Side effects in Education

Recently, in my NPQSL course we have been asked to reflect on the question “What is the moral purpose of education?” Education can be argued to have many moral purposes, and it comes down to an educators point of view; this is an opinion that I think many teachers and leaders would accept.

For example you could argue that the moral purpose of education is to allow individuals to experience a fulfilled life where they can experience and appreciate the whole of their humanity. You could also argue that education’s purpose is to serve society and better the community at large.

Where ever you stand on this spectrum, the very fact that there is a difference of opinion here makes education, as a profession, a little unique. Doctors, for example, would largely agree that the moral purpose of education is to save life.

In what works can hurt, Yong Zhao asks if educational research should be concerned with side effects in education. However appealing this analogy is misleading. In medicine there is a clear moral purpose: do no harm. This is a moral purpose that all medics subscribe too. Medics are driven by the desire to save and prolong life.

No single unifying moral principle exists in education and different schools and different teachers have different moral purposes.

Yong Zhao cites the medical profession as one that requires researchers to investigate side effects as well as the main affects of interventions. In light of calls for educational research to adopt similar methodologies to medical research and become more scientific he argues that this is an area that is overlooked.

Educational research is exclusively focussed on what works without looking at how much it hurts.

Reasons for this may be that education is universally perceived as good, although I would argue that medicine is also. I think the reasons that the education does not consider side effects so much is that the moral purpose of education is much less clear. As well as, this damage due to eduction may take a very long time to be observable and you can only measure that which can be observed – also there are huge numbers of conflating variables.

Zhao writes that education is dominated by a narrow focus on cognitive abilities derived in a small number of subjects measured by standardized tests so that scores in these tests become the measure of effectiveness. Other outcomes are rarely measured so we don’t know about any adverse effects.

More evidence is unlikely to stop the battles within education, but a consideration of side effects might. The education pendulum swings but there is really no progress. I can agree with some of this as any look at the history of the debates does see that these arguments do go on quite a way back.

A way forward to resolving the traditional/progressive debate may be the consideration of both main and side effects in education interventions.

Zhao highlights that direct instruction is effective but can stifle creativity and reduce confidence. He cites the progress of some Asian countries, where students have a lot of knowledge drilled into them but students suffer from lack of confidence, versus Western countries where students know less but have more confidence, as evidence that what works can hurt.  I wonder if this may be a relic of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Student may well be further along the knowledge curve and therefore less confident.

Many interventions that have sought to improve reading scores have reduced access to other subject areas, by eliminating subjects to make more time for reading prep. The negative effects of these interventions are now well documented: reducing access to other subjects only serves to reduce literacy scores.

I do think that by focussing only on what can be measured can lead us down the wrong path. Measurement is important and does have a place, but there are elements of human life that we don’t know how to measure or have barriers to measuring like cost and time. We shouldn’t ignore these areas.

Please share your thoughts..

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