3 Things Preservice Training Should Focus On

On Sunday, I wrote a post about preservice teachers participating in a trial of flipped learning and my dismay at this news. I suggested that preservice teachers have better things to focus on in their first years of learning how to teach. I made it clear that I do not mind if individual schools wish to implement flipped learning as a pedagogical approach. I believe schools should have the flexibility to implement any approach they think will suit their context and move the results of their students forward. Upon implementation, teachers would then, of course, need to undertake training in this particular type of pedagogy.

Training preservice teachers in the approach is an entirely different matter. Remember, preservice teachers literally do not know a thing about classroom teaching. They haven’t got the first clue how to do it effectively. Preservice training should focus on the most basic knowledge and skills necessary to gain at least a baseline level of competence and hold off on more specialised pedagogical approaches like flipped learning. Teachers can gain specialised training later on. My last post got me thinking about key things preservice training should focus on to give new teachers the best chance of success (hint: not flipped learning).

Focus on universal elements of instruction

Preservice training should focus on teaching preservice teachers the rationale behind and the best way to implement universal elements of instruction. When it comes to instruction, the actual act of delivering a lesson as a classroom teacher, this paper is particularly enlightening. It provides good examples of universal practices preservice teachers should be discussing, critiquing and practising. It’s not at all obvious how to implement these effectively; you actually have to learn how (and why) to implement them.

Consider the first principle:

  1. Begin a lesson with a short review of previous learning. Daily review can strengthen previous learning and can lead to fluent recall. 

Daily review is an important aspect of instruction because it combats the forgetting curve and strengthens recall. It, therefore, enables students to think critically and creatively about a topic. It’s not obvious how to implement daily review effectively – and if you are a primary teacher, it’s not at all obvious how daily review might differ across subjects. It’s a complex topic: What should review look like in each subject? Is Maths review different to Science review? Should it be individual or group-based?  What should be included and how do I work this out? Should it include what was covered yesterday/last week/last month and how much of each? How long should it go for? 5 mins/ 10 mins/ 20 mins? What’s the best way for students to do review – pen and paper? Will age of the students impact how it is done?

A lot of new teachers make the mistake of not consistently implementing review in their lessons, and when they do, it might not be as effective as it could be. I think this has a lot to do with preservice teachers: 1) not truly understanding its purpose, and 2) not knowing how to implement it properly (I’m speaking from personal experience here). Daily review is an example of a particular aspect of teaching that is universal; it’s a core, basic aspect of classroom teaching applied across all lessons and all pedagogical approaches. It’s a great example of what teachers should be focussing on during their preservice training.

Focus on building content and pedagogical content knowledge

Preservice training should also focus on strengthening the content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge of preservice teachers. Many studies have highlighted the trouble preservice and in-service primary teachers have with some pretty basic concepts. For example, only 18% of in-service teachers, and 9% of preservice teachers, correctly identified the word box as having 4 speech sounds. Strengthening content knowledge is pretty straightforward: give preservice teachers lectures and stuff to read and then test them (it’s not quite that simple, but you get my point: they need to read).

Building pedagogical content knowledge is just as important. All primary teachers know how to add 6/10 + 3/5, but teaching students how to do this is another thing entirely. Suppose a child adds 6/10 to 3/5 and writes 9/15. What should the teacher do then? It’s not straightforward and knowing how to proceed is key. A teacher needs the pedagogical content knowledge to: 1) anticipate the error and understand why it might occur, 2) choose the correct model(s) to help explain the concept, and 3) have a rough idea of how to approach the error and teach. Stephen Norton, an academic at Griffith University, teaches his preservice teachers to do exactly that. The following is an excerpt from this fascinating paper on the work Norton does to build PCK – it is a response from one of his preservice teachers to the 6/10 + 3/5 = 9/15 example described.  It’s powerful stuff and I believe it should be a focus in preservice training everywhere; not just in mathematics, but in all subjects.

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Importantly, building strong PCK will have a very real impact on the ability of new teachers to teach responsively within a lesson. Teachers do not have time to stop and consider what they are seeing in front of them; they must act quickly. PCK will help new teachers make better decisions for better learning right at the point of feedback, just as AfL always intended.

As far as possible, focus on behaviour management for tough classrooms

Lastly, preservice training should focus on equipping teachers with sound knowledge in how to manage difficult behaviour. I will caveat this point by acknowledging that school leadership has a profound impact on student behaviour, and therefore there is only so much teachers can do within the framework set by school leaders, but nevertheless, training can only help. Australia has a behaviour problem so new teachers are likely to encounter some pretty difficult classes. It’s easy to get lost in the romantic dream of becoming a schoolteacher. It can be quite shocking to discover how tough it can be once you finally begin teaching a class(es) full time. Teachers need to be prepared. Not just because teacher wellbeing depends on it, but also because tough classrooms that lack good behaviour management risk poor progress before instruction even takes place.

Most misbehaviour reported by teachers – low-level disruption, namely talking out of turn and hindering other children –  is amendable by the teacher. Relatively minor behaviour problems may seem trivial, but they are ultimately time-wasting, irritating and exhausting. Preservice training must encourage teachers to avoid explanatory fictions of problems with the child or problems in the home, no matter how valid they could be, in favour of possible causes and solutions within the classroom. After all, it does not matter if Jesse is poor and exhibits trait extroversion, what happens in the class is all the teacher can control. We must help preservice teachers realise that all classroom behaviour of this type is learnt and that changes in classroom behaviours can be manipulated through strong modelling, by providing opportunities for practice,  and by handing out purposeful rewards and judicious consequences (see here and here).

Severe behaviour is an entirely different ball game. This is where strong school leadership really matters. Teachers who work in tough schools will tell you that there are some behaviours that are almost impossible to manage without significant levels of support from school leadership. If they are not managed by strong leaders and consistent teachers, then severe behaviour can cause major learning and social-emotional problems in the classroom. Preservice teachers should have some background in what leaders can and should do to protect classes from constant high-level disruption, emotional stress and possible violence (for teacher, students and perpetrator). After all, they are going to be future school leaders themselves.

My three focus areas are not meant to be exhaustive. I’ve written about them because I believe all three of these areas were overlooked as unimportant, perhaps because they are ‘too obvious’. But they are core to what we do as teachers. Without them, I really struggled (and, naturally, continue to in many ways). I’m only 2.5 years in. I’ve had to do the reading since graduating and man oh man it would have helped if I began reading sooner. I only wish others could have it a little easier (flipped learning ain’t going to cut it).

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Flipped learning is the wrong focus for preservice teachers

An article promoting flipped learning was published in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday. It describes flipped learning as a ‘new’ teaching method, which isn’t exactly true; many on Twitter note flipped learning hit the scene a decade ago. Like most Edufads, the concept was taken up with some enthusiasm but inevitably hit the backburner as its promise of great change through innovation did not transpire. Nevertheless, it seems that some wish to persist with the idea because Macquarie University is now trialling the model with 70 preservice teachers. This bothers me. Flipped learning has a lot of problems – valid questions about its reliance on student motivation, accessibility, and underestimation of the teacher’s role in building foundational knowledge, still remain. I feel that there are other things they should focus on. Training teachers in the method will come at the expense of precious teaching time for other, more important, aspects of teacher knowledge and skill development. The news that preservice teacher courses are pursuing things like flipped learning creates cognitive dissonance for me. It’s the latest example of a lack of focus. I feel teachers should have education at university level, but if courses are providing C grade training, maybe other options will be better for everyone – systems, teachers and students.

There are problems with the approach. Accessibility was raised as an issue on Twitter. Accessibility may not seem like a big deal, but it can be if you are poor or from a rural community. Even in 2018, some families do not have laptops or iPads with endless streams of data on which to view videos. Some families may rely solely on smartphones with limited data plans. This isn’t at all sufficient because learning new content will take more than one playthrough, and videos could be rather long if they’re dealing with complex topics. This issue becomes even more complex if you are from a rural community where access to services is quite limited. There are legitimate equity concerns here – introducing technology as a core element of the teaching process is okay for some but tricky for others. Granted, I believe this problem is the easiest to overcome in comparison to some of the other issues, but it is still worth considering.

Let’s assume a student does have access. What then? Flipped learning introduces foundational knowledge through video presentation before class. The idea is that this will then allow for ‘deeper’ learning in class. This places a heavy reliance on student engagement and motivation because the teacher implementing flipped learning needs to rely on all students actually viewing and grappling the material before class. The teacher must assume all students are sufficiently motivated to grapple with new academic content at home. This is pretty unlikely because learning is more analogous to a painful marathon than an adrenaline-fueled sprint. Learning requires a lot of due diligence; a lot of sweat and toil. Humans will often forgo what is best for them in the long-term for what is gratifying in the short-term, and young people are probably even more prone to this lack of self-control. When you are at home faced with new content you know nothing about, have very little initial interest in, and with no one there to keep you accountable (like a teacher), you’re probably going to procrastinate, perhaps forget to do it, and be completely lost in class the next day. Students who have consistently good self-control are the exception, not the rule.

But again, let’s assume a student does have access to a computer, overcomes the urge to procrastinate and decides to watch the video content. There are still significant problems to overcome. Teachers are experts in the content they teach (most of the time) and therefore suffer from the curse of knowledge. Being an expert blinds you to how difficult acquiring basic knowledge in a subject area really is. An introductory video on the causes of the Peloponnesian War might seem pretty straightforward to a history teacher, but it isn’t to the 16yr old who knows very little of the ancient context the war was set in. The student is likely to come away with more questions than answers and suffers without a teacher there to fill in the gaps the video is likely to leave. And in actual fact, the student may not even notice that they do not understand (Dunning-Kruger Effect). Education continually underestimates the importance of knowledge and how tough it is to acquire. The flipped learning concept makes the same mistake.

These problems – accessibility, a naive reliance on motivation, and flawed pedagogy – make me uneasy about training impressionable preservice teachers in its methods. Not only that, but training teachers in a questionable method leaves less time for work on more important foundational knowledge and skills. We know, for example, that teachers have serious problems with basic language concepts, and this isn’t addressed in pre-service training. In one study, just 9% of preservice teachers identified box as having 4 speech sounds. This indicates the preservice teachers’ general knowledge of core language concepts is not adequate. This actually matters. Taking the box example, for… example, if you know box has four speech sounds, you can also explain to students why we do not double x when adding a suffix beginning with a vowel ( box – boxing – boxed; sip – sipped – sipping). Granted, this example relates to primary education, but I am pretty confident in inferring there are similar problems in secondary preservice teaching courses where flipped learning is likely more prevalent. I argue time and teaching resources would be better spent on foundational knowledge and skills like these (as well as evidence-based methods to impart that knowledge) instead of flipped learning. Naturally, if a school wishes to adopt flipped learning as a specialised strategy (ill-advised IMO), then that is, of course, fine, but preservice teaching is for core basic training, not for training specialised strategies.

The news that education courses are flirting with flipped learning has put some doubts in my mind about the validity of pre-service teaching courses and whether they will ever reform to address their flaws. Teacher educators are at least partly to blame for this as it is widely known university education departments tend to turn a blind-eye to impartiality and the scientific method. I am also aware that red-tape riddles education courses and there are, therefore, some restrictions on how much they can truly change. I have argued for universities’ continued role in teacher training in the past, but now I am beginning to have my doubts. Perhaps other arrangements could be explored. I am not exactly sure what that would look like, but perhaps an on-the-job internship program after finishing a 3- or 4- year bachelor’s degree might benefit everybody. Teachers in NSW already have extra time off class in their first 2 years of employment. Maybe new teachers could be placed into part-time internship positions with added study and training requirements? Who knows. All I do know is that they should be required to teach, watch others teach, and read and read a lot (and certainly not about flipped learning). I cannot attest to it being the solution, but it could be better.

Teaching Internationally

For readers who do not know, I have taken leave from my post in Sydney to spend time living in my girlfriend’s European homeland. I have previously lived in Europe, having spent the 2015/2016 school year teaching in the English school system. My time spent in England and previous trips to my current location have helped me settle in quickly and begin work in the international primary school sector. My recent appointment has interrupted my flow of blog posts, so, now that the long weekend is upon us, I’ve decided to take the opportunity to briefly discuss my experiences with international education so far. This post may be of interest to teachers interested in living abroad as the opportunities abroad are certainly there; the international primary sector is booming.

International primary schools serve families that move abroad for (usually) short periods of time. They are located all over the place but tend to be more common in larger international cities with transient populations. Brussels and Dubai are good examples of such cities. The English speaking international schools usually follow some kind of English language curriculum, such as the American (Common Core), Australian or English national curriculums, for English and Mathematics lessons (in Europe, most schools follow the English curriculum). From my limited experience and from what I have gathered from seasoned international educators, many international primary schools teach all other subjects through the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) or the Primary Years Programme (PYP). My own evaluation of the IPC and PYP compels me to say both programs have flaws, but the PYP is especially progressive and allows for much less pedagogical flexibility than the IPC, so I personally prefer the IPC.

The primary schools I have visited, along with my current school in which I have gained employment, have a very English-school feel. As I am in Europe, most teachers are from the British Isles, but Australian teachers will not feel out of place in these environments as the school systems are very similar. The teaching population is very transient, so schools, especially in less-renowned cities, are always keen to find eligible candidates.

International schools have their own unique challenges. Because they serve families that move abroad for a short period of time (usually for work), students do come and go quite frequently. It is quite common for students to arrive and move on in the space of 2-3 years. Most of the time, the kids arrive at school with very little English and often depart just as their English begins to reach a ‘good’ standard. You will definitely need to sharpen your English teaching. Mathematics tends to be much stronger than reading and writing. Luckily, family involvement in the children’s education is quite high (moving abroad as a family tends to strengthen family support, imo), so academic standards are quite good despite the language barrier.

There are perks, too. International school students’ manners and behaviour tend to be very good. Students are kind, considerate and thankful for the support they receive from their teachers. An international school community is very diverse and close-knit because all the families arrive knowing no one else. Schools go out of their way to help families feel welcome. There are, therefore, no lack of events or opportunities to learn about different cultures and languages. Perhaps greatest of all is the collegiality between staff members. Moving to a new country means you do not have a social life, and neither do your new colleagues. You fast become friends. Nights out and day adventures with colleagues are great fun; an added bonus that really makes international schools great places to work.

Do I recommend it? So far, yes. It’s an experience worth having if diving deep into foreign places is your thing. And even if you’re not sure it is your thing, I’d still recommend it. Naturally, you’re going to need to be flexible. Because the school is international, it operates a little differently in its culture and pedagogy, but as noted, it is not so different as to be completely alien. You will enjoy the experience.

 

Commentary on B. Doxtdator’s reply

Just yesterday I read a fascinating article titled The Psychology of Progressive Hostility written by Mathew Blackwell, a young economics student from Brisbane. Blackwell opens the article by explaining the different behaviours he faces when he disagrees with conservative and progressive friends. He finds that he has no problems speaking his mind and entering into nuanced discussion with conservative friends, but thinks twice when discussing things with progressive friends:

“When I disagree with a conservative friend or colleague on some political issue, I have no fear of speaking my mind. I talk, they listen, they respond, I talk some more, and at the end of it we get along just as we always have. But I’ve discovered that when a progressive friend says something with which I disagree or that I know to be incorrect, I’m hesitant to point it out. This hesitancy is a consequence of the different treatment one tends to receive from those on the Right and Left when expressing a difference of opinion. I am not, as it turns out, the only one who has noticed this.”

The treatment Blackwell alludes to is the tendency for progressive thinkers to engage in hostile tactics against dissenters. Sometimes, this can even be directed at self-proclaimed progressive thinkers who may just speak up against a particular aspect of progressive thought. This is exactly what happened to Professor Brett Weinstein, a self-proclaimed ‘lefty’ who dared question the progressive student body at his Evergreen State College. The ‘Day of Absence’ is an Evergreen tradition in which students and faculty of colour meet off campus as a symbolic gesture that mirrors acts taken by people of colour during the civil rights movement. But last year, the student body decided it was going to require all people of white skin colour to leave campus instead. Weinstein, a jew, voiced his concern, which led to the student body turning on him, calling for his resignation and labelling him a bigot and a racist. The saga ended in Weinstein’s eventual resignation following a settlement with the university.

Weinstein’s story is one of many. It is part of a growing trend of people being targetted for having alternative views to left-wing progressivism. Dissenters are instantly labelled bigots, racists, homophobes, transphobes, Nazis and much more in an attempt to close down debate. It is this strategy Blackwell fears most; it’s the reason why he finds it hard to express his views to progressive friends.

I am not a progressive thinker. I’m a liberal in my political opinions with rightward leanings on certain issues. I was not at all surprised today when a progressive educator went out of his way to try and associate me with the alt-right and white supremacists after I expressed my not-so-progressive views on identity politics. As described, these tactics, designed to stifle debate, are all too common. It was somewhat inevitable. I am going to add commentary to certain aspects of this person’s blog and as I do so, I will not pay attention to these smears. I will leave free thinkers to make up their own minds about whether or not I am an associate of the alt-right or a white supremacist.

On Martin Luther King

This blogger takes offence to my use of MLK’s infamous I Have a Dream speech. It seems to be a common thought amongst progressives that to agree with something that someone once said or someone once did must mean you agree with everything that someone once said or did, and if you find disagreement, you must denounce them. I am an admirer of Winston Churchill. The burden Churchill bore as Prime Minister during Britain’s scariest period of time, working hard to keep the hopes of the people of the commonwealth alive, was heroic. His proclamation that “success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts” and others that are also inspired by stoic philosophy give me reason to stay optimistic. My admiration for Churchill’s wartime efforts and great speeches do not discount the racist views he had. His shortcomings do not mean I must cease admiring what he did, nor quoting that which he said that has had a profound impact on western culture ever since. I can agree and disagree with Churchill. Likewise, Nelson Mandela’s role in ending apartheid in South Africa is equally admirable. I cannot imagine the existential crises he must have faced during 27 long years in prison. My admiration for Mandela and his message of reconciliation do not discount the violence, including deaths, he inflicted on people. I can admire and promote Mandela’s message while acknowledging his shortcomings, just as I can with Churchill.

I can promote the ideas MLK spoke of in his I Have a Dream speech – ideas that have had a profound impact on western thought – without agreeing on everything MLK once said and thought and did. I should not, and will not, ignore his message of equality and the impact it has had just because I disagree with his other, less impactful, ideas on how to promote the prospects of African Americans. MLK and his ideas are not the property of the progressive left. His message of equality in I Have a Dream reverberates in every facet of western society, and I will continue to promote that message.

Black poverty and affirmative action

The blogger cites growing wealth inequality and ongoing poverty as evidence for ongoing, systemic racism and discrimination in the United States, asserting that a person’s own agency is not enough to overcome the accumulated wealth held by white people. He cites this in opposition to my belief that systemic, widespread and consistent discrimination and racism does not exist in western society. Despite the author’s failure to note that inequality does not necessarily indicate discrimination, I’m much more concerned by and deeply sceptical of the ‘black people are poor and there is nothing they can do about it’ argument. That sort of soft bigotry does not appeal to me. Not least because Asian students, another minority perceived to bear the brunt of white privilege, seem to be doing just fine in the US.

This trend is also seen in other liberal western democracies.

Further, research suggests it’s not so difficult to do well for yourself if you make the right choices. The non-partisan Brookings Institute has found that choices do indeed lead to better life outcomes. A person, no matter their skin colour, should 1) at least finish high school 2) get a full-time job, and 3) wait until age 21 to get married and have children.

“Our research shows that of American adults who followed these three simple rules, only about 2 percent are in poverty and nearly 75 percent have joined the middle class (defined as earning around $55,000 or more per year). There are surely influences other than these principles at play, but following them guides a young adult away from poverty and toward the middle class.”

It’s common sense, but the blogger seems to disagree that this could at all be possible. I don’t buy his view.

Affirmative action is highlighted in the blogger’s post because I raised concerns that individual, hardworking young people were finding it harder to enter top universities due to the colour of their skin. I oppose universities that choose students on the basis of the colour of their skin. I think that is called racism. Organisations who opposed the ‘Asian penalty‘ agree. Striving for equity, often under the guise of diversity, has led to individuals finding it harder to enter the university in which they wish to study. As I have and continue to insist, we should be working towards equality of opportunity. That’s how things stay fair. Readers can make their own mind up on the issue. 

The Golden State posters

So we get to the original subject matter of my original post. I’m not arguing that discrimination or racism does not exist; I argue that systemic racism and discrimination, that consistently oppresses minorities to the benefit of white skinned people, does not exist. It is, therefore, not appropriate to push the idea of white privilege onto our kids via the school system. This is the subject on which I disagree with progressive thinkers like this blogger.

I have already detailed why I am against these posters so I will not rehash my arguments here. I would like to raise one thing though. Although the blogger likes to make light of it, the devastating events of the Holocaust and Cambodian Genocide were indeed motivated by identity politics. It should signal a warning to us: grouping individuals, making assumptions about their individual circumstances, and assigning a set of perceived ‘privileges’ (or characteristics) to them, is a bad idea (It’s actually what most people call racism). The author seems to believe this position is an alt-right or white supremacist one. Despite what triggered progressives might say, this is not a white supremacist or alt-right position, it’s a liberal position. The rights of the individual should supercede that of the group. Left-wing progressives wish to swap that around and they shouldn’t be allowed to push that idea onto kids. That’s my position and I’m sticking to it.

 

Keep the myth of white privilege out of our schools

I have experienced the devastation of identity politics twice in my life. In 2013, I travelled to Cambodia and walked amongst the graves of victims in the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. Bones can still be seen half-buried in the ground with the naked eye, human skulls sit stacked inside shrines for all to see, and the pictures of the tortured ones… you cannot ever forget such horror. In 2017, I travelled to Poland and discovered first-hand the devastation inflicted on Jews, gipsies and dissenters of Hitler’s Nazi regime at Auschwitz. Hearing stories of torture chambers, walking inside a gas chamber, and viewing the mountain of human hair of the dead, trafficked across Nazi Germany to make clothing, aren’t experiences you can ever truly explain.

The killing fields of the Khmer Rouge and the concentration camps of Nazi Germany are extreme examples of what can happen when powerful people decide to play identity politics – when an individual’s standing is decided on the basis of their group membership and not on their individual merit. Ideology played an important role in both genocides. People who were perceived to be in opposition to the regimes’ greater good were persecuted, and this was often executed on racial grounds. Both regimes justified their killings on the belief that their ethnic national class was experiencing oppression from undesirables. It was identity politics with devastating consequences.

I think it’s amazing that the West, just generations ago and likely for the first time ever, has finally been able to put the rights of the individual first before group identity – racial or otherwise. The commitment to protect individual rights, even if this means suffering slight economic disadvantage, is the hallmark of liberal western society. This ideal is beautifully captured in Martin Luther King’s famous speech at Capitol Hill in which he shared his dream of equality of opportunity, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.” It’s a beautiful dream. It has echoed across the western world; an ideal at the core of education systems everywhere. No matter who you are or where you are from, you will be treated equally and gain access to the same opportunity and be judged by your individual merit, not by your identity. It is the antithesis of identity politics.

It seems that we have not heeded the lessons from the past, that we have not continued to believe in the power of upholding individual rights and judging people as individuals as the best possible path to justice. For some time, a powerful communitarian movement has been brewing amongst intellectuals. They argue that justice must go beyond the idea of individual rights and provide special rights for groups of (perceived) oppressed people. You can see this idea manifesting everywhere: it is no longer enough for women to have equal individual rights, they now need special rights in the pursuit of equality of outcome; likewise, it is not enough for people of colour to have equal individual rights, they also now need special rights in the pursuit of equality of outcome.  On the surface, this seems like a noble pursuit, but of course, by giving special rights to some on the basis of group identity, you oppress the rights of others on the basis of their group identity, too. For example, In the U.S, Asian students now have to score 280 points above black students for entry into the same college based solely on their group identity – an advantage if you are black; disadvantage if you are Asian. Deliberate discrimination against individuals on the basis of their group identity is identity politics. Have we not learnt that this is a dangerous game?

Not in Canada. Identity politics is starting to infiltrate schools in Canada and that concerns me deeply. One Canadian school district, that is keen to impose dangerous identity politics on the young people they serve, has plastered posters on the walls of their schools about white privilege and other identity-related issues.

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The idea that all white people systemically benefit from the colour of their skin, and in turn oppress people of a different skin tone, is a myth in opposition to the liberal ideal of individuality over group identity. The Gold Trail School District has decided that the colour of one’s skin is enough to make assumptions about one’s personal circumstances and access to opportunity. It is the narrative of the oppressor and oppressed; that white people have systemic privilege in western society at the expense of others and should feel guilty for it. The message is deeply divisive, drawing a distinction between students on the basis of skin colour instead of their individual merit. So much for Martin Luther King’s dream.

It’s concerning to think where this could go. Public figures have already begun to openly use identity politics to try and suppress others’ rights to freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. Senator Katy Gallagher attempted to dismiss challenges made by Mitch Fifield on the basis of his gender, making allusions to his privileged identity as a male. Canadian MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes deployed similar tactics, directing fellow MP Maxime Bernier to “Please check your privilege and be quiet”. These are people in power who believe some people are more entitled to opinion and authority than others on the basis of group identity. What could happen in schools? Will we start to treat students perceived to be oppressed – people of colour, women, indigenous peoples etc. – differently to those considered privileged? Will people in power begin to afford them special rights?

Identity politics is a slippery slope. We should hold true to our liberal ideals so perfectly captured in I Have A Dream and actively speak out against this slide towards division on the basis of identity. That society is beginning to underestimate the importance of judging people as individuals is a big problem. But society imposing this on our young people? That’s a huge concern.

It needs to stop. Now.

Traditional practices are not going anywhere

Society likes to question why teachers hang on to tradition. Why have schools not progressed, a politician may ask, when the rest of society has moved on?  It seems to bother society that, in education, tradition just won’t seem to die. Targets in these debates tend to be what we teach (the specific types of knowledge and skills we pass on) and how we teach (most often, the layout of the classroom and the pedagogy this encourages). Neither has shifted too much over a long period of time – teachers still teach concepts and skills taught 100 years ago, and many still teach in rows.

There is a very good reason for this, of which many teachers understand, but the debate definitely isn’t settled within education. There are, alas, some teachers who embody the same type of thinking as others in society: that an ever-changing world necessitates a change in the way teachers teach and students learn. The transmission of knowledge and basic skills are not seen as the priority. Instead, the ability to use higher order cognitive/academic skills – critical thinking, analysis, argumentation, problem-solving, research, creativity – should take priority over the transmission of knowledge and basic skills.

This rationalises a change in the physical environment of the classroom. Rows perish in favour of flexible learning spaces, wherein more freedom to engage in higher-order skills is thought to take place. At the heart of changing the physical environment of the classroom is the belief that modernity, with all its knowledge-rich possibilities, makes learning about the way things were or are obsolete. The underlying common fund of knowledge of our society is no longer necessary to thrive in society, and it, therefore, does not need to be transmitted by a teacher standing at the front of the classroom. They should stand aside! They should make way for the questioning of possibilities, debating of concepts and creating of ideas, for that is how students will make our world a better place. It’s a way of learning that rejects tradition in favour of the future. This is often what society calls for, and there are some teachers who agree.

Yet many teachers don’t agree. They still teach in rows; they continue to hold onto tradition, rejecting widespread calls for radical shifts in how we teach. Why do these teachers dwell in the past when the future is already here? These teachers, the ones stuck in the past, know that it is through the passing down of the best that has been thought and said that we empower young people to question the truth and make better of what we have. They understand that you cannot question, analyse or think critically to any effect if you do not understand what you are questioning, analysing or thinking critically about in the first place. And the better you understand it, the better you will be able to do these things. Futurists, so blinded by modernity, forget these simple truths.

Teachers who have not abandoned tradition know that we will have no progress in society without passing on what our culture already knows. People looking in from the outside (and even teachers from within) may find it hard to conceptualise what that practically means. That’s because someone who has mastered a skill easily overlooks how useful that skill is, and how hard that skill is to acquire. It’s actually really hard to learn basic stuff. That’s why teachers spend so long on things that may seem like a waste of time in the scheme of things but are actually really important. Proper use of a comma, times tables, sentence variation, the causes of WWII, climate zones – these may all seem like minor skills and pieces of knowledge not worth knowing too much about, but in reality, all of them are important for engagement in wider society. Great writers cannot be great without good sentence variation; mathematicians will not succeed without good times table knowledge. Human societies of the future will have little hope of avoiding our natural tendency to destroy the world and each other if they do not know basic facts about past and present realities. It’s important for kids to know this stuff; It may shock some to find that lots of kids don’t.

All teachers understand that just knowing stuff is not enough. This is where everyone converges in their beliefs: what kids do with their knowledge is just as, if not more, important than possessing the knowledge itself. Yet it is not widely understood that minor skills and pieces of knowledge are essential in ensuring kids do great things with their knowledge. Students who do not possess a secure, vast store of minor skills and pieces of knowledge of this type will have very little hope of engaging in those higher order skills considered more important for the future. Findings from cognitive science make it clear that it is not possible to engage in any form of higher order thinking without acquiring basic concepts within a domain. It is as Willingham writes in Why Don’t Students Like School?, “Cognitive science leads to the rather obvious conclusion that students must learn the concepts that come up again and again – the unifying ideas of each discipline.” If we want kids to do great things, they need to build on basic concepts – basic concepts that have been part of traditional teaching practices for decades.

Tradition will not die in schools because teachers know that modernity can best be approached with lessons from the past. History moves forward at the intersection of what is known and how we question what is known. In order to question what is known, you need to know, and know well. All those small, seemingly insignificant pieces of knowledge and skills, aren’t so insignificant at all; they’re needed to help kids move the future forward. Passing that down has been a core tenant of traditional practice for decades, and that’s why traditional practices aren’t going anywhere.

Exclusion sucks, but it is necessary

Schools are amazing places for kids because they allow them to make mistakes without having to live with the consequences for very long. This is in stark contrast to society. If you do something criminal out in the big bad world you could live with it forever, restricting your chances to travel to exotic places or to secure employment opportunities that give life meaning. And that’s the way it should be. Children should not be treated like we treat adults. They will inevitably make mistakes and should not have to face adult consequences for their actions, but they definitely should face consequences – school-aged consequences – matched to the mistakes they make. The underlying threat of consequence stops people, including kids, from doing bad things. That’s why the vast majority of us don’t exceed the speed limit (the possible $100-$500 fine makes us think twice). It’s also why students don’t call out in class or punch each other every day in the playground when they have disagreements.

Sometimes, the mistakes young people make might be so severe they warrant exclusion. Nobody likes this. It’s a last resort and means something terrible has happened or has persistently been happening and, given reasonable intervention, cannot be stopped. Serious situations, where the safety of staff or students is compromised, give the greatest argument for exclusion as the logical end-point in a consequence hierarchy. I think it reasonable, for example, to assume that if a student threatened a loved one with a knife, many would consider exclusion a more than reasonable consequence in a school setting given that the consequence in the real world could include criminal charges. It’s the logical consequence of a very serious mistake, especially if this mistake had been preceded by other less serious incidences of violence or threatening behaviour. Safety must come first.

Given this, I was alarmed to read that a school principal resigned because his Department had overturned his decision to exclude a girl who threatened another with a knife. The article in The Age reads:

“The girl he tried to expel threatened another student with a knife from the school’s food technology room and repeatedly bullied a student with an intellectual disability.

The principal told The Age he quit his job because he could not guarantee the safety of his students.

“It’s not good if you can’t maintain the safety of the kids,” he said.

“They have made it near impossible to expel a kid. I’m not going to be the principal of a school where a student gets stabbed.”

The story is incredible in my book because, as noted, I consider exclusion for pulling a knife on a fellow student a no-brainer (my bet is I’m not the only one). That the principal had to resign because he could not enforce exclusion to keep his students safe implies that exclusion somehow is not considered a reasonable consequence for threatening someone with a knife. That’s insane.

This doesn’t seem to be an isolated incident. The article also documents another incident involving two students plotting to poison a classmate that also ended in an overturned exclusion:

“Earlier this week, News Limited revealed that two Melbourne schoolgirls were expelled after they plotted to poison a classmate. One of the expulsions was overturned on appeal, and the victim had to take out a restraining order.”

Incidents as serious as these clearly validate exclusion as a necessary evil. Schools are, and always should be, extremely forgiving places for young people; however, the line needs to be drawn somewhere. I believe that these stories indicate that we may be losing sight of what is important. Students and staff need to be protected to work in safe, productive and happy places. Consequences play their part in creating that sort of environment and exclusion should be part of it. Societies that do not impose logical consequences fall into anarchy; schools are no different.

Also see this article over at Filling the Pail, where I first encountered this issue

A teacher’s sense of responsibility

I love teaching because it gives me a sense of responsibility. It is this sense of responsibility that gives my work meaning. Strip away the sense of responsibility teaching gives me and I will no longer love the job as much as I do. This is because responsibility is at the heart of meaning, and it is meaning that truly makes us happy in life. Viktor Frankl, a Jewish man enslaved in Nazi concentration camps during World War 2, observed that those who lost their sense of meaning would surely lose their lives. He volunteered to work in camp ‘hospitals’. Other slaves said he was crazy. Why? Because the hospital of a concentration camp was a death trap, riddled with disease. Victor Frankl worked in the hospital anyway because the work gave him a sense of responsibility, which gave him cause to be – it gave him meaning.

This is also why I read and write about teaching for zero pay and cost of time. I perceive there to be problems worth addressing, and I feel a sense of responsibility to speak up about what I believe to be true and just and worthy of attention. I gain little that is tangible from doing this, but I do gain a meaning, and that counts more than anything else. I argue that those who are either given responsibility or take it upon themselves regardless are the ones who are most satisfied with their work.

I oppose micromanagement and imposing a set of draconian guidelines on teachers for this very reason: it will devoid them of responsibility; it will crush their meaning. Systems that infantilise teachers end up with no teachers left. No one wants to work in a job that does not give them meaning.  Ever wonder why no one wants to work at a supermarket and the people that do tend to move on asap? That job gives you little responsibility. Jobs with little responsibility are devoid of meaning and therefore undesirable, which also lowers their status and pay. Securing a permanent teaching position in New South Wales is very competitive because the system does not infantilise its teachers – they are given a great deal of autonomy, which in turn gives them a sense of responsibility and meaning.

But with responsibility comes accountability. Giving teachers responsibility does not mean we cannot challenge them when there are grounds on which to do so. Schools and systems that do perform poorly should be challenged, but challenging a school should not mean sending the teachers off to the gallows, devoiding them of responsibility in the hopes that this will ultimately lead to improvement. It’s a bad strategy. Scrutiny should lead to the identification of problems and strategies designed to support overcoming them. It is then up to teachers to do what is right. I am going to pitch a guess that it is the schools with teachers and leaders that take their responsibility seriously that embed effective practices and go on to do amazing work. Cultivating responsibility is a good thing. We must scrutinise teachers’ work, but we also must be careful not to devoid them of responsibility.

There is a message in this for school leaders too. If you want your teachers to perform well, give them responsibility. This responsibility needs to be matched by a high degree of support: the teachers remain responsible for their work, you become responsible for ensuring they work in top-notch conditions and gain access to the knowledge and resources needed in order to execute. You must trust they will take their responsibility seriously, and they must trust you to ensure you support them well enough in order to fulfil their responsibility. It may not ensure success, but that’s a great foundation to start from – no teacher will ever want to leave your school. Teachers who value their autonomy and the meaning they derive from their work will take their responsibility seriously.

If you are a teacher, take your responsibility seriously. It is what gives you meaning in your work. Abuse your responsibility and people will gladly take it away. This means being aware of current issues; it means being up-to-date on current research. It means many things. Take your responsibility seriously.

 

Differentiation a solution to education’s woes?

I am of the belief that academic achievement is the core purpose of schooling, and it is up to us teachers to ensure students achieve at a high enough level to function well in society (For reference, it’s 420 on PISA). Of course, this is a rather complex undertaking because students differ in their innate intellectual ability and environmental circumstances, meaning that the range of academic ability in any classroom can be exceptionally wide. In any given year level, there is a five to six-year difference between the most advanced and the least advanced ten percent of students. There is some evidence that this gap could be even wider in mathematics classrooms (see here).

Differentiated instruction, where instructional methods, materials and outcomes differ according to student need, is often highlighted as a solution to this problem. Differentiated instruction comes in pretty extreme forms. Its most extreme form is that of personalised learning, which is a method where all students in a classroom receive personalised instruction that is uniquely tailored to their individual needs. It is an intuitive solution. Surely if we adjust things so that all students are working on what they need most, things will be better for everybody? Intuitive yes, but an evidence-based solution? No. There is no body of evidence that personalising learning experiences within a standard classroom will lead to better outcomes for all, nor is there any that suggests it will close the gap between the highest and lowest performing students. The practical implications for extreme differentiation are also dire: I can hardly keep up planning for one lesson with added adjustments let alone thirty at once. It’s shiny idea with very little behind it.

Teachers should be aware that a lack of evidence or practical problems may not be enough to fend off calls for extreme forms of differentiation. We know that models based on explicit instruction – ones that do not lend well to extreme forms of differentiation – are backed by solid evidence. Despite this, many still call for extreme differentiation and suppression of explicit instruction on legislative grounds. For some, teachers who do not embed extreme forms of differentiation are discriminating against students who may have a special need or learning difficulty – visible or invisible (here). This is a core argument of those who advocate for Universal Design for Learning, an extreme model of differentiation that pushes student choice.

It may sound dystopian, but we could even be heading toward a future where evidence-based practices are outlawed entirely on discrimination grounds. Possible restrictions on what teachers can and can’t do pedagogically is a grave concern because we know that it is effective teaching that makes the difference. Eliminating pedagogical choice would probably not end well.

I’d like to stress that I am not against all forms of differentiation and do not at all advocate for discrimination of any student in any way, shape or form (obviously). It is patently obvious to anyone who has taught a class of 20-30 students that differentiation is necessary if we are to achieve our goal as educators. What I am against is hyper-differentiation and personalisation. Students with serious academic needs require intervention and this should be adequately funded to ensure students secure basic skills they are sorely lacking. Within the classroom, it is perfectly possible to make adjustments to evidence-based practices to ensure all students gain from a series of lessons. The best teachers I have seen purposefully target students in different ways using data from good assessment for learning practices. For example, after explanation, a teacher may ask a series of targetted questions to ascertain where students are at in the lesson. They may have students write responses on mini whiteboards which the teacher can scan to see if a high success rate has been reached. Some students may be released to practice; others may be called forward for further instruction, explanation and practice with immediate feedback. In utopia, it will be these same students who will be required to practice harder and longer on the concept thereafter. Here, using valid assessment data, it is the amount and intensity of instruction that is adjusted, and that is what I advocate. The solution is almost always that students need more not different.

A combination of quality instruction with reasonable adjustments within class and targetted intervention out of class can be a pragmatic and often successful means of catering for almost all students so that they can achieve the level necessary to participate in society. We need to work on optimising that. Naturally, there are others who will need greater support, and one could argue that not enough funding and support is directed to supporting these students. No teacher will object to funding more resources to help the students who need it most. What is clear is that extreme forms of differentiation may not be desirable for what we wish to achieve.

Is adult authority okay?

Today I replied to a tweet asking for opinions on whether or not students should line up before entering a classroom. The tweeter noted that opinions on lining up are divided; some consider it an outdated practice, others a staple of normal routine. Discussing whether students should line up at the door may seem trivial on the surface, but if we dig a little deeper we discover that such a discussion is proxy for debate on adult authority and schooling. Is an adult’s authority over a child okay?  and if it is, what constitutes reasonable authoritative control within a school setting? From this, the discussion about lines becomes a lot clearer. Should teachers demand students line up in a formation? Is it reasonable to insist they are silent? Or is such order not suitable in a school setting?

There is a longlasting line of thought that adult imposition on a child leads to corruption of the child. Rousseau, the 18th-century philosopher, danced with this idea in Emile. His opening line reads, “coming from the hand of the Author of all things, everything is good; in the hands of man, everything degenerates.” The assumption being that if adults impose social norms on a child, the child would surely lose their way. The child should instead be left to follow their impulses – that which is natural.

Education often embraces this idea. It is why some find the idea of asking children to line up quietly and orderly a little queasy. This surely is not a natural act. Will this adult imposition not crush the children’s spirits, devoiding them of a natural desire to learn about their world?

That adult imposition leads to corruption is also a line of thought core to Ken Robinson’s narrative that schools kill the innate creative capacities of young children (educators are enthused by this idea). It is known that children are highly divergent thinkers – they are able to propose many ideas for how to use a paper clip, for example – and the ability to think divergently degenerates with age. Robinson uses this example to demonstrate how adult imposition leads to corruption of children’s natural capacity to be creative individuals.

For one, the argument that children are naturally creative is debatable. Just because young children are able to think divergently does not necessarily mean they are creative by default, at least not creative in how Ken Robinson defines it: the ability to generate original ideas that have value. His use of this example is pretty weak, but many buy the idea. It is the same assumption that imposing things on children leads to corruption that underpins it.

When considering the role of adult authority within school settings, teachers need to ask themselves whether they buy the idea that imposing things on children will lead to corruption. Answering this question makes all other questions related to adult authority within a school setting so much easier to handle. If a teacher decides that no, adults do not corrupt children, then a discussion about lining up no longer becomes about what is appropriate; instead, the discussion becomes about what is necessary and/or preferable.

In some schools, it may not be necessary to have students line up quietly. The school in question could be small, safe, and led by a strong body of experienced teachers. The teachers may not even prefer to have quiet lines and that is fine. But in other schools that may be large, historically unsafe, and with high staff turnover, having students line up in dead-straight, silent lines may be completely necessary and preferable by default. Neither way is wrong or right if we reconcile that it is okay for teachers to impose their authority on students. The decision simply comes down to necessity and/or preference.