Tom Bennett

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The Intellectual Abyss in education: Suzanne Moore, and why everyone’s an expert

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Is this what you want? IS IT?

There is an intellectual abyss in the educational debate so deep you could lose a school bus down it. I’m reminded of this every time someone writes about evidence-based research in education, and clearly doesn’t know what that means. Worse, they invoke it like a totem, when all they seek to do is justify their own superstition.

This feature by Suzanne Moore, for instance. I’m sure she is wise and admirable, but it’s a joyless donkey ride across the greatest hits of armchair fantasy edu- football. It’s what I imagine Michael Rosen’s rosary sounds like. Perhaps cautious after the recent harrowing experience of being defended by Julie Burchill, she’s having a go at a safer, softer Aunt Sally, accusing the beastly Gove of ideological dilettantism.
There is a painful contradiction beneath this claim: Gove, the amateur, the journalist who knows nothing about education, put in his place by Moore, the amateur, the journalist, who apparently knows so much more than he. Someone, somewhere, is putting pennies in the eyes of irony. This isn’t simply rhetorical Battleships; this is exactly the abyss to which I referred. Everyone, because they participated in education, believes they are qualified to descend from Sinai with tablets.  And if you sent kids to school, well, it can only be a matter of time before a grateful nation will beg you for guidance.
So what about research? The rational outside observer might think that this was a safe harbour against whim and fancy. But, tragically, it isn’t. The relationship between educational research and real schools, real children, is an unhappy, fractious one.
Part of the reason is the nature of social science itself. I could write a book (and have) about the way scientists attempted to turn the miraculously efficient  methods of the natural sciences to the inner world of the human mind, and found that discerning the boiling point of sodium was a very different goal than working out ‘What is learning? ‘, or ‘How deep your love?’. Difficulties with establishing methodologies that distinguish causes from effects, effects from each other, causal density, reliability, cognitive bias, the Hawthorne effect….if it’s a problem with clean methodology in the natural sciences, it’s a problem cubed in the social sphere.
The second reason is that social science research is often twisted and stretched into chimera by rolling media, and eager lobbyists looking for evidence to substantiate their bias. Of course, this is an issue in medicine for example, but it’s worse- much worse- in education, where the very things you’re trying to assess are nebulous abstracts like ‘learning’ and ‘engagement’ that defy clarification and revel in obfuscation. In Teacher Proof, out next June, I wrote about this, frustrated by the way that evidence in educational research points both ways, like Dorothy’s scarecrow.
Almost every criticism Moore makes about Gove’s strategy makes the same mistakes of which she accuses the Laird of Surrey Heath. Ad Hominem attacks on his motivations (which, unless she’s also Professor X or Derren Brown) should be beneath a serious commentator. References to utterly discredited, cotton-wool fluff like Emotional Intelligence or ‘the crossing over of art and science’ (what?) as valid educational goals, simply display a lack of familiarity with contemporary research that torpedoes such concepts as having any reliable empirical validity.

‘Design, for instance, is an exercise in problem-solving that involves lateral thinking….. music engages the same parts of the brain as maths and poetry.’

Does it? And so what if it does? What evidence is there that this relates to any argument at all? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. I can afford to be upset by these kinds of claims, because their near-universal adoption in state education has been utterly to the detriment of children (research base: ten years teaching). 

‘The academies chuck out their disruptive kids by the second term. Disruption can mean anything from very disturbed behaviour to crimes against uniform to socialising in groups of more than three.’

What evidence is there that this is an issue on anything other than individual cases? Universalising from case studies is a process more commonly associated with Shamanism than science, and research. But research is commonly only quoted when it agrees with us, and frequently fails to be invoked when we make claims about issues we know nothing about. I know this is true, because there’s been a lot of research done into cognitive bias. Claims that the academies are middle-class Madrassas are an odd claim when so many schools are now academies. Claims that schools won’t value creative endeavours are pure scaremongering, based on faith, not fact. Which schools are planning to ditch art from the curriculum? Parents want their children to do art and music, and so do schools. Show me the masses of schools abandoning the recorder and I might believe it; until then, this Thomas is doubting.
I have nothing against a good vent; I’m a blogger, I have a black belt in such things. But this confusion about what does and doesn’t constitute good evidence in education is part of the reason education is such a broken arrow in the UK. Everyone thinks they’re right, but often few people seem to know what proving it might look like. Worse, they self-parody by accusing others of subjectivity or worse, the non-criticism of ‘being ideological’. An ideology is simply a bundle of beliefs unified by a coherent system of relationships. Everyone has one, or attempts to. Teachers have been shackled by the well-meant but essentially indemonstrable claims of progressive educationalist for decades, which have become the new dogma. Group work, personalised learning, learning styles etc- these are all the catechisms of the new Church of Learning.
But they are empty prophecies. They are an infinite series of turtles, resting on each other , values justified by values, opinions relying on opinions.
What do we want in educational research? Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.

9 Comments

  1. Steve Smith says:

    Excellent stuff! A* Target for improvement: none in particular.

  2. mrndaniels says:

    “I know this is true, because there’s been a lot of research done into cognitive bias.” Love it.

  3. mrndaniels says:

    “I know this is true, because there’s been a lot of research done into cognitive bias.” Love it.

  4. @cparkie says:

    I see an agreement with one of Hattie's claims. Teachers defend their preferred method of teaching like a zealot protects their religion! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sng4p3Vsu7Y&feature=player_embedded#at=309

  5. Anonymous says:

    I know this is true because quite a lot of people I know online also know the author and agree with him. That's evidence, innit?
    It's a tangled web and spinning it tends to make it tangle even further. I agree mainly with the stuff you write (and I've no problem at all with this piece) but I've taught in schools so far apart ideologically and social-intakely (did i just make that word up?) that the teachers in either would have NO IDEA of life in the other. This tends to skew their core beliefs (and how much extra work they're prepared to put with)and fuel dissent within the teachery establishment. It isn't cut of one cloth. My present school thinks Gove is spot-on, evn if they hide it behind the “Good God I'm a Tory!” bluster. If you think Justinium's handing in his GCSE coursework 3hrs late is a problem, then you aren't even in the same job as the teacher deciding if refusing to accept Kelseigh back into class after she spat at him for the 4th time is going to ruin her life if she can't get on the Animal Care course at at F(failed)E(education)college.

  6. Anonymous says:

    You're correct about dubious use of evidence. Toby Young attempted to refute Moore's evidence with, er, evidence. Pity that his evidence didn't stand much scrutiny.

    http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2013/02/sorry-toby-but-the-data-backs-suzanne/

  7. Bryn says:

    You're right that research in social science is imperfect at best, but what makes you so sure your own experience trumps it? Do you have some kind of superpower?

  8. Bryn says:

    Curious why this question was never answered.

    This blog has become predictable. I can count on you spewing your discontent in a rather dramatic and witty fashion, but without any alternatives or evidence of your own to offer. Go ahead and convince me that you know better than everyone else. Give me some proper reasons for why VAK limits learning (as your latest entry so boldly professes), or why I shouldn't bother with group work or cross-curricular links. Prove to me that you're right, since you love to criticise others for not doing a good enough job of it.

    I subscribed to this blog and bought several of your books, so clearly at one point I saw value in what you had to say. It saddens me that the reason for that currently eludes me. I'm hoping you can refresh my memory.

  9. clive says:

    I'll answer it then (rather late, sorry). This is basically the fallacy of argument from ignorance. The fact is that VAK and group work and multiple intelligences etc have not been subject to rigorous testing (including RCTs). So why use them? Because a man with a clipboard said?

    Would you get your kids to rub their noses and ears if you were told it would improve their brains? Would you make them take special pills if it allegedly increases IQ? Would you wear a hat shaped like a banana if you were told that it improved learning? Anyone who can think straight would ask for some evidence that these measures were efficacious. To do otherwise is the educational version of Pascal's Wager.

    Criticising a flawed, broken system (ie educational treatments that have never been proven yet are sucked up by the establishment who are desperate for easy, quick fixes) does not require you to come up with alternatives. That's not how it works.

    And yes, 10 years of teaching is a superpower against those who have never been a teacher yet think that they know how to teach. It's fucking *Kryptonite*.

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