Don’t let politics colour educational evidence

Everyone involved in education wants pupils to succeed. It is likely that most will agree on definitions of success such as access to the best universities, a good base of knowledge across a range of subjects and skills such as speaking for an audience, for example. But the means to achieve these is subject to hot debate, most notably in the form of the progressive vs. traditional debate.

A contradiction that stifles progress, is when people stop thinking about what genuinely works in education by looking at what is strongly evidenced, and instead, politically oppose certain pedagogies. The very notion that politics and pedagogy are on the same spectrum is fatally flawed; fatal for rational thinking and fatal for the education of our children.

An example of this is the pedagogy of direct instruction. As it stands, there is a myriad of evidence supporting the conclusion that direct instruction is superior to discovery-based learning. The teacher tells pupils the facts directly in the former and pupils are guided to discover facts for themselves in the latter. The reason why the former approach is superior is that it is more time-efficient, prevents misconceptions from arising and is accessible. Contrary to popular thinking, discovery learning does not develop ‘thinking skills’ since such skills are domain-specific; the skills require the application of the knowledge that is to be critically thought about. Developing the skills through discovering knowledge that depends on having the knowledge is paradoxical.

So, is direct instruction right wing or left wing? Or is it centre right? Labour? Conservative? God forbid, is it a UKIP pedagogy? The answer is NONE OF THE ABOVE. The choice of pedagogy must be made in light of the evidence, not its falsely-attributed political colour. The end might be liberation for our pupils. The means is the pedagogy and is apolitical.

But surely, letting pupils discover facts for themselves achieves the end of liberating our pupils? If your aim is for the pupils to understand the concept, then discovery is, as aforementioned, liable to creating confusion and misconceptions and therefore not as beneficial for pupils. The most liberating thing for pupils is to gain knowlede. Gain knowledge so that pupils have the literary, cultural and scientific capital with which to make informed decisions and judgements. By stopping pupils from discovering knowledge from themselves, you are not oppressing them; you are giving them the ladder to reach out for more knowledge. Telling pupils facts directly assures they have the secure knowledge to beget more knowledge. The end (liberation through gained knowledge) and the means (liberation in search of knowledge) must not be confused.

Other highly evidenced pedagogies include spaced practice (superior to mass practice) and classroom discussion – which I point out to highlight that there are an array of approaches in addition to direct instruction that are well-supported by meta-analyses. But the comparison of direct instruction to discovery learning is perhaps one of the most politicised, and illustrates my argument. Another example might be memorising times tables in maths. Cognitive science supports the idea of automaticity of fundamental knowledge, but many oppose ‘rote learning of times tables’.

Why is the distinction between politics and pedagogy important? Because the most effective pedagogy is so often dismissed by teachers fearing it is opposing their political views. This is an egotistic excuse that is covered up as a defence for pupils, which ends up harming them. Evidence trumps political biases. I say that as a scientist, and believe it as a teacher.

If I could plot each teacher’s pedagogical preference and political preference, the results would not be a perfect correlation. Equally, if I were to plot different pedagogical approaches against their effectiveness, it would be ingenuous to reject this finding on political grounds.

Pedagogy and politics are on different axes of a graph. Politics are our opinions. Pedagogies can be evidenced, and ranked in their effectiveness. Once ends are agreed upon, the means should be chosen because they are effective, not because they placate our ideological preferences.

So, if you are involved in education, I urge you not to let your political opinion colour your views on what the evidence and what existing successful examples suggest as possible solutions to educational problems. Educational inequality is too important a problem to let our attachment to our political stances hinder the clarity with which we must view the evidence. Let success and evidence guide us to the answers and explore options which might just give pupils the best chance. The opportunity cost of not doing so is simply too high.

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6 thoughts on “Don’t let politics colour educational evidence

    • If Direct Instruction represents a political view then I would be interested to see the evidence. Initially the main people I knew arguing for it were those writing for the Labour Teachers blog as I was. I already held these views as a teacher who believed herself to be solidly left-wing. It was actually a surprise to see Conservatives who supported it.

      As for pedagogies that do – well some strands of progressive ideology are explicitly tied to Marxist or Communist ideas – e.g. Paulo Freire. Others less so – e.g. Rousseau.

      However, I would agree that even if the pedagogy isn’t politically based, it’s use in certain contexts can be. Still Callaghan, Blunkett and Gove all attacked progressive views on education and it’s impact on the poorest – it can hardly be political solidarity in their case. I think it’s about class rather than right/left wing.

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      • Interesting to read as I am not in the UK. Direct Instruction (Englemann’s apporach) here is quite political as it is being used mostly in under privileged areas as an intervention. This is seen by many as political as it reflects a need to *improve* indigenous cultures through western, white pedagogy.

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      • Well people can’t help the colour of skin they were born with and neither are they responsible for the ills of the past caused by those who they share biological characteristics with (unless they continue to perpetuate them). Neither does it mean that there is anything implicitly bad about their ideas or their adoption by others.

        All cultures have good and bad aspects to them and need to change over time. I have no problem with “improvements” being made.

        One improvement could be that those who espouse ideas of “white pedagogy” might want to think about how their lack of understanding of cultural exchange between groups and changes to cultures over time is so woefully poor.

        Personally I find the self-annointed “anti-racists” to be the most obsessed with preserving racial groups as classified in the 18th century. In fact, they seem to be the ones who want to maintain barriers between the least privileged and themselves by “talking” on their behalf and deciding what constitutes a valid opinion in those particular communities.

        So in Australia, my understanding is that one of the most fervent supporters of Englemann is actually from the indigenous community but white middle class teachers think they “know” better despite having failed his community educationally.

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