Vegemite and Transformative Teaching

There’s been a lot of talk in the UK recently, sparked by Ben Goldacre’s campaign for applying the scientific method of evidence gathering to innovation in education. Ben’s argument is that teachers, schools, and indeed Secretaries of State for Education frequently implement a change in approach without looking at the objective evidence that it will work. While this argument has obvious appeal, and offers the promise of what all policy makers crave (certainty), as others have pointed out, students are not quite the same as patients. And there are growing concerns about the validity of randomised control trials in the social sciences.

Before getting to the Vegemite question, let me just say that I would applaud anything that gets teachers closer to research – especially if they are given the time and support to do so (but not on top of everything else they have to do). We undoubtedly need more evidence to assess educational interventions. But a political drive for certainty often leads to gross over-simplifications, and I feel we should be wary of that happening as a result of Goldacre’s influence.

For example, it’s realtively easy to judge the success of a medical intervention – the patient gets better. But, if we simply judge the effectiveness of educational interventions by crude metrics (an improvement in test scores, for example) we may miss some vital perspectives. It’s possible to envisage a scenario where a shift in pedagogy had no discernible effect on test scores, but made students more self-aware of their learning strengths and weaknesses. Would that intervention be deemed a failure? And what about the impact upon teachers? It could be argued that in medical interventions the most important factor is the drug, or operational procedure being tested. Learning is, as we know, as uniquely relational experience. Therefore, the impact of the intervention on the teacher’s sense of professionalism, curiosity, motivation, or self-esteem, is crucial. An inspired teacher is likely to make almost any pedagogical shift effective (and thereby skew the objectivity of the results!). No matter how inspired a doctor is, they are unlikely to make much of a difference to the way a new round of chemotherapy works.

I was reminded of this when reading a piece by the Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman on ‘phenomenal knowledge’. Burkeman refers to a paper by the philosopher L.A.Paul which argues that, in many choices in life, rationality will only get you so far. Transformative experiences (like having a baby) cannot be really assessed, until after the experience has taken place. You don’t know whether having a baby is the right thing to do, only that it will change your life, and until you’ve experienced that new life, how can you know if it will be right for you? Burkeman gives a rather more prosaic example of Vegemite – you can read everything you need to know about vegemite: it’s taste, texture, acidity. You can only really know if you like it, however, by trying it.

Students Tasting Vegemite

Mrs Schmidt’s Blog

You’ve probably had one of those in-car discussions about the quickest route to your intended destination. I’ve often though ‘well, you drive your car your way, and I’ll go mine, and then we’ll prove conclusively which is the quicker route.’ You too? Except, it would only prove which was quicker on that day, with that driver, and those traffic conditions.

Educational Arts are currently advocating the adoption of project-based learning in schools in the UK and Australia. Is it likely to be the solution to poor test scores? In some schools, yes, in others, no. Is it going to enhance student engagement? That depends on the teacher, and the way it is being deployed. Even if it worked against these two measures, in all the pilot schools, would it be right for all schools? Probably not.

There are just so many variables involved in learning about learning. And if it’s anything, teaching and learning is a  study in phenomenology: it changes our experience and our consciousness. I saw this at first hand in the early days of the Musical Futures project. Here is a pedagogical approach that has had a major impact on the way music is taught in schools in England and, increasingly around the world. When we first trialled it, however, we had no certainty that it would ‘work’. But, I saw teacher after teacher reflect that it had challenged them, inspired them, and rejuvenated their teaching. In truth, the teacher’s response to the innovation was as important – if not more so – than the innovation itself. They had tasted the vegemite, and they could only see if it worked, for them and their students, by trying it out. And although most kids have been overwhelmingly supportive of Musical Futures, for even the ones who didn’t like to learn in that way, it was a useful experience. If we want kids to become more independent learners, we need to give them as many tools as possible to fit in their brain-bag. As for the teachers, well, they were generally so enthused to be part of something new, which piqued their curiosity, that they would have made almost anything work. The great teachers are already their own researchers. Like Darren Mead, at Cramlington Learning Village, they’re constantly trying out new methods, and sharing their reflections, and they’re constantly enthusiastic about teaching and learning. I call it the permanent placebo effect.

The reality, sadly, is that what prevents more schools from trying out pedagogical innovations isn’t really a lack of evidence. It’s the fear of failure, because the stakes are so high.

So, I’m all for trying to gain a better understanding of what works. Even if that involves the use of RCTs (though I fear there will always be too many variables to attribute a direct cause-and-effect). I’m 100% behind the idea of teachers being reflective researchers and innovators too. But, if we really want to encourage innovation, let’s not make the lab such a fearful place to work in.

In the next post, I want to share with you an alternative way to introduce pedagogical innovation: crowdsourcing. In the meantime, let me know what you think – how can we best innovate, and evaluate, in the classroom?

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