New South Wales government promotes unproven educational fadPosted: April 4, 2016
The paradox of education is that you can increase spending on it without actually improving outcomes. I will always be in favour of spending more money on education but I also believe that it is immoral to not ensure that this money is put to good use. The paradox of education is therefore a pressing issues for educators to deal with.
For instance, I lived through the Blair government’s massive injection of cash into schools. Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997, the year I started teaching, and over roughly the next ten years, education spending grew at the largest rate since the 1970s; 5.1 % or so in real terms. Yet I felt that, in 2010, I was teaching a senior physics course that was not as demanding as the one that I had been teaching in 1997 and that students were starting the course less well prepared. This is my subjective experience and the objective data on what happened over this time is strange. Whilst GCSE and Advanced level exam grades soared, performance on international tests flat-lined (see Chart 1 here). I can only draw the conclusion that the improvements in exam grades were illusory; the result of a gradual reduction of standards.
You might well argue that exam grades or international tests are a bad measure. If so, I think the onus is on you to suggest an alternative. I don’t think it is acceptable any longer to ask the taxpayer for ever larger mounts of spending on trust. We need to be able to demonstrate what we can do with it. We need to be accountable.
One reason for the paradox of education might be that we spend the money on the wrong things. John Hattie made a splash a few years ago by arguing that reducing class sizes is not only expensive, it is ineffective. If he is right and if we target money in this way then this could be a cause of the problem.
I also think that another factor is a tendency to invest resources into unproven programs that make educators feel good but that have little to no empirical evidence that they improve any student outcomes. A prime example is the idea of Project Based Learning and that’s why I wanted to highlight that the New South Wales government is currently promoting the use of Project Based Learning (PBL).
As the government make clear, this is an idea that is deeply indebted to the American philosopher, John Dewey. He held a naturalistic view of learning: we learn by doing. Just as we effortlessly learn to speak and to walk by engaging in the activity, school learning should follow the same path. This view now seems at odds with cognitive science. Academic subjects are relatively recent inventions whereas speaking and walking have been around long enough – and are so critical for human survival – for us to have evolved how to pick them up without explicit training.
Moreover, Dewey’s approach to learning through inquiry has been around for over a century. If it was going to revolutionise education then it probably should have done so by now. It is hardly cutting-edge. Naturalistic learning tends to mutate over time and gain different monikers. And yet William Heard Kilpatrick wrote about ‘The Project Method” in 1918. The central idea to PBL, inquiry learning and all the variations is that students are guided to find things out for themselves whilst addressing a pressing question that, ideally, has some clear relevance to their everyday lives (this, incidentally, was why Dewey was sceptical of students learning the traditional subject of history and preferred them to start the social studies curriculum by considering their own family – the ‘expanding horizons’ model adopted by the new version of the Australian Curriculum).
There is very little empirical evidence to support such a Deweyan approach. The evidence that does exist tends to come from poorly controlled studies. When Hattie examined such studies he found some small evidence of an effect – he also commented that very few educational interventions result in a negative effect because the odds are stacked in their favour. Yet he also found that, even so, inquiry learning, problem-based learning and the like were less effective that more teacher-led, explicit methods. This paper explains why.
I suspect that Hattie copped some heat for this from the educational community because it seems that he has been trying to play down these findings ever since. Recently, he even made a video about when inquiry learning might be appropriate i.e. at the end of a period of study when students have learn the subject-specific knowledge that will make it more effective.
Yet the New South Wales government explicitly rules this out: It’s not proper PBL:
“Unlike projects that are tacked on at the end of a unit (this is called Project-Oriented Learning), the projects in true Project-Based Learning are central to the learning. Projects are typically framed with a Driving Question that is open-ended and promotes students to investigate, research, collaborate and present their conclusions to an authentic audience.”
We need to mature as a profession, stop promoting stuff because we like the ideology and start choosing strategies because they are effective. You know, like doctors and engineers do.