most effective way to learn new stuff. But what if learning new stuff is not the priority today?

Is the #MTBoS missing out on something important?


The Maths-Twitter Blogosphere or #MTBoS is a network of maths teachers active on Twitter that seems particularly popular in the U.S. Recently, I’ve noticed a few #MTBoS tweets appearing in my timeline that follow a particular form – teachers thank the network for opening them up to a better way of teaching maths.

For many of those commenting, there appears to be two kinds of maths teaching. The first is a traditional, unthinking form of maths teaching with a focus on timed tests and the rote memorisation of facts and procedures. The second kind of maths teaching, the type promoted by #MTBoS, is more constructivist and inquiry orientated, and it often seeks to develop a growth mindset in students.

I think there are broadly two positions to take on maths teaching and they line-up pretty much this way. However, I wonder if the network is missing something important here that might better inform everyone involved in the discussion.

In characterising the alternative to constructivist maths as unenlightened, it appears as if teachers who teach fairly didactically are only doing so out of tradition and because they don’t know any better. At best, perhaps they struggle with the new ways. Yet there is a growing band of maths teachers who actively seek to teach in an explicit and structured way. They believe the best available evidence actually stacks up behind this approach.

Process-product research

The first tranche of evidence dates from roughly the 1960s. In these studies, researchers entered different classrooms and wrote down the behaviours of the teachers which they coded in various ways (the ‘process’). They then looks at correlations between gains in students’ maths scores (the ‘product’) and particular teacher behaviours.

Given that this was correlational research, we cannot be sure about cause and effect. For instance, imagine one of the behaviours that correlated with higher student gains was sharing the learning objectives with students. It could be that sharing these objectives causes better performance. Alternatively, an organised teacher may be more likely to share learning objectives and it might be the level of organisation that had the effect.

However, the number of studies was large and the similarity in findings was striking. Time and again, structured, explicit forms of teaching were correlated with the greatest gains. It is important to note that this was a whole system; a process of ‘I do’ then ‘we do’ then ‘you do’; a gradual release of control from the teacher to the students that is best summarised in an article by Barak Rosenshine for American Educator. A such, this is a whole system of teaching and you wouldn’t characterise a little just-in-time lecturing embedded within a problem-based learning environment as the same thing, even if you chose to also call this ‘explicit teaching’.

Experimental work

Correlational research really needs to be triangulated with experimental research if possible in order to remove any doubts about cause and effect. Such experimental work has been done. A number of studies were run to attempt to teach teachers to use the practices identified by product-process research and they were broadly successful in increasing student gains.

We now can add a more basic level of research from the field of cognitive science or educational psychology. Cognitive load theory is the area in which I am conducting research for my PhD and many of its experimental findings suggest the advantages of teaching in ways similar to those outlined by Rosenshine. One of the earliest discoveries was that novices learn more by studying maths worked examples than by solving equivalent problems, an effect that reverses once they gain more expertise. This fits with a model of the mind being composed of an extremely limited working memory through which all new academic learning must pass, coupled with an effectively limitless long-term memory.

The fit between these more fundamental experiments and explicit teaching more broadly compelled Kirschner, Sweller and Clark to publish their seminal 2006 paper on the concept, a paper they reworked for the teacher audience of American Educator.

There is a debate worth having

Clearly, given the nature of my research, you can infer that I am a fan of explicit teaching. But that does not mean I am right. You could, if you were so inclined, dismiss all of the evidence above on the basis that it is drawn from improvements in test scores and you do not value test scores. That is a valid argument, although I would counter with a question about how to measure the success of constructivist approaches. And that’s fine. That’s how a debate should proceed.

What I am not comfortable with is people in the #MTBoS network being under the impression that more explicit forms of teaching are somehow uninformed or unenlightened. That may be the case in many instances, but it may also be the case that teachers have read the research and have consciously chosen explicit teaching as the best available method.

Bridge and tunnel politics will never deliver on education

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When I was a younger man, I used to make for Ibiza each summer. It was the time of superstar DJs and superclubs, many of which decamped to Ibiza for the summer months. As we walked around San Antonio, visiting the pre-club bars, talk would turn to which club to visit that evening. Rich kids would advise us, bafflingly, that a certain night should be avoided because it was a bit too, ‘bridge and tunnel’.

The phrase makes more sense in the context of London or New York. It’s a form of snobbery. The sophisticated, refined and, well, extremely wealthy clubber would live in a loft apartment within walking distance of the beating heart of the city. The lesser privileged oik would rely instead on public transport, with the inevitable bridges and tunnels that public transport entails.

And in a circuitous way, this tells us something about the modern city. Once a place to be avoided – to flee from – the inner city is now a land of linen-shirted, organic-kumquat-eating privilege, while the suburbs, populated by the bulk of city dwellers and, in Australia, the bulk of compulsory voters, cry out for ever more bridges and tunnels as the roads clog and the train carriages fill.

As I write, Daniel Andrews’ Labor government has just won a second term in office in the Australian state of Victoria. A win was expected, but the scale of the landslide was not. This will probably reduce a little as early votes are added to the count, but it is still an historic win.

I am pleased. Labor have a policy to enable more households to install solar panels and Labor have done a good job on infrastructure and promise to do more – bridges, tunnels, railway lines, roads. The Labor win also demonstrates that divisive rhetoric about ‘African gangs’ did not sway the electorate in the way that some on the right had hoped. We are still an inclusive and moderate state.

But you might be wondering what the implications are for education. Labor have taken an infrastructure-based approach to this issue too, by promising to build new schools for our growing population and by expanding early years provision. When Andrews was on the TV yesterday, he mentioned that the Victorian government is running a yearly surplus, using this fact to justify his planned infrastructure borrowing.

Yet Victoria spends the least amount of money per student on government schools of any Australian state or territory. If Andrews wanted to make an impact on the quality of education, he could set aside some of the surplus to invest in schools, while insisting it be spent on evidence-based practices. I would be the first to admit that we cannot base everything we do in schools on evidence, but it seems reasonable to me to allocate any additional investment to this neglected educational concept.

I doubt this will happen and I doubt the strategy of those who seek to convince governments to make this sort of thing happen. Bridges and tunnels are tangible and easy to understand. A politician can promise to build a bridge, build it, and then point at it and say, ‘look, this is the bridge I built’. The same goes for building new schools. What exactly does a politician achieve by venturing into the turbulent waters of teaching methods and curriculum? At best, a few bruises and a broken sail and, at worst, a complete foundering on the rocks.

It is exceptions that prove the rule. We can point to a few politicians worldwide who have made a meaningful difference to education, but the fact that there are so few hints at the wider difficulties politicians face. In the case of Victorian Labor, they would have to take-on natural supporters in the teaching unions and universities. You don’t do that unless you have a clear and compelling vision for education and an almost messianic sense of mission. I don’t see evidence of that.

But there is a group of people with a clear and compelling vision and a sense of mission. We are the ones going into classrooms every day and teaching. We are the ones sourcing our own professional development and seeking reading matter from the internet. We are the ones taking advantage of the flat landscape created by social media to connect directly with each other, marginalising the old gatekeepers.

Yes, teachers can only push as far as regulation allows and there are groups who will seek to regulate us into following their priorities. Some of these priorities, such as a phonics check, may be beneficial, whereas others that seek to hamper the abilities of teachers and principals to manage behaviour issues, are potentially dangerous. Still, we have a lot of room in which to wiggle and we can seek to lead from the edge of our authority. This seems like the most profitable approach while we wait for an enlightened politician to turn up.

Let us focus on building a better education ourselves, as professionals, and let’s leave politicians to focus on those bridges and tunnels.

A case study of a bad argument

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Back in the early 2000s, I worked at a school ‘facing challenging circumstances’ in London. During my time at the school, results improved dramatically. This was not down to any revolution in teaching methods or curriculum, rather I would attribute it to simply getting a grip on behaviour. When I started at the school, there was a split lunch and it would be common for students to take both lunches and roam around the site disrupting lessons. When I left, it was a completely different place. It still had its challenges, but teachers could teach, a sense of order generally prevailed and the students seemed happier.

We introduced a number of measures during this time. There was a patrol system where senior members of staff were given a timetabled slot to walk around the school with a walkie-talkie, available for any teacher who needed help. We introduced a whole-school detention and dedicated a member of admin staff to coordinating it. The headteacher insisted on personally meeting with any student who committed a serious offence, including not turning up to the whole-school detention. Often, these students would be placed in internal suspension.

We were also part of a project that gave us additional money which we used to employ ‘behaviour improvement workers’ who would counsel students. Some students had a pass that meant they could leave a lesson and go to one of these workers if they noticed they were losing control. On the other hand, the money came with strings attached – it became extremely difficult to exclude students. Exclusions were effectively banned for a short time, and when they were brought back, the paperwork was onerous. As an assistant headteacher, I would sometimes have to stay up all night compiling lengthy reports.

The progressivist tradition in education is inclined towards viewing children as intrinsically good. It views poor behaviour on the part of a child as an act of communicating that the child’s individual needs are not being appropriately met. I have some sympathy for this view, although the idea a child is often communicating, “I need structure and clear boundaries,” is not likely to be one shared by many progressivists who instead would tend to stress greater student choice and freedom.

Over recent months on Twitter, progressivism has mostly been expressed as an antipathy towards school exclusions. However, in recent weeks, it has shifted, and the practice of internal suspension has come under the spotlight.

A complete opposition to internal suspension is hard to justify, particularly when it is often used as an alternative to exclusion, and so the argument quickly morphed into one about ‘isolation booths’ and the #banthebooths hashtag was born. The term ‘isolation booth’ appears to refer to the practice of placing partitions between students who are on internal suspension, a bit like the partitions you sometimes see between desks in open-plan offices.

Teachers then began to point out why you might arrange an internal suspension room in this way. If there is more than one student then it is unlikely, given the reasons they may have been sent there, that it would be a good idea for them to interact with each other while suspended. They are highly likely to become distracted, this may lead to poor behaviour and there are then few options left to manage that behaviour. The whole point of internal suspension is its place within a hierarchy of other rewards and sanctions, enabling a student to reflect at each stage.

This is when proponents of #banthebooths reached the end game and began to claim that they were not opposed to all partitions. Instead, they were opposed to ‘deep’ isolation booths. Nobody seems to know what these are and so the argument has finally alighted at opposition to a fiction.

This episode is a clear example of how a romantic argument, high on idealism, begins to falter when introduced incrementally to reality. It is no coincidence that many of the #banthebooths activists are not practising teachers and many of those who have calmly and repeatedly pointed to the flaws in the argument are practising teachers.

There is something about having to put an idea into practice that sharpens the critical faculties.