Evidently not?

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Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence

Recently there’s been a welcome move to promote the idea that teachers should become more involved in undertaking classroom-based educational research – something that All Change Please!, having been involved in a number of such initiatives over the years, fully supports, even if it’s not sure where the time or money will come from.

The current trending organisation in the field is probably researchED, somewhat worryingly established by this character who is well-known in certain more progressive circles for the mythical myths he is intent on challenging and for his general lack of open-mindedness for anything that’s not obviously ‘traditional’. The emphasis sometimes seems to be more about working out what doesn’t work rather than what might do.

Anyway, presumably the result of all this research will be what seems to be the current holy grail: evidence. These days it is difficult to do anything new or possibly risky unless its success can be absolutely guaranteed by so-called ‘evidence’ that apparently proves once and for all that it will work for everyone everywhere. There seems to be an unshakeable belief in the unarguable accuracy of just a single piece of evidence, even though such evidence is not  the same thing as actual proof.

So how actually reliable is all this evidence, or ‘findings’ as it is sometimes referred to? Even supposedly objective scientific evidence has problems of reliability: a researcher doesn’t have to admit that, say, a particular drug company (or for that matter a global personalised educational resource organisation) is sponsoring their work, or that they are only drawing on a certain set of data because the other set doesn’t happen to support their theory. Or whether there might actually be some disagreement amongst the great and the good statisticians about how the data can be reliably interpreted. Or that they are only running certain tests because they don’t have the budget to pay for the other ones. And of course more subjective evidence can be even less reliable when based on perhaps a number of small-scale case studies from practice-based researchers, a few carefully selected interviews with ‘experts in the field’ and a questionnaire or two. Would you believe it – apparently 98.6% of all statistics are entirely fictitious?

Then there is the way in which the results are presented – usually statistical data that is either difficult for the non-statistician to interpret, or more seductively shown as a carefully edited, visually powerful infographic or multimedia PowerPoint in which the message has been suitably massaged to seemingly demonstrate what the researcher wants you to believe is true. This becomes even more believable when fronted by someone who has some ‘celebrity’ status within the community. Then if the findings get repeated and referenced often enough it somehow ends up becoming an irrefutable true ‘fact’. It seems the proof of the pudding is in the presentation.

Let’s take the example of Little Missy Morgan’s recent and quite ludicrous statement that taking a week’s holiday in term-time will mean that a student will do substantially less well in their GCSEs and fail to meet the so-called ‘Gold’ standard. She might have some rather unreliable evidence in terms of misleadingly analysed statistical data but that does no more than suggest what she says might be true. What she doesn’t have though is any actual proof that involves a wide range of different types of convincing evidence that removes all doubt. The problem is that we have been conditioned by the media to accept isolated examples of evidence as absolute fact.

In terms of the results of educational research, given the extraordinary diversity of children, teachers, classrooms and schools, what works in one situation might well prove to be a complete disaster in another. And in the case of the research aiming to reinforce the notion that traditional tired and detested teaching methods are universally best for everyone in every situation, the result is usually seen as a mandate to dismiss any need for perhaps doing things differently. While the current oft-quoted data might initially seem to bust the myths that there might be such things as learning styles, effective group work, benefits in using IT, or worthwhile child-centred learning, the majority of teachers will tell you precisely the opposite, based simply on what they’ve observed and found to actually work for them and their students. Just because there’s no established evidence to support such approaches, doesn’t mean they can’t or don’t work.

Meanwhile research is not just about proving things are right or wrong because repeatable events have been defined, but also about asking new questions and exploring new ideas – and that’s exactly what’s needed now in our out-dated educational system. Let’s hope the emerging educational research community focuses on the latter rather than trying to provide highly unreliable data that apparently proves that a particular political mindset, delivery methodology or commercial product is the one solution that can be guaranteed to work for everyone.

And as for the reliability of the evidence of a student’s capability provided by GCSE and A level results…

Or the extent of the proof of the quality of a school’s performance found in an Ofsted report?

 

Image credit: Flickr/Jim Roberts  modified by TS

The Cordon Blues

1s-5126717777_65394ea08b_oCheers!

‘Teenagers studying for a new GCSE in food preparation will have to know how to portion a chicken, fillet a fish and julienne vegetables, as well as make a variety of sauces from hollandaise and mayonnaise to veloute, bechamel and plain old gravy. The rigorous new examination for 16-year-olds will require them to be able to tenderise, marinate, blanch, poach, fry and braise – as well as make their own pasta, choux pastry, bread and tagine.’                                   From The Guardian

Posh and wealthy Tory-voting land-owning bankers, solicitors and lawyers all heaved a sight of relief last week when the details of the tough new GCSE qualification in Food Preparation and Nutrition were published by the government, allaying fears that the projected short-fall of master-chefs would lead to a reduction in the number of expensive restaurants for them to dine at, together with the consequent need to find other ways of spending their excessive amounts of disposable income.

The increased theoretical content of the GCSE course also means that it will be only taken by the more academically-able, thus ensuring that chefs will be able to conduct intelligent discourse both in the kitchens and with customers. “Thank goodness that in future there will be no more swearing in the kitchens”, said one restaurateur. “I look forward to our kitchen staff quoting Shakespeare rather than the Simpsons.”

Meanwhile spokespersons for McDonalds and Subway, who between them seem to employ the vast majority of today’s school-leavers, confirmed that while the new GCSE would be a desirable facilitating subject, it would not be an essential requirement for future job applicants, as there was not a great deal of demand for ‘palmiers, batons, dextrinisation and gas-in-air foam’ in their outlets. Furthermore they did not think customers would welcome having to decide whether they wanted their burger ‘tenderised, marinated, blanched, poached, fried or braised?’

According to the Guardian, Chef, food writer and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (real name: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall) said he would be very happy for any of his children to take the GCSE. “Thank goodness we can all now get back to the way things were in the good old days when the rich ate extremely well and the poor starved”, he didn’t add.

The course replaces the current GCSE in Food Technology which required students to learn about how food products are produced industrially and to solve complex, open-ended problems concerning quality control, scaling up for batch and mass production along with marketing and packaging. This often involved creativity and collaborative team work, skills that will no longer required in the forthcoming 19th Century.

 

And finally, in other news, the entirely fictitious Waitrose Academy Chain has announced an end to their offer of a free daily education. To qualify, parents will have to in future also purchase a treat from the school shop, such as a new item of uniform, sports equipment or educational outing. “We always knew that the offer of a free education for all had to end sometime, but I think they could have perhaps found a better solution” said one disappointed yummy mummy as she paid out for yet another new hockey stick that her wheelchair-confined child didn’t really need.

“Unfortunately our schools were just not making enough profit”, the Headteacher and Chairman of the Academy explained. “However we will still be offering a free takeaway lesson from our customer service desks”.

 

Image credit: Flickr/Eric Baker

Alas! Schools and Journos: Have you ever Bean Green?

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Mel Smith, as the man who thinks he knows everything, and Griff Rhys Jones, as the man who knows he knows nothing, return to catch up on what’s been happening in education, ill-informed as always by the Great British Press.

Smith: Haven’t seen you around for a while then?

Jones: No, not much has been happening recently has it, especially now that Gove chappie has been permanently excluded from schools?

Well, my friend, just wait until you see this in the papers – apparently last summer not nearly as many children managed to pass their GCSEs

Oh, so weren’t they very bright then?

No, no, no, it wasn’t that at all.

All their teachers went on strike then?

No, no. Listen, what happened was that the Tories made the exams they sat much harder to pass. They thought that would make all the kids cleverer.

Oh. That wasn’t a very clever idea then, was it?

Precisely.

And it’s a bit unfair on a whole generation of teenagers who now won’t have as good qualifications as their elders? And I expect all the schools requiring improvement will be given those special tape measures now?

What? Anyway I’ll tell you something else. You won’t believe this. Listen, it says in the paper that apparently a lot of your posh public schools have gone right off the boil and are now at the bottom of all the league tables.

What you mean they are in the Vauxhall league?

Yes, sort of, except it’s now called the Vanarama League.

Vananarama? Is that a new girl-power band or something then?

No, apparently it’s a van leasing company, but that’s not got anything to do with what I’m telling you.

So Eton and Harrow have gone into the van-hire business now then?

No, no, no. Do try and pay attention. It seems their students were all taking the wrong sort of exams that didn’t count in the league tables anymore.

Why were they doing that then?

Because the public schools say the exams their students did were harder than the GCSEs, but the DfE says their new exams are now the most difficult.

Ah, they’re both playing hard to get then?

Yes, I suppose you could say that.  Well it just goes to show you only get what you Gove, don’t you? Anyway, what’s more Camoron wants all schools to be above average in Maths. That’s going to be a bit of a challenge. And then there’s this Little Missy Morgan who’s all in a spin and is going to sack headteachers if they don’t improve their children’s literacy.

Well, it’s important kids learn to throw their litter away in a bin isn’t it?

Exactly. And then there’s their numeracy.

What’s that then?

You know – learning their tables.

Oh, you mean like the difference between a dining table and a bedside table? Why’s that important then?

Well I suppose if you went to IKEA, you’d want to be sure you were buying the right sort of table wouldn’t you?

Yes, and they could use those special tape measures to make sure they were getting the right size.

Anyway after the election in May everything will be different when the Greens get in.

Who are these Greens then? Are they from Mars?

No, don’t be daft. Well I don’t think they are anyway – though looking at some of their policies…

You mean our politicians will all be like green vegetables – sort of limp and tasteless and foul-smelling?

Yes, I expect so.

Oh.  No change there then?

Anyway, I suppose at least they will have a lot of posh vans and drivers to move them around in.