“Everyone has a plan until they’ve been hit.”
What are you going to do today Napolean? Why, craft an implausible link between classroom research and the UFC, the international martial arts festival of fists currently racking up the $$$, airtime and column inches.
The UFC was born in the mid-1990s out of several competitions in what was known as mixed martial arts. As with many sports, there natural tendency towards ranking and competition had led many people to the question of what was the most effective of the martial arts. Was it western boxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, judo, or perhaps one of the more esoteric eastern styles that promoted the unlimited powers of internal qi energy? Of course the multiple sport comparison had already been categorically measured, defined and settled by BBC’s Superstars (and even better, Superteams) in the 1970s and 80s. Oh, for those glory days when the cream of British sporting talent would compete for the viewing public’s entertainment on your bog standard channels. Bobby Moore against Tony Jacklin, Bjorn Borg v Kevin Keegan, the world against Brian Jacks. Nevertheless, there is something a little different about competing in a test of endurance compared to testing yourself in arena where the potential cost of a loss is directly to your health. The stakes become a lot higher, and those making their claims to superiority are putting more than simply their reputation on the line by backing their own philosophy.
For those unfamiliar with the martial arts, there are a significant minority of practitioners from across all styles that are, to put it delicately, rather too enamoured of theoretical ideas that they are reluctant to pressure test. Fantastical claims of efficiency, strength and mental prowess are professed that really don’t survive even the mildest waft of investigatory breeze. Of course, while the people who wish to hold onto these ideas persist in maintaining them without ever having to produce the evidence that they work under pressure there is a market of cut-price Cobra Kais and bargain-basement Bruce Lees. Ideas should be scrutinised and evidence sought for their efficacy in the real world rather than protected by an armour of pre-existing conditions that must be in place in order for them to work.
Which brings us back to education research. One of the big issues with any kind of social science research, which education falls under, is replicability of experiments. There is not always a ready link from controlled lab conditions to classroom, nor from one school or even one teacher to another. This is not to dismiss research as fruitless, far from it, but there does need to be caution applied to results and further attempts to replicate findings. I don’t necessarily find much value in an intervention that clearly is so specific to a certain set of criteria that cannot be extended to general principles. Research that consistently comes back with the same patterns though should definitely increase our confidence in that intervention.
There is a moral question that hangs over research in schools. Clearly there is a risk that an intervention will have a negative effect on students, but the hidden side of maintaining a particular style is that it could also be having a negative effect, or at least not as positive as the intervention. There is no easy way around this conundrum. As teachers we get to try things differently next year with another cohort, but the students themselves don’t have this chance. They go through all of this once. The ideas that we use in our classrooms should be held up to criticism and scrutiny as part of normal professional behaviour because our pupils deserve that.
Incidentally, the first UFC was won by Royce Gracie, part of the Brazilian Ju-Jitsu family. He and his style would go on to influence and dominate the sport for years to come. Other competitors had to adapt and adjust their style because they were simply not as effective. The faux-masters who claimed invulnerability and secret powers were unmasked as tissue-paper-tigers. Of course, when claims are made from people who have, shall we say, a further distance from the impact of their choices than the teachers and SLT on the ground, the effects of poor choices are diminished. The armchair pedagogues don’t get have to test the accuracy of their anecdotal-action plans on a windy afternoon with Year 9. The physical (and metaphysical) distance from actual events also opens the possibility of blaming the implementers for not dealing with things that were never under their control to begin with. Take the National Teaching Service, as scrapped this week. Worth a shot probably, but fell apart on contact with reality. To get something useful from this there needs to be an examination of why it sank straight off the slipway. Fine if you think the incentive required is simply money, but how many times do you have to try the same strategy before you accept it isn’t working? In the meantime, someone else is taking the blows for you.
The effects of educational strategies may not reveal themselves for years or even decades. There is no relatively quick feedback like from the worlds of medicine, business or sport but that does not stop us from a profession from looking for the deeper patterns of success, hard though they may be to find. Though it’s not avoidable to have decisions made from outside of the direct sphere of schools but there must be an awareness of how and why such decisions come to be implemented. Additionally, a consideration and appreciation of the possible impact of strategies and approaches on all of the staff in schools should be a normal part of national policy thinking. Otherwise we’ll continue to be stopped in our tracks of our well-laid plans by that slap to the chops.