Academic educationalists need to engage with the new education debate or risk being sidelined


Reading one or to blogs recently set me thinking about the increasingly influential educational debate that is burgeoning  in both the traditional and social media. More particularly who is engaged in it and the legitimacy of some of the ideas.  .

One in particular rattled my cage. An article in the Irish times by a bio chemist re-iterating much of the sentiment that now passes for opinion on social media.

I’m not a researcher but I have read quite a lot of research papers. One paper, in particular, quoted in the Irish Times is by Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke (2006) has become a staple of the new educational debate. it is often quoted by teacher bloggers. Or at least its sentiment is even if it isn’t directly referenced. I have critiqued this paper before; teacher bloggers often dismiss the whole gamete of constructivist thought by a simple name check. It’s as easy as saying Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke. Constructivism being a euphemism for anything that’s vaguely progressive or modern sounding.

I wonder whether the fact that one paper has become widely quoted is because there is a dearth of academics engaging with practitioners, in particular, and educational discourse in general. They are there but often in the background or so it seems. Perhaps rightly so, practice is, after all, making its first tentative steps to having a more influential voice. I am not suggesting that teacher blogging becomes more academic but rather that academics engage with teacher bloggers.

The missing voice

There are notable exceptions, Gert Biesta, John Hattie and of course Dylan Wiliam immediately spring to mind. Some like Matt O’ Leary have adapted to social media and have had a real impact upon practice. Still there seems to be few that are regularly quoted by teacher bloggers. I can think of a number of psychologists but relatively few educationalists.

It is unsurprising, professional reputations can be damaged by bruising encounters with bloggers. Academics cannot engage in the kind of “in your face” polemics that practitioners can, or as often as not, former practitioners; politicians, think tankers and those associated with education but who are not practitioners.

It’s a shame and it is leaving a problematic gap in the education debate that is partially being filled by empiricists like Hattie but arguably missing the voice of mainstream academic educationalists.

Educational research and the new educational debate: winners and losers

The winners in the new debate are a diverse lot. The recent article that appeared in the Irish Times, mentioned above, is a case in point. It is written by a biochemist and contains this gem:

Academic educationalists who formulate teaching methods do not seem to privilege scientific evidence, preferring a romantic naturalism that appeals to left-liberal philosophy. If medicine had evolved along a path informed by naturalism we would not have the benefits, for example, of antibiotics or vaccination.

An emeritus professor engaging in Daily Mail rhetoric? It seems to be a widely held view. I wonder what these views are based upon. My guess is, well to be honest, probably not a lot.

Those engaged in quantitative research also feature prominently. As previously mentioned one of the most widely quoted educational researchers is John Hattie who makes great play of the fact that he has thousands of research papers in some kind of meta meta-analysis framework. He developed a way of ranking various teaching approaches in different meta-analyses according to their effect size.

Meta analysis is a useful technique in medicine where researchers all over the world are studying the effects of a particular “thing” on a particular problem but you do wonder whether “the challenge of goals”, for example, can be studied in the same way as the effects of paracetamol or other medicines. Hattie’s work is basically a mathematical framework designed to give an effect size on teaching approaches reference to the actual data. You could just as easily have an opinion. Why not? Everyone else does.

Tweeter, blogger and media medic Ben Goldacre, the bad science guru,  contributed a rather bizarre paper to the DfE about Random Control Tests (RCT’s). Apparently they aren’t used enough in an educational context. I suppose most sensible people will just nod their head and think “good luck with that one then”. Teaching is a multi-variant environment you would have to have a pretty limited grasp of research methods to wade into a multi-variant field with the idea that RCT’s are the answer to some problem, or other, without a great deal of trepidation. RCT’s have a purpose and are useful but they aren’t; “the” answer to any question in education.

The latest body tasked with ministering to the research well being of practitioners, the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), also has a high profile social media presence.  The EEF almost immediately waded into the research arena by promoting a toolkit apparently asserting that arts participation is 2 months better than an aspiration intervention; who knew? What does it mean?

Cognitive psychologists also seem to have disproportionate influence. In fact just about anyone it seems has more to say about education  than mainstream academic educationalists; the epistemologists, the policy wonks, the sociologists of education, feminists et al. Not to mention the researchers who use social science methods; the action theorists, phenomenologists and so on and so forth. Unsurprisingly some of the more extravagant claims to educational research are starting to be debunked by bloggers but there is little vision of what educational research should look like nor what it should do. Educational discourse is still being dominated by politicians, empiricists and talking heads from other fields.

Education as a social practice

I was thinking about all this as I read Greg Ashman’s blog; the truth about teaching methods. Mostly I agree with his criticism and debunking of some of the research methods used in the field of education. Surprisingly the blog seems to have no view of social research methods nor makes any attempt to philosophically underpin the views offered. Truth, after all, is a philosophical concept that has been debated for thousands of years.The truth of something or other needs to reflect that fact. Greg seems to regard social research methods, and such piffle as metaphysics and epistemology, as “obfuscation”.

Its not that I disagree with the blog particularly it’s what is missing that strikes a chord; education as a social practice. The underpinning philosophies and research methodologies of educational research seem to be completely absent. Considering metaphysics as obfuscation and contra opinions as post modernism are views that I think are widely held by a number of teacher bloggers but its not sustainable as a way forward for teacher blogging.


It’s a bit sobering to see world class educational thinkers and social theorists written off as “Lefties” and post modernists. No doubt they aren’t easy to read; social practice is a difficult area to study. It’s not one that offers a single answer and therein lies the problem. On the one hand it does mean that teachers can retain a measure of autonomy and there is room for professional judgement. On the other, engaging with it requires a degree of knowledge.

The only way for practitioners to achieve autonomy in education is to own the discourse of education and not cede it to those who engage in the discourse of the Daily Mail whether they be; emeritus professors, politicians or whoever. Equally as bad the latest guru; Lemov, Hattie, Willingham, Dweck et al.  It’s important that those who contribute most to developing professional knowledge in education engage with the new debate. In effect collaborating with practitioners to ensure that the professional voice of teachers is such that future education ministers are unable to set agendas based on almost no knowledge whatsoever.

2 thoughts on “Academic educationalists need to engage with the new education debate or risk being sidelined

  1. Greg always did like the Sweller stuff when he was Websofsubstance. I think he was responsible for most of the blogposts raving over cognitive load and defending it to the death.

    Now we see why… “He is my phd supervisor”…..lol

    1. Thanks for the comment

      I didn’t know Greg was Web of substance but yes it became a very influential blog. Whether there is a relationship between a teacher blogger down under and a bio chemist writing in the Irish Times we will probably never know.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s