Dipping my toe into retrieval practice

Recently, I identified retrieval practice as an area of great potential. It is a low cost, high impact strategy well supported by cognitive research. Simply put:

Retrieval Practice occurs when learners recall and apply multiple examples of previously learned knowledge or skills after a period of forgetting. (Lemov, 2017)

Examples of retrieval practice tend to show the students engaging in recalling a series of fact-based questions to mitigate the effects of forgetting. The act of retrieving previously learnt information from long-term memory and placing it in short-term memory will strengthen the memory and reduce forgetting. That is the rationale behind engaging students in retrieval practice.

The rationale behind retrieval practice is to reduce the forgetting curve

We’re at the end of the school year in Australia. A year in a 5-year-old’s world is a lifetime (I teach 5-year-olds). I was intrigued after reading a bit about retrieval practice through Doug Lemov. I wondered how much of the content we had covered throughout the year had been remembered by my kindergarteners. I decided to investigate.

The answer was not much at all. For example, at the beginning of the year, we covered the five (traditional) senses. To my dismay, some of my students could not even recall the senses (let alone recall how they work) even though we had covered them and I had data telling me they knew them.

The truth is, I had made a fundamental error most teachers make: I mixed up performance with learning. Performance is how well students complete a task at the point of teaching (quite interestingly, Robert Bjork has done research showing performance on a learning task does not correlate well with long-term learning). Learning, on the other hand, is a change in long-term memory. Memory is plagued by forgetting and that is why it is not the same as performance. Learning is not performance because, for learning to have taken place, there needs to be a change in long-term memory. If students, after a period of time – say, 6 weeks –  have forgotten material taught, as mine did, then they haven’t really learnt the material even if they’d been exposed to it and understood it. I made the error of assessing before a period of forgetting. I assessed the performance of my students (which simply reflects the teaching) and not the learning that had taken place.

Of course, performance is not the goal, learning is. My students were taught the content and definitely understood it – that much was clear from performance on the learning task – but they had forgotten it in the long term because we had not revisited it. They had not engaged in retrieving the information from their long term memory which led to forgetting. Retrieval practice is a powerful way to engage students in this recall and stop the forgetting curve.

I decided to revisit the senses through a series of read-alouds but this time I engaged my students in a series of retrieval practice questions at the beginning of lessons. I also integrated the subject-specific questions into 5-minute blocks of mixed retrieval practice throughout the day. My questions focussed primarily on the latest content with fewer questions related to the earliest content and were asked in a ‘rapid-fire’ way (I mostly cold call, but will also take hands, especially if low performers show enthusiasm).

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The results have been promising. The students remembered more lesson-on-lesson and so engagement was also way up. Students love to know things and the more they know and remember, the more confident they become in sharing and discussing ideas. I had students jumping off the carpet in eagerness to answer questions. What’s more, the students started to point things out to me outside lessons. One student mentioned to me that it was always loud at the beginning of assembly because the sound waves kept ‘bouncing off the walls’. She suggested we take assembly outside instead. This is what happens when students know things well: they start to apply it to their surroundings; they gain interest in a topic and how it applies to their lives.

I am currently waiting 6 weeks to assess their knowledge and understanding of the material covered. Retrieval questions related to the topic during my blocks of mixed-subject retrieval practice are naturally becoming less frequent. I will be very interested to see how they go and I dare say they will know much more than they did before. We know incontrovertibly that knowledge builds on knowledge and knowledge is the foundation of skill development. The process of retrieving information this young will only help them gain powerful knowledge and skills in the future. Retrieval practice is low cost, high impact and I would encourage all teachers, including early years teachers, to use the technique. It’ll make a big difference.

On a final note, I think there is great potential in engaging young children in a series of read-alouds. E.D Hirsch is a big fan of them and I think he is on to something that could become a powerful teaching tool. Combine short read-alouds with retrieval practice and writing tasks and you’ve got yourself a powerful formula for effective learning.

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How can we fix the bell curve?

EDIT: In the original post, I argued for flattening the bell curve. You’ll see in the article I am not arguing for flattening the bell curve but for a decrease in standard deviation – a reduction in variability between outcomes – and increase in average results overall. It was just a mistake. I’ve made changes to make my meaning clear.

John


“We need to find ways of increasing student achievement for every single student, more for the ones at the bottom. Now, this is really hard to get
your head around, but IQ is the single most important predictor of GCSE success. Ian Deary, from the University of Edinburgh, reckons that 80% of the variation in GCSE success is caused by IQ. And people don’t like that fact. People say, ‘ow, I don’t know, IQ isn’t important.’ But it is! And if I asked you, as I asked you earlier, do some kids find learning school stuff easier to learn than others? You all said yes! But as David Hume the Scottish philosopher pointed out many years ago, ‘you can’t deduce an ought from an is’. The fact that something is the case does not mean it ought to be the case. And if you are getting a bell curve of results in your school, I would suggest that you are not doing your job. Because the bell curve is what nature gives us.” (Dylan Wiliam)

There are some who think on an entirely different level and Dylan Wiliam is one of them. The quote is taken from a recent presentation. In the presentation, Wiliam stresses that in order to succeed in the future, students need better academic qualifications more than ever. Not just some students, not just the students who find learning easy, but all students, including the ones who really struggle. Once upon a time, those who struggled at school could go out and work with their hands – they didn’t necessarily need academic success. Those days are fast coming to an end. There will likely be a certain threshold all students will need to reach in order to fully participate in work. There will be jobs for everybody, but those jobs will require high levels of skill and academic qualifications. All students need to succeed more than ever before.

The current model in school ensures that there is a bell curve. All the students are given the same amount of instruction and the same amount of practice. Inevitably, those with a high IQ will succeed; those with a low IQ will flounder. This reality is exacerbated by teachers and it needs to stop. We gather all the kids in a class and instantly we lower the bar for some and heighten the bar for others. It’s commonly called differentiated instruction, often executed with 3 levels of work. Some for the tops (high IQs), some for the middles (middle IQs), and some for the bottoms (low IQs). This only strengthens the bell curve. It is so mind-numbingly obvious that it does. Often people will suggest the alternative, having all students do the same work, is even worse because some will fly through it and some will inevitably flounder. This is most certainly the case in the current thinking because all students are given the exact same amount of instruction for learning the same content. Schools need to find ways to reduce variability between outcomes and the only feasible way I think we are ever going to ensure that happens is if we increase the amount and intensity of instruction for those who need it most.

The students who struggle simply need more (and better) instruction and more practice than others. Yet some will simply tell you that ‘they’re just not that-type-of-kid.’ ‘They’re just not academic.’ ‘We should focus on what they’re good at instead.’ Such thinking only strengthens the bell curve. The simple truth is they need to work harder, and longer. This means 1) supporting children who need it with more instruction within a lesson, and 2) giving students who need it more time – extra instruction and practice – on the content, especially on foundational stuff, in intervention. It is not mean. It is not unjust. It is simply what is necessary. It is kind. We need to target equity over equality because, if we want students to have a happy and fulfilling life, they will need to do well at school. Life outcomes are tied strongly to academic outcomes. That tie is only going to become stronger with time.

Wiliam is right, no one wants to live in a world where the tallest people succeed and the shortest people don’t (as is the case in basketball). No one wants to live in a world where the people who have an advantage win and the others lose. “The fact that something is the case does not mean it ought to be the case.” Schools need to find ways to decrease the variation in outcomes. It is the central challenge facing our schools. This is obviously not easy and will definitely need some outside-the-box thinking, structural changes and great teachers. Currently, we deal with disparity by morphing to accommodate it, rather than trying to address it. I think the focus should be on ensuring those who need it gain the most attention and work the hardest.

Find the presentation here 

Find the Q&A following the presentation here (well worth a listen)

Teachers need to be sceptical

There are so many vested interests in education. This isn’t at all surprising considering that 1) every single person in the western world has benefitted from the effects of education and 2) all other sectors of society rely on its quality. Without a good level of education for its population, a country’s productivity would inevitably fall apart. A moral and just society relies on the quality of education too, for the ability to evaluate the happenings in the world at a subjective level requires a baseline level of knowledge. The economy and society would fall apart without education; it is the bedrock from which everything else is built. Hence, everyone is interested in education.

This interest isn’t necessarily a good thing though. This is because not everyone agrees on what education should look like for our young people, which inevitably leads to a wide variety of ideas for how we could improve the experience they receive, and not all of them are good. TED talks are a great source for discussing the grand ideas everyone has for education. Ken Robinson would like to see a ‘paradigm shift’ where schools would change forever, focussing more on the innate personal qualities of the individual above all else. We also have Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy, who also has a great idea for how to better education. He urges teachers to ‘flip the classroom’. Allow students to watch videos at home and talk about them the next day in class, he says. This then could also revolutionise what we do in the classroom. And then there is Sugata Mitra who envisages the future of learning up in the cloud through Self Organised Learning Environments. Why do students need a teacher telling them things anyway? We’ve got the internet for that. The internet changes everything, and so too school should change too! Geoff Ulgan also has an idea for a ‘new kind of school’. His studio schools will ensure bored teenagers fall in love with learning again and grumpy employers receive kids who are ‘work ready’. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. Everyone has a great idea.

Grand ideas like these are not uncommon and they are intuitively appealing. Robinson’s ideas are especially so. Focusing on the individual sounds like a beautiful idea. After all, what child doesn’t deserve all the attention in the world? And many have fallen to the intuitive appeal of Mitra’s Self Organised Learning Environments. It is self-paced learning in the new technological age of the 21st century. Why wouldn’t we want to look to the future and start to ensure our students are ready for it? But who, exactly, should we believe? All of these ideas and all the other ideas thrown at educators all sound great but how do we know if they will have an impact on what we want to achieve in the classroom? Our core purpose is to ensure students meet a certain threshold of competence in their learning. We cannot adopt all ideas in education to help see this come to fruition. The sheer amount of ideas are all filtered into a bottleneck, all fighting one another to enter the small opening into the classroom. Which ideas we adopt and which ideas we reject are big choices.

The sheer amount of ideas is somewhat overwhelming. The TED talks are only the tip of the iceberg. It is for this very reason teachers need to be highly sceptical when they encounter a new idea – there are just so manyand not all of them are good ideas. The first thing teachers should do when they encounter a new idea is ask themselves what sort of impact the idea will have on student learning and at what cost. How will this idea make a difference to student learning and what burden will this place on teachers? Unfortunately, this question is rarely asked. We have seen bad ideas seep through the idea-bottleneck into the classroom before. Braingym is your classic example of an idea that found popularity but had zero impact on student learning. De Bono’s Thinking Hats are another classic case (as if coloured hats were ever going to have an impact on student learning). There are many ideas like these that have served only to waste teachers’ and students’ time with pretty much zero (or even negative) impact on learning. If teachers would’ve simply asked – simply thought critically about the idea before adopting it – time would not have been lost on these fads.

We have seen the zero to negative impact fads, disguised as good ideas, have had in the past. Teachers should have been sceptical and the need for teachers to be sceptical is only increasing with grander and grander ideas approaching the ideas bottleneck. It is important we work out which ones are fads and which ones are genuine ideas. Schools have started to adopt the ideas of Robinson, Khan, Mitra and Ulgan, amongst others. For example, tonight’s AussieEd chat is devoted to flipped learning, the idea pushed by Khan in his TED talk. The reality is flipped learning could just be another brain gym – zero impact and high burden. There is no way of knowing unless we adopt a sceptical mindset and study its impact. Teachers should be looking for evidence that the idea will have a high impact, low burden ratio. Luckily, there is research on what good instruction looks like and what limits the capacity to learn. These lessons from research, amongst others, can guide teachers when making choices about what to adopt and what to reject. This is the only way to filter out the good and bad ideas. If we don’t do this, then we risk going round and round in circles, constantly adopting bad ideas and then abandoning them only to take up the next one. The solution is to be a little sceptical, ask good questions, look for evidence and only adopt that which we know will likely have a high impact and low burden.

 

A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game

Learning to read is no easy feat. Reading is an unnatural act requiring years of teaching and learning to forge new pathways in the brain. There is a significant amount of research on reading instruction due to fierce disagreement about how best to teach children to read. The debate has largely been between two sides. Whole language advocates favour teaching children how to read through context. Attention to word structure is not emphasised. It is assumed that, with the right amount of effort and incidental guidance, immersion in language will ensure reading success. Those who favour the explicit instruction model, in contrast, emphasise the explicit, systematic and intensive teaching of all aspects of reading and especially the teaching of phonics to ensure mastery of the alphabetic code. Nothing is left to chance in this model of instruction. The debate between whole language and the explicit model has raged for decades and still does today.

In 1967, Kenneth Goodman published a paper titled Reading: A Psycholinguistic Guessing Game. In this paper, Goodman seeks to refute the ‘common-sense notion’ that reading is a precise process – one that requires exact, detailed and sequential identification of letters, words, spelling patterns and larger language parts (the position taken by those who adopt the explicit model). Instead, he conceptualises reading as a psycholinguistic guessing game. He writes that reading is a selective process involving the partial use of available language cues – syntactic, semantic and graphic – by the reader on the basis of their expectations while reading. During reading, decisions are made about whether to accept, reject or refine acquired information from these cues. Goodman believes it is this decision-making process that characterises efficient reading, not the reliance on text recognition, “efficient reading does not result from the precise perception and identification of all elements, but from selecting the fewest, most productive cues necessary to produce guesses which are right the first time.”

Goodman uses an analysis of student text reading to validate his claim that reading is a series of guesses informed by graphic, semantic and syntactic cues, and that reliance on precise, graphic (phonic) information will cause meaning to break down. In his analysis, the student substitutes the word the for your during reading. Goodman argues that because there is no graphic relationship between these two words, but do have the same grammatical function (both are determiners), the student must be using a syntactic cue to decode the text and that the use and subsequent error is acceptable because meaning is not lost. The ‘successful’ use of the syntactic cue is set in contrast to the unsuccessful use of graphic cueing. For example, the student makes several attempts at decoding the words philosophical and fortune without success. It was later found that the student knew the meaning of both words, information Goodman leverages to argue that if a student were to rely on semantic information during reading – if they were to make an anticipatory guess – meaning may not break down in these instances. This, therefore, validates the claim that successful reading cannot be a precise process but must incorporate all three sources of information simultaneously.

Goodman did not stop at describing reading as a balance between the 3 cues though. He believed it was poor readers who relied heavily on graphic cues and, just like in his analysis, this is why meaning often breaks down for them. So, although good readers must rely on some graphic information, they only sample just enough to confirm an informed guess from syntactic and semantic information, “as the child develops reading skill and speed, he uses increasingly fewer graphic cues…” therefore, “skill in reading involves not greater precision, but more accurate first guesses.”

Goodman’s assertion that good reading is not precise but relies on a series of guesses has been completely crushed in the scientific research literature. For many years leading up to Goodman’s paper, rhetoric and intuition reigned because decisive evidence was hard to obtain. However, the years following consisted of research with several types of findings which converged on the same conclusion: phonological information is an essential element in skilled reading and impairments in the use of phonological information are typical of poor readers. No research has argued that attention to word structure is all reading is; rather, it is an essential part of reading and one crucial characteristic of skilled reading. Good readers do not rely on a series of guesses; they rely on precise and detailed attention to letters and words. Guessing informed by syntactic and semantic cues is used by poor readers to compensate for their poor decoding ability.

Charles Perfetti led some breakthrough research that showed it is indeed poor readers, not good readers, who rely heavily on context to compensate for their poor decoding ability. Perfetti studied good and poor readers’ ability to read single words categorised as common, less common or non-words. Both good and poor readers read the common words equally well, but the poor readers did much worse reading the less common and non-words. Later studies yielded the same results when the words were embedded in context (within sentences). Good readers were faster and more accurate overall, as expected. Poor readers relied much more on context to read less common words and were far less accurate. The message from these studies is clear: good readers rely less on context and read much more accurately; poor readers rely more on context and read less accurately. These studies’ findings have been confirmed many times and are well known amongst reading researchers, yet they are still not aligned with how students are taught to read.

Goodman’s psycholinguistic guessing game was simply a bad idea invalidated by scientific research. It should be history – and in reading-related fields, it is – but bad ideas die hard in education. Although most educators have not heard of Kenneth Goodman or the PGG, they are sure to be very familiar with the semantic, syntactic and graphic cues associated with it. Yes, all educators are familiar with the 3 cueing system with its 3 circles intersecting at the centre to make meaning. It is considered the ideal model for teaching reading, incorporating a balance between all three cues. The model (and how it is used) is incredibly similar to how Goodman describes his PGG and is, therefore, predicated on notions of reading that have long been discredited, just like the PGG.

How this model has damaged the teaching of reading cannot be overstated. If the questions and prompts listed in the above table aren’t enough to convince you, please take the time to consider the texts students are introduced to when they initially learn to read. They are designed to accommodate this model of reading – one where students are encouraged to guess using cues long demonstrated to be characteristic of weak readers and not good readers. We are literally encouraging students to use the compensatory strategies common amongst poor readers from day 1 of kindergarten. There are many students who will overcome this obstacle, but some will really struggle. Having them engage in the psycholinguistic guessing game will only make things worse, not better.
Why the 3 cues written about by Goodman in 1967 are so popular 50 years later is a topic worth discussing. We know that this theory of reading does not align with common understandings of skilled reading and how one learns to read, so why does it persist? Why did I, like so many, read about it in my assigned textbook at university? Why do teachers hold onto it like a childhood toy? I think teacher educators have a lot of explaining to do, and that is certainly the position taken by Mark Seidenberg. In his book, he has a chapter titled The Two Cultures of Science and Education. In this chapter, he talks about how schools of education so readily preference their personal ideologies – often quite romantic – over the scientific consensus on how we come to read. The 3 cueing system is a microcosm of a much bigger cultural problem, one where ideology reigns and evidence does not:

 

“The 3-cueing approach is a microcosm of the culture of education. It didn’t develop because teachers lack integrity, commitment, motivation or intelligence. It developed because they were poorly trained and advised. They didn’t know the relevant science or had been convinced it was irrelevant. Lacking this foundation, no such group could have discovered how reading works and how children learn.” (Seidenberg, 2017, p.304)

When will education change tack? Reading is most definitely not a guessing game. It is time to stop the guessing. It is time to embrace scientific evidence. Surely, after 50 years, it is time to move on.

Goodman’s Pyscholinguistic Guessing Game

Seidenberg’s Language at the Speed of Sight

Perfetti’s research (1980)

3 articles that will rock your teaching career

I write this blog mainly because I believe it is important to question the assumptions made in teaching circles about how students learn and how (and what) we should teach. I believe this is important because the gap between what we know from research and what we do in schools is often quite wide. There is a small community of teachers, researchers, parents and teaching-related professionals (speech pathologists are fantastic advocates for evidence-based practices) who also think it is important to challenge what we are doing. This community is connected on Twitter and for sure the one thing the members of this community have in common is that they read – a lot. This gives them cause to question and challenge what we as teachers are doing because they can see the clear gap between what they read and the mentality – the common way of thinking – held amongst teachers. I do read a lot and I try to use this blog and my Twitter feed to disseminate the material I read. But I didn’t always think the way I think now.

A man named Ryan Holiday, a prolific writer on stoicism and all-around cool guy, says he devours books and every now and then he reads something that causes him to have a ‘quake-moment’ –  a moment when what you read strikes you like a bolt of lightning, birthing a new direction in the way you think and, ultimately, what you believe. Avid readers will know this feeling well and I have experienced these quake-moments reading specific education articles many times. Some rocked me so hard that, although I did not know it at the time, they have influenced my thinking ever since. They made me change my mind.

The 3 articles I present here have all fundamentally changed the way I think, and I believe all teachers should read them. My purpose is clear: I want teachers (and whoever else) to read them because it is important for people to know what is known about how we learn and what this means for how and what we should teach. I hope that I can change some minds, just like mine once was.

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Read it here

England has a different approach to teaching early reading to Australia. It is called systematic synthetic phonics. I didn’t know much about it when I went to teach there and needless to say, I was not a fan. That tends to happen when you encounter something you don’t understand. I definitely thought it was a kill-and-drill approach, the very kind not at all favoured by my ITE. The results were so strong in my school that I started to question my beliefs, but I did not trust English sources, wanting to find an opinion from home. I stumbled upon Why Jaydon Can’t Read. It was uncomfortable reading. After enduring ITE and finding my feet as a professional teacher, I did not want to face the harsh reality that I did not know a thing about reading. It was painful. But it changed everything. This article is the foundation from which my shift towards favouring evidence over personal opinions and Chinese whispers was built.

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Read it here

Why Jaydon Can’t Read sparked a huge line of inquiry (still ongoing) into how to teach ALL children to read effectively. It truly has invigorated my career. Even after learning how to teach reading, I was without a doubt still on the ‘knowledge doesn’t matter much’ bandwagon. I thought reading was a generic skill. I didn’t think (by think I now know I simply didn’t understand) knowledge was at all important in our knowledge-rich world. How horribly wrong I was. Daisy Christodoulou’s outstanding book clearly outlined how wrong I was about knowledge and it is her work that led me to Hirsch.  This 2003 article by Hirsch linked my new passion for evidence-based reading instruction with my emerging understanding of the power of knowledge. If you care about ensuring all students learn to read and have a chance at living a fulfilling life, teaching knowledge is a must. This article will tell you why.

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Read it here

I am not the only one who experienced a quake-moment whilst reading this absolute quote-lover’s dream. Kirschner, Sweller and Clark make it very clear that although society has changed, our brains have not. This article opened the door to the world of cognitive science, its relationship to learning, and its link to how we should teach. This is such an amazing article because I was already familiar with memory and its related theories but the article bridges the gap between the theory and its implications for practice like no other. It’s changed the way I teach. I’m not the only one; this article has laid the foundation for many teachers’ careers. They are part of the community questioning things too. So come, read this article and the others I have listed above, and join the growing community that wishes to question the status quo in light of what we know.

Knowledge Builds Knowledge

I’m pretty concerned about how society feels about knowledge. These feelings are reflected within the teaching community. There are a few exceptions, but I think it is safe to say most teachers do not value knowing things for the sake of knowing or teaching knowledge for the sake of knowledge. I believe knowledge is an end in itself; many disagree with me. I think that is something to be worried about.

If we understand how the mind works, it really is a worry. It is thought that knowledge is organised into units known as schemata (schema theory). For example, everyone has a stored schema for ‘dog’. The units of knowledge within the schema include information about how dogs look in general (teeth, four legs, tail, possible colours etc.) as well as specific types of dogs (collies and spaniels). A person’s knowledge of a dog may also include knowledge of its class (Mammalia), enabling the use of a related schema for ‘mammal’ to work out that they are therefore warm-blooded and child-bearing. Depending on a person’s personal experiences, a dog may be perceived as something to be feared (may bite) or something to be loved (warm, cuddly and playful). People are active in creating their schemata as they continually interpret the world, making more and more connections. The connections get incredibly complex as we grow in expertise in a particular area.

This is very important because our schemata become our knowledge base from which new knowledge is acquired. We literally use the knowledge we have stored in long-term memory to interpret, make connections and store new information. This is why memory is easier to build when we start from a broad base of knowledge on any given topic. If you have no or very little related schemata stored on a given domain, then adding new knowledge is much more difficult. The more you know, the less hard your brain has to work to store new information in long-term memory.

So teachers who do not believe teaching knowledge for the sake of simply knowing may be doing their students a great disservice. Eventually, their students are going to want to gain expertise in a highly specialised area of a particular domain. The young woman who wishes to study biology and become a biologist would greatly benefit from a very broad knowledge base of all the sciences, built up over time from even the youngest of years. She will find reaching her dream much more challenging if her teachers did not work hard to build up her knowledge; to strengthen the connections between schemata in her brain. That’s why teachers who dismiss teaching knowledge for the sake of knowledge are a concern. Because knowledge builds knowledge, and learning gets harder if you are not knowledgeable.

Constructivism Should Not Be the Main Game

There is a great divide in education between those who prefer a constructivist approach and those who prefer an explicit approach. The battle between the two sides is very real and has far-reaching effects, even if many teachers themselves are blind to it. As Greg Ashman puts it: “There is a great debate going on in education about what and how we teach. A lot of teachers are unaware of this discussion, even if they notice the specific effects of it.”

The debate between the two sides is very real but they are not dichotomous positions. Some may wish to leverage this truth to dismiss the need for a debate but this is foolish because, although they are not dichotomous, one approach is typically emphasised over the other in any given context. Therefore, the debate is not about which approach should be used exclusively, but about which approach should be emphasised; which one should be at the core of teaching and learning.

The debate is important because we know that an explicit approach to teaching and learning is far more effective than a constructivist approach, especially for the disadvantaged who start from far behind and need significant support to catch up. Yet constructivist approaches to teaching and learning reign. Despite the strong evidence for explicit approaches, teacher education courses continue to promote constructivism as a theory of teaching. This is baffling because constructivism was not originally touted as a theory of teaching, but as a theory of knowing and learning. It is only recently that advocates have begun to push and promote constructivist approaches to both teaching and learning – think discovery learning, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning and, as I have only recently discovered, age-appropriate pedagogies.

They come under different names but the core principles of a constructivist approach stay the same: 1) students should be intrinsically motivated to participate and actively involve themselves; 2) content should, as far as possible, be authentic, interesting and relevant (Rowe, 2006). The implicit assumptions being that intrinsically motivated learners have already acquired the knowledge and skills sufficient enough to effectively acquire new knowledge on their own in a given subject domain, with the teacher taking on the role as ‘facilitator’. The compelling evidence is that this is not at all the case leading Sasson (2001) to comment that constructivism is a “mixture of Piagetian stage theory with post-modernist ideology” rather than a sound approach grounded in any real evidence. Wilson (2005) is also of this opinion commenting that the loose misuse of the original definition of constructivism as a theory of knowing and learning has been distorted to fit the ideological preferences of some:

“we largely ignore generations of professional experience and knowledge in favour of a slick, post-modern theoretical approach most often characterised by the misuse of the notion of constructivism.”

The slick, post-modern theoretical approach of constructivism flies in the face of decades of research evidence describing what works best for all students. Explicit instruction “is a systematic method for presenting learning material in small steps, pausing to check for student understanding, and eliciting active and successful participation from all students” (Rosenshine, 1986) and it is this method that characterises the explicit approach. It works for all students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds (Some examples: Project Follow Through, hattie effects, and reading research). The reason for this is obvious. The teacher is the most powerful influence on student achievement.By taking the reins and directing the learning, students make better progress. The fundamental difference between this approach and the constructivist approach is its content-driven principles: 1) All students can and should learn, regardless of their interests, predispositions and abilities; 2) content learning trumps personal preference; 3) students who struggle with behaviour or academics need more support, not something ‘more relevant’ (Rowe, 2006).

The explicit approach should be at the core of what we do in classrooms; a more implicit, ‘constructivist’ approach should work to support this. Yet constructivism most often is the main game, with explicit approaches there to support. From what we know works, it should be the other way around. But it isn’t. Why not? What is stopping the implementation of explicit approaches as the core of teaching and learning. Watkins (1995) has a theory, “parochial vested interests that either work to maintain the status quo or advance self-serving models can prevent the implementation of [effective] teaching methods.” His view very much reminds me of Mark Seidenberg’s outstanding chapter titled The Two Cultures of Science and Education. In this chapter, he writes about the great disconnect between the thoughts and beliefs of schools of education and the thoughts and beliefs of the scientific community. Schools of education have time and again turned a blind eye to research in favour of an ideological preference:

“The principal function of schools of education is to socialise prospective teachers into an ideology – a set of beliefs and attitudes about children, the nature of education, and the teacher’s role. Prospective teachers are exposed to the ideas of a select group of theorists who provide the intellectual foundations for this ideology.”

How interesting. Teachers are socialised into particular attitudes and beliefs about children, how they should learn and how we should teach. The beliefs and attitudes, often romantic in nature, align with the constructivist teaching philosophy. This is indeed true and is easily seen in the work produced by universities here in Australia. Just recently, Griffith University published a report for the QLD DET on ‘age-appropriate pedagogies’. The research they present clearly shows play is important for the cognitive, physical and emotional development of children. Let’s be clear: no one is disputing that. What I dispute, and what flies in the face of all the research, is the report’s recommendation for an ‘age-appropriate pedagogy’ with a strong emphasis on play. The report calls for ‘balance’ but the devil is in the detail.  Assessing its core principles and comments, you can see that this is clearly a constructivist approach:

The teacher’s role in guiding and facilitating learning experiences is critical and needs careful consideration. It involves “deliberate, purposeful and thoughtful” decision making and actions on the part of the teacher to promote children’s innate drive for independent learning.” (page 29, my emphasis)

4 of the 10 principles:

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Given what we know about what is effective, and what we know about schools of education’s preferences, my question is, should we really be placing play at the core of teaching and learning, or should it supplement a more direct approach?

I know where the evidence lies. Age-appropriate pedagogy sounds more like an ideological preference than an approach grounded in evidence. Play has a very important place, and the teacher’s role in facilitating this play is crucial, but we should not be foolish to mix up a theory of learning (constructivism) manifested in play with a theory of teaching. Students need explicit instruction more than they need play. Children are not going to play their way to language and mathematical proficiency, nor are they going to gain vital knowledge for reading comprehension and skill acquisition through drama. You need good direct instruction to gain that. Constructivism, no matter the name it is given, should not be at the core of teaching and learning.

Rosenshine, B.V. (1986). Synthesis of research on explicit teaching. Educational Leadership, 43(7), 60-69.

Rowe, K. (2006). Effective teaching practices for students with and without learning difficulties: Constructivism as a legitimate theory of learning AND of teaching?.

Sasson, G.M. (2001). The retreat from inquiry and knowledge in special education. Journal of Special Education, 34(4), 178-193.

Seidenberg, M. (2017). Language at the Speed of Sight: How We Read, Why So Many CanÕt, and What Can Be Done About It. Basic Books.

Watkins, C.L. (1995). Follow Through: Why didn’t we? Effective School Practices, 15, 57-66

Wilson, B. (2005). Unlocking potential. Paper presented at the 2005 ANZSOG conference, University of Sydney, 29 September 2005.

Leaping the Lexical Bar

Very young children gain much of their language skills from home. Parents are charged with socialising their children, so it is no wonder that a child’s early vocabulary knowledge is inextricably tied to the size of their parents’ vocabularies. In the most disadvantaged families, children may have up to 30 million less words addressed to them by age 4 compared to children from affluent families. It is not just the quantity of words but the quality of the words spoken too. Words addressed to kids in affluent families are wide-ranging and far more friendly. This gap in language exposure has dire consequences, so dire that Hart and Risley termed it ‘the early catastrophe’. Over time, the effects show. A high performing first grader knows twice as many words as a poor performing one. By the end of school – year 12 – the high performer knows four times as many words as the low performing one. This Matthew Effect continues throughout a lifetime. A small advantage early in life can grow into a big one later on in life.

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See this paper

Language knowledge has important implications for educators because of the effect it has on academic achievement. A barrier exists between the language of everyday life and academic, literate culture. Corson (1985) named this barrier the lexical bar. He asserts that academic success is only possible if students can cross the lexical bar. This makes sense; the language complexity in texts, especially academic texts, far exceeds that of everyday speech. If one cannot get to grips with the language needed to comprehend texts above the lexical bar, then academic success cannot be achieved. It seems that the gap between those who achieve academic success and those who do not is fundamentally a knowledge gap – of words and the topics that give those words context. Academic achievement has serious implications for later life outcomes. Educators have a duty to do what they can to intervene so more kids are able to leap the lexical bar.

Economic Policy Institute (2010). Taken from Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam.

Teach the code

The very first thing schools should do to help address the knowledge gap is teach kids the alphabetic code. The Simple View of Reading asserts that once students learn to decode, they can begin to apply their current language skills to accumulate new vocabulary and world knowledge at a rapid rate. The quicker the better; the more fluent decoding becomes, the less working memory is devoted to it so more time can be spent grappling with the content and vocabulary of the text rather than decoding the words on the page. There is no greater way to expand language than the ability to read. It is, therefore, a real shame that in Australia many stand in the way of ensuring all children learn the code well. Nothing could be more important.

Systematic vocabulary instruction

Some words appear frequently in written text but not in spoken text. Knowing these Tier 2 words may have a profound effect on reading comprehension. Merchant, benevolent and fortunate are examples of Tier 2 words. They are uncommon in spoken language but have high utility in written texts. Teachers would do well to teach these words explicitly, systematically and cumulatively over a long period of time (years) to ensure words are learnt to a deep level whereby students can recognise and comprehend these words in different contexts. The effect could be huge. Consider a kindergarten student who is explicitly taught 10 words a week every week for 7 years of primary school. That student would accumulate knowledge of some 2800 words of high utility in written text. That knowledge could make all the difference.

Put reading at the core of it all

Reading is out of fashion in classrooms. We say its important but is what we say backed up by what we do? Technology is the in-thing, reading is out. Sometimes it is just easier to throw on a video rather than do a whole-class reading or a read aloud. I’m very much guilty of this. The neglect of informational texts is widespread in primary school. This problem has been further inflated in recent years by the engagement movement. Reading informational texts just isn’t engaging enough, or so our actions and attitudes as teachers make it seem. You only have to evaluate the general contempt for textbooks in schools to know this is the current mood. Yet informational texts are useful for promoting language development and knowledge building. We need to put reading for information at the core of what we do in classrooms.

Knowledge-rich curriculum

If teaching the code is the most fiercely contested topic in Australian Ed, the role of knowledge – how much, how little – is probably a close second. The Australian Curriculum is knowledge poor. The history curriculum does not contain any real historical content until Year 4, knowledge only counts for 1/3 of the science curriculum and the English curriculum is just a bunch of generic skill descriptors. Knowledge is not popular, yet it is essential for language development. It is completely possible to decode and understand every word in a passage of text yet have very little understanding of what the text is talking about. Comprehension is affected by knowledge of the domain.

” “Gigantic and luminous, the earliest star formed like a pearl inside shells of swirling gas.” (National Geographic, Feb 2003)

Most adults, drawing on their knowledge of the Big Bang theory, pearl formation (and the use of metaphor, which I return to below), and gasses, can comprehend this sentence. But we would expect different degrees of comprehension among, say, physicists, amateur astronomers.” (Hirsch, 2003)



Like knowledge of words, children from well-off backgrounds have a huge advantage here. They visit museums, go to plays, travel to historical locations and participate in a neverending variety of enriching activities. The disadvantaged are not so lucky. The only way they are ever going to gain world knowledge to a level high enough to help leap the lexical bar is if they are taught it at school. Currently, they are not.

References

Pretty much this whole issue

Corson, D. (1985). The lexical bar. Pergamon.  — This concept is mentioned in Bringing Words to Life, where I first encountered it.

 

 

Fix the Behaviour First

Last night, unable to sleep, I stumbled upon a two-part series from 2010 called The Classroom Experiment. It was interesting to watch and I enjoyed seeing Dylan Wiliam try to effect lasting change on teaching practice by introducing some of his formative assessment strategies. The formative assessment strategies weren’t what struck me the most, however. What struck me the most was the behaviour of the pupils.

Wiliam notes that the class undertaking the experiment does not have any serious behaviour problems. That’s good to know: no students are violent, abusive or furniture-breaking. Always a good start. Indeed, as I watched, I did not see any serious behaviour infringements, but I noticed many things you would consider low-level behaviour problems.

Low-level behaviour problems don’t seem bad in isolation but collectively they can create serious problems because they lower the standard; creating a culture where it is okay to disrupt, okay to argue, and okay not to do your best. Over time, they can have a serious effect on academic achievement. I found these low-level behaviour problems were so prevalent that I began to record what I saw throughout the first 30 mins of the 2-hour series. Here’s what I recorded seeing:

  • Turning in seat/ talking to people behind x 4
  • leaving chair/walking around the room x 1
  • Laying head on table x 5
  • moaning/complaining/arguing x 7
  • calling out x 6
  • elbows on table/slouched in chair x 14
  • laughing at others x 1
  • rocking on chair x 2
  • drawing on window or whiteboard x 3
  • pen in mouth x 1

The effect of these behaviours is often invisible because, in isolation, they do not seem like much at the time. But collectively, over a long period of time, they can begin to affect the teaching and learning in the classroom. How the teachers respond to integrating new formative assessment approaches into their practice is a clear sign of this effect. Whenever they raised a concern about using a new strategy, they actually raised behaviour problems:

On using no-hands-up:
“Thing that does worry me is that you get people like Emily, students like Chloe, who tend to like to answer and tend to know the answer quite quickly and you can see them getting increasingly and increasingly frustrated.”

“We have a student who knows the answer, wants to participate but their name is never called out. They get frustrated; they get annoyed.”

On using whole-class response strategies (mini whiteboards etc):
“I’d love to be able to use them all … but it also strikes me, it’s a lot of stuff for them to play around with, drop on the floor, break, scribble on.”

This is the pernicious effect of low-level behaviour problems: it gets in the way of everything else, including teachers trying to improve their practice. These teachers are airing these concerns about a class with no serious behaviour problems. How can we expect teachers to feel confident in taking risks, trying new things, trying to improve their practice if they are worried about behaviour, even if it isn’t ‘serious’?

I have a theory. In schools with disruption like this, teachers, nervous about taking up new techniques and approaches, quickly abandon them because they are faced with behavioural difficulties upon instigating change. They simply go back to their old ways, never making any real improvements to their practice, all because of poor behaviour. This is likely what happened at the school featured in the series: improvement was made across the term, but in 2012, pupil results were flagged as a concern. There is a lesson to be learnt here: if you want to see real change in schools, you better clean up the behaviour first; otherwise, you’re probably wasting your time.

 

Teacher Apprenticeships and Teaching Degrees Aren’t So Different

The UK government has announced its intention to move teaching towards an apprenticeship model whereby those wishing to teach will no longer require a university degree. The announcement lacks detail but it seems that schools will now be responsible for training new teachers in pedagogy and subject knowledge.

In principle, I am opposed to the idea of opening teaching up to be a non-graduate profession. I don’t think any teacher will tell you what they do is easy or that they have truly mastered it. It is very demanding. Even at the very bottom in the early primary years, the knowledge required to teach young children the 3Rs is far from generalIt seems perfectly logical to ensure teachers have the required knowledge and skills needed to teach in a classroom before they enter one alone, especially considering the impact a child’s education has on their life outcomes. That’s why I’d prefer teachers to be fully trained through initial teacher education, for which universities are currently responsible.

That being said, I don’t think the move away from ITE to an apprenticeship model will have any impact on student outcomes. Not in the slightest. Given the current rigour of ITE courses, new teachers pretty much enter the classroom as apprentices anyway, knowing little about what they need to teach or how to effectively teach it. This assessment is partly anecdotal and partly evidence-based. We know from research that nearly graduated preservice teachers tend to lack the required knowledge needed to teach at the primary level (literacy, maths and in general) and that the way they are taught to teach that knowledge isn’t really effective. This probably isn’t the fault of the preservice teachers themselves, they just haven’t been given the knowledge nor the evidence-based skills they need. My own anecdotal experience confirms these findings. I left unprepared, annoyed by my lack of subject and pedagogical knowledge. I believe my experience is probably the rule, not the exception.

So given the current lack of rigour in ITE, an apprenticehip and a degree aren’t really that dissimilar. Both entry points are going to leave a teacher feeling unprepared. Both are going to require a teacher to work hard to improve on their own. I think we do need a teacher education program, but it needs a significant shake-up. The current model isn’t doing enough to ensure teachers enter classrooms with acceptable levels of knowledge and skills. Certainly, at the primary level, a shift away from pedagogy to place a greater focus on content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge (with opportunities for teachers to specialise) would be welcomed. This being supported by principles of instruction proven to be most effective.

Seems simple, but it is far from. I am not at all optimistic about seeing significant changes in initial teacher education due to deep-seeded ideological preferences and bureaucratic entanglement. One simply needs to have a look at what’s coming out of AITSL – currently responsible for lifting ITE standards – to see how far from real change we are. The depressing reality is, that if it does not change, the birth of a primary teacher apprenticeship model in Australia is probably on the cards in the future.

My pessimism is shared by many. There is indeed a current wave of thinking that reminds me of Lee Shulman’s words on the historical view of teaching; that teaching is fundamentally about knowledge and not about pedagogy; that teachers do not need a teaching degree per se, but should simply focus on becoming an expert on the subject they teach. In all honesty, it probably would be better than what we currently have, but I’m not prepared to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We know that more, ‘higher’ knowledge in a subject does not necessarily mean teaching is better or outcomes stronger, but a teachers knowledge of the specific content they teach to students and how to communicate this content certainly seems to have a profound impact (For further reading: Liping Ma’s 1999 book, this paper, this paper this report, this report and chapter 10). This makes sense: studying literature probably isn’t going to help you teach 5-year-olds how to read (of course, I am not arguing such study isn’t worthwhile) but knowing a lot about phonetics is certainly going to help. That’s why I’d prefer a primary degree that targets the knowledge teachers need in order to teach well. Will such a degree ever exist though? Probably not.