Revisiting the Debate Over the Davis Phonics Pamphlet: Part 2July 3, 2014
In this post from yesterday I went over the problems with Andrew Davis’ pamphlet on phonics. It had media publicity at the time of its publication for a reference to phonics teaching being “almost a form of abuse” and argued that we should ignore the research on systematic synthetic phonics because we could not identify whether those methods have actually been used.
An obviously incoherent argument mixed with a lack of any evidence, and a tasteless comparison with child abuse, would, of course, be an embarrassment to anyone engaging in a serious debate. But denialists do need to be able to refer to texts by educationalists in order to give the impression of intellectual legitimacy to their position. While I don’t want to go over Twitter discussions about the pamphlet (suffice to say many of its most ardent admirers seem unfamiliar with its content) it’s worth commenting on a couple of blogposts which attempted to defend it. The first is here. In it, the obvious criticisms that its claims are unsupported with evidence, and in defiance of the evidence, are defended by an appeal to the nature of philosophy:
However, empirical and philosophical questions have important differences between them which are the subject of this essay. Andrew Davis is a philosopher. The type and scope of his research is defined by the limits of his discipline. This is also my response to the third objection [the claim the pamphlet was mere speculation]: he is a philosopher, this work is theory. Therefore, it is not “speculative” to write what one thinks because in this field what one thinks is precisely the research itself. When Davis says what he has written is the result of three years’ work we have no reason to doubt him unless we believe that mental work is not meaningful or real, and if we believe that then quite frankly we should never be anywhere near a classroom.
The idea that the abstract nature of philosophy means that any claim, no matter how at odds with evidence, can be seriously entertained is one I would associate more with critics than supporters of philosophy. For instance, Lawrence Krauss’s claim that “philosophy used to have content” which science has gradually taken away paints philosophy as some kind of abstract nonsense of no consequence to those who study the real world. While I am quite happy with the idea of philosophy consisting of thought and reasoning rather than empirical evidence, philosophy is still meant to be thought about something. A philosopher of science will need to study some science and they would not claim, that whatever experiments have been conducted they cannot provide evidence of gravity. A philosopher of history will need to study some history and they would not claim that whatever books historians have written, none of them could provide grounds for saying the battle of Waterloo happened. A philosopher of law will need to study some law and would not claim that, whatever laws have been passed, none of them could prohibit burglary. The correct way to philosophise about the teaching of reading involves first studying how we teach children to read, not claiming that it has never actually been studied. An argument that it cannot be studied does not create a gap for philosophy to fill, it makes philosophical consideration as impossible as any other type. Davis’ argument that we can never isolate a specific way of teaching reading does not simply prevent the possibility of empirically measuring the effectiveness of the method, it also prevents us identifying any features of a reading method that a philosopher could reasonably consider. A teaching method that is so lacking in distinct features or consequences that we cannot identify it when we use it or observe it, is also a teaching method that we cannot imagine using and whose consequences no philosopher can deduce. If the ample evidence that synthetic phonics is the most effective method of teaching children to read is “a fantasy”, then how much more fantastic is the evidence-free claim that it is almost a form of abuse?
Another blogger, Dave Aldridge, tries a different defence. Instead of defending the actual pamphlet he defends an imagined, less extreme version of the pamphlet. The actual pamphlet contains a number of claims about it being impossible to observe or identify the teaching of synthetic phonics, some of which I quoted last time, but just to be thorough I will list examples here.
In the editors’ introduction, the argument is summarised with phrases such as:
Whatever it is that empirical researchers take themselves to be doing when they investigate synthetic phonics, he maintains, they are not investigating a specifiable method of teaching reading… there are no such things as specifiable methods of teaching.
In the author’s overview he writes:
I am going to argue that research into the teaching of reading involves some fantasies. These take the form of imagining that specific teaching methods could be identified, and that their efficacy would be open to empirical investigation.
In the outline of the argument he writes that one of the contributions of the book “is to show that much of the research purporting to support any one ‘method’ of teaching reading is flawed in principle” and that in sketching out the various ways to teach reading:
My point… is not to offer a definitive account or typology, but rather to question the very possibility of classifying reading strategies in any meaningful way. I am not assuming that the approaches described are necessarily independent of each other. Indeed, I contend that when examined in any kind of depth, none of them can, or should have, any clear and coherent identity
In the chapter giving the fullest justification of this argument Davis claims to argue “that certain types of empirical research into strategies for teaching reading are … based on fantasies of specifiable teaching interventions…”.
Yet, despite this ample evidence that Davis is indeed claiming that specific teaching methods, and synthetic phonics teaching in particular, cannot be identified, Aldridge instead claims that:
Davis’s argument rests not so much on the non-existence of method as the false analogy set up between teaching methods (and ways of gathering the evidence that they work) and clinical trials and similar ways of gathering evidence about, say, medical interventions or agricultural fertilisers.
Aldridge then attempts to argue for the much weaker claim that the evidence for phonics cannot be of the standard of these other types of research. While Davis did briefly assert that his arguments for ignoring the research evidence showed that evaluating teaching methods was different to testing drugs or fertilisers, his argument at no point hinged on the reverse implication, i.e. that if teaching methods are different to drugs then they cannot be evaluated. If this argument has not been made then no amount of differences between types of research can be used to support Davis’s claims. While this new argument may be of interest, and I hope to deal with it later, it does not actually match the argument of the pamphlet which remains as far-fetched and incoherent as ever.
Much of what remains in Aldridge’s post (and a subsequent post) is directed at me, rather than the discussion of Davis’ pamphlet in general, so I will hope to deal with it in a separate post.