Research and Blind Hope.

It is a fact of human nature that we are driven by a desire to classify and clarify meaning. And paradoxically, when we find that things are just too complex to easily classify, we feel somehow cheated and irritated. So it is with the clamour for research based evidence in education at the moment.

Wherever there is a question about our existence and circumstance, there is a tendency to turn to science for answers and to ‘garner the authority of science to underwrite one’s favourite view’ (Barad 2007). This is a pattern we can see in education at both mandatory and voluntary levels. The demand for ‘proof’; the rise in the use of RCTs in educational research; the calls for ‘what works’ all stem from a desire to remove uncertainty. They also, sadly, can stem from a desire to remove responsibility. We have, as a profession, become so dependent on being told what to do that we are afraid to do at all without affirmation and applause. For many younger teachers, this is a condition stemming from their own school experiences – the new generation of teachers are products of the SATs/National Strategies/League tables culture. They are the first generation of teachers to have worked through a system in which they have been told what to do in order to pass the test for their entire academic lives. It is no wonder that they are clamouring to be told what works now. Even those of us longer in the tooth, have been inducted into a system of accountability which has removed autonomy and artistry from the process. We look for answers to not the great questions of human experience – ‘what is the meaning/purpose of life (or teaching)’ or ‘what happens when I die (leave school)’ to smaller, linear questions of ‘What do Ofsted want?’ ‘What will the test ask?’ As such we have become as limited in our thinking as those who stared at the horizon and refused to get into boats, worried that they might fall off the edge. We mock and sneer at those who argue that the process of learning may be more complex than building lego blocks of knowledge in the brain and then testing it. We rage at the Gallileos asking the simple questions about whether or not, perhaps, human interactions and experiences sit at the centre of the universe and that facts and knowledge orbit them. Complexity is not something we want to think about too much. We have been trained to pass tests, perform competency trials for SMT and Ofsted. We do not want to have to board Starship Enterprise and venture to the edges of our known universe. But ironically, that is what science does.

The quantum physicists at CERN are not working with what is known – they are reaching at their liminal edges, into what can barely be imagined in order to push what we know one step further. The one thing the leading neuroscientists will say with any confidence is that they know very little, but what they do know is that the brain is connected with a level of complexity that we are, as yet, only scratching at the surface of. Susan Greenfield describes how the technology that neuroscience has at the moment can capture processes in the brain at a much slower rate than they actually happen. She compares it to the photographic technology available to the Victorians, in which the aperture stayed open long enough to capture buildings but not the people who had moved in that image – they had been too quick for the image to capture. Similarly, she says, our scans and even more sophisticated voltage-sensitive dyes can only show us a fraction of what is happening in our brains. She suggests that a move forward might be for the disciplines of quantum physics and neuroscience to become more closely aligned – the magic of the mind may well be happening at a sub-atomic level.

Given that scientists themselves suggest that our interconnectedness and identity to each other and to the world around us are unimaginably complex, what manner of idiot can suggest that teaching and learning can be understood with the help of a few RCTs? It demonstrates a faith in science that not even scientists possess. What we must do, is to take the little information we do have about the functions and physiology of the brain and use this to help us to examine and understand our own micro-climates in the classroom. We have to learn to look, to not so much reflect as difract our knowledge. We need to ask ‘What do we ‘know’’ in a much more sophisticated way. We can use knowledge and keep up to date with developments in pedagogy and science, but we have to then accept that the application of the knowledge will be complex and multi-facted. We know, for example:-

  1. That the brain is connected. There are no independent ‘centres’ for activity – although some functions and activities seem to be more active for certain things. For example, it is thought that the hippocampus plays a key role in the acquisition and recall of memory. But memory does not sit in the hippocampus – it connects right across the brain (Greenfield 2007).
  2. That damage to the amygdala can affect decision making, suggesting that emotion and reason are connected and interdependent. (Damasio 2006)
  3. That working at the edges of our capabilities primes the brain to learn – this has spawned concepts of deep practice and mastery and suggests that challenge is essential to progress. There is evidence that this may lead to increased levels of myelin around the ‘practiced’ synaptic links associated with the learning which may speed up and protect the action from loss in memory – which is why the ‘use it or lose it’ phrase is often used. As such, information which is repeated and used frequently will be retained. This perhaps explains why children lose knowledge in adulthood if it has not been reused.
  4.  Yet we also know that many testify, from personal experience, that random and not frequently used information often sticks in the mind. Why? We don’t know, but it could have something to do with a synaptic connection to a sensory or emotional stimulus – back to the interconnectedness of the brain again.
  5. We know that our human-ness seems to stem from our well developed pre-frontal cortex and that many of the behaviours we associate with ‘maturity’ – executive brain functions – are controlled and managed by this part of the brain. These functions include time management, impulse control, deferred gratification and so on. It is also known that this area of the brain does not mature until we are in our late teens/early twenties (Blakemore and Choudhry 2006). Yet many rage about the ‘problem’ of behaviour as if this were a sign of damage/abnormality rather than normal child development. That is not that children cannot behave, but that they do so through a process of mimicry and trying out, rather than through biological maturity – aided by mirror neurones (Rizolatti 2004). Their ability to do so, therefore depends on having good adult role models to copy. It depends on relationships.
  6. We know that certain chemicals such as dopamine, cortisol and adrenaline affect brain function and that it is not so simple as suggesting that some are good and some are bad. Whether their effects are good or bad depends on the quantity released, what is happening at the moment they are released and the whole history of experience of dealing with these chemicals in the past (Greenfield 2011). It is a complex and inter-related process; one that cannot be reduced to sweeping statements such as ‘stress is good for learning’.

Let’s take a small example of this complexity. It concerns memory. It concerns learning and it concerns me.

1977: We learn times tables by rote and recital. At the end of each week, we are brought to the front of the class and asked to recite that week’s table. There is a stop watch on the teacher’s table and we have a certain amount of time to get through. She stands with a large wooden ruler in her hand and we recite with our right palm outstretched. If we do not finish in time, there is a sharp smack on the palm of our hand with the ruler. It has never happened to me before – I’m pretty good at rote learning.

2012: I am asked to take part in a brief radio discussion about the new national curriculum. The discussion swings round to an accusation from a panelist that children do not know their times tables. Out of the blue, the presenter asks me what 7×8 is.

1977: I am in full flow when another teacher enters the room and asks a question. Our teacher stops the clock, answers him and then restarts. I am thrown – I’ve learned them sequentially – and in panic I start again at the beginning, but there isn’t enough time. At 7×8 I receive a painful smack on my palm from the ruler.

2012: My mouth goes dry, my heart starts beating faster and my palm tingles. 7×8 cannot be divorced for me from fear and pain and my mind goes blank. I do what I did in 1977, start at the beginning, furiously working my way through to 56. The presenter laughs at how long it took me. I laugh too, but I feel sickened. I hate 7×8. I resolve never to let it get to me again.

Now when I think of 7×8 I picture a palm with 5 digits outstretched, ready to receive the ruler. I imagine the forefinger of my other hand as the ruler and I press the palm of my right hand with the forefinger of my left – there are now six digits on this hand – 56. I can reach this answer in a nano second now, and I hope that one day someone asks me again. But they probably won’t.

What we see here is how memory, learning and emotion are inextricably connected. Some would say that we don’t do this anymore – we don’t hit children. But we do sometimes humiliate them. That humiliation has the potential to act as a mental block to accessing information. We cannot separate a memory from the emotional and sensory. If we’re clever, we’ll use this knowledge to create safe, happy but stimulating environments for children to work in. We’ll build in levels of tension and challenge – we know that a little adrenaline and cortisol can aid learning – but manage this so that it is not personally stressful or humiliating to a child. An excess of these chemicals can destroy the synaptic links you are trying to build (Curran, 2007). Similarly, dopamine, the reward chemical, can act as an accelerant for learning – building connections, but in excessive amounts pushes the brain into sensory overload – a ‘rush’ which over-rides pre-frontal cortex function. Perhaps some ‘fun’ activities push this dopamine rush too far? The ‘right’ amount will always be a matter of trial and error. It will always be dependent on the individual brain of the child. You will never be able to get it right for everyone. No RCT will ever allow for the individual complexity of every individual brain. It may offer trends and patterns -suggestions of effectiveness, but even then, we need to ask, effective for what?

I keep reading the words ‘what works’ on the blogs of people who are demanding research based evidence, but they rarely answer the question ‘what do we mean by works’? Is a higher test score, evidence of ‘working’? Will we be satisfied when 100% of children get 5 A-Cs at GCSE? I doubt it, because the very same people clamouring for a working solution, often greet every improvement in results as evidence of grade inflation. Michael Gove’s response when things seem to be ‘working’ or at least improving, is to make the examination harder. Like saying to Usain Bolt ‘Hmm – bet you can’t do it with steel capped boots on!’

What we need to ask is whether or not the learning is retained after the exam. If it is embedded into the future life of a child. If the learning for the examination is lost within six weeks of sitting it, then we need to ask whether the notion of an examination is working, not simply make it more difficult to pass. And is a set of test results really what we want from our future generations? As a parent, I’d say I hope for more. I hope for happiness, creativity, the ability to make well balanced decisions, the capacity to become a good and responsible parent or role model for the younger generation, the ability to adapt. Test results are a small part of a much larger ambition. The low expectations and levels of challenge within the education system are not coming from teachers, but from a wider lack of ambition for the future of our children from policy makers.

I realise that none of this is what many people want to hear. But it is what we must hear. We need to recognise that expert teaching comes from expertise. From deep knowledge and extended experience. Not from age as such, but from a hunger to keep learning, keep looking and to be able to adapt practice in nuanced ways to suit the now time of the particular child in the particular class in question. Let’s be more ambitious in our clamour to know. Let’s accept that we will never know, but like those physicists, keep pushing nonetheless. Let’s not view science in a quasi-religious state of blind faith, but as a means to an end that might never come in our life time. Let’s not view children as units of examination outcomes, but as the minds that will make decisions about our futures. Let’s not oversimplify. Let’s not base our practice on our own belief systems and experiences, but instead on an open-ness to possibility. Let’s not sneer, attack and turn our backs on each other in entrenched camps because we just don’t like what we’re hearing. If we really want to be a profession pushing the boundaries of what can be possible, we need to do it in the spirit of discovery, not in the pursuit of proof.

7 thoughts on “Research and Blind Hope.

  1. Yes, absolutely, it’s all so complex, why would we seek to deny the complexity? You write beautifully here, as well as giving carefully balanced evidence to support what you say. Thanks, I really enjoyed reading this.

    Speaking as a parent, you are exactly the kind of teacher I want to be teaching my children, no matter whether an RCT has ‘proved’ your methods best or not. Happily, most of the teachers who have taught my children seem to hold a similar view. I think Twitter is just very polarised and full of people shouting but not listening. I don’t see that it represents the teaching profession as a whole.

  2. You have covered so much highly significant material as ever in a most enlightening way Debra. Congratulations! This should be read by everyone wishing to enter the profession and by all those who think that the fact they went to school makes them an expert on education. Sue Cowley is right also, to ask why anyone would seek to deny the complexity. I believe until we have set aside time to consider precisely what we want education to be about, particularly what it is that it might contribute most appropriately to the lives of each and every individual child that we would be better to progress with caution in our search for solutions.

    Sadly, as you mention, people will not welcome so much of what you have written here. I fear that the overriding expectation is that education is a destination when in fact it is a journey that is best taken in the company of significant others possessed of skill, dedication and patience. The expertise required of teachers, and parents too, develops over time out of a deep desire to understand the needs of the child. There is no one solution to helping children achieve more and to live fulfilling lives, but there is one sure way of failing in this regard. It is to hold to the idea that children are somehow the same, with the same talents, desires, needs, hopes and aspirations and that therefore all we have to do is deliver education according to an agreed formula.

    I hope that as many teachers and parents as signed your petitions read this and, in doing so, find the confidence to demand of our leaders that education has to be reformed so that it is personally significant to each individual. If we want to help young people identify and unlock their potential, nothing short of this will do.

  3. Thought provoking. Creative spirits must be nurtured and valued. We learn by ‘rote’ and promptly forget at our peril. Take note Mr. Gove.

  4. I’ve had to take a day off school today because I’m ill. It could well turn out to be one of the most significant days of my year. No work, no children, no husband and lots of quiet to read (blogs like this), watch (Sir Ken Robinson’s latest TED talk) and think about what my job (teacher) is all about and why I do it. I’m due to start a new course of study in September and find that ‘an open-ness to possibility’ is being reignited inside me. Thank you

    1. Hello you! Well, these things happen for a reason:-) Am meeting up with Dinos tomorrow to write about ISTA and pedagogy at festivals so watch this space – or the ISTA website space at any rate! Hope you feel better soon x

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