Evidence and Expertise

The UK is gripped by referendum fever. Experts are being wheeled out left, right and centre. These experts can help us decide what to believe, but – and it’s a big but – they cannot tell us what to believe.

The analogy between the role of experts in this referendum and in education is an interesting one to explore. Experts and experiments are vital to decision making in education. Ben Goldacre’s superb ‘Building Evidence into Education’ concludes as follows:

Now we recognise that being a good doctor, or teacher, or manager, isn’t about robotically following the numerical output of randomised trials; nor is it about ignoring the evidence, and following your hunches and personal experiences instead. We do best, by using the right combination of skills to get the best job done.

Evidence and experts are indeed vital to making informed decisions. Depending on the robustness of the evidence available, ignoring evidence is at least naïve and at worst negligent. A case in point is ‘Brain Gym’. Ben Goldacre excoriates the pseudo-scientific neuro-babble that is ‘Brain Gym’ in the opening chapter of his best seller ‘Bad Science’. He is right to do so. There is not a jot of evidence to support the claims made by proponents of this intervention.

At the beginning of this academic year Nick Gibb addressed ResearchEd. Reflecting on the reasons behind the creation for the EEF, he said the following:

We created the EEF due to a belief that high-quality, robust research could empower classroom teachers, and I firmly believe it can. But, such teachers need to strive to make their voices heard.

If anyone here still has to include learning styles in their lesson plans, please direct your senior leaders to Harold Pashler’s comprehensive literature review which lays bare the want of evidence to support learning styles. If you are criticised by colleagues for implementing frequent factual recall tests – so often characterised as ‘mere regurgitation’ – please direct your colleagues towards the work of Robert Bjork, which shows that frequent testing strengthens long-term memory. If your performance management is still based on termly do-or-die lesson observations, direct your senior leaders towards the work of Rob Coe which shows such observations are not just stressful, but provenly imprecise. And if your school still practises Brain Gym, then God help you.

Evidence and expert opinion can liberate and enlighten. It frees us from the epistemological limitations of our immediate surroundings.

As Ben Goldacre correctly notes, there is more to medicine and teaching than ‘robotically following the numerical output’ of RCTs. I am enormously proud of my younger brother who recently became a doctor. My younger sister will soon accomplish the same feat. They both have the compassion, intellect and integrity to make amazing medics and I look forward to watching their careers blossom. Evidence will necessarily play a crucial role in their everyday working lives, but evidence cannot provide them with the answers to the myriad of problems they will face day to day. Whilst sociological research may help inform how to disclose to patients that their condition is terminal, there is no evidence that can tell them exactly what to say. Evidence about survival rates may help inform decisions about when to withdraw treatment to a critically ill patient, but the decision will be theirs and no amount of evidence can tell them the right moment to allow nature to take its course. Whilst vital to good practice, evidence does not hold all of the answers.

Teaching is much the same. Cognitive science has improved our knowledge of the way that our brains learn. We are carrying out more trials into the efficacy of different educational interventions. Tentatively we are able to turn this body of research into more effective classroom practice. However, this evidence cannot tell us what education is for. Just as with medicine, there are questions which are beyond the remit of evidence.

It is vital that we exploit the power of evidence and expertise when appropriate. However, as rich as this evidence becomes, it cannot tell us whether the aim of education is to make pupils cleverer or whether we should instead endow children ‘21st century skills’. We may be able to assess the relative merits of particular pedagogies in achieving whatever we believe to be the aims of education, but evidence cannot tell you what you believe education is for.

There is no amount of expert economic forecasting which can tell you that a post-Brexit downturn would be worth (or not worth) the loss of sovereignty implied by continued membership of the EU. That is an evaluation for every UK voter to make. We would be naïve to ignore the expert opinions of forecasters and their evidence, but they cannot tell us what to believe. Similarly there is no amount of evidence that can tell us what education is for or when is the right time to withdraw treatment to a dying patient.

We should look to make evidence-informed decisions, but we would be naïve to believe that we can abdicate all decisions to ‘following numerical outputs’. We should always seek to make use of relevant evidence, but sometimes – and often at the most crucial moments – we must ultimately rely on our personal (evidence-informed) beliefs.

 

Evidence and Expertise

Motives

I am growing tired of the uncharitable ascribing of motives that is becoming all too common place in education. Jonathan Simons, reflecting poignantly on the murder of Jo Cox MP, called for ‘a higher standard from our education debates.’ He is absolutely right to do so.

The headlines of the Guardian and Telegraph mirrored one another this morning:

She believed in a better world and she fought for it everyday

I can think of no more worthy way to spend our all too short time on this little blue dot in the middle of vast nothingness. There can be no higher honour than to serve the interests of others. In every one of the tributes to Jo Cox commentators returned to her selflessness. Whether fighting for the rights of women, the concerns of her constituents or the interests of refugees one cannot help but be struck by the selfless motives of a wonderful human being.

Anyone with the good fortune to work in education is blessed to be surrounded by people similarly devoted to improving the lives of others. And yet this fact is too readily cast aside in argument. In a seeming competition to out-compassion one’s philosophical opponents, selfless teachers-by-day uncharitably ascribe motives to one another. I read Tom Bennett’s balanced exploration of the oft described ‘crisis’ in children’s mental health with a heavy heart. Half way through the piece Bennett reveals that whilst discussing the alleged ‘crisis’ (for which there is a lack of evidence) he was accused of ‘trivialising children’s distress in order to seem intellectually superior’.

What evidence does she have of Bennett’s motives? Her ignorance of Bennett’s intentions is obvious. Her arrogance to publicly accuse Bennett is apparent. This is no way to have a debate.

Simons accurately sums up the issue:

We can too often impugn when we should understand. We play the man and not the ball.  We attack presumed motives, rather than debate policies or end goals.

This is the context in which I have been reading Ecclestone and Hayes’ ‘The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education’. At times this book is a considered analysis of the practices of ‘Therapeutic Education’ before occasionally bursting into a dissection of its negative consequences:

As Elizabeth Atkins shows in her detailed study of teachers and students on a level 1 general vocational course, images of students at risk, vulnerable, and in need of ‘emotional attachment and nurturing’ lead them to regard students’ emotional needs as integral to a progressive educational ethos. Despite their reservations about the quality and usefulness of the qualification students were taking, their concern for confidence and esteem led them to prioritise positive attitudes and dispositions to engagement rather than pushing students to learn content or to do difficult tasks. Although students enjoyed the course and its activities, and believed they worked heard, Atkins argues that their positive views were predicated on lack of demand placed on them and on feeling valued. She concludes that their experience cannot be called education in any meaningful sense.

For me, this beautifully sums up what is wrong with so much of current educational practice. It is a devastating critique of the enormous and ultimately futile efforts put in by so many educators. One need not attack ill-ascribed intentions in order to rhetorically floor one’s opponents. The quote is all the more devastating for the conveyed futility of applying these teachers’ good intentions.

Good motives are not enough. Jo Cox, like almost every other politician in the UK, had valiant intentions. What makes her murder such a devastating loss to British politics is that her good intentions were twinned with an obvious intellect and a detailed understanding of the subjects dear to her heart. One only needs to listen briefly to her parliamentary speeches on the ongoing war and humanitarian crisis in Syria for this to become evident. In her too short time with us, Jo Cox repeatedly converted her motives into positive impacts on the world. This is what made her so special. So many of us can only hope to see small parts of our vision for a better world realised.

Life is too short and often too cruel to unfairly attack our opponents and their motives. Leave that to those who have no arguments left. Let the evidence, argument and data stand over the petty-minded who have little left but shrill insults. Actors on all sides of education wish to see their visions of a better world achieved. Only those with evidence, argument and data stand a chance of having their vision realised.

Motives

‘Student Voice’

In her superb ‘I Find That Offensive’ Claire Fox argues that schools bear some responsibility for the Snowflake Student movement which is sweeping across university campuses in the Anglophone world. These students demand trigger warnings on classic literature, censorship of anyone deemed to have strayed from PC party line and ‘protection’ from Halloween costumes.

In particular, Claire Fox points the finger at the role of ‘student voice’ in the growing phenomenon of offence-intolerant Snowflake Students:

However, the prevalence of student voice is not simply a consequence of students ‘buying’ their degrees. It starts in state schools where it is more clearly an ideological assault on adult authority, and is driven by those that advocate that education should be pupil-centred.

Fox goes on to detail the all too familiar horrors which can arise from ‘student voice’ and the perverse message that this can send to pupils.

Schools are told to ‘put the learner firmly at the centre … [to make them] actively involved in every aspect of their own learning’, and to ‘consult and involve pupils when revising curriculum structures’. Encouraging learners to express their views about curriculum choices and ‘in the provision of their own education’ is considered best practice in improving classroom motivation, and is paraded as an example of Pupil Voice in action.

Anyone working in education will immediately recognise the nauseating language: ‘learners’, ‘their learning’, etc. It is surprising to see the word ‘pupil’ used. Often times this word is deemed too authoritarian and hierarchical to describe the role of a child in school.

Those working in education – whatever their opinion of the phenomenon of ‘student voice’ – will be only too aware of the growing importance of the opinions of children.

Now Student Councils are involved in everything from carrying out official observations of teachers to shadowing senior staff.

Of greatest concern to me is the growing fad of having pupils interview their prospective teachers. Fox points to evidence from the TES’s ‘collection of teaching resources to support pupil voice and student council’ which has a popular section designed to give advice to teachers about the horrors that await them. One teacher is quoted as having said ‘I’ve got an interview and the first part is with the school council and I’m more nervous about that than the actual interview’ – I don’t blame her.

Briefly ignoring the ignominy of being interviewed by children, it is quite right to be concerned about being interviewed by anyone who hasn’t a clue what they are talking about. Children, like most adults, don’t know the first thing about teaching. They haven’t a clue how to design an effective example, how to manage a classroom or how and when to question ‘learners’. They don’t know what qualities to look for in a prospective teacher. As well as being insulting, the idea of pupil interviews simply doesn’t make sense.

Joe Baron wrote powerfully on the subject back in February:

They’re even asked to interview new job applicants. Known by the innocuous sounding, almost euphemistic, Student Voice, sinister questionnaires are specifically designed for pupils to hold their teachers to account.

Whatever the impact of ‘student voice’ on the censorious sensibilities of these children when they do finally become students, the corrosive impact on teacher authority is obvious. Instead of coming to school expecting to be taught by their teachers, children are confronted with a far more complex relationship than one would traditionally expect.

Many children around the country are being taught by teachers they helped to interview. In such circumstances the relationship is necessarily transformed. Privilege (to steal a Student Snowflake term) a pupil’s opinion about the relative merits of a potential teacher and you forever undermine (to a greater or lesser extent) that teacher’s authority.

I agree with Claire Fox that at its heart ‘student voice’ is an ideological assault on adult authority. However she is also right to recognise that it is seen as a crucial component of best practice. I don’t believe for a moment that school leaders use ‘student voice’ malevolently to undermine teachers. I believe ‘student voice’ owes its continued popularity to a complacent acceptance that it is best practice and its popularity with the guardians of progressive teaching ideology – many of whom run ITT.

Put more starkly: Who really values the opinion of a child when deciding who should be promoted to Head of English? Who really values a child’s opinion of a prospective candidate’s views on the importance of SSP remedial work for pupils who are still struggling to read when they arrive at secondary? Who really values a child’s assessment of the data gathering policy proposed by the potential ‘middle leader’?

Is it not actually the case that ‘student voice’ is the ‘done thing’? And it was emphasised on that course that Bob went on last week. And the PGCE students always get asked by their university to do pupil questionnaires. And we did it last time. And that consultant who did the September INSET loved it. And ‘it’s nice to get the kids involved’. And Ofsted want it, don’t they?*

Given the privileged status we award children when it comes to making decisions which they aren’t mature enough to be involved in, it can hardly come as a shock to find the same children seeking out other members of staff to act as legal representation against a teacher who ‘has it in for me’. It can hardly be surprising that any alleged incidence of unpleasantness in the playground results in pseudo-legalistic proceedings whereby statements and witness testimony are given. It can hardly be surprising that a teacher’s instruction is seen as a motion for debate rather than an instruction.

The perverse consequences of ‘student voice’ are many, the benefits are not obvious and the logic for pupil participation in interviews, observations and curriculum planning are questionable at best. It is time for the children to return to their role as pupils.

 

* They don’t!

‘Student Voice’

No-excuses, some-excuses or anything goes?

I have had the pleasure of hearing Jonathan Porter speak at both Michaela debates. A born orator, his powerful defence of Michael Gove was the most compelling I have heard. More recently Jonathan Porter was defending Michaela’s ‘no-excuses’ behaviour policy. You can hear the whole debate here.

Of particular note is Jonathan Porter’s clever juxtaposition of ‘no-excuses’ schools with ‘some-excuses’ schools. It is easy to demonise the Neo-Gradgrindians (I do hope that the name catches on) and their child hating, but one must hesitate when the alternative is put as simply and starkly as it was.

Greg Ashman was subject to this half-term’s twitter storm yesterday when he eloquently explored the conflation of SEN with disability. You can most probably imagine the all too predictable response to his piece. A flavour:

Behaviour is a form of communication. Most times its unmet education or mental health needs.

This is straight forward, A-Grade nonsense. Utter gibberish of the first degree – the sort of teacher blaming apologist tripe which has been used repeatedly to bash teachers with. Dear reader, far be it from me to assume that you ever misbehaved as a child, but perhaps you know of someone who did. Does it strike you that that friend/acquaintance did so as a sort of elaborate mime due to underlying anguish, or was it because they fancied doing something they weren’t supposed to? Please note that I am not saying that poor behaviour is never the manifestation of underlying mental health needs. (How depressing that I should need to state that explicitly, wouldn’t you agree?)

To assume young children with attachment disorder from neglect have much control over their behaviour is misguided.

We have a doctor in our midst! Well, actually a SENCO, but it’s almost the same thing. Except that before diagnosing a questionable disease, a (real) doctor would – I expect – wish to see the actual child rather than diagnose a fictional child (let’s call them Bob) from a blog which mentions no such child. The SENCO in question knows not the least thing about Bob. Bob (who doesn’t exist, remember?) may well be a happy and healthy 14 year old living on the other side of the world (Greg is based in Australia) who loves life. It does make you wonder about the reliability of SEN diagnosis given in schools.

What do you know of the effects of trauma, neglect, drugs and alcohol on a child’s brain?

Bloody hell, Bob has been enjoying himself. And he’s only 14!

So why am I wasting my time exposing what we already knew existed? Why expose the racket of enormously dedicated and caring education professionals who seek to minimise and excuse the behavioural infractions of children? Because I am concerned about the impact it has on classroom behaviour management and the pressures it places on teachers to tolerate verbal and physical abuse.

A tweet from Quirky Teacher set this off:

FullSizeRender (9)

Returning momentarily to Jonathan Porter’s ‘no-some’ dichotomy: If you work in a ‘some-excuses’ school I imagine that you come across the apologist quackery oozing from the three quotes above. I am interested, and I would like to hear from you.

  • When a child swears at a member of staff, what are the consequences?
  • Is a child always permanently excluded for assaulting a member of staff?

I look forward to hearing from you.

I would actually go further than the dichotomy set up by Jonathan Porter. I would add a third category. I believe ‘no-excuses’ and ‘some-excuses’ behaviour management systems can work so long as they are well managed and monitored. Sadly this monitoring and managing are too often absent, leading to a veritable market place of behaviour management systems in a school. I have termed this ‘anything goes’ since behaviour is negotiated in every classroom, corridor and playground in the school.

If you work in an anything approaching this third example (and I suspect many of you do), then I would really like to hear from you.

zero-tolerance-sign

No-excuses, some-excuses or anything goes?

Common Sense

My favourite lecturer was a moustachioed Russian with a deep and oft vented disgust with ‘Banksters’. On top of his loathing of probabilistically illiterate investment bankers, this lecturer had a deep distrust of common sense. It is difficult to inhabit the world of probability theory for too long without learning to disdain the facile false promises of common sense.

The most powerful example of fact confounding common sense that I know comes from the area of probability concerned with waiting times. Consider the game where upon flipping a coin and recording ‘H’ or ‘T’ for heads and tails respectively, you bet a friend that the word HH will appear before TH. Naively you assume that because the coin you are using is fair that you have entered into a fair game with your friend.

GCSE maths (probability trees) and common sense combine to tell you that the probability of HH occurring in the first two flips is 25% – exactly the same probability as TH occurring in the first two flips. Despite this fact, I’m afraid to tell you that your friend will win the game 75% of the time. (If you need more convincing: this article has a short explanation in its introduction.)

Common sense can be a cruel mistress.

My lecturers disdain of common sense came back to the forefront of my mind whilst reading David Didau’s ‘What if everything you knew about education was wrong?‘- in particular his chapter on interleaving study. He concludes the chapter with the following:

This all sounds fabulous, so why don’t we do it? Apart from the fact that it takes thinking and planning to implement effectively, the only real argument against interleaving is that students don’t like it. Even though laboratory tests and classroom trials have demonstrated that it’s clearly a more effective way to learn than massing practice, the fact that performance is lower during instruction fools us into believing that it must be ineffective. Even showing the evidence of improved test results can just lead to a backfire effect, with over 65 per cent of students simply discounting the evidence and continuing to do what they’ve always done. Part of the problem is that by increasing performance during instruction and then massing practice, we encounter the ‘illusion of knowing’ and that warm, fuzzy feeling of cognitive ease. In order to counter this, any attempt to interleave the curriculum requires us to patiently explain both what we’re doing and why.

Our common sense beliefs about the coin flipping game are very difficult to overcome. Of course our intuitions about education will take enormous effort to surmount, but we must make these efforts. We mustn’t turn away from evidence which confronts our beliefs. We mustn’t shun interleaving, testing or whatever else it might be just because it doesn’t fit with our naïve common sense interpretation of the world around us. We must overcome common sense when it endeavours to trick us.

I am not saying that common sense does not have a role to play. Of course it does. Indeed common sense can be incredibly powerful. An example of the importance of common sense in education debates is the role it can play in confronting the tediously repeated tropes about didactic teaching and ‘mere facts’ interfering with the natural creativity of children. Common sense tells us that as naturally creative and imaginative as a human being is they will not be able to creatively manipulate the constant terms in a gamma probability density function in order to calculate the mean without an underlying knowledge of integration and probability density functions. This argument relies on common sense, and it should be – and to my mind is – enough to discount the clamours of the creativity cabal.

Common sense is an important tool in our armoury as we navigate the world. As with most areas of human inquiry it has an important role to play in the realm of education, but beware: common sense can be a cruel mistress.

Common Sense

Dear Open Letter Writers

Dear Open Letter Writers,

I am writing today because I have come to the end of the line/I can’t take anymore/I’ve finally come to the end of my tether. [Feel free to pick from this list or insert your own phrase of choice (written in the first person, of course) which demonstrates both your exasperation but also your implied reasonableness.] I have been on Twitter for 4 years now. At first it was a vibrant market place of ideas, but as this decade has worn on I have been worn down by the flurry of virtue signalling. The Sisyphean efforts of the likes of Michael Rosen et al. who week in and week out share new ‘open letters’ to [insert evil edu-person] is creditable for its tenacity, but it is slowly eroding my [insert enormously hyperbolic statement].

Now I fully understand [see how reasonable I’m being!] that you have every right to write whatever you like in whatever format you like, I do find the format of ‘open letters’ particularly obnoxious. Yes, the pleading tone. The explicit martyrdom which bludgeons readers over the head is difficult to endure. The absence of any proportionality is literally the second worst thing ever, in the history of the whole universe. But the very worst thing is the self-absolution of any responsibility for the bemoaned ills twinned with the ascribing of malevolent motives to your target all wrapped up in the bundle of a format which lends itself so nauseatingly to first person under evidenced whines. I mean, why would you deliberately try and ruin my Sunday? Don’t you know how hard I work and how caring I am?

I have repeatedly tried to [insert comment which brings the reader back to the self-pitying opening]. But I really have come to the end of the line. You have made me write this open letter in return. Regardless of the complete lack of evidence I have provided for my opinions I hope it is clear to you what a good person I am, and how damaging your malevolent intentions have been to my life, not that you would care!

Yours,

A (really really) good person (who loves kids more than you)

 

P.S. If you think I am being hypocritical one of two things has happened. I have misjudged my tone and should avoid any attempt at comic writing in the future, or you have no sense of humour. Let’s agree to save each other’s blushes.

Dear Open Letter Writers

The Silent Majority

I was extremely fortunate to go to a glut of excellent schools. I was generally a conscientious pupil. This didn’t happen by accident. My parents battled – I use this word advisedly – to ensure that I approached my school work with assiduity and a determination to make the most of my abilities.

The schools I attended were overwhelmingly traditional. I thankfully didn’t spend too long at any which weren’t. I recall watching Lord of the Flies at one such school – curiously we were not asked to read the novel. Even at the age of 13 I recognised how the relatively lax behaviour management of that school’s teachers created opportunities for Jacks and Piggys to emerge.

I wasn’t exposed to chaos. The school was still excellent by almost any standard you care to use. But it wasn’t excellent by the standards I was used to. I was only there for 3 months. I recall the impact it had on me. The erosion of my habits was so rapid as to be impossible to ignore. The word ‘habits’ doesn’t do justice to what was happening. I was changing. My environment was changing me for the worse.

The pupils I admire most are the Silent Majority. The most impressive human beings I have ever had the pleasure to know belong to this group. Occasionally pupils belonging to this group stand out for their exceptional academic records, or their prowess in other areas of school life. The majority do not. They are almost universally admired, and yet seldom spoken of in school. They quietly get on with their work. They do their homework. If they choose to contribute in class they’ll do so by putting their hand up. They’ll surreptitiously hang around near their desk after the bell as their noisier peers leave the room so that they can learn more from their teacher.

My good habits (perhaps it would be more politically relevant to term it my ‘character’) were eroded in a slightly less than perfect school – although that verb belies the speed of destruction.

Every school has members of the Silent Majority. Think of how remarkable these children are. Think of their resilience. Think of their resolve. In the worst cases the Silent Majority is very much in the minority. How incredible are those human beings? How incredible that they resolutely plough on regardless of the chaos around them. How incredible that they tolerate the Behaviour Thieves shouting across them and hijacking their education. What special human beings.

Prioritising ‘engagement’ over ‘discipline’ is prioritising the Behaviour Thieves over the Silent Majority. The injustice is self-evident. Yet this situation is not only tolerated but actively encouraged in schools up and down the land.

You won’t have many briefings, meetings or emails about the Silent Majority. They won’t be taking up seats in your detention rooms. Paradoxically this sees their importance slip. What a miserable situation. What a travesty!

Schools should be run for the Silent Majority. Every step a school takes away from working for the Silent Majority is a lowering of expectations for all and an act of moral cowardice. These children deserve a school where their teachers speak up for their needs and act in their interests. The Silent Majority won’t do it for themselves.

The Silent Majority