Can a false choice be an object of research?

I read an interesting post by Ross McGill on his pet peeves. Some of them seem reasonable although anyone who thinks textbooks are outmoded because they cannot include all the information in the world should read this piece by Tim Oates.

It has become fashionable of late to vociferously proclaim boredom at the UK debate between traditionalism and progressivism in education and McGill belatedly joins the party. He quotes this blog from Steven Watson, a lecturer in maths education at Cambridge University. In it, Watson states:

“The sometimes furious debates on twitter over which is best, progressive or traditional is a false dichotomy. It hides the real issue. It has become an expression of confusion and anger relating to the complex wider picture… It is time to see through the myth.”

This rang a bell with me because I had recently read this paper by Watson and colleagues. The paper is about getting teachers to change the way that they teach advanced level maths.

“We analyse teachers’ attempts to change their approach, from traditional or teacher-centred practice to the ambitious approach suggested… It is important to note that when we refer to teacher-centred teaching this is more than simply chalk, talk and textbook exercises. While such lessons might include groupwork and investigations, the feature that makes them teacher-centred is that the teacher attempts to reduce the cognitive demand in the lesson so that students can progress easily through the tasks. In contrast, the aim of the [ambitious teaching] tasks is to offer higher levels of demand so that students have to think deeply about the mathematics and, as such, we characterise this as student-centred.” [reference removed]

I am afraid that I cannot reconcile the two quotes. The first quote seems to be saying that traditional versus progressive is a false choice whereas the second quote seems to be about moving teachers from a traditional approach to a ‘student-centered’ one. ‘Student-centred’ is usually used synonymously with ‘progressive’ in the same way that Watson et. al. have identified ‘teacher-centred’ with ‘traditional’.

Perhaps there is some semantic subtlety that distinguishes ‘progressive’ from ‘student-centred’. If that’s the case then I am happy to debate teacher-led versus student-centred teaching. Would that be more acceptable? Would that provoke fewer loud yawns? Or would education academics perhaps prefer to be allowed to conduct their research into teaching methods without the scrutiny of social media?

Learning from satellite navigation

I hate being given directions. My eyes glaze-over and I lose the thread. “Just give me the address!” I want to scream. I can tap that into my iPhone and satellite navigation will do the rest.

Satellite navigation has been used as an example to explain why feedback should not be too immediate. David Didau discusses his own SatNav and makes the following point:

“The problem is I get too much feedback. I know where I am, where I’m going and what I need to do next all the time. I never have to struggle. And because I never struggle, I never learn.”

The opportunity arose and I therefore decided to conduct my own completely unscientific experiment. I was visiting friends who had just moved to a new town. Whilst there, I had cause to visit the local supermarket; a 15 minute drive with plenty of junctions along the way (I’d forgotten to pack the Old Spice).

So I used satellite navigation to get to the supermarket and I then drove home without it. It turns out that I’d learnt the route just fine.


Quite so, sir

Sir Roderick and Sir Hampton-Smythe are seated in the wood-paneled drawing room at their London club.

Sir Roderick: I’m rather perturbed at this juncture.

Sir Hampton-Smythe: Why so, sir?

Sir Roderick: Sir, I have been thinking about this for some time and I now realise that I am correct; public disagreement is bad for the standing of our profession.

Sir Hampton-Smythe: Quite so, Sir. Do you have anything particular in mind?

Sir Roderick: Earlier this day, I was at the Learned Society presenting my bowel surgery compendium.

Sir Hampton-Smythe: The Learned Society is a public forum, sir. Its proceedings are a matter of public record. Your bowel surgery compendium is a marvel of practical knowledge and experience.

Sir Roderick: Quite so, sir. It is. And yet, as I was discussing my innovative approach to speeding-up entry to the colon, I was publicly attacked! I was abused, sir!

Sir Hampton-Smythe: No, sir! How disagreeable! How did this unfold?

Sir Roderick: Sir Barwick rose and suggested that I should be using an aseptic procedure. He claimed that, without asepsis, such surgery would be harmful.

Sir Hampton-Smythe: Disgraceful, sir! How did you proceed?

Sir Roderick: I was the very measure of a gentleman, sir. I do not stoop to such a level. I noted his view and I explained that I, too, use aseptic procedures on occasion, when my professional judgement is such that I find it proper and fitting. I explained that, as professionals, we should not be questioning the judgement of fellow professionals in such matters and that the manner in which Sir Barwick had proceeded had caused no small offence.

Sir Hampton-Smythe: And what was his response, sir?

Sir Roderick: He claimed that he was merely ‘disagreeing’ with me, sir. He asserted that he had a right to ‘disagree’.

Sir Hampton-Smythe: The sophist, sir! How ill-mannered!

Sir Roderick: Quite so, sir. On my way to this club, I recalled that the board of the Learned Society are introducing a new rule to prevent such abuse.

Sir Hamption-Smythe: Then you should report him to the board, sir!

Sir Roderick: I might, sir. You see, it is not myself for whom I hold concern. It is others who lack experience and who might read the proceedings. They might be influenced. They need protecting from this kind of thing.

Sir Hampton-Smythe: You are right, sir! Sir Barwick does not represent me! We need to speak honestly, politely and respectfully, sir, particularly when we are representing the profession. We must be optimistic. We must not seek to tear each other down.

Sir Roderick: Quite so, sir.

Destroying the Death Star is only the beginning

I don’t tend to write much about traditionalism versus progressivism in education. I tend to favour explicit teaching of a body of knowledge but, in some people’s minds, ‘traditionalism’ also means corporal punishment and selection. I don’t argue for these.

However, the education debate on social media does tend to divide into these two broad categories and so they serve a useful distinction. There is nothing intrinsically political about this. Instead of seeing it as conservatives versus liberals, it is much more accurate to portray the discussion as the enlightenment arguing with the romantics. It is clearly the traditionalists who have science on their side and the progressives who are most likely to reject science as a basis for understanding education.

This year has seen a number of interesting developments in this debate in the UK, all aimed at attacking traditionalist arguments from a different angle. We have seen attempts to deny that there even is a debate to be had or to suggest that it is boring. We have seen the words used by traditionalists characterised as ‘masculine’ whereas progressives’ words are more ‘feminine’ and therefore better. Indeed, we have seen the rise of identity politics as a kind of bulletproof vest. ‘You can’t criticise my ideas,’ is the claim, ‘because I am a woman or from an ethnic minority and you are part of the white patriarchy’. Interestingly, some of the fiercest critics of this approach have been traditionalist women from minority backgrounds.

We have also seen a defence of learning styles that consists mainly of the idea that you cannot definitively prove that something does not exist.

Notice the theme with all of these examples. None of them represent a positive argument in favour of a progressive idea. The lack of any coherent and substantive case supporting a progressive tenet or against a traditionalist one means that the traditionalists have effectively won.

And how was this achieved? By an army of plucky bloggers taking to Twitter and WordPress and punching holes in the malignant fads and fashions promoted in schools and by consultants. And the old empire doesn’t like it much. Hence the backlash.

Now is not a time for triumphalism. The debate has reached no such state in the US or Australia where blogposts about project-based learning are still pretty standard. In time, a tide of woolly practices will wash back to the UK as it will everywhere else. The archetype of the education expert still exists: Someone who makes a living promoting ideas based on nothing more than what they happen to reckon.

We may have destroyed the Death Star but, as anyone familiar with the tale knows, this is just the beginning.

By Egres73 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Egres73 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

We need to change the way that we train teachers – Part III

My previous post came in for a certain amount of criticism from those involved in teacher training, as well as some support from those who agree with me that the model needs to be disrupted. I thought I would take the opportunity to address the main criticisms.

Anecdotal Evidence

It has been suggested that my first post in this series proves nothing because it simply refers to the work of one researcher. It is not really meant to prove anything. The series is mainly an opinion piece. However, I think that the idea of educationalists researching post-structuralism in numeracy education is significant. It is hard to imagine the equivalent research coming out of a medical school and this tells us something about our profession. It is baffling to the general public and it illustrates something key; the very thing that should be the subject of the research – the effectiveness of inquiry learning – is assumed at the outset, the only question remaining is how to get teachers doing more of it.

Cherry Picking

Initially, I was accused of citing no evidence for my position. When I pointed out that I had quoted two national reports then the accusation shifted to that of ‘cherry picking’. Unless you reproduce an entire source verbatim then you will always have to miss something out. I was highlighting the evidence from the Carter review that there are ‘significant gaps’ in what current training delivers (and I linked to the original source). I did not mention that the review also offers some praise for higher education institutions. So what?

This is a very weak form of argument. If I have missed out something crucial then say so. If it leads me into error then explain why. Specifics are of far more interest.

Cash cow

I suggested that the Australian teacher education system has been used by universities as a cash cow. This is true. Here is an article from 2013 by Professor Stephen Dinham which explains the issue. I did not make this claim about the UK where there are training quotas.


Some critics have suggested that teacher trainers in the UK are accountable for the performance of the teachers that they train. I am happy enough to accept that there is some bureaucratic process that involves Ofsted that is intended to do this. But it certainly is not holding teacher educators accountable in the way that people think because it would not be possible to do so. It is hard enough to judge teacher quality directly: lesson observations are flawed, valued-added systems are highly volatile. Using these measures to derive some kind of secondary effect for teacher education is implausible. Employability is a reasonable thing to measure but let us not fool ourselves that this is a measure of teacher effectiveness.

Many of those who train teachers don’t do research

I understand the point that many teacher educators are not involved in research. However, my concern was about how a person might advance their career within this field. I might be wrong – and I’m happy to be corrected – but I think that most of those who climb the hierarchy of education schools are involved in research. And I suspect that much of it is of the kind that I highlighted in Part I, certainly if the output of the likes of BERA and the AARE are anything to go on.

Ignobles for education

The comments on Part I have made me think. I wonder if it would be worth producing a catalogue of some of the silliest, most abstruse and most nakedly political education research? I could curate it here. And once we have a sufficient sample we could make some awards; like the ignoble prize for education research.

What do you think?

AARE 2015

Extract from AARE 2015 Conference Program

We need to change the way that we train teachers – Part II

In Part I, I gave an extended example of the way that the ostensibly prosaic goal of training teachers can become the test-bed for bizarre ideologies such as post-structuralism. Anyone hoping that research into education would compare the relative effectiveness of different teaching methods might be disappointed to learn that the best methods are already known. And they are known by how well they fit the ideology rather than by any measure of effectiveness. Thinking critically about approved teaching methods is not possible within such a mindset.

This is not an isolated example. Evidence is accumulating from across the English-speaking world that the traditional, university-based approach to teacher education is deeply flawed. For instance, the recent Carter review for the UK government stated that:

“We have identified what appear to be potentially significant gaps in a range of courses in areas such as subject knowledge development, subject-specific pedagogy, behaviour management, assessment and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). We believe there may be a case for a better shared understanding of what the essential elements of good ITT content look like.”

Notice the concern with a lack of subject knowledge development and training in areas such as classroom management. It is not hard to see how an emphasis on teaching prospective primary school teachers about the need for inquiry learning in maths might displace the teaching of actual maths and the methods and approaches that teachers both need to master and be able to explain.

A similar review into teacher training in Australia included the following findings:

“Australians are not confident that all entrants to initial teacher education are the best fit for teaching. This includes the balance of academic skills and personal characteristics needed to be suitable for teaching… Not all initial teacher education programs are equipping graduates with the content knowledge, evidence-based teaching strategies and skills they need to respond to different student learning needs.”

Note that similar concerns about teacher training span continents and are widely known. This should give us the clue that there is something systemically wrong with the way that we train teachers.

Teacher educators are not held accountable for the quality of teaching that their students go on to supply to the education system. It would be difficult to suggest any way in which they could be. Instead, career progression in education academia follows the same logic of academia in general; publish or perish. Add to this the ubiquity of teacher training courses and the need to find a supply of teacher educators and you’ve got a lot of folks looking to publish education research.

This creates the incentive to pursue topics that are the most likely to be approved by peer-review. In this case, affectations around complicated-sounding theories such as post-structuralism provide something of a memetic peacock’s tail: “Look at me,” the author is effectively saying, “I am a particularly talented individual because I can grapple with these complicated-sounding words and phrases.” There is no mechanism to trim away at these excesses because the quality of the end-product – teachers – is so far removed from its producer. There is no incentive to explain these ideas to the public because their very mysteriousness serves a purpose (hence no Brian Cox of post-structuralism). Compare the motivation that a primary teacher educator would feel to teach her students to be better at maths with the motivation to produce a conference paper on something fashionable and esoteric.

This means that our systems for training teachers need disrupting. I take a humanist view of disruption; it is not intrinsically good but rather a tool to be deployed when required. This is not a right-wing ideal. In my view, those on the right are often keen to call for the disruption of working class industries – think of coal versus gas in 1980s Britain or Uber versus taxi-drivers in Australia today – but somewhat less inclined to take-on the vested interests that stitch-up banking, the law, utilities and so on. In my view, wherever a group of toads squat on an area of the social realm, eating-up all the flies in a way that disadvantages the public at large, we need disruption.

There is already a model for disruption in teacher training in the UK. Courses that allow students to train directly in schools have expanded. I think we should be encouraging such courses. Initially, they will not necessarily offer greater quality but the competitive pressure they introduce should lead to greater quality in the long term, increasing the quality of subsequent university provision. I also think that the new English and maths tests in Australia will help to break the teaching-faculty-as-university-cash-cow model that been allowed to develop.

I would also like to encourage what might be described as a “Melbourne Model” of teacher training. Melbourne University has introduced a system of university education where students have to study one of a limited number of general degrees before specialising. For instance, you cannot start an undergraduate medicine degree at Melbourne. Instead, you must study biomedicine first.

I think it would be a good idea to reduce the number of straight education degrees, particularly in the primary sector. Instead, prospective teachers would be expected to study an arts or science degree. They would then follow this with a one or two year teaching course that could be provided wholly within the university sector, wholly within certain accredited schools or a mixture of both.

This would enable students to build their critical faculties prior to being exposed to education academics, if at all. It would also help meet calls for increased specialisation within the primary sector. The competitive pressure that this would introduce would, I believe, lead to an increase in quality. Far from being the death-knell of university education faculties, I believe that this would lead to a renaissance in quality and a focus on educational research that is genuinely in the public interest.

We need to change the way that we train teachers – Part I

Aren’t trainee teachers a pesky bunch? In ‘Preservice Teachers and Numeracy Education: Can Poststructuralism Contribute?’ Mary Klein of James Cook University writes*:

“…I am referring to the tenuous link that often exists between teachers’ knowing about and approving more inquiry based teaching practices and the actual facilitation of “cultures of sense-making”, where the child is at the centre of the learning process, constructing personally meaningful solutions. Oftentimes it is assumed that there is a linear link between knowing and doing, but teachers often revert to traditional ways of working even when they are well versed in, and approve of, more innovative and inquiry-based methods. Related to this is the phenomenon whereby some teachers and preservice teachers feel uncomfortable with proposed ‘new’ methods and resist them from the start. For example, as Nicol (2006, p. 31) found in her research with preservice teachers, they collectively agreed that “teaching in ways that respect students’ thinking and sense-making was not worth the time, the effort or the consequences”. Clearly pedagogic challenges present themselves for teacher educators who hope that their students will teach a rich and robust mathematics in ways that inspire their pupils with confidence and a passionate regard for mathematics and its responsible use in the world.” [some references removed]

Klein’s solution is to ground theory in post-structuralism. This is a relativist philosophical stance that, according to, apparently asserts:

“The concept of “self” as a singular and coherent entity is a fictional construct, and an individual rather comprises conflicting tensions and knowledge claims (e.g. gender, class, profession, etc). The interpretation of meaning of a text is therefore dependent on a reader’s own personal concept of self. An author’s intended meaning (although the author’s own identity as a stable “self” with a single, discernible “intent” is also a fictional construct) is secondary to the meaning that the reader perceives, and a literary text (or, indeed, any situation where a subject perceives a sign) has no single purpose, meaning or existence. It is necessary to utilize a variety of perspectives to create a multi-faceted interpretation of a text, even if these interpretations conflict with one another.”

In one of Klein’s conference papers, we read:

“In this paper I highlight the inadequacies of contemporary theoretical and philosophical orthodoxies to fully address pedagogic change. The required change is in mathematics education, and away from instructional practices based on knowledge transmission to those that recognise and take seriously the productive and constitutive effects of student initiated inquiry and sense making in mathematics.”

So inquiry learning is simply “the required change” and post-structuralism is the means for bringing it about.

This all seems a long way from the concerns of the public who have probably never heard of post-structuralism and just want effective teaching. No political party has stood on a ticket of post-structuralism and yet this philosophy is being enacted in schools of education and, alarmingly, in the context of mathematics teaching; an area of critical public interest. There is no Brian Cox of post-structuralism whose duty it is to explain the concept to the masses.

And, of course, it’s absurd. To accept Klein’s position is to both hold an extreme relativist stance that ‘self’ is a fictional construct simultaneously with the absolutist position that inquiry learning is ‘required’. However, it does hint at the reasons why the lack of evidence for such approaches has not led to a revolution in education in favour of more effective practices.

Part of this is due to the current way that the training of new teachers is structured and incentivised. In part II, I will examine these issues in more detail.

*Thanks to @penpln for the link