A principled objection #AARE2016


Last year, we met the ‘phallic teacher’. This year it’s the ‘phallic lecturer’. Australian education’s annual festival of daftness – The Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) conference – has come to the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Neoliberal imaginaries and French philosophers are all the rage.

I’d quite like to go to one of these gigs but it comes at a time of year when we’ve rolled over our classes to the 2017 timetable. I have two new Year 12 groups to teach today and that concentrates the mind.

Instead, I will be following via the Twitter hashtag #AARE2016. When I mentioned this on Twitter, alongside the fact that I would be highlighting the funniest tweets, I provoked something of a backlash. One associate professor commented that, “Academic freedom is important, but what you are doing here is anti-intellectual. You are trolling an acad prof assoc.” Linda Graham offered some career advice on the subject of respecting the expertise of academics:

What has caused this loss of a sense of humour? Perhaps there are some things too precious to poke fun at. Perhaps it is with immense solemnity that we should contemplate presentations on, “Queer(y)ing ‘agency’ using a Butlerian framework of thinking: What might alteration ‘look like’ through this prism of thought?”

But this is not just about highlighting silly conference papers. There is a serious point here – a point that I have a right to make.

I am not opposed to blue skies research (as long as we are allowed to poke fun at it, should we wish). The world is enriched by the pursuit of philosophy or art. But AARE is not a pure mathematics conference. It is about education and education is one of the largest social enterprises we have. Governments pump vast quantities of taxpayer money into it; money taken from the pay packets of nurses and bus drivers. Yet, in the anglophone world at least, we don’t seem to be seeing much improvement. Why not? What is all this research achieving?

I think I know why we are in this position. If you take a look at the AARE 2016 program and strip it of all the posturing about, “Bourdieu’s theory of social practice and Vygotsky’s cultural historic activity theory,” then you will find papers about practical approaches to teaching. The trouble is that the methods pursued seem to fly in the face of what we already know about effective practice. For instance, ‘direct’ or ‘explicit’ instruction has a strong track record dating back to the process-product research of the 1960s. You might think that researchers would be trying to improve and refine these methods but there is no reference to either term in the entire program.

The use of phonics is mentioned in the title of just one presentation, despite being the teaching method with probably the strongest evidence base in the whole of education (see here, here and here) and a topic of considerable importance given the current proposal for a phonics check. And this single mention is in a presentation on teachers’ beliefs about ‘commercial’ and ‘pre-packaged’ phonics programs. For those of you who aren’t up with the lingo, commercial = bad.

So, what practices are being promoted at the conference? Well, there’s lots of inquiry based learning and makerspaces (the latter apparently being a tool to ‘engage’ women in STEM subjects). This is despite such approaches being based upon the kind of constructivism that even serious constructivists have moved away from (see the discussion here). We have papers that classically ‘beg the question’ such as, “How does inquiry-based pedagogy motivate students to learn mathematics?” What if it doesn’t? What if it’s useless? What if it is creates situational interest – ‘motivation’ is too broad a term to use in the context – but leads to poor learning outcomes? Let’s just hold on and examine a few assumptions here.

This is why the AARE enterprise is so fruitless. Utility should not be the only aim of education research but it should at least feature. Somewhere. Instead, we have lots of derivative research that sits entirely within a jargon-laden, self-congratulatory, self-referential bubble.

Do you want to get ahead in education research? The first rule is to learn how to eduwaffle. The second rule is to respect your elders and betters (whilst voicing platitudes about critical thinking).


23 Comments on “A principled objection #AARE2016”

  1. David says:

    I think the first rule should be teach students every day. That way you’ll have an idea of what might work and what probably won’t. Find time at night, after looking in on the family and checking whatever work your students have submitted, and then start your research.
    Don’t leave the classroom to do research. It doesn’t work. And at least in the US, our teaching and learning problems come from people who can’t take the heat, move “up,” and dream up bizarre practices to which we grunts must adhere.

  2. Mike says:

    Wow…in the space of just a few pages on that program, we have “theorisations”, “problematizing”, “posthumanism”, “structuration”, “action-oriented”, and, the piece de resistance, “applying a transformative learning framework”.

    Australian Association for Ruining English?

    • A great place to play bullshit bingo!

      • Mike says:

        Ah, we’ve all done it haven’t we…at some profoundly intelligence-insulting inservice presented by some jargonaut with PowerPoint diarrhoea, you can tick ’em off with glee – “differentiation”, “kinesthetic learners”, “constructivist pedagogy”, “21st century learners”, et al. How to inject some fun into an otherwise joyless (and pointless) occasion.

  3. I have some objections of my own Greg. In carping from the sidelines and using only tiny snapshots from Tweets as your evidence, you are coming to false conclusions and then using those as a means to denigrate just about everyone here. You also take a crack at me personally, but I’m getting kinda used to that.

    The thread that you refer to in your blog is a perfect example of trolling, which Kal Gulson called you out on. I realise that responding will just give you oxygen and the notoriety you appear to crave, but I’m not prepared to allow your misrepresentation of me to stand uncorrected.

    The slide I tweeted was about the challenges of doing mixed-methods research and working in multidisciplinary teams. The slide talks about “Paradigm differences” which is the biggest challenge that researchers have to overcome if they want to be able to do this kind of research. In the slide, I was reflecting on my own experiences (drawn from 3 such projects and from working with people outside my area and expertise whom I respect – like Naomi Sweller, Penny Van Bergen, Sue Walker, Pamela Snow and Sonia White) and recommending that researchers make sure that they work with people who are open to new ideas/ways of doing things, etc, etc. I’ve learned much from each of those colleagues and never would if I hadn’t respected their expertise. They’ve also learned from me because respect is a two-way street, (although it’s clear you have none for me).

    My point yesterday is that there is absolutely NO point in qualitative researchers working with quant researchers who think qual is worthless and, equally, no point in quants working with quals who think stats are the work of the devil. That relationship just ain’t gonna work!

    Mixed-methods research & multidisciplinary teams can be extremely challenging and everyone has to be prepared to treat each other with respect, be generous and teach others what they don’t know, and explain why an article of faith is such. The other side has to be prepared to listen and sometimes compromise.

    If you were at my workshop, you would know that. But you weren’t, so none of my other comments made sense to you either. Frankly, it is unprofessional for you to portray my responses as threats and link to the journal of which I am Editor (for only the next week mind, as I have now completed my 3 year term).

    I know that my profile makes having a go at me rewarding for you. And most of the time I ignore you.

    This time, however, you’re way out of line and I don’t think this kind of behaviour reflects well on you. Incidentally, my 17 yr old daughter read your post and shook her head, shocked that a teacher would behave like this. Then she made a comment that I’ve never really understood until now: “congratulations, Greg, you played yourself!”

    • Greg Ashman says:

      You may be right that I was not at your presentation to understand the context of your slide. However, it was *you* that brought my attention to that slide by copying me in to this tweet:

      When I then asked whether it was important to you that people respected your expertise, you responded with the tweet that I have included in the post above. Readers can follow the link and see for themselves.

      I can’t be at fault for not knowing the context of a slide that you tweeted to me. Perhaps you should have explained that context from the outset?

    • Richard I says:

      Linda, a few points:

      i) firstly, ‘tweets’ are easy to use for evidence, since “Caught in the Net: A Foucaultian Interrogation of the Incidental Effects of Limited Notions of Inclusion” actually sounds like a piss-take by Tait Smoogen. I don’t think you are aware of just how incredibly disconnected you are from everyday teachers. You are sitting at the very top of an intellectual Ponzi scheme.

      ii) responding will not ”give oxygen” to Greg. Do you think he’s struggling for readers / support? Do you think that thousands of teachers worldwide (I’m typing this late at night in Western Canada) are waiting for you to signal who is and who isn’t worthy of attention? Are you claiming expertise in this field as well?

      iii) “Naomi, Penny, Sue, Pamela, Sonia …… ” – I’m truly lost for words at your lack of self-awareness.

      iv) you’re going to have to explain “you played yourself”. I’ve never even heard it, never mind attempt to understand it.

  4. dukeyjk62 says:

    There is always the right to make comment especially about what useful or not in edu research. However, regardless of the 1000s of readers worldwide who apparently read this blog, there are also millions of academics worldwide who won’t respond to your blog. Perhaps its because your blog makes you look like some sort of academic bigot who is unable to accept the existence of anything that disturbs your own understanding.

    • Greg Ashman says:

      Dear Jennie

      Thank you for taking the time to respond. There is always room for disagreement here. However, I am saddened and disappointed that you have chosen to describe me as a ‘bigot’ – a word associated with sexism, racism and homophobia.

      All I have done in this post is gently poke fun at the establishment, describing the conference as daft and highlighting a few amusing-sounding presentations. If the academy is so fragile that it is threatened by a little gentle satire then that doesn’t reflect well.

      I think we should probably keep name-calling out of it.

      I hope you find time to comment on future posts.

      Best wishes


      • dukeyjk62 says:

        Offence was intended just as offence has been felt by some members of AARE. In English the word “bigot” refers to a person whose habitual state of mind includes an obstinate, irrational, or unfair intolerance of ideas, opinions, ethnicities, or beliefs that differ from their own, and intolerance of the people who hold them.

      • Mike says:

        Greg engages in some gentle and richly-deserved teasing, which is not directed against anyone in particular.

        Academics respond with personal name-calling and subsequently moan about offence.

        It’s a funny old world.

  5. Brilliant, Greg. You are the one who will be behind the educational revolution needed in Australia. (The Michaelians are killing it in the UK!)

    I actually despise a lot of education academics for the reasons you’ve mentioned and more. Their blinkered and ivory tower thinking that is fuelled by naïve ideology. They are inadequately training teachers and ruining the life chances of generations of children – unforgivable, unforgiveable, unforgivable. At least in the UK they are having a conversation about it…this lot are still patting their fragile egos and telling each other what a wonderful job they’re doing. Their noses can’t see past their confirmation biases.

    Keep it going, Greg. I/we may not always comment, but we are firmly behind you.

    I’m looking forward to the upcoming TiMSS/PIRLS/PISA results and the government increasing the pressure on the BLOB.

    • Jennie says:

      Yay keep going Greg spread the bigotry against academics so sad for supersplergirl to despise a group of people so strongly.

      • Nick says:

        I have seen Greg write quite approvingly of many academics so I am not sure the claim that he is bigoted against them is quite fair. Perhaps he is bigoted against opinion being dressed up as research where the only response to his- in my opinion- fair questions about the utility of some of these options is accusations of bigotry and trolling instead of dealing with the questions directly. As a parent, I am a little tired of opinions dressed as research which is then inflicted on my child… or worse, inflicted upon his friends whose parents may not have the resources to undo the damage. Where are the educational researchers like you calling out Boaler’s anti-memorization claims? I have seen it called out by other academics in other disciplines but where is the paper from this conference? And your anger is reserved for Greg? Does me pointing this out make me a bigot and a troll as well? Never mind the thinly veiled “you may not be allowed in the tree house” threats I’ve seen him receive. If you are a real academic, then you would answer the questions with research and argument and not insults. As it is, all I hear is the voice of privilege arguing for the status quo.

  6. Greg Ashman says:

    This comments thread seems to have become a touch emotive. I find the following a useful framework for disagreeing in an online forum:


  7. […] The most effective way to teach maths and science – as well as anything else – is deeply unfashionable explicit instruction. This result has been validated many times but, given that it’s the wrong result, it tends to be ignored. For instance, you won’t find it featuring in the recent AARE conference program. […]

  8. […] Assiciation of Research in Education (AARE) conference. Unfortunately, you’ll have to take my word for it because the AARE site is currently down, but the programme is full of ‘theory‘ […]

  9. Thank you so much for using ‘begs the question’ correctly! It irritates me so much when that phrase is used to mean ‘raises the question’, an entirely different proposition. I always suspect that those using ‘begs the question’ incorrectly have no idea what it means,that is that what you are asking about is assumed already in the question (i.e. ‘when did you stop beating your husabnd?’ etc – aargh!).

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