downloadToday I have been at a ResearchEd event in Oxford focusing on Maths and Science. I’ve been keen to engage with this movement, which aims at improving the research literacy of teachers. That can only be a good thing, especially since Tom Bennett’s initial accompanying rhetoric about ITE institutions not actually being very good at doing or teaching research seems to be softening. I got a complimentary ticket in any case, which I’m pretty pleased about. There was certainly a lively and intelligent atmosphere. I say this even though I offered a philosophical/ ethical presentation (on the use and abuse of certain narratives from the cognitive sciences to improve student motivation) that was rejected by the event’s organisers.

But I’ve expressed my reservations about these events in the past, particularly because the tagline – ‘working out what works’ – seems to take normative educational considerations off the table. I’m not a maths or science specialist, so I learned a lot today, but in general my concerns were borne out. This is perhaps best illustrated by a panel session on mixed ability teaching chaired (sorry, rather badly) by The Guardian’s Richard Adams. I recognised @oldandrew, @cbokhove and @bodiluk. My apologies to the other two debaters, who were probably kind of the good guys, but whose introductions were hastily mumbled. Andrew Old I’ve addressed on my blog before. His writing is a good example of what I mean by taking normative considerations ‘off the table’. He has argued that most time spent on debating the aims of education is wasted, since we know that the aim of schooling is unambiguously to ‘make children cleverer’.

I won’t rehearse the various papers and evidence (much of which was not really brought into the session). I’ve done so before and the story is not that mysterious. The jury is largely out on mixed ability v. setting. There are probably small gains for low ability students from mixed ability teaching and small losses for high ability, and it’s the other way round with setting. The question, from a ‘what works’ point of view, is how all of these small gains and losses stack up overall. To put it another way, the question is how to maximise cleverness for the aggregate of students?  And this is certainly an empirical question.

Other research and arguments on this issue were touched on only in passing references to ‘what teachers are comfortable with’ or to research that assumes an ‘egalitarian ideology’. What no-one explicitly mentioned was the reasonably well established correlation between ability sets and demographic groups. Without wanting to simplify things too much, setting by ability means setting by socio-economic group, and there isn’t very much mobility between these groups.

This raises an important question. What if there are other possible aims of our educational activity that deserve consideration at least alongside the maximisation of cleverness – something to do, maybe, with social integration or even the development of compassion? Again, these arguments have been well rehearsed and my interest here is not to explore their particular force so much as to point out how heretical it would seem even to raise them at an event concerned only with the empirical question of ‘what works’. To ask the question about what our educational aims really are is to raise the possibility that there might be good reasons for preferring and applying mixed ability teaching even if, in terms of the maximisation of cleverness, we had established that it did not ‘work’ as well as setting. A similar point could perhaps be made about the educational value of group learning, which gets hard treatment from the evidence-based crowd.

So I’m repeating here the familiar refrain that we should not be concerned about ‘what works?’ at the expense of the accompanying question of ‘to what end?’ Now, if the grass roots ‘what works’ teacher movement could be accompanied by a revival in similar circles of sophisticated discussion of normative educational questions… well then, a thing really would be happening.