Category Archives: Exemplar Learning

Kids who play in the bush have greater environmental awareness (duh)

"Our study indicates that participating in wild nature activities before age 11 is a particularly potent pathway toward shaping both environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood," says environmental psychologist Nancy Wells of Cornell University as the result of a 2000 subject research effort.

Not like it's surprising, but nice to have it empirically supported – get young'uns out into the bush and they see the big picture later on. Importantly, the activities that achieve this outcome are not mandated, organised things (like Scouts), but more 'free-play' in nature. Read more… 

US Education Adviser Advocates About-face on Standardised Testing

I thought i'd already written about this, but apparently not. Recently, a visiting US education adviser (Professor Linda Darling-Hammond) spoke about how damaging the testing approach currently pursued by Australia has been for the US.

"The US is taking a U-turn away from test-based accountability,'' said Professor Darling-Hammond. ''We hope not to meet Australia heading in the other direction in seeking policies we have sought to move away from."

The SMH article is worth a look, as well as a supporting opinion piece by the SMH education editor, Anna Patty.

Why English is deep and defective, and what Mum and Dad can do about it

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the process of learning to read (and, to a lesser degree, write). Literacy is such a fundamental skill in society, and it is one that seems to occur right on the boundary that marks the beginning of schooling. It is expected that children will generally arrive at school able to speak conversational English. It is expected that children will generally not be able to do arithmetic. But the degree of reading competence is acknowledged to vary widely, providing a challenge to Kindergarten teachers supporting a class of children whose literacy varies from a degree of reading competence to almost no engagement with the written word.

Acknowledging then, that the home can (and perhaps should) play a key role in developing literacy skills, it seems reasonable to ask how. The most likely place for this to develop will be in shared encounters with texts – from story books to road signs. Understanding the first stages of literacy development should give us a guide as to;

  • what kind of text will be most suitable to provide context
  • what kind of shared experiences will support this process

Understanding how we learn to read most likely requires that we have an understanding of how we read. This is what I have been fascinated with lately. Far from being a clear cut, well established fact, there seems to be ongoing debate and ambiguity about the cognitive processes that underly reading. This debate has influenced (and no doubt been influenced by) the 'war' between two approached to early literacy education – 'phonics' and 'whole language' teaching. While many educators now acknowledge the merit of both approaches, and suggest that the 'war' is more of a media beat-up and policy football, it is still intriguing to look at how they might relate to underlying literacy processes.

The most intuitive theory of reading is a phonetic one. It goes something like this… We learn to speak before we learn to read. When we learn to read it is about linking written words made up of letters to spoken words we have already learned, putting them together and making sentences from which we gain meaning. This is a 'bottom up' approach, beginning with the recognition of letters and the sounds that they make. Based on this line of thinking, we need to start by teaching kids to recognise the letters of the alphabet. They they need to know the sounds they generally make. Then they learn how they make sounds together (both in simplistic terms and more complex instances like blends). With that knowledge they can then see a word like 'cat', and 'sound it out' to discover what the word is. Mentally, the process becomes one of visual recognition of letters, transaltion into phonetics, building words which we 'listen to' in our heads, then the same process as oral language extracts meaning.

If we accept this as the underlying process, the process for building literacy skills becomes clear. What parents can initially focus on is letter-based skills – the recognition of letters and linking to phonetics. This results on lots of single-leter activity, books like 'Animalia', letter-based rhymes, and the fact that Sesame Street is bought to you today by the letter 'M'. As these skills solidify, we introduce simple books with lots of phonetically correct text and encourage kids to work through the text phonetically, 'sounding it out' being the core building block in becoming literate.

But here's the rub. Maybe it doesn't work quite like that. The big question is this: Do we really 'sound things out in our head' in order to translate them from text objects into meaning. Introspectively, it often feels like we do. But it often also feels like we don't. And it definitely feels like one of those cases where our introspection may well be unreliable. While these are all 'exception cases', here's a couple of things to think about…

  • Read these two phrases… 'the sun's rays meet' and 'the sons raise meat'. You knew they meant very different things. But if you were gaining meaning by listening to the sounds in your head, the sounds are exactly the same. How did the meaning get extracted through phonetics?
  • Read this sentence… 'The bandage was wound around the wound.' Let's assume you came to understand that by listening to it sounded out in your head. Note that each 'wound' sounds different. But you only know how they sound *after* you know the meaning of the sentence as a whole. If you are sounding out the words in order to gain the meaning, how did you know how to pronounce them?
  • How do profoundly deaf children learn to read, without ever hearing what a letter or word sounds like?
  • In Mandarin, characters relate to whole words or word-parts – they usually don't have any phonetic cues. Without understanding what the characters mean, it is impossible to 'sound out' most Mandarin. How does one learn to read Mandarin?

The alternative theory about reading (often referred to as 'lexical') is that we directly recognise language based on visual cues, and generate meaning from it without translating it into sounds. This is extremely counter-intuitive (to me at least), as oral reading is so ingrained in how we do things, and how we come to reading – as conversationally competent individuals.

This theory relates to the 'whole language' approach to early literacy. In this model, there is less (if any) focus on teaching letters and sounds. Instead, learning to read takes place within the context of reading texts. Simple texts are repeatedly read 'with' the child. In the beginning, the adult reads 'to' the child, to establish familiarity with the text. Over time, the child takes over the role as reader. Initially this will be done by fabricating an oral story that follows the narrative of the story (possibly including rembered key phrases). The adult supports this, providing prompts that link the oral version back to the text. These prompts include following the text with a finger as the story is told, as well as acknowledging or correcting key words. The child comes to realise that the written text 'contains' the story, and works toward what they realise is 'reading'. Gradually, the oral version comes closer to the written version. This begins when short words are recognised, then extends as they enlarge their 'sight-read' vocabulary, and grasp that certain letters or word-parts are linked to certain words. Feedback will focus no on 'what do you think that word might sound like', and more on 'look at the rest of the sentence and the picture, what words do you think might make sense there'.

While this was initially quite a bizarre idea, it strongly resonates with my understanding of how neural networks learn, which is in turn based on the functional biology of the brain. Arguable it is also much closer to how we originally learn to speak – gradually plucking out sounds and words from a 'soup' of linguistic noise we are constantly embedded in.

Following this approach, we come to a very different set of texts and processes for parents supporting early literacy. First, there is a much larger time commitment required to provide a level of literacy support that compares to the oral support provided as children learn to speak. Second, texts need to be both engaging enough to support many, many re-readings. Third, the most successful texts will be very simple, with high levels of word repetition, short words, and ideally words that have clear orthographic. Conversely, less attention will have to be paid to whether words are phonetic or exceptional. Finally, reading with kids becomes a much more complex task of providing constant feedback to gradually extend the capabilities of the child.

The way the written elements of a language relate to the language is called its 'orthography'. If English had a perfectly clear relationship between letter and sounds, we woudl say it has a 'phonemic orthography' – like Turkish, for instance. It is very easy to 'sight read' Turkish, after a little practice you could read a Turkish text aloud, yet have no understanding of the words you were reading.

Conversely, English has a 'defective orthography' – this is also referred to as a 'deep orthography. We have words that look the same but sound (and mean) different things. We have words that looks different (but sound the same, and on rare occasions even mean the same). For this reason alone, phonics and 'sounding out' does not provide the perfect answer. If we were teaching Turkish, perhaps it would. If we were teaching Mandarin, it would be completely useless. Exactly how much value it provides is a difficult question.

Having finally gotten my head around these two theories, I realised that they each suggested a fundamentally different set of underlying cognitive processes. Surely, this must be a field of interest, particularly given the latest technology (fMRI etc.). As it turns out, there seems to have been quite a bit of study in the area, focusing on the 'phonetic' vs. the 'lexical' cognitive 'path' for reading. Two points on this;

  • One of the perspectives that has been gaining support (but not uncontested by any means) is the 'dual route' theory, which posits that there are two 'parallel' cognitive paths that support reading – one phonetic, one lexical. The experience of reading is a messy, hybrid consequence of the two – which I have to admit, sounds a lot like the way our brains seem to work
  • Unfortunately, all the research I have been able to find so far focuses on getting subjects to read individual words – often aloud – and measuring time to do so. In particular, words may be 'pseudowords' or 'exceptions'. Pseudowords are sequences of letters with no semantic meaning, so any 'reading' of them leans heavily on phonetic cues. Conversely, excetions are words that are not pronounced phonetically, meaning that some non-phonetic activity must be at play. The catch is that these experiments isolate an individual word and create an experience of 'reading' that is completely de-contextualised.

So, it seems the jury is still out, and the process may be complex and multi-facetted. As parents we are anxious to provide suitable textual environments for kids, and to give them the scaffolding that they need as they start to engage with these texts. Understanding the nature of the skills they are building is an important factor in shaping that enviornment and that scaffolding – so I for one will be watching this space with interest.

Another conisderation is that this discussion has focussed on reading, not writing. There seems to be evidence that we are much more phonetic when we write – that we probably do 'speak' the things we write before we write them. Again, there would then need to be complexity to accommodate exceptional spelling – we need to over-ride our phonetic writing for words that we learn are spelled in certain ways. If we accept that most writing is first 'mental speech', it raises interesting questions about generating text that is not spoken – do we modify our mental speech for different contexts, or do we generate meaning then 'rephrase it' based on the context in which we are writing?. There is also the idea of teaching writing before reading (I believe Montessori does this) – how does that fit with the different threories? But perhaps those are questions for another post…


TED Talk – John Hunter on the World Peace Game

A wonderful talk by John Hunter, a teacher in the US who described his use of an in-class game with 4th Graders (along with lots of other commentary about progressive teaching)

Describing the 'World Peace Game' he uses in his 4th Grade class, he says "I throw them into this complex matrix, and they trust me because we have a deep, rich relationship together." Sounds like my kind of guy.



"I walked in, and I sat down and had an interview. And I guess they were hard up for teachers, because the supervisor, her name was Anna Aro, said I had the job teaching gifted children. And I was so shocked, so stunned, I got up and said, "Well, thank you, but what do I do?" Gifted education hadn't really taken hold too much. There weren't really many materials or things to use. And I said, "What do I do?" And her answer shocked me. It stunned me. Her answer set the template for the entire career I was to have after that. She said, "What do you want to do?" And that question cleared the space. There was no program directive, no manual to follow, no standards in gifted education in that way. And she cleared such a space, that I endeavored from then on to clear a space for my students, an empty space, whereby they could create and make meaning out of their own understanding. …

I was creating a lesson for students on Africa. We put all the problems of the world there, and I thought, let's let them solve it. I didn't want to lecture or have just book reading. I wanted to have them be immersed and learn the feeling of learning through their bodies."

Dubious depiction of ‘teaching’ in ‘Waiting for Superman’

I really wanted to like Waiting for Superman. Here was a movie about the need for revolutionary change in education – from the guy that brought us An Inconvenient Truth – what’s not to like? To tell the truth I still haven’t finished watching it. I’m sure there is much merit in it – perhaps more on that in another post.

For now, I could not resist posting this still from an animated sequence. The purpose of the sequence is not the issue here (it describes how bureaucracy limits teachers ability to teach). What absolutely stunned me was the depiction of ‘teaching’. As you can see from the still, the students are all nicely sitting working at their desks. The teacher walks from one to the next, opening up their skulls and pouring knowledge in. Yes. Seriously. WTF.

Lies, Ethics and Empathy

In Chapter 4 of NurtureShock, Bronson and Merryman make some fascinating observations about children's attitudes and behaviours around lying.

For a start, adults are not very good at telling whether kids are lying or not, relying too often on cues like gender and extroversion (p. 75). Even teachers score only 60% accuracy in identifying lies under controlled conditions.

Parents generally believe their kids won't lie, and see lying as a negative behaviour – usually one to be strongly discouraged. But studies show (p. 80) that at three or four most children become active and proficient liers. Interestingly, the kids who best know the difference between the truth and a lie are the ones most likely to lie. Lying is also a complex cognitive task (p. 82). Effective fabrication requires a good understanding of the situation, of people's behaviours, of what may or may not sound credible. 

The problem arises when you think about the range of behaviours that fall under the umbrella of lying. When asked whether they took the money out of mum's purse, parents believe that truth is the best policy. However, what about when grandma gives you a pair of socks for Christmas and asks you how you like them? Dishonesty can become a valued social behaviour in particular situations.

The 'black and white' approach to lying is problematic – it also gets us into trouble when we go back on promises we have made, or sugar-coat situations… behaviours that we see as part of normal behaviour, but a young child will see clearly as 'a lie'. What kids need to start to understand to function well socially (including within the family) is the motivations that underlie 'dishonest' behaviour – and hence why 'lying' is wrong. When asked why lying is wrong, most five year olds will say it's because you get punished for it – good old reward and punishment removing the intrinsic motivator not to lie and replacing it with an extrinsic one. At that age, 38% of kids actually believe that swearing is lying. Why? Because they are both things you can say that you get punished for! (p.84)

Threatening punishment for lying focuses the child on the impact that lies can have on them. They won't lie less – they will get better at it to avoid punishment. Bronson and Merryman's advice is to leverage children's desire to please parents by demonstrating that truth-telling is behaviour that will make mum and dad happy – focus less on lying being bad, and more on honesty being good (p.86).

At the end of the day, we spend a lot of time admonishing kids for lying when many of us do it every day because that's how we get through life. Understanding the effect your lies (and behaviours more generally) will have on others will be the most pragmatic grounding for truth-telling. This is a very teleological approach – justifying the end by the means – but it is the one that most adults claim to operate by. Like so many other social skills, the thing it relies on most heavily is empathy; modelling the thoughts and behaviours of others will inform our decisions when it comes to telling the truth… or not.

No-lose Conflict Resolution (Method III)

By Chapter 11 (pp.194-264) of Parent Effectiveness Training, I think it's fair to say that Gordon has built up a fair amount of expectation about the magic approach to resolving the conflicts that active listening and I-messages have not solved. Unsurprisingly, the method is not some astonishing revelation, more the simple process of;

  • parent and child collaboratively working on the problem, as equals
  • generating possible solutions
  • discussing, evaluating and deciding on a solution
  • both parties implementing the solution that they have been part of

Putting the obvious 'but's to one side, this is a clear, effective articulation of basic conflict negotiation. It is, as Gordon says, exactly the approach used in business, international affairs and elsewhere. Yes, you may have difficulty finding a solution, no it won't always work, but it's a fine start. The key here is that Gordon is recommending a egalitarian, creative, negotiation-based approach to resolving conflict – and that is the heart of what PET is about. It was news in the seventies, and sadly it is still news now.

While Gordon does follow up with some supporting advice, addresses concerns many parents have, and provides numerous models, this is still a bare boned presentation of the technique. If you are looking for more detail on HOW to generate possible solutions, or HOW to decide on one, you will need to look elsewhere.

In summary, he takes a while to get there, and there is nothing revolutionary about the destination. But Gordon clearly and convincingly makes the case for a relationship-based approach to raising kids that is still a long way from the typical, so there is still a valid place for PET as a text worth reading.

Changing Unacceptable Behaviour by Changing the Environment

In Chapter 8 (pp.139-147) of Parent Effectiveness Training, Gordon talks abut the strategy of changing the environment in response to unacceptable behaviour. Instead of trying to resolve a conflict situation, parents may be in a position to change the environment so that the behaviour simply does not occur any longer.

Environmental change can be through techniques such as enriching the environment, impoverishing the environment or limiting the space the child is living in (particularly for younger children). Gordon also discusses the importance of discussing and planning change with kids, and seeing the home as one which is shared with them, rather than one which parents deign to let them live in.


Once Gordon feels he has made his point about the importance of Active Listening in Parent Effectiveness Training, he moves onto the other side of the coin – how parents can effectively communicate to their children.

The key suggestion here is to move from parental communication which focuses on the target of the message (the child), and instaid to focus on the sender (the parent). This is a transition from 'You-Messages' to 'I-Messages' (pp.103-138). The underlying thought here is acknowledging that the 'problems' which parents often need to communicate actually belong to the parent, not the child. When the parent 'owns' the problem, and communicates with an I-Message, they are openly and honestly explaining the situation – this is very different from the various otehr approaches that parents will use when raising a problem. Gordon categorises and critiques these alternative 'You-Messages', from ordering and preaching to giving solutions and threatening.

Given my personal behaviour, I found the negative comments on advising and providing constructive solutions a little challenging. On reflection, I definitely acknowledge that by providing a solution, I am denying someone else the opportunity to create the solution – a fairly subtle kind of dis-empowerment, but an important one if I expect them to be committed to making the solution happen.

Gordon also raised a number of the challenges with I-Messages, particularly the tendency to disguise 'You-Messages' as I-Messages. He also has some interesting comments on anger, which he suggests is not the real thing that needs to be honestly communicated, but is usually a defensive reaction to an original emotion (such as embarassment, or frustration) that needs to be uncovered and communicated.

PET and Active Listening

Thomas Gordon's Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) was a book I have had lying around since my undergraduate (psychology) degree – at my dad's suggestion from memory. It cropped up again last year when we were looking at Gordon's approach as a model for classroom management, so I thought I'd dig it out and re-read it.

Basically, Gordon presents a style of parent-child interaction that is grounded in humanistic counselling approaches. He emphasises the need to move away from the use of power in parent-child relationships, and presents a series of techniques to replace the more accepted ways of dealing with kids. The core of the book is the explication of 'Active Listening', 'I-Messages', and 'No-Lose (or Method III) Conflict Resolution'. In presenting these techniques he also provides extensive critique of the use of 'parental power' in family relationships.

The book is very accessible, if anything it belabours the point a little – particularly if you are already a convert to the approach. I would also suggest that if you want to read it you pick up a copy of the recently revised edition – it was somewhat jarring to keep reading about how parents object to their teenagers running off to hippie protests and smoking pot (the book was written in 1975).

'Active Listening' (pp.29-102, particularly pp.49-55) is something that you may already be familiar with – Gordon presents it here clearly and simply. Through numerous script examples he shows the technique of listening and reflecting back in a non-judgemental way to elicit further discussion. He also emphasises the ned to actually decode meaning and paraphrease in response rather than just 'parroting'. Interestingly, he addresses the fear that you will be 'found out', for using such a strange, artificial way of communicating – and explains (quite rightly) that if you try it you often discover that people seem to go with it quite happily.

As a background to the idea of active listening, Gordon also introduces a encoding/decoding model of listening (p.50). While overly simplistic it does provide a good context to think about communication as a two part process that also includes the listener.