The problem with evidence based practice

Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or ignorance.
Bertrand Russell

There are no references at the bottom of this blog. No bibliography. It’s just a reflection concocted after a rather average Chinese takeaway and an exceptionally good glass of white Rioja. If you’re looking for something a little bit more academic and rigorous, then you probably ought to stop reading now.

You’re still here. Brilliant. Thanks for the vote of confidence. So, what is the problem with evidence? After all, evidence is proof, confirmation, verification, substantiation, corroboration, affirmation, authentication, attestation, documentation; support for, backing for, reinforcement for, grounds for. Nothing wrong with that.

Or is there? Actually, in education, there is. Evidence based practice is all well and good if the evidence is sound, comprehensive and substantive. However, unlike other fields of science, evidence of what works in education remains patchy – the best and most comprehensive bodies of educational research and evidence have come from attempts to synthesise the myriad of small scale research studies. In education there is no equivalent of the laws of thermodynamics, nor will there ever be.

Why not? Because, in practice, there is an infinite number of variables involved in researching any aspect teaching and learning. I have a personality. So have you. So have your pupils. I have a set of biases. So have you. So have your pupils. And their parents. All of these factors and others ranging from class size to ability profile, from social background to time of day, ensure that what works for me might not work for you and vice versa. Continue reading

The problem with pedagogy first

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Henry Ford

Widely attributed to Henry Ford after the success of his Model T car, though quite possibly apocryphal, this quote nevertheless neatly encapsulates the problem with putting pedagogy first.

Let me unpick that. I’ve argued before that technology must be form an integral part of any school’s development plan if we want it to become embedded, mundane and therefore truly transformational.

However, whenever I’ve said that the technology is really important it is often construed to mean that I think technology is more important and inevitably someone pipes up that pedagogy must always come first. In fact, they say, that is the problem with digital strategies: they’re putting the cart before the horse.

But (I humbly submit) they’re wrong. For this reason:

We seem to have happily settled on the assumption that technology’s value to education is limited and that it may be doing us more harm than good. This is a point I‘ve tried to make recently here and here.

From this perspective, it makes sense to be cautious about the dangers and pitfalls of technology. However, in stark contrast with this sceptical approach, is the fact that technology has had a an overwhelmingly positive impact in all areas of society, including education. Every piece of research on the subject – from Nesta to Hattie, from Futurelab to Willingham – suggests that, when effectively used, technology benefits teaching and learning. It really is as clear as that, yet we still remain culturally biased against technology.

What actually makes sense is to embrace technology and explore how it can support teaching and learning. A school’s digital strategy must ensure that both technology and pedagogy go hand in hand if we are to avoid the faster horse scenario, where our vantage point only allows us a narrow field of view that cannot provide us with the insight and perspective that are required to make educational technology so mundane and so embedded that teachers can focus on the teaching, which is what every teacher in the world dearly wants to achieve.

Far from putting the horse before the cart, a good digital strategy puts the horse inside the cart, providing it with a powerful motor to drive research, development and innovation in teaching and learning.

What do you think?

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Is technology rewiring our brains?

Technology is a gift of God. After the gift of life it is perhaps the greatest of God’s gifts. It is the mother of civilizations, of arts and of sciences.

Freeman Dyson

In recent blogs I have explored how technology gets a very bad press. Despite the massive positive impact that modern technology has in all of our lives, the accepted mainstream discourse surrounding technology often evokes a dystopian reality where technology does more harm than good.

Nevertheless I find it surprising that most educators, seemingly undeterred by overwhelming evidence to the contrary, continue to view the use of technology with suspicion and incredulity as, from this perspective, focusing on doubt, scepticism, danger and concern appears to be the sensible thing to do.

However, I believe this kind of thinking is based on the deeply flawed assumptions that, from the teaching angle, technology does not offer any real benefit to education, and that, from the learning angle, we would be better advised to tightly control children’s access to technology in any case. One of the often cited causes for concern is the suspicion that increased technology use might be adversing affecting brain development in children.

But we’ve been there before.

Take Marc Prensky’s thesis that digital natives’ cognitive capacity has changed as a response to living a technological world and that teachers ought to take this into account. This notion has been demolished by John Hattie and others on the grounds that the human brain is just not as malleable as Prensky implies. As Hattie says “the notion that Internet usage itself will occasion alterations or deterioration in cognitive capacities has no genuine support from within the known research literature”1. Continue reading

Digital Strategy: Using tablets to support teaching and learning

Our school aims to gradually become an environment in which all teachers and students have access to tablets on a one to one basis over the next 2-3 years. This objective has arisen mainly from our research into how effective teaching and learning takes place (see previous post), which helped us understand that every aspect involved in both teaching and learning can be supported by the effective use of technology in the classroom and at home, but also from the realisation that attempting to rationalise why we shouldn’t use tablets had become much more difficult than trying to justify why we should.

The focus of our digital strategy therefore takes into account how lessons are most effective and aims to put in place the means and support to enable teachers to use technology, when it is possible and appropriate, in order to support and improve the quality of the teaching and learning that starts off in their classrooms.

It is to my mind undeniable that tablets are a formidable teaching, learning and communication tool. Their ability to be preloaded with and allow instant access to engaging, interactive and multimedia content is indeed one of their main attractions. However, as well as means for content consumption, tablets incorporate software, cameras, microphones and other sensors that allow teachers and students to create and instantly share their own media-rich content, all the while helping to keep compelling records of learning and progress.

Nevertheless, the adoption of tablets can feel enormously demanding and daunting for both students and teachers who are often unfamiliar with and/or unaware of the new opportunities and challenges presented to them when tablets are introduced into the learning environment. So, in order to inform our digital strategy and think ahead of our plans to roll out tablets to staff and students, we decided to carry out a SWOT analysis on the perceived the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats by asking the members of our Digital Strategy Steering Group (18 staff) and our Digital Council (23 students from Year 6 to Year 13) the following question: how can tablets be used most effectively to support teaching and learning?  Below are their responses: Continue reading

Glassy-eyed zombies

This is the blurb that accompanies this video, which I was reminded of today:

David Bond is concerned. His kids’ waking hours are dominated by a cacophony of marketing, and a screen dependence threatening to turn them into glassy-eyed zombies. Like city kids everywhere, they spend way too much time indoors – not like it was back in his day. He decides it’s time to get back to nature – literally. In an attempt to compete with the brands, which take up a third of his daughter’s life, Bond appoints himself Marketing Director for Nature. Like any self-respecting salesman, he sets about developing a campaign and a logo. With the help of a number of bemused professionals, he is soon selling Nature to British families. His humorous journey unearths some painful truths about modern family life. His product is free, plentiful and has proven benefits – but is Nature past its sell-by date?

I truly sympathise with the cause. I really do think that children need the opportunity to play and learn outdoors more often. However, I was disturbed by the way in which technology is portrayed as being the cause of children’s lack of outdoor play.

I think it is Susan Greenfield’s voice (do correct me if I’m wrong) saying  that “technology is turning us into glassy-eyed zombies”. I’ve disagreed with Greenfield and her radical stance before. This is followed by “my children’s generation is going to be the first in history to have a lower life expectancy than their parents”. Powerful stuff. The problem is that there is no evidence whatsoever that either of these statements is actually true. Continue reading

Traditionalist nonsense or progressive flimflam?

Innovation is desirable in every other aspect of life. The constant tinkering, tweaking and adjusting that makes for faster trains, safer aircraft and life-saving surgery. “No, Doctor, I don’t want any of that newfangled key-hole surgery, I want to be ripped right open just like in the good old days” said no one, ever. But not in education. Oh no. In education we’ll have none of that (spits) progressive flimflam.

The latest twitter spats and blogging battles seem to be being fought on the right by traditionalists who support a teacher centred approach where the student is a passive recipient of knowledge vs. progressives on the left, who espouse a child centred approach favouring change and innovation.

Just like when recently you were being asked to pick between teaching knowledge or skills (because, apparently, it had to be either or), now you need to pick between being a traditionalist or a progressive. And if you can’t or won’t, that’s because you’re probably either a little too simple -ah, bless- or you lack principles.

The thing is, when I think about my own teaching style I’m pretty traditional. I’m very much a starter/presentation/guided practice/feedback/further practice/plenary kind of guy. There is actually quite a bit of direct teacher instruction and didactic teaching in my lessons. A stickler for tradition, me. Why? Because it works.

But there is also quite a bit of group work, peer assessment and self assessment about my lessons, much of it supported by innovative use of technology. These are activities that lend themselves very easily to more a progressive approach to teaching and learning. Why? Well, for the same reason. Because it also works. Continue reading