Ofsted · pedagogy · Policy

On fabricated classroom practice: norm circles, placebos and evidence proxies


feedbackI’ve been thinking about feedback; more specifically, how do you know whether feedback given to students is good or otherwise? Despite the research, I’m not convinced that feedback is a good thing per se. Good feedback is a good thing, bad feedback isn’t.

You might think that is self-evident but research suggesting that feedback is a good thing does not always distinguish between good and bad feedback. An example of research that suffers this problem is research that use effect sizes and meta-analysis to make comparisons between different teaching and learning approaches. In this type of research, previously conducted research projects, relating to a particular teaching and learning activity, are collated to form a meta-view; however, the meta-view does not account for the conditions that generate the results of those research projects. The EEF toolkit, for example, suggests that Feedback is 6 months more efficient than Learning Styles. The question is, what kind of Feedback is 6 months more efficient than Learning Styles and how much better than Learning Styles is good as opposed to bad or mediocre feedback? The unanswered questions shout louder than the findings of the report.

I wonder why researchers do not expose the failings of methodologies such as the one described above. The answer is that many research fields simply engage with the discourse of the field and are not the least bit interested in what anyone else has to say. Research fields are a kind of norm circle, the interests of the field are paramount. The battle for recognition within the circle more important than whatever it is the outside world thinks.

Politicians are the same, the constructors of policy have their own agendas. Policies need to sound plausible; fit in with the big plan, whatever that happens to be. Educational policies are not always about education they are often about politics, something has to be seen to be being done and it has to be done within the constraints of party politics and political ideologies.

Educational ideas, therefore, are constructed on the premise of normed discourses far removed from the classroom. High powered individuals compete to sell ideas, write the book, “tweet the tweet” and so on and so forth. What emerges is often something that sounds more plausible than it actually is. The key to selling an educational idea is to make the complex unproblematic.

Once the idea is constructed it has to be transmitted, by the likes of OFSTED, and re-contextualised by quality departments, in educational institutions, into something tangible, quantifiable and most importantly measurable. Then, and only then, is it ready for the classroom.

The problem it seems to me is that policies that ignore the constraints of classroom practice are destined to fail. The phenomenologist, Schutz, stated that practice is a unique kind of experience; it exists “in the moment”. Human agents construct experience by a process of reflection and the imposition of time and space upon those experiences. By reflecting upon our experiences; however, we can find it hard to differentiate between what we think about practice and what actually happened.

Policies that do not consider the nature and constraints of practice are hard to translate into practice, regardless of how aggressively they are imposed by institutions desperate to comply with the latest edict from policymakers and, as often as not, transmitted by OFSTED.

Consequently, I think many educational policy ideas become proxies for good teaching and learning. So feedback, in this case, becomes an evidence proxy. The notion of good and bad feedback goes out of the window to be replaced by frequency and quantity; variables that are quantifiable. Far easier to weigh the evidence than read it.

Stephen Ball (2001) put it in more stark terms:

…….schools may pay some attention to a policy and ‘fabricate’ a response that is incorporated into school documentation for purposes of accountability and audit, rather than to effect pedagogic or organisational change.

I wonder about other terms used to describe complex social practices such as differentiation, “stretch and challenge” and questioning techniques. They have become ubiquitous and, to some extent, meaningless at the same time. I think that they have been around for well over ten years and yet they are still the mainstay of professional development.

Some proxies can be genuinely damaging, compliance with such nefarious terms can cause workload issues and workplace stress. Others, such as VAK Learning Styles, have more of a placebo effect. Students are given a VAK questionnaire and allocated a preferred Learning Styles but little is done with that preferred learning style and its use has no impact upon practice.

Of course, in the better schools and colleges, evidence-informed practices are becoming more common. The evidence generated for educational practice is challenging but it is better than the ephemeral terms I describe above differentiation, stretch and challenge etc.; however, I have no doubt that there are still School’s and Colleges that are awarded good and better on the basis of evidence proxies and placebos because the norm circles of policy construction and transmission do not consider the issues of enactment.


I’ve borrowed the term norm circle from The Reality of Social Construction by Dave Elder-Vass


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