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.

Still Not Convinced About Differentiation

The main reason I blog is because I am acutely aware of shaky ideas in education and the damage they can do to the profession. I feel there is a need to question ideas to find the truth. Many ubiquitous ideas in education go unquestioned – simply accepted as the norm. This is a dangerous position that leads to the proliferation of bad ideas such as Whole Language and the learning styles myth.

I’ve questioned differentiation in the past. It is an ever-present reality in education enshrined in AITSL’s education standards. It is at the forefront of initial teacher education and ongoing professional development. I am not so much in opposition to differentiation in its entirety; I am acutely aware that students have different abilities influenced both by nature and nurture and so things will need to be adjusted to ensure good progress for all. The problem I have with differentiation is how it is currently used within the classroom.

I recently attended a presentation on Language Processing Disorder and how these impact practice in the classroom. After a lengthy presentation, the presenter suggested teachers ought to differentiate to accommodate the needs of these students: instead of writing all the time, students could present their learning in a video rather than hand in written work, for example. They should be given a choice.

This approach seems intuitive, but it is this approach to differentiation I question the most. If students with LPD are given the chance to present their work using a video presentation as opposed to a written piece of work then how are they ever going to strengthen their writing skills. By doing this, a teacher eliminates the chance to practise, making it less likely for these students to ever reach competence with written work. If you eliminate the need for them to write, how are they ever meant to improve their writing? When I raised this concern with the presenter, she simply stated that it was not fair to make students constantly do what they are not good at, that they should be given the chance to shine at things they are good at. I simply disagree, I posit that those students who struggle with writing should be writing the most, not making videos as an alternative. Because, whether we like it or not, the ability to write far outweighs the ability to make a good video. That’s just reality.

The presenter clarified her arguments after some discussion by communicating that students should not always be given an alternative, but work should be differentiated to meet their needs. She gave an example of one class where the most able students were writing formal letters to the government arguing for action and the less able pupils were making postcards as an alternative because it was more accessible to them and engaged them in the task. The students were working towards the same outcome, but completing the task at an accessible level. Again I totally disagree with this approach. Writing is not a generic skill. The language and structure required to write a formal letter is fundamentally different to that of a postcard, which is informal and often exchanged between close relatives and friends, not sent to formal bodies. I do not believe students with LPD should be denied the chance to learn how to write a formal letter. In fact, I would argue that such a genre is of high importance and see no reason why the language and skills needed to write a formal letter cannot be taught to these students.

It is this form of differentiation, where the selection of tasks differs across students to ‘meet their needs’, I do not completely understand and question. We should not be differing the content, but the amount of instruction given to each child. Students can learn how to write a formal letter if its features are broken down and taught well, some students just require more instruction to do so. They should not be denied the chance to learn how. Doing so will only exacerbate the Mathew Effect – those who have, gain more; those who have not, gain less.

Differentiation of content: so ubiquitous, I’m still not convinced.

Does Whole Language Enable Good Formative Assessment?

Two approaches to teaching and learning dominate in our schools. Daisy Christodoulou (2016) labels these the generic-skill approach and the deliberate-practice approach. In the generic-skill approach, the skills we wish our students to acquire are taught directly. If we want students to be able to analyse, then we should get them to engage in analysis. If we want them to solve complex mathematical problems, then we should get them to engage in complex mathematical problem solving. Skills are thought to be generic. The deliberate-practice approach argues that the best way to impart such skills is to teach them indirectly by breaking them down into their component parts. If we want students to be able to analyse, then we should teach them a lot of content related to the topic we want them to analyse. If we want them to solve complex mathematical problems, then we should first teach them prerequisite skills for solving such problems like times tables and number bonds. Skills are thought to be highly domain-specific.

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The research strongly indicates that the deliberate-practice approach is a far more efficient approach. Research has shown that skill is not generic, but relies heavily on domain-specific knowledge. This was confirmed in studies carried out by Herbet Simon through his infamous chess experiments (Simon & Chase, 1973). Further, getting students to engage directly in tasks of high demand like analysis and problem solving places a significant burden on working memory, making it difficult for students to actually focus on the target skill (Kirschner, Sweller & Clark, 2006). It is clear that the best way to teach is by breaking a target skill into component parts and systematically strengthening these parts over time.

Given the research, we know that good early reading teachers break the task down into its component parts and teach them explicitly. There are five components that need to be taught explicitly: phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension and fluency. Whole language does not break the task of reading into its component parts. Instead, reading is treated like a generic skill and taught through the generic-skill approach: the best way to improve a skill is to perform the skill; the best way to improve reading is by getting them to read.  A phonics approach, on the other hand, breaks reading down. It teaches reading indirectly through deliberate practice of its component parts, paying close attention to the skills most deficient in the early years: phonics and phonemic awareness. Whole language is therefore incompatible with good teaching, phonics is.

Formative assessment is widely accepted as a crucial aspect of good teaching. The purpose of formative assessment is to make valid inferences to inform future teaching. As we have seen, good teaching breaks skills into their component parts as outlined by the deliberate-practice model. When it comes to formative assessment, best practice adopts the same model: assessment should target the component skills so we can make valid inferences about what a student can and cannot do and then plan accordingly.

Here, it is important to distinguish between tests used for formative and summative purposes. A test used for summative assessment is very different from one used for formative assessment. A summative assessment is used to develop a shared meaning about how competent a particular student is in a rather wide domain. It is assessing the target skill. As mentioned, the purpose of formative assessment is to assess the student’s knowledge of the component skills. It needs to be specific enough to be reliable so that valid inferences can be made. Assessing the target skill in order to make valid formative inference is not a reliable form of formative assessment because it is not specific enough.

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Given what we know of the importance of formative assessment, good early reading teachers are also good formative assessors. As outlined above, good formative assessment is specific enough to be reliable so that valid inferences can be made. It is not aiming to assess reading but is looking to assess any knowledge gaps a student may have in its component parts. Whole language cannot formatively assess reading reliably because it does not break reading down into its component parts. Instead, whole language approaches assessment of reading by having kids read to them, a valid form of summative assessment, but not a valid form of formative assessment.

The Running Record is a widely used tool used for formative assessment by whole language educators. It assesses a student’s ability to decode by having them read a passage of text. This is not appropriate as a formative task because the task does not appropriately target word decoding’s component skills. By using a Running Record, the whole language teacher lowers the assessment’s reliability and therefore valid inferences of reading knowledge or skill cannot be made. If a student fails to decode the word clever whilst reading, it is hardly possible to make a valid inference as to why the student has stumbled on this word because the component phonic knowledge needed to decode the word clever (c-l-e-v-er) has not been isolated in the assessment. The teacher can infer that the student does not know how to decode clever but cannot infer why the student cannot decode this word. In theory, the teacher could make inferences about a student’s ability to decode and which components need strengthening but due to the unreliability of the assessment, such an inference would not be valid, causing weak formative assessment.

The Running Record is an example of whole language’s flawed approach to assessment, closely related to its equally flawed teaching models. A teacher assessing student skill using a phonics approach can assess much more effectively because it does break reading down into its component parts. For example, teachers using a phonics-based approach will often test student knowledge of letter-sound correspondences by having them recall the phoneme to a displayed grapheme. Because it is appropriately specific, this sort of formative assessment has a high level of reliability and therefore our inferences can be of high quality. If a child cannot recall the phoneme /l/ when shown its matching grapheme then it is clear the student does not have this essential component knowledge and so it needs to be taught explicitly. This formative assessment will strengthen the students knowledge and help them decode clever in the future. This is reliable and valid formative assessment that informs future teaching.

Whole language is a flawed approach as it does not break learning down into its component parts. Its flaws are carried over to assessment, where whole language assessments like the Running Record which assess students completing the target skill lack reliability and therefore lack validity. It is often said that in order to be effective, early reading needs to be taught well. We can also say that early reading needs to be assessed well in order to be taught well. Phonics-based approaches enable this, whole language approaches do not.

 

Key References

Christodoulou, D. (2016) Making Good Progress

Simon & Chase (1973) Skill in Chess

Kirschner, Sweller & Swan (2006) Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work

Primary Teaching too Highly Specialised for the ‘Generalist’ Teacher 

A recent post by Pamela Snow got me thinking about teacher knowledge. In her post, Pamela lists many concepts related to quality early reading instruction, asking whether or not the teachers reading it could identify if they and their colleagues have an explicit and detailed knowledge of the concepts. The items include many concepts unlikely encountered in one’s own primary education and therefore can be considered specialist knowledge. Examples include the schwa vowel, stressed and unstressed syllables, diphthong and digraphs and trigraphs.

Even though we do not have data related to Pamela’s post specifically, the simple truth is primary teachers are very unlikely to have this specialist knowledge. In one study, only 18% of in-service teachers knew that the word ‘box’ has four speech sounds and only 52% could identify the correct definition of a syllable (Mahar & Richdale, 2008). The study is 10 years old, but given very little has changed in early reading instruction in Australia, it’s safe to assume the statistics are still valid.

The concerning problem of teacher knowledge can be demonstrated through the Peter effect. In the Bible, a beggar asks Peter for some money. Peter replies that he can not help him, for he did not have any money to give. In the context of education, the Peter effect is ‘one cannot teach what one does not know. ‘

Such deficits in teacher knowledge really concern me. I myself am a primary teacher and am not isolated from the problem. For example, when testing myself using Pamela Snow’s list of concepts, I could not identify what a schwa vowel was and could hardly argue that I have a deep understanding of stressed and unstressed syllables. Such gaps in knowledge are hard to come to terms with due to their likely impact on my own teaching in the classroom. I am left asking, why? Why don’t I know these things?

The problem likely has a lot to do with my education. Teacher knowledge was not prioritised in my initial teacher education, taking a backseat to a heavy emphasis on teacher pedagogy. Emphasising pedagogy is, of course, necessary, but not at the expense of knowledge. My ongoing professional development makes the same mistake. Almost all professional development focuses on teacher pedagogy at the expense of teacher knowledge. Perhaps teachers and teacher educators mistakenly presume that because primary students are young, future and current teachers already know everything they need to know.

Prioritising pedagogy over knowledge is likely a consequence of a deeply entrenched ideological principle. Education holds constructivist principles in high esteem. Teaching knowledge opposes the constructivist ideology held dear in education – knowing must start from within; it cannot be pushed on a person. I cannot remember ever having my knowledge acquisition held to account, never once being asked to retain and recall basic facts. Instead, a lot of time was spent reflecting on ideas and my own personal understandings of what I needed to know and do.

Constructivist ideology is usually criticised in the context of teaching knowledge to children, but it is also clear that it is having negative effects on the teaching of adult teachers. In the context of teaching, pre-service teachers are still relative novices. The best way to teach them would be through very direct, explicit teaching of the most important knowledge needed to teach well, schwa vowels and all.

Such attitudes have lead to primary teaching being labeled generalist because it has been recognised that a primary teacher’s knowledge cannot be deemed specialist.  It is thought that because the students are young, we can easily teach them a range of subjects, and because we teach a range of subjects, our knowledge and skills are generalist by necessity. Yet as we have seen, teaching in the primary school requires specialist knowledge. I think labeling primary teaching as generalist has harmful effects. A primary teacher has no hope of acquiring specialist knowledge if they are labeled a generalist teacher.

If primary teachers and teacher educators continue to embrace this label, then specialists are going to eat their lunch. Already there are calls for more specialists in primary schools. This is in response to the need for specialist knowledge. This is not limited to early reading instruction, calls for specialists to teach maths and science have also been made. Just like early reading instruction, instruction in these subjects also requires specialist knowledge – knowledge that has been neglected in training the ‘generalist’ primary teacher.

So what is the way forward? Prioritising knowledge in initial teacher education and ongoing professional development would be a good start. Needless to say those in favour of the current model will argue the generalist model allows for deeper, more meaningful relationships between teachers and pupils. This is a somewhat romantic view and one that I don’t think has much merit. Already students are being taught quite widely by specialists in music and PE and all seems well. Interesting that the subjects of least importance are taught by specialists. Perhaps it’s time for the 3 Rs to be taught by specialists too. Exactly what that looks like? That is up for debate.

 

Emily Binks-Cantrell, Erin K. Washburn, R. Malatesha Joshi, and Martha Hougen, ‘Peter Effect in the Preparation of Reading Teachers,’ Scientific Studies of Reading 16:6 (2012), 526–536

Nicole E. Mahar and Amanda L. Richdale, ‘Primary Teachers’ Linguistic Knowledge and Perceptions of Early Literacy Instruction,’ Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties 13:1 (2008), 17–37.

 

No Room in Ed for the Psycholinguistic Guessing Game

The 3 cueing system is a model used widely in Australian schools to teach reading. It was made famous by Dame Marie Clay and her Reading Recovery program. This approach was the one favoured by my initial teacher education and is still the one favoured by most of the profession.
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I was once one in favour too. Why wouldn’t I be? My whole education at the beginning of my career was in favour of the 3 cueing system, I did not know any better. That was until I left to teach in the UK, where The Simple View of Reading is favoured. My journey to changing my mind was a long one and had a lot to do with the overwhelming evidence for approaches that largely contradict the 3 cueing model and its overarching philosophy – namely, synthetic phonics.

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Last Term, I attended a conference for kindergarten teachers run by a very influential organisation in education. Over 300 kindergarten teachers were in attendance to take part in a variety of workshops on the day, one of which was titled Sparking Joy in Reading.

“Sparking joy” probably should have been my first warning. Whole Language is built on the idea of engagement in the reading process – raising children who fall in love with books. But in my rush of enthusiasm, I never stopped to read between the lines.

The presenter went into an introductory mode, stamping her authority on the situation by narrating her long and successful career before opening with the line “reading’s not just about phonics”. Second warning. No one actually believes reading is just about phonics, that’s largely just rhetoric from whole language detractors of evidence-based phonics approaches.

At this point the well-known Venn diagram of intersecting cues meeting to make ‘meaning’ flashed on the overhead PowerPoint. The next couple of minutes were quite bizarre. Any reasonable presenter may present some supporting evidence for their advocacy of the model they promote, but what she actually leveraged as evidence was very strange indeed. She presented a tree on screen with a bunch of squiggles there to accompany it. We were meant to decipher what the text meant, supposedly just how kids do as they learn to read. Here is an example I created that resembles the slide:

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Through a series of guesses, you can reasonably predict the sentence to be ‘The bird flies to the nest.’ This then was meant to prove that reading isn’t just about phonics. Rather, students call on a range of cues to make meaning.

The activity above is known as the psycholinguistic guessing game. According to Goodman, readers sample from text to formulate hypotheses which readers confirm or disconfirm with subsequent text. Goodman believed reading was a series of guesses and that it is poor readers who pay attention to letter-sound correspondences:

“Accuracy, correctly naming or identifying each word or word part in a sequence, is not necessary for effective reading since the reader can get the meaning without accurate word identification. Furthermore, readers who strive for accuracy are likely to be inefficient”. (Goodman, 1974)

This theory has been overwhelmingly crushed by the science of reading for some 30 years. His theory totally ignores the importance of letter-sound correspondences and that it is, in fact, poor readers who rely on context to read words, not the other way around. This simple fact was confirmed by Charles Perfetti who built on Guy Van Orden and his Van Orden Effect. Seidenberg summarises Perfetti’s finding better than I ever could:

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Highly influential conferences where presenters STILL promote the psycholinguistic guessing game and its related theories despite the overwhelming evidence against them is a complete scandal and should not be allowed to happen. Yet here I was, sitting in a room full of teachers nodding their heads at the convincing and impassioned presentation of the psycholinguistic guessing game. In that moment, I desperately wanted to speak out and challenge such a clear breach of the evidence, but I did not. Why? Because the culture of education is not one of evidence, but ideology – an ideology so perverse that I felt too uncomfortable to confront it.

I did not stand up and voice my opinion on the day, so why now? The reason is two-fold. One, like every other teacher, I care deeply about the children we teach. Even more so considering one in five will fail to read, a statistic inflated due to poor approaches like the 3 cueing system. Secondly, I care deeply about the profession. As I have gotten to know the world of education, the lack of professionalism – the lack of evidence-based practice – has increasingly come to concern me. This, in my opinion, needs to change if we are going to keep any of the dwindling respect in the profession alive. Evidence must triumph over ideology.

It is important for those in favour of evidence to speak up and seriously question practices that are opposed it, both for the students and the profession. 

Goodman (1974) Effective Teachers of Reading Know Language and Children

Seidenberg (2017) Language at the Speed of Sight

 

Why so Knowledge-Phobic?

Teaching kindergarten is a real joy. The kids come to school beaming with excitement and a thirst for knowledge. Even before kindergarten, kids are attracted to acquiring knowledge. Ask any 5-year-old about animals and they will lecture you beyond what you bargained for. This year I sloppily commented on how *amazing* my student’s stuffed monkey was when he brought it in for sharing time only to receive a complete deadpan and a very frank explanation that his orang-utan was not a monkey at all, but an ape. “Monkeys have tales, Mr. Kenny.” Woops. Won’t make that mistake again.

It is a real shame that new kindergarteners’ thirst for knowledge is never matched by the teaching they receive. Take history for example. History is a knowledge-rich academic subject. Students are fascinated by the idea of mummies from a mysterious ancient Egyptian world and cave paintings left behind for 40 000 years by our own indigenous peoples. Yet instead of studying a wide variety of interesting and forever relevant content, they are served with learning about that which they already know and will surely come to terms with outside of school: their personal history.

So why personal history? I suspect the focus on personal history has a concerning purpose: it is only there to support the teaching and acquisition of skills. As outlined by the Australian Curriculum, the students are expected to analyse, research, question, reflect, communicate and evaluate in this domain, just like seasoned historians do.

So instead of studying forever relevant and wholly interesting topics like mummies and aboriginal tribes, they are to study themselves in order to act like historians. Not only is this a problem of being short-changed on content, it is also problematic because kindergarteners do not have the knowledge or expertise of a seasoned professional. It takes years of study for a historian to meaningfully analyse and evaluate the events of the past; it is the sheer amount of knowledge on a topic that enables them to do so. Kindergarteners do not have this knowledge. They are relative novices, and therefore should not be expected to implement the skills so hard-won by historians. If we wish for them to be able to utilise these skills in the future, then it is reasonable to posit that they should acquire knowledge on a wide range of topics first.

A focus on skills says a lot about the culture of Australian education. Many-a-teacher will happily explain that ‘it is not about stuffing them with facts’ but rather ‘it is about encouraging a love of learning’. Teachers persist in triumphing this ideal, which can largely be attributed to the romantic view of the child as E.D Hirsch explains:

“Romanticism believed that human nature is innately good, and should therefore be encouraged to take its natural course, unspoiled by the artificial imposition prejudice and convention. Second, Romanticism concluded that a child is neither a scaled-down, ignorant version of the adult nor a form piece of clay in need of molding, rather, the child is a special being in its own right with unique, trustworthy impulses that should be allowed to develop and run their course.”

Hirsch argues that it is this romantic view of the child that has lead to knowledge-phobic attitudes, which culminate in knowledge-phobic curricula. A kindergartener’s thirst for knowledge is never matched because of such attitudes, which, in my view, is a real shame; and in others’, a complete scandal.

Many will argue that it is not possible to agree on which knowledge and topics to teach our children, but I would rather have that debate than deny them knowledge because of it. Hopefully, as educators get to grips with the key role of knowledge, change will ensue.