Manifest over excellent onderwijs van Greg Ashman
Submission to the
Review to Achieve Educational Excellence
Greg Ashman Head of Research, Ballarat
Clarendon College, PhD candidate in Instructional Design, UNSW and Education
Cognitive science points to the essential nature of
knowledge as a foundation for developing any of the higher order abilities such
as critical thinking that all of us rightly wish students to develop. A
critical example of such an ability is reading comprehension which is dependent
upon students gaining a wide knowledge of the world. If schools dont provide
this knowledge, then the gap between students from privileged and disadvantaged
background widens as the former gain this knowledge from home.
Sadly, there are many
misconceptions propagated in education that downplay the value of knowledge
acquisition. The Australian Curriculum has been affected by these
misconceptions and is not knowledge rich, representing a missed opportunity. In
addition, the most popular teaching methods in Australia inquirybased
learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning and other variations
employ implicit approaches. We have a wealth of evidence that, for novice
learners such as schoolchildren learning new concepts, implicit approaches are
far less effective that explicit teaching. This evidence may be triangulated
across a surprisingly diverse body of evidence. Unfortunately, many in the
educational community are opposed to explicit approaches for essentially political
reasons or because they wrongly believe them to be demotivating. If we are
going to invest in effective interventions, then we will need to tackle this
opposition. This wont be helped by taking a simplistic approach to the
What should education
success for Australian students and schools look like?
We currently have a
poor understanding of what we are trying to achieve. The Australian Curriculum
is largely skills based in that the content is thin and priority is instead
placed on developing supposed skills such as the ability to pose and respond
to questions. These do not fit the common understanding of the term skill in
that they are not directly trainable, apart from a few general heuristics, and
they do not continue to improve through deliberate practice.
Overlaying each of
the content areas are supposedly general capabilities such as critical
thinking. Critical thinking is clearly important and we can recognise it as a
feature of expertise in a particular area. However, there is no shortcut to
overwhelmingly demonstrates that any higher order abilities such as critical
thinking require a firm grounding in relevant content knowledge. Daniel T.
Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, suggests that small
children are capable of thinking critically about content that they are
familiar with and trained scientists may fail to think critically about content
they are unfamiliar with (Willingham, 2007). Willingham poses the question,
Can critical thinking actually be taught? before answering, Decades of
cognitive research point to a disappointing answer: not really. People who have
sought to teach critical thinking have assumed that it is a skill, like riding
a bicycle, and that, like other skills, once you learn it, you can apply it in
any situation. Research from cognitive science shows that thinking is not that
sort of skill. The processes of thinking are intertwined with the content of
thought (that is, domain knowledge).
The new Health and Social Studies (HASS) Curriculum is a
good example of the skills approach and seems to be based upon John Deweys
expanding horizons model. This starts with the childs immediate horizons and
works outwards. Instead of learning about Ancient Rome, for example, the
content of Year 1 is for students to develop an understanding of, Differences
in family structures and roles today, and how these have changed or remained
the same over time. This is quite vague. Alongside this supposed content,
students learn skills such as to, Compare objects from the past with those
from the present; abilities that cognitive science suggests will be entirely
knowledge dependent. It is notable that the expanding horizons model was
being criticised as demotivating and theoretically misguided by Kieran Egan as
far back as 1980 and yet it is a recent introduction to our curriculum (Egan,
is an example of a critical ability that is highly dependent upon relevant
knowledge. In early reading instruction, comprehension is dependent upon the
ability to decode written words. The content of early readers is usually highly
familiar to the child and so once they decode the word, they are likely to
understand the context. However, as reading instruction progresses, students
are presented with more academic texts that may not be set in familiar
contexts. At this point, knowledge becomes critical. This is not just about
vocabulary, although vocabulary is a good proxy for knowledge. Writers tend to
miss out information and so readers need to be able to fill in those gaps and
build a picture of what is being discussed. This is responsible for the fourth
grade slump where children from less privileged backgrounds start to fall away
in reading performance compared to their more privileged peers who are likely
to have been exposed to more knowledge and vocabulary at home (Hirsch, 2003).
Australian Curriculum therefore represents a huge missed opportunity.
It is notable that at
the timing of writing, the Australian government is considering introducing a
phonics check similar to the one introduced in England in 2011. Yet England has
also strengthened the content of its national curriculum and this does not seem
to be under discussion here. We may find that any gains children make in
decoding completely wash out over time due to the degraded content that they
are exposed to.
It is fashionable to
dismiss the need for content in the curriculum by suggesting that everything
can be looked up on the internet. Again, this is misguided and at odds with
cognitive science. Put simply, if you dont know something then you dont know
what to look up. Cognitive load theory, developed by Professor John Sweller of
the University of New South Wales and others, posits a model of the mind
consisting of a severely limited working memory, where problem-solving,
creative processes and so on take place, and an effectively limitless long term
memory. Crucially, the limits of working memory completely fall away when
dealing with knowledge retrieved from long term memory (Sweller et. al 2011).
This knowledge is literally the content of thought; its what we think with.
You cant think with it if it is sitting somewhere out there on the internet.
is not well understood. Curriculum authorities in the states as well as the
Australian Curriculum tend to prioritise the application of knowledge without
focusing on the acquisition of this knowledge in the first place. We need to
acknowledge that one reason for this is political. For instance, specifying set
texts in an English curriculum is fraught and certain to provoke legitimate
democratic debate. To avoid this, it is expedient to instead focus on nebulous
What can we do to
improve and how can we support ongoing improvement over time?
If schools are simply
given new funding, then it is probable that they will spend it on programmes
that will degrade performance over time.
There is near
overwhelming evidence that for novices learning new content, explicit
approaches to teaching this content are superior to implicit ones (Kirschner
et. al., 2006). Initially, these findings came from research into teacher
expertise and the behaviours of the most effective teachers (see e.g. Yates,
2005). This was then supported by a range of attempts to teach ill-structured
tasks such as writing (Rosenshine, 2009). We also have a more recent body of
experimental work in cognitive science demonstrating the superiority of
explicit methods (Paas et. al., 2003). It is important to note that these
findings are not restricted to the rote recall of discrete facts, but that they
extend to any academic concept or skill that has been tested, including those
that tend to be considered as higher level.
Unfortunately, there is also near overwhelming consensus in
the education sector that implicit approaches are superior to explicit ones.
Implicit methods involve students in finding things out for themselves to some
degree and come under a variety of labels: constructivist teaching,
problem-based learning, inquirybased learning, project-based learning,
makerspaces and many more. The critical difference between explicit and
implicit approaches is whether new material is fully explained in a structured
fashion when students first encounter it. Both will move to more independent
tasks as students gain mastery.
The predominance of
implicit approaches may be illustrated in a number of ways. For instance, the
2016 Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) conference
programme, which no longer seems to be available online, contained no
references to explicit teaching or its common synonyms such as direct
instruction. It did, however, reference inquirybased approaches. As I am
writing this, the Australian Council for Educational Research has published its
daily article aimed at teachers in its online Teacher magazine. It is an
interview with Professor Simone Reinhold about inquiry-based learning. The
effectiveness of this approach is never questioned (Earp, 2017). Many teachers
reading the article will assume this is an example of good practice supported
by the research evidence.
The Teacher article
also refers to differentiation, the process of varying pace, content and
activities to meet the perceived needs of students in a class. This is required
by the Australian Professional Standards for Teacher (AITSL, 2011) and is
accepted as good practice in education. Differentiation sounds highly plausible
but there are risks to varying teaching based upon teachers perceptions. What
if these perceptions are incorrect? We know that teachers, just like everybody
else, suffer from cognitive biases and these can bias teacher assessments
against disadvantaged groups (Burgess & Greaves, 2013). Some forms of
differentiation advocate the substitution of tasks; if a student struggles with
writing then they may be allowed to complete a task by tape recording their
voice. There are relatively few studies that have investigated differentiation
in isolation but, of those that have, the evidence of effectiveness is missing
(e.g. Brighton et. al., 2005; Capp, 2017).
Recent years have provided evidence on teaching methods from
the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). An analysis of PISA
2010 mathematics results showed that teacher-directed instruction was
positively related to maths performance, although this relationship became
negative for very high levels of teacher-directed instruction. The same
analysis found an overwhelmingly negative relationship between
studentoriented instruction and maths performance (Caro et. al., 2016).
Student-oriented instruction was defined as the extent to which the teacher
gives different work to students who have difficulties learning and/or to those
who can advance faster; the teacher assigns projects that require at least one
week to complete; the teacher has students work in small groups to come up with
joint solutions to a problem or task; and the teacher asks students to help
plan classroom activities or topics. A student orientation is therefore an
implicit approach that incorporates differentiation. Oddly, the Organisation
for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) define good teaching to be
student-oriented, despite this (Echazarra et. al., 2007).
For the 2015 round of testing, PISA focused on science
teaching. They found that teacherdirected instruction was associated with
higher achievement in science. This time, it was contrasted with
enquiry-based teaching which, in the context of science, includes a focus on
practical activities. Enquiry-based teaching, an implicit approach, was
associated with lower achievement (OECD, 2016).
McKinsey consulting have analysed the 2016 PISA data and
state, In all five regions, when teachers took the lead, scores were generally
higher, and the more inquiry-based learning, the lower the scores
best is when the two styles work togetherspecifically, with teacher-directed
instruction in most or almost all classes, and inquiry-based learning in some.
(Mourshed et. al., 2017). This fits with teachers explicitly teaching new
content to novices and releasing control as students gain expertise i.e. the
explicit teaching model (Rosenshine, 2012).
teaching methods have become the subject of rigorous randomised controlled
trials with predictable results. Project-based learning is popular in
Australia, with some schools using funding to send teachers to training
sessions. The main idea is that students will learn content and a range of
higher order skills through completing a project. This is not a new notion and
has been written about by educationalists since at least 1918 (Kilpatrick,
1918). A report from the U.K. found little evidence for the approach in a
review of the literature, and when it was tested in a number of schools in a
randomised controlled trial, there was a potentially negative effect. However,
the security of this finding was weak because so many schools chose to drop out
of the projectbased learning intervention (Menzies et. al., 2016).
Are there barriers to
implementing these improvements?
preference for implicit teaching methods persists in the education community,
despite the wealth of evidence. There are a number of reasons for this.
Foremost is perhaps an ideological opposition to explicit teaching. Explicit
teaching involves the teacher selecting material and deciding on tasks for
students to complete. Popular educational theories prefer students to make
choices themselves. Explicit teaching sets the teacher up as a figure of
authority. If we conflate teaching methods with political ideas then explicit
teaching can be framed as oppressive (e.g. Freire, 1970). Such reasoning is a
strong current in sociological education research.
Another driving force is the perception that implicit
teaching approaches are more
motivating than explicit approaches. It is unclear whether
this is true. It is conceivable that students may be motivated by the opportunity
to conduct their own experiment, but a teacher telling a story or explaining an
interesting phenomenon an explicit approach is also likely to be
motivating. The problem with arguing on the basis of motivation is that it
confuses a passing or situational interest with a long-term, personal
interest in a subject. Personal interest may well be influenced by situational
interest but we also know that it is strongly influenced by self-efficacy; the
perception of a student that they can be successful in their efforts
(Zimmerman, 2000). This is, in turn, influenced by previous feelings of success
and progress. One recent study in Canada found that achievement in early
mathematics predicted later motivation but that motivation did not predict
later achievement (Garon‐Carrier et. al., 2016). If we want to foster
motivation, we should certainly aim to avoid boring or staid delivery but, most
of all, we should prioritise approaches that lead to the most learning. This
takes us back, inevitably, to explicit teaching.
countless government and social enterprise initiatives to encourage students to
study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are predicated on
the idea of generating situational interest through science demonstrations,
plays, games, experiments, talks given by professionals or other activities.
These are bound to fail unless they are followed by quality, long-term
Finally, we must be
careful to avoid naïve interpretations of evidence. Some sources use measures
of effect size to rank and categorise a whole range of strikingly diverse
interventions that have been tested in a wide variety of ways (e.g. Hattie,
2009; Evidence for Learning, 2017). This is a problem because effect sizes vary
due to the age of the subjects, the design of the trial and a number of other
factors (Wiliam, 2016). We should therefore only compare effect sizes from
similar kinds of studies. For example, the Educational Endowment Foundation in
the U.K. has started to run large-scale randomised controlled trials of various
interventions. These are usually compared to a control condition that does not
have the intervention. Given that it is impossible to blind such trials in
the way that trials of pharmaceuticals are able to use a placebo, it is likely
that we will generate an effect due to expectations alone (a placebo effect).
We should expect a larger effect size from a study such as this than from a
study that compares two viable interventions. Simplistic reference to such
trials or to tables of effect sizes may therefore be misleading and may damage
the call for an evidence-based approach.
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