Research Ed 2013, part 3: The Fire and the Furedi

“I feel like I am the Antichrist at the last supper of the Lord”.

As starters go, it’s up there. Attention-grabbing, pacy… But before I go on to examine Frank Furedi’s main course last Saturday, it is worth pausing to consider his prior form on matters educational. In particular, his 2009 book Wasted: Why education isn’t educating, which his talk from last week has prompted me to revisit.

In the introduction, Furedi explains that “what made me want to write this book was my personal frustration at the ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ attitude of officialdom”, which compelled him to “challenge the spirit of low expectations that influences much of current pedagogic thinking and lends the culture of schooling a narrow-minded and anti-intellectual character”.

The book serves as a useful compendium of concerns relating to things like the all-pervasive language of performance management and the ‘learning turn’. In particular, he takes aim at the ‘therapeutic turn’ that education has taken in recent years, drawing on the work of Kathryn Ecclestone and Dennis Hayes among others, who in turn drew heavily on, erm Frank Furedi’s Therapy Culture (2004) and The Politics of Fear (2005).

Throughout Wasted, Furedi repeatedly returns to a question that was notable mainly for its absence from Research Ed last week, at least in the talks I saw: What is education for? In the final chapter he asserts that “society needs to take a reality check and decide what it wants from the teaching profession”, and draws a fairly back-to-basics conclusion: “We need teachers who have a competent grasp of an academic discipline and who can therefore gain authority from their ability to educate children in a particular subject”.

All of which made him a natural choice of speaker for Research Ed. However there are signs in Wasted that he has strong ideas about the evidence-based turn, too:

“The bombastic turn of educational rhetoric corresponds to the practices and techniques they describe. And yet educational policies and techniques are often presented as evidence-based and products of scientific reflection. However the scientific claims made on behalf of the different practices associated with current pedagogical methods are rarely substantiated by rigorous research. Most research cited as proof that a particular policy works reveals little more than what happened at a certain time at a certain school.

Educational research works best when charged with the task of explaining what is going on in the classroom, and at its best this can guide thinking and illuminate experience. It is far less effective as an instrument of policy-making that can tell policy-makers ‘what works’. Effective policy requires deliberation on fundamental cultural, moral and philosophical questions about the world we inhabit. Experience indicates that what works in a specific setting cannot be simply replicated in another…

It is entirely legitimate for policy-makers to utilize the insights of research. But it is entirely illegitimate for policy to influence and drive research. One reason why so much of educational research has yielded so little insight is because it is not disinterested research. Its focus on ‘what works’ implicitly assumes what is the desirable outcome, and its role is to provide the evidence required by policy-makers. Often research is treated as an afterthought by experts who are already convinced of the best way forward.”

All of which is extremely pertinent to consider as the Research Ed movement gets underway, and brings us back to a question I asked in the first of these blog posts: in his sudden conversion to all things evidence-based – what is Michael Gove up to? And on a related note: Why was Ben Goldacre the keynote speaker at ResearchEd?

I don’t want to be the party pooper here: it was a brilliant day. But it is important to consider, because it is sort of being billed as a grass roots thing – the first tentative steps along the path to professional autonomy and all that. But its conception story involves Sam Freedman, a former advisor to Michael Gove, and Ben Goldacre, a man who had just been commissioned to write a report by… you can see where I’m going with this. He may not have been there in person, but last Saturday was Michael Gove’s baby.

And it’s not like Dr Goldacre’s RCT-centric vision was just one voice of many on an enjoyably pluralistic day. Make no mistake: his was the main voice, and there is nothing grass rootsy about it. DfE literature now speaks of implementing ‘Ben Goldacre’s vision for evidence based practice in the teaching profession’. For example, the Analytical Review published in May of this year:

“calls for the promotion and use of robust quantitative evidence by both practitioners in the sector, and policy makers in the department; this centres on the use of randomised control trials (RCTs). While we are focusing on the sector taking the lead in practitioner use of evidence, we are also keen to demonstrate that the department is rising to the challenge set out by Dr Goldacre and leading by example. Alongside the publication of the analytical review report, we have today also announced two RCTs…”

It is almost as though as though Dr Goldacre has just bounded down from Mount Sinai and presented them with a tablet, while omitting to mention that they had sent him there in a helicopter with a chisel and a deadline.

OK so that was a long preamble, but it’s important to bear in mind when considering what Frank Furedi had to say last week. He sketched out firstly how the evidence-based turn in political discourse started with Tony Blair, and described first seeing Thatcher talking about “holding teachers to account – as though they are all smoking dope or something”. Since the evidence-based turn,  policies and practices are no longer judged on the basis of ethics or morality, but on whether they are evidence-based – as though being evidence-based is an end in itself. (The problem with this, as Professor Coe pointed out last week, is that you can always find evidence to support your prejudices. And you can do it very convincingly if it’s you setting the research agenda).

Furedi took pains to point out that he is “120% in favour of the enlightenment”, but that his problem is with how it has been exported into social policy. He described how science has been transformed into scientism, which is treated as a quasi-sacred dogma and leads to such asinine notions as “the science of parenting” and “the science of relationships”. One of my favourite lines – and I hope this turns out to be accurate – was “The newspapers are full of ‘research shows’. Research doesn’t show”.

On a related note he took issue with Ben Goldacre’s assertion that teachers, too busy to read lengthy academic papers, should just be presented with 3-paragraph summaries of research findings: “Three paragraphs is not worth the paper it is written on – it decontextualizes the research findings.” He talked a lot about context – about how professional knowledge is contextualised and doesn’t respond to top-down, 3-paragraph diktats telling teachers “what works”. (“A phrase I hate is “what works”!) He linked this to another phrase imported from business – “best practice”. “What is the best practice in your school?” It doesn’t even make sense.

He moved on to RCTs. He said that he whole-heartedly agrees with the use of RCTs in medicine – “in domains where it is pertinent”. And he said he understood why medics want to export their evidence-based epiphany to other areas of life – “they think they’re doing a wonderful job – like missionaries in the developing world – but it degrades the enterprise of education.”. He pointed out that he has 2 problems with RCTs:

1)   It doesn’t work

2)   It distracts teachers from their real work

The inappropriateness of using medical terminology to describe children – interventions etc – has been discussed elsewhere. But it was in talking about “teachers’ real work” where he confounded my expectations the most. He spoke about how there is an art to teaching, and said that “teaching is meaning work” – that we each must seek to make meaning in our individual contexts. As such, pedagogical research should be organic. “What works for some does not work for others. Straight up lectures by some people can set the room on fire. All an RCT can do is tell us the difference between 2 groups after say a year. It doesn’t take into account contextual differences.” He ended by saying that “the aim shouldn’t be research and evidence – it should be “how to cultivate professional judgment” – the Aristotlian notion of “phronesis”.

I await the DfE’s phronesis RCT with interest.

Having now paraphrased all the poetry from Furedi’s amazing talk last week, I think it will be fitting to end with the closing words from Wasted: 

“The belief that standards can be increased overall through the implementation of the right mix of policies is based on a simplistic and technocratic idea of how education works. Education is basically a cultural institution inhabited by young people who are influenced by their family, peers and community. In such a complex environment, the effect of policies tends to be indirect and will only become discernible after a considerable period of time…. Education, which involves human relationships and culture, is not directly responsive to the initiatives of central government… Since many policy-makers demand swift results and dramatic improvements in outcomes, the education system has become too focused on short-term solutions. 

One of the perverse consequences of target-focused education is that it diminishes the quality of the classroom experience. In such circumstances, teachers have little opportunity to exercise their professional judgment and respond to the needs of their pupils[;] they have to teach to the curriculum. The dominance of a bureaucratic imperative forces teachers to react to externally imposed demands… Under such circumstances, the quality of their interaction with pupils suffers, as does the intellectual life of the school. That is why the current addiction to education reform represents a recipe for failure – and why such failure serves as an invitation for yet another round of policy-making… [The] impulse to micro-manage schools is the inexorable consequence of the politicization of education. Unsuccessful initiatives create a demand for new policies which, in turn, further erode the integrity of education, thus guaranteeing their failure. This vicious circle of educational reforms represents an enormous waste: of resources, of teachers’ energies and creativity, and of pupils’ opportunity to acquire knowledge. 

When education becomes an instrument of social policy, it is easy to lose sight of what education should look like. When education is detached from an inter-generational conversation, it acquires significance for extrinsic reasons. In this politicised form, education has become an ever-expanding institution that has lost sight of what it is really about. Education needs to be saved from itself in order to realise the potential of the younger generations. Saving education requires that we depoliticise it, and allow far more independence for education to discover its future direction for itself.”

Amen to the Antichrist.


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