The Secretary Reports

June 1, 2015 Gordon Thomas

Myths and more myths: The importance of educational research

I don’t know about you, but I’m really getting tired of efforts to push myths instead of research, to generate “spin” rather than assessing “fact,” to focus on endless flapdoodle, being led to believe that the nuggets are gold. As Sandy, our eldest, said on a family vacation in Banff, stepping very carefully to avoid nugget-like stuff on the ground, “I see deer evidence.” Evidence indeed. Nuggets most certainly. Research matters.

It seems that all around the world, resources continue to decline for education. There are strong pressures to reduce taxation, especially for the wealthy and business interests, and to build the economy. The easiest script is to pretend that certain research findings are real, when they are not. Stuff more kids into a classroom. Use structures known as “disruptive innovation” to systematically break the system, with a flyer that the structures that rise from the ashes will be better, more efficient and more successful. It’s usually a bunch of phooey.

Equity is a key element of public education. It’s the great success maker, ensuring that all students have the opportunity to learn. But equity does cost money. You can’t cut the system’s resources to achieve equity. The pretense that teaching quality is the start and the end of the story is a very serious problem. The conditions of practice and the social conditions absolutely count — if children come to school hungry, the teacher’s job is even harder. Inclusive education means that classrooms are much more complex, and there needs to be attention paid to address these realities.

It doesn’t stop at class size or “doing more with less,” a favourite of the right wingers. Alberta is far behind other provinces (and other parts of the world) with respect to early learning initiatives. We were on top of the world during the first Peter Lougheed administration, with committed resources for early childhood education to ensure success. Although we were the innovators then, we have since been left in the dust.

Research shows that many early learning initiatives produce substantial gains for society. The earlier we can reach students with learning needs, the better. It’s getting worse in Alberta, not better. Yet, this is an area where the truest conservatives should be paying attention, since investments made into early learning initiatives are most likely to produce multiple benefits for society — happier, more productive members of society and contributing taxpayers. Early learning, in particular, pays for itself and more.

Technology is the easiest myth of all. The saviour is already there. Let’s fire teachers and hire really cheap “coaches” or “facilitators” who will be able to guide students through the computer programs designed to advance student learning. Of course, there is no empirical evidence that such an approach would work very well at all.

As a social studies teacher, I know that the classroom is a very good place to have a full conversation about issues and societal values. The politics of education also needs careful thought — an inquiry process or an approach to ensure that all perspectives have the opportunity for maximum discussion, is ideal.

So colleagues, I’m really ready to call out on the flapdoodle, to trot out the real research that makes a difference, to assess the evidence (remember evidence) to make proper decisions. Myths get in the way, but research is always the solution. So let’s continue to press for evidence and research and push back on private or corporate interests. It’s about the public interest. Myths ultimately take away opportunities for student success and advancement. As the bowling ball comes down the alley, let’s ensure that no pin remains standing.

Also In This Issue