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International Socialism, Winter 1965/66


Peter Ibbotson

Spare the Measuring Rod


From International Socialism, No.23, Winter 1965/66, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Innovation and Research in Education
Michael Young
Routledge & Kegan Paul, 25s.

British education has never been notable for innovation, says Dr Young. (Since Britain’s main contributions to the world educational scene are the Boy Scout movement, the ‘public’ school, and segregated secondary education, it is maybe just as well that innovation has not been more prolific.) Circumstances, however, have in the last decade forced innovations: the population explosion, the growth of knowledge (particularly in science, where the Nuffield Project propagates a new approach to science teaching), and the rise of egalitarian sentiment – this last, happily, tending to counteract two of Britain’s unfortunate educational exports.

New techniques forced upon schools and teachers by the knowledge and population explosions include programmed learning, language laboratories, curriculum reform (especially in mathematics and science), educational TV, and team teaching. The rise of egalitarian sentiment has led to both widespread support for comprehensive schools and widespread concern over the educational handicaps facing the children of manual workers, even when of the same initial ability as middle-class children (the long-term but still uncompleted researches of Douglas and Bernstein are here very relevant). Nevertheless the introduction of new techniques, like the local abolition of tripartism (which the event has justified), has been purely empirical; no research into the validity of a new teaching technique (eg Pitman’s initial teaching alphabet) has preceded its widespread adoption; lending colour to Young’s suggestion that educational practice owes more to fashion than to theory. Very often, indeed, research into the effect of particular teaching methods has lagged far behind their application. Thus, Miss Dorothy Gardner – Testing Results in the Infant School (1942) and Long Term Results of Infant School Methods (1950) – compared the attitudes and achievements of children from child-centred infant schools with those of children from more formal and traditional schools long after child-centredness had, deservedly and properly, gained a firm hold in the English primary school. This clearcut example of the cart before the horse, of innovation preceding research, perhaps justifies in part the criticism that educational research (e.g. Vernon’s on coaching for intelligence tests, in the early fifties) too often merely confirms what teachers have known for years. If, however, Young’s constructive pleas for organised research, especially group research involving practising teachers and local education authority research associations (and perhaps organisations such as the Child Development Society), are acted upon, such criticism should become increasingly rarer. Instead, we may find teachers under fire for putting into practice ideas which the researchers have not fully validated!

I am with Young in his pleas for more research, but I cannot share his final hope, ‘that a more scientific approach to education will do something to make it more human.’ In the USSR, a scientific approach has led to a dehumanised educational system in which the emphasis is on results. In England, language laboratories and teaching machines are tending to depersonalise the traditional pupil/teacher relationship. Young’s final hope would, and could, and should be better re-worded: ‘that a more scientific approach to education will do nothing to make it less human’. For teachers, like socialists, are deeply and irrevocably concerned with humanity; and nothing must be allowed to derogate from this concern.

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