Can evidence set teachers free?
Alka Sehgal Cuthbert reports from the researchED conference.
The researchED conference, held in London last Saturday, attracted an audience of somewhere between 600 and 700 people. This is no mean feat. But, as keynote speaker and schools minister Nick Gibb said, the rise of researchED, a teacher-led organisation, reflects a new appetite for evidence-based practice among teachers. As evidence has long been used to impose silly practices on schools, the mission of reasearchED is to tool-up teachers so that they can challenge government dictates.
The conference covered a wide range of issues and subjects. Oliver Quinlan, who runs Nesta’s digital education projects, gave an interesting presentation on the ways ICT is changing education. He raised an important point about how technology is changing the nature of subjects themselves. So, for example, in music some traditional skills are still required in the syllabus, but the recording of music has been completely transformed by technology. To what extent technological changes represent an improvement is a fascinating question for future work to consider.
Other sessions, meanwhile, seemed to miss the mark. ‘How Does the Brain Solve Reading?’, run by Kathy Rastle from the University of London, was aimed primarily at advocating phonics-based reading strategies to improve literacy. However, her thesis was based on several unexplained assumptions – the most important of all being her claim that decoding phonemes, which is an act based on sensory input, is the same as accessing meaning.
Some of the best sessions of the day examined some of the broader political and philosophical issues affecting education today. Tim Oates, who was chair of the panel responsible for the recent review of the national curriculum, discussed politicians’ penchant for looking to the education systems of other countries without considering their particular cultural contexts. What’s more, education blogger David Didau explored whether teachers would do better to recognise that what they know will always be less than what they don’t know. Teachers, he said, should embrace uncertainty.
Didau raised an intriguing idea. Indeed, embracing uncertainty would be a helpful counterbalance to the unrelenting quest for the predictability and certainty that is associated with education research. However, I began to wonder whether the real problem is that the rise of evidence-based teaching has only encouraged teachers to ignore the considerable amount they do know, in terms of subject matter and pedagogy, and focus instead on learning evidence-based practice.
This was a thought that returned to me throughout the day. After years of evidence-based education policy, becoming research literate is an attractive proposition to teachers. It does, as ResearchED founder Tom Bennett explained, allow teachers to question barmy government initiatives. But I’m not convinced that becoming dependent on research and statistics will make teachers any more autonomous than before. A focus on research, even for the best of reasons, tends to undermine subject knowledge and experience. Moreover, the evidence-based model of teaching and knowledge has profound philosophical implications for the profession – it should not be so easily accepted.
All in all, it was a stimulating day. It was fantastic to speak with others who are looking for new and innovative answers to problems in education. But as much as researchED is helping some teachers strike out against government dictates, the underlying logic of evidence-based teaching needs to be further interrogated.
Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.
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