The Intellectual Abyss in education: Suzanne Moore, and why everyone's an expert
|Is this what you want? IS IT?|
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.