The Great Education Debate

Freedom is hammered out on the anvil of discussion, dissent, and debate. Hubert H. Humphrey

With increasing frequency, someone will pop up on social media to announce to the world that debating the best way to approach the project of education is a waste of time. These are the reasons I’m typically presented with when I demur:

1. It’s boringly repetitive and nothing new is ever contributed.

2. It’s just a bun fight rather than an actual debate and no one ever changes their minds.

3. Real teachers in real schools don’t know anything about it so it obviously can’t be that important.

4. It’s a false dichotomy: there is no best way to teach so discussing this question is just silly.

Clearly though, not everyone feels this. Some of us think there is a best way to teach and that discussing this is a professional responsibility. Here are a couple of polls that have been conducted on Twitter over the past few days:

First mine:

Then one from @theprimaryhead:

This latter is fascinating and suggests that if teachers aren’t clear about what’s at stake then it’s perhaps no wonder that they’re not willing to ante up.  If you do care about what these terms mean – and you really should –  this is a useful reference point.

In order to unpick these results a little, I’ll discuss each of the objections to debating the best way to teach in turn.

1. It’s boringly repetitive and nothing new is ever contributed

It always surprise me that some people have such a capacity for sharing those things they have no interest in. If you’re bored by the debate, fine. Go do something else. In this post I wrote about the varieties of boredom and said this:

The real reason I don’t care about ostentatiously communicating my ennui about subjects in which I have no interest is because they don’t threaten me. Maybe those at pains to tell others what they find boring do so because they actually feel threatened? If you have nothing to contribute, proclaim yourself bored. The philosopher, E. M. Cioran, noted that what’s true and important is often uninteresting: “If truth were not boring, science would have done away with God long ago. But God, as well as the saints, is a means to escape the dull banality of truth.” Maybe you need to escape the dull banality of truth? Fine. But don’t bore me with how much the truth bores you.

The thing is, anything about which we’re already certain is unlikely to reveal much in the way of anything new; we only really think when we’re uncertain. So sure, if you’re certain you’re right and believe you have nothing left to learn, then maybe the debate is dull.

2. It’s just a bun fight rather than an actual debate and no one ever changes their minds

Debate on Twitter can be ill-tempered at times. but maybe that’s the price we pay for the freedom to speak our minds. A lot of back and forth between those entrenched in their beliefs is most certainly unproductive. But, there’s nothing you can do about the ‘unswayable minority’. Instead, we should try to rise above name-calling and provocation to persuade those who haven’t yet made up their mind. Perhaps if we were all to apply the principle of charity there’d be a lot less bad blood.

Plus, to say no one changes their mind just isn’t true. After all, I did. I wrote this back in 2014 about why and how this happened.

3. Real teachers in real schools don’t know anything about it so it obviously can’t be that important

This is both true and false. Most teachers really are unaware of a tension between progressive and traditional education. I certainly didn’t before I joined Twitter in 2010. Most teachers really do just get on with their jobs and do whatever seems best at the time. But, it doesn’t follow that this makes the debate irrelevant. The fact that some teachers don’t know what it means to traditional or progressive in one’s outlook makes it al the more important. The fact is, we’re influenced all the time by arguments of which we’re unaware. Meta beliefs about education operate beneath the surface of our consciousness and dictate many of the choices teachers make.

If we’re unaware there’s a debate about how best to teach, then we won’t be able to think critically about what we’re told. We cannot think about something we don’t know. Ignorance only increases the likelihood that we’ll be a hostage to every new fad or gimmick that rolls along. To defend ourselves against being taken in – both by frauds and well-intentioned bunglers – we need to be professionally sceptical, and to be professionally sceptical we need to know what sorts of questions to ask.

When I speak to teachers and visit schools I deliberately avoid banging on about the tenets of traditionalism or progressivism, I tell my story. I explain how I used to have all sorts of misguided beliefs about the best way to teach that had been picked up in training, through CPD and in response to Ofsted. I explain why I now think these beliefs to be false and what I do instead and the overwhelming majority of teachers I speak to are relieved. The thing is, most teachers seems to instinctively know that most of the child-centred, discovery approaches they’ve been told are the best way to teach don’t work well in practice but the feel guilty about ‘just telling kids stuff’. A great many teachers reluctantly play the game when on view, but when their classroom door is closed, just get on with making sure kids understand the curriculum. Explaining that there is a choice and that teacher-led instruction is a legitimate approach to teaching comes as very welcome news.

4. It’s a false dichotomy: there is no best way to teach so discussing this question is just silly

Of course you can do a ‘bit of both’, but why would you if you believed one approach was the most effective. As I explained here, I think the debate represents a real dichotomy. Suggesting that teacher should pick and choose from teacher-lead and child-centered approaches is to what I’ve termed the And Fallacy. In my experience, only those who espouse progressive sympathies tend to say that they use explicit instruction at times because they know students otherwise wouldn’t learn very much. But, since I’ve been persuaded that explicit instruction is always the most effective way to teach school age children, I’ve never needed to use a discovery approach because they add nothing. This is less idrologicsl than it is practical. You only need to use a bit of both if you’re ideologically determined to include some discovery learning in your lessons.

And just in case you still think all of this is meaninglessly academic, the debate is not simply a point scoring exercise between people who just happen to like different teaching methodologies, it’s an argument about the best way to achieve social justice. As I explained here, explicit approaches to education are more likely to close the gap between those who start life with advantages and those who are disadvantaged by their background. If this is something you care about, doing a bit of both is self-indulgent dilettantism at its worst.

The debate really is important

The pendulum is swinging and the debate on social media and blogs over the past five years or so has had a profound effect both on policy at the highest level and, whether teachers are aware of it or not, in classrooms. Reforms and myth-busting from Ofsted and DfE are far from panaceas and there is still a great deal to be done, but the debate is, slowly but surely, winning hearts and minds. The fact that some people want to shut it down  or hurl insults is testament to their fear at losing influence and credibility.

Here is a summary of what I’ve learned through debating ideas in education.

45 Responses to The Great Education Debate

  1. Matt says:

    Something that I find a little disengaging about the debate is that an awful lot of time seems to be spent trying to prove other people’s beliefs to be wrong, rather than discussing what works.

    • David Didau says:

      It’s of paramount importance to find out what’s ineffective. On that foundation we can then be better informed on what’s likely to work

      • Matt says:

        I completely agree, although when ‘ineffective’ is associated with ideology and identity (through drawing lines and grouping methods and practices either side), rather than educating children, the debate often seems more about former.

        • David Didau says:

          Associating any of this with identity or ideology is bunkum.

          • Matt says:

            Why do you think that? Traditional and Progressive are ideologies and some people identify with them, no? You don’t think that shapes the debate?

          • David Didau says:

            I see ‘the tradition’ as a collection of ideas which have served us well over human history and ‘progressivism’ as an idealistic attempt to transform education for well-intentioned but naive reasons. Of course what we believe shapes the debate but I strive only to believe things that are rooted in the consensus researched through decades of research. I promise you I’ll be the first to change my mind if a well-designed, large scale horse race trial pitting explicit approaches against discovery approaches proves that discovery leads to children performing better.

          • Matt says:

            I guess I’m wondering whether framing the debate from within these binary positions helps or hinders the progression of good educational practices? What do you think?

          • David Didau says:

            It’s where the debate’s framed. Ignoring the framing is a bit disingenuous. But I know what you mean.

          • Matt says:

            Perhaps “spreading of good educational practice” is a better term to use than “progression” : )

          • Matt says:

            Indeed. And I agree – ignoring the framing is disingenuous; however, focusing on the framing and how it effects the debate, and by corollary education, is worth considering.

      • Steve Griffiths says:

        Agreed. Too often political parties come out with a ‘brand new plan’ for education (or other departments for that matter!) However, nobody seems to look back to see ‘has anyone tried this before?’ – and if they have, why aren’t we still doing it??

    • Guy says:

      Agreed. A worrying amount of time and money is spent doing this in the name of ‘educational research’.

  2. Michael Pye says:

    Some points Matt.

    When debating anything we have little control over what others say and do especially those who might seem to agree with us.

    Testing arguments by trying to destroy them is a tried and true method of reasoning, though ideally it should be used as vigorously on your own ideas as well. More importantly the scientific method usually works by making falsifiable claims that can be disproved.

    On a local level sharing good practice is an excellent idea but when trying to tease out simple general rules it is simply not sufficient. Remember everything works thanks to the Hawthorne effect.

    Taking things personally seems to be par for the course. Unless you can find away to suddenly train everyone in evidence based practice, the scientific method, common fallacies and statistical thinking progress here is likely to be slow. (We should try to teach those things to new teachers though).

    It is not a practical approach to expect others to do all the heavy lifting for you intellectually. It is your own responsibility to sift through it while encourages in yourself and others good practices for sharing evidence that make it easier.

    It is okay getting annoyed at the wasted energy and gross inefficiency of going over the same old arguments but unless you are willing to give up trying to make progress you have to keep going back to those same ideas. We all need a break sometimes from that debate.

    Finally not every voice has equal merit in the system. Most decisions are made by a relatively poorly informed (on evidence based practice) senior management and mid ranking OFSTEAD inspectors. These are the people who exercise most influence over school policies and classroom expectations.

    • Matt says:

      Thanks, Richard, really interesting. I’ve responded to a few below.

      A David says, the debate is important, I just think it’s worth thinking about how we debate and not just the content of it.

      “When debating anything we have little control over what others say and do especially those who might seem to agree with us.”

      M:
      It would good if there were some scholarly unwritten rules though, as there are in
      academia. Having a bit of a framework might make things more efficient.

      “Testing arguments by trying to destroy them is a tried and true method of reasoning, though ideally it should be used as vigorously on your own ideas as well. More importantly the scientific method usually works by making falsifiable claims that can be disproved.”

      “On a local level sharing good practice is an excellent idea but when trying to tease out simple general rules it is simply not sufficient. Remember everything works thanks to the Hawthorne effect.”

      M:
      Completely agree. I’ve learnt a great deal from the healthy constructive discussions going on and I think it very important to discuss why something isn’t working as well as why something is working. The point I was trying to make is that there seems a great deal of discussion focused on the identities of people who take an ideological stance (e.g. traditionals are right-wing authoritarians and progressives are self-indulgent amateurs). It worries me that labelling like this a) shuts down the debate between the two sides, and b) skews the aim of the debate i.e, some of the discussion is about proving peoples beliefs to be right or wrong, rather the educational methods.

      “Taking things personally seems to be par for the course. Unless you can find away to suddenly train everyone in evidence based practice, the scientific method, common fallacies and statistical thinking progress here is likely to be slow. (We should try to teach those things to new teachers though).”

      M:
      I think this is an excellent idea. It would be great if teacher training included some research methods.

      “is not a practical approach to expect others to do all the heavy lifting for you intellectually. It is your own responsibility to sift through it while encourages in yourself and others good practices for sharing evidence that make it easier.”

      “It is okay getting annoyed at the wasted energy and gross inefficiency of going over the same old arguments but unless you are willing to give up trying to make progress you have to keep going back to those same ideas. We all need a break sometimes from that debate.”

      M:
      I think it may be worth thinking about why the same arguments are repeated? Do creating these ideological divides and arguing from within these positions help or hinder the efficiency of progress? Or does it have no effect? I think it hinders.

      • Michael pye says:

        We can’t make the internet behave because we want it to. I can’t even do that in the staff room. I don’t disagree with your concerns just that you are focusing on things individuals can’t control. You can model your own behaviour that’s it. It is also hard to argue from first principles every time, everyone releys on prior knowledge to allow the argument to progress this makes categorisations and grouping inevitable. Sure we should take steps to address this but it is not realistic to expert miracles.

        Your focusing on the perihaphry.

        • Matt says:

          I think I called you Richard before, sorry about that ; ) Not sure what happened there…

          What kind of steps do you think we should take?

  3. Gioia Wagener says:

    Agree with Matt below…we are all in different contexts seeking the best possible solutions for students in our direct proximity.This is what drives us.

    By default this means different methodologies are needed.Education is complex due to its connection human beings so it would be dangerous to choose one style or one paradigm,students needs dictate flexibility.

    The debate is important and (yes) academic.It has always been so historically and there is a tension between the philosophy and the reality-keeps teaching one of the most fascinating of subjects!

    • David Didau says:

      I’m sorry, but I think you’re wrong. I’m not saying context is unimportant, but it should never be used an excuse to explain away evidence we don’t like: http://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/context-isnt-king/

      I take the view that it’s more dangerous to choose methodologies that are less likely to work.

      • Gioia Wagener says:

        David,
        Thanks for your interesting response.However,I beg to differ and don’t think you can remove an understanding of context from good practice.All pupils deserve the very best and the same chances but not all cohorts across the whole world get there in the same way.

        Having worked in several contexts,I can see strategies that have been effective in those contexts and when they have to be modified for others.Maybe the subtlety is in the modification of certain strategies, but common core principles of good practice surely cannot be denied.Would you agree?

        Students bring different things with them to the classroom and to say context doesn’t count at all would be like saying all pupils are the same.

        Debate is healthy but actual teaching is even more fun!

        • Michael pye says:

          The few things we have managed to tease out of the data are precisely because they seem to be true across contexts. Your approach leaves no room for evidence to give us even the limited insights it has. Everything is context dependent, everything is opinion.

  4. David Didau says:

    I refer you back to my previous is comment in which I said, ” I’m not saying context is unimportant”. 🙂

    • Gioia Wagener says:

      Thanks for your reply David,

      I find the debate fascinating that you are encouraging.As a result it is the first time I am engaging in a virtual debate like this.

      Keep making people think,infuriating them sometimes!It’s a rich dialogue.

      Evidence based educational research will remain tricky terrain due to all the variables that surround any research in this area.Do you believe in the validity of action research based in our own classroom?

      • Matt says:

        I agree, fascinating debate! It’s so good to have forums like this that allow these kinds of rich discussions to take place and that people are actively taking part in them. Really interesting to be able to hear other people’s views and opinions.

        Whilst I think research is essential in guiding our thinking, sometimes I think its a bit of a double-edged sword. The problem with social science research – and I say this as a social science researcher – is first, if you’re comparatively testing two methods against each other (rather than modelling all of the variables), you end up reducing findings to what works for the mean in the sample. It doesn’t consider variation within the sample or what works best for everyone, only what works best for the majority. No problem if you just want to find out what works for the majority of a particular sample, but is this problematic if you want to provide every child with a good education?

        Second, social science research is extremely messy. Look at the recent replication crisis in psychology https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Replication_crisis#Replication_rates_in_psychology : 100 published studies were replicated (some cognitive and some social); only 50% of the cognitive and 25% of the social psychology studies were replicated with significant results… 25%! Whilst the model of publishing has been widely used to explain this, the contextual complexities of humans and their habitats also have a large part to play – the difference between the cognitive and social results are highly suggestive of this.

        How much should we be considering these factors when using research as evidence? Does it matter?

        25%!

        • David Didau says:

          The reproducibility ‘crisis’ in psychology may well be over blown. This article from Dorothy Bishop makes a lot of sense http://deevybee.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/there-is-reproducibility-crisis-in.html

          • Matt says:

            True – it certainly is in the media, although I’m not sure Bishop would say that the methodological implications are. She also discusses how contextual factors may be part of the reason:

            “Gilbert et al raise the possibility that the effects that are observed are not just small but also more fragile, in that they can be very dependent on contextual factors. Get these wrong, and you lose the effect.”

            And this from the last sentence of her blog post seems quite pertinent:

            “…the solution is not to deny we have a problem, but to recognise that under those circumstances there is an urgent need for our field to tackle the methodological issues of inadequate power and p-hacking, so we can distinguish genuine effects from false positives.”

          • Matt says:

            So what if it the methodological implications aren’t overblown? How do you think this should inform the way we use research in practice, or conduct research? Maybe it shouldn’t?

          • David Didau says:

            We should use research findings as a guide of what we might expect. They allow us to make meaningful and measurable predictions.

          • Matt says:

            True. I think using research as a guide is important, but don’t you think that a) the reliability and validity of what is meaningful is called into question by the discussion we’ve been having and the points that Bishop raises (e.g. context and methodological issues)? And b) if so, how meaningful are these predictions?

          • David Didau says:

            They’re imperfect but a much better guide than our intuition.

          • Matt says:

            Without doubt research is better that intuition. The point is that a) research is not cast iron evidence and so arguing a method as definitely the best way because the (not cast iron) research says so is flawed, and b) the replication crisis is highly suggestive that context is extremely important – different methods are likely to work differently in different contexts – there is no one best fit.

          • Matt says:

            Engage in the words, don’t just post a link : ) That’s not debate : )

            You’ve cited Bishop saying she makes sense, which I wholeheartedly agree, but she is saying context and methods warp findings.

          • David Didau says:

            The link provides my answer. Surely, you don’t need me to paste a blog post into this comment thread? Just click the link.

          • Matt says:

            I will read it though : ) Always interested in your thoughts.

          • Matt says:

            No it doesn’t – we’re discussing the implications for practice of problematic research paradigms – as discussed by the Bishop blog you have cited. There’s nothing about that in your link, so no, please don’t post that here! : )

            This seems like a very important and fruitful topic, give that research is used as evidence.

            I’m interested in why you think the following are not valid arguments given that they come from the work you have cited as making sense? What am I missing?

            A) Research is not cast iron evidence and so arguing a method as definitely the best way because the (not cast iron) research says so is flawed.

            B) The replication crisis is highly suggestive that context is extremely important – different methods are likely to work differently in different contexts – there is no one best fit.

          • David Didau says:

            A) of course evidence cannot provide “cast iron evidence” – that’s not how science works. It provides probabilistic evidence about what’s most likely to work.
            B) Given the point above, if context is the only variable, then why would anyone ever choose a method with a lesser probability of being effective?

          • Matt says:

            I think one of us is missing the others point, or perhaps both : )

      • David Didau says:

        I think action research is a great way to test out ideas and learn something about your own practice. It is not a good way to learn anything about how children learn though and we should never try to generalise from it. Does that help?

        • Michael Pye says:

          Bit confused Matt why is the replication crisis is suggestive that context is extremely important? By context I am assuming you mean different classroom environments.

          I obviously believe context has an effect but the BishopBlog article references it as one point among many as a possible explanation and uses a term fragility which is more useful. If an effect disappears under slightly different conditions then we need to tease those conditions out and update our model. I suspect you are going to argue a very wide definition of context as you seem to be using a wide definition of certainty in cast iron evidence. All research uses statistical thinking and therefore the balance of probabilities. It is obviously more sensible to encourage those approaches which have a vastly more likely chance of success.

          I believe there has been multiple summaries of basic best practice with mostly overlapping principles from across the political spectrum. David am I correct about that?

          Finally I still don’t think you have thought through the alternative. In the absence of evidence based practice we are still going to be taught teaching practices and judged on how we implement them. Surely we only have to offer a significant improvement over the fad/philosophy/gimmick of the week.

          • Matt says:

            Sorry, I didn’t really explain that. Thanks for your reply.

            So one of the suggestive features is the difference between the the cognitive psychology and social psychology replication results: 50% significant findings reproduced and 25% significant findings reproduced respectively. In cognitive experiments, great measures are usually taken to control the context of the participant (e.g. they’re in the same testing booth, the instructions and stimuli are exactly the same etc.) in an attempt to infer that differences in results are localised to the the participant’s brain and the variables in the experiment. When you conduct social psychology experiments, participants are contextualised in the social, cultural and physical structures of their environment. Brains start behaving differently when they are contextualised (hence the tight control in cog experiments). The fact that the results from fewer social psychology experiments were replicated compared to cognitive psychology experiments is indicative that the original studies and replicated studies were conducted across different contexts – the context was different so they behaved differently.

            Even the difference in the cog findings is theoretically in part due to the differing contextual backgrounds of the participants. Two participants may be matched of cognitive ability, be the same age, have the same social economic background, have the same level of health and so on, but how much sleep they had last night, what they had for breakfast, who one the match, what they’re doing in an hour, their emotional state amongst an infinite number of contextual variables will make them behave different from each other.

            Sure, there’s loads of reasons why the replication crisis happened, and without doubt, the model of publishing had a lot to do with it, but also without doubt, the fact that humans from different contextual backgrounds and in different present contexts behave differently also had a lot to do with it.

            My concern is not with using research to inform practice. I completely agree with you that it is sensible – I would say essential – to encourage statistically proven approaches, and research is a valuable tool for understanding what these are. My concern is when encouragement (based on research) becomes authority (based the same research) – that authority is not valid in my view. My other concern, as I’ve written above somewhere, is that comparative statistical testing only finds out what’s best for the largest group in a sample. What works for the largest group does not mean it works for everyone.

          • Matt says:

            I agree, the fragility is a useful term, and I think speaks to the heart of the matter.

            I think we’re talking about the same thing though aren’t we? You using the term conditions, and I’m using the term context?

  5. Jeff Hendley says:

    What turns me off is twofold: the mountain we face changing opinions and the constant moaning about trolls. Ignore the trolls and stay positive.

  6. I don’t like using the terms “traditional” and “progressive” in this way.

    According to the Oxford dictionary, a tradition is “a long-established custom or belief” and “traditional” means “existing as part of a tradition” or “long-established”. Rousseau wrote about child-centred education in the eighteenth century. “Look and Say” for teaching reading began in the nineteenth century and was well-established in the USA by the 1930s. My training was all about the Plowden Report of 1967 and that was about discovery learning, individualised learning, the notion of readiness and the teacher “helping, advising and discussing much more frequently than standing before a class teaching”. As a teacher, I thought this was the only right way to teach. I didn’t hear anyone advocating whole class teaching or direct instruction until the twenty-first century.

    According to the Oxford dictionary, “progressive” means favouring change or innovation, amongst other things. I favour change and innovation to introduce more direct instruction, teaching children phonics systematically, whole class teaching, children all facing the teacher for some of the time, children sitting on chairs at tables to write and not scrunched on a carpet. I favour giving children extra teaching, if they are in danger of falling behind, and not leaving them to get further and further behind, because they’re “not ready”.

    I think I am “progressive”.

    • Michael Pye says:

      The term progressive is old, nearly a century now and made sense in its day. Ironically being a traditionalist actually makes you progressive (in the lets change the way we do things way). It is just one of the historical idiosyncrasy’s (is there a better word for this). The titles are annoying and extremely unhelpful but they are what they are.

      My brother gets annoyed being called a Tory instead of a conservative as he sees it as an insult. I can’t help teasing him as I am neither.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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