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.