John Sweller

John Sweller is Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and is probably best know for his work on Cognitive Load Theory. He is also one of Greg Ashman’s PhD supervisors. In this episode, John talks to Greg about the development of Cognitive Load Theory, its implications and some of the common criticisms levelled at the theory. Along the way, they discuss biologically primary and biologically secondary knowledge as well as their thoughts on the draft new Australian Curriculum.


Jenny Donovan

Dr Jenny Donovan is head of the newly formed Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO). Prior to that Jenny has had an influential career in education which has included the founding of the Centre for Education Statistics (CESE) in New South Wales, Australia. In this episode, Jenny talks to Greg Ashman about her journey into education, the work of CESE, including its review of Reading Recovery and its publication of resources on cognitive load theory. Jenny and Greg then discuss AERO and its plans for the future.


Sonia Cabell

Sonia Cabell is an Assistant Professor in the School of Teacher Education and the Florida Center for Reading Research at Florida State University. Sonia started out as a second-grade teacher trained in whole language reading instruction before making the move into research. In this episode, Sonia talks to Greg Ashman about her journey, the effects of the U.S. National Reading Panel report on schools, the ‘science of reading’ and what we mean by that term, academic language development and her recently published paper, co-authored with HyeJin Hwang, on attempts to boost reading comprehension by building children’s knowledge.


Ollie Lovell

Ollie Lovell is a teacher, author, podcaster and entrepreneur. After studying physics and economics, Ollie became a maths teacher in Melbourne where he fed a passion for education research. Recently, Ollie Has written a book on cognitive load theory, Cognitive Load Theory in Action, part of the ‘in action’ series published by John Catt. In this episode, Ollie speaks to Greg Ashman about cognitive load theory, its implications for teachers and some of the controversies surrounding the theory.


Why Scott Alexander is wrong about schools

This is your periodic reminder that my new blog posts are over at Substack. You can sign-up for a free subscription.

Scott Alexander has been in the newspapers recently – specifically, the New York Times. Alexander (a pseudonym) was the author of Slate Star Codex, a popular blog that I used to dip into and that I have recently learnt was part of a some ‘rationalist movement’ about which I know little. Last year, the New York Times decided to write an article on Alexander and told him that as part of it, they would disclose his real name for lols. Alexander, a practising psychiatrist at the time, concerned about how the publicity may affect his work, complained about this doxing threat and closed down his blog and the New York Times then sat on the story. Now, Alexander has re-emerged on Substack under his real name and the New York Times have finally published their piece which turns out to be something of a hatchet-job, weakly attempting to link Alexander to the alt-right and everything that’s considered bad in their weird universe (you can read Alexander’s rebuttal here).

Continues at Substack


Academic wellbeing

This is your periodic reminder that my new blog posts are over at substack. You can sign-up for a free subscription.

A recurring motif in the world of the international education consultant is the diagram that opposes one set of ideas against the other – good versus bad.

I was struck by this when I read a new paper for the Australian Centre for Strategic Education by Michael Fullan, a Canadian educational consultant, and hit upon a diagram listing ‘drivers’ for whole system success. The right drivers are called, ‘the human paradigm’ and include, ‘wellbeing and learning’, ‘social intelligence’, ‘equality investments’ and ‘systemness’. How nice! The wrong drivers are apparently, ‘the bloodless paradiagm’ and include ‘academics obsession’, ‘machine intelligence’, ‘austerity’, and ‘fragmentation’. These wrong, rather pale-looking, drivers sound rather bad.

Continues at Substack


Paul Kirschner

Paul Kirschner is Emeritus Professor of Educational Psychology at the Open University of the Netherlands and Guest Professor at Thomas More University of Applied Science in Belgium. In this episode, Paul talks to Greg Ashman about his long career in educational psychology, the key distinction between epistemology and pedagogy and that Minimal Guidance paper he wrote with John Sweller and Richard Clark. Paul and Greg also discuss Paul’s new book co-authored with Carl Hendrick, How Learning Happens. Unfortunately, Paul and Greg run out of time before all of Greg’s questions are answered and so Paul has agreed to return in the future.


Filling the Pail has moved to Substack

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From now on, new blog posts will appear on my Substack page. If you navigate to the page, you can sign-up for a free subscription which will alert you to new posts via email. If you follow my WordPress site via email then you will need to sign-up to the new Substack page if you want to keep up-to-date. Until now, I have been cross-posting new Substack posts to WordPress but I am going to stop that. The WordPress site will therefore remain as an archive of posts up to the end of 2020.

There also may be some disruption if you tend to follow my posts via Facebook or LinkedIn because I haven’t yet figured out ways of automating alerts – although I’m looking into it. I will continue to (over)promote posts via Twitter.

Why have I made the switch? I have grown dissatisfied with the (sometimes quite unpleasant) adverts on WordPress and the look of the site. Substack allows for paid subscriptions and then takes a cut of these as its funding source, so they don’t need to put up adverts. This means I can have a free site with no ads. It also means that in the future, if I want to, I can create a paid subscription for additional material for a few dollars a month. I am not sure whether I will do so or what that would look like, but it’s an option missing from WordPress at the moment.

As with all innovations, it may not work out and I may end up back here. Regardless, rest assured that the extensive archive on this page will stay live.

If you like my posts, please consider sharing them on social media and telling friends and colleagues about them. I am about to write a series of posts tackling my key themes. One advantage of Substack is that social media sceptics can receive my posts via email without having to lurk on Twitter.

And finally, if you haven’t checked out my podcast, consider giving that a go too. You’ll find a mix of well-known guests such as Dylan Wiliam alongside guest who should be better known. If you like it, please share and maybe leave a positive review wherever you get your podcasts.


Natalie Wexler

Natalie Wexler is an author and journalist who became interested in educational issues when she began to work with students in disadvantaged schools in Washington. Natalie is co-author of The Writing Revolution, with Judith Hochman and author of The Knowledge Gap. In this episode, Natalie talks to Greg Ashman about her journey into education, the Impact of The Writing Revolution and how its methods align with cognitive science. Natalie and Greg then discuss The Knowledge Gap, the reason why we need more of a knowledge focus in schools and some of the objections and barriers to this idea before discussing some possible solutions.


Alternatives to differentiation

I have been writing about differentiation for at least six years. However, after my most recent post, I noticed a difference – people started asking me for alternatives. Perhaps that signals that we have reached a tipping point.

Firstly, we need to establish a few points, Differentiation is poorly defined and at least three of my suggestions could be described as forms of differentiation. Also, I am not claiming that evidence supports these options. The evidence base has always been thin.

My primary concern with differentiation has always been its logic. As understood in most schools, it usually means creating groups within a class and preparing different tasks for each group. This implies a heavy workload for the teacher. As Rebecca Birch pointed out on Twitter:

It also reduces the capacity for explicit teaching. If you have one class divided into six groups then in a one hour lesson, you have a maximum of ten minutes you can spend with each group. That’s before you take into account any admin time and time spent on classroom management – which tends to expand once you group the students because you have to keep intervening with the groups you’re not currently working with.

So, I am not claiming my alternatives have a strong evidence base drawn from randomised controlled trials, I am claiming that they are based on superior logic.

I also wish to make it absolutely clear that I think reasonable adjustments should be made for children with a disability. There is an issue with the quality and practicality of many proposed adjustments, as well as the issue of potential over diagnosis, but I won’t go into that here.

Finally, I am going to focus on approaches to maximise academic progress i.e. address students’ needs. There are occasions when we may simply want to accommodate them. For instance, for obvious reasons, we may want a young person who cannot write to still participate in a sex education lesson. In these circumstances, putting up a barrier by requiring that student to write notes would be perverse.

So, caveats out of the way, what are my bright ideas?

Don’t create gaps

This may initially seem like unhelpful advice, but I think we should avoid creating gaps between students in the first place. Yes, some gaps are unavoidable because students joining school will vary in terms of family background, working memory capacity and a range of other factors. However, I do think there are circumstances where we make it worse.

For instance, when compared with East Asian maths teachers, maths teachers in the U.S. and Australia tend to be more insistent that understanding must come before memorisation. East Asian teachers still think understanding is important, but they are more relaxed about it coming after memorisation,

Understanding is usually expressed by students through their language skills. This means that children with more advanced language skills will be more able to give teachers the cue that they understand and therefore move on to the next step. I have heard teachers say, for example, that students cannot move onto decimals until they’ve demonstrated a good enough understanding of fractions. But on what basis are such judgements made? How do we know these kids can’t cope with decimals?

Instead, we should focus on drilling in number facts, GPCs and so on, regardless of whether we get these understanding cues.

Similarly, ineffective teaching practices will have a differential effect. Students with the best internal resources will be able to cope, but those without will become lost, further increasing the gap. Instead, we should use effective methods such as explicit teaching.

Extension booklets

A rather prosaic form of differentiation, the power of the humble extension booklet should not be overlooked. More advanced students can become bored as the teacher re-explains something to the less advanced because they are able to more rapidly transition from ‘I do’ to ‘We do’ to ‘You do’. There are two main things to bear in mind.

More advanced students still need to be taught how to do things, so an extension book full of questions on content they have not been taught will simply provoke lots of questions.

Secondly, students themselves are not always a good judge of when they can move on to the booklet. With many maths skills, for instance, we want students to achieve mastery. That involves them practising past the point of being able to get the right answer and up to the point where they cannot get the wrong answer. Therefore, the teacher still needs to control when these students move on.

Response to Intervention

I have written about Response to Intervention (RTI) before. The model consists of three tiers. The first is high quality instruction that all children receive. After this, some sort of screening check is put in place and a group of students who have not made adequate progress are identified. These pass into Tier 2 – a small group intervention which consists of a more intensive version of the Tier 1 teaching. Finally, students who don’t make adequate progress in Tier 2 pass to Tier 3 for individualised support.

RTI is good for non-negotiables such as reading or basic maths. It is clearly resource intensive and so few schools would be able to afford to apply it to other areas. It also relies heavily on the quality of the Tier 1 instruction and the screening checks. If your Tier 1 is balanced literacy and your Tier 2 is reading recovery then you can forget it.

Ability grouping

Ability grouping – assigning students to different classes based on what they have demonstrated they can do – is a bogeyman among educationalists because they see it as inequitable. One group of researchers called it ‘symbolic violence‘.

Meta-analyses tend to show a small advantage for students assigned to the more able groups and a small disadvantage for those assigned to the lower groups.

However, these meta-analyses tend to suffer from all the worst features of educational meta-analyses. Few of the studies involved are randomised. Flexible ability grouping in different subjects is often conflated with ‘tracking’ where students are assigned to the same ability group for all of their classes and even with within-class ability grouping or what many people think of as differentiation.

The UK’s Education Endowment Foundation had a chance to sort this out via a randomised controlled trial, but they bungled it, possibly because the study involved some of the researcher who think ability grouping is symbolic violence.

In my view, ability grouping offers a chance to pitch content in a more targeted way without the many practical issues associated with within-class differentiation. The problem arises when the less advanced classes are given to the least experienced teachers or when the content is degraded under some of the mistaken assumptions I described above. Layer in a school context with an inadequate approach to discipline and teaching the less advanced class becomes about keeping students busy rather than ensuring they make progress.

I would therefore only advise approaching ability grouping if you have systems in place to mitigate these problems. You may also need to prepare your response to ideologically motivated attacks.