Challenging the ‘what works’ agenda in education: calling out the ‘Mad Hatter’

Year: 2019

Author: Brant, Jacek

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The fictional character, The Hatter, appears in Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and again in its sequel Through the Looking-Glass (1871). His strange behaviour, after a while, appears ordinary, indeed the surreal Wonderland becomes normalised. Perhaps the same happened in the world of education? The term mad as a hatter precedes Carroll’s novel; it originates in eighteenth century England, the birthplace of the industrial revolution. In the factory production of hats, mercury was used causing a high rate of poisoning in the workers resulting in neurological damage. Symptoms included slurred speech, amnesia and twitches, which led to the expression ""as mad as a hatter"". If mercury was the poison of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for hatters, the commodification of knowledge together with a ‘deliverologistic’ pedagogy are poison for learners, both teachers and students leading to anxiety and stress.

Hattie’s Visible Learning is a synthesis of over 800 meta-studies comprising over 50,000 studies involving millions of people, gives the impression of scientific rigour. He claims to identify what works best in education and states effect sizes arising from different teaching approaches. His work has been important in educational policy circles in many countries, nevertheless there are numerous problems with his research. For example, one way to judge whether teaching is ‘effective’ is by measuring the impact of teaching on students’ learning, but this is difficult to achieve, not least because the relationship between teaching and students’ learning is complex and not fully explained by educational researchers. While attempts to delineate this relationship have been made it is accepted that they are problematic, partly because all of them involve making judgements about teachers’ performance by measuring students’ educational outcomes.

This paper offers a theoretical lens for understanding teaching that goes beyond contemporary discourses; examines conceptualisations of teacher research that may form a foundation for teacher reprofessionalisation and exemplifies the theoretical arguments by reporting on the success of a ten-month teacher professional development programme in Armenia. The provocative title is a response to a ‘what works?’ agenda that fails to consider context and teachers and students as vital components of creating efficacious educational environments. The philosophical positioning of the paper is that of Critical Realism where the world is perceived as real (a positivist ontology) but the way it is understood as socially constructed (an interpretivist epistemology).