Teaching ‘Sticky’ and ‘Non-sticky’ Kids

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Whether we like it or not, some kids do better at school than others. A good part of this is beyond our control, determined by their genetic inheritance. In his book ‘Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are’  Robert Plomin finds that on average, between 60 and 70% of educational achievement is down to genetics. This still leaves a significant 30-40% determined by the environment which schools, parents and peers can affect. Obviously educational achievement is strongly informed by intelligence and a useful way to look at it, conceived and researched by the psychologist Raymond Cartell, describes it as consisting of two parts – fluid intelligence and crystallised intelligence.

Fluid intelligence is the genetically determined part and consists of our working memory capacity and ability to use logic and reason to solve new unfamiliar problems without depending on prior knowledge. It is worth noting that nobody has yet found a way to improve fluid intelligence, despite the intensive effort to develop cognitive training programs. Crystallised intelligence consists of the knowledge you have in long term memory – what you know. It is this second part that parents and schools can affect, and as David Didau argues so persuasively in his book ‘Making Kids Cleverer – A manifesto for closing the advantage gap,’ increasing crystallised intelligence should be the principle aim of schooling.

One reason for the achievement or advantage gap is the amount of knowledge and vocabulary students enter school with. Students that have been read to extensively, been part of many dinner time conversations, talked at more by adults, taken on trips to libraries, museums etc., have a significant advantage. These students have more crystallised intelligence. This prior knowledge permits them to understand and retain a greater percentage of everything the teacher says, both instructions for activities and explanations of concepts. It is as if their minds possess intellectual velcro or stickiness.

Because significant numbers of children arrive at school without this useful prior knowledge or mental stickiness it is important for teachers to do two things:

  1. teach a knowledge-rich curriculum explicitly
  2. employ specific strategies to help students remember what they learn

Teaching a knowledge-rich curriculum ensures any cultural knowledge deficits are ameliorated as much as possible. Explicit teaching means not setting up learning activities which privilege students with more prior knowledge, such as inquiry based learning or semi-discovery approaches, but carefully breaking down topics and explaining them directly to students, questioning to check understanding and giving lots of guided practice using the knowledge.

Whether they admit it or not, every teacher wants, and aims for students to remember lesson content, however few take deliberate steps to help students remember what they learn. An exception would be teachers who believe they are teaching transferable general skills and that detailed content can be looked up on google as required so there is no point in remembering it, but cognitive science is very clear that we can only think with the information we have in our long term memory, making this approach more than a little flawed.

Strategies to help students remember learning such as key vocab, definitions and procedures can include frequent low-stakes tests or student self-quizzing using knowledge organisers, chorusing responses and online games such as Kahoots. The aim is for the knowledge to be transferred into student’s long term memories permanently, not just for an exam or end of topic test. To this end cumulative rather than modular end of topic tests which include content from previous topics helps cement learning.




Three bad ideas about behaviour management

  1. If you make your lessons interesting for students you won’t have behaviour problems
  2. You can sort difficult behaviour by forming relationships with students
  3. You should focus on reinforcing positive behaviour while ignoring negative behaviour

At the moment, our school is grappling with how to improve behaviour management, both school-wide and in the classroom, to improve learning and reduce teacher stress. It is not that we have chaos, far from it. But we all recognise there is room for improvement. We have a flow chart of how our system works and procedures spelled out in the staff handbook. But it seems to me that it is essential to weed out 3 bad ideas about behaviour management that are widespread in our education system before we can make progress.

Having trouble with unruly students? Make your lesson more interesting! Who hasn’t had this message given to them at training college or by their SMT? I had this at the back of my mind for many years. If an activity wasn’t working due to poor behaviour it was time to quickly change it. I cringe to think of the number of times I abandoned a more effective teaching strategy for a less effective but more entertaining one for my students. How easy it is to lower expectations and therefore learning.

‘Relationships’ has been a buzz word, perhaps the buzz word in NZ education for the last decade. No-one ever really spelled out exactly what was meant by this but the implication was clear: get to know your students personally, their stories, their families and from this will flow good behaviour and effective learning. I bought into this idea for many years. The trouble is, the average secondary teacher teaches at least 100 different students over the course of a week. What then? Well, one solution is to focus on forming a relationship with the most ‘difficult’ students in your class and that is where the problems start. The ‘difficult’ teenage student starts behaving for you, “cos you’re their mate, right?” Only they don’t necessarily improve their behaviour for other teachers, who have not been so friendly, and when their impulses eventually over-ride your new friendship, they behave badly for you and are confused when you discipline them.

Ever been advised to focus on positive reinforcement of good behaviour and ignore negative behaviour? After all, what you focus attention on will grow won’t it? While the idea of ‘catching Johnny being good’ is fine, ignoring his bad behaviour won’t make it go away. Can you think of a sports coach or music teacher following this practice? Your golf coach ignores the poor aspects of your technique, focusing only on the things you are doing well in order to help you.  Or your violin teacher ignores your poor fingering and just praises your good sense of rhythm in the hope the fingering will sort itself out. So why do we think that ignoring the poor behaviour of students is a good approach? The likely outcome is that ignoring it will signal tacit approval and allow it to become normalised. Better to set a high standard of behaviour from the get go, pick up students on small misdemeanors, but give them an explanation why you are doing it – to optimise their learning.




How Learning Happens – Seminal Works in Educational Psychology and What they Mean in Practice: A review

book cover

This is a satisfyingly thick book with short chapters allowing one to dip in and out without losing track. The title is rather cool, and I can imagine producing it with a flourish in the staff room to impress colleagues. Sadly though, in my experience most will not be particularly interested. Teachers seem to be most excited by professional discourse that addresses the affective side of education – anything that speaks of making students feel safer, more connected and more loved will create a buzz of interest – and it goes without saying that this will raise student achievement. This predominance of heart over mind ignores more intellectual aspects, such as the applications of cognitive science or educational psychology, which only rarely find their way into consideration, despite their significant effect on student progress and well-being. It is these later features that Paul Kirschner and Carl Henrick address in their book.

How Learning Happens selects 28 key works of research in educational psychology from 1960 to 2013. Each work gets a chapter in which the reader is informed why they should read the article, a description of the research, the implications for teaching practice plus a useful bullet pointed ‘takeaway’ summary at the end. There are nice introductions to Sweller’s cognitive load theory, Geary’s biologically primary and secondary knowledge, Pavio’s dual coding, Rosenshine’s principals of instruction and Black and Wilam’s assessment for learning, along with a range of perhaps less commonly known works such as Rothkopf’s Concept of Mathemagenic Activities (no, not about maths, but activities that promote learning!) and Bandura’s work on self-efficacy. Each chapter is supported by key references with QR codes which provide a convenient way of accessing supporting material. The book is rounded out with a final chapter entitled ‘The Ten Deadly Sins of Education’ which addresses some of the common myths in education such as Ken Robinson’s ‘schools kill creativity.’

For a beginning teacher just starting out or experienced teachers wanting to broaden their knowledge by absorbing some of the science around learning, this is an excellent resource. Not every work discussed in the book appealed to me – a few me struck me more as arguments from imagination in which the researchers had perhaps mapped out an educational thought space without much evidence, but that’s psychology for you – it wasn’t so long ago that major theories in psychology were built on studies where n=5.

A minor quibble for me came in a grey breakout box (p 128) explaining standard deviation and effect size. The authors present effect size (d) as way of comparing the relative impact of different teaching approaches determined through research, much as Hattie does in his rankings of educational interventions link . In fact they make a point of mentioning Hattie’s hinge point of 0.4 as a cut-off below which ‘you could just as well done nothing.’ This is quite erroneous. For one, effect sizes resulting from research into different types of educational interventions cannot be meaningfully combined (as Hattie does in meta meta analyses) or easily compared. Many factors such as the quality of experimental design, sample size and even the age of the students (given spread of academic achievement data tends to increase with age) will affect the effect size (more info here).  And teachers need to know this if they are to grapple with the findings of research.

While reading the book I excitedly tweeted a few paragraphs and although there were likes and retweets, some interesting cautionary comments were made by Christian Bokhove an Ed Prof at the University of Southampton. The first related to a Danish study (link) referenced in the chapter on direct instruction (p182). The study identified a range of features typical of ‘learner-centered education’ and looked at data on academic achievement and concluded that it had a negative impact, particularly more so on low socio-economic students. To a fan of direct instruction like me this was gold but Christian pointed out the limitations of the study link  – a reminder of the dangers of taking studies cited in support of claims at face value.

A second paragraph I tweeted concerned the authors stating ‘motivation leads to learning’ as the 8th of their 10 Deadly Sins Of Education (p302). They observe how often one of the keys to improving outcomes for students is seen as improving their motivation and engagement, and claim that research shows that there is neither a causal nor reciprocal relationship between motivation and learning – it is always the one way – from learning to motivation. This clearly resonated with many on edutwitter, as it did with me. So often we hear arguments along the lines of ‘if only we make it more interesting they will engage and learn better’ or ‘we just have to get the students more motivated.’ The focus is rarely on how can we teach more effectively, give the student a taste of success, and then reap the natural flow of motivation that results. Nevertheless, it was pointed out by Christian and others that Kirschner and Hendrick have taken quite a narrow slice of the research on student motivation to support their point, and that there is a reasonable amount of evidence to support a reciprocal relationship between motivation and learning.

I recommend this book highly, it really is a ‘one shop stop’ for someone wanting to dive into evidence-informed education for the first time and provides many starting points for digging deeper into the science of learning.
















Play: nature’s default mechanism for learning and it’s role in schooling

photo of child s hand playing clay

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If you work in a primary school or have children attending one you may be aware of a growth in popularity in recent years of play-based approaches. It is not just a grass-roots teacher-led movement, teachers can undertake professional development courses concerning play (link) and Cambridge University even has a research unit devoted to it and a professorship sponsored by Lego (link).  This blog is my attempt to examine the justifications for these approaches and the nature of the evidence supporting them.

There are three reasons I see that might be used for including play in the primary curriculum, above and beyond what students experience at interval and lunchtime. The first stems from recognition of the important role that play has in neurological and social development of children and the fear that perhaps they are not receiving enough play to adequately facilitate this. Both these are supported by evidence. Research documents the importance of play in the development of mammals and children eg. Burghardt Bekoff Ginsburg. and also evidence that the amount of outdoor play children experience has decreased significantly over the last decades in favour of indoor activities such as screen-time that often do not involve other children Twenge.

A second reason, related to the first, is that academic learning is best delayed  till the age of 7, based on the idea that the child’s brain is not developmentally ready for such learning till then. This seems to be based in part on Piaget’s stages of development in which children do not develop the ability to think logically until they enter the ‘concrete operational stage.’ However, despite the dogged persistence in educational circles of Piaget’s theories, significant and valid criticism casting doubt on them has been made in the light of more modern research (link).

Arguments about school starting age are also made based on the success of the Finnish education system in which children don’t start school till age 7. However, in our more diverse society here in NZ, delaying the acquisition of vocabulary, decoding text and maths skills till age 7 may miss an important opportunity to close the gap between the children that gain this knowledge from their parents before they even start school and those from less privileged backgrounds who do not.

The third reason play-based approaches are advocated relates to the romantic meta-belief underpinning progressive educational thought – that children learn better through play or the most ‘natural’ or ‘spontaneous’ method possible. In essence, play has become the ‘new’ discovery learning which seems to find adherents in every generation of teachers despite overwhelming evidence showing explicit instruction of a structured curriculum by a teacher is more effective Rosenshine Mayer Kirschner. Let’s not forget also that the very successful Direct Instruction model of Englemann in Project Follow  Through involved teaching primary children.

Some might argue that surely a play-based approach would still be great for students to learn oracy, motor-coordination and important social skills like self-regulation. However, I would argue that in the environment of a school we have the opportunity to deliver structured programs such as music, drama, and PE which would deliver these outcomes much more effectively. There are still arguments to be made for free-play as an intrinsically unique activity of benefit to children eg Gray. but perhaps lunchtime and interval are enough?

So there are many questions to be answered around the inclusion of play-based learning in primary schools. Is free-play or structured play valuable in the first years but not in later years? Is there an opportunity cost relating to the closing of knowledge gaps between more and less privileged children? How sound is the underpinning reasoning for including play-based approaches? And lastly, but most importantly, where are the quantitative longitudinal studies demonstrating its efficacy over other approaches?

Footnote: If you thought the science of why mammals play was settled read this

Replanting Creativity during post-normal times: a critical response.

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In October last year a report by Peter O’Connor et al., entitled “Replanting Creativity during post-normal times” was released by the Centre for Arts and Social Transformation at the University of Auckland. It has been in the press (here) and lectured on this year and seems to have been well received and viewed as general advocacy for the arts. The research project involved the creation of a student survey instrument that was used to measure how schools fair in fostering creativity and even came up with ‘total creativity score’ for each school. In this blog I critique two aspects of this report – the research methodology (and therefore the findings) and the authors’ contention that in NZ schools the arts are dying and do not foster creativity.

The research centers around the creation of a Creative Schools Index comprising 11 dimensions that are hypothesized to foster creativity – collaboration, problem solving, critical thinking, playfulness, environments, divergent thinking, innovation, discipline knowledge, risk taking, synthesis and curiosity. With some trialing, a 56 question survey was developed to give to students that could serve as a measure of how well individual teachers and schools provided for the development of creativity. Data was collected in 17 schools and from 1973 students.

Despite the authors claim that their Creative Schools Index has provided schools with ‘valid and reliable data’ it is by no means clear that this is the case. To establish reliability it would be necessary to resurvey the same set of students at a later time period, perhaps a week or a month or a term later to see by how much individual student answers vary. Despite extensive statistical treatment of the data, this does not appear to have been undertaken. To determine validity, some independent measuring of the 11 creative dimensions should have been carried out. This could have been survey of teachers or researcher in class observation. This would have provided some idea of whether student’s perceptions represent reality.

The authors find that across all 11 dimensions, the frequency of creative opportunities diminish across the school system (presumably primary to secondary) and that NZ schools are not valorising or encouraging creative dispositions nor building the skills or knowledge in the creative process. These conclusions in particular are hard to reconcile with the strength of art, drama and music in NZ secondary schools. In almost every secondary school in NZ students receive compulsory music, art and drama lessons at the junior level and at the senior level they have the opportunity to develop creative skills and knowledge in each of these areas as self-selected subjects. Many schools have drama productions and musical groups students can participate in. And this doesn’t touch on English which teaches creative writing, or Graphic Design, Photography, Media Studies, all of which foster and give opportunities for creativity. So it seems, as a NZ teacher said on twitter:

“I always struggle to name any other time in a person’s life when they have more access to music, theatre, arts, and so on than when they’re at school.” Ben Duckett @bjd8747

It seems in framing creativity primarily as a set of transferable skills and dispositions the reports authors underplay the powerful role that schools play in developing the declarative and procedural knowledge that creativity in different fields ultimately depends on. Could schools do better? Probably. But to argue that schools are where ‘creativity goes to die’ (headline of newsroom article by lead author Peter O’Connor) based on student surveys and in the face of contrary evidence observable in many NZ schools seems unreasonable.

On learning something new…

person playing wind instrument
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New learning is a fragile thing. I am reminded of this as I try to improve my skill on the flute, not my main instrument. I have the advantages of knowing multiple scales as a mental map in my head, of already being a fluent reader of notation, and I even have the correct flute fingering for different notes memorised. But I am humbled by the lack of a consistent embouchure and the fact that the knowledge of which fingers to use for each note is not sufficiently automatic for me to play well or reliably. I experience what I see my beginner trumpet students experiencing – knowing the correct valve to push down but their fingers do something else altogether, seemingly at random. Also the ability to play something correctly once only to subsequently fail to do so again and again.

Apart from giving me new empathy for my beginning trumpeters, this has caused me to reflect on the learning process more generally in terms of how fragile new learning is and how much consolidation is required for it to stick. I believe that teachers need to make deliberate efforts to teach for memory whether they are teaching procedural or declarative knowledge. Simply giving students an ‘experience’ of a topic or skill  is not enough to result in long term learning. Even explaining a concept so that they have a good understanding of it is not enough if that understanding is soon forgotten. That ‘aha’ moment is necessary but not indication of permanent learning.

Do your students get enough practice using the knowledge or skills you are teaching them for it to become embedded in their long term memory? Two methods with strong evidence from cognitive science/educational psychology that can help are low stakes retrieval practice (quizzing) and elaborative interrogation (getting students to demonstrate and expand on concepts via questioning). If you are a learning a new skill then ample rehearsal of that skill is also an obvious step. Another technique teachers can use is cumulative assessment, in which material from previous topics is incorporated into end of topic tests, to help ensure knowledge is retained.

Simply put it takes a hang of a lot of going over for most students (human beings generally in fact) to ‘get it’ and ‘remember it.’ An interesting piece of research is ‘Project Follow Through’ and more specifically the success of a form of classroom teaching called Direct Instruction, developed by a Siegfried Englemann. His system, which enjoyed unparalleled success raising the achievement of underprivileged students in the US involved lessons in which 80% of each lesson was repetition of previous content. This feature was likely a big factor contributing to the success of the method. Of course the challenge is to keep the processes of embedding of knowledge/skills varied and interesting enough so that our classes don’t become too Gradgrindian.

A large scale multi-school, multi-nation well-being intervention: Convincing evidence or not?

backlit beach dawn dusk
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A few weeks ago, 600 teachers in my district ranging from early childhood to secondary, attended a professional development event to launch a new district wide well-being initiative. The speaker was Dr Denise Quinlan, director of the NZ Institute of Well-Being and Resilience and graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Positive Psychology.  Denise made the case for the introduction of well-being interventions in NZ schools and cited a key piece of research in support of her arguments. The research is a PhD thesis by Adler Alejandro, entitled “Teaching Well-Being Increases Academic Performance: Evidence from Bhutan, Mexico and Peru”  and carried out at the Center for Positive Psychology at Pennsylvania University. The thesis can be downloaded here.

Being interested in assessing the quality of the evidence behind educational interventions, especially one that brought 600 teachers together, I read the thesis. For a PhD study it is a spectacular piece of work spanning 3 nations and a huge number of schools and students. The first study was in Bhutan, a 2nd in Mexico and a 3rd in Peru. In all cases the well-being intervention caused significant increases in student well-being and academic performance. Furthermore, the research used randomisation, an active control group, single blind experimental techniques along with large samples sizes and international replication which surely means it is a convincing piece of evidence. Or is it?

In each country the intervention consisted of roughly the same ten curriculum elements, customized somewhat to the local culture. Here are the elements for Bhutan:


The number of different elements strikes me as problematic: Which of them, or which combination of them, caused the increase in student academic performance? It doesn’t matter, you might conclude, what matters is that it worked. But what if most of the benefits where due to one or two elements and the rest had no effect, surely we would want to know if we were trying to design a similar intervention?

But the complications don’t end there. In addition to the ten elements outlined above, teachers in the intervention group were also taught how to give written and verbal feedback to students with a positive rather than negative or corrective focus from the teacher – something Alejandro claims (without evidence) is typical of teachers. Also the teacher training was designed to be a significant personally transformative experience, presumably from a positive psychological perspective. So the possible causal effects for changes in student performance start to compound. Did positively transformed teachers teach their curriculum with more vigour than usual resulting in higher academic performance?

Pertinent to discuss also is the nature of the control group. Teachers in the control group were trained to teach human anatomy, psychology and nutrition to students, and did so for the same amount of time as the intervention group. Perhaps I am being unreasonable, but the difference between the intervention and control group programs seems too big to adequately compensate for intervention effects (eg. the power of enthused teachers doing something new with students).

The crunch question though, is does this research provide enough evidence to underpin the design and implementation of similar well-being interventions in NZ schools? Adhering closely to the design of the intervention used may give the best chance of success. But we don’t know enough about what caused the positive effects to adjust the program to our NZ context. For example most NZ secondary schools already teach a Health curriculum based around well-being. Does that mean many of our students already have good well-being skills, more so perhaps than students in Bhutan, Mexico or Peru? Is the opportunity cost of implementing this particular program with high fidelity too high compared to other possible initiatives such as improving the quality of literacy and numeracy instruction or creating knowledge-rich curricula, all of which would improve educational achievement and the life-long well-being of students?


Education: Arguments from Imagination or Evidence?

closeup photo of woman in black top with her index finger on top of her lower lip
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Call me stupid. I definitely think I was for the first 15 years of my teaching career. Stupid, because I did not apply the reasoned, evidenced based thinking I had learned completing a PhD in a scientific field, to my new profession of secondary school teaching. Granted, the education training I received, a one year post-graduate diploma, did not encourage me in any way to do this, but did I really need to spend so long with my head in the sand before starting to question the basis of my teaching?

Better late than never, goes the saying, and several years ago I decided I needed to start finding more out about education. I started searching to find if there was a counter-narrative to the dominate educational paradigm I had learned in teacher training and continued to receive in teacher PD down the years.

Book depository is a wonderful thing and got the ball rolling with ‘The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way’ by Amanda Ripley, Eric Kalenze’s ‘Education Is Upside-Down: Reframing Reform to Focus on the Right Problems’ and Daniel Willingham’s great book ‘Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom. Many more excellent books followed  – David Didau and Nick Rose’s ‘What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology,’ Daisy Christodolou’s ‘Seven Myths About Education’ and Doug Lemov’s ‘Teach Like a Champion.’ I should add that several excellent blogs, notably by Greg Ashman in Australia and David Didau in the UK provided many valuable insights too.

What I rapidly learned was that there was a dominant ‘group think’ or educational paradigm operating and that there are teachers and educational academics questioning it who present a valid counter-narrative. I realised that many of the accepted ‘truths’ that teachers base their collective practice on were not based on any form of empirical evidence or reasoning, but were instead what Stephen Pinker calls ‘arguments from imagination.’ Examples would be learning styles, students learn best when they discover knowledge themselves, teaching from the front is a poor strategy, getting students to memorise key knowledge is harmful and the classic 21st Century skills arguments about critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.

With my head somewhat cleared of the edu-myths I had been programmed with I returned to the empirical approach I learned as a science post-graduate, which I now feel is the most ethical starting point we can take as a profession. To begin with, what can the fields of science that deal with how humans learn and behave – cognitive science and psychology, actually tell us that will help us formulate our teaching practice? What do the substantial amounts of research into teacher practice and student achievement tell us? Is it all contradictory, as some claim, or are there commonalities that give us robust starting points? I should note my teacher training did not take this approach, in fact, a sign of respect was that you had developed a coherent set of beliefs about how students learn best.

In 2018, along with 3 of my colleagues, I spoke at the first ever ResearchEd conference in Auckland about how we must privilege scientific evidence in education (text of talk here). If we wish to solve some of the seemingly intractable problems facing NZ education, such as the māori achievement gap and the crisis in reading and maths, it is essential that we examine evidence to determine the causes and the best courses of action. In my next blog I will address the scientific evidence around reading and how it needs to be applied in the NZ context.



Privileging Scientific Evidence in Education: the New Zealand context

Yesterday I attended the first Research Ed conference in New Zealand. Together with four of my teaching colleagues I gave a presentation making the argument that we need to privilege scientific evidence if we are to fix our failing education system. Here is the text of my speech.

International and national statistics for NZ’s education system do not make comforting reading. The 2015 PISA results showed the reading scores for our 15 year olds declining and their maths and science scores in a trend of accelerated decline. PIRLS 2016 results (literacy) show that 10% of our 10 year olds cannot read simple instructions compared to 4% internationally. We continue to have an achievement gap for māori despite decades of effort.

What can we do about it? Last year I read an interview with Sir Peter Gluckman, NZ’s Chief Scientific Officer, in which he describes his efforts to convince politicians of the need to privilege scientific evidence over other forms of evidence in government decision making. I believe this approach is long overdue in NZ education – science gives us a set of processes with which we can objectively assess educational interventions and approaches, rather than follow the HIPPO effect (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion).

I will start with reading instruction. How children learn to read is probably the most well evidenced area of education. Since 2000 there have been 3 government level reviews internationally of the evidence around reading instruction – 2000 in the US, 2005 in Australia and 2006 in the UK. All three expert panels agreed that a particular form of phonics teaching called systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) is an essential early step in learning to read. In the UK, this was implemented in primary schools, along with a phonics check, resulting in sustained improvements in reading success for disadvantaged students. In New Zealand, SSP is unheard  of in our primary schools – we are 13 years behind the scientific consensus in reading instruction.

What about Maths? Since 1985 the Numeracy Project in primary schools, in which students are given multiple methods to solve one type of problem in an effort to deepen their understanding, has impaired student achievement in Maths. The importance of cognitive automaticity – memorising processes such as times tables and number bonds so that working memory is freed to think about more complex operations has been overlooked.

21st Century skills is a popular zeitgeist among educationalists in NZ.  The idea behind this is that because technology is changing so fast and we cannot predict what jobs our students might get, along with the fact that knowledge is outsourced to google, we must focus on teaching higher order thinking skills such as critical thinking, creativity and problem solving, instead of teaching subject content. Trouble is that since the 1950’s cognitive science has been showing that skills such as critical thinking and creativity are domain-specific. This means for example, that critical thinking in history is different to critical thinking in biology and each depends on a significant amount of knowledge in that subject.

Creativity also depends on the development of skills and knowledge in a subject. I show my Y11 Music students an interview with Ed Sheeran in which he expresses his annoyance at fans who tell him he is “so talented” when he was writing 5 or 6 original songs a day from the age of 15 to develop his song writing skills. His creativity depends on a huge amount of knowledge – how the elements of rhythm, harmony, timbre blend together with lyrics to make a hit song. The reliance of high order thinking skills on subject knowledge means they cannot be taught as generic skills.

What about the curriculum? Well in NZ we have a knowledge-lite curriculum with only two subjects, science and maths that have content specified for each year of school. There is a significant emphasis on developing generic skills. Trouble is, there are examples internationally of school systems that have gone down this route with damaging consequences for student achievement. In his book ‘Why Knowledge Matters,’ Ed Hirsch describes the rise and fall of the French education system as the result of a set of educational reforms in 1989. Prior to 1989 French primary schools had a prescriptive knowledge-rich curriculum in which every student of the same age was taught the same content. The educational reforms abolished this in favour of schools creating their own local curricula and a requirement to focus on generic skills. For the next 20 years, academic achievement entered a period of decline in which children of the working classes were the most impacted as they did not have educated parents to make up the deficit in knowledge. Interestingly children of more educated parents were also affected, just not as much.

What about teaching approaches, where does the evidence lie? I like to divide teaching approaches into two categories – direct instruction and indirect instruction. Direct instruction is where knowledge is directly communicated to students by the teacher, who carefully sequences and breaks it down into manageable chunks. The teacher uses worked examples, questions for feedback and to deepen understanding and provides fully guided practice. Indirect instruction covers approaches such as inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, independent learning and play-based learning, among others. The key idea is that if only we can set students to learning independently from the teacher in some way, they will be better off.

The weight of evidence lies strongly behind direct forms of instruction. It is supported by the results of the massive US study ‘Project Follow Through’ in the form of Englemann’s Direct Instruction, process-product research of the 70’s, PISA data on correlations between teaching approaches and achievement, and cognitive science in the form of Cognitive Load Theory. Cognitive Load Theory addresses the issue of students limited short term memory and how we need to allow for it in our teaching. It also established the ‘expertise reversal effect’ which shows that while direct instruction is the most effective for novice learners, forms of independent learning are more optimal for experts. Why does the NZ Ministry of Education promote inquiry learning as a best practice method of learning in primary schools?

Finally and perhaps controversially I would like to talk about māori achievement and culturalism. For decades now the NZ Ministry of Educations approach to closing the achievement gap for māori has been informed by culturalism. Culturalism holds that everything important about a person is determined by their culture. By this logic a māori student cannot achieve success academically without being fully located in their culture and any lags in achievement can be attributed to unconscious racial bias in teachers.

The most significant project to promote culturally responsive teaching was the Te Kotahitanga project. The Phase Three report for this project reports outcomes for implementation between 2004-2008. While significant improvements in student retention and affective outcomes occurred there is very limited evidence of improvement in academic outcomes. This suggests culturally responsive teaching is going to be insufficient to close the achievement gap for māori and it may well be that remedying our sub-optimal reading and maths instruction, using best evidenced teaching approaches such as direct instruction, and creating a knowledge rich curriculum will be required as well.


Footnote: Data sources, research referred to in the text provided by request.


The first step in learning is remembering

One definition of learning offered by cognitive scientists is that learning is the transfer of knowledge into long term memory where it forms schemas or mental representations. This is what we think with. If we do not have facts or information about a topic in long term memory, we cannot think about it. This is why the first step in learning is remembering. It is worth recalling the bottom level of Bloom’s taxonomy:


In the rush to get to the higher-order thinking skills we all agree are important, we can neglect to address the first level – remembering facts and procedures. This is like the foundation of the building. Without them, it is impossible for students to move to more advanced levels of thinking. Teaching for memory can involve frequent low-stakes quizzing, cold call questioning, teaching students to self-quiz and even whole class chorusing. Teaching for memory is hugely overlooked in teaching and besides building the foundation for more advanced engagement with topics it also provides a motivating first taste of success for learners – who hasn’t seen the excitement of students when they correctly recall something they have been taught.

Identifying the key knowledge in your subject or a particular topic that you need your students to remember can be helpful. Students can be provided with knowledge organisers listing key vocab, definitions, concepts and procedures. It is worth breaking down all the information students will need to access a new topic – it could be as simple as knowing that ‘Germany’ is a country and where it is geographically, before learning about the Holocaust.

Students will need to have practice recalling specific knowledge not just during the current topic but repeatedly in the weeks and months to come if they are to commit it to long term memory. “If you can’t remember it, you haven’t really learned it” is a good rule of thumb. Building knowledge in this way is critical for disadvantaged students and a key element in advancing literacy.