Sunday, 22 February 2015

researchED Sydney - Some puzzling thoughts

researchED home

Yesterday I was very fortunate to be part (as an observer) of researchED, at the Shore School in Sydney. Apart from my keen anticipation of meeting a number of Twitterfriends in person for the first time, I was also excited to be part of a very deliberate attempt to move educators and researchers closer together over the shared passion of improving academic outcomes (and subsequent life chances) for all children.

researchED is the brainchild of Tom Bennett, whose brief bio you can read here. Tom has already blogged about his reflections on the success of the day yesterday, as has educator Greg Ashman, who was also in attendance.

So - I won't go over the highlights of the day here, as you can read about those in some detail at the links above.

I would however like to share a key reflection concerning the panel discussion that opened the day. The panelists were all distinguished speakers whose views and perspectives I was keen to hear: Emeritus Professor Kevin Wheldall (Macquarie University in NSW), Professor Stephen Dinham (University of Melbourne), and Dr Kevin Donnelly of the Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute and Australian Catholic University. I would have loved this session to go on much longer and for there to be greater opportunity for audience engagement with these key players in contemporary education policy discourse.

However I was surprised and disappointed to hear Dr Donnelly comment (and I am paraphrasing here) that people should stop comparing education with medicine, and that calls for "evidence-based research" (his term, and I did wonder whether it was a bit of a slip of the tongue - did he mean "evidence-based practice" perhaps?) were misplaced, as education, unlike medicine (so Dr Donnelly would have us believe) is a craft, and we cannot expect teachers to rely on science alone (as Dr Donnelly might have us believe occurs in medicine - that was the implication as far as I could see). Dr Donnelly went on to say that teachers have "good crap detectors" (his words, not mine), and we should rely on those, rather than expecting teachers to draw on published rigorous research about "what works" in the classroom.

Now, I had been out to dinner the night before, catching up with some very good friends, and I had probably had a slightly later night than I should have, so I did wonder initially whether I had misheard.

Let me briefly summarise the reasons for my surprise:

  1. Neither education nor medicine is "simply" a craft or a science. They both require a sophisticated and nuanced mix of both. I happen to have quite extensive experience of this, as in addition to spending the best part of the last decade in medical education, I am the wife, mother, and mother-in-law of medical practitioners, and many of our family dinner conversations (to the exasperation of the photographer and the geologist in the family) centre around the challenges of dancing between (1) what the science says, (2) the values and wishes of the patient/family, and (3) what resources the system is prepared to mobilise in a particular clinical scenario. These three elements make up what is commonly referred to as "evidence-based practice" in modern medicine.

    It is never simply about the research data.

    Until quite recently though, doctors were in a similar boat to teachers - they went to university, learnt a whole lot of stuff, did a supervised internship, and then had to muddle through each day's clinical conundrums, hoping that they were focussing on the key aspects of a patient's presentation, ordering the right tests, making the right diagnostic calls, and instituting the best treatment. 

    Then along came Archie Cochrane and the practice of medicine was never the same again. You can read about Professor Cochrane's huge contribution as the father of evidence-based medicine here.

    Writing in the British Medical Journal nearly two decades ago, Sackett et al (1996) stated (and the emphasis is mine) that:

    The practice of evidence based medicine means integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research. By individual clinical expertise we mean the proficiency and judgement that individual clinicians acquire through clinical experience and clinical practice. Increased expertise is reflected in many ways, but especially in more effective and efficient diagnosis and in the more thoughtful identification and compassionate use of individual patients' predicaments, rights, and preferences in making clinical decisions about their care.

    Interestingly, these same authors went on to note that:

    The argument that “everyone already is doing it” falls before evidence of striking variations in both the integration of patient values into our clinical behaviour and in the rates with which clinicians provide interventions to their patients.

    Sound familiar?

    So, Dr Donnelly, I cannot agree at all that medicine does not provide useful lessons for education. Teachers and doctors are both practitioners, and both must make a myriad of decisions in the course of a day. Having research as part of that decision-making toolkit would have to be a good thing....wouldn't it??

  2. I also took issue with Dr Donnelly's statement that we should rely on teachers' "crap detectors". With all due respect to teachers and the constant bombardment of new ideas and practices that are foisted on them, I think this is totally unrealistic and is not borne out by the evidence. I'm going to change tack with the language here, and refer to teachers' discernment filters, because I  think they are what we actually want to promote in the teaching workforce.

    Currently, however, certain ideas are packaged and presented very attractively by teacher educators, and it's probably a bit rich to expect student teachers to be "calling out" the quality of what they are taught as undergraduates. If they could, however, we might not still be having exhausting and resource-wasting debates about

    • learning styles
    • whole-language based reading instruction
    • multiple intelligences
    • Reading Recovery
    • Three cueing approaches
    • etc.....
    So - at a conference designed to promote discussion about ways of moving the language and ideas of research and evidence into the classroom, I thought Dr Donnelly's comments made for an odd start to the day.

    I also had some reservations about the way in which "neuroscience" was discussed by some presenters, but will blog about those concerns separately.

    Overall though, a terrific day and Tom Bennett is to be congratulated for his energy and commitment in making researchED a global community of educators and researchers who actually talk to each other. That's a great start!

(C) Pamela Snow 2015 


  1. Holy herd of cows!
    These days, you don't have to attend a Conference in Australia. You can do it right from your desktop without leaving the room. It's not like being there, but in some ways, it's better.

    Reading Tom Bennett's blog, Greg Ashman's, and Gary Jones one would think there were 4 different Conferences.

    To me, this confirms two propositions:
    The only learning is individual learning
    The meaning of any event or text depends on what the individual brings to the table rather than on the event or text per se.

    I have more to comment on the substance of the base-blog, but I'll be off on vacation until the week end--gawd willing and the creeks don't rise, or unless something else unexpected happens.

  2. The creation of villains in education is one of the primary problems with the quality of dialogue - it's a war zone, with a corresponding need to distinguish friend from foe. That alone speaks to how distant is the goal of evidence-based practice, but mainly here I want to take issue with your comparison of medicine and education, and doctoring and teaching.

    First, medicine and education are not similar because there are some missing ingredients in education, specifically, a) a diagnosis, b) consent, and c) practitioner liability for both cost and outcome. I'm sure I need hardly mention that in medicine, d) collective standards of practice are administered separate from the labour interests of the practitioner group.

    Second, even if they were similar, teachers are not similar to doctors, but rather to nurses. Nurses work on doctors' orders, because (I believe) the bulk of the liability for care decisions sits with doctors. Teachers are actually even further removed from liability than nurses are, because they work in a policy-driven setting, not - as Donnelly said, more or less - in one driven by standards of practice. Were education freed from policy, principals would be more directly comparable to doctors than teachers are, but even principals work under superintendents. On a clientele that there is nothing wrong with, that is compelled to attend, for an unclear purpose.

    I'm assuming a public health care setting (public pay, that is) because that's what we have here in Canada. But even with that, doctors are fundamentally entrepreneurs, as are professionals such as dentists, architects, accountants, veterinarians, and engineers. Their clients come to them voluntarily, can leave any time, and limit the provision of services to what they consent to - they may even be able to insist on services the practitioner reluctantly provides. And clients grant their patronage to their selected service providers as they wish, and if they are happy, cannot be denied access to a favoured practitioner or a favoured practice just because they did or said something unpopular with other practitioners (not against standards of practice).

    As I said, education dialogue is primarily scripted code designed to identify and distinguish friends from foes, and this necessitates polarization around new ideas, rather than unity for the purposes of exploration and - Oh Irony - learning. Donnelly's comments were interesting, different, and thought-provoking. The response of the education community to those thoughts shows just how different medicine and education really are.

  3. Karin thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and reflections - reflection and dialogue are aims of this blog. I agree that education is unfortunately a far too contested space, and that in the main, the debate is polarising rather than constructive. However I disgree that there are not useful analogies and lessons to be drawn by putting medicine and education alongside each other. It goes without saying that there are many immutable differences, but the purpose of analogy is to get us thinking in the abstract. For me, the important links between the two professions are:

    * The work of each is critical to the wellbeing of individuals and of the communities of which they are a part;
    * Teachers and doctors are both practitioners who need to marry art and science;
    * Teachers and doctors need to be good at pattern-recognition, while also being able to adapt to the needs of individuals
    * Consequences of "bad calls" are not benign in either case (though as I outline below, education gets away with a lot more on this front).

    For me, one of the key *differences* between the two is that while medical students are taught to be literate in the language of research, student teachers generally are not. This means that teachers (much more than nurses) are the ones who are "executing" a policy, rather than arguing its merits via the language of critical appraisal that is taught to health sciences students. While nurses are expected to carry out a management plan, they are also part of the team that determines and modifies this plan.

    Consent in teaching is implied as a function of parents sending their children to school, in the same way that consent is implied when people arrive at an Emergency Department following an accident. It's a great pity, though, that education does not need to seek informed consent in order to experiment on its charges, e.g., via Whole Language instruction, application of Learning Styles, implementation of Brain Gym...etc etc.

    I also think it's a great pity that education can distance itself from responsibility from its failures - in ways that medicine generally cannot. I have blogged about this previously:

    1. There are a lot of paradoxes in EdLand--as there are in any domain that one examines intensively. One that arises here is that while schooling is an open and public enterprise at the national level, it becomes a closed and private matter the closer you get to the school and teacher level of the pre-collegiate system. Conversation goes on within and among levels ofthe system, but there isn't a whole lot of reflection and dialog. All the players are "too busy" with their "own thing."

      Moreover, reflection and dialog inherently demand continuity, and continuity in EdLand is maintained by flitting. Not to pick on researchEd, but it's the example at hand. Tom Bennett, whose accolades are well-deserved, has rE events in progress "all over the world." But each event will be a carbon copy of the last one. There is no follow up of what happened to participants after attending the rE and nothing new is learned about either research or Education.

      Actually, it's not necessary to "evaluate" an rE. The "feedback" from participants--from both presenters and attendees-- is "highly positive." But if you check back a month or at any tine later to see what the participants and presenters are doing, they will still have fond memories of the rE but they will be doing +/- exactly the same thing they were doing before the rE. Ask them why they haven't been doing "more or different" and they'll say, "I've been too busy." Would they like to attend another rE? Sure. So rE events gain traction, but reflection and dialog in the meantime falls by the wayside. rE leads to "something else" but what that "something else" turns out to be is also individual-specific, just as rE and Tom Bennett are.

      I'm not complainin, just sayin. Technically, EdLand is a "loosely coupled system," It's a very robust system as is any system that sustains itself by flitting at all levels. What sustains the system is it's strength at the bottom. All parents +/- want the best for their kids and think they and their kid's school are providing the best. All students +/- enter school wanting to learn and they think the school will teach them. All teachers +/- want to educate their students and think they are doing so.

      However. When you look at what is happening on the ground though, from a "higher" perspective, it appears "they're all failing." That's a flawed conclusion. The actions on the ground are sustaining the enterprise, even though the actors get nothing but +/- scorn and disdain from the top.

      The Internet is a very "disruptive (educational) technology" to all these aspects of EdLand. Right here, it enables blogging (and comments on blogs [and rE]). But blogs inherently flit, and comments on blogs inherently do nothing but flit. It would be worthwhile to further pursue any one of the "reflections and ruminations" in this particular blog, and particularly the distinctions and commonalities of EdLand and MedLand, but that would take us "way off topic" with more and more being said about less and less. Enlarging the reflection and dialog will take more blogs.

  4. researchEd has a number of positive attributes, but if the expectation is that it will impact in any transparent way on schooling practice, it needs another think. "Research and Science" takes credit for what "Technology and Engineering" impacts. Research and Science begats only more research and science. Technology and Engineering begats artifacts and tools that change how people live. MD's today aren't much different than those who were using leeches and drawing blood, but they are now washing their hands and wearing protective clothing. Plus they have at their disposal a dazzling array of apparatus, specialists, assistants and pharmaceuticals.

    Schooling practice is running 200-2000 years behind (depending on where you want to start counting.) The thing is though EdLand doesn't need to recapitulate the history of MedLand.
    In EdLand we have the advantage of working with human assets while the organisms are on the upswing of their human development. MedLand by definition has to focus on human deficits and disabilities that become detected when organisms are on a downswing. And EdLand is good position today to "leapfrog history" due to the availability of the Internet and its accoutrements. To date, the efforts to harness general Technology for schooling purposes have been laughably/sadly weak and clumsy. But such is the trajectory of learning in any complex matter.

    We could debate the commonalities and differences between EdLand and MedLand until the cows come home, but when we stopped we would be pretty close to where we are now. Comparing PISA results and other "evidence" leaves us in the same shape, or worse shape) because the "evidence" isn't "authentic" (to borrow a term for the moment that I don't ordinarily find useful).

    "Evidence" in EdLand is just not at all the same as evidence in MedLand--or in most other Lands. In EdLand it's possible to cite as Evidence, research to support ANY proposition that anyone wants to make about any matter. The biggest and best Randomized Control Trials, each conducted over several years, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars (there have been some 20 such under the auspices of the US Institute of Education Sciences) have obtained the same results--no impact. That's not, of course, the results that were expected, so the results have had exactly no impact on either research or practice. But the studies constitute replicable evidence. There was so much variability in how the reified abstraction of the "trial" was interpreted there was no "treatment."--it was all noise and no signal, to put it another way.

    This is in no way to oppose researchEd. "Rest and Recreation" is a good thing. But it's still R&R and not R&D--with the spoken and operational accent on the "D."

  5. Great comments Dick - thank you! I love the way you compare and contrast EdLand and MedLand too. It's just difficult to determine how we can break the current impasse in wealthy, first-world nations like Australia that cannot confer literacy (beyond its most crude manifestaions) on as many as a quarter of its citizens. If we could get ourselves out of this particular hole, we wouldn't need to continue having these sometimes circular, and always exhausting debates.

  6. Pamela, that's an excellent post on Reading Recovery. I posted it locally as soon as I read it, since the plague of RR has spread to Canada too. I think it supports my contention that consent and compulsion differentiate the two fields, with the result that quackery is weeded out in Medland but thrives in Edland (I like that terminology).

    The issue of consent brings up the issue of boundaries as well, or what I called purpose in my earlier post. Specifically, Edland fails to distinguish the raising of a child from education (this has its roots in Rousseau and his imaginary child who is also his pupil, I suppose - that's how slowly intellectual life in education moves). There is no respect for the boundaries that delineate the rights and duties of parents.

    I have been working on bringing these distinctions into the courts where it is necessary to think clearly and in concrete terms. The more we let the conversation be about soft and subjective attributes, and about the service providers rather than the recipients, the more easily the boundaries can be crossed.