Sunday, March 31, 2013

Evidence-based education: is it really that straightforward?

Research in the classroom: experts want to see an education system that is more evidence-based, but will it work in practice?

Does the future of education belong to the research practitioner? It's certainly an enticing thought and one that has perhaps been brought one step closer by Ben Goldacre's recent paper Building Evidence into Education, discussed on Guardian Education in the piece Teachers need to drive the research agenda.

Evidence-based education: is it really that straightforward?

Goldacre has suggested that education should embrace the randomised controlled trial (RCT), favoured by the medical profession, in order to create an education system that is truly evidence-based. Evidence-based interventions in teaching could then replace the current system where untested methods are passed to teachers through a variety of often dubious outlets.

There is certainly a great deal to applaud here, including Goldacre's insistence that teachers would form the bedrock of such trials, backed up by a variety of individuals and institutions that could advise on everything from research methods to data analysis. However, we are not simply discussing a change in the way teachers do their job, we are also advocating an entire change in the culture of education and in the role of educators.

We are not talking of evidence-based practitioners here. What we are really suggesting is the creation of research practitioners, teachers not only skilled in the art and science of teaching but also with the skills and aptitude of a researcher; teachers who are able to identify the problem, formulate a hypothesis and test that hypothesis using scientific methods, if such methods are deemed appropriate for the problem under investigation. The 'if' is an important issue to consider. RCTs are not always the best way to carry out research in education, although it must be considered that they are perhaps the most effective way of testing different types of intervention. Indeed, there is a strongly held view in education that quantitative methods represent a wholly inappropriate way of carrying out such research and that qualitative data can provide the rich detail often needed to study the complex phenomena found in educational settings.

Evidence-based education: is it really that straightforward?

One particular problem to overcome is that some teachers will often proclaim that they know what works and what doesn't in their classrooms and that there is little need for the likes of RCTs. Changing the views of these teachers will not be easy and convincing them that their untested claims might be erroneous will prove harder still. Educational myths about learning styles, for example, have proved incredibly resilient even when the evidence supports the view that they are either ineffective or downright harmful. As Voltaire once proclaimed: "Sometimes common sense is not so common," and persuading educators that their common sense judgements might be making little difference to their educational outcomes may prove difficult to overturn.

Furthermore, the practicalities of Goldacre's battle cry might well be more complicated than he anticipates. The use of RCTs in medicine is perhaps more straightforward than in education because cause and effect is more easily determined in medicine (although not guaranteed) due to a predefined outcome.

Educational outcomes, on the other hand, are not always as clear-cut and we are not always sure of what needs to be measured (or, indeed, what should be measured). Such measures are also often more complicated in education due to a variety of confounding variables that exist in the school setting, more similar perhaps to the issues that plague the likes of psychology where individual differences can impact on the validity of a study or where studies suffer from replication issues. Indeed, any implementation of an evidence-based learning protocol would do well to investigate the current controversies that have recently undermined much psychological research. Replication issues, false positives and downright fraud have placed psychological research at a crossroads and educational professionals need to be asking similar questions about how to move forward to ensure that any evidence-based educational research is credible and scientific. To suggest that RCTs are free of the issues that have undermined other types of research is to keep heads well and truly buried in the sand.

Evidence-based education: is it really that straightforward?

It is not, therefore (as Goldacre has suggested), simply a matter of one intervention for one group, one for another and then measure the outcomes. Learners are not patients and their outcomes cannot always be measured in such a straightforward way.

Goldacre is certainly correct in his view that education desperately needs interventions that work rather than ones with unknown outcomes (often peddled by those who are simply in the business of helping schools spend their dwindling budgets). If teachers can make scientifically valid connections between what they do and the outcomes they observe (everything from single sex education to behaviour management) they begin to take control of their own profession rather than being left to the mercy of those who understand little about the complex interaction between teachers and learners. Despite the immediate enthusiasm, however, it would be damaging to simply jump on the bandwagon and proclaim that RCTs are the only way forward, a kind of silver bullet akin to the misguided enthusiasm surrounding cognitive neuroscience in education.

Careful consideration must be given to the most appropriate methods on a case-by-case basis along with the recognition that qualitative data has an important part to play in informing quantitative outcomes. We must also stay mindful of the fact that Goldacre is not a teacher and, ultimately, it must be teachers who drive the agenda.

Of course none of these issues are insurmountable, but neither will they occur overnight. Teachers aren't necessarily researchers and most will lack the confidence and skills to undertake effective scientific research. Co-operation between schools and higher education will be essential if education is to be transformed in such a radical way and teachers are to take control of their profession.

Marc Smith is a chartered psychologist and an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Marc teaches A-level psychology at a secondary school in North Yorkshire and is a member of the GTN teacher panel. Follow him on Twitter: @psychologymarc.


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