An excellent piece by Jonathan Firth is one of the most helpful essays in Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto (2018). He describes and summarises, from a cognitive psychology evidence base, essentially where we are up to in our understanding of memory and how it works.

The essay is a useful place to start thinking about how we might as a school re-frame teaching and learning in order to support children’s memory (many things we are already doing). It has already begun to impact my own teaching yesterday!

At the start of his piece, he cites Gert Biesta (2007) who says:

Evidence-based education seems to favour a technocratic model in which it is assumed that the only relevant research questions are questions about the educational effectiveness of educational means and techniques, forgetting, among other things, that what counts as “effective” crucially depends on judgments about what is educationally desirable.

Jonathan Firth accepts this to a degree, but then goes on to argue:

In practice there is already a great deal of discussion about what young people might need to learn for the workplace of the future or to enrich their lives, yet the technical question of how best to impart knowledge and skills tends to be neglected (Firth, 2018, p21)

I think here that he has missed the point, as well as advancing one that is highly disputed. Biesta’s argument revolves around the derivation of “evidence-based practice” from the medical field, where “what works and what doesn’t work” is the main focus of the research. Applying an essentially medico-scientific epistemology and methodology to education falls foul of two things: firstly, Biesta argues, it restricts the scope of decision making to questions of “the role of effectivity and effectiveness” because in medicine the deeper questions we might ask in education about purpose could lead, if broadened too far, to serious injury or death. Secondly, it restricts the field of research just to those “in the know,” and hence “restricts the opportunities for participation in educational decision making.”

This is something that the Chartered College of Teaching has deliberately tackled. Although they are still in hock to the “what works” gurus, they are at least broadening the scope of the task so that practising teachers and researchers all have a say and can be heard by each other. With Daniel Muijs now at Ofsted we at last have a person in the evil empire who gets this way of working and who realises both the glory and limitations of evidence-based research (even though he is one of the leading school-and-teacher improvement thinkers in the UK).  They have not yet let the philosophers and theologians in, unfortunately, so they are not bending their great minds to the real task ahead. Rather the CCT is tinkering with the effectiveness of the internal combustion engine without actually debating the decision about where we want to take the bus. In fact, they may have already made the assumption about where the bus is going, without examining it carefully.

Biesta (2007) again:

Education cannot be understood as an intervention or treatment because of the noncausal and normative nature of educational practice and because of the fact that the means and ends in education are internally related. This implies that educational professionals need to make judgments about what is educationally desirable. Such judgments are by their very nature normative judgments. I have argued that to suggest that research about ‘‘what works’’ can replace such judgments not only implies an unwarranted leap from ‘‘is’’ to ‘‘ought,’’ but also denies educational practitioners the right not to act according to evidence about ‘‘what works’’ if they judge that such a line of action would be educationally undesirable. The problem with evidence-based education, therefore, is not only that it is not sufficiently aware of the role of norms and values in educational decision making; the problem is that it also limits the opportunities for educational professionals to exert their judgment about what is educationally  desirable in particular situations.

This becomes a matter of supreme importance when we stand back and look at the assumptions underlying the DfE and Ofsted intentions for English education. Are they, in any way at all, creating the conditions for, or leading the educational system toward, a healthy, open set of arrangements that will allow the nuances of centuries of Western cultural learning and schooling to have houseroom? Or have they already decided where the bus is going?

In a separate essay in Flip the System UK, Robert Loe argues that in order to deal with this huge level of nuance that Biesta refers to, the English education system (and by implication the OECD “preferred model” of education as expounded by Andreas Schleicher and colleagues) has had to simplify the task by reframing the “size and scope of the issue.” Reflecting on the inability of governments to cope with the 2007-8 financial crisis, Loe argues that we instead spin it so that to the outside world it is more manageable. In this world:

we co-construct a counterfeit version of our reality…we become so embedded in in the system that it becomes challenging to see beyond it. The counterfeit world becomes “hyper-normal” Even those who think that they are confronting the system become part of the deception because they too withdraw into the fantasy world, which is why their dissent and resistance is ineffective and status quo remains….Our inability to re-imagine the education system, or at least to create the space to change it in our imagination; the inauthenticity and futility of even the most positive responses to the system; the very need for a text which argues for a “flipping” of the system, stems from the technocratic ownership of our education spaces. We are told, therefore, that schools can influence social mobility, social stability, even wealth creation and happiness. It matters little what you tell people, so long as it distracts them from having to contend with the intractable complexities of the world; we accept this version of reality as its simplicity is reassuring. (Measuring what Matters, in Flip the System UK, p52)

This level of complexity should really cause us some humility, and an awareness that the system in which we all function with its familiar (but unjustifiable) emphasis on accountability through testing, the concept of “disadvantage,” (used to bolster the social mobility myth), and the relentless substitution of school vigilance and accompanying social policy for family responsibility (in, for instance, PREVENT and the safeguarding agenda), is a simplified, ideologically-contrived framework so that the government can show it is meeting the “demands of the electorate” and “improving education” with a view to the plebiscite a few years down the line. That is all. As a friend of mine wrote to me this week, it is a “poisonous brew of compliance and accountability that has enthralled a whole generation of heads and advisors who should have known better.”

But what if teaching and learning were not really about these things at all? What if the progress data in KS1 and KS2 English and Maths had no relation whatever to the success of young people not just economically but in making sense of their world and contributing to it? Are we confident yet that this level of accountability is bringing success for our children – by any measure at all? Do their simplistic measures of school success and children’s learning contribute in any way to the national fund of contentment or peace? Is the grading of schools by Ofsted actually improving schools by any other measures except those which Ofsted was designed to improve and uses as its metrics? Is there evidence that they have done us good? Or have they only increased metrics in our “counterfeit version of reality?”

Who is there to say that SATs are unimportant, that they give a false picture of school improvement, that they distort children’s learning and major on minors? Because they are. Who is there to say that those school leaders and Local Authorities who measure their success by the percentage of children (aged 5, 7 and 11) who meet an arbitrary standard, are simply deluding themselves? Because we are. We live in the counterfeit reality of the simplified world where progress is certain, complexities are less complex and more tractable, and social mobility, stability and the ongoing creation of wealth are the right destination for the bus. And it is a myth. Sorry. It is.

Supposing that Bishop Alan Wilson’s words to us at a conference in 2012 (picture above) were actually true? And that joy and love actually are the purpose of learning and of school? How would we reframe our research questions then?


About Huw Humphreys

I am a headteacher in the city of Milton Keynes, where I have been since April 2011, looking to make education effective for the whole child and keeping a distant relationship with the powers that be and their narrowing approach to education... but most of all I am looking to find out what it means to be both a follower of Jesus Christ and a passionate educator in the midst of an unsettled community. I am also a part time musician, part time linguist and lover of history and literature...committed both to freedom to learn and depth of learning for all our children. The views on this blog are all my own, and not in any way those of the school I lead!

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