A refreshing lack of certainty: Reflections on researchED 2014

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.

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24 Responses to A refreshing lack of certainty: Reflections on researchED 2014

  1. srcav says:

    Excellent post, thanks for sharing. It is important to be aware that research can guide us, but cannot hold definitive answer. We can have a weight of evidence that supports one method of teaching, but it may not work in all classrooms, with all teachers and all children. We need to challenge everything, and be very aware of confirmation bias. I have written my thought on this here: http://wp.me/p2z9Lp-ed

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ijstock says:

    Many thanks for this – and I’m glad you enjoyed your spot. When we spoke in Brick Lane last week I sensed some dissonance in our views – so good to see a great deal to agree with in your views here, as there has always been much to admire in your blog!

    Like

  3. “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.”

    Could we? To say people born with a certain trait deserve an inferior position in society is wrong if the trait is race, why is it OK if the trait is low intelligence?

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    • I hope the next sentence “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?” explains my position on this issue.

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      • I have to confess I was a little confused by that. I thought that ‘equality’ referred to a system where all are equal. ‘Equity’ to one where the same standard, such as an academic test to determine social position, was applied fairly to all. Have I got the two terms confused?

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      • The sense in which I mean the terms is this: Equality – treating people equally (e.g. giving the same to everyone). Equity – related to fairness – which may not mean equal treatment.

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    • andrewsabisky says:

      On an educational level, a genetic hierarchy of achievement is simply inevitable. The gaps between individuals are simply too big and the effects of compensatory education are too minimal for there ever to be true educational equality of outcome, unless we institute some bizarre “Harrison Bergeron” program designed to handicap the genetically gifted and retard their progress (they can’t go to school after 11, we deprive them books, give them lousy food, and so on).

      The same is true of course for adult life outcomes, but here we can and do use the tax system to prevent a genetic-lottery-winner-takes-all society. This is probably wise; I am not in favour of a true meritocracy because the concept is illusory. A world in which genes heavily influence outcomes, as they do now and to some degree always have, is no meritocracy at all, though it may appear so on the surface. Some redistribution is necessary on moral and practical grounds (stability is good, angry starving mobs are bad).

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      • There’s no getting round the fact some are better at writing essays and doing sums, you’re right about that, but there’s nothing inevitable about a curriculum that consists only of these activities. The hierarchy of achievement is created by the learning experiences we choose, and choose not, to offer.

        Equality of outcome is impossible in the sense of everybody learning the same things and acquiring the exact same skills. But it’s perfectly possible for children to learn without being told the extent or quality of their learning determines their value as citizens.

        It’s sad that those work in education are loath to give up the status awarded them vicariously by the high grades of children who perform academic tasks well. Children who grew up in a system of equality wouldn’t miss status they never had, and would greatly benefit from the lack of envy and hatred such a society would have, compared with our own.

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      • Equality of educational outcomes (e.g. everyone gets an A) isn’t what I was suggesting – I agree it’s likely impossible outside of some sort of dystopian fantasy. However, Dylan’s point about effective teachers having a bigger impact with weak ability classes than with high ability classes – gives some room for a more equitable allocation of education resources which might (his point implied) diminish those gaps between individuals a bit.

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      • andrewsabisky says:

        re Ed Cadwallader; unfortunately it is just not possible for persons not to privilege academic achievement over most other things you can learn at school, given that the job market does so. It will only make teachers look stupid if they pretend reality is not what it is. Even some supposedly non-academic specialisms are in fact correlated with academic achievement (or IQ) such as musical ability.

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        • The ‘job market’ is an aggregation of people’s beliefs about the relative values of different types of work. These beliefs were created by a school system that privileges academic achievement over any other kind. So what you’re saying is ‘we must teach this generation that the best essay writers deserve the highest pay because that’s what we’ve taught previous generations’.

          You’re right to question how a generation raised in equality would fare on graduation into a still unequal and prejudiced society. But imagine for a second you are a boy with ‘low cognitive ability’. Would you rather grow up being told you are inferior to prepare you for how the adult world will treat you, or be respected as an equal and have a chance to excel at something even though you won’t get a grade as proof of that excellence?

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  4. maxinegoodes says:

    I am pleased this conference has raised awareness of how much uncertainty there is about Education and how students learn. Teachers are becoming more discerning about some of the claims regarding T&L strategies that can supposedly improve or even reduce the rate of learning. As well as researching Education nationally, I think it has become even more important than before for teachers to be able to meet, discuss and reflect on their own experience and practise in thinking about what strategies a teacher may use in supporting students with their learning.

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  5. Jonathan says:

    “Excitement is a dangerous thing in education. We get excited about a lot of stuff and most of it doesn’t work.” Rob Coe
    The best ed quote I’ve read for some time. Perfectly sums up the endless round of headteacher favoured initiative followed by failed, withering implementation upon a baffled staff lacking in opportunities for self-efficacy.

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  6. Pingback: The cerebral life of schools | Reflecting English

  7. Should have commented before. I’m getting worried that so many of us seem to be on the same page around this ‘movement’. However as that message is summed up in your paragraph: . ”

    “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.”

    I think we might be ok. Let’s just not stop reenforcing that message – we can’t be certain but that does not mean we cannot make steps forward.

    Like

  8. Pingback: researchED 2014 | Literacy SENse

  9. Pingback: If you can’t stand the research, get out of the classroom…… | From the Sandpit....

  10. Pingback: Can research make you a better teacher? | Hilary Engward

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