How standards remove the need for reason and evidence

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Any serious effort to put forward an educational idea should be supported by reason or evidence or both, right? Yes, I know that there are plenty of blog posts and newspaper articles that don’t feel this need but I used the term ‘serious’ deliberately. Should we not expect policymakers, bureaucrats and academics to outline a sound basis for their ideas?

Not always. A standard or regulation can bypass any such need. Just point to the statutory or semi-statutory instrument that enforces your view and you are done. No reasoning or evidence required.

Look at the recent furor I provoked when I questioned popular forms of differentiation. The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers require teachers to differentiate! The Disability Standards for Education require teachers to differentiate!

It does not matter that I think this last sentence is false when applied to the kinds of differentiation that I criticised. It does not matter because all interpretations of standards are not equal. The person with a clipboard and authority has a superior interpretation of the standards than you.

For years, the English Schools Inspectorate, Ofsted, ran an inquisition against didactic forms of teaching. There was no single set of standards to draw from but rather a body of work contained in Ofsted reports. A typical example is a report from 2012:

“Students are eager to learn and they support each other’s learning effectively when working in groups. They say, and lesson observations confirm, that they make most progress in English, science, technology and geography. In these subjects, students enjoy the variety of strategies that engage them in applying skills independently, such as investigations in science, and role play and discussion in English.”

It is not possible to measure student progress through lesson observations of the kind Ofsted conduct. Yet exegesis of such reports became a boom industry and school leaders across England were keen to apply the Ofsted standard to their own schools. Why? Because it was what Ofsted wanted. Enough said. No evidence or reason required.

In Australia, we have flawed ideas imposed upon teaching via the Australian Curriculum. For instance, schools are supposed to deliver the ‘general capabilities’ of ‘critical and creative thinking’ among others. These capabilities are simply not general. The cognitive science is clear on this. Critical thinking is domain specific – we can think critically when we know a lot about something and fail to think critically when we don’t. Creativity is the same – excellent composers cannot simply transfer their abilities to creatively running a business or creatively designing knitwear.

Yet groups and individuals are free to promote the idea of a general capability of critical and creative thinking without any need to justify this with reason or evidence. Why do we have to do it? Because the Australian Curriculum says so.

This is why, from the very start, I warned about potential for the new Chartered College of Teaching defining a set of standards for teachers in England. I was told I was being alarmist and such standards would only be about ethical behaviour. Not so, it now seems. A leaked draft of the standards suggests that the College is intent on setting a standard for the way teachers are to teach and in sufficiently elastic terms as to facilitate a new inquisition.

Given English teachers’ hard-won defeat of the Ofsted teaching style, it is sad to watch this happen.

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6 Comments on “How standards remove the need for reason and evidence”

  1. In the Netherlands some standards (arithmetic and language) have even been cemented into law [Wet op de referentieniveaus Nederlandse taal en rekenen]. They are based on faulty concepts, yet no serious discussion of them in any way is allowed ‘because they are fixed by law’.

  2. Mitch says:

    Another issue is the conflation of words in standards and that people mean completely different things by them.

    I think this is what happens to ‘differentiation’. Some view it as reasonable adjustments for disability (law), some different tasks for reading skill levels in primary school (common sense), and some want individualised learning for all students because students know best (philosophy). They change their definition as it suits and when certain appeals (law, common sense or philosophy) are or are not working. They purposely like the lack of clarity in terms.

    On a slightly different note but broadly on conflating terms, I’ve just come across another interesting one I hope you have heard about. We’ve just had a big push for ‘explicit teaching’ because the National School Improvement Tool says that it is good. However, apparently ‘explicit teaching’ doesn’t mean the sort of teaching you advocate Greg, it means ‘having learning goals made clear to students’.

  3. Good points here, Greg. I believe what we need is a more intellectual teaching profession. What I mean by this is teachers who are permitted and encouraged to evaluate their practice (and their schools) in the light of research in the learning sciences, rather than forced to follow practices on the basis of appeals to authority in the form of curriculums, education standards etc. I had a teacher today thank me for passing on research articles relevant to her subject with the words that “thank goodness I can now make up my own mind.” There is responsibility on teachers to embrace professional reading, to become knowledgable about the debates in education and what research evidence tells us.

  4. Tom Burkard says:

    Unfortunately, there is an insatiable demand for new non-contact jobs in education for teachers who, at an early stage in their career, decided that getting post-graduate degrees in education was a lot easier than testing their ideology in the world of real, existing classrooms.

  5. […] How standards remove the need for reason and evidence, by Greg […]


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