Professor John Sweller at researchED Melbourne, 3rd July 2017

This video is a relatively short keynote providing an overview of the key ideas in cognitive load theory. It is pitched to be of practical value to teachers. I was particularly keen to hear this talk because I’d never seen a presentation by Sweller before.

You can see my researchED talks here and here

Why are Australia’s NAPLAN results so resistant to change?

It has been ten years since the advent of the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), a series of standardised tests taken across Australia. Today, we learn that, over this time, there have been only small improvements in students’ performance. For reading, it seems that much of the gain took place in the first few years of the program, consistent with students and teachers becoming familiar with the tests and reaping the once-only boost of practising reading comprehension strategies. For writing, the situation is grim, with a 2% decline since the format of the assessment was changed in 2011.

I have some concerns about the form of NAPLAN assessments. For instance, the reading and writing components should be set in the context of Australian Curriculum content that has been studied in the previous two years, and the numeracy assessment should abandon it’s constructivist focus on wordy problems which acts to conflate mathematical and reading ability. Nonetheless, any genuine improvements in literacy and numeracy should show up in these results and so we have largely been treading water.

The blame for this situation lies squarely with a widespread adherence to bad ideas. An interesting report by the New South Wales Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) recently evaluated the impact of a targeted intervention where $261 million was spent in Kindergarten to Year 2 in an attempt to improve outcomes. Some things certainly changed as a result. Assessments against a set of continua levels improved and many schools felt positive about the reforms. According to a survey of principals, the number of teachers utilising differentiated teaching and learning strategies to ‘some extent’ or a ‘great extent’ increased from 62% to 99% from 2013 to 2016. Hands-on learning went from 59% to 95% and teaching explicitly went from 70% to 99%.

Unfortunately, the Year 3 NAPLAN results showed no significant change.

Readers of this blog will note that differentiation and hands-on learning lack evidence for effectiveness (despite the Victorian government’s odd claims about differentiation that I will return to in a later post) and so we might expect an expansion of these practices to have little effect. However, we should expect a greater use of explicit teaching to be significant, give the evidence for whole-class explicit approaches.

Setting aside in-house programmes, the top three interventions used by schools in New South Wales were TEN, a numeracy intervention, and the L3/L2 and Reading Recovery literacy interventions. I don’t know much about TEN but it seems to involve short periods of explicit teaching to small groups of students. L3 is a programme that also involves teachers interacting with a small section of the class at a time and Reading Recovery is a one-to-one constructivist tutoring approach that was recently evaluated as having little impact by CESE. I was interested to find Reading Recovery in the mix because a number of NSW teachers on social media have told me that it is no longer used.

I think these interventions illustrate a morbid attachment to specific ideas about differentiation. Sure, it would be great if we could explicitly instruct all students individually or in small groups because we could then more closely match instruction to their needs. But without vastly increasing the number of teachers, the question arises as to what all of the other students are meant to be doing while the teacher teaches just a few of them. We’ve known since at least the 1970s that the answer to this question is, ‘not much of any value’. This is why whole-class approaches have proved effective and seem to represent the best trade-off between targeting and teacher input. Whole-class approaches have certainly not impaired the performance of the countries that regularly top the international PISA and TIMSS assessments.

But whole-class teaching is unconscionable in many early primary classrooms. Writing in 1987 about the early 1970s approach to primary teaching in England that was influence by the progressive Plowden report, Maurice Galton comments on the ‘fashionable rhetoric’ of the time where teachers would proclaim, “I don’t teach a class, I teach children”. This rhetoric is just as fashionable now in Australia.

In terms of writing, the ideological change that would be required in order to turn the situation around seems profound. Australia often takes its cue from the U.S. Yesterday, I wrote about the Hochman Method, an approach to writing that is also known as, “The Writing Revolution” and @BradshawEnglish on Twitter pointed me to a paper describing it’s adoption in a New York high school. It is worth quoting a section from this paper because it succinctly captures the problem in many Australian schools:

“Although research-based understanding of how writing is taught is severely limited, especially in middle and high schools (Applebee & Langer, 2009), the recommendations put forth in Writing Next (Graham & Perin, 2007) reflect known trends and tensions in writing instruction (Gilbert & Graham, 2010), specifically the shift in recent decades from a more traditional, teacher-centered model to the ‘caught, not taught’ approach thought to dominate elementary and middle school writing instruction (Graham as cited in Tyre, 2012) and to influence high school writing instruction as well. In this approach, students are immersed in rich literacy environments and expected to ‘catch’ most of what is needed to become effective writers. Most students, according to Graham, do not catch what they need – and those coming from poverty, with learning disabilities and/or limited English proficiency, and/or those with weak instruction may not catch much at all (as quoted in Tyre, 2012).”

Instead of whole-class, explicit instruction in the specifics of writing – e.g. how to use ‘because’ to connect clauses – we prefer a model where students figure this out largely for themselves with the aid of written ‘feedback’ from the teacher; a time-consuming and an inefficient use of time.

Banal NAPLAN writing prompts are also part of the problem because they encourage schools to overly rehearse by asking students to write to similar prompts, perhaps with a few hints and tips about story arcs or complex sentences, rather than focusing on building the vocabulary and world knowledge that all good writers possess.

I am not sure of the way forward here. When proponents of evidence-based education point to scientific evidence they are likely to be told that science simply does not apply to something like education because education is about people. It is as if the dominant ideology exists within a perfectly impervious sphere designed to deflect criticism and maintain orthodoxy. That is why individual teachers and parents need to start asking a few more questions. That is why it requires a grassroots movement. We will never see change emanating from the bureaucrats and academics who have bound their reputations to bad ideas.

Revolutionising writing

For the past couple of years I have been working with my school’s English team to try to apply some research findings to the teaching of writing.

This has mainly focused on the need to pay attention to cognitive load and therefore break writing down into it’s component parts. Barak Rosenshine’s American Educator article on explicit teaching has been helpful in guiding our thinking. We have also recognised that writing is knowledge dependent; you cannot expect students to write well on topics that they know little about. So part of the process has involved selecting writing domains worthy of extended study. This has involved moving away from the banal writing prompts implicitly encouraged through standardised testing such as NAPLAN.

I wrote about some of the things we have learnt here.

I had never heard of the “Hochman Method,” or “Writing Revolution,” but when I read a recent article on this in American Educator, I immediately recognised a very similar set of ideas. The article was about an approach to writing instruction developed by Judith C. Hochman. There’s not quite 100% correspondence with the work we have done, but there is enough to encourage me that we are on the right track. It’s reassuring to notice this kind of convergent evolution because, as in nature, it suggests a robust solution to the problem.

A book based upon the Hochman methods, “The Writing Revolution,” by Hochman and Natalie Wexler, is available soon and I am keen to get my hands on a copy.

I am left to contemplate two points. Firstly, I had somehow managed to miss literature on the Hochman Method and I need to perhaps be more thorough in future. Secondly, American Educator has once again proven that it is the publication of most practical value to teachers.

Problem-solving does not exist

There is no such thing as a general skill of problem solving, above and beyond the strategies that we all possess and therefore do not need to be taught. Schools certainly can teach students how to solve specific kinds of problems. Schools can also teach useful heuristics for solving larger classes of problems but these seem to become less useful the wider the class of problems they are intended to solve.

The idea that general problem-solving cannot be taught may seem surprising for two reasons. Firstly, we have the term ‘problem-solving’ that implies one kind of thing. The spirit of problem-solving is also conjured into being in many curriculum documents and by countless education gurus. We are told that, in the future, the ‘skill’ of problem-solving will be more important than knowing particular content knowledge (even though it is specific content knowledge that is needed to solve specific problems).

It is worth being aware that this view comes down to us from the tradition of progressive education. Problem-solving is a key component of this tradition, taking it’s cue from the ideology of pragmatism. It is no coincidence that John Dewey was a leading pragmatist as well as a founder of the progressive education movement.

If you believe that problem-solving can be taught then the progressive view makes a lot of sense. Why not endow students with a skill that can be applied in almost any situation? What could be a more pragmatic aim for education? What could have more practical use?

The difficulty for those who advocate problem-solving is that there is no body of evidence that such a general skill can be taught. Such evidence would need to show that problem-solving is transferable; that improvements in problem-solving in one area lead to improvements in another. And it should come from randomised controlled trials so that we can be sure the improvement was down to problem-solving alone. I was reminded of this when reading a recent paper that showed that learning computer programming had no impact on students’ problem-solving skills in mathematics. This was despite the study having the sort of non-random design that might be expected to produce a positive result.

So why are we in this situation? Why are teachers constantly being urged to do something that is impossible?

The answer is that generic problem-solving is part of an ideology that has gripped large sections of the education community. Most of those who are in this grip are unaware of it and react pretty badly when the ideology is named or highlighted. This is because everyone likes to think that they have come to their own decisions in light of evidence and reason. People prefer to view themselves as measured and grounded, not prone to intellectual fancies.

But we are. All of us. I am starting to think this is part of our nature. We pick up thoughtworlds from those around us as a way of ensuring social cohesion. We don’t necessarily have to read John Dewey to be unwitting disciples of his philosophy. It just gets into the air. And the only way to fix this is to place the evidence in front teachers before they invest so much of their ego and professional standing in problem-solving or whatever else it is that they can no longer contemplate the possibility of being wrong.

The pipeline

Is it possible that a new teacher education course will be able to teach, in just twelve days, content that regular courses struggle to find time for in a year? This is exactly what a new programme offered by the BPP private university in the U.K. promises to do. To be clear, it is intended to be a top-up to a larger school-centred initial teacher training (SCITT) course, so nobody is claiming to be able to fully train teachers in six days. SCITT courses are a U.K. alternative to traditional university-based courses and my view is that Australia would benefit from new routes into teaching similar to these.

What’s the issue?

Currently, there is one dominant ideology in our education system and this is reflected in teacher education. This ideology has been described as student- or child-centred, constructivist or progressive education, although all of these labels are disputed. The key theme that emerges is that teaching should primarily be about initiating students into particular habits of mind; thinking critically, thinking like an historian and so on; something that is primarily achieved through doing (in the same way we acquire skills such as speaking and listening). These habits of mind are seen as at least partially independent of any particular content. Therefore, a mathematics lesson should be about students solving problems, the exact nature of which is less important than the act of problem-solving. Reading is about developing generic comprehension skills which can be applied to a range of texts. Indeed, the concept of a text (and literacy itself) is often expanded to incorporate everything from watching movies to surfing the internet. Sometimes, habits of mind take on a more political agenda, where teachers seek to encourage their students to challenge the establishment.

I have no problem with this ideology being taught to teacher education students. It is a legitimate if – in my view – flawed way of thinking about teaching. My issue is that it is presented as a consensus position as if there are no alternatives and as if it is supported by scientific evidence.

In reality, there are other ideologies, many of which may lay claim to a stronger evidence base. There is traditionalism, with its focus on academic subjects, the importance of knowledge and the transmission of this knowledge to students. There is behaviourism; the application of positive and negative external contingencies. Behaviourism is supported by strong evidence in the field of classroom management (even if the theory does not restrict itself to this). And there is the study of cognitive science with its roots in relatively small, randomised experiments that offer insight in to how we learn.

I don’t think these ideologies are deliberately ignored in teacher education. Instead, I believe that those involved simply don’t know what they don’t know. For instance, Project Follow Through was the largest experiment in the history of education and yet I have encountered many teacher educators who have not heard of it. Why? There are two reasons why it doesn’t fit; it was a large piece of empirical work, when teacher education tends to favour sociological theory, and it gave the wrong results.

What currently happens in teacher education is that conventional ways of thinking are simply reproduced. New teachers emerge unaware that there is a debate. When some of these mature into teacher educators themselves, they perpetuate these conventional ways of thinking. This is the pipeline.

What do alternative routes offer?

There is no reason to think that alternative routes into teaching will be any higher quality than traditional courses and it is quite possible that they might be worse. Programmes are going to have to draw from the pipeline in order to recruit tutors and design courses. Yet without the experience that universities possess in regulating such courses, we might see some of the worst excesses played out at scale. We may create a breeding-ground for learning styles theories and tech-fetishism.

We already have a number of alternatives in place such as Teach for Australia and, from all accounts, Teach for Australia is firmly situated within the dominant constructivist ideology.

So why bother trying to set up alternative routes? Because I see no other way out of the current thoughtworld. Teacher educators will not be persuaded by a few bloggers to take a broader and more inclusive approach to teacher education. Would this even be desirable? Should a course attempt to please everyone or should we have different, competing routes based in different ideologies? Given the limits to the amount of time available in teacher education, I think a good approach would be to plan for diversity.

Alternative routes at least offer the possibility of difference and change. There are enough people – just – in Australia to run perhaps one or two courses with a quite different take on teaching than the traditional models. In isolation, such courses will make little impact but they will open a discussion. Traditional routes may start to examine some of their a priori assumptions and respond through their own offerings, particularly in the localities where these alternative providers establish themselves.


The main barrier to alternative models in Australia is excessive bureaucracy. Teacher education courses need to demonstrate that they deliver on the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers, a woolly set of standards with a bias towards constructivist education that alternative ideologies would struggle to work with. Writing on the AARE blog, Susan Davis, Deputy Dean of Research for the School of Education & the Arts at CQ University notes that:

“While in the current version of national standards developed by AITSL (Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership) used in Australia there are 7 professional standards, underneath that are 37 focus areas and teacher education students must demonstrate evidence collected across all of these.

To be able to offer teacher education courses, teacher education providers must likewise provide evidence across a set of similarly numbered program standards.

In fact the instructions of what needs to be included takes up 42 pages in a guidelines document, which also emphasises that once a program is accredited no changes can be made to that progam. This type of approach encourages a compliance and tick box mentality.

It also means enormous energies and person power are devoted towards generating mountains of paperwork and which other poor reviewers must then wade their way through. While a so-called ‘light touch’ regulatory model was to be used for the re-accreditation of programs, one university education faculty recently reported that their accreditation submission amounted to over 1000 pages of documentation.”

It is unlikely that an Australian equivalent of BPP would wish to take this on. So those Australian teacher educators who took public offence at the BPP program can relax for now. Those of us who wish to see a change are going to have to wait a while longer.

My talk from the second day of researchED Melbourne, July 3rd 2017

This talk is from the researchED event at the ACE conference. It’s about explicit instruction and so it complements my first talk on project-based learning. The talk is filmed on a single camera and there is quite a lot of zooming.

You can download my slides here. You are free to use them in your school, including the diagrams, as long as you retain the original references and give me a credit with a link to this blog site.

Dr Stephen Norton at researchED Melbourne, 1st July 2017

I filmed this video at the researchED event held on Saturday 1st July at Brighton Grammar. Stephen Norton is someone who I have wanted to meet and hear speak for some time. This particular presentation does not lend itself well to filming – Norton eschewed PowerPoint and had more of a discussion with the people in the room, some of whom challenged him on a number of points. You can hear these interventions on the audio track. As Norton walks around, he bobs in and out of the video and you can’t always see what he is doing. There are also a couple of errors in places. However, I still think it is well worth viewing if you want a sense of the debate around teaching elementary maths in Australia.

Stephen Norton gave a keynote on Monday 3rd July. This is a more traditional kind of presentation and I hope it is available soon.

You can view John Hattie’s talk here, Jen Buckingham’s talk here and my talk here.