Experiment with education

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Sir Michael Barber, Founder and Chairman of Delivery Associates

Science is absolutely crucial for our society – it is ubiquitous. To misquote Georges Clemenceau, science is too important a matter to be left to the scientists. Given its importance, we must ensure the education system equips everyone with the knowledge and skills needed to navigate the modern world.

At the heart of “Science” lies the scientific method – the iterative process of measurement, experimentation, and revision of hypotheses. It is a way of thinking, more important than any individual body of knowledge it has helped create (or destroy).

It is baffling, then, that we have yet to fully embrace the scientific method when it comes to teaching science! Today, there are a huge number of approaches, styles, guides, tools, plans and content for teachers to use with their science classes. The transformative power of the internet has opened up a wealth of resources, and enthusiastic teachers, researchers and educationalists are constantly generating new ways to approach science education. There is no shortage of ways to teach; we must focus our attention on the ways that work. And the only way to understand what works is to turn to the scientific method. Education and teaching should be as much a subject of science as any other aspect of human life.

We need to study and measure the impact of different approaches to teaching students science, holding ourselves to the same standards of rigour, and using the same methodological nuance that we wish to teach to our students. Thankfully, there are already many dedicated groups and individuals, such as the Education Endowment Foundation, working to increase the use of evidence in the sector. Another exemplary group is the Behavioural Insights Team: they run experiments incorporating findings from the behavioural sciences into education. One such experiment is examining whether a series of interventions, including using online modules to improve ‘grit’, can increase attainment in Further Education Colleges. We – as parents, students, citizens – need to demand even more of this kind of work. Science teachers must practice what they preach!

Sir Michael Barber is a leading authority on education systems and education reform. He was recently appointed as Chair of the Office for Students (OfS) – the proposed new regulator for Higher Education. He is also Founder and Chairman of Delivery Associates, a consulting company that works with governments to help them deliver improved outcomes for citizens. He is a visiting scholar at Harvard and an Honorary Doctor of Exeter University, as well as being the author of several books including most recently How to Run a Government: So that Citizens Benefit and Taxpayers Don’t go Crazy (2016).

Previously, he was Chief Education Advisor at Pearson from September 2011 to March 2017, and prior to that was a Partner at McKinsey & Company and Head of McKinsey’s global education practice. In addition, from 2011 to 2015 he was DfID’s Special Representative on Education in Pakistan.

He served the UK government as Head of the Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (from 2001-2005) and as Chief Adviser to the Secretary of State for Education on School Standards (from 1997-2001). Before joining government, he was a professor at the Institute of Education at the University of London and long ago a secondary school teacher. He was knighted in 2005 for his contribution to improving government.

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