The Education Endowment Foundation contradicts itself (and we’re not supposed to notice)

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For a few years now, the UK’s Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has been hawking its big idea of metacognition and self-regulation. It is currently the second most effective ‘strand’ of their Teaching and Learning Toolkit, with implementation giving seven months of spurious extra progress, after recently being demoted from a spurious eight months.

I wrote a critique of this strand for The Chartered College of Teaching’s summer edition of their Impact magazine, which was edited by Jonathan Sharples of the EEF. Having accepted my abstract, they declined to print my article, even after I suggested that they should print it alongside a rebuttal. I have still had no response to my points from anyone at the EEF and I don’t expect I ever will.

One of the many issues I raised was that of Philosophy for Children (P4C). This is a generic thinking skills programme that is included in the evidence base for the metacognition and self-regulation strand. Fantastically, the idea is that by asking children to, for example, argue about whether it is OK to hit a teddy bear, their standardised reading and maths scores will improve.

When the EEF ran a randomised controlled trial (RCT) of P4C they found no effect, as you might expect. However, once the researchers had seen the data, they reanalysed it in a way they had not specified at the outset and claimed to show a positive effect, a tactic considered bad research practice. On the basis of this, and probably a good serving of confirmation bias, the EEF decided to throw lots of the money endowed to them by UK taxpayers at a larger trial.

The issue of Impact that omits my article has now been published. Most of the online versions of the articles are paywalled, but one interesting piece is open access. It is by two of the authors of a recent EEF report on metacognition and self-regulation and it repeats points made in that report. Some of these are framed as ‘misconceptions’, although it’s not clear who holds these misconceptions. And one of these misconceptions is:

“Misconception 1: Metacognition is a general skill that should be taught separately from subject knowledge”

The authors go on to expand on this point and it is one well supported by the research they draw upon. Generic thinking skills programmes are less successful than developing metacognition within subject-based lessons.

However, there is an element of, ‘So what?’ about it. If we are really saying that teaching metacognition involves, for example, English teachers teaching students how to plan essays, then are we actually saying much at all? Perhaps there are some English teachers out there who say to their students, ‘Write! Write! I just want you to write! Cast off your shackles, free your minds, pick up you pens and write, goddammit!’ but I don’t know any.

And what is strange is that this misconception, identified in an EEF guidance report, seems to be a misconception that the EEF hold themselves about P4C. Is anyone at the EEF able to square this for us? I’d offer to write about it for Impact magazine but I suspect it wouldn’t get published.


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