Presented at the ACU Blackfriars Lecture July 30, 2019
Part 2: The Assumptions that Harm Teachers
Beware the merry-go-round of education reforms! My lecturers used to call it the twelve-year cycle of nutty ideas promulgated by well-meaning think tanks and researchers.
Howard Gardner, Robert Marzano, John Hattie, Carol Dweck, Dylan William - for years we’ve been asked to uncritically assimilate theory from these edu gurus, and others like them. Hattie, for example, has looked at thousands of education studies, and then figured out what things worked and what things didn't in an effort to find what makes a successful teacher (if you can believe the effect sizes published, or really wish to apply them to your particular context, after his initial debacle). His list of instructional approaches with high effect sizes has become the agenda for what should be applied in classrooms or schools to improve student outcomes. The uptake of his work by education systems across the globe has canonised his study in contemporary dialogue and debate to the extent that it is now put forth as the default solution to many of the woes of education. However, in academic and education circles, there are now very serious concerns raised about the use of meta-analyses to guide educational policy and practice. Results reported in meta-analyses research tend to mask complicated, contextual interactions between teachers, students, families, schools,and communities.
Unfortunately, publishing these lists of “effect sizes” merely encourages the promotion of silver bullet responses to our most complex educational problems. There are many, many reasons why acceptance of this type of resource and groupthink has started to govern what counts as the educational research that frames teachers’ choices and decisions, but chiefly I suspect it’s because of change fatigue ... and also teachers’ lack of free access to peer-reviewed research relating to their practice, and possibly that these journal articles aren’t written with a teaching audience in mind.
With each new approach, resource or initiative, teachers need to be critically reflective, reach into their toolbox, take out the tools they know have been less successful, and replace them with others. Just in my career, I can remember being required to implement or endorse: genre based approaches of the 80s which were aligned with social justice issues, reading and writing workshops, literacy rotations, the GRR framework, inquiry literacy, guided reading, conferencing, literature circles, reciprocal teaching, critical literacy practices, four roles of the reader, traditional grammar, functional grammar, …. Phew! That’s just for literacy (and I think I've missed some out!) Another list would begin with productive pedagogies, integrated learning, inquiry-based teaching and learning... And so on, and so forth.
And I’m still standing - and not that old!
Good Reasons to Be A Critical Consumer
So, if I could travel back in time to speak to Teacher Petra in 1994, I’d tell myself all the good reasons to be a brave critical consumer.
Firstly, it helps you to make good decisions and informed actions. Secondly, it makes clear those subtle, hidden forms of manipulation serving the ends of media, parents, system leaders, school leaders, and policy writers. Thirdly, teachers know that the further away you get from the classroom, the more myopic the focus. So, being a teacher who is a critical consumer brings clarity to your pedagogical, philosophical and emotional self, which is so important to survive the ups and downs of your teaching career.
Finally, being a critical consumer is super fun! It keeps you interested, and interesting! Asking questions, promoting discussion... watching people squirm a little bit as they defend their position. A student of mine used to ask: Is this activity going to be your kind of fun, Mrs Cole, or our kind of fun? Oh, this is absolutely my kind of fun!
Next post: How do we become critical consumers of educational policy, approaches and research?