Research, Rhetoric and The Two Tribes

When you’re a relative newcomer to Edutwitter, one of the things that first strikes you is the starkly polarised positions taken on a series of crucial issues. The second thing is the absolute sense of certainty that often accompanies these positions. Even down to the Middle Way Tribe, the natural Liberal Democrats of policy discussion, who insist, with a near religious fervour, that things are not as simple as the progressives versus the traditionalists, but that the only thing that matters is what works. For the purposes of this article (and as a handy guide to how to live your life honestly), I’m going to acknowledge only the existence of the two tribes. They are the only ones that matter. The Lib Dems have an inadequate ideological analysis and really should just make their minds up and stop splitting the left vote.

Frankly, I think that, actually, it is that simple, but that is a subject for a future blog all on its own. For the moment I’ll confine myself  to looking at one particular topic: Research. In the last few months, I’ve read industrial quantities of effluent written on this topic. Apparently, research into teaching techniques, strategies and approaches that are effective is going to save the world. Also apparently, this is a new thing, instigated by the intellectually rigorous proponents of the new brutalism. You know the kind of thing: Direct instruction. Zero Tolerance. Flattening the Grass. Knowledge rich curricula. (To be clear, I can accept the relevance of Direct Instruction and Knowledge Rich curricula, but not the idea they didn’t happen before and that other approaches can’t coexist with them)

The New Brutalists are very clear about what used to happen in the olden days. In the old days, teachers, who saw themselves as “Facilitators”, didn’t teach facts or knowledge of any kind because it was “oppressive”. Students (oops, that’s a give away to the brutalist thought police), sorry, I mean pupils, were just sat randomly in groups spreading their ignorance thinly, through unguided aimless chat, that might have been in informal language, liberally sprinkled with “like”s and “innit”s and “Y’knowwhatimean”s.

These practices were pursued at the behest of a Marxist teacher training programme, propagated by bearded lecturers who had drank their fill of Paulo Freire and Paul Willis and were readying for the imminent overthrow of society and to hell with grammar and the Oxford Comma. Now, thank the lord, teachers, parents and students have been rescued from this knowledge -free hell because modern teachers who have read Daisy Christodolou and admire Katherine Birbalsingh, realise that there is research- based evidence that validates back to basics practice instead. There was a tweet from one of them the other day (can’t remember which, sorry) along these lines that made me think that they were once asked by their teacher training mentor to do some role play in the classroom and they have never recovered from the trauma of the experience. Rather than pay for therapy they are working through their trauma by inflicting more of it on the students and staff they come across in their day jobs. And let me get my apology in now to save time in the long run. That’s to therapists, people in therapy, and Daisy and Katherine themselves. I’m sure they are wonderful human beings and they are clearly committed educationalists, it’s just their ideas I object to.

I read one tweet the other day that suggested that there is no excuse any more for persisting with outdated strategies in the classroom when there is a wealth of evidence about what works in terms of maximising learning. It went on to characterise the previous twenty years (probably about 1990 – 2010) as a quicksand of myth and progressive sleight of hand. What utter nonsense. People who promulgate this view generally fall into one of two camps. Either they are hopelessly naïve and gullible, and genuinely believe that they are the chosen people who have been shown the true way. The metaphor is deliberately chosen because they do tend to have the certainty of the religious convert. It baffles me what they think was going on in classrooms back in the day and why adults in their late twenties/early thirties aren’t wandering around bumping into walls, slack jawed and knuckle dragging, like the zombie apocalypse, so inadequate was their education.

The other group are evangelists for basic skills, standards and tradition. This is packaged as concern for the education of the working classes, who, they say with great certainty, have been let down by trendy, progressive teachers because they don’t confidently use Standard English, don’t have any familiarity with classical music, and haven’t read Milton. They name drop Hirsch, as if this is the clincher in their argument. Anything that might be cited as evidence of growing levels of achievement of this group is dismissed as being actually only evidence of the grade inflation and dumbing down that Michael Gove, God bless his sainted soul, so heroically rescued us all from.

I don’t mind this cultural war. You can’t take the victories of the past for granted and the tide of ideas will always ebb and flow. I actually prefer it to the dishonesty of how the war is actually presented, that is, as proven methods of teaching versus ideologically- inspired incompetence. A more honest approach recognises that it is a conflict between two ideologies.

And the key weapon in this war is research. I was going to say phony war, but that would be wrong. The war is real, but the key weapon is phony. And many of us have used it ourselves, as an invaluable tool in justifying changes to practice.

I’ve done loads of staff training events in various incarnations in the past: Advanced Skills Teacher, Senior GCSE English examination/Coursework Advisor, Deputy Headteacher, Teacher Trainer. I’ve lost count of the number of times, particularly when launching a new whole school change to classroom practice, that I have used the phrase, “The research comprehensively shows…” or “The research is absolutely clear on this”. I’ve heard it used for the same purpose by many presenters much more august and skilled than me.

And it’s purpose is plainly rhetorical. It’s a device. A flourish. A swagger. It’s signalling to the doubters in the audience that they should hold their tongue, review their opposition to this mad new whole school idea, and listen. Why? Because there is, apparently, a wealth of evidence available, generated by very clever academics, that proves beyond doubt that this particular approach works. It raises achievement, the holy grail for all teachers and senior leaders. And evidence is the hallmark of rational beings, isn’t it?

The trouble is that research evidence has never comprehensively proven anything. A research project helps us make informed decisions, along with all the other research projects on the same or related topics, many of which will contradict the first one. Of course, one should review research evidence and measure it against your own practice and practice you have observed in other settings, and use that process to come to a decision, but don’t fool yourself that that decision is neutral, objective and factual.

Research is very often commissioned to “prove” a classroom approach that someone has already decided is the right way to do things. Research findings are always open to interpretation. What does this mean in terms of classroom practice? What do we have to do differently? And those questions always give rise to ideology. And because of both the way research originates and the way it is interpreted, it’s obvious that research, far from providing unchallengeable answers, is by definition, contested.

And you can see this all over twitter and the blog posts of the influencers in education. People highlight the research they approve of and bury the research they disagree with. Or, they rubbish it: the sample size, the methodology, the people who commissioned it, the interpretation, the premise, anything as long as they have thrown doubt on its findings. Now “Research” is available that rubbishes even Carol Dweck’s (@caroldweck) work.

Scorn is poured these days on some of the practices of yesterday: things like Learning Styles, Brain Gym, Accelerated Learning, Group discussion etc. People are incredulous that teachers of yesteryear implemented all of that with no research to back it up, and they smugly position themselves as wise people who would never make the same mistake again. The inconvenient fact is though, that there was a mass of research evidence cited for these things. Just look at the reference lists in Alastair Smith’s books. (@alatalite) The thing was that the research was not questioned rigorously enough and that it has since been superceded. Who’s to say that the same thing will not happen to the research so confidently championed today?

I’m pretty sure that those people who champion Direct Instruction, Knowledge Rich Curricula, Mastery Assessment, Zero Tolerance Behaviour regimes etc are also largely the people who are in favour of uniform, or setting, despite the fact that there is next to no research evidence that proves that they impact positively on achievement. I’m also pretty sure that as I’m writing this, there are people also typing away, desperately commissioning research to do just that.

So, I’d really like the Education community to move to a position where we are much more balanced about practice and its evidence base. To be more inclusive of a range of approaches that the classroom teacher can select from and combine appropriately. To be less welcoming of yet more articles complaining about practice in the past and about being told what to do, when they are doing exactly the same thing themselves. They are just setting up other, new approaches to practice that will become the new orthodoxy which a new set of gurus will rubbish in ten year’s time. And, when we’re talking about research ”evidence” in particular, we will bear in mind Dylan Wiliam’s (@dylan wiliam) article on Education and research.

The classroom is far too complicated a place for simple solutions.