Should teachers just buzz off?

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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.


20 thoughts on “Should teachers just buzz off?

  1. The problem isn’t that teachers don’t understand the research…rather, the problem is that both teachers AND parents fully understand edubabble when we see it and challenge it. How many have been told not worry, the experts should be trusted? Yet all around the Western world, we’ve seen a general decline in student’s academic performance.

    I think the truth here, is that teachers ARE better equipped to question, and are less inclined to follow along like sheep. Teachers before having “experts” telling them what to do, had a certain level of autonomy in their classroom. Education “experts” changed that. And now we’re seeing an informed group now challenging the groupthink mentality that resides in ivory tower echo chambers. So for all those teachers out there challenging the latest study or “research shows” discussion, keep up the chatter. And thanks to you all, for bringing a more enlightened approach to what certain truths are.

  2. Greg, I think you are too generous calling Graham’s piece an argument.

    Sure politicians or anyone might dismiss an academic for being too impractical because they don’t like what they hear. But alternatively the academic might be producing work of no practical value.
    Simply stating one side of this doesn’t constitute an argument. Any student of critical thinking should spot the Galileo fallacy in action here.

    As you point out her our responses to you have been perfect examples of what she claims is her problem with other peoples approach to academic research. Rather than saying differentiation is a complex topic and first we must agree on specifically what we mean and so on she provides a simple black and white generalization as an answer.

    I think it is a pretty safe bet that people are not going to start taking experts more seriously just because they tell us we are too ignorant to decide not to.

    1. I also really wish she had explained the logic behind her concern about not paying schools to participate in research because it is a public good. Presumably she is paid to undertake research despite it being a public good that she might provide as an act of charity.

      (I think the correct argument for not paying schools to participate in research is that you don’t need to because enough will do it for nothing.)

  3. I fear you are wasting your time engaging Linda and her clique through social media. I’ve been on Twitter for around six months and you are playing at different games.

    I’ve been in their camp – I have Hons. in Cultural Studies and work in a school where Project-Based Learning is a requirement in ALL 7-9 programming. I hit peak exhaustion last year and am now teaching much more explicitly (almost secretly!) and am much firmer in my classroom management. I’ve found parents to be much more receptive and students’ learning and behaviour to be improving already.

    As someone with experience in both camps, I can confirm the epithet thrown around sometimes about ideology. My take is that academics and educationalists just aren’t in it for the same reasons teachers are: the former are living in a world of ideals that doesn’t come within a stone’s throw of the 30:1, paper and pen reality most teachers spend 90% of their day in; the latter see the outrageous profit available in rent-seeking through $300-a-seat TED talks and futurism.

    The truth is academics and educationalists need teachers much more than teachers need them. Social media and wider engagement with noneducational professions is helping to break the current stranglehold, but I worry until Executive staff, those that control planning and budgets, are empowered to just do what they already do better, instead of changing everything every year to ‘innovate’, real progress is far off.

    Until then, save your energies – unless evidence is put first, and the discussion is about evidence and facts and their meaning, rather than people and their feelings, you’re just yelling at each other in a crowded elevator.

    1. even evidence will be debated in these circles – what constitutes “evidence” vs…evidence?? etc. etc. These conversations are valuable though, because many are watching silently, from the sidelines.

      Many perhaps may not know the reasons why their students, or why their children are struggling with the material being presented in school, and when they read or see these discussions online, a lightbulb goes off. Or they see that they really aren’t the only ones going through all this edubabble.

      As a parent, I was told many times to let the experts do their job; they knew best. And my children continued to flounder further and further…it wasn’t until I started investigating and asking questions outside our School District, that a few answers finally started getting answered, and I wasn’t wrong with that niggling feeling in the pit of my stomach that all was not right.

      So to Greg, and Barry, and Anthony, and Daisy, and Tom, and Andrew, and….keep writing.

      1. I have had the same experience – I certainly want Greg to keep writing. However, I don’t think he should continue to open himself up to the mob who have shown their hand time and time again. To what end the ridiculous arguments about semantics that always end in the same place? The desert of postmodern ideology.

  4. I have long thought that the role some education researchers seem to have adopted is that of a priest preaching the unquestionable truth (which is ironic given relativist stance of so many).

    1. Ah yes…we’re all familiar with that one. “All knowledge is socially constructed, and determined by power relations – you know, Vygotsky and Foucault and all that – erm, except for what I’m telling you now, which is categorical and unchallengeable, for ever and ever, Amen.”

  5. There is one little statement in that innocent-looking TES piece which is particularly significant:

    “However, work that…does not situate itself within some form of theoretical frame…is not research.”

    (In fairness to the author, this is part of an and/or construction.)

    I think this attitude demonstrates one of the great problems with educational research, particularly the qualitative type. Everyone has their own barrow to push, and they go INTO their research (rather than out of it) with that barrow. Allied to the fact that, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times here, confirmation bias is virtually impossible to avoid in qualitative education research, The Theory ends up triumphing every time.

    That section at the end of the article about research being sifted over time to avoid false positives, to obtain an accumulated body of knowledge, etc., sounds nice in theory but in my experience it bears zero relation to the reality in the education biz. ONE academic comes up with ONE probably dodgy positive for some new fad and the lazy education reporters are all over it, the TED talk is assured, the book deal is in the pipeline, etc. It spawns a whole industry. Dr. Graham’s strictures there may be true for herself, but I would suggest they are somewhat rare elsewhere among on-the-make education academics.

      1. Nothing Linda has said on Twitter makes her an exception to the norm – and yes, the issue is with qualitative research. I’m an English teacher and value the qualitative highly, but there are tiers of evidence and with randomised control trials exploring quantifiable phenomena at the top. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for qualitative evidence, but the complexity of human beings makes causation very difficult. Thus, proving a teacher should adopt this or that beyond reasonable doubt is a tough sell.

        The hard reality is that getting involved in a Twitter spat with these people only gives oxygen.

  6. I disagree with those suggesting avoiding engagement with anyone. If you can avoid frustration turning to rudeness these dialogues serve a useful purpose.

    They make it clear that one side is not very good at supporting their view and turns to rhetorical tricks to try to win points. That even the rhetoric doesn’t pass the sniff test helps to get a sense of who is stuck in their echo chamber.

    The key is to avoid being baited into writing something that makes you the bad guy. In response to Graham’s concerns about complexity rather than simply asking for evidence it is probably worth asking if anyone has taken the trouble to summarize the research for and against X.

    1. Stan,

      You’ll find that someone has summarized the research, but too often one side summarized is a straw man (traditional teachers only drill and kill, students in the past were disengaged).

      To avoid this you need to have active combatants who point out that traditional teaching is not teaching by rote, and that it does involve explaining why or how something works. That students in the past were probably less disengaged, if only because confidence in the system had not been broken by people who decide it is broken because they say it is.

      1. Chester and Stan – that’s why I don’t think it’s useful to engage with specific people anymore.

        I teach students about ‘ethos’ all the time – what ethos can we give to people like Linda, who have a niche interest and have time and time again made ad hominem attacks upon Greg and others who disagree with their ideology.

        We are well past the point of reason. I worry the effort expended chasing someone like Linda down the rabbit-hole would be better spent elsewhere – I’m not sure how many of those reading deeply into replies are doing so with prospects of changing their minds; if anything the only people who keep replying are those who’ve chosen a side and are cheerleading.

        Greg has been one of the five most important social media voices helping me to make my teaching, and thus work/home balance, effective. I’d hate to see him burn out fighting against a mob that seeks relevance by creating problems rather than solving them.

      2. Thank you for your kind words but you don’t need to worry about me. I think people follow the discussion and form their own conclusions. Those sworn to an ideology tend to cheerlead whereas those who are more open minded draw conclusions from the quality of arguments presented.

      3. The point was not that Linda will at some point come around and start debating sensibly. Charity dictates we imagine that is possible. But the important audience is the passive observers trying to figure out who has something worthwhile to say.
        She has her straw-man of people asking for one definitive piece of research so make it clear that is garbage by asking for a summary of research. If something is too new to have anyone summarize the findings then the only advice for practitioners should be wait. If there is a summary then some expert such as Greg can quickly point out if it has not considered the best evidence on both sides of the issue. This is the primary garbage detector we have – has someone addressed the best arguments against their conclusion. A simple twitter query is pretty cheap and who knows perhaps someone will provide food for thought.

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