Saturday, 12 February 2011

New study shows that something is possibly true but it might not be: the Fog of Social Science.

'Kill me.'
These are apocalyptic days for many school schemes; in the present age of neo-austerity, it seems like anything not related to life support and child protection is being pared down to the marrow. I'm not sure people are aware yet of how much is on the way out, thanks to a cartel of financial hucksters and their sub-prime lending habits that made the lifestyles of termites seem modest and restrained. Some of the things on their way out were definitely dirty bathwater: the GTC, for example. But some were babies. As the FT comments:

'The schools resource budget, which covers day-to-day running costs, will rise in real terms by 0.4 per cent. But a rise in the number of pupils will mean current spending per pupil will be cut by 2.25 per cent...The education department’s budget for buildings, which is almost entirely spent on schools, will be cut from £7.6bn to £3.4bn – a real terms cut of 60 per cent....Michael Gove, education secretary, admits that many schools will enter a tough period.'

Which means we'll be holding wet hankies on the platform as we watch many extra-curricular schemes, clubs and so on  wave at us through the steam from the train now leaving the platform. This, to be fair, isn't news any more, although many in schools still have to adjust to this reality: if it can go, it will. I've been reading professional Dear John letters from LEA consultants and liaisons all week, wishing me well as they pack their belongings into  red handkerchiefs tied to sticks as they set out for London with their little black cats.

One of many, many schemes teetering on the end of the gangplank is Sing Up, (click on the link while you still can), an organisation that, unsurprisingly, believes that 'Every child deserves the chance to sing every day.' While you could greedily take issue with the origins of this alleged right (is it intrinsic? Divine? Legally prescribed?), I would never antagonise such a well-meant, noble cause. If I were Educational King for a Day (it keeps me awake at night sometimes, plotting and dreaming...) this is the kind of group I would give money to; I want schools with choirs; I want schools with voice coaches and singing lessons; I want parents to set up Papparazi Nests on Talent Nights, weeping and filming, weeping and filming. This is the world I want.

But for Sing Up, it's the last scene in Casablanca, Braveheart, Butch and Sundance, Angels with Dirty Faces. It's curtains; the scheme will be funded up until 2012, and after that, all is silence. (I presume that after everyone has gone home from the Olympics, Britain will dramatically revert to Blitz-sepia, rationing will be reintroduced, and Park Lane will become a gated community. I suggest you buy bottled water and plenty of tinned goods otherwise you'll be eating your hands or something.) From looking through their website, this appears to be an event we should genuinely regret. Plus ├ža change.

Do not approach these men.
But where there's a cause, there's a claim. In this case, a report was released this week by the Institute of education, which claimed that projects like Sing Up were enormously beneficial to the well being of children.
This was reported on the BBC, presumably from a news release via agencies such as the Press Association,  and was obviously proudly trailed on the Sing Up website. Now I don't wish to put the boot into what, to me, appears to be a fine and meaningful project. But the way in which this research has been positioned has a lot more to do with marketing and a lot less to do with authentic science. And incidentally, I'm not taking issue with the people who conducted the survey, either, and least of all with Sing Up. But it's a perfect example of how social science is misused to justify values and interests in education.

For a start, the report was commissioned by Sing Up themselves:

'The Institute of Education's independent three-year study, commissioned by the Sing Up programme, is based on data collected from 9,979 children at 177 primary schools in England.'

The words 'independent' and 'commissioned by the Sing Up programme' placed together in such close proximity must indicate some new, alternative meaning of the phrase independent that I haven't yet heard of, unless they mean something else.This by itself doesn't exclude the research from the realms of credibility, but it should at the very least allow us to reposition the findings in a different context. In much the same way that homoeopaths and cigarette manufacturers are fond of quoting from research that supports their products, it trips alarms when you find out that research has been carried out by vested interests. ('Getting up early is dangerous', a new report commissioned by the National Union of Students warned today. That kind of thing.) This doesn't mean that there is actual researcher bias in this case, simply that the choice to publish or not publish becomes a political decision based on a utilitarian assessment of benefits.



Go on- I dare you.

Secondly, there's the issue of the report itself:  try as I might  I can't see it anywhere. And the only  link from the Sing Up website to an IOE  report takes us to a paper published on the their website, in which I can't find any specific reference to the Sing Up program at all. Oh, there's plenty about singing, and lots of claims for the benefits of a musical education. Which means that either I'm looking at an old report, or it hasn't been published yet. Or maybe I just can't find it. Like I say, I might be wrong, but that suggests to me that it hasn't been published in a journal and exposed to peer review and assessment by the academic community. And if that's the case, then mere mortals like myself have no purchase on the information- we rely, of course, on the weight of a community assessment to judge if such material meets the standards of rigour and academic ethics. Until that happens, it's about as authoritative as an opinion piece.

Again (and I know I'm stressing this a lot, but this isn't meant to be a criticism of the report itself, or the project, and I'm at pains to be civil), for research to be meaningful in a public sphere, it has to be subject to public scrutiny. There are a lot of people out there with PhDs. Some of them are Gillian McKeith. One of the first thing I learned at university was that there are plenty of opinions out there, and none of them have a guaranteed  copyright on certainty.

Then there are the claims, or at least the claims as reported.

a) Singing in school can make children feel more positive about themselves and build a sense of community I bet it can. So can chess clubs, being in a gang and joining a cult. So can just about any other activity in the right context.

b) There is 'a clear link between singing and well-being'. Could you define clear? Can you define well being? Pupils that sing feel better about themselves; even assuming we have overcome the definitional challenges of such a subjective term, how on earth can one draw a clear causal relationship between the two, and disentangle that relationship from a million other factors that could accompany the proposed cause and effect? Perhaps being part of a group promotes well being, and the singing is incidental. Perhaps if you're the sort of person who likes to sing then you'll also be the type of person on average, feels better about yourself. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. I'm still not getting a causal relationship here.


c) 'Children who took part in the programme had a strong sense of being part of a community.' I don't wish to be churlish here, but the idea that people who participate in communities feel like they're in a community doesn't exactly sound like headline shattering stuff. But thank you, science. I look forward to your assessment of what the effect of punching myself in the pipes feels like.

d) "A clear inference may be drawn that children with experience of Sing Up are more likely... to have a positive self-concept,"  What's your point caller? It sounds like this means that x causes y, when in fact it shows no such thing, at least by itself. They may be more likely for other reasons. Maybe y causes x, and having a positive self concept causes people to join Glee clubs, I don't know. But that's the point. I don't know. Nobody does.

e) 'Sing Up children were up to two years ahead in their singing development than those of the same age who did not take part in the programme'. Sorry, I thought we had finished with tautologies. Are they seriously implying that children who are involved in singing practise actually improve at singing? You'll be telling me that people who climb ladders get higher up, next. Honestly, it's an open goal.

This may sound petty, because at least on the surface, who can disagree with the idea that singing lessons are a great thing for children to be exposed to, and to made available for as many as want or need them to flourish? I enjoyed singing at school. Others hated it, in much the same way I didn't enjoy the ritual humiliation of rugby in December, where your alleged friends would barrel into you at full tilt in a manner that would provoke charges were they to be repeated off the field. And I certainly would mourn the loss of any scheme that promoted such activities (singing, not assault).

Helen Goddard. Not an ideal role model, to be fair.
But this story nicely summarises many things that are wrong with the use of scientific research in education, and especially social science. Humanities research is commonly used to promote a myriad of causes and interest in schools, and almost always in the advocacy of a new initiative or in an attempt to convince headmasters and teachers that they should be teaching in a particular way, or running a school to a particular model. And that has led to a suffocating number of ideas and initiatives drowning the practise of teaching for decades, each one justified by a clutch of optimistic, hand-picked research and statistics.

And the problem with this is that social science research just doesn't provide anything like the level of probability that the physical sciences, however problematically, offer. If someone asserts that water boils at 100 degrees at sea level, then I can comfortably and easily assess that theory by testing it to my heart's delight. But if someone then claims that they have shown that children learn best with a three part lesson then I run into an enormous number of problems:

1. How do I check that their progress wasn't down to some other factor? Isolating a causal point of origin is almost impossible in an environment as wild and complicated as human interaction, with its plethora of reasons, internal causes, external, invisible factors, and unknowns.
2. How do I create a control to provide the above?
3. How do I know I'm not biasing my own research with my own intentions, however implicit?
4. How do I know my participants aren't skewing the data by some form of bias on their part?

And so on. Social science is not, and never can, offer predictive powers. The pursuit of certainty in the Humanities is a fool's errand, because we can barely claim such a principle in the natural sciences. That isn't to discount social scientific research, but merely to contextualise it appropriately. As the MMR non-scandal showed, even the biological sciences can be subject to misinterpretation, especially when an arbitrary bundle of studies are offered as representative when in fact they are not. Social science is an invaluable commentary on how we live, who we are, and the exploration of meaning in the human sphere. But what it isn't, is science, at least not as Joe Public knows it.

And that's the shame of it: that education has been drowned in pseudo science, in the name of progress, when what it really represents is the justification of the values of the educational policy makers. The policy is decided for a thousand reasons, and then research is selected or created that justifies the decision.

If you want to say that singing programs should be exempt from deletion in the next rounds of cuts, then you should do so by dwelling on the intrinsic value of the activity itself- singing is an art form, a pleasure and one of the ways in which we express ourselves as humans. You value it or you don't. But what you shouldn't do is try to justify its value by reference to an extrinsic factor- 'it improves well being' and so on. That's the argument of the boardroom and the abacus ('What use is singing?'), and should have no place in our consideration of what is and isn't a valuable part of a child's education. (But of course I get the feeling that the values have already been decided: what does the economy need?) And we certainly shouldn't rely on one piece of social science research to provide justification for a proposal, no matter how well intentioned. Because as teachers, I think we've had quite enough of that.

3 comments:

  1. Yes, commissioned surveys etc. always put me in mind of the words of Sir Humphrey in Yes, Prime Minister. I quote:
    Sir Humphrey: "You know what happens: nice young lady comes up to you. Obviously you want to create a good impression, you don't want to look a fool, do you? So she starts asking you some questions: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?"
    Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
    Sir Humphrey: "Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?"
    Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
    Sir Humphrey: "Do you think there is a lack of discipline in our Comprehensive schools?"
    Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
    Sir Humphrey: "Do you think young people welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?"
    Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
    Sir Humphrey: "Do you think they respond to a challenge?"
    Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
    Sir Humphrey: "Would you be in favour of reintroducing National Service?"
    Bernard Woolley: "Oh...well, I suppose I might be."
    Sir Humphrey: "Yes or no?"
    Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
    Sir Humphrey: "Of course you would, Bernard. After all you told you can't say no to that. So they don't mention the first five questions and they publish the last one."
    Bernard Woolley: "Is that really what they do?"
    Sir Humphrey: "Well, not the reputable ones no, but there aren't many of those. So alternatively the young lady can get the opposite result."
    Bernard Woolley: "How?"
    Sir Humphrey: "Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the danger of war?"
    Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
    Sir Humphrey: "Are you worried about the growth of armaments?"
    Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
    Sir Humphrey: "Do you think there is a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?"
    Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
    Sir Humphrey: "Do you think it is wrong to force people to take up arms against their will?"
    Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
    Sir Humphrey: "Would you oppose the reintroduction of National Service?"
    Bernard Woolley: "Yes"
    Sir Humphrey: "There you are, you see Bernard. The perfect balanced sample.

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  2. Quite right Tom. Educational research is what Feynman would have referred to as a Cargo Cult science. To call it a science is an insult to the scientific method.
    It's nice to see another educator with a good working knowledge of the scientific method instead of the army of numpties I encounter from day to day.
    How many times have you heard the phrase "research shows..." to justify whatever new fad is being introduced, without actually been shown what the research was or where to find it?

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  3. Feynman = My hero. Now we just have to make more people in schools aware of this kind of guano.

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