Follow the science

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

[This is the second of my reflections on a recent Brookings Institute webinar I participated in.]

“Follow the science” has become a familiar term during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone from politicians to journalists have been using the term to defend the actions taken by governments and health officials in the response to this public health threat. And yet, for all of the arguments made for the science supporting these decisions, there remain many who are skeptical, and yet others who are the ‘deniers’, those who believe the actions are completely unnecessary or part of an elaborate hoax.

I couldn’t help but think of this as I reflected on what I’d heard during the Brookings Institute webinar titled “A new path to education reform: The next chapter on 21st century skills” during the week. In the introduction to the report that provided the context for the webinar I read:

Here, we offer an evidence-based approach to education inspired by research from the science of learning addressing how children learn and what children need to learn to be successful in the 21st century. 

As mentioned in my previous post, here in New Zealand we are likely to use the term pedagogy (defined as art, science or profession of teaching) more often than refer to the ‘science of learning’, but the idea that we’re focusing on teaching practice that is informed by educational theory and evidence is generally well understood.

Just like the climate deniers, the anti-vaxers or the anti-mask demonstrators, there are many in our profession for the whom the science is not convincing enough. While we don’t necessarily see these differences of opinion exhibited as vehemently as in the protests observed on our screens recently, they are certainly evident in many of the online community forums, subject association communications or in conversations in staffrooms etc.

Now I’m not saying that a healthy debate about educational practice isn’t valuable, nor is a critical analysis of current practice in light of emerging evidence or reporting on outcomes. This is what keeps our professional practice healthy and relevant.

In the Brookings webinar, for example, there was a lot of discussion around thematic instruction, or theme-based learning, being one well-established method that can foster an engaged, playful learning environment and support students’ 6 Cs skills in the classroom. The 6 Cs are the suite of skills intended to engage students in learning and prepare them for success in the 21st century, and include collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence.

The Brookings team argued that these are the particular skills (competencies, dispositions) that were identified in their research as being supported by the science of learning. The list is, of course, quite familiar to most educators and the idea that there is learning science supporting these things is well accepted. One only has to consider the early work of the OECD in defining their 4Cs at the turn of the century, and the key competencies in the NZ Curriculum Framework that were based on this work for example. Others, including Michael Fullan have built on this also with the 6 Cs used in the NPDL programme.

Looking at these lists it could be easy to wonder why they vary (albeit slightly) from each other – has the science got it wrong? Of course not. The science is robust – it’s simply that the variances we see in the ‘lists’ created reflect the particular focus or emphasis of each group. For instance, in the Brookings webinar I noted that their list didn’t contain things like ‘culture’, ‘character’ or ‘citizenship’ – qualities that, IMHO, will be just as important for our learners to develop for the future as the cognitive skills associated with particular disciplines.

The ‘science’ here is not about which of these lists is ‘correct’ – but the fact that our focus as educators needs to be on the development of these qualities (skills/competencies/dispositions) within a ‘playful’ pedagogy, instead of exclusively on instructional processes where students are considered the “products” of the system with standardized assessments serving as “quality control” measures to encourage effective instruction.

Sadly, in some quarters at least, the voices influencing our educational direction reflect more of a sense of personal preference, with one foot in the camp of ‘the way things have always been’, rather than grounded in the wealth of valuable theory and evidence that has been accumulated over the years.

I personally believe it’s time we ‘follow the science’ and seek to understand deeply what it is we need to be focusing on in our educational settings – and as a system – to ensure we are preparing our young people for their future.

To do this we must be prepared to engage in some difficult conversations, and to critically engage with what is presented as ‘evidence’. We are currently torn between the theories of progressive education on the one hand (promoting playful learning, personalisation, learner agency etc), and the theories underpinning our market economy and need for productivity and innovation (promoting quality measures, standards, global competitiveness etc.) on the other. We have to understand these are necessarily binary choices (one right, the other wrong) – but that the strong arguments for each have merit that need to be debated, explored and tested against what the science reveals.

As Ted Dintersmith, one of the Brookings panelists observed: “If we don’t get our school priorities right our democracy is at risk!

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