What kinds of research matter to educators? by Benjamin Doxtdator

Tom Bennett’s researchED conference has gone global, traveling from the UK to Canada, the U.S., and soon to New Zeland. In many ways, I agree with one of Bennett’s (2012) main criticisms of how power operates to structure education: “The absence of the teaching professional from the process of consultation, research and policy creation is one of the most glaring deficiencies in the modern educational community.” And while I have some critical remarks about how Bennett conceptualizes what research is valuable to educators, this in no way means that I am criticizing people who put in hard work to organzie researchED events. I offer this writing in the same critical spirit that Bennett uses to approach many issues in education and hope to open up, rather than shut down, conversation. 

As Tom Bennet says, “every new government loves to play with the Big Education Ball”, and power-brokers in the UK’s conservative government got the ball rolling for researchED itself when they nominated Bennett to start a ‘grassroots’ conference. On the one hand, Bennett seeks to unmask what he sees as poor-quality research that wouldn’t pass the bar of the natural sciences. However, rather than stop at a critique of individual studies which have faulty methodology, Bennett argues that those studies – and the social sciences more broadly – are “really just thinly dressed rhetoric and ideology.” While Bennett realizes that the social sciences are best positioned to study people, he argues that they only produce opinion or are based on ‘theory’ or ‘ideology’, and teachers are offered “well-intentioned but essentially childish misunderstandings”. Thus, you can find a study to support anything, and he so concludes that teachers should trust their experience: “If you find that children respond (and they do) to firm discipline seasoned with manners and concern and inspired by compassion, then don’t throw your detention slips out the window as soon as you read the latest hopelessly optimistic thesis on children’s motivation that suggests they respond more warmly to promises of cream eggs and cuddles.” Bennett’s argument for evidence-based education has also largely been an argument to shore-up traditional practices in the face of new fads. 

As researchED heads to Auckland, it carries its conservative leanings along. The keynote will be delivered by Katherine Birbalsingh, who was dismissed (the details are murky here) from her deputy headteacher position after using images of students and ridiculing them at a Tory [conservative] conference in 2010. Birbalsingh has since opened a ‘no excuses’ school after earlier attempts were thwarted by protest. In her 2010 speech to Tories, Birbalsingh said “many of the necessary changes [in education] require right wing thinking”. “We need high expectations of everyone, even if you’re black”. She argued that “accusations of racism.. stop schools from reprimanding these children.” Elsewhere, Birbalsingh argues that anything short of her ‘no excuses’ approach presumes that “If you’re poor, you cannot behave.” She goes on to say that even poorer children in Nigeria, Jamaica, and India are taught to behave properly because teachers “play their role as adults to say No!” At stake, are larger social justice issues: “You cannot be free as a child unless you learn how to behave.” In what sounds like strongly nativist rhetoric, she continues: “we will lose our country, I’ telling you, we will lose our country,  if we cannot change our children…. And it’s for us to make sure that the poorest can compete with people like Cameron and Boris [politicians who come from privileged backgrounds].”1

On his blog (2013), Bennett criticizes the social sciences for their “inherent methodological restrictions that makes any claims to predictive or explanatory powers intrinsically difficult.” Essentially, Bennett revives August Comte’s positivist attitude: “From science comes prediction; from prediction comes action.”2 Bennett continues: “It is a very different proposition to claim, for example, that water boils at 100 degrees Celsius at sea level, than it is to say that children learn best in groups. The first can be at least disputed immediately, or not, by testing. The latter requires a plethora of causal factors to be adjusted and  accounted for.” Bennett’s scathing rejection and distrust of the social sciences typifies many positivists (for not being ‘real’ science) and conservatives (for studying structures of oppression). 

Bennett arrives at his conclusions about the social sciences through sloppy thinking. In Teacher: Mastering the Art and Craft of Teaching (2012), Bennett concludes based on a BBC report (14/01/2011) of conflicting results, that there is no established answer to whether or not giving schools more money improves education. “For every study you produce that demonstrated red ink lowers pupil motivation, or brings them out in hives or something, I can show you a study that says, no, it’s green ink that does the trick.” Indeed, trying to discredit research on school funding with a BBC article is intellectually lazy at best. This initiates a pattern where Bennett shows a shallow understanding of what the social sciences are up to.

In Teacher Proof  (2013), Bennett argues that the social sciences commit the fundamental sin of “mistaking facts and values” and are “loaded with so many assumptions and presuppositions”. “Some social scientists launch into their grand expeditions with, it seems, not a care in the world.” Bennett’s breezy caricature is the opposite of careful research. Rather than carefully dissect errors in sociological studies of education, he takes incoherent pot shots:

Papers so obviously designed to prove their point that the reader feels clobbered if they presume to disagree

This is one of the most common errors. ‘Research from the Academy of Flutes,’ the article will start, ‘shows that flute usage, or flutage, adds on average two grades to a pupils GCSE outcomes….’   and so on. ‘We asked 200 Cambridge professors from the university flute society if they felt flute playing was useful to overall well-being. 100 per cent said yes …’ and so on. 


Research that is unfalsifiable 

Also common. Claims that ‘capitalism is inevitable, but so is communism’, may impress them in the shipyards, Mr. Marx, but there’s no way of showing this to be false, unless you want to wait until the end of time and see every civilization ever. 

Any turn towards research that completely dismisses the social sciences in such casual fashion simply sneaks values in through the back door under the pretense of being neutral science. Sociology tells us lots about the workings of power, about the relation between our individual lives and larger structures, making it invaluable for understanding education. However, we don’t see many right wing sociologists, and Nigel Dodd argues that’s down to epistemological reasons. Sociologists favor “accounts of the world that emphasize structure and social process, while right-leaning people favor accounts that emphasize “freedom of choice and agency”. Birbalsingh’s ‘no excuses’ approach heavily emphasizes individual agency, or at least the individual agency of students to meet the expectations her school lays out. Drawing on her own family history, Birbalsingh says “The old-fashioned British education in British Guyana that helped my dad rise out of poverty is being denied to children in schools in this country.” Birbalsingh offers a particularly conservative theory of social mobility as individual freedom through discipline, which means we need more social theory at conferences like researchED, not less.  We need to be able to name the deficit thinking (Valencia, 2010) that argues “the student who fails in school does so because of his/her internal deficits or deficiencies. …[such as] limited intellectual abilities, linguistic shortcomings, lack of motivation to learning, and immoral behavior.”

Birbalsingh’s theory of social mobility is foregrounded in the approach her Michaela school takes towards learning and behavior. Students read the classics and there are no comics in the library. Drill and didactic teaching rule the day. As a consequence for misbehavior, Michaela uses detention and isolation – 10 hour stretches from 7:30 am to 5:30 pm – to police infractions. Birbalsingh and other teachers at Michaela want what’s best for their students. Joe Kirby, a deputy headteacher at Michaela, argues that the side effects of their ‘no excuses’ policies are positive because the school offers a high-level of support: “No excuses is not uncaring; it is the most caring ethos a school can adopt, because it refuses to indulge irresponsibility, empowers pupils to continually improve their choices, and nurtures in children the personal agency and consideration of others to live the most fulfilling lives for their long-term future.”

Even if research were to support that using this kind of ‘no excuses’ policy raises test scores, we also need to look at the ‘side effects’ of these interventions, much like in medical trials. Yong Zhao notes how ‘adverse effects’ are never reported in education studies: “I have not yet found an educational product that comes with a warning label carrying information such as ‘this program works in raising your students’ test scores in reading, but may make them hate reading forever.’” Research from the U.S. shows that students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately sanctioned in ‘no excuses’ schools.3

The fundamental misunderstanding perpetrated by Bennett and Birbalsingh is to think that we somehow negate agency by talking about structure, that talking about structural racism would give students of color a pass or negate their aspirations. Agency is always situational and contextual, and we need to recognize that when students who are marginalized express their agency in forms of resistance to oppressive structures, they are often excluded and disciplined. Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D. argues that: 

“Agency might take the form of demanding respect from teachers and administrators, doing well in school, or even disrespecting teachers, cutting classes, and dropping out. While the latter instances might seem like individual failings, in the context of oppressive social environments, resisting and rejecting authority figures that steward oppressive institutions have been documented as an important form of self-preservation, and thus, as agency. Simultaneously, agency in this context may also take the form of staying in school and working to excel, despite the social structural forces that work to impede such success.”

I’m not arguing against researchED as a conference, but rather calling for more careful research and engagement with the social sciences that thematize power in a way that the natural sciences do not. Any intervention in schools, and any implementation of research, involves questions of power. How do we make sure that the most vulnerable have a voice and are not shut down in the name of listening to ‘the research’?

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