Critical Mass

In social dynamics, critical mass is a sufficient number of adopters of an innovation in a social system so that the rate of adoption becomes self-sustaining and creates further growth. The term is borrowed from nuclear physics and in that field it refers to the amount of a substance needed to sustain a chain reaction. (Wikipedia)

The sun came to say hello and then disappeared as quick as a lid on a new whiteboard marker, but that didn’t stop 300 educators lapping up the good vibes at Marsden Road Public School’s edition of Sharing Best Practice 2019. I personally enjoyed meeting a bunch of people I feel like I’d known for a long time but had never met in person (special mention to Rachel, who got stuck with me for a long while). I also enjoyed meeting quite a few brand new faces that are also interested in evidenced-based ideas and school improvement. Thanks to all who came and said hello to me.

It was great to be around like-minded educators. As Stephen Dinham said in his presentation, there are a lot of wacky and weird ideas in education on the scale that you do not typically see in other fields. This means that there are diverse philosophies floating around in schools. It can be hard to find people that are interested in what you are interested in. Sharing Best Practice provides the chance to mingle with like-minded people. And if you ask me, 300 people showing up during the holidays to talk about evidence-based education is very encouraging.

The workshops and keynotes I attended were all fantastic and firmly grounded in evidence. There was a diverse mix of school leaders, teachers, speech pathologists and researchers presenting – all people passionate about sharing what they know to improve things for students. I particularly liked hearing teachers speak. The teachers I saw had a natural flare about them (well, they do this sort of thing daily) and I think it is important for teachers to have the confidence to share what they know. After all, we are the ones right at the coalface. We need to be partners in creating change.

During the Q&A, which took place at the end of the day, many of the questions asked of the panel had the same ring to them: how do we spread evidence-based ideas and instigate real change? I thought the responses from the panellists were spot on. Although progress, arguably, has been slow, there is no doubt progress has been made. The conference is a testament to that. The only thing we can do is keep talking about good ideas – keep banging the drum. Eventually, we will reach a ‘critical mass’ of educators that are working with an evidence-based mindset. At that point, change will become more rapid. It is important we reach that critical mass.

What are the barriers to reaching a critical mass? Jennifer Buckingham addressed some of the barriers to change in early reading instruction, and I think they apply to evidence-based approaches generally. She highlighted initial teacher education as a very real barrier. Buckingham’s research into what is being promoted in ITE is damning. Hardly any courses promote robust ideas like systematic synthetic phonics, and some of the textbooks prescribed even denounce it as a worthwhile approach. I’d also like to add that school leaders are also a major barrier to reaching a critical mass. Well, they are not so much a barrier as a gateway to real change. As noted in the keynotes, many schools are actually ahead of the game (governments, universities) when it comes to implementing effective, evidence-based approaches. Schools that have experienced moderate or great success – West Beechboro, Blue Haven, Marsden Road – all have leaders advocating strongly for better approaches. Leaders steer the ship. The more leaders steering their boats in the right direction, the closer we will get to achieving a critical mass because, by definition, others will follow.

Special thanks to the staff at Marsden Road for making it all possible. I’ve been buzzing about it for a good 24 hours now and probably won’t stop until we get back to school!



Spreading Good Ideas

Education falls victim to a lot of misinformation. Phonics has been demonised for a very long time and the role of knowledge in the learning process has been suppressed. Some teachers have been forced to adopt ideas and practices that are obsolete – told to sit back and let the students figure things out instead of taking the reins. Misinformation has lead to some pretty dodgy pseudoscientific ideas, too (learning styles anyone?). It is an ongoing problem, but there are many organisations and individuals working like mad to change things. The NSW Department of Education is certainly helping the cause of late. June-July 2019 has brought us a few very important reads from the Department that help clear things up around the misconceived ‘general capabilites’, a notorious victim of misinformation and ill-conceived ideas.

General capabilities are thought of as generic, transferable skills included in the revised Australian Curriculum following the 2008 Melbourne Declaration. Gonski 2.0, a recent report on the future direction of education in Australia, recommended systems ‘strengthen the development of the general capabilities.’ Critics have stressed that the problem with the capabilities is that they are not at all general and that naming them general capabilities may lead to a lot of misinformation and bad practice.

The NSW Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (CESE) has sought to dispel some of the misinformation through the lessons to be learnt from cognitive science. Under the subtitle How general are they? They write:

Perhaps the most confusing term used to describe these capabilities is general. The Australian Curriculum, for example, uses the term ‘general capabilities’ to refer to the ‘knowledge, skills, behaviours and dispositions that will assist students to live and work successfully in the 21st Century (Australian Curriculum n.d.). As will be discussed below, however, evidence from cognitive science suggests that these capabilities cannot be considered general or transferable across knowledge domains (Tricit &Sweller 2014; Willingham 2017). Rather, evidence indicates that such capabilities are actually highly specific to particular areas of knowledge.”

A major issue with the talk about general capabilities is that they are often proposed as alternatives to a more traditional, knowledge-based focus through subject disciplines. And this ill-informed argument, I argue, leads to some pretty dodgy practices in schools. Teachers are all too familiar with the Daisy Christodoulou’s third myth: the twenty-first century fundamentally changes everything. This is the driving force behind the promotion of the general capabilities as a genuine alternative to traditional schooling. With the arrival of the internet, many argue that knowledge acquisition is no longer important, and that students’ ability to be capable seeking out and using information in diverse settings is much more important. The lessons we learn from cognitive science tell a very different story.

Daniel Willingham, a well-respected cognitive scientist whose work focuses on K-16 education, has written for Education: Future Frontier, another initiative of the NSW Department of Education, about how one of the general capabilities – critical thinking – should be taught in schools. In this paper, Willingham challenges the idea that this very important general capability is general at all. He argues that it should not be approached in a general sense. He cites the seminal work done by Simon on Chess expertise, which concludes that a master Chess player’s ability to think critically about a Chess position is inextricably linked to the knowledge they have of Chess positions – knowledge novices do not possess.

This conclusion, that your ability to think critically about a topic is dependent on your knowledge of the topic, has far-reaching implications. In terms of evaluating an argument, an important academic skill, Willingham writes:

“This point is rather obvious in the case of a critical thinking skill like evaluating an argument: abstract principles like “look for hidden assumptions” won’t help much in sizing up an op-ed about the war in Afghanistan if you know very little about the topic. Never mind evaluating the topic in the op-ed, if you lack background knowledge of the topic, ample evidence from the last 40 years indicates you will not comprehend the author’s claims in the first place (Willingham, 2017). That is because writers (and speakers) omit information they assume their audience already knows. For example, a writer might warn that the US could “find itself in the Soviet role in this long-standing war,” assuming that the reader knows that the Soviet Union fought a costly, unsuccessful war there in the 1980s.”

The lesson to be learnt from cognitive science is that you cannot teach a skill like critical thinking in a general sense because it is not a general skill. This has important implications for curriculum design and delivery. Developing novel tasks independent of the subject domain to teach critical thinking is likely to be ineffective. Yet it happens. As a very broad example, inquiry-learning models are of course an important part of any learning process, but to teach full ‘units of inquiry’ (sometimes interdisciplinary) to target general capabilities like critical thinking is misconceived. The conclusion from cognitive science is to not treat skills as generic in nature, but in terms of the role they play in specific knowledge domains.

Explicit instruction, although used widely across the world, isn’t considered a good model of pedagogy to promote general capabilities. Yet from what we have learnt from cognitive science, this is a misconception: learning content in a structured way lends itself to knowledge acquisition, which will help students use the capabilities within that domain. In terms of critical thinking, Willingham suggests a four-step plan to teach this capability:

  1. identify what is meant by critical thinking in each domain (and be specific about the tasks students must do to demonstrate it)
  2. Identify the domain content that students must know
  3. Select the best sequence in which to learn the knowledge and skills
  4. Decide which skills should be revisited across time

The effect of dispelling misinformation and embracing the logical conclusions of cognitive science could have a direct, lasting impact on schools and the results they achieve for their students. In the last publication to be produced in July 2019 by the NSW Department of Education, NSW CESE delivers a case study of Blue Haven Public School. This is my favourite of the three reads because it truly celebrates the success this school is having by embracing good ideas in education and by rejecting the anti-intellectualism that pervades.

Between 2016 and 2018, Blue Haven experienced rapid growth in student academic performance in large part due to the adoption of explicit instruction as the core approach to teaching and learning. There teaching practice is informed by the findings of cognitive science such as Cognitive Load Theory. The general capabilities are no doubt taught within the subject domain as supported by the findings of cognitive science outlined in the publications mentioned above. I love hearing about schools delivering such outstanding results because it is real. The numbers have a real impact on real students.

The reading list at the end of the article, hand-chosen by the staff of BHPS, is an amazing example of how engaged the school is with good ideas in education. I strongly encourage everyone to read at least some of it to become better informed. Being better informed will allows us teachers to dispel the misinformation and move towards what we all want to achieve: better results for our kids.

I applaud the Department’s efforts to spread evidence and good ideas. To the faceless individuals behind this work I say: please keep going!

Losing sight of what is important

John Hattie is famous for saying we focus on the wrong things in education. I agree. There are so many aspects of a school that it is very easy to get lost in it all.

There is a lot of pressure to get right what does not matter much. This is because what tends to matter is hard to see and what is easy to see tends not to matter. It is hard to see solid progress in the things that matter in a school because the effects tend to be cumulative over time. It takes a lot of time to develop and implement a solid curriculum; it takes even more time to learn how to teach it well. It’s hard to measure the impact of that sort of change and it takes extraordinary time and effort to make it happen.

Teachers are going to have a hard time changing things that matter if they are focussing on the things that don’t matter much:

“The year 4 teacher at Epping Public School says she generally spends the first two weeks of term decorating her room to create a “warm and safe” space for her class.”

“In the beginning of my career I was in my classroom in the holidays for hours and hours,” she says. “I would bring my boyfriend and even my dog into the classroom because we would stay there the whole day: doing laminating, putting furniture together.”

Spending two weeks on how the classroom looks is a waste of time on the things that don’t matter much at the expense of the things that do matter. John Hattie’s going to have to shout a little louder.

Returning to Australia

This blog has been inactive for a while because I have been living in the Netherlands since January and have not felt the need to comment on Australian education matters from afar. I was lucky enough to secure a position in an international school in March and have enjoyed working at the school ever since. It’s been an enjoyable experience. Europe is a special place and international school children are quite unique (in a good way, of course). Alas, I will return to Australia in January and happily re-enter an Australian classroom to teach Australian kids. This will also likely flag my return to regular writing.

My experience has reaffirmed much of my personal beliefs and educational philosophy. I will continue to advocate strongly for better phonics teaching, strong teacher-led instruction, improved behaviour and a more rigorous, knowledge-based curriculum for the betterment of all children. I’ve seen the positive effects all four have had while teaching away, and I look forward to further promoting improvements in these areas, as well as improving my own application of them.

I still feel the need to voice my opinion on Australian education. It’s a fun hobby, but it is also important teachers talk/debate/discuss/reason about what’s happening. Australian education seems even more confused following the release of Gonski 2.0.. A directionless and platitudinous report, it left everyone scratching their heads wondering what the point of the endeavour was in the first place. Recent debates and discussions (here and here) indicate that people within the world of Australian education still, and perhaps forever will, have very different ideas on how education should look and what it should achieve in our society. I am all the time (and especially since working in a highly autonomous school overseas) leaning more and more towards letting people decide the direction they take on a local level – schools and teachers making decisions in consultation with each other and their community – rather than giving wind to pompous reports and fancy institutes. The only way we can achieve this is by seizing the narrative, putting our ideas into action, and turning away from the will of the powers that be while still listening carefully to criticism.


Some notes from A Basic Guide to Phonological Awareness

I recently picked up this book very cheaply on Amazon and have been blown away its clarity. It is succinct enough to easily read within a couple of days, yet jam-packed with information that will keep you learning for weeks.

Screen Shot 2018-05-15 at 7.05.56 am.png

I particularly like Chapter 1: What Phonological Awareness Is and Why It Is Important in Reading. I think that this short chapter is a fantastic introduction to phonological awareness and its role in reading, so I decided to take some notes and share them here so that teachers (new teachers particularly) can clarify their understanding of this important concept.

Naturally, I highly recommend the book. You can find it here.



What is phonological awareness?

One must first understand the concept of a phoneme. A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a language that makes a difference to its meaning.

It is possible to acquire language without explicit knowledge of phonemes; however, because phonemes are represented by letters in print, we need to know and understand them in order to read.

Phonological awareness defined

Phonological awareness is one’s sensitivity to, or explicit awareness of, the phonological structure of speech in one’s language. It involves the ability to notice, think about, or manipulate the sounds in words. Phonemic awareness is a subset of phonological awareness and is the ability to notice, think about or manipulate individual speech sounds in words.

It is an oral language skill.

Phonological awareness is a broader, encompassing term, and can be used when referring to all levels of awareness of the phonological structure of words. Phonemic awareness refers to tasks or activities that focus solely on the individual phonemes in words.

Measures of phonemic awareness are more predictable of reading growth.

How phonological and phonemic awareness develops

An early sign of emerging sensitivity to the phonological structure of language is the ability to play and enjoy rhyming games and participate in wordplay.

Acquiring phonemic awareness involves learning two things:
1) It involves learning that words can be segmented into parts of speech smaller than a syllable.
2) It involves learning about the individual phonemes themselves

Why is it important?

PA is important because it is necessary for understanding how words in our language are represented in print. This is because words are represented at the level of the phoneme.

Two main challenges face early readers:
1) Individual phonemes are not readily apparent as individual speech sounds in spoken words. They are part of a speech stream, making them hard to discern
2) There is not always a one-to-one correspondence between graphemes and phonemes

Despite the challenges, we know that children who quickly understand the graph-phon relationship, and who learn to use this relationship to decipher words, invariably become better readers in the long run (Share & Stanovich, 1995).

Phonemic awareness has its primary impact on reading growth through its primary impact on children’s ability to phonemically decode words. This is a critical step along the path to fluent reading.

The normal development course for PA

Children who fall far behind the normal rate of development will be at risk of reading failure

Note: data is pre-2000. Check new sources for a refined developmental sequence

Benchmarks of normal development in phonological awareness
Grade Level Average Child’s Ability
Beginning Kindergarten Can tell whether two words rhyme
Can generate a rhyme for a simple word (cat)
Or can easily be taught to do these tasks
End of Kindergarten Can isolate and pronounce the beginning sound in a word (/n/ in nose)
Can blend the sounds in two phoneme words
Midway through First Grade Can isolate and pronounce all the sounds in two- and three-phoneme words
Can blend the sounds in four-phoneme words containing initial consonant blends
End of First Grade Can isolate and pronounce the sounds in four-phoneme words containing initial blends

Can blend the sounds in four- and five-phoneme words containing initial and final blends

What causes developmental differences amongst children?

There is substantial variability amongst children when they enter Kindergarten, and this continues to grow with their relative responsiveness to instruction through the year.

Two broad factors contribute to variability:

  1. Genetics
  2. Linguistic experiences pre-school

About half the variability in linguistic skill is inherited, but phonological processing can vary quite independently from other areas of intellectual disability. It is possible to be above average in general intelligence while being deficient in the ability to acquire phonological awareness.

Knowledge of nursery rhymes correlates strongly with early PA. Early experience with nursery rhymes can help children to begin to think about the phonological structure of words. More broadly, students who are exposed to literacy related activities – exposure to letters and their names, readings – show more advanced PA upon school entry.

After children enter school, the growth of PA depends on what the child is taught and on how the child responds to instruction (how ready they are). PA therefore is both a cause and consequence in differences amongst children in their rate of learning to read.

Direct Instruction and PA

Research shows that it is possible to stimulate growth in PA through explicit instruction. Further, research has also shown that the effectiveness of oral language training is significantly improved when the tasks are linked directly to simple reading and spelling tasks. Stimulation of PA should never be an isolated instructional end in itself. It should be combined with explicit, systematic phonics instruction.

PA activities must draw the children’s attention to individual phonemes in words – not just syllables, rhyme etc. 

It is likely that classroom-based instruction will not be enough to remediate the most severe reading disabilities in children with serious PA deficiencies. More intensive, extensive and detailed explicit instruction is necessary to achieve the required level of PA for these children.

Gonski 2.0: The good, bad and very ugly

The much anticipated Gonski 2.0 report has finally dropped and criticism has come in thick and fast. The report comes on the back of the Review to Achieve Educational Excellence in Australian Schools established by the Federal Government in July 2017 to provide advice on how to improve student achievement and school performance. It’s a big report sure to create waves in all education sectors in Australia and, just to be clear, I am not impressed with its recommendations. Here are the need-to-knows and my take on some of the report’s recommendations.

GONSKI 2.0 – Key Priorities

Commissioned to inform the government on future policy and funding arrangements, the report highlights 3 priority areas and 23 recommendations split into 5 areas of recommendation to support the achievement of the 3 priorities. The 3 priorities are:

Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 2.59.23 pm

Priority 1 is Hattie’s punch line, which has been part of his push for a more evidence-informed teaching profession for a number of years. For what it is worth, I have no problems with the priority as much as the methods recommended for achieving the priority. What’s more, it strikes me as a rather obvious priority, at least from my perspective as a teacher, anyway.

My impression of priorities 2 and 3 is that they are nothing new, rather vague and definitely of a more progressive educational bent. Creative, connected, engaged, adaptive, innovative – these are all well-known progressive education buzzwords that provide very little direction for hardworking teachers who wish to increase the life-chances of their students. Further, the push to fundamentally change the education system and the education students receive has been a big political talking point amongst those of a more progressive inclination for a number of years now. These priorities seem to favour this view.

GONSKI 2.0 – Recommendations

The 23 recommendations to support achievement of the priorities are organised into 5 fairly predictable recommendation areas:
Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 4.07.55 pm

The recommendation areas are predictable because they are already well-known areas of importance in discussions around raising student achievement. For example, educationalists have reached a consensus on the importance of recommendation area 3, and the New South Wales Ed Dept has already taken steps towards strengthening recommendation area 1. This is also true of the Australian Government with their push for Year 1 literacy and numeracy checks.

The Good

Recommendations related to better access and provision during the preschool years (recommendation 1) and better induction for preservice teachers (recommendation 14) are steps in the right direction. Many students come to school with poor language skills and are overcome by an irreversibly massive language gap. Providing better access and provision in the early years will help ensure kids are ready to access the school curriculum.

I’ve long been critical of preservice education and its disconnect with reality in the classroom. A structured program for transition into the classroom can only help, so long as teachers are involved. Many teachers will be very keen to involve themselves in helping new teachers become the best they can be. Schools that do this well will find success.

The Bad and The Ugly

Overall, the recommendations sorted into these 5 areas aren’t very informative and favour a progressive shift that is not based on any solid evidence. Most of the recommendations are obvious recommendations and do not include any clear, evidence-based directions systems, schools and teachers should take to enhance the quality of the education they provide. Furthermore, the recommendations are progressive in nature and make very bold, unsubstantiated claims about growth mindset, student choice, the need for extreme forms of differentiation, and personalised learning.

Recommendations 2, 3 and 8 emphasise the need for parent/carer, student and community engagement respectively, but do not provide any clear, evidence-based guidelines on how to improve on what schools are already doing to engage stakeholders in student learning. Bafflingly, the report seems to attribute differences in school-readiness and initial achievement to the work of a parent in instilling a growth mindset in the child, this being written while a very large study on growth mindset highlighted the very small positive effects of growth mindset interventions. The report also recommends the very vague idea of giving students a ‘voice’ and hints at more choice; however, a discussion on some of the evidence in this area is missing, which makes it hard for me to take the recommendation seriously. Teachers have been experimenting with student choice for a long time, and there are solid arguments against this practice. Why weren’t they included?

A renewed focus on general capabilities, including critical and creative thinking, is also recommended, this despite there being zero evidence that critical and creative thinking are at all general. They are, in fact, highly constrained to the domain in which a person must think critically or creatively. Just because you can think critically about the best way to attack the enemy in Call of Duty does not mean you can think critically about the reasons for the French Revolution. It is not a general skill, but the report does not acknowledge that.

Recommendations 9-15 for recommendation area 3 are particularly concerning for me as they relate directly to classroom practice. The report acknowledges the key role teachers play in student achievement, yet fails to realise that the fastest way to ensure a dip in student achievement and/or a mass exodus of teachers out of the profession is to move teachers away from their expertise. That’s what the report recommends here, calling for a shift away from “a 20th-century model” of education to a renewed focus on personalised learning for the 21st century:

“Shifting to an education model focused on attainment through maximising the learning growth of every student every year requires teachers to embrace changes to their planning, teaching and assessment practice. For example, they need to understand individual students’ starting points; create multi-streamed, differentiated lesson plans for each class; adjust their pedagogy to the different needs of individual students based on evidence about the most effective interventions; seek and act upon feedback from students and provide more nuanced reporting on assessments of students’ performance and the next steps in their learning; ensure their growth in learning is appropriate given the student’s potential; and identify ‘flight paths’ for where the student needs to be to maximise learning growth each year.” (my emphasis)

This is not the same as calling for teachers to get better year-on-year. There is a distinct difference between developing expertise and changing expertise altogether. It’s not a good idea to move teachers away from their expertise. How can we expect teachers to get better if we expect them to do that?


Perhaps what is most awful about this report is what is not included. No mention of direct instruction; no mention of the need for better phonics provision; no mention of the fundamental role knowledge plays in reading development and academic success. These are all key areas of debate that have been completely left out of the report in favour of vague, utopian progressive ideas.

Teachers better brace themselves for a rocky few years, it’s about to get weird.




3 Things Preservice Training Should Focus On

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

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

Focus on universal elements of instruction

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

Consider the first principle:

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

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

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

Focus on building content and pedagogical content knowledge

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

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

Screen Shot 2018-04-04 at 5.13.47 pm.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flipped learning is the wrong focus for preservice teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaching Internationally

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

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

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

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

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

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


Commentary on B. Doxtdator’s reply

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

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

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

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

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

On Martin Luther King

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

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

Black poverty and affirmative action

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

This trend is also seen in other liberal western democracies.

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

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

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

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

The Golden State posters

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

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