A principled objection #AARE2016Posted: November 28, 2016
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).