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    Onderwijskrant Vlaanderen
    Vernieuwen: ja, maar in continuïteit!
    10-08-2014
    Klik hier om een link te hebben waarmee u dit artikel later terug kunt lezen.Onderwijs. Blog van leraar ‘Tom Bennett over onderwijs en wetenschappelijk onderzoek en zoek: Teacher Proof’.

    Teacher Proof: Why Educational Research doesn't always mean what it claims, and what you can do. 

    So, I have a book out. It's been a long time coming. Since I started teaching, I knew there was something suspicious about what I was being told worked in classrooms, and what actually happened. It started in teacher training, as well-meaning lecturers and reading lists advocated apparently cast-iron guarantees that this method of educating children, or that way of directing behaviour, would be efficient. It continued on DfE sponsored training programs where I was taught how to use NLP, Brain Gym, Learning Styles and soft persuasion techniques akin to hypnosis.

    Then I began teaching, guided by mentors who assured me that other contemporary orthodoxies were the way to win hearts and minds. It took me years to realise that thing I could smell was a bunch of rats wearing lab coats. And why should any new teacher question what they are told? Establishment orthodoxies carried the authority of scripture. And often it was justified with a common phrase- ‘the research shows this.’

    I remember reading Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science, and being amused and horrified by the cavalier ways in which science could be hijacked by  hustlers. His harrowing of Brain Gym led me to wonder what else, like Descartes, I needed to question. What I discovered led me to write Teacher Proof.

    First of all I discovered that a lot of what was considered to be absolute dogma by many teachers, was built on quicksand.  Learning Styles, for example, were almost universally accepted by every teacher who trained me. It was a Damascan epiphany to find out that there was hardly a scrap of evidence to substantiate it, that the serious academic  community had washed its hands of it long ago. But it lingered on, a zombie theory, staggering from classroom to classroom, mauling lesson plans.

    Once I had peeled one strip of paper from the wall, I could do nothing else but keep pulling, and see how much came off. Much, much more, it turned out. First of all, I entered the world of pseudo-education, where optimistic internet sites boasted of Olympian gains to made by the adoption of this pill (often Omega 3), that smell (sometimes Lavender, sometimes not) or even this sound (the Mozart Effect, for instance). These, at least, seemed to be obvious pigs in pokes. Other companies sold hats- literally, thinking hats- of various colours, or exercises that promised to boost brain power. But they asked customers to gamble a lot more than a stamp, as Charles Atlas innocently proposed.

    Unfortunately, it was often just as bad when I progressed to the realms of alleged propriety; I found that a lot of what was practically contemporary catechism, was merely cant. Group work, three-part lessons, thinking skills, multiple intelligences, hierarchies of thinking like Bloom’s, all- at least to my poor eyes- appeared to rely on opinion and rhetoric as much as data. Delving deeper, I found that this was an affliction that affected the social sciences as badly as the natural sciences- perhaps worse, as natural sciences are at least readily amenable to verification. But any social science- from economics to sociology- is subject to inherent methodological restrictions that makes any claims to predictive or explanatory powers intrinsically difficult.

    Which isn’t to say that social science isn’t’ a powerful and urgent device with which to accrue an understanding of the human condition. But merely to require that its claims be interpreted appropriately. It is a very different proposition to claim, for example, that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius at sea level, than it is to say that children learn best in groups. The first can be at least disputed immediately, or not, by testing. The latter requires a plethora of causal factors to be adjusted and  accounted for. And to confound matters further, humans are notoriously hard to fit on a microscope slide. Nor are we always the most reliable of subjects.

    Sometimes this was the faulty of those writing the research; sometimes the research was, as Richard Feynman describes, Cargo Cult Science; sometimes the writers appeared to have no idea what the scientific method was, believing it to be some kind of fancy dress with which one clothed a piece of journalism; sometimes allegedly sober pieces of research were simply misinterpreted by a willing media; sometimes it was the teachers themselves that had misappropriated the findings; sometimes it was the policy makers who were hungry for a magic bullet and had already made their minds up about what they were buying.

    Whatever the reasons, it was clear: the educational research we were asked to assimilate in schools was often more like magic beans than magic bullets. That’s unhealthy. There are armies of earnest, dedicated professionals working in educational research who are horrified by some of the fantastical or flimsy claims made by the hustlers and their PRs. If educators want to get past this unhealthy  system of intellectual bondage, we need to become more informed about what the research actually says, and what good research actually means; about how hard it is to say anything for certain in education, and when claims can be ignored, and when they should be listened to.

    So I wrote Teacher Proof. It’s aimed primarily at people who work in schools, but it’s also for anyone involved in education, research and policy. I am, unashamedly, a teacher. I admit I have entered a world- of educational research- in which I am only a guest. I am aware that in my travels I may be more of a tourist than a native. But I have tried to write as honestly and as plainly as I can, about matters that affect me deeply- the education of children. If I have made any errors- and I’m sure that I have- I welcome correction, and discussion. I can’t shake the feeling that teachers would do well to make research more of their business, get involved, participate in studies, and perhaps even conduct some of their own, with guidance. I’d also like to think that researchers would be well advised to ensure their theories are tested objectively, with an eye to disproving them, in classrooms with meaningful sample sizes. There is a great deal of good that the two communities can do together.

    Perhaps then teachers can look forward to hearing the latest research, and run towards it; and researchers can see classrooms not as awkward inconveniences between data sampling and publication. There’s an awful lot of good research out there, but it gets drowned out by the bad.

    Good ideas, like decent whisky, need time to settle and mature. I suspect that we need to develop more of a critical faculty to sift the ideal from the merely idealistic. Maybe then we’ll be immune to novelty and fashion in pedagogy. Or, as I call it, Teacher Proof.

    Bijlage

    On Tom Bennett's "Teacher Proof" : voorstelling boek

    Tom Bennett Teacher Proof: why research in education doesn't always mean what it claims, and what you can do about it London/New York; Routledge, 2013It is about what the subtitle says on the tin.

     Bennett explicitly acknowledges Ben Goldacre, and he has taken up the baton of a Bad Science for education; indeed, he limits his discussion of Brain Gym (R) [there's always that (R); is this totally discredited "brand" so litigious that its mark has to be acknowledged on every utterance? Or are they taking the p***?] he limits that to less than a page on the grounds that there is nothing left to say after Goldacre.

    First section  …settles down later into a much more relaxed informal style. Perhaps the jokey asides are just his way of trying to make epistemology and the philosophy of natural science and social "science" palatable. It's a courageous way to start such a book—it's almost guaranteed to put some readers off—but don't skip it because Bennett, like any good teacher, knows that he has to have the foundations in place before he can get on to the more exciting stuff. And, asides aside, he explains very clearly and well, and these chapters could even be used as recommended reading for introductory research methods courses.

     Bennett then applies this critique to what he calls "voodoo teaching". (This is the second part of three: he deliberately and ironically follows the standard school three-part lesson structure which he critiques later.)  He first takes on "multiple intelligences" (Howard Gardner). He comprehensively rubbishes the idea, of course. But then he concedes that there may well be something in it—it's just that it's not at all new. Substitute the terms "abilities", "capacities" or even "talents" for "intelligences", and that's it. Bennett is also careful to be fair; he allows Gardner to point out how the ideas have been misrepresented (a sound and recurrent theme through the book, where applicable). That slightly blunts the edge of his battle-axe, but he makes up for it with the way he wields it—and in the body of the book there are fewer digressive jokes.

    And so to Neuro-Linguistic Programming (and the derisive nod in the direction of Brain Gym). There is no need here to temper his demolition with respect for a professor at Harvard (as Gardner is). It is clear that NLP is simply rubbish, although he does stop short of calling Bandler and Grinder outright charlatans. I was a little disappointed that he did not take on the whole "Accelerated Learning" scam of a few years ago, of which Brain Gym was but one egregious aspect, but he's still got a lot to get through...

     Next: group work. I was a little surprised to find that here, but then my background is in post-compulsory, higher and adult education, and much of what I teach is debatable (Bennett would not be able to stop himself mentioning that can be taken in two senses), so groupwork is a natural and appropriate tool. In schools it often isn't, and yet thanks in large measure to Ofsted, it is rammed down teachers' and pupils' throats. And there is no evidence to support it. Bennett refers earlier to Richard Feynman's idea of "Cargo Cult science", and in the following chapter to the principle of "turtles all the way down" (where there is no foundation to an idea other than "the literature", which is in turn based on more literature... ad infinitum). These are two of his most effective weapons, and he deploys them very well. And of course his feet remain firmly on the ground—he particularly warns newly qualified teachers against using group work, unless they are fully confident in their class management, for example.

    Emotional Intelligence? I've always thought that just means being "grown up". Again, Bennett demonstrates the sloppiness, unfalsifiability, and value-laden assumptions of the idea, but takes care not to tangle with its originator, Goleman.

     "Buck Rogers and the 21st-century curriculum": Turtles all the way down; beneath the claims that technological change demands a whole new curriculum focusing on resilience and adaptation and change and ... Bennett gets as political as he can manage—he shies away from any real discussion of the political implications of anything—when he points out in this chapter and the next one, how this agenda is being promoted by the big technology companies, on the push to sell unnecessary technology to schools. But Bennett is working up to tackle the big one. Sir Ken:

    "I find it impossible not to like Robinson. [...] He is charming, erudite, quick-witted [...] But [...] while I agree with him on many things, there are many ideas he promotes that, while well-meant in root, bear potentially dangerous fruits." (p.117)

    As ever, he is polite but still devastating. The rudest he gets is:"being told how to teach by a non-teacher with a PhD in education is a bit like being told by a virgin how to get laid." (pp. 119-20)(He attributes that to Christopher Hitchens.) He lets Robinson off too lightly.

     The following chapter is about de-bunking the claims and gimmicks of digital technology in the classroom, and demonstrating that the claimed research base is at best flaky and possibly fraudulent. He touches on the vested interests in the game, but does not pursue them.

     Next: the myth of the three-part lesson. It's only in the past few years that I have come across this, and discovered the stranglehold which it—enforced by Ofsted—has on the compulsory and FE sectors. I've actually made desultory efforts to trace its research base, with little success. Bennett has traced its base, but it is not in research:"...there's loads of research that teachers need to have a structure to their lessons. What there isn't, is any appreciable evidence that having three parts to a lesson lead to any kind of measurable improvement." (p.141)

    Bennett even confesses:"I might not—whisper it—I might not even put my aim on the board because sometimes I want kids to work out what we're trying to do for them." (p.141) At one level, heretics must die! At another, where have we got to when (despite the mock-heroic style) anybody thinks such trivia matter?


    Learning styles: to me, this is shooting fish in a barrel. Bennett cites the standard refutations, and one or two more I was not familiar with, and is unequivocal. Learning styles are "demonstrable guano" (p.151). But while he cites Coffield et al. (2004) he does miss out on their effort to explain why "bad ideas won't quit". Without that context, it does rather look as though teachers are simply gullible. Coffield points out the ideological convenience of learning styles theory: it is the get-out-of-gaol-free card for politicians, policy-makers, managers, and all; if children are not learning it is all the teachers' fault for not differentiating enough on the basis of a spurious and unsubstantiated load of hogwash...

    And so the list goes on and the chapters get shorter, which he explains; we are into the minor leagues. Gamification; it draws on principles of online game design to reward/reinforce learning in a way children can relate to. I know nothing about this, but his analysis seems sensible. Learning to learn: that, and "lifelong learning" are both shibboleths of adult education, and often meaningless rhetoric. Then we get into the freaky, faddy fringe, concluding with de Bono's "learning hats" and school uniform.

    The third section is a short and eminently sensible and positive piece on how to respond to all these panaceas/prophecies of doom.

    The book does betray some hasty editing—some repetition, evidence of passages being swapped around (with vague cross-references which don't work), some weird grammatical constructions, but nothing important.


     What is important is that it is a necessary corrective to the egregious bullsh*t which passes for educational research, and an important text for all teachers who have more common-sense than their managers and inspectors (and even tutors, I'm afraid) who pump out, endorse and even insist on this misguided material. It's not merely that it is wrong and unsupported by evidence and only works, if at all, by accident (Bennett rightly insists that evidence and experience trump theory every time) but that its power is simply (and only) to undermine teachers' confidence in themselves and what they can see for themselves does work.







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