Four requests of education journalists 

Dan Willingham recently took to his blog to admonish the New York Times for publishing a very silly piece of education journalism. I thought it might be helpful to set out my own requests of education journalists. 

1. Avoid Finnish time travel

Finland had a great deal of success early this century in international PISA tests. This sparked a lot of edu-tourism where delegations of worthies descended on the country to figure out how they did it. Breathless reports abounded.

A number of myths have sprung up about Finland. To many, it is seen as a progressive paradise. But it isn’t. And it’s results have significantly declined since the early 2000s. There are two key points to note. 

Firstly, Finland is not that progressive. It has academic and vocational streams that kick-in at age 16. The academic stream is considered more prestigious and the effects of this wash back into the earlier phases. Testing is used to inform the streaming process and, at the culmination of the academic stream, students sit a series of gruelling national exams. Observers tend to report quite traditional, didactic teaching styles. 

Secondly, whatever it is that Finland is proposing to do in the future – such as more interdisciplinary project work – cannot possibly be the reason for its success in the past and may even be borne of the same thinking that has led to its recent decline. If you really wanted to understand the success of Finland you would have to look to what it was doing in the 1990s.

2. Motivation is not an outcome

We all want motivated students but we want them motivated because we think they will learn more as a result. It’s actually pretty easy to think of exciting or engaging tasks for students to complete. As a teacher, I can go into any middle school science class, set poster work and watch an easy period slip by. The point is that this is unlikely to lead to the learning of much science.

Motivation or engagement are not enough. If all that can be said about an initiative is that students found it engaging then this is pretty meaningless. As Professor Robert Coe puts it, engagement is a poor proxy for learning.

It isn’t even as if current engagement will lead to future motivation. Students might be motivated about maths if they think it involves making pictures but this won’t necessarily carry through to continued motivation when you start presenting real maths to them.

Similarly, a one-off scheme of bringing scientists into schools or science-based plays or funky apps are all unlikely to create long-term motivation for science.

In fact, the research is starting to support the idea that long term motivation in a challenging subject area is best developed by getting better at it. So we really need the most effective teaching methods. 

3. Look for counterpoints to anecdotes

Journalists need to write stories that people want to read and so anecdotes are always going to play a big role. Newspapers are not dry research journals. But there is often a problem with how anecdotes are used. In other areas of reporting, anecdotes might be presented alongside conflicting evidence, but in education these stories are often put forward without any serious testing.

I wonder whether the experience of visiting a school and being enchanted by its students and hardworking teachers means that journalists sometimes lack the heart to offer any counterpoint. This is understandable but ultimately leads to potentially unbalanced reporting.

4. Question whether it really is a new idea

Everyone who wishes to understand education needs to understand its ying and yang. There are two long traditions, sometimes called ‘traditional’ versus ‘progressive’ and sometimes described as ‘teacher-led’ versus ‘student-centred’. Both have ancient origins and propose conflicting solutions. Traditionalists emphasise the passing on of knowledge from teacher to students whilst progressive educators will talk of student choice, of students finding things out for themselves, completing projects and so on. It’s worth watching out for two things.

There are those who deny there is any such debate to be had and present themselves as pragmatists whilst loudly promoting one of the philosophies. 

And progressivism has a particular tendency to pretend that it’s brand new. Since at least the start of the last century, progressive educators have been arguing that a changing future implies the need for progressive methods. They are still doing it today under the guise of ’21st century skills’. This doesn’t mean that these ideas are wrong but it helps to realise that they are not new.

Grounds for optimism

This reads as if I have lots of complaints. Occasionally I do read a story and feel quite annoyed but this is now more likely to be a story published in one of the online-only outlets rather than the mainstream media. I’ve noticed a shift in the traditional press which often now does a pretty good job of critical review. Yes, it sometimes starts and ends at funding, without ever questioning the programs that are funded but, nevertheless, I am optimistic about the future.


4 thoughts on “Four requests of education journalists 

  1. j mok says:

    Stunning to hear that such a piece could be printed in NYT without being properly researched or vetted. Was it just to fill space? Thank you for clearing up all this chatter about things are better……….. let us just stick to what makes our children eager and educated.

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