Behind closed doors, only teachers know what works

13th September 2013 at 01:00

Taking the subjectivity out of education and replacing it with research-based objectivity has long been a popular idea among teachers. It is an understandable reaction to meddling by bureaucrats, politicians and, um, journalists who have no idea what it's like when the classroom door is shut and it's just you and 30 kids. Imagine knocking the latest Govean diktat out of the school grounds with a cricket bat made of rock-solid, peer-reviewed research.

It is for this reason that the teaching profession, together with its leaders and supporters, often compares itself unfavourably with the medical profession. If only classroom interventions were more like medicines, the argument goes. If only we had an equivalent to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence deciding independently and scientifically what does and doesn't work. Health secretaries don't tell oncologists how to treat leukaemia, so why should Michael Gove dictate on phonics?

Similarly, one can expect whooping in staffrooms across the land when teachers read Professor Robert Coe's comments at last weekend's ResearchED Conference: he said that there was little or no research basis for the working practices of Ofsted (page 8). You can hear the clarion calls: if we bring scientific standards into teaching, everyone else can go swing, and that includes inspectors.

But, without wishing to state the obvious, it's really not that simple.

For example, it should go without saying that one of the key factors in the learning process is the relationship between a teacher and a student. If the connection is there, it works. There is a reason that an absurdly high proportion of articles and poems (yes, poems) submitted to TES are paeans to the "light-bulb moment".

Other obstacles prevent the rigour of research from filtering into policy. As former Department for Education adviser Sam Freedman told the same conference, it is difficult for governments to evaluate their own policies in a controlled way because of the electoral cycle. In short, the need for elections is more pressing than commissioning decent research, so politicians simply do what feels right. They make instinctive - human - decisions about schools.

It is this human element that means the public, journalists and politicians feel they can dip their oar in, but perhaps we shouldn't try too hard to stop them.

One high-performing country where there is a very "scientific approach" to education, where pedagogy and subject knowledge is set out years in advance, is Singapore. However, it doesn't have to worry about electoral cycles (it has a hazy relationship at best with democracy) and its schools are exam factories with next to no creativity in the curriculum that produce results-obsessed students. Just how often do you suppose your average Singaporean teacher thinks of penning a poem about that day's light-bulb moment?

So, perhaps we should welcome meddling politicians, governing bodies and right-wing newspapers blathering on about teaching. Because the great thing is that none of this noise really matters. No hack, no jumped-up minister, no academic in his ivory tower will ever really know what works when that classroom door is shut.

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