Monday, December 30, 2013

dark morality: an argument in favour of moral uncertainty

Lecture 3: Equality and Our Moral Image of the World. In Putnam, Hilary (1987) The Many Faces of Realism.

I think this lecture resonates so strongly with me because it explains an issue that has worried me below the surface, without being able to articulate it clearly. The issue was wanting to be certain but not being certain about a variety of personal, political and cultural questions.

Putnam begins by saying that Kant kept a double set of books, one for a world we experience, our world, and the other, a world behind a veil (the Noumenal world), that we don't know about. Putnam, along with Lenin etc (Marxist critics of Kant) finds this dualism repulsive.

But unlike the marxist critics, who sometimes dismiss Kant contemptuously with one liners ("thing in itself", rubbish), Putnam finds much about Kant that is worthy and extraordinary.

Kant was the first philosopher to reject the idea of truth as correspondence to a pre-structured Reality (see Reason, Truth and History, pp. 56-7, 60-64 for more detail here)

Putnam evolved his idea of internal realism around about 1980. On the one side he rejected Big R Realism as being too algorithmic. On the other side he rejected Cultural Relativism as being too divorced from reality. Internal realism was a way to drive the philosophical chariot up the middle. This description is far too brief a summary of course, Putnam has written at length on this subject.

The fundamental idea of Kant's “critical philosophy” — especially in his three Critiques: the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) — is human autonomy

One version of empiricism (there are many versions) says that all we know for sure is sense data. Kant rejects this in his first critique. When we experience the outer world with our senses the actual experience is inner, not outer. Sensations, the "objects of inner sense", are caught within the web of belief and conceptualisation. They do not represent an uncorrupted given that anchors our knowledge. Kant was the first internal realist. Our conceptual contribution can't be factored out. The "makers-true" and "makers-verified" of our beliefs lie within and not outside our conceptual system

Each of Kant's critique presents a different kind of reason and a different image of the world to go with each kind of reason: scientific reason, ethical reason, aesthetic reason, juridical reason. So even though Kant thinks we have exactly one scientific version of the world, for Putnam these different kinds of reasons hint at the conceptual relativity that he supports (eg. see pp. 17-19 of The Many Faces of Realism for more detail on conceptual relativity).

Putnam's aim in this book is to sketch the outline of internal realism in moral philosophy

Kant inherited from Rousseau and the ideals of the French revolution, in particular, the value of Equality. Equality comes from the Jewish religion. All humans are created in the image of God. Greek ethics (Plato, Aristotle, Hellenistic period) had no notion of universal human equality.

Note for further study: Compare this with Hannah Arendt's critique of the French revolution, that compassion for the most disadvantaged projected as the supreme virtue contributed to the destruction of Robespierre (On Revolution)

The idea of equality, when it is detached from it's religious roots becomes somewhat mysterious and exposed to scoffing. How many people really, deeply believe in human equality, beyond a politically correct platitude?

The idea of secular equality might be based on notions of something morally mysterious about humans (which is left undefined), respect, happiness, suffering or rights. It is not based on talents, achievements, social contribution etc. Nietzsche attacked the idea that we should respect the untalented. His moral elitism is perhaps still shared by many, for example, those working next to the untalented receiving the same pay, to take one example. Unions tend to oppose merit pay, is that a correct stance? Our belief in equality needs to be put under the microscope. This is one value of Putnam's essay, he is developing a more robust philosophical defence of equality.

In traditional formulations of equality (religious and secular) the notion of equality did not relate to freedom.

Kant offers a new approach that links liberty or freedom to equality. Kant's central distinction is between autonomy and heteronomy. Heteronomy is acceptance of the domination of an outside authority, human or divine. One accepts a moral system unthinkingly. It never occurs to one to "think for oneself", the great maxim of the Enlightenment. Totalitarians try to produce heteronomous people (sheep)

But what is autonomy? What is a positive characterisation of autonomy (as distinct from it being the opposite of heteronomy?)

An autonomous person asks: What should I do? How should I live?

An autonomous person uses free will and reason (rationality) to choose ethical principles. This approach is compatible with medieval (the Middle Ages, 5th - 15th C) thinking, for instance that of Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

Putnam praises Kant because he transcends this medieval approach.

The medievals thought we had the capacity to know human essence, to know what Happiness or Eudaemonia (human flourishing) is, in the "thick" Aristotelian sense, the inclusive human end. We use our free will and rationality to discover what one should do and then do it. Eudaemonia becomes an engineering problem.

Kant rejects this, is sceptical. Happiness can be interpreted in too many different ways to be reduced to an engineering problem.

More than this, Kant welcomes and celebrates this uncertainty about the human condition. If there was a revealed nature of Eudaemonia then that would lead to heteronomy. An objective, inclusive human end is repulsive to Kant and Putnam.

It would be a bad thing if the truths of religion could be deduced by reason because that would produce fanaticism, intense hostility to others thinking for themselves. The logical fanatic is the most dangerous type of fanatic! Fanaticism is undesirable in itself. As far as I can tell this seems to be a foundational truth for Putnam but one that I share. The problematic nature of moral truth (religious truth for Kant) is a good thing.

Being certain about our beliefs is sometimes a bad thing. We should always be open to the need to sometimes revise our beliefs (fallibilism). Scepticism, doubt and uncertainty have their place. Putnam's broader outlook is that both belief and doubt require justification. In this essay he puts the case against certainty in moral belief.

This is where Kant breaks with the medievals, that to know human essence can be reduced to an engineering problem!

At the other end, fideism maintains that faith is independent of reason or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths. Kant attacks fideism too, basing religion of faith, since that also leads to fanaticism.

Kant says let us recognise that we have a religious need but let us not be fanatical about the way in which we satisfy that need. Neither Reason nor Fundamentalism (leap of faith, blind faith) can tell us with certainty how to satisfy that need.

In our secular age this message is still relevant since people embrace non religious causes with religious fervour (Environmentalism, Marxism, Libertarianism etc.) and, of course, religious fundamentalism is still a huge problem in the world (eg. al Qaeda). All of these causes contain truths but the danger that those truths will turn into dogma is real.

The respect in which we are all equals is that we all face this same dilemma, we can choose to think for ourselves without a clear guide. We are free, we can reason but there is no certainty in the outcome. That is the most valuable fact about our lives, our Eudaemonia. Putnam is arguing that this insight, linking equality to freedom originates with Kant.

Kant's ideal community is one of beings who think for themselves without knowing what the human essence is, without knowing what Eudaemonia is, and who respect one another for doing that. This is a valuable corrective to the danger of those who embrace causes with religious, fanatical fervour.

Kant, although he admired Rousseau, is very far from Rousseau's notion of submission to the general will.

This exercise in philosophical anthropology leads to the emergence of a moral image of the world. Putnam takes this phrase from Dieter Henrich.

A moral image of the world is more than a checklist of virtues or what one ought to do (rights, responsibilities etc.), rather it is a picture of how our virtues and ideals hang together with each other. It may be as vague as sisterhood or brotherhood. Putnam asserts that we need a moral image of the world, or, since he is a pluralist, a number of complementary moral images of the world.

For the medievals metaphysical realism was unproblematically correct since rational intuition gave us direct access to things in themselves.

Kant's advance on this was to celebrate the loss of essences without turning back to Humean empiricism

The core issue for me is do we really believe in human equality in a deep sense and has Putnam, interpreting Kant in this way, produced a stronger argument for equality, by linking it to freedom. That the result of believing we have free will and using our rationality as best we can is not moral certainty but instead uncertainty or pluralism, many paths open, there is not One True Way as advocated by fanatics of different stripes (religious fundamentalists, environmental alarmists, marxist dictatorships etc.). Moreover, his moral image of the world, that we start out as free, rational individuals who despite our best efforts can't achieve certainty on many big issues is far more powerful than some check list of virtues or the way we ought to be. This appears to me to be an original contribution or a deepening of our knowledge about the human condition. Putnam's argument is strong in part because it is informed by a deep knowledge of the philosophers who came before him (Hume, Rousseau, Kant).

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Trevor Tao: piano plus Rubik's cube

After chess today (Andrew Saint memorial), whilst we were munching pizza, Bill Anderson-Smith mentioned a youtube video where Trevor Tao, one of the chess participants and known for his various remarkable abilties, solves the Rubiks cube whilst playing a piece on the piano ( Erik Satie's gymnopedie). Here it is:

Friday, December 20, 2013

Is Diane Ravitch missing something?

Diane Ravitch is a highly respected education commentator and historian in the USA. She initially supported "No Child Left Behind" but later reversed her position.
High-stakes testing, "utopian" goals, "draconian" penalties, school closings, privatization, and charter schools didn't work, she concluded. "The best predictor of low academic performance is poverty—not bad teachers." (Why I Changed My Mind About School Reform)
I noticed a couple of books she has written which are very relevant to my research (research update here). I have just ordered her most recent book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools. It contains chapters on test scores (both local to the USA and international comparisons such as PISA), the achievement gap, poverty, merit pay, teacher tenure, Teach for America and Michelle Rhee. The gloves are off, it's education war in the USA.

This made me curious about her attitude to Direct Instruction, so I did an advanced search of her blog using that phrase, "Direct Instruction" site: It appears that Diane doesn't write much about Direct Instruction but she does publish opponents of DI, such as Stephen Krashen, on her blog.

But what I found most interesting was that a supporter of DI, with the moniker Eded, challenged Stephen Krashen and IMO Prof Krashen did not provide an adequate response. Here is the exchange, including the original Stephen Krashen material initially posted by Diane Ravitch, A Literacy Expert Opposes the Common Core Standards
Stephen Krashen is a professor emeritus at the University of Southern California, where he taught linguistics.

He comments here in response to an earlier post about the Common Core standards:
What this excessive detail also does is
(1) dictate the order of presentation of aspects of literacy
(2) encourage a direct teaching, skill-building approach to teaching.

Both of these consequences run counter to a massive amount of research and experience.

There is very good evidence from both first and second language acquisition that aspects of language and literacy are naturally acquired in a specific order that cannot be altered by instruction (C. Chomsky, 1969, The Acquisition of Syntax in Children from 5 to 10. Cambridge: MIT Press; Krashen, S. 1981, Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning, Pergamon Press, available at

There is also very good evidence that we acquire language and literacy best not through direct instruction but via “comprehensible input” – for literacy, this means reading, especially reading that the reader finds truly interesting, or “compelling.” (Krashen, S. 2010.The Goodman/Smith Hypothesis, the Input Hypothesis, the Comprehension Hypothesis, and the (Even Stronger) Case for Free Voluntary Reading. In: Defying Convention, Inventing the Future in Literacy Research and Practice: Essays in Tribute to Ken and Yetta Goodman. P. Anders (Ed.) New York: Routledge. 2010. pp. 46-60. Available at
Now here is the exchange between Eded and Prof. Krashen in the comments:
December 27, 2012 at 12:24 am
Regarding the second point, I’m not aware of any research to suggest that direct instruction is counter to research.

Please have a look at papers at, my books, as well as the work of Frank Smith, Kenneth Goodman and others.

Dr. Krashen – thanks very much for posting the link to your website in response to my comment earlier. I have reviewed a few of your articles, and unfortunately I’m not seeing any research demonstrating that direct instruction is ineffective. I do see arguments presented, with some research, that motivation is important when learning to read, along with opportunities to meaningfully engage with reading. However, I haven’t seen any studies which contradict the massive body of evidence supporting direct instruction in the “Big 5″ areas of reading (see for a good list of research).

Could you perhaps provide a reference to a research article which specifically examines direct instruction vs. non-direct instruction instructional methods, and shows a greater impact of non-direct instruction methods on general reading outcomes (e.g., measures of reading fluency, comprehension)? It may be more helpful to evaluate your claims more specifically, rather than talk in broad generalities.

To the general public reading, I would highly encourage you to view the research link above and draw your own conclusions regarding direct instruction, as Dr. Krashen (and apparently Dr. Ravitch) are in the extreme minority when it comes to perceptions regarding the literature base of direct instruction.

Please keep looking. Many of us have published research showing the extreme limitations of direct instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, grammar, in direct response to the claims of the big 5 and National Reading Panel, and supporting the hypothesis that PA,phonics, vocabulary, grammar and competence in text structure are the result of reading (especially self-selected reading). Much of it is summarized in one place: Please see Comments on the LEARN Act, (A lot of it has been published in major journals, eg Phi Delta Kappan, Reading Research Quarterly, Garan’s papers in Language Arts, Kappan.)

Thanks for your response Dr. Krashen. Certainly one of the difficult aspects of this discussion is that it’s so broad. It’s not very easy to making sweeping generalizations about broad categories of interventions, as any particular side can start pointing at particular niches in the research, or studies within those niches, to prove points.

As such, I’ll respond to your comments on the LEARN Act specifically related to Phonemic Awareness (PA). Your main citation is a review of studies cited by the NRP about phonemic awareness, where you cite an insignificant effect of PA training on reading comprehension. In response, I’d direct you to this meta-analysis which shows a moderate effect size for PA on reading skills, and a large effect size for PA training on phonemic awareness skills:

I’d also point out a limitation of the parameters of your meta-analysis:

You only examine the effect of PA training on reading comprehension, as opposed to more component skills such as decoding, word reading, and reading fluency. It is entirely possible that PA training would have little or no direct impact on reading comprehension in later years of a child’s educational career, but have a more significant impact on more basic, foundational skills such as decoding. As such, it may be that phonemic awareness training is not sufficient in producing effects related to reading comprehension, and perhaps not even necessary with some (or many) kids, but it may nevertheless be a necessary component for some struggling readers in terms of acquiring beginning reading skills. As such, citing evidence that PA instruction fails to single-handedly produce long-term reading gains is not evidence that PA training is unnecessary.

Consider this analogy: a beginning swimmer receives instruction on how to breathe properly, but receives no additional swimming instruction. Is breathing instruction sufficient to producing good swimmers? No. Do all good swimmers breathe well? Mostly. Did all good swimmers learn, through explicit instruction, to breathe properly? No. Is any of this evidence that explicit instruction related to breathing properly is unnecessary or unhelpful to beginning swimmers, particularly those who struggle with breathing? Absolutely not. In fact, instruction on breathing may be absolutely critical to swimming, but may show little if any effect on a swimmer’s ability to swim a 500 meter butterfly stroke fluently, as beginning breathing is not sufficient to produce those gains.

As I mentioned before, it’s very difficult to discuss in blog comments a topic so wide as “direct instruction.” As such, my main point here is not to debunk your entire statement that there is no support for direct instruction as such a discussion would have to be much larger. Rather, my point is to highlight to other readers that your assertions (and Diane’s assertions) about direct instruction are not “givens” in research, that most folks do support the use of direct instruction, and that your research links/comments are not without challenge.

I’d also like to add a note of thanks for your willingness to engage in discussion on this blog – too often there is a gap between research and practice, and your willingness to engage in discussion with the “average reader” is a testament to your desire for research to be actually used rather than simply created. I’d also welcome follow-up comments and challenges, as I think those reading this blog post would be most informed by a more specific discussion of the research, as opposed to general statements about broad categories of interventions.

The failure to find a clear relationship between PA training and reading (reading comprehension) is consistent with the meta-analysis you cited. Also, there are other arguments, eg: some people learn to read quite well with very little PA, PA develops without instruction, adult illiterates have low PA, then their PA improves after they learn to read. Also we have to ask how millions of people learned to read before experts “discovered” PA. (We have made similar arguments for PA in second language development,Krashen, S. and Hastings, A. 2011. Is Phonemic Awareness Training Necessary in Second Language Literacy Development? Is it Even Useful? International Journal of Foreign Language Teaching 7(1). Available at

Again, PA training may not have a significant, direct impact on the general outcome of reading comprehension, but may have an impact on component, foundation skills such as word reading. Simply because an intervention is not sufficient in producing a general outcome does not mean that it isn’t a helpful component. There has been a causal link established between PA training and development of word reading skills, between word reading skills and reading fluency, and between reading fluency and reading comprehension. As such, it appears that PA training is mediated by variables such as word reading and reading fluency, and thus does have an impact on reading comprehension, if only indirectly.

With your “other route” concept – that some people learn to read quite well without PA training, consider mapping directions from your house to the mall. There are likely multiple routes, and the existence of one route does not imply the lack of existence of all others. You might take the highway, or the back roads. Those supporting PA training are not claiming that PA training is the only way to become a proficient reader, but that it is one route, particularly for struggling readers. In fact, it’s a common assertion that MANY readers do not require direct, explicit instruction in PA, phonics, etc., and that other, informal processes are at play.

In terms of PA developing without instruction, consider the case of a diabetic not producing insulin. The fact that many healthy people produce sufficient insulin is not evidence that diabetics do not. Similarly, that some children develop PA in a healthy manner is not evidence that other children do not.

In terms of PA developing as a result of other reading processes developing, I agree that there is not necessarily a unidirectional influence of PA (or many reading variables). For example, phonics instruction contributes to PA. However, that phonics instruction contributes to PA is not evidence that PA training does NOT contribute to phonics skills.

Again, bringing this discussion back to a point of relevance to this blog post, my hope is that those reading this discussion will not take for granted Diane’s comment that direct instruction “run[s] counter to a massive amount of research and experience.”

Credit/blame where credit/blame is due: the comment that direct instruction “run[s] counter to a massive amount of research and experience” comes from me, not Diane Ravitch.

Ah, I apologize – I was reading what I thought was her interpretation. Again, I’ve enjoyed the discussion. Looking forward to more exchanged in the future hopefully…

RE: PA, may have an impact on component, foundation skills such as word reading. Maybe word reading is not foundation skill but also a result of reading experience. (The comprehension hypothesis).

I think I understand you theoretically, but how do you make sense of evidence that phonics instruction improves word reading, that better word reading results in better fluency with connected text, and that fluency with connected text is what (in part) enables comprehension?

Complex phonics, word reading, fluency are all the RESULT of real reading for comprehension.

Dr. Krashen, in response to your last comment in our discussion above about phonics, word reading, and fluency being the result of comprehension as opposed to building toward comprehension, I’d again return to my “multiple pathways” comment: Some if not many children do not require explicit phonics (or other) instruction to read fluently and comprehend – they may independently acquire those skills, facilitated in part by being provided motivational and engaging reading contexts. However, with struggling readers (and others as well), research has suggested that explicit instruction in foundational reading skill areas (e.g., phonics) can lead to acquisition of more advanced skills such as reading fluency.

In other words, we both seem to be right, in that kids seem to be able to learn to read with both direct instruction and non-direct instruction. The question then becomes which modality to use in different situations, which would be directly answerable by research investigating the differential effects of DI vs. non-DI approaches in different instructional contexts. I am familiar with a variety of studies which support DI in across contexts, and am not familiar with any studies which examine DI and non-DI approaches side-by-side, and find greater effects for non-DI approaches. Could you provide any links to studies that would suggest favorable results for non-DI approaches over DI approaches?

Stephen Krashen
December 27, 2012 at 9:09 pm EdEd to avoid clogging up Diane’s blog, please write me off line and I will send you some sources and papers. My email:
Reading wars morph into research wars and it's hard to keep track of it all. But I thought that Eded had the better of this exchange, with Stephen copping out at the end. From my reading of the evidence it does favour Direct Instruction over the Whole Language views of Stephen Krashen. For instance see Kerry Hempenstall's essay, Literacy assessment based upon the National Reading Panel’s Big Five components (long, 46pp), for a very thorough review of the evidence.

Diane Ravitch's position is that poverty trumps teaching methodology. That is a powerful argument but we can't put on hold better education until the poverty question is solved. The education establishment and teacher unions have a duty to study the evidence and deliver the best possible education to poor students in the here and now.

Monday, December 16, 2013

rediscovering the purpose of school: reply to Barry York's education revolution article

A response to Barry York's article, Can we have a real Education Revolution?

Barry commences by pointing out that class size has reduced from 50 to 25 over a generation.

It is often claimed, by the political right, that reduction in class size hasn't improved educational outcomes. The statistics support this position of the right. John Hattie has become an often quoted authority about effect sizes:
"... a synthesis of meta-analyses and other studies of class size demonstrate a typical effect-size of about 0.1–0.2, which relative to other educational interventions could be considered ‘‘small’’ or even ‘‘tiny’’, especially in relation to many other possible interventions—and certainly not worth the billions of dollars spent reducing the number of children per classroom. The more important question, therefore, should not be ‘‘What are the reasons for this enhanced effect-size?’’, but ‘‘Why are the effect-sizes from reducing class size so small?’’"
- Hattie, J. (2005).The paradox of reducing class size and improving learning outcomes. International Journal of Educational Research, 43, 387–425
I believe that the Gonski report is yet another iteration of this process. It throws money at schools but lacks an evidence-based plan to actually improve educational outcomes.

Barry fondly mentions "a wonderful History teacher by the name of Itiel Bereson". I agree that great teachers make a difference and that this is far more important than class size.

I also agree that the teachers union plays a very limited and sometimes negative role in real educational reform because they are more interested in teacher conditions than teacher quality. I'm angry at the Union for not supporting performance pay for teachers in remote indigenous communities, conditional on them achieving measurable improvements. If the teachers union had responsibility for determining the nature of teacher training in Universities then they would feel more pressure to actually come up with an educational approach that works, rather than focusing too narrowly on teacher rights.

But when Barry argues that classroom teachers "know best" there is some lack of the clear thinking he extols beginning to creep in. If there are only a few great teachers like Mr. Bereson, one wonders why they as a group "know best"? Barry is expressing the belief here that those who do the real work, those at the chalk face, as a result of their nitty gritty day to day experience, "know best". Yet, if they really know best why do they support a union that focuses on worker conditions, promotes the same green issues that Barry objects to and doesn't push hard enough for quality teaching?

Who really does know best? One group that I have been taking a lot of notice of recently are those who promote evidence-based criteria and have the skin in the game of actually working with and improving the learning of disadvantaged students. In Australia, this would include Kevin Wheldall, Robin Beaman-Wheldall and Kerry Hempenstall as well as the initiative promoted by Noel Pearson in Cape York, using the American derived teaching materials of Zig Engelmann.

Barry goes on to counterpose Learning to Teaching as though there is no real connection between them. Moreover, he claims that the social purpose of schools is to imprison the mind and that hasn't changed for two centuries. This is simplistic argument. As always, the devil is in the detail.

This leads into Barry arguing for the end of learning as we know it and it's replacement with learning over the world wide web. We are led to believe that we can do this now because in C21st we have a "very high literacy". If only this were true. Unfortunately, the literacy rate in Australia leaves much to be desired. Although it has improved massively since the late C19th, the really important measure is whether people have sufficient literacy to be highly functioning members in today's society.

My research indicates that roughly 44% or 13.6 million Australians aged 15 to 74 years have literacy skills that will make it difficult for them to independently extract useful information from the world wide web (source: Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies, Australia 2011-12

Moreover, Australian schools are not doing a very good job in teaching basic literacy. The PIRLS 2011 study into reading comprehension put Australia second bottom of all English speaking countries surveyed. 24% of Australian students had a Low or Below Low score in reading comprehension. See Kevin Wheldall's article, PIRLS before Swine for more detail.

The basic problem is that teachers have not been trained properly to teach literacy. This was the conclusion of the Brendan Nelson National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy in 2005 but none of the recommendations from that inquiry have been implemented. The real villains here are the teacher trainers in universities and the teacher unions who block reform. (the education establishment). Many of them are still wedded to discredited whole language approaches.

It has been argued that there are other, more modern forms of literacy than old-fashioned "reading comprehension". These arguments sometimes take the form that it is more important to "read the world" than read the word. But a little thought is enough to convince most people that old fashioned "reading comprehension" is a prerequisite to "really learning" on the Internet.

So, the statistics reveal that at least 44% of adult Australians and 24% of young Australians, still at school, are going to miss out if Barry's model of school reform is implemented. Of course, the internet has incredible learning potential for highly literate and self motivated learners. But Barry has made too many sweeping generalisations in his historical and social analysis of the actual nature of schools. If you are not clear about the actual problem then how can you be clear about a viable solution?

Is it possible to conceive of a useful purpose for schools? Yes, it is. Anthropological findings show that there is no easy or natural path to certain types of knowledge, including reading and writing. This type of knowledge has been called non universals (by Alan Kay) or "biologically secondary cognitive abilities" (by David Geary).

Universal knowledge, displayed by every human tribe, includes such things as:
  • social
  • language
  • communication
  • culture
  • fantasies
  • stories
  • tools and art
  • superstition
  • religion and magic
  • case based learning
  • theatre
  • play and games
  • differences over similarities
  • quick reactions to patterns
  • loud noises and snakes
  • supernormal responses
  • vendetta and more (about 300 of these have been identified across cultures)
The above categorises the level of what most people do on the world wide web (social media), despite it's potential for higher learning.

On the other hand, the non universals include such things as:
  • reading and writing
  • deductive abstract mathematics
  • model based science
  • equal rights
  • democracy
  • perspective drawing
  • theory of harmony
  • similarities over differences
  • slow deep thinking
  • agriculture
  • legal systems
These are much harder to learn than the universals because we are not directly wired to learn them. These things are actually inventions which are difficult to invent. And the rise of Schools going all the way back to the Sumerian and Egyptian times came about to start helping children learn some of these things that aren't easy to learn. For more details about the universals and non universals see The non universals

Some things are hard to learn. Although that hard to learn information is on the internet it is usually not sought out spontaneously by your average facebook junkie. I call the popularity of social media the you_twit_face phenomena (after youtube, twitter and facebook). Pop culture is the main form of discourse on the internet.

Learning to read is rocket science. But once you know how to read you totally forget the process you went through to learn to read. The literate then become blind to the plight of the illiterate. The idea that reading is natural, you just soak it up naturally from the surrounding environment, is BS.

The legitimate purpose of school should be to teach the non universals, the things which are not learnt naturally. That is one reason why schools were invented in the first place. They are not simply vehicles to imprison our minds.

Barry quotes Mao: "If you want knowledge, you must take part in the practice of changing reality". I can agree with the Mao quote but like any one liner it only represents a part of a more complete picture. Mao argued for an ongoing spiral of knowledge between practice and theory. If you are going to take part in the practice of changing reality then you had better also be prepared to study / research hard and acquire a lot of knowledge, including book knowledge. We all know activists who end up doing and thinking foolish things.

In fact, there are many former radicals from the late 60s who went onto become education establishment leaders and union activists promoting non authoritarian, constructivist teaching methodologies such as whole language that have led to a quarter of our students not becoming literate. They have changed reality in a bad way due to insufficient research informed by an intuitive dislike for a form of "authority", mistaking authoritative with authoritarian.

The factory model critique is problematic when applied to education because there is some good education that fits a factory model type of metaphor. Factories in capitalism are bad because they steal from the labour of workers. Another sense in which it is used is the replacement of artisan labour with mechanical labour, but that critique is more problematic according to Marx. There is nothing wrong with a machine replacing what was previously done by an artisan.

Many intelligent people report bad experiences at schools. For example, they were told to do things, such as write answers in sentences, over and over again, something that they already knew how to do and so the experience was boring, boring, boring ...

But, could you have a good factory model in an educational setting? In my opinion, yes. One answer here would be to improve the factory, each student having their own individualised, computerised assembly line programmed to help achieve both essential literacies but also electives beyond the basics.

Another popular, related argument is that individuals have multiple intelligences or different learning styles, which have to be catered for. But those positions have pretty much been abandoned by thinking educators. Lookup Dan Willingham on the net, he is very good at debunking both of those fads (multiple intelligences, learning styles)

Direct Instruction is pretty much a factory model, a far better factory model than what happens in most existing schools, and so the intuitive dislike of it by "progressives" is strong - but wrong. In teaching basic literacy and maths the research shows that one method fits all is a very good way to go. Kevin Wheldall calls this Non categorical teaching.

In conclusion, what is my idea of a good argument for school reform? It's a matter of getting the balance right between components that need to be highly structured and other components enabling freedom of expression. Thanks to people like the Wheldalls (MULTILIT) we now know how to achieve very close to 100% literacy education through a structured approach, an individualised factory model if you will. Direct Instruction models could also be beneficial for highly literate people wishing to extend their knowledge over particular domains, eg. the contribution of Einstein to our knowledge of physics. Beyond that I agree that Barry's ideas have merit. The internet has much potential for extending our knowledge further for those who are literate and motivated to do that. But as Mao also said, you have to lift the bucket from the ground, not start in mid-air.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

What did this Roman, Whitlam, ever do for us?

Noel Pearson delivers the 2013 Whitlam Oration
Extract @ 21 min:

Whitlam's was a reform government for which policy and economic management were secondary. In less than three years an astonishing reform agenda leapt off the policy platform into legislation and the machinery and programme of government. The country would change forever. The modern, cosmopolitan Australia finally emerged like a technicolour butterfly from its long dormant chrysalis.

Thirty eight years later we are like John Cleese, Eric Idle and Michael Palin's Jewish insurgents ranting against the despotic rule of Rome defiantly demanding, "And what did the Romans ever do for us, anyway?"

Apart from:
  • Medibank
  • End of the Trade Practices Act
  • Cutting Tariff protection
  • No fault divorce and the Family Law Act
  • The Australia Council
  • The Federal Court
  • The Order of Australia
  • Federal Legal Aid
  • The Racial Discrimination Act
  • Needs based school funding
  • Recognition of China
  • The Law Reform Commission
  • The Abolition of Conscription
  • Student Financial Assistance
  • The Heritage Commission
  • Non discriminatory immigration laws
  • Community Health Clinics
  • Aboriginal Land Rights
  • Paid Maternity Leave for Public Servants
  • Lowering the minimum voting age to 18 years
  • Fair electoral boundaries and Senate representation for the territories
Apart from all this, what did this Roman ever do for us?

Friday, November 22, 2013

challenging Sir Ken Robinson

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenges the way we're educating our children. He champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence.
- Speakers Ken Robinson: Author/educator
There is not just one but many Sir Ken Robinson TED talks about how the industrial model of schooling is killing creativity in our youth. Everyone loves to hear a story of a maverick but creative individual, such as Albert Einstein, who hated school and went on to demonstrate their genius. "Imagination is more important than knowledge", etc. As TED says there is "deep resonance" with this message.

Sir Ken's passionate polemic has now been challenged. Sir Ken is very popular, much loved but wrong. It's also important to drill down into the details of this argument. This corresponds to meme 5 Creativity of my current research (DI_indigenous_memes) Here are some links, with extracts:
Robinson pegs the current system as a product of the Enlightenment, but curiously the word “Romanticism” never comes up. Romanticism was an intellectual movement of the second half of the 18th century that arose in response to the rationalism of the Enlightenment. It elevated emotion and feeling, and also emphasized the sublimity of Nature and all things natural.

Indeed, Romanticism gained strength in reaction to the Industrial revolution, the very movement that Robinson criticizes as an inspiration of our erroneous education paradigm.

Romantic views of education, typified by Pestalozzi and Rousseau, emphasize personal experience as crucial, and decry the sublimation of the individual to conformity. More generally, progressive educators from the early 20th century to the present have emphasized instruction that follows the child’s interests, includes more real-world tasks, and more group work.

So Robinson is not suggesting a revolutionary, entirely new approach. In fact he’s tapping a very rich, very old vein of thought.

It’s not important to me that he fails to acknowledge his intellectual forbears. It’s important to me that he fails to acknowledge that many many people have tried to create schools inspired by these ideals before. A few were spectacular, inspiring successes. Most crashed and burned. And, as is so common, what made the successes work well seemed difficult to pin down, and dashed attempts to replicate the success elsewhere.

I want Robinson to tell me what’s going to make things different this time around.
Willingham: Is a paradigm shift really needed?
On reflection, creativity appears to me a grittier, tougher process than such talks imply. Thousands of hours of ‘deliberate practice’ enable creativity. It is not all ‘flow’ or organic personalisation. For example, repeating the rules of grammar with sometimes deadening repetition can actually create the mastery required for playful creativity and rule breaking. Sir Ken likely scripted and practised his apparently spontaneously witty talk over and over to create his seeming carefree confidence and fluency. The pleasure of finding ‘flow’ is replaced by the dull but reassuring knowledge that perseverance could help make a difference, in a ‘factory model’ school or not.
Why we should mistrust Sir Ken Robinson
People like Robinson seem to believe that our jobs as educators is to uncover the talents and aptitudes personal to each child, and then to elevate them. This assumes that such aptitudes exist, uncovered, undiscovered, like statues of David buried in cold lava, and our jobs are to be archaeologists of character. Who buries these statues? What fairy hand blesses each child with gifts, and then challenges its guardians with discovering them? What immortal hand or eye?
- The Second Coming of Ken Robinson- but he's not the messiah
1. Talent is not innate

A growing body of research shows that talent isn’t innate, waiting passively like a tooth ready to be extracted. Research collated in books from Malcolm Gladwell, Carol Dweck, Matthew Syed, Daniel Coyle, Geoff Colvin, Daniel Willingham, Doug Lemov and Paul Tough show that natural talent is a myth; it’s only dedicated, determined and disciplined practice that leads to great achievement.

2. Multiple intelligences don’t exist

Dan Willingham has summarised the research and shown that learning styles do not exist; on multiple intelligences, ‘for scientists, this theory of the mind is almost certainly incorrect’: ‘The fact that the theory is an inaccurate description of the mind makes it likely that the more closely an application draws on the theory, the less likely the application is to be effective. All in all, educators would likely do well to turn their time and attention elsewhere.’

3. Literacy and numeracy are the basis of creativity

In the UK, 17% of school leavers leave school functionally illiterate, and 22% leave school functionally innumerate. Ask any parent what they would prefer: that their child left school unable to read, write or add up but able to dance and draw creatively, or unable to dance or draw creatively but able to read, write or add up. The reason why there’s a hierarchy of subjects is because some are more empowering than others. If you can’t read, you can’t learn much else. If you can’t do arithmetic, you can’t become a teacher, doctor, engineer, scientist, plumber or electrician. Numeracy and literacy are complex evolutionary applications of civilisation; they take a great deal of time, practice and expert guidance to master, so we dedicate a lot of time to them in school, and rightly so. Sir Ken is wrong when he says children do not need to be helped to learn, for the most part: children do need to be helped to learn – every teacher knows that. We don’t dedicate so much time to dancing and drawing because they don’t disempower you so much if you can’t do them.

4. Misbehaviour is more damaging than conformity

In any classroom, without compliance with instructions, no one learns anything. Disruptive behaviour is chronic, particularly in the most challenging schools. The problem for many teachers is not so much conformity, but rather pervasive disruption to teaching. Self-discipline is not an evil weed to be uprooted, but the foundation for effective learning. But then again, Sir Ken has not been teacher in a tough school – nor any primary or secondary school at all.

5. Academic achievement is important, but unequal

Strong academic achievement in private schools allow 96% to go to University, and in the UK commandeer 70% of the jobs as high court judges, 54% of the jobs as doctors and 51% of the jobs as journalists, despite only educating 7% of children. Yet only 16% of the poorest pupils go to University, due to persistent academic underachievement. It’s no good Sir Ken disparaging the education system’s focus on academic ability; closing the gap in academic attainment is vital for social mobility, social equity and social justice in this country.

6. Subject knowledge is vital for critical and creative skills

Decades of scientific research shows the importance of broad and domain-specific knowledge for reading, critical thinking and problem-solving skills. So it’s no good Sir Ken disparaging subject-based curricula. All over the world, mastering subject disciplines is the route to success. It’s no coincidence, no middle-class industrial Victorian conspiracy that China, South Korea, Canada and Scandanavia all organise their systems like this, as global expert Tim Oates explains: ‘In all high-performing systems, the fundamentals of subjects are strongly emphasised, have substantial time allocation, and are the focus of considerable attention’. It’s the most effective way of organising teaching and learning, because, as Daisy Christodoulou explains: ‘thinking skills are subject-specific; our working memories are limited and easily overloaded by distractions; and pupils are novices,’ not experts, and so require expert guidance.
What Sir Ken Got Wrong
I don’t completely agree with all of Pragmatic Education’s arguments (referring to the link above)
  • Intelligence may not be malleable. You can learn more knowledge, and that can come from practice. It’s not clear that fluid intelligence is improved with practice.
  • Learning styles don’t seem to exist. Multiple intelligences? I don’t think that the answer is as clear there.
  • Creativity comes from knowing things. Literacy and numeracy are great ways of coming to know things. It’s a bit strong to say that creativity comes from literacy and numeracy.
  • There are lots of reasons why rich kids are unequal to poor kids (see the issue about poverty and cognitive function.) Cultural knowledge is just part of it.
But 90% — I think he gets what’s wrong with Sir Ken’s arguments. What Sir Ken Got Wrong, and what the blogger got wrong too
Note: I haven't replicated the links in quotes from the above blogs. Many of these links are valuable. You will need to visit the original blogs if you want to research this further.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Chris Sarra's Stronger Smarter Schools: an Independent Evaluation

A Summative Evaluation of the Stronger Smarter Learning Communities Project
They [teachers] say you’re not going to be successful - that you can’t do this.

And just because you’re Indigenous or something, they expect nothing from you. That’s what they basically say. That’s what they want you doing; they want you to stay what they think you are.
—Indigenous Secondary School Student, 2012
Follow the link for the full report. Hopefully listing the findings and policy implications below will provide an initial incentive to some robust discussion of the full report.

Stronger Smarter Institute (SSI)
Stronger Smarter Leadership Program (SSLP)
Stronger Smarter Learning Communities Project (SSLC)
Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA)


This is a summative evaluation of the Stronger Smarter Learning Communities (SSLC) project that examines whether and how the SSLC project had an impact on Australian state schools which adopted its models and approaches. Drawing from qualitative and quantitative data sets, it also presents the largest scale and most comprehensive analysis of Indigenous education practices and outcomes to date.

It includes empirical findings on: success in changing school ethos and community engagement; challenges in progress at closure of the 'gap' in conventionally measured achievement and performance; schools' and principals' choices in curriculum and instruction; profiles of teachers' and principals' training and views on teacher education; and a strong emphasis on community and school Indigenoous voices and views on Indigenous education.

Key Findings


Key Finding 1:
The transfer/mobility issue does not appear to be a major problem for continuity of school leadership: the average principal tenure in their current position is 5.74 years, but principals averaged 2.36 schools over the past 5 years.

Key Finding 2:
Remote/very remote schools are more likely to have less experienced staff with higher levels of transfer and turnover: respondents in remote/very remote schools were more likely to report having had 5 or less years of teaching experience compared to their colleagues in metropolitan or provincial schools; respondents in remote/very remote schools were more likely to report having spent 5 years or less in their current school compared to their colleagues in metropolitan or provincial schools.

Key Finding 3:
The teaching workforce is highly experienced with an average experience level of 14.63 years, but the large standard deviation (11.109) suggests that there is a wide variation in the age of teachers, with a significant proportion of highly experienced teachers and a significant proportion of beginning teachers.

Key Finding 4:
Overall credential levels of the administrative and teaching workforce are high, with over 80% of teachers and principals having at least a 4 year bachelor’s degree, and 9.7% of teachers and 19.6% of principals with masters or doctoral degrees.

Key Finding 5:
Overall levels of previous coursework on Indigenous education are low, with less than one third of the combined principal and teacher sample reporting any prior specialised pre- or in-service courses.

SSLC Operations and Processes

Key Finding 6:
SSLC encountered difficulties in staff retention and continuity.

Key Finding 7:
There were content and program transition issues in linking the SSLP leadership training model with SSLC’s focus on school reform.

Key Finding 8:
SSLC and SSI were not able to identify, document and circulate models and exemplars of successful practice for use by Hub and Affiliate schools.

Key Finding 9:
SSLC and SSI did not systematically provide advice on specific classroom- level reforms or innovations to schools.

Community Study

Key Finding 10:
The Indigenous community experience is that schools continue to work from a deficit perspective on Indigenous students, parents, communities and community members, and school staff.

Key Finding 11:
A significant proportion of teachers surveyed expressed deficit views of Indigenous students, families, communities and cultures.

Key Finding 12:
Many Indigenous education workers and teachers report the experience of marginalisation and disenfranchisement in schools, with reactive job roles and insecure working conditions.

Key Finding 13:
Community members interviewed consider many attempts at school consultation as token and superficial, with little real participation in school decision-making and governance.

Key Finding 14:
Indigenous students and staff interviewed report everyday experiences of labeling and mis-recognition of their actions, learning and social relations.

Key Finding 15:
Community members and parents interviewed acknowledge the importance of test score improvement, but are also concerned with other pathways, aspirations and goals, including cultural knowledge, awareness and relations, community participation, student safety and health.

Key Finding 16:
There is broad community support for the embedding of Indigenous knowledges in the curriculum, but Indigenous students and staff report significant problems with non-Indigenous teacher knowledge and intercultural sensitivity.

Teacher Knowledge and Community Engagement

Key Finding 17:
Teacher self-reported knowledge of Indigenous cultures, histories and communities is low.

Key Finding 18:
Teacher self-reported everyday engagement with Indigenous peoples and communities outside of the school is low.

Key Finding 19:
Teachers with higher self-reported levels of knowledge about and engagement with Indigenous communities and cultures are more likely to report that they are teaching Indigenous topics and knowledges in the classroom.

Key Finding 20:
Teachers reported that they were not satisfied that their pre-service teacher education adequately prepared them to support Indigenous learners.

Key Finding 21:
Teachers in SSLC schools report higher levels of engagement with Indigenous communities and cultures than teachers in non-SSLC schools.

School Cultural and Structural Reform

Key Finding 22:
There are no significant differences in SSLC and non-SSLC leaders’ reported foci on high expectations and Indigenous school climate.

Key Finding 23:
SSLC school leaders report stronger foci on Indigenous staffing and leadership, and community engagement and governance than non-SSLC school leaders.

Key Finding 24:
Teachers report 3 identifiable paths of reform in their schools: (1) from Indigenous school climate to high expectations promotion and enactment; (2) from Indigenous school climate to Indigenous community governance and Indigenous school leadership; (3) from Indigenous school climate to Indigenous community engagement and knowledge.


Key Finding 25:
SSLC teachers report significantly more instructional time allocated to embedding of Indigenous content, knowledges and topics in the curriculum than teachers in non-SSLC schools.

Key Finding 26:
There are no significant differences in SSLC and non-SSLC teachers’ reports of their practices in other areas of pedagogy.

Key Finding 27:
The dominant approaches to pedagogy reported by SSLC and non-SSLC teachers are emphases on basic skills instruction and Vocational Education.

Key Finding 28:
Overall reported time allocated to the embedding of Indigenous content, topics, and knowledges is low.

Key Finding 29:
Reported time allocations for canonical pedagogy, progressive pedagogy and critical literacy pedagogy are low.

Key Finding 30:
Many teachers do not have the requisite background knowledge and cultural experience to teach topics and content on Indigenous knowledge and culture.

Key Finding 31:
When the overall school percentage of Indigenous students reaches key thresholds, it increases the likelihood of an emphasis on basic skills (>15%), Vocational Education (>11.5%) and embedding of Indigenous knowledge (>15.5%).

Key Finding 32:
Teachers in lower ICSEA value schools are more likely to report stronger emphasis on behaviour management (<933.5), basic skills (<922), Vocational Education (<952.5) and embedding of Indigenous knowledge (952.5).

Key Finding 33:
More experienced teachers (>10 years) report less time allocated to behaviour management and basic skills.

Key Finding 34:
SSLC Hub schools’ choices of curriculum programs, approaches and in- service programs are eclectic, with no discernible patterns of state, regional or school-type consistency.


Key Finding 35:
Overall, teachers and school leaders reported low emphases on Indigenous languages and dialects in the classroom.

Key Finding 36: Overall levels of teacher awareness of Indigenous languages is low.

Key Finding 37:
Schools with higher percentage of Indigenous students are more likely to focus on Indigenous languages and dialects in the curriculum.

Key Finding 38:
The focus of current activity is in the teaching of Indigenous languages as part of LOTE and language revitalisation efforts, concentrated in a small number of schools surveyed.

Key Finding 39:
Schools working with LOTE programs are faced with complex local issues of language selection and the availability of linguistic corpus documentation, and with problems in securing qualified local speakers/teachers and curriculum resources.

Key Finding 40:
Teachers’ and school leaders’ understanding of, and engagement with, English as a Second Language and English as a Second Dialect issues facing Indigenous students is low.

Assessment and Certification

Key Finding 41:
Principals and teachers have limited expertise and training in the analysis and the use of test score and other performance data.

Key Finding 42:
The emphasis on improvement of NAPLAN test results is a dominant influence on school planning, policy and pedagogy.

Key Finding 43:
There is little evidence of innovation or the building of teacher expertise in classroom assessment (e.g., task-based assessment, high quality assessment, authentic assessment).

Key Finding 44:
Personal Learning Plans are a viable approach to authentic and negotiated assessment and planning, but these require training and systematic implementation.

Key Finding 45:
Streaming and ability grouping are common at all levels of primary and secondary education.

Systemic Data on Student Performance

Key Finding 46:
There are no statistically significant SSLC effects on improved school level attendance.

Key Finding 47:
There are no statistically significant SSLC effects on improved school level achievement on NAPLAN tests.

Key Finding 48:
In SSLC and non-SSLC schools, there are numerous individual instances of ‘closing the gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students in specific age/grade cohorts in specific curriculum areas – but there is no coherent pattern of school level, school type, jurisdiction or curriculum- area effects.


Key Finding 49:
SSLC has not reached sustainable levels of Hub-to-Hub communication and continues to rely on communication mediated by SSLC central administration.

Key Finding 50:
SSLC is not scalable and has not shown signs of increased or autonomous Hub-to-Hub communication as it has developed over time.

Key Finding 51:
Longstanding and durable regional clusters are the organisational units with the demonstrated capacity to sustain networked communications.

Key Finding 52:
School leaders do not report staff turnover as a major impediment to sustainable reform.

Key Finding 53:
School leaders report that the difficulty in hiring Indigenous staff and engaging with key community leaders is an impediment to sustainable reform.

Major Findings

Major Finding 1:
That the Stronger Smarter model’s recognition of the prevalence of ‘deficit thinking’ in schools is accurate – but the approach lacks an institutional analysis of how to reform and alter the effects of this phenomenon.

Major Finding 2:
That SSLC was successful at changing school foci on the need for Indigenous hiring, staffing and leadership in the school, on the need for improved community engagement and moves towards Indigenous participation in school decision-making and governance.

Major Finding 3:
That SSLC was successful at increasing teachers’ and leaders’ attention on the importance of knowledge of Indigenous cultures and communities, and on the need to embed these in teaching and learning.

Major Finding 4:
That despite these efforts, the general Indigenous community view and experience is that schools continue to work from deficit assumptions that preclude student enfranchisement, academic improvement and genuine community involvement and governance.

Major Finding 5:
That SSLC was not successful at generating the improvement of conventionally measured attendance and achievement.

Major Finding 6:
That the predominant, default modes of pedagogy for Indigenous students are basic skills instruction leading to vocational education pathways, part of a deficit model of testing/remediation/streaming and tracking.

Major Finding 7:
That there is an overall lack of school level curriculum program coherence in teaching/learning in SSLC and non-SSLC schools, with many principals and schools making eclectic and apparently idiosyncratic decisions about programs, curriculum materials and in- service approaches.

Major Finding 8:
That overall school leader and teacher knowledge of and engagement with Indigenous communities, cultures, languages and histories are a major impediment to community engagement, school reform and improved outcomes.

Policy Implications

Policy Implication 1:
That the current emphasis on NAPLAN without systematic state and regional-level curriculum assistance and advice has the effect of increasing principals’ tendencies to pursue ‘quick fix’ programs in a way that generates less coherent school programs and skewed test results.

Policy Implication 2:
That the push for increased principal autonomy without improved training in instructional/curricular leadership and data analysis risks exaggerating the skewed and idiosyncratic patterns of achievement described here.

Policy Implication 3:
That the Australian Curriculum mandate for the embedding of Indigenous knowledges raises major issues in terms of the requisite depth of teacher knowledge of Indigenous cultures, histories, issues and languages.

Policy Implication 4:
That - given the diversity of schools, communities and cohort demographics - the assumption that there is a single, ‘one size fits all’ curriculum or pedagogy solution for all Indigenous learners is not the solution to the problem of program incoherence, but risks exacerbating the problems identified here.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

the AEU and ACER evaluations of Direct Instruction

According to Mike Williss, an Australian Education Union (AEU) Research Officer, Direct Instruction threatens teacher autonomy, student engagement, creativity, curiosity and a socially critical curriculum.("Will you be directly instructed how to teach?", AEU Journal, November 2013, p. 16).

This correlates with the memes currently listed 4 ("real learning" claims), 5 (creativity) and 6 (philosophy) in my analysis (DI_indigenous_memes) of the factors that strongly influence the perception of the opponents of Direct Instruction.

Here are some quotes from the Williss article, which is accompanied by a Simon Kneebone cartoon of a teacher being zapped in a Skinner box for deviating from a Direct Instruction script.
There are considerable "highs" in our job as teachers and they are mainly associated with those occasions when we experience autonomy, when we are in control of what we do and are doing it because we want to, not because we have to.

Pretty much the same thing serves as the basis for student engagement with their learning.

So how would we feel if we were given a prepared lesson script, were told only to say those things on the running sheet, to only engage in the activities that it stipulated and in the required sequence?

At its worst, that is just what the US-inspired Direct Instruction approach to teaching means...

So in comes learning for rats, classrooms as Skinner boxes, and out goes creativity, curiosity and - God forbid! - a socially critical curriculum.
This poorly argued case for teacher freedom and student engagement fails to address the dialectic between freedom and necessity, or, rights and responsibilities. This argument would appeal more to an irresponsible teacher ("I do what I want to do" is not the same thing as socially responsible autonomy) than a teacher who is prepared to explore suggestions as to what might improve the learning of disadvantaged students. You can't be meaningfully creative or socially critical unless you have a strong knowledge base and are prepared to actually look and examine deeply the alternatives that go against your keenly felt ("ideological") world view. Like it or not behaviourist principles (that desirable behaviour when rewarded is often repeated) are used extensively by every successful teacher and parent.

Speaking personally, I have experimented with a wide variety of teaching methods and have found that Direct Instruction is the most effective for engaging students from severely disadvantaged, remote indigenous backgrounds. The simple reason for this is that students can be successful with it, they learn, and success is essential for engagement. My autonomy, creativity, curiosity and ability to be socially critical of commentators such as Williss remains intact.

The most important thing is whether Direct Instruction actually works to improve the learning outcomes of disadvantaged students. The history is that it did work in Project Follow Through, a decade long study in the USA in the 1970s. See Engelmann's For Readers Not Familiar With Project Follow Through. But what is the current state of the evidence in the Cape York trial?

This aspect is falsely addressed in one paragraph of the Williss article:
...the percentage of students in Pearson's schools at or above NAPLAN national benchmarks in all areas tested was substantially below not only the national percentage, but also the percentage for "indigenous Queensland students from remote and very remote areas"
Note the meaningless quotation marks which I have faithfully reproduced from the original article, the source of which is not referenced by this socially critical research officer.

Are the students in the schools in Noel Pearson's led Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy (CYAAA), Coen, Hopevale and Aurukun, performing substantially below other indigenous Queensland students in remote and very remote locations? No, they are not. Williss does not even reveal the source for his incorrect allegation.

The Australian Council for Educational Research has prepared an independent analysis at the request of the Department of Education Training and Employment Queensland titled Evaluation of the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy Initiative, June 2013 (pdf, 93pp).

The findings of that report are disappointing from my perspective but they certainly don't support Williss's assertion. The ACER report has a quantitative and a qualitative assessment. The quantitative data informed assessment finds neither in favour nor against the CYAAA initiative. This is because irregular attendance rates by students often exceed 20% and hence the collected data (NAPLAN and other copious data much of it native to the DI programme itself) is ruled out for a high stakes programme such as this. But it is also fair to say that the data that was collected for attending students does not show a remarkable improvement of the type reported by Zig Engelmann and his supporters in other situations. This is disappointing.

On the other hand, the more anecdotal qualitative data does show strong support for the programme particularly from the teachers delivering it. Here is a quote from one of the longer term teachers:
Personally, having seen what it was like before and to see it now with the new structure, it blows me away. To see the kids reading, they start younger, and to see the Year 1s and 2s reading, it is wonderful. The older kids could not do that. To get them this far is amazing. (p. 29)
What can we conclude at this point? One of the core principles of the Direct Instruction philosophy is that anecdotal evaluations on their own are not good enough. Every good teacher can report a warm and fuzzy feeling emanating from some of their classes. But more than this is required to justify the implementation of a particular programme across a wider scale.

The teachers union article is ideologically driven from a stereotypical "left" position. The teacher's union is more interested in a fuzzy autonomy for its members than conducting real research into what works best for disadvantaged students. Nevertheless, the far more objective ACER report shows us that more research needs to be done to find the best answer to assisting the most disadvantaged students. The ACER report should be studied in more detail as part of an ongoing evaluation by those genuinely interested in helping the most disadvantaged students in Australia.

Friday, November 15, 2013

high class soft thinking (Twiggy Forrest)

Awaken, hosted by Stan Grant (Friday 15th November)

After some discussion about Twiggy Forrest's considerable efforts to create 65,000 indigenous jobs, Stan Grant ventured to ask about the importance of indigenous culture. Twiggy's phrase in response "high class soft thinking" was new to me but it was refreshing to hear him tackle this question head on and sharply.
Stan Grant: Is this just about having a job? What about preserving culture and being strong in your culture?

Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest: Ok Stan, I call that high class soft thinking.

The difference between a job is not having a job. The difference between a job is welfare.

If you want to see the rapid degradation of aboriginal, customs and law then put it into welfare. It happens real fast.

You maintain traditions by having pride in yourself and your work. When you go to China they are very Chinese but also able to go toe to toe with you in any professional environment. They haven't lost any of their culture or history. They love it.

It's soft thinking to say that indigenous people aren't capable of having employment and keeping their culture. That's just soft thinking white fella' rubbish. People who are on the grog on welfare lose their culture fast.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Noel Pearson delivers the 2013 Whitlam oration

Noel Pearson delivers the 2013 Whitlam oration. Video, 50 minutes.

You should watch this. Pearson at his best. History, humour, sincere tribute and policy prescription rolled into one speech.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Direct Instruction may spread throughout disadvantaged Australian schools

It's happening. The Direct Instruction educational methodology initiated by Noel Pearson in some Cape York indigenous schools will be spread to other disadvantaged schools throughout Australia by the Abbott government.

Some extracts from the article in today's Australian, (the link is behind a pay wall), Noel Pearson's Cape plan can help all disadvantaged kids by Patricia Karvelas, with some questioning footnotes by me.
THE radical direct instruction teaching model has transformed education in Cape York communities and could benefit disadvantaged children across the country, says the parliamentary secretary charged with helping Tony Abbott deliver his indigenous affairs agenda.

Victorian MP Alan Tudge, who has just completed a trip to the Cape York community of Aurukun, where direct instruction is operating, says although formal data is inconclusive (1), he was overwhelmed by the difference he saw at the schools.

The Prime Minister has approached Cape York indigenous leader Noel Pearson to review the education of all disadvantaged and impoverished children and explore rolling out the direct instruction teaching model in schools across the nation...

"School attendance has improved markedly and kids are clearly engaged and learning," Mr Tudge said. "While the formal evaluation, released two months ago, was inconclusive due to lack of data (1), there is certainly great optimism by many about the direct instruction method coupled with strong attendance measures." ...

Mr Tudge said the government would commit $22 million to support "proven explicit teaching methods" into other schools. "We are also absolutely determined to ensure that school attendance is improved," he said. "We need to do things differently because there are systemic breakdowns in many places where kids are years behind or functionally illiterate when finishing primary school.

"It starts with attendance; no child will keep up if they are only attending half the time. In the Northern Territory, only 13 per cent of remote indigenous kids are attending 80 per cent of the time (2)"

Mr Tudge said research suggested explicit, phonics-based teaching methods were necessary for children who were behind or struggling. "The strength of the direct instruction model is that it appears to be a system that can be replicated and is not reliant on a single brilliant individual or team to make it work (3)," he said.

Mr Pearson said that when the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy was set up in 2010, the three schools involved were among Queensland's most disadvantaged "but one of them, Aurukun, was undoubtedly the worst school in Queensland".

"Our goal was to turn these poor schools into fair schools," Mr Pearson said. "And then we want to turn fair schools into good schools. And after than we want good schools to become great schools (4). I am very confident after three years that Aurukun is now a fair school. That means if you send your child to that school, your child will receive the education he or she deserves.
(1) If formal data is inconclusive then that is a big worry. Alan Tudge's feeling about being overwhelmed at the differences he has seen is unfortunately not good enough. The history of educational reform is that new methods have been used, sometimes for decades without clear evidence that they work. The research base for effective teaching does need to be clear.

(2) Getting kids to attend remote indigenous schools is a major problem. As well as having good schools that are worth attending (the pull factor) the problem of having parents being committed to send their kids to school is just as important (the push factor). The way this is being tackled in Cape York is through the Family Responsibility Commission. See Catherine Ford's brilliant Great Expectations essay for more details about how problematic this issue is.

(3) I agree strongly with this point. Other methods might work but they don't scale to mass delivery because of their complexity and / or reliance on a brilliant or inspirational teacher.

(4) While agreeing that Direct Instruction (and MULTILIT) is great teaching the basics I'm wondering if Noel Pearson is thinking that other methodologies may be also required to make the transition from fair to good to great. This would be consistent with the dialectical "radical centre" thinking articulated in some of his essays.

Update (13th November): Evaluation of the Cape York Aboriginal Australian Academy Initiative for Department of Education Training and Employment Queensland. Prepared by Australian Council for Educational Research, June 2013 (pdf, 93pp)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Direct Instruction criticised by Chris Sarra

DEFYING EXPECTATIONS (Adelaide Festival of Ideas, October 20th)

I attended the presentation by Chris Sarra, Principal Cherbourg State School, 1998-2005 and Andrew Plastow, Principal Alberton Primary School. I knew of Chris Sarra as a successful Principal of Cherbourg School (3 hours drive from Brisbane) as well as an indigenous opponent of Noel Pearson. They have clashed in print a few times.

Chris explained his Strong and Smart philosophy. Be proud to be indigenous. Don't collude with negative stereotypes of what it means to be aboriginal. Reject the flawed notion that being educated means you will lose your identity.
During my time as Principal at Cherbourg State School, from 1998-2005, the attendance improved from 65% to 95%.
He then launched into an attack on Noel Pearson's approach, without naming him.
We didn't cut welfare payments to make that happen. I'll repeat that, we didn't cut welfare payments to make that happen.
(audience applause)
Direct Instruction (DI) was written off 40 years ago by expert educators. It was developed by some old guy in America. The pedagogy takes us back to the 1940s and 50s.
Andrew Plastow intervened:
DI is back to the basics. As someone said to me wise people have now developed robots to do the basics. It's not appropriate for our modern times.
Back to Chris Sarra:
It's claimed that older aboriginal people did achieve literacy (through basic Mission education. And that's true. But it was literacy of the type used by farm hands and domestics. It wasn't powerful literacy.
Chris Sarra was nuanced and articulate on his broader reflections on indigenous identity, NAPLAN and aboriginal culture. By contrast his unprovoked attack on Direct Instruction was ill informed, intemperate and predjudicial ("developed by some old guy in America"). I gained the strong impression that it wasn't something that either speaker had looked into closely. It confirmed my general thesis (DI indigenous memes) that people reject Direct Instruction because of their general world view, not because they have looked at it in any detail. Their general world view prevents them from doing that.

Update (21st October):

Here are some of the memes which were warmly supported by the audience:

Harmonious progress meme ("We didn't cut welfare payments to make that happen"). This appeals to the non punitive, non confrontational method of achieving progress. Tough love without being too tough. I don't believe that Chris Sarra would avert his eyes from the ugliness of alcohol fuelled violence, child neglect and child abuse. In fact, he referred to it towards the end of his presentation. Nevertheless, many in the audience want to avert their eyes from it. To understand the work and problems facing the Noel Pearson inspired Family Responsibility Commission read this wonderful article by Catherine Ford: Great Expectations (The Monthly, November 2012)

White guilt meme. Most of the audience were white "progressives" who like the idea that this issue can be dealt with adequately by competent indigenous people like Chris Sarra in a way that is not disruptive to their own comfortable life style or thinking patterns. There is a below the surface trade off in play here. Chris Sarra gains authority; the progressive white audience has their white guilt assuaged about this national tragedy. For a white person to stand up and critically assess Chris Sarra's contribution in front of this "progressive" audience would be like spitting in church.

Anti American meme (Direct Instruction was ... "developed by some old guy in America"). Progressives respond instinctively and positively to this reflexive anti Americanism.

Progress meme. Direct Instruction was developed by an "old guy" and is "robotic". Something as old as Skinner type behaviourism can't be a progressive thing. In the modern world there must be a more progressive way to educate. Reality check: "DI works", see Direct Instruction: observations at Djarragun college


Three extracts from my delicious Chris Sarra links:
Noel Pearson (2009):
"The problem with Chris' thinking is he thinks it (truancy) is all a question of child choice," he said. ... "Many children want to be in school but their parents haven't fulfilled their part of the bargain, which is a good night's sleep for the kid, a safe house for the kid, breakfast and uniforms for the kid
Chris Sarra stretches the gap on credibility by Janet Albrechtsen (2012)
Chris Sarra: all motherhood but no data, a damning analysis comparing SSI with DI (full article behind a paywall)

Relevant (2011):
"I'm not interested in stories about how well your education plans are going. I want to see your data that shows how effectively you have advanced the children's learning. The first thing you should show at a meeting like this is the evidence that shows the effect of what you're doing. If your effect size is less than 0.4 then you should pack up because you're not having a worthwhile impact on the children's learning."
- John Hattie

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

the elephant in the classroom (Kevin Wheldall)

Fortunately, all of chapter one is available through google books: Developments in Educational Psychology (Second edition published in 2010)
What then is the elephant in the classroom? The unspoken (or rarely admitted) truth is that educational progress is not being delayed because of a shortage of funding for schools. Children's school performance is not being impeded by their being too few teachers. Educational standards are not slipping because parents do not care and students are lazy these days. The elephant in the classroom, that many educationalists claim not to see, is that the quality of teaching in our schools is simply not good enough. It is not good enough because it is largely based on educational theory and methods for which there is little or no empirical supporting evidence for efficacy or which have been discredited. The education provided to children in our schools is largely ineffective because the education system ignores the extant scientific research evidence on what we know to constitute effective instruction and best teaching practice.
- from Chapter 1: When will we ever learn? Or the elephant in the classroom by Kevin Wheldall
Read the whole chapter through the link above. I am so impressed by Kevin Wheldall's writings. I picked up a second hand copy of this book through amazon, here, for $18 plus $18 shipping.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Why Johny Still Can't Read by Rudolf Flesch (1981)

Rudolf Flesch (1911-1986). Interesting guy (wikipedia bio)
Why Johny Can't Read: And What You Can Do about It (1955)
Why Johny Still Can't Read: A New Look at the Scandal of our Schools (1981)

Flesch advocated the use of phonics rather than sight reading, to enable students to sound out unfamiliar words.

So, the "reading wars" have been going on for at least 60 years and some trace it back to the writings of Paulo Freire (1920s), John Dewey (1890s) and the Romantic / Naturalistic thinking of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). My point here is that the longevity of the "reading wars" is explained by deeply held differences in cultural, psychological, philosophical and political world view - not differences in scientific findings as is usually claimed.

Meaning: If you don't like Tony Abbott because you believe he is a closet global warming denier or because he has no sympathy for the boat people then if the same Tony Abbott pushes for back to basics phonics teaching in schools then you don't like that either because how could someone who is so bad get anything right.

But anyway. The reason I have bought Rudolf Flesch's 1981 book is this 2003 review: What Is the Best Way to Teach Reading?:
Flesch listed the “10 favorite alibis” he collected from “the whole stack of letters” he had received from educators, many of which “were full of personal abuse.” He devoted a chapter each to debunking these alibis.
Sadly, these alibis are still highly relevant thirty years later:
“Everything Is Hunky-Dory” was one of them. Of course, this was sheer denial, and Flesch said so. Things were bad then, a fact as demonstrable as anything in educational research. They are worse today.

“We Do Teach Phonics” was another alibi. He pointed out that there had indeed been a change but only to “window-dressing token phonics” tacked onto fundamentally unaltered look-and-say methodology, which was continuing to do major damage.

Some letter-writers claimed that “No One Method Is Best.” Flesch countered that no method could work that did not correspond to the nature of the subject — that learning to read necessarily involves being able to decipher phonetic symbols in the same way that learning how to type involves becoming familiar with the keyboard.

An additional argument from his critics was that “English Isn’t Phonetic.” Flesch demonstrated that English is, in fact, almost entirely “phonetic and decodable.”

Another charge was that “Word Calling Isn’t Reading.” But word guessing isn’t either.

Then there was the blame-the-victim game, which yielded the most alibis: “Your Child Isn’t Ready,” “Your Child Is Disabled,” and “It’s the Parents’ Fault,” all of which are now embodied in school policies today. Next was “Too Much TV.” And the final alibi was “We Must Teach All Children,” as if there are some ineducables among us, “the sons and daughters of lowborn riffraff who are too dumb to learn how to read,” as Flesch characterized the implications of this mindset among educators.

In short, Flesch’s thesis — although wildly popular among parents certain that something was wrong with reading instruction in America — was denied, rationalized, obfuscated and ultimately ignored by America’s education establishment.
And the Australian education establishment, too.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Why Jaydon can't read

Over the past few days there has been another breakout of the "reading wars" in the pages of The Australian. These articles are behind a paywall. Here are some extracts, with original links, from my delicious bookmarks.

Fortunately, the original and far better researched article by Jennifer Buckingham, Kevin Wheldall and Robyn Beaman-Wheldall is available: WHY JAYDON CAN’T READ: THE TRIUMPH OF IDEOLOGY OVER EVIDENCE IN TEACHING READING

The format of this wonderful article is that it asks and answers questions, makes assertions and backs up everything with evidence (72 endnotes to studies and further articles).

I'll just provide the subheadings which comprise the questions and assertions and encourage you to read the original:
  • What is effective reading instruction?
  • Why do so many children still struggle to learn to read?
  • Many teachers are not using the most effective methods for teaching reading
  • The ‘Peter effect’ in language skills—One cannot give what one does not possess
  • Teacher education does not prepare teachers to use effective reading instruction
  • Why are teachers not taught or required to use effective evidence-based reading instruction?
  • What can be done?
When reading this article, I shook my head frequently in amazement at the inability of those in charge to get it right. Then, later, I realised that part of this head shaking also represented admiration of the authors for their erudite explanation of effective reading instruction combined with a detailed analysis of why it's not happening.

Direct Instruction Indigenous Meme Warfare

I've uploaded the outline of this research proposal at the learning evolves wiki: DI_indigenous_memes


CONTEXT: appalling basic literacy and numeracy rates amongst indigenous Australians, especially those who live in remote regions.

PERCEPTION: We literally see the world according to the memes in our minds

The Direct Instruction (DI) approach is a good attempt to solve a number of practical problems that arise for teachers of severely disadvantaged students who have poor skills at reading, writing and comprehending English and Maths.

HYPOTHESIS: Many can't see the value of DI because of the synergistic influence of a plethora of mind memes which act as blinkers and filters to influence their perception. The rejection of DI is not based on research or science as is claimed but results from a deep, internally coherent world view. ie. the rejection of DI is more part of a cultural, psychological, philosophical and political world view and not scientific as is usually claimed.

The memes are grouped under various subheadings: (1) culture, (2) rights, morality, compassion, justice (3) social class, (4) "real learning", (5) creativity, (6) philosophy, (7) institutionalised inertia and (8) computer lib. The identified memes are often associated with a "progressive" world view / education and form a large part of the cultural background of "progressives". It will be argued that some of these memes are refutable, some of them are valid in a more general sense but not in the particular context being discussed (basic education of severely at risk students) and some are more or less correct and should contribute to the educational environment that ought to be developed. However, when combined together synergistically these memes are likely to evoke a critical response to DI in any context and act to block its possible implementation. The critical response is often emotionally charged, that is, part of a culture war.


Try to imagine the process involved in changing from the anti DI mindset to a pro DI mindset, or vice versa for that matter.

Discussion points arising -

Self awareness and self examination of one's own deeply held biases or beliefs is a difficult process

When people argue that science or evidence supports their viewpoint what does this mean? This requires not only looking at the evidence but also looking at the model of science that is being evoked here

In a few of his essays Noel Pearson outlines the dialectical concept of the radical centre where the best elements from both sides of the political divide are combined into a coherent policy. Yet it could be argued that his currently favoured educational policy, Direct Instruction, is going too far to one side of such a centre.

Direct Instruction (full immersion) is an educational framework that can transform a community of poor learners to become fair learners. Naturalist approaches such as unguided constructivism have failed. Nevertheless, there are limits to Direct Instruction and a framework of guided discovery to promote higher learning is outlined (based on the educational ideas Montessori, Bruner and Vygotsky).