The death of intuition – Is education losing its soul?

TES, 07/11/14, whilst educational research can be valuable, schools must be wary of investing in resulting apparently linked beliefs and practices that threaten to supplant the judgement of teachers, argues Alistair McConville of Bedales School.

‘The sad, slow death of intuition’ in teaching discusses the growing appetite for evidence-based practice in teaching, facilitated by initiatives aimed at connecting more closely the research and teaching communities, with the former making increasingly confident recommendations as to what teachers should do in the classroom.

Commenting on the article, Ann Mroz, editor and digital publishing director at TES, said: “We have been really pleased with the reaction to the feature, particularly on social media. The issues Alistair explores around teacher autonomy and the role of research in education have clearly hit a nerve and we have been thrilled with the engaging debate his arguments have prompted.”

McConville argues whilst there is a natural tendency to give weight to beliefs and practices which appear to flow from such evidence, we must be wary of findings that confirm presuppositions, and of any suggestions that a particular course of action is necessarily implied. He explains, by way of example: “Just because Shanghai gets numerically high maths results in the PISA tests, it does not follow that we ought to import their maths teaching strategies wholesale without further reflection.”

Instead, he writes, schools should seek to understand the value of research findings in a context-specific manner, taking into account the judgement of those who have dedicated their professional lives to teaching. More fundamentally, as well as considering how students learn, he proposes that we ask: “Learn what, and to what end?” The fundamental purposes of education are not self-evidently to raise average test scores, though this is often the implicit assumption made in assessing educational ‘interventions’.

Bedales has itself invested carefully in education research initiatives – notably, in partnership with Harvard academics through the Research Schools International Network. However, rather than seeking to import externally generated ‘lessons’, this work has been carefully designed to benchmark the school’s stated educational aim of ‘developing inquisitive thinkers with a love of learning who cherish independent thought’, thus rooting the research in a deeply held conviction about the nature and purpose of education, and contextualising it appropriately by drawing upon the classroom experiences of Bedales students.

McConville explained: “The results were scrutinised critically by staff, resulting in a healthy debate about our collective practice: through this process we developed a better understanding of how we were doing against our own criteria, and were able to make informed changes to our lower school curriculum”.

Bedales is one of a growing number of independent schools moving away from what are seen as over-prescriptive GCSEs in favour of the International version (IGCSE) and, in the case of Bedales, the school’s own BACs (Bedales Assessed Courses).  Replacing GCSEs in non-core subjects, BACs encourage and reward imaginative, independent and committed enquiry, and have been welcomed by universities and UCAS.

For an overview of the article click here © TES.