How the government was accidentally progressive

Education ministers are so confused by evidence that the Conservative government has accidentally imported progressive policies, write Peter Ford and JL Dutaut
26th April 2019, 12:03am
Did The Government Import Progressive Policies? Only Accidentally


How the government was accidentally progressive

Educational policymakers have long had a fraught relationship with evidence and theory. Schools minister Nick Gibb is no exception, but the truth is that what makes high-performing education systems what they are is a higher calibre of policymaker.

Take learning styles, for example. The visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (VAK) learning model is taken to mean teachers should adapt their resources to the learning styles of their students to personalise delivery and improve learning. That’s the theory, and it is arguably the most widely referenced misuse of theory in the world of education. It’s been used to criticise schools, teachers, progressives, Ofsted, the Blob, you name it. And to whom do we actually owe this misapplication of theory? Well...policymakers. In this case, David Miliband.

It’s true that VAK has been around for decades but it emerged in policy terms in 2004 in a document attributed to Miliband, then junior education minister, who posed the question: “How do we achieve both excellence and equity [in education]?”

It went on to give the answer: to establish a personalised approach, “in which every child matters” and “careful attention is paid to their individual learning styles, motivations and needs”.

The very same year, a government-funded study conducted by Frank Coffield found VAK lacked credible evidence. Not for the first time, policymakers ignored evidence that didn’t suit their agenda - in this case, New Labour’s mantra of personalisation of public services - and ploughed on regardless.

After a short tenure in education, David Miliband moved on to pastures new but other policymakers in the same mould have taken his place. Which takes us back to Gibb.

Speaking at ResearchEd in 2015, Gibb publicly dismissed VAK along with brain gym, multiple intelligences, 21st-century skills and discovery learning in a bid to make a clean break from the bad old days of unevidenced policymaking. He blamed progressive ideas, and rode the crest of a wave of political rhetoric that rose to the dizzy heights of castigating Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the world’s most influential thinkers, as a progressive villain. It served the purpose of giving a sense of gravitas to Gibb’s position.

He proceeded to argue for a more traditional approach to education based on the work of ED Hirsch and the psychologist DT Willingham, as well as educational psychologists such as Paul Kirschner, John Sweller and Richard Clarke. The latter had made their impact in the field by criticising mainstream progressive educationalists like Jerome Bruner who, since 1951, had developed a constructivist methodological approach to classroom practice - the discovery method - which later influenced enquiry and problem-based learning.

In support of teacher-led (as opposed to progressive) approaches, Gibb cited research from 2015 by the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) suggesting that no educational system that routinely “exposes” its students to enquiry-based learning scores highly in science.

What Gibb omitted to say was that the Pisa research clearly showed a correlation between the adoption of enquiry learning and the issue of students with behavioural difficulties. So much for a new style of educational politics.

In the same year, in a speech to the London Thames Maths Hub primary conference, Gibb identified Singapore as an antidote to progressive and constructivist practices. He heaped praise upon their use of scaffolding techniques, seemingly unaware that it was the constructivist Bruner who’d been instrumental in scaffolding’s development.

If the irony of replacing the bad politics of the left with bad politics of the right wasn’t enough, Gibb justified it by arguing both for and against constructivism simultaneously. His approach has not only caused dissonance but has divided the profession.

Singapore, it turns out, is not the stereotype we are presented with. Far from a South East Asian country whose success stems from strict, traditional teaching methods, disappointing performances in the early 1980s prompted the city state to plough a different furrow.

Singapore’s top-down approach to planning, disseminating and enforcing education reform had undermined progress and resulted in three unhealthy trends: a “yes-man” syndrome, over-reliance on leadership for direction and a spoon-feeding culture.

The results were an education system that lacked autonomy, initiative and innovation, as well as a general sense of detachment from policymakers. Within schools, teachers and children alike were mechanically fed by a bureaucratically designated and rigid curriculum. Principals and teachers suffered from low morale. Sound familiar?

Gibb has gone on to recreate the problems Singapore worked so hard to overcome, while citing Singapore as an example of good practice.

Singapore, in fact, looked to constructivist theorists such as Bruner, Vygotsky and Piaget to solve their problem, and the rethink proved a success. By the mid-Nineties, Singaporean students benefitted from changes to the mathematics syllabus and the teaching of science. The emphasis placed on thinking skills and understanding concepts, rather than rote mastery of content, paid dividends. The attrition rate for secondary schools decreased significantly from 19 per cent in 1980 to 3.5 per cent in 1999.

Gibb derived inspiration from Singapore’s approach, stating that, “in the spirit of learning from the best jurisdictions in the world for teaching mathematics”, he was spearheading a trial of Singapore-inspired textbooks in English schools, which was already having a positive impact on workload.

A key principle of Singapore Maths is the concrete, pictorial, abstract approach. This approach is based on Bruner’s 1966 enactive, iconic and symbolic modes of representation. In effect, Gibb was again importing from Singapore aspects of the constructivist theory he was dismissing at home.

In addition to constructivist teaching techniques, Singapore adopted a social constructivist approach to leadership. Its Leaders in Education Programme, instigated in the late 1990s, was a six-‐month course designed to prepare outstanding individuals for school leadership.

Education ministry spokesperson Prashant Jayapragas described its approach as firmly anchored in social constructivism. “The social orientations of constructivism commonly linked to Vygotsky”, he stated, “emphasise the cultural and social context in which learning takes place”.

In 2004, as David Miliband introduced VAK here, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong launched the Teach Less, Learn More initiative, intended to encourage creativity and innovation. Its success resulted in over 40 countries, including England and the US, adopting at least some of aspects of it.

And Singapore hasn’t looked back. In fact, its current reform agenda is centred on reducing the accountability system’s reliance on exam results, to give students more time to develop soft skills and teachers more time to adapt their methods.

Has Singapore been taken over by the educational Blob in exile? Have they been “exposed” to a progressive virus to which they had no immunity? Of course not. Its place at the top of the world rankings is secure, and current reforms are being rolled out in phases over a period of years.

Perhaps we could truly learn from them, rather than construct a caricature of their success. A good place to start might be for our policymakers to adapt policy in light of evidence, rather than to cherry pick evidence to suit their ideologies.

Then we might get what Gibb so forcefully called for: an evidence-based profession. Until then, the song remains the same, political agendas change.

Peter Ford is a curriculum manager in higher and further education. He tweets @edsacredprofane. JL Dutaut is a teacher of politics and citizenship and co-editor, with Lucy Rycroft-Smith, of Flip the System UK: A teachers’ manifesto. He tweets @dutaut

This article originally appeared in the 26 April 2019 issue under the headline “The Accidental Constructivist”

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