Making it harder for teachers or conducting randomised control trials won’t help our education system
Recent discussion about declining comparative standards of academic performance of Australian students have led to arguments about the ways in which the profession of teaching can be modified to enhance learning outcomes for students. While some argue that the bar needs to be set higher so that only the best and brightest will be let in to teaching degrees, the Gonski review suggests more funding is needed and others view the prestige of the profession as the core issue.
What is being asked of teachers in the 21st century classroom is no mean feat. In what is already a complex social environment, be it the physical or virtual classroom, teachers are charged with making lasting and positive changes to the most complicated piece of machinery in the known universe, the human brain.
This task is made all the more difficult in that a history of practice-based research has failed to provide simple formulae for ensuring students learn what they need to learn. Even if such formulae did exist, technology is changing the landscape constantly meaning they would soon be out-dated.
Scientist, writer and medical practitioner Ben Goldacre, who is noted for his strong stance on rigorous scientific evidence, recently called on the British Department of Education to foster an evidence-based approach to teaching. In his discussion paper, Goldacre argues that the randomised control trial should be a central feature of educational research in much the same way as it is in medicine.
Goldacre is not the first to make this argument. In the early 2000’s in the United States, there was a concerted push into what became known as the ‘what works’ agenda as part of the ‘no child left behind’ policy. The basis of this agenda was that rigorous scientific evidence, gained predominantly from methods such as randomised control trials should underpin teaching practice.
In a similar vein, a committee set up by the Prime Minister’s Science Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) reported in 2009 that there are significant and exciting opportunities to be gained by incorporating the learning sciences and neuroscience into education. Although this committee stopped short of recommending the use of randomised control trials in the manner Goldacre has, the essence of their conclusions was the same: education is not informed by rigorous scientific evidence and it should be.
While there are without doubt great opportunities for relying on more rigorous approaches to better help our teachers do what they need to do, the randomised control trial will not achieve this in isolation. Nor can the learning sciences be easily adapted so that we can produce the magic learning formula or algorithm for ensuring all students meet specified standards.
The problem here is that rigour does not necessarily mean relevance. The context in which a school or university classroom exists is itself complex in terms of socio-economics, availability of resources, student diversity and teacher capacity and capability, making it difficult to experimentally control. The contextual factors introduce too much noise to make any meaningful comparisons between ‘treatment’ and ‘control’ conditions.
As Goldacre succinctly argues, the challenge for the teaching profession is to become more about evidence-based practice. This requires investment in determining not just what works but what works in every educational context.
Only allowing the best and brightest in the door or making the profession more prestigious will not work unless teachers have the most up to date, cutting edge tools at their disposal and are taught how to use them properly in their classroom. In short, teachers need the type of evidence ecosystem of multiple academic disciplines and professional development opportunities that are available to medical practitioners. Goldacre is right that this will require a greater emphasis on rigour and evidence, particularly as technology plays a greater role in education but that is only part of the solution.
The greatest hurdle in improving education is bridging the gap between rigour and relevance. The only way to give teachers the tools and knowledge they need is for learning scientists, neuroscientists, educational psychologists, instructional designers and teachers to all work together to solve pedagogical problems and enhance education.
Practitioners need to work alongside learning scientists and neuroscientists to ensure that the science can be translated for use in the complex classroom context. Governments also need to have the foresight to invest in this type of research and not just expect simple answers to be provided by quick fixes or new technologies.
Enhancing education is a complex, wicked problem because learning and teaching are multifaceted phenomena, involving biological, technological, psychological, social, economic and pedagogical factors. Solving the problem of enhancing learning for our students is not to be found by altering one part of this equation (i.e. the supposed quality of incoming pre-service teachers or relying on a new technological fad) but by taking a multifaceted, multidisciplinary evidence-based approach.