The Distraction of Learning

Posted by Dane on 18:25

I have been reading Professor John Hattie's latest paper, What Doesn't Work in Education:  The Politics of Distraction.  This is Professor Hattie's take on what really matters in education and what sidetracks countries into policies and initiatives that may have the best intentions but provide little benefits.

Professor Hattie can sometimes polarise people.  He is the go to expert many times for the media, and maybe justifiably so.  He conducted one of the, if not the, largest academic study on examining what has the greatest effect on learning and he is currently the Director of Melbourne Education Research Institute at Melbourne University.  Professor Hattie was one of the key figures in developing the New Zealand National Standards (documents that he feels were not implemented effectively and most schools in New Zealand would agree).   Others, such as Kelvin Smythe have described Hattie's work as having "education certainty and cartoon simplicity" and Professor Hattie's work has been challenged as early as 2011 in the British Journal of Educational Studies.  I do feel that Hattie tends to gloss over the impact that a student's social economic status and home environment can have on their learning and feel that at times his work is looked at in isolated areas, not as different pieces that come together to form a larger picture.

What I do like about Professor Hattie's latest paper is that it examines what he believes have become distractions for New Zealand education for about 20 years.  In short Hattie suggests that;

- The offer of a choice of schools (public, private, integrated, charter....) is the first distraction and that all the research has shown that there really is no difference between schools in regards to student achievement.
- Simply having smaller class sizes will make no difference to student outcomes.  Although, I do wish someone would ask Professor Hattie would he agree that by having smaller class sizes it allows the time for the teacher to implement more effectively what really makes the difference in student learning.
- Tinkering with the curriculum without addressing deeper thinking, building new open space learning environments and adding more achievement tests for students to meet achieve little in student outcomes.
-Pouring money into getting pre school students to learn 'more' shows "that by the age of eight it is hard to detect who did and did not have pre-school education"
-Using labelling to explain why students can't learn achieves little.
-Simply giving schools more money or extending the hours a student spends at school does not result in greater results.
-Paid performance of teachers, more adults in the classrooms and 'fixing' teacher training colleges have little effect on student learning.

My summary of all this is what I have felt for some time, that for far too long education has been the go to area for political parties to implement policies to 'make things better'.  I strongly believe that as a country, we need to stop looking at what everyone else is doing, stop this insane obsession about where we sit on an international ranking system that looks at only three learning areas, and we start asking the important questions.  What do we want children of today to be like when they are an adult and how are we going to get there based on sound and extensive research and evidence?

Schools are required to produce a three to five year strategic plan, a guide to where they are heading, but if you ask any principal what the Ministry of Education has planned for the next five to ten years, you will get the inevitable shoulder shrug.  How can schools really plan on where to head if they have no idea where we are going as a country?

Hattie spoke about 'tinkering' and I believe he is correct.  As a  country we are too busy investing time and money on things that may look good, and may even feel good, but have shown to make make no real difference to student learning.  Why can't we get together and have a cross political party agreement around where we are heading as a country?   Based, not on 'my philosophy' or what another country is doing or a quick fix to be at the top or 'our party's official political policy' but a supported acknowledgment of what we know produces the best outcomes (based on sound research) for student learning.  This then could be the foundations for the country for the next 15 to 20 years.  A 'this is where we are all heading because we know it is the best for us' approach to education and learning that no political party will try to fix every three years.

This would be a brave call for politicians, as I imagine the pressure to do something and do it fast must be fairly heavy.  But, as the saying goes, if you do what you have always done, you'll get what you have always got.  Maybe it is time we stopped being distracted by the things that don't make a huge difference and start working on the things that do?


The State of Maths

Posted by Dane on 19:12
Well, it looks like that the latest education whipping boy is Mathematics.  Poor old maths, not only has it been thrown around as the ‘not liked subject at school‘ since the dawn of time but now the New Zealand Initiative's latest report on maths education has little positive to say about it too.
You may be wondering who the New Zealand Initiative are.  The New Zealand Initiative is a Wellington based business think tank; they are an association of business leaders that are also a research institute.   They are committed to developing policies that work for all New Zealanders, and believe that promoting such policies will benefit all of their members as a matter of fact. They are a group that usually prefers “Adam Smith’s invisible hand” to a “government’s visible fist.” 
So what does the report state?  Firstly according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) New Zealand mathematics results for Year 5 and Year 9 students are on a decline since 2002, and that our students’ results are below the mean.  It also states that the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results showed that New Zealand has a long tail of 15 year old students underachieving in maths.  
The report then moves onto why this is so, namely The Numeracy Project.  The paper strongly supports the need for the teaching of algorithms and basic facts and a move away from strategies.  To be fair, there is some validity to some of what has been written and it was acknowledged that there was a too heavy focus on strategy teaching in the early years of the Numeracy Project.  
The paper suggests that “the Numeracy Project shows that centrally devised approaches to changing instruction are not appropriate, nor do they necessarily return the intended benefit.”  The recommendations are as follows; 
1) Use the Investing in Education Success (the almost $400million dollar education project announced last year) as an opportunity for teachers who are strong in maths to share their expertise with other teachers.  
2) Schools should adapt the national curriculum to each local context.  The Ministry of Education should consider ways that the maths curriculums of successful schools can be shared with other schools.  An ‘off the shelf’ curriculum from these identified schools could be shared.
3) A (non mandated) certificate of maths teaching proficiency should be developed, based on math knowledge and maths teaching.
One of my criticism of the paper is that it appears the author, Rose Patterson, has mistaken the Numeracy Project as the maths curriculum; that basic facts and algorithms have been thrown out the window and replace solely with student discussions around how they worked a maths problem out.  
First of all let’s clear some things up.  Basic facts are part of the Numearcy Project and the New Zealand Curriculum.  They start as concepts such as recognising patterns to 5, and move to basic facts concepts such as identifying lowest common multiples of pairs of numbers to 10.  The Numeracy Project also recognises that these basic facts continue to become more complex as a student’s mathematical understanding grows. 
Secondly, algorithms (a process, or set of rules, used to work out maths problems) are still taught in school, but only once a student shows the specific stage understanding.  Algorithms are legitimate strategies and are still taught in schools.
Another criticism is that the paper’s analysis of the maths data is addressed as an ‘education alone’ issue.  There appears to be no comparisons of social economic status to achievement, data on income equality, data on housing situations, on transient/truant students.  Students don’t come to school in a bubble, they come to school as a whole person, with experiences, values, and beliefs, and these can affect a student’s learning in positive and negative ways.
I really wonder if going back to the way things were is any kind of rational solution, I can’t imagine that this would be but forward in many other professions. Does the Numeracy Project need a revision? The answer is yes, of course.  It has been almost 15 years since the introduction of the Numeracy Project, let’s look at what works, what we thought would work but hasn’t, refine, modify and add to; but go back to teaching only algorithms and the rote learning of basic facts is not preparing our students effectively.
The main purpose of the Numeracy Project was to help students understand how maths works, not just that it works.  It is about preparing students for algebraic thinking, enabling them to understand why and how is vital for students to be able to achieve in maths once they reach more abstract mathematical concepts.  Going back to only strongly focusing on basic facts and algorithms will take us back to where we were 25 years ago.  Twenty five years ago there was a call to do something about New Zealand's falling international maths results, which out of this came the Numeracy Project.  Do we really want to go back to where we have been?

In summary the New Zealand Initiative paper is probably going to be tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapping before to long and the media will have moved onto the next headline grabbing story.  Plus, I do think that I really should not spend too much time on a paper that quotes Allyson Gofton (yes, the Food-in-a-minute lady) on how maths is being taught in New Zealand Schools.   The paper does raise some valid points that need to be looked at, but do we really need the sensationalist headlines in the media to do so?  As a country, aren’t we smarter than that?

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