BERA should retract Steve Watson’s paper

Steve Watson of Cambridge University has had a paper published about education debate on Twitter. It has been enthusiastically welcomed by members of the UK’s education establishment who see it as proving what they have thought all along. However, the paper contains serious flaws.

One example is the partial and unevidenced way in which Watson characterises the differences between what he describes as ‘progs’ and ‘trads’;

“A Twitter thread in 2012 featured an argument about the nature of children’s motivation in the classroom. The question revolves around teacher authority and the nature of learning, but after a few exchanges, the debate turns into a dispute. On the one side Progs argue that teachers should motivate children through engaging and inspiring them; and on the other side, Trads argue that children should be pressed into learning a series of facts.”

I find the characterisation of ‘trads’ extremely implausible. I don’t see anyone arguing for pressing children into learning a series of facts. I see arguments for a knowledge rich curriculum. However, we cannot test Watson’s claims about this Twitter exchange because there is no reference to it, despite the citation of Tweets being commonplace in academic literature for some time.

Perhaps even worse is what Watson does choose to cite. ResearchED is an extremely popular grass-roots movement among teachers and has therefore put a few noses out of joint in the education establishment. This has led to a campaign of misinformation from some and to a number of conspiracy theories. Watson sides with the tinfoil hat wearers on this issue:

“ResearchED grew in popularity after 500 teachers attended its inaugural conference in 2013. There have been over 50 conferences in the UK and abroad. However, Ulam argues that researchED is an ‘astroturfed’ movement; that it is an artificial grassroots movement established as an ‘outrider’ for Gove’s education reforms (Ulam, 2017).”

To understand this conspiracy theory, things unfortunately get a little arcane. As I understand it, researchED was formed in 2013 as the result of a Twitter conversation. Someone suggested that teachers needed their own research organisation, Tom Bennett was suggested as the person to set it up and he agreed.

However, critics want to see it as a creation of the UK’s Conservative government. The source Watson cites suggests that a few days before the Twitter conversation, one of the people involved, Ben Goldacre, had suggested in a government report that teachers needed a research organisation.

To me, this is hardly surprising. If Goldacre thought teachers needed a research organisation then he would have been likely to say this to whoever he was talking to, be it the government or folks on Twitter. But, you know, that’s far too simple an explanation.

And what is Watson’s source for this conspiracy theory? A blog post by Vince Ulam. I am not necessarily against blogging, but this is a deeply eccentric source for an academic paper. I am pretty sure Ulam is a pseudonym. And his online presence is quite bizarre (full disclosure – Ulam has previously written a strange blog post about me).

Ulam has a presence on Twitter and likes to discuss trans issues. Whatever you think about that, I’m sure we can all agree that comments such as the following are appalling:

Watson’s paper was published in the British Educational Research Journal, the journal of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) and yet it wouldn’t get past the most jaded PhD supervisor without demands for a complete rewrite and much better referencing.

For the sake of its reputation, BERA should retract this paper.


8 thoughts on “BERA should retract Steve Watson’s paper

  1. David F says:

    This tweet says it all in response to Watson putting his paper on Twitter:

    “[Richard] Hofstadter wrote in 1963 [in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life] on ed schools embracing Dewey: “And so the quest for a method of institutionalizing the proper anti-institutional methods goes on.” Now that anti-institutional methods are thoroughly institutionalized, criticism is considered populist anti-elitism.

  2. Chester Draws says:

    Here I draw on Mouffe’s definition of populism …
    Subsequently, in the 1980s, Canovan attempted …
    The conceptualisation of populism in this research is informed by Laclau’s perspective…

    Fairly typical. He references tons of academics in the theoretical parts of the paper, but not the practical parts.

    (Due to Covid the teacher training program was cut a bit short her this year. So what did they cut? Yes, time in classrooms. But not theory. That says all you need to know about modern teacher training.)

    Trads often take uncompromising ‘evidence‐based’ positions on a range of issues.

    You have to admire someone who openly posits this as a negative.

  3. Jay Jam says:

    This is the problem with a lot of academic “educational research” – it’s not even vaguely scientific. “prog” and “trad”, what a joke.

  4. Anon says:

    Research like this is no more trustworthy than an opinion column in a newspaper. It’s insidious. It has a veneer of objectivity and academic respectability. But it doesn’t follow any proper research methodology. As others have said, it relies on an intimidating range of citations to previous literature. Follow those citations, and you find nothing impressive: more unsubstantiated opinion, more empty theorizing (e.g. inventing and applying terminology), and more citations. The whole field of educational research is based on hot air.

    In any case, studying teacher perceptions of education policy debate is not that valuable, regardless of how well it’s done. It’s two or three layers of abstraction away from what you naively might think education research is: finding better ways to teach.

    • Qanon says:

      I agree up until the last sentence of the first paragraph where you suddenly make it about ‘The whole field’ based on a rather limited sample. I would also say that it can be quite useful to look at policy views, as in the end limited resources are available to ‘find better ways to teach’. Of course, it is then essential that it’s good research, of course.

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