Evidence based practice

Image by Kuebi

As a science teacher, I’m a big fan of Dr Ben Goldacre. I knew from the contents page that I would love his book ‘Bad Science‘, and I did. And, I’m currently reading (and enjoying) ‘Bad Pharma‘. So, it is with great trepidation that I dare to write a post which doesn’t entirely agree with his position on evidence based practice in education.

Firstly though, I’m so glad that the debate has been raised around evidence based practice and it’s fantastic to see this already transform into action in the form of the planned researchED conference. One of the biggest learning outcomes from completing my MEd has been an increased appreciation for the role of research in the teaching and learning process and a much stronger need to have a clearer ‘why’ underpinning my practice. I also agree with Dr Goldacre’s point around the need for teachers to engage in the research process. I also made the point in my first MEd essay that we as teachers operate very differently to doctors in terms of the control we have over our own practice, and the enquiries I’ve undertaken since have demonstrated to me the potential teacher research has in addressing this. I also of course agree with the potential of the web to bring researching teachers together and see the potential overlap with the Pedagoo idea.

So what don’t I agree with? It’s not that I disagree as such, I’m more concerned about the emphasis. In his paper Dr Goldacre rightly states that we should use the right research method for the right question, and even acknowledges the important role of qualitative research in education, but the majority of the piece focuses on the need for more quantitative randomised trials. I find this sort of evidence useful as a teacher, and I think Geoff Petty‘s work has been particularly successful at taking this sort of evidence and making it accessible to busy teachers. Whilst I wouldn’t argue against the need for more of these sorts of studies to gather more of this form of evidence, I don’t particularly think that should be our primary focus in this evidence based revolution.

Firstly, Dr Goldacre rightly points out that qualitative research can tell you why and how something works but then quickly moves back to the importance of quantitative trials. Surely as teachers the why and how are crucial. Do we want a profession that carries out quantitative studies that generates statistics which “proves” a technique? Or do we want a profession which can carry out much richer enquiries into their practice which provides them with a wider range of evidence which then allows them to tailor their approaches to different learners in different contexts? Yes, it won’t make for easy extrapolation, but it should make for much richer educational experiences for both the teachers and their students.

But also, education is not medicine. Placing the emphasis on quantitative research makes a number of assumptions about what it is we’re trying to achieve and how we’re trying to achieve it. Of course we want to use good strategies which improve attainment, which is what this sort of evidence is ideal for, but is that all we want as the outcome of our educational process? What about confidence? Happiness? Ability to manage relationships? Independence? Resilience? Do these educational outcomes matter too? I know these qualities will be at least as important in my own children’s lives as exam results. In fact, aren’t these qualities often crucial in order to achieve those attainment results? If we have happy, confident, independent and resilient students wouldn’t we expect those sorts of young people to cope rather well with exams? So, how do we measure these outcomes in randomised trials? My suggestion is that we don’t. We use qualitative research methods and we give this evidence the status it deserves. After all, education is a social enterprise, social science methodologies make perfect sense in this field and shouldn’t be down played or written off as ‘soft’ as they so often are.

Basically, I think we’re at risk of getting ahead of ourselves a little. We can all agree that we want more of an evidence basis to our practice and that teachers and learners would benefit from participating in the research process to a greater extent, but we must first agree what it is we want from our educational system and ensure that the research methodologies we use, and therefore the evidence gathered, are valid for those outcomes.