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.


What are decodable texts and why are they important?

Note: decodable texts, decodable readers, phonics books, phonics readers all refer to the same thing and are used interchangeably. I’ve chosen to use the term ‘decodable texts’ 🙂

Australian teachers are going to start to hear a lot about decodable texts. Systems are beginning to acknowledge the importance of phonics in initial reading instruction (here and here) and the federal government is pushing for a phonics check. A new focus on phonics will mean new professional learning and resources for teachers to accommodate a phonics-based approach.

Decodable texts are a crucial resource for a phonics-based approach. It’s a type of text used at the beginning of reading instruction that carefully incorporates words that are consistent with the letters and corresponding phonemes that have been taught. The books are intended to allow students to use their phonic knowledge to decode new words as opposed to using other strategies derived from context.

Decodable text is compatible with a model of reading called the Simple View of Reading. The problem is, it is currently not the model widely used in schools. Instead, the 3 Cueing System (3CS) takes pride of place in education circles. Schools that use the 3CS use a different type of reader known as predictable text. It’s worth discussing the flaws in the 3CS and its accompanying predictable text to understand why changing to phonics-based approach with supporting decodable text is desirable and necessary if we want all kids to successfully learn to read.

3 Cueing System and Predictable Text

The 3CS is derived from Whole Language, a discredited theory of how students come to read, although its exact origin is very shady. This is the model of reading taught in Australian universities (I don’t know one that does not) as part of a ‘balanced approach’ to reading instruction.

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It poses that students draw on 3 cues – semantic, syntactic and graphophonic – to make meaning (to comprehend). Students are supposed to use their phonic knowledge (graphophonic is pretty much a made-up word meaning phonics) in conjunction with contextual clues (semantic and syntactic) to decode text. The approach has been heavily criticised and completely debunked by reading researchers as a viable model for how students come to read. The use of context, as encouraged by the 3CS, has actually been proven to be a habit of poor readers. Good readers, in contrast, pay extreme care to the letters and the sounds they represent (see here).

The 3CS is the model that rationalises predictable text. Predictable text is, well, designed to be predictable so that students can draw on all 3 cues while reading. They give multiple repetitions of words and phrases so that students memorise the text. Pictures are also used as a clue (a context cue) to help predict words. Here is a made-up example of what a predictable reader I’ve titled We Have Fun looks like in the beginning stages of learning to read:

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Pages typically continue on in this manner. The next two pages of We Have Fun would have the same sentence with the noun and picture changed to a different place, like a beach (”We have fun at the beach”). The transcript of We Have Fun looks like this:

We have fun at the park.
We have fun at the beach.
We have fun at the shops.
We have fun at Gran’s house.
We have fun at home.
We always have lots of fun!

The problem with predictable text is easy to analyse. The repetitive and predictable elements of the text give off the illusion that children are reading when they are not. After a couple of pages of repetitive text, a student can easily predict and ‘read’ the sentence without even looking at the text by catching on to ‘we have fun at’ and simply looking to the picture to fill in the rest (the rationale being that they are using ‘context’).

The most damning element of predictable texts is the structure of the words included. Let’s analyse the text’s letter-sound correspondences and structure:

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If we acknowledge that this type of text is given to students in their first weeks of schooling, it is very easy to tell that the complexity in structure and the number and type of letter-sound correspondences will be overwhelming and inaccessible to almost all early readers. There are polysyllabic words and digraphs in this text, which isn’t appropriate in the early stages of learning to read.

Indeed, it is this sort of approach to learning to read that ends in disaster for a large number of children, some of whom may even leave primary school not knowing all the basic letter-sound correspondences. They learn to rely on context, and that strategy falls apart very quickly – like a house built on sand.

The Simple View of Reading

Despite near consensus levels of acceptance amongst reading researchers, many Australian educators do not know about The Simple View of Reading. It is a formula based on the widely accepted view that reading comprehension (RC) is the product of decoding skill (D) multiplied by language comprehension (LC). This is the model of reading which is most compatible with a phonics-based approach to reading instruction.

Decoding (D) x Language Comprehension (LC) = Reading Comprehension (RC)

A student’s RC can be predicted if LC and D are known. If a student has a deficit in either LC or D, then reading comprehension will be affected. Most students on entry to school are deficient in decoding skill so phonics-based programs work to strengthen that component. Once decoding skill is sufficiently developed, a student’s reading comprehension is predicted by their language comprehension (hence why an emphasis on vocabulary and oral language skills is also a key component of a phonics-based approach). The key thing to note here is that decoding and language comprehension are two separate processes requiring separate assessment and teaching practices. That’s why teachers using this model of reading teach phonics in isolation as it targets the separate process of decoding.

The Simple View of Reading acknowledges that students must pay close attention to letters and the sounds they represent in order to read (because that’s what good readers do). There is no guessing; no use of context to predict words. This means that predictable text is incompatible with this approach to reading instruction. Rather than using predictable text, decodable text is used so that students can practice their decoding skills in incremental levels as letter-sound correspondences are introduced.

Let’s look at an example. A new student taught under a phonics-based approach will learn a set of letter-sound correspondences pretty quickly. In a typical phonics program, students are taught to blend (s-a-t = sat; p-i-n = pin) and segment (sat = s-a-t; pin = p-i-n) the sounds to a reasonable level of fluency. Once an acceptable level of fluency is reached, the student will then receive a decodable text reader in order to practice their new skills. The reader the student will receive will only contain the graphemes they have been taught along with a few words explicitly taught on the side (e.g. the). This means that instead of being bombarded with the wholly unreadable We Have Fun, the student will receive a text like Bun in the Sun.

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No repetition, no predictability and definitely no guessing is needed to read the text. Notice how, unlike We Have Fun, the word structure is restricted to CV, VC and CVC monosyllabic words and no digraphs or other untaught letter-sound correspondences are included. The pictures give little away, too; the student actually has to read the text in order to work out what it says and is able to do this because it is tailored to what they have learnt. As you can see, Bun in the Sun is far less complex and therefore far more accessible to an early reader. A new student will not become overwhelmed with a book like Bun in the Sun like they will with We Have Fun.

So there you have it. Decodable texts are important because they match a student’s level of expertise. There is no guessing when we decide to teach them how to decode text properly. Like I said, with current developments, don’t be surprised to hear more about decodable text in the coming years. They are a very important part of learning to read, especially for the students at risk of failure.


Intellectual Tribalism

Steven Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. He has just written a new book titled Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress which I cannot wait to get my hands on. He recently appeared on Joe Rogan’s podcast to promote his new book and discuss other related issues. It’s always fascinating to listen to amazing minds in a popular format because it enables a unique form of discussion that is less formal in nature allowing participants to touch on popular issues in society.

Pinker acknowledged that there is bias towards socialist ideas in academia and open discussion about alternative ideologies is somewhat taboo. He explains that the socialist blank slate, no competition ideal has some history as partly a reaction to the hardcore competitive line of social Darwinism. Naturally, the best system lies somewhere in between, balancing socialist and capitalist elements to take advantage of our drive for progress and recognition while ensuring we do not forsake the less fortunate. The problem with making opposing views to socialism taboo in intellectual discussions is that it forces people into an either-or scenario where people begin to take sides and polarity between viewpoints grows. Pinker explains that as the polarity between viewpoints grows, intellectual tribalism begins to manifest and academics (as well as people more generally) tend to reject ideas that do not align with their team’s views and accept and seek out ideas that do, making open discussion even more taboo. It’s confirmation bias layered on confirmation bias to the point where people on both sides of an intellectual discussion fall blind to the other side’s ideas. People begin to fall into the trap of adopting opinions as loyalty badges, rather than objectively assessing ideas. Pinker suggests that this is why people deny climate change (an undeniable truth at this point) – not because they are stupid or uninformed, but because that’s the stance of their ‘side’.

It’s true that sometimes people do not care about what is true as much as they care about what belief will bring them esteem in their peer group. I am not immune to this – yesterday, after publishing my arguments against open-plan classrooms, I reflected on why I took this stance knowing that there is no convincing body of objective evidence reporting open-plan classrooms lower achievement. Although my arguments are definitely informed by some objective truths which have merit (open-plan classrooms are detrimentally noisy and encourage weaker pedagogy), my decision to oppose open-plan classrooms is largely informed by my own agenda, which is heavily influenced by traditionalism, a ‘team’ I align with much more than progressivism. This does not mean I am wrong to take a particular view or ‘side’ on this matter, but it does mean I need to be aware of intellectual tribalism; I need to stay open to alternative ideas and reject blind debate that maintains my loyalty badge.

I obviously do not align completely with the ideas of traditionalist education, but it is nevertheless important to acknowledge which side I align with most in order to evaluate my own bias in any situation so I can reach as far an objective stance as possible (not an easy thing to do). I think this is important for everyone to do. It is clear to everyone who reads my blogs and tweets that I have an agenda. That agenda is informed by evidence and objectivity, but I would be a fool not to recognise that my views are skewed by my beliefs. This isn’t a problem most of the time – there is a lot of grey between right and wrong – but it does become a problem when you lose objectivity when things are much more black and white.

There are indeed black and white areas in education people routinely dismiss because of their bias. Gregory Yates, a senior lecturer in the School of Education of the University of South Australia, wrote a fantastic paper on how research findings often appear falsely to possess the quality of being “obvious” and are rejected on this basis. Yates explains that findings from teacher effectiveness research have always been met with criticism – positive and negative – by pre- and in-service teachers despite the findings being beyond doubt. They often claim that the findings are just far too obvious. But the findings are not obvious at all: pre- and in-service teachers largely overlook the elements of teacher effectiveness when asked to recall them blindly. Yates explains that a myriad of biases cause us to easily dismiss the findings of teacher effectiveness research rather than look at them very carefully. It’s a great example of how what we believe can make us blind to important truths.

We are riddled with biases that cause us to lose objectivity and blind us from the truth. That’s why Yates observed so many dismiss the crucial information from teacher effectiveness research in search of something shinier. If we do not acknowledge what we are biased towards, we go in blind, looking for things that we want to be true, rather than what actually is true. That’s why some right-wingers tend to deny climate science in favour of conspiracy theories. It’s why some progressives reject explicit models in favour of discovery learning models, too. Pinker’s notion of intellectual tribalism reminds us that we most often need to step back and evaluate our own beliefs before pursuing truth out in the world. I wonder how different things would be if we were wise enough to do such a thing?




Open plan classrooms are nothing new and are probably a bad idea

Open plan classrooms are on the rise in Australia, but this is by no means a new trendy idea. Although open-plan classrooms are experiencing a new wave of popularity, they have been used extensively in the past. They first became popular some 60 years ago following progressive educational reform movements in the 50s and 60s. Didactics were slowly becoming old-fashioned – notably being associated with authoritarianism – in favour of new, child-centred pedagogies. The classrooms were meant to reflect this new approach. By the 70’s, 10% of classes in England were open-plan, and 50% of new school builds in the United States were open- or semi-open plan. It would be foolish to believe the current wave of open plan classrooms, and its associated child-centred approach, is something for the 21st century – it’s been a thing for a long time and they may not be all they’re cracked up to be.

There is no convincing evidence that open-plan classrooms work to raise achievement, nor is there any convincing evidence that they work to lower achievement (it’s probably too hard to establish cause and effect). However, one could easily make a case against them despite a gap in clear research evidence. Research has investigated a number of factors, but the main issue raised has always been excessive noise and the distractions and speech perception problems that noise imposes. In a recent study, up to 70% of children surveyed reported not being able to hear their teacher very well. Students also reported being annoyed when hard of hearing, especially in open plan classrooms with small distances between classes working with different teachers. In the same study, teachers in larger open plan classrooms reported being more often distracted by noise and found speech communication much more difficult.

Surveys are great, but what of objective measures? Well, Mealings has summarised her research and given a pretty dim picture of speech perception in open-plan classrooms. In quieter, closed classrooms, students scored consistently high on speech perception – about 80% on the study’s measure. This was true for children sitting at the back and at the front of the classroom. However, students in noisier open-plan classrooms sitting at the back of the room scored a dismal 25% on speech perception. Scores so low are ‘concerning’ in Mealings’s own words, and I tend to agree. How can we expect students to learn when they cannot hear?

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The study concludes that “the noise levels from adjacent classes in the open plan classrooms tested are excessive and significantly reduce the children’s ability to hear and comprehend their teacher. The high noise levels also adversely impact the teachers…” This shows that there may be a wide divide between what some teachers, administrators and education gurus dream to be good learning environments and what actually is conducive to learning. Moving into environments where students find it more difficult to hear their teachers seems very counterintuitive.

Open-plan classrooms and the student-centred pedagogy it promotes also align very poorly with information on teacher effectiveness.  Open-plan classrooms are an attempt to move away from teacher-led instruction. They are designed to create a more student-centred learning climate where experiential learning, group work and personalisation are emphasised. The teacher no longer takes the traditional role of teacher of knowledge and skills, but that of guide-on-the-side – a facilitator of learning. The student-centred teaching practices manifest themselves in inquiry-based learning models, notably the very trendy project-based learning method.

Advocates rationalise the shift on the premise of a changing world where soft skills are going to be paramount and knowledge obsolete. It is thought that by creating an environment where students can be free to collaborate, think critically and create, they will be ready for future endeavours in the ever-changing 21st century. These advocates make the mistake of believing that engaging students in performing soft skills like critical thinking, collaboration and creativity will increase their ability to perform these skills across domains. This is a mistake because we know that performing these skills depends heavily on knowledge of a specific domain. You cannot think critically, work collaboratively or invent creatively in a domain you know nothing about. Diving head-first into a unit of inquiry or project based on the false premise that this will help develop soft-skills will likely end in less learning for time spent because these models fail to acknowledge the knowledge needed to perform these skills in any domain. The open-plan classroom encourages this kind of approach despite this.

The teacher teaching from the front of a four-walled classroom implementing a core set of principles, a model often referred to as explicit or direct instruction, has been proven to work because it is a highly efficient way of ensuring students gain the knowledge they need. That’s why the traditional role of teacher of knowledge and skills has been an enduring one. Open-plan classrooms do not encourage implementation of this core set of principles. It seems quite odd to me that we would wish to shift the teacher-student-four-wall-classroom paradigm on false premises when we have data showing us it is such an effective model for what we wish to achieve. The key question is whether or not we want our teachers to build on what we know works already, or whether we want them to strive to try and get a different approach to work despite what we know. If you wish to take an evidence-based perspective, the decision is pretty obvious.

I’ve only highlighted 2 key problems with an open-plan approach (noise and bad pedagogy), yet I am sure there are many more arguments against them. My advice to teachers is to think carefully about what you are trying to achieve in these classrooms. They are probably a bad idea, at least that’s what some have figured out in hindsight. Tread carefully.