Research and primary education

I took part in a panel discussion at the national ResearchEd conference yesterday. The subject of the discussion was primary education and I thought I would post the thoughts I shared:

At all levels of schooling classroom research is undoubtedly useful but the process of generalising from this research is fraught with difficulty. As E D Hirsch explains, each classroom context is different.

I think ideally we would like to base educational decisions on

  • Converging evidence from many years of research in numerous fields
  • That integrates both classroom research and lab based work so…
  • We can construct theoretical accounts of underlying causal processes.

These theoretical insights allow us to interpret sometimes contradictory classroom research. We actually have this ideal in the case of research into early reading and the superiority of systematic synthetic phonics. Despite this evidence the vast majority of primary schools ignore or are unaware of the research and continue to teach the ‘multi-cueing’ approach to reading.

While research on phonics is ignored some lamentably poor research has been enduringly influential in early primary education and treated with a breath taking lack of criticality. In the 1950s a comparison study of 32 children found that children taught at nursery using teacher centred methods showed evidence of delinquent behaviour in later life. However, this was a tiny sample and there was a tiny effect. No account was taken for the fact the teacher led research group had many more boys than the comparison child centred group – among other fatal flaws. Despite this that piece of research is STILL continually and uncritically cited. For example, the OECD used this study to support character education.  It is also central to the National Audit Office definition of ‘high quality early years provision as ‘developmentally appropriate’.

That flawed research features in the literature review for the EPPSE longitudinal study that has become one of the highest impact educational research programmes in Europe and whose findings underpin billions of pounds of government spending. EPPSE claims to have demonstrated that high quality pre-school provision is child centred and to have shown that such provision has an incredible impact on outcomes at aged 16. However, merely scratch the surface and you find there were obvious flaws with EPPSE. The scales used by classroom observers to discover the nature of quality provision lacked validity and actually predefined what constituted high quality provision as child centred. The researchers admitted problems with the control group meant causal connections couldn’t be drawn from the findings but then ignored this problem, despite the control group issue undermining their key conclusions.

It seems the key principles influencing early years education are too frequently drawn from obviously flawed research. These principles are also the product of misuse of the research we have. For example, it is statutory to devise activities to build resilience in early years education. However, Angela Duckworth, an international authority, admits that although it is a desirable trait we don’t really know for sure how to create it.

What explains the astonishing situation where theoretical research from cognitive psychology is ignored, obviously flawed huge government funded research projects become influential and new pedagogical approaches, based on faulty understanding of the evidence, are made statutory?

A glance along the bookshelves at any primary teacher training institution gives us a clue. There is a rigid child centred and developmentalist  orthodoxy among primary educationalists. This explains the lack of rigorous scrutiny of supportive research. In fact, except on social media, sceptical voices are barely heard.