Follow the research, follow the evidence: Tim Oates
1st October 2019
Tim Oates joined Cambridge Assessment in May 2006 to spearhead the rapidly growing Assessment Research and Development division. His work has included advising on a pan-European 8-level qualifications framework and chairing the UK government’s national curriculum review. Tim was awarded CBE in the 2015 New Year’s Honours for services to education.
Education is an area full of prognostications about the future – many of them empty and hollow. The oft-heard ‘…children do not need to remember anything anymore, they can just look it up…’ runs counter to what we know about brain structure and the processes of cognition. Young people who do not build up knowledge and understanding in their long term memory will simply fail at higher order complex tasks. Those without cognitive resources immediately ‘to hand’ from long term memory will be overwhelmed by the demands of tasks which require integration of knowledge, complex discrimination and so on.
The people who talk of this ‘no need to remember things’ notion should pay more attention to the structure of knowledge. Too often they fail to grasp what human knowledge consists of. We may forget facts – like the name of the first president of Iceland or the boiling point of mercury – but human knowledge and understanding consists of conceptual arrays far more complex than those associated with discrete facts. Immediate extrapolation from a curve on a graph; excluding possible alternative explanations; diagnosing problems; all of these require the person to have extensive cognitive resources.
All the evidence of the UK longitudinal surveys and the work of cognitive scientists like Kurt Fisher and Sarah Jane Blakemore suggests that the cognitive resources possessed by the individual explain high performance, good professional progression and better life outcomes. So in thinking about the future of general education, we had better base policy and practice on the right theories.In thinking about the future of general education, we had better base policy and practice on the right theories says Tim Oates @cam_assess in his #DecadeInMaking piece on research and evidence Click To Tweet
Much like the ‘no need to remember’ fallacy, the idea of ‘each child following their own curriculum’ surfaces time and time again during talk of the future. An appealing sense of schooling as personal consumption – your choice of content, your choice of pace – runs counter to evidence from high performing systems which have enhanced both attainment and equity in a sustained and impressive way. Leading often to an unmanageable escalation in teacher load, this ‘each child on their own path’ model of differentiation hints at the correct assumption that every child has to construct their own understanding of physical laws, concepts of power and authority, of the unconscious and so on, but loses a grip of the importance of guided construction of that knowledge. This can also undermine opportunities for the social learning that results from groups of children tackling the same ideas at the same time. Worst of all, there is clear evidence that when children follow their preferences in learning, it can exacerbate systematic disadvantage, not attenuate it.“There is clear evidence that when children follow their preferences in learning, it can exacerbate systematic disadvantage, not attenuate it.” Tim Oates of @Cam_Assessment in #DecadeInMaking Click To Tweet
For sure, technology will feature hugely, and it is a topic on which most conversations about the future of education are based. But the models which underpin it need to build on the robust body of evidence we have about human learning, not ignore it.
And that is the thing – the future of education is what we make it. I therefore hope that over the next ten years we will shape it using the right models and principles. In fact, it should be beyond ‘hope’ – it should be an evidence-based, prudent process.