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.