Australian researcher, Dr. Linda Graham, has written a piece for the Times Educational Supplement in the U.K. It represents an interesting argument; an attempt to put the teachers-on-social-media genie back in its bottle.
In a familiar refrain, Graham argues that politicians and Tweeting teachers alike don’t really understand research. They look for quick fixes and “what works” when, in reality, education is far too complex for that.
Graham is particularly affronted by non-researchers asking academics for evidence to support their opinions. Researchers should be respected and evidence is a complicated business:
“This merry-go-round is affecting the nature of the dialogue between education researchers and some teachers – most commonly on social media, where demands are now being made for “a link to the research evidence” to justify an academic’s own views. However, these demands reflect poor understanding of how the research process works and what evidence is.”
This seems pertinent to a discussion that I have had with Graham on social media. Graham is a tireless promoter of the notion of differentiation and has referenced the work of Carol Ann Tomlinson and drawn attention to a differentiation approach known as ‘Universal Design for Learning‘ or UDL.
I am sceptical of the kind of differentiation represented by Tomlinson and by UDL. This is partly a logical argument: I find these forms of differentiation impractical and potentially counterproductive. However, I can also point to empirical evidence. A large U.S. study involving Tomlinson found no evidence to support differentiation and a recent review of UDL found no evidence of a positive effect on educational outcomes.
I have therefore suggested that advocates for these approaches need to provide some supporting evidence. I have not asked for ‘one definitive piece of evidence’; I have simply asked for evidence. And that’s reasonable.
You would think that Graham might welcome my critical questions, given her view of the importance of researching what doesn’t work. But no. Instead, I have repeatedly been told that differentiation is required by regulations and the law. Even if this were true, and I don’t think it is for the kinds of differentiation in question, this is a poor argument. It is fallacious; an argument from authority. As I have written before, it is the equivalent of stating that marriage equality is wrong because it is against the law in Australia.
The authority of researchers is of primary concern for Graham. She uses the rhetorical device of comparing those who question education research with climate change deniers. And yet she must realise that the weight of evidence on climate change is vastly different to that for UDL.
I’m just not convinced that teachers should uncritically accept the views of education researchers. If nothing else, it provides a poor model to our students who we encourage to think critically. And after all, a lot of education research is far removed from teachers’ concerns. Take a look at some of the papers presented at last year’s Australian Association for Research in Education (AARE) conference.
It is clear that many researchers take an ideological stance, assuming certain starting points from the various theories they subscribe to. Francis Bacon understood this:
“Those who have handled sciences have been either men of experiment or men of dogmas. The men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own.”
Education research is full of cobwebs. Teachers want to be more bee. Tough luck if some people are irritated by the buzzing.