Yesterday, I had the enormous pleasure of attending researchED 14 and giving a talk (indulging in a rant) about the prevalence of pseudoscientific ideas within education. The talk appeared to be filmed, so if it turns up on the (shiny) new researchED website I’ll post a link here so you can watch me showing off in front of an audience. In the meantime, videos of many of the high profile speakers are already up and well worth watching.
“Excitement is a dangerous thing in education. We get excited about a lot of stuff and most of it doesn’t work.” Rob Coe
For me, the abiding theme of the day was how little we really know about education.
I think that’s something to be genuinely excited about.
Over the majority of my career, national strategies and Ofsted criteria, their status and efficacy unquestioned, have been handed down as received wisdom to teachers. One of the most frustrating influences in education has been this unwarranted certainty that we have all the answers – that we know ‘what works’ and all we have to do is make sure that teachers conform to the guidance. So, I think the lack of certainty that came through in many of the talks throughout the day is something to get excited about.
Dylan Wiliam’s talk was a journey through the extraordinary difficulties we face trying to provide better answers the hard questions of education. Particularly pertinent, I felt, was his case against the naïve acceptance of meta-analysis studies. He made the point that even strategies which appear to provide enormous value, like feedback, require nuance of implementation and sensitivity to context to make successful.
“Although on average feedback increased performance, the effect sizes across the studies was very variable. The standard deviation was actually one. In 50 out of 131 studies, giving people feedback made their performance worse.” Dylan Wiliam
This nuance and complexity is never going to disappear. Research-informed teaching doesn’t somehow excuse us from professional judgement – it actually makes it even more important. For a long time the idea of teachers developing and applying measured judgements about their lessons simply wasn’t on the agenda. Rigid teaching structures like the three-part lesson and bureaucratic assessment systems like ‘Assessing Pupils’ Progress’, discouraged teachers from developing their craft and wisdom. Many of these ideas, like using VAK (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) as a method of differentiation, never stood up to closer scrutiny – yet, were frequently applied within schools without challenge. It was a period of the anti-professional; teacher as ‘content deliverer’.
“I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that…”
ResearchED left me feeling that teachers really might have a chance to develop themselves as professionals. I thoroughly enjoyed Katie Ashford’s talk on the use of stories and narrative in teaching. I’ve written before about the dysfunctional effect that Ofsted’s teacher quality measures had upon this important element of the craft. It was a genuine pleasure to explore how we can develop and use such teacher talk in lessons. Stories are both excellent ways of passing on cultural knowledge and moral lessons; and by happy chance they also promote students’ interest and engagement.
It also gave me hope that we might at last be able to talk about an ‘elephant in the room’; genetics. Andrew Sabisky’s talk on the influence of genetics upon educational outcomes was a genuine message of hope. It’s a touchy subject for teachers – still haunted by the ghost of eugenics. However, he made the invaluable point that the proportion of that variation which can be accounted for by genetics is an excellent measure of our education system and no bar to seeking to improve the system. After all, even though individuals may differ from one another in terms of those cognitive facilities that help them in school, we don’t know the upper potential for any of those individuals. Whilst any naturally occurring trait varies; there’s nothing to stop us from trying to shift that whole distribution curve upwards. Indeed, if we were to ever find that the only source of variance in educational outcomes was the influence of genes – we could genuinely claim to have a highly egalitarian system.
Of course, equality isn’t the only option – and there’s an argument that it isn’t the most desirable outcome – after all, wouldn’t equity be better? It might mean that we gave those with the least biological advantages the greatest environmental support. Dylan made the point in his talk that schools very rarely give the best teachers to the least able– even though this creates greater gains than when we give them to the most able. Isn’t the purpose of living together as a society partly to offset the hand that fickle nature deals us?
“What is education for? I like to think of it as part of the ‘Conversation of Mankind’, the Michael Oakeshott idea. If we’re talking about the Conversation of Mankind, does research dominate that conversation or join in with it?”
These questions about values were the basis of Martin Robinson’s talk. Schools are irrational places built upon ethos and tradition; what role do we want the rational narrative of research to have in our institutions of education? I had the pleasure of cornering him and Carl Hendrick to discuss this issue at greater length after the conference. He’s right, there’s no victory in a revolution if it simply leads to a new dictatorship. As a teacher, I do not wish to be relieved of the burden of false consensus about how teachers should teach; only to find we create a new orthodoxy based around a naïve view of the role of research within schools.
I hope Martin’s concerns were at least in part assuaged by the theme of uncertainty which threaded through the conference. Science isn’t about imposing ‘truth’ upon the world. Science is a system of asking sceptical questions to the world and finding (over time, with plenty of false trails and occasional backtracking) slightly better answers. It can’t tell you what is morally important or socially good – but if there’s a value upon which we can more-or-less agree (and actually, I think there’s more consensus within teaching than we permit ourselves to believe), it can gradually give us a better idea about how to get there. Only pseudoscience claims to have the panacea. Only newspaper headlines pretend that questions in science are ever settled. Genuine science never gives a clear, unambiguous answer to a difficult question; the true language of social science is uncertainty. I think a genuinely useful step for education research would be to agree upon a language of uncertainty; conventions which we can use to express the insights of research in a responsible way.
David Didau completed the day by making exactly this point; that whatever we think we know, we’re probably wrong. He gave some excellent examples of cognitive biases; the in-built flaws in our natural capacity for reasoning. This is why the processes of science – it’s obsession with minimising bias, improving validity and reliability – are so important. Of all the cultural systems that humans have developed over the course of history, scientific enquiry (for all the flaws of individual studies and peer review) is the only system we have found that can successfully correct (albeit only a little) for our individually flawed cognition. Like democracy, science isn’t perfect – but until human beings invent a better way of asking questions of the world, it’s the only game in town.
At the last, the intellectually honest answer to ‘what works’ is probably ‘we don’t really know’. There are promising clues, tantalising hints and tentative suggestions, and some things that we can be pretty darn sure really don’t work. But this refreshing lack of certainty is the starting point that promises real change within education. At the last, it’s only when we become dissatisfied with answers we possess that we start to ask better questions.