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Posts Tagged ‘Greg Ashman’

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The seemingly unending battle between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ education thrives on tired old stereotypes, caricatures, and cartoonish images. ‘Old’ versus ‘new,’ ‘knowledge-rich or ‘well-being’ informed, ‘teacher-centred’ versus ‘student-centred,’ ‘rigorous’ or ‘flabby’? Veterans of the Edu-Wars liken it to a “Punch and Judy Show.” As British education guru, Sir Michael Barber once said: “The road to educational hell is paved with false dichotomies.”

So, when a new book comes along, every so often, promising to bridge the chasm or transcend the battle, it is welcomed by those in the educational trenches or watching the ‘sham battle’ from a safe distance.  The latest such offering, Guy Claxton’s The Future of Teaching (April 2021), promises to put an end to the seemingly interminable conflict, but utterly fails to do so. Instead, he serves up a “straw-person” in the form of Direct Instruction (DI) and Knowledge-Rich (KR) curriculum for the singular purpose of shooting it down. That’s most disappointing because Professor Claxton purports to be a conciliator and a proponent of marrying knowledge and skills.

Claxton’s The Future of Learning sets the right tone at the beginning. Renowned student assessment researcher Dylan Wiliam raises our hopes with his trademark balanced and judicious forward and Australian education giant John Hattie provides a ringing cover-jacket endorsement. It promises to make you think, re-examine your assumptions, and consider changing your mind. Most of the initial section of the book covers the competing theories, then it devolves into a very public flogging of the apparent infidels at the gates, identified and labeled as the “DI-KR lobby-bubble.” 

Highly respected educators such as Tom Sherrington, author of The Learning Rainforest, classified as members of the “DIKR” dissidents, are rightly perturbed by a book pretending to be conciliatory, while casting out education researchers, mostly based in schools, who have the temerity to challenge the shibboleths of the education professorate. Working directly with teachers in schools across the U.K., Sherrington disputes Claxton’s assertions. “The ideas embedded in a knowledge-rich curriculum and the use of instructional teaching,” he wrote,” make a massive difference to teachers and children—especially when they are grappling with challenging concepts.” Dismissing DI and KR research out-of-hand, according to Sherrington, does not show an openness to learning from or building upon the latest cognitive science, or a “consensus-building style” but rather a “melodramatic take-down approach.”

The growing acceptance of the Long-Term Memory/Working Memory (LT/WM) model advanced by John Sweller, Paul A. Kirschner, and UK teacher-author Carl Hendrick, clearly gets under Claxton’s skin. He chooses to grossly oversimplify the concept and misinterpret the explanatory schematic as if it depicted “a physical space that fills up” and “the bottleneck effect” as something afflicting each and every student.

Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) should not be so easily dismissed because it addresses one of the biggest inhibitors to student learning. Throwing complex problems at children without the requisite prior knowledge has long been identified as a problem and we now know so much more about “how learning happens” in the minds of students and teachers. Schematics like the LT/WM model are extremely helpful as easy to understand explanatory tools for us. We need to know how much information/knowledge children can handle and what’s their capacity to handle complex abstract things. Knowing this is essential to your teaching/instruction and a key to your effectiveness in the classroom.

Claxton is exceedingly careful in evaluating the cognitive research and writing of one particular academic associated with the so-called “DIKR” camp.  The author and his entourage are unprepared to challenge Daniel T. Willingham. Now that his work is widely recognized and respected in the United Kingdom, as it is in the United States, Claxton has given it a “closer reading” and sees its subtleties. Professor Willingham’s classic work, Why Students Don’t Like School? (2010/2021) and his corpus of cognitive research make him unassailable, even by authors out to discredit those sharing similar views in academe and the classroom.

The popularity of Tom Sherrington’s presentations on “Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction” and the accompanying researchED instructional guide must be wreaking havoc out there with beginning teachers as well as regular practitioners in the schools.  It’s a refreshing change to see a teacher resource spreading like wildfire without the imprimatur of the education schools. Speaking in a teacher’s voice it captures well what real teaching in real classrooms involves – effective questioning, modelling, scaffolding, and independent practice. In other words, it’s not entirely about facilitating programmed activities, facilitating play spaces, and letting kids figure things out in minimally-guided classrooms. 

 Regular working teachers do tire of the sham battle and Claxton’s book will only perpetuate it by denigrating those who challenge the prevailing education school orthodoxy. His recent Book Launch interview with Kath Murdoch made that clear to everyone. A wider range of voices, mostly research-informed, school-based educators, have forced their way into the vital global conversation about improving the quality and effectiveness of teaching. While Claxton applies labels to supposed factions, he seems unwilling to acknowledge that what caused the most recent disruption was a remarkably spontaneous teacher-research movement. It’s clear that the author has yet to grasp the catalytic effect of researchED on research-awakened teachers everywhere.

Leading advocates of Instructional Teaching and a Knowledge-Rich curriculum will not be disbursed or denied because the ideas they have seeded are already influencing teaching and learning in schools. Highly original works like Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths About Education, Martin Robinson’s Trivium 21c, Greg Ashman’s The Truth About Teaching, and Paul A. Kirschner and Carl Hendrick’s How Learning Happens, have filled a vacuum created when Claxton and his education school colleagues became absorbed in promoting school change theories and essentially abandoned the field. Ideas that expose the prevalence of “Zombie Ideas in Education” are threatening to the status quo. That is essentially what Claxton’s book seeks to sustain. The genie is out of the bottle and rank and file teachers are unlikely to return to the cocoon.

Why does Guy Claxton’s The Future of Teaching completely miss the mark?  For a book purporting to chart a middle course, why is it so dismissive of those holding divergent views on the science of learning?  To what extent does it reveal the extent of the educational divide between education school academics and teacher- practitioners? Simply put, is it possible for a mature leopard to change its spots?  

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One of the most intellectually stimulating books of the fall season is Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt‘s The Coddling of the American Mind. It is a formidable and persuasive critique of recent changes in American university campus culture. The new orthodoxy of “safe spaces” and “no platforming” was ripe for serious analysis and the authors have diagnosed the sources of what is termed “safetyism.”  Young people are being taught to “trust their feelings” and to call out the “goodies” and “baddies” in contemporary society. In a strange twist, “what doesn’t kill you, makes you weaker.”

The two academics demonstrate a sound grasp of the “culture war” enveloping campus culture and correctly point out that “safetyism” poses a real threat to academic freedom on North American campuses.  As a child of the radical sixties, I was there when students fought to make the universities more open to new ideas, controversial speakers, and more democratic practices. Racism, bigotry and intolerance should be resisted and rejected. Having said that, it’s disconcerting to see today’s university students so quick to take offense and so inclined to silence those espousing different viewpoints.

While Lukianoff and Haidt correctly dissect the problem, they miss the mark in diagnosing the state of early childhood learning. The “decline of play” is plainly observable in today’s schoolyards and playgrounds. Overly protective parents, known as “helicopter parents,” are easy to spot in affluent and upper middle class school communities — and gravitate to independent schools.  It is simply wrong, in my estimation, to assume that “play learning” is endangered in pre-school, kindergarten, or early years education.

“Play-based learning” is ascendant in Canadian Pre-Kindergarten to Grade 3 education and is in no danger of disappearing. It is no exaggeration to say that “play learning” is the current catechism espoused by faculties of education and accepted, without question, by provincial education ministries. Since 2010-11, early leading has emerged as an education priority and provincial education departments, one after another, have changed their names to become the “Department of Early Childhood Development and Education.”

Where did Lukianoff and Haidt get the idea that “child’s play” was threatened in the primary grades?  Their primary source appears to be Erika Christakis, a Yale University child study professor and author of the 2017 book, The Importance of Being Little. Judging from her writings, she is an unabashed constructivist who sees great potential in “little children” and idealizes them “watching bulldozers on a construction site” or “chasing butterfies in flight.”  Surveying today’s preschool and kindergarten classrooms, most likely in New England, she claims that “learning has been reduced to scripted lessons and subject metrics that too often undervalue the child’s intelligence while overtaxing the child’s growing brain.” 

She is, in all likelihood, well acquainted with Ivy League prep schools. High and mismatched expectations, she contends, “wreak havoc on the family.” “Parents fear that if they choose the ‘wrong’ program, their child won’t get into the ‘right’ college.”  Such fears are “wildly misplaced,” according to Christakis, because young children are not only natural learners, but “exceptionally strong thinkers.”

Unstructured free play is good for little children and it does help to prepare them for the real, ‘rough-and-tumble’ world.  Where Christakis, Lukianoff and Haidt all go wrong is in setting up ‘free play’ in opposition to any form of early learning incorporating explicit teaching of core knowledge and skills. Claiming that it is harmful flies in the face of a great deal of recent education research informed by cognitive science.

Australian teacher-researcher Greg Ashman has effectively demolished the two essential claims about early learning made in The Coddling of the American Mind.  Free play may well be essential in learning social skills, but that does not mean it suffices for academic learning. Renowned Canadian education critic, Andrew Nikiforuk, once put it this way:  “If learning is so natural, why do we go to school?'”  The implicit answer: to learn something.

Pyschologist David C. Geary makes the helpful distinction between two types of learning, biological primary and biological secondary forms. Play is probably the best way to learn social skills, such as learning to work together, but not for learning academic abilities and skills.  The weight of research evidence, drawn from cognitive science, suggests that most children require more explicit instruction because learning requires some prodding, practice, and persistence.  Some students, particularly those with learning difficulties or socio-economic disadvantages, simply do not grasp the key ideas or master the fundamental skills without a measure of teacher-guidance.

Lukianoff and Haidt, citing Christakis, are critics of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the “Common Core Curriculum” and very much opposed to student testing in elementary grades. That may be why they are so inclined to see “testitis” creeping into the early grades.  While there is some evidence of it in American elementary schools, the same cannot be said for Canadian schools.  No homework is given in Kindergarten and only modest amounts in Grades 1 to 3. Provincial testing is administered starting in Grade 3 but it cannot be described as “high stakes” testing of the kind found at higher grades in the United States. 

Lukianoff and Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind  offers a telling critique of what’s gone wrong on many university colleges.  Children from advantaged backgrounds may, from an early age, be subjected to academic pressures and discouraged from engaging in free play.  Parents with two degrees and homes full of books give privileged kids an early immersion in learning and, in many cases, have the added benefit of parents providing explicit instruction to fill gaps in understanding.  Over-parenting can and does produce coddled children , but it’s a stretch to claim that this is the real life experience of children from less favoured circumstances, raised in disadvantaged and marginalized communities.

Early learning programs in Canada, with few exceptions, are “play-based” and place considerable emphasis on nurturing social skills and supporting ‘student well-being.” Few Canadian early learning researchers would recognize the pre-schools and kindergartens as depicted in Lukianoff and Haidt’s otherwise impressive book.  In fact, it’s tempting to hypothesize that Canadian primary years programs are actually the nurseries for a younger generation who are so bubble-wrapped that “skinned knees” are treated as calamities.

Where’s the evidence that “play-learning” is imperiled in today’s pre-schools and kindergartens?  How prevalent is “helicopter parenting” and is it directed toward raising standards or to ‘school-proofing’ kids?  Is it fair to suggest that play learning and academic learning are mutually incompatible? Is “safetyism” what is actually being taught in kindergarten? 

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A recent New York Times commentary by American engineering professor Barbara Oakley has, once again, stirred up much public debate focused on the critical need for “Math practice” and why current “Discovery Math” methodologies are hurting students, and especially girls. “You and your daughter can have fun throwing eggs off a building and making paper-mache volcanoes, “ she wrote,but the only way to create a full set of options for her in STEM is to ensure that she has a solid foundation in math.”  Mathematics is “the language of science, engineering and technology,” Oakley reminded us. And like any language, she claimed, it is “best acquired through lengthy, in-depth practice.”

That widely-circulated commentary was merely the latest in a series of academic articles, policy papers, and education blog posts to take issue with the prevailing ideology in North American Mathematics education, championed by Professor Jo Boaler of Stanford University’s School of Education and her disciples.  Teaching the basics, explicit instruction, and deliberate practice are all, in Boaler’s view, examples of “bad math education” that contribute to “hating Math” among children and “Math phobia” among the populace. Her theories, promulgated in books and on the “YouCubed” education website, make the case that teaching the times tables and practicing “multiplication” are detrimental, discovering math through experimentation is vital, and making mistakes is part of learning the subject.

Boaler has emerged in recent years as the leading edu-guru in Mathematics education with a wide following, especially among elementary math teachers. Under the former Ontario Kathleen Wynne government, Boaler served as a prominent, highly visible member of the Math Knowledge Network (MKN) Advisory Council charged with advancing the well-funded Math Renewal Strategy.” Newsletters generated by the MKN as part of MRS Ontario featured inspirational passages from Jo Boaler exhorting teachers to adopt ‘fun’ strategies and to be sensitive to “student well-being.”

While Boaler was promoting her “Mathematics Mindset” theories, serious questions were being raised about the thoroughness of her research, the accuracy of her resources, and the legitimacy of her claims about what works in the Math classroom. Dr. Boaler had successfully weathered a significant challenge to her scholarly research by three Stanford mathematics professors who found fault with her “Railside School” study. Now she was facing scrutiny directed at YouCubed by cognitive science professor Yana Weinstein and New York Math teacher Michael Pershan.  Glaring errors were identified in YouCubed learning materials and the research basis for claims made in “Mistakes Grow Your Brain” seriously called into question. The underlying neuroscience research by Jason S Moser and his associates does not demonstrate the concept of “brain sparks” or that the “brain grows” from mistakes, but rather that people learn when made aware of their mistakes. 

Leading researchers and teachers associated with researchED are in the forefront of the current wave of evidence-based criticism of Boaler’s theories and contentions.  Australian teacher-researcher Greg Ashman, author of The Truth About Teaching (2018), was prompted by Jo Boaler’s response to the new UK math curriculum including “multiplication practice” to critically examine her claims. “Memorizing ‘times tables,’ “she told TES, was “terrible.” “I have never memorised my times tables,” she said. “I still have not memorised my times tables. It has never held me back, even though I work with maths every day.”  Then for clarification:” “It is not terrible to remember maths facts; what is terrible is sending kids away to memorise them and giving them tests on them which will set up this maths anxiety.”  

Ashman flatly rejected Boaler’s claims on the basis of the latest cognitive research. His response tapped into “cognitive load ” research and it bears repeating: “Knowing maths facts such as times tables is incredibly useful in mathematics. When we solve problems, we have to use our working memory which is extremely limited and can only cope with processing a few items at a time. If we know our tables then when can simply draw on these answers from our long term memory when required. If we do not then we have to use our limited working memory to figure them out when required, leaving less processing power for the rest of the problem and causing ‘cognitive overload’; an unpleasant feeling of frustration that is far from motivating.”

British teachers supportive of the new Math curriculum are now weighing-in and picking holes in Boaler’s theories. One outspoken Math educator, “The Quirky Teacher,” posted a detailed critique explaining why Boaler was “wrong about math facts and timed tests.” Delving deeply into the published research, she provided evidence from studies and her own experience to demonstrate that ‘learning maths facts off by heart and the use of timed tests are actually beneficial to every aspect of mathematical competency (not just procedural fluency).” “Children who don’t know their math facts end up confused,” she noted, while those who do are far more likely to become “better, and therefore more confident and happy, mathematicians.”

Next up was University of  Pennsylvania professor Paul L. Morgan, Research Director of his university’s Center for Educational Disabilities. Popular claims by Boaler and her followers that “math practice and drilling” stifle creativity and interfere with “understanding mathematical concepts” were, in his view, ill-founded. Routine practice and drilling through explicit instruction, Morgan contended in Psychology Today, would “help students do better in math, particularly those who are already struggling in elementary school.”  Based upon research into Grade 1 math achievement involving 13,000 U.S. students, his team found that, of all possible strategies, “only teacher-directed instruction consistently predicted greater first grade achievement in mathematics.”

Critiques of Jo Boaler’s theories and teaching resources spark immediate responses from the reigning Math guru and her legions of classroom teacher followers. One of her Stanford Graduate Education students, Emma Gargroetzi, a PhD candidate in education equity studies and curator of Soulscrutiny Blog, rallied to her defense following Barbara Oakley’s New York Times piece.  It did so by citing most of the “Discovery Math” research produced by Boaler and her research associates. She sounded stunned when Oakley used the space as an opportunity to present conflicting research and to further her graduate education.

Some of the impassioned response is actually sparked by Boaler’s own social media exhortations. In the wake of the firestorm, Boaler posted this rather revealing tweet: “If you are not getting pushback, you are probably not being disruptive enough.” It was vintage Boaler — a Mathematics educator whose favourite slogan is “Viva la Revolution.”  In the case of Canadian education, it is really more about defending the status quo against a new generation of more ‘research-informed’ teachers and parents.

Far too much Canadian public discourse on Mathematics curriculum and teaching simply perpetuates the competing stereotypes and narratives. Continued resistance to John Mighton and his JUMP Math program is indicative of the continuing influence wielded by Boaler and her camp. Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative Government is out to restore “Math fundamentals” and determined to break the curriculum gridlock.  The recent debate over Ontario Math education reform on Steve Paikin’s TVOntario program The Agenda featured the usual competing claims, covered familiar ground, and suggested that evidence-based discussion has not yet arrived in Canada.

What explains Professor Jo Boaler’s success in promoting her Math theories and influencing Math curriculum renewal over the past decade? How much of it is related to YouCubed teaching resources and the alignment with Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ framework? Do Boaler’s theories on Math teaching work in the classroom? What impact, if any, have such approaches had on the decline of Math achievement in Ontario and elsewhere?  When will the latest research on cognitive learning find its way to Canada and begin to inform curriculum reform?

 

 

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