Evaluating expert advice on schools and learning

Time to read: 3 minutes

Note: I’ve already blogged about the criteria that I use to assess the quality of formal education research, this post builds on those ideas to present an ethical method for evaluating education ideas that come from other sources.

There has been a bit of discussion lately about whose research to believe. Some have suggested that Kevin Donnelly and Wiltshire shouldn’t be considered experts. Others have suggested that teachers shouldn’t be considered researchers. I don’t like these suggestions. I don’t like them at all. Firstly, I don’t think whether Donnelly and Wiltshire are experts or not, or whether teachers are researchers, changes the validity of their arguments whatsoever. Experts and researchers, are labels and have nothing to do with the arguments the person is making.  Secondly, evaluating arguments and findings based on the person making the arguments, as opposed to the arguments themselves, opens us to the whims of the experts and researchers we put our faith in. It also prohibits us from learning from others we disagree with.

Also, a few weeks ago during a some what robust discussion on Twitter, someone quizzed me on my experience as a teacher, their argument was that if I hadn’t taught my opinions on schools shouldn’t be listened to. When I refused to answer their questions about my experience, they took it as me admitting that I’d never taught… which was untrue, I refused to respond, not because I hadn’t taught (I have), but because I don’t think anyone’s arguments should be evaluated by anything except the strengths of their arguments. (Note: If you’re still confused about my teaching experience and are desperate to know, you’ll find me on linkedin, but please don’t try to use my experience to win an argument against me! If you want to argue with me, argue against my beliefs not against who I am or what I have or haven’t done.)

My point is. If we need to resort to trying to discredit someone just because we disagree with them, then the ethical thing to do is to construct better arguments. While it might be beneficial (for the majority in schools) in the short term to have Donnelly and Wiltshire labelled as non-experts and therefore have their ideas dismissed out of hand, the better response to understand where Donnelly and Wiltshire are coming from and what are the fundamental differences that we have with them. Not only does this approach enable us to articulate a counter narrative, it also enables us to have a clearer understanding of what we believe about learning and teaching. Of course, the third, and often better, option is just to ignore!

Of course constructing a counter narrative can be hard, particularly when many commentators, such as Donnelly and Wiltshire hide their true beliefs behind outrageous language and exaggerated examples.

Knud Illeries provides a useful model for understanding and comparing the different approaches to learning with his Three Dimensions of Learning. There are a few variations of Illeries’ model but basically he suggests how we believe people learn can be mapped against two axis, content to incentive, and individual to social. You simply, pick a point within the triangle that best represents what you believe about learning.


Illeries model is useful in that it enables us to identify some of core differences between what different people believe about learning (and teaching.) While, I wouldn’t recommend using this model to adequately explain the differences between the various educational theories and theorists as some try to do, it does help us to start identifying where we agree and disagree with others, which in turn enables us to construct and articulate a well formed argument.

So where do Donnelly and Wiltshire sit on Illeries Three Dimensions of Learning?

Again, pulling some quotes from the article that has incited so much angst

“kumbaya” childish and emotive but suggests they don’t view learning as being social, rather solely individual.

“progressive new age fads” just ignore this, it just emotive and meaningless.

“blames on the fact students have been handed autonomy” again suggests an individual view of learning but also suggests they see content being far more important than incentives and emotions.

“It’s a good idea to have self-discovery but kids need to have knowledge” more evidence that content is far more important than emotions/incentives, but maybe the authors aren’t on the absolute extreme?


Reading that newspaper article I think it is safe to place Donnelly and Wiltshire as viewing learning as an individual pursuit that focusses entirely on content. As such rather than attempting to argue with them about students are “rolling around on the floor” and whether schools are too “kumbaya” we would be better suited arguing about why we believe emotions and motivations are crucial to learning, or why we believe learning requires social interactions, or both. After all, that’s what really matters, and what Donnelly and Wiltshire fail to see when they see kids rolling on the floor and teachers at the side rather than at the front….

Further, while Donnelly and Wiltshire are quick to critique other approaches they are not as open to revealing their own view of how schools should operate. Sure they mention the teacher at the front (which fits with where I’ve placed them on Illeries model) but what else do they want to our schools to be? If they don’t want kids rolling on the floor, what do they want? Kids in rows? In silence? Reading solely from text books and/or doing dictation? Placing them on a model like this helps us to start anticipating what they might believe and asking those questions of them?

For me, these questions are much more important then whether they are experts or not!

The purpose of this article isn’t to unpack and disprove Donnelly and Withshire’s ideas, so I’ll leave that to others. I hope that I have presented a framework that you may find useful. This approach might be less useful however when discussing learning and teaching with those whose beliefs are similar to our own. In that case other models might be more useful, for instance, Tom has some really nice work unpacking different beliefs about inquiry learning, I’ll try to post about it soon.

As for subtle differences in highly instructional models, sorry, you’re on your own, maybe ask Donnelly and Wiltshire!



Oh, one last thing, if you can’t work out where an expert fits in Illeries’ model my best is that they’re being deliberately ambiguous and probably can be placed up there near Donnelly and Wiltshire…

8 thoughts on “Evaluating expert advice on schools and learning”

  1. Hi Richard,
    Interesting post; it is fascinating to see how people interpret models differently.
    First, a quick rebuttal, and I acknowledge that this is pedantry!
    My post, which you have linked to in your own, is a rebuttal to the argument from expert opinion which was made by the authors of the Daily Telegraph piece when they referred to Donnelly and Wiltshire as experts. It is not about whose research to believe.
    You say: “Firstly, I don’t think whether Donnelly and Wiltshire are experts or not, or whether teachers are researchers, changes the validity of their arguments whatsoever. Experts and researchers, are labels and have nothing to do with the arguments the person is making.” Unfortunately, it does. Arguments from expert opinion are regularly made and all of us are placed in positions where we have no other information on which to base our judgment. When this occurs, we must be able to evaluate the credibility of the so-called “expert” to accept or reject their argument, and this is where Walton’s critical questions are helpful. Should Donnelly and Wiltshire present evidence to support their stances, then we can definitely bypass whether or not they are experts, and move on to whether or not their arguments are valid. But when an argument is presented by someone who claims expertise, implicitly, or explicitly (as in the Daily Telegraph article), without any evidence or reasoning for support, it is useful to be able to evaluate the expertise of the claimant.
    “Secondly, evaluating arguments and findings based on the person making the arguments, as opposed to the arguments themselves, opens us to the whims of the experts and researchers we put our faith in.” With this statement, I agree; however, this is the position we are placed in when we are presented with arguments from expert opinion without supporting evidence or reasoning, just as we were by the Daily Telegraph article, so being able to evaluate the expertise of the claimant is central. Would you take medical advice from a lawyer? What about your GP?
    Second; in this post, you usefully point out that Wiltshire and Donnelly may be making arguments from a position that differs from our own. “The better response [is] to understand where Donnelly and Wiltshire are coming from and what are the fundamental differences that we have with them.” However, I disagree that this is a better response, as this does not advance the discussion. It does not rebut or support the arguments that have been made with evidence or reasoning, it simply tells us that we are coming from different positions. This is perhaps a version of the genetic fallacy? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_fallacy We may as well entertain the arguments of lawyers giving medical advice, and justify doing so by suggesting that they come from a different position.
    I look forward to reading your response!

  2. Hi Charlote,

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. My post was aimed at teachers and other educators, who want to critique expert (and other) opinions. I wasn’t aiming at the general population who read the newspaper and consume other media, to them I’d say, don’t believe most of what you read! That said schools countering Donnelly’s argues need to do a better job, than saying, “he’s not really an expert.”

    Plenty of people believe Donnelly and Wiltshire are experts, and plenty of people would say they pass the criteria for expertise outlined in your post.

    When I choose to swap doctors or seek a second opinion because I doubt the expertise of my doctor, it doesn’t mean that others no longer see them as an expert. There can be many reasons why a doctor gets a diagnosis wrong, for example what is best practice change, the influence prior experience, the knowledge of the doctor… would I take medical advice from a lawyer? Yes, if they had a history of the same condition that I find myself with, but a lawyer wouldn’t be my only source of medical advice!

    Also, doctors are trained and registered as doctors, as are lawyers, as are teachers. Donnelly is trained as a teacher. Experts are not trained or registered by a governing body as experts. Should education debates be limited to those who are trained educators? Maybe.

    It is interesting your separation of doctors being experts in medicine and lawyers being experts in law. Donnelly like most other experts would have you believe that they are experts (and knowledgeable) in all facets of learning. They are not. Their expertise is in a small facet of learning. Unfortunately they aren’t often forthcoming about from the theoretical position they are speaking from. The Three Dimensions of Learning model is useful for identifying where they are coming from. This is a better approach because it enables us to take onboard what Donnelly is saying based on his theoretical positioning, even though he doesn’t readily outline what his theoretical positioning. It also allows us to easily identify the fundamental differences between what the experts believe about learning, and what we believe about learning.

    In a previous post I have explained why this is crucial, I have done this by explaining why Hattie’s Visible Learning meta analysis is meaningless when seeking to understand inquiry learning.

  3. I’d like to pick up on just one comment….part of Charlotte Pezaro’s rebuttal of your points too Richard: the notion of the expert.

    What is an expert? Is it someone with credentials, years of experience in the field or letters next to their names?

    All of these things do not, in my opinion, really qualify someone to be an expert because implicit in the term ‘expert’ is that their credentials are worth accepting and believing.

    Do we, when we look at the two experts you have referred to in your blog ask: what experience and how many years has one of these ‘experts’ been linked to the work and policy making of the Liberal Party? What, therefore, is the political philosophy of said expert? What are some of the experiences of these experts in terms of curriculum development and design in the past? And does this really qualify them to speak?

    We can too easily believe that titles, years and letters make someone an expert and thus we grant them the right (and platform) to speak.

    I think we should explore this much more deeply and never take that on face value.

  4. Unfortunately, I think an expert is usually defined as someone who agrees with us!

    I do agree that ideology drives a lot of the education dialog and decisions in our state and country, and usually these ideologies are not divulged. This is not unique to education. Relationship and drug experts might fail to disclose their religious beliefs, for example.

    I do however worry, that picking and choosing which experts are experts, doesn’t serve us well in the long run. In the end I think we all need to up our game (knowledge and experience), and dare I say it, become experts ourselves…

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