Education tends to be a polite profession – debate is generally civilised, at least relative to the febrile political atmosphere we now seem to be living through. Tom Bennett of ResearchED isn’t interested in playing nice though, and his target is one of the pillars that educators rely on for the substance of their work: education research, which he says is in a calamitous state, and broadly doesn’t make the grade when compared to other disciplines. One of this country’s pre-eminent researchers Cathy Wylie says that Tom has a simplistic grasp of the concepts he is tearing down – Tom says it’s the research itself that is the ‘fake news’ in this story.
It’s safe to say that teachers are anxious to stay ahead of the pedagogical curve, because ultimately, we all want the same thing: better outcomes for students. Whether our skepticism threshold is as high as it should be, or whether we sometimes simply don’t want to look like we’d prefer a return to the chalkboard, are questions that aren’t going away.
It’s that laudable eagerness, along with a palette of other group dynamic phenomena, that Tom Bennett says leads inevitably to ‘Swiss cheese’ education orthodoxy – on close inspection it’s full of non-evidence based holes, where lots of sacred cows hide unchallenged.
Tom is the founder of ResearchED, a “grass-roots, teacher-led project that aims to make teachers research-literate and pseudo-science proof.” What began as a late-night Twitter conversation is now, five years later, an international conference movement, due to hit these shores in June for the first time.
Putting it mildly, Tom has little time for sacred cows and Swiss cheese. Having put his two under-five children to bed minutes before our interview, his semi-whisper is incongruous to the message it carries, which he jumps right into.
“I realised quite early in my career that teaching wasn’t particularly evidence-based. [I thought that] a lot of the things we do in education are done not on the basis of research or evidence, but because of ideological reasons, or because of intuition or ‘gut feelings’. I remember thinking, ‘this isn’t good enough’.”
Perhaps something in Tom’s previous life as a London nightclub manager – he came to education after a mid-life readjustment – is responsible for the disdain he seems to have for the niceties of education diplomacy (which some might call self-congratulatory committee-think). He says his background certainly equipped him for the rigours of the classroom at least. To get the blood flowing, so to speak, at 11pm in the UK, the first sacred cow with its neck on the block is one that wasn’t in the best of health anyway.
“I came to education in my mid-thirties. At the time I thought that, surely by now, we would have settled all the really big, important problems in education – we would know how children learn, we would know the best ways to teach and so on. It amazed me to think that people are still reinventing the wheel every single generation.
“Things like ‘learning styles’ [a theory, now heavily criticized, positing that students should be taught according to an assessment of their inherent learning type] and neuro-linguistic programming were huge when I first started.
I call them ‘zombie theories’ – they stagger on even though they’ve been shot and killed a long time ago.”
Tom believes that there is a strong undercurrent of self-reinforcing faith in education – it feels right, it sounds right, but in fact many assumptions we never question are based on little or no evidence, or poor quality research. Now limbered up, he casually lines up one of modern education’s more cherished centerpieces.
“Take inquiry learning – super fashionable internationally. There’s a lot of really weak evidence to suggest that children should be off learning by themselves, and that they’ve got to co-construct their own learning.
“Yet there’s lots of evidence to suggest that’s not the case at all. In fact, if you’ve got a novice learner, somebody who’s new to a topic, in actual fact what they need is very clear, linear, sequenced explanations by an expert – what we would call ‘direct instruction’.
“Let me be clear: direct instruction isn’t a lecture, in fact it’s very dialogic and interactive. There’s lots of questioning and checking of understandings. But a lot – I would argue most – teachers in the countries I’ve been to never get taught how to instruct children.
“The problem with the inquiry approach, which is so beloved, and so fashionable in education these days is that it benefits middle class children with good vocabularies and lots of cultural capital. It really detracts from the learning of the least able, the most marginalized [students].”
Given the topic at hand, it’s surely safe to assume that Tom’s unflinching assertions are backed by evidence. Part of the basis for his blunt rejection of arguably education’s most sacred bovine is Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching by Kirschner et al (2006). The precis states:
“Although unguided or minimally guided instructional approaches are very popular and intuitively appealing, the point is made that these approaches ignore both the structures that constitute human cognitive architecture and evidence from empirical studies over the past half-century that consistently indicate that minimally guided instruction is less effective and less efficient…”
A skeptical eyebrow
Tom says that what he wants to achieve through ResearchED is two-pronged, as he told the UK’s Telegraph recently.
“One is that I want to highlight for teachers the rubbish that is out there, so that when someone comes along and says, ‘you should do this to help children learn’ teachers can raise a skeptical eyebrow and say ‘what’s the evidence behind that?’
“The second thing is I would like teachers to engage more with driving good research. At the moment, a lot of research is very distant from the classroom, it’s done by people who don’t understand children, it’s done by people who have never taught. I want teachers to engage more with good research and drive future research.”
Cathy Wylie is chief researcher at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER). Understandably she has some thoughts on Tom’s second point.
“I don’t think he’s right about that. I’ve been at NZCER for over 30 years, and I remember going to conferences back then and there were a lot of presentations from psychologists who had conducted very small experiments, and were saying ‘this is what teachers ought to be doing in their classrooms’, and I remember thinking ‘this doesn’t make sense to me’. So if [Tom] is thinking about that kind of research, then yes, we don’t need it.
“But research in New Zealand has long moved away from that. The people who I know who have conducted education research in this country more recently, are asking themselves ‘what are the questions that teachers want answers to.’”
Cathy talks about the TLRI fund (Teaching and Learning Research Initiative), administered by the NZCER, as evidence that the education research community care deeply about collaborating with teachers to answer the big questions. Established in 2003, the fund is designed to “enhance the links between educational research and teaching practices to improve outcomes for learners.”
“It’s a fund for researchers to work with teachers on things that both think are important. It’s about how we can improve the teaching and learning experience, and improve opportunities for kids. I just don’t think Tom Bennett’s statements are accurate in New Zealand.”
Cathy thinks that Tom has also missed the point when it comes to inquiry learning and co-construction, and that he should be better informed before he starts tearing down the cornerstones of modern education.
“He’s thinking about a particular model of inquiry learning – projects, and leaving a lot up to kids. I would say in New Zealand, teachers are very conscious of scaffolding. You don’t just leave kids to go and find out for themselves, you make sure you have a good sense of where they’re at.
What you’re trying to do [with inquiry learning] is evolve the student in their learning, so that they’re aware of what their next learning steps are, what their needs are. You’re giving energy to their learning.”
Inquiry learning and co-construction aren’t about letting kids do whatever they want, which she says is a simplistic and obtuse misuse of the concepts. Fundamentally, she says, the goal is to drive engagement – to help kids to find out what they are interested in learning about.
“There’s some very good research that has found that if you increase student agency in that sense, then they will be engaged and they will learn more. I think Tom is being rather black and white about it. It’s about the teacher and learner both being part of the discussion as to a student’s learning needs.
“John Hattie for example has done some really interesting work on ‘feed back, feed forward’, which is about how you can work with students to feedback on their learning and work out where they need to go next. I think Tom might have a particular idea of inquiry learning in his head. In the New Zealand context it’s a much broader concept. We need to engage kids, and I’ve seen [the inquiry learning approach] work well in low decile schools. But like anything, what people call ‘inquiry learning’ falls somewhere on a spectrum. What we’re talking about in New Zealand isn’t about leaving a learner to struggle away on their own, or about simply letting students decide what they want to learn about to the exclusion of reading or vocabulary for example.”
But Tom isn’t just taking aim at what he sees as pedagogical modishness – he suggests that taken as a whole, the entire education research ecosphere, that informs classrooms around the world, often falls woefully short of the standards demanded by other disciplines, and is driven by people with barrows to push.
“There’s so much education research out there which is really just thinly dressed rhetoric and ideology – people wanting to prove a point, in ways that, were they writing a paper for the natural sciences, would have them laughed out of the faculty.
“There’s education research and then there’s education research. There are plenty of people out there with PHD’s who apparently know less about classrooms because they’ve got PHD’s. The weirdest thing is that, if you had a question about physics for example, you would expect that someone with qualifications in the subject would be able to answer it.
“But if someone has a PHD in education, it’s one of the smallest guarantees that they’ll actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to classroom practice – and I know that’s a terrible thing to say, and I hate saying it, because there are some excellent education researchers out there. But it’s such a broad field and it’s such a variegated field of ideology.
“I think education is in pretty bad shape just now, for those reasons.”
See details for the researchED Auckland conference here.