An evidence based teaching profession shouldn’t deal in absolutes

Really interesting blog article by James Richardson on the EEF website – where he makes a number of excellent points about evidence in education.

An evidence based teaching profession shouldn’t deal in absolutes. Rarely will there be a definitive answer to the question; what works in raising pupil attainment? … Education, perhaps more than any other policy arena, is soured by arguments based on false dichotomies; straw men constructed to defend the status quo or win political arguments, often adding little value to the collective endeavour of improving outcomes for all.

This is very true – and I think it is the natural position for someone genuinely interested in evidence based practice within education. It’s too easy for confirmation bias to lead us into ignoring evidence that doesn’t comply with any ideological position we hold – or exaggerate the evidence base for the positions we do hold.

He tackles three assertions often made in debates about education: That the use of data somehow kills creativity of practice; that teachers joining the profession through traditional routes are more effective; and that TAs are ineffective. On the first one he makes the point:

I thought of myself as a creative classroom teacher, but when I moved to a more senior role examining school level data, I began to appreciate its value in planning activities and targeting particular pupils. But the debates are often constructed to force you onto one side of the divide, with little room for balance and nuance; you either support data-driven instruction or you want to nurture the creative, exploratory inquisitive nature in children. When it is presented in this way, you cannot be for both.

The issues of whether many of the dichotomies within education debates are genuine or false has also been recently tackled by David Didau in a couple of really thought-provoking articles:

On Dichotomies: Where he argues that some commentators are too swift to dismiss important and genuine dichotomies as false. That in thinking we can cherry-pick techniques from both traditionalist and progressive teaching techniques, it is our students who suffer. That by seeking to fudge some sort of middle ground and do a ‘bit of both’ – we will end up doing neither very well.

On Compromise: He argues that to compromise of deeply held principles would be a betrayal of our students. “I’m prepared to compromise on anything except that which matters.”

He argues persuasively in both cases – and in terms of the non-negotiables he lists at the end of the second article, I think they are right*:

Here are three principles on which I suggest we should not compromise:
•Children’s behaviour in lessons should never get in the way of the teacher teaching or other pupils learning; our expectation should be that they are respectful, hard-working and cooperative.
•Teachers should be supported by their school to enable them to teach to the best of their ability; extraneous demands should be stripped away to allow an expectation of professional excellence through reflection and development.
•There ought never be an assumption that children from a particular social class be taught differently to others. Powerful knowledge is the right of every student.

(*By right, I mean I agree the evidence we possess suggests these factors almost certainly underlie effectiveness in teaching young people. If strong evidence came to light showing these factors were not effective, then I’d change my mind.)

However, when it comes to the nitty-gritty of ‘what works’ – i.e. which instructional methods are best employed in the classroom – then I fear such dichotomies are unhelpful. Nature doesn’t give a jot for our principles and beliefs – but our principles and beliefs can blind us to what the evidence really says.

Going back to the EEF article, Richardson makes the point:

There is a great deal of emphasis placed on the phrase ‘what works’, and perhaps those of us who are involved in designated What Works centres use the term too glibly. It suggests that if only our research design is robust enough, we can discover the teaching methods or interventions that will close the achievement gap …
RCTs are a blunt instrument, giving us an indication of ‘what works for whom under what circumstances’. How they work and how the impact may be moderated by particular contexts requires more detailed design and analysis.

The state of the science simply doesn’t allow certainty – and there is an enormous amount of work to be done if education is ever to catch up with other fields that have embraced evidence based practice. Simply because an RCT or a meta-analysis points in particular direction doesn’t mean we can automatically accept that as some sort of gospel. Ben Goldacre made this point in his paper to the DFES:

However, we should return to the overly exaggerated claims sometimes made in favour of trials, and the need to be a critical consumer of evidence. A further common mistake is to assume that, once an intervention has been shown to be effective in a single trial, then it definitely works, and we should use it everywhere. Again, this isn’t necessarily true. Firstly, all trials need to be run properly: if there are flaws in a trial’s design, then it stops being a fair test of the treatments. But more importantly, we need to think carefully about whether the people in a trial of an intervention are the same as the people we are thinking of using the intervention on.

Science doesn’t deal in absolutes – its truths are contingent, open to revision, refinement and revolution as the evidence dictates. If there’s any hope of bringing education theory and practice into the age of evidence, then there will be increasingly little room for ideological dichotomies.

Wither then compromise? There should be no compromise at all! Your ideas should live or die with the evidence that supports or falsifies them. However, these are the early steps for education into a ‘brave new world’ – a journey that medicine took 30 years to complete. Whilst we suffer with the absence of evidence, we should be cautious of those that would divide us with ideological labels (even if we happen to agree with everything they say).

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