A response to critics #2: data and dichotomies

One month ago, I published a historical critique of progressive education entitled Progressively Worse. It has two essential arguments. Firstly, from the 1960s onwards progressive education became a powerful orthodoxy within the state education system. Secondly, it has failed to improve the quality of education in our schools.

This is the second in a series of blogs responding to the criticism Progressively Worse has received so far. To read the first blog, click here.

False dichotomies

‘The road to hell in education is paved with false dichotomies’. So went Sir Michael Barber’s meme that has spread through the education debate.

La la la la la. I refuse to engage with such false dichotomies. La la la la la

La la la la la. I refuse to engage with such false dichotomies. La la la la la

Many have accused Progressively Worse of establishing a false dichotomy between progressive and traditional approaches. A false dichotomy is an either/or choice where some middle ground is actually possible. At no point in Progressively Worse do I offer an either/or choice between progressive and traditional education. Instead, I argue that in recent decades British schools have seen far too much of the former, and not enough of the latter. As I write in the introduction:

Such dichotomies (skills/knowledge, child-centred/teacher-led) are perhaps better thought of as sitting at opposite ends of a spectrum. If we are to decide what constitutes a sensible position on each spectrum, we need to appreciate better how far British schools currently gravitate towards the progressive ends. Whilst a wholesale move towards traditionalist modes of education would be harmful, a corrective shift in that direction is desperately needed.

Writing about my book, Harry Webb offers the helpful analogy of the economic poles of Keynesianism and monetarism. Few economists are absolutist in their support for one or the other, but the terms remain necessary for describing either end of a continuum. Amongst, for example, the increasing number of teachers who are calling for a greater focus on knowledge, and a lesser focus on skills, there is not one who proposes an absolute dichotomy between the two. This is an argument projected upon them by their critics.

Latte-sippers: above such 'un-nuanced' language.

Latte-sippers: above such ‘un-nuanced’ language.

Gerrard accuses Progressively Worse of oversimplifying complex debates by using terms such as ‘an authoritative teacher vs independent learning’. Gerrard is correct, to the extent that categorisation invariably simplifies. This can be seen in all walks of life: music genres; architectural styles; political labels. However, though imprecise, categories are vital in allowing discussion to take place. Those who protest over their skinny lattes that they are far too sophisticated to use such un-nuanced language (as characterised by Harry Webb), are more often than not just trying to shut down debate.


The ‘data bore’ is a common creature in contemporary debates, characterised by their lofty disdain for anything so naïve as ‘having an opinion’. Gerrard concludes her critique of my book by writing, ‘This isn’t the kind of evidence-based approach to policy that government needs to use. Let the data speak for themselves.’

I have written about the problems with such a stance in my post ‘When evidence doesn’t work’. Firstly, some of the key debates in education are based on value judgements, not efficacy. What ‘evidence’ tells us that Shakespeare should be studied at GCSE, for example?

Secondly, evidence can tell us what improves academic results. However, one thing that traditionalists and progressives usually agree on is that schools are responsible for more than just academic results. This is why Robbie Coleman, the Research and Communications Manager at the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), has written ‘Evidence is good at helping us work out how to get where we want to go… But evidence can’t tell us where we want to go in the first place. If we forget this, we end up following whichever road we find first, and only attributing value to the things we can easily measure.

Detentions: if data has not yet validated their efficacy, do schools still have permission to use them?

Detentions: if data has not yet validated their efficacy, do schools still have permission to use them?

Thirdly, data are simply not able to ‘speak for themselves’. Its voice is always mediated by human judgement. Just look at the EEF’s Teachers Toolkit. It is a fantastic resource, and much like Hattie’s work, an admirable synthesis of existing educational research. However, one cannot entirely outsource one’s judgement making faculties to the EEF’s pound signs and monthly measures. The researcher, just like the historian, suffers from selection bias. Where are the toolkit results for knowledge-based curriculums; detentions; and end of year exams? All things that I value, but all things the EEF toolkit has not (yet) isolated and measured.

In addition, Guy Woolnough attacks my use of the Hattie’s data in Visible Learning. He claims that I use his synthesis of meta-analysis ‘to support his argument in favour of ‘traditional’ teaching methods.’ I do not. I simply use his evidence to discredit the dominance of constructivism within teacher training. As I write in my book:

Hattie is duly critical of the ‘constructivist theory of teaching’, which is the psychological school that underpins child-centred practice. This is not to say he promotes an alternative of pure didacticism.

Woolnough additionally quotes Hattie’s claim that teachers need to employ ‘less talk’, and his observation that ‘Teachers love to talk, but unfortunately most of their talk, even when it calls for a student response, fosters lower-order learning.’ Here, I would question the conclusion Hattie draws from his own findings. Undoubtedly, many teachers are guilty of poor quality teacher talk. However, the remarkable success of programs such as direct instruction suggest the solution need not be less teacher talk, but better teacher talk.

Some education research enthusiasts seem to believe that data can overcome opinion. It cannot. It can inform opinion. It can promote or discredit opinion. But data will never be opinion.

~ by goodbyemisterhunter on May 29, 2014.

5 Responses to “A response to critics #2: data and dichotomies”

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. […] This is the third in a series of blogs responding to the criticism Progressively Worse has received to far. To read the first and second blogs, click here and here. […]

  3. […] posted a series of responses to critics of his book Progressively Worse here. The second is on ‘data and dichotomies’. In this post I want to comment on some of the things he says about data and […]

  4. Robert … the following is my take on some of this. I will express my opinions.

    I have read the book. I neither agree or disagree with much of what it contains and I really haven’t the time to follow up with the research I would need to do to check it out but I assume the references are correct and there I read your interpretation which I took as your interpretation and your attempt to convince people that your assertions are true.

    I do not believe that a false dicotomy is a situation where …”A false dichotomy is an either/or choice where some middle ground is actually possible.”

    I believe a fasle dichotomy is where in an argument, person A tries to convince person B of their assertion (person A’s) by suggesting that there are two alternatives AX and CX. CX is clearly not reasonable therefore AX (which is A’s assertion) must therefore be true. I don’t see it as anything necessarily to do with a middle ground. A simply states two options suggesting that these are the only two options. There may be many others, some which are middle ground. So when you use the term to describe a situation where a person says there is Trad and there is Prog and as Prog is just silly therefore it must be Trad I don’t see this as a false dichotemy. I see the sorts of characteristics and approaches that people describe as Trad, but I don’t see them as Trad at all. I see the approaches that are described as Prog and I don’t see them as Prog. I see many other approaches also. I am an eclectic professional educator, and I beleiev most professional educators are eclectic. I have compeled full time teacher training courses at tow UK universities in the last 19 years and neither were Trad or Prog. They advocated eclecticism.

    The reason I find Harry Webb’s analogy helpful is that it actually is a false dichotemy if one suggest that these are the only two schools of economics but it isnt for one second at two eneds a straight line that demonstrates a continuum. In fact many economists say that it is unhelpful to label economic thought in this way. I agree (as an economics teacher), just as I feel Trad and Prog are unhelpful.

    My experience of this debate is in fact quite the opposite of yours, and I am not sure why. You see, I witness a large following for the idea that education should be about knowledge and skills. Just for the record many are not stuck in the cognitive domain and they also talk about affective and psycho motor stuff to. In suggesting that there is some middle ground, which you seem to, I am actually heartened. A you have named names I will do this also.

    Bloggers such as Harry Webb and Oldandrew, do in fact tend to do exactly what you suggest. Oldandrew goes as far as to say that those who suggest that a middle ground is the norm and it is an argument about the balance are simply trying to close down the debate. Oldandrew for instance has oft stated that people who think that generic skills can be taught are simply wrong. Not even our frind D Willingham goes that far. Oldandrew oft vents his venom on those who suggest some middle ground, for him there seem only to be two choices and when you try to discuss this he will lead you round in circles until you give up. Harry Webb operates in a similar way. Harry repeatedly tells everyone that anyone who tries to teach skills is misguided. He will worship at the altar of Kirschner and Sweller and tell you that pure discovery learning has been shown to be less effcient that direct instruction and therefore that is the end of it.

    I see many educators who you might label as Progressive who teach in some interesting ways. I sometimes feel that they go over the top with some of the “learner-led” approaches but as long as they get results and parents are happy for them to educate kids and most importantly the kids are happy and learning, who am I to argue. Bloggers, including those mentioned here and others but maybe to a less extent seem to just vent their feelings on educators who stray too far towards “learner led approaches”. They see fit to ridicule people, seeing their way as the only way.

    I am not a statistician but I have read around the Hattie stuff. I am now not convinced that using the Hattie stuff in the way it is used is productive. I see it a bit like VAK at this time. I have read reviews and expert opinions on both sides. I don’t see it as the powerful resource that you do.

    I have seen the word hetrodox many times in the last fortnight and I find this sad. I don’t believe I am naive, But perhaps. This debate seem to me to largely political, as many are. Individuals are jumping on this bandwagon as they see great wealth, power and adulation possble. Others seem to me to be peddling the same old stuff they have been peddling for years but now someone is listening and that has to be good for the ego.

    A few see themselves as great Educational Philosophers, following in the footsteps of Hirst, Peters and Oakshott. Which is excellent but I think just middies the waters.

    One or two are on a crusade.

    I think the term “false dichotemy” doesnt even come close to describing the complexity of the issues involved, but I think your heart seems to be in the right place. I am not sure (but I don’t know) whether I go along with all that “orthodxy” type conspiracy theory stuff, but if you are suggesting that teachers are eclectic, that they take trad stuff and prog stuff and any other stuff they find useful, then I agree 100%.

    You don’t however necessarily talk for the average trad or prog.

  5. […] ‘polarising rhetoric’ that establishes ‘false dichotomies’ (p.8). I’m one of them. In his second response to his critics, he tackles the issue of the false […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: