The elephant in the room


Part two of my ten-part investigation into the purpose of education, following the inquiry of the House of Commons Select Committee, examines logical positivism

Before I address Professor Biesta’s reply to the question I posed at the end of part one, I am going to spend two instalments discussing logical positivism. Even though this requires a bit of a philosophical dive, I think it is justified because without understanding the fundamental argument about logical positivism, the more concrete disagreements about educational purpose will be difficult to untangle. The elephant represents the fact that all the other, non-elephantine occupants of the room are divided between two almost completely incompatible ways of thinking about truth and logic—they follow incommensurable paradigms, in the approved, post-modernist jargon—and without understanding that important fact, it will not be possible to understand why so many people seem to be talking past each other, almost as if speaking different languages.

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Assessing the evidence for edtech

Judge in wigThe widespread criticisms of the recent LSE and OECD reports are poorly founded and do nothing but undermine the argument for serious edtech

Those of us who complain that edtech gets too little attention in the national press should perhaps have been beware of what we wished for. Two recent studies to have hit the headlines both say that the general impact of technology on learning is negative.

Advocates of technology enhanced learning have tended to brush this research aside. Various online commentators have said that the reports were “flawed”, “confused” and “tosh”, and those who reported them were guilty of “lazy and irrelevant journalism”.

The two reports are:

Communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance

  • written by Louis Philippe Beland and Richard Murphy
  • published by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics
  • in May 2015
  • which I will referred to as “the LSE report”.

Students, Computers and Learning—Making the Connection

  • published by the OECD under the direction of Andreas Schleicher
  • in September 2015
  • which I will refer to as “the OECD report”.

In this post I will:

  • review what the reports say and why they said it,
  • assess the arguments put forward for dismissing them,
  • and suggest some conclusions to take away.

At over 14,000 words, I cannot pretend that this is anything other than a long article—but the length is unavoidable given the nature of the topic. What is more, I believe that the reaction of the edtech community to these reports is sufficiently important to justify the effort of writing it. I thank you in advance for making the effort to read it and hope that by the time you finish, you will also think that it was worthwhile.

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How edtech will revolutionize research

Researchers working at microscopesWhy the only realistic way of improving the quality of educational research (and of education itself) is by the intelligent application of education technology

I gave this talk at Research Ed 2015 on 5 September, the latest in a series of three national conferences organized by Tom Bennett.

Research Ed has grown into a vital event in the annual calendar for teachers interested in the theory of teaching. Nevertheless, my impression is that the centre of gravity of many of the talks at ResearchEd has veered away from an agenda that tries to promote sound, quantitative research, and is replaced with a softer account of both the role and methodology of research, as is suggested by the language of “action research” and “research-informed” teaching.

I believe that the problems with research are systemic and not just the result of incompetence. I argue in this piece that these systemic problems can (and can only) be solved by seeing teaching as a business which has a larger technical element than we commonly admit, and one that is less dependent on personal intuition (or what some call “tacit knowledge”). Such a realignment of our views on what teaching is, and how research into teaching should be conducted, will also underline a radical reevaluation of the role of technology in the classroom.

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Should education socialize?

man_reading_and_childCurrent models of ed-tech are based on theories of progressive education which are in turn based on a false understanding of what learning involves.

I wrote the following piece as an assignment during my PGCE, which I completed in 1990 at the Institute of Education in London. It was to some degree an exercise in letting off steam, a cry of exasperation at the complete nonsense that I felt we were being prescribed on our reading lists. I publish it now, partly in response to Harry Web’s review of Gert Biesta’s the Beautiful Risk of Education. It is also relevant to a Twitter conversation yesterday in which my interlocutor suggested that it was up to teachers to ensure that the curriculum was “developmentally appropriate”. 

Ed-tech (the subject of this blog) rests on education theory—and there is a chasm opening up in the current debate in this area between those who think that education is essentially an exercise in development, driven from within; and those who think that education is an exercise in socialization, driven by the transmission of knowledge and values from the society in which the learner is placed. I take the latter side—see my recent article for Terry Freedman’s Digital Education—and to anyone who cries foul (or at least “false dichotomy”) I would say, you take the latter side too. Because while those who believe in transmission (or socialization, as I call it in this essay) also recognise development as a necessary prerequisite for achieving certain sorts of understanding, those who believe in education driven by internal development generally appear to view external influence and transmission as illegitimate. That is why the question is not “should children develop?” (of course they should) but “should education socialize?”.

And to those to whom I have promised some use-cases, to illustrate how the sort of education technology that I am advocating will work in practice, let me say, in passing, that I am working on it.

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Is Greenfield an alarmist?

Baroness Susan GreenfieldThe ed-tech community should listen carefully to concerns being raised about the effect on our children’s development of excessive time spent online

Baroness Greenfield recently wrote an opinion piece in the TES, restating her view that education technology is not just ineffective but may well be positively harmful. “More pseudo-science poppycock”, harrumphed one prominent ed-tech tweeter, who was quickly supported by others. “Actually, she makes some rather sensible points”, said I. “No, no”, said my interlocutors, “the Baroness has been completely discredited. But if you are going to blog about it, please keep it short”. “1,000 emollient words”, I promised.

I am not sure how well I managed to be emollient—I am afraid it is not a style that comes naturally to me—and I certainly failed to keep it short. But, if you are interested in ed-tech, then I think its intersection with emerging neuroscience, and the controversy that has blown up in this area, are worthy of careful consideration.

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Not you again, Weston

Boys in class with their hands upA summary of my recent contributions to the debate around ETAG

To many on the ETAG committee, I am undoubtedly seen as an awkward and disruptive influence—something like the know-it-all who keeps putting their hand up at the back of the class. They have already changed the medium through which their consultation is conducted, shifting the emphasis away from Twitter (which provides me with the opportunity to challenge poorly justified contributions) to an online form, which keeps submissions private and unchallenged. At the same time, the committee retains in public a stony silence in the face of my arguments, while one prominent member of the committee complains (in a context in which he is clearly referring to myself) of the activities of “trolls, spammers, abusers, and self-publicists”.

Well, as its formal consultation finishes, it is time that ETAG publicly acknowledged the debate and made a serious, substantive response to the criticisms that I and others have raised. Because if they do not, it is increasingly clear that their report will be ignored by government, just as the FELTAG report was effectively ignored before it. This post contains a list of links to my various substantive contributions to the debate, most of which are on other people’s websites.

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Why teachers don’t know best

The blind leading the blind by  Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1568It is not surprising that teachers get impatient when others tell them how to do their job: “we are the experts”, they complain, “not you”. What should surprise the rest of us is how wrong they are: most teachers know little about teaching as a technical discipline.

This post responds to a comment by someone nicknamed subminiature, who argued on the Radio Times website that teachers knew what they were doing and should just be left to get on with the job. In this lengthy response, I argue the opposite: through no fault of their own, teachers do not have the skill-set that is required to improve the chronic under-performance of our education service. This will only be achieved by the implementation of education technology, backed by sound pedagogy. It is not surprising that teachers are not technology-experts: what is surprising is that they are not experts in pedagogy either. Expecting teachers to lead the sort of transformative development that is required in education is about as sensible as expecting a group of horse-drawn carriage drivers to design the first steam engine. Yet that is precisely the assumption on which government policy has been based over the last 15 years. A policy based on teachers sharing ed-tech best practice is analogous to Breugel’s allegory of the blind leading the blind.

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