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Powerful stories that are rooted in evidence

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Blog - Powerful stories that are rooted in evidence

Sunday 26 March 2017

There has been much discussion over the last months about so-called ‘fake news’ which seems to be a prevalent phenomenon in our public life. Some seem to be suggesting that the new communications technology of our time has given rise to a new and negative problem which threatens to overwhelm us. Now I do think that we should that acknowledge that new media, Twitter, Instagram et al. potentially have some negative effects on us, in terms of shaping our world view. What this analysis fails to notice though, is that there is nothing new about the problem. When the Daily Mail published a letter 4 days before the 1924 British General Election purporting to be sent by Grigor Zinoviev to the British Communist Party, setting out the Bolshevik strategy of making links with the British Labour Party, it was almost certainly publishing someone’s ‘fake news’. Historians still dispute whether the origins of the letter lay in the White Russian community, or an MI5 officer at the time, named Sir George Joseph Ball.

‘Fake news’ then is not new. Its power rests upon a powerful cognitive bias that humans have for stories that connect known events with causal explanations. Tom Shakespeare, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s ‘A Point of View’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08jf76n   illustrated this phenomenon helpfully by pointing to the link that was made between the incidence of autism and the MMR vaccine.

This widespread reporting of the presumed link between the MMR vaccine and autism had catastrophic consequences for the take up of the vaccine and so led to a significant increase in risk of avoidable childhood disease. Responding to this and other misrepresentations of science, Ben Goldacre has been at the vanguard of a campaign for better and more disciplined media reporting. He has taken on a gamut of myths from diets to so-called ‘brain-gym’ exposing the falsehoods and championing the importance of evidence. Why Goldacre interests me in particular is his challenge to the education sector, writing in a 2013 paper ‘Building Evidence into Education’: “I think there is a huge prize waiting to be claimed by teachers. By collecting better evidence about what works best, and establishing a culture where this evidence is used as a matter of routine, we can improve outcomes for children, and increase professional independence.”

Many schools, Bennett in particular, have been responding to this challenge. We are becoming ever more alert to the benefits of being research literate and alert to what evidence there is about what works when it comes to teaching. Our weekly briefings have evolved to become a platform for a drip-feed of updates about evidence based pedagogy. Nor should this be seen as a process of passing on cherry-picked soundbites to the credulous. As a Teaching School we’ve taken care to develop teachers, so that they know and understand research methodology and so can be critical consumers of this research evidence. Over a score of Bennett teachers have secured Masters degrees in this field.

So why does ‘fake news’ and indeed ‘enquiry- based learning’, or ‘flipped teaching’ continue to prosper in  the teeth of the evidence? I imagine that this is because there is a compelling story around them. In the case of the first, the stories appeal to our interest in the lurid, the dramatic and the controversial. In the case of the approaches to teaching which I have identified, I suspect that it is because they offer the lure of a quick and easy fix. In the classroom where each child follows their own learning journey using their i-pad to research, the teacher’s role is simply to act as facilitator or manager of resources. If students are designing their own experiment to explore the qualities of the group 2 elements, the teacher doesn’t really need to be expert in sequencing knowledge or do the hard yards of planning the probing questions which will bottom out whether the students have grasped the key information which they set out to teach.

This leaves a challenge to those of us who believe in pedagogy which is rooted in the evidence of what works. We need to tell the story of its effectiveness.