I often write about the need to use evidence to inform the decisions that we make in schools. However, this is not an easy path. Evidence can be ambiguous. The question that you want answered may not have been directly addressed and, even if it has, the results may be inconclusive. A new initiative may be extremely appealing but there may be very little research on it. Basing your approach on evidence can seem cautious and slow.
And some of the world’s most successful organisations don’t work this way. Big businesses and silicon valley start-ups are famous for innovating. They are busy building the future rather than tortuously analysing research from past. Perhaps this is a better model for education to follow.
There are two reasons why we should be wary of this argument.
1. Innovations are not always improvements
The originators of the ‘whole language’ approach to teaching reading had good intentions. They saw what they thought were very old-fashioned methods where children were drilled in letter-sound relationships. They felt this sucked all the joy out of learning to read and didn’t sit well with cutting-edge constructivist learning theory. You learn to read for a purpose, they reasoned, and so learning to read needed to be structured around the reading of real books. You can’t do that if you are initially restricted to simple letter-sound correspondences and so children needed other strategies to figure out words. Proponents looked to what skilled readers do and they suggested that skilled readers inferred words from context. Students could be supported to predict words by using books with text structures such as a repeating refrain. Instead of forcing children through a sequence of exercises, specific teaching points should be addressed as they naturally arise in the context of engaging texts.
We now know that this innovative approach was flawed. Three government reports from the U.S., U.K. and Australia all evaluated the evidence and showed that a bottom-up approach to teaching reading, starting with the key building blocks of phonics, is the most effective way of enabling the greatest number of children to learn to read. Moreover, this teaching needs to be systematic; the learning has to follow a logical and structured sequence rather than relying on teaching features as they happen to appear within texts. These days, few former advocates of whole language still argue for the 1980s version, stressing instead that they favour a ‘balanced’ approach which they claim includes more of an emphasis on phonics. This is debatable but it illustrates that a once fashionable and obvious innovation has been disowned by pretty much everyone.
We don’t know how many students were failed by whole language. Many children will learn to read regardless of the method but it seems likely that the trend for whole language caused real harm and contributed to the development of reading difficulties in many young people.
2. Businesses fail
If a private company had introduced a similar innovation to whole language then it would likely have gone bust*. This is the logic of markets. Businesses are able to innovate but when they do so, they take on risk. The free market evolutionary principle is fine with that: businesses are supposed to rise and fall with the invisible hand of the market generating gradual improvement.
A couple of years ago a shop opened up in a town near me. It was innovative. It sold home-brewing equipment but instead of the slightly 1970s vibe you get in many home-brew shops, this had a hipster feel. They also sold equipment for making sausages so it was an eclectic mix of concepts. It was a fascinating little shop – there was nothing else like it around. And now it has gone.
People don’t tend to think that schools that adopt flawed approaches should be allowed to fail and disappear. But this seems a necessary element of a system that relies on innovation rather than research. If we are going to continue to put taxpayer money into schools, regardless of their successes and failures, then we should expect them to make decisions on the basis of the best available evidence, rather than, “Oh, look! A shiny thing!”
It is also worth noting that there are other models of school provision that sit well with the idea of innovation. Journalists tend to delight in writing reports about U.S. Charter Schools or U.K Free Schools that have failed, implying that these failures demonstrate the failure of the broader policy. But failure is the point! These policies are intended to open up the field to innovation so that effective schools will prosper and ineffective ones will fail.
Show me the evidence
I am yet to be convinced about the Charter/Free School model. These systems are designed to generate diversity and so there are necessarily some schools that I approve of more than others. And clearly, there are some that simply could not exist under the old system. Yet where the old system of centrally managed and funded schools is still largely still in place, the moral imperative is not to roll a dice and innovate; it is to use the best evidence available, however complicated and boring that may be.
*a notable exception to this rule were the innovative banks deemed too big to fail during the global financial crisis – a model worth avoiding