“Marxists, Feminists & The Blob”: Rethinking Gove’s Outburst

28th March 2013

Following this maxim I found myself unable to become exasperated at Michael Gove’s bizarre outburst in the Mail on Sunday, and instead I’ve spent several days wondering why he got things so horribly wrong and then wanting to explain his mistake.

Gove made two claims that smack of (faux) ignorance. The first was when he used the methods employed by  some education researchers  – i.e. Marxism, feminism or ‘intergenerational ethnographies’ – to insinuate that researchers are either ‘enemies of promise’ or from a ‘planet’ that believes teaching facts is an erosion of standards. The second hair-raising claim was the suggestion that a network of educational gurus sit around in universities “praising one another” and cooking up ideologically driven theory.

First: curiosity. Why did Gove make these statements? I presume they were rhetoric, designed to  whip up concerns without actually having to prove any problems really exist. To counter the rhetoric, patient explanation of his incorrectness is now important – not least because the last week saw a real move towards bringing university research and the teaching profession closer together. Goldacre’s call for more evidence in teaching, plus Tom Bennett’s planning of the ResearchED conference, shows there is a real appetite for productive education research. But making out like “random control trials = science = good” and “everyone else = marixsts = bad” will perpetuate misunderstandings about education research and won’t benefit anyone.

Why are there Marxist and feminist education researchers?

One problem of large-scale education research  – as per random control trials (RCT) – is that the results can cause blind spots. For example, an RCT might find that “no hands up” policies improve learning for 70% of children. This is great – but what if the 30% of students it didn’t improve learning for were the poorest children? If the RCT only measures outcomes ‘on average’ then the trial would be unlikely to uncover this fact and the policy’s implementation might eventually cause greater educational inequality even though it improves learning on average.

Marxist and feminist researchers exist to uncover the places where education policy and practices have embedded such inequalities on the basis of class or gender. Is some research in this field too theoretical, or too biased, or little more than a moan? Sure (and I’ve written about that here) but not all of it is. Equally there are many examples of poor practice in randomised controlled trials (in fact, Goldacre wrote a whole book about it). Bad quality research occurs everywhere, and it’s important that teachers come to understand what quality looks like across all research types, rather than being falsely led to believe that some methods are all good and some all bad. Plus, as Dr Becky Allen summed up in a blog for the IOE, random control trials will be more effective when supplemented with research showing what works for whom – something which Marxist, feminist and other ‘critical’ theories seek to find by taking class, gender, race (etc) as their focus for study.

What the heck is an ‘intergenerational ethnography’?

Ethnographies are explanations of people’s lives told from the perspective of the person who lived it. Gove is dismissive of them, probably because such stories are not ‘scientific’ in the way we are used to: i.e. providing big universal laws. However, ethnographies can operate like ‘black swans’.

The ‘black swan problem’ occurs when we have a universal statement such as ‘all swans are white’. This statement is impossible to verify as ‘the truth’ unless we observe all swans in existence. However, finding just one black swan disproves the claim. Hence, in science – and particularly in social science – we don’t just work to verify claims we must also look to falsify ideas too.

Ethnographies are an important way of finding such falsifications.  For example, Gove has often argued that it is arrogant to presume working class students will be turned off from school if presented with a national curriculum packed with ‘the traditional canon’. It is indeed arrogant to make this as a general presumption but several ethnographies* based on in-depth interviews and studies of school pupils have found that such a curriculum is a substantial problem for a small minority. Knowing this does not mean the government should immediately stop reintroducing ‘the canon’ – after all, its advantages may outweigh the negative, and there are important questions to ask about why these students switch off and how to overcome the problem – but  simply wishing away such findings, or labelling the ethnographic researchers uncovering them as ‘enemies of promise’ reeks of an unusual unwillingness to engage in debate.

The ‘education establishment’

Finally, it’s important to remember that ‘the education establishment’ in universities is not a blob. Educational research is multi-disciplinary, spanning psychology, sociology, geography, politics, neuroscience. Some researchers work with numbers, others with texts. Some interview students, some parents, very many work with teachers – in classrooms across the country – getting them through their teaching qualifications. And I can assure people that congratulation in the establishment is rare, instead people continually put ideas through peer-review and are constantly challenged to investigate and explain more rigorously.

Is some education research (of all varieties) poor quality? Yes. Are some researchers terrible at explaining their work to practitioners? Definitely. But this doesn’t mean what they are doing irrelevant. What it does mean is that more research questions should be driven by practitioner interest and more – much more – must be done to make research conclusions digestable and accessible. Hiding complexly written papers behind journal paywalls is archaic. But the place to deal with these matters is in policy – in conjunction with the new movement bringing educators and researchers together – and definitely not through insults in the pages of newspapers.

If a dividing line must be drawn at all, let us draw it as a circle- a circle open to anyone curious about education research and wishing to discuss it in patient, thoughtful ways.  Anyone wanting only to use research for their own political spin, whether they are within academia or within Westminster, can simply stay outside.


[*The classic English ethnography on this is Paul Willis’ “Learning to Labour – which though old now is still important as modern revisits of his work have shown. Similar conclusions were also drawn more recently in a US study by Ann Arnett Ferguson.]