The phonics debate: a further modest philosophical contribution

@oldandrewuk has recently posted on his blog some further engagement with Andrew Davis’s short book on phonics and the recent letter calling for the abolition of the phonics check.

I notice that he has ignored my own defence of Davis’s argument on this blog. Old has therefore chosen to directly re-post his previous arguments rather than defend them against recent fresh criticism that has engaged directly with those arguments.

Nevertheless, in the little bit of further elaboration that Old does indulge in, I was able to pick up a significant error in his reasoning that I will detail here. It is significant, because his ‘knock-down’ rebuttal of Davis’s argument rests on it.

A few things to get out of the way first. Davis’s position is not as ‘extreme’ as painted by Old in that it does not claim that teaching practice cannot be informed by research. The argument is that research into a particular classroom situation, or across a group of situations, will not allow us to extract a method or cluster of prescribed activities or interactions that could produce the same results in other, even similar, contexts. This goes for all educational situations. Any method we might produce would fail to do justice to the complexity of the interactions that were going on in the situations studied, and in any other situations where teachers were striving to bring about similar results. This does not mean that we cannot learn from educational research, but that we do not do this by pulling out and imposing prescriptive methods which limit the opportunity for teachers to make situated judgements in their own classroom contexts. But this case has been well made in Davis’s book and to some extent in my last post.

Now for the big mistake. Old writes, in response to Davis’s case about the difficulty of identifying prescriptive teaching ‘methods’ on the analogy of a drug in clinical contexts (because of the complexity and interconnectedness of the educational situations we are researching):

“Of course, while the extreme nature of the claim should be highlighted, and it justifies the use of the word “denialist” to describe the argument, an extreme position could still be correct.”

Well, so far so good, actually. We might disagree about the appropriateness of the term ‘denialist’, and about the extremity of Davis’s position, if one engages with a great deal of material that is being produced by the educational research community, but the important point here is that we are all in agreement. Davis’s position could be correct.

Here comes Old’s knock-down (and it is a pretty important knock-down, since without it Davis’s position is acknowledged to be possibly correct):

“Unfortunately, this mistake is not made in isolation. It is part of a pamphlet which argues against the imposition of teaching methods, particularly the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics. As I argued above, if teaching methods (or even just the methods of teaching reading) cannot be identified then they cannot be imposed, for there can be no possible consequence for not implementing them. Nor can the claim that teaching synthetic phonics is “almost a form of abuse” be squared with the picture painted of an invisible, undetectable method.”

My own bold highlighting identifies where Old has failed to engage with Davis’s argument as written. So we cannot identify teaching methods. Given. It does not follow from this that they cannot be imposed, for the simple reason that anyone labouring under the impression that teaching methods can be identified can still seek to impose them. This we know: there is any amount of literature out there in which the pedagogical ‘expert’ in one or other area fails to engage with the essential complexity of the situation they have researched and seeks to extract general principles or procedures that can then constitute a fail-safe approach to teaching in that area.

But the second part is even more important: “there can be no possible consequence for not implementing them”. We have said that teaching methods cannot be (successfully) identified. However, (spurious) methods can nevertheless be imposed, by those who are labouring under the misapprehension that methods can be identified.

There can of course be consequences for not implementing the methods, and this brings us back to the phonics check. Note how the method of synthetic phonics is supposed to bring about the result of literate children, but the phonics check does not test this. The phonics check (as I pointed out in my last post) tests the application of the method, i.e. whether or not children have been successfully taught to apply the principles of synthetic phonics. This is the classic outcome of the kind of educational reasoning that argues that catch-all educational methods that will work across all contexts can be extracted from the ‘evidence’ we have available. The methods are imposed through the introduction of checks that divorce the method (in this case, a specific form of phonics) from its intended result (literacy) and compel teachers to adhere to the methods rather than seek to bring about the intended result. The outcome of these kinds of educational policies will be to put pressure on teachers to slavishly adhere to a set of procedures prescribed by an authorised educational method rather than apply their situated judgement, their knowledge of educational research, and their knowledge of the complexity of a particular classroom situation, to bring about the desired educational result (in this case, children who can read).

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