5 Courses Missing From My ITE

After many hours stuck hunched over my notepad in a less-than-crowded lecture hall and even more hours spent pouring over very average lesson plans in preparation for prac rounds, I was all done and dusted and ‘ready’ for the classroom. I learned a lot during my time study, but needless to say, I wasn’t really ready. Here are 5 topics I feel are important enough to be courses in their own right and were missing in my ITE.

Language Systems

The systems that make up our language didn’t gain much airtime in my ITE. My English units almost wholly bypassed phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, orthography, and semantics. Learning these language systems is essential as we primary teachers are charged with teaching them to our students who need the knowledge to ensure they become effective readers and writers. As Louisa Moats, one of the leading language specialists in the world, puts it:

“The teacher who understands language and how children are using it is more likely than others to impart clear, accurate and organised information about sounds, words, sentences, and discourse. He or she should be able to respond to student errors with helpful corrections and feedback and aim instructional activities to a purpose. Expert teaching of reading and writing is only possible when the teacher knows not just the meanings conveyed by language, but how language itself works.” (Speech to Print, 2010, p.2) 

The Science of Learning and Memory

 

Hard science wasn’t really a thing in my ITE. Sure, I can understand that a positivist mentality isn’t best for a teacher education course but at least some science is warranted. Learning is often misunderstood. The practices most people undertake aren’t overly effective for learning.

It turns out that much of what we’ve been doing as teachers and students isn’t serving us well, but some comparatively simple changes could make a big difference”. (Brown, Roediger & McDaniel in Make it Stick, 2014)

Teachers can only benefit from knowing and understanding how memory, forgetting and retention work and how these understandings can be leveraged to maximise memory retention. If we are not taught about memory, forgetting and retention, then how are we ever supposed to make those simple changes which could make a big difference?

The Big 5

In 2000, the National Reading Panel in the USA presented their findings of the largest and most extensive inquiry into the teaching of early reading and how students initially learn to read. The areas noted as crucial for reading instruction were phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, comprehension and vocabulary (See this report for details). They recommended these areas be explicitly and systematically taught. Even more compelling is Australia’s own inquiry into the teaching of reading titled Teaching Reading. It found that:

“Findings from the research evidence indicate that all students learn best when teachers adopt an integrated approach to reading that explicitly teaches phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary knowledge and comprehension. This, coupled with effective support from the child’s home, is critical to success.” (Page 11)

Such findings from huge, evidence-based reports conducted by two national governments should be taken seriously. How to systematically and explicitly teach all 5 keys should be part of ITE.

Contemporary Education Debate

Part of being a professional is taking part in discussion and debate within your chosen profession. You would think that after years in an ITE course I would be savvy to the key debates in education. Not so, and that’s why I think studying the key debates in education is important. I am not an exception. As Greg Ashman writes in his blog post outlining the debate:

“There is a great debate going on in education about what and how we teach. A lot of teachers are unaware of this discussion, even if they notice the specific effects of it.”

Not many teachers know of the debate, yet it affects their work every day. Luckily, I had one very inspirational and passionate ITE teacher who encouraged me to engage on Twitter. If it wasn’t for her passion, I would likely still be blind to it all.

Teaching Methods 101

Teaching methods vary and not all are equal but teachers should be taught how to implement all forms of instruction – both traditional and progressive. Ideally, this course would be taken early in the ITE course because pedagogy is quite subject specific. The teaching method with the most evidence is explicit instruction.  It involves directly teaching the content and skills of a subject area using clear and unambiguous language. In response to concerns about low attainment, the US federal government launched Project Follow Through, a very large and expensive study into forms of instruction. The following graph makes clear the finding that explicit forms of instruction were most effective.

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Credit: NIFDI

Its findings have been replicated many times. Some may not agree with explicit instruction on philosophical or ideological grounds, but its usefulness cannot be denied. Its principles should be taught to all ITE students.

 

The Type of Knowledge Teachers Need

The guide on the side facilitates learning and does not teach students content directly. It is a widely accepted philosophy in Australian education. Why teachers are so ready to adopt such a view probably has a lot to do with their own subject expertise. Many teachers do not have the required knowledge to teach primary subjects effectively (Ma, 1999; Stark, Snow, Eadie & Goldfield, 2016). Guide on the side makes sense to those who do not have the necessary knowledge to teach children a specific subject. If I don’t have the required knowledge, I’ll let the students find it themselves. The guide on the side philosophy gives teachers an excuse to downplay the need for subject expertise. This is likely why it is so popular, and likely why so many teachers do not feel they need to know the subjects they teach. Intuitively, this approach seems bad, and it is. Letting Google do the job is not enough. Teachers need knowledge.

Teacher subject expertise is important. As a 2008 US Mathematics National Advisory Panel report notes, “It is self-evident that teachers cannot teach what they do not know.” Content taught in primary schools may seem straightforward, but it is not so simple or easy. It should not be assumed all adults have the necessary required knowledge to teach the many concepts students need to come to grips with. So begs the question, what type of knowledge do primary teachers need?

The answer is not as simple as ‘more knowledge’. Simply requiring primary teachers hold advanced degrees in the field they wish to teach is not likely to result in stronger knowledge related to topics taught at primary level (although no one is suggesting having an advanced degree isn’t a bonus). Rather, primary school teachers should be gaining expertise in the foundational primary content they will be teaching.

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Credit: this Learning First publication

This foundational knowledge can be split into two areas: content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge. Content knowledge is a deep foundation of factual knowledge of a subject and how this knowledge is organised within the subject. Teachers need to know the content they will be teaching and how this is organised at expert level; a level far beyond that of the average adult. Pedagogical content knowledge is knowledge and understanding of how best to teach a subject; including how to best represent ideas, the ability to anticipate student thinking, and knowledge of common preconceptions and misconceptions. Knowing the subject is a necessary prerequisite but it not enough. Teachers also need to know how best to teach and what teaching a certain topic might mean for the students they teach.

Primary teachers do teach a wide variety of subjects. To bypass this problem, primary teachers should specialise in one or two subject areas and continue to develop their knowledge over the course of their careers. Teachers who specialise can rely on each other’s expertise. This is true collaboration: professionals in a field seeking specialised advice from an appropriately specialised colleague. However, this utopia will never be realised while guide on the side philosophy continues to find favour. Teachers should adopt a specialist approach and put the guide on the side to bed. It is standing in the way of progress.

 

Ma (1999) Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics

Stark, H, Snow, P, Eadie, P & Goldfield, S 2016, ‘Language and reading instruction in early years’ classrooms: the knowledge and self-rated ability of Australian teachers’, Annals of Dyslexia, vol. 66, no. 1, pp. 28-54.

US Department of Education (2008) Foundations for Success: The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel

This Learning First Publication: Australia’s Primary Challenge

 

Guide on the Side v Sage on the Stage

A recent tweet I made about my preference for sage on the stage (SOTS) teaching as opposed to guide on the side (GOTS) teaching provoked some interesting debate.

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A GOTS is a facilitator of learning. They do not teach children directly; rather, they let students lead their own learning and sit back and wait for a tap on the shoulder or an appropriate moment to suggest what to do next. This is often used in constructivist approaches such as project based learning where students work together on a project, often relying on the power of Google for information as the teacher works as some kind of feedback ATM whenever the students require. They may also tweak tasks whenever necessary to ensure students meet very vague generic skill outcomes.

A SOTS is a teacher in the traditional sense. They use their own knowledge to teach children concepts, ideas and key facts in a subject area. After teaching key concepts, students engage in carefully selected deliberate practise to strengthen their understanding. Crucially, students are not masters of their own fate; as the professional, the teacher leads them towards success. SOTS teachers understand that skills are built on knowledge; they cannot be taught directly and so their own knowledge is crucial.

GOTS is a widely accepted position. Most teachers will gladly profess that their role is not to pass on knowledge but to facilitate a natural curiosity and love of learning. Such a view has its roots in the romantic view of the child. In a romantic view, the child is a special being with unique and trustworthy impulses that should be allowed to run free and stave off corruption from the world. This is at the heart of constructivist pedagogy manifested in the GOTS approach.

Because a child is the master of their own learning, the role of teacher knowledge is played down by a GOTS. This is especially true in late primary school where GOTS is perhaps most widely used. Students now have access to a wealth of knowledge through the mighty power of Google and, therefore, do not need the limited capacities of a teacher. Being able to research something is no doubt an important skill, but it is a skill almost totally dependent on broad knowledge. It takes knowledge to gain knowledge – students who engage in research too early will not be able to filter out the true and false. To be able to use the knowledge at our finger tips, we first need a storehouse of knowledge on a particular subject. Students do not have this storehouse because, at 8, 9 or 10 years old, they are still relative novices in all academic fields.

Because students are novices, they need to be directly taught key concepts and skills by a teacher who is sensitive to how students learn concepts in a specific subject. We know that primary teachers regularly lack the required knowledge to teach core skills in maths and literacy. Playing the role of GOTS sidesteps this issue. I do not need knowledge because I do not impart knowledge. A SOTS totally disagrees with this position. To act as the SOTS, knowledge is crucial. Primary teachers do not need to be professors in the subjects they teach, but they do require the pedagogical content knowledge required to teach effectively. Here are some great examples of why pedagogical content knowledge is so crucial:

  1. A child spells trunk as TRUK. Why has the student spelled the word this way and what can the teacher do to help the child?
  2. A student expresses 1 1/2 as   Screen Shot 2017-08-12 at 9.08.23 am.png. What concept does the student not understand and what teaching needs to occur?

This reveals an inconvenient truth for primary teachers: if you do not have the knowledge, then you cannot teach it. Perhaps this is why GOTS is so readily accepted. Perhaps teachers who feel like they lack the knowledge to teach a subject are more comfortable adopting a GOTS approach and letting Google do the hard yards. I, for one, am not one of them. Teacher education does not equip primary teachers with the knowledge they need, but that does not mean I am going to reject my crucial role as the SOTS. We should all be working towards acquiring the knowledge we need, not rejecting it entirely.

 

Readings used to create this post

Christodoulou (2014) Seven Myths about Education

Moats (2010) Speech to Print

MKT Measures Mathematics Released Items (2008)

Ashman (2017) Does it matter if primary teachers have good maths knowl

 

 

 

Response to Intervention for Early Reading Instruction

Reading failure in Australia is well documented. 1 in 5 children fails to learn to read at an adequate level. It is widely accepted that a subset of students have learning disabilities preventing them from learning to read but what of the others? There is a significant, unspoken-about and sizeable population of students with no learning disability who are struggling. They find learning to read much more difficult than their peers. More often than not, they struggle to come to grips with English’s deep orthographic code. English is rich and very beautiful, but all agree that the many nuances, a product of its long history, make it a lot more complex than relatively simpler shallow orthographies such as Spanish and Finnish. 

The students who struggle with the code need high levels of support with quality instruction. Explicit instruction in phonics is the most effective way to teach children to read words. Once students have the necessary phonic knowledge, they will gain access to the vast majority of written words – a necessary prerequisite for the goal of reading: to make meaning. The Reading Wars are still raging. Whole Language advocates are a hindrance to the full implementation of high-quality phonics programs. Advocates of evidence-based phonics approaches to teaching early reading are unrelenting in their pursuit of change. Such dedication needs to continue to ensure the best instruction is implemented in our schools.

Response to Intervention is a rigorous approach to intervention for struggling readers. Once a high-quality, evidence-based reading program has been implemented, Response to Intervention can be used to ensure no child falls through the inevitable cracks. All students receive whole-class instruction from a knowledgeable teacher (Tier 1). Students who fall behind are detected through careful monitoring are placed into targetted, small group instruction (Tier 2). Those who continue to display low progress are then given intensive, individual instruction (Tier 3).

Quality instruction in the classroom will be enough for the majority of children. In a Response to Intervention model, instruction within the classroom needs to be of the highest quality to ensure students moving to the second tier of intervention are minimised. The role of teacher knowledge is crucial in the implementation of effective Tier 1 instruction. Teachers of early reading need to understand our language at specialist level to ensure instruction is of the highest quality. As Louisa Moats notes:

“The teacher who understands language and how children are using it is more likely than others to impart clear, accurate and organised information about sounds, words, sentences, and discourse. He or she should be able to respond to student errors with helpful corrections and feedback and aim instructional activities to a purpose. Expert teaching of reading and writing is only possible when the teacher knows not just the meanings conveyed by language, but how language itself works.” 

If primary teachers do not know anything else, then they should have the necessary knowledge to implement quality reading instruction. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many teachers. This is a major concern that needs to be addressed to ensure the most children possible learn to read within Tier 1 instruction. If it is not addressed, then a Response to Intervention model is doomed to failure.

No matter how good instruction is, there will likely be a subset of students who struggle to learn to read and will, therefore, need more instruction. These students do not need anything new; rather, the amount and intensity of instruction need to be adjusted to fit their needs. Tier 2 instruction in a Response to Intervention model seeks to address student needs through small group instruction. In the context of reading, a highly skilled teacher of reading would implement a systematic program which addresses the 5 keys to reading. Reading Recovery is a program often used as Tier 2 intervention. Reading Recovery is not an appropriate intervention for struggling readers for Tier 2 because it lacks the evidence-based approach needed to be most effective; lacks evidence of impact; and, as a one-to-one intervention, is not likely to be cost- or time-effective. Minilit, a program designed for Tier 2, is a good example of a program fit for purpose. Most students will benefit immensely from a well implemented, high-quality Tier 2 program lead by a strong teacher of reading. The students with the highest needs will still require more instruction beyond Tier 2.

Students with the highest level of need require very intense and targetted one-to-one instruction. Tier 3 instruction is one-to-one instruction for these students. Ideally, the same, strong teacher who implemented Tier 2 instruction will also implement Tier 3 instruction. The students who reach Tier 3 are finding reading extremely tough. For many professionals, parents and policy-makers interested in early reading instruction, it is these students who drive their passion and advocacy. These students are never likely to read the most complex of novels or most detailed academic papers without strong, timely intervention. They should not be doomed to failure because schools and systems refuse to adopt evidence-based approaches and fail to implement necessary interventions to support them. We can do better. Response to Intervention is a model designed to help these very students and should be given consideration.

 

Readings used to create this blog post

Hempenstall (2016) Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading

Centre of Independent Studies and Evaluation NSW Department of Education (2017)  Effective Reading Instruction in the Early Years

Moats (2010) Speech to Print

Seidenberg (2017) Language at the Speed of Sight

Buckingham, Wheldall and Wheldall (2013) Why Jaydon Can’t Read

Buckingham (2016) Focus on Phonics

Bradford & Wan (2015) Reading Recovery: A system-wide evaluation

How I Manage Kindergarten

I have recently read Robert Marzano’s Classroom Management That Works. It was an interesting read. He exposed some weaknesses in my approach and highlighted some things I am doing quite well. In my opinion, behaviour management is by far the most important thing to focus on at the beginning of one’s career. I think a lot of teachers settle for ‘good enough’ without working towards absolutely outstanding, flawless behaviour. I have a long way to go, but I hope that by sharing some of the things I do in my classroom, others may benefit and share their nuggets of gold too. Here I reflect on some of the things I am doing well in light of Marzano’s research.

Entering the room silently

When young students come back off the playground, they are wound up and full of energy. In order to get their state of arousal down to an appropriate level for learning, I have my students enter the room in silence.

When they return, they need to stand along a wall in a specific way. They should be able to feel the wall on their back and their hands by their sides. Being specific about what they should be doing (not just ‘stand on the wall’) helps the students self-regulate (Can I feel the wall on my back?). Tracking me with their eyes starts straightaway – they all need to keep their eyes trained on me until we enter.

To give students ownership over this routine, I pick a ‘secret spy’ who will choose someone they think is following the routine well to receive a point. I usually begin my lesson within 30 seconds of entering the door.

Structured transitions

After instruction on the carpet, a transition to the tables for deliberate practise is necessary. I have found a routine is much more effective than just letting them walk back to their seats. All I have to do is say the numbers 1, 2, 3 outloud. The students use these are cues.

1 – students stand up
2 – students move to stand behind their chair in silence
3 – students sit down and begin work

I always scan the room for 30-60 seconds giving out points where necessary to ensure students get straight down to work. No time is wasted.

Overcorrection

When a student breaks a rule that adversely affects property (scribbling; messy work) or somebody else (hitting; being mean; not following a procedure) then I have the student overcorrect their behaviour. If a student scribbles on their book, they rub it out and rub out any markings on a pile of other books. A student who has said something mean to someone at their table will apologise to that student for being mean and also apologise to everybody else at the table for disturbing their learning. If a student decides to break a routine or procedure, then they will say sorry in front of the class for slowing them down. All the others chorally reply “that’s okay Bob, thank you”. This gives students a powerful sense of responsibility for their own actions and has helped to eliminate all of the nonsense behaviours like scribbling.

The why of overcorrection is narrated strongly. Students are pretty happy to do it because they know why the rules and procedures are in place and they know why saying sorry or fixing their wrongs is important. Let me be clear: this is not public shaming. If a student really does not want to overcorrect, then I do not make them. Instead, we have a quiet conversation about what went wrong, what we could do better next time and why saying sorry to others may be a good idea. This balances out my dominant role in the classroom with an appropriate level of cooperation.

Going over-the-top with praise

The opposite of overcorrection: when a student does something well, I make a huge deal of it. When a student completes their point chart (10 points) I basically throw a ceremony. The other students make a small ‘congratulations card’ (they all know how to spell it) and line up to shake the child’s hand and present the card. A round-of-applause follows. Students who are caught doing the right thing are chuffed when I have them stand up so we can big them a big WOOSH! (1…2…3 WOOSH!). I’ve even taken students to the staffroom to announce how well Toby used his manners, and continued to mention it everyday to the class for a week. This goes a long way to establishing a culture of good behaviour. Habits are made this way.

Practise everything over and over again

Every routine, procedure or rule is spoken about and practised on a regular basis. As soon as one student does not keep up in the line, we walk back to our starting point, discuss the procedure and try again. Later in the day, I will practise the procedure again to reinforce the behaviour I want to see. 5-year-olds forget things easily. Being reminded of what to do helps them a lot. Often, the students end up nominating someone to remind them of what to do. I just watch. This is true for a number of procedures, such as handing out materials and changing the calendar.

Schedule time for less structure

A full day of strict rules, routines and procedures is tough for a five-year-old; therefore, i think it is important to schedule less structured, more relaxed times in the day. For example, during eating time, students talk freely at their tables and tell silly jokes to each other while waiting on the carpet to go outside (most aren’t that funny, but every now and then…). At the beginning and the end of the day, we have sharing time – no tracking required, nor perfect sitting (end of the day only). And of course, we have lots of play. Play has its own set of rules, but it’s much less structured. These times are important, but need to be distinct from learning time.

 

Teaching Children to Read: More than a half-cooked Jolly Phonics program. Reflections on Speech to Print by Louisa Moats

The debate over how to teach children how to read is ongoing. Whole Language advocates, who have found new life through Balanced Literacy, advocate learning to read through a largely implicit, incidental approach – a love of literature and learning; a language rich environment; and some multi-cueing is all that is required to help students learn to read. Phonics advocates, on the other hand, reject this approach in favour of explicitly teaching every student the particulars of English’s deep orthography systematically.

The debate should be over. There is evidence stretching back some 40 years which confirms students do not process language at the whole-word level but at the level of the phoneme. This was confirmed by Charles Perfetti who built on research done on the Van Orden Effect in response to Goodman’s claim that students read through a series of guesses he coined as the Psycholinguistic Guessing Game. Good readers pay attention to language structure; poor readers guess at words. Further evidence beyond the Reading Wars also calls Whole Language into question. An implicit approach like Whole Language is not suited to the transmission of biologically secondary knowledge. Biologically secondary knowledge is the information we receive from the environment which we have not evolved to process implicitly but must pay careful attention to acquiring. Reading must be explicitly taught as, contrasted with speech perception, it is biologically secondary. The debate should be over, yet it rages on.

Louisa Moats is one of the leading experts on the teaching of reading. Needless to say, she does not take too kindly to Whole Language (See here, here and here) and believes English’s language systems must be explicitly taught. The balanced approach promoted in most Education schools has suppressed access to learning of language structure:

“Textbooks on reading and literacy methods or typical reading instruction courses often exclude the particulars of language structure.” (page 2)

Her book, Speech to Print, seeks to be the missing foundation in teacher education by providing a thorough overview of English’s language systems and how these can be taught to primary aged children.

This is an outstanding textbook which should be required reading for all primary teachers. I am a passionate advocate for teacher knowledge and this book reaffirms my belief that all primary teachers require specialist – not generalist – knowledge to teach children how to read. Language is complex. Teaching children how to read is more than just a half-cooked Jolly Phonics program as part of a wider balanced-literacy approach. English has a deep orthography classified as morphophonemic – there are many nuances and tricky concepts related to its morphology and phonology which need to be learned in order to read effectively. This book will give teachers the knowledge needed to teach those tricky concepts in a systematic way. In her words:

“The teacher who understands language and how children are using it is more likely than others to impart clear, accurate and organised information about sounds, words, sentences, and discourse. He or she should be able to respond to student errors with helpful corrections and feedback and aim instructional activities to a purpose. Expert teaching of reading and writing is only possible when the teacher knows not just the meanings conveyed by language, but how language itself works.” (Page 2)

In my experience, this is especially true for those who struggle the most. Any teacher of early reading can relate to this: in a class for 20 children, there are perhaps 2-4 who really struggle. They find learning to read much more difficult than the others. This is where specialist knowledge comes into play. The students who struggle the most need teachers who know our language at specialist level otherwise they, like so many, are doomed to reading failure because they simply will not receive the support they need. So please; humble yourself; put the debate aside; buy a copy of this book; and begin your journey towards expertise.

 

This is the first in a series of post I plan to write on Louisa Moats’s book Speech to Print. 

 

Titles used to write this post:

Moats, L. (2010) Speech to Print.

Seidenberg (2017) Language at the Speed of Sight.

 

 

Behaviour is the Elephant in the Classroom

National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) data were released this week showing very little change across the assessment’s 10-year history. The nation is genuinely concerned about the lack of progress – an understandable position. As for teachers and those in education? Well, the usual decry of the assessment, concern for mental health and demand for more money and resources were to be expected. It seems that as a profession, instead of taking a stoic approach and working hard to find ways to strengthen results, we point the finger and brush off the results like they do not matter.

Amongst the increasingly heated finger-pointing rhetoric you will hear many blame a lack of funding; blame a lack of teacher knowledge; blame a wide-spread mental health epidemic. These are all genuine concerns and are real factors, but there is an elephant in our classrooms we choose to ignore. A big bad elephant having a genuine impact on results: behaviour. Why isn’t anyone pointing the finger at behaviour?

No one wants to talk about behaviour, yet good behaviour is a prerequisite for learning. A classroom that is constantly disrupted on a daily basis is not going to be very productive. I posit that such disruption is not rare. There are many teachers who are in a very real battle for control that seriously impedes their ability to impart knowledge to the best of their capabilities. This is the elephant in the classroom no one wants to talk about and it is probably impacting student performance more than anything else.

Because good behaviour is so important, I’m increasingly beginning to believe all that new teachers need to do in their first two years is focus on behaviour. It is the easiest way to improve everything else. A student who is made to behave well is more likely to want to do well. A classroom that is able to work without disruption is going to get through more work; that much is a given. We should be working to raise the bar on behaviour.

Implementing sky high behaviour expectations requires a strict approach. Strict is a dirty word in education, but I think being a strict teacher is the kindest approach to take. I do not believe it is unreasonable to ask students to line up quietly whilst waiting to enter a classroom – feet together, arms by their sides and eyes to the front. Nor do I believe it is unreasonable to ask students to track the teacher with their eyes at all times whilst the teacher is speaking – pen down and lips together. Working in silence whilst engaged in deliberate practise isn’t beyond any student from kindergarten to Year 12. It is not unreasonable to expect them to do so. Training students to display these behaviours is important and only possible through a strict approach.

Keeping the bar sky high coupled with equal warmth, compassion and empathy is kind because it builds powerful self-regulation. Self-regulation is an important skill that lets the students focus on their learning. Having high, blindingly obvious expectations for how students should act in the classroom helps build this important skill. This is especially true for our most vulnerable students who without great behaviour through self-regulation are doomed to low progress and low attainment, which will seriously impact their quality of life in the future. Trust between a teacher and their most vulnerable grows through good behaviour. The relationship is lost from the beginning if bad behaviour is the norm. Adding more student-centred fluff is not the answer. We should be supporting these students through a clear, strict approach.

Behaviour is the elephant everyone chooses to ignore. If we lift the bar on behaviour across whole systems, we will see an unprecedented jump in NAPLAN data. Of course, I could be wrong, but I doubt it. Behaviour is a powerful prerequisite for learning; success will ensue.

 

Obsession with the Learning Environment

In many ways, teaching in England was a great experience and in other ways not so much. On the one hand, new freedoms (pseudo-freedoms really) given to schools have sparked widespread debate and a proliferation of new ideas. On the other hand, I was introduced to some of the weirdest educational practice I did not even know existed. This is largely due to English Ed’s obsession with the newest trendy idea. English primary teachers can attest to this: a new idea is born and all of a sudden schools are in a full-blown arms race to develop the BIGGEST and BEST new version of the very trendy in-thing – that new practice that’s going to change everything and ensure super-duper good progress. This leads to some weird behaviour indeed.

The working wall is probably the most straight forward example. When I first got to the UK, I thought colleagues were joking when they told me every wall needed to be a ‘learning wall’ and needed to be changed every six weeks. This lead to some really weird stuff like having students engage in pseudo-learning just to put stuff on the wall and slaving away until 6:30 in the evening to make it all look pretty. By the time I’d gotten everything up it was soon all coming down again anyway. Madness. Worse still, I was engaged in somewhat of an arms race with all the other teachers in the school. No hiding either: during staff meetings, we would walk around to observe working walls in other classrooms and give two stars and a wish to each other.

Schools can hardly be blamed for engaging in such weird practice. Ofsted is largely to blame for promoting it – as if they believe the walls are somehow going to teach the students:

Stunning displays throughout the school stimulate and support pupils and show their engagement in their learning. Displays illustrate the richness of the curriculum and show that all groups of learners have equal access to learning. 

Displays celebrate pupils’ achievements as well as work on literacy, numeracy, art, geography and cultures from around the world. These help to reinforce learning and extend pupils’ knowledge and understanding of multicultural Britain.*

Now I’m not opposed to focussing on the learning environment per se, but I do take an issue with the rationale currently used to emphasise it. I seriously doubt the learning environment has any great impact on student learning. In fact, the exact opposite may be true. Even if it did have an impact, it is dwarfed by that of good teaching. So instead of obsessing over the learning environment spending hours and hours making it all look so nice and pretty, can we get back to just teaching, please? All those hours wasted could be much better spent getting better at teaching. Sure, keep the classroom neat and tidy and use it when need calls, but perhaps we should stop obsessing over it – there really is no justification for it.

Australia isn’t immune to an obsession with the learning environment either, it just manifests itself in different weird ways. The new trend is flexible learning spaces – bean bags and all. These spaces are often open plan, contain more than one class and are sectioned off into ‘zones’. Here’s a poster explaining the Zones and how they can be used:

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Again, I don’t have any qualms about flexible spaces per se, but I do question how they are used and perceived to improve student learning – just like working walls. Having students working in separate zones, presumably away from a teacher, is not likely to be very effective. Social loafing aside, students are quite poor at measuring their own capabilities. If a teacher is not there to help them because they are not in the Teacher Zone, then progress is likely to be limited and misconceptions are likely to occur. I think presuming a change in the layout of a classroom will have an impact on student performance is a bit of a stretch. It’s certainly not supported by evidence. So instead of figuring out how to rearrange the furniture, can we just get back to the teaching, please?

 

* If you would like the Ofsted report references, then please ask and I will provide.

Dear Teacher, Your Knowledge is What Sets You Apart.

The teacher is the fountain of knowledge.

Or so you would think. Especially in a room full of children. However, such a sentiment is not shared by all in the world of Australian education. Recently, a discussion was sparked when a tweet addressed to teachers encouraged them to embrace their less than adequate knowledge:

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This idea was defended vigorously. One would think that in order to teach, one first needs to know. Despite how obvious this may seem, this view is not shared by all. For teachers do not require knowledge, they say, and nor should they, especially in the primary school:

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This set off a storm, and rightfully so. To encourage teachers to take to the classroom with a knowledge and skills deficit is, in my opinion, quite damaging and grossly misinformed. It speaks a lot about the culture from within. In society, expertise is highly valued. This does not exclude education. Any parent sends their child to school with the expectation that the teachers have knowledge and skills beyond what they have; they trust the teachers have the required expertise. This is true of any parent in any society. Yet as the tweets note, many within education do not value expertise in this profession. That’s a position not aligned with the expectations of society.

I share these tweets not out of malice but because it is important to back up my claim. I’m not erecting strawmen here. This is actually what many people in Australian education think. It is a real problem. Many do not value the knowledge of a teacher, yet you only have to watch a knowledgeable teacher at work to tell how crucial knowledge is. After watching a teacher in action, another teacher noted:

“It’s the teacher’s subject knowledge. It’s really important in being able to plan for those difficult points. You’re really aware of the misconceptions children might have and what they’re going to struggle with, and you deliberately build that into your lesson and let those children have those ‘Ah! I don’t get it’ moments.” (Second Video at 4:14).

The teacher acknowledged this teacher’s expertise because the value of teacher knowledge is obvious – it helps students perform at a higher level.

But what of Primary teachers? They teach everything; aren’t Primary teachers just generalists? Let’s dig a little deeper on this. Primary teachers are charged with what is arguably the most important job of all: teaching a child how to read. That’s not something I’d like a generalist to do. In Primary, if a teacher does not have the required knowledge to do anything else, then you would at least expect them to have the knowledge required to teach reading. Yet this is not the case. In Australia, deficits in teacher knowledge around reading have been exposed time and time again. For example in one study, only 38% defined phonemic awareness, 41% defined a consonant blend and 53% defined a morpheme (Stark, Snow, Eadie & Goldfield, 2016). Basic language concepts. It is clear we have a serious problem with teacher knowledge around the most important job in the whole profession: teaching reading. To me, that’s an issue. I am not immune to the situation, I was educated in the same system, hence why I find passion in advocating for more rigorous education for teachers. Primary teachers need expertise. Comments that not only accept but even encourage a knowledge deficit will not help us fix this problem.

So why the anti-knowledge agenda? I argue this has a lot to do with deep-seeded ideological principles strongly engrained in the lifeblood of schools. We need to create a love of learning. Students must create their own learning. We need critical thinkers, not regurgitators. Learning to learn is more important than content. The anti-knowledge sentiment is everywhere and is deeply ingrained. Yet we know from a swath of research that knowledge is a key component in the learning process, it cannot simply be sidestepped. And in order for students to engage with the knowledge they need, we, quite simply, need knowledgeable teachers. We need experts. Those that play down the need for expertise are only making it harder for everybody – teachers and students alike.

 

Stark, H, Snow, P, Eadie, P & Goldfield, S 2016, ‘Language and reading instruction in early years’ classrooms: the knowledge and self-rated ability of Australian teachers’, Annals of Dyslexia, vol. 66, no. 1, pp. 28-54.

Be a Strict Teacher

“Behaviour in school is inseparable from achievement.” That’s the opening line from Tom Bennett’s behaviour report titled Creating a Culture. How well we behave in school has a massive impact on how well we do academically. I’m going to go one step further and argue that behaviour in life is inseparable from achievement; behaviour is a life skill.

Getting a good grip on one’s own behaviour as early as possible is absolutely crucial and teachers are in a unique position to help. Differences in philosophy lead to different approaches set into three distinct categories: soft, mean and strict.

Mrs. R takes the soft approach. When a student who struggles with behaviour enters her room, they are given a wide variety of choice. Don’t want to do any writing today? That’s okay, just write one paragraph, not the whole thing. Not keen on the idea of times tables? That’s alright, you can colour in the number 3 while the rest of us chant the times table together. Beyond choice, these teachers go out of their way to create fun in their classroom with engaging activities like making ice cream in science and playing Minecraft in ‘Edventure’ time. Students love this type of teacher. Who wouldn’t love a bit of fun?

Mr. T takes the mean approach. His lessons often start with a very loud ‘SIT DOWN NOW!’ followed by a lesson punctuated by a lot of ‘STOP THAT!’s’ and “NO!’s”. And hold your hats if you get a question wrong, a sneer and an eye-roll are almost guaranteed. In this class, you’re meant to know it, even if Mr T fails to teach it. Pupils openly hate this type of teacher, and rightfully so.

But Mr. S takes the strict approach. Mr. S is the type of teacher who expects everyone to work hard and quietly in his lessons. When you turn to your friend and speak out of turn, he is the type of teacher who looks at you with a baffled expression as if he’s never seen such a thing, then turns back to the class and continues to teach. Students don’t talk much about this type of teacher. They neither love nor hate them but tend to have a somewhat begrudgingly deep respect for them. The students know this type of teacher is good at what they do.

Strict has become a dirty word in teaching circles. This is birthed from a lot of bad history: once upon a time, teachers were not only strict, they were often outright mean. It’s important to make a distinction between being mean and being strict. Being mean is as it reads: mean teachers belittle their students.  No one wants a mean teacher – school leaders, teachers, parents and students alike. Being strict is not the same as being mean. A strict teacher has sky-high, unwavering expectations for behaviour and this is clearly communicated in what they say and do. They have bright lines: students know exactly what to do and when to do it, and are acutely aware of what consequence will ensue if they move away from the expectation. Their interactions with students, in contrast with a mean teacher, are highly respectful.

These teachers are like Mr. S. Their lessons are calm, quiet and productive. This approach is effective for all learners but especially for those who struggle with behaviour the most. So often teachers have such good intentions. That’s because we love kids. We want them to be happy and flourish and do great things with their lives. But unfortunately such good intentions often lead to soft approaches like that of Mrs. R. It’s kind, but I argue this is the opposite of what these students need because it blurs the lines and affirms student misbehaviour. Of all the students in a school, those that struggle with their behaviour need to know what the rules of engagement are. They need the strict approach

Be a strict teacher.