False Myths Don’t Give Up Without a Fight

Every professional field has its myths that don’t stand up to scrutiny. It would be perfectly understandable in education if we were confronted with the challenges of myths held by parents and other lay people. After all, we continually are reminded that everyone went to school and therefore has their own perceptions about how school should be.

However, what worries me far more than our need as educators to educate the parents about what they should want and need for their children is when there are educators who continue to advocate for old orthodoxies even though they are thoroughly discredited as myths without substance.

John Hattie, Australian educator has made his career analyzing vast quantities of meta-analysis data to determine what does and doesn’t produce tangible results in education. Here’s a good article from NPR in which Hattie sets out three myths that need to be buried;

NPR Ed – 5 Big Ideas in Education That Don’t Work

Of the five points that are highlighted as largely ineffective (or at least on their own) is small class sizes. The reality is that masses of research has failed to show the benefits of small class sizes that so many expect.

Hattie terms his research and findings “Visible Learning”. If I have an issue it’s that he starts with the big assumption that they only real things that matter to us in schools are academic learning, as measured through standardised and summative tests and exams. Nevertheless, to the extent that those things do matter, his research provides very useful guides for educators about what produces better academic results and what has little or no impact.

If the article linked above highlights what Hattie’s research suggests doesn’t work, here are two videos that suggest the things that he sees as offering better enhancement to pupil learning:

Measuring Educational Impacts

BBC Radio 4 – The Educators – John Hattie
(Click on the link above to listen to the discussion)

Here’s a very interesting audio recording of an interview done for the BBC Radio 4 series – ‘The Educators’. The interviewee was Dr John Hattie of Melbourne University, Australia. He’s particularly talking about the large meta-analysis he’d carried out in to educational impacts of various things. In other words – research that pulls together the results of a large body of research studies from across the world.

Whilst it’s interesting, especially from an academic perspective, to hear him talk about the relative impacts of different things, such as homework, class sizes, streaming or parental choice of schools the burning question that came in to my mind was – “what are we measuring to define IMPACT/ EFFECT and are they the things we should be measuring?”

It is inevitable that during the discussion the PISA tests came up for discussion. To many educators, and especially those who want to believe that data and statistics are all that’s needed to enable them to drive change/ improvement in the whole education system it is a very simple piece of logic to say that PISA tests what children need to be learning in school and that, therefore, comparisons of relative performance on PISA are the right way to assess the quality of an education system.

How comfortably does this sit with ideas related to the need, in the Twenty First Century to develop lifelong learners, to develop high levels of EQ, empathy, communication skills and other softer attributes when its very clear that these aren’t figuring at all in the analysis of PISA or any other effects/ impact/ outcomes?

A school, District or even an individual teacher can decide to do certain things that will have a higher chance of producing higher PISA scores or scores on other standardised testing systems. However, does that mean that we must say that that automatically represents good education, the ideal? Well, arguably, when Shanghai scored top on PISA it was acknowledged by education authorities in China that their methods were very good at drilling the children in what they needed to know to do well in the exams, BUT were probably very bad at inculcating and developing the skills those young people would need to be effective in the 21st century. As a result, the Chinese have been looking outside their own education systems for ways to change so as to have an education system that prepares young people for the reality of the future they will face.

Here’s the problem – the future of children and their contribution to society doesn’t lend itself to being tested, picked apart for analytical debate half as easily as standardised test results. And this is why we can so easily fall in to the trap of being so comfortable with the kinds of debates here in this interview. All through, the discussion is about the relative merits of different actions that can take place in education, all based on a criteria of judgement about worthwhile outcomes that may not stand up to scrutiny.

Being able to climb a ladder better or faster is meaningless if we’re leaning the ladder against the wrong wall.

Class Sizes – Myths and Facts

Everyone wants to believe that there are some really simple ways to gauge whether education is good, bad or indifferent. One ‘symbolic figure’ that parents, politicians and others have frequently latched on to is class size. The logic is simple – small class = good, big class = bad.

However, it’s actually proved far more complex than that, as is highlighted by the two articles below. The first article, from the US looks at the way a trend of reducing class sizes with massive government investment is now reversing as the need for government austerity kicks in. The second article sees Japanese schools investing to reduce class sizes.

The fact is that as much as teacher unions and parent bodies worry about class size, it’s not nearly as important as they want to believe. The reason is that there are a whole mass of things that relate to ‘how’ things are happening in the classroom, whole school culture etc. that are far more important when it comes to quality of learning.

The fact is that the quality of learning experience for each child is determined by skills, artistry and dedication of passionate teachers for whom what they do is a calling and a vocation – not a J.O.B. and a salary cheque. You can’t bottle it, package it or multiply it with simplistic, trite objectives around things like class size.

USA Today Article
Japan Today Article

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