Starting points: teaching other people’s kids

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In my last year of high school my favourite subject was physics. I enjoyed mechanics the most, calculating velocity, acceleration, angular momentum etc., and the steps in logic in working them out. I remember one key strategy for solving exam style problems imparted to us, which was to always start with what you know. This meant something very specific, which was writing down in a list all the parameters for which values were given in the question and then reading carefully to figure out what parameter you were being asked to calculate.

Today starting with ‘what you know’ seems to me to be the most logical way to address the enterprise of teaching other people’s kids. Except instead of a few values given in an exam question, ‘what you know’ becomes the ‘what we know’ in a broader scientific sense. It means considering what can be reasonably concluded from empirical investigations in relevant fields – which conclusions are supported by evidence and better still supported by a plausible theory?

I should explain I use the term ‘teaching other people’s kids’ because I think if you were, for example, teaching your own kids, you’d be entitled to teach them any which way you choose, whereas when you are employed to teach other people’s kids, you and the school should be using proven methods, as befitting any professional providing a service to the public. This is where starting from ‘what we know’ in a scientific sense comes in.

In my experience most parents and many teachers are not aware that much educational practice, both historically and currently is not developed with reference to empirical evidence, but is based instead on beliefs about how students learn. For example – students learn best when they work independently, when they choose their own topics, when they learn in an authentic context or when the teacher’s lesson delivery matches their preferred learning style. Teachers and principals, must ask ‘what is the evidence for this?’

It is astounding for me to reflect, 16 years into my career, that my teacher training did not take account of nor reference knowledge from the scientific fields relevant to learning. Even by the start of this century the fields of cognitive science and educational psychology had established reliable insights to guide teachers in their practice. There were also considerable bodies of research directly speaking to what works and what doesn’t in schools and in the classroom.

Why should we be privileging science over belief as the basis for teaching? This is because, although far from perfect, it is the best hope we have of figuring out what works and why and distinguishing that from our own folk theories, anecdotes and biases. And our children deserve this. It doesn’t mean that there is a piece of research to back every decision a teacher or school makes, but that their decision making should be informed where possible by research.





Education: Arguments from Imagination or Evidence?

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Photo by Hannah Nelson on

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.



A Smoking Gun? Student Attendance and the Achievement Gap in NZ.

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In a previous post I discussed the New Zealand Ministry of Education’s premise that unconscious racist bias was the cause of the persistent under achievement gap for Māori versus Pakeha (NZ European) students. I argued that it was an unfalsifiable hypothesis since it cannot be measured and the possibility of modifying it unlikely. Here I present an alternative causal agent, one that can be measured and directly acted upon by schools.

Student attendance in NZ is collected by the Ministry of Education and the most up to date set of data and an accompanying report was released this year (here) . This data reveals that for the years 2011 to 2017, Pakeha were 15% more likely to attend school regularly than Māori (attending regularly is defined by the MOE as 90% or more). The Ministry’s own report provides graphs showing the strong positive correlation between student achievement and performance in Level One of NCEA, the country’s national qualification.

It seems very plausible that at least some of the underachievement gap for Māori students versus Pakeha is due to poor attendance. This is particularly significant given the percentage of internal course work in many NCEA courses – is often as high as 80 to 100%. In fact, by the Ministry’s own data, a drop in attendance from 80 to 70% corresponds to a 10% drop in the probability that they will achieve NCEA Level 1.

Clearly improving attendance is no simple challenge for schools, involving changing the attitudes and patterns of behaviour of both students and caregivers. But it is a measurable outcome that could have significant impact in reducing the underachievement gap for Māori students, perhaps more effectively than hunting down the ghosts of unconscious racial bias.




White privilege, White thinking, White spaces: A brief comment



Students of politics and the social sciences will no doubt be familiar with these concepts but, they may be unfamiliar to many (as a science graduate they were unknown to me until very recently). They have been used in articles about the NZ education system and the achievement gap for maori linklink . The purpose of this blog is to very briefly outline a little of the background to these terms.

The concept of ‘white privilege’ is associated with identity studies, collectively – critical race theory, intersectionality, postcolonial studies, and queer theory which developed out of post-modernism (which was heavily influenced by Marxism.) Key features are the identification of oppressed and oppressor groups and discrimination as the sole cause of inequality in measured outcomes. Oppressed/oppressor pairs include white/black, male/female, straight/gay, feminist/transgender, and even attractive/unattractive. In keeping with its postmodern origins, scientific evidence is often disregarded, dismissed disparagingly as the product of a white male patriarchy.

While most of us are sympathetic to social justice causes, the discourse emanating from identity studies is extreme. Some examples – gender is totally socially constructed, only white people can be racist, or closer to home, the claim by the NZ Ministry of Education that the achievement gap for maori students is due to unconscious racial bias of teachers (read about this here). Never mind the dozen or so other causal factors that might be in play.

It is not that discrimination does not exist and has not existed in the past for the aforementioned oppressed groups, but personal or systemic discrimination has become the blanket explanation and moral trigger point for explaining every disparate statistic between unequal groups in society. Stereotyping white people as privileged is unhelpful and simplistic and begs the question where do individuals of mixed heritage fit into the scheme of things?

Hunting for the ghost in the machine: NZ Ministry of Ed claims teachers racist (unconsciously)


Didn’t know you had been labelled thus by your employer, the NZ Ministry of Education? In fact you have been, but only indirectly eg. link. The thought leaders at the MOE consider that the underachievement of mori students is due to your unconscious racist bias. So you haven’t actually been called racist, perhaps that would be too strong, just told you are racially biased and you don’t know it.

In my talk at researchEd Auckland in June link I discussed the premise that we need to privilege scientific evidence if we are to improve educational outcomes for NZ children. So what is the scientific evidence that NZ teachers have unconscious racist bias? Unsurprisingly, there is none.

The story of unconscious or implicit bias began, or at least began to take off as a favoured explanation for the statistical lags of different groups in society, with the work of American social psychologists, Greenwald and Banaji in 1998 link. They released the Implicit Association Test or IAT, which purported to measure the unconscious bias of a person. There are different versions of the test and the race-based one rapidly became very popular with social justice advocates, and indeed helped the cement the idea of unconscious bias as the go to explanation for racial inequality in society and that it is scientifically based.

The problems with the IAT are two-fold. Diagnostic tests in psychology need to be both reliable and valid. The IAT fails reliability tests, which means it can give different scores each time the same individual takes the test. It is also not valid in that it fails to predict behaviour link . If it were valid, a high IAT score for racism should predict discriminatory behaviour.

Arguments made in support of the unconscious or systemic bias as a cause of educational inequalities sometimes draw on the fact that when poverty or socio-economic data are taken into account, it still doesn’t explain the achievement gap for minority students.  It is concluded that the extra factor must be racism. This an argument from ignorance (a logical fallacy link ) in that it fails to account for other factors that could be causing it. Even if we don’t know what those factors are, is illogical to assume it is racism.

Since it is difficult to measure unconscious bias in a valid way and there is no evidence yet that it can be modified successfully, our Ministry of Education is presenting an unfalsifiable hypothesis as the cause of educational underachievement and inequality.  So whether it exists or not, it remains an unhelpful construct in designing strategies to improve educational outcomes.

Given the poor state of NZ’s educational system as demonstrated by international data link it would pay our Ministry of Education to start privileging scientific evidence –  the science behind reading could be a good starting point – instead of undermining teachers with unproven psychological constructs.

*Please note that I am not claiming that maori students in NZ never experience overt racism personally or systemically, nor I am claiming that people do not have unconscious biases.




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.




Guest Blog: Teaching Core Knowledge in Graphics

This is the talk my colleague, Keith Cave, gave as part of our joint presentation at ResearchEd Auckland.


I am a Design and Visual communication teacher at Tauraroa Area school in Northland. A rural school of 550 from years 1-13.

I teach DVC at all levels from 9 to 13 and deliver level 1,2 and 3 NCEA using all achievement standards, I am the only teacher of this subject so it gives be a lot of control and responsibility when it comes to curriculum content and knowledge selection. Students do not come with and testable specific prior knowledge of DVC but obviously an diverse range of skills and practices.

I have been a successful teacher, NCEA statistics show results consistently over national means and with a particular strength is Maori achievement, statistically much stronger then national means.

I am also a specialist classroom teacher; this is a role all schools with secondary schools have. This role gives me time to support teaching and learning in the classroom. It is a varied role outside management where I work alongside teachers. This can vary from observation and feedback to researching special learning needs and leading and supporting actions such as researched based classroom practice.

I also have a role of as a waka teacher, this role would be more familiar under the name form teacher.

What did I do?

A group of us wanted to improve outcomes for our students. Particularly at years 9 and 10 we were not really sure what they knew and much more importantly why they knew stuff, How could we get a more learning focused classroom?

So I Teach DVC to year 9 in 3 rotation splits over the year. I teach year 10 in 2 different ways. All students go through a 16-hour rotation then students can opt for an extra ‘options’ course for an extra 50-hour course

The rotation course is delivered in a standard project based method, students work in different contexts and are encouraged to explore design and present outcomes. Thus they experience and apply principles of design. Things like colour, line, texture, balance. This had obviously worked well before.

Here are examples of the work;

Year 9 Furniture design reflecting a house design

KC pic 1

Year 10 student presenting their spatial design

KC 2

After considerable reading research and discussion, I changed 2 key things for the option class. First was the behaviour management and expectations of my students, inspired by Michaela I changed to a very learning focused, very quiet classroom from a relationships focused classroom. And I was explicit about how and why with the students. The second change was to do the same with knowledge, I developed and made a knowledge organiser. This was making the teaching of design principles explicit and, more importantly, teaching for long term memory retention of those principles, not just in the context of the unit.

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This is the knowledge that I wanted to option class to learn and this is what students got.

On the back of the sheet I put these strategies to remind us (teacher and student) of how we can commit these to long term memory. They are gleaned straight from the Michaela book! As I read more I used a few new ones that Daniel Willingham talks about such as, storytelling and sharing as social/cultural knowledge.

Teaching and learning strategies

Individual recap

Short questions designed to go over knowledge and test recall

Written response to question

Whole class reading

Whole class following material and answer quick comprehension questions. teacher sharing examples to cover material

Individual Drill

Short drill questions to recap knowledge

Whole class drill

Look over examples/share answer with partner/explain to partner/ share examples with partners

Whole class recap

Whole class responding to questions together

So what happened?

So you don’t have 2 classes split neatly, they were taught in different ways for different lengths of time, but I believe there are some important differences in outcomes that relate directly to what I did. It’s really important to understand that I was not trying to be a researcher and prove the science, I was trying to see if I can use proven science to improve my teaching.

So come the next year and 21 students from all the school have opted into level one DVC, 8 of these students did not do the knowledge focused options course the year before, I was keen to see how much knowledge these students have and have retained, and what impact the different courses had.

First day of the level one course I tested the students long term memories by asking them to recall what design principles they recalled and what they meant. These students had not had DVC instruction since the end of November some for longer if they were in earlier rotations. Only 1 of the 8 students that did not take the options class could recall any design principles while the rest of the students had an average recall of 75%

KC 4

The first NCEA assessment is based on the designed principles, students need to describe them and apply them to their own designs. Given the testing results I assumed no prior knowledge and taught the first unit as I always have. Lots of handouts, examples, PowerPoints to get students up to speed. I felt strongly good teaching at this stage would overcome any lack of prior knowledge.

To see if there was a difference to NCEA outcomes I ranked my whole class and had the ranking checked (research shows teachers are very good at ranking but poor at levels) and then highlighted the 8 students

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Students in red are the 8 taught who did not do options class, top 18 were excellences. All students passed.

So 2018 95% merit/excellence pass rate.

(Past results 2015 60%, 2016 60%, 2017 72% so something different is happening here!)

So my conclusion is

It’s easy to see patterns and explain what we want to see. This is not a piece of research. These students were not taught the same things over the same time period. One group had much more time with me and much more time focussed on key knowledge so of course they score differently.

It’s important to note I am not trying to prove the science, that has already been done, I am trying to use the research effectively to teach my students, to find if my practice is effective.

What this chart does show to me is; when I thought I could catch that key knowledge up at NCEA, obviously whatever I did to do that was not effective

It strongly shows me the power of knowledge and embedding that knowledge in long term memory. Students that did that had a huge advantage and moved the cohort marks significantly.


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.




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.