Two Worlds. PISA is Everybody’s Football

This blog is inspired by a person whose opinion I value greatly. With all the drama surrounding the PISA rankings, it is increasingly obvious that many on twitter with an interest have taken a side and then lectured to each other. The only ones listening though seemed to be those who liked what they heard, although that may be a bit unkind.  My recent conversation with a valued friend was far and away the most enlightening view on the whole fiasco, and indeed challenged my thinking.

When the PISA rankings were released the drama quickly unfolded in the media, which surprised exactly no one I imagine. Then, the go-to argument quickly settled on the suggested national phonics check. There were howls of outrage from teachers and some academics. The thrust of the push back argument was that teachers already do this so why waste time and money on what would surely develop into a task for monitoring teachers.  (I personally can’t see the value in the phonics check, but what do I know?).  Those against the phonics check quickly counter-punched with the less than equitable funding in Australian education as a major reason for our apparent PISA disaster. (Both sides seemed to yell out ‘silver bullet’ to each other, but that’s twitter for you.)

Some in favour pointed to the extraordinary results coming out of the U.K. since they introduced the national phonics check.   I’m wary of drawing much from results from other countries but open to suggestions. My knowledgeable friend made the point that the U.K. results are  ‘statistically unusual’ and are what happens when you turn a ‘measure into an objective’.


The thing is both sides are a little bit right. More equitable funding is a worthwhile goal, as is trying to get teachers and leaders to improve their practice.  From my oracle, “PISA comes out, we’ve slipped again, and no one has a project. Just folks shouting at each other, with no attempt to build consensus. If you want to find out where the problems are, it is SA, Tas, NT. But it is about much more than the funding, it’s the meeting of the school system with these external factors that need to be investigated. We don’t understand why social/cultural realities in these states impact achievement. What happens in school? What should they do? What are they doing that works well? What could they do better?”

I’m lucky enough to work with people who have gone into ‘under-performing’ schools to help with literacy programs/coaching. Their stories are perhaps surprising to some. There are schools with no consistent phonics programs to speak of. There are schools with no structured reading program. There are schools with no consistent language across their campus regarding literacy. Instead of arguing about the phonics check, perhaps we could acknowledge that not all school systems have literacy nailed down, (including phonics) and like any other profession some educators need lots of help. ( I know I’m constantly thinking I should be doing better, but that’s another story.)

Could those arguing for the phonics check broaden their outlook and acknowledge that phonics is embedded in most ITE courses? Could we agree that once teachers start their career, schools of education have no control of the teaching practice of their graduates? The best phonics teaching in the world doesn’t guarantee anything in the wild.

Some insightful words again from my learned friend. “We had these conversations (in school improvement versus out of school improvement) 10 years ago. We continue to have them. Nothing changes. They are both right, ……………….. but are only a bit right. They need each other, but can’t see it. Two worlds. And as you say, kids end up unable to read. Which is a tragedy. And we never come together to forge a plan.”

From my point of view I think this might be our problem then. Two worlds, divided, and sneering at each other, while we have kids in high school that can’t read. We need to get phonics teaching right, and equitable funding organized and much, much more. But most of all perhaps we need the two worlds to become one. Patronizing? Maybe. Idealistic? Possibly. Worth a shot? Absolutely.


PISA at a Vegan Cafe

Deep in the bowels of a vegan cafe over a couple of almond milk lattes:

“Fuckin pollies and media ripping into teachers again about the PISA rankings. Look at the these fuckin headlines will you! Not one fuckin solitary word about inequitable funding and social disadvantage fueling these results. I mean if you break this PISA shit down it’s all there. Ah, hello, fuckin Northern Territory starved of funds and resources, what do they expect? Oh and Tassie.

“Is Tassie short-changed in funding too?”

“I don’t think so. Fuck knows what goes on down there. But the point is, ACT are fuckin flying! The pollies make sure their own backyard gets the best turf. Ya with me?”


“ACT are the fuckin Shangai of Australia. Except this year Shanghai have had to add their results to other districts.”

“How did that work out.”

“Shithouse according to these PISA boffins.”

“So what’s our response to Oz results?”

“Well the media need a story so fuck em, but unless our fuckin pollies are even remotely interested in tackling this appalling inequity in funding, nothing will change, nothing.”

“So what now”.

“This is as good as it gets I’m afraid, without equitable funding we are destined to slide down the rankings.”

“Nothing else we can do?”

“I doubt it.”

“Does it matter how we compare to other countries?”

“Who fuckin knows, it’s a shitscramble!”


“Fuck these almond lattes are awful.”

“Mine’s all right.”

“We all have different fuckin tastes I guess.”

“Yeh true that. Hey speaking of Tassie. You holidaying down there at chrissie again?.

“Beautiful part of the world mate.”

“Yeh true that.”

Selling the Sizzle Not the Steak

Imagine if you had Ed conferences with names like, Explicit Vocabulary Instruction: A 21c Imperative. What about, Embracing the New World: Foundations in Literacy. Perhaps, Disrupting the Status Quo: Mathematics from the Ground Up: Building the Foundations.  I’d wager Ed conferences like this would  often be very poorly attended.  If the conference was called, Techpreneurs: The new Revolution, educators would be jumping out of trees to attend. Some educators don’t want the steak, they want the sizzle. A recent experience suggests to me we need more concentration on the steak.


I spent a half -day working with some year 9 boys as they worked on a student-directed activity.  They explained to me that they were confident with what they were doing and had 3 years experience of driving their own learning at the school.  They were quiet and courteous and in the few hours I was there, very engaged in the task.  Unfortunately for the boys there were major stumbling blocks. None of the small group were what you would call ‘fluent’ readers, and their oral language skills were not strong. It slowed everything down.


They were constantly Googling what words meant, and then trying to understand these words in the context they were presented.  It became apparent that one or two boys were lacking some basic phonics understanding.  At one point they had to call on some mathematical skills to calculate the area required for a skate park.  The iPhone calculators were being busily tapped but again this didn’t go well.  At one point I was asked if multiplying by 100, should you add two or three zeros.  They calculated the perimeter of their skate park when they really thought it was the area they were calculating.


I spoke to the teacher before I left. She was well aware that the boys lacked foundational literacy and numeracy skills and explained she sees this happening every year.  She provided extra support for the boys in this group but explained there were plenty more in her other classes. She praised the boys for being creative in their task, (unfortunately their ideas stretched engineering principles to the limit), and explained that they were hard workers who ‘really had a go’.  They also had a good idea of what a modern skate park should have in it, although they struggled to articulate this.


I admired the teacher. She spoke softly and when she spoke she commanded attention, I didn’t see any students not listening. They laughed with her and there seemed to be a good relationship between students and teacher. When the students started working collaboratively she moved around unobtrusively stopping to help if required. I liked the projects the students had embarked on, (choosing a local issue to tackle) and they appeared excited and engaged in their discussions.


Still I left disheartened. We have a huge cohort of students with poor literacy and numeracy foundations, and a limited range of general knowledge.  At the same time we have something of an obsession from many in the profession to devalue knowledge, to insist that kids don’t need to assemble an ever-growing body of knowledge.  We seem to have gone from a ‘love of learning’ outlook to a ‘love of Google and You Tube’ outlook.

It’s often about making students more creative and innovative. It’s about being entrepreneurial so they may flourish in the rapidly changing 21c.  It should be self-evident that poor literacy and numeracy skills hinder creativity and innovation.  In my experience few people pushing 21c skills as the answer to the future want to acknowledge this, at least publicly.  Content is a very dirty word.


While this was just few hours with these boys, anecdotally this is a common theme among my teaching friends in high schools. Students unable to adequately access the curriculum presented to them. This is a massive problem for students who are struggling with foundational skills as it is. If you want some kids to be disengaged with learning, this is a surefire go to method.


We educators want to be excited, inspired and entertained by stories and chats about creativity and innovation, and the latest cutting edge technology that will engage learners.  We have the charismatic educelebrities to deliver this in spades.  They are falling over themselves to get at us. I think we need to stop for a moment, hit pause, and decide if this is where we want to go.

Until we accept and place a focus on the yawning chasm of missing foundational skills in so many of our students, then we will have to acknowledge that inequity is our foundation, and we plan to build on it.


If I don’t speak to you beforehand, see you at ‘Reading with Comprehension: Global Visions for the 22c’*


*Not a thing




PersonalisedLearning. A Starter Kit

Personalised learning should not just be a catchphrase. It is something that must be actively cultivated in teachers who are struggling with the demands of 21c education. Personalised learning should be embedded in the thoughts and day-to-day practices of all teachers. But what does it look like? Lets talk about the basics and see if you are ready to begin your new teaching journey. (If you haven’t already started.)

Firstly and most importantly you need to be aware of two learning theories that have dominated the educational landscape for the last 35 odd years. They are a must know for all teachers. The first is known as ‘Multiple Styles’ and there is a wealth of evidence to support this approach in the classroom*. The idea behind Multiple Styles is that each child will learn in a vastly different way. I will leave you to research this theory, but here are some quick ideas to give you a flavour.

One ‘style’ of learning that some students will exhibit is the “Emotional-ego-centric’ style. This child will become very emotional if he/she is not treated as the most important in the class. To support the learning of this student it is vital that they are not asked to learn anything they won’t engage with. Secondly they must be treated as though the entire classroom revolves around them. This is not to be confused with the excellent Student–centred model. The Emotional-ego-centric child must be the only centre of the classroom. It is advisable not to have two Emotional-ego-centric learners in the class otherwise things become unbalanced.

Another Multiple Style is Mathematical-illogical. Students exhibiting this style must not be taught Maths in the traditional style. They should be learning in a way that seems very illogical to the teacher. It won’t make sense to you but the discovery-learning student will have it covered. Don’t panic, this student won’t be good at Maths per se, but may discover something much more important, creativity!

Lets move on to the second theory known as ‘Learning Intelligences”. The key factor is not to get Learning Intelligences and Multiple Styles mixed up. They are very different. Learning Intelligences has a broad well-documented research base behind it^. The idea is that students will develop and show outwardly different sorts of intelligences. One common type of Learning Intelligence is the Kinesthetic-Vitriolic intelligence. This student will learn best when allowed to touch to learn. This may also involve touching and taking possession of the property of other students and then dealing with any protests with a strong often vulgar verbal attack. This student must be allowed the freedom to learn this way and thus teach other students where they stand in the pecking order in the classroom.

Okay, that’s great, but how do I find out how my students learn best? To find out what Multiple Style and Learning Intelligence your students are, it’s best to just ask them. Children are remarkably accurate in assessing how they learn best#. If you then follow this up with a questionnaire rubric for both theories via a quick Google search then you are on your way!

Hopefully this has given you a little background to these important learning theories and the impact they have had on how we understand our students. If you are not using these theories to guide your teaching practice, you may just be letting your students down.


^ Not really

# Baseless drivel



Bricklayers with Shit Mortar

I spent some time in my younger days working as a brickie’s labourer. It was a tough job but I was young, I liked working outside, and I was working for a mate. We worked hard, finished each day with 3 or 4 beers and enjoyed actually building things. I say ‘we’, because my mate said I was the most important person on the job site. He took great pride in his work but always made a point of saying that he couldn’t achieve much if the mortar wasn’t perfect. I think we can use this as a metaphor in education generally.

There is lots of discussion in education circles about making sure students are ready for the rapid changes that the 21c is bringing. We need by all accounts collaborative, entrepreneurial, critical thinking and connected problem-solvers that construct their own knowledge to succeed in this new exciting world. There are any number of educhats and conferences that reflect this urgent, insatiable need to pass these skills on so that students may succeed in the new work order. I personally think this drive is something of an ill adventure but assuming it’s not, these skills mentioned above are the bricks of education. We just don’t seem to talk often enough about the mortar.

The mortar is strong basic skills in literacy and numeracy. Without this mortar the bricklayer (student) if not helpless, is at the very least laying less than stable brickwork. I was chided on more than one occasion for mixing up sub standard mortar on the job. It held up construction and made the job that much harder.

It’s not particularly popular on Australian edutwitter to mention that we have so many students finishing high school without strong foundations in literacy and numeracy. The main focus is what’s coming up around the corner to engage and drive student learning, and how can we disrupt the paradigm and rush to the new age. But we need to talk about the mortar. Yes, the piles of new bricks look great, but without the mortar to hold them together they are just a pile of bricks. Get you mortar mix right first, then we are ready to grab some bricks and we can start building.





The Knowledge Gatekeepers

Why is is that some people with an awful lot of knowledge thinks it’s okay to devalue same?  We are all familiar with Sir Ken Robinson and his cry for ‘soft skills’ like creativity to be as valued as highly as knowledge. If we skip over the argument that the more knowledge you have the more creative you can be, I think there is something a bit amiss here.

What would be the motive of educators with vast stores of knowledge telling kids they don’t really need it as much, that in the 21c employers are looking for creativity, problem-solving, collaboration, entrepreneurship etc? I guess the simple answer is that they see the world changing and they want our students to fit into it. They want students to be fitted with the skills that 21c employers are looking for. Let’s skip over another argument here, shaping students for work is very much like the never tiresome ‘Industrial Model’ of schooling.

This seems like great news for disadvantaged kids. Here are a new set of skills that they can work on with their peers, ( in a student -directed model usually), and their lack of some very basic knowledge won’t hold them back. Except it rarely works like that. In a classroom that values the soft skills highly and tries to teach them, while taking time away from explicit knowledge instruction, the advantaged kids will still learn. I’m not sure if they will learn to be more creative or entrepreneurial, but they can get by on reduced knowledge instruction. They will still have the background foundations behind them, still have perhaps more support at home.

Unfortunately the disadvantaged souls will fall further behind, denied the opportunities that others take for granted. They will desperately miss some of the explicit instruction that has to make way for those 21c skills. (As a personal example, I once had a trainee teacher with me who let kids run their own 30 minute vocabulary lesson. She praised their collaboration and creativity in exploring a new word. She was stunned when I told her to save 25 minutes and explicitly teach the word and how to use it.) I think those calling for less knowledge because we can ‘Google it’ , or we need to build skills for jobs that haven’t been invented yet, or the general notion that knowing something just isn’t as important in the 21c, are becoming the ‘Knowledge Gatekeepers’. They are making knowledge acquisition harder, and perhaps entrenching the status quo.

I have yet to be convinced that those students who are lagging in basic literacy and numeracy foundations, including a much reduced vocabulary, and haven’t been exposed to a broad range of knowledge, are not going to suffer from less explicit knowledge instruction. (I’m skipping the argument about which knowledge).  Educators make all sorts of value judgements about teaching. What’s best for whom and when. One judgment I’m happy to make is that those educators with knowledge should value it highly, for themselves and their students.


One Afternoon at the Pool

“Morning Jay, I’m Lisa the swimming instructor”.

“Hi Lisa. My son Tom hasn’t had lessons before but I’m sure he can pick it up. He discovers lots of things by himself.”

Lisa half smiled, half frowned. “That’s great, but he will be getting explicit instructions for the next 30 minutes”.

Wait, what!  Jay protested. “Don’t you know how kids learn these days”?

Lisa let out a frustrated sigh. “I’ve been teaching in the pool for 20 years, I think I’ll be okay”.

“Oh I see”, said Jay, “The old it’s always been done like this rubbish, It’s the 21st century you know”!

After the lesson Jay approached Lisa. “You completely dominated the lesson. You even had a go at him for not listening. It was all teacher instruction at first. He had a go and then you kept correcting him the whole lesson. He had no ownership of the learning whatsoever”!

“I hear you,” replied Lisa, “ But in one or two more lessons he will be able to get himself to the side of the pool if he falls in. That’s the first goal. That will give him ownership of his life. Water safety is so important, you can’t just leave it to discovery driven, child-centred learning”.

“That’s an outdated attitude I’m afraid”. Jay was becoming increasingly frustrated with this instructor who clearly was lost in the past.

“Have you taught your 5 year old about road safety”? said Lisa.

Jay rolled his eyes. “Of course”.

“With discovery learning?” Lisa’s tone was calm but forceful.

Jay snapped, “Oh don’t be so bloody ridiculous, he could get killed!  Oh wait, I see what you mean. Well look if its really important life changing stuff where safety is involved, sure explicit teacher instruction might be the way to go. But if it’s not that important, you must understand that the students should drive the learning”!


Where Discovery Learning Might Fail

Road Safety
Water Safety (Stillwater)
Water Safety (Surf)
Stranger Danger
Cyber Safety
Fire Safety
Sharp Objects
Hot Objects
Dental Hygiene
Working with Cattle
Working with Cattle Dogs
Power Tools (Especially ChainSaws)
Safety at Heights
Wipper Snippers
Horse Riding

Etc Etc…

Beware the One with Honeyed Words

This post had been at least partly inspired by a post by David Price entitled Wilful Ignorance And The Contempt Of Expertise. The title is fairly self-explanatory. In the post David talks about the rise of politicians like Donald Trump and the misinformation in the Brexit campaign. He points to comments from Michael Gove like ‘the people of Britain have had enough of experts’. David further despairs,How can blatant lie-telling and a contempt for facts appear to not only go unpunished, but in Trump’s case actually improve ratings?” Indeed so, it is troubling and speaks to the disconnect and outright rejection that many voters feel.

David’s next point is where I come in. “For people who work in education, or with knowledge, it’s hard to know how to counter the anti-expertise virus that is being intentionally spread by Trump, Gove, and the others. President Obama and John Oliver have recently placed their faith in satire.” While I’m a fan of John Oliver, I want to argue that for people who work in education and have a desire for our students and leaders of tomorrow to be globally aware citizens, we need to be aware of something far more sinister than the Trumps of this world. I’m talking about the ‘respectable’ face of anti-expertise, the mostly hidden but decidedly post-democratic, opaque face of anti–intellectualism. President Obama is their champion. Lets bounce.

Yes Donald Trump is an outrageous, boorish, mobile fact free zone. He touts himself as anti-elite and anti-politician, but of course he is one of the elite and shows himself to be consummate at the political game. But at least you know what he stands for, what he is about. What you see is what you get. He is easy to challenge. Far more dangerous is the rampant hypocrisy and lies of the charismatic, calm, reasoned leader of the free world.

This article from Consortium News is an excellent place to get an overview. Some questions that should be asked of the Obama administration:

Who calls into question the designation of Russia as the number 1 security threat to the United States and our military moves in its vicinity?

–Who queries when U.S. generals acquired the right to verbally declare war on foreign powers as has been done repeatedly by former NATO Commander General Philip Breedlove and his successor General Curtis Scaparrotti?

–Who points out that we have been aiding and abetting al-Qaeda in Syria for years – and asks ‘why?’

–How have we placed ourselves in the absurd position of the CIA facilitating the transfer of anti-aircraft ‘man-pads,’ and TOWs to al-Qaeda/al-Nusra while the U.S. Army is training and advising their Kurdish enemies in Northwestern Syria?

–Who asks why we have allowed the Islamic State to carry on a lucrative oil commerce to finance their operations without taking military action against it?

–Who examines in detail why we give Saudi Arabia and Turkey a free pass to succor both terrorist organizations?

–Who asks why have we participated tangibly in the destruction of Yemen while our enemies there – al-Qaeda and ISIL – exploit what we are doing to gain strength?

 –Who demands that President Obama explain how he could declare the Afghan war over in a White House ceremony in December 2014 and now commit us to an open-ended fight on the ground?

–Who bothers to correct the record on our leaving Iraq in December 2011 to explain that we were told to leave by the duly constituted government of Mr. al-Maliki and had no choice?

–Who indicts the President for personally approving the CIA’s hacking into the computers of the Senate Intelligence Committee?

–Who has undertaken an investigation of the plotting that went into the secret drafting of the Trans Pacific Partnership treaty whose terms contravene principles of the Constitution?

–Who condemns the American orchestration of the coup in Ukraine?

–Who asks as to the American role in the Brazilian coup now revealed in published documents?

–Who strives to uncover why the Obama administration has committed us to spend $1 trillion on a massive upgrade of our nuclear arsenal when there is no stated or evident enemy and the logical implication is that “modernization” will produce a greater readiness to use the “bomb”?

This is for starters. The list of neglected domestic matters would be even longer. Engaging these issues ultimately is what free speech is all about.


I get angry when I see Obama rightly condemning the latest gun atrocity in his country and asking us to pray for the American lives lost. Call me cynical, but what about the civilians dying overseas from his weapons as he speaks. What about the people who, including Australians,  lost loved ones in the MH17 atrocity? The US has long finished their report but won’t release it. Apparently it doesn’t fit the narrative that Russia did it, so too bad for families seeking some answers.   Yes this list is just for starters, this would be a 100 page post if we attempted to document the utter contempt that the President has for transparent democratic government.

David Price pointed out that “One might hope, with Trump’s ratings plummeting, and both Gove and Johnson facing the end of their political ambitions, that such ridicule is working, and that, eventually, the truth will out”. But it will be a sliver of the truth; it will be the tip of the iceberg. The real enemy of a sense of belonging and connection and thus has implications for education itself, wears a mask of respectability and a cloak of peace.

“When one with honeyed words but evil mind
Persuades the mob, great woes befall the state.”


If you have read this far thank you and well done.







I know a bad teacher

I want to tell you about a teacher I know that is stuck in the past and I think is doing a disservice to her students. I recently spent a day teaching in an adjacent open room, and it was frightening how out of touch her teaching was. Lets just say this teacher is definitely not giving her students the 21c skills they will need in a rapidly changing world. These kids are going to have multiple jobs in their lifetime and she is not helping at all with her pedagogy. Lets bounce!

I don’t want to be too critical about this teacher, it’s just that she doesn’t seem to be keeping up with the latest movements in education. If you want to see the old ‘factory teaching model’, this teacher has the lot. Creativity and innovation might be foreign concepts to her.

First up the classroom layout. It’d basically a big u shape. All the desks pushed together so that she can “Reach students quickly and efficiently”. Say what? Where’s the student input? It sounds like its practical for her to help students, but please, what about the students and their desires. She even has some students at the front because they seem to be requiring refocusing apparently. How embarrassing for these kids. Yes she is keeping them on track, but what about student autonomy?

The classroom walls I would describe as boring. There are no posters, nothing to motivate the children to be the best they can, to aim for the stars. There is some student artwork, but mainly just words written all over the place. Apparently she believes that children are going to have use of words like, malevolent, disassociate and poignant. What’s worse she drums these words into the children. She stands in front of her teacher dominated class (endlessly talking) and explicitly pouring this knowledge into these poor empty vessels. It’s heartbreaking to watch other students unable to sometimes hold a conversation with her students because they are using words other students don’t know and have no use for.

There is no discovery learning. Full stop. These children are constantly being told what the teacher is looking for. Yes the students are collaborating, but it’s only what she tells them to collaborate on. If some student tries to show some initiative and work on something else she stops them. Hardly motivating or engaging I would have thought.

This ultra traditional teaching is a big and very sad part of the day. And at the end of the day she then makes these students sit in silence for 20 minutes and read. It is a situation where the students must comply. No room for compromise. She is definitely the boss, in a very teacher-centered classroom. At one stage she even had them discussing a dead white male philosopher, like that’s going to be relevant or have any real world connection for these kids.

I just feel like shaking this woman and saying, “Get on twitter, follow some inspirational educational thinkers, and find out how wrong you are”. Her students are going to need to be ultra- entrepreneurial in their work life. 75% of today’s jobs wont even exist in 10 years time.  He is.. sorry, she, is teaching them for a time that has past. Sadly this teacher seems blissfully unaware of this fact.

If you have read this far, thank you and well done.

MJ @seminyaksunset