Edited by Fiona Docherty
What is the future of education in terms of technology and evidence? What kinds of research techniques, such as random controlled trials (RCTs), can contribute to an evidence-based education system? Should education policy be based on such types of evidence in the first place? These were just some of the questions addressed at the first major CUSPE event of 2015. The evening began with a brief overview of CUSPE and our aims, and proceeded directly to presentations by each of the four panelists.
Prof. Anna Vignoles (Professor of Education at Cambridge and Visiting Professor at the Institute of Education) first presented on the use of research evidence in education. She focused on RCTs, narrowing in on the challenges of using such types of evidence in education policy.
Prof. Vignoles first began with an overview of the state of evidence within the education sector, touching on methodological divides (quantitative vs. qualitative), debates about what actually constitutes evidence, and noting that evidence-based policy-making is a misnomer in any field, but in education it is particularly politicized.
The government has dedicated substantial sums via the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) for the use of techniques such as RCTs to narrow the socioeconomic gap in terms of academic achievement. But such measures are not without their problems; there have been issues disseminating findings back to educators in a pragmatic toolkit.
Prof Vignoles then laid out two examples of the kinds of projects in education that can use RCTs in a bounded manner: those that are pedagogical, contained, and about a particular subject.
1. EpiSTEMe: a maths and sciences program to improve on teaching that drew on an already rich research base, and RCTs were only used after interventions had been developed.
2. Mathematics Mastery: a project endowed by the EEF and led by Prof. Vignoles focusing on primary and secondary math pedagogy, the results of which are due out next week.
Prof. Vignoles then dedicated the rest of her presentation to the limitations of RCTs, focusing on widely held misconceptions regarding their appropriate use. Specifically, RCTs should be used for evaluation and not design; they are a measure of ‘good internal validity’ but pose significant difficulties when it comes to making more generalized prescriptions. Also, certain topics of research are not amenable to RCTs, such as staffing and leadership
Prof. Vignoles closed her presentation with two particular salient points:
1. There is constant pressure from policymakers to produce more RCT evidence in the classroom, but they need to heed their own words: there are plenty of top-down national policies being implemented without proper evaluation.
2. RCTs are not the answer to everything – they need to be used in conjunction with other types of evidence, from small-scale studies to large scale-interventions.
The second presenter of the evening was Mr. Ross Neilson, the Head of Policy at Higher Education and Professions (UK Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission). His presentation focused on education as a tool for improving social mobility and equality, from the perspective of a civil servant working for a commission set up by statute to eradicate child poverty.
Mr. Neilson began his remarks noting that given incredible advances in technology over the past few decades, we’ve created marvelous devices such as the iPhone but we’ve not yet eradicated poverty. Education can be a powerful tool to overcome socioeconomic gaps. He spoke to his personal experience as a child unable to read at age ten, but after 18 months of systematic intervention, he was at the head of his class—but unhappily his story is not the norm.
Mr. Neilson then proceeded to argue that demography unfortunately still seems to determine destiny in Britain; there is a strong correlation between top jobs and top education, and a strong correlation between socioeconomic status and top education. He noted that the situation seems especially dire in Scotland, where there is a comparative dearth of discussion regarding these issues.
He then noted the two main challenges for schools and educators in the future:
1. Expectations in education are going up – there are increasingly higher expectations placed on teachers to improve learning.
2. Funding has been consistently cut by Parliament—so how can the education sector improve quality of education, and thus social mobility, with decreased financial resources?
Importantly, Mr. Nielson argues that these challenges aren’t insurmountable; for example, since 1997 the quality of school systems, particularly in London and based on GCSE attainment, have notably improved. Even the achievement of students coming from a disadvantaged background in this urban center has markedly improved.
Mr. Neilson then noted five things that schools can do to improve social mobility:
1. Target incentives such as pupil premium funding to strategically improve social mobility.
2. Build a ‘high-expectations’, inclusive culture within the classroom.
3. Create incessant focus on teacher quality – studies have shown that students gain 40% more in learning with a good teacher than a poor one.
4. Develop strategies to engage parents. (He noted that though evidence in this area is actually underdeveloped, such strategies are still pushed based on intuition.)
5. Undertake a mission to prepare students for life, not just exams through good extracurricular activities, mentoring, work experience, etc.
He then concluded with a call for action, asking for early year researchers to:
1. Consider a career in teaching—it is wonderfully fulfilling work.
2. Undertake research that is relevant to education and improving the system.
3. Volunteer, whether in a research, policy-making, or teaching capacity.
The third speaker of the evening was Mr. Mark Anderson, Managing Director of Pearson UK.
Mr. Anderson centered his remarks on the idea of measurement, and its pragmatic, central importance in improving the human condition. He spoke of the need to hold ourselves to account, and noted that Pearson has committed itself in recent years to this idea—and has dedicated itself to reporting learning outcomes, not just inputs, by the year 2018.
Mr. Anderson first gave a few facts about the publisher, noting its extensive reach within the UK in not just developing test and classroom materials – Pearson also has its own start-up university, supports thousands of apprentices, and runs a sixth-form college. Thus, it has begun to develop a good grasp on the many forces of change affecting the education sector, both at home and abroad. Some examples of these forces include:
1. Growth in the global population and middle class, and thus subsequent growth in their demands for better education.
2. Growth in demand for more vocational skills, and the subsequent need for an education system that can fill this demand. (He noted this is a massive challenge for the UK, given current high-level policy goals in place via the EU 2020 targets.)
3. Growth of disposable income driving investment in education.
4. The added pressure of millions moving to study outside their home countries.
5. The transformations in education brought about by the Internet in terms of dissemination of materials and communication.
Mr. Anderson noted that actors within the education system can better hold themselves to account today than ever before. This is possibly via increasingly deeper understanding of pedagogy, the capability for more international benchmarking, and advances in data capture and analysis technologies.
Mr. Anderson used Bug Club as an example to illustrate how Pearson is attempting to make measurement one of its foci. Bug Club is an international reading programme for children, combining books and games in an online environment that is used by 600,000 children. It can be used for longitudinal behavioral studies, tracking learning progression from early ages up to university.
Mr. Anderson closed his presentation with remarks on the future of testing, especially in regards to technology, noting that assessment (via eventual automation) will change the teaching system for the better, if implemented correctly. There has never been a time with this magnitude and range of opportunities and challenges to the educational system, thanks to technology.
The presentations concluded with remarks from Prof. Angela McFarlane (Chief Executive of The College of Teachers UK).
She began by noting that effective education is a ‘wicked problem’: it is tough, complicated, multivariate, and depends on many factors – and it is almost impossible to get a handle on how to do it well. Often, we only know good education when we recognize it.
That is what makes creation of effective policy even more difficult. As Prof. McFarlane put it, policy is an extraordinarily blunt instrument – using it to address social issues is like trying to mend a faulty Swiss watch with a sledgehammer, but with one’s hands tied behind one’s back.
She noted that the last few decades in education have seen politicians who all wanted to improve the state education system, with the same commitment to narrow the achievement gap, but the biggest issue was that they all came to the table with preconceived, rigid notions as to how. They are part of a political culture that calls itself ‘striving’ but what they wanted was a certain kind of evidence-based policy. She noted that it can be incredibly difficult for policymakers to believe in what is initially counter-intuitive policy. One example is that the existence of clear data showing the best return on education pound spent is not in paying for more teacher face time but in improving the quality of education—but money is still poured into policies promoting the former.
Prof. McFarlane then turned her attention to the problem of what counts as evidence in the education sector, noting that though RCTs are propped up as the ‘gold standard’ in policy, they are arguably of not much use in the classroom. This is because ultimately, effective teaching often boils down to how a teacher manages the complex interactions between students, the current events in their lives, resources, the teacher herself, and each other. This also makes meta-analyses and generalizations of education programs difficult. Given how complex and nuanced educational issues are, Prof. McFarlane noted “there is no one method of teaching that works for everyone under all circumstances.”
Dr. McFarlane concluded her remarks by stating that teachers are practitioners, and as such, they need more than one tool—and the space, experience, and responsibility to choose a proper technique, as the situation requires. Teachers need a preparation/induction period, as is the standard practice in so many other applied professions. This is the purpose of the College of Teachers that Prof. McFarlane heads – to establish a career structure for teachers.
The presentations were followed by a lively question and answer session. Topics addressed included how politics affect the usability of research in the education system, what the focus of the education system should be (strictly intellectual development or social welfare), and if the term ‘evidence-based’ has become helplessly politicized.
The evening concluded with a wine reception for the general audience, and further animated discussion between the panelists and certain attendees over dinner.
This policy debate is generously sponsored by Cambridge Assessment, Teach First and the Centre for Applied Research in Educational Technologies and endorsed by the British Education Research Association.