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Education Bookcast

Education Bookcast is a podcast in which we talk about one education-related book or article per episode.
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Now displaying: 2019
Dec 25, 2019

In this episode, I have the great privilege to invite Dr James Comer, the creator of the Comer School Development Program (SDP), onto the show. Dr Comer is the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Centre, and has been since 1976, as well as associate dean at the Yale School of Medicine. His School Development Program has been used in more than 600 schools, and he has been awarded 47 honorary degrees.

I was a bit nervous during the interview, and it shows. I had great respect for Dr Comer even before I spoke to him, as you can see from a brief overview of his bio. I don't get nervous recording episodes on my own anymore, but rarely do I have a chance to interview such a distinguished guest who I truly admire.

During the interview my respect for Dr Comer only grew. Unlike so many people who I have heard speak in the education space, he stuck only to that which he knew about (which is not to say that he doesn't have great knowledge, only that he was willing to admit where he didn't know about something), and he answered questions in a way that demonstrated a connection to reality and a subtlety of understanding that went beyond partisanship. His answers just all seemed so reasonable. I realised that I was talking to somebody very wise.

I learned a lot from speaking to Dr Comer. I hope you do from listening to our conversation.

Enjoy the episode.

Dec 23, 2019

In this part of the two-part episode about Linda Darling-Hammond's book With the Whole Child in Mind, we will look at one of the two case studies mentioned in the book, that of Norman S. Weir Elementary School in New Jersey.

The Comer SDP was implemented there starting in 1997 with the appointment of Ruth Baskerville as the school principal. At this time, the school was described as "characterised by student disaffection with the learning process, frequent fights, and low staff morale in a building that was in disrepair". By the end of the 2003-04 school year, the outlook was very different: 100% of Weir 4th-graders achieved full or advanced proficiency on both maths and language arts exams. (Unfortunately I couldn't find data for 1997, but as a comparison, the equivalent averages for the district and the state were 52.4% and 77.6% respectively.)

As for the school environment, in a school questionnaire, faculty and staff reported the school climate as "relaxed", "very good", and "terrific." Others described the collegiality among staff as "excellent," with "fantastic" relationships where "every student and parent is valued."

This close-up description of a success story gives some sense of what it would be like to be in a school operating the Comer process, and helps to add some concreteness to the otherwise abstract and general description from the previous part of my discussion of this book.

Enjoy the episode.

Dec 18, 2019

Last episode, we saw a meta-analysis of comprehensive school reform (CSR) programmes. The best-performing programmes are Success for All, Direct Instruction, and the Comer School Development Program.

The episode in this book concerns the Comer School Development Program (SDP), covering its philosophy and implementation. The focus of the SDP is on two main themes: improving relationships within the school; and thinking of all the ways in which child development can be fostered at school, known as the six developmental pathways (physical, language, ethical, social, psychological, and cognitive).

The SDP is based on nine elements, split into three groups. There is the "who", which are the teams that are formed to guide the school and make sure all stakeholders are represented; the "what", which describes the operations that make change and solve problems in the school; and the "how", which are principles that govern the school culture and climate as a whole.

The "who" are the School Planning and Management Team (SPMT), the Student Staff Support Team (SSST), and the Parent Team (PT). The "what" are the Comprehensive School Plan, professional development, and assessment & modification. The "how" is consensus, collaboration, and no-fault problem solving. The above nine principles are complex enough for me not to want to describe them in detail in this blurb, but numerous enough for me to want to put them here for reference for those who have already listened to the audio.

I would like to thank Linda Darling-Hammond for contacting me to ask me to cover her book (and alerting me to the existence of the Comer SDP in the process), and for providing me with a free copy of her book for me to read.

Enjoy the episode.

Dec 11, 2019

Comprehensive school reform (CSR) is a name for any set of policies that are simultaneously enacted in (usually a single) school for the purposes of school improvement. There are many different branded types of CSR program, including Core Knowledge, Direct Instruction, Montessori, Roots & Wings, School Development Program, and Success for All.

This article is entitled Comprehensive School Reform and Achievement: A Meta-Analysis by Borman et al. It goes through all of the different types of comprehensive school reform programs that have been studied and identifies which ones are the most effective. Spoiler alert! It's the Comer School Development Program, Direct Instruction, and Success for All. For more details, take a listen.

Enjoy the episode.

Nov 4, 2019

In the past three episodes, we have looked at three great teachers: basketball coach John Wooden, mathematics teacher Jaime Escalante, and primary school teacher Marva Collins. Each has their own domain of expertise (basketball, mathematics, and literature) and age of students (university, high school, and primary school). Are there any ways in which we can generalise about them?

A list of features that tend to make teachers likely to be nominated as "favourite" teachers are given in You Haven't Taught Until They've Learned (the book about John Wooden), and they are mostly true of the above three that we've looked at in detail. Here is the list:

  1. They make learning engaging;
  2. They have a passion for the material;
  3. They have deep subject knowledge;
  4. They are extremely organised;
  5. They are intense;
  6. They know students need to be recognised for even small progress;
  7. They treat everyone with respect;
  8. They are fair;
  9. They believe that all students are natural learners;
  10. They make it implicitly known that they like being with their students;
  11. They place priority on individualised teaching.

There are also some notable absences from this list, such as giving students autonomy, focusing on learning styles, teaching generalisable skills rather than content knowledge, and having a student-centred approach.

I also made my own list of features that they have in common, as follows:

  • They use drills;
  • They focus on fundamentals;
  • They are highly didactic (rather than using e.g. group work or problem-based learning);
  • They hold power/authority, and lead the class;
  • They show warmth/love to their students;
  • They take responsibility for the students' learning;
  • They are very dedicated;
  • Unfortunately, they are poorly paid;
  • They have long-term effects on their students.

Enjoy the episode.

Oct 25, 2019

In this final part of the series on legendary teacher Marva Collins, we look at her educational philosophy, i.e. things that she believed and that impacted her decisions and actions in and around the classroom, but that are hard to perceive directly and that are best understood by listening to what she said rather than looking at what she did. The key points concern the idea of relevance, the impact of progressive education, creativity, and the effect and prevalence of labelling children.

I hope you've drawn as much inspiration and as many lessons from Marva Collins as I have. She was truly an exceptional teacher who forged her own path, shattered limiting expectations, and changed lives.

Enjoy the episode.

Oct 24, 2019

In this part of the series on Marva Collins, we look at her curriculum and some elements of the way that she taught. The most surprising thing is the kind of literature that she was presenting to such young children - authors such as Dostoyevsky, Plato, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, Tolstoy, Emerson, and Poe.

Also, I managed to find a documentary about Marva Collins which shows how some of her students turned out over a decade later. It's on YouTube, here is the link:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8b1Behi9FM.

Enjoy the episode.

Oct 23, 2019

When she was working at Delano Elementary School in Chicago, Marva would often be given the "worst", most disruptive students, and in her 14 years there she developed a way of dealing with them. By the time she set up her own school, she was a master of helping them get out of their destructive cycle and working to achieve their academic and social potential, which was way beyond what anybody had expected.

In this episode, we look at several examples of Marva Collins dealing with particularly recalcitrant children. She is the expert here, so it's best to leave the talking to her.

Enjoy the episode.

Oct 22, 2019

In one chapter of the book Marva Collins' Way, we are treated to a fly-on-the-wall view of Marva Collins' first day with a new class in a new school year. This is such a valuable resource that I've devoted one full part of this episode on Marva Collins to it. It demonstrates how she builds trust, sets the tone, motivates children, and gets them to believe in themselves. It is her school year and her educational philosophy in a nutshell, and therefore very much worth spending some time on.

Enjoy the episode.

Oct 21, 2019

Marva Collins is the best teacher I have ever seen or heard of. Working in a poor black neighbourhood in Chicago in the 1970s, she took on the worst of the worst - kids described as "unteachable", either actively defiant towards school or considered so learning-disabled as to never be able to learn to read - and within a space of one to two years had them reading and enjoying Shakespeare, Chaucer, Plato, and Dostoyevsky; exhibiting an insatiable thirst for knowledge; and reading ten books each over the summer break. These children were on average around eight years old. Talking about Marva Collins forms the capstone of our biographies of great teachers.

I've mentioned Marva Collins many times on the podcast before. The first mention was way back in episode 1, as she appears in the book Mindset. Now I'm finally going into her work in detail. Part of the reason it took me so long to get around to this was that I was simply intimidated by the amount of work that I knew this would take - I've split up this episode into five parts, totalling around four hours of audio. There is just so much to say.

In this part, I talk about her background and look at some of her achievements to whet your appetite for a more in-depth look at how she did what she did.

Enjoy the episode.

Feb 10, 2019

After the events of summer 1982, when Jaime Escalante's Advanced Placement Calculus students were accused of cheating and then vindicated on a re-test, Escalante had become famous first in local and then national news. The original story about an American institution, ETS, allegedly discriminating based on race to accuse the latino students of cheating, turned into a story of surprise and applause as an "academic sinkhole" like Garfield High managed to have such a large number of students taking AP Calculus.

The events of 1982 inspired a film about Jaime Escalante, Stand and Deliver, which spread his fame to an even wider audience. But the film came too early. In the years following 1982, calculus at Garfield High continuedto grow with the same momentum, reaching ever greater heights. After the 18 students taking the exam in 1982, there were 33 in 1983, a whopping 68 in 1984 (more than double the previous year!), and two years later, in 1986, a staggering 151 students took the test, more than eight times as many as in the year that brought Escalante fame.

While AP Calculus was in overdrive, other AP programs also began to thrive. Garfield High now offered Advanced Placement courses in History, English, Biology, Physics, French, Government, and Computer Science, with a growing number of students taking these year on year.

Within twelve years, Garfield High had transformed from a gang-ridden hole on the brink of being shut down, to an academic beacon with a waiting list of 400 students. It is truly a story worth telling.

Enjoy the episode.

Feb 10, 2019

After a short time working at Garfield High School, Jaime Escalante was asked to take over Advanced Placement calculus. Advanced Placement is a type of examination which offers "college credit", meaning that those who pass have a reduced number of courses that they need to take to get a degree. It's a hard exam, basically.

Escalante wasn't sure about the programme at first, but soon became keen to take it over and expand it. He felt that it gives an objective view of his work and that of his students, and gives them something to strive towards and be competitive about.

Escalante worked hard to push his students. He used every tactic he could think of, from bribes to threats to guilt trips; and he extended study time to before school, after school, lunchtime, and summer break. He worked so hard that one day he had a heart attack, and worked right through it. This story did much to add to his mystique.

The calculus classes expanded: first 5, then 8, then 15, and in 1982 there were 18. That was a fateful year, when his students would be accused of cheating by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The accusation would draw attention to this burgeoning calculus programme in what all had assumed to be an academic backwater, and national fame followed. But Escalante would not rest on his laurels.

Enjoy the episode.

Feb 8, 2019

In 1974, Garfield High School got a new principal (headmaster) in the form of Alex Avilez. The school was in turmoil, with a major gang presence, and a police presence to help combat the gang presence. It was noisy, with music blaring from "dozens" of radios; fights broke out often; truancy was rampant; and the dropout rate was 50%.

Avilez's core belief was in people's fundamental goodness. He was excited about young people and about human potential, and wanted to aim for a peaceful Garfield High in which everyone loved one another. The way to achieve this, he decided, was to treat the students as the adults they were about to become. He registered the gangs with the school, placed their insignia in prominent locations, and negotiated with gang leaders to preserve decorum and reduce violence.

Possemato was principal after Avilez. Together with Gradillas, he had a very different approach to discipline at the school. Although Gradillas believed that every child knows the difference between right and wrong, he felt that this sense was often deeply buried, and the way to get the best out of adolescents often involved pushing their buttons and riling them up emotionally. He would physically take down students being a danger to others, accuse liars of being cowards, and tell parents that they were sorry that their children had no respect for them.

The difference in the effectiveness of these two approaches was stark. One almost plunged the school into an abyss, while the other saved it from closing. It is an important part of the Garfield High story that doesn't get told as much as Escalante's calculus teaching, and yet was essential to its success.

Enjoy the episode.

Feb 6, 2019

One of the main lessons from the story of Jaime Escalante's career at East LA's Garfeild High School was that it was ultimately a team effort to reach the academic level that the school eventually did. Apart from Escalante himself, there are two figures who stand out as central to the story: Henry Gradillas and Benjamin Jimenez.

Gradillas joined Garfield High as a biology teacher after six years in the US army and a short stint as an orchard manager. He saw clear similarities between the young people in his classroom and those who he had been training as an army captain - they were only slightly younger, and they had similar needs, desires, and problems. He would later be promoted to Dean of Discipline and finally Principal (Headmaster) of Garfield High, positions in which he would help deal with Escalante's problem students, and provide him with the resources he needed to make the Advanced Placement Calculus courses a success.

Jimenez was one of the other mathematics teachers at Garfield. Impressed with Escalante's classes, he became an apprentice and later collaborator and ally to Escalante. He would go on to run many of the courses preparing students for a the rigours of calculus, and would run some of the calculus classes themselves when the program grew above 100 students. Without Jimenez, Escalante would be left with only uninterested teachers and active enemies in his department, and too much work for one individual to carry out.

Escalante himself needs much less introduction, famous as he is. The title of the book is Escalante: The Greatest Teacher in America after all. The book goes into more detail about his background than those of the others. The most interesting thing we hear about his background is how he struggled as a beginning teacher, and the teachers that he admired as he went through his training. It is enlightening to see what his early influences were in terms of his approach to teaching.

Enjoy the episode.

Feb 3, 2019

Jaime Escalante was a Bolivian teacher who came to Los Angeles in the 1960s. After joining the chaotic failing school Garfield High as a mathematics teacher in 1974, he soon began an Advanced Placement Calculus program that grew to an unheard of size for such a disadvantaged community.

In 1982, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which wrote and marked the tests, suspected Garfield High students of cheating. This led to interest from the media and later fame for Escalante as people started to take notice of what was happening at the school. Soon after, the film Stand and Deliver was produced based on Escalante's success up to that point, starring Edward James Olmos in the leading role.

However, even this film did not capture the scale of the success at Garfield High, as it came too early. After 1982, the number of students at the school taking AP Calculus continued to climb to stratospheric heights, from 18 in 1982 - already unbelievable to most, hence the media attention - to 33 in 1983, 68 in 1984, and an eye-watering 151 in 1986. Other AP programs also took off, including History, Government, English, Physics, and Computer Science.

How did all this happen? What is Escalante's secret? These are pressing questions, as they could lead to a better understanding of how to motivate and teach students, as well as how to turn a failing school around.

This book is written as a story, and so the themes and key lessons from it have to be disentangled from the narrative. We will be looking at it in four parts:

  1. Introducing the main characters (Jaime Escalante, Henry Gradillas, and Benjamin Jimenez);
  2. Considering the two very different approaches to discipline applied at the school, one with disastrous consequences and one that saved the school from closing;
  3. Examining how Escalante and his "team" managed to raise standards and achievement; and
  4. Admiring the "glory years", after 1982, when the whole school was on the academic upsurge.

There are several lessons to take from the story of Escalante and Garfield High. I hope you enjoy learning from this exceptional case study as much as I have.

Enjoy the episode.

Jan 28, 2019

I first read You Haven't Taught Until They Have Learned almost five years ago. In that time, I have learned much about how people learn. Re-reading the book now, I am struck by how much of what John Wooden did in his teaching is well supported by modern cognitive science. This is what I try to convey in this short addendum to the notes on John Wooden's pedagogy.

Enjoy the episode.

Jan 20, 2019

John Wooden was a basketball coach for UCLA and an English teacher. He is renowned as one of the greatest coaches of all time, winning 10 out of 12 NCAA championships, including seven in a row, and has been named Coach of the Century by ESPN among others.

You Haven't Taught Until They've Learned is a book about his pedagogy, written by one of his former players (Swen Nater) and by an education researcher who had the rare privilege to observe his basketball practices and ask him detailed questions about his teaching (Ronald Gallimore). The dual authorship gives it a valuable two-pronged perspective, that of student as well as that of researcher.

As one reads the book, one is struck by the sense that Coach Wooden was not only exceptional in terms of what he did - his approach to teaching - but also who he was - a man of such strong moral character that it is daunting even to use him as a role model. He taught by example as well as teaching explicitly, and his students remember him for that.

In his retirement, barely a day went by without one of John Wooden's former students calling him to talk. He pushed his students hard, but he also cared for them deeply. It is surely valuable to examine some of his practices and principles from his exceptional career.

Enjoy the episode.

Jan 1, 2019

John Hattie is an education researcher from New Zealand with a very ambitious goal: to synthesise the myriad quantitative research studies on education in a single publication. The number of articles affecting his book Visible Learning numbers in the region of 80 thousand (!). The results of his analysis have been hailed as the "Holy Grail" of education by such prestigious authorities as the Times Education Supplement. So, how did he and his team do it?

Hattie uses an approach known as meta-analysis. Meta-analyses take numerous research articles trying to measure an effect and compare them in order to ultimately determine the size of the effect. They are common in medicine, where they are often used to elucidate whether a drug is truly effective or not, as a single study may incorrectly show a drug to be effective simply by chance.

However, Hattie goes one step further and carries out a meta-analysis on other meta-analyses, forming a sort of "meta-meta-analysis". With this approach, his team only directly work with 400 articles, as each of these is a meta-analysis of tens or hundreds of other articles, which is how we reach the gargantuan number 80 thousand.

You would have thought that such an ambitious, influential, and widely praised work would have come under much careful scrutiny. And you would have thought that since it is so statistical, numerous other researchers in the field of education would have performed at least a surface-level plausibility check.

However, you may be disappointed. It took two years for anybody to even begin to notice the glaring statistical errors behind this work, and even when they were noticed, Hattie's team didn't treat them with the gravity they deserved. Methodological criticism gradually increased in number, and by now it is clear that the "Holy Grail" has numerous leaky holes.

In this episode, after introducing Visible Learning, I go on to take some highlights from one such criticism, entitled How to engage in pseudoscience with real data: A criticism of John Hattieā€™s arguments in Visible Learning from the perspective of a statistician, written by Canadian statistician Pierre-Jerome Bergeron. I aim to explain the most accessible points, and leave the more complex parts of the article for those with the interest and mathematical acumen to look up.

This sort of thing seems to happen a lot in education. It's one of the reasons why it's so hard to figure out how things work and what's actually true in the field. At least I can warn people about the problems with this still widely cited work.

Enjoy the episode.

Jan 1, 2019

Graham Nuthall was an education researcher from New Zealand who spent most of his career on classroom observation, both by directly sitting in on lessons and by recording them by the hundred, watching them back, and analysing them with his team. He also made extensive use of interviews with students to clarify their thought processes. This short book communicates his most important findings to other researchers and to teachers.

His most impressive achievement is being able to predict, with some accuracy, what concepts or facts children have learned based solely on classroom observation. His team would analyse what different students were doing at key moments in lessons, noting whether they were paying attention to the information being taught or discussed. They found that if a student had been paying attention at least three times when the full information necessary to understand a concept was being stated, then they would almost always have formed the concept and be able to articulate it after the end of the unit. If they had paid attention only two or fewer times, they had not learnt the concept.

His work emphasises the individual lives of students, and particularly peer interactions. It's not only "distraction" either - for some students, over half of what they learned had been from peers. He goes over detailed examples of classroom conversations, both the public and the clandestine, showing how these affect both student learning and broader behaviour and culture.

Although the main points of the book concern peers and the number of exposures required to learn something, given that the book is a summary of the most important things that Nuthall has to say, it touches on many other points and ideas in education.

Although I was hoping to make this a short episode, as per my Public Service Announcement (last "episode"), it ended up having to be around 50 minutes long to cover the most important things that he had to say, even briefly. Maybe 50 minutes is still short for me.

Enjoy the episode.

Jan 1, 2019

It's been three years since the start of Education Bookcast. I will be attempting to change the format to make episodes shorter. I also mention some successes of the past year.

1