Some time ago Martin Spiewak stated in the German quality-weekly Die Zeit that an awful lot of undisputed knowledge existed about the best ways to educate children, but that policy makers hardly ever make use of this knowledge. Therefore, there is a need to erect an institution that would pile up this internationally acknowledged knowledge and would translate it to the involved policy makers and educators. The example to follow was the Cochrane Institute that compiles and translates “evidence-based” knowledge in the field of medicine and decides which medicine MD’s can prescribe and which therapies the insurance pays for.

In pedagogy a revolution has taken place in the last two decades, Spiewak declared. Before, this discipline was dominated by philosophically and historically interested scholars. Today, these people are pushed to the margin by the “numbers and data” of “diagnostic and analytic working researchers”. Their budgets have grown dramatically and so did our insights. We now know that for educational success it is irrelevant how many children a class counts or how many years (12 or 13) one schedules to prepare a child for university. Nevertheless, “was the discipline of pedagogy two decades ago still free of facts, today it is threatened to drown in data.” (1)

The problem is that the research is most of the time totally incomprehensible for policymakers and educators. Missing the appropriate education, they do not understand the research methods and results, and are unable to access their practical relevance. Therefore, „to improve the cooperation between science and practice, we need people able to translate and to explain the relevance of research, we need people that check the quality of research and that act as lock-keepers for the flood of data. In other words: Germany needs a kind of Cochrane Institute for education.” (2)

Besides, policymakers are confronted with masses of contradictory advice and are unable to decide which advice to trust. Spiewak cited the Minister of Education of Hamburg: “What, in the end, does all this research bring me? The one scientist concludes this, the other concludes that from research. Who should I believe?“ (3) For this reason there exists, again, an enormous need of orientation from the educational sciences.

 

Data scrap and preudo-research

Obviously, the effect of a pill is easier to measure than the effect of a method of education. But on top of that, other than in the medical sciences, Spiewak observed, “in pedagogy no methodological standards have been generally accepted yet. When one would apply the strict criteria of the biosciences than more than 90 per cent of all empirical research on education could be defined as data scrap, pseudo-research without any valid meaning. This because the sampling is too small or not representative or because the lack of a control group needed to measure the progress in learning.” (4) Hans Anand Pant, the director of the Institut zur Qualitätsentwicklung im Bildungswesen, was cited here: “It is rather odd what in my discipline from time to time counts as scientific research.” (5)

books1Assuming this is correct – which already poses the question how peer-review in this discipline actually works – , how certain can Spiewak be that there indeed is a mass of objective, undisputed, universal knowledge about how to educate children? What do education scholars know for certain? When there is indeed no agreement about methodological standards, with the consequence that 90% of the conducted research would be considered trash in the biosciences, how much generally accepted knowledge is really available?

Moreover, the decision what and how to educate, what to strive for, seems to be heavily influenced by our view on human beings, on our normative ideas on the Good life and the Good society. These ideas can be corrected to some extent by empirical science by showing that they are difficult or even maybe impossible to attain. Falsification, though, is impossible.

Some modesty is called for, it seems. When there is that much disagreement and thus uncertainty big and dramatic changes in educational practices seem unwarranted. Wiser seem incremental changes, changes also based on the practical knowledge of those who daily teach. It is no coincidence that in the Netherlands educators at some point almost begged the Ministry of Education for a “policy-moratorium” and to be left alone for a while, after having been worn out by constantly changing, assumingly research-based views on education.

 

Montessori and Steiner

This does not mean that we have not learned anything at all in the last century. Here it is of course peculiar that so many schools in Germany are still heavily influenced by hardly modified ideas of Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952) or, especially, Rudolf Steiner (1861 – 1925). This might be a cultural problem, though, as it is remarkable that Spiewak observed that in Germany only in the last two decades empirical educational research has been conducted.

Thus, we know relatively well that, for instance, there are still enormous social inequalities in educational careers, that these inequalities are already constituted in the pre-school years, that the school system does not compensate these inequalities but mainly enlarge them, and, consequently, that schooling should not, as in Germany, start at the age of 6, but as early as possible. We also know relatively well that in modern societies it is more productive to teach children problem-solving abilities, than to teach them assumed solutions of problems, as is still predominantly done in France. Mainly thanks to the medical sciences we also know that some children do have AD(H)S and that some children are indeed highly gifted, and that for these children not all educational methods and schedules work well. Obviously, it is disturbing that insights like these still have not reached the German or French) educational system.

Still, these are very general insights, certainly important enough to lay the foundations of the educational system. But I doubt whether we know for certain, as Spiewak suggested, that smaller classes are irrelevant, that the “Turbo-Gymnasium” has no side-effects, or that it does not work to educate teachers at other places than at their own school. Concomitantly, I doubt that there exists just one perfect method, at all places and at all times, to teach children math, French or critical thinking.

 

Notes

1. “War die pädagogische Disziplin vor zwei Jahrzehnten weitgehend empiriefrei, droht sie jetzt in Daten zu ertrinken.“

2. “Damit Wissenschaft und Praxis besser zusammenkommen, sind Übersetzer nötig und Relevanzerklärer, Studienqualitätsprüfer und Schleusenwärter für die Datenflut. Mit anderen Worten: Deutschland benötigt eine Art Cochrane-Institut für die Schule.“

3. “Was bringen die ganzen Studien eigentlich? Die einen Wissenschaftler ziehen daraus diese Schlussfolgerungen, die anderen jene. Was soll ich denn da glauben?”

4. “haben sich in der Pädagogik noch keine verbindlichen methodischen Standards durchgesetzt. Nach den strengen Maßstäben der Biowissenschaften dürften mehr als 90 Prozent aller empirischen Schulstudien Datenschrott sein, Pseudoforschung ohne jede valide Aussage. Etwa weil die Stichproben zu klein oder nicht repräsentativ sind oder weil eine Kontrollgruppe fehlt, an der man den Lernfortschritt messen kann.“

5. “Es ist schon befremdlich, was in meiner Disziplin mitunter als wissenschaftliche Studie durchgeht”.