My politics are pretty much the same as they were in May 1997. It was the first UK general election that I could vote in and I put my cross next to Anne Campbell, the Labour candidate for Cambridge.
My centre-left views were forged in the recession of the early 1990s and informed by the ram-raid of excessive privatisation and my father’s experience working in manufacturing. Despite all we have learnt in the intervening years, and despite how lonely a place it has become, the centre-left is still where I sit.
And yet I like to think of myself as a grown-up. I do not believe that those I disagree with must be evil. In fact, I believe they are motivated by wishing to make the world a better place. It’s just that reasonable people may disagree on the best way to do this. And when I can make common cause on an issue that is close to my heart with someone from a different part of the political spectrum, I will. Unashamedly.
So I was quite pleased to see Nick Gibb, a UK government minister, tweet a link to my previous blog post:
Others were not so pleased. Much of this was tribal and not worth responding to. However, there was one point, made in two contexts, that it is worth addressing.
The thrust of my post was that some teaching approaches act like a centrifuge and have differential effects on students: the advantaged gain and the disadvantaged lose. Two of the examples I gave were flipped learning and project based learning and I outlined my reasoning. I then suggested that this may be why two randomised controlled trials, one on flipped learning and one on project based learning, had failed and had hinted at increasing the achievement gap.
The flipped learning trial, in particular, gathered a lot of comment. It took place at West Point, a military academy, and so critics argued that it only demonstrated anything about that particular context. Flipped learning may in fact work really well in high school classrooms.
Firstly, why? What are the key differences that would make flipping more effective in high schools? If anything, we might expect students at West Point to be more intrinsically motivated than high school students and so flipped learning, which depends on students watching videos outside of class time, should be more effective in that context.
Secondly, the burden of proof lies with those who wish to promote flipped learning, not me. Imagine a drug company released a new drug to reduce the symptoms of influenza and a study was completed that showed that it actually worsened the symptoms. Imagine the study’s subjects were wealthy students in Switzerland. True, the drug company could claim that this study does not show that the drug fails with disadvantaged elderly US citizens, but would we be satisfied with that? No, we would want positive evidence that it works.
When you look at the wider evidence, there is no overwhelming support for flipped learning. For instance, a systematic review of flipped learning in medical education found no overall effect, although there was no comment on the achievement gap. When you go looking, what is most striking is the need for better quality study designs.
So that’s military students and medical students crossed off the list…
The other study I mentioned was a randomised controlled trial of project based learning in the UK. This found no overall effect and a potentially negative effect on disadvantaged students. Notably, a large number of schools dropped out of the project-based learning arm of the trial, reducing the strength of the findings.
Setting aside the question of why so many schools gave up on project based learning during the trial, we could simply dismiss this evidence on the basis of the attrition rate. If so, we have not proved project based learning works. We need positive evidence in order to do that and one particularly useful aspect of the UK study is the extensive literature review that finds little positive evidence for the approach.
Now picture all those pundits touring schools and conferences, claiming that project based learning is the future and will help students gain ill-defined soft skills. Where is the evidence base for that? Do we even care?
When it comes to teaching methods, the political divide is a distraction. The real divide is between those of us who value evidence and those who are happy to subsist on hot air.