Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Be wary of 'research says', 'best practice' and 'data driven' 'buzz words' writes Dean Fink

I have just had an e-mail from Canadian educationalist Dean Fink to let me know about a website and blog he has recently established. Dean is well known in New Zealand and has been very encouraging about the potential of the New Zealand Curriculum. He would be less impressed now with the new government's imposition of the backward locking National Standards and associated nonsense.

I hope he doesn't mind but the following is an extract from one of his first blogs.

Visit Dean's website.

'Let me outline', writes Dean, 'three words or phrases that agitate my crap detector – “the research says”, “best practice” and “data driven” instruction, leadership or whatever.

Whether you agree or disagree with my analysis, I would like to hear from you about any words or phrases that have hidden meanings or at least attempt to distort the real meaning.

The one that excites me the most is “the research says”. It is a phrase that is right up there with “the Bible says”. In university one of my very clever friends used to quote selected sections of scripture to encourage young woman to do things that they otherwise might not want to do. Of course the young woman saw through his scheme.

The phrase “the research says” is thrown around very loosely at conferences, political meetings, and in more than a few books and journal articles.

I would suggest that as consumers of research we become much more clever and start asking questions like – what research? Who is the author(s)? What is his or her personal stake in the research (for example are they promoting their own money-making scheme)? Has the research met the standard of professional adjudication? And perhaps the most important question, who paid for it? In a climate of publish or perish for academics and diminishing revenue for universities, research grants from foundations, corporations and governments become the life blood of individuals and institutions. We have had many examples of researchers either ignoring negative findings, or pulling their punches in scientific research related to medical or environmental research, it stands to reason then that research funded by organizations with a monetary or political interest in research results will exert some, and I suspect in some cases a lot of pressure to get the ‘right’ answers. If this happens in other fields then I’m sure it happens in education.

My message is not one of distrust, but one of caution – be an informed consumer of educational research, including mine.

“Best practice” falls into the same category.

Who decided something is ‘best’? It assumes we have arrived at nirvana, that the practice can’t get any better. It can be good practice, even great practice in certain contexts, but is the practice appropriate in all settings. Is it equally suited to all children, or is it ‘best’ practice in the hands of all teachers?

I learned about the limitations of ‘best’ practice many years ago. I wrote a curriculum for senior students in history for which I received a great many plaudits from my colleagues and requests to use it. The curriculum worked very well for my students who always attained very high grades on provincial history examinations. I allowed it to be circulated freely to anyone who asked in the belief that it would help the field. After a year of its being handed around, the history inspector for the province thanked me for my generosity, but suggested I be more circumspect in my distribution. He said “you wouldn’t believe how badly it is being butchered by teachers without a strong background in the field.”

The third phrase that really ‘bugs’ me is ‘data driven

Don’t get me wrong data as evidence for decision-making whether it is at a school, classroom, or individual child level is crucial, but the phrase ‘driven’ suggests that we can take human beings out of the equation. In spite of valiant efforts to make education a linear, rational predictable enterprise that technocrats love, we humans keep screwing it up.

Education is inherently non linear, non (not ir) rational and certainly unpredictable. We sometimes don’t know how successful we are for years. My friends Andy Hargreaves and Dennis Shirley have written an excellent piece that I can’t top entitled Data Driven to Distraction. I invite you to read it at

Now it is your turn, I’d early love to hear from you with your educational “weasel” words and phrases or your critique of my suggestions'

Good stuff! Plenty of 'weasel words' in New Zealand these days!

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