Why you should blog in 2018

I began blogging in July this year. It was something I was considering doing for a while, but I was nervous about putting my ideas in writing for fear of ridicule in a world where tolerance of ideas is waning. Although informed by what I read, most of my ideas – knowledge-based curricula, systematic synthetic phonics, better discipline etc – aren’t mainstream in the Australian education context. Puting them in writing seemed risky and so I seriously considered doing it anonymously to protect myself. I’m glad I decided to go fully transparent in the end, for it has allowed me to build relationships with like-minded people at a rate far exceeding my pre-blogging days.

Perhaps you are a teacher with ideas. Let me tell you in no uncertain terms that teachers connected on social media crave your perspective. You will inevitably encounter people who agree with what you say and, just as importantly, you will also encounter people who vehemently disagree. Sometimes people do overstep the mark and do become offensive but, in my experience, these incidents are rare and often debate leading from your own writing will get you thinking deeply about your ideas, allowing you to grow your understanding.

Whether or not you do it anonymously is a decision for you, but if you feel confident that your teaching post will not be compromised by writing what you think, then I strongly encourage you to go fully transparent. I know that when there is a face to a name, I feel a sense of camaraderie with fellow teachers who blog about their thoughts and experiences. I also know that putting my own face out there has helped others connect with me. In saying that, if going transparent makes you feel a visceral no, then do consider going anonymous, at least in the beginning. The veil may make you feel a little more confidence in publishing your ideas. It is a sad reality that intolerance is spreading. There are people in education who wish to silence alternative ideas, and some of the tactics deployed are very nasty. Nasty encounters are admittedly rare, but they must be acknowledged during the decision making process.

Blogging will give you a platform from which to be heard. You will be able to spread your ideas and ideals, find people who are like-minded, and even influence people to think the way you do. In my short career (2 years a teacher), I’ve already noticed that teachers have very few platforms. Teachers are too often told what to do following a debate between people who are not teachers. We seem to get lost in the black box, forgetting that there are serious debates taking place that will inevitably affect what we do inside our classroom walls. Blogging gives teachers the chance to be heard and connect and build; it gives teachers agency, and that is important because teachers are the difference. Non-teachers can debate all they like, but it is what teachers think and do that matters most. That’s why other teachers crave your ideas: they matter most.

Blogging is a platform to get your ideas out beyond the walls of your classroom, but this process will ironically affect what you do inside the classroom as well. Beginning writing and reading about that which interests me in education has allowed me to become better at what I do. It has also made me even more passionate about it, too. I can guarantee that the reading and writing process of blogging will make you think deeply about what you are doing in the classroom. You will inevitably question everything you do as you reflect and assess. I write a bit about differentiation. I don’t have many kind things to say about how it is currently done in schools. In criticising it, I was forced to assess how I myself approach adjustments for my class. I was forced to constantly check myself, to wonder if I was wrong or right or somewhere in between. You will begin to do this too and it is the kids who benefit most from it.

But perhaps the greatest reason to start a  blog is best described through a metaphor used by David Foster Wallace. It reads like this. Two young fish are swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way who acknowledges them and says, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” After exchanging pleasantries, the two young fish swim on for a little bit. Eventually, one of them looks over at the other young fish and says, “What the hell is water?” Being a teacher can be like being one of the young fish. The water became so ubiquitous to the fish that it ceased to exist. You are surrounded by ideas, practices and beliefs from day one of your career as a teacher, and perhaps you haven’t stopped to question why they are there. I know I didn’t. Questioning them is the best thing I have thus far done in my career, and blogging is part of that journey. Ultimately, I encourage to start writing because it will help you question ubiquitous ideas, and that is important.

 

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Should we teach children to be grateful?

English edutwitter went into meltdown this week. It appears that a school – well known for its strict behaviour and traditional values – made their students write thank you cards to their teachers on the last day of school before Christmas. The card writing included a text supposedly written by someone in senior leadership about the things the students had to be grateful for. The text was rather long and made pretty clear why the students ought to be grateful for the changes made to their school and for the hard work of their teachers. Some took offence to forcing students to write cards to their teachers, indicating that this is oppressive as it strips the students of their rights to freedom of choice and expression. But is forcing students to display gratitude really a bad thing?

This has all reminded me of how adults teach kids how to use good manners. When children begin to speak, their parents are instantly onto them, insisting they say please and thank you every single time. A toddler originally has no idea what they are saying. They just parrot it back over and over until delivering please and thank you becomes part of who they are. When students enter primary school, this habit of saying please and thank you is not yet embedded, so we see primary school teachers doing exactly the same thing parents do. When a student says, “I need to go to the toilet” you’ll find 99% of the time a teacher will insist they ask – properly. “May I go to the bathroom, please?” is what teachers are looking for with “thank you” to follow. Towards the end of primary school, using manners becomes a deeply ingrained habit.

Developing the habit of using good manners takes a very long time. It takes A LOT of teaching. It is worth taking that time because out in the big bad world people will not respect you if you do not display good manners. An individual would be less happy for not knowing how to display them. Gratitude is an important virtue, too. You will be a happier person for being grateful and people will respect you for displaying it. Unfortunately, just like manners, gratitude needs to be taught and it takes a very long time to instil in one’s character. Most children do not naturally display a grateful nature, so it needs to be taught extensively over a long period of time, just like teaching good manners. Just as children are forced to display manners until they are well embedded, so too should we force children to display a grateful nature.

The school in question clearly has the same thinking in mind: they want to instil a grateful nature that they can take forth into the rest of their lives. One of the ways the school has chosen to instil a grateful nature is to get the kids to write thank you cards to their teachers. Apart from their parents, no one in their lives does more for them. It seems a perfect opportunity to continue to teach the children how to be grateful. Quite coincidentally, I had my kindergarteners do a similar thing: they had to write a thank you card to someone in the school. I did not restrict this to just teachers, but most of the kids picked teachers anyway. Some loved the activity; some didn’t, but they all did it because I thought it a good thing to do regardless of whether or not they wanted to.

One of the key objections to the school’s decision to make students write cards is that the students were supposedly forced, and therefore the gratitude was not genuine. In all honesty, some of the students probably weren’t grateful at all, and I can make this educated guess because that’s what happened in my classroom. Yet I insist on students saying thank you to every adult every single time no matter whether they are genuinely thankful. I expect them to say it because it will make them a better person in the long run. I do not think it matters if students are genuinely grateful or not, for engaging in the practice of gratitude will make them better people regardless. This, I am sure, is the mentality of this particular school, and I wholeheartedly agree with them. Some things need to be taught. It’s as simple as that.

Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders: A guide for parents and professionals

The Arrowsmith Program’s purpose is to address specific learning difficulties through strenuous written, visual, auditory, computer and cognitive exercises, or brain training. Just this year, the Australian Education Union (AEU) hosted an event promoting the Arrowsmith program and published a four-page spread devoted to its heroic enterprise. The AEU magazine, in which the article is published, is widely read in education circles, sure to be placed by the biscuit tin in staffrooms for educators to pick up and have a read with their cup of tea at recess. The spread is appropriately glossy – full of stories of triumph and allusions to research backing the approach. Quite convincing to the untrained eye.

There is only one problem and a major one at that. There are zero independent studies endorsing the Arrowsmith Program as an intervention for students with specific learning difficulties. Despite its promotion by a very powerful organisation in a widely read magazine, Arrowsmith is nothing more than one of many non-evidence based fads aimed at the most vulnerable of students. Teachers are constantly bombarded with programs of this type; they promise much for our students but have little to no evidence of effectiveness (and often with a high price tag to boot).

It’s hard to know who to believe when we educators are sold shiny programs for vulnerable students by snake oil merchants over and over again. That’s why a go-to guide like Making Sense of Interventions for Children with Developmental Disorders: A guide for parents and professionals is a welcome addition in this space. The book is comprehensive. It covers developmental disorders common to the classroom (and beyond it) and gives a succinct appraisal of interventions and approaches commonly sold to – sometimes desperate – educators and parents. Make no mistake, this book is driven by evidence. There are no favours made. All interventions and approaches are evaluated fairly in light of what we know. Some are praised for their robust evidence base, others are challenged to provide more evidence of effectiveness, and the rest are appropriately condemned for their swindling.

Find it here

Pamela Snow and Caroline Bowen don’t have many kind things to say about the Arrowsmith Program, nor other high profile suspects in this space – Braingym, learning styles, Reading Recovery, FastForword, to name a few. They note that the scientific evidence for these approaches is scarce. The authors do not stop here though, going much further to include interventions less well known. Indeed, I myself stumbled upon many interventions and approaches I was much less familiar with yet intrigued by. Take Cellfield, for example, an Australian computer-based approach to remediating reading difficulties that claims to benefit cognition, attention, working memory, and auditory and visual processing (how very promising). Or perhaps psychological astrology, which apparently can help us understand the inner world of those with autism spectrum disorder. Words fail the authors here, and I must say they fail me too.

The authors are clearly passionate about ensuring parents and professionals have access to quality, unambiguous information in this space. The book’s topics are taken appropriately seriously, but the authors manage to avoid the sometimes stale delivery of academic texts to provide an accessible and enjoyable read. This is a book worth putting on the shelf to refer to the next time you sit down with your cup of tea and pick up those magazines on the staffroom table. Whether it be Arrowsmith, psychological astrology or cows jumping over the moon, this book is here to help you navigate the minefields and discover the goldfields for helping students who truly need it most.

Happy reading.

 

 

Hard work and dedication are crucial

A truly awesome article was published in the Sydney Morning Herald. The author is Daniel Hu, a 2017 graduate of the highly selective Sydney Boys High School. Daniel crushed his ATAR and makes it very clear that this result is the product of hard work, dedication and a mountain of support from parents who get that education is an opportunity.

I never reached the starry heights of Daniel’s achievement, but I can relate to what he says in many ways. I did not do very well in school. I struggled socially and this had an impact on how well I did academically. The truth is though, at the end of the day, I simply did not work hard enough to do well. Yeah, I did have some things going on and these impacted me a little harder than most others, but none of that matters. I still chose not to put in the work, regardless of my situation. This resulted in some pretty lacklustre results which I am not proud of.

Daniel, born to non-English speaking working-class immigrant parents, had every reason to underachieve, too. After all, poverty has a profound impact. But he didn’t. And he didn’t because he put in the work to ensure that he didn’t. The day I started to get anywhere was the day I decided to stop making excuses and put in the work. My time at university was unlike my time at school. I worked hard and did fairly well. I’ve no doubt my hard work resulted in my permanent teaching position as a new graduate – a rare and competitive placement.

That taught me that there is power in hard work; in dedicating yourself to something worthwhile, even if you stand in the face of adversity. The truth is, no one is ever coming to save you, no matter how hard your situation is. Whether you’re a boy born to working-class parents or one with a smorgasbord of teenage problems, no one is coming to give you the perfect job or the perfect life or the perfect ATAR. You’ve got to earn that yourself and it is not possible to do that without a sheer amount of hard work and dedication.

Instilling this idea that hard work and dedication is the key to what you want in life must be a priority for all educators. The actions of Daniel’s dad speak a million words. I can picture Daniel’s dad learning English just so he could help his son learn a little more, just as Daniel describes. What would our students achieve if us teachers adopted that level of desperation and belief? The world would probably have more Daniels; more kids who get that hard work will ensure success.

I wish Daniel all the best. I am sure he will do well given the mentality his parents have instilled in him.

I didn’t do enough testing

Like most teachers, the end of the year has brought on a lot of reflection on what could have been better. I’ve been reading through the work of Robert Bjork, renowned memory and forgetting researcher, and have begun to think hard about the implications of some of his work. In light of his work, and upon reflecting on my year in the classroom, I have come to the conclusion that I did not test my students nearly enough. That may seem controversial. Bjork himself acknowledges that any talk of testing students is often met with a negative reaction amongst educators. To some extent, this is understandable. I can understand that if testing is interpreted as high stakes SAT or NAPLAN style assessment regimes then, yes, many would have ill feelings. I for one am not completely opposed to NAPLAN (I do think it is deeply flawed) and I have taught an English Year 6 class that sat SATs. I think they have a place; however, they are heavily misused. No one wants to see schools hung out to dry, left to bear the brunt of often unfair public scrutiny. It is this misuse that causes people to despise them.

Assessment regimes are not what I mean when I say ‘test’ though. A test doesn’t necessarily have to be an assessment; it does not need to be high stakes. It could simply be a multiple choice quiz or something else of the sort. Bjork posits that tests can do more than assess knowledge; tests can also be learning events in themselves. This is because a test causes us to use our memory; that is, we are forced to retrieve information stored in long-term memory in order to answer the questions. This is extremely beneficial for learning because retrieving a memory strengthens the memory itself, and the retrieval associated with testing often leads to greater improvements in learning than additional study.

Another important reason why testing is beneficial for learning is that it provides very clear feedback to the learner about whether or not they have learnt something. Once a student has been exposed to material, their judgement of how well they have mastered that material is not very good. Whereas if that same student were being quizzed on their knowledge, they would be getting good information about what they do and do not know, or what they know well and sort of know. In this way, students gain a lot from self-assessing where they are at through testing and will pay close attention to explanations on why they got it right, wrong or half right. This can lead to better study or attention to a learning task thereafter, as, for example, the student who has been shown that their counting down strategy has resulted in 12 – 3 = 10, because they included 12 in the count, will be careful to modify this in subsequent practise sessions.

Multiple choice tests seem to be of particular benefit to learning. This is because a multiple choice question causes students to spontaneously recall information related to the other incorrect alternatives to the question. In this way, students are strengthening their knowledge of tested and untested material on the same question. Kindergarteners have a strong misconception for what is a triangle when they enter school. Most of them think a triangle is this and nothing else:

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They do not realise that any shape can be a triangle as long as it has three straight sides and three vertices. After learning this, a teacher could present a multiple choice question that would cause the students to think hard about what is and is not a triangle.

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In this way, students are not only becoming familiar with what a triangle is but also what a triangle is not. The question would cause the students to think hard about the incorrect alternatives and why they are incorrect, leading to stronger learning. Some of these examples are not so straightforward for a kindergartener and could lead to some really interesting discussion (c and d). I’m confident a question like this, in light of the work done by Bjork and colleagues, would lead to stronger learning gains than simply restudying the material taught so far.

I think that I will integrate more tests into my practice next year. Michaela Community School – a free school in England – do daily recaps and weekly quizzes and I never really fully understood why they were so keen to share this practice until now. It is clear that having students engage in frequent testing does much more than provide assessment information, they provide powerful opportunities to learn, too. I’m keen to leverage this in the future.

 

 

 

 

Phonics debate heats up

I’ve noticed an increase in activity on Twitter from academics and teachers who do not support Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) and/or the proposed Phonics Screening Check (PSC). This isn’t a coincidence. The release of PIRLS 2016 data and the meeting of education ministers both took place in the last week, giving proponents of SSP and the PSC much to feel positive about, and giving SSP and PSC opponents much to worry about.

PIRLS 2016 shows Australia is letting down the neediest

Make no mistake, SSP and PSC advocates are most concerned about the ones at the bottom. They understand that, through a combination of factors, most students will learn to read to an acceptable level no matter the approach taken. It is the ones at the bottom, usually suffering from high levels of disadvantage or dyslexia, that need high quality, phonics-based instruction to stand a chance of learning to read.

PIRLS 2016 data reveals that Australia is doing well. We had significant gains, which should be celebrated. Positive results are hard-won and hardly ever attributed to teachers, so my hat goes off to them. But the data also shows that many students are still being left behind. Most of the gains came from students at the top; small gains were made by the ones at the bottom.

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The data shows that the Mathew effect continues to strengthen – those that have much continue to gain much; those who have little continue to gain little. The gap is widening and this rings alarm bells for SSP and PSC supporters. We need to take action now to ensure all students, not just the ones at the top, are given appropriate instruction and support to learn to read. Make no mistake, if students have basic code skills, their reading comprehension will improve too. Many will tell you otherwise; don’t believe them.

The PIRLS 2016 data only strengthens the argument for a PSC and adoption of evidence-based teaching practices. That will make SSP and PSC denialist very nervous indeed.

Education ministers are warming to SSP and the idea of a PSC

The battle to convince education ministers has been very real. AARE has published many articles that are anti-SSP and anti-PSC (examples here and here) and the Australian Education Union has been vocal in their opposition. The authors of the AARE blogs are very well-known and well-respected members of the education community. No doubt they would catch the eye of our education ministers who ultimately need to make the important decision on whether or not to back the federal government’s proposal.

Federal minister Simon Birmingham has been very vocal in his support of evidence-based teaching methods, “Really there shouldn’t be a philosophical argument about the way in which children learn to read… it should be about following the evidence.” (source).

He has been a supporter of evidence for a long time and now it seems a few state education ministers agree with him. Susan Close of South Australia has already implemented a trial of the PSC in her state. Tasmania’s Jeremy Rockliff and New South Wales’ Rob Stokes have also offered support for the proposal. Rob Stokes comments that “with comprehensive evidence now proving the efficacy of synthetic phonics, NSW government supports early phonics checks in schools.” (source).

Like with any controversial proposal, it’s hard to win people over let alone those in power. Vocal support for the PSC from education ministers will worry those who do not favour SSP and the PSC. SSP has been historically unpopular, but the tide is beginning to turn. Those in power are beginning to see beyond ideological preferences and rhetorical arguments looking instead to evidence to inform their decisions. I welcome this as all advocates of this important reform will. I sit at ease knowing my state of NSW supports the proposal. All we have to do now is wait.

 

Young children only stand to benefit from explicit instruction

There are two broad philosophical approaches to teaching children in the early years. The first is a play-based approach characterised by a high degree of choice. This approach is student centred and aligns strongly with progressivism. On the other hand, you have the academic-based approach where students are lead by a teacher in more structured activities. This approach is teacher-centred and aligns more with traditionalism. Like all debates in education around philosophical and instructional approaches, no one actually adheres to either approach 100% of the time. The debate is more about which philosophy should be the core of instructional design in the classroom.

Currently, early years provision in England is play-based but that could soon change. OFSTED released a report this week on early years provision in English schools. The report is a case study of successful schools and recommends more direct teaching of important concepts in the early years. It is worth noting that Reception children in England are younger than our Kindergartners. Whereas most children begin Kindergarten when they are 5 and often turn 6 during the year, English children begin their Reception year when they are 4 turning 5. Despite a minor age difference, I think the debate over which approach is best is relevant to the Australian context. This recent report is a good example of current trends towards a more play-based philosophy in the early years. Despite the fact our Kindergartners are generally older than English Reception students, we seem to be going in the opposite direction: England wants more direct instruction; we want more play-based learning.

Which should we prefer? Well, it is clear that explicit teaching is far superior to other forms of instruction. We have known that for a number of years (see here, here and here). Controlling for all other aspects, it is clear that students stand to gain more from being taught explicitly and unambiguously so they can gain mastery of important concepts. If we are to teach concepts implicitly – such as through play – we may not ensure students (particularly those most vulnerable) gain the essential knowledge they need for future success in school.

When the argument for explicit instruction is made, many will call this approach developmentally inappropriate. It is thought that because the students are so young, teaching complex content through such a method is not matched to their current understanding of the world and is therefore not an appropriate approach. This idea can be traced back to Piaget’s stage theory of development. Piaget proposed that students operate in 4 discrete cognitive stages as they grow. It is thought that if students were taught concepts, knowledge or ideas beyond their developmental stage, they would not be able to understand. It is this logic that has been applied to instructional methods: the students are young and therefore not developmentally ready for explicit instruction of more complex concepts. The only problem being that development does not occur in discrete stages rendering the developmental argument inaccurate and therefore invalid. There isn’t any evidence that content is inappropriate for students of any age, and imagining so may do more harm than good.

Many will also argue that this approach is one of ‘drill-and-kill’, which inevitably zaps a love of learning out of young children. This is an emotive argument that does not acknowledge how explicit teaching is best taught in the early years. Explicit instruction best taught is extremely playful and enjoyable for kids. Kids love the playful nature of explicit instruction done well. Anyone who argues that explicit instruction will kill a love of learning does not understand how it is best taught in the early years.

The evidence in favour of explicit instruction is pretty strong; however, this does not discount the value of play. Play is important for understanding the world and is a natural act. It is useful to define different types of knowledge to understand the role play may have in the classroom. David Geary defines two types of knowledge – biologically primary and biologically secondary. Biologically primary knowledge is the knowledge we are innately capable of acquiring, such as the ability to speak and communicate in spoken language and the ability to socialise in a positive manner. This type of knowledge may well best be acquired through the natural act of play. Biologically secondary knowledge is the knowledge we are not innately capable of acquiring. Unlike spoken language, the ability to read and communicate in written form is a biologically secondary act. Further, gaining knowledge of how plants grow and survive is also biologically secondary. These ideas are not easily acquired naturally. For these, play is probably not appropriate; rather, explicit instruction would better help students acquire this knowledge. So although play is crucial for cultivating biologically primary knowledge (knowledge early years children are still gaining), it is probably not the best approach for helping students acquire biologically secondary knowledge. To acquire biologically secondary knowledge, almost all students need explicit instruction.

There are certain things students need to know and be able to do early in their schooling to ensure later success. All students need a good grounding in early reading and writing knowledge, which needs to be taught explicitly. Further, many students suffer from severe disadvantage and therefore do not benefit from the direct instruction more affluent peers are receiving from their parents. Affluent students will know what a reptile is and that trees that lose their leaves are called deciduous trees. Poor students will not know this and need direct instruction to gain this knowledge. There is much our disadvantaged do not know and we need to teach them to make sure they do know it; otherwise, they will really struggle later on. They aren’t going to figure out what characteristics a reptile has or work out what we call a tree that loses it leaves without explicit instruction.

I welcome the report released supporting a more direct approach in the early years. There is no doubt play has its place, but a bit of common sense winning out over romantic feelings is a good thing for all children, especially the disadvantaged. There are certain things students just simply need to know and will not acquire independently. Using explicit instruction to ensure students know this stuff is common sense. No doubt many will stand in opposition to it, perhaps making up lies about how it will crush the joy of learning and marginalise play, but for me, it is very clear that explicit instruction is a winner for kids, and that’s why I support it.