An amusing post has been published over at the Australian Association for Research in Education’s (AARE) blog site. It’s amusing for the song beneath the words; for the kinds of values that researchers will come out of their corners and fight for.
This time, Emma Rowe and Trevor Gale pour cold water on what might initially seem like an odd target: a promise made by the Australian Labor Party to set up an educational research unit if it wins the next election. You might think that education researchers would welcome such a move. But not in this case.
There are some valid concerns about Labor’s new policy. For a start, it naively seeks to ‘take the politics out of the classroom’. This could be difficult in an environment where armies of researchers are busying themselves trying to insert as much politics as possible into the classroom. Who will run this institute? Will it be captured by postmodernists? Will it go on unicorn hunts like Britain’s Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and its promotion of Philosophy for Children? Why do we need a new research institute when we already have one in Evidence for Learning (E4L)?
But these are not the concerns of Rowe and Gale and the way they seek to dismiss the policy is instructive. Apparently, education research is thriving in Australia already and we know this from international rankings of universities. Right.
Australian education research is so good, it seems, that ideas about ‘rich tasks’ that have been developed in Australia have been adopted in Scotland as part of its disastrous ‘Curriculum for Excellence’. Which is hardly a recommendation.
And that is not all. As I highlighted last month, Labor’s Tanya Plibersek called for the new institute to utilise randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of the sort conducted by the EEF and E4L. This call sheds some light on the following statement about research institutes by Rowe and Gale:
“They can also impose one particular way of doing research as the ‘gold standard’. That is what’s happening in the UK with the government-sponsored Education Endowment Fund, with its exclusive bent for random control trials, despite these being discredited in the social world of education.”
That last section, ‘despite these being discredited in the social world of education’, contains a hyperlink. The convention in this kind of post is that the hyperlink takes you to the evidence supporting the claim being made, but in this case it simply takes you to an audio clip of Gale speaking, where he basically says that there are multiple ways of knowing and talks about a ‘playful’ book chapter he has written that expands on this.
So it’s a bit like me saying that ‘cats have been discredited as pets’ and then attempting to support this claim by providing an audio clip of me explaining why I think cats are rubbish pets.
It might seem like a small issue to highlight, but it is related to a much wider point. When you reject the scientific method in favour of something else then these alternatives are not equally robust. Other ways of knowing cannot lay claim to the kind of authority that well-designed experiments accrue and often simply look like opinions heaped upon opinions, frequently with reference to the opinions of a French philosopher somewhere along the way.
Anyone who cares about education, cares about things we can do that will make it either better or worse. These claims are testable in principle, even if such tests may be hard to conduct. The fact that education involves humans does not invalidate the experimental method any more than it invalidates it in medicine. Neither does the fact that we can only make predictions about average effects. Scientists have been comfortable dealing with uncertainty for centuries (in the audio clip above, Gale makes the incorrect claim that medical research is ‘certain’ when in fact it is probabilistic).
Of course, experiments also have the nasty habit of giving the wrong results. If you believe in something that is unlikely to be effective then the last thing you want is some bean-counter running randomised controlled trials and proving you wrong. And this, I think, is what it is ultimately about.
Yes, Australian education academics have been pretty good at accruing resources. They have been less effective at communicating their message. And now, some start to feel their feet twitch as they sense the rug being pulled from under them. This is why they need to ‘just ask questions’ about grassroots movements like researchED. It is why they need to lodge complaints about education bloggers. And it is why they don’t want a new source of authority to be created that runs experiments.
As Rowe and Gale conclude:
“If the Labor Party or the Australian Government are seriously looking for ways to move closer towards research-informed teaching and schools, they should start by promoting and distributing the world class educational research that Australian educational researchers are already producing.”
Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?
End note: As an aside, Rowe and Gale make an odd point about funding that I struggled to connect to their main argument. While making this point, they reference New Zealand as being one of the highest performing countries in PISA literacy. As far as I can see, New Zealand has been declining on this measure since about 2009, which neatly highlights that it’s not raw rankings we should pay attention to in PISA but the direction of travel of each education system.