Chapter 3: The ‘Miracle Cure’ fallacy
The ‘Miracle Cure' fallacy is where teachers are held to be able to implement failsafe ‘educational treatments’ which should work in all circumstances.
Where is the evidence that people believe this and that it has affected education policy and classroom practice?
John Hattie, in the introduction to his influential book Visible Learning for Teachers, tells the story of Elliot, a child aged 10. Elliot was diagnosed with Leukaemia, and completed a four-year regime of chemotherapy. “The scripts,” says Hattie, “that the doctors decided to follow have been successful and the interventions have had major positive consequences. Throughout the treatment, the impact of the interventions was monitored, changed, and led to the critical decisions that now allow Elliot to shine in rugby and BMX riding, and to be a peer mediator at his school. He has been part of a community of doctors, nurses, teachers, friends and family – so many were involved. The impact of the dosage and treatment was constantly monitored to ensure that it was leading to the criteria of success. Decisions were made in the light of the monitoring; teams worked to understand the consequences of the treatments; and the evidence was the key to adaptive professional decision-making – all aiming to maximise the impact not only on the medical, but also the social and family, aspects. We all truly knew their impact. Again, Elliot is the inspiration for the message of this book: know thy impact!”
In 2013, Ben Goldacre, bestselling author of Bad Science, was asked by Michael Gove, then Education Secretary, to look at how education could learn from the medical profession. In his report, Building Evidence into Education, he said that, “there are many differences between medicine and teaching, of course, but they also have a lot in common. Both involve craft and personal expertise, learnt over years of experience. Both work best when we learn from the experiences of others, and what worked best for them. Every child is different, of course, and every patient is different too; but we are all similar enough that research can find out which interventions will work best overall, and which strategies should be tried first, second or third, to help everyone achieve the best outcome.”
The Education Endowment Fund is a government funded research fund dedicated to finding out what works in education. Its Chief Executive Kevan Collins has said that, “Teaching is not medicine, and comparisons between schools and hospitals often miss the point. It will never be possible to prescribe the perfect lesson plan or construct a formula for feedback which works for every child. But teachers, like doctors, are professionals and deserve to be provided with the highest quality information to support the difficult decisions they must make every day.”
The New Labour government of 1997-2010 promoted a ‘Waves’ model of teaching as follows:
“Wave 1 is about what should be on offer for all children: the effective inclusion of all pupils in high-quality everyday personalised teaching. Such teaching will, for example, be based on clear objectives that are shared with the children and returned to at the end of the lesson; carefully explain new vocabulary; use lively, interactive teaching styles and make maximum use of visual and kinaesthetic as well as auditory/verbal learning. Approaches like these are the best way to reduce, from the start, the number of children who need extra help with their learning or behaviour.
Wave 2 describes targeted small-group intervention for pupils who can be expected to catch up with their peers. Examples are the Springboard mathematics programmes, the literacy programmes Early Literacy Support (ELS), Year 3 intervention, Further Literacy Support (FLS), and the ‘Silver set’ group work from the social and emotional aspects of learning (SEAL) materials. The Primary National Strategy will continue to ensure that quality assured Wave 2 programmes are available to support the revised Primary Framework. Wave 2 intervention is designed for children for whom a well structured short- term programme, possibly delivered by a teaching assistant working with a teacher, is all that is needed to enable them to make accelerated progress.
Wave 3 is about intervention for children for whom Quality First teaching and Wave 2 catch-up programmes are not enough. It may need to be a more intensive programme, involving more individual support or specialist expertise.
Where it is working effectively, the waves model will have a funnelling effect, reducing through Quality First teaching the numbers requiring Wave 2 intervention, and through Wave 2 the numbers who need more intensive and individual help. This means that schools will be able to target their resources more effectively, at fewer children.”
Once again, Ofsted drives a great deal of current educational practice in England, and the way in which it reports on schools provides useful insight into modern practice. A sample of recent Ofsted reports demonstrates the extent of the Miracle Cure fallacy.
In a school judged to Require Improvement, “Teaching is not consistently good enough to enable pupils to make good progress.” Good progress is due to actions of the adults in the school, which should enable all pupils to succeed: “Pupils’ achievement requires improvement because, since the previous inspection, pupils have not made consistently good progress across the school. Current pupils, however, are now making better progress because of actions taken by the acting headteacher and middle leaders. However, there are still inconsistencies in pupils’ progress in some year groups especially in writing.” Our Lady and St Paul's Roman Catholic Primary School, Heywood
Teaching and achievement are held to be directly linked and in the control of adults, as is clear in comments made about this school which also Requires Improvement: “Leaders have not maintained good quality teaching and achievement since the previous inspection.” ‘Good progress’ is directly linked to ‘good teaching’, which should, by definition, ensure that pupils make good progress: “The quality of teaching has not been good enough over time to help pupils to make consistently good progress, especially in mathematics.” Astmoor Primary School, Runcorn
In a school rated ‘Good’, teaching is naturally held to be directly responsible for progress and achievement. “Pupils make good progress and achieve well in reading, writing and mathematics.” This is clearly because “Teaching is consistently good throughout the school and some is outstanding. Other adults make a substantial contribution to pupils’ learning.” Ernesford Grange Primary School, Coventry
In 2010, the Department for Education published The Importance of Teaching, which has underpinned recent policy and practice in English education. Amongst other key reforms, the white paper introduced a ‘national network of Teaching Schools on the model of teaching hospitals to lead the training and professional development of teachers and head teachers”. Schools and hospitals were treated as comparable institutions. Teachers and schools are clearly held to be solely accountable for children’s tested outcomes, and “clear accountability measures are vital if we are to identify good practice in the best schools and identify those schools where students are being let down.” Teaching is responsible for any student ‘being let down’, whatever pupils’ desire or capacity to learn might be.
In addition to the Importance of Teaching paper, the government also revised the Teacher’s Standards. Amongst other areas, teachers must “promote good progress and outcomes by pupils” and, primarily, “be accountable for pupils’ attainment, progress and outcomes”. Whilst teachers must “encourage pupils to take a responsible and conscientious attitude to their own work and study”, it is clear that teachers are solely and directly responsible for “good progress and outcomes”, regardless of pupils’ desire and capacity to learn.
Why is it a fallacy?
The Miracle Cure fallacy assumes that children will always respond positively to teaching ‘interventions’ designed to cure a pre-existing lack of knowledge, skills and understanding. It assumes that, provided the correct ‘treatment’ is administered, a child’s ‘disease’ should always be cured. Should the treatment not work, this must be due to fault administration on the part of the child’s teacher. The fallacy denies any agency on the part of the child. Additionally, it misunderstands the process of schooling, which is essentially one of socialisation rather than enquiry.
A treatment, by definition, is that which enables a person to be cured from a disease. The educational treatment is expected to work in the way in which a chemical counterpart treatment should work. That is, the educational treatment will work regardless of whether the person wishes to be cured or not. Patients do not have an active part to play in their own recovery from disease, other than by following the prescribed course of treatment and doing what they are told. And of course, administered correctly the Miracle Cure should always be effective; unlike medicine, the Miracle Cure fallacy holds that schooling should never fail if administered correctly.
Agency is a term used in sociology, broadly defined as the “capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.” Whilst this definition, being social science, is subject to debate, and agency and its counterpart, structure, are similar to psychological debates between nature and nurture, agency is a broadly useful concept to understand that individuals have some degree of free will and are not simply passive participants in their own lives.
More specifically, then, “one's agency is one's independent capability or ability to act on one's will. This ability is affected by the cognitive belief structure which one has formed through one's experiences, and the perceptions held by the society and the individual, of the structures and circumstances of the environment one is in and the position they are born into. Disagreement on the extent of one's agency often causes conflict between parties, e.g. parents and children.”
Replace ‘parents’ with ‘teachers’ and you begin to see some of the roots of the Miracle Cure fallacy. Children have an active role in their own schooling, which is – knowingly or otherwise – frequently ignored by outside agencies and those judging teachers and schools.
Further to this, many observers of schooling misunderstand the process of schooling. The purpose of schooling is in itself subject to dispute; is it to make children cleverer, to change pupils’ outputs, to enable children to learn, to ‘propagate the best of that is known and thought’ or does it have some other definition? The process of schooling is equally ill defined.
Children in school are required to learn that which society requires them to learn. Despite some pretence on the part of teachers, children have little choice in the body of knowledge which they are required to learn. This is true to a surprising extent in schooling, and many children who assume that their opinions will eventually be of interest to their teachers are often frustrated well into their twenties and later; essentially, until a student has learned the required body of knowledge, opinion is irrelevant. Even at undergraduate level, students are still being socialised and are not full members of the community. Those at school have even less of a say in what they are required to learn.
So teaching and learning within a school setting is clearly a process of socialisation. Children in school are required to learn the academic rules of the society in which they find themselves. Schools provide children the opportunity to learn what are regarded as the essential rules of mathematics, literacy and so on, which are prescribed by those who have attained adulthood.
Sociology, naturally, provides a great deal of insight into children’s socialisation, and children’s role in the process. The Sociology of Children and Youth (a chapter by Bass, in Bryant, 2006) summarises current thought:
“Research indicates that socialization may affect both children and parents. Developmental psychology allows us to consider how children are affected by the socialization provided by parents, and more recent research put forth by psychologists and sociologists suggests that this exchange of information may be a two-way process.”
As Bass notes, the more traditional model of socialisation finds that “parents shape their children as well as their grandchildren through parenting styles, shared genes, social status, and belief systems.” This model assumes that parents – and those in loco parentis, such as teachers – shape children through their actions and beliefs.
This parent-to-child model has been questioned in the past twenty years, with the rise of theories of child-to-parent socialisation. This could be reframed as move from a theory of ‘teacher-to-child’ effects to a theory incorporating ‘child-to-teacher’ effects. As Bass continues:
“Ambert’s (1992) The Effect of Children on Parents questions the assumptions of the socialization perspective and posits that socialization is a two-way process. Ambert argues that having children can influence one’s health, income, career opportunities, values and attitudes, feelings of control, life plans, and the quality of interpersonal relations. She questions the causality of certain problematic children’s behaviors, such as clinginess among some young children or frequent crying among premature babies. Ambert contends that children’s behavior socializes parents in a patterned way.”
“Likewise, psychologist Harris (1998) argues that the parental nurture or socialization fails to ground the direction of causation with empirical data. She explains that parenting styles are the effect of a child’s temperament and that parents’ socialization has little influence compared with other influences such as heredity and children’s peer groups. Harris’s approach, known as group socialization theory, posits that after controlling for differences in heredity, little variance can be explained by children’s socialization in the home environment.“
If this is reframed in light of schooling rather than parenting, it can be argued “that teachers’ actions to enable children to learn are the effect of children’s temperaments, and that individual teacher’s actions to enable learning have little influence compared with other influences such as a child’s desire and capability.” So what does this mean? Effective teachers learn to teach in ways which have the most success with the children they are teaching. Different children need different parenting, and different classes need different teaching. The speed and extent to which a child learns is dependent on the child’s own desire and capability to learn, which are not in direct control of teachers.
Ultimately, children have agency, and they are in control of the extent to which they are able or willing learn what school has to teach. What is taught in school is clearly within the capability of most children (with specific considerations for those with special educational needs and disabilities), and the majority of children are able to achieve at the expected level at all ages of schooling. Effective teachers adapt their teaching to ensure that the children in their classes are in a position to learn to the expected standard. But Education is not a Miracle Cure, and children have agency which affects their socialisation.
Current educational policy and practice denies children agency, holding teachers and schools accountable for outcomes which are beyond their control. The Miracle Cure fallacy should be questioned. Most children learn what society requires them to learn, but some do not. The reasons why children do not do so are often complex, misunderstood and beyond the control of teachers and schools.