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Drawing the Line Between Research and Propaganda

June 18, 2014

One of the complaints most often made about the education research community is that large parts of it are disinterested in objective research and more interested in ideology. At times this is taken to the point where no distinction is drawn between promoting personal opinion and promoting research. I came across an interesting example earlier. I found a new blog called “Respecting Children and Young People“. It was unusual in that its posts were written by academics. However, although they mentioned research they were clearly writing about opinions rather than evidence.

For instance, one wrote:

We need to achieve a balance between different aims of education: not only economic but cultural, ethical, personal and democratic. We need to move beyond segregation by ‘ability’ and towards personalisation based on agreement with learners, individually and collectively, on how best to move forwards – ‘learning without limits’.

We can learn from less restricted European countries, including new forms of learning which involve problem-solving, enquiry and creativity. We need to balance written exams with more authentic (and challenging) forms of assessment based on research, design and projects. This way we can at last create a common curriculum which is both accessible and challenging, experiential and intellectual, which relates to immediate realities but opens new horizons, which aspires to equality and quality together.

Another wrote:

Classrooms need to be transformed from the stressful, task-driven, target-led overly competitive environments they are currently. And while the 3Rs are important, teaching children to be caring, respectful, cooperative, knowledgeable about their own and others’ histories, and well informed about contemporary global issues are equally, if not more, important. There is a great deal of scope for widening currently narrowly conceived teaching and learning opportunities, and for developing ‘disruptive pedagogies’ that encourage student to question,  as well as develop social and political awareness. A revalorizing of vocational and working class knowledges and a broadening out of what constitutes educational success beyond the narrowly academic is long overdue.

So far this is no different than what can be found in the educational pages of The Guardian on a fairly frequent basis. But what intrigued me was that the website’s about page included the logo of BERA, the British Educational Research Association. This is meant to be part of BERA’s contribution to the debate about education policy. As is so often the case in education, a (so-called) research agenda is indistinguishable from a political one. After I tweeted about this, there followed a twitter discussion with the person apparently responsible for the site:

Perhaps the conflation of research and propaganda should take nobody by surprise, although even I am a bit taken aback to hear that opinions can be given weight by “debate” with people who don’t disagree with them. But let’s face it, there are world famous professors of education who act as little more than propagandists for their favoured ideology, so political activism on the part of a “research” organisation should not be a surprise. However, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of the following text on the BERA website:

PROMOTING EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH

We believe that the development of a world-class education system depends on high quality educational research. But this is field where policy decisions are often driven by ideology rather than evidence.

BERA seeks to counterbalance the politicisation of education by carefully presenting the findings of the best in independent and critical research, through our projects, publications, responses to official consultations and other work on current issues.

17 comments

  1. Today I was in lessons in one of those “less restricted European countries” and all of them seemed far more traditionally academic than in the U.K. I think all you’ve found is a particularly blatant example of a pretty endemic problem.


  2. “We shouldn’t expect research to be ideologically neutral” Does this mean the research question might not be ideologically neutral, but the methodology should be unbiased…and designed to actually answer the question posed in a clear way…? I guess that the research could often be carried out by ideologically biased researchers…which would be a problem, I think (given the uncertainties inherent in educational contexts). At the very least, the results should be subject to rigorous cross examination (which is what peer review is about).


  3. I did a quick research project on the perceived importance of knowledge among teachers. The sample appears to be a fairly random data set across the subject and age range with equal male and female numbers. 87 respondents to the question randomised by retweets on twitter.

    Which of the following statements about knowledge best describes its importance in education?

    Knowledge is irrelevant to a balanced education?
    Knowledge is very important to a balanced education but some knowledge is essential while some isn’t.
    Knowledge is the only aspect that matters in a balanced education.

    2 respondents thought knowledge irrelevant
    3 respondens thought knowledge is the only aspect that matters
    82 respondents said knowledge is very important but some knowledge is essential and some isn’t.

    This needs some caution as it is a fairly small sample but the spread of subjects, ages and gender seem to suggest it is probably at least approximately representative.

    So based on direct empirical evidence I’d ask how realistic it is for the 5 people holding the extreme views to claim most teachers are in the opposite camp when the obvious reality is that they are in varying degrees inbetween?

    If we believe in quantifiable data to inform education then we need to eat our own dog food, ask the questions objectively and impartially and look at the results.


    • What does this have to do with anything? I’m just amazed you found 5 willing to support those straw men positions. I can’t think of anybody who would agree with them.


  4. A problem I have noticed on my Masters (in ed psych) at the IOE is that the vast majority of people – almost all the pupils and many of the lecturers – come to it from a teaching or social work background. This in itself is no bad thing, but it comes with a hidden cost. The mentality that arises from that background seems to be very much “fix the problem”, not “understand the problem”. There are too many practical people and not enough science nerds. The upshot is that there is a strong drive, amongst both teachers and pupils, to reduce highly complex phenomena to soundbites that are easily amenable to structured intervention. The real world just does not work this way. These people will generally not stay in science, of course, but go back to schools, local authorities, etc. But there they will have very real influence over persons and educational processes.

    I have had very fierce debates with classmates over the ethics of intervention in certain situations where our knowledge of the phenomena in question is so fragmentary as to make meddling – in my opinion – of dubious ethical value. Others of course disagree. It is not easy when autistic children, for instance, refuse to interact with their parents as the parents would like (in terms of eye contact etc). But the consequences of some kind of stick-&/or-carrot quasi-ABA approach are so shamefully unknown as to present the professional with a severe risk of violating the principle of primum non nocere. I could be way off, of course, and there is no reasonable risk of harm at all, but I do think at least the debate has to be had. All too often it is not. This is what IRBs should be doing, but of course they are actually worried whether or not asking a volunteer for an experiment about their skin colour or sexual preference might be offensive.

    This is essentially background to show where these people who wrote those BERA blogs come from. Understanding the world is, for them, entirely secondary to changing it. Science is just a vehicle towards social change. Inconvenient data is ignored, dismissed on fallacious grounds, or resculpted into something more acceptable. If you point out that this is hardly an entirely scientific attitude, some silly postmodern jargon is used to justify it, as nicely displayed above (“unrealistic of you to expect research of any kind to be ideologically neutral”).

    Robert Conquest once wrote that the worst residue of Marxism was that it had infected Western thought with a mania for detecting class conflict in every sphere and every interaction. It reduced intellectual exchange – and in fact society as a whole – to a vast zero-sum game in which mutually beneficial profit is impossible. Of course, others soon cottoned onto this game (check out radical feminism). The same mentality persists in educational circles. Almost no one in my classrooms was capable of believing that Michael Gove might be a reasonable man whom they disagree with. No, he is a devil or a madman oblivious to all evidence, engineering the forces of the State against children nationwide (reason not given). That reasonable men might have different views of education, in good honest faith, is apparently an impossible scenario. No, it is all an aristocratic plot to crush dissent from the ruling order.

    2014 turns out to look a lot like earlier decades. Plus ca change…


  5. “Opposing views are not a prerequisite of debate”

    Um… I apologise if its me who is being slow here but isn’t that statement faulty?

    I mean debating competitions would be rather lame affairs if no sod opposes the motion?


  6. 1. There’s a tendency for research from a social constructivist perspective to frame ideological bias as inevitable and therefore to assume it doesn’t need to be addressed as long as it’s made explicit. Robert Peal appears to argue for the same approach in his rebuttal of his critics here http://goodbyemisterhunter.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/a-response-to-critics-1-cherry-picking/ and here http://goodbyemisterhunter.wordpress.com/2014/05/29/a-response-to-critics-2-data-and-dichotomies/

    If what you are complaining about is that the contributors don’t appear to challenge their own assumptions, I’d agree with you, although they might do so in the papers they reference.

    2. If researchers are researching the socio-political implications of education (Ruth Boyask’s field), the opinions voiced in the blog might actually be conclusions from the research rather than ‘propaganda’ – the blog posts are referenced, after all.

    3. I think that the blog appears to need is challenge, rather than opposition. Hypotheses not only need to be tested but need to be seen to be tested.


    • Just to be clear, I don’t claim that research has to be neutral. I do, however, think that it has to be increase our knowledge not simply express an opinion. Perhaps some part of those blogposts does this, or at least link to material that would do so, but large parts of them were simply expressions of personal ideology of a type evidence could never support, even in theory.


  7. “…while the 3Rs are important, teaching children to be caring, respectful, cooperative, knowledgeable about their own and others’ histories, and well informed about contemporary global issues are equally, if not more, important”
    Now that’s the bit that annoys me. That is not my job. That is the job of family and wider society. How do you teach someone to be cooperative, respectful and caring? Take maths off the timetable and stand around asking each other how they feel?
    Woolly stupid babble.


  8. As ever, you highlight an issue of concern.. the blurring of opinion and research is indeed a growing problem. Particularly when we look at GOV.UK and the so-called ‘research’ publications coming out of the DfE.
    The recent https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/combined-cadet-forces-in-state-funded-schools-staff-perspectives for starters… and many more from where that came.
    But I would also argue that a considerable amount of educational ‘research’ has always consisted of the seeking of evidence to eback up an existing opinion, rather than an objective search for the truth?


  9. […] to education research from the British Education Research Associate (BERA). As nicely outlined by Andrew Old, the posted articles are largely or entirely based on opinion, and not evidenced based, as the name […]


  10. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  11. I see more and more of this, not only from the researcher side, but also the school leadership side. It is not uncommon (IME) for the leadership to seek out research that matches their educational philosophy.
    Currently in Australia, the be-all and end-all of educational research is John Hattie, who has conducted a meta-analysis of all research that purports to identify the factors which have the most effect on learning and teaching effectiveness, and reduces it down to a single figure that ranks that intervention’s power (“effect size”). This research states that streaming is completely ineffective, that retention has no positive effects and that teacher-subject knowledge is not a major factor in successful teaching.
    This is despite the fact that the statistical techniques employed in the research are farcical, and that the techniques listed as effective are dramatically variable over various iterations of the research.
    However, any critique of his research is a marker of heresy, and is refused any purchase, no matter how presented. This is not propaganda in itself, but a response to the same ideology that motivates the researchers – and presumably is part of the same phenomenon.


  12. You might find it amusing what happens when a group of researchers decides to bring material concerning some serious social issues directly relevant to some lower class & immigrant students into their math class, expecting them to find it more “engaging” …
    See p. 24, “Learning to fail…” here: http://www.mern.ca/journal/Journal-V7.pdf
    Amusing to you, perhaps. Not so much to the traumatized victi… uh … students.


  13. Small thing: ‘disinterested’ ≠ ‘not interested’.


  14. Interesting.
    You could take a look at ‘Teaching Thinking Skills’ by Stephen Johnson, which questions the assumptions behind this movement and how it undermines the importance of subject knowledge. Isbn is 0902227092.


  15. […] in my last post of the GTCE’s research summaries, and have in the past commented about the BERA Social Justice blog, both of which show how research can be anything but ideologically neutral. I would go further and […]



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