The BIG Problem with the Scientific Analysis of Education. Paul Henderson

It is generally agreed that education policy should be informed by legitimate peer reviewed scientific research arrived at through evidence based rational thinking. There is no doubt in my mind that this approach is totally correct; however there is a problem with the research that currently informs classroom teaching practices throughout the world. The problem is that plausible science has been conducted on top of a shaky foundational concept of education which has led to conclusions, claims and recommendations for which there is no evidence. Any science, no matter how extensive, rigorous and disciplined, is not fully legitimate if it is founded on a false assumption. The scientific conclusions currently informing classroom pedagogy recommend changes in education and learning based on the fundamentally flawed assumption that scientific findings showing what works in classrooms should be used to improve how people become educated. Such recommendations fail to recognise that formal learning assessed by conventional formal means is a contrived special case which is significantly different from the learning from which general learning theories are derived. Any theory which results in practices designed to improve the attainment of learning outcomes prescribed for classroom learners through changing the way school teachers teach is a special theory of learning designed for the specially contrived learning environment of curricular schooling, it is not, therefore, a general learning theory based on how humans learn in general circumstances, yet the claims made by the world’s current crop of top educational researchers strongly imply that they have found ways to improve learning in a general sense through finding out what works in classrooms. Conflating special and general theories of learning, no matter how well meaning, is a serious error with counterproductive unintended consequences that are deeply concerning. It is a serious mistake to conflate schooling with education or to conflate learning with schooling, but these mistakes underpin the current claims of some of the world’s leading educationists. The ironic unintended consequence of trying to improve education by making schooling more efficient is to make education less efficient, which ultimately creates a situation in which learners become, as John Abbott puts it, ‘overschooled but undereducated.’
When it comes to all things measurable in the classroom, there is one academic whose reputation is unsurpassed. The Times Educational Supplement (TES) regards educationist, John Hattie, as ‘possibly the world’s most influential academic,’ and claimed that he had found the holy grail of education when his research enabled him to rank 136 classroom interventions in order of effectiveness revealing ‘what works in classrooms.’ The problem is that this assertion by the TES conflates schooling with education; therefore it is not evidence based, logical or scientifically correct.
John Hattie refers to his ideas as ‘Visible Learning’ and claims that they are ‘what works best for learning’ when there is only evidence to support the claim that they help people learn in the special case of a classroom learning environment. Hattie’s recommendations will certainly help people to be schooled more efficiently but they may also stifle many important forms of learning necessary for cultivating creativity and independent critical thinking. His claim conflates the special case of classroom learning with learning in general; therefore it is not evidence based, logical or correct. Such mistakes are counterproductive and do not lead to improvements in education in a general sense.
Just to put the record straight: Hattie’s research does not reveal education’s holy grail, it reveals curricular schooling’s holy grail, and his book title, ‘Visible Learning and the Science of How We Learn’ actually means Visible Learning and primarily the Science of How We Learn in Classrooms.
I am very much in favour of using the strict and disciplined rigour of scientific method to expand human knowledge – I don’t believe in magic therefore science is the only way forward, but I hate it when science is misrepresented as dogma using conclusions drawn from policy based evidence and built on a foundation of shaky concepts that are not evidence based. If forms of learning that are relevant in the real world are ignored, suppressed or dismissed in the classroom because science has shown that they are ineffective in the special case of classroom learning, are we not making our classrooms far less like the real world and in turn equipping young people for their future in a much less suitable way? Quite possibly; let’s take an example. I once attended an education masterclass given by a highly respected educationist. He referred to VAK (visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning) as ‘a scourge or virus that has infected classrooms throughout the land.’ He went on to explain that detailed and rigorous research has shown that VAK makes no difference in the successful acquisition of classroom learning outcomes and should therefore be dropped by classroom teachers. This puzzled me. VAK learning is a vitally important real world skill on which our species has relied for hundreds of thousands of years and will no-doubt do so for a long time to come. Just because it makes no difference in classroom outcomes, should we really stop using it? If we are to conclude that education will be made better by excluding what science has shown to be ineffective classroom teaching techniques (such as personal learning styles and multiple intelligences), then by doing so we will be making our classrooms less like the real world. It doesn’t seem right that the only way to improve education is to improve what only works in the classroom at the exclusion of all else. This conclusion is built on the very shaky foundational concept that schooling is the same as education. You can have the most rigorous and disciplined scientific method in the world but if it is based on a false assumption it will falter. The most solid and robust structures will inevitably be very shaky indeed if they are built on shaky and crumbling foundations. Schooling is not the same as education and making schooling better by only improving what science has shown to work in schools at the exclusion of important real world skills only makes the difference between schooling and education even greater.
I would love to see education improved through rigorous scientific research, but this research must be based on an accurate concept of what education actually is. I feel that it is important to reiterate that education and schooling are not the same thing. The fundamental foundation on which a proper scientific analysis of education can only proceed must acknowledge that schooling and education are two different things which overlap some of the time but most certainly not all of the time. You do not improve education by only improving what works in classrooms at the exclusion of everything else. The assumption on which John Hattie’s work is based is false, and when he says that his educational assertions are based on scientific facts whereas his detractors’ views are based on mere opinion he is representing science as dogma, which would surely make any true scientist cringe and squirm.
Any valid scientific research designed to inform educational policy would have to include all learning environments. It would have to look at how MOOCs are beginning to solve Bloom’s 2 sigma problem, all without the use of conventional classrooms or teaching. It would have to look at how homeschoolers achieve results that are 30 percentile points higher than their schooled peers, all without the use of a classroom. They would have to look at the highly successful outcomes of those educated without the use of formal teaching and conventional classrooms such as those who were educated at democratic free schools such as Sudbury Valley and unschoolers living in information rich societies. It would have to look at the outcomes of all those in developed countries who have been educated by means other than school. The list of highly successful autodidacts, home educated and partially home educated people is staggering. All of this would have to be taken into account before science could truly make a contribution to the advancement of education.
At the bottom of one John Hattie’s ‘scientifically proven’ lists of successful classroom interventions is self directed learning. No surprises there! If you are trying to measure how well students progress towards achieving prescribed learning intentions then allowing them to do their own thing is not going to get you very far, yet in the real world, every single innovative or creative major contribution made by leaders in their field has happened as a result of self directed learning – or what Hattie refers to as ‘student control over learning.’ Dismissing such important real world ways of learning, such as self-directed learning or multiple intelligences and VAK sensitive learning, in order to make it look like the old way of doing things can still work is the act of an educational Luddite who cannot let go of an old fashioned, unsuitable and inefficient educational model created using an industrial revolution mindset and made more efficient as a result of Hattie’s and others recommendations. Who taught the great composers exactly what notes to write? Who taught the great scientists their Nobel Prize winning theories? The greatest original contributions to human knowledge came as a direct result of self directed learning, without exception; otherwise they would have not been original. Self directed learning lies at the heart of all human kind’s greatest intellectual achievements but John Hattie says that his ‘science’ puts it at the bottom of a list of desirable classroom teaching strategies! If one of the main aims of education is to prepare young people for the real world then anyone who makes changes to education based on Hattie’s more questionable recommendations is in the business of making the classroom less representative of the real world by excluding a great many desirable real world methods of learning. While many of the attributes at the top of Hattie’s rankings are desirable in any learning context, some of the ones at the bottom of his league tables are absolutely essential in the real world. By showing us what works in classrooms, all Hattie’s research proves is that there are a whole host of highly important real world learning styles and techniques that don’t work in the classroom. This proves quite conclusively that classrooms can never be optimal educational learning environments and will be even less so after they have been tweaked according to Hattie’s recommendations. They will undoubtedly end up being better schooling environments, but if they ignore essential real world skills they will most certainly be far worse educational environments. By proving what works in the classroom, Hattie has also proven what doesn’t work in the classroom, and amongst the things that he has proven not to work are some of the most important ways of learning ever known. The fact that the classroom is a far from optimal learning environment and is decreasingly likely to be in the future, despite, or maybe even because of all of our knowledge of how to make it more efficient, is something that advocates of alternative learning have been saying for over a century. It has taken Hattie to conclusively prove that they are correct.
A proper scientific analysis of Hattie’s research findings and their like that doesn’t conflate schooling with education could only logically conclude, based on the evidence, that the classroom is an anachronistic, unsuitable and inefficient learning environment for learning some of the most important real world learning approaches and is consequently an unsuitable place to implement many general theories of learning. Educational research has proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the conventional classroom learning environment is not adaptable or sensitive enough to facilitate learning through personal learning styles and preferences, individualised personal learning, multiple intelligences, self directed learning, heutagogy, VAK, the implementation of constructivist learning theory, etc, etc.
There are a great many parents who would prefer that their children’s learning was guided by their own personally meaningful passions, pursuits, proclivities, attitudes, beliefs, values and aptitudes rather than ‘what works in classrooms.’ Teaching what only works in classrooms is fine if you want young people to spend the rest of their lives in classrooms, otherwise such ‘wisdom’ is highly questionable. Consequently, it is no wonder, in fact it is quite logical given the evidence, that a great many parents living in information rich societies would rather their children were educated than schooled, and therefore choose not to use schools at all.
In consideration of all of the above, perhaps the time is now right for real scientists to start looking for real answers in the search for real improvements in education, providing that their quest does not conflate schooling with education and is built on a real concept of what education actually is.
Paul Henderson, November, 2014.

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