Labor’s proposed ‘Evidence Institute for Schools’ is good news for Australian education

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It’s easy to be a cynic.

For instance, it’s pretty easy to look at the Australian Labor Party’s new proposal for an education research institute and dismiss it. We could, for instance, question what a new bureaucracy will achieve. We might wonder whether the aspiration to ‘take politics out of the classroom’ and stop schools being an ‘ideological battleground’ are naive. We may also look at similar institutions across the world, such as the Education Endowment Foundation in the U.K. and it’s agenda to promote ‘metacognition and self-regulation‘, and wonder what agendas might capture this new institute.

Yet dwelling on these issues misses a major point.

The postmodernists – who don’t call themselves postmodernists – see Labor as their natural ally. They reject the kind of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that Labor’s deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek, was promoting on TV this morning. In fact, they reject all efforts to make education research more scientific and more like the kind of medical research that Plibersek also pointed towards as an example for education to follow. Postmodernists believe that scientific approaches to answering questions in the social sphere are invalid. They call this ‘positivism’ or ‘scientism’ and instead prefer subjective approaches that are riddled with ideology and bias, where contested positions that could be tested by experimental research, such as the superiority of inquiry-based learning, are assumed from the outset.

So a kind of cultural battle has been won. Labor could have jumped into the sea with the postmodernists but it has not. This is not a huge surprise, given that Labor gave us the ‘neoliberal’ bogeyman of NAPLAN testing. Nevertheless, for some time now, the only education agenda they would speak about was funding. So it comes as something of a relief that Labor would make research evidence a priority.

Of course, all the concerns about capture remain. As soon as any such institute is formed, there will be a battle to control it and the kinds of research it pursues and highlights. It will not avoid ideological wars. But that is for another day. Today, we should be pleased that both major Australian political parties have signaled pro-evidence stances. That’s a good thing.

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4 thoughts on “Labor’s proposed ‘Evidence Institute for Schools’ is good news for Australian education

  1. Respectfully disagree with you on this one Greg. I think the one important detail that you’ve left out here is the cost – $280m over ten years. Even in the very unlikely event that it does not become a political football, is it really worth spending that amount of public money on a body that is likely to tell us essentially what we already know?

    Given the cost, given the likelihood of its becoming politicised like most other federal tinkering in education matters (Kevin Donnelly anyone?), and given that it has the appearance of policy-on-the-fly following that recent article in The Conversation, I’d say that cynicism is an appropriate attitude in this case.

  2. A couple of points.

    The Education Endowment Foundation is an English Education Institute, not a UK one (a significant difference).

    Using evidence based research is important so that ‘fads’ are not just applied based on anecdotal experience.

    Evidence based research findings should be replicated in several settings before being accepted or rejected. Education research is problematic at the moment as too often small single studies are used as the basis for an equivalent ‘natural law’ in education; which is why there are so many divisive and entrenched education ideologies that distract from the real purpose of supporting learners. Such an Institute could support ensuring that properly researched evidence is offered through analysis of multiple studies. Yes this is perhaps an idealistic hope, but if we really want to make a difference as educators, that is a position I would prefer to start from.

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