It’s time to put young people at the centre of education research

Reimagining Education By Chris Bagley

Mon, Sep 28, 20

Our Director of Research shares how listening to young people can not only improve education, but enhance the life outcomes of future generations.

Over the next few weeks, we’re spreading the word about our youth-led research project, Breaking The Silence. Today our Director of Research, Chris Bagley, shares how listening to young people can not only improve education, but enhance the life outcomes of future generations.

What is education? This is one of the most contested questions in human history. Debate has raged since at least the 4th century BC, when Plato’s dialogues pit his version of education against his nemeses, Isocrates and the Sophists.

Fast-forward 2400 years and you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s all been settled. The English education system hinges around a drive for students to attain pre-defined ‘standards’.

Young people are assessed via high-stakes examinations which constitute the primary success criteria for students and teachers.

Deeply value-laden policies are presented as being value-neutral. The efficacy of the exam system is considered by the government and some educators to be self-evident. The common sense perspective. The end of history.

Education research is often founded on the assumption that these values are appropriate. It is taken as a given that education is a school-based phenomenon whose goal is to promote the academic attainment of young people. Research often looks to refine teaching techniques to promote student ‘progress’, assessed via grades or rigid National Curriculum levels. As Gert Biesta points out, focus tends to be on experimental research and randomised control trials. This is considered by many to be the only reliable way in which valid scientific knowledge about ‘what works’ can be generated.

A classic example might be a ‘Literacy Intervention Study’:

What impact does literacy intervention X have on the GCSE attainment of group Y ‘low attaining students’, compared with control group Z who did not receive an intervention.

Of course, this research has some value. It can precipitate modified teaching practices in an evidence-led way and can help some students to raise their attainment. However, it tinkers around the edges of more prominent issues and uncritically accepts the education system’s core values, regardless of the consequences. There are numerous hidden, unacknowledged questions here. For example, are the tools used to track progress (examinations) valid measures of a child’s intelligence and worth? What is the emotional impact on a child of being labelled ‘low attaining’ based on measures over which they have absolutely no control?

If success is solely defined by academic grades, what impact does this have on young peoples’ sense of self?

As Biesta asserts, the ‘Literacy Intervention Study’ and similar research drive complexity reduction. That is, research often adopts, unquestioningly, the values inherent in the education system and narrows its purpose to mean absorbing standardised content, following top-down regimes of assessment and producing outcomes via examination. In sum, most research accepts the status quo without considering the impact of the dominant educational values on the psychological wellbeing of children.

This is hugely problematic, particularly given abundant evidence from consecutive Good Childhood Reports that children in the UK are unhappy with their school experiences. Studies around wellbeing have consistently shown that UK children experience poor wellbeing compared with similar nations. In their Overview of child wellbeing in rich countries, Unicef placed the UK last - 21st out of 21 - across various dimensions of wellbeing. Schooling is a significant source of distress for many young people, as identified by YoungMinds and numerous others.

In my work as a psychologist, I have encountered many young people, of all academic abilities, whose mental health has been severely compromised as a consequence of education practices.

We know from years of research around Self-Determination that without ‘autonomy’ and the perception of individual ‘competence’, human beings cannot thrive. Traditional research rarely considers the autonomy of young people or what they consider to be competence. They are positioned as subjects to be moulded without their consent and are stripped of the power to shape their future. Education policy, tacitly supported by research, treats them as passive ‘subjects’, not active contributors. This is dehumanising and psychologically damaging. Is there any other context where human beings are subject to such overwhelming coercion? Where else are people controlled so totally without their views being either sought or accounted for?

Part of the solution

Acknowledging this, States of Mind use a Participatory Action Research (PAR) approach to co-develop psychologically healthy education alternatives. In PAR, participants are not the ‘subjects’ of research, they are ‘active contributors’. Collective inquiry builds ownership and the PAR process is empowering, liberating, and consciousness-raising for individuals.

In PAR, participants are not the ‘subjects’ of research, they are ‘active contributors’.

PAR encourages information sharing between researchers and participants, affording both an opportunity to share and learn together. At States of Mind, we launch our research projects with everything ‘on the table’. In traditional research, adults formulate research questions and position children as experimental subjects. Contrastingly, in PAR, young people design their own research questions, collect data, evaluate their findings, choose how to present these and what are the next steps. They are encouraged to undertake forms of collective challenge based on the knowledge garnered through their critical inquiries.

In the driving seat

Supported by the Institute of Education, University College London, we have recently rolled out our youth-led research project, Breaking the Silence. Using a PAR approach, this ever-evolving project explores how the impact of the current school inspection framework, designed and implemented by Ofsted, impacts on young peoples’ experience of education. It also investigates how school supports their mental health, personal development and preparation for real life.

The students involved appreciate the uniqueness of the PAR experience in the context of their educational experiences and report feeling empowered with increased self-awareness and understanding of the systems that impinge upon them. Most importantly, their voice matters. They develop a sense of autonomy and competence which emboldens them to promote positive change in their own and others lives. The PAR process promotes the emergence of an ever-expanding group of young educational innovators, instilled with the knowledge and confidence to shape their world.

States of Mind are exploring the purpose of education and proposing solutions to this age-old conundrum. PAR ensures that young people are at the centre of the debate and in the driving seat, in charge of their future.

We are currently working with UCL Institute of Education to develop the Breaking The Silence research project. Watch this space as we share more about our findings in the coming weeks, and work with students to reimagine educational assessment.