After a brief hagiography from the principal, the education expert strode onto the stage. “Research shows…” he began, before introducing the assembled teachers to his take on this year’s new thing. But all was not well. Somewhere in the audience sat a teacher with a Twitter account. “I don’t think the research actually does show this,” she thought, “but how can I tell?”
Dan Willingham wrote an entire book on the topic of who to trust on education research. It is a difficult issue. The only way to really think critically about research is to read research papers, learn about the methods used and make up your own mind. Some of us are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to do this, but it is impractical for the vast majority of teachers sat in those start-the-year staff meetings.
I am going to offer my own thoughts. Probably the clearest sign that an expert knows what he or she is on about comes from the way they present their arguments. They will tend to take a position on something and they will explain how the research supports that position. However, they will also highlight the limits of the research and the common criticisms of their position, perhaps with their own answer to those criticisms. They will stay focused on the research itself and not try to support their argument by appeals to political sentiment or by attacking the character and motivations of their opponents.
Where will these good experts work? It should be in our universities, but one of the sad ironies of modern education is that education academics often reject the scientific method in preference for qualitative arguments that are essentially based on ideology. At the same time, education academics pour scorn on think-tanks, claiming that you cannot trust the research of think-tanks because it is ideological.
It is best to get off this merry-go-round. Universities produce some good research and a lot of rubbish. Think-tanks don’t have the power of peer-review through the academic journal system to draw upon, but they often shed light on issues that are ignored by universities and that are of more practical relevance to teachers and policy makers. So we shouldn’t get too hung-up on where our experts work, we should pay most attention to what they say.
So back to those points. Why should an expert take a position? Taking a position makes the expert vulnerable because it means that someone could potentially demonstrate that he or she is wrong*. It means that the expert’s own arguments can be analysed and so the expert is making themselves available for scrutiny. By avoiding a position, an expert is suggesting that your ideas and opinions are open for scrutiny, but not theirs. This happens more than you might think in workshop-style sessions or coaching models of professional development that mirror constructivist teaching methods.
It is possible to take a position but see no need to support this with evidence. This can be very effective if it is somehow implied that all teachers who are hardworking, kind, ethical, contemporary or who possess some other desirable virtue must agree with the expert on this particular point. It is effective because by challenging the expert, you become an outcast lacking in that virtue.
I remember a conference I once attended where speaker after speaker derided ‘transmission teaching’. I do not know what they meant by this, but nobody questioned it and I suspect many of those in attendance accepted this as fundamental and obvious, similar to the idea that gravity pulls us downwards.
And anyone who has researched anything in depth will be familiar with the best criticisms of their position. Failing to mention these criticisms is a bad sign. It may signal hubris or it may suggest that these criticisms represent a fundamental threat to the expert. Neither of these is a good sign. If an expert does not volunteer some of the most obvious criticisms then ask what they are. The reaction will be telling.
Finally, it is worth distinguishing between trusting an expert and accepting that they are right. We can all be honestly mistaken. The state of education research is such that there are many holes and nobody can be sure of anything. We are all trying to tidy this mess up into something that makes sense and most of us will have committed errors in the process.
An honest expert knows they are likely to be wrong at some level. A bogus expert will run in the other direction from ever admitting this possibility.
*This is also why it is pointless arguing with someone on Twitter about an issue if the person you are arguing with claims to take no position on that issue. If this happens to you, bail.