AITSL Wants Teachers to Judge Each Other

Have a look at AITSL’s Classroom Practice Continuum. There are six levels of teaching from graduate to lead, each thoroughly described. The continuum is supposed to indicate what we should see from a relative rookie (graduate) to a highly experienced, effective teacher (lead). The idea is that a teacher should wish to move up the levels to become a ‘better’ teacher.

AITSL designed this continuum so that teachers have a framework on which to judge the quality of each other’s teaching. In doing this, AITSL has taken it upon themselves to decide and dictate what good teaching looks like. Most troubling is they have decided that good teaching encourages hyper-individualism whereby learning is almost completely personalised, accommodating for the unique and special differences of the individual child. It is differentiation in the extreme, the earmark of the Level 6 lead teacher:

 “The teacher supports students to use evidence, including prior learning experiences, in personalising and revising their learning goals.”

“They negotiate assessment strategies with students, ensuring these are aligned with learning goals.”

“The teacher involves students in adapting the learning space to support everyone’s learning.”

“The teacher facilitates processes for the students to select activities based on the agreed learning goals.”

This has a clear bias towards hyperindividualism, a constructivist philosophy not shared by all and certainly not backed by good evidence. We so want to believe each individual child is unique and special (and in many ways, they are), but when it comes to learning, students are much more alike than they are different and tend to need to learn the same things. Practicality aside, I know of no robust body of evidence that suggests differentiation to the extreme of personalising learning to each child’s needs leads to better outcomes.

AITSL has taken it upon themselves to determine what good teaching is, but it seems more like an ideological preference than anything else. To give one great example, systematic phonics instruction, long known to be characteristic of good teaching in the early years, does not lend itself to such hyperindividualism – the clue is in the word systematic.

Defining and judging good classroom practice is pretty much impossible. Not only is it unethical, but it has also been proven unreliable. English teachers will be quick to tell you how awful and utterly pointless judging classroom practice is. School leaders would once (and often still do) enter your room with a continuum very similar to AITSL’s and judge your teaching as outstanding, good, requires improvement (once satisfactory) or inadequate. Ofsted did this too.

As you can imagine, many good teachers with solid student results would be branded inadequate for silly reasons like talking too much or not showing progress in 20 minutes (whatever that means). People lost jobs because of it; careers even. If a leader were to use AITSL’s continuum, one could be considered a rookie if they are not personalising learning goals or negotiating assessment strategies, which may not be appropriate at the time – or ever. Such a leader would be making the same mistakes made in the UK.

English obsession with grading classroom practice all came crashing down when good people started to research its efficacy. To think you can judge the quality of teaching by watching someone teach for 30 mins is absurd. When your conceptualisation of what good teaching looks like is based on ideological preferences rather than good evidence, then it becomes quite unethical.

The only thing you may be able to grasp from classroom observation is whether or not the class is sufficiently orderly and well behaved, which should be – but often is not – the responsibility of school leaders. If you wish to evaluate the effectiveness of a teacher, just go and have a look at student results. Even then, proceed with caution, leadership is probably impacting the results too. Grading classroom practice is a deep, dark rabbit hole. I suggest learning from the mistakes of others, taking heed of the research and avoiding the practice entirely. Teachers are professionals, they can work towards improving student outcomes together without judging each other.




The Importance of Vocabulary for Reading Comprehension

You’re right! Reading’s not just about phonics.

There are 5 keys to reading identified in the scientific evidence for effective teaching of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension (See here and here). Of the 5 keys, phonics gets the most attention, and rightfully so. Phonics is the area in which students are most deficient upon entry to school and therefore special attention to phonics instruction needs to be made. Yet phonics is only 1 of 5 keys to reading and a focus on phonics alone will not ensure reading success. One worth a heavy focus is vocabulary. Vocabulary is a very important piece of the puzzle yet gains very little attention.

The importance of vocabulary is well established. The link between vocabulary and the goal of reading comprehension is profound. The rationale for a focus on vocabulary is obvious: if you do not know the meaning of a decoded word then you will not be able to make sense of what you read. Biemiller (2005) has this to say on its importance:

“Teaching vocabulary will not guarantee success in reading, just as learning to read words will not guarantee success in reading. Lacking either adequate word identification skills or adequate vocabulary will ensure failure.” 

This claim is backed by a very interesting study made by Spencer, Quinn and Wagner (2014) who endeavoured to find out if there is any such thing as a specific reading comprehension disability. They found that when decoding and vocabulary were both sufficiently developed, only 1% of students presented with comprehension difficulties. The focus on phonics is well justified, but if you want them to read well, you better focus on vocabulary too.

Consider the following example as a demonstration of just how crucial vocabulary is for reading comprehension. Words considered common in written language but not necessarily spoken language have been underlined. If a child moving through the grades who is an adequate decoder does not learn these words, they have very little chance of comprehending the text.

Johnny Harrington was a kind master who treated his servants fairly. He was also a successful wool merchant, and his business required that he travel often. In his absence, his servants would tend to the fields and cattle and maintain the upkeep of his mansion. They performed their duties happily, for they felt fortunate to have such a benevolent and trusting master.

Given how vital vocabulary is, it is concerning that 20% of all students who enter kindergarten are deficient in the vocabulary domain. Even more concerning is how much deficiencies are weighted towards the disadvantaged. The level of deficiency reaches 30% in disadvantaged areas.

I think it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of students presenting with deficient vocabulary knowledge are either not detected or not provided with adequate assistance. Its systematic development is not a priority. All teachers will tell you they do focus on vocabulary, but this is likely to be in incidental fashion (book readings and spoken language). Kerry Hempenstall (2016) writes that this preference could have to do with a widely held belief that vocabulary development follows a natural developmental trajectory. This could well be the case. The belief that education should accommodate the natural development of a child is widespread and is a key driver behind the constructivist teaching philosophy. What’s more, academics who teach teachers often hold a belief that language must always be taught in context, which could also contribute to a more incidental vocabulary instruction model.

Nevertheless, vocabulary is important and teachers should take note of the research. It indicates vocabulary instruction should start early through a range of strategies. Students can learn the meanings of many new words indirectly, through personal experiences, speech and being read to – the incidental teaching and learning common in schools. They can also learn new vocabulary through reading texts; however, teachers cannot rely on this route of vocabulary development because those who can read well tend to read more and therefore learn more vocabulary through reading. This reality is one of the key drivers behind the Matthew effect. A logical way to overcome such a problem would be to teach students the code (the top priority of early instruction), but some will lag behind and even if all do learn the code to an acceptable level, some will still be restricted in their access to texts outside of school.

Learning indirectly does help, but students need to be taught vocabulary systematically through direct instruction. Direct instruction supports students to learn complex concepts and ideas that are uncommon in spoken language but perhaps more common in written texts. What words to teach directly is an important question. In Bringing Words to Life (2002), Isabelle Beck breaks vocabulary down into 3 tiers:

  • Tier 1 – high frequency in spoken language (table, slowly, write, horrible)
  • Tier 2 – high frequency in written texts (gregarious, beneficial, required, maintain)
  • Tier 3 – subject specific, academic language (osmosis, trigonometry, onomatopoeia)

Tier 1 vocabulary does not need to be taught because we can reasonably assume this set of vocabulary will be picked up incidentally. If students are presenting with serious deficiencies in Tier 1 vocabulary, then keywords may need to be addressed in class and most certainly in out-of-class intervention. Tier 3 vocabulary is subject-specific and should be addressed whenever the time arises. For example, trigonometry can be introduced when students first encounter it in maths class.

Tier 2 vocabulary is the vocabulary we should target directly because such words are frequent in written text but are less likely to be learned incidentally through spoken conversation. The words underlined in the example above (merchant, required, maintain etc.) are examples of Tier 2 vocabulary. Knowing the meanings of Tier 2 words like these will have a profound impact on reading comprehension.

If a primary school were to design a systematic approach to building vocabulary concentrating on a core pool of Tier 2 words, then the effects on reading comprehension could be profound. Consider a kindergarten child who is directly taught 10 Tier 2 words a week (2 words, 15 mins a day) every week for 7 years of primary school. That child would learn roughly 2800 words that are high- frequency in written text at a deep level. Support this learning with the study of synonyms, cumulative retrieval practise, incidental exposure through text reading and a knowledge-based curriculum (the importance of a knowledge curriculum for vocabulary development cannot be underestimated) and the impact could be very profound indeed, especially for the disadvantaged.


References for further reading:

Beck, Isabel L. McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2002). Choosing Words to Teach. In Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (15-30). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

CESE (2017) Effective Reading Instruction in the Early Years

Didau (2014) Closing the Language Gap

National Reading Technical Assistance Center 2010, A review of the current research on comprehension instruction, research synthesis, report prepared by S Butler, K Urrutia, A Buenger & M Hunt.

Hempenstall, K. (2016) Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading

Spencer, M., Quinn, J. M., & Wagner, R. K. (2014). Specific reading comprehension disability: Major problem, myth, or misnomer?. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 29(1), 3-9.

Early Reading Instruction: You can choose to ignore the research, but you cannot deny it is there.

When it comes to early reading instruction, the gap between what we know and what we do is wide. We have detailed reports (see here, here, here and here) outlining what good early reading instruction looks like, yet these findings are rarely reflected in practice and often denied by those in powerful positions. 

There is a significant amount of research on early reading instruction because of fierce disagreement. The reading wars have raged for many years. Whole language advocates favour an approach to early reading instruction that introduces students to language through context (picture books and stories). The approach is aligned with the constructivist philosophy whereby students construct their knowledge with guidance from a teacher. In this approach, phonics instruction is embedded in other experiences. In recent times, faced with the mounting evidence against whole language, the approach has been morphed into balanced literacy. Balanced literacy is still constructivist in nature and does not align with what we know is effective. It teaches phonics through context.

In the last 10 years, a swing back to explicit models of reading instruction has taken place. The shift toward the explicit model has been informed by a large body of research which indicates this approach is most effective. Explicit models of early reading instruction emphasise the systematic, explicit and intensive teaching of the alphabetic code. The National Reading Panel identified 5 elements which need to be taught explicitly to ensure all students gain the most from early reading instruction: phonemic awareness, phonics, comprehension, vocabulary and fluency. The findings are reflected in Australia’s own report, the National Inquiry Into the Teaching of Reading (2005) which says that:

“The incontrovertible finding from the extensive body of local and international evidence-based reading research is that children during the early years of schooling must first master the alphabetic code via systematic, explicit and intensive instruction in: phonemic awareness, phonics, reading fluency, vocabulary, and reading comprehension strategies.” 

The most controversial element is the teaching of phonics. Phonics teaching in the early years requires special attention as this is the area in which early readers are most deficient. Phonics instruction teaches students about the relationship between letters and sounds. Understanding this relationship is critical because English represents individual units of sound (phonemes) with corresponding single letters and groups of letters (graphemes). Mastery of the relationship between letters and sounds ‘unlocks’ print for early readers.

There are a number of approaches to teaching phonics, and not all are equally effective. Effective approaches to phonics instruction are systematic and the most effective systematic approach is synthetic phonics. Its efficacy is endorsed in the UK’s 2006 Rose review:

“The evidence is clear that the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective way of teaching young children to read, particularly for those at risk of having problems with reading.”

Synthetic phonics is superior to other systematic forms of phonics instruction. The Clackmannanshire study investigated the relative effectiveness of synthetic phonics and analytic phonics – a form of systematic phonics instruction whereby letter-sound correspondences are embedded in context. At the end of the study, students taught synthetic phonics were reading 7 months in front of the analytic phonics group. When the researchers followed up the progress of the students 7 years later, they found that the students taught synthetic phonics had not only maintained their advantaged but it had increased over time. It is clear that systematic synthetic phonics instruction has benefits for the long term.

The research evidence is clear. Early reading instruction needs to be taught explicitly and not implicitly. Phonics needs special attention in the early years as this is the area in which early readers are most deficient. Synthetic phonics – whereby letter-sound correspondences are taught in isolation from context – is the most effective way to teach phonics. Teachers can choose to ignore the evidence, but they cannot deny it is there. I encourage all teachers to go and review the research and let evidence guide your practice.


I’ve embedded all my references in the post. The reports are large meta analyses with extensive reference lists for further reading. 

Teachers Are Awesome

Last night, we had our annual school disco – glowsticks, glitter and all. I was manning the front desk, ticking off names and giving out smiles when I noticed a girl – let’s call her Lisa – arrive with her mum. Lisa has special needs and finds loud noises and busy places quite overwhelming. She did not want to go inside. Her teacher came outside to greet her and to try to convince her to give it a go, but Lisa was still not ready. So what did her teacher do? She did not go back inside, she waited outside with Lisa for the whole 2 hours, for Lisa was not confident enough to enter the disco.

Many people have quite a romantic view of teaching and the role of the teacher. Looking at this single example, it may seem romantic, but it is anything but romantic. It is only a sample of a much bigger picture. I cannot count the amount of times I have seen Lisa sit out of assemblies and special events; refuse to enter classrooms and abscond as a result. It happens regularly. Across three terms of schooling, hanging outside with Lisa would become tedious; those romantic, heroic feelings long past.

Regular readers of this blog will know I do not shy away from criticising teachers. I think criticism is, at times, warranted . But criticism must be met with acknowledgement when great things are seen and heard. Yesterday, I saw a great thing. It was a moment in time that spoke a thousand words about some of the great work teachers do. This was just one example of what goes on all the time in our schools. Indeed, looking around at the disco, I saw countless, tedious acts I know my colleagues have been doing for three long terms. This happens everywhere, all the time, for many years of long teaching careers. This is but one example of why teachers are truly awesome people. Teachers’ character and resolve are amazing.


How NAPLAN Places the Disadvantaged at a Disadvantage

In a skill-centric curriculum, reading is seen as a generic skill. Because reading is generic, the content of a text does not matter. In your typical upper primary classroom, this leads to Student A reading a magazine about his/her favourite football team while Student B dives deep into Harry Potter. The content is different, but it does not matter because the students are practising the same skill – reading.

The Australian Curriculum (AC) is skill-centric and views reading as a generic skill. Nowhere in the AC will you find mention of the content of a text because, as a skill-centric curriculum, the content simply does not matter. The only requirement is that the texts students read are ‘authentic’. So because a football magazine is ‘authentic’ it is considered just as valuable as the culturally rich Harry Potter series.

The view of reading as a generic skill is confirmed by how ACARA assesses the AC through NAPLAN. Here are the minimum reading standards at Year 5:

When reading a short narrative, students can:

  • locate directly stated information
  • connect and interpret ideas
  • recognise the relationship between text and illustrations
  • interpret the nature, behaviour and motivation of characters
  • identify cause and effect.

When reading an information text, students can:

  • locate directly stated information
  • connect ideas to identify cause and effect
  • identify the main purpose for the inclusion of specific information, diagrams and illustrations
  • identify the meaning of a phrase in context
  • infer the main idea of a paragraph.

When reading a biography or autobiography, students can:

  • connect ideas
  • identify the main purpose of the text
  • make inferences about the impact of an event on the narrator
  • interpret an idiomatic phrase or the meaning of a simple figurative expression.

When reading a persuasive text such as an advertisement, students can:

  • locate directly stated information
  • identify the main idea of a paragraph or the main message of the text.

Taken from the NAP website.

As you can see, students are assessed by their ability to implement the generic skill of reading. There is no reference to the content of reading.

Yet reading is not a generic skill. No matter how hard students practise how to “identify the main purpose of a text” or “connect and interpret ideas”, they will not get better at them. The ability to execute both of these skills is directly related to how well the students know and understand the content of the text they are reading. In other words, reading skill is content specific.

Studies have shown the key role knowledge plays in comprehending a text. In one study (Recht & Leslie, 1998), identified poor readers outperformed good readers when they knew more about the text. Another (Schneider, Korkel & Weinert, 1989) found that when two students with differing IQ scores knew just as much about a text, they performed just as well. Finally, and crucially for this discussion, Arya, Elfrieda, Hieibert & Pearson (2011) found that topics unfamiliar to third graders (tree frogs and soil) affected comprehension but topics familiar to the third graders (tooth-paste and jelly beans) did not. These studies indicate that domain knowledge trumps text complexity, perceived reading ability and IQ.

This has huge implications. On arrival in kindergarten (prep, reception), the knowledge gap between our most advantaged and disadvantaged students is staggering. Those lucky enough to be born into families with a high level of advantage are more likely to be exposed to a wide variety of books, words and cultural experiences. The knowledge they have accumulated – of text, spoken language and the world – far exceeds that of a disadvantaged child. Already on day one of kindergarten, our disadvantaged students are behind – far behind.

By assessing reading as a generic skill, NAPLAN does not pay attention to the content of the texts they prescribe. Because our disadvantaged students are likely to have less knowledge, this puts them at a potential disadvantage because the texts could literally be about anything. Let’s look at an old example from NAPLAN taken from Year 5, 2008:

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Text can be found here

Here we have a text on dinosaurs. Dinosaurs did not feature in the curriculum documents NAPLAN was assessing in 2008.* If students did not gain knowledge of dinosaurs from school, where and when were they assumed to have gained this knowledge? Preschool. Museums. At home. In books. In places only the advantaged have access.

So while the disadvantaged juggle the new vocabulary and new knowledge coming from the text in their working memories, the advantaged are able to pull acquired knowledge from their long term memories, giving them more space in their working memories to comprehend the text and answer the accompanying questions. This text would likely have been easier to comprehend for the advantaged students. The content of this text put the disadvantaged students at a greater disadvantage.

No one can tell me NAPLAN does not matter. It does matter. Whether we agree with it or not, it is here and it matters. If ACARA wishes to assess our students, then perhaps they should instate a curriculum that explicitly prioritises knowledge development so that the disadvantaged actually get a fair go. Our current skill-centric curriculum is not enough to overcome the knowledge deficit. Once this is in place, NAPLAN should use texts directly linked to specified content across curriculum areas, including English. This will ensure all students have at least had access to the content of the readings used for assessment in NAPLAN, mitigating any potential knowledge deficit disadvantage. Reading is not a generic skill, they should stop treating it like one.

* NAPLAN began assessing the Australian Curriculum in 2016; however, the design of the test has not changed and there remains no specified link between the content of the texts and the Australian Curriculum content.

Books used to create this post:

Hirsch (2016) Why Knowledge Matters.


Do I Have a Narrow View of Teaching?

Yesterday, I was accused of having a narrow view of teaching after questioning the use of De Bono’s Thinking Hats. This got me thinking. Obviously the phrase ‘narrow view of teaching’ was used in the pejorative. This was likely targetted at my belief that evidence should triumph over ubiquitous ideas and ideological preferences. When I explained I thought it was important to question ubiquitous ideas, I was told that I don’t just question, I “dismiss, ridicule, brand as myths or fads.” It is apparent that my questioning of ubiquitous ideas in light of research and reasoned debate is unwelcome in some circles.

I do not believe my view of teaching is ‘narrow’. I simply do not accept everything I am told to be true or useful in education. I choose to be cautious because education has for so long fallen under the tyranny of bad ideas. Learning styles spread widely within a short amount of time, presented as good and equitable, yet in reality, it was anything but. Whole language was grossly popular with little evidence to support its flawed approach and still, after all this time, has not died away – its ghost lingering on in balanced literacy approaches. Fads, gimmicks and ideological preferences spread quickly and die hard.

In my own, short career, I have seen how being told one thing by those in authority can so grossly conflict with the research evidence. Teaching children synthetic phonics was not the best approach, I was told, and nor was explicit teaching the best way to teach science. Yet I saw the use of these strategies executed to great effect in schools and read countless times about their efficacy in the research literature. To this day, I am still told these approaches are not best.

So when De Bono’s Thinking Hats appear in my feed, I will question why we, as professionals, choose to use such gimmicks. For if this were to catch on in a school, and if I were asked to use them, I would be asking some serious questions about their efficacy. One day, it’s just a resource; the next, a magic bullet. The spread of fads and gimmicks affects the work being done in the classroom. If we do not question them, they spread like wildfire.

I do not think I have a narrow view; I have a cautious one, steered by what we know. I will not stop questioning the long-held beliefs we hold about teaching and learning. If that upsets a few; if that means I must endure insults, then so be it. I do not want to work in a profession that blindly dismisses synthetic phonics, happily accepts learning styles and happily considers De Bono’s Hats a worthwhile idea. I know many others feel the same way.


This week, the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation released a paper on cognitive load theory. I am no expert on cognitive load theory, but I am quite familiar with it through Greg Ashman’s blog where I happily stumbled upon Kirschner, Sweller and Clark’s 2006 paper Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work.

I read the paper during a time in my career when I was experiencing a lot of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, I believed strongly that teaching should be a profession, and as a profession should be guided by rigorous research evidence. On the other hand, I held a belief that we needed to revolutionise education; that what we were doing was wrong and needed change. We needed to engage students and let them lead their own learning. This paper, along with other evidence-based arguments, helped me change my mind.

Since then, I have been questioning everything we do in education. I question everything because education so often falls victim to bad ideas without considering the evidence for their efficacy. Learning styles is probably the best example; whole language reading instruction another. In recent times, constructivist education has been gaining steam with the rise and rise of project and inquiry based learning – oft used to teach whole units of work. Yet constructivist approaches do not perform well in the research evidence.

There is so much noise in education; so much to distract from the job of teaching. Inquiry based learning is one of those distractions. Cognitive load theory makes a strong case for explicit forms of instruction, whereby the teacher explicitly teaches the class, guiding them through deliberate practise and on to independence. Explicit instruction opposes the spread of inquiry based learning as the core approach for instruction. There is room for projects and inquiry, but as cognitive load theorists state, it should come very late in the sequence (and I would argue, in many cases, never at all).

That’s why this publication by CESE gives me hope. CESE is mainstream and so the paper will be read by many more teachers than those motivated enough to go digging. I hope the emphasis on explicit instruction, supported by cognitive load theory and the many other studies favouring it, will help teachers see reason and make better, informed decisions about their practice.

One can hope.

Teacher knowledge supports transfer. Lack of knowledge inhibits it. 

Liping Ma published her seminal work in 1999, Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics. She investigated the huge difference in content and pedagogical content knowledge between American and Chinese primary mathematics teachers. During her work, she presented this scenario to the teachers:

Screen Shot 2017-09-06 at 6.11.56 pm.png

All the Chinese teachers were able to successfully calculate compared to only 43% of the American teachers. Not only were the Chinese better able to solve, their depth of conceptual understanding and the multiple approaches to find the answer blew the Americans out the water. Yet this is not what is most intriguing. What is most fascinating is the differences in how well the teachers were able to generate stories or models to fit the expression.

All American teachers but one were unable to generate a story. 90% of the Chinese teachers were able to do so and presented a wide range of stories covering both the measurement and partitive models of division by fractions. The two models did not receive the same attention. The partitive model was used substantially more by the teachers, who presented a rich variety of problems from many subject areas:
 Screen Shot 2017-09-06 at 7.10.33 pm.png
                                               Three of many examples from Ma’s book

Ma found that procedural and conceptual understanding of division by fractions supported the conjugation of many story problems across different subjects. The research sheds light on just how far your content knowledge can take you.

The implications for practice are huge. The problems generated by the knowledgeable Chinese teachers have differing surface structure (the context) but the same deep structure (the mathematical structure of the problem). That is, the context varies but the underlying mathematics still stays the same: 1 3/4 ÷ 1/2 – they require the same steps for solution.

In his book, Dan Willingham talks about the importance of transfer. When a student is able to transfer old knowledge and apply it to a new context, deep learning has occurred. Yet transfer tends to be very poor. In his example, only 30% of students were able to transfer knowledge from Problem A to Problem B after being shown the answer to Problem A. This is because when we learn something, we interpret the new knowledge in context. 

What we learn is tied to how we learn it and therefore when we encounter a new problem with the same deep structure but different surface structure, our brain is working hard to interpret the surface structure and not the deep structure. It’s preoccupied with the surface structure looking for clues from the context, making it difficult to identify the deep structure.

Not all are burdened by this problem though. Indeed, the deep structure in the stories made by the Chinese above is likely easy to spot. At a certain point in learning, transfer becomes secure. Willingham suggests teacher can assist learners to reach this point by presenting a concept in a variety of contexts, just like the ones the Chinese teachers were able to generate due to their superior knowledge. Doing so will deepen understanding of the concept, making it easier to spot.

As Ma’s work shows, without knowledge, you’re not going to be able to represent a concept in a variety of contexts, a crucial pedagogical strategy to help students along the path from novice to expert. When faced with teaching division by fractions, the American teachers’ ability to assist their students to transfer new knowledge is completely compromised. This is likely why most adults will stare at this problem, hopelessly lost – it was never represented to them in a variety of contexts. In the words of Ma, “Not a single teacher was observed who would promote learning beyond his or her own mathematical knowledge.” It all comes back to the knowledge of the teacher – it is they who makes the difference.

The case for deep content and pedagogical content knowledge is pretty straightforward. Knowledge should be a key focus, but it is not.



Books used to create this post:

Ma (1999) Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics

Willingham (2009) Why Don’t Students Like School?



Differentiation Madness

I almost fell over when my English colleagues told me that not so long ago they were differentiating lessons 5 ways. Yes, that means the teacher prepared 5 sets of materials for 5 groups of children who were apparently all working towards the same objective. Madness.

I tell you what’s even madder? The trendy personalised learning movement. Yep, completely personalised – 30 kids in a class working on 30 completely different things. As you can imagine, staying on my two feet whilst reading up about this new grand approach was a challenge, to say the least.

Where does this madness come from? From the idea that students should not be learning knowledge, but skills. That because knowledge isn’t necessary, you can have little Johnny reading a comic strip about his favourite football team while Jarrod dives deep into Mrs Dalloway. Johnny isn’t really into literature and Jarrod is. It doesn’t matter what the books are about because they’re working on the same skill while engaged in learning about their passions.

So learning is no longer about what you know but about what you love; about cultivating a passion and building a skill set. Such thinking has its historical routes in naturalism and individualism. They arose from the belief that nature is unerring and benign. Nature is the true guide that cannot betray. Since every individual child’s nature is different and unique, adjusting education is completely necessary to cater for the naturally developing interests and passions of the child.

This is the romantic view of the child and it is emotionally compelling. It has lead to empathetic teaching – we must adjust the curriculum to cater for the individual, for all are different and unique and special. If we do not do this, we risk spoiling the child’s development and ruining their self-esteem.

Ironically, such an approach is unlikely to free a child to pursue their passions in life because, if left to pursue their passions, there is no guarantee they will ever gain the required linguisitic and cultural knowledge needed to participate in society. As with Johnny and Jarrod, differentiating to allow students to follow interests and passions is probably going to do more harm than good. While Johnny stares lovingly at the pictures of his childhood heroes, Jarrod chips away at the beautiful stream of consciousness; expanding his vocabulary, understanding of human nature, philosophy, literature and history.

Whether we like it or not, life is a competition and the race to win is unforgiving. In the long run, Johnny will likely lose; Jarrod will likely win. Jarrod will have the knowledge he needs; Johnny will not. This is the pernicious effect of differentiation: the wider you differentiate, the wider you divide the knowledgeable and less knowledgeable; the winners and losers. You create a Mathew effect.

Abandon the madness and give them the knowledge they need. All students require the same knowledge possessed by successful adults. All deserve it too. Focus less on ‘meeting their needs’ and more on what they need to know. Once they have the linguistic and cultural knowledge needed to participate in society, then they will be able to pursue their passions and develop something wholeheartedly more valuable than hollow skills: expertise. If they don’t acquire it, a large proportion of kids are doomed to trying to pick up the pieces with their hollow skills, anxiously fumbling with their change as they pay for the only newspaper they are able to read. Madness.


Students can sustain concentration, and they should

If your ITE course was anything like mine, you’ll be familiar with the doubling rule. It’s an old teacher tale handed down in time as a trusty heuristic. To find out how long a student can concentrate for, just double their age. It sounds intuitive, but it’s probably bogus.

I think Stephen Norton is right when he says it’s a myth that young students cannot concentrate for extended periods of time. Norton is a mathematics education researcher and emphasises the need for sustained engagement. He says even very young students – Year 1 – are able to sustain concentration and engagement in mathematics for up to an hour. Quite the opposite of the doubling rule, that’s for sure.

Norton’s claim that students should concentrate for long periods of time is supported by research. Process-product studies of classroom instruction observed practices of teachers who achieved the highest results for their students to determine what works. The most effective teachers spent more time directly teaching students by demonstrating, explaining, questioning, discussing and re-teaching(for which sustained concentration is required). They also spent more time guiding student practice, which was driven by student questioning and discussion (for which sustained concentration is also required).

What’s more, the students who spent more time under instruction were more engaged and made less errors during independent work. If students were unable to concentrate for sustained periods, it’s unlikely longer time under instruction and guided practice would correlate with less errors and better achievement. This suggests students not only should concentrate for long periods of time, but they are also quite capable of doing so. 30 years after the research was primarily conducted, process-product research has never been discredited.

Don’t buy into the myth. Students can sit and listen and it is to their benefit. The more time they spend concentrating under your instruction, the better off they are likely to be. Keep things pacey but do not release your students to work independently just because of some false belief that they cannot sit and listen and learn. They can, and they should.