Changing my mind on AITSL’s certification process

I am no longer a new teacher. I realised this was the case upon my return to class this year. Previously, a return after the summer break was difficult. I was nervous and a little stressed about what was to come – a completely normal reaction for a new teacher (lack of experience will do that to you). I did not have the same experience this year. This year, my fifth year of teaching, I feel calm and in control. Every year, I knew what I was doing – I wasn’t lost in the madness – but this year I really know what I am doing. My experience is really starting to show. It made me realise that I am no longer a new teacher.

I’ve now reached a different career stage. I am competent and confident in what I am doing, enough to make consistently good decisions and give advice on a range of instruction-related topics. I can anticipate potential problems and not second-guess myself while implementing effective solutions. I no longer need to keep reminding myself to act in a certain way or do certain things in the classroom – it all comes quite naturally. It seems I’ve entered some kind of middle-career stage, albeit at the very early entry point of it.

This has got me thinking about what I am to do in the future. For now, I am very much engaged in my work. I’m still excited about what I’m doing. Classroom teaching is complex and I still have much to work on to make incremental gains in my effectiveness; however, I know that eventually, I will need to do more to keep myself engaged. I don’t think that’s too far off if I’m completely honest.

Systems within Australia continue to grow due to population increases, and many older educators are due to retire soon, leaving many opportunities for career progression in leadership and administrative roles. From what I have heard and seen, it is not so hard to advance to an administration role. There are teachers with 2 or 3 years of teaching experience picking up AP roles. That’s great if you’re keen on administration, but what if you’re not? What if you want to stay in the classroom?

Currently, all systems except Victoria have signed up to Highly Accomplished and Lead (HALT) teacher certification through AITSL. This is treated as the option teachers who would like to stay in the classroom have for career progression. I have written about the problems I have with HALT certification, and although I still stand by my criticisms, I have changed my mind on what it is trying to achieve and what it can achieve for effective teachers.

In 2017, when I wrote that blog, I did not think HALT certification was a good idea (for the reasons outlined in the blog). However, upon chatting with colleagues and loved ones about my concerns and my thoughts about where my career could go in the future, I now believe the certification process is important. It has its flaws, but without it, there is no other good alternative to AP roles that ensures career progression whilst simultaneously allowing teachers to stay in the classroom. I don’t think I want to go into school administration, so what would I prefer: a system that does not have any certification process that raises a teacher’s pay, status and responsibilities, or one that does, even if it does have some flaws?

The certification has the potential to keep good teachers in the classroom for a longer period of time. Without it, I foresee ambitious and highly motivated teachers taking on administrative roles even if they’d prefer not to, for this would be the only way to increase one’s pay, status and influence in the system. I did not have the knowledge or experience to consider this early on in my career. With experience, my perspective has changed.

Will I take on HALT certification in the future? I don’t know, but I am happy that it is there as an option despite its flaws.

English and Mathematics Daily Review

English and Mathematics daily reviews (henceforth titled Daily Review) are quick, snappy sessions of previously taught content that take place within the English and Maths blocks. They can last 15 to 30 minutes and are designed to give students practice on previously taught content. It is best if reviews take place daily, most often at the beginning of the block, before the content of the main lesson is introduced.

Daily Review isn’t typical of how primary teachers conceptualise review. It is not a short ‘what did we learn yesterday’; it is a structured session packed full of content taught yesterday, a week ago, a month ago, or even a year ago. The idea is to cover taught content, often core content for the subject, in 2-3 minute time intervals back-to-back at a rapid pace. Because this style of review is so pacey, it is important new content is not included. Students will need more time to grapple with new ideas.

Anything that has been previously taught can be included in Daily Review, but core content – that which constantly pops up and supports the execution of more complex tasks – is best to include regularly. For example, I always include work on simple, compound and complex sentences with taught conjunctions, for I know practising writing sentences will help students write paragraphs and full compositions. In Mathematics Daily Review, I always include a slide on basic number facts within 20 or 100 as these will support students when they engage in problem-solving tasks. These are examples of core content that supports learning within the subject.

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It is best to do Daily Review using mini-whiteboards with strict engagement norms. You should teach your class exactly what they need to do so that the session is smooth. Daily Review loses its magic if the pace is sluggish – students get bored and not enough content gets covered. Students should know things like when and how to put whiteboards down, when to ‘jump in’, and when to show their whiteboard to a teacher. These are called engagement norms.

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As for organising the content, it is best to do this in Powerpoint (not completely necessary though). I’ve found that organising the content in Powerpoint slides helps to move through content at a rapid pace while also gaining the benefit of having a central location for the content. Once you have created a slide on a piece of content, you can file it away and simply paste it into the new week’s Daily Review slides when you wish to review it again. That saves time.

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Below is a video I STRONGLY recommend viewing alongside this blog. You will gain a much better idea of what Daily Review is all about. Dave skillfully explains and models the pace and engagement norms desired in Daily Review, and provides example slides and how to use them.

The Research Rationale

The rationale for Daily Review requires an understanding of the forgetting curve. Hermann Ebbinghaus was a German psychologist who studied the rate of forgetting by memorising a series of nonwords and testing his recall over time. He found that after committing new learning to memory, we experience a rapid initial loss followed by a further gradual decline in item recall.

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The forgetting curve tells us that if the taught content is not revisited, retrieval of the content will diminish rapidly. We, therefore, cannot be certain that what we teach in a single lesson will be retained over time. We can make a safe bet that much of it won’t be.

Although the forgetting curve is a natural process, it can be disrupted. Studies have shown that even reviewing material just once is enough to prolong forgetting. Unfortunately, without further review, this initial boost in recall will quickly be overcome too. The trick is to keep reviewing the content at spaced intervals. An initial review will help in the short-term, but reviewing material multiple times at different intervals will help students retain information for much longer.

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Ebbinghaus’s research has serious implications for classroom teachers. Spaced repetition of content is required if the content is going to be retained over an extended period. This is the rationale for Daily Review: it disrupts the forgetting curve and helps to ensure students remember what has previously been taught.

Cognitive Load Theory also rationalises Daily Review. CLT emerged from the work of the cognitive scientist John Sweller in the 80s and 90s. The theory builds on two assumptions. The first is that there is a limit to the amount of new information the brain can process at one time. The second is that there is no known limit to the amount of stored information that can be processed at one time. We can slowly build up knowledge in long term memory in the form of complex schemas that, when developed to automaticity, can be called upon to solve complex problems.

The formation of schemas in long-term memory is important because they work to reduce the load on the highly constrained working memory. If working memory is overloaded, there is a risk that the content being taught will be misinterpreted or completely misunderstood by the learner. The intrinsic load of the content could overwhelm working memory.

Daily Review can help students gain a high level of automaticity which will allow them to call on their knowledge rapidly, freeing up space in working memory. This will help students to solve more complex problems. Suppose a student is asked to compare the personalities of Mr Wormwood and Miss Trunchbull in Roald Dahl’s Matilda. The task requires the student to use the language of comparison and contrast to explain the similarities and nuanced differences between their obnoxious and abusive personalities. If the student has not practised using conjunctions for comparison and contrast such as whereas, although, but, even though and however, then the task may be too difficult. If the student has practised writing compound and complex sentences with these conjunctions during English Daily Review, the task will be easier to complete. The constant practice builds schema in long term memory to the point of automaticity. The knowledge can be called upon to complete a more difficult task; in this case, comparing the personalities of two characters.

Affective Impact

Implementing Daily Review will have a positive affective impact on students. This is because Daily Review helps students secure their knowledge to the point of mastery. I believe that disengagement in a subject is born of not knowing enough or not being able to do enough within the subject. Reading a book becomes much more enjoyable once you’ve secured the skills needed to access the phonological pathway, and solving mathematical problems becomes much more exciting when you are familiar with the problem’s deep structure.

Sarah Barker has a fantastic chapter in this book on the affective impact of direct instruction. She comments that review is, “a crucial part of improving confidence and competence” and that “the process of retrieving previous learning is achievable and accessible, and immensely satisfying.” I have seen this in my own classroom. Students are engaged when they can readily respond. On the other hand, not knowing often has the opposite effect.

Daily Review will have a positive impact on the teacher too. It’s great watching your students succeed, but Daily Review will mainly impact the teacher because it allows them to do their job well. Because the kids review so much content, you will be getting a lot of feedback on how they’re going. Noticed 3 strong students have split 21 into 3 parts when asked to find 1/4? Time for further investigation. Noticed students added 3 digit numbers accurately and at lightning speed? Things are going well. The strengths and weaknesses become very obvious when you are receiving info this rapidly every day. This helps you do your job better, and that’s satisfying.

So you want to know how to teach reading?

Four Corners recently aired a report on education that featured the Reading Wars. The report itself did not surprise me much. It summarised the arguments of both sides in typical fashion. What really got my interest was the comments made by pre-service teachers interviewed for the piece. One made comments on his teaching degree that made it clear the information he is receiving is vague. He said that he felt his teaching degree wasn’t giving much direction on how to actually teach kids how to read:

“I know at university, we’re taught a whole abundance of approaches to teaching reading and writing, but we’re not necessarily taught which one works. I think the reason for that is that people don’t know.”

I think his comments are very insightful because, at that very point in my career, I did not have the awareness to make judgements about my degree – my opinions were pretty staunchly aligned with the opinions of my lecturers. I’m happy to pitch a guess that most preservice teachers are like me; the pre-service teachers in the report are likely exceptions.

The pre-service teachers gave me much hope that there are new teachers out there that are hungry to learn how to teach kids to read effectively. If you are a pre-service or new teacher, and your curiosity has brought you to this blog, then you need to know that you don’t know nearly enough to teach reading properly. Yes, that is scandalous, and yes, you have the right to be upset about it. I also spent $$$ to learn very little. In the years since finishing, I have learnt enough to feel confident in my practice (though I still have much to learn!). There are some things worth knowing to get you started on your journey to becoming a good teacher of reading. Let me help you out by pointing you in the right direction.

Why bother?

In case you’re still not convinced that diving deep into the world of evidence-based reading instruction is necessary, then you should take the time to read this paper by 3 people that really do know their stuff. It’s tough reading; at least, I felt it was very hard to read when I first encountered it, for I did not want to admit that I did not know enough. I implore you to read it. Find motivation in it. You will feel so much more fulfilled once you realise you’ve got a ways to go and that you gain the knowledge you need to improve your practice and gain the best possible outcomes for the kids you teach.

One of the authors of the paper above also recently did some research into whether or not teacher education courses are giving their students the knowledge they need about effective reading instruction. The results were not encouraging. It’s worth your time.

It’s best if you move away from poor ideas

Having gone through initial teacher education, I have no doubt you have been introduced to the 3 Cueing System.

Image result for 3 cueing systemYou need to know that this model does not align with research on reading (1 and 2) and that you should move away from it as soon as possible. The Simple View of Reading is widely accepted as a good starting point for thinking about how students learn to read. You should move away from the 3 Cueing System and begin to study the Simple View.

The Simple View of Reading shows us that, while reading is a complex task, it can be represented as two independent processes: word recognition (decoding) and language comprehension. Skilled reading is actually a combination of these two processes. Decoding is the ability to get the words off the page accurately and fluently, and language comprehension is the ability to make sense of what is being communicated. If a student is deficient in either of these, then reading difficulties will arise.

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Treating reading like a combination of two separate processes means that we also need to teach the two processes separately. When students first come to school, they have little, if any, word recognition skills. This is why the evidence base recommends focusing on strengthening word-recognition skills right away while simultaneously and separately building students language comprehension through vocabulary, knowledge building, oral language and book exposure.

Whole Language and (so-called) Balanced Literacy advocates reject this evidence-based view of reading because they believe that reading words cannot be separated from ‘meaning’. They believe students can grasp the meaning of texts without actually being able to decode words as reading is a ‘meaning-making process.’ The 3 Cueing System says students should figure out words using ‘semantic’ and ‘syntactic’ cues before relying on graphophonic cues (graphophonic isn’t a word, btw. They mean using phonic knowledge). This approach has been debunked by reading research and should be put to bed. It’s actually worse than that: reading research has shown that this approach teaches the habits of poor readers (also). It’s not just that the 3 cueing approach isn’t correct, it’s actually completely and utterly backwards. The research strongly indicates that the Simple View really is the correct way to think about how students come to read: two processes that converge into skilled reading.

Since the publication of Gough and Tunmer’s 1986 paper, researchers have worked to expand on the Simple View of Reading. One often-cited model that expands and builds on the Simple View is Scarborough’s Reading Rope. The Rope breaks reading down into its two processes – word recognition and language comprehension – and expands on them to give a neat breakdown of the component parts of the two processes. This model does a great job of showing how complex the Simple View really is – it is simple, but not simplistic.

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Get familiar with phonics, but not ‘just phonics’

How students come to get the words off the page – the word recognition side of the Simple View – is the battlefront of the Reading Wars. Research has found that synthetic phonics, an approach where students are taught letter-sound correspondences in isolation and then taught to synthesise the sounds to read words, is the most effective way to teach word recognition skills (here). Whole Language advocates totally reject the evidence base for the efficacy of synthetic phonics. Within the evidence-based community, to reject synthetic phonics is akin to being a flat-Earther. Yet you will hear many on the Whole Language side disparage the approach as overly simplistic rote learning. That it is not. It is systematic, engaging, explicit and difficult to teach well. The evidence for it is very convincing. The debate around the efficacy of synthetic phonics is one where a lot of misinformation is thrown around, so I encourage you to dig a little deeper to get to grips with the facts of this approach.

Although phonics is rightfully at the forefront of the debate (it’s not taught very well, so evidence-based advocates push hard for change in that area), it’s important to note that it is not the only area that needs to be taught explicitly and systematically. The reading research actually identifies 5 components, or ‘keys’, of reading instruction that need to be taught in this way. The five keys are phonics, phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.

That preservice teachers do not hear about the 5 keys in their courses is evidence enough that something isn’t right. They were first identified as the 5 essential components of reading instruction in a report by the National Reading Panel in the United States titled, Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and its Implications for Reading Instruction. Many publications on the 5 keys have been published since. The most digestible versions of these come from Hempenstall and NSWCESE. It’s well worth getting to grips with the 5 keys, for they form the basis of all effective reading programs. The amount of time devoted to each of the components will obviously vary across year groups and ability levels, but nevertheless, good reading instruction will teach all of the components explicitly and systematically.

Remember that you cannot teach what you don’t know

Do you know what a bound morpheme is? How about a schwa? A relative clause? An allophone?

If you had a similar experience to me, you won’t know what these are. You must know what these are and a very long list of other language concepts that aren’t considered super necessary by initial teacher education courses. You simply cannot teach what you know nothing about. Of course, there is a lot to know. No one expects primary teachers to have professor-level knowledge of the intricacies of, for example, bound and free morphemes, but a minimum standard is necessary. We should at least know what they are, why they are relevant, and how they that knowledge can be used to improve reading outcomes. That goes for a long list of language concepts.

I can’t recommend Louisa Moats’s Speech to Print highly enough. This book will give you the base knowledge you need to teach language concepts well. Trust me, you will have kids in your class that really struggle with reading. So much so that it is very easy to feel completely overwhelmed by their needs. Knowing your stuff will help you help them. There is no way around this.

I’d like to mention that there are people out there that go hard after teachers for a myriad of reasons. We are constantly poked and prodded at in the media. Some of the criticism is valid and some of it isn’t. If we are going to take a research-based, objective approach to things, then the criticisms of teacher knowledge in this area are valid. You must remember one simple thing: it’s not your fault; the bar is set very low in initial teacher education courses. All you should do from here is work to plug those holes.

Get to grips with explicit instruction

Knowing your stuff will make little difference if you do not know how to teach it well. Many have a role in helping teachers learn to read, but the teacher’s main role is to implement best practice in a classroom setting. We do the coal-face stuff.

Knowing a lot about the evidence on teaching children to read is a great start, but it won’t make much of a difference if you do not teach it well. The instruction really matters. Unfortunately, ITE is really left wanting in this area, too. Explicit instruction isn’t heavily favoured and, in my experience, often talked down on. Yet the evidence is very clear. From Project Follow Through to process-product research, the principles of explicit instruction have been shown to be effective time and again. This is the craft of teaching. Many people know the reading research – they study it and write about it – but only teachers implement the ideas in the classroom. It’s what we do as a profession, so it is important we do it right.

Barak Rosenshine’s paper on the principles of instruction is required reading. I cannot recommend Tom Sherrington’s booklet on this paper highly enough, and once you’ve moved on to refining your explicit instruction, picking up ResearchEd’s Direct Instruction book is a great idea.

Get on Twitter

Lastly, if you are not on Twitter, then I really encourage you to get on there. Twitter can be at times… erm… not great, BUT it can also be fantastic. There are very knowledgable people on Twitter willing to share their ideas daily. You will learn things at an amazing rate if you follow the right people! I’m @johnkenny03. See you there!


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.

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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:

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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:
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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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