Words, words, words

 – These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.

One of the marks of a scientific discipline is the development of a jargon – that is to say, specialised vocabulary where terms have a particular meaning when discussing that field of knowledge. Some of these words will be unique to the domain, others will resemble a form used elsewhere, but have entirely different semantic content. For example, a ‘mole’ in chemistry refers to a specific quantity of molecules, whereas in general usage it may refer to a spot on the skin, a burrowing mammal or perhaps a double agent.

Moreover, in a scientific discipline, specialised words will be defined by other specialised words. In physics, the term force can be defined by referring to mass, acceleration and resistance (at least, in Newtonian physics). In mathematics, the radius is half the diameter of a circle; the diameter is twice the radius; the circumference cannot be found without knowing the radius, implying that we must have a shared knowledge of what the radius is.

But, Horatio, I hear you ask: so what? Therefore, to draw toward an end with you, as Hamlet once said: education does not have such a shared language. And this indicates that education is not yet scientific.

Granted, there are specific pockets of the education field in which there is such a shared language – of which more in a future post, perhaps. But consider the purposes of language in educational conversation. Dialogue may be too precise a term since it implies two people listening to each other, each understanding what the other is saying. Educational conversations tend to follow the inverse. For example, the term ‘learning’: how many teachers, educated, trained, qualified and promoted, can give a precise scientific definition of learning? Most attempts will require numerous words and still leave room for qualification. (You are probably trying it now and counting on your fingers to see how many words you used.)

Consider the term ‘engagement’, a word almost synonymous with learning in current parlance. Once it meant the rather quaint business of formally contracting to marry another; also, an appointment, and latterly, taking part in classroom activities. But some educators reading this will feel that engagement primarily implies action, others, mental effort, and still others, enjoyment. The point is not which definition is right; the point is that there is no shared definition in our professional community.

The phonics ‘debate’ is, of course, nothing of the sort. It is a contest being waged using similar vocabularies but with quite different meanings, where perjorative labels are employed to dismiss opposing arguments. So, for example, those who espouse early phonics assessment are ‘labelling children as failures’, forcing teachers to ‘teach to the test’ and ‘crushing the developing personalities of children’. Those who espouse a less systematic approach say that they are about ‘balanced literacy’ – whatever ‘literacy’ means now – and ‘mixed methods’ in order to do what is best for each child. At the same time they are labelled ‘phonics denialists’. Both sides accuse each other of being driven by ‘ideology’.

‘Ideology’ is a term frequently used in educational conversation these days – certainly on Twitter and in blogs. It is a term that is deployed as soon as there is a sharp disagreement. It is used to indicate that one’s opponent is obsessed with a particular ‘dogma’ and therefore does not really care – indeed, cannot care – about the children. For example, those who promote phonics are ‘ideologically driven’;  constructivists are sacrificing children’s education for the sake of ‘pseudo-egalitarian ideology’; academies are the product of ‘free market ideology’; unions resist educational change because of ‘socialist ideology’.

There is much more that could be said, but anyone familiar with the field will recognise such patterns. The vocabulary examples are perhaps the more obvious. But there is another way in which language is used in such debates: the ‘No True Scotsman’ approach to argument. See page 32 of The Book of Bad Arguments. This is where one states a view, and when challenged, redefines one’s language to create a more defensible position. In the phonics debate, for example, a frequent pattern is for those challenging phonics to begin by saying that systematic phonics should not be used because it stifles creativity and motivation, and damages self-esteem. A series of statements evidencing why this is not congruent with facts, logic, or well-replicated research, results in the challenger arguing that phonics is not the only way to teach reading and that a ‘mix of methods’ will be in the best interests of more children.

I wonder if you noticed the ‘R’ word: ‘research’. ‘Research’ is a term that has been bandied about freely, as in ‘we know the research shows that children learn best in co-operative environments’ or ‘research tells us that teaching grammar is unnecessary and even damaging’. These are statements I have heard, lest you imagine that I am making them up. Perhaps the lowest point for me was being required to participate in a whole school professional development seminar, where I asked what the research base was for the learning ‘theory’ being presented. We were told enthusiastically that the founder of the movement had engaged in ‘research’ by spending eight weeks in a flotation tank.

About the same time that the general term ‘research’ came to be regarded as meaning anything someone thought was a bright idea, political pressure began to build on proponents of educational programmes to produce ‘evidence-based’ research in support of their claims. This did not faze anyone for very long; the meaning of ‘evidence’ was broadened to include dubious forms of ‘qualitative’ research, small scale studies, interviews, and in extreme cases anecdotes. (See the Book of Bad Arguments, page 20 – Equivocation). Meanwhile, scientific researchers were still doing their best to ensure that their studies were rigorous, replicable and well-designed. There have been two main outcomes: marketing has once again proven more effective than argument; and good research has been given less weight than it should, partly through the conflation of sound research with opinion, but also because of political rhetoric.

The language of education today is not that of a scientific community engaged in a shared mission. It is the shifting, competitive and often deliberately opaque language of politics. Education involves vast sums of money, and politics follows the money, since it is essentially a battle for the control of resources. Some are proponents of the left, seeking to use education to reshape society into a more just, tolerant and egalitarian form; others  conservative, as they seek to retain the valuable elements of of an older order now seen as under threat. For some, the question is less about systems and regulations, and much more about the actual interaction between students, teachers, and curricula – about learning, if only we could agree on what that means.

Shortly there will be another conference on research in education. The theme will be ‘what works?’ I suspect that the speakers, and members of their audiences, may have quite divergent ideas about the outcomes they think are important. In that context, ‘what works’ may not be as simple to discover as the slogan seems to imply. Some will say – glibly – that divergence of opinion is a healthy thing. My answer is that it depends on the subject and the situation. A lively discussion in the pub about which player is the best striker for your club is innocuous enough; but I do not want to be in an emergency room or lying on the operating table while surgeons debate the merits of their preferred techniques. And the state of education is much more like the latter example than the former.

Gene Glass’ summation is a few years old now, but the position has changed little: ‘Some people expect educational research to be like a group of engineers working on the fastest, cheapest and safest way of travelling to Chicago, when in fact it is a bunch of people arguing about whether to go to Chicago or St Louis.’

For the quality of the conversation to become more productive, there are at least three steps that need to be taken by the profession:

  • Agree on what constitutes useful research. This implies questions of design, scale and replication. It also implies agreement on what makes research questions ‘useful’.
  • Pay attention to the work that has already been done. Most teachers have little idea of the vast body of literature that exists.
  • Train teachers in how to evaluate research so that they can recognise fakery and are less subject to educational fashions. Nothing will drive out the charlatans faster than losing their market.

There is a wider and much more difficult question to resolve in the political arena, and that is to agree on what education – at least state education – is for. Ongoing disagreement at this level is probably inevitable, at least for the foreseeable future. But the education community can be more credible, and make much more progress in our discipline, if we adopt a more scientific approach in our language and thinking.

Further reading:

Carnine, D. (2000) Why Education Experts Resist Effective Practices.

Stanovich, K (2003 ) Using Research and Reason in Education: how teachers can use scientifically based research to make instructional and curricular decisions.

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8 Responses to Words, words, words

  1. marymyatt says:

    Very good, was thinking much the same in relation to researched13. You have also nailed the positions on both sides of the phonics debate, well done!

    • Thank you.

      Just to make my own position clear, I am convinced by the evidence in support of early phonics instruction: systematic, synthetic, fluent and closely assessed. I know of no phonics proponents who advocate phonics without free reading, ‘real’ books, literature, stories, language games etc, though they are frequently accused of exactly that. I have included the comments on phonics ‘debates’ because they are salient examples of the ways in which language is used to obscure rather then advance constructive argument.

    • Of course some regard ‘social sciences’ (including education) as disciplines rather than sciences. Whether we pursue a science or a discipline, I would argue that we must do as much as we can to be scientific, (in the empirical sense) or we will not move forward. There is an enormous amount we can do in terms of injecting more scientific rigour into our thinking, language, design, data collection and analysis – and not just the researchers. The same considerations can be taken account of in teacher practice, albeit in a much more limited way.

  2. Ingrid says:

    A great article Horatio – a satisfying synthesis of thoughtful statements and insightful observations on the state of dialogue in education.
    Language is important, research is important, thinking is important. The intellectual sweet-spot in the middle of this particular three-way Venn diagram is where real progress in education becomes possible. – I have recently found myself casting a critical eye over the much-lauded research of an oft-quoted edu-guru (forgive the excess of hyphens) so your insights about research in education certainly resonated.
    The manner and method required, face-to-face and within individual schools, to raise awareness of how educators talk about education and what it might betray about our thought processes is of interest to me. How do we get the rarely-polite phonics debate to move on, or insist that no length of time in a flotation tank will ever pass muster as a reasonable research strategy?
    I could say more, but saying ‘thanks for making me think’ will do for now.

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