Pitfalls in education policy

| March 4, 2019

Every profession has its bugbears. Doctors find themselves cornered by strangers at social events to give medical advice. Lawyers have to grin and bear with the inevitable jokes. And teachers have to take advice from non-teachers about how to do their job. That may be irritating at a social occasion, but it’s dangerous in the realm of public policy.

What’s the problem?

Firstly, ideas in teaching that seem obviously correct are often wrong.

Take, for instance, the commonsense proposition that if you want kids to learn more of something, you should spend more time directly teaching it. This makes sense, but it only works for content such as Indigenous culture, or polynomial equations and not for things like creativity or critical thinking as skills in themselves.

In fact, attempts to teach critical thinking skills directly can backfire and undermine learning. The transformative power of technology in education seems like another no-brainer, but after decades of ever-increasing use of technology in schools, it has brought little or no improvement in learning outcomes.

Yet it is hard to let go of ideas with such strong, intuitive appeal – and there are many of them in education. Howard Gardner’s concept of ‘multiple intelligences’ got a good run for a long time, despite the actual data, and despite the fact that it was so nebulous as to have very little scope for classroom application.

Its close relative, ‘learning styles’, is the Dracula of educational theories, unable to stand the light of day and yet refusing to die. The idea that we learn better if content is presented in our preferred learning style, be it auditory, visual or kinaesthetic, apparently needs a stake through the heart, because it was debunked many years ago and yet retains a strong hold on the imagination not just of the general public, but also, embarrassingly, of those who should know better.

I understand the tug of attraction to these theories. They feel right. But they’re wrong.

Teaching is a complex activity

The second problem is that teaching is highly complex, and there’s a lot we don’t know.

Some things have been clearly established. We know that overloading working memory will prevent learning, so new concepts and skills must be introduced gradually. We understand better how children learn to read – hence the increased emphasis on systematic phonics instruction in the early years.

We know that writing by hand leads to superior recall and understanding of material compared to typing. We know that practice is crucial to long-term retention, and that practice is most effective if spaced out regularly, rather doing 100 questions in one hit… and the list goes on.

There is, however, much that we don’t know. Perhaps most startling is that we still have no idea how the brain actually works. Google ‘neuroscience’ and ‘transform education’ and you’ll find plenty of people touting the idea that knowledge of the brain is about to change everything, but this is nonsense.

A sober assessment suggests that, at best, neuroscience might at some time in the future help interpret low-level behaviours such as how we read or, at worst, will never offer anything of sufficient complexity to be useful in a practical teaching situation.

The problem is that performing a specific, simplified task in an MRI scanner might cause a certain section of the brain to light up, but that is light years away from providing a prescription for how to teach quadratic factorisation to Year 9 on a windy afternoon the day after the swimming carnival.

Most of what we do know about learning comes from a trial-and-error approach in cognitive psychology. Basically, researchers try something out, see if the students learn from it and then build a theory about what might be going on underneath. The results are fascinating and increasingly robust, but it’s psychology and not neuroanatomy. There is much we don’t know, and which we have no reasonable prospect of knowing.

Relying on tried and trusted methods

We should therefore be circumspect about claims for the future, but fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Public policy debate is more susceptible to the siren call of wishful thinking than the still, small voice of reason, and having neither educational training nor experience does not appear to be a barrier to full, and sometimes decisive, participation.

So we see successful CEOs leading expensive and misguided initiatives, outstanding business leaders pushing education policy against the evidence and ministers imposing initiatives and directions aligned more closely to political narratives than the evidence.

Indeed, it’s not just the big fish who get unwarranted air-time in the debate; unqualified and uninformed contributions come from all sides. Earlier this week, I found myself shouting at the radio when – yet again – someone with no expertise in education was offering extended commentary on how schools should teach. She was arguing for radical transformation to incorporate learning styles. I reached for the garlic…

As Principal, one of my tasks is to equip our school community to assess the validity of claims about curriculum and pedagogy, particularly in relation to the latest seductive fads. Our school’s approach is often counter-cultural and our parents are entitled to a clear explanation of why.

For instance, our technology policy is strongly evidence-based, and as we resist the rush to incorporate 1:1 devices from the earliest age we are increasingly different from the norm. We emphasise phonics in K-2. We offer a liberal education of great breadth, but we structure learning through specific disciplines because this is the guarantor of rigour. We are unashamed of explicit instruction in an era when educational rhetoric tends to disparage the idea that children should be asked to listen to expert teachers.

We believe in carefully preparing children for tackling complex learning problems, rather than throwing them into the deep end from the start. We strongly promote independence, but we don’t believe that children are simply mini-adults and so we carefully calibrate our expectations to a child’s maturity and readiness.

In all these ways, we are not adopting the most popular – and certainly not the most fashionable –approach. Given the confusion out there, we could easily sell the alternative as ‘innovative’ or ‘future-focussed’. But investing time in presenting the evidence to parents pays off. Even when the tides of educational fashion are against us, they can have real confidence in our approach because they understand that there’s a reason we do what we do: it’s proven to work and it’s best for the students.

Help for parents

So what does this mean for parents and others who want to understand what actually works? I recommend the excellent advice of Professor Daniel Willingham in his book When Can you Trust the Experts: how to tell good science from bad in education. I read this recently and it is eminently accessible to non-professionals, but his approach boils down to:

  1. Strip it. What exactly is the claim suggesting a teacher should do, and what outcome is promised?
  2. Trace it. Who created this idea, and what have others said about it? In education research, confirmation by an authority can be a weak indicator of truth.
  3. Analyze it. Why are you being asked to believe the claim is true? What evidence is offered, and how does the claim square with your own experience?

Parents should not feel shy about asking questions. Given what’s at stake, it is entirely reasonable to expect that schools should be well informed, thoughtful and discerning in choosing what and how to teach – and all the more so if they are claiming that something will be transformative. Simply asking in detail about the evidence base will tell you a great deal about the quality of those claims.