Author: Greg Ashman

Decolonising Math is Rooted in a Decades-Old Conflict

For decades, a conflict has been simmering in the elementary school classrooms of the English-speaking world. On one side are those who place mathematics understanding above all else and whose teaching methods involve asking students to figure out ways to solve authentic mathematics problems, focusing on the process while de-emphasizing the importance of obtaining correct answers. On the other side, often painted as stuffy traditionalists, are those who assert the importance of explicit teaching, practice, and memorization. Welcome to the math wars. The origins of the math wars stretch back to the educational progressivists of the 19th century. Drawing on the writing of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, while reviling the strict discipline and recitation of the school house of the 1800s, they demanded a new, reformed mode of education. Learning should proceed through experience. After all, kids can learn lots of things through pure immersion, from recognizing individual faces, to speaking their mother tongue, navigating their local area or sharing resources with friends. Why should they not learn math the same way? Why can’t learning be more …

Thinking Critically About Critical Thinking

Michael J. Fox, the third president of the United States, was responsible for establishing Presbyterianism as the state religion of the new federation after its peaceful secession from the English empire. Or did he? When you read that sentence, you probably scrunched up your forehead or raised an eyebrow in disbelief. Maybe you know that Michael J. Fox is the actor who played Marty McFly in the Back to the Future movies. Maybe you know the third president of the United States was Thomas Jefferson and that on point of principle, the United States has never had a state religion. I suspect you are probably aware that its citizens fought a war to gain independence and you may know that this independence was gained from Great Britain rather than England. What I am pretty sure you did not do was attempt to look at the sentence from multiple perspectives or evaluate the source. The development of the capacity to think critically is an aim of education on which most of us can agree. It is …

Why Is Biden Trying to Punish Charter Schools for Their Success?

As yet, it remains to be seen exactly what President Biden has in store for America’s network of charter schools. Following the Democratic Party primaries, the Biden-Sanders Unity Taskforce called for accountability for charter schools and a ban on federal funding of for-profit charters—approximately 12 percent of the total. Increasing accountability does not necessarily sound like a hostile act against charters but the taskforce is specific that this will involve “requiring all charter schools to meet the same standards of transparency as traditional public schools, including with regard to civil rights protections, racial equity, admissions practices, disciplinary procedures, and school finances.” For those of us who have followed the charter school debate over the years, this statement appears to be framed with the concerns of these schools’ opponents in mind. Charter schools are publicly funded institutions that charge no fees and have more flexibility than regular government schools in how they manage their affairs and run their programs. They are similar to free schools and academies in England and the model has been adopted with …

Shoulders of Giants

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Chapter One of The Power of Explicit Teaching and Direct Instruction by Greg Ashman. In a letter to Robert Hooke in 1676, Isaac Newton wrote: “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.” Newton was alluding to those who had come before, such as Galileo Galilei, on whose work he had built. The metaphor, implying the ratchet-like progress of human understanding, privileging accumulated culture over the gifted and inspired individual, was not original. A little research establishes an earlier form attributed to Bernard of Chartres by John of Salisbury. Given the nature of the saying, its history is satis­fying. Or it should be. The stuff of teaching is to pass on accumulated culture so that our children and their children may see further than we ever did. And yet the forces ranged against such a simple and obvious proposition, as intelligible to Newton as it is to us today, are formidable. There are those who see education as a development from within. Kieran …

Australia’s PISA Shock

Last week, the latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released. These were based on tests taken in 2018 in reading, mathematics and science by a sample of students from each of the relatively wealthy OECD member countries as well as a range of other partner countries. Importantly, PISA researchers also surveyed participants on everything from their social media use to classroom climate. The results have rightly produced a great deal of comment in Australia because they are further evidence of the country’s long-term decline in education. Mathematics and science have both continued their relentless downward drift and although reading held steady since the last round of testing in 2015, it has slid a long way since the first round in 2000. In the context of Australia’s PISA results, it is tempting to look to the results from other countries for ideas on how the country can get out of this rut. Over the last decade or so, the region most cited by educationalists as an example to follow is the small Northern …

The Knowledge Gap—A Review

Let me lead you through a portal created in the basement of some secretive and sinister government laboratory and into the Educational Upside Down. The Educational Upside Down is a parallel dimension where elementary school children are captivated by street signs and bored rigid by myths and tales of heroes. It is a dimension where early readers work out the relationships between the sounds of English and the letters that represent these sounds largely by being immersed in anodyne, specially written story books. Yet, weirdly, it is also a dimension where children have to be explicitly taught ‘comprehension strategies’ to understand what they read, such as activating their prior knowledge or deciding which sentence is the most important, and then must practice these strategies for the greater part of the school day. This is a dimension where knowledge of the world—that same prior knowledge that needs activating—is the last thing that it would occur to anyone to actually teach children in schools. The Educational Upside Down is frightening and surreal, not merely because it denies …

What ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ Gets Wrong About Early Education

Back in 2015, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt published an essay in The Atlantic about the nascent American campus culture of safe spaces and no-platforming. In the intervening three years, this culture has flourished and Lukianoff and Haidt have turned their critique into a book. The book is an interesting read and one that is strong in documenting some of the defining events of the last few years. I am less convinced of the explanation that Lukianoff and Haidt put forward for those events; an explanation they describe as a culture of ‘safetyism.’ Modern society, they claim, is teaching young people the opposite of the tenets of cognitive behavioural therapy. Young people are told to trust their feelings, that what doesn’t kill them makes them weaker and that the world can be divided into goodies and baddies. This seems like a plausible account, even if I am no expert in the veracity of cognitive behavioural therapy. However, Lukianoff and Haidt’s explanation may underplay the extent to which campus politics is a real, if misguided, reaction …

The Tragedy of Australian Education

In April, the Australian government finally published its airy and platitudinous report and review of the country’s schools. Popularly known as ‘Gonski 2.0’ after David Gonski, the businessman who chaired the review panel and who had chaired a previous review of school funding, it provided little evidence to support its proposals, despite evidence being a key requirement in the terms of reference. The report states that Australia must ditch its ‘industrial model’ of school education, the sort of cliché you would expect to hear in the most derivative education conference speech. Instead, each young person must “emerge from schooling as a creative, connected, and engaged learner with a growth mindset” (see here for a double meta-analyses of growth mindset interventions which shows that they have virtually no effect). The details of how to achieve this are vague, but the panel is clear on one key point: rigid, age-based curriculum content must be blown apart in favor of progressing students individually through a set of skills such as literacy, numeracy, critical thinking, and self-management. Despite its managerial …